Feast of the Epiphany - Sunday, January 6, 2019

Feast of the Epiphany 2018

Isaiah 60:1-6

Ephesians 3:1-12

Matthew 2:1-12

The Rev. Dr. Kathy Dunagan

 

The summer of my eighth year, my parents did a strange thing and took the family on a trip across the nation.  When I look back at this I think they must have been crazy! They packed up a car with four kids (two of whom were teenagers), six suitcases, six sleeping bags, six cots, a cooler, a Coleman stove and a tent all into a 1970 Oldsmobile 88 and drove all the way from Virginia to San Francisco. I mean, we must have had to stop 3 times a day just to gas up that gas guzzler! We camped in a tent most of the way with a few hotel breaks to do laundry and enjoy air conditioning and swimming pools. We saw Yosemite, Salt Lake City, Las Vegas, the painted desert and the Golden Gate Bridge, to name a few sights on our adventure.  It was the journey of a lifetime and we still tell stories from that trip.

We each remember different highlights, though.  For me it was Lake Mead and Hoover Dam. For one of my brothers, it was Disneyland.  But we all agree that the most magical moment of that trip was when we stood and gazed down into the Grand Canyon.  Dad snapped a picture of the rest of us gazing away from the camera. You can’t see the canyon, but you can just see the periphery of our faces full of awe. It is a favorite picture in our family.  Yet, none of us has ever quite articulated how precious that moment was.

Life is like this.  It is a series moments when we encounter God in a way that leaves us speechless but also makes us realize the full power of God’s love.

Think about those times in your life when you encountered God.  There are many, I expect.  There is a Celtic tradition that calls these experiences “thin places” because you experience the presence of God in a way that is like coming close to that border between this world and the next, like for a moment that border is thin, like a translucent veil you can almost see through.

In the end, it was in coming home from that trip to San Francisco that gave me the earliest realization of who we were as a family, as individuals, as plain folk full of potential, called into God’s world as servants.  That Grand Canyon moment may have been a thin place, but the best part of the journey was coming home. For, as the saying goes, it is in coming back home that we learn who we are. 

We are celebrating the feast of the Epiphany today. We think of this as the Sunday we remember the Three Kings.  But, that’s actually a bit of an error. The story of the three kings is actually not in the Bible.  It is a story that came through Church tradition later. This is not to say it is untrue, but if you notice in the Gospel reading this morning, there is no number of Magi, so not three. And there are no kings in this story, except Jesus. The Magi were not kings, they were actually Zoroastrian priests.

Zoroastrianism is one of the oldest religions in the world which is still active in Iran today. It was the official religion of Persia before Islam.

These men earned the title “wise men” because of their skills in interpreting dreams and understanding astrology. They were well known for telling fortunes and preparing daily horoscopes. They were the scholars of their day and they enjoyed access to the Persian emperor.

So, Matthew tells us that an indefinite number of Zoroastrian priests followed a star to Jesus’ birthplace in Bethlehem. Matthew’s job here is to assure us that Jesus is a fulfillment not only of the Old Testament prophecy of the virgin birth, but also the Zoroastrian virgin birth prophecies. You see, they came to see this miracle because they too had been waiting for it.

The Magi recognize Jesus' divinity and his kingship. Matthew presents Jesus as the expected King of the Jews and the Gentiles. It was important for Matthew to show that the Gentile Magi went to Bethlehem not Rome to look for the King of the Jews, the Messiah.  And they found him, wrapped in swaddling, in Bethlehem.

Epiphany is a season in which we ponder our identity as followers of this baby, God incarnate.  It is a time for us to ponder who we are in response to God’s great gift of the only son. It is a time to dig into our well of wisdom and remember all those thin places where we have had “aha” moments in our understanding of who God is.

 Our opening collect today briefly outlines this theme.  It says to God, “by the leading of a star you manifested your only Son to the peoples of the earth.” Manifestation is the meaning of the Feast of the Epiphany.  God has become one of us. Take a moment - or maybe 6 weeks of Sundays - to let that sink in! And then the collect turns to God and asks of God to lead us thusly, through our faith to the very presence of God.  In other words, "God, lead us back to you by reminding us of your love for us through these many epiphanies.”

The word Epiphany itself, at root, means sudden revelation or insight.

Last year at this time, I was the Interim Rector at a church with a school both named Epiphany.  Each week I was asked to speak at chapel for the children. I told the students in the school in chapel the week of the Feast of the Epiphany about that old advertisement for V8 tomato juice. Do you remember that one?  The actors in the ad would smack their foreheads as a sign of suddenly remembering a better choice of beverage. I had a lot of fun with those children smacking our foreheads and saying, “I could have had a V8!” That’s what we do when we have moments of revelation.  We say “Wow!” and we smack ourselves out of the sheer joy of it.

These little revelations come to us throughout our lives, perhaps as often as daily.  Here’s an example:

When I put away a wreath I hung on a glass storm door last year, I had an Epiphany moment. This fake wreath was a weak effort to keep up with all the reveling around me in that temporary home and I was a bit tired of it by Epiphany. But I was determined not to bring it down until the 12th day of Christmas, in good Episcopalian style. Then, removing it let all sorts of sunlight beam in through the glass storm door into the foyer of that house. This sunlight had previously been blocked by the fake wreath.  So, I sat down on the bottom step and basqued in this mid-winter glow for a moment.

This is life - a series of experiences some of which are memorable, some of which are life changing. Meeting a celebrity or visiting one of the wonders of the earth can be remarkable but epiphanies that bring us new revelation about God and God’s call for our lives tend to be a bit more surprising and life altering than just those things that entertain us. Standing with my family at the edge of the Grand Canyon was life altering because we were so tuned into our relationships with each other.

Still, the epiphany of this didn’t come until we got home and told the story. And kept telling it.

Like the wise men, these experiences sometimes take long journeys either real or metaphorical.  It seems we sometimes need to traverse for a while before we encounter God.  And it’s never like a treasure hunt in which an X on our map tells us just where to dig. No, God’s way is to guide us with God’s light and then send us home by another way.

The magi followed the light of a star to visit the King of Kings and they gave him gifts. One gift was gold which was a very practical gift, one which would be needed when Joseph answered the dream from the Angel about rushing away from where they were because Herod was planning to kill all the boy babies under a certain age. Mary and Joseph needed to move quickly to save his life, so the gold would come in extremely handy until Joseph could find work and earn a living for his small family. They may have needed to stay in Egypt for years. Herod didn’t die until Jesus was about 4 years old.

The frankincense was a key component of the incense used in rituals as both a purification symbol and as a symbol of prayer rising to the heavens with the smoke. It was a symbol of sanctity and, probably, a recognition of the sanctity of this child to whom this this gift was presented.

Myrrh was a stranger gift because it was traditionally used in the preparation of a dead body for burial. It offered a form of preservation, but also a cleansing and help to disguise some of the less favorable scents that accompany death. It is usually accepted that this gift was a foretelling of Jesus’s death, a rather strange gift for a new baby or a young child, but perhaps not in this case.  Death was to be overcome in the long run, by the end of the story.

When we tell this story, we tend to imagine receiving such gifts of gold, incense and essential oils and we ponder what we might do with these pretty things that smell good and would get us to Egypt - or maybe Hawaii or Paris.  I’d rather go to those places than Egypt. If I spent the gold on a Parisian vacation, I could buy some pretty clothes and maybe trade the smellies for better par fume or at a great French restaurant!

You see how quickly I did that? How quickly we think of exchanges of our gifts for something that might mean more to us than the original gift, how quickly we see ourselves as the recipient worthy of such gifts or even better gifts. How quickly we turn into receiver over and above giver?

The better question to ask is, “What gifts do I bring to the Christ child?  When we imagine bringing gifts to God, we place ourselves in the role of these Zoroastrian priests, the wiser characters of the story. But we seem to come up short when we go shopping through our souls for the perfect gift for God.  “What have I to give him, poor as I am?”  Or, rich as I am, I may have lots of practical resources but none seem good enough for God.  I suddenly feel unworthy and that trip to Paris sounds even better where I could run away and surround my self with worldly things that might make me feel better about myself.  Wherever you go, there you are, though.  And I’d still be at a loss of what I could possibly give to God.

But we have many gifts to give, don’t we?  The gifts God requires of us are the same gifts we have been given by God.

There are some who have the gift of hospitality, and a wonderful gift that is, whether it is extending hospitality from their home, or their church, or in the civic groups to which they belong. The gift of hospitality often gives them the opportunity to show the teachings of Jesus rather than simply preaching them.

Some might offer the gift of education, not only teaching spiritual values, but also human values that teach that all people are deserving of respect and, if not love, at least respect for their being children of God every bit as much as we ourselves are. There is the gift of service, of sanctity, of constancy, and parts of ourselves that would make this world more of the kingdom place than we can currently claim.

It takes staying tuned to the thin places and epiphanies in life to know what your gift is and how and when to give it back to God.

And so I come back to identity, to the head smacking moments in life when we realize not just who God is, not just how great God’s love is for us, but who we are in relation to God and to each other.  What gift have I received? What gift can I give? These questions have everything to say about our reflection on who we are as followers of this Christ child.

So, if you want to seek the epiphanies of God, if you want to resolve to be a better person this year by seeking God, you might do better to put down your map and your shovel and simply follow the light. As if following a star on the horizon, simply follow the light that is in your own heart.  Follow the light that you see in others.  Follow the light that you see in the marginalized, the poor, the hungry.

And then, in coming home you will know what gift to give, to and in honor of, the Christ child. Beware, however that you may end up going home by another way.

Amen.

Christmas 1 - December 31, 2018

12/30/18--Christmas 1  “Telling Our Story” 

Rev. Jon Greene, Deacon

Grace Episcopal Church Radford, VA

 

Isaiah 61:10-62:3

Galatians 3:23-25; 4:4-7

John 1:1-18

Psalm 147 or 147:13-21               

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I like to think of Holy Scripture as THE great story.

And the four Gospels, for me, are the greatest part of THE great story.

 But it is fair to say, that of the four Gospels, John’s  is NOT the best story. 

The passage we see today is what suffices for John as the Christmas story. 

In Luke we hear a rich and detailed story of a census, a pregnant Mary and a dutiful Joseph journeying to Bethlehem, no room at the Inn, a babe laid in a manger, shepherds, and angels.

Matthew tells us of a star, Wisemen, Herod, and exile to Egypt.

 John has none of this.

 John is, however, the poet of the Gospelers.  And he plays with metaphors like none of the others.

 In 18  short versus today, he refers to the Christ as “the Word”, which is in truth more than a metaphor, and as “life” and as “the light”.

 Last week when Kathy preached she talked about “the light of the Christ child” and we all knew EXACTLY what she was talking about. 

 That’s because John’s “story” from today had been shared with us over the years, allowing us the opportunity to share the story of Christ as the light of the world. If we had forgotten John’s Christmas story our story would be diminished—even though, in literary terms, John’s Christmas story may not be a very good one.

 I’d like to tell you about two stories that have been forgotten, one in my family—one in the Episcopal Church.

 My Mother, who just turned 100 in September, was born in a small town north of Rochester, New York.

 My parents moved to Arizona long before I was born (which is another story) and I hadn’t been out to visit New York since I was a baby.  

 When I was nine my Mom made plans for us to fly to Rochester for a visit. 

 I was really excited.  I was going to get to meet my Mom’s family and, in particular my grandmother and Aunt that lived on the family farm.

 When we arrived I met Grandma and my Aunt and then I was introduced to my Uncle Joe.

 Wait a minute, I thought…I have an Uncle Joe?

 I had heard his name mentioned, but had never talked to him on the phone and I had no idea he was my Mom’s brother.

 It turns out that Joe had literally fallen off a wagon as a young child. He was head injured and developmentally delayed as a result.

 So my family ceased talking about him.

 They were kind, but, as I look back, dismissive of Joe.

 But Joe took me under his wing and showed me the old barn.  He told me the function of the dozens of rusted and mysterious tools that hanged on the barn walls.

 He took me to the root cellar with canned quinces and cherries and apples and took me to the farm down the road with a creek I could play in and let me play with his dog.

 All quite exotic stuff for a kid growing up in the suburbs of Phoenix who really only knew the “outdoors” as the Arizona desert.

 My life and experience were enriched by spending a week or so with my Uncle, even though in my family he was referred to as “retarded’ and was invisible.

 This is an untold story in my family, there are also untold stories in our own Church.

  One of these is the story of a remarkable woman by the name of Pauli Murray.

 I’d like to see a show of hands, have any of you heard of her?

 I, too, had not until this year…until I was exposed to a wonderful book by the name of “Proud Shoes” that she wrote about her family.

 It is a remarkable story of race, racism and pride that still has me pondering. 

 Pauli was born in a mixed race family in Chapel Hill, North Carolina where mixed race immediately got you pegged as “black”.

 An extremely bright student, she applied to University of North Carolina law school after graduating from Hunter College in New York, but was declined because of her race.

 She attended Howard University and got her law degree there.

 She then applied to Harvard for a law fellowship and was declined because of her sex.

 As a result, she applied, was accepted and attended Stanford Law School for her fellowship.

 She was a civil rights activist and argued cases for civil and women’s rights.

 She was appointed by President Kennedy to the Presidential Commission on the Status of Women.

 She was a founding member of the National Organization of Women.

She was one of the first women and THE first woman of color ordained as an Episcopal priest in 1977.

She published two autobiographies that received critical acclaim and a volume of poetry.[1]

Truly an amazing and resilient human being.

And as I read about her this spring I thought, “What a remarkable woman, why have I never heard about her?”

The answer is, of course, that she was a woman and that she was classified as “black”.

The story of the Episcopal Church and of our society is diminished because it hasn’t included Pauli Murray.

Why did my family not talk about my Uncle Joe?

The answer, of course, is that he was head injured.  Perhaps he was seen as ‘embarassing’.  Certainly, he was marginalized.

My family story is diminished because we didn’t include my Uncle Joe in our story.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the people that have been marginalized, the stories that have not been told in my family (there are others), in our church and in our society. 

What stories have we lost or forgotten…

About the city of Radford?

About Grace?

A number of you have expressed to me your desires to grow as a church.  I believe the first thing that we have to do is to be able to tell our story.

The story of how we came to the Episcopal Church, how we came to Grace Church

…and why we stay.

And we need to weave in the story of the weak, the poor and the marginalized.

You see God’s story is not the story of how the rich and the powerful, or even the middle class, are the people of God. 

God’s story is the story of how the marginalized are.

Like the small nation of Israel that is unfortunate enough to find itself at the crossroads of and victimized by great civilizations like the Egyptians, Chaldeans, Assyrians and the Roman Empire.

Like the illegitimate son of a simple craftsman that was born in a barn, wrapped in bands of cloth and laid in a manger.

That truly insignificant and marginalized child is the light and life of the world.  The Word made flesh.

 What an amazing story.

 Amen

 


[1] Pauli Murray, Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pauli_Murray retrieved 29 December 2018.b

Christmas Eve Sermon - December 24, 2018

Christmas Eve 2018

Isaiah 9:2-7

Luke 2:1-20

The Rev. Dr. Kathy Dunagan

 

I’ve been fascinated this season about the argument over the song “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.”  Some say it is sexist and others say it is, well, just a song and besides that reflective of the culture of 1944 when things were different. Apparently this argument has gotten quite heated over the past couple of weeks including a lengthy article I read in The New York Times.  I don’t really have an opinion about that.

My favorite Christmas song is the melancholy Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.

Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas is the most unusual of all Christmas songs. You may know the history of the song. It was deemed the most depressing Christmas song ever written until Judy Garland and later Frank Sinatra convinced the writers to change the lyrics to something a little more upbeat.  But did you know there is theological statement in the introduction?

“Christmas future is far away, Christmas past is past, Christmas present is here today, Bringing joy that will last.”  That’s eschatology!

Eschatology is the study of the end times.  Eschatology is that area of theology where we ponder the second coming of Christ or the apocalypse or the end of the world. “Dooms Day" is the secular version of this.  Now, I’m sure you’ve heard of that since more than half of all movies available for streaming these days are based on this “end of the world” theme.

But the theology of Eschatology is actually not just about the end, the second coming or even the first.  Theologians ponder how our awareness of the beginning, be it the Big Bang or Creationism, but just thinking about how the beginning of time in tension with the end of time puts us in the right mind to live into the present time.  Just thinking about the alpha and omega, the beginning and the end causes us to appreciate this moment, right now, the precious present.

Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas was written for a scene in Meet Me in St. Louis, in which a family is distraught by the father's plans to move to New York City for a job promotion, leaving behind their beloved home in St. Louis, Missouri, just before the long-anticipated 1904 World's Fair begins. The youngest, five-year-old sister Tootie has just found out this plan and has become despondent. In a scene set on Christmas Eve, Judy Garland's character Esther, sings the song to cheer up her little sister.  Maybe that’s what I love most about the song, even more that the reference to eschatology - it is a song sung to cheer a child.

But the original lyrics were dreary:

“Have yourself a merry little Christmas, it may be your last, next year we may all be living in the past.” Oh my, that is depressing. 

The story goes that Judy Garland insisted on changing the lyrics to cheer it up a bit so the writers (Ralph Blane and Hugh Martin) worked with her and this line became "Let your heart be light / Next year all our troubles will be out of sight.”

Ah, that’s better.

Frank Sinatra (for his “A Jolly Christmas” album of 1957) also insisted on cleaning up the line, "Until then we'll have to muddle through somehow.” Insisting it wasn’t “jolly” enough, he had them change it to “hang a shining star upon the highest bough.”  Most singers now sing both of these lines.

At Christmas time in 2001, just after 911, a group of artists put together a variety show for television to raise money for the families of the lost.  James Taylor sang Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas for that show with great feeling from the intention of the original song.  It was not meant to depress us.  It was meant to cheer us through simple reminders that we are here now and we love each other now and we can cling to each other now.

Christmas tends to bring with the season a bit of melancholy. But we keep trying to clean everything up at Christmas time. We want everything to be shiny and clean and perfect.  Perhaps that is good Advent practice of preparing for the Christ child, of getting everything gussied up and ready for the celebration.  But when we do this, we tend to sweep under the rug the messiness and brokenness of our lives - those places in our lives where we need the healing power of our Lord to come in.

Why would we try to hide that from God? - our messiness, our brokenness, even our melancholy.

There is a Lutheran pastor, Carrie Smith who has a parish in Jerusalem. She tells of the busy day Christmas week last year when she was carrying too much - groceries and presents in bags on one arm and balancing a poinsettia on the other. She was rushing through the streets of Jerusalem at the time school was letting out for the holiday. She was all caught up in the rush when a young boy approached her, stood in front of her and caused her to stop to encounter him. 

Now, I would have been fearful in this situation. But Pastor Smith decided to put down her shopping bags and set down the poinsettia and stoop down to greet this lad. The boy presented her with a green Christmas ornament.  It was broken. 

The side was cracked. It was apparently once shaped like a bell. The top, where a hook might go was completely missing. Smith said that her two-second judgment was that this kid, seeing a responsible-looking adult, was picking up trash from the street and being helpful. It reminded her of what her own kids used to do when finding something weird on a walk to the park. “Here, Mom—I picked this up, and now I don’t know what to do with it. So you take it.”

So she looked at the boy and smiled and said, “Harbani!” “It’s broken.”

As soon as she said it, she knew she had miscalculated. The boy looked at the cracked bell in her hand, and then back at her. He still said nothing, but his body language needed no translation—hands, shoulders, deep brown eyes all said, “But…it’s for you.”

This was a gift, for the pastor. Broken, but for just for her.

Before she had a chance to make amends, the boy was off, running down the street toward the other boys. But she quickly held up her gift and yelled to him, “Shukran! Kul sane wa inta salam!” Thank you! Merry Christmas!

The boy stopped and swung around to look at her. And a huge smiled flashed across his face as he shouted, “Wa inti salme!” And also for you! And then he was off in a flurry of after-school joy.

The meaning that Smith made of this was to ponder the nativity sets we cherish in the West.  “In our nativity scenes and on our Christmas cards, Mary always looks serene. Joseph has everything under control. The stable has apparently just been cleaned. And the baby Jesus—well, no crying he makes! All is calm, all is bright.”

But that’s not real, is it?

What’s real about this season is that it is bitter sweet for most of us.  There are moments we each encounter of melancholy.  So sad Christmas songs like Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas fit and tend to comfort.

The day of my interview last January, when I was hoping to be called to be the next Rector of Grace Church, there was an ice storm.  It was also the day we buried our beloved Bob Jordan.  It seemed an ominous day, not a good day for a job interview.

But, like the good people of Grace parish always do, (and this is true too of Christ Church, Pulaski!) we persevered and we kept the schedule and the search committee met with me anyway.  And alls well that ends well, as the saying goes.

But there was a moment in that two day marathon of meeting most of the parish for the first time, a moment I will not forget.  The search committee was gathering outside of the Fourth Street entrance to the Vest Building, the door to our parish offices where there are eight or ten concrete steps.  It was after dark and I can’t remember if we were coming or going but there we were, all of us, wrapped in our warmest winter clothes only I had on the wrong shoes.

I wanted to dress up for the occasion and wore my only heels, well, a low wedge heel actually. They were new and black suede. These were my favorite shoes but not the best shoes for icy conditions.  Every other practical Virginian in our group was wearing boots, but not me! So as we attempted to traverse the icy steps, I began to slip and slide and we literally began to cling to each other.  Several folks wrapped their arms around me and helped me steady my footing.

We made our way slowly, laughing and holding each other.

This is the way we should always make our way in the church.  When times are tough, when even our most festive season seems melancholy, we were meant to cling to each other, to laugh and to persevere.

There’ve been many stories of challenge that I encountered this week. There was a story on our parish Facebook page about a couple who came home to a home that had been burglarized and the thieves took everything, particularly keepsakes from their young daughter who had died a couple of years ago.  Much of social media is packed with sad stories of missing persons, losses and heartaches.  Much of television and movies and books we read and certainly the news are full of divisions and anger and grief.  We all have encountered the struggles of life as we have plowed through this season.  It seems that Christmas has become a season of resilience when even if things are pretty good in our lives, we are tugged at every corner by the troubles of the world.

This is our brokenness.

It is a long list of grievances and sins and losses.  This is because of our Fall from God’s Grace as told by the prophet Isaiah:  “Those who lived in a land of deep darkness--the yoke of their burden, the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor, the boots of the tramping warriors, the garments rolled in blood.”  This is the ancient list of hardships that the human race has faced since Adam and Eve ate of the forbidden fruit.  These are the hardships of, “the people who walked in darkness.”  We walk in darkness still. And we long for the light of Christ.

But here is the Good News of this particular gospel reading from St Luke.  Here is the good news of the Christmas Story.  It is found in the rest of that passage from Isaiah.  If you take out all the bad phrases in this list which I just cut from the rest of the verse and read to you, if you take all that stuff out about hardships and oppression, you are left, essentially with this:

The people who walked in darkness . . .

On them light has shined.

(God has) multiplied the nation,

(God has) increased its joy;

they rejoice . . .

as with joy at the harvest,

as people exult when dividing plunder.

For a child has been born for us,

a son given to us;

authority rests upon his shoulders;

and he is named

Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,

Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

We bring our problems to this altar each time we break bread together.  We cling to each other whenever there is heartbreak, loss, disappointment.  This is our brokenness, and this is the way that we are most able to be open to receive the Christ Child.  We are opened up by our brokenness so that we can let him in.

So friends, live into the mess of Christmas.  Take a look around at those who are hurting and just muddling through, and never forget that the true joy of Christmas is actually in the brokenness of our world because that is where the light of Christ shines through.

And have yourselves a merry little Christmas -

Now.

Amen.

Advent 3 - Sunday, December 16, 2018

Advent 3C 2018

Philippians 4:4-7

Luke 3:7-18

The Rev. Dr. Kathy Dunagan

 

In last week’s sermon, I tried to talk about sentimentalism as a stumbling block in the Church.  At the 8:00 service, when we actually had people in the pew, I bored them silly with a long rant about this.  The text was on John the Baptist calling us to repentance. Looking back I found I was the one who needed to be repentant, repentant about that particularly boring sermon! I am grateful for those who did brave the foot of snow and showed up to suffer through that realization with me. Those of you who usually attend the 10:30 service were spared by that snow storm.

So today I want to revisit my thoughts about sentimentalism and bring this gift to you more carefully wrapped.

The odd thing is that I started out trying to talk about joy and I got bogged down in this stuff about sentimentalism. But in these Advent lessons about preparing the way of the Lord through some self examination, we are meant to take a serious look at our selves and at our need for repentance.

I read a blog this week by an author who has written a book about his experiences visiting sites associated with the civil rights era murders. He specifically has written extensively on the murders of Emmett Till and Medgar Evars. He admits that this might not seem to be very seasonal and cheery to some readers and asks the obvious question, “Why dwell on such dark, tragic, and horrific things during the Christmas season?”

And he answers his own question this way, “Well, because it's not the Christmas season. Not yet. It's Advent now. Advent is the season of exile, a time of god-forsakenness. Advent is the season of longing and groaning. Like the slaves in Egypt and the exiles in Babylon, Advent is the season when we cry out for justice in the face of oppression. All that to say, Advent is the perfect time to dwell on such dark, tragic and horrific things.”

So, while I may come across as morose and too serious lately, that is the reason. We are now in the second week of this look at the story of John the Baptist in the Gospel of Luke so I am trying to live into John’s call for us to repent, which means to turn around, and to await the coming of the Lord - with faith.

The thought about sentimentalism is simple.  It’s just that we tend to get sentimental about the days of old, of Christmases long, long ago, and of how we’ve always done things. The Israelites did that when they said, 'We have Abraham as our ancestor’ and John called them out on it. When we do this we can miss the point of the Gospel message which is to face the facts of our sinfulness and prepare ourselves for the challenges of the Christmas message.

That’s where it gets muddled.  The Christmas message.  We have come to understand this as only about the joy of Christmas, the joy of our salvation through the birth of God in Jesus of Nazareth.  While this is the foundation of our joy, if we base our joy only in this fact, then we might miss the part about taking up our crosses to follow him.

Yes, praise and glory and rejoicing are our natural response to the birth of our Lord.  Or, as Paul put it in today’s reading from his letter to the Philipians, “Rejoice in the Lord always; . . . Let your gentleness be known to everyone. . . . Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.”

But, if we skip over the repentance part, if we skip over the waiting part, if we rush into Christmas beginning before Thanksgiving, or Halloween, these few last weeks become just a big old party and we miss the opportunity to live into prayer, we miss this opportunity to live into the re-dedication of our souls to Christ and we risk missing the solemnity of awe - of that hushed amazement that comes when we wait and listen.

That would be sort of like receiving a gift and not reciprocating. And, well, we all know that’s just tacky!

When I was working as a full time therapist, I worked with felons (who came to my office from a half way house) about half the week and the other half of my time I worked with victims of domestic violence.  The contrast was poignant.

The offenders were mostly men and the victims most women but not entirely.  The men and women who were finishing up their prison sentences in the half-way house taught me a lot.

One counselee had served time for selling stolen goods. He was not a violent person, he had no interest in hurting anyone else.  In fact, I found him to be a very caring and sensitive young man who wanted to provide for his family.  But he had a sort of addiction to hustling stolen goods for money, of making an easy buck and getting away with it, of get-rich-quick deals that actually brought him more money faster than a legitimate job.

He chose this life, like most of the men in his inner-city culture, so that he could provide for his family.  He didn’t see that this hurt anybody and he got a thrill from living this way, not just getting away with something illegal but rather getting a good deal and making a profit. If he could have afforded an education, he would likely have ended up on Wall Street making a legitimate living with this passion. In sessions with me he seemed to genuinely want to change and live differently. But, in spite of his struggle to change he was fearful that he could not change. And if he couldn’t change, he would end up back in prison.

After his session each week, my next client was a woman I had been seeing for a long time.  She was not a criminal, she came to talk to me about the times in her life when she was victimized by others.  Again, nothing violent or gory or worthy of tabloid news, but a struggling soul in search of a type of freedom, much like the prisoner who came to the session before her who sought freedom not just from his incarceration, but from his past, from his fear of change.  She too was fearful of change and could not seem to allow herself to trust others because of her fear of being victimized yet again.

The contrasting experiences of these two individuals caused me to reflect on the perpetrator-victim theme in our larger society.

In both conversations with these sojourners, both the criminal and the victim, I found we used the same language to talk about the same goal.  All three of us repeatedly used the word reckon.

Now, you may think we used the word reckon because we were in south Georgia at the time, but we weren’t using the word that way.

In both of these conversations I found myself advising my counselees that they should reckon with the past, that is, they should take a long hard look at the ways they had been living.  Not so much to look at the sins of their pasts, but to reckon with the chains of the fears that kept them imprisoned. That is what they needed to let go of in order to move on, to live their lives, to enjoy their relationships and serve their God.

The use of this word seemed to come from beyond our knowing, somehow.  It was inspired. It’s not a word I have used often.  Sometimes, in our southern ways we’ll say something like, “I reckon I’ll go to the store now” but that is not the way we were using it in these meetings.  So, I looked up the word reckon, and here is what I found:  It is an ancient word in many languages that is at root about accounting.

         

 

 

The basic dictionary definition of Reckon is:

1.      To count; to enumerate; to number; also, to compute; to calculate.

 The dictionary I used for some reason used this quote as an example

“. . . then the priest shall reckon unto him the money according to the years that remain…” Now that is from the book of Leviticus (Lev. 27:18) and it is clearly about renumeration.

The second definition of reckon in this dictionary was this:

2.  To conclude, as by an enumeration and balancing of chances; hence, to think; to suppose; -- followed by an objective clause.

The example given here for the word reckon was also biblical:  “For I reckon that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us.” This is from Paul’s letter to the Romans. (Romans 8:18, KJV).

A third Biblical example the dictionary used for this word is also from Romans and a bit more familiar: “Likewise reckon ye also yourselves to be dead indeed unto sin.”  (Romans 6:11)

John the Baptist came preaching a message of freedom for folks just like my counseling clients.  And just like you and me too.  It was all part of the plan, as we understand from the prophet Malachi, and the Gospel of Luke birth narrative stories.  There is a story of John’s mother Elizabeth hostessing a visit from the mother of our Lord and of how John leapt in her womb that day.  John would come first, the older cousin, the prophet, the road builder who would call on the people of Judea to repent, to turn around, to wake up, to reckon with their lives and their ways of living in order to be ready for God incarnate.

So, how do we do that today?  How are we to reckon with our lives in our waiting and what are we waiting for?

We may each need to take some time away from the rush this season and ponder these things, like Mary pondered the manger scene in her heart later in the story.  We might need to insist on some time away to pray and listen to the voice that calls us from the wilderness to reckon our lives.  Because we are not waiting for Christmas, we are preparing for it.

When I was about 12 years old I received a gift from a friend early in the Christmas season and placed it carefully under our family tree.  It was just after Thanksgiving, we had just put up a tree and there weren’t many other presents under there yet.  I watched with anticipation as the presents began to pile up under our tree that year.  I would shake them and spend hours wondering what might be in them, especially the ones with my name on them.

One day I couldn’t stand it and decided that no one would know if I opened just one present and then re-wrapped it and placed it back under the tree.  I chose the one from my friend since she wouldn’t be around to see my fake surprise look on Christmas morning anyway and none of my family would care either way.

Well, the schemed worked!  I snuck her gift into hiding, I opened it, saw the little bracelet inside, wrapped it back and acted surprised when I opened it again on Christmas morning.  And no one cared or even noticed the difference!  I got away with it!  Except for the fact that I knew the difference.  And I ruined Christmas for my self that year. 

But I learned an important lesson:  Waiting to receive the gift is a practiced opportunity for self-examination.

It is not so much about all the stuff under the tree.  It is not just about the delight of Santa, and family gatherings, and holiday parties and baking and crafts and giving and receiving in honor of the greatest gift ever given, no it is not about even that as much as it is, this season, about Advent, about preparing ourselves for what may come rather than taking for granted what we already know, what God has in store for us.  Advent is about reckoning our lives yet again, it is about repenting and preparing our selves and our souls in order to be ready for the Christ Child to come to us – not in order for Christ to reckon for us or lay straight the roads and the valleys for us – but we are reckoning our lives to prepare our hearts for the Prince of Peace to enter in.  Then and only then can we carry the light of God into the world.

Amen.

Advent 2 - Sunday, December 9, 2018

Advent 2C 2018

Philippians 1:3-11

Luke 3:1-6

 

Today is the Second Sunday of Advent and, as I said last week, one of these (Advent Wreath) candles, though I’m not sure which one, represents Joy. I was joking then about the Advent Wreath having different traditions and I’ll reiterate today that it doesn’t matter how or when we celebrate the Advent values of Hope, Joy, Peace, Love, Purity and waiting, as long as we remember them.

But today I want to talk about Joy specifically and I want to talk about the difference between Joy in the Lord and the joy of sentimentalism.

To set the stage I’ll remind you of the Scrooge story. 

The Ghost of Christmas past was the second ghost and almost as scary as the Ghost of Christmas future when Scrooge saw his own death. But the Ghost of Christmas past showed him Mr. Fezziwig and his sister and a love interest.  People from his past who loved him.  These memories are bitter sweet for Scrooge. And memories can be that way.  That is some of the stuff of sentimentalism.

Fezziwig is a character developed by Dickens to provide contrast with Scrooge's attitudes towards business ethics. Scrooge, who apprenticed under Fezziwig, has become the very antithesis of the person he worked for as a young man. Fezziwig would close shop early on Christmas Eve and stay closed on Christmas Day and he would have a party with his employees and dance and laugh.  Scrooge though this nonsense and chose to never share these values when he set up his own business.

Scrooge also gets to remember his dead sister when they were young and the ghost also shows him his neglected fiancé Belle. so there is melancholy in these scenes of the sentimental memories and awareness of loss. It’s difficult in this part of the Scrooge story to remember that you are deep into a Christmas story.  What could this sad scene have possibly to do with the Joy of the Incarnation?

The other prominent emotion in the Scrooge story is fear.  Scrooge is frightened by these ghosts who show him past and future losses, including the loss of his life.  This is the motivation for him to change and start living in the present.

But fear is as common as sentimentalism in our culture still.  Daily we face fear mongering from politicians and salespeople and doomsayers.  Fear is used more and more as a manipulation.  What does that have to do with the Joy of the Incarnation?  Nothing.

But there is fear in the Bible.

There is a difference between fear mongering for political gain and the fear of the Lord. The people around Zachariah and Elizabeth and Mary and Joseph felt this sort of awe type of fear.  The shepherds were afraid too. But the angels all say, “Fear not.”  So, how do we respond to the ways of the world which insist on fearing things like economic and health care doomsday scenarios?

The difference in both cases is faith.

Last Spring, Presiding Bishop Michael Curry preached in St. George’s Chapel, Windsor for the liturgy of Holy Matrimony of Meghan Markle and Prince Harry.  If you watched all of that then you will remember that sentimentality came crashing in.  And Bishop Curry had something to say about it.

I have done a lot of thinking about sentimentalism and the Church over the past few years and I feel strongly that it is a major land mine for us.  We long for something meaningful in our lives so we go to church and then we try to turn everything about the Church into a social club. Don’t get me wrong.  Fellowship is very important and relationships are of utmost importance but the church (at large) has lost her focus on prayer and sacrament through recent decades.

Or . . .

Folks leave the Church and hate the Church because the Church doesn’t give us enough of that warm-fuzzie-feel-good stuff we get from movies, and pop songs, and apple pie and popcorn.

So, I think the Church of the 21st Century needs to step up to the mic and explain what the “love of Jesus Christ” is all about and we need to differentiate that from gooey-feel-good kinds of love.

Oh, wait.  Michael Curry did that last Spring.

And all the world was a buzz that week about his sermon and all that it meant to all who heard it.  Some were fixated on their lack of understanding of his exposition on images of “fire” and “raging flame” which came from the text on which he was preaching from the 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.

 

I’m not sure why he lost his audience there. That’s lovely Biblical poetry. I’m also not sure why he captured their hearts when talking about the “power of redemptive love,” though clearly that is an easier topic to digest.

What no one was talking about was what he said about sentimentality, and I was struck by the many times he repeated statements like, “There's power in love. Don't underestimate it. Don't even over-sentimentalize it,” which he said in the sermon and later in interviews.  He said in one, “this is not just a sentimental thing, this is actually a way of life.” This was in the context of his explanation that his sermon was simply about love, not the sappy love of romance movies but the love of Jesus Christ. 

 

The parish that formed me in my youth was a church of about five hundred active United Methodists who were struggling with the social issues of the nineteen-sixties and nineteen-seventies.  We struggled with issues such as civil rights, feminism, disability, sexuality and prayer in schools.  We did this in small group discussions and Sunday School classes. We sometimes heard our preachers speak to these issues in the pulpit, though not very often.

As a young person, I witnessed a certain silliness come over the adults on high feast days.  There was an added excitement with the increase in pageantry like at Easter and especially on Christmas Eve. I can remember getting all choked up over a favorite song, or tradition or shared laughter. One particular memory is of the Christmas plays - or even the Easter passion plays - when something would go wrong like the fake beard of a wise man falling off or the real baby in the manger crying loudly or that one time when for some reason fat Jay Holloway danced around in a grass skirt and coconut bra.  I kid you not.  The pictures surface recently and went viral on FaceBook!

These are all good things. We were a community sharing life together and the laughter part is really important. And what does that have to do with the Joy of the Incarnation? Well, I can’t say nothing. But something was missing.

The true meaning of the Love of Jesus Christ did not seem to meet with the excitement and silliness. Nor did the solemn mood of the liturgy connect with mission - the good works we do when the Sunday morning service is over and we go out into the world.  I did not understand this at the time.  I have come to understand it recently as a misplaced affection for the community itself. An affection that is and was good in and of itself but was not and is not a motivation for faith in action.

In our diocese we have focused on the work of Dwight Zscheile who argues that The Episcopal Church must move past enlightenment and establishment thinking into missional thinking. In order to do this, we must practice changing our language as the means to changing our ideologies.

Rather than the church being focused on private spiritual needs, (he says) it can be a community of conversation and practice for the common good.  This means gathering around the important questions and challenges of the day and interpreting them together in light of the biblical story, the Christian theological tradition, and the best thinking from various fields of human inquiry.[1]

 

In this way, Zscheile holds that we can move past sentimentality, as well as the pursuit of individual enlightenment or feel-good sustenance, by pursuing shared ministry through open conversation. He does not believe we need to do this outside traditional celebrations of the Holy Eucharist. He contends that this is the way to gaining an awareness of what we might leave behind when we move toward this sort of open and shared way of being the church. We must name what we need to leave behind and then leave it.

Is that possible? If so, what on earth does it have to do with the Joy of the Incarnation? Everything.

I think sentimentality as the thing we need to leave behind.  If the church can return to inclusive common prayer then we might come to a place of true mission.  As Rowan Williams succinctly puts it:  “Sometimes, after receiving Holy Communion, as I look around a congregation, large or small, I have a sensation I can only sum up as this is it - this is the moment when people see one another and the world properly: when they are filled with the Holy Spirit and when they are equipped to go and do God’s work.”[2] This is not a moment construed by our efforts to remain segregated to our own sentimental ways of worship and mission, it is a moment of openness to the Holy Spirit and willingness to listen anew to our calling as the assembly.

Yesterday I had the pleasure of spending a few minutes of my day over at the Elf Shelf.  I chatted with Ann Walker and Penny Sweet who were working the event.  They gave me a tour and told me the history of this community effort to make sure every kid in Radford gets something from Santa. They left me alone to wonder around and check out all the gifts that were lined up on tables.  And there was this moment when I looked back across the room and watched them helping a young mother choose some things for an infant daughter. And I realized what was happening.  We were in a shared space of people from all walks of life and we were reaching out to each other and breaking down the cultural rules that keep us segregated and afraid of each other.

And at that moment I got a lump in my throat.  But it wasn’t a sentimental moment. I didn’t feel all choked up because we were in that “here we are again” place. I had never been to Eld Shelf and still don’t know most of the good folks who gather there. And it wasn’t because we had somehow recreated Christmas 1965 through music and costume and talk of how great things were then, in those simpler times. No, this moment of feeling moved was because of the realization that Christ is alive and working in and through us right now, right here, in Radford, at Grace Church, in this larger community of which we are a part. It is the realization that we already share the love of Christ with all these other folks who work and care and yes laugh and eat and celebrate together. We celebrate life.  We celebrate the love we have for each other. All this is good.  But celebrating Christmas takes spending some time in Advent waiting and pondering all these things.

That, my friends is how we will learn of the true Love of Jesus Christ. That is how we will be motivated to turn to Him, to repent and follow and share that love.

Amen.


[1] Dwight J. Zscheile, People of The Way, Renewing Episcopal Identity, (New York: Morehouse, 2012), 67.

[2] Rowan Williams. Being Christian: Baptism, Bible, Eucharist, Prayer (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2014), 58.

Proper 27 - Sunday, November 25, 2018

Christ The King

John 18:33-37

November 22, 2015

St. Thomas, Abingdon

The Rev. Canon Kathy Dunagan

 

Back in medieval times, there was this court jester who just went one joke too far. He insulted the king. The king was furious.  He sentenced his jester to be executed immediately. The court was agitated. “Please be merciful,” they pleaded. The king was not ready to back down such that the jester could live, but he did decide that instead of execution, the jester could choose the method of his dying. Turning to the jester, the king said, “How do you want to die?” The jester replied, “If it’s all the same to you, my Lord, I’d like to die of old age!”

Today is the last Sunday of that long Pentecost season and it is also the opportunity celebrate the feast of Christ the King. We should have gotten out the white hangings and vestments and done it up properly, but this particular feast day has sort of hit the skids in recent times. This may be due, in America at least, to it’s unfortunate alignment with this big family holiday, Thanksgiving.

But there is more afoot here. This is a relatively recent feast in the liturgical calendar. Pope Pius the XI instituted this feast (or solemnity if you want a more accurate term) in 1925 in response to a certain growing nationalism and secularism in the West. This period in world history was between World War I and The Great Depression and just prior to the making of the Vatican as an independent City in 1929. There was much debate at this time about who was in charge. For you history buffs, this particular argument was called The Roman Question and it was a big argument, involving mostly Italy but also France. It was all about who was, essentially, King.

Until 1929, Popes had always acted as secular governors but just prior to this era the Roman church began to realize a need to return to more spiritual matters. When the debate was settled, Pope Pius the XI created a new holy day - or holiday as the word has become - for celebrating Christ as the only King.

Kings wield power, and in the story of my opening pulpit joke, the king decided to give the jester a choice. In the Gospel lesson today, Pilate didn’t realize that he was being given a choice. The Gospel truth is that God is in the choice business. Power will not be imposed; power will instead be flipped. The choice is to believe and follow, or not. It is, as usual, an invitation not a command. The conversation about this is inevitably confusing.

My father died 3 years ago just short of his 92nd birthday. Actually he died of Alzheimer’s after about 15 years of decline. There were times this was very difficult, of course.  But there were moments of insight and humor along this journey. Now that we have had some time to adjust, the humor lingers.

At some point in the last year of Dad’s life, I noted that he had stopped making sense, most of the time. He seemed to babble or make complete sentences that didn’t align somehow. But sometimes he would clear up and in those moments he knew not only who he was, but who we were and those times were golden - and often those times were the times that were the most funny.

One day I gave him a copy of the latest diocesan quarterly newsletter called One in Mission because there was an article and picture of me in it and I thought this might entertain him. Dad once told me, many years ago, that the Alzheimers unit has many benefits, one is that the residents can hide their own Easter Eggs. Well, the nice thing about Altzheimers, it turns out, is that you can read the newspaper 15 times a day and it seems like news every time!  Little did we know, when that Easter Egg joke was Dad’s favorite that a few years later we’d be living with this challenge daily.

So this one day, when he was re-reading that diocesan newsletter, he turned to me and asked, “How can you be one mission?  Mission is for a crowd!” This was delightful to hear from him! An invitation to theological debate! I explained that the diocesan motto is One In Mission and the idea is that the One is the crowd.  For a moment, we sat silently pondering this. It seemed for that golden moment that we were both making lots of sense even though it may have seemed a confusing conversation to the observer..

I hope that I can make some sense of our Gospel lesson this morning.

It seems funny for us to stop on this, the last Sunday of the old year and think about the crucifixion, the end of Jesus’ earthly story and then next week starting with the first Sunday of Advent, the new church year, begin thinking about the birth of Jesus. It seems that the trial of Jesus before Pilate should be left to Holy Week. Why is it here, in this odd place on the calendar? Well, it was intentionally placed at the end of the church year because this place of last is reminiscent of the end times and also, we should always remember that Christ is the King of Kings, for eternity.

So, we have this classic confusing conversation.  Pilate’s image of a king is a threat to the Roman occupiers; Jesus makes it clear that this is not who he is. Instead Jesus is a truth-teller.  And the truth about the universe it that God is love and that God is calling us to love. And this is the eternal Kingdom - not of this world - that Jesus is witnessing to and ushering in.

If you notice, Jesus never directly answers Pilate’s question, “Are you the king of the Jews?” Jesus states that his kingdom is “not from here” (John 18:36), which Pilate interprets to be an affirmation that Jesus is a king. Jesus also puts the question aside as something Pilate claims, not Jesus.

Ever since this part of the story, we humans have continued to argue over who is King. And many still want Jesus to be the kind of kings who will take our side and destroy the enemy. We continue to forget that Jesus’ kingdom, the kingdom of God, is not of this world.

Many wanted and believed that Jesus would be that kind of worldly, waring king, and many were disappointed and confused. So, Pilate played his hand against this weakness in order to save face, and probably save rank and job, if not his own life. Although Pilate declares to the waiting Jews, “I find no case against him” (John 18:38), Pilate should not be viewed as an innocent bystander swept along by the will of the Jewish authorities. He goes on to play against Jewish aspirations for political independence as he taunts the Jews with the idea of Jesus’ kingship. Pilate’s mockery of Jesus’ kingship is seen later, where he has Jesus dressed in a purple robe and crown of thorns, beaten and then displayed to the Jews. The chief priests and police, seeking Jesus’ death, demand Jesus’ crucifixion. And so Pilate has cleverly put them in the position of demanding the death of their own king (19:6).

To this day many Christians claim that the Jews killed Jesus. But it was rather a clever Roman who stirred that pot.

The manner of Jesus’ death testifies to his true identity. Those who can hear or see the message of Jesus’ crucifixion see a true king. One who rises above the same old human waring, one who is more than a king, he is truth incarnate. Jesus is able to disclose the identity of God because he alone originates from God, has been sent by God, and has shared God's glory. Therefore, on earth he is capable of revealing the glory of God unlike any other. This revelation of glory is a key to the 4th Gospel. In John, Jesus' miracles are aimed to show glimpses of God's glory and those who believed could see it. This revelation comes on the cross. But at no time did Jesus glorify himself. Jesus is the revelation of truth. Jesus brought "grace and truth" from the Father alongside God's glory. In a world of falsehood and error, and divide and conquer politics, Jesus cuts a path, a way, the way, to God that is true and life-giving. He is the incarnation of truth and thereby confronts those who promote lies.

In about a month we will be done with all this holiday rush and celebrate the last of these holidays with one last hurrah of champagne and kissing on New Year’s Eve. If you remember, one tradition for that not-so-holy-day is to render drawings of an old man passing on the mantle to a baby - the old year headed out, the new year in its infancy.  That is the image we are left with today on this New Year’s eve of sorts.

And so I leave you with the notion that this is the time for resolutions, not of diet and exercise and the sort, but of love.  This is the time to resolve to wait for the Christ child to come.  This is when we work at preparing our hearts for living into the eternal Christ who not only waits for us after our final passage but lives with us now and longs for us to long for him in this season and of course comes as the new life baby whom we cling to.

Amen

Proper 26 - Sunday, November 18, 2018

Proper 26B 2018

1 Samuel 1:4-20

Mark 13:1-8

The Rev. Dr. Kathy Dunagan

 

I want to do something unusual for the beginning of this sermon.  I want to lead us in a prayer.  So, The Lord be with you.  Let us pray.

Almighty and gracious Father, we give you thanks for the

fruits of the earth in their season and for the labors of those

who harvest them. Make us, we pray, faithful stewards of

your great bounty, for the provision of our necessities and

the relief of all who are in need, to the glory of your Name;

through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with

you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen. (BCP 246)

Now, an experiment.  What were you thinking during that prayer?

It’s an odd thing, prayer, really.  It is an ancient practice. It is commonly held that we Christians pray at least daily, well, at least weekly.  We talk about prayer a lot.  We say we are praying for each other, you know, “thoughts and prayers” we throw out that phrase when someone we care for is hurting.  It sometimes seems shallow.  Even when it is far from shallow.  And we do pray for each other.

We pray for friends, family, the sick, the lonely, the destitute, the downtrodden.  We pray for crops and good weather and safe travels.  And we pray for ourselves.  This is all good.

We talk a lot about prayer. And we think of prayer as the most powerful phenomenon in all of life.

Still, if you ask most Christians to explain prayer or define prayer you will find it is difficult for most of us.  We can say that prayer is talking to or with God or Jesus or the Holy Spirit or for some even talking to or with a saint.  But what else goes on when we enter into prayer?

If you are like most people, you may have been thrown by my opening prayer and left, instead of actually praying with me, wondering about the service, maybe trying to remember what Chapter and verse one of the readings was from or maybe you were looking back to see where that hymn we just sang came from.  Or, maybe, like I often do when someone else is praying, you were thinking through your to-do list or making a mental note to speak at coffee hour to someone you care about in another pew, or maybe you were reminding yourself to pick up a certain grocery list on the way home from church or perhaps you’re worried about the food for coffee hour or some wardrobe trouble you are having. Or maybe you were bringing to God your list of worries about your own life and/or the problems of those you love.  Maybe you were thinking about the prayer itself, looking back on your leaflet to see if I was repeating the collect of the day or making guesses about where in the prayer book that pre-written prayer came from.  Or, maybe, you just quieted yourself and tried to genuinely enter into that space you alone know. That place where you go to talk with God.

All of the above is my list of experiences with prayer, when someone suddenly says, “let us pray” I often find my mind wandering.  I suppose there is a list as long for each of us of mental activities we tend to do instead of praying at such times.  Maybe you relate to my mindless wanderings.  Maybe not.  But my point is we all are apt to struggle with mindless wanderings during prayer time.  It is a normal, human way of being. All the great spiritual teachers address this phenomenon often. Perhaps, in fact, at times letting our minds wander to shopping lists and such is prayerful enough. So, do not feel guilty if you too have a wandering mind during the reading of a collect from the prayer book.

On Friday friends of Fr. Thomas Keating gathered to lay him to rest.  The famous spiritual writer and Trappist monk was Superior of St. Benedict's Monastery in Snowmass Colorado, late in his life. Fr. Keating was a life long learner and sojourner of the art of prayer.  I am just beginning to follow his work.

And I long to teach you to pray.

I have joined a contemplative prayer group that meets at the Presbyterian Church across the street. I have been transformed by these 8 or 10 Thursday evenings I haver spent with my new prayer partners.

We read scripture and discuss writings by great spiritual leaders like Thomas Keating. But we also do this amazing thing. We sit in silence in the middle of our time together for 20 whole minutes.  Total silence.  For 20 minutes.  That is what has changed me.  It is making me well.  It is my new therapy for clarity, focus and function.

You see, we suffer in our world from busyness and from noise pollution.  We have lost the capacity for quiet.  We talk or listen to noise from the moment we wake each day to the moment we go to sleep. We spend too much of our time with our faces glued to electronic screens and our ears attached to ever technologically advanced speakers.

Well, most people do. I know I do.  I hope you have some quiet in your life. I have found myself starving for it.  Because sitting quietly, I have found, is the best way to learn to pray.  Of course, it necessitates learning to turn off the mindless wanderings of our busyness.  That is why they call it mind-ful-ness.

Mindfulness is the opposite of mindlessness. Mindlessness is the stuff of streaming old sitcoms. And while there may be a place in life for streaming reruns of Friends or Frazier, mind-full-ness is begging for you to tune in.

Mindfulness is an effort to quiet the mind, to focus the attention of the mind on quiet.  And the only reason to ever try to do this is so that you can listen to God.  For that is the goal of prayer. We pray to God in order to discern God’s will for us.

And I long for us to learn to pray.

In my sermon last week, I skipped over the story of the Widow’s Mite because of the opportunity brought with the Bluegrass Mass to talk about our efforts to cease division in our world.  So, I want to go back and examine that story a bit this morning.  I also want to talk about Hannah’s story from this week.

You see, last week we got this story from the Gospel of Mark about an old woman who had no husband and no way to make a living and yet she gave more percentage of her meager savings than the wealthy scribes - she gave a mite. That’s m-i-t-e, not m-i-g-h-t.  It means a small monetary amount.  In this case, about a penny.  She gave humbly.

This story is very familiar but often misunderstood. Most readers assume that Jesus is praising the poor widow’s sacrificial generosity, and the story is indeed a well-worn illustration for preachers who are encouraging their congregations to follow her extravagant example, especially when determining the amount of their annual pledge during the Stewardship Campaign. The reality, however, is more complex.

To give all we have, if taken literally, means that we have absolutely nothing left for ourselves. So what will now keep this poor widow from starving to death? And what does Jesus really think about her gift? Is this what we wants us to do as well?

Some biblical scholars take the story of the Widow’s Mite at face value, by itself, without taking account of the immediately preceding verses, seeing the widow as an example we should emulate. But others see her as an illustration of precisely how “the scribes devour widows’ houses: by inducing them to give their meager resources to the Temple.” In this interpretation, Jesus is not praising her actions at all, but rather lamenting her destitution. She is not an example for us to follow, but rather the victim of an exploitative political and religious system. And this week’s Gospel lesson is also about an exploitative political system and Jesus’ prediction of its demise.

So, when it comes to our financial resources, there is indeed a practical limit that we should not cross, unless we are called to the vowed poverty of monastic life such as Fr. Thomas Keating was.

Yes, Christians are encouraged to give generously of what God has given us; yes, such giving may well cost us more than we would like in terms of available income; and yes, most of us should give more than we do. But just because Jesus praises the widow’s generosity, this does not mean we should, like her, give “all that we have to live on”—and of course even monks and nuns who do vow themselves to personal poverty still have their basic needs of food and shelter and clothing provided by the community. So while I think Jesus commends generosity, he does not encourage irresponsibility. Or, as the old saying goes, trust in God but tie up your camel.

I also think it’s a profound mistake to limit the lessons of the Widow’s Mite to financial matters alone. Strictly speaking the Widow’s Mite is indeed about giving money, but it is also about a radical generosity of life and spirit, a courage and confidence and gratitude to God that frees one to do what otherwise might seem foolish or impossible.[1]

Which brings me back to prayer. Learning better to listen to God in prayer is the perfect practice for listening in this sort of discernment about financial matters.

And I long for us to learn to pray together.

One of the problems with prayer is that we either think we have it down pat and have no need to learn more, or we have given up on ever understanding it so we don’t try anymore.  We simply give a polite bow of the head and work on our to-do list until somebody says “amen.” That may sound harsh.  I am not feeling critical though.  I have learned that prayer is much easier than I once thought.

And I long to teach you this wisdom.

This week we have a similar story from the Old Testament about a married woman who had no children who prayed to God for a son so that she could be fulfilled.  She also made a promise to God to give said son back to God when he became a certain age. Hannah kept her promise and was greatly blessed in return. The son in question became the Samuel, the last of the great judges.

We also read Hannah’s song this morning instead of our usual Psalm, thanks to the way this lectionary we are following unfolds.  This song of Hannah’s is just like Mary’s song, the Magnificat, which Mary sang when she was pregnant with our Lord. And so we sang a version of Mary’s song as the Gradual hymn just before I read the Gospel.  These songs are odes, they are prayers of thanksgiving for the pregnancy of hope.

The Son of Hannah has several features in common with the Magnificat, which was sung in early Christian circles and continues to be regularly sung or read aloud. A number of scholars see Hannah as a "type" of Mary. Both "handmaids" of God bore sons through divine intervention who were uniquely dedicated to God. And both ended up giving their son back to God.

All of these stories are leading us up to the time of the church calendar which has been set aside for that pregnancy of hope. Advent. That time we try to spend waiting, and listening, and quieting ourselves.  That time when we struggle to not get caught up in the rush, the way of the world.  That time we, in the Episcopal Church still spend waiting.

And praying. 

Advent is the perfect season to begin to learn anew how to pray.

And I long for us to learn anew how to pray.

In Judaism the song of Hannah is regarded as the prime model for how to pray, and her song is read on the first day of Rosh Hashanah which is the first day of the Jewish calendar. The Jewish New Year.

The Christian New Year is in two weeks when we begin Advent.  The first Sunday of Advent, which falls on Dec. 2nd this year. Advent 1 is the beginning of the liturgical calendar and so, often thought of as the first day of the Christian New Year.

The basic model of prayer in the Christian tradition is The Lord’s Prayer.  All other prayers are based on the basic formula in The Lord’s Prayer.

There are similarities between the Lord's Prayer and Jewish prayer. “Our Father which art in heaven” is the beginning of many Hebrew prayers. "Hallowed be thy name" is reflected in the Kaddish. "Lead us not into sin" is echoed in the "morning blessings" of Jewish prayer. A blessing said by some Jewish communities after the evening Shema includes a phrase quite similar to the opening of the Lord's Prayer: "Our God in heaven, hallow thy name, and establish thy kingdom forever, and rule over us for ever and ever. Amen."

The history of prayer is, like I said in last week’s sermon, that we all pray the same way.  Or at least we used to.  The history of prayer, like liturgical song, is that it was at some point in time all the same.  It still is all the same on some level.

But you must become quiet to pray.

And I long for us to learn to pray together.

The collect I opened with, if you haven’t figured it out, is the collect for the services in the prayer book for the liturgy set aside for Thanksgiving Day.  We rarely pray this prayer because we take that day away from church to be with family.  But what a great opportunity this week to consider prayer - especially prayers of Thanksgiving.

Thanksgiving translated backwards, means Eucharist. So let’s practice now.  We can practice quieting our minds as we pray the Prayers of the People together. We can practice focusing our intention as we pray the confession together.  We can practice trying new ways of listening as we pray the Eucharistic prayers together.

But here’s the Good News.  We can also fall comfortably into that best way we pray, that way we are already prayer experts, that time of the service when you teach me to pray.  When we pass the Peace of the Lord.  For it is at that moment of our weekly liturgy, while I stand here wishing we were more solemn, it is at that moment when I watch you love on each other that I realize we are prayer warriors.  For that, my friends is the best act of prayer we practice. When we show our love of each other. That is our prayer answered, our prayer in action, our answer to God’s call to us.

So, let us continue to teach each other to pray.

Amen.

[1] Rob MacSwain, http://stmary-conventsewanee.org/2018/11/12/proper-27-year-b-november-11th-by-the-rev-dr-rob-macswain/?fbclid=IwAR2Rh8euunjMkBXRzolugdJSHS9iUSqzg_iK44bi-uw6ZNiN8ZjjoAdHBYs

All Saint's Day - Sunday, November 4, 2018

May change bring growth, may growth bring love, may love bring change.  AMEN!

In the last two weeks we’ve seen a lot of political violence:  Shots fired into a Republican Party office in Florida, 14 pipe bombs sent to former presidents and other high profile individuals.

Thanks be to God…for whatever reason…none of those bombs detonated. 

But two shootings, one in Louisville, the other in Pittsburg left

·       Maurice Stallard,

·       Vickie Jones,

·       Jerry Rabinowitz,

·       Cecil and David Rosenthal,

·       Rose Mallinger,

·       Bernice and Sylvan Simon,

·       Daniel Stein,

·       Joyce Fienberg,

·       Richard Gottfried,

·       Melvin Wax and

·       Irving Younger…dead.

I’ve included their names because their names are important.  

They are important.

They are beloved children of God whose lives were cut short by the actions of confused and angry men.  And now they have joined that cloud of witnesses that we acknowledge on All Saints Day.

In response to that wave of violence, on Wednesday I heard a story on the news that was analyzing whether there was a threat of civil war in the US.

A Second Civil War!  In the United States!  We are actually talking about this.

I don’t know about you, but these last weeks, on top of all the hateful, hurtful and divisive things I’ve seen from our politics and our society has left me anxious, depressed and, at times …well…hopeless.

Where are we to look for hope?

Some hope and pray that a “blue wave” is going to sweep the Democrats into the House and maybe, even the Senate. 

Others hope and pray that the Republicans will hold on to both houses.

Now I’ve got no desire to argue with you about which is more desirable (and Kathy REALLY doesn’t want me to go there). 

But I’m here to tell you that, despite the $5 Billion  (that’s Billion with a B) that we have spent on political advertising this year, no matter what happens November 6th, on November 7th, the anger and divisiveness will still be there and I don’t see anything that either political party is doing that is going to fix it. 

Don’t get me wrong…I’ll vote Tuesday morning and I urge you, and all registered voters to do the same.  It’s just that the underlying issues are still there…the hate and fear remain.

 

So are we witnessing the death of American government and society, as we know it? 

Is there no hope?

 

In our Gospel passage today Jesus arrives to find his friend Lazarus dead.

This was no parlor trick…Lazarus was dead. 

Dead dead. 

Deader than a doornail.

You see Jesus had intentionally delayed in coming to Bethany when he learned Lazarus was ill.[1]  By the time he arrived, Lazarus had been dead four days.

And those four days were significant.  Jewish custom was that burial would take place the same day as death, but there was a belief that the soul lingered near the body for three days.[2]

So being dead four days was REALLY dead.

Those of us looking for tangible, or at least olfactory, evidence that Lazarus was deceased, would find our proof with our nose.  There was a stench coming from the tomb.

Lazarus’s body was decomposing.

In the words of the Coroner of the Munchkin City, “He’s not only merely dead; he’s really most sincerely dead.”

Hopelessly dead. 

But that didn’t stop Jesus.

 

 

And Jesus, too, was hopelessly dead when his body was laid in a borrowed tomb. 

His disciples retreated to their houses, anxious, depressed and hopeless.

Three days later, Mary Magdalene found that tomb empty.

Her hope was restored when she recognized her once hopelessly dead and now resurrected rabbi.

The mystery of death and resurrection is at the heart of who we are as a people.  

These resurrections are not all about eternal life.  Sometimes they are about God finding a way to redeem even the most hopeless of situations in this life.

Nadia Bolz-Weber observes:

The Christian faith…   is really about death and resurrection.  It’s about how God continues to reach into the graves we dig for ourselves and pull us out, giving us new life, in ways both dramatic and small.

These graves we dig for ourselves can be in the form of substance abuse, unhealthy relationships, anger, resentment, jealousy. 

They can be as small as a petty argument or as big as a life threatening addiction.

But then Jesus shows up (often disguised as a friend, family member or even a stranger) and directs that the stones to our tombs be taken away and then tells us in a loud voice to “Come out” and then unbinds us and sets us free. 

So Jesus gives us hope, a chance to walk out of these graves, just like Lazarus, but it is up to us what we do with that chance.

 

We, as a people, can dig ourselves a societal grave. 

I would argue that we have done just that—a big, ugly one constructed of fear, hatred and division and, at times, the situation seems hopeless.

So as we stare over the precipice of this big ugly mass grave, what are we to do?

Well, I’m going to turn to two people, two of my role models, for advice.  The first, is a guy by the name of Michael Curry.

Presiding Bishop Curry has proposed a model for living the Way of Love.  You are going to hear a ton about it over the next couple of months, but I’ll cover it very briefly here.

He describes a number of practices that compose this way of Love. 

They are to Turn, Learn, Pray, Worship, Bless, Go and Rest

Turn:  Pause, listen and turn to follow Jesus

Learn: Reflect on Scripture each day, especially Jesus’s words and teachings

Pray: Dwell intentionally with God each day

Worship:  Gather in community weekly to thank, praise and draw near to God.

Bless:  Share faith and unselfishly give and serve

Go: Cross boundaries, listen deeply and live like Jesus

Rest: Receive the gift of God’s grace, peace and restoration

A lot of this “way” is about working on ourselves. 

But there are two of these practices that are about how we interact with the world.  These are, by the way, the practices that I, as a deacon am most focused on.  And I believe they are Michael Curry’s answer to my question, “What are we to do about this big societal grave.”

We are to GO out into the world and engage and we are to BLESS by loving our neighbors unconditionally, no matter how objectionable we find them.

The other role model that I look to for answers is, of course, Jesus Christ.

And what did Jesus do when he walked up to Lazarus’s tomb?

·       First, he commanded that they “Take Away the Stone”.  Tombs are scary, dark, dirty and smelly places.     We need to find those places and bring a crow bar and a flashlight.  Pry our way in, “GO” in there; and then shine a light in those dank, dark corners and find out what’s crawling around in there.

·        Second, Jesus called out in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!”  and then “Unbind him and let him go.” We must “BLESS” people by inviting them to come out of the graves that they have dug, and offer them the freedom of life in Christ.

So returning to the question, “is there hope for our society?”…

The answer is, “Of course!”  We need only look to the great cloud of witnesses to see examples men and women of faith have led society through crises of all sorts.

Whether it was Martin Luther and a cloud of witnesses, fighting the corruption of the central church gone astray, Martin Luther King and a cloud of witnesses fighting on the streets of the US to make a nation free, or Mother Teresa and a cloud of witnesses fighting for the poor and the sick of India.

The Saints of God have come through again and again. 

I believe they…

I believe we will come through again.

Don’t get me wrong, these are troubling times.  Our society is struggling through crises in which it really NEEDS the Church.  At the same time, the Church is at a low ebb for attendance and resources.

But we are still here, and we have something to offer that no hate group, no social group, no self help group can. 

We can offer the light of Christ’s love.

And that love of Christ, unleashed in the world, has the power to drive out the fear and division and hatred that is out there…

We only need to carry that love out of our sanctuaries and into the public discourse.

We need to Go and Bless.

This is the challenge of our time and the opportunity of our time. An opportunity to make the Church relevant to the majority of people once more.

This is our time!

THAT is the hope.  THAT is the good news.

You see our hope lies in Jesus Christ and in the Body of Christ here on earth. 

It lies in the Saints of God. 

God help me to be one too.

AMEN!

[1] John 11:4-6

[2] Harper Collins Study Bible Revised Version, HarperCollins: New York, 2006, p. 1836,

Proper 23 - Sunday, October, 14 2018

Proper 23B

October 14, 2018

Job 23:1-9, 16-17

Mark 10:17-31

The Rev. Dr. Kathy Dunagan

If you have friended me on Facebook lately, you will have noticed that my current profile picture is just that, a profile - that is it’s a side view - but not of me.  It’s of Lucy Van Pelt and she’s thrown her arms in the air and is screaming!

I loved the Peanuts comic strip as a kid and I still read them.  Charles Schultz was an interesting person, a devoted Christian who also leaned toward Secular Humanism. He wrote some Sunday School curriculum for adults and taught Sunday School.

The jokes in his strip are one liners and they’re still funny. In the most viewed of all his work, A Charlie Brown Christmas, a made-for-television short film that was first run in 1965, Lucy gets some great lines.  But it’s Charlie Brown’s little sister who got one of the best lines.

She asked her older brother, Charlie Brown to help her with her letter to Santa.  He did so begrudgingly.  He had a lot on his mind after all, what with his dread of a big commercial Christmas and that play he was working on in his directorial debut. But he grabbed a pencil and paper and started taking dictation.  Sally began a long list of all the things she wanted for Christmas but then, she just wrapped it up by suggesting to Santa that if her list was too complicated, he could just send cash.  She said, “How about 10s and 20s!” and Charlie Brown ran away with his arms in the air screaming about the commercialism of Christmas ruining everything.

I always empathized with him in that scene.  To this day I bemoan the Christmas rush of spending and the lack of time we spend in prayer, the expectant prayer of Advent, the spiritual depth of riches we could receive from waiting for Christmas has been mostly lost.

But, that’s the new Christmas mantra isn’t it, as Sally put it, “All I want is what I have coming to me.  All I want is my fair share.” And we are still in this struggle more than 50 years since Charles Schultz named the problem in 1965.

There are actually two difficult theological questions in today’s readings:  the question of a mechanistic world view and the question of how much we must sacrifice to become disciples.

First, we dig further into the dilemma of Job who is a good man, as good as they come and yet God has allowed him to be cursed and tormented by the satan.  The theological problem here is a mechanistic worldview. We know all about this.  We see it every day. This is the problem of assuming that those who act righteously can expect good things to happen and those who fail to act righteously can expect calamity. The problem with the book of Job is that we approach it from this world view.  We want what we have coming to us.   And we expect God to be all loving, all knowing and all powerful and therefore give us, God’s very creation and likeness, whatever we want.  We don’t get why Job, a good man, had it so bad.  He lost all his crops, his children all died, he developed a horrible skin disease, his wife told him to curse God and die and then seems to have left him alone, scratching his sores with shards of broken pots.  We, like Job’s friends enter this scene with the question of why.  Why would God allow this to happen to a good man?  Why do bad things happen to good people?!

And we want answers.

But, it doesn’t work that way does it?

This is what Biblical scholars call a mechanistic worldview. If you sin you get retribution, also known as bad karma or bad luck. But if you are good, and you keep the 10 commandments and you don’t trick people, well then you get good things, good luck and, well, “10s and 20s.”

In last week’s part of Job’s story, Job was dignified and refused to speak ill of the God who seemed to have allowed his many losses. But this week we find him winning and complaining and asking that inevitable question, “Why me?”

Still, unlike his friends, Job is confident of his righteousness. Job remedies this cognitive dissonance by challenging the justice of God. Because God is not following the dictates of a mechanistic worldview, God must be held accountable. Job envisions placing God on trial in hopes of being vindicated.

I visited a non-Episcopalian in a hospital this week who, bedridden, was spending all his time watching the hurricane on CNN.  He asked me to verify a scripture for him about the wrath of God through such natural disasters.  To tell you truth, I didn’t recognize the passage and I don’t agree.  God does not send hurricanes to punish non-believers.  But I failed to convince my new friend.

The most likely place you will find dramatic examples of this dilemma of mechanistic theology, is in holocaust movies and books.  There is a 2008 movie I recommend called “God On Trial” which takes place in a bunk house of a concentration camp.  I also recommend Elie Wiesel’s book, “Night” in which he questions the audacity of God to allow such inhumane and evil things to happen to "God’s chosen people.”

The second theological problem in this morning’s readings is that Jesus has the audacity to tell this rich young man to sell everything he has and give the proceeds to the poor.  Throughout the history of middle class Christianity, we have managed this commandment because we don’t know what else to do.

There is an oft quoted statement of President Carter about discipleship. It is something he said, among many, about his faith and he said this particular thing a long time ago.  I’m curious about why this has been hitting social media so much this week. But Jimmy Carter is quoted as having once said, “My faith demands that I do whatever I can, wherever I am, whenever I can, for as long as I can with whatever I have to try to make a difference.”

Mr. Carter is actually paraphrasing John Wesley who said, in the 18th century, “Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as ever you can.”

These are both great quotes to remember. Because, my friends, that is the basic premise of discipleship.  We must give our all, make sacrifices, be willing to give away even all that we have so that we can prioritize following Jesus.

Here are some more thoughts on how we manage our Gospel lesson:

There’s pretty much nothing we can do but manage it.  Mark’s is a relentless Gospel, which seems not so much to invite to faith as to prove again and again the impossibility of faith. A few times that pattern is broken -- we will all be really relieved to meet blind Bartimaeus in a few weeks’ time. But today’s pericope is killer. So we have to manage it.

So, here are some time-honored strategies of this management. Get ready.  These will sound like a bunch of excuses by the time I’m done!

•         1st. The rich young man didn’t actually keep the law.  He actually did not follow the law that required charitable gifting. So that business about giving up his possessions was just a way Jesus was calling his bluff.

•         2nd. Nobody can actually keep the law, hence nobody can give up everything, either; it’s just a rhetorical device to call our bluff, and once we grasp that, well, we’re off the hook.

•         3rd. Giving up everything was a command to this particular rich young man, but only to him. It makes no claim on anyone else, being but an object lesson on acquisitiveness.

•         4th. It was a real command, but it applies only to the rich. All of us can think of someone richer, so by contrast we don’t qualify.

•         5th. Then again, the disciples infer just the opposite: everyone is rich (presumably because even the poor can think of someone poorer). Luckily, Jesus gives us the ultimate divine out: we can’t do it, but God can. Whew. Off to the mall.

Who can argue with Jesus on this one? We know he’s right about the law and about the wealth. It’s the double-bind of our Christian formation: this lesson is so deeply internalized that it’s nearly impossible to hear it for the chasm in our lives of faith that it is.

The rich young man was an attentive, devout, open-hearted keeper of a law that was intended to shield and uphold life, yet still ready to learn more from the Master. So he sought Jesus out and knelt at his faith with utmost respect. If only we were as ready and listened as well as he!

An this guy is the only person in the entire Gospel who is singled out as being loved by Jesus. It’s the only place where it says that “Jesus loved him,” loved one person in that way. And this one dearly, uniquely loved person just walks away, “disheartened” and “sorrowful.” How terribly shocking to discover that, after all, you love your stuff more than you love the Kingdom of God. Mark seems to pause here in his relentless challenge to give a nod toward the tragedy that is the human being.

When I was a teenager the Holy Spirit gave me an incredible gift.  I must have been about 14 because I had been confirmed at 13 and this was just after that. I had a notion one Sunday to stop reciting the Creed with my church.  I decided to stand out of respect, but to stand silently and ponder the words of the creed. I decided without any advice or without discussing it with another soul, that I should just listen for a while.  I decided that I would not say the creed again until I was sure I really did believe all that stuff.

Now, that was in the United Methodist Church and they used the Apostle’s Creed every week at the time, I guess they still do. In that creed we say “I believe” which is a bit different from the Nicene Creed which we, in The Episcopal Church use every Sunday - except for baptisms and sometimes funerals when we use the Apostle’s Creed. The predominant use of the Nicene Creed is precisely that we language.  We pray as a community and so we stand and profess our faith as a we.

So, if that had been the case when I was 14 I may have missed the opportunity to personally and spiritually study the creed in this experiential way of asking myself, through the nudge of the Holy Spirit, if I did, in fact, believe the creed. 

Do you?  Do you believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heave and earth? Do you believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord? The Holy Spirit? The Church? Forgiveness of sins? The resurrection of the body? The life everlasting?

This is what the readings are about this morning.  The book of Job is not about “why bad things happen to good people” but rather about belief in God - God almighty.  God is God and we are not. If we want to explain away the omnipotence of God, then we have a problem.  When we make such excuses, we’re trying to be God, to control God, to figure out and fix God.

Jesus did not tell this young seeker of “eternal life” to give away all his possessions so that the man would suffer or learn his lesson the hard way.  Jesus was not punishing him.  Jesus was inviting him to a life of following the way of God.  And you can’t follow and join in the joy of a life of belief, a life of faith, if you don’t let go of your stuff!

I want to bring this back around, like I like to do in wrapping up my rambling sermons, to Sally Brown, that lovable Peanut’s character.  Because, you know what else was great about Sally Brown?  Her love for Linus!

Sally’s usually  afraid of everything - she’s sort of like little Woodstock in that way always screaming and startling. But in spite of her fear of everything, Sally is hopelessly devoted to Linus Van Pelt.  If you remember, she would always follow him around with hearts floating all around her.

(Parenthetically, there’s an opportunity for us locally to love Linus too and make blankets with the Linus Project on October 20th!)

But Sally’s devotion to Linus causes her to forget all her fearful ways and follow around that guy she feels devoted to.  If any of us were as devoted as this to Jesus, we would get this whole section of Mark’s Gospel when Jesus gives us example after example of how to become a disciple, how to love God and follow Jesus.  We would also get this lesson of letting go of our stuff - at least that stuff that gets in our way.  Because, if we were so devoted to Jesus, we wouldn’t care about that old stuff anymore anyway.

It really is that simple.

So go and do likewise.

Amen.

Proper 21 - Sunday, September 30, 2018

Proper 21B 2018

James 5:13-20

Mark 9:38-50

The Rev. Dr. Kathy Dunagan

My grandmother grew up on the Eastern Shore on a big farm and then went to Mary Baldwin to become a teacher in the 1920s and then took a teaching job in Lee County where she met my grandfather.  His name was Alonzo Kelly but she just called him Kelly, or usually just Kell.

She used to say about my grandfather that he was a “salty man.”  As a kid I didn’t know what that meant but I loved hearing her say it.  And she said it often.

To this day I’m not sure but I’ve come to understand this saying as an Appalachian way of saying someone is earthy, and grounded, and full of faith in God.  That would be a good description of my grandfather.  And so, I have spent my life hoping that I too would become a salty woman.

Jesus is still teaching his disciples with a child in his lap.  We have picked up the story where we were last Sunday when Jesus suggested we need to be like children to enter the Kingdom.

Today we hear Jesus use some strong words to teach his disciples about the seriousness of discipleship.  It’s not easy.  It takes sacrifice, or at least the willingness to let go of some things we think we need but can live without.  And he suggests that living a sinful life would be like harming the child he is still holding.

Years ago, during a particularly stressful time, I ended up at a John McCutcheon concert at the Barter Theatre in Abingdon. John McCutcheon is a lesser known musician who was living in the Charlottesville area at the time and I had seen him in Atlanta and had been listening to his recordings. I was under a great deal of stress at the time. It was my Senior year of seminary. 

John put a basket on the stage at the end of his first set at the Barter that night and let us put requests in it for the second set.  I was impressed with his courage to take requests.  I wrote down that I wanted to hear his rendition of “Satisfied Mind.” I added the phrase “I need one!” to the bookmark sized form the ushers passed out. 

While others mingled during the intermission, I walked all the way down the aisle from my seat in the back and I placed that piece of paper in his basket like I was placing my heart on an altar.

After the intermission, I waited to hear my request.  John didn’t sing it.

The song Satisfied Mind was written in 1948 and recorded by Porter Wagner and was his #1 hit in 1955. Lots of other great singers have covered it, including Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Joan Baez, Glen Campbell,  Bob Dylan and even Ella Fitzgerald. It was written “by a couple of Texas guys” as Darrell Scott put it - Red Hayes and Jack Rhodes.

Hayes once explained the origin of the song in an interview this way: "The song came from my mother. Everything in the song are things I heard her say over the years. I put a lot of thought into the song before I came up with the title. One day my father-in-law asked me who I thought the richest man in the world was, and I mentioned some names. He said, 'You're wrong, it is the man with a satisfied mind.'" Hayes added more to his story.  He said, “(The song) has been done a lot in churches. I came out of the Opry one night and a church service was going on nearby. The first thing I hear was the congregation singing 'Satisfied Mind.' I got down on my knees.”

The song, Satisfied Mind is about greed and our longing for more - more stuff, more consumerism, more freedom - the freedom we think we would have if we just had more money and more stuff.  The kick line is, “But I'm richer by far with a satisfied mind.”

Satisfied Mind

How many times have

You heard someone say,

“If I had his money

I would do things my way?”

How little they know,

That it's so hard to find,

One rich man in ten

With a satisfied mind.

Once I was waitin’,

In fortune and fame,

Had everything that I needed

To get a start in life's game.

Then suddenly it happened,

I lost every dime ,

But I'm richer by far

With a satisfied mind.

 

Money can't buy back

Your youth when you're old

Or a friend when you're lonely

Or a love that's grown cold

The wealthiest person

Is a pauper at times

Compared to the man

With a satisfied mind

 

When my life has ended

And my time has run out

My friends and my loved ones

who have gone on before

One thing is for certain

When I’ve done my time,

I'll leave this old world

With a satisfied mind

The fact that John McCutcheon didn’t sing “Satisfied Mind” for me that night 20 years ago was a strange gift.  I was disappointed.  But ever since that night, I have wondered why I made the request.  What about that song drew me to that particular altar that night? Do I need to let go of my own longing for more money?  Am I greedy? What does it mean to be satisfied?

I would have missed all that pondering if he’d just sung the song. If he had sung that song that night, I would have felt validated, listened to, loved in a way.  I would have felt that I got what I had coming to me, that I deserved to have my favorite song played because I bought his recordings.

I would have felt satisfied, I guess.

But he didn’t sing it. Instead he unknowingly gave me the gift of living since then with these questions. That’s one understanding of why God sometimes says “no” to our prayer requests.  We need to live into the prayer request itself a little longer - maybe a life time. Why is it that you asked God for that thing, or action, or advocacy?  Do you really need it?

The readings this morning are difficult. There is violence and degradation and power struggle and the death penalty. There’s a lot of us vs. them. And there is some danger in that Gospel lesson!

It's interesting that Jesus lays bare the minefield of church, real dangers within Christian community. The followers who are closest to Jesus in these verses, ie, the disciples, carry a huge responsibility as a result of their intimacy with Christ. Others look to them, follow their examples, are susceptible to their claims and practices, are perhaps especially vulnerable to their critiques and conflicts. Carelessness in discipleship can do irreparable damage to those most vulnerable within the body of Christ. 

There are stumbling blocks, we are warned, that are part of us: hands, feet, eyes. Things we hold dear. Things we think we need. Through images of body parts, Jesus makes clear that stumbling blocks are not other people or things outside of us. They are part of us. These stumbling blocks might be events, practices, "the way we've always done it," or our own pet causes.

In light of these words of promise and judgment, Mark calls upon Jesus' teaching to be the salt of the world. If we, as the people of God and followers of Jesus, lose our purpose to honor and worship the Lord and serve one another, we are like salt that has lost its intended purpose and is only good to be destroyed: (“Salt is good; but if salt has lost its saltiness, how can you season it?" 9:50a).

The closing admonition of our text is the claim and promise of God and Jesus' call to live as God's intended purpose in creating us for life: "Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another" (9:50b). This is the call, identity, and promise of discipleship which is the peace that Jesus offers to all his followers. We are called by Jesus into a cosmic engagement against the powers of evil and injustice and to serve our neighbor in love.

The point Jesus is making about cutting off parts of our bodies to avoid sin is some serious business.  But it is a metaphor about division.  The disciples are worried about people outside of their circle performing miracles in the name of Jesus.  They want a clear line between who is in and who is out, between us and them.  And Jesus disparages them from thinking of the workings of God like a club.  For if someone is healed in the name of Jesus, then Jesus has been glorified regardless of which disciple did the work.

Yesterday, we had a wonderful day long event here at Grace in which 16 of us sat in a circle and shared scripture, prayer, bread, wine and thoughts.  And we did most of that through singing instead of talking.  We learned of ways to use song to enhance worship and fellowship and theology and faith and justice seeking and evangelism. 

But there was a tense moment when our leader Paul asked us to do a participatory exercise that was challenging.  We were sitting in a circle and had been together for hours at this point.  He asked us to each, individually stand in teh middle of the circle, make eye contact with each person and make a gesture of thanks.  Most people did a “namaste bow,”  all of us were uncomfortable.  We talked after about why.  We admitted to each other that we don’t like being thrust into the spotlight, forced to act in a required way while everyone is looking at us. 

I’ve talked from this pulpit recently about how much I hate participatory exercises like that. But we all eventually tried to exercise and we all experienced that magic that only comes with allowing oneself to become vulnerable among friends.  I talked about the importance of vulnerability for relationship in this pulpit last Sunday.  It takes vulnerability to enter into relationship with each other and with God.

So, I’m not going to ask you to do a participatory exercise this morning, but imagine how you would respond if I did.  Imagine if you will that there was an insert in the bulletin you have and imagine me asking you now to pull it out and write on it just one thing that you are holding onto that is keeping you from letting God lead you.  Imagine writing down that one thing that is a stumbling block for you.  That one thing you need to forgive.  That one thing that keeps you on the outskirts of your own community, your own family.  Imagine writing that one thing down and the walking all the way up here, past me, past the choir, up to the altar and laying it down.  Imagine that symbol allowing you to turn it over to God. Let it go. Move on.

What would you write?  Would you feel satisfied?

Satisfaction is that experience of “being at peace with one another.” A satisfied mind is one that has learned to rely on God, follow Jesus and recognize the nudging of the Holy Spirit.  A satisfied mind is one that gets out of the way of the heart of a Christian who worries less and serves God more.

But we think of satisfaction as that thing we feel when our bellies are full of good food, or our bank account is full of money or our enemies have failed.

Jesus calls us to a different sort of satisfaction, a different peace than that human nature stuff of winning.  Jesus calls us to live together in peace and that, my friends takes patience and listening and openness and sharing and gratitude.  To live together in community is to learn to pray together for each other and for the world.  To live together in Christian community is to learn to confess to each other and forgive each other.

As James put in today’s Epistle lesson, if someone is suffering, let them pray. If someone is happy, let them sing songs of praise. If someone is sick, ask the clergy to come and anoint them with oil and pray for their healing.

Confess your sins to one another.

Be reconciled.

Be renewed.

Be whole.

Be salty.

Amen.

Proper 20 - Sunday, September 23, 2018

Proper 20B

September 23, 2018

Proverbs 31:10-31

James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a

Mark 9:30-37

The Rev. Dr. Kathy Dunagan

            This morning’s lessons are rich. Most of us want to skip that Old Testament reading, though.  If you happen to be a wife and a preacher, it is tempting to either use this moment to beg to be recognized for all the ways you are like this list of perfect attributes of wives.  Or, you are tempted to skip the whole thing in fear of being measured next to this list and coming up short.  I mean, who could be that perfect?

          If you are a husband and haven’t praised your wife or are tempted to measure all her weaknesses up against this poem, then maybe you’d better skip it too!

          There was a retired Rabbi in the town I lived in in Georgia who gave me an insight into much of the Hebrew Bible. That’s that part of the Bible we call the “Old Testament.”

          He was a congenial presence around the town and served as a City Councilman. I learned about a practice behind Proverbs 31 that I’ve appreciated ever since. “Each Sabbath evening,” the Rabbi said, “I recite the poem in Proverbs 31 to my wife. It begins ‘A good wife who can find…’ and it ends with the husband addressing his wife directly, in a ‘you’ statement: “Many women have done excellently, but you surpass them all (verse 29).”

          This meant that once a week, after reciting an alphabet full of statements about your good wife, you look her in the eyes and switch to a “you” statement saying, in effect, “There are lots of great women around. But baby, you’re the best of them all!”  This text is often cited at weddings when the priest suggests that it would be a good practice for each married person to praise their spouse, at least once a week!

          The woman described in this Proverb is in charge of managing the household. She gets up early and has prepared the tasks to be assigned to her staff (Proverbs 31:14-15). She deals in real estate (verse 16). Snow does not frighten her. She has prepared proper clothing to protect from the stormy weather. Her husband is a known and respected member of the community (verse 23). She has a well-tuned sense of humor, knowing when to laugh and when to be more reserved (verse 25). She is industrious, working into the night (verses 15, 18). She is concerned for the poor and the needy (verse 20) and of course, for her own family (verses 21-22, 27). She is a Godly woman, deserving of the praise of her children, her husband, and the community (verses 28-31). Finally, this good woman speaks words of wisdom, wisely (verse 26).

          So, as a wife sitting with this text this week, I was left feeling a bit disappointed in myself.  I’m not even half of that list!

          I had another moment of self-disappointment this week. This one in the music festival I participated in.  It was a four-day-long Bluegrass Jam Camp.  They call it a camp because it’s fun - like summer camp only for adults and with comfortable beds. The food was really good too!

          It’s an immersion exercise.  Some adults take their vacations and go to immersion’s in languages like one of my friends who spends a whole week at Sewanee speaking only in German.  That does not sound like camp to me.  But immersion in playing the mandolin is fun to me..

          Like camp, there is, of course, a talent show of sorts on the last night.  Everyone is encouraged to join a small group that afternoon and work up a couple of songs to perform in front of the whole assembly.  There is not enough time to rehearse and so you are sort of thrown into having to think on your feet.  That is part of the exercise.  We each make fools of ourselves but it is in a friendly room because everyone is being foolish - all for the sake of learning.

          This year, one of the running conversation topics was that feeling you get when you succeed.  For us it was when something clicked in a technique or melody or harmony.  Someone said that when you finally get it, it’s like a religious experience.  I laughed, thinking to myself that we, in the church, call those mountaintop experiences or thin places.  Those ore the times we feel closest to God.

          My new friend Charles is a filmmaker from the Raleigh area. He also does a lot of work as a motivational speaker.  (He did not seek this type of work, it found him because he just has the gifts for it.) I complimented his singing the next morning before we departed and he talked at length about what he has learned about such exercises.

          Here’s what he said: “Vulnerability is scary and often dangerous. But if we can be vulnerable with each other we always benefit, grow and learn.” Charles went on to say that he believes all people of all ages are simply looking for validation.  At this point in our conversation, as he talked about this, he began to weep. He talked about the ways we find validation and how desperately most of us need it. And then he said, “And it’s everywhere around us if we’ll just accept it!”

          There are moments in life, those special moments when we encounter Christ in others.  Call it a religious experience, a mountaintop or a thin place, this was one of those moments.  But, as these moments often go, I didn’t recognize it until later. I just stared and tried to make sense of what Charles was saying and why it was making him weep.

          At lunch that day, our last meal together, Susan, another camp friend said, out of the blue, “Kathy, your solo last night was amazing, it was fantastic! No, really I mean it was great and so was your singing!” I sat agape looking at Susan and said, “That’s hilarious! I thought I completely bombed.  I thought that was a terrible solo and that I was awful!”

          We laughed and I told her about what Charles said and then we talked about how dumb we all can be in not recognizing our own successes and how much we need each other for honest feedback.

          When Jesus busts his disciples for arguing about who is the greatest he takes the opportunity as a teaching moment. Rabbi’s sit to teach. So he sat down and took a little child into his lap and tried to get across to them his theology of “the first shall be last.”

          One scholar I read this week told of a joke in her church in which they sometimes refer to the disciples as the “duh-ciples.” As in, Duh! Because, especially in Mark, they often seem so dumb!

          But when they seem dumb, the disciples are actually being vulnerable for learning and they are able to make fools of themselves for Christ because of the love Jesus has taught them to practice. There’s love between them enough to make and learn from mistakes.

          But it is the child in this story that got me the most.

          I am quite proud of the fact that we care very much about the children in our community. Just take a look around at the people in the pews next to you and you will find in this parish lots of workers and advocates of children.  From the school board to making blankets to supporting The Boys Home, we care about the safety, education and love of children at Grace Church.  So, if Jesus is suggesting that we need to consider these little ones who have no rights, he’s teaching to the choir.

          But if Jesus were to sit down in Bisset park today to teach a grassroots, makeshift, gathering of followers - without a permit - and pick up a random child and sit the child on his lap - he would likely get arrested too early.

          This seems an overreaction when you think of it that way, how teachers and child care providers can’t touch children anymore without fear of being suspected of harming the child. But it is necessary for us to be so cautious because of what has come to light about the abuse of children in our world.

          (As a side note, children (and men and women) have been abused since the beginning of time. But since the dawn of the internet, we now see it more clearly because of our increased communication technologies.)

          But Jesus is taking the metaphor a step further. He says, in reference to the child here, “welcome one such child in my name” and so we try to be better adults.  But perhaps we need to consider also being the child that is welcomed. 

          The model Jesus gives us in this lesson from Mark, of being kind to children is difficult enough.  To be childlike is even more difficult for us.  We are better at being child-ish - you know, demanding, temper tantrums to get our way, bullying peers to make ourselves feel better. Or maybe not al of us act in these ways, still we each risk the childish behavior of needing attention and validation.

          Charles was right.  We are all in need of validation.

          A young child who dies and goes to Heaven.  He is at the Pearly Gates, met by St. Peter himself.  However, the gates are closed, and he approaches the gatekeeper.

          St. Peter says, “Well, Ian, we have heard a lot about you. Unfortunately, the place is filling up fast, and we have been giving an entrance exam for everyone. the test is short, but you have to pass it before you can get into Heaven.”

          Ian responds, “Nobody ever told me about any entrance exam. I sure hope that the test isn’t too hard. I’m not very good at tests.”

          St. Peter continues, “It’ll be okay. It’s only three questions.”

          “First: What two days of the week begin with the letter ’T’?”

          “Second: How many seconds are there in a year?”

          “Third: What is God’s first name?”

          Ian leaves to think the questions over. He returns the next day and sees St. Peter, who waves him up, and says, “Now that you have had a chance to think the questions over, tell me your answers.”

          Ian replies, “Well, the first one - which two days in the week begin with the letter ’T’? Shucks, that one is easy. That would be today and tomorrow.”

          The Saint’s eyes open wide, and he exclaims, “Well, that is not what I was thinking, but you do have a point, and I guess I did not specify, so I will give you credit for that answer. How about the next on?” asks St. Peter.

          “How many seconds in a year? Now that one is harder,” replies Ian. “But I thought and thought about that, and I guess the only answer can be twelve.”

          Astounded, St. Peter says, “Twelve? Twelve? Ian, how in Heaven’s name could you come up with twelve seconds in a year?”

          Ian replies, “Shucks, there’s got to be twelve: January 2nd, February 2nd, March 2nd, . . . “

          “Hold it,” interrupts St. Peter. “I see where you are going with this, and I see our point, though that was not quite what I had in mind . . . but I will have to give you credit for that one too. Let us go on with the third and final question. Can you tell me God’s first name?”

          “Sure,” Ian replies, “it’s Andy.”

          “Andy?” exclaims an exasperated and frustrated St. Peter.

          “Okay, I can understand how you came up with your answers to my first two questions, but just how in the world did you come up with the name Andy as the first name of God?”

          “Shucks, that was the easiest one of all,” Ian replies. I learned it from the song:          ‘Andy walks with me, Andy talks with me, Andy tells me I am his own . . .’”

          St. Peter opens the Pearly Gates, and says, “Welcome to Heaven.”

          Even as a saint guarding the Heavenly Gates, Peter’s expectations are completely opposite of what actually happens. The disciples were often wrong about what to expect from Jesus and the Kingdom of God. And so are we. There is nothing conventional about who Jesus is or what the Kingdom is that he is ushering in. It is the same for Peter and Ian in this story. Ian does not answer any questions conventionally and is welcomed into heaven anyway.

          We would do well to be like Ian, child-like rather than child-ish. And we would do well to ease up on our expectations of each other and offer each other praise and validation.

          In the end it is a room full of love and friendship that can get even the worst banjo player through a round of Jimmy Crack Corn.  And life is best lived when we are all growing and learning.

          Thanks be to God.

          Amen.

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.