Proper 19 - Sunday, September 16, 2018

Proper 19B

James 3:1-12

Mark 8:27-38

September 16, 2018

The Rev. Dr. Kathy Dunagan

 

On my second Sunday here, on the second Sunday of Easter, I told you a story that I want to tell again.

 It is the story of a game I remember playing as a young child and I believe children still play it.  We called it gossip.  The children are instructed to sit in a circle and the adult leader whispers into the ear of the first child a simple phrase.  Something like, Mary had a little lamb.  The children are then told in turn to whisper the same phrase to the next child, so that no one else hears it aloud, and then it is passed around the circle. 

When the last child hears the phrase, he is asked to say it out loud to the group.  Usually, the phrase has become distorted.  It comes out wrong.  Something like, Gary has a pickled jam.  This brings with it multiple meanings.  It is usually funny, the children giggle, thus making the activity a game, and, well, fun.  But it is also an exercise in experiencing first hand the dangers and immorality of gossip.

I used this analogy at Easter as a way to talk about how we get the message of the Gospel told. I want to use this example again today for a different reason - because sometimes we get it wrong.

The epistle of James includes the longest passage in the Bible about the role of speech in the life of a Christian. "We all stumble in many ways," says James; only the person who has "tamed the tongue" can claim Christian maturity.  It's not easy.  Humanity has tamed the world of nature, James observes, "but no one can tame the tongue."

I have been thinking all week as I lived with this passage about the feeling of having your tongue tamed.  For some reason what comes to mind most is that feeling of coming home from the dentist all numbed up where you can’t talk.  Again, we laugh, but this experience and those physical experiences like it: laryngitis, vocal fatigue, tooth aches or injuries, busted lips or those golden moments when we can’t remember what we wanted to say or the name of something or someone or someplace and when we have those experiences I wonder if it is not all the work of the Holy Spirit reminding us that sometimes we need to shut up!

I have been talking about listening a lot lately as your priest and here we are again with the opportunity to consider taming our tongues.  It may take talking less to listen more, but I want to invite you to consider some other benefits of a tame tongue. 

Silence is a great virtue. Silence and stillness were essential practices of the early desert mothers and fathers of the Christian Church. Like our mysterious passage from the book of Proverbs this morning, these monk-like Christians had books of sayings.  Here are a few thoughts on silence from them:  "It was said of Abba Agathon that for three years he lived with a stone in his mouth, until he had learned to keep silence." (Poemen 37) "He also said, "The victory over all the afflictions that befall you is to keep silence.” (Poemen 147)  A brother asked one desert father, (Abba Poemen) “Is it better to speak or to be silent?”  The old man said to him,  “The man who speaks for God's sake does well, but he who is silent for God's sake also does well.”  And another said, (Sisoes 30)  "Even to the point of death, monks should control themselves so as not to speak."

In our own day, we have much to learn from those who live monastic lifestyles. The Quakers practice silence not just as a personal discipline but also as central to their corporate worship. They call it "expectant waiting."

Silence can mean the absence of speech and the cessation of words, but it's more than that (says John Chryssavgis in his book "In the Heart of the Desert.")  Silence "is a way of waiting, a way of watching, and a way of listening." Silence is a way of dying to self, and self-denial is commended by Jesus in this week's gospel.  In silence we die to the need to justify ourselves, to be heard, or to condemn others.  If we could learn more about being quiet, we would be more able to take up our cross and follow.  And we’d likely have better directions because we will have been listening in our quiet.

A fellow from another denomination attended a Quaker meeting once.  He was exploring other faith traditions just to see the differences and sat down and waited while the Quaker’s sat in silence.  You know, that’s how they worship.  It’s lovely, really.  They sit for an hour or more and the only time anyone speaks if when or if they feel truly moved by the Holy Spirit.  I’m not sure how they discern that.  But this fellow sat there for a few minutes, you know how uncomfortable silence can be for the rest of us who are used to talking, singing and praying aloud a lot in worship, so this fellow finally whispered to the person next to him, “When does the service begin?”  His new friend simply replied, “When we leave here.”

I remember once, as a not so young child, our teacher asked us to gather in a circle for the gossip game.  We had played it many times by now and, for some reason we spontaneously held a quick huddle deciding as a group to get it right this time.  We cheered each other on to be careful, make sure you say the phrase right, listen carefully and as we played we were as silent as stones so we could each listen.  When the last child got her turn, she announced the same phrase the teacher had said at the beginning.  We cheered!  We had beaten the thing!  We got it right!  The teacher seemed disappointed that our effort might have left us with the impression that gossiping is O.K., but a greater lesson was learned that day.  We learned the lesson of the power of teamwork.  We learned of the power of community.  In coming together and paying attention, we had held onto the original word and shared it carefully with each other.  The difference was in the spirit of our shared value to “get it right.”

But there’s more to learn than just “getting it right” from today’s lessons.  This reading from Mark depicts a turning point in the gospel narrative.  Jesus has been healing some folks, mostly the blind and now he turns toward Jerusalem.  The phrase, “on the way” is used repeatedly the rest of the gospel to remind the reader that all of this leads to the cross.  As they head toward Jerusalem, he asks the disciples how people understand who he is.  Their discussion reveals that no one really understands him yet, but the disciples know that he is the messiah.

Unlike Matthew’s version, where Peter sort of gets the right answer and Jesus praises him, here Jesus just implores them to keep it a secret, for now.  In other words, “Shut up and listen to me!”

But Peter can’t listen.  He wants to fix the problem with his words.

The problem is that Jesus tells them about the coming crucifixion and resurrection but they can’t hear it.  To join him in choosing a cross would have made no sense at this point in time.  The cross to us is a huge symbol that reminds us of all the beauty and joy that we remember when we see it.  Which is why we have crosses everywhere.  But to these few first century Jews, the cross was a terrifying symbol of torture and execution.  It would be like telling us to all line up for the electric chair.  Dead men walking.

I can imagine that this confusing message would have had these committed followers confused.  And I can imagine that they would have wanted to argue and discuss and debate and try to figure this out with words, words, words.  But Jesus said, in essence, “Hush!”  Be silent.  Be still.  Listen to me.  Know that I am God and just follow me.  One day you will understand. 

I wonder if we can follow in this way.  Learn to listen more, practice faith, follow more than lead.  I wonder if we can come together as a team, as friends, as a parish, and help each other in this way, to die to the need to justify ourselves, to be heard, or to condemn others and to seek new ways to enter into the discipline of listening, the silence it takes to listen for the voice of God, the God who wants only for us to follow Jesus.  I wonder.

Just like the disciples, we want to tell the whole world the joy we have found in our faith in Jesus Christ.  So, we don’t do well at keeping quiet.  I repeated my story about the children’s game of goofing up when we whisper a pass-it-down message.  It seems it is more likely heard if we speak loudly.  I chose to tell that story on the Second Sunday of Easter as a metaphor for telling of the joy of the resurrection with images of Mary and the other women running down the hill from the empty tomb to tell the men.  The excitement we have in telling the good news of the Gospel of Jesus as savior, Jesus as the author of love.  There is good reason to shout out the Gospel!

But there is also good reason Jesus asks us to be quiet.  For if we are always talking we are not listening and if we are shouting out, even shouting out good news, we are liable to miss something.  Peter was missing something.  And the crowd was missing something.  And Jesus called out Satan in the mix.

John Mayer was missing something. And I’m not talking about his run ins with the paparazzi and gossip columns.  He doesn’t seem to care about that.  But in the lyrics to his top hit song about missing something, it is so obvious to me what he’s missing. I want to shout to him, “Hello! It’s God! It’s God that you are missing!” He lists all the possible happiness quotients in this song but seems for ever clueless that maybe some spiritual exercise would help.

Listen to these lyrics to see what I mean.  See if you relate to his list of things in life he enjoys and if you relate to his sentiment of feeling like something is missing.

 

 

 

 

Something's Missing

John Mayer

 

I'm not alone

I wish I was

'Cause then I'd know I was down because

I couldn't find a friend around

To love me like they do right now

They do right now

I'm dizzy from the shopping mall

I searched for joy, but I bought it all

It doesn't help the hunger pains

And a thirst I'd have to drown first to ever satiate

Something's missing

And I don't know how to fix it

Something's missing

And I don't know what it is

No I don't know what it is

At all

When autumn comes

It doesn't ask

It just walks in where it left you last

You never know when it starts

Until there's fog inside the glass around

Your summer heart

Something's missing

And I don't know how to fix it

Something's missing

And I don't know what it is

No I don't know what it is

At all

I can't be sure that this state of mind

Is not of my own design

I wish there was an over-the-counter test

For loneliness

For loneliness like this

Something's missing

And I don't know how to fix it

Something's missing

And I don't know what it is

No I don't know what it is

Something's different

And I don't know what it is

No I don't know what it is

 

Friends

(Check)

Money

(Check)

A well slept

(Check)

Opposite sex

(Check)

Guitar

(Check)

Microphone

(Check)

Messages waiting on me when

I come home

(Check)

What do you think it means?

How come everything I thing I need, always comes with batteries?

 

Dear John.  I think it means you have decided not to listen to God who calls to you from the depths of creation and beckons for you to come and listen. And if you listen you can hear the overwhelming beauty of God’s song of love.  And if you just have an inkling of faith you could be filled with hope, the hope that conquers all the blues you could ever sing of, the hope that conquers even death.

Amen.

Proper 18 - Sunday, September 9, 2018

Proper 18B

September 9, 2018

Mark 7:24-37

The Rev. Dr. Kathy Dunagan

When Kate was about 2 years old I dropped her.  No, this did not leave her with any brain damage so don’t tease her about it but I didn’t know I hadn’t given her brain damage at the moment that I dropped her.  It was a scary and painful moment at the time.

We were leaving the church I then served and crossing the lawn, the way almost everyone at that church did to get to the parking, which was on the street back then.  I stepped in a hole, twisted my ankle and in my reflex to catch my self, I dropped Kate on her back.  In my memory there is this slow motion moment of my baby in her pretty little white dress looking up at me with wide frightened eyes and not breathing, me having caught myself, kneeling and leaning on my hands now in the grass on either side of her (my ankle strangely not hurting – yet).  Kick back into real time and she began to cry and so I knew she could breathe and I scooped her up and got her in the car seat. 

But as I drove home my little girl found her voice and through her sobs lectured me, “You dropped me!  You’re not suppose to drop me!  You are supposed to look after me.  You’re supposed to take care of me!”  over and over again, all the way home she recanted this admonition.  I was appropriately filled with guilt but I was also a bit impressed with her persistence.

I, in turn, became persistent.  Yes, I carried her more carefully after that but more, I sought out the Junior Warden, the person in charge of building AND grounds, and took up with him the issue of this particular problem with said grounds, and said hole and asked him to fix that hole so it wouldn’t happen again.  He ignored me. 

Well, he was nice, he listened, he nodded with concern, but he did not fix the hole.  I asked him again the next week and got the same response.  I asked him again at the next vestry meeting, still nothing.  I began to pester this man about that darn hole in the ground for months.  He unwaveringly smiled and nodded and did nothing.

I was persistent, but it didn’t pay off.  Not soon enough for me anyway.

The story of this Gentile, Syrophoenician woman in today’s lesson from Mark is a bit confusing.  This woman would have been a sort of “nobody” in that culture.  Jesus was traveling through the region of Tyre, among gentiles, not in his own Israelite territory when he was sort of accosted by this woman and Jesus’s initial response to ignore her, or give her the brush off would have been expected, in that culture at that time.

The only equivalent to this phenomenon that I can think of is that it would be like the way this Junior Warden ignored me.  It’s the kind of thing that happens every day.  You see, the Junior Warden was aware that that hole was part of the yard that was about to be dug up when the new parking lot began construction.  This would happen in just a few weeks.  That hole would be replaced with a much bigger obstacle, one that would be obvious, one that would eventually make that little spot very inconvenient for a while but eventually used for a larger purpose. So, placating me for a few weeks was easier than explaining all of that big picture stuff, I guess.

Today and last Sunday we return to Mark after some jumping back and forth between Mark and John.  We’ve been doing that a lot in these lectionary readings this year and the difference between these two gospels has caused some squirming.  Today’s reading from Mark is especially squirm worthy because Jesus seem to be rather harsh with this woman who comes to him begging for help.

The woman who approaches Jesus breaks through every traditional barrier that should prevent her from doing so. She is “a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin” (Mark 7:26). In other words, she is implicitly impure, one who lives outside of the land of Israel and outside of the law of Moses, a descendant of the ancient enemies of Israel. She is also a woman, unaccompanied by a husband or male relative, who initiates a conversation with a strange man -- another taboo transgressed.

On top of all of this, her daughter is possessed by a demon. Although we are not told exactly how the demon affected her daughter, we can probably guess from other stories about demon-possessed people that it made her act in bizarre and anti-social ways. This woman and her daughter were not the kind of family most people would be likely to invite over for dinner.

Any way you look at it, this woman is an outsider. And what is more, Jesus actually has the nerve to say as much to her face. When the woman falls at his feet and begs him to heal her daughter, Jesus says, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs” (Mark 7:27). The “children” in this statement are the children of Israel, the “little dogs” (kunaria) are understood to be all other peoples. So, he essentially calls her a dog because she’s not a Jew.

In the Gospel of John, Jesus knows all and is perfect in every way. In John, Jesus is divine. In Mark, especially in this particular story of the Syrophoenician woman, Jesus seems to have a learning moment.  He  seems to change his mind.  He seems very human.

This brings up that big theological word, “Christology.” Christology is that branch of theology which is primarily concerned with the identity, the person of, (ontology of) Jesus. The early church engaged in fierce and often politicized debate about whether Jesus is fully God or fully human. Christology became a major focus of these debates, and every one of the first seven ecumenical councils addressed Christological issues. The bottom line is difficult, like the trinity, difficult to fully understand.  The bottom line is that Jesus is both fully human and fully divine. 

How can this be?  Well, it is a mystery. And so we continue to struggle with this God-Man who is God incarnate. That is, God became a person and walked around on earth for 33 years and taught us a bunch of stuff about loving each other.

But the God side of Jesus is difficult to fathom and so we often emphasize the human side.

That, scholars say, is what Mark did with this story. 

Jesus was tired, he wanted to get away for a few days for some quiet.  He went to the very outside corner of the country, into Gentile country - away from the Jews, away from the Pharisees and Sadducees and away from, it seems, his own followers and he found a little Air BnB and he tried to take a mini-vacation.  We love this.  We can relate to this.  We want him to have a nice weekend on the coast.  But, alas, his fame catches up with him and people start bugging him again.

This woman is easy to hate - she is about as different as she could be from the first century Christians who were the audience for this story.  She’s sort of villain like when she shows up making demands on our tired messiah.  We want to yell at her to leave him alone!  And at that point in the story, from the vantage of hating her, we don’t mind if he’s a bit snarky. 

Then later, when we’ve had our laugh at him calling her a dog, later, maybe on the way home from the show, we wonder for a moment that pestering question, “How can the fully divine God-man be snarky?”  It doesn’t make sense for perfect, peaceful, loving Jesus to be mean even to an annoying, single-mother-nobody.

When I was a kid I loved the movie, Jesus Christ Superstar.  It was one of the first Rock Operas in the 70s and tells the story, our story, from a very secular lens.  Many of you may have seen this broadway musical produced in a live television production this past Easter.  The point of this telling of the Christian story is to emphasize the humanity of Jesus.  It was written to take place in a contemporary set with contemporary costumes and so the first one had a disco ball and the disciples wore polyester, three piece, leisure suits.  I kid you not!

The movie had the more hippie look going on with beach-nicks running around the desert in cool shades singing rock anthems.  

I wanted to write a paper about this in seminary. There are some real theological problems with this version of the Gospel narrative.  For one, there is no resurrection. It depicts political and interpersonal struggles between Judas Iscariot and Jesus, and Mary Magdalene and Jesus, that are not present in the Bible. And in general the writers jumped around the Gospels cherry picking dramatic scenes that adapt well to the stage or screen but lose their actual edge of meaning when taken out of context.

On the other hand, the theology I was drawn to in that Rock Opera version of the Gospel story was that Jesus was a superstar.  He was powerful, he could perform miracles and healings and cast out demons and he could have avoided the cross but he chose not to. This was very impressionable on my adolescent spirit.

Telling the story in this way emphasizes the humanity of Jesus.  Jesus is fully human so he suffered, he struggled, he worked hard and yes, maybe he did feel overwhelmed at times. That would be understandable.  This is why we love Passion Plays, in order to see God suffer in some way that we relate to.

There is one scene in Jesus Christ Superstar when Jesus was walking alone and came upon a leper colony.  Now this is a story found only in Luke you may remember, in which Jesus heals 10 lepers and only one is thankful and the others are not. But in the original story, they keep their distance. They don’t come at Jesus that way. In the play, the lepers crawl all over Jesus and overwhelm him until he is calling out for help.  That’s the problem with this musical, scenes like that and a mix and match of poorly interpreted scripture and a whole bunch of fiction.

But I loved it as a kid because of the music and because of the emphasis on the humanity of Jesus.  And it made me think and ask questions.  So, this bad rock opera was actually a catalyst for my formation as a Christian. I guess that’s alright.

So, we love the Jesus who wants to take a mini-vacation on the coast of Tyre. We love the Jesus who hits up some folks for the use of their house as a hide out. We love this Jesus who ends up changing his mind, at first saying “go away” to this woman from the ghetto and then granting her wish anyway. We love this Jesus who is snarky to someone from across the tracks.  But then, we don’t love that he was snarky.  And we begin to long again for the Jesus of John’s gospel who knows all, loves all, is all powerful and is never snarky (except maybe to the Pharisees.)

The problem in all this is how easy it is for us to fall into defining God.  It is so easy for us to decide who and what God is and how God thinks and what God will do for us. We like to emphasize the humanity of Jesus so that we can get our agenda in the mix.  We don’t mean to do this.  It’s just human nature.

And so we stand divided because we take sides in the argument.  Some side with John and say Jesus is perfect, Jesus is God, we can only worship and adore the Bread of Heaven, the King of Kings.  And some of those folks mix in their own quest for power.

Others choose Mark’s Jesus and say that Jesus is one of us, “just a slob like one of us,” and that’s why we can enjoy the love he bestows on us because since he’s human he gets us and loves us in spite of our sinfulness.  These folks have an agenda too of getting all the love they want. Bonhoeffer called this cheap grace.

And so, my friends, we are left with the frustration of division. When all we really need to do is lay down the armament of our agendas and listen for that thing in the story that maybe we were missing before.  Because there is always something new to learn about Jesus the God-man.  Jesus the Christ.  Jesus the King of Love.

And whether he knew or planned on this interchange with this woman in order to use a teaching moment, or if he stumbled into a teaching moment in which he was the one who actually learned something. It doesn’t matter.

What matters is that we remember to follow him instead of try to control him.

What matters is our effort to ever increase our abilities of seeing the Syrophoenician woman in the eyes of the strangers we encounter and the lives of the marginalized people we encounter every day.  What matters is noticing her.

What matters is letting go of control enough to receive the healing that Jesus offers either in the wide open social spaces or in private, around the corner spaces like this man whose ability to speak was healed.

What matters is to receive the healing of becoming freed from demons, receive the healing of our words speaking to His agenda not ours, to receive the healing and then becoming speakers of truth and then use these gifts for the building up of the Kingdom.  God’s Kingdom.  Not ours.  Not the kingdom of our agendas.  The Kingdom of Love.

So, I’ll leave you with this week’s pulpit joke.

Three ministers sat at an outdoor cafe discussing the best positions for prayer while a telephone repairman worked nearby. “Kneeling is definitely best,” one minister argued. “No,” another contended, “I get the best results standing with my hands outstretched to Heaven”

“You’re both wrong,” the third maintained. “The most effective prayer position is lying prostrate, face down on the floor.”

At that moment the repairman could contain himself no longer. “Hey, y’all,” he interrupted, “the best prayin’ I ever did was hangin’ upside down from a telephone pole!”

There can be more than one way to pray.  And there can be more than one way to tell a story.  Mark and John tell it two different ways, just as the people in the joke decide on different ways of praying best. The point is that not only can more than one idea be right, but God can use them all in different ways. We need not focus on whose praying posture is best; we need only focus on the prayer and our relationship with God. God can use it all in different ways for different purposes.

Persistence to change God’s mind is futile and the stuff of division. We would do better to work, through prayer on our faith that God will provide all we need, heal us eventually of all our wounded-ness and lead us safely on.

Thanks be to God.

Amen.

Proper 17 - Sunday, August 26, 2018

Proper 17B

September 2, 2018

James 1:17-27

Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

The Rev. Dr. Kathy Dunagan

I want to share a poem with you this morning that is actually song lyrics by the band Nickel Creek.  And it is lovely.

"The Hand Song"

Sean C. Watkins, David Puckett

The boy only wanting to give mother something

And all of her roses had bloomed

Looking at him as he came rushing in

Knowing her roses were doomed

All she could see were some thorns buried deep

And tears that he cried as she tended his wounds

And she knew it was love, it was what she could understand

He was showing his love and that's how he hurt his hands

He still remembers that night as a child, on his mothers knee

She held him close and she opened her Bible, and quietly started to read

Then seeing a picture of Jesus, he cried out

"Mama he's got some scars just like me!"

And he knew it was love, it was what he could understand

He was showing his love, and that's how he hurt his hands

Now the boy is grown and moved out on his own

When Uncle Sam comes along

A foreign affair, but our young men are there

And luck had his number drawn

It wasn't that long till our hero was gone, he gave to a friend what he learned from the cross

But they knew it was love, it was one they could understand

He was showing his love, and that's how he hurt his hands

It was one they could understand

He was showing his love, and that's how he hurt his hands.

The readings this morning have left me thinking about hands.  There is an argument in the Gospel lesson from St. Mark about the washing of hands.  Folks get caught up on this - like the disciples were wrong to not wash their hands before eating.  I mean, eww!  That idea is especially difficult for those of us who lean toward OCD and wash our hands a lot to avoid the flu and stuff like that.

But that was not the issue at hand.  They were arguing over a ritual.  Ritualistic hand washing was expected by law but not really necessary for disease control.  Jesus responds to the criticism with a tit-for-tat question, as he often did with the Pharisees and asks them about empty rituals, where is your heart in that?

The images in the poetry of the Old Testament readings also bring hands to mind.  This poem from the Song of Songs is a love poem about lovers running off together and I imagine them holding hands as they enjoy the beauty of God’s creation. The full title of this book of the bible is The Song of Songs of Solomon.  Solomon did not write it.  It was just named after him, like a book of poems from the Solomon Library might be the contemporary equal.  Just a tid bit we learned at Lectionary Lunch this week.

The Psalm, which echoes the poetry from the Song of Songs, is all about the adoration of a person, a king. And it speaks of anointing.

And St. James’ epistle brings up the oft quoted phrase, “be doers of the word, and not merely hearers.”  So, like Jesus’ question, are the works of our hands fruitful for the Kingdom of Heaven or are they mere empty gestures.

So, I’ve been thinking about hands this week.

Like the psalmist says, we anoint each other with oil and laying on of hands.  We place our hands on our hearts when we pledge allegiance to the flag or other allegiances. We used to place a hand on a Bible when swearing to tell the truth in court.[1] Some still do.  Art is made with hands.  So is food.  And tools.  Hands are the part of our bodies we most associate with work.  Hands are also most associated with prayer, as in holding them softly and peacefully in prayer pose.  We approach the Eucharist with outstretched hands to receive the body of Christ.  We hold hands when we want to reassure or celebrate each other or when we face foes together.  We raise our hands to ask questions.  We raise our hands in praise.  Or to laugh.  Or to cheer on our team.  We shake hands as a sign of respect.  We hand over power.  We grasp for answers.  We shake our fists when angry.  And sometimes we hit each other.

Our hands then, can get defiled and need a good washing.  So can our hearts. 

No one is exempt from a strong searching of the heart. That’s the first thing that we should notice about these selected verses from the seventh chapter of Mark. The Pharisees, the crowds, the disciples are all called to an examination of just how much their religious acts, their various rituals, even their dedication to following God’s law actually correlate with the love they hope to profess in their hearts. It’s a hard truth to hear -- how more often than not, our faith-lives seem disassociated from what we think we believe, what we want to believe.

And it’s another hard truth to hear that what we want to believe about the goodness of our hearts is frequently not true. That as much as we will ourselves to have a decent and right heart, every heart is susceptible to evil, every heart is susceptible to corruption.

But before we go the route of “we are captive to sin and cannot free ourselves,” and so Jesus comes along to free us from the evil that lurks deep in the recesses of our innermost being, a reminder is in order -- the heart is capable of both good and evil. And following Jesus will require a rather constant vigilance to just what side of the heart is showing its true colors.

Perhaps this moment in the story is Jesus’ way of calling out the hypocrisy of the Pharisees. Perhaps it’s Jesus’ way of telling the crowds just what it takes to be one of his followers. Or maybe it’s Jesus’ way of foreshadowing for the disciples both Judas’s betrayal and Peter’s denial. Or maybe it’s Jesus’ way of communicating to us just how delicate and difficult faith is. Not just for us, but because how we exercise our faith also affects others. The Kingdom of God relies on our watchfulness as to just what side of our hearts is revealed in our behavior.

This past week, as you know, Senator John McCain, died of brain cancer. Quickly, my Facebook feed filled up with tributes to McCain, expressing admiration of his service to the country, his patriotism, and his courage. Most interesting in reading through the various accolades and homages was the consistency of the reverences and regards. Regardless of political loyalties or partisanship, the praise for McCain centered on the senator’s constancy in how his leadership, his decisions, his relationships revealed his true heart. That there was a perceivable correlation between the beliefs of his heart and his behavior in his career as a politician.

I was particularly taken by stories of his faith during his time as a prisoner of war in Vietnam.  At one point in his captivity he met a fellow Christian. In his memoir (Faith of My Fathers), McCain recalled a Christmas Day when he was allowed to stand outside for 10 minutes in a courtyard. A guard came beside him and then drew a cross in the dirt with his sandal and stood there for a minute, looking at McCain silently. A few minutes later he rubbed it out and walked away, McCain recalled. This was the same guard who a few months earlier had come to his cell one night to loosen the ropes that held McCain’s hands behind his back in a painful position.

In an essay titled “The Moment I Came to Love My Enemy,” McCain called this guard his Good Samaritan and said that in that courtyard “for just that moment (he) forgot all (his) hatred for (his) enemies, and all the hatred most of them felt for (him). … I forgot about the war, and the terrible things that war does to you. I was just one Christian venerating the cross with a fellow Christian on Christmas morning.”

(McCain also recounted the role of his faith and of communal worship during those years here).

The Christian Science Monitor reported that McCain helped run what it called a “covert church.” Orson Swindle, who spent the last 20 months of his captivity with McCain said that every Sunday, after the midday meal was finished, the dishes were washed and the guards had departed, the senior officer in the area would signal that it was time to pray together, by coughing in a way that signaled the letter “c” for church – one cough and then three coughs.

Swindle said the signal was the call for “a solid stream of thought among those of us there” during which the men in their separate cells silently said the Pledge of Allegiance, the 23rd Psalm, the Lord’s Prayer, “and anything else you’d want to [say] in there that would get us some help – but not out loud. If we were heard talking,” he said, “they would come in and start torturing us.”

Toward the end of the war, the North Vietnamese put the POWs together in a room, and the prisoners were able to have organized Sunday church services. McCain said he became a chaplain “not because the senior ranking officer thought I was imbued with any particular extra brand of religion, but because I knew all of the words of the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed.”

The reason he knew these things by heart was because he was raised in the Episcopal Church!

McCain said he conducted the services and gave a short talk. “We had a choir that was marvelous. … The guy who directed it happened to have been previously the director of the Air Force Academy choir,” he said.

George “Bud” Day, a fellow POW, told Religion News Service, that McCain “was a very good preacher, much to my surprise. He could remember all of the liturgy from the Episcopal services … word for word.”

McCain recalled the first Christmas the prisoners were allowed to have a service together. Some of the men had been held for seven years. The North Vietnamese handed McCain a King James Bible, a piece of paper and a pencil. He jotted down bits of the nativity story from Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. He read parts of the story in between Christmas hymns.

“We got to the point where we talked about the birth of Christ, and then sang ‘Silent Night,’ and I still remember looking at the faces of those guys – skinny, worn out – but most of them, a lot of them, had tears down their faces,” McCain told the Monitor. “And they weren’t (tears of) sorrow, they were happiness that for the first time in so many years we were able to worship together.”

In his book “Faith of My Fathers,” the senator said that service “was more sacred to me than any service I had attended in the past, or any service I have attended since.” (adapted from Mary Frances Schjonberg)

Living a correlate life, like Senator McCain did, living a correlation between the beliefs of his heart and his behavior - this is not something you can fake. But we try hard, so very hard, thinking that we can fool others and ourselves with our good intentions, all the while masking our true feelings with what we have determined as anticipated and acceptable good behavior for a Christian. All the while convincing ourselves that our actions are indeed worthy of God’s desires, that our actions are truly demonstrative of God’s will and not subject to the will to impress, the will to communicate success, the will to suppress what we don’t want people to see. No one is exempt from a strong searching of the heart. But maybe we can hear grace in these words, because our searching, earnestly and intently, could lead others to finding God’s heart.[2]

There is a story about a statue in a church of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, that popular image of our Lord with outstretched hands.  It is told that the church building was destroyed by bombings during WWII. After the bombing had ceased, the members of the church looked over the damage. In spite of the severe damage they were pleased that a statue of Christ with outstretched hands was still standing. It had been sculpted centuries before by a great artist.

The people discovered, however, that both hands of Christ had been sheered off  by a falling beam. Later, a sculptor in the town offered to replace the broken hands as a gift to the church. The church leaders met to consider the offer and, after giving it considerable thought, decided not to accept. They felt the statue without hands would be a great message to everyone that the work of Jesus Christ is often done through His people. If there are sick, lonely, or hungry people around us, we are the hands the Savior will use to answer those needs. And so they placed these word at the feet of the handless statue: Christ has no hands but yours. This is a reference to a poem by St. Teresa of Avila that begins: "Christ has no body now on earth but yours, no hands but yours, no feet but yours."

So, my friends, our hands are not for hitting or pointing or sitting on nor for the covering of our faces.  We have much to give, much work to do, much love to offer.  Perhaps if we can stop worrying about being clean enough, we can decide to get our hands dirty in the good work of the Kingdom.

And then we can truly become God’s hands.

Amen.

[1] Sworn Testimony, Oath: A commitment made to the witness's deity, or on their holy book. Affirmation: A secular variant of the oath where the witness does not have to mention a deity or holy book. Promise: A commitment made by a witness under the age of 17, or of all witnesses if none of the accused are over the age of 17.

[2] Karoline M. Lewis, https://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=5215

PROPER 16 - Sunday, August 26, 2018

Proper 16B

Psalm 84

Ephesians 6:10-20

John 6:56-69

The Rev. Dr. Kathy Dunagan

Last week I warned you that I have some of what I called pulpit jokes up my sleeve.  So here’s my favorite.  You’re bound to have heard it but I dusted this one off and I share it with purpose this morning.

There once was a man shipwrecked for several years alone on a deserted island.  When he was finally rescued the men who came ashore to take him to the safety of their ship found him living in a small hut under the trees just above the beach and he was well.  They all rejoiced that he had been found. But they couldn’t help but notice there were actually three huts along the beach and they just had to ask him why.  He proudly replied, “Oh, this is my home.  That one is my church!”  “How sweet,” said the rescuer, “But what about that third hut?”  “Oh, that’s where I used to go to church!”

The readings this morning are full of images of home and dwelling.  This favorite Psalm 84 is reminiscent of the phrase, “How lovely is thy dwelling place, O Lord,” and the sentiment of the birds of the air having enough shelter (see Matt 6:25-34 and Luke 12;22-32). St. Paul speaks in metaphors of armor as a way of talking about a sort of dwelling in the Lord as a protection in the face of spiritual warfare.  And Jesus says, “Abide in me.”

What does it mean for us to abide in Jesus?  I ask you to consider for the next few moments what that means exactly. What does it mean to abide in Jesus?

I think many Christians have taken this to mean something that was not intended, not entirely.  We want to abide in Jesus in the way that a child abides in her mother’s arms, or a young man wants to abide in a hammock.  This one word brings to mind the places in our lives where we feel safe and comforted, where we know we can go to in times of trouble, a comfort that will last our entire lives.  But abiding in Jesus means much more for he also called us to follow him.

So I ask you to ponder with me this morning how to follow Christ in both of these ways: to abide and to go.

Now, you may have noticed if you’ve been listening to me preach this summer, that this is a favorite theme of mine.  Talking about “home” and what that means is fascinating to me.  I talked about this theme both in my first sermon as your rector on Easter Sunday and then again at Pentecost.  I think there is a great deal of psychological meaning attached to the word “home” and it’s synonyms: dwelling, shelter, abode.

If you look up the word abide in the dictionary, there is this wonderful definition.  It is a verb, and action word, that means “to have ones abode; to dwell; or to reside.” It also means, and this is the number one meaning, “to remain; continue; or stay.”  But I am most drawn, in the context of preaching on this one word in this particular Gospel lesson, I am most drawn to the third definition: “to continue in a particular condition, attitude or relationship.”

Now, that is what I think Jesus was talking about when he invited us to abide in him. He meant for us “to continue in a particular condition, attitude or relationship.”

Yesterday, I took a long country drive through the Catawba Valley on my way back from Clifton Forge where I went to play some bluegrass.  I had never been in that part of our lovely region and I really enjoyed it.  Along the way I passed a tidy farm with fenced fields that were mowed neatly and noticed a sign on the gate.  It said, “I believe in God and guns.  If you trespass you will meet both!” 

Well, O.K., I may question his theology but I won’t question his right to privacy and property (or for gun ownership, for that matter).  Trespassing is against the law for a reason.  My fantasy though was to stop and tack a second sign next to it that would read, “Good fences make good neighbors.”  My favorite Robert Frost quote.

Frost used this line (twice) in a poem he titled “Mending Wall.” * It is based on the premise of the way that neighboring farmers would meet in the Spring, at “mending time” to walk the line and mend the walls that divided their fields - together.  By doing the work together they would keep each other’s livestock in the right place but they also would share the work of maintaining the wall.  This sort of wall is about (law and) order, and property and healthy boundaries.  It is also about relationship.

To partake of Jesus as manna involves a certain reliance on God. One way John expresses this throughout the fourth Gospel is through this word, abide. The idea of abiding appears throughout John’s Gospel (e.g. 15:5-6). The Greek word (meno) is often translated remain: “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood remain in me and I in them.” Feeding on Jesus as manna means remaining or abiding with Jesus. It is through this proximity that Jesus brings life to those who eat (v. 57).

But abiding with Jesus is difficult. Staying with Jesus and learning from him is a long process. For many, a quick fix would be more attractive. The crowd was initially attracted to Jesus when they saw him as a Moses figure -- one who could work miracles and provide political victories. As they continue with him, they learn that Jesus is not offering an easy victory but the long road of discipleship.  He calls us not to become soldiers, but to enter into a relationship with him.  A life-long relationship with the Prince of Peace.

What Paul was talking about in his use of the metaphor of dressing like soldiers was more about protection from Satan than about waring with each other.  It is a way of abiding, like within a fort, not like getting geared up for battle.

On a narrative level, the twelve are shown in this passage from John as the ones who abide with Jesus.  The 12, minus Judas, are the ones who stay. There is a quick references to Judas, the one who would betray him.  But the rest, they stay.  They stick with Jesus even though his teaching is difficult. Here, the ones who stay recognize Jesus’ words as life giving and do not turn away. In doing so, they represent what it means to trust that God will provide. They stick closely to Jesus, who is the Bread of Heaven, and they listen to his words. As Peter put it: “Lord, to whom would we go? You (are the One who has) the words of eternal life” (John 6:68).

But what about those who turned away?  Some of his followers left at this point in the story. They couldn’t buy in to this stuff about eating his flesh and drinking his blood.  They couldn’t envision what abiding in Jesus might mean.  They gave up.  They turned their backs.  They moved their membership to the next hut.

Over the past decade or so, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking and talking with colleagues and praying about the fact that the Church at large is shrinking. We all worry about those dwindling numbers with angst. It seems to me that each time someone leaves the church the church should weep and wail and gnash our teeth. But we don’t. Instead, we understand.  Folks who have left the church feel betrayed and violated by the church.  Just read the news lately about the huge crisis the Catholic Church is facing, again. Bad things have happened in the Church throughout our history.  Many Christians feel they have been hurt by the church. This has happened because of the ways of Satan.  Maybe that armor Paul speaks of is useful.

As I struggled with these problems this week, of losing members and facing the bad reputation we Christians must live with, I found myself sighing and moaning about it and asking this question:  Who will stay?  Who will teach others what it takes to stay?  Who will “hold down the fort?”  and “tend the fires?”

I know the answer. It is me. It is you.  “Here am I, send me.”  Here am I help me to stay and lead others to stay.  As often is the case, God’s will is hard.  This teaching is hard. And sometimes staying is hard.

How then can we learn and teach staying?

A quick search on book seller sites will reveal a fascinating amalgam of titles about staying. When I did a search for books on staying I got these topics: Staying thinner, staying stronger, staying sober and staying more stylish topped the list but also included were books on staying in relationship and staying in neighborhoods and books on how to survive the apocalypse.

It seems the world around us is caught up in staying alive instead of choosing to abide in Jesus.  Abiding in Jesus is not survival, nor is it an ointment for attractiveness.  Abiding in Jesus is becoming alive through the feast that is the Eucharistic meal.  We live because he lives.  We can go forth and care for others because he first loved us.  Abiding is not survival it is life itself.

I asked Mason to lead us in the singing of this lovely hymn, Abide in Me for our gradual hymn this morning.  But I realize now I wanted to sing this favorite hymn for the wrong reasons.

Henry Francis Lyte (1793-1847), who was a Priest in the Church of England, wrote the text of this hymn in the late summer of 1847 just before he became too ill to work. He died a few months later. Because of ill health Lyte made winter visits to the French Riviera from the last three years of his life. The words for this hymn were inspired by the story in Luke in which travelers to Emmaus ask Jesus to "stay with us, for it is nearly evening" (Luke 24:29). But I was wrong about this hymn.  It doesn’t fit at all this passage from John.  This hymn is about Jesus abiding with someone on their death bed. “Abide with Me” is not a hymn for the evening of a day; instead the images of evening in the words of the hymn are a metaphor for the close of life, a transition from life's "little day" (st. 2) to "Heaven's morning" (st. 5), which Lyte himself was quickly approaching. This hymn is a prayer for God's abiding care when friends fail (st. 1), when everything seems to change and decay (st. 2), when the devil attacks (st. 3), when death approaches (st. 4), and when we pass from this life to heaven's glory.

All this makes it seem the perfect hymn to match the point I am making about abiding.  But here’s the difference: When we pray for the Lord to abide with us we miss the point Jesus was making in this passage from John.

When we pray, we often ask for guidance and miracles and ease of suffering.  And that’s fine. It is especially O.K. to pray for God’s presence at the time of death. But that is not what Jesus meant when he invited us to abide in him.  We are invited to abide in Jesus throughout our lives and throughout eternity.  It is not the other way around.  It is not a magical spell that will fix us.  Abiding in Jesus is a choice, an intentional way of life that is not easy but it is the only way.  It is eternal life.  “To whom else would we go?”

I want to leave you with a prayer by St. Columba. In this prayer the saint lists ways he sought to abide in Jesus, ways of his intention to abide rather than demand Jesus to abide in him. My hope for us is that we might learn to pray this way instead of praying for stuff and walls and the demise of our enemies.  Let’s work on praying in gratitude that we can and do abide in Jesus.

Be a bright flame before me, O God

a guiding star above me.

Be a smooth path below me,

a kindly shepherd behind me

today, tonight, and for ever.

Alone with none but you, my God

I journey on my way;

what need I fear when you are near,

O Lord of night and day?

More secure am I within your hand

than if a multitude did round me stand.

Amen.

 

* Mending Wall by Robert Frost (1874 - 1963)

Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,

That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,

And spills the upper boulders in the sun;

And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.

The work of hunters is another thing:

I have come after them and made repair

Where they have left not one stone on a stone,

But they would have the rabbit out of hiding,

To please the yelping dogs.  The gaps I mean,

No one has seen them made or heard them made,

But at spring mending-time we find them there.

I let my neighbor know beyond the hill;

And on a day we meet to walk the line

And set the wall between us once again.

We keep the wall between us as we go.

To each the boulders that have fallen to each.

And some are loaves and some so nearly balls

We have to use a spell to make them balance:

‘Stay where you are until our backs are turned!'

We wear our fingers rough with handling them.

Oh, just another kind of outdoor game,

One on a side.  It comes to little more:

There where it is we do not need the wall:

He is all pine and I am apple orchard.

My apple trees will never get across

And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him.

He only says, ‘Good fences make good neighbors.'

Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder

If I could put a notion in his head:

'Why do they make good neighbors?  Isn’t it

Where there are cows?  But here there are no cows.

Before I built a wall I’d ask to know

What I was walling in or walling out,

And to whom I was like to give offense.

Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,

That wants it down.'  I could say ‘Elves’ to him,

But it’s not elves exactly, and I’d rather

He said it for himself.  I see him there

Bringing a stone grasped firmly by the top

In each hand, like an old-stone savage armed.

He moves in darkness as it seems to me,

Not of woods only and the shade of trees.

He will not go behind his father’s saying,

And he likes having thought of it so well

He says again, ‘Good fences make good neighbors.'

PROPER 15 - Sunday, August 19, 2018

Proper 15

1 Kings 2:10-12; 3:3-14

Ephesians 5:15-20

John 6:51-58

The Rev. Dr. Kathy Dunagan

A journalist heard about a very old Jewish man who had been going to the Wailing Wall to pray, twice a day, every day, for a long, long time. So she went to check it out.  She went to the Wailing Wall and there he was, walking slowly up to the holy site.

She watched him pray, and after about forty-five minutes, when he turned to leave, using a cane and moving very slowly, she approached him for an interview.

“Pardon me, sir, I’m Rebecca Smith from CNN. May I ask you some questions?”

“Sure,” he replied.

“Sir, how long have you been coming to the Wailing Wall and praying?”

“For about sixty years.”

“Sixty years! That’s amazing! What do you pray for?”

“I pray for peace between the Christians, Jews and Muslims.”

“I pray for all the wars and all the hatred to stop.”

“I pray for all our children to grow up safely as responsible adults, and to love their fellow man.”

“How do you feel after doing this for sixty years?”

“Like I’m talking to a frigin’ wall!”

Last week I talked about change - as in personal change.  And I used the example of dieting and weight loss to illustrate that place in life where we face things about our selves that we want to change and yet struggle to change.  I suggested then that participating in the Eucharistic meal, which is Jesus as the Bread of Life, is a change that is easier than you might think.

A better metaphor of this joining of the Body of Christ through the Eucharist would be a swimming pool.  It is easy to jump in, even easy to adjust to the cold. It’s staying that’s impossible. We are not fish.  We do not live in water. So, the metaphor of the living waters of Baptism gets lost on us. The metaphor of living on the Bread of Life gets lost on us too.  Just as much as it was lost on the first century Jews who were the crowd in this story from John.

Today I want to look more at the type of change we face in community.  It’s important for each of us to practice self examination, and that’s hard enough, but how do we change as a community?  How do we come to better understand the sharing of the Eucharistic meal as a sacrament, as a shared table? For the Eucharist is both.  We come together as a community to share a meal so it is a way of enriching our common life of prayer. At the same time the Eucharist is a sacred rite that is full of mystery and meaning that we can never fully understand and so the practice is sacramental for each individual as well as the community as a whole.

In this section of John that we are working through this summer, each character of the story is metaphorical to some extent.  I mean, Jesus is truly God incarnate, but getting this concept across to the crowd, of Jesus as bread and wine, as flesh and blood that we eat - well, that’s a really difficult concept for us to get.  It was even more difficult for this crowd of Jews to get.

The crowd has a role in this story too.  Despite the repeated explanation by Jesus about his identity, the crowd just doesn’t get it. The crowd are very literal in their thinking: given Jesus is the son of Joseph, how can he claim that he came down from heaven?  So Jesus repeatedly explains that he is the living bread from heaven, but the crowd just does not get it.

John’s explanation of the Eucharist is puzzling.  He doesn’t actually include the institution of the Eucharist in his Gospel.  There is no last supper scene. But there are passages that seem manifestly sacramental.  This is one of them. The language is shocking: it is explicit. It sounds like cannibalism.  Certainly to Jewish ears, this language would have been very problematic. Drinking blood is prohibited for all in the covenant with Noah (Genesis 9:1-6) as in the blood of mammals that some humans eat. Now he is suggesting something that must have seemed gross.  These hearers are understandably confused.

At every step in John’s Gospel, the mistake the crowd makes is to treat language literally. It is important to remember theologians are poets in John. Language is being stretched, pulled, and pushed to capture something about the divine made manifest in the life of Christ.  So using words and images that make you think of things with a different perspective is some of the best stuff of scripture - particularly in the Gospel according to John.

Jesus on the cross offers his life for the salvation of humanity. In the Eucharist we receive the divine life shed for us. It is God’s vehicle for healing and hope.

This kind of reminds me of my high school English coursework. When faced with interpreting a poem, I would say, “I don’t get it,” and then, when challenged by the teacher to try, I would start talking and all of a sudden it would make sense.  And the teacher would point out that I did in fact, get it.

The thing about scripture as poetry is that you have to live it to get it.  Rather than try to figure it out like a math problem, we must live out our calling to become the Body of Christ through our practice of weekly Eucharist. We come together, we sing, we pray, we share the sacrament as a sacred meal and then we are sent forth. In doing these rites, we get it.

I saw a cartoon the other day in which Alice, of Alice in Wonderland, had walked into a contemporary great room full of items with tags on them that said things like iron me, wash me, sort me and feed me.  If you remember, Alice was transformed into a girl who was too small for the room and then when she ate and drank certain food and drink, she became too large for the room. Then she had to eat and drink something else to become the right size.  The cartoon was funny because it indicated the experience of everything around us potentially changing us. It seems in our lives there are so many demands on us. Bills need paying. Work is demanding - whether it be for a company boss or a to do list brought on by our many commitments.  These commitments mean something to us but sometimes they also wear us out.

But to live into the invitation of Jesus to eat and drink these certain elements is, like jumping into the pool of Baptismal waters, refreshing and easy and transforming in ways that otherwise, without Jesus, are impossible.  We can’t figure it out or make it form to our wishes. We can only surrender to His love.

In the story by Roald Dahl, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory children and their parents learn the hard way that you are what you eat.  In the film version, Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, bad things happen to greedy little boys and girls based on their overindulgences.  Augustus falls into a chocolate river and gets sucked up by a pipe, Veruca is thrown down the rubbish chute, Violet chews herself into a blueberry and Mike teleports himself to a few inches tall.

The Eucharist is nothing like any of that.  Dahl’s story is about all those ways we humans seek fulfillment through gluttony and greed.  It’s a bit like the old Brothers Grimm stories which had morals that would scare you into good behavior.   Or happy endings where good characters got good results from good behavior. Charlie wins the competition because he returns the gifted Everlasting Gobstopper because he and his grandfather get busted for stealing Fizzy-Lifting Drinks.  His repentance when he places that piece of candy on the desk of Willy Wonka transforms his relationship with Willie Wonka and so he wins. So, I guess there is a bit of Christian ethics in that story.

Consuming the Eucharistic meal though, is not like anything else.  We are transformed through our belief in Jesus as God incarnate and so the rite is our “outward and visible sign of the inward and spiritual grace” of becoming One with our Lord and One with each other.

We had a great conversation about all of this in Lectionary Lunch on Thursday and the question came up about all those theological words like Transubstantiation and Consubstantiation and Real Presence and I found myself talking about these mysteries in the same way I talked about poetry in high school.  I really don’t think I have ever been able to interpret the sacraments articulately. But when I started talking, it began to make more sense to me.

I said that whether or not bread and wine are changed substances is not as important to me as whether or not we are changed for consuming them.  And then I talked about why we are so solemn around the alter. The Altar Guild knows to act with great reverence when handling the accouterments of chalice and paten and bread and wine and water and they also know to be particularly reverent when handling bread and wine that has been blessed in the Eucharistic prayers.

Some wonder why we do all that.  It seems like Hocus Pocus. Like slight of hand.  It seems silly to some. Even devout Christians feel that rituals like communion are too Catholic.  Like the age old, but untrue belief that Catholics are just going through empty rites with no feeling.  Some believe that the only way to transformation is to feel emotional through noisy acts of worship and that’s the only way to get right with God and the sacraments are showy and meaningless.

I think music and common prayer and preaching are all important. But acting with solemnity around the altar is where great meaning is formed.  If we believe that Jesus is God incarnate and that his commandments and teachings of Love and Oneness are worth striving toward, then practicing our faith through the sacraments of Baptism and Eucharist are unavoidable.  And if you’re going to do something then do it right. If we don’t act reverently with the sacrament then we cheapen the rite and sell ourselves short.

The greatest gift I have received is the joy of serving communion and praying with strangers.  In my hospice and hospital chaplaincy days, I had many transformative experiences. I once encountered a Chinese woman who spoke no English and was apparently psychotic.  She was unhinged, shouting and thrashing about and so an overwhelmed staff asked if I would try to talk with her. I speak no Chinese and was timid and had no idea how I could possibly make a difference.  But I asked if she wanted to pray and in order to get across what I was offering I held my hands in the universal prayer pose. The woman quietened and held her hands the same way. I bowed my head. She did the same.  I began the Lord’s prayer and she prayed it with me. Every word. In English! The bridge of communication was built through part of the sacrament.

We too can build bridges. We can be transformed and go out into the world rejoicing in the power of the Spirit.  We can then change the world. But first we have to decide if we believe and then we have to decide if we’re willing to change.  Change on the inside. Change as a community. Otherwise, we’re just talking to a frigin’ wall.

Amen.

Proper 14 - Sunday, August 12, 2018

Proper 14

2 Samuel 18:5-9, 15, 31-33

Ephesians 4:25-5:2

John 6:35, 41-51

The Rev. Dr. Kathy Dunagan

Every time I go on a diet, I gain weight.  I did this last week.  I decided to go on a diet to lose weight and then I started putting off the actual discipline of less caloric intake.  So, I ate more rather than less and I gained.  It’s a phenomenon that is common.  And it’s not just that I don’t have enough discipline.  Neurologists say that our bodies actually react to caloric reduction through brain chemistry that can cause this dieting challenge. As one neurologist put it, “any drastic reduction at the outset of your diet can cause your metabolism to slow down, prompting your body to hold on to excess weight because it senses an impending period of starvation.”  Even if you can stick to a dietary change, the first couple of weeks brings on more challenge than just eating less. So, dieting is difficult.

The problem is not really discipline though, it’s change.  I don’t want to change my life style, but I do.  I don’t want to have to give up bread and pasta, but I want to stop eating foods that are not good for me.  So, I eat more bread while trying to eat less.  If I could just change my lifestyle, I could lose weight.

In this conundrum, I found myself this week singing Carrie Underwood’s classic song, Jesus Take the Wheel.  Oh, if only it was that easy.  If I could just turn my life completely over to Jesus and lose that weight.  That’s sort of like hoping Jesus will magically take the weight off of me if I just believe enough.  But we know it doesn’t work that way.

Today’s readings are a good place to reflect on the themes of change and identity.  David is reaping some tough losses after some sinful behavior as Nathan warned that he would.  Paul begs the Ephesians to live virtuous lives and follow certain disciplines. The guiding principle in this section of the letter is given in the opening words of the section, where the Ephesians, and through them us, are urged “to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called … bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”  What a lovely phrase. “Lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called … bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”

In our Gospel lesson today, Jesus faces some complaining from the crowd of followers he has just fed and sets them straight.

All of these readings have led me to ponder here at Grace, Radford what sort of identity crisis or discipline to change are we facing and how can we dig a little deeper and live into that challenge.

To reflect on this question in this Gospel lesson, we have to think about what we eat.

John continues to interpret Jesus’ identity through the story of the manna, God’s miraculous bread from heaven that their ancestors ate for survival in the wilderness back when they were wandering around looking for the promised land. Although the crowd was initially receptive to the idea that Jesus could provide them with manna (verse 34), he goes on to indicate that he is the new manna.

In the first “I am” statement of John’s Gospel (compare with John 8:12; 10:7; 10:11; 11:25; 14:6; 15:5) Jesus states that he is the “bread of life” (John 6:35). Both this phrase and the phrase “bread from heaven” were references to the story of the manna in the Exodus story (Exodus 16:2-15). Jesus’ initial statement (verse 35) associates him with the life-giving power of the manna. In the wilderness, the Israelites had neither food nor drink and would have died without God’s provision. So also Jesus has just provided miraculous food for 5,000 people (John 6:1-14).

Like the manna story, Jesus is not only talking about the relief of literal hunger. The manna story is a story about trust in God. God saved Israel from slavery in Egypt through the waters of the Red Sea (Exodus 14-15). But once in the desert, Israel did not trust God to provide for them. Even so, God provided both food and water throughout their forty years in the wilderness (Exodus 16:35).

Just as the Israelites complained to Moses, now also the Jews complain about Jesus. The grumbling of the crowd characterizes them as the Israelites in the Exodus story. They have experienced God’s salvation and yet do not fully trust in God.

Manna had to be collected according to the instructions God gave (Exodus 16:16-26), and therefore was a training ground for learning to trust God’s word. Deuteronomy summarizes the story this way: “Remember the long way that the Lord your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness, in order to humble you, testing you to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commandments. He humbled you by letting you hunger, then by feeding you with manna, with which neither you nor your ancestors were acquainted, in order to make you understand that one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord” (Deuteronomy 8:2-3). The memory of the manna story was not simply that God fed Israel, but that eating manna was akin to learning God’s wisdom and abiding by God’s law (compare with Psalm 78: 11-25; Wisdom 16:21-29).

John emphasizes throughout his Gospel that we should believe in, or a better translation is trust Jesus.

The bread Jesus provides is like the manna because of a sort of discipline found in gathering manna and living off of it in daily gratitude. “Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me,” says Jesus (John 6:45). So, according to scholars, (see Susan Hylen) not anyone can eat of the manna, but only those who followed the instructions of God. Jesus, the Word, is life-giving in the same concrete ways that manna was. God’s will through Jesus, the Word, cultivates a relationship of trust between human and divine.

So, that’s the end of the lecture part of this sermon except for one caveat: Jesus suggests that he is different from the manna in one way. The ancestors died in the wilderness, but the one who eats Jesus’ bread “does not die” (John 6:50). This is not a criticism of the manna. The death of Moses and the first generation was a well-known part of the Exodus story, resulting from Israel’s idolatry. Jesus as manna offers to overcome that part of the story. Those who come to Jesus have learned from the Father. They are followers of God’s word who are promised a life-giving relationship that endures.

So, in order to thrive on the manna that is Jesus, you have to believe in Jesus.  That means being in relationship with Jesus which is more akin to daily self examination than asking Jesus to “take the wheel” and just run your life for you.  In daily self examination, we take on the discipline of opening ourselves to change.  And God changes us each time we open up this way.  So the very life of a Christian is based on change.  We are changed when we encounter Jesus the first time, and then again, and again we face changes throughout our spiritual journey.

I have a Jewish psychologist friend who published a self-help book on change a few years ago.  He calls it “Change Happens.”  I like the subtitle too, which has a lilt of Yiddish humor to it,  “When To Try Harder and When to Stop Trying So Hard.”  He reports in this book that a study was done that reported that about half of Americans make New Year’s Resolutions but only 55% of them are able to sustain the resolution for more than two weeks.  He uses the example of a weight loss program.  You know, you start going to the gym more and eating less, etc. etc.  But you don’t follow through.  He says this is because we don’t really want to change on the inside and are merely answering external motivations, which don’t usually work.

To make his point, he shares a story from the classic series Frog and Toad called The Garden.  Toad asks Frog to teach him to grow a garden.  Frog gives Toad some seeds, tells him to plant them in the ground, and he will soon have a garden.

Toad went home and planted the seeds, but he got impatient because the seeds did not come up right away.  Toad talked to his seeds, sang to his seeds, he even yelled at his seeds, but still they did not grow.  Frog told Toad that his seeds were not coming up because he had scared them and if he would just leave them alone for a few days, the seeds would grow.

A few days later, when his seeds still had not come up, Toad decided the problem was that his seeds were afraid of the dark, so he sat outside all night in his garden with lighted candles and read stories to his seeds.  Then Toad fell asleep.  The next morning Frog came by and woke Toad and pointed out that little green plants were coming up out of the ground.

Toad was ecstatic, but exhausted, and said, “You were right, Frog.  It was very hard work.”

Sometimes in our practice of repentance, we need not work so hard at making the changes ourselves but must rely on the Spirit to lead the way.  We cannot force God to do things our way yet still we cannot not change, we can only choose to stay in relationship.

Maybe Carrie Underwood was right to a certain extent.  Maybe I can just let Jesus Take the Wheel.  But the sentiment comes up short because I have to then do the footwork of following him.  It’s not just a deal where you eat the manna and then climb on board the cruise ship and eat whatever else comes off of the cafeteria dessert line.

In this morning’s leaflet you can read again the collect of the day with which we began this service. 

Grant to us, Lord, we beseech thee, the spirit to think and do always such things as are right, that we, who cannot exist without thee, may by thee be enabled to live according to thy will; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen. (Rite I)

 

Grant to us, Lord, we pray, the spirit to think and do always those things that are right, that we, who cannot exist without you, may by you be enabled to live according to your will; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen. (Rite II)

This is a very old collect that dates back prior to the Gregorian sacramentary.  In 1662, when Cranmer kept it for us Anglicans, he changed a word to clear up a theological point. In the 1662 revision of the prayer, he made the substitution of “enabled” for “able.” Cranmer made this change to reinforce the idea of the need for God’s grace. We are not just able on our own or through a one time meal, we are enabled through our daily repentance and meal and relationship with Jesus. This collect is a succinct statement of the doctrine of grace: it is not only true that we cannot think or do the right thing or live according to God’s will without His grace; we cannot even exist without the grace of God. (Hatcher, Commentary on the American Prayer Book, p. 190.)

Another more recent American monk wrote a similar prayer and I will leave you with this.  It is a prayer by Thomas Merton.

“My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it. Therefore I will trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.”

Amen.

Proper 13 - Sunday, August 5, 2018

Proper 13B

2 Samuel 11:26-12:13a

Ephesians 4:1-16

John 6:24-35

The Rev. Canon Kathy Dunagan

There was a young couple who got married in the church one early spring.  They had a lovely wedding with happy extended family and friends gathered and lots of gifts. One of the gifts they received was a bit unusual. Some beloved great aunt bestowed on them an Italian fine china creche. It was a complete set with angels, shepherds, wise men and animals. They carefully wrapped it back in the individual boxes and bubble wrap and tucked it away.  Their first Christmas together was special because by then they were expecting their first child and they experienced that special feeling of Advent, of expectation of the blessings of a child.  By their second Christmas they had acquired a home and found a special place for the creche in the foyer on an antique table top. Their baby made that Christmas special too.

But by their third Christmas, with a second child on the way and growing demands with their jobs, their lives were becoming a bit chaotic.  They kept their tradition, however and set up the creche nearly forgetting it in the following days. Christmas morning came and their toddler was trilled to receive a truck and the young family delighted in playing with this and other toys around their tree. But tragedy then struck. The toy truck ran out of control and slammed into the table in the foyer and the entire Italian fine china creche came crashing down on the floor.  Every piece was broken.  An angel lost a wing, shepherds were beheaded, lambs and oxen shattered.  The only piece that survived was the baby but not his manger.

They swept up the mess and reassured the child and put the baby back in it’s box and into the usual place of its storage in the foyer closet and returned to their merry making deciding to purchase another nativity set next year - maybe in the after Christmas sales - maybe a plastic one this time.

Their fourth Christmas was different. A new baby, a preschooler a bit older. They set up the new creche with some sadness and moved on. But one day of the season they found something funny about their new plastic and rather dull nativity set.  The bright white porcelain baby from the old set had suddenly appeared. It was too big and seemed awkward in the new set.  They pondered how this had happened and eventually questioned their child.  He admitted he had gone into the closet and placed the old piece in the new set. When asked why, he simply said, “I wanted to get Jesus out of the box.”

Today’s lessons are about brokenness.

David gets a rude awakening from the prophet Nathan, who finally gets him to see the errors of his selfish ways.  St. Paul begs, begs his flock to “lead a life worthy of the calling to which (they) have been called.”  And Jesus instructs his followers that the bread that has been sent down from heaven is not just food, but restorative, nutrition for the soul.

We all face brokenness in life.  Relationships get broken, dreams get broken, hearts get broken.  This is because we are sinners.  We are fallible, weak and in no way is it possible for us to not break things.  Even after we grow out of the clumsiness of childhood, if we choose to grow up.  Even on our best days we cannot fix certain broken things around us.  It is just a fact of life.

When those parents encountered their young child wanting to get Jesus out of the box, they encountered the hope that comes from a life lived in a plastic world.  The wisdom of clumsy children is just the kind of place we find such encounters, not in the fix it world of perfectionism, but in the messy world of try again, try again.

The other night, I watched Dave Letterman’s new show.  Have you seen this?  I think it’s only on Netflix.  Anyway, the show is called “My Next Guest Needs No Introduction” - a cute borrowing of a common phrase for MC’s of shows like Dave Letterman’s late night show.

This episode he interviewed, and also was interviewed by (a clever turn on the interview part of late night shows) Jerry Seinfeld. 

I enjoyed the conversation these pros had.  Here are two retired, successful comedians who can essentially do whatever they want. They are sort of kings of the entertainment world. But, they didn’t go on that show to brag. They reminisced, they bantered and they were funny.

In the end, all they really ever wanted to do was make people happy, it turns out.  Letterman, in fact, made a short speech in which he said that he believes that “the feeling of doing something for others in show business is aversion to being in show business because being in show business is ultimately about doing something for yourself.  And being in show business to where you are able to get an enormous audience or to be able to get a small audience to applaud and laugh is so gratifying, it’s endlessly gratifying.  And it’s the same with doing something tangible, the feeling you get from doing that is the same  - it’s a selfish pursuit either way.”

Jerry said, “I couldn’t disagree more.”  This is the finest thing you can do in life, to make people happy.”

So, I was entertained.  And I watched another episode.

The next episode I found was an interview by Dave with Jay-Z.  Now, I don’t like rap music and knew nothing about this famous Rap Artist, except that he’s married to Beyonce`.  And I really don’t know much about her either.  I didn’t think this episode would entertain me so I hesitated to watch it.  But I watched anyway.

The reason I was drawn to this interview was because of my encounter with Rap music many years ago.  I was at a dinner party about 15 years ago and I said, rather randomly, that I hate rap music because it annoys me. The woman next to me decided to enlighten me. She said that Rap is intended to annoy someone of White Privilege like me.  She got my attention.  This made sense.  Then she went on to explain that Rap is an art form that is a creative expression of inner-city African-American anger in the face of oppression.  This was easy to realize too.  Young, inner city Black men (and women) are understandably angry with the cultural problems into which they are born.  They have more to overcome.  It’s not fair.  It is oppression.

It dawned on me in that discussion that any creative expression, even something grating and non-musical seeming as Rap, any creative expression is better than a violent expression.

So, I watched Dave Letterman interview Jay-Z for an hour in order to understand this phenomenon a little more and I was surprised again.  You know what they ended up talking about?  Brokenness.

Oh, they told Jay-Z’s story of coming out of poverty and crime to become a successful artist, entrepreneur and multi-millionaire and they talked about his values of always combatting racial injustice and they talked about their creative processes as performers and they talked about show business and Jay-Z explained the history of and creative development of Hip Hop.  He pointed out that the Rapper is there to make the DJ look good.  This was all interesting.

But I got more interested when these two men eventually came around to brokenness.  They each shared what they learned from their mistakes, particularly the sin of infidelity.

Like King David, both of these successful, rich men had faced many personal losses because of their infidelity.  Both nearly lost their families over much publicized extra-marital affairs.  Both shared openly about how painful these mistakes were.  Both shared openly about what they learned from their choice to repent and do the hard work of rebuilding their marriages and families.

Now that was enlightening, if not entertaining.

When Jesus fed 5000 people, he became a superstar.  It is important to note that in St. John’s version of this feeding, Jesus himself breaks the bread and gives it directly to the people rather than have his servants do the work. This is to emphasize that He is the servant.

So when the crowd wakes up the day after this party and begins looking for the host, they want more. But more of what?

Now, it’s important to note that the crowd represents us - the followers of and seekers of God Incarnate. When the crowd goes looking for their superstar they get some good advice from him.

It’s not about filling your belly.  It’s about saving your soul

Jesus teaches this crowd, that is, us, that our work in this life is not just about getting money to buy food - or stuff - or power.  Jesus begs us to do the work of God.  And when we ask him what it means “to perform the works of God,” he tells us that the difference is in our belief in Jesus as the bread of life.

That, my friends is why we get together for Holy Eucharist every Sunday.

Now, this hasn’t always been the case. Getting together to pray as a community is enough. Historically, that is the protestant value Anglicans held until about 60 years ago.  Between the Reformation of the 16th Century and just a few decades ago, we usually did Morning Prayer and we only had communion occasionally.

The Anglican tradition, as you know, is the Via Media.  We tried ever since to seek a balance in this split.

The Reformation made a lot of changes in the church.  For the most part it caused us all to wake up and move away from power abuse and bad practices like buying our way into heaven by purchasing indulgences and the like which the Roman church had gotten caught up in.

But the Protestants moved away from Holy Communion in an Anti-Catholic move and this ended up being a mistake.  Now-a-days you’ll find that the Eucharist is hip again, even among the folks from the most low-church, Protestant end of the spectrum.

And this is why.  It is when we come to understand Jesus as the bread of life, the bread that was broken for us, the blood that was spilled for us, the body that was resurrected and lives on in us, when we come to understand the theology of the Eucharist, practicing the ritual becomes food for the soul in ways that other rites cannot come close.  Everything else seems like mere entertainment by comparison.

King David learned from Nathan’s parable of the poor man’s single lamb what the biggest Ah-Ha moment of your life feels like. King David learned that he was the man, the power-abusing, rich man in the story.  King David learned what awareness of sin feels like.   But is he repentant?  Well, stay tuned for next week’s exciting episode.  But don’t look to be entertained.  Look and listen instead for the pain and grief that comes from reaping what you sow.

In these sorts of lessons we too can learn, again and again, what contrition is about.  We too can learn to acknowledge our sins and we too can learn, daily, to repent.

The best news is this.  Each Sunday we can gather to break, bless and share in the body of our beloved Lord and in this ritual we too can learn to follow the living God. 

We’re not here for entertainment.  We here to get on our knees and practice contrition before we then go back into the world to do the work God has given us to do.

So, my friends, as we sweep up the brokenness in our lives and try to move on we must always be ready for the surprises of the beautiful, porcelain God Incarnate who is ever with us in the journey, even when we are mired in sin, even when we feel on the outside looking in, even when we have lost hope.  We are surprised each day with the beautiful one who loves us, feeds us, serves us and lives in us as the bread of life.

Amen.

Proper 12 - Sunday, July 29, 2018

Proper 12B

2 Samuel 11:1-15

John 6:1-21

The Rev. Dr. Kathy Dunagan

 

If you’ve been around me lately you may have heard me grumbling about Sunday attendance here at Grace. I even went so far as to mention this last Sunday from the pulpit when I admitted my concern about low attendance. But quickly I added that this parish needs to recreate, and “re-create” and rest a bit after a couple of tough years. So, before you start pulling your toes up under the pew, I’m not here to start stomping on them!

But I have been hoping our attendance will level out after all the summer vacations and some rest that has been due us here at Grace.

There are a couple of reasons I long for more regular attendance and it’s all about the spiritual formation and growth of this parish as a community - as part of the Body of Christ.  If you miss a Sunday, you might think it’s no big deal but it is.  The rest of us miss you when you’re not here.  But moreover, I’m working on a series of teaching sermons that will miss the mark if only half the people hear only half of the message.  So, while I can repeat these themes each week and you can read the sermons later on the web site and you can catch up on the announcements there too - we still miss you if you’re not here and you miss the essence of this time we set aside for our common prayer.

Clearly I’m preaching to the choir, as the saying goes, because you are here.  And I don’t want to overemphasize this stuff about attendance.  I just don’t want you, and all those who are part of our community who are not hear today, to miss out. And it turns out we are in the middle of a sermon series, though I did not start out for it to be a series, apparently the Spirit has lead me into one.

So, let’s tune in and see what’s up in these readings.

The first half of the summer we have been slogging our way through the story of King David’s rise to the throne and also St. Mark’s version of the beginning of the Gospel story of Jesus.  We have embraced themes around our identity as Christians.  I’ve been talking a lot about what it means to be the church and what it means to do church.  And I’ve been lifting up the attitudes we Christians must strive for like patience, forgiveness and faith in a mysterious God.

Summertime is Ordinary Time in the church. It is that period of time in the Christian calendar when we work on our discipleship so if you’re not here much you miss out on the opportunities of digging into these Bible stories and reflecting on being better Christians.  It’s that simple.

Now, as we follow the stories of David’s rise to power we also follow the somewhat different power of Jesus.  The first followers of Jesus thought he would rise like David or some new King and build an army and fight a war against the oppressive Romans and all their other enemies and set things straight for the Jews.  Jesus, instead offered a very different type of power and a very different form of religion as well.

So, we move today from St. Mark to St. John and next week we finish up the story of David and move to Solomon.  And we will be faced every Sunday for the next four Sundays with one foundational teaching of Jesus from the Gospel of John - about Jesus as the Bread of Life.

But today I want to talk about power.

King David got in trouble again and again in his struggle with power and Jesus shows us a different sort of power.  This week we get to enjoy the miracle stories that got skipped over in last week’s reading from Mark.  Jesus fed 5000 and then he walked on water.

We like these stories because Jesus is, like I said last week, sort of like Superman.  He’s like a super hero who wins the day.  We’ve always read these stories that way.  But that’s not what they are about.

St. John tells the story differently from Matthew, Mark and Luke and the feeding of the 5000 and walking on the water are placed in the telling in a way that emphasizes Jesus as the bread of life.  This is John’s version of what we have come to call “The Last Supper.”  It takes place at the time of the Passover and is reminiscent of the first Passover story from Genesis.

Like Moses, Jesus crosses over the sea only instead of parting it he walks on top of it. Like Moses Jesus goes up on a mountain.  Like the story from Moses when the people were fed manna Jesus feeds the hungry when they are anxious about having enough to eat.

These miracles show the disciples then and now that Jesus is a powerful prophet.  He can provide for his flock through miraculous acts and his life giving love is abundant.  But he is more lowly shepherd than Superman.

David got more than he asked for. He was a lowly shepherd who was the runt of his family but he rose to power and wealth through the many blessings God bestowed on him. His first response to all of these blessings was to bring the Ark of the Covenant back to the people - to bring God home in a way.  And he danced and celebrated all of the abundance of God’s love and prosperity that had been poured on him and on the people.

But now, later in the story, he has sent others out to fight his battles, he has stayed in Jerusalem and he has sat on his couch instead of joining his army and he seems to have gotten lazy and neglectful, and greedy - and lustful.

David not only neglected his military, he took Bathsheba from Uriah, one of his closest followers and had Uriah killed so that he could have Uriah’s wife.

(Now, I could talk all day about treating women as objects to be possessed, but let’s just stick to power abuse for now.)

Friday night Joe and I went with some friends to see a play at the Blackfriars Playhouse, the Shakespearean theatre in Staunton.  We scheduled this when all our crazy schedules could come together and so we saw, not my choice “As You Like It” which is running this summer, but “Richard III” because it fit our schedules.

Richard III was a King of England from 1483 to 1485 when he was killed in battle. He was the last English king to be killed in battle. Though Shakespeare’s portrayal of him is seen by most scholars as demeaning a bit, maybe even farcical mockery, Richard III apparently really was a pretty nasty fellow.  He desperately wanted to be King but he was not next in line so when Edward V died, Richard III played all sorts of treacherous and murderous tricks to get himself crowned.  Apparently, he really did have some folks killed, including children.  His greed for power would let nothing get in his way.

At least that was the synopsis I read.  To tell you the truth, I had a hard time following all that in the 3 hour long Shakespeare version!  My mind, I admit, began to wander and I was having trouble keeping up and I found myself thinking about other things and just enjoying the amazing medieval costumes and amazing actors.

But then I began to think about the many power hungry, power abusing kings and so-called leaders throughout history.  I thought about King David.  I I remembered the difference with David was that he kept going to God in repentance and staying in relationship with God and turning it all back over to God.  True power abusers are not able nor willing to repent and try again.

(The following is adapted from a sermon by Stuart Higginbotham, Rector, Grace Episcopal Church, Gainsville, GA.)

Richard Foster, in his book Celebration of Discipline says: “Superficiality is the curse of our age.  The doctrine of instant gratification is a primary spiritual problem.  The desperate need today is not for a greater number of intelligent people, or gifted people, but for deep people.”

Foster goes on in this book to lay out what he thinks is a response to this crisis of superficiality, this urgent need for “deep people.” He invites us to see the necessity of a deeper practice of prayer: “Though it may sound strange to modern ears,” he says, “we should without shame enroll as apprentices in the school of contemplative prayer.”

We are invited to realize that we are called to a depth of awareness of God’s presence that will transform our existence.  Foster is echoing St. Paul from this morning’s reading from Ephesians:  “I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.” 

This is our call as disciples of Jesus, not to consider following Jesus to be on the external level of following a rule book that can be so easily used as a weapon to judge and categorize, but to so follow Jesus, to pattern our lives after Him, that we “grow into the full stature of Christ,” as our Baptismal Liturgy reminds us.

St. Paul pours his heart and soul into this prayer for the people at Ephesus—and for us today.  He sees the signs all around him in his own time, like that of Richard III, rampant abuse of power, people seeing each other as objects in opposition, and a shallow understanding of what it means to be a person of faith.  Out of this deep heart concern, he invites the people, in the face of despair, to depth.

In our own day and time, I think we experience this shallowness in terms of a perception of scarcity.  The shallowness in our own existence leads us to grasp for power and control.  This is an enormous problem, and Jesus faced it head on.

We se it in this story of the the feeding of the 5,000.  Here we have: An enormous group of people; fearful and anxious disciples; calm Jesus; a young child with apparently limited resources; blessing, breaking, giving, and eating; recognition of abundance.  A trajectory of transformation.  The Good Shepherd asking his flock to rest in the grass feeds them with this abundance.  In John this is the first Eucharist.

It’s interesting in Matthew, Mark, and Luke’s account, when the disciples act out of their own shallow perception and sense of scarcity, something very important happens.

They immediately turn to Jesus and expect him to be their Superman and fix the situation.  Give us a solution that will stop this, one that supports our perception of scarcity.  They are blunt in their fearful request: send these people back where they came from, because our resources are limited.

Jesus, instead is grounded in a deeper perspective, a deeper type of power, a perspective of abundance.  Rather than yielding to the fears or manipulating the anxieties of the shallow disciples, Jesus invites them all into a deeper awareness and an experience of conversion.

Jesus knows there is enough.

St. John’s account this morning finds the fearful disciples acting out of scarcity and anxiety.  But look closely at Jesus.  John actually “lets us in” on Jesus’ inner dynamic.  There is this line: Jesus asks the disciples, “Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?” He said this to test [Philip], for he himself knew what he was going to do.

Oh this is so important for us to pay attention to.

The notion of Jesus testing Philip isn’t one of taunting or cruelty.  It isn’t hazing.  Rather, what Jesus is doing is giving space for Philip’s soul to experience conversion, to move from a posture of scarcity to a posture of accepting abundance, from shallowness to depth.  Jesus knows that Philip needs room.  His soul needs room to stretch, because his ego has become so entrenched in this narrative of grasping and scarcity that it is going to cost him to be transformed.

This is so important for us to see.

I think Richard Foster is spot on, the world needs more deep people.  And I think St. Paul and Jesus are saying, guess what, we are meant to be these deep people.  This is our call, and we need to start realizing this.

We can only truly live together as brothers and sisters in Christ as “deep people.”

And to do this, to have this level of relationship, we need to look to Jesus’ experience with his disciples: we need to make sure to give one another space to actually be transformed rather than making anyone feel shamed or guilty.  We need to resist the urge we have to respond out of anger and despair, to yield to the impulse of scarcity.

We are a people who believe, in our heart, that God is a God of abundance and grace, and we need to live out of this belief in how we treat one another.

See if you can speak from the heart, from this space of greater breadth, length, height, and depth within yourself.  We engage this space through the practice of prayer.  In silence, with deep listening, from the heart.  We need to resist throwing barbs and instead engage in deeper listening, to the presence of God within the heart of one another.

What is of the Spirit will let itself be known.

Amen.

Proper 11 - July 22, 2018

Proper 11B

Ephesians 2:11-22

Mark 6:30-34, 53-56

The Rev. Dr. Kathy Dunagan

I want to share this morning a particular warm, summer memory from my early days.

We were at a church camp.  We were finishing up our day and were playing one last game.  It may have been tag, or our more elaborate favorite, fox and hounds, or some new game, I don’t remember which, but there was a “get ready, get set, go” called and a group of about 12 children took off running scattered into the woods.

It was a sparse grove of tall hardwoods that seemed to have spilled out of a thicker forest beyond.  I took the lead ahead of my two best friends.  We were strategizing and giggling as we ran.  I was pushing myself to run as fast as I could, probably trying to beat the boys to whatever the goal was, when it happened.

I stopped cold and realized that dusk is much darker in the woods than in the meadow I had just run from.  I was suddenly afraid to go on and turned to tell my friends but they were gone.  It was as if they had vanished into thin air.  I guess they found the ball, or whatever the goal of the game was or the game had ended, and they had returned to the meadow.  But I was left behind.  I could see no one.  In fact, I was very much alone in the dark woods.  I could hear voices in the distance, but they seemed miles away.  I stood there frozen, aware only of my panting breath and the touch of a cool evening breeze from the river nearby.

All I had to do was follow the voices back to our camp where my mother would hug me and my father would carry me to the car.  All I had to do was follow the still laughing voices of my siblings and friends.  And I did.

But for that brief moment, I was lost.  And I knew it.  And I realized how easy it would be to get lost for good and not have such an easy way finding home.

The gospel lesson this morning from Mark is about following Jesus and getting found.

The twelve were went out in the previous chapter.  I didn’t focus on that part last week but focused instead on the idea that we are each adopted by God and each other and that we must seek God’s guidance through vulnerability.  That we can accomplish this by learning to be child-like, though not child-ish.

Today there are themes in all these readings of shepherding a flock: David was a shepherd and Jesus is described as the Good Shepherd, and there are also themes of the authority of God and the need for disciples of Jesus to rest.  There is also a message of unity in the face of division which is found in all of these stories but emphasized in the Epistle reading.

In the Gospel lesson, the editors cut out two big stories.  There are 19 verses missing here.  These verses include the feeding of the five thousand and Jesus’s walk on the water.  If we tried to tackle all of that we’d be here until 3:00 this afternoon!  So we are meant to look at these other themes instead.

So, let’s start with the division theme and work our way back to the idea of rest.

The letter to the Ephesians insists in this second chapter that those folks drawing lines in the sand and creating division should stop.  It is sort of a cease and desist letter, this chapter.  As you know the context is that Gentiles, who were pejoratively called “the uncircumcised” by the Jewish Christians in the early church were, at the time this was written, feeling a bit unwelcome. To clarify, it helps to think of how these Jews must have felt.  They had been a part of a nation with one God for many centuries and now they have been inundated with newcomers.  These newcomers have no sense of what it means to be Jewish, much less even believe in God.  They have no respect for Jewish sacraments or laws and seem like unwanted distant cousins at the family reunion.  So they began to squabble about what sorts of values and background was to be expected of a Christian.  And the church has been squabbling about this ever sense!

So, Paul wrote a cease and desist letter pleading with them to stop squabbling about who is welcome and who is not.  Because, Christ has created a new covenant, a new church, “a new humanity” as Paul put it.  And I love this phrase at the end, which indicates that in Christ there is a new temple and that temple is the body of Christ, “in whom (we) also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God.

David had built himself a house and worried that God was living in a tent.  God said in reply, essentially, that God didn’t need a house. Paul tells us that houses are for people too but that this new temple is not a building at all, but a way of life in Christ and it is a whole new place to call home.

But what have we to come home to?  The Church is still so divided. Christians on one side of the divide insist they are Right and act like school yard bullies insisting everyone get in line with their theological practices.  Folks on the extreme other side have left the church and come to the decision that we can love good lives as good people and do good works without prayer or belief even.

Both are missing the point of discipleship.  Religious practice is not about living a good life of feel good action nor is it about feeling powerful through doctrine and dogma.

I read an article this week that described and interviewed members of an international organization called The Sunday Assembly.  This is described as “a growing secular community, where people get many of the elements you would expect from church, but with no doctrine or religion.”  Essentially, it is church for atheists.  They get together on Sunday mornings, sing together and share stories of inspiration in their lives.  I think that’s lovely.

It is interesting to me though that most of those quoted said they were raised in the church, became disillusioned, or at least disappointed with the church at some point due to hierarchical power abuse or perceived hypocritical behavior on the part of church folks and left.  They are right.  There is much power abuse and hypocritical behavior in the church.  That’s because we’re a bunch of messy humans.

But what struck me was not why these folks left the church.  Again, I can’t blame them.  It was that they still long for community.  One member put it this way:

"It's a secular gathering but we do things that look a bit like church. We sing, we have speakers, we have reflection, we have cake and coffee. It's for all these people who like to do that but don't want to do it in church for whatever reason.”

This is one extreme side of the spectrum I’m talking about.  We want to feel inspired and not bullied and we want to feel a part of community.  But just feeling good is missing the point of discipleship.

While I’d rather be with these folks than the bullies on the other extreme of the spectrum what both are missing is the transformation that comes from dedicating oneself to God, from dedicating oneself to daily seeking the ways of a mystery that is beyond all knowing, of practicing a seeking of this love force in all ways of being.  Discipleship gets you out of your SELF.

The other writer I was drawn to this week is a seminary professor who leans toward the values of these secular seekers.  The critique of this scholar is that he takes political issues in his commentaries to the extreme of not really talking about scripture anymore.  So, I don’t really like him and I can’t pronounce his name either.

But then he said something in his reflections on today’s gospel that stopped me in my tracks.  He suggested that most people who call themselves Christians and proclaim Jesus as Lord and themselves as disciples of Jesus are really secular too.  He said that:

“Many Christians don’t have a sense of what a spiritual life is. Is it prayer? Is it reading the Bible? Is it being guided spiritually by someone?”

“Since we don’t have much of an idea what a spiritual practice might be, Christians tend to have a very secular sense of the spirit and tend to correlate spiritual life with daily stuff we love, such as cooking, reading, walking the dog, and so on. Very few understand that spiritual disciplines actually entail painful processes of learning to listen and to deal with our desires and our death drive.”

Interesting choice of words, huh?  He goes on . . .

“Some Christians think that spirituality is only about justice and they throw themselves into works of justice that will change the world and themselves.”

“The question for us here is: What spirit do we follow? The Spirit of God or the spirit of the world? Are we enticed to serve the god of (of the world) or the Spirit of God? This is our ongoing struggle.”

“Jesus is attentive to the practices of his disciples and is aware of the pulling and pushing we all go through daily. We can easily fall into the cosmetic treatment of the spirit with spiritual lotions, smoky prayers and healing baths while announcing that this kind of caring for oneself is a political act.

“But we can also fall into the trap of working hard for the cause of justice without attending to our souls and our spiritual and emotional needs. (Prof. Carvalhaes) think(s) this latter group is the one Jesus is concerned with and talking to here -- those who do not stop to think, to meditate, to ponder, to wonder, to pay attention, to pray. To those, Jesus says: ‘Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.’”

“Jesus is telling us that we have to pause and pay attention to our hearts, to our movements and to how we are living our lives. Without a strong spiritual life, oriented by daily spiritual practices of prayer and meditation, of pause and loneliness, we cannot do all the work we need to do and we cannot be all that we are called to be. A heart without action is ineffective, and an action without a heart is empty. Jesus is calling us to have a compassionate heart and to do strong actions of justice. Both things! Together!” (adapted from Cláudio Carvalhaes http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3737)

So, Prof. Carvalhaes inspired me with these words.  He inspired me to consider ways I can lead you toward a more spiritual practice of self care, spiritual self care. 

He reminded me that old adage about the difference between doing and being.  We are so very busy in this life, in these days.  We are desperate for some down time and we don’t even know it.  But I’m suggesting that coming to church rather than staying away is the better way to find rest and renewal. “ Come away to a deserted place” is not an invitation to what we have come to think of as recreation – though picnics and boat rides and camping trips and the like are also good for us – Jesus invites us to come away to rest and to pray in order to be renewed for the work of the Kingdom.

My dream is that we can gather as a community - all of us - everyone who is a part of this parish -every Sunday.  Well, nearly every Sunday.  My dream is for us to get better at praying and listening for the Spirit to guide us. There is always room for more rest in this life. If we can increase our time spent in prayer – together - we can follow the one Good Shepherd.  In this way we can find new ways to rest and renew our souls.  In this way we can find inspiration from this community - through common prayer.  In this way we can grow - not just in numbers, but in clarity about God’s call for us as a parish.  In this way we can develop better beacons in our souls that steer us toward home when we feel lost.

Amen.

Proper 10 - Sunday, July 29, 2018

Proper 10B

2 Samuel 6:1-5, 12b-19

Ephesians 1:3-14

Mark 6:14-29

 

Frank was a brilliant physician. He was an internist, a clinician and a medical school professor.  But he quit teaching and went into private practice when he got tired of teaching, or maybe because he longed for the clinical hands on work, or maybe because he wanted to make more money to support his young family.  By now he and Joyce had two children in school, a boy and a girl.  And then, a little later, perhaps by surprise, they had a third.

Frank was on top of the world.  He and Joyce had built a home on a tract of land big enough for her to have a couple of horses.  The children were healthy and enjoying school.  Business was booming in the small town where he set up his practice. Another baby thrilled them. Frank was happy, if not a little bit cocky.

Then something went wrong and baby Janie ended up a premie and in Neonatal Intensive Care.  And Frank’s world unraveled. He was faced with something that had not happened to him in his charmed life.

And so the family swung into crisis mode and started camping out in the NICU and the NICU waiting room and Frank found himself in a different place in the large hospital.  Upstairs he was a sort of king, a mover and shaker.  Downstairs, where the NICU was, he felt powerless and forlorn.

A couple of days into the crisis and the baby started improving and the prognosis was good.  They relaxed and went back to the normal ways of welcoming a child.  They named her, they began to dream again about her future, her life and their joy returned.

But then, on the 5th day, little Janie crashed and needed lots of attention.  The nervous family waited in the waiting room to give the crew space.  Frank’s anxiety was increased by his medical knowledge and he found it hard to comfort Joyce.

Then Frank did something he’d never done before.  Well, not really.  He prayed.

Frank was a Christmas and Easter sort of Methodist.  He was a believer, and he felt respect and admiration for “The Big Guy” as he called God.  But Frank rarely really prayed.

But that day, Frank slipped into a broom closet and prayed.  What would he pray for? What do you say in a moment like that?  He asked himself.  Then, after some thought, he decided to offer the child back to God.  In his pray, he realized that his children, none of them, were really his in the first place.  In this moment of spiritual awakening, Frank realized that we are all adopted.  We belong to God.  We adopt each other.

Janie made it thorough.  She grew into a lovely young lady, beloved by her family, a true Christian and a happy girl her whole life.

But Frank became ill and died in his mid-fifties.  I’ve often wondered if he didn’t offer himself in Janie’s stead that night in the broom closet.  He didn’t say.

What Frank realized about adoption that night though, was from today’s scripture reading from Ephesians.  “(God) destined us for adoption as (God’s) children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of (God’s) will, to the praise of (God’s) glorious grace that (God) freely bestowed on us in the Beloved.”  The Beloved is Jesus.  And we are designees in the inheritance of all the riches that come from becoming a part of this family - through adoption.

Now Ephesians is a little book in the Bible that is overlooked in some ways.  Scholars agree that this letter was meant for an audience wider than the church in Ephesus - like a cover letter to introduce all of Paul’s letters.  They say that the introductory salutation phrases, which are in the two verses just prior to what we’ve just read, these phrases were added later.  So Dear Ephesians and Love, Paul were not in the original manuscript.  They were added later when a copy was sent to the church in Ephesus.  Some scholars think Paul did not directly pen this letter, that it was written by one of his disciples, maybe after Paul’s death.

But none of that really matters. What gets looked over that does matter is this Pauline theology about getting adopted by God into God’s family.  God set salvation history in motion before the beginning of time, those in later generations became heirs to this promise.  Here salvation is viewed as being incorporated into God’s family.  We are assured that we were destined from the beginning of time to be children of God.

Well, what does that mean and what does it take to become a child of God and remain a child of God?

I’ve been enjoying a lot of summer reading of fiction this year.  I’ve been catching up on novels which were talked a lot about over the past few years and which I somehow missed.  Like, The Goldfinch (Donna Tartt) which came out 5  years ago and won a pulitzer after sitting on the New York Times Bestseller List for the better part of 2013; and Before We Were Yours, (Lisa Wingate) which is only a year old but also spent some time on the bestseller lists; and The Hunger Games series (Suzanne Collins).  All of these books are about children who were abused or neglected in a variety of ways.  Some summer reading!

I wonder why we are flooded with such stories of children being hurt and lost.  We really don’t want to think about such evil things.  Why on earth do so many people want to read novels about them?  Much less real life, true crime stories about such things.  Those are popular too.

Here’s my theory.  I think we want to be informed but we also want to have some control of our feelings of outrage when we look at the evil of child abuse.  If it’s fiction, or even true but someone else’s story and so removed, then we know it’s not happening under our own roofs.

That’s the psychology behind horror movies.  If I see enough of them, I’ll get less scared, more used to the fear and then I won’t feel afraid anymore.  It give us a sense of control over our worst fears.

But, getting de-sensitized to evil is not the best way to cope with it.  Rather, we should be strong in God, not of our own devises, when we face these realities.  As a book end to this passage from the first chapter of Ephesians, I lift up a verse from the final chapter - “be strong in the Lord and in the strength of (God’s) power. 11Put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil.”  We should go into the world with faith that God will use us toward the good in all things.

And we do this through our own Baptism.

In those novels I’m reading, these abused children are resilient.  That’s what makes it a compelling story.  They not only survive, they learn to thrive.  In the end they heal and they are reunited with loved ones and they learn to even trust and join communities that seek goodness.  Good conquers evil, if only in small and unusual ways.

I also have been watching movies with similar themes.  I’ve been watching The Lord of the Rings - which I somehow also never read, believe it or not.  So, these stories are new and fresh for me.

I love the character Frodo who is a Hobbit.  Hobbits are innocent small folk who have never left their little peaceful agricultural region called the Shire.  So, they are childlike and are treated thus by the adults in the Fellowship of the Ring - a band of warriors who take four of these Hobbits on a quest.  But these are adult Hobbits so they are not children.  They are just innocent and joyful because they are unaware of the evils their companions have seen as warriors.  It takes this innocence and joyful, hopeful, playful person of Frodo to bear the evil ring and not be tarnished.

So, how do we come to follow Jesus?  Should we be warriors in Christ by “putting on the armor of God?”  Should we be children who do all that we can to remain innocent and avoid facing the evils of the world?  Should we stand and fight or stick our heads in the sand?  Should we insist on what we are right about?  Or should we wait and see?

These sorts of questions are all over the news these days.  But in the church, we have one foundational answer. It is through our baptism that we are saved.

John the Baptist came from God preaching a message of repentance and baptizing believers in preparation of the coming of Jesus.  In this gory story from St. Mark this morning, we are reminded of just how political and messy these followers of Rome were.  They were all caught up in trying to control their own fate while keeping John the Baptizer locked in the cellar.

Jesus was no where to be seen in this story.  Yet, we know he knows and that he is nearby. We know this from other passages where Jesus spoke with John and was baptized by John and then sent messengers to John to keep the faith.  All is well.

These sacrifices were made for us so that we can always know that All is Well and that All Manner of things shall be well (St. Teresa) And so that we can go about doing the will of our God.  We can go forth in the Spirit because we know that we saved and we know that we are loved and we know that these facts are the armor of God.

So, my friends, remember your baptism.  Remember in the Eucharistic meal when:

Jesus took bread, blessed it, broke it, and gave it to his disciples, he summarized in these gestures his own life. Jesus is chosen from all eternity, blessed at his baptism in the Jordan River, broken on the cross, and given as bread to the world. Being chosen, blessed, broken, and given is the sacred journey of the Son of God, Jesus the Christ. When we take bread, bless it, break it, and give it with the words "This is the Body of Christ," we express our commitment to make our lives conform to the life of Christ. We too want to live as people chosen, blessed, and broken, and thus become food for the world.   (Henri Nouwen)

Yesterday the vestry worked all day at a vestry retreat.  We went down to Abingdon on Friday night and yesterday morning I began our work by explaining a theory of how church works at 50 members versus 150 members.  We talked about how difficult the past couple of years have been and how difficult change is and we talked about growth and we did a lot of dreaming for Grace.  In the middle of my power point presentation on this complicated theory on church growth I ran into this concept again.  We were talking about greeting visitors and incorporating new members and the scholar we were reading said that new members, all members of the body of Christ are - adopted.

That’s when I knew the Holy Spirit was at work in us.  I had written this sermon already and then turned to that work and the same message was there - first from this week’s lectionary and then from a 30 year old book on church growth.

The bottom line is, we must grow in order to sustain this beautiful church - and the church is not the building - the church is us - the body of Christ.

The Holy Spirit is indeed very much alive and at work in this place.  We will get through the transitions that come with changes in rectors, or lay leaders of whatever else we must face.  And we can and will move through this because of our Baptism.

Because of our Faith.

Because of our Love in Christ.

Because we are the Body of Christ.

Amen.

Proper 9 - Sunday, July 8, 2018

Proper 9B

2 Corinthians 12:2-10

Mark 6:1-13

The Rev. Dr. Kathy Dunagan

I love lawyer shows on television. 

Lawyer shows are all about loyalty.  Each show follows the dramatic story of loyalty among the members of the firm, who’s up for partner and who’s got who’s back on whatever the deal of the week is.

I recently asked an attorney (Kristie McCraw’s daughter) if it really is like The Good Wife or Suits and she laughed and said, “No. Sometimes there’s a bit of drama, but mostly it’s just a lot of paper work.”

But lawyer shows are about much more than paper work.  Every character is tough and beautiful and amazing and apparently at work at all times - except when they meet with each other in bars or bedrooms - but soap opera part aside, lawyer shows are, well, all about what we really want in life. Right?  Lawyer shows are about power.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about power.  It seems to be the topic of most conversations these days. 

Jesus is powerful.  He was and is and will be always God in the flesh.  He heals and fixes and even resurrects people, then and now. He’s super smart and teaches with wisdom and prophecy.  He’s like superman.  He’s everything we want to be like.  He’s the one we want on our side when things get touchy. 

So, when he was traveling with his ministry of teaching and healing and he came to his home town, you would think he would be a big star and get a parade, right?  But instead he seems less powerful for some reason.  The story in Mark tells us that he was greeted with lots of “wows” but that then the people there “took offense at him” and “he could do no deed of power there.”  And he explained that a prophet is without honor in his hometown, among his own kin.  Home is the only place a prophet is without power. He named it. And then he left.

In Mark “he was amazed at their unbelief.”  In Matthew it spells this out and says that he was powerless in his hometown because of their unbelief.  In Luke they were so angry with him they drove him to a cliff and tried to throw him off of it but he slipped away.

So much for homecomings.

When that rain shower finally came on Friday night, after several days or was it weeks of what has seemed like a big draught, I rejoiced.  I ran to the window and thanked God as I watched my little collection of flowers get drenched.  I imagined my impatiens and geraniums and tomato plants relieved and quenched and blessed.  I felt that I was blessed by this rain shower.  And I was so pleased with God for sending it to us.

And then I looked across the tree tops of the neighborhood and I thought about the other flowers and vegetable gardens in the other yards and then I imagined the fields beyond that and the farms beyond that and I remembered that mine is not the only garden that longs for nourishment.

It’s so easy to get caught up in our own little world, in our social media bubble and in our little community and forget the woe’s of the rest of the world.

I think I would probably join the crowd that drove my crazy brother out of town on a rail.  I think I might get angry too if a hometown boy, someone I’d known my whole life came back from a time of absence and upset the status quo.  I can see where that would be upsetting if the boy next door destroyed the inner circle of my little world by showing up with the power to heal and change people.  I can see where folks might get into some group think and decide they didn’t want Jesus around. I can hear them saying, “He might change us too much and then we wouldn’t be us.”

That’s what happened when Jesus went home.  He didn’t think of it as home so much as he thought of it as part of the mission field that he was visiting with his gospel message.  But home is that place where it is more difficult to heal. Or preach. Or teach.  Or bless.

It’s just too intimate.

This is what my favorite bible scholar (Karoline Lewis adapted) says about this scene:

There always has been and always will be resistance to the true power of God’s love, (and this is) mostly because it is indeed God’s love. When we realize that this is a love over which we have no control, a love that will infiltrate the world like a persistent weed despite our best efforts to curb its spread, a love whereby we do not get to decide its objects, it seems less attractive than it did at first. The sooner the disciples, the sooner we, understand that - the better.

It’s a hard lesson to learn, a hard truth to believe. After all, we want desperately for the world, the entire world, to experience God’s love and grace and mercy -- and why on earth would anyone want otherwise? We have committed our lives to following and spreading God’s love. And yet these days, it seems clear that the more dominant voices get the airtime to proclaim the selectivity of God’s love and that somehow, by some miracle of their own making, they are the ones privy to God’s choices.  Or so they say.

But Jesus get’s rejected in his own home.

More often than not, rejection of any kind is symptomatic of a larger issue. In the case of resistance to the indiscriminate nature of God’s love, the underlying disease is idolatry. The worship of that which has been put in place over God is more than prevalent. We almost can’t see it anymore, recognize it anymore. But we should always be on guard against it. We know it well -- and yet more often than not, it’s the very thing that trips us up, trips up the church. We think we will be able to see it coming. We think we’ve moved passed it. But history teaches us that our track record shows a different reality.

I imagine we are quite aware of these idols with some being more obvious than others -- power, money, influence -- and not even the church and its institutions are immune to the sway and appeal of such attractions.

The disciples, then and now, are sent out knowing God’s love for them known in Jesus but will quickly realize not everyone will see what they know. It’s in those moments that the mission gets dangerous. Yes, it’s a hard mission regardless. But it suddenly gets even more difficult when the love they preach is dismissed by others, they start to wonder about themselves.

Because rejection sets in motion a kind of unraveling, doesn’t it? Causing a questioning of the self. Justification of the self. Validation of the value of the self. All of which are located in external forces that clamor for our attention and our loyalties. And all of a sudden, you start trusting, believing in that which makes you feel loved in the moment, worthy in the moment, rather than the one who made you feel more loved than ever before in your whole life.

Rejection is never something easily sloughed off as, “Oh, well. That’s their problem” or, “That’s ok, I’ll just move on.” Jesus knows. Rejection is what eats at the soul, even a soul already saved. So, Jesus goes first. Jesus always goes first.

C. S. Lewis’ Narnia series is not really a children’s book.  It began as one.  It came from stories he made up for his goddaughter (Lucy Barfield), who was the daughter of (Owen Barfield), Lewis's friend, teacher, and adviser.  But it seems to have taken on a life of its own as he spun the sotry, and the great theologian couldn’t resist including theological themes.

The main theme is his choice of a great lion named Aslan.  Aslan, most scholars agree, is an image of Christ himself.  Aslan is beautiful and powerful and kind and wise and he guides the children in their adventures in Narnia.  But he ends up getting crucified, if you will remember.

The main story is an allegory of Christ's crucifixion:  Aslan sacrifices himself for Edmund, a traitor who may deserve death, in the same way that Jesus sacrificed himself for sinners. Aslan is killed on the Stone Table, (symbolizing Mosaic Law) which breaks when he is resurrected.

But I remember Aslan was first shaved.  The White Witch cut off all his hair, and he especially seemed weakened by the loss of his mane.  Like Samson who once slayed a lion but was weakened when his hair was cut and then nearly destroyed only to resurrect his strength through prayer later.

I saw a video on social media this week of two male lions in a zoo.  They seemed young and strong with their thick manes and muscles as they were pacing in their cage.  It didn’t look like a cage, what with all the naturalization zookeepers create - it looked as nice as any zoo you might visit.  But caged they were none-the-less.

They were both pacing back and forth along the edge of a pond on a retainer wall that was less than a foot above the pond when one of them misstepped and fell into the pond.  It was as if the glassy reflection on this water looked like a solid surface to him and he meant to step on something solid but fell head first into a full body dunking.  He popped right back up and swam toward the phone camera of the person filming this.  The other lion, his brother I assume, seemed very concerned and leaned over the water, sniffing and pacing faster back and forth to sniff again while the wet one swam.

Everyone laughed.

But I was struck by the profundity of watching the king of the jungle stumble in weakness and cause himself to look foolish.  He was vulnerable.  Even Kings are sometimes vulnerable.

These are all images of what Paul was talking about in this section of his letters to the Church in Corinth.  He said, in the last verse of our reading this morning “Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.” 

Whenever I am weak, then I am strong.

To be strong through weakness is a difficult concept.  But it is essential for every Christian to understand this.

Christ said yes to God the Father and submitted himself to the crucifixion. He was weakened and destroyed only to rise again.  So, for us to follow Jesus, we are called to take up our cross, to accept the thorn in our side, whatever that may be - it is that thing for each of us that reminds us we are mortal.  If we honor our weaknesses, admit them, live into them, then we will live like Christ and follow appropriately and obediently.

The opposite choice is arrogance and willfulness and selfishness.  This is the attitude of many leaders in our world. And it was the attitude of some so called “missionaries” who were attempting to take power of the church in Corinth and were attempting to discredit Paul with lies about his character.  So, instead of go down there with an army and picking a fight, Paul wrote to his church and admitted his own vulnerabilities, the thorn in his side, his weakness.  He laid himself on the stone table and allowed his hair to be cut, he laid aside whatever power he may have had because of his faith in Christ who called him to teach the love of God in Christ Jesus - not only to his fledgling church in Corinth, but to the whole church ever since.

General Convention is in full swing in Austin, Texas this week.  I find myself ignoring all the hierarchy and reveling.  I have to admit I’m a bit jealous to not get to go and join the big party so it’s easy to roll my eyes at the meetings and the resolutions and the very idea that we might change our prayerbook again!

But the first day of convention, Presiding Bishop Curry released a model for how we should practice our faith. And I was really excited about this.  This is what I want to do.  I want to work, together with you, on renewing our daily walk with God.

I’ve included in our bulletin this morning an image of this model (which he created with our friend Stephanie Spellers who was the speaker at our diocesan convention in January).  It accompanies a video which I’ve posted on our Facebook page of the Presiding Bishop explaining his model.

 This image starts with “Turning” and suggests that we need to continue to “pause, listen and choose to follow Jesus.”  This is a daily practice.  It’s not a “once and done” sort of thing that happened years ago when you had a conversion experience or when you were Baptized or Confirmed.  Then, if we keep working it, we Learn daily through Bible study and the like.  Then Bishop Curry talked about prayer and worship, about blessing each other and going into the world to act and “live like Jesus.”  The final step is to remember to take times of rest.

I think that is what we’ve been doing here at Grace this past couple of months and that’s O.K.  Our parish went through some stuff these past couple of years and maybe we needed one big sabbath, a couple of months of rest and retreat.

That’s been hard for me.  I’m newly vetted here and chomping at the bit to get to work on the next phase of this parish.  And it seems like everyone is on vacation!  But that’s O.K.  We all needed to rest.

So, maybe this model, if you will consider joining me in using it, maybe for us this model starts with that rest triangle.  We’ll rest a bit first and then we’ll look at how we can renew our faith practice in these other ways.

I’ll provide new opportunities this Fall for study and prayer and we always have Sundays for worship, for the chance to come together as a community.  I suppose there is always room for improvement in these sorts of daily practices.  I hope you will pray about this and talk with each other and with me about how we can “up our game” in our daily walk as disciples of Jesus.

A week from Thursday my old college friend is coming to play some beautiful music for us on his classical guitar.  I’ve been listening to his most recent album in preparation for this.  One of the songs he plays is called A Thousand Years (by Christina Perri).  You may remember this love song that was popular on the radio in 2011 and was used in the Breaking Dawn series.  I think that was a vampire story, but I never saw it.

Anyway, the lyrics to this beautiful tune do speak to me.

One step closer

I have died everyday, waiting for you

Darling, don't be afraid, I have loved you for a thousand years

I'll love you for a thousand more

And all along I believed, I would find you

Time has brought your heart to me, I have loved you for a thousand years

I'll love you for a thousand more

We all listen to that sort of love song and sigh, perhaps.  But imagine, if you will, that the message is not between lovers but a message from God in Jesus through the Holy Spirit to us.  A love letter from God to us. Each of us.  He has loved us for Two Thousand years and has “died every day waiting for us.”

I was deeply moved on Friday when that thought occurred to me while listening to my friend Mark play it on his CD.  We are so very loved by God and yet we spend our lives trying to be strong, powerful, and right about stuff.  We spend our energy working to overcome our enemies or our fears or our devalued images of ourselves. We would do better to lay our pride down on the stone table and submit our power to this God who loves us this much.  In this way, vulnerability is love and arrogance is lost.

So I ask you to pray with me in the coming weeks that we might find our own power in weakness.  That we might be renewed in our daily walk with Christ.  That we might come together as a stronger community through a new awareness of  ourselves as the body of Christ, in humility, ready to face the challenges of our current world, ready to lead each other and new friends to the only true power there is - the love of God in

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Proper 8 - Sunday, July 1, 2018

There are a number of border crossings in today’s Gospel lesson.  As I mentioned last week, Jesus crossed the See of Galilee twice during this part of the story according to Mark. Jesus ministered on both sides of this fresh water lake called the Galilean Sea, on the western Jewish shore and on the eastern Gentile shore.  On both sides, Christ blesses without partiality to Jew and Gentile, near and far, clean and unclean. 

Then, settling on the Jewish side for a while, he heals a woman who has a disease that has caused her to bleed for 12 years and he does this on the way to raise from the dead a 12 year old child. 

But let’s back up to the Gentile side of the sea for a minute. Just prior to this story is the story of Jesus casting the swine into the sea.  That miracle happened on the other side of the sea, where the Gentiles had such appalling (to the Jews) things a pig farms.  Jesus overcame the power of the sea in last week’s lesson during the first crossing. I reminded you then that the sea was believed to be full of evil things like demons and monsters and Jesus overcomes even the fear of such things.  Then he exorcises a man possessed by many demons and casts the demons into the pigs and then casts the pigs into the sea.

It seems Jesus is setting things straight.  Everything in it’s place.  He is separating good and evil in the same way God parted the Red Sea.  But the Jews and the Gentiles are meant to come together, not stay separated.  Jesus means to abolish that sort of border that separates.

But more than just borders get crossed here.  On the Jewish side of the sea, social factors are challenged as well.  Jesus who ministered among foreigners is here among his own people moving across religious and social barriers to offer God’s healing and restoring grace. This, says Mark, is not simply the church’s belief about Jesus, but the warrant, in fact the mandate, for the Church’s behavior toward all persons.

 

Not really a children’s story, but I love the old Looney Tunes cartoons with Bugs Bunny and all those characters that were voiced by the amazing Mel Blanc.  Do you remember Yosemite Sam?  He was one of Bugs Bunny’s archenemies.  And, of course, he has his own Wikipedia page which describes him in this wordy way:  “He is commonly depicted as an extremely aggressive gunslinging prospector, outlaw, pirate, or cowboy with a hair-trigger temper and an intense hatred of rabbits, Bugs particularly.

There’s one cartoon that I remember that is an exampe of all the many encounters between these two. It’s a Western.  I can’t remember the set up or how they ended up on main street of Doge City at Noon for a show down but Yosemite Same has Bugs toe to toe and two loaded six shooters pointed at the rabbit who has not weapon but his wit. 

Y: “Start walking you dog-gone, long-eared, galute!

B: “Just a minute, partner, you can’t talk to me like that.  Them’s fightin’ words.  I dare you to step over this line.”

Y: O.K. I’m a steppin.’

Yosemite steps over the line that Bugs had drawn in the sand with his toe still pointing both pistol at Bug’s chest.

B: “I dare you to step over this one.” (and draws another line.)

Y: O.K. I’m a steppin.’

This interchange continues as the two, Bugs backing and drawing lines with his toe, Yosemite following and repeating, “I’m a steppin’” as he obediently follows the clever rabbit until, having gone through the dessert they come to a cliff and the final line is crossed leaving Yosemite yelling “dag-nab-it” as he falls into the abyss.

It’s funny.  And it’s not.

Most other preachers out there today are talking about borders and the border crisis down in Texas that has captivated the world these past few weeks.

But I don’t want to talk about borders, or politics or even crossing lakes, other than to say this: Jesus proves over and over again in the Gospel that he, and he alone, is not confined by borders. Christ both abolishes borders and singlehandedly surpasses them. The love of Christ “which passes all understanding.”  The love of Christ is greater than any line drawn by humans The love of Christ is greater than any line used to threaten each other.  The love of Christ cannot, as St. Paul said in his letter to the Romans (Chapter 8) be overcome by “death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation.”

So, I don’t want to talk about borders.

I want to talk about fear and trembling.  Our fear and trembling.

Here’s the catch from this passage from this section of the Gospel according to St. Mark.  Jarius approached Jesus in prostration, that is, by “throwing himself down” before Jesus.  This is a universal sign of utmost submission and would be a rare gesture from this high ranking leader of the synagogue.

The anonymous ill woman did the same.  She tried to sneak some of the power of love in Christ but was called out and, submissively, stepped forward and admitted her action.  And she did so in “fear and trembling” as she “fell down before him, and told him the whole truth.”

She had been bleeding for twelve years.  Her condition rendered her ritually unclean — not just for a day or a week or a month, but indefinitely.  She could not enter the Temple, the heart and soul of her religious community.  She could not touch or be touched by anyone without rendering them unclean, too.  By the time she approached Jesus, she had spent every penny she owned, and “endured much under many physicians” to find relief, but her bleeding had only worsened.  The woman’s very body — its femaleness, its porousness — had become a source of isolation and disgrace.  She was an outcast, an embarrassment, a pariah.  Lonely beyond description.

And so this state of being might have remained if the woman hadn’t — in a desperate and stunning act of civil disobedience — defied the religious rules of her day to pursue an encounter with Jesus.  She knew she had no business polluting the crowds with her presence.  She knew she was forbidden to touch any man, least of all Jesus.  She knew that even her fingertips on his cloak would defile him.  She decided to touch him, anyway.

If the story ended there — with a stolen touch, an unremarked healing, and an invisible but still potent transformation of the woman’s life — we would consider it miracle enough.  But no.  Jesus invited more.  He insisted on more.  He insisted that the woman, terrified though she was, come forward and tell her story.  Her “whole truth.”  He knew that she had spent twelve long years having other people impose their narratives on her.  Their interpretations, their assumptions, their prejudices. She’d been reduced to caricature.  Shamed into silence by bad religion.  Even if she trembled, stammered, and took all day to tell her story, Jesus knew how desperately she needed someone to listen, to understand, and to bless her “whole truth” in the presence of the larger community.  This is what Jesus did.  He restored her to fellowship, to dignity, to humanity.  “Daughter,” he said when she fell silent at last.  “Daughter, go in peace.”

But first she fell at his feet in fear and trembling. This sort of submission to God is what’s missing in our world. 

Now, I’m preaching to the choir because if you are hearing this sermon, you are sitting in a pew on a Sunday morning trying to stay and willing to submit.  But I’ve been very concerned lately about all those folks who have left the church or say they still belong but never attend.

How can we be the church if we don’t meet and pray together regularly?

It seems to me that our culture has become obsessed with arrogance.  Just look around and listen to the news or see a movie or read a book or chat with strangers in a store and you will find a certain trend toward arrogance.  Everyone is an expert.  Everyone seems to feel as though they are right and anyone who opposes them is wrong.  Everyone seems quick to defend their opinions as well.  There are many lines being drawn in the sand all around us.

This destitute, desperate and ill woman who worked her way stealthily through the crowd and reached out to touch Jesus and then was hailed by Jesus as an example of the kind of faith we are to have.  Unassuming, reverent but certain of only one thing, the power of God in Christ to heal us.  If we’re caught up in following the arrogances of the world we are apt to miss such opportunities.

There is another thing these two encounters with Jesus share.  They are both daughters.

The little girl was Jarius’ daughter but represents the offspring of the Jews, the next generation.  The unnamed ill woman whom he called daughter was an outcast because of the law.  The law said that she was unclean because of her hemorrhaging and so she was abandoned, destitute and alone.  One a princess, the other an untouchable.  Both daughters.  Again, Jesus is abolishing unjust borders.

Now, we’ve been working our way through this Gospel of Mark since Pentecost and if you remember, a couple of weeks ago we studied an earlier passage in which Jesus was in his home town and a crowd gathered and his family came to take him away because they believed the rumor that he was crazy and they told him his “mother and brothers and sisters were outside” and Jesus said, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” and answered his own question, “Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”

So, calling this stranger, this woman who snuck up on him for healing, calling her “daughter” is in this same vein for she has the kind of faith he is trying to teach others to have.  But she didn’t exemplify this faith, the right kind of faith, by drawing lines in the sand or demanding to be heard or claiming she was right about anything.  She “fell before him in fear and trembling.”

We all want to follow Jesus, right? Well, how then can we become daughters and sons of God?

Of all the characters I might think of as an anecdote to this point, I keep coming back to Ebenezer Scrooge.  One reason, I think, is that I like to tell Christmas stories during the summer.  Just to get a fresh perspective.

I think Scrooge was a Christmas story mostly because of the feast of the Incarnation.  I think Dickens was playing with the gift giving part of Christmas too.  Scrooge was given a great gift in being forced to his knees in fear and trembling by the ghosts who visited him that Christmas Eve and in so doing, he got a fresh perspective on his own life. 

Looking up from a lowered position often does that for you.

Scrooge became aware from that place of fear and trembling that isolation and obsession with money had caused him great loss and pain.  But it took some kneeling to realize this.

These stories are healing stories.  Some of us were laughing yesterday about the many ways our bodies have started to fail us. Many of us physically can’t kneel any more, or touch the floor or do jumping jacks.  Even the youngest among us grow weak after working or exercising.  I’m not suggesting that we take this lesson to mean we should all pray for perfect bodies.  While physical miracles of healing still happen everyday, getting envious of this woman who was healed of a 12 year illness is missing the point.

The point is to have the sort of faith she had, bold, yes, but also submissive.  The power is from the Lord.  Ours is not to know how or why.  We only can know that this power is a power of love that is given freely for us if we only accept it.

But first we need to bow before him.

So, we can gain the whole world if we learn to humble ourselves before our God.  If we learn to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God, then we too can be healed in the ways we need healing, and we can begin to see more clearly and to act more graciously.

And we can begin to live again.

Amen.

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Sermon - Sunday, June 17, 2018

When I was in seminary in Atlanta, I had a church job my first year and I would spend my weekends in a little town about an hour’s drive out.  It was one of those churches built about a hundred years ago that was in the style of James Flanders where the altar seemed to be in the corner of the room and the pews were curved and spread across the expanse of the rest of the room like a fan.  These pews were also on a hard wood floor incline, like in a theatre, for better visibility, with red carpet in the aisles.

I was asked to lead a children’s sermon each Sunday for the many children that regularly attended this church.  The text came up that summer of the parable of the mustard seed, though from Matthew’s version when Jesus said, “if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, 'Move from here to there,' and it will move.”  (That’s a challenging text, even for children. Because, well, when has a mountain ever actually been moved?)

So, I asked one of the farmers in the church about mustard seeds and did he know if they really are small.  And he gave me a little bucket full of these tiny little yellow seeds.  I had my children’s sermon!

I thought giving each child a couple of these tiny seeds would make the point of how small they are and that just a tiny amount of faith can move a mountain.  But, of course, when the time came, each child wanted a whole handful.  And some of them ate the seeds and some of them threw the seeds at little sisters and some of them dropped their handful down the back of the shirt in front of them and we ended up with mustard seeds all over that pretty little church.  They were rolling down those slanted hardwood floors during the sermon and the sexton probably quit on Monday.

I’m not sure if anyone got the point of the parable of the mustard seed that day, but lots of folks still remember the day we were all covered in them.

These summer time readings we are working our way through from the Gospel of Mark are mostly parables with agricultural images often thought to be about growing as a community - something I mentioned in last week’s sermon.  I said then that we, like the good people of All Saint’s Episcopal Church in Smyrna Tennessee, whose journey in farming on their land was made into a movie - we too could grow a community in the way that they also grew a farm.  I said then that this means caring for the old trees as well as tending new plants.

That image of an old tree is strong and Jesus reminds us in the parables from today’s Gospel lesson that all things created by God and nurtured through faith are capable of growing into strong trees.

Or at least, that’s the usual interpretation.  It makes us feel good, though perhaps not challenged, but we feel good and we go back to our lazy summer days.

I’ve been struggling with that a lot lately, of the expectation of sermons to be “feel good” moments of the week. A parishioner at my last church told me that one Sunday.  He said, “We don’t want all that theological, heady stuff.  Most people just want to hear a nice story and go home.”  And, well, getting restored by attending church on Sunday is good. That’s the intention. But I like to think of the Eucharist and the prayers and the music as restorative.  A good sermon ought to challenge us a bit.

So, let’s dig a little deeper.

The old testament story we are working our way through this summer is about the beginnings of the kingships of Judea. The people wanted a king after the era of the judges and begged for a king to be chosen.  This was mostly because they wanted a strong defense department because they felt threatened by the big armies of their neighbors.  So, Yahweh allowed them to have Saul as their King, but this decision did not have a good outcome. 

We read today that God regretted letting Saul be King.  Following warrior Kings instead of wise leaders like Samuel who prayed and listened to God was not a good path to start down.  So, God asked Samuel to anoint David who would be at the ready when the time came for a new era.

Then Jesus came and asked us to shift our thinking entirely away from kingships.  Jesus shook up everything, turned all of our perspective about the world and how we think we should run our world, upside down.  Jesus came and taught peace and love and gave his life for us to realize that we only need God.  We don’t need kings.

One of my favorite children’s stories is the one about the giant and his garden. Do you remember that one?  He was a selfish giant who wouldn’t let the children play in his garden but then his heart was changed, he was transformed in some way and tore down the wall and let the children play there.

It is actually a story by Oscar Wilde.  It began with children playing in the beautiful garden while the giant was away for seven years.  Then he came home, found them there, ran them off and built a wall.

“'My own garden is my own garden,' said the Giant; 'any one can understand that, and I will allow nobody to play in it but myself.' So he built a high wall all round it, and put up a notice-board. TRESPASSERS WILL BE PROSECUTED”

And so the children went away and winter came.  And winter stayed.  For years the selfish giant’s garden was plagued by the absence of Spring.  Until one day when the children crawled into the garden through a hole in the wall and began to play there again.  Then winter finally ended and the giant saw signs of Spring breaking through.

The giant’s heart melted, he was transformed by the coming of the children and the coming of the spring and he went to the garden to play with them but they ran away in fear.  Except one small child who the giant lifted into a tree the child wanted to climb but could not reach.  The child hugged the giant and the other children saw the transformation, that the giant had changed, and they came back.

This small child was unknown to the other children and he disappeared only to return at the time of the giant’s death years later.  This smallest child was the Christ Child who came back to take the Giant to paradise.

It’s an odd story. Scholars have interpreted the story in many different ways. Many dismissed it because of Wilde’s personal life. (He was imprisoned for 2 years of hard labor because of his homosexuality. His wrote of his personal spiritual journey while there.) Most agree Wilde meant it to be a Christian story about the transformation of faith. But I don’t think Wilde was just setting up an allegory of the individual’s faith, as in, the giant was transformed and so all was right with the world and then the Christ Child, whom he helped, came for him and took him to heaven. The end.

I think this is allegorical of the entire church.  The church is transformed when we remember the Christ Child and tear down our walls.  It is collective.

At first glance, the story of the mustard seed reads like a simple children’s story too. It reaffirms things people have already learned about God’s kingdom: something very small will eventually morph into something much larger; also, something that appears obscure and insignificant will turn into something public and grand. Yet there is more: the reign of God won’t just grow for the sake of looking pretty, but creatures will find that it provides them shelter and security.

Those are all important points, but they cannot capture the real energy in this parable. The parable’s punch comes in at least two funny things which Jesus says.

First, God’s reign isn’t like any ordinary seed. In some ways it resembles a mustard seed. This is not the kind of crop most people would sow. Where Jesus lived, mustard was prolific like a common and sturdy weed. It could pop up almost anywhere and start multiplying. Some of Jesus’ listeners must have groaned or chuckled. Imagine him speaking today of kudzu. But bigger. And more useful, since mustard has a range of medicinal qualities. In any case, the reign of God apparently isn’t much of a cash crop. Yet it grows. It is not easily eradicated. Good luck keeping it out of your well manicured garden or your farmland. Better be careful what you pray for when you say, “Your kingdom come…”

Second, Jesus describes the fully grown mustard plant (probably brassica negra in Galilee) as “the greatest of all shrubs.” At this point, some of his listeners probably snorted and laughed. I Googled brassica negra yesterday and found a smallish, scrubby little flower. It can grow dense, but it is hardly a magnificent tree. Jesus must have been grinning as he spoke. He was not aiming to impart insights about the relative worth of shrubberies but to shock people into a new way of perceiving greatness.

The humor and the absurdity are part of the main point. Jesus could have likened God’s reign to the cedars of Lebanon if he wanted to describe an in-breaking state of affairs that would cause people to drop everything and be impressed (see Ezekiel 17:22-24; see also Ezekiel 31:3-9; Daniel 4:10-12). Instead he describes something more ordinary, and yet also something more able to show up, to take over inch by inch, and eventually to transform a whole landscape. Fussy people might deem this uninvited plant to be too much of a good thing. Others might consider it a nuisance, but what about those who, like the birds, need a home where they can be safe? They will be happy.

The parable therefore depends on satire. Just as it reorients the image of birds and majestic trees (in Ezekiel 17:23), so too it promises to upend a society’s ways of enforcing stability and relegating everyone to their “proper” places. The reign of God will mess with established boundaries and conventional values. Like a fast-replicating plant, it will get into everything. It will bring life and color to desolate places. It will crowd out other concerns. It will resist our manipulations. Its humble appearance will expose and mock pride and pretentiousness.

As a result, some people will want to burn it all down in a pointless attempt to restore their fields.

Jesus didn’t use parables to give us a feel good moment before an afternoon nap.  And the time the children made a mess in church with a bucket of mustard seeds really was a good lesson after all.  Because it is in the messiness, like Saul’s sinful ways and eventual failure as king, like all our failures when we try so hard to be a good church and end up in messy places.  We learn.  We live better.

The Kingdom of God is most likely found in the smallest, the weakest, the and the ugliest among us.  If you look there you will find the transformation of the love of God.  It happens all the time, every day, all around us and even giants and powers and principalities fall on their knees eventually to worship the one true King. The King of Kings.

I got some new glasses this week.  They’re RayBans.  I feel very cool wearing them.  The prescription on my last pair of prescription sunglasses was so old I wasn’t able to see very well.  When I got these everything was so clear and beautiful.  I’ve been wanting to go on drives just to enjoy them.

Yesterday, Kate and I drove over to Floyd and ate dinner and enjoyed the long way back along the ridge above Indian Valley. We watched the sun set as we headed West back to Radford.  It was somewhere over near Carthage or Snowville that it dawned on me why everything was so beautiful in those fields and vistas.  I was literally looking at the world through rose colored glasses!

This reminded me of the many ways our eyes can be opened to the beauty of God’s creation and God’s ways among us.

I use to think that the parable meant that faith as tiny and insignificant as a pin head sized seed was enough to move a mountain.  It would give me the power, if I wanted, to move a mountain. 

Nope.

Faith opens our eyes to see all the ways that God is moving mountains, on God’s terms, in God’s way.  Not ours.  Not ours to do.  Just ours to see.  If we only open our eyes and have a little faith.

Amen.

 

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Day of Pentecost - May 20, 2018

Did you see the Royal Wedding yesterday?  That was very exciting.  I admit I didn’t get up early enough for the whole thing and had to watch the clips later, but, wow what a wonderful sermon by Bishop Curry!

I was struck, though, with how the media messed up who he is.  In the weeks leading up to the wedding, headlines were asking, “Who is Michael Curry?”  And they didn’t find the right answers.  Newscasters were calling him “minister” and “reverend” instead of Bishop, and he is not from Chicago!  He is originally from Buffalo, NY, served as Bishop of the Diocese of North Carolina and he is The Presiding Bishop.  SNL did an imitation of him last night and it was funny, satire usually is.  But I was amazed to find out how little the world knows about The Episcopal Church.

When I was a student at Emory and Henry I lived in a dorm that was right on the train track.  If you’ve ever been to that campus you’ll remember that trains go through the middle of campus several times a day.  And it goes through at 3:00 in the morning too!  Our beds would shake and rattle and the chandelier would sway.  It took weeks to get used to this very loud disruption.

One summer when I was working with the Youth Ministry team and we were sharing one night as a devotional, Mary K. (Briggs, who is now Chaplain at EHC) told that gathering of how she found the train comforting.  She grew up in Bluefield, VA in a house right next to the train track.  As a homesick freshman at Emory she found the sound reminiscent of home and therefore comforting. A couple of weeks later we stayed on campus at a youth event at Emory. The boys in our group, who were from Knoxville, were assigned the room in the boys Freshman door that is the closest to the train track of any room on campus.

When the 3:00 a.m. train came through that night and they were nearly rattled out of their bunks, one of them said sarcastically to the other, “Pretty darn comforting!”

Today is the Feast of Pentecost.  Pentecost means “50th” and the Holy Day was so named because it is 50 days after Passover. It was originally an Old Testament word and feast. For Jews, it was an early harvest festival that came to be also a commemoration of the giving of the law at Sinai. After the destruction of the temple in 70 AD offerings could no longer be brought to the temple and the festival started to have a different focus. So, that Jews were gathered from every nation in Jerusalem makes sense.  It’s kind of like the Super Bowl - there’s lots of people at an annual gathering from everywhere!

 For Christians, Pentecost is the celebration of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon the Church. We’re at that place in the story in which Jesus has finished his last minute teaching to the disciples, and praying for them, exams are over, they have graduated, as it were, and they have been sent forth.  Jesus said, not good-bye, but “Lo I am with you always,” and then He Ascended to the Father.

As I said last week, this is the beginning, not the end of the story.  All is well and there is work to be done.  So the disciples, having reorganized by replacing Judas with Mathias, are gathered together in one place and, just as promised, Jesus sends the Holy Spirit to them.

But this didn’t happen like one might have imagined.  This scene is one of bewilderment and chaos.  There were tongues of fire on their heads and people talking in different languages and it sounded like a tornado just went through.  It was perplexing.  I imagine this must have been a bit disorienting for the disciples who must have thought that this advocate would show up quietly with structure and order.

Two things come to mind for me as I have sat with this image this week trying to imagine what the experience of being there might have been like.  One is explosions and the other is surprise parties. One is a shocking moment of meeting evil the other is a shocking moment of being loved.

I remember an early domestic terrorism when someone detonated a bomb at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. I was living near there and had lots of friends attending this event.  This became known later as the Centennial Olympic Park bombing. You may remember that this explosion killed 1 person and injured 111 others; another person later died of a heart attack. It was the first of four bombings committed by Eric Rudolph who took law enforcement on a cross country man hunt for years.

The worst part of this story though is about security guard Richard Jewell who discovered the bomb before it detonated, informed the GBI and cleared most of the spectators out of the park to safety.

Later, Jewell was investigated as a suspect by the FBI and the news media falsely focused on him aggressively as the presumed culprit.  Three months later Jewell was finally exonerated when the FBI declared that he was no longer a person of interest. Few remember his heroism.  Rudolph was finally caught and arrested in 2003 and sentenced to life without parole.

I remember watching the video of that bomb exploding and how I would flench in fear each time - at first. We have come to be desensitized to such images. Still, being in the vicinity of such chaos would certainly be terrifying.

Surprise parties, on the other hand, not so much.  Well, I guess it might be a shock to suddenly hear surprise shouted  from a gathering when you enter a dark room.  I guess you’d be pleased.

I’ve never been surprised in that way. In fact, I’ve left clear instructions with my husband to never, ever give me a surprise party.  I am afraid I would feel embarrassed and I don’t like being made over that much anyway.  So, shocking, yes.  I imagine being surprised is shocking, even when it is the power of love.

Jesus sent a big ol’ surprise party to the disciples 10 days after the Ascension.  And I think they felt the love.

The Holy Spirit is defined by many images: breath, wind, fire, flame, heat, light, comforter, advocate and guide.  We expect the Holy Spirit to love us, inspire us, comfort us, guides us, and protect us.  The church has come to expect the Holy Spirit to take care of us.  Yes, the Holy Spirit is that life giving source of rebirth that enlivens us but we seem to forget about the sending part. We seem to want to receive healing and protection from the Holy Spirit and forget the main point of following this same Spirit out into the world to teach the Gospel of salvation, to care for the poor and to fight injustice.

 Jesus said that he would send an advocate who would guide us but that did not necessarily mean this advocate would lock us up under the bell tower and keep us safe. The Holy Spirit has ever since been experienced as wind and fire, not just the warm fuzzies of the sweet breathing into us the healing we long for.

When we hear this story, of how something along the lines of a tornado crashed the party. It “sounded like the rush of a violent wind” the scripture says. It must have sounded like a freight train, like folks say a tornado sounds. It was this sound of violent wind that caught the attention of the whole neighborhood.  The followers of Jesus were gathered in a house and they heard this sudden wind and then they saw each other with flames on their heads and started talking to each other in different languages and each understood in their own language.  No wonder the outsiders thought they were drunk!

The point is that the Holy Spirit is unpredictable.  We think we know how the Spirit will call us, comfort us and guide us but often we end up feeling like we’ve been through a tornado or a bombing.

I enjoyed the Royal Wedding yesterday. 

It was scary for me though, when that newly married couple road in an open carriage through the village of Windsor and down the long walk.  There was such a huge crowd gathered.  What if someone wanted to detonate a bomb?  Or could a sniper be within range?  These thought go through our minds now with less shock and fear than 30 years ago.  And yet, and yet, there was such a sense of peace and safety and beauty in this pageantry.  It left us with hope.  Hope that the world is not so big after all.  Hope that this generation cares about making a difference, helping their brother and sister and standing up to bullies.

And Bishop Curry gave me hope too.  He preached about love, the redemptive power of love, and the whole world was listening.  This is reminiscent of our collect for today, “Shed abroad this gift (the way of eternal life) throughout the world by the preaching of the Gospel, that it may reach to the ends of the earth.”

Bishop Wright of the Diocese of Atlanta posted on FaceBook later a quote from Vanity Fair of some journalist raving about how much she like that “minister’s speech” which was a bit off, but she said that “now she wants to join the Episcopal Church.

Bishop Curry talked about different definitions of love, much like the many different images of the Holy Spirit and he did this by focusing on the scripture from which he was preaching. It was from Song of Solomon (2:10-13; 8:6-7 ) which is one of the scripture choices for weddings in the Book of Common Prayer.

6Set me as a seal upon your heart, as a seal upon your arm; for love is strong as death, passion fierce as the grave. Its flashes are flashes of fire, a raging flame. 7Many waters cannot quench love.

 The bishop focused on only two things in that sermon:  The image of love as powerful and redemptive and the image of love as an unquenchable fire from this text.

Love as a feel good power is easier, I guess, to get with than the image of fire as unquenchable, even by water.  The power of fire is in its ability to destroy.  Fire has been used as a weapon - as in to fire a gun or cannon or bomb toward the enemy.  Bishop Curry talked about harnessing that power for good as in combustible engines that drive cars, and jet planes and even the technologies we use which are all dependent upon the fire of electricity.

I’m not sure why he lost his audience with this simple image.

It is just another image of the power of the Holy Spirit who loves us, inspires us, comforts us and guides us. And yes, protects us too. Simultaneously.

If we follow a Holy Spirit which we only see as protector though, we give all the power of fire and wind to the enemy.

In his book, Falling Upward, Richard Rohr speaks to the inner drive in us to simultaneously return to the home from which we came and also to seek our journey’s end.  In other words, we are homesick for the mother’s embrace which was our beginning in life’s journey and we are driven by the same force to live out the journey of life to our end.

The Holy Spirit is that drive to live, to love, to do good works, to return home by seeking the horizon, to be reborn by moving onward toward our deaths. This is because God, Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer, is both Alpha and Omega.  God is simultaneously beginning and end. God is simultaneously our birth, parental love and our death when we are again held in the arms of love.

Calling this love of God a homing device,” Rohr puts it this way:

 

It will not be ignored. It calls us both backward and forward, to our foundation and our future, at the same time. It also feels like grace from within us and at the same time beyond us. The soul lives in such eternally deep time.  Wouldn’t it make sense that God would plant in us a desire for what God already wants to give us? (p. 89)

Rohr also mentions the Wizard of Oz in this chapter and reminds us that the enduring nature of that tale was in the meaning of a young girl’s journey away from and simultaneously toward - home.  Dorothy Gale, whose last name is also a name for the wind, was blown away by the power of wind in a tornado, threatened by the power of the fire of the witch, won the war with the witch through the power of water and all the time while just following her desire to go home. 

Rohr points out the obvious in the middle of all this.  He says that “the goal of the sacred story is always to come back home, after getting the (call) to leave home in the first place! A contradiction? A Paradox? Yes, but now home has a whole new meaning, never imagined before.  As always, it transcends but includes one’s initial experience of home.”

When we follow the Holy Spirit, we get sent and we get beaconed and if we’re on the right track in our effort to follow, we get used.

I’ve been learning to listen to the breath of the Holy Spirit more and more as I grow in my own faith journey.  Lately my practice in this has been to stop and feel the wind when it blows across my face.  There is a lot of wind in this beautiful New River Valley to practice with.  When I’m out walking or gardening and a breeze comes by I have learned to stop and ponder the very essence of that wind.  Did it come from the river? Did it carry little bits of the trees and plants between here and there?  Can I smell where it has come from?  Or could it possibly be a sign from that great and loving Advocate which always and everywhere longs to guide me on? 

I believe it is that.  If I just take a moment to stop and listen to and feel the wind on my face I might be reminded of the guide that Jesus sent us.  And I might remember too that it is not so that I’ll feel safe or prosperous, but it is a message for me to move on toward home and bring others with me.  And I am strengthened for the journey in which we are both homesick and beaconed, to that time when “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.”

Amen.

Seventh Sunday of Easter

The readings this morning as well as where we are in the liturgical season run up against one of those hard places in life - those in-between places.  Thursday was the Feast of the Ascension and next Sunday is Pentecost.  Easter is over and we will begin the long season of ordinary time soon.

The Gospel lesson this morning is from the middle of Jesus’ long “Farewell Discourse” just prior to the arrest of Jesus. This is unique to John’s version of the story.  Jesus prayed a really long prayer to God the father on behalf of his followers and asked God to watch over his flock while he was away.  There is no detailed depiction of the Ascension later, after all the passion and resurrection part of the story, not in John.  But here, if you pay attention is the brief mention of his ascension in verse 11.

And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.

Some scholars suggest that this scene played out in John’s gospel with Jesus praying this long sermonic prayer as he ascended.  Classic paintings of the scene have Jesus floating in the air preaching this prayer.

I wish I could do that!  Wouldn’t that be cool?  If I could float while preaching you might be a bit distracted though.  And, well, only Jesus Ascended.  (Unless you believe that some of the saints also ascended but that’s for another lesson.)

The disciples must have been amazed during these 40 days from the resurrection until the Ascension. And then amazed again when the Holy Spirit, as promised, showed up and blew their minds on the 50th day after Easter. We’ll talk more about that next week.

But I imagine the disciples confused and struggling during these times.  The days following the crucifixion left them bereft. Their Lord was dead, executed as a common criminal. They were too dumb struck to imagine his return. They tried to go back to fishing but they were sad and grieving.

Then Jesus showed up on the beach one day and they cooked breakfast together on an open fire.  This must have been very exciting.  They must have thought at that point that everything was now fixed and they could go back to normal and then he left them again.  Jesus Ascended into heaven at what seems to be the end of the story - or is it the beginning?

Either way.  Today we are in one of those in-between places.

In-between places are hard.  These are those times in life when we must wait, sometimes endure long periods of waiting until we can feel joyful again.  Some people place all their angst about this by planning ahead, like starting your Christmas shopping for next year right after New Years.  Or, like stoking up the garage with lots of supplies for when the bombs finally fall.  Or, like a miser who gets so caught up in focusing on saving for a rainy day that he lives in the extreme - a life of poverty.

Others live in the past, living their days full of shame and regret that things didn’t turn out how they had hoped.

But rather than living in the future or the past, we must realize that we too live in an in-between time.  We live between the time when Jesus walked the earth and the time when he will return.  And we do this by celebrating the cadence of a liturgical calendar.  Each cycle of the seasons we go through the story of Jesus beginning not with his birth but with waiting for him to come to us.  That’s what Advent is about, or supposed to be about, when we can discipline ourselves to hold off on Christmas for the first three weeks of December.  Then we end up here, after Easter is over, waiting again. 

What are you waiting for?  Are we so caught up in saving for a rainy day that we are not living out the call of being the Church?

Well,  in the face of this rather dreadful image, I’m going to do something crazy and tell you a children’s story.  It’s my favorite A. A. Milne story.  I really love this story.  It’s the one when Winnie-the-Pooh and Piglet went for a walk on a winter morning. It goes like this:

Winnie the Pooh went for a walk one winter morning.  Piglet saw him from a ways off while sweeping the snow from his front stoop and decided to join him.  Pooh Bear seemed to be walking in circles and Piglet was curious to see what he was up to, maybe, even if it was hunting Woozles.

Hallo!” said Piglet, “what are you doing?”

“Hunting,” said Pooh.

“Hunting what?”

“Tracking something,” said Winnie-the-Pooh very mysteriously.

“Tracking what?” said Piglet, coming closer.

“That’s just what I ask myself.  I ask myself, What?”

“What do you think you’ll answer?” asked Piglet.

“I shall have to wait until I catch up with it,” said Winnie-the-Pooh.  “Now, look there.”  He pointed to the ground in front of him.  “What do you see there?”

“Tracks, Paw-marks” said Piglet, with a jump.  And then, to show that he hadn’t been frightened, he jumped up and down once or twice in an exercising sort of way.  “Oh, Pooh!  Do you think it’s a-a-a Woozle?”

“It may be,” said pooh.  “Sometimes it is, and sometimes it isn’t.  You never can tell with paw-marks.”

The two went on from there around a spinney of trees until they came upon another set of tracks.  With increasing anxiety and excitement, they ventured on discussing at first the possibility they might be tracking “Hostile Animals” and then later they talked about trivial things to distract themselves from fear.  Around they went twice more finding more tracks each time.  When they came upon a fourth set of tracks Piglet couldn’t take it anymore and invented a lovely reason for returning to his home saying he just remembered something he forgot to do and just then, Pooh heard a noise above them, someone whistling.

He looked to the sky and saw none other than Christopher Robin sitting in the branches of a big oak-tree above them.  Their dear friend came down from the tree and comforted them with merely his presence while Pooh tried to explain why he and Piglet were walking in circles around the tree examining their own tracks in the snow.

I’ll come back to why I love that story.

Here’s a quote I ran into this week:

“The mark of a great church is not how many people come, but how many people live differently for having been there.”

Today’s readings, to me, are about what it means to be the Church.  We break up, as in the loss of Judas the betrayer, and then we make up, as the early church did when they called Mathias, and then we wait.  It is our pattern. Round and round we go.

I was looking at the pictures of all my predecessors on Thursday, out in the history room that comes in from the garden. I find I like to come and go that way just to enjoy the garden, especially this time of year. Kristie is working on printing and framing pictures of David and of me that will be hung out there soon.  I stopped and stared at that wall the other day wondering how I fit in with all those guys - and Sue!

 I was looking at all those priests and thinking about the big picture of their ministries.  It was the 1960s, 70s and 80s and the trend was to lift up the laity and smooth out the hierarchy, there was also a value of focusing on our relationships, on love of each other in the church. The era of the last century in the church was a move from being taught, fed and sent by the priest to becoming a community of sojourners who teach and feed each other. We come to church on Sunday to commune - together - in prayer, and the sacraments.  Then we go out and care for a hurting world.

So, in the early to mid-twentieth century, to be a part of all that love that was going around, folks were expected to attend services and Sunday School and youth group and Vacation Bible School and picnics and rummage sales.  And so they did.  We had lots of people coming here and to any church in any town.  Church attendance was just the norm then.  Of course, it could be because of all that love that was going around.

So, now we are facing a new era.  Attendance is down.  The church is aging, they say, to denote that the average age of those who attend regularly is going up.  Many worry that the church is dying.  Maybe in a way it is.  It is headed to a new birth.  Some say we should let go of our historic buildings and meet in coffee shops and libraries.  Others say we just need to move beyond the establishment church and embrace the realities of the changes.  Some just want to hang in there long enough for a younger priest to provide the Funeral Rites for those last few hang ons.

I think we are just in a good old fashioned in-between place.  And in-between places are hard.

In our Lectionary Lunch group this week, we talked a lot about Judas.  Judas is the most hated person who ever lived because he betrayed the Son of God.  He is said to have died a horrible death, alone, and buried in a potters field - the field of blood and to this day he is said to dwell in the pit of hell.

Speaking of in-bewteen places, in our lesson from Acts this morning we skipped over a couple of verses.  Did you notice that?  Sometimes the lectionary readings do that.  This is for several reasons, one is for focus and brevity, another is for focusing on themes.  Some of our bible study group suggested it might be to spare little one’s from the gory stuff.  These verses are gory stuff so brace yourselves.  Here is what was skipped in our reading.  It’s about Judas:

(Now this man acquired a field with the reward of his wickedness; and falling headlong, he burst open in the middle and all his bowels gushed out. 19This became known to all the residents of Jerusalem, so that the field was called in their language Hakeldama, that is, Field of Blood.) 20“For it is written in the book of Psalms, ‘Let his homestead become desolate, and let there be no one to live in it’; and ‘Let another take his position of overseer.’

Now that’s all background information about why they had to replace him.  But there’s some hateful stuff right there in the Bible.  Judas was really hated and said to deserve what he got.

But other’s have wondered if maybe that’s not the case.  I know, we can’t really question scripture, but I’ve often struggled with the hatred of Judas.  I mean, we were taught by our Lord to forgive and love our enemies.  Scholars have pondered throughout the history of the church about Judas - he was used by God, his part had to be played, he was a fated character in the passion story.  Without him, it could not have happened.  And it had to happen the way it happened.

This is one of the great theological questions that is answered only with mystery.  We really don’t know what happened to Judas in the after life.  But, are we really meant to hate him?  If we are, then who else should we hate?

Should we hate those who are alive today who seem to betray Jesus?  Should we hate those who persecute the church? Ignore the Church, betray us?

Well, I don’t think the good people of Grace parish think this way. One of the other questions that came up in our Bible study on Wednesday was why the disciples had to stick with 12.  Why did they have to choose just one in this run off of drawing straws over Mathias or Justus?  Why couldn’t they let both of them in?

This comes from our Christian hearts, the same hearts who want to include everyone in the banquet.

Well, this must seem like a slide show so far.  I find myself trying to explain a big theological word - Ecclesiology - which is the study of the Church.  I want to define for us what the church is, and what belonging to the church means.  That’s a pretty big thing to take on so no wonder I am all over the place here.

In my preparation for this sermon I ran into Flannery O’Connor.  She said this:

"The only thing that makes the Church endurable is that it is somehow the Body of Christ and that on this we are fed. It seems to be a fact that you have to suffer as much from the Church as for it, but if you believe in the divinity of Christ you have to cherish the world at the same time that you struggle to endure it." [The Habit of Being, Letters]

In honor of Mother’s Day listen to this story.  It is about a mother, my mother, caring for her brood the best she could.  I have three older brothers.  I sometime wonder how Mom survived those early years with three little boys running around.  The stories she tells about some of the mischief are jaw dropping!

One story was of when the oldest two were in the back seat.  Mom was driving home.  We lived behind our church. The boys were fighting and Mom threatened to make them get out of the car and walk home. They were only about 4 and 6!  They didn’t believe her and went on fighting.  When she got to the front of the church she pulled over and put the care in gear and told them to get out and walk. She lectured them that they would have to walk until they could learn to behave in the car.  When she tells this story she remembers with awe the terrified little faces looking back at her.  They got out and started walking.  She drove slowly away, but not really out of sight.  She watched them make their way through the church yard and through our yard and home.  The favorite line from the story is when little Ricky, the younger, called out after his big brother, Randy who had walked quickly and gotten ahead of him, “Wandy! Wandy! Wait!”

We love this story in my family.

How is that a metaphor for the Church?
Well, Mother Church can sometimes seem pretty tough. Sometimes we feel exiled, sometimes we feel abandoned, and sometimes we want to kick the ones who are fighting children off the bus.  These in-between places are hard.

Now let me tell you why I love that old Winnie-the-Pooh story.

I guess I love these stories because they are part of my childhood, but there is more to it than that.  Winnie-the-Pooh and his friends make up the most mix-matched gang of staunch individuals I had ever met - well -until I met the parishes of the Diocese of Southwestern Virginia! 

But think about it, here we have a tiger, a rabbit and a donkey communing together.  There’s a bear, a young pig an owl and a kangaroo and her baby. And they all live happily in the same climate!  A cold climate!  If that’s not the best image of the melting pot the church is - or should be- I don’t know what is!

I love how this diverse community comes together again, and again to support and love each other during times of adversity, fear and sadness. But mostly, I love this story of two friends who get lost in the snow, end up afraid of their own tracks and talk themselves nearly into panic when their leader, Christopher Robin, who has the very name Christ in his name, comes down from a tree and comforts and leads them.

The Church is not lost nor are we not lead by the Holy Spirit, if we listen.  Most of all we are not dying.  We are merely changing and turning and living into these in-between days as we always have.

Amen.