Sunday, March 27, 2022

Year C Lent 4 2022 Grace Gets In Close

 Year C Lent 4, 27 March 2022

St. James the Less Episcopal, Ashland, VA

“Grace Gets In Close”


Collect: Gracious Father, whose blessed Son Jesus Christ came down from heaven to be the true bread which gives life to the world: Evermore give us this bread, that he may live in us, and we in him; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.


2 Corinthians 5:16-21

From now on, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way. If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.


Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32

All the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to Jesus. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, "This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them."

So Jesus told them this parable:

"There was a man who had two sons. The younger of them said to his father, 'Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.' So he divided his property between them. A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. But when he came to himself he said, 'How many of my father's hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, "Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands."' So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. Then the son said to him, 'Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.' But the father said to his slaves, 'Quickly, bring out a robe--the best one--and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!' And they began to celebrate.

"Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. He replied, 'Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.' Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. But he answered his father, 'Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!' Then the father said to him, 'Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.'"


Getting close is a hazardous thing. Our preconceived notions shatter. The pretty veneer disappears very quickly. When we get in close, we start to see the blemishes, the pimples, the ingrown hairs. We smell the bad breath or the too-much-ness of the perfume. Whenever we get close, we start to see all that makes up whatever image we have, all the good or all the bad, together in our heads. We may want the purity of black and white, when life, all of life if we are honest, is gray. To get close we have to get our hands dirty, and we have to let our preconceived notions be blemished.


One of the reasons I think that God can be so forgiving of us, so gracious, is because God knows us so well. If God knows the number of hairs on our head [Luke 12:7], then God knows our warts, and zits, and accomplishments, and failures. God knows us all, and all of each of us, and God still loves us. That is Grace, my friends.


Last week I mentioned that the parable told about the fig tree gives two competing images of God: The Smiter and The Gardener. And Jesus makes sure we understand that God is the Gardener, not giving up and working for the best. We are still combating the Sky God image with the thunderbolts. Here we are given another image of God, that of the loving and forgiving Father. But the juxtaposition this week is how we live in that Grace.


How do we wrestle with it? How do we let it seep in our bones?


Both sons took the Father and his graciousness for granted. Both were so loved they thought it just was, unflinching, unchanging. One son took it so much for granted that he asked for his portion of the inheritance, which is as crass a thing as a child could ask for. He is basically telling dear ol’ dad that he is the same as dead to him, and he is taking the money and running away. 


We know this story. Most everyone knows this story, whether in or out of the church. The archaic word Prodigal has entered our culture and we know it well. It has nothing to do with running away, or coming back contrite. It is late Middle English: from late Latin prodigalis, from the Latin for ‘lavish’. Prodigal has come to mean more, but it comes from how he spent the money. He partied it up, and was “lavish” with the wealth. Until it was all gone.


Some people have to hit bottom before they figure things out. Thankfully, the Prodigal found that the bottom was solid and that is when he had his epiphany. His dad whom he always considered na├»ve and too nice(or why else would he have the nerve to ask for his inheritance), there is one place he would be welcome, even after all of it. He worked on his speech, and I would even say it was sincere. “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.” He just knew that feeding slop to pigs, as low as a good Jewish boy could fall by the way, there had to be a better way. And his dad came to mind. And he went home. Jesus’s listeners to this story would have been in shock by all of this son’s actions.


And if I were filming this, this is the point in the movie when we get stirring music underneath a montage of heartwarming and heartbreaking images to go along with the sweeping strings. 


And then it cuts to the Father, who is out on his porch looking out at the distance, heartbroken. And then while still far off, he spies his son. And this Father of advanced years throws decorum out the window and sweeps the son up in his arms and thanks God. Put a ring on his finger! Put a robe around him! Cover those bleeding and bruised feet with shoes! Kill the fatted calf we were saving, for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!' And they began to celebrate.


Even the most hardened of hearts gets a little choked up with the image. Grace is not only Amazing, it is Beautiful.


But I started with how we are given a juxtaposition. We love the first part of the story, but so readily skip on, or give a passing nod to the other Son, the “good” Son. He did everything he was supposed to do. But why? Why did he do it? Steeped in so much love, it seems to not have rubbed off on him. He comes in from the field, having worked hard for the Father all day, and sees a party happening. He calls over a slave to ask what on earth is going on. “Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.


And that is when the heart of the Good Son is exposed. So steeped in love, so far from loving. His bitterness and resentment come out. He never got a party. He never sowed his wild oats. He worked and worked and worked, and what about him! We turn our heads away. This is not a picture we want to see. 


We like Redemption. We like Reconciliation. We like the Happy Ending. The Miserable Reality is not a picture we like, or want to see. But if we see the Prodigal as sinners welcomed in, and the Father as God, what does that make the Good Son?


We really do not want to go there. We want to be respectable. We want to be likable. We want things Just So. And Grace has been replaced with Decorum. We absolutely MUST read this story in the context it starts with: 

All the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to Jesus. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, "This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them."

The self-righteous, the rule-keeping accountants, judged Jesus for doing what he came to do. He did not come to uphold faulty systems of self-justification, facades of empty shells. He came to bring in the lost, the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, and to inform them that they were loved and could be transformed. And that is a dirty and hard business.


As I started this morning:

Getting close is a hazardous thing. Our preconceived notions shatter. The pretty veneer disappears very quickly. When we get in close, we start to see the blemishes, the pimples, the ingrown hairs. We smell the bad breath or the too-much-ness of the perfume. Whenever we get close, we start to see all that makes up whatever image we have, all the good or all the bad, together in our heads. We may want the purity of black and white, when life, all of life if we are honest, is gray. To get close we have to get our hands dirty, and we have to let our preconceived notions be blemished.

God came close to us, he moved into the neighborhood as The Message translation says it in talking about Jesus. [John 1:14] In our reading from St. Paul this morning, he speaks to how God got God’s hands dirty, coming down to take care of business himself. This was too important to give over to someone else. A Priest would not do. A Prophet would not do. Only God Incarnate would, and that means showing up and getting down in the muck and the mire. He put on a skin suit and walked a lifetime in our shoes.


In our Lenten Study we look at the Covenants of God, and we see that there are three things that the evolving and unveiling Covenants that God made with us reveal. Covenants look at Paradise (lost or slowly regained), Progeny delivered to ensure a future, and the whole point, the Real Presence of God with us. 


Christ came like the Father running from afar to welcome us home and invite us to be transformed from the heart out. This would apply to both sons in our parable today. As our New Testament reading said:

If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. [2 Cor 5:17-21]


Reconciliation is about getting in close. We cannot avoid the wrinkles or the scars. We cannot miss the smells and shame. The Father saw the cracked, bruised, and bleeding feet, and smelled the pig slop, and the filth, and the sweat. But nothing would keep him from embracing his Son.


Reconciliation is about Again (re-) Within (-con-) Eyelash Distance (-cilia-) from someone. Close enough to see the little hairs. You do not get that close without taking in everything. And our purpose, as was God’s in all the Covenants, was to get in close. To see the good and the bad, to experience it all, and not turn away. To love and welcome and invite Transformation.


For those of us in the Church, like the Good Son, how do we make it about doing the “right thing,” so much so that we miss the whole point?


For those who are outside, looking with eyes of wonder, could it really be true? Could life be better? Could Love be real? Will I be welcomed and encouraged and accepted, warts and stink and all?


Jesus did not come to make self-righteous people feel better about themselves. Jesus came preaching a Gospel of Grace that is rumbling through cultures and history STILL to transform the world. Jesus knew that his hands would get dirty. He knew that this would require blood, sweat, and tears. It still does.



Friends, are we a club of self-righteous smugness or a filling station to be about the work of making Hanover County and Ashland proper more and more like heaven each and every day? As St. Teresa of Avila prayed, “From silly devotions and sour-faced saints, good Lord, deliver us!” That is still true.


The world is still in need of Grace. The world is still in need of Reconciliation. The world still needs Jesus and his words. What are we going to do about it? What am I going to do about it? 


The story today is called the Prodigal Son, the “Lavish” Son. But the most lavish thing in the story today is the Father, the Prodigal Father, showering his love and Grace. God the Father still does. Amen

Wednesday, March 23, 2022

Year C Lent 3 WED 2022 Tending our Siblings

 Year C Lent 3 WEDNESDAY, 23 March 2022

St. James the Less Episcopal, Ashland, VA

“Tending our Siblings”


Collect: Almighty God, you know that we have no power in ourselves to help ourselves: Keep us both outwardly in our bodies and inwardly in our souls, that we may be defended from all adversities which may happen to the body, and from all evil thoughts which may assault and hurt the soul; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.


1 Corinthians 8:1-13

Now concerning food sacrificed to idols: we know that ‘all of us possess knowledge.’ Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. Anyone who claims to know something does not yet have the necessary knowledge; but anyone who loves God is known by him.

Hence, as to the eating of food offered to idols, we know that ‘no idol in the world really exists’, and that ‘there is no God but one.’ Indeed, even though there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth—as in fact there are many gods and many lords— yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.

It is not everyone, however, who has this knowledge. Since some have become so accustomed to idols until now, they still think of the food they eat as food offered to an idol; and their conscience, being weak, is defiled. ‘Food will not bring us close to God.’* We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do. But take care that this liberty of yours does not somehow become a stumbling-block to the weak. For if others see you, who possess knowledge, eating in the temple of an idol, might they not, since their conscience is weak, be encouraged to the point of eating food sacrificed to idols? So by your knowledge those weak believers for whom Christ died are destroyed.* But when you thus sin against members of your family,* and wound their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ. Therefore, if food is a cause of their falling,* I will never eat meat, so that I may not cause one of them* to fall.


Mark 6:13-29

They cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them. King Herod heard of it, for Jesus’* name had become known. Some were* saying, ‘John the baptizer has been raised from the dead; and for this reason these powers are at work in him.’ But others said, ‘It is Elijah.’ And others said, ‘It is a prophet, like one of the prophets of old.’ But when Herod heard of it, he said, ‘John, whom I beheaded, has been raised.’


For Herod himself had sent men who arrested John, bound him, and put him in prison on account of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, because Herod* had married her. For John had been telling Herod, ‘It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.’ And Herodias had a grudge against him, and wanted to kill him. But she could not, for Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and he protected him. When he heard him, he was greatly perplexed;* and yet he liked to listen to him. But an opportunity came when Herod on his birthday gave a banquet for his courtiers and officers and for the leaders of Galilee. When his daughter Herodias* came in and danced, she pleased Herod and his guests; and the king said to the girl, ‘Ask me for whatever you wish, and I will give it.’ And he solemnly swore to her, ‘Whatever you ask me, I will give you, even half of my kingdom.’ She went out and said to her mother, ‘What should I ask for?’ She replied, ‘The head of John the baptizer.’ Immediately she rushed back to the king and requested, ‘I want you to give me at once the head of John the Baptist on a platter.’ The king was deeply grieved; yet out of regard for his oaths and for the guests, he did not want to refuse her. Immediately the king sent a soldier of the guard with orders to bring John’s* head. He went and beheaded him in the prison, brought his head on a platter, and gave it to the girl. Then the girl gave it to her mother. When his disciples heard about it, they came and took his body, and laid it in a tomb.


Good morning. Today we are going to go back to Sunday School, or maybe Kindergarten. I am hopefully “preaching to the choir.” I think I am. But the situation of using lectionary readings is that sometimes you are asked to speak to things you would not necessarily pick. And then you have to filter it through your own prayer life, the world around you, the water you swim in, and try to give a word to God’s people that has them look to Jesus and then out to the world to be “little Jesuses” in their own way.


Easy, right?


This morning St. Paul looked at freedom, and what to do with it. You have heard me say it before and I will say it again, “Freedom is to do what we should, not what we want.” Paul could eat anything. The best meat, the choicest and freshest cuts, were served in the pagan temple’s refectories (for lack of a better word). He knew he could eat there, no problem. The gods worshiped in those places were not real, and he could in his freedom eat whatever, wherever. Period.


But he also knew from a story as old as Cain and Abel that he was his brother’s (and sister’s and sibling’s) keeper. Their welfare is his bounden duty. They could not, in their spiritual growth, capture the nuance of eating at these places where food sacrificed to idols was served. He knew it was better to grab a vegetarian falafel than to have the finest prime rib when he ate out FOR HIS SIBLING’S SAKE!



Herod cared for John the Baptizer, and he enjoyed hearing him preach. He could handle being denounced. Herodias, his brother’s and now his wife, could not. She wanted him gone. Period.


And when Herod made a drunken promise in front of all his friends, Herodias took the opportunity. Be careful what promises you make and to whom. Herod was responsible for the promises made, and all the implications no matter how catastrophic. Sounds a lot like NATO these days and the horrors of what is happening in Ukraine. Damned if we do and damned if we don’t. Thanks be to God.


Caring for the “Least of These” is one of the first filters I put myself through when I decide a course of action. Protocol is another. On Sunday, Becky+ and I were repeatedly questioned about when do we “get to take off the masks?” Admittedly, this breaks my heart. There are folks who cannot come to church safely when we take that step. And out of respect for them, I have stayed on this course. Freedom is about doing what we should, and yes, there is a price for that. Also, Vestry revisits all our COVID policy monthly, and the new guidelines came out the day after our last Vestry meeting. And this month is delayed for our Vestry retreat till this Saturday. It is not that we are ignoring where the world is going, it is just that for us to follow protocol, and we will, we just have not been able to do so yet. Again, damned if we do and damned if we don’t. Thanks be to God.


Friends, as we weave the course of this life today, keep these Scriptures in mind. Freedom is not about doing what you want, but what you should. And when we have power, use to care for the powerless, the “least of these.” We are our Siblings’ keeper, and how we tend for them shows what we truly value and love. How can we say we love God when we cannot love our neighbor? That’s I John 4:20, by the way. Amen.


Sunday, March 20, 2022

Year C Lent 3 2022 Holding On In Hope

 Year C Lent 3, 20 March 2022

St. James the Less Episcopal, Ashland, VA

“Holding On In Hope”


Collect: Almighty God, you know that we have no power in ourselves to help ourselves: Keep us both outwardly in our bodies and inwardly in our souls, that we may be defended from all adversities which may happen to the body, and from all evil thoughts which may assault and hurt the soul; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.


Exodus 3:1-15

Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law Jethro, the priest of Midian; he led his flock beyond the wilderness, and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. There the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of a bush; he looked, and the bush was blazing, yet it was not consumed. Then Moses said, “I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up.” When the Lord saw that he had turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!” And he said, “Here I am.” Then he said, “Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” He said further, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God.


Then the Lord said, “I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey, to the country of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. The cry of the Israelites has now come to me; I have also seen how the Egyptians oppress them. So come, I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt.” But Moses said to God, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?” He said, “I will be with you; and this shall be the sign for you that it is I who sent you: when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall worship God on this mountain.”


But Moses said to God, “If I come to the Israelites and say to them, 'The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,' and they ask me, 'What is his name?' what shall I say to them?” God said to Moses, “I am who I am.” He said further, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, 'I am has sent me to you.'” God also said to Moses, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, 'The Lord, the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you':

This is my name forever,

   and this my title for all generations.”


Luke 13:1-9

At that very time there were some present who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. He asked them, "Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them--do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did."


Then he told this parable: "A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. So he said to the gardener, 'See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?' He replied, 'Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.'"


Repent, for the Kingdom of God is right here, right now. Some hear a threat in that. Some hear a promise.


Perspective matters so much.


We still combat the age-old wisdom that people get what they deserve. We still fight the perspective that the rich are blessed and the poor are suffering judgment.


It comes out in phrases, admittedly well-intentioned, like “I must have done something right.” Or, “God has particularly blessed us!”


Jesus fought that mindset. And if he did, why do we delude ourselves that if we are good we will have smooth sailing. And if we are bad then we are cursed at best, or doomed at worst.


The oldest story in Scripture, according to biblical scholars, is the story of Job, where we are emphatically told that bad things happen to good people. Not because they are good, but suffering is the human condition. In a world grappling with the weight of Free Will, things spin positively and sometimes they spin out of control. Blessed be the name of the Lord.


With Great Power, Free Will, comes Great Responsibility. God knows that. God sees that. God is with us, through thick or thin, and God bets that we will do good, grow up, and make the right and proper choices.


“Repent, for the Kingdom of God is at hand.” This is, as I have said, Jesus’ message and mission statement at the beginning of the Gospel of Mark explicitly stated. [Mark 1:15]


Threat or Promise?


I remember when my kids were in elementary school, the principal had a program where he and teachers recognized kids who were “Caught Doing Good.” We do not do good to get caught, at least I hope not. We do good because it is the right thing to do.


In our Gospel reading this morning, we have some people, fellow Galileans coming to Jesus and asking questions. They are trying to get their head around the idea how God could let happen the suffering of folks who were killed and their bodies desecrated by mixing their blood with sacrifices. Soon after that we jump to another tragedy where people were crushed by a falling tower in Jerusalem. In both of these stories, we see Jesus give the same response when asked about those who suffered…


“No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.”


In the season of Lent, we give space and attention to Repentance. Repent is a command. The etymology of the word that we use is to feel intense sorrow or remorse for an action, idea, or attitude. It comes from old French. But here is another example of where our translations mess us up. It is not about feeling sorry, or anything else, though it makes sense that it would accompany that.


It is about upgrading your operating system. It is about swapping brains. Literally, metanoia, change minds. About Face. Repent. Change your ways by changing how you think, and act, and talk, and live. And you may feel sorry when you see how things were before the change. That is normal, and natural, and right.


When Jesus is asked about tragedies, human-caused when Pilate was a cruel and vindictive leader, or when there were “acts of God” as the insurance company would call it, not the theologians, by the way, wherever tragedies occur and their cause, in our suffering we can see that it is God smiting us and then we have insult added to injury. But if we swap out our old way of thinking, we see that bad things happen. They happen to the bad. They happen to the good. They happen. And it all comes back to how we see it.


When Jesus says, “Unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.” I have to see it differently. They did not perish because of a lack of repentance. They perished through external forces, man-made and natural. But their condition is perishing in the thought that they had somehow caused this through something done or left undone, as we put it in the confession.


Jesus came to change our minds, to have us Repent. God is not out to get us, some angry sky god with lightning bolts at the ready. But rather that God is loving, and kind, and caring, and betting on the idea that we can and will get better.


We are all accountable for our actions. That is the nature of being Grown-Ups. We have no excuses or reasons that do not come back to what we have done and what we have left undone. But the thought that God gives us all the space to come into the state of God’s grace is beautiful beyond words.


Jesus’ parables teach so many things. The nature of God and God’s Kingdom way of living are primary. The parable Luke includes points directly to that.

"A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. So he said to the gardener, 'See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?' He replied, 'Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.'"


It does not start with cutting down the tree. It does not give up on the tree, either, letting it do whatever it will. It holds the tree to what a tree should be doing. The “gardener” here is God. The owner, the director of what is to be, the “man” wishes to chop down the tree. But the gardener wants to give the tree one more chance. 'See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?' But what does the “gardener” say? “Give it one more chance! Another year even! Fertilize it! Give it a chance to bear fruit!”


Friends, how many times has God looked at us and said the same? Thank God that God is like the gardener and wants us to have a chance to be fruitful.


God is not only wanting you to bear the fruit of a good and growing life of faith, he is equipping you to do so, and even more betting that you will make it.




We bear fruit not because we have to! Serving God is not an obligation. Serving God is a gift! We are given the opportunity to be who God made us to be, to learn and grow, to live and love, to serve and sacrifice. We are made to bring glory to God, intentionally and joyfully. Thanks be to God!


Every so often, we see when God steps in to bet on us. The reading from Exodus shows that. Moses was just tending his father-in-law’s flocks when God said, “Psst, buddy! Have I got an offer for you!” And it changed the course of history. And remember, Moses had written himself off for decades. He was an escaped murderer on the lamb, and had moved on entirely from being a Prince of Egypt. But God had not written him off at all.


This last week was the 64th anniversary of God stepping up on a street corner in Louisville, Kentucky. March 18, 1958, the monk and author Thomas Merton was standing on the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district when God broke through. He was surrounded with people and he was given a brief moment of seeing people with God’s eyes. From Merton’s words:


“…I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine & I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers… It is a glorious destiny to be a member of the human race, though it is a race dedicated to many absurdities & one which makes many terrible mistakes: yet, with all that, God himself gloried in becoming a member of the human race. A member of the human race! To think that such a commonplace realization should suddenly seem like news that one holds the winning ticket in a cosmic sweepstake. I have the immense joy of being human, a member of a race in which God Himself became incarnate. As if the sorrows and stupidities of the human condition could overwhelm me, now I realize what we all are. And if only everybody could realize this! But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun. Then it was as if I suddenly saw the secret beauty of their hearts, the depths of their hearts where neither sin nor desire nor self-knowledge can reach, the core of their reality, the person that each one is in God's eyes. If only they could all see each other that way all the time. There would be no more war, no more hatred, no more cruelty, no more greed....I suppose the big problem would be that we would fall down & worship each other." Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, pp. 154-155


Sure sounds like a God-broke-through-burning-bush-moment to me! God still breaks through. You cannot plan on it. You do not get a warning. It happens when it is the fullness of time. But what we cannot do is ignore it when it happens. It changes everything. God is betting on you!


God breaks through still because God believes in you, bets on your outcomes, and wants nothing more than you to be who God made you to be. Thanks be to God! Amen.


Sunday, March 13, 2022

Year C Lent 2 2022 Choosing Faith

 Year C Lent 2, 13 March 2022

St. James the Less Epsiscopal, Ashland, VA

“Choosing Faith”


Collect: O God, whose glory it is always to have mercy: Be gracious to all who have gone astray from your ways, and bring them again with penitent hearts and steadfast faith to embrace and hold fast the unchangeable truth of your Word, Jesus Christ your Son; who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.


Genesis 15:1-12,17-18

The word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision, “Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.” But Abram said, “O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?” And Abram said, “You have given me no offspring, and so a slave born in my house is to be my heir.” But the word of the Lord came to him, “This man shall not be your heir; no one but your very own issue shall be your heir.” He brought him outside and said, “Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your descendants be.” And he believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.

Then he said to him, “I am the Lord who brought you from Ur of the Chaldeans, to give you this land to possess.” But he said, “O Lord God, how am I to know that I shall possess it?” He said to him, “Bring me a heifer three years old, a female goat three years old, a ram three years old, a turtledove, and a young pigeon.” He brought him all these and cut them in two, laying each half over against the other; but he did not cut the birds in two. And when birds of prey came down on the carcasses, Abram drove them away.

As the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell upon Abram, and a deep and terrifying darkness descended upon him.

When the sun had gone down and it was dark, a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch passed between these pieces. On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram, saying, “To your descendants I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates.”


Luke 13:31-35

Some Pharisees came and said to Jesus, "Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you." He said to them, "Go and tell that fox for me, 'Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work. Yet today, tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem.' Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! See, your house is left to you. And I tell you, you will not see me until the time comes when you say, 'Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.'"


Good morning, I hope everyone fared well in the crazy weather yesterday. Becky+ was lined up to preach today, and she has a great sermon. But flights were delayed and then canceled, and Becky+ is still in Florida. Pray she gets home soon. In Tuesday’s link, there will be her sermon. She sent the text to me, but it is so authentically her voice I did not feel I could do it justice.


We see Jesus working miracles and healing. His usual sparring partners, the Pharisees, actually come to him with a warning. “Get away from here, Herod wants to kill you!” Maybe they cared. Maybe they were delivering a political message. Jesus does throw down the gauntlet in his response. He is going to keep doing what he is doing for at least two more days (three total), and Herod, “that fox,” can know it. He says that the confrontation will happen, but it will be in Jerusalem where prophets are killed.


Ponder this passage when people tell you that Jesus was not political. I cannot fathom it when I hear that.


Jesus goes on to give a prediction, a prophecy if you will, in that he will face the showdown when people call out “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!” Words we say in our liturgy. Words cried out on Palm Sunday with loud hosannas.


But tucked into this wrangling, prophesying, and political maneuvering is a statement that is so endearing and loving. It shows the nature of Jesus, his ministry, and his mission on this planet. Speaking to Jerusalem the killer of prophets and stoner of those trying to help: “O Jerusalem, how often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!” 


Jesus portrays himself a mother hen, gathering her chicks. I urge you to listen to Becky+’s sermon on Tuesday. She delves into this so much better than I can this morning. But that heart, that heart that breaks because it loves so much, that heart that breaks because of the beloved’s poor choices, that heart is the heart of Jesus. That heart is the heart of the God who sent him.


St. Paul’s warnings to fellow believers today speaks on making good choices, imitating proper examples and shunning the bad, he reminds them (and us): “our citizenship is in heaven, and it is from there that we are expecting a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ. He will transform the body of our humiliation that it may be conformed to the body of his glory…”


When we get into contentious issues, we need to remember where our first priorities are. When Herod telegraphed his intentions so that the Pharisees came to Jesus in warning, Jesus continued on doing the Lord’s work. That was his first and highest priority. When the church in Philippi needed a reminder, St. Paul says that his citizenship, where he owes his first allegiance, was to his heavenly citizenship.


It is so easy to get distracted by this world. It is what our senses perceive first. We had to cancel our early service in safety because of the bitter temperatures last night and the earlier sunrise to all of us. We just could not respond in time. We do not ignore the world, but we do remind ourselves where our allegiances lie.


When we “hear of wars, and rumors of war,” as Jesus put it, we see it. Acknowledge it. Do what we can. Yes. But we must put first things first.


Herod and other despots, I am sure you can think of a few, do things in such a way to draw attention to themselves. They make their actions big and horrifying to drive you to fear. Fear makes you shrink, feel powerless, and flee or cower. There was someone who recently needed to do something that was emotionally very hard, it would be hard for anyone. But listening to them, the fear of the thing was much worse than the thing. The fear of the thing made it into a monster of overwhelming proportions. They were giving the thing much more weight and power than it had in and of itself.


Friends, our monsters are big enough. We do not need to give them our power by swallowing the fear they are dishing out. I am afraid for the people of Ukraine and the world by the actions that are being taken. But I also know history. We do ourselves a disservice in making a despot a monster. Herod was Herod. Herod had power and would have his day. Jesus says as much. But Jesus also knew he had a lot more to accomplish before that showdown which was to come. Love your enemies, Jesus preaches. Pray for them, even. But do not empower them and kowtow to their whims. 


When we face our monsters, emotional, political, or spiritual, we need to remember who we are and whose we are. With God at our back, we are bigger than any situation, and any of our monsters. And monsters always lose. Always. It might not be today or tomorrow, but as we sing at Christmas, “the wrong shall fail, the right prevail, with peace on earth, Goodwill to men.”


This last week we started our Lenten series looking at the Covenants of God, the promises God makes to us. Join us on Tuesday nights at 7. We do it on Tuesdays because the clinic is open Wednesdays and the choirs practice Thursdays. In Tuesday’s email there will be a link to the first class on YouTube in case you wanted to see it. This week we look at the very passage we read today from Genesis. This amazing ceremony where a covenant is established between Abram soon to be Abraham (father of multitudes) and God.


Abram’s concern was one that was cultural and biological. He did not have an heir. He so desperately wanted a male child to receive his inheritance, to carry on his name and lineage. Looking at his own geriatric body and his well-past-her-prime (biologically speaking) wife, he had no hope. But God knew this monster that Abram was facing. God had a plan. The world would be a much better place if Abram had not tried to take matters into his own hands after saying he believed God, but what is, is.


But just as Jesus desired to gather wayward Jerusalem under his loving wings, we see God stepping into history to promise a childless father that his offspring would number more than the visible stars in the sky. And I remind you, this was a desert sky at night with no light pollution to sully the view. Millions upon millions blazing in every direction!


And a spiritual weight filled the place, driving Abram to the brink of sleep, like the apostles on the Mount of Transfiguration we talked about a few weeks ago. But in that stillness, with the holiness palpable, we see something beyond comprehension. God commands:


“Bring me a heifer three years old, a female goat three years old, a ram three years old, a turtledove, and a young pigeon.” [Abram] brought him all these and cut them in two, laying each half over against the other; but he did not cut the birds in two. And when birds of prey came down on the carcasses, Abram drove them away.


These sacrifices were the covenant incorporated, literally, in the flesh. Picture it. The animals cut down the center, stem to stern, nose to tail. And a half is placed on either side. The small birds necks are wrung, and placed on either side as well. The stench was so great, the vultures circled and wanted to partake of the offal, but Abram chased them off.


As the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell upon Abram, and a deep and terrifying darkness descended upon him.


We reach a holy lull, a biding time, waiting for the darkness to surround them. So often it seems that when we are surrounded in darkness and we are chasing off the birds of prey it is then that we are finally attuned to the Almighty. Our distractions are so great that it is under our duress that we finally can focus on what matters most. Continuing…


When the sun had gone down and it was dark, a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch passed between these pieces. On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram.


We see this smoking pot wafting its fragrance heavenward and a flaming torch shining its light moving through the carcasses with unseen hands.


What a spectacle! What a contract! I wish we talked about this passage more. It is so dense with meaning. God is making a covenant, a promissory contract bound in blood, with Abram. And notice that the contract is God with Abram. It is unilateral. God promises to Abram that this promised heir will appear, and may what happened to these carcasses happen to Godself if the promise is not kept. This is a blood oath that our modern understanding must work to put our head around.


God commits to being bigger than Abram’s monster. Jesus commits to loving Jerusalem, that city that will eventually crucify him. Paul commits to being a heavenly citizen first before the Empire, before anything or anyone else. And how do we get in on this understanding? How do we slay our monsters? How do we align ourselves with God before anything else in this distracted world?


Faith. Faith is the key, sisters/brothers/siblings in Christ. Before the covenantal ceremony we get this line in Genesis.


And [Abram] believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.


God calls us to many things, but the key to unlock all the others is Faith. Faith is, was, and always will be the key. It is the only thing we bring to the table. Free Will means that God cannot force our hand. God cannot make us love God or anyone else, nor make us believe in God or anything else. Faith is what makes us “okay with God,” a much easier understanding than the holy jargon “righteousness.”



Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “Faith is taking the first step even when you don’t see the whole staircase.” And Bob Proctor reminds us, “Faith and Fear both demand that you believe in something you cannot see. You choose!” Hmm. Choose you this day what you will see. That, my friends, is Faith in a nutshell. 


As we all face our monsters, surprise diagnoses, emotional terrors, threats both foreign and domestic, financial, political, or unknown, faith is key to our way through. Note I did not say our way out. We do not escape the living of these lives, these hands we have been dealt to play. But God gets us through our monsters, even David had to face down his Goliath knowing that God was with him. 


We all have our fears. That is what we learn as children so that we can avoid pain and survive. But will we have faith? That is what growing up really is. Letting go of those childhood traumas and reaching our full maturity in God. As I John 4:18 reminds us, “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love.”


God is not out to squash us like bugs. God loves us and wants the best for us. God has our backs as we face our monsters. God is with us through the valleys of fear and doubt and death itself. And we find that God is also on the other side, ready to welcome us home. What have we to fear? What will Faith open up for us that Fear keeps from us? Ponder that as we continue in this holy Lent. Amen.

Sunday, March 6, 2022

Year C Lent 1 2022 First Loves, First Fruits

 Year C Lent 1, 6 March 2022

St. James the Less Episcopal, Ashland, VA

“First Loves, First Fruits”


Collect: Almighty God, whose blessed Son was led by the Spirit to be tempted by Satan: Come quickly to help us who are assaulted by many temptations; and, as you know the weaknesses of each of us, let each one find you mighty to save; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.


Deuteronomy 26:1-11

When you have come into the land that the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance to possess, and you possess it, and settle in it, you shall take some of the first of all the fruit of the ground, which you harvest from the land that the Lord your God is giving you, and you shall put it in a basket and go to the place that the Lord your God will choose as a dwelling for his name. You shall go to the priest who is in office at that time, and say to him, "Today I declare to the Lord your God that I have come into the land that the Lord swore to our ancestors to give us." When the priest takes the basket from your hand and sets it down before the altar of the Lord your God, you shall make this response before the Lord your God: "A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous. When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, by imposing hard labor on us, we cried to the Lord, the God of our ancestors; the Lord heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression. The Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with a terrifying display of power, and with signs and wonders; and he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. So now I bring the first of the fruit of the ground that you, O Lord, have given me." You shall set it down before the Lord your God and bow down before the Lord your God. Then you, together with the Levites and the aliens who reside among you, shall celebrate with all the bounty that the Lord your God has given to you and to your house.


Luke 4:1-13

After his baptism, Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished. The devil said to him, "If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread." Jesus answered him, "It is written, 'One does not live by bread alone.'"


Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And the devil said to him, "To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours." Jesus answered him, "It is written,

'Worship the Lord your God,

and serve only him.'"

Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, "If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written,

'He will command his angels concerning you,

to protect you,' and 'On their hands they will bear you up,

so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.'"

Jesus answered him, "It is said, 'Do not put the Lord your God to the test.'" When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.


Blessings on your Holy Lent, friends. Today we will look at Lent, not from a perspective of fasting, but from a perspective of loving. If you heard me on Ash Wednesday, 

“In claiming our cross, we embrace our love. In claiming our love, we tell what we truly treasure. And Jesus says it best of all…

For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.


We all have our loves, yes plural. There are things that we hold dear, and there are things that we hold most dear. Lent is about winnowing things down to the most dear, so that for a season, 40 days and 6 Sundays we get a clear image of our treasures.


Insurance companies will ask you to do an assessment of your valuables when you take out a homeowners policy. Today, I am asking you to think about your VALUES, not your VALUABLES. 


In our Deuteronomy passage for the day, we see the instruction that of one’s produce, the first fruits belong to God. Now many of you know that we have today our annual meeting, and we are kicking off a capital campaign to raise around $400,000. We could do that by asking for your spare change, and in 20 years we might be able to think about one of our 4 desired projects. But we are asking you to think about sacrificing, to make this gift a priority. It is a rare ask, but it is needed to go in the directions we feel God is calling us to go in the coming years. (It just so happened that today’s passage was on first fruits, but it certainly fits today in our church’s context. This was coincidental, not planned.)


Moses was asking the people to remember why they have what they have. He was asking them to remember who put them where they were, to enjoy the good gifts that they have received.


Put first things first. There is a wonderful line that always stuck with me from The Devil Wears Prada, “The person whose calls you always take, that's the relationship you're in.” It’s pretty telling where your priorities lie.


Where on your list of relationships is your relationship with God? Where does God rank for you?


I hope that it is pretty high up there. To paraphrase Jesus: “Love God with all you’ve got, and everything else falls into place.” [Or more traditionally, “Seek ye first the Kingdom of God and God’s righteousness, and all things shall be added unto you.” Matthew 6:33]


But God is one thing I hope you value, the highest. There are others that are pretty high up there, too. When I do weddings, one line I always include, “You are now one another’s highest earthly priority.” The strength of the marriage and the family is what creates the envelope of safety that children flourish in best. As the children see the love and concern, the disagreements and the forgiveness of those they hold most dear, they are given a model of how God loves, nurtures, and cares for us. As we value this most special and intimate of relationships, so many other responsibilities of our lives are cared for as well. Another line I always use, “As you succeed, so do we all.”


We see some pretty important values of Jesus in his temptations. If you do not like Brussel sprouts, Brussel sprouts are not a temptation. In our Gospel reading, we see the Devil come at Jesus with some things that he rejects. Now it would be an easy reading of the text to say Jesus despises those things that the Devil brought forward, but if he did, then they would not by definition be temptations.


Looking at them quickly, Jesus is tempted: 

  • by care of his body

  • by authority and power

  • and, by attracting others


We all need to care for our bodies. Coming out of COVID many of us were in better shape before. Many of us have been working hard to get back to the condition we were or better than we were before the pandemic. This is a good thing. Your body is something that you should value and take care of daily. It is the vessel that allows you to sail through this life, and it is so easy to sink if we do not. St. Francis lived a powerful and godly life, but on his deathbed at age 44, one of his regrets was that he did not take better care of his body which he affectionately called “Brother Ass” as in donkey. His body patiently carried him through life, silently accepting the physical abuse Francis heaped on it, just like a patient little burro. St. Francis recanted this. We are to love and care for our bodies.


Jesus loved his body. He even used it as a metaphor for his covenant of Grace, “Take, eat, this is my body which is broken for you.” But Jesus’ devotion to God was greater. In his lengthy fast, he saw the need for love of God to be greater than love of self, in particular his body. This is values clarification. Discernment is choosing between the Good and the Best. 


Now this one may cause you to think, and maybe stretch. But Jesus was on earth with a mission. As we talked about last Sunday in his strategy session with Moses and Elijah, they met over his “exodus,” his divine deliverance not just for a people but for ALL PEOPLE. No one accomplishes anything great without having authority and power. The problem is our understanding of Authority and Power, Capital A Capital P, comes from a very unhealthy view of how to influence and lead in this world. Jesus gave us a model quite different, through Love and Service. He modeled it with the Grace he gave to the Woman at the Well and to Zacchaeus, to the Woman caught in Adultery and to the Gerasene Demoniac. Grace-filled Love, Agape, is the model, and servant leadership is the style. Picture Jesus stripping down to a towel and washing the disciples’ feet at the Last Supper. 


Jesus was tempted by Authority and Power because of his great desire to establish and expand the Kingdom of God on earth. That was his mission. Directly following his baptism in the Jordan River we get this in the Gospel of Mark, JUST 14 verses in! Mark 1:14 and 15 “Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, 15 and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” That was his mission and he desperately wanted to fulfill it. But Jesus was wise enough to know that real change, lasting change, takes time. You cannot rush the things that you want to last.  Jesus knew that a flash in the pan would not be the life by life, nation by nation, whole world transformed Gospel he came to preach and initiate. He wanted it so badly, but he loved God more.


The last temptation mentioned was signs of power. When we have an ability, it is normal and natural to want to use it. The Olympics just finished, and we saw the best of the best of the best at peak condition doing things that most of us could only dream about. That is why we revel in this event every 4 years. Jesus had power. He could work miracles. The Devil knew it, too. But Jesus knew that there are times and places for all things. Throwing himself from the Temple was not one of them. Would it attract people? YES! But would it draw them for the spectacle and not for the message? Probably. Jesus, like all people or institutions with power, one wants the opportunity to flex the muscles and show what is possible. But again, Jesus loved God more. He knew that that first devotion would put everything else in order. 


Many of you may have heard St. Augustine’s often misquoted phrase from his sermon “On Love” 

Love God, and do as you will.

Many read that as, “Love God and do whatever you want.” He is not saying that. As we love God, and grow in that love, we get in tune with God and our desires are transformed. Our wants and even our needs slowly get in line with God’s wants and desires for us and for the life God dreams for us.


This is the fuller context of Augustine’s statement: 

Once and for all, I give you this one short command: love, and do what you will. If you hold your peace, hold your peace out of love. If you cry out, cry out in love. If you correct someone, correct them out of love. If you spare them, spare them out of love. Let the root of love be in you: nothing can spring from it but good. link to source

And that love through which we do all we do is directly linked to love of God. When Jesus was asked the greatest commandment in the 600+ laws of the Torah, he responded “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and all you soul, 

You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. 39 And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Matthew 22:37-39


If we love God, our values shift. If we love God, we start to love what God loves. If we love God, we begin to become more and more like God. That is why St. Augustine can say with clarity and surety, “Love God, and do as you will.” If we say love God and do whatever you want, is it really God we are loving but our basest wants and desires?





What are your first fruits? The birthday girl or boy is the one who gets the first slice of cake. Go for the corner! But in what you give your life to, what gets the first slice? What gets the portion before all others? Look at your calendar. Look at your checkbook or your credit card statement. Look at who's phone call you always take.


Lent is the time when we get to ask ourselves these questions. We fast to get clear what our priorities are. We commit ourselves to devotion to figure out what we love most. We give to others as we have been given. We treasure what we treasure, and we give from our treasure because of who we treasure. We give because God first gave to us!


Continued blessings on this Lent. Continued blessings on your Love of God. Put that first, and do what you will! Amen