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.