Fourth Sunday of Easter - Sunday, May 12, 2019

Fourth Sunday of Easter - Sunday, May 12, 2019

Easter 4 Good Shepherd Sunday Year C

The. Rev. Judy Spruhan

I have decided that Good Shepherd Sunday is my least favorite Sunday of the year to preach. Even more than Trinity Sunday, Good Shepherd Sunday challenges my liturgical brain.  After all, how much can any preacher say about this image?  It made perfect sense in the historical and cultural context in which it was first presented, but how do we wrap our minds around it in today’s world, when we are so separated by time and culture from the reality of sheep and sheep herding (except for those few of us who still raise their own sheep)?

In order to prime the pump of my preaching brain, I thought of some of the connections I have in my own life to the image of the Good Shepherd.  I remember telling you about the plastic glow-in-the-dark Good Shepherd plaque I won in Sunday School for memorizing the 23rd Psalm. I thought of another connection, which was the fans we used in church during the summer in West Virginia. They were donated by the local funeral home and had a picture of Jesus holding a lamb and surrounded by sheep. For that matter, the only other time we regularly use Psalm 23 in our liturgy is during funerals (in King James Version, of course). It is the only Psalm which many of us know by heart, even those who have not darkened the door of a church for many years. “The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want,” triggers the memory of many elders who have long since lost their memory for other things. Even from the distance of time and culture, we still cling to this image of Jesus as the Good Shepherd. But why?

Today’s Gospel reading follows the famous passage where Jesus talks about being the Good Shepherd who gives his life for his sheep. The context of today’s passage is very different. He is not talking to his disciples or to those hundreds of people who gathered wherever he went to hear his teachings.  He is speaking to the Temple authorities, who have cornered him and demanded that he tell them once and for all if he is the Messiah they have waited for centuries to arrive. He is also speaking on a major Jewish feast day, the Feast of the Dedication, which we know as Hanukkah. The authorities are hoping that he will entrap himself in his words, either speaking in such a way that they can charge him with blasphemy under Jewish law, or accuse him of treason with the Roman authorities. He is speaking in the Portico of Solomon, an enclosed area where there is no safe way out if things get out of hand.

Jesus’s message is plain and simple. Those who believe in me hear my voice, and they are my sheep. I’ve already told you who I am, and my deeds should prove it to you. If you don’t believe me, it’s because you are not my sheep.

He then draws on one of the Old Testament Messianic prophecies in Ezekiel. In this passage, the prophet is ordered to prophesy against the shepherds of Israel-those who only ate the choicest meat and clothed themselves in the sheeps’ wool, those who were using their power and authority only to abuse the sheep.  The prophet proclaims that these shepherds are not healing the sick, binding up the wounded, seeking the lost, or strengthening the weak.  Because those who claimed to be the shepherds were not defending the sheep, the sheep were scattered and became prey for wild animals. As a consequence, God will remove the unfaithful shepherds. God will search for the sheep, will seek them out and gather them from all the countries where they have scattered, and will bring them to their own land. Because the leaders have failed in their trust, God will be the shepherd of God’s people, and God will feed the sheep with justice. This is the shepherd Jesus is claiming to be when he confronts the authorities. As God promised to care for God’s people, so Jesus is tending his sheep, even at the cost of his own life. The works which God would do-healing , binding, seeking and strengthening-Jesus is doing. The love which God promised God’s people, Jesus is showing. Jesus claims to be both different than and more than the promised Messiah-he declares at the end of today’s passage that he and the Father are one. In his own person, God is present in the world and among the people, who will hear his voice and recognize the Shepherd. One thing you can say about Jesus, he certainly did not lack courage!

For me, one kernel from this passage which struck me this year is the declaration that the Shepherd knows each sheep by name, and calls them to him by that name. Remember the Easter story of Mary Magdalene in the garden, assuming Jesus is the gardener and asking him where he moved his body. She recognizes Jesus when he calls her name. I remember when our Bishop of Chicago, Frank Griswold, became Presiding Bishop. Our daughter was so thrilled to know that the Presiding Bishop of the whole American church knew her name. And when he visited the reservation where we were working, his first response was to give my husband and I a big smile and a hug, which made us instant celebrities to the people whom we served. So how awesome is it that the Creator of the universe, of all time and all space, knows each of us by name?

Another kernel from the Good Shepherd passage is that Jesus declares that his sheep recognize his voice, and will follow him and no one else. The custom of his day was to shelter several flocks of sheep in the same cave, where they would mingle with each other during the night. In the morning, each shepherd would leave the sheepfold and call his sheep. Only his sheep would come to him, as they were the only ones who recognized his voice. The other sheep would remain in the cave until they heard their own shepherd’s voice. Jesus compares himself to this familiar shepherd, who will give his sheep eternal life, and declares no one will be able to snatch them out of his hands. He again tells the Temple authorities that they do not believe him because they are not his sheep, and do not recognize his voice. This should give us pause to consider if we are listening to the voice of our Shepherd, or to some other voice which calls us away promising a life of success, fame, or tranquility.

Our passage today in Revelations carries this theme of Shepherding further. Here, Jesus is the Lamb who will shepherd his people. These are the people who have heard his voice, those who are loyal to the Lamb, have washed their robes, and have worshiped in God’s heavenly Temple. They are told that the Lamb who is at the center of the throne will be their shepherd. He will guide them to springs of living water, and God will wipe every tear from their eyes. The One who has died and has risen, who has defeated death forever, will be both their goal and their reward.

Again, this passage in Revelations is one which we usually don’t hear except at funerals. By relegating the Good Shepherd passages from the Psalms, the Gospels, and the book of Revelation to funerals, we have lost the power of this image. So what do these passages have to say to us as 21st century Christians far removed from the world of sheep and shepherds, who are not attending a funeral today (at least I hope not!)?

The theme of each of today’s readings centers on the type of relationship which the Shepherd has with his sheep. Our relationship with Jesus is a relationship based on faith. As one writer expressed it, “faith is not the result of an intellectual pursuit-faith is the ability to hear the Shepherd’s voice and find connection, peace, and confidence from this intimate association.” Faith is a deeply personal and intimate relationship with God. The relationship which Jesus offers each of us is one based on love, one which has been created and sealed by the blood of Jesus. Our Shepherd does not love us because we are particularly smart or educated sheep, but because God is love, and loved us before we even knew there was a God to love.

I may have told this story here before, but it is very relevant to today’s readings, so I will tell it again.There is a story of a famous stuntman (like Evel Knievel) whose biggest trick was to ride his bicycle across a giant water fall. He had a large basket connected to the front of his bike.  He would talk to the crowds that gathered and ask, “Do you believe I can ride this bike across this waterfall?” And the crowd would answer, “Yes, yes, we believe you can do this!”  He would ask again, and again the crowd would roar their response. Then he would pick out the loudest person in the crowd and ask, “Do you REALLY believe I can ride my bike across these falls?”  When the man answered, “Yes! I REALLY believe you can ride this bicycle across these falls,” the stuntman would answer, “Good-get in the basket!” 

Our relationship with our Shepherd is based on this kind of trust. As the sheep trust their shepherd to protect them and to lead them on good paths, so we come to trust our Good Shepherd to hold us in his hands, to be with us throughout all of the dangers and trials of this life. Our faith is not an intellectual assent to the Creed or the Prayer Book or to our particular branch of the Jesus Movement-it is not about getting all of our questions answered. We have been called into a personal relationship with the One who loves us and gave himself for us.

Do you have this kind of relationship with Jesus? In the words of the old Gospel hymn, “Softly and tenderly Jesus is calling, calling for you and for me.” Do you hear his voice calling to you today in love, calling you to a deeper and more intimate walk with him? Do you recognize the voice of our Shepherd calling to you this morning in the words of Scripture? Do you hear him calling at the altar, where we offer ourselves anew to him, and he gives himself to us in the bread and wine? Do you know his living, loving presence in your life each day? If not, reach out to him today, bleat your heart out, and the Shepherd will hear and will draw near to you in love.

A child once tried her hardest to memorize the 23rd Psalm for a program the Sunday School was putting on for their parents. Each night, she would struggle with the words, until she thought she had it firmly in her mind.  But when the day came, she got up on the stage and all the words had flown from her memory.  So she said meekly, “The Lord is my Shepherd-and that’s all I know.” 

Maybe that’s all we need to know.

Third Sunday of Easter - May 5, 2019

Easter 3C 2019

John 21:1-19

The Rev. Dr. Kathy Dunagan

 

I have told you this story before but want to tell it again in light of today’s Gospel reading.  It is the story of how I once got lost as a kid. 

We were at a church camp called Camp Ahistadi near Damascus. We were in the meadow down by the creek which flows beyond through the wooded mountainside. It was a parish retreat, I think so I was with my entire family and most of my church family.  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 creek nearby. I was suddenly afraid and suddenly very aware of the dangers of the woods.

All I had to do was follow those 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.

Today’s Gospel lesson is packed full of wonderful images of the resurrection of our Lord.

This part of the story takes place about two weeks after the resurrection and so two weeks since the first two appearances of the risen Lord, according to John. The disciples are gathered by the Sea of Tiberias, another name for the Sea of Galilee. Simon Peter decides to go fishing and the rest of them follow him.  They fish all night and catch nothing. Then Jesus suddenly is there but they don’t recognize him. Imagine, some stranger is standing on the shore a football field distance away and starts giving them fishing tips!  “Jesus said to them, ‘Children, you have no fish, have you?’” I figure they’d have been shouting to each other at that distance, “They answered him, ‘No.’ He said to them, ‘Cast the net to the right side of the boat, and you will find some.’ So they cast it, and now they were not able to haul it in because there were so many fish.”

Then one of them recognizes Jesus and Peter puts on clothes because he had been naked.  I guess nude fishing was hip in those days! So Peter puts on clothes and then jumps in the water. And while the rest of the disciples row the boat full of fish ashore, Peter swims this football field length of the way to the shore.

This all sounds crazy!  How bizarre Peter’s behavior is here! But I suppose that is the way excited people act. Peter swam because he was in a hurry to get to see Jesus.

But let’s back up a bit and look again at this narrative.

Why did Peter decide to go fishing on this particular night? Perhaps this was his way of regaining some normalcy after a week of horror. Just two weeks prior, the same night Jesus washed their feet, Jesus predicted Peter would deny him three times. Then later that same night, Jesus was arrested and then worse Jesus was crucified later that week.

Then, as we have been remembering these weeks of Easter time, there was an empty tomb.  Peter ran to that tomb and saw the lack of a body in it, saw it with his own eyes. And then the resurrected Lord started showing up in random places like in that locked room where they had hidden themselves for fear of also getting crucified.

Peter would have seen him in that room twice - once when Thomas wasn’t around and a week after than when Thomas was there.

One scholar attempted to put together a time line of the resurrection appearances of Jesus and got bogged down in the fact that each gospeler tells it differently.  So, the story of Emmaus, for example, when just a couple of them encounter Jesus and don’t recognize him at first, when he sits at table with them and celebrates the Eucharist, which is when their eyes are opened and they recognize Him in the breaking of the bread, this story is only in Luke’s gospel.

Post resurrection appearances in John, however, are more curious. The first was when Jesus appeared to Mary in the Garden (John 20:11-16). The second was when the disciples were in the locked room, later that same day, when Thomas was missing, and when Thomas returned, a week later was the third. Now another week has gone by and here Jesus is again.  Suddenly.  At dawn.

I’m left wondering what seeing Jesus on the beach that morning might have been like, especially for Peter.  Peter, who had denied him three times now sees him in person a third time and gets the chance to pledge his love to Jesus, three times.  “Do you love me? Feed my sheep.” Three times.

When I got lost at Camp Ahistadi as a child I experienced the fear and pain of being isolated from the community, if for only one moment.  I knew for that moment what permanent isolation might feel like.  It occurred to me how much I needed my family and my community and the experience caused me to appreciate them even more.

When Peter denied Jesus three times he wept bitterly.  It is not until now in the story that we hear again from Peter.  In fact the only mention of Peter between his denial and weeping until this swimming to shore fully clothed moment was the part about him running to the empty tomb when he heard about it from the women on Easter.  But he didn’t speak then.  He just looked at the absence of Jesus and then he went home.

Peter must have been at the other two appearances of the risen Lord but maybe he didn’t get a chance to ask for forgiveness for having denied him three times.  I imagine that Peter, after another week has gone by is grieving and is feeling the pain of remorse, the shame of his denial.  I imagine he was feeling lost, and isolated from his community because of his shame.

So he decided to do what he knew best.  Fishing.  And his community joined him.  They all went fishing.  At night.  They were lost and grieving and confused and not sure what to do next so they did what was most comfortable for them, these fishermen.  They went back to fishing for fish.  They seemed to have forgotten how to fish for people.

Some scholars suggest that the decision of the disciples to go fishing at this point in the story indicates that they gave up on continuing to follow Jesus because they were thinking the death of Jesus was the end of the story.  If that is true, they must have doubted their first two encounters with the risen Lord.  Or, maybe it takes three encounters with a resurrected Jesus for it to finally sink in.

The Gospel of John begins and ends with the disciples following Jesus.  The first words that Jesus speaks in John’s unique version of the story are these:  Jesus’ first words are, “What are you looking for?” These are the same words Jesus spoke to Mary in the garden at his first appearance after the resurrection.  The other disciples went home after they saw the empty tomb. But Mary went back for one more look, she alone saw the angels and was there alone with these angels whom she mistook as gardeners and then Jesus appeared, whom she also mistook for a gardener, but he said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?”

“What are you looking for?”  (John 1:38b-42)

So the first words Jesus said were “What are you looking for?” “Come and see,” and then he changed the name of Simon to Peter at their very first encounter.  The next thing he said, on the next day, was “Follow me.”  The last thing he said, at the Ascension was “Follow me.”

My point is this.  Peter was transformed in his relationship with Jesus. When he first encountered our Lord his name was changed and so was his heart.  Immediately. But then he struggled throughout the next three years of following Jesus.  He muddled things and made mistakes and stumbled along.  But he kept following.

Until this dark night of his soul when he decided to go back to fishing.  When he was left with shame and isolation.

The disciples were grieving and hurting and then Jesus showed up and said, essentially, let’s have some breakfast.

How wonderful.

How stunning a way to appear, as the cook, the servant, the one who invites us to rest and eat and enjoy the breaking dawn.

The night is over. The abundance of the second attempt to bring in fish has proven their doubt silly.  Jesus showed them where to fish - on the “right” side.  And that is when they remembered they were called to fish for people. 

And Peter was transformed.  And he became the leader he was called to be.  He was never the same after that. From that day forward he was fearless and clear minded and open to the workings of the Holy Spirit who spoke and acted through him to preach and heal and spread the Word.

We too can be so transformed.  But we must meet the risen Lord at the feast first. And it might take three times. But where we feast, at this altar, that is where our doubt and grief and shame can be left behind like it was left behind on that beach that day for Peter, And we, like Peter, will find our way.  We will find the abundance of God’s gifts in our labor and in our hearts and we will know how to follow Him.

Amen.

The Burial Service of Jeannie Fender - April 27, 2019

The Burial Service of Jeannie Fender - April 27, 2019

Laura Jean Fender Funeral, April 27. 2019

Isaiah 61:1-3

Psalm 90:1-12

1 Corinthians 15:20-26,35-38,42-44,53-58

John 14:1-6

Grace Episcopal Church, Radford VA

The Rev. Dr. Kathy Dunagan

In the Episcopal Church we still do funerals. That means that, though we may talk of a “celebration of life” or a “memorial service” to ease the discomfort associated with funerals, we still gather in the church as a community, read these scriptures and pray these old prayers together.  In that way we are joined as a community sharing the burden of our brokenheartedness. This is the liturgy of the Burial of the Dead in our Book of Common Prayer. We don’t really like that sort of language. But this doesn’t mean that this hour must be full of sorrow and pining.  No.  This hour is all about joy because of our belief in resurrection.  This is not just because this particular funeral comes during this time of Easter (though isn’t it just perfect that we have all these extra Easter flowers?), this morning we come together to celebrate the resurrection of our Lord and the promise of our own resurrection and the promise of Jeannie’s resurrection.  So, this is not just a “celebration of Jeannie’s life” it is not really even a “memorial service” though those names for what we do here today fit.  This is a funeral.  And funerals are celebrations because we believe in the resurrection of the dead.

That’s why we wear white and put out white hangings and flowers and say Alleluias, for saying “Alleluia even unto the grave” is how we see it.  We are here to celebrate Easter.  Easter for Jeannie.

There’s a saying that all of this is easier when the loved one lost lived a good life.  I’m not sure it’s really easy in any way to lose her, but Jeannie did live a good life.  She was kind and caring, especially with the special needs children she taught for all those years. I’ve always been quick to call a special needs teacher a saint.

She was also an artist who painted landscapes because, in her words, “I love to paint the macro world full of fractals and abstract patterns that only nature can provide.”

I had to look up the word “fractal” when I read that in the Artist Statement about her that is in the bell tower.  A fractal, according to my dictionary is “a curve or geometric figure, each part of which has the same statistical character as the whole. Fractals are useful in modeling structures (such as eroded coastlines or snowflakes) in which similar patterns recur at progressively smaller scales, and in describing partly random or chaotic phenomena such as crystal growth, fluid turbulence, and galaxy formation.”

I am grateful to her for that gift.  I will see the patterns in nature anew now.

Jeannie is also remembered for her generosity.  Apparently her gifts keep on giving.  One example of her generosity is that she would give hand-me-down clothes directly to the parents of her less fortunate students. Rather than send them to Goodwill or the clothing bank this sort of gesture comes through relationship and guards dignity. I’m sure you can think of all the other ways she gave to others from the heart.

Through her love of nature she taught her students to appreciate nature’s ways. One friend remembers that the students in one of her classes published their own personalized journal about nature.  She was a good teacher.

She was also a good daughter, wife, mother, friend, and member of many groups, particularly the PEO sisterhood and this church.

So it is hard to say good-bye.  It is always hard to say good-bye but especially to someone as kind and beautiful as Jeannie.

I hope and pray that the readings we have read together this morning are of great comfort in the face of this great loss.

Isaiah proclaims that the Lord “binds up the brokenhearted” and “comforts all who mourn,” and says that God will give us a “garland instead of ashes, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.”  I don’t know about you but that passage leaves me feeling all cozy, wrapped up in God’s quilt.

St. Paul reminds the Corinthians, and through them us, that though all in Adam die, “so all will be made alive in Christ,” the first fruits, “O death, where is your sting?”  Where, indeed is that sting? Our faith comforts us.

And St. John tells us that Jesus said, this is the red letter Gospel truth part, Jesus said to “not let our hearts be troubled” because “there are many dwelling places” for us.  That sounds sort of like a free reservation at a nice resort for whenever it’s time to go.

But it is the words of Psalm 90 that I want most to lift up for you this morning.

10 “The span of our life is seventy years, perhaps in strength even eighty.”

Jeannie turned 70 two weeks before her death. So this part of the Psalm jumped out for Richard. “The span of our life is seventy years, perhaps in strength even eighty.” Other passages of this Psalm, if I may dismantle it backwardly, continue this theme of exasperation with the brevity of life:

10b  “the sum of (our years) is but labor and sorrow, for they pass away quickly and we are gone.”  3 “You turn us back to the dust and say,  ‘Go back, O child of earth.’"

But there are other passages of Psalm 90 that are quiet comforting:

5  “You sweep us away like a dream; we fade away suddenly like the grass.”  This is the image of a peaceful death, of a passage that is as light as the dawn of a new spring day.  The Psalmist goes on:  6a “In the morning it springs up new.”

The point of the Psalm, you see, is not that life is short and difficult and then you are gone but rather, God’s time and love for us is huge and we too are more large than we tend to think.  We are not limited to the lifespan dates of our birth and death.

2  Before the mountains were brought forth,

or the land and the earth were born, *

from age to age you are God. (says the Psalmist)

4   For a thousand years in your sight are like yesterday when it is past *

and like a watch in the night.

And the best news is the first verse:

1 “Lord, you have been our refuge from one generation to another.”

The Lord will continue to be our refuge and our strength as we live into and through our grief in our loss of Jeannie.

Richard shared with me some thoughts about his loss. One is that “every morning when a couple wakes they should (each) tell their significant other “I love you” and the significance is if you don’t do it, one day it will be too late.”  Richard feels he didn’t say it enough to Jeannie.

But I am sure he did.  I am certain that Jeannie knew how much you loved her, Richard, Nathan, I am sure she knew the love of all of her family and all of her friends.  Because the way that we show our love for each other is not in just saying it each day, it is in all the little ways we show grace to each other, patience, understanding, the way we share a smile or laugh at a joke.  It is in the way that you knew her. The way that her memory lives on in us. You were her friend, her cheerleader, her confidant her rock.  All of you, in some small way loved Jeannie and she knew it.

Richard asked me to share the story of Jeannie’s final moments in this life.

Richard’s good friend, Drew Cormier (pronounced Core Meer) came all the way from Spencer, Massachusetts when Richard called to let him know that Jeannie had fallen ill and he stayed with Richard over the weekend following Jeannie’s death on Feb. 7.  Drew, his wife Carol, Jeannie and Richard had taken several cruises together and become close friends.

A couple of days later, Drew was sitting at Richard’s kitchen table. Richard was at the sink washing a dish and they were discussing the events of the week leading up to Jeannie’s death.

Richard told Drew there was just one five minute window in which no one was in the hospital room with Jeannie.  Her sister, Mary, had stepped out to the cafeteria for a takeout sandwich, Richard had gone home to feed and walk the dog and no hospital personnel were in the room for that moment.  That is when Jeannie left this world. Like a lady.

Drew said “Richard, you know my mother is Catholic.  She said a rosary for Jeannie at 6:30 that evening and asked God to take Jeannie into his hands.  What time did she die?”

Richard told Drew “She died at 6:30.”

For Richard, as he puts it, “this is a testament that there is a Higher Authority and He showed up for my wife at 6:30 p.m. February 7.  Praise be to God.”

Praise be to God indeed.

Amen.

Easter Vigil - Saturday, April 20, 2019

Easter Eve 2019

Romans 6:3-11

Psalm 114

Luke 24:1-12


This is the night.

There is a story of a white preacher who was asked to preach at Atlanta’s famous Ebenezer Baptist Church on the first celebration of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.  He must have been very experienced and esteemed as a preacher to have been asked to preach in Martin Luther King Jr.’s pulpit on such a momentous occasion and naturally would have been well prepared, but when he stepped into the pulpit that day he looked out at that packed sanctuary and froze.  He couldn’t seem to speak at all. In the silence, a voice from the middle of that gathering shouted out, “Help him Lord!” It was the voice of a deacon.

I heard this story in the sermon for a deacon ordination by a priest named Hazel Glover at St. Philip's Cathedral in Atlanta more than a decade ago. I’m repeating it this evening for a couple of reasons.  One, I want to talk a little bit about the deaconate and two, I want to talk a lot about story telling.

The interesting thing to me about the retelling of this story of the deacon cheering on the reticent preacher, is that I don’t remember the details.  I don’t know who the preacher was, or the deacon. I don’t recall what month and year it was, though I suppose I could Google that. And I don’t know why the preacher stalled. The racial overtones of that setting might have set a tone of intimidation, or maybe he was just really moved by what that particular celebration meant.   I don’t remember, and I can’t look it up a reference to the feelings that night.

You see, this is a mini oral tradition. We don’t know the details.  But do the details matter? I also don’t remember what else Hazel said about the story, except that she used it to expound on the deacon’s special calling to proclaim the Gospel.  What I do remember is how I felt about it. I remember my experience of Hazel’s story.

This is the way that we tell stories, from our experiences.  For the women who found the empty tomb of Jesus on that first Easter morning, the story was very personal.  They ran to tell the others what they had just discovered. It was a complete surprise, they were awed by this turn of events and didn’t know yet what to make of it.  I imagine they were very excited and very scared, maybe even a bit reticent to tell of it. I expect they were careful to tell only those whom they trusted would understand.

It is interesting to note that the disciples didn’t believe them.  Peter didn’t believe until he went to the tomb himself. Others didn’t believe until they saw the resurrected Lord in person.  Thomas didn’t believe until he had the chance to actually touch Him.

But I don’t want to talk about hearing the story tonight.  Rather than concentrate for this moment on how we hear the Easter story, I want to challenge you to consider how it is that you do the telling.  How is it that you will tell this story when you leave here?

When I was in college I was in a traveling passion play of sorts.  One of our little troupe, Charlie, would hide in the back while we gathered and began the telling of the passion story and sang some songs and after we got started Charlie would sneak quietly into the back of the nave and on his cue would shout as loudly as possible, “He’s Alive!”   Well of course this would scare the living daylights out of half of the congregation. Silly young people that we were, we had a little game of watching each unsuspecting audience startle and we would laugh later about it like some sort of April Fool’s joke.



Tonight we are actually celebrating four liturgies in one. The Liturgies of Light, Word, Baptism and Eucharist.  The service begins with the Liturgy of Light when the darkness of the night is broken by the kindling of the Easter fire. The community gathers round this sign of new light and warmth and watch as the light of the Pascal candle is drawn out of the ashes.  As this light gathers the community we sing the Hymn of exultation, of rejoicing: the ancient and beautiful Exultet. The Liturgy of the Word follows - and the telling of the story of the whole history of salvation from Creation - through Noah's Flood -  right through Exodus to the prophets - culminating in the Proclamation of the Easter Gospel.  

Then we celebrate the Liturgy of Baptism with the rich symbolism of newly blessed water - newly kindled fire - anointing with oil - enrobed in white.  At least we are supposed to have a baptism. This was the only time baptism was done in the first and second centuries. In the early church, new converts spent an entire year learning the story of Jesus before they were finally baptized at the Easter vigil.  

Easter was originally celebrated with this liturgy – these liturgies, four in one - just before dawn.  It was primarily about the initiation rites of new Christians who had studied and fasted for months and carefully prepared themselves to die unto Christ, sometimes literally as the early Christians knew well they would likely die as martyrs.  The experience of these rituals, after such careful preparation left the participants ready to “go forth into the world” because of the experiential nature of the practice. Baptism is a one time experience; Eucharist is the re-telling of our story every week.  The reason we do Baptism at night, this night, is that Jesus was resurrected at night. Those baptized die unto Christ and are resurrected with Him - at night. The women came after the dawn to find an empty tomb.

So, this is actually a sunrise service.  We just don’t have the capacity to stay up all night reading scripture and praying before that part.  So it became tradition to sing about the light and baptize who we can and then go home and rest before celebrating the Easter part the next morning.

We just celebrated the Easter part with the first Alleluia.  But still, we keep it toned down to save some rejoicing for in the morning.

I had hoped we could have baptized young Stone Iglehart tonight so that we could have a taste of that part of the tradition.  But last Sunday was a fine time too. So tonight we will renew our own Baptismal vows anyway, in honor of this ancient tradition.

Finally, at the Liturgy of the Eucharist around the Table of the Lord we celebrate our New Passover. The old unblemished lamb gives way to the new: the Lamb of God. The People of God pass from the old slavery of sin into the liberation of new life in Christ.

The retelling of our story in this way, every year is the reliving of an experiential model of the great mystery of God’s love for us in the resurrection of our Lord.  Come and see then go and tell.

Tonight I have enjoyed hearing the telling of the story through the proclamation of the Exultet that Jon sang. The voicing of this call for us to sing out our rejoicing in the light of Christ.  I wish that I could express for you what that experience has been for me to both sing and listen to the story through this ancient chant. But I find it hard to describe.

There is a groaning amongst deacons and others who are blessed with the assignment of singing the Exultet.  While it is beautiful and feels special to get to stand up here and look important singing such a long solo and all, the truth is – nobody really wants to sing the Exultet, because it’s hard.  It is difficult to sing and it is long. A perusal of the internet will reveal blogs and the like of deacons everywhere scrambling to prepare for the singing of it this week. Most of them are searching for recordings of it so they can learn it by listening to it over and over again.  Chanting does not come to us modern church musicians very naturally and requires work. Most clergy don’t get the opportunity for this type of singing lesson. One such exasperated deacon replied, “This great chant, like Easter Eve itself, ‘humbles earthly pride.’"

Part of the problem is that we don’t sing in the way that the early church did.  The Exultet evolved out of the Gregorian era of chant in the sixth and seventh centuries.  Chanting was then a kind of speaking that we seem to have lost the ability to do. It was a way of voicing the story that is now so old it puzzles our modern ears.

I too, in spite of my musical training was initially intimidated by this enchanted chant. It is terrifying to enter this dark room and sing out “the light of Christ” and begin into this mysterious ritual but when I used to sing it, about mid way through this vigil service, I would always find Easter. The light would begin to shine in my heart like thought a break in the curtain. Then I knew how to tell the story through the song. As is true of most music and of most story telling, I can sing it best when I can feel it.

How then will you tell the story of your experience of Easter?  I don’t think we need to shout it so loudly as to frighten people.  But neither do we need to assume they’ve already heard the story. Perhaps we need not be concerned too much with details.  I believe it comes through our experience of it and is retold in the way that we show love to others. Our telling comes out in our behavior, in the way that we model our experience of Easter.  But in the end it comes down to you, each individual is called to tell the story in his or her own way. Each of us must find our unique way to carry the light of Christ into the world.

So Come and see then go and tell.

Go in Peace, rejoicing with your own Exultet.  

Amen.


Good Friday - April 19, 2019

Good Friday 2019

Isaiah 52:13-53:12

Hebrews 4:14-16; 5:7-9

John 18:1-19:42

 

We’ve all been watching the sad news from Paris this week of the fire that destroyed much of Notre Dame de Paris. The beautiful and ancient Cathedral “Our Lady” of Paris is named after the Blessed Virgin Mary. It is world famous, beloved and full of priceless artifacts.  There was much sadness and bitterness among those of us who feel so strongly for this sacred space that has housed prayer and worship for nearly a millennia. We are grieving its demise.  Others were critical that those of us who cried for Notre Dame were acting wrongly in some way, that we loved “just a building” and were wasting our tears on materialism when we could be using that energy to raise funds and do good works for the poor and disenfranchised.

I don’t know.

I had the great opportunity to spend my summers in college traveling around the Methodist Conference in this part of the world with other college students working with local parishes’ youth programs. There were five of us and we each developed two workshops.  One of mine was called “Worship With Wow!”  Pretty corny, I know.  But youth would flock to this workshop in which I would challenge them to learn about the architecture and symbols inside a sanctuary.  Do you know what the means?  Do you know what this symbol stands for?  Do you know why we do that during the prayers or songs or why we have pews?  That sort of thing.  These young people were eager to learn more about their church building.

Then, after I had them talking about all of the stuff in here and why we love it I would ask them what they would do if their church sanctuary was gutted by a fire or a tornado or some other disaster like that.  What if all of this was taken away and all we had left was an empty room?  Could we still gather and pray here?  Would our prayers be the same?  Our songs?  Our faith? 

I always got a resounding “yes!” from those young people.

What would we do here at Grace if we lost even part of this historic structure that we love so much? Would we still pray? Would we still have faith?

I think so.

I went through a house fire once and lost almost everything I owned.  It was awful.  But, a year later I had replaced it all with insurance money and life went on. I was still me.

In the end, all is temporary.  All buildings come down eventually.  All our work comes to pass too.  So it is worth asking ourselves, especially during Lent what we put our faith in, our hope and our joy too.  

I told the lectionary group on Wednesday that if you were to attend all of the services this week you would hear somewhere between 20 and 40 scripture readings.  (That larger number is possible in part if we were to read all 12 of the readings on Saturday night but I’ve trimmed that down a bit to save time.)

One of the Holy Week scriptures that has been ringing in my mind all through this past week was not even read this year.  Again, to save time, because we had a baptism on Palm Sunday, I chose for us to skip the Liturgy of the Palms.  In that liturgy, we read a short reading from Luke and there is a blessing of the palms and then the tradition is to join in a processional around the block and show off our ways to the Lutherans and Presbyterians and anyone else who might be awake, I guess.

But, we didn’t do that this year.  So we missed a passage of St. Luke’s version of that part of the story about Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem on a donkey and it keeps ringing in my ears.  It goes like this:

Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, "Teacher, order your disciples to stop." (They were talking about all those folks shouting Hosannas.) He answered, "I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.”  (Luke 19:40)

The stones themselves would shout out. Or, as the line is phrased in Jesus Christ Superstar, “The rocks and stones themselves would start to sing!”

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about shouting and keeping silent.  There are times when we strive to keep silent in order to listen.  If we can shut up enough we can listen to each other better, but also, if we can quiet our minds we can listen to God better..

But I’ve also been thinking about all those voices in our world which are silenced by threat or violence or isolation or starvation.  The innocent, the children, the elderly, the refugees, those who need advocacy for one reason or another.  Those who need to be heard.  Those whose voices have been silenced.

Last night we read the story of the washing of feet from John’s gospel when Jesus commanded his disciples, and us, to love one another.  It was the last thing he said before his arrest.  And as we have just heard, he didn’t say much after that until, his seven last words on the cross.

So this last commandment went like this:

“I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

A new commandment.  To love. They will know we are Christians by our love.

But then, in the middle of this passion narrative from John which we have just heard read, Jesus said, in answer to a direct question from Pilate about whether or not Jesus is the King of the Jews:

“You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”

We, the believers, we “listen to his voice.”

Do we?

Silence of the Lambs was a terrifying movie to me. You may not be familiar with this old movie.  It was released 28 years ago.  It is the story of FBI agent Clarice Starling who is working on a case searching for a kidnapper and she wants to pick the brain of Hannibal Lecter who is a brilliant Psychiatrist in prison for gruesome murders. A couple of years after it’s release some Italian filmmakers did a parody titled “Silence of the Hams.”  As a vegetarian facing Easter feasts, I had to share that one with you. But I digress.

The title of the movie, Silence of the Lambs is revealed in a short story-inside-the-story near the end of the film. It is a personal story Clarice shares with Hannibal in exchange for his knowledge. 

Clarice has asked this sociopath from his prison cell for help in understanding the murderer they are trying to find. She needs a profile. Hannibal wants something in return, the chance to play some mind games with her. He asks her to tell him of her deepest fear. Clarice recounts a traumatic childhood incident where she was awakened by the sound of spring lambs being slaughtered on a relative's farm in Montana. She admits that she still sometimes wakes in the night thinking she can hear the lambs screaming.

I suppose the silencing of the lambs is relief from the screaming she heard.

Jesus told Pilate that he was born for this.  We assume this means that Jesus was born for the atonement, for his sacrifice of himself to the crucifixion.  That he was born to die for our sins. But there is more to the story than just that.

We know that on Sunday we will remember that he was born so that he could be raised from this slaughter. He was born to testify to the truth.

On Wednesday I preached at the noon service about the history of scapegoating and warned those gathered then that I planned to repeat those thoughts for this gathering.

We think of scapegoating as a dynamic that families and groups do to pick on one person.  The theory is that all systems need a scapegoat, someone to burden with their negativity. The systems theorists of the 1950s and 1960s who came up with this concept actually used the name of an ancient practice to indicate these human relational dynamics.

There was an annual ritual described in the Bible about this. In Leviticus Chapter 16 when Aaron was the High Priest and he was instructed what to do about the old scapegoat ritual in which the entire community would exile an actual goat.

On the “Day of Atonement” the high priest was instructed to symbolically lay all the sins of the people on one unfortunate goat, and the people would then beat the animal until it fled into the desert where presumably it would die of starvation, dehydration and isolation. It was a vivid symbolic act that helped to unite and free the children of Israel. Instead of owning their faults, this ritual allowed people to export them elsewhere—in this case onto an innocent animal.

The image of the scapegoat powerfully mirrors the universal, but largely unconscious, human need to transfer our guilt onto something or someone else by singling that other person out for unmerited negative treatment.

This pattern is seen in many facets of our society and our private, inner lives - so much so that we might call it “the sin of the world” (note that “sin” is singular in the Gospel of John, particularly John 1:29).

We humans largely hate or blame almost anything else rather than recognize our own weaknesses and negativity. “She made me do it.” “He is guilty.” “He deserves it.” “They are the problem.” “They are evil.” We seldom consciously know that we are scapegoating or projecting. It’s automatic, ingrained, and unconscious. As Jesus said, in one of his seven last words, people literally “do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34).

The Scriptures call such ignorant hatred “sin,” and Jesus came precisely to “take away” (John 1:29) our capacity to commit this sin. Jesus stood as the fully innocent one who was condemned by the highest authorities of both “church and state” (Jerusalem and Rome), an act that should create healthy suspicion about how wrong even the highest powers can be.   ~ Richard Rohr

So we have spent again this year, these forty days of Lent working on ourselves.  We spend this time in preparation for Good Friday so that we can purge ourselves of these tendencies we have to project and to scapegoat.  Because we all do this.  Because we are human.  But without our repentance, all of this ritual is pointless and Easter is disempowered and turned into mere bunnies and eggs.

With our repentance, however, we get to see and to hear and to experience the truth. 

Jesus doesn’t answer Pilate’s question, “What is truth?” because Pilate is incapable of hearing the truth.

We get to hear the truth.

The very stones will shout it out.

Tall buildings may fall down or burn to the ground.

Waring people may continue to kill each other in the name of God.

Jesus, our paschal lamb, will make this final sacrifice.

The Lamb must go to slaughter.

But he will not be silenced.

Amen.

Maundy Thursday - April 19, 2019

In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, Amen.

Tonight, we continue the journey to and through the cross that we started in Lent. 

The next three days are three of my favorite services and some of the most symbolic that we have in the church year. 

I don’t know about you, but sometimes what we do in liturgy has more effect on me than what we say. Sometimes a tangible demonstration is far more powerful than the words that we speak.

Walking the walk rather than talking the talk.

 Looking at these three services and working backwards…

On Saturday night we will hold the Easter Vigil and light the Pascal candle to proclaim the Good News of the resurrected Christ.

On Friday, we will stand watch and mourn over the tomb of our fallen Lord.

And tonight, Maundy Thursday, we have another of those schizoid services, as Kathy referred to Palm Sunday.

In just a few moments, we start with the touching ritual of foot washing, a demonstration of God’s love for us and our love for each other,

But then we conclude the service with the stripping of the altar, the preparation of the tomb for our Lord, which will end with Kathy silently washing the altar and turning out the lights.

If you look at these three days, it is all about incarnation and death and resurrection, with this odd little ritual of foot washing sticking out like that bunion on my right foot.

John’s Gospel doesn’t discuss the Passover meal, the Last Supper, other than that they are having it.  But the author emphasizes the foot washing scene, so clearly there is something significant going on here.

In 1st Century Palestine, foot washing upon entering the house at the end of the day was the standard practice.

People wore sandals and, considering the dusty dirt and stone roads and large number of animals that would be transiting (and leaving deposits) on the road, one’s feet were dirty at the end of the day.

When a guest arrived, in the case of ordinary people, the host furnished a basin of water, and the guests washed their own feet, but in the richer houses, a slave did the washing, and it was considered the lowliest of all services. [1]       

So think about Jesus’ actions in this Gospel passage.

During the Passover meal, he removes his outer robe and is left with a loose fitting inner robe (an oversized t-shirt, his only undergarment),[2]

So he was stripping down to his 1st century skivvies and taking on the role of the lowliest of servants.

 

He humbles himself, strips himself and serves his disciples. 

One of my deacon school classmates noted:

·       Jesus washed Thomas’ feet, who would doubt him.

·       He washed Peter’s feet, who would deny him.

·       He washed Judas’ feet, who would betray him.[3]

He denies himself.  He empties himself in a manner that foreshadows how he will empty himself the next day. 

What an amazing act of God’s grace!

And he tells us, that we are to model our lives after him, “So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet.[4]

In other words, we should, like He did, strip ourselves down to our barest self (I’m talking figuratively here, OK…we don’t need to be wandering around in our skivvies up here). 

We need to strip ourselves down from our pretenses and airs and titles and self-importance and serve others.

I always thought that the “Maundy” in Maundy Thursday referred to foot-washing, but it actually comes from that Latin word “mandatum” that translates mandate or commandment.

This references, Jesus saying, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.[5]

Once again, Jesus isn’t telling us what to believe, he’s telling us how to live.  To live a life of service and love to others.

And this is where washing of the feet ties into incarnation, death and resurrection. 

You see, it’s all about love and service.

God’s unending, immeasurable love, brought God incarnate into the world, in the form of Jesus, the Christ, the anointed one.

In service to us, Jesus washed feet, loved others, and then died on the cross, as a sacrifice in our names.

And, God’s love, resurrected the Christ.

You see the incarnation, death and resurrection of Jesus are like the actions I like so much in this liturgy.  Sure, he tells us he loves us, but these are tangible demonstrations of God’s limitless love.

Walking the walk.

So as you wash the feet of others and have your feet washed, I want you to look at the hands doing the washing and meditate on:

·       How God’s love has turned flawed, unworthy, sinners, like you and I, into God incarnate, the Body of Christ in the world, and how those hands, these hands,  truly are the hands of Christ.

·       Meditate on how God’s love, reflected in the service those hands do, can reach into the graves that we dig for ourselves and pull each other out of those graves[6] and

·       Meditate how God’s love offers both us, and those we serve, the resurrection of life in Christ.

Now let us strip ourselves down and make a tangible demonstration our love and service to God and to one another by the washing of feet.   

Let us walk the walk.

AMEN.

[1] “Washing of Feet”, Bible Study Tools website, https://www.biblestudytools.com/encyclopedias/isbe/washing-of-feet.html , retrieved March 24, 2018

[2] Msgr. Charles Pope, What Sort of Clothing Did People in Jesus’ Time Wear?, Community in Mission website,   http://blog.adw.org/2017/03/sort-clothing-people-jesus-time-wear/ , March 29, 2017, retrieved March 24, 2018    

[3] Rev. Katherine Ferguson, Maundy Thursday Sermon, March 29, 2018.

[4] John 13:14

[5] John 13:34

[6] This concept is one I first heard from Nadia Bolz-Weber.  I love the imagery.

Palm Sunday - Sunday, April 14, 2019

Palm Sunday, 2019

Baptism of Thomas Stone Iglehart

Grace Episcopal Church, Radford, VA

Philippians 2:5-11

Luke 23:1-49

The Rev. Dr. Kathy Dunagan

There is a feast day in the church for about every saint and story in the Bible. We’ve been studying the saints this year during Lent and we’ve learned about some of them.  We don’t usually celebrate saints days because they are mostly on weekdays and we have come to be a Sunday morning only church. Lot’s has changed in the way we do church through the centuries.

But it used to be that people lived in villages and they would gather on the days set aside for certain feasts - like the Annunciation, the story of when the angel came to young Mary and asked her to bear the Christ Child.  Or the Transfiguration, the Ascension, the Baptism of Jesus, and Pentecost to name a few. We still do some of these special celebrations on Sunday’s when they roll around.

But today, well, I think our liturgy this morning needs a new name.  I’m thinking we should call this Schizoid Sunday or Multiple Personalities Sunday or something like that!  Because today, especially this year, we are actually celebrating three liturgies in one.

There used to be an extra Sunday in Lent called Passion Sunday in which we became very serious and did a dramatic reading of the passion according to John or sometimes Luke like we read this morning.  But Jon just read the shorter version from Luke to save time today. We’ll read the Passion According to St. John dramatically on Good Friday.

Somewhere along the way, and you can ask me later about the details, we merged that service into the service of Palm Sunday.  Palm Sunday is that special day when we remember that Jesus was celebrated and praised as he road a donkey into Jerusalem, when people hailed him King of the Jews and everyone was joyful. So since we merged these two services, we do the palms part and we feel glad and then we do the passion reading and we feel sad right after having processed jubilantly with palms. Sometimes all this feels confusing and weird.

And to add to the confusion, this year we are going to celebrate the liturgy of Holy Baptism in the middle. So, we started with a hymn of joy about Jesus as King and later Mason will play O Sacred Head, Sore Wounded because we must turn our attention to the difficult parts of the passion story that will unfold this week.

Now, if you attend all the services this week you will participate in the reading of nearly 40 bible lessons. We will follow the story of when Jesus washed the feet of his disciple and then we will wash each other’s feet on Maundy Thursday. That same night we’ll celebrate the first communion and “do this in remembrance of him.” Then we’ll strip the altar and turn out the lights and live into the fact that Jesus died on the cross and stayed in the tomb for three days. It’s not easy liturgy.  It makes you uncomfortable. It’s meant to make you uncomfortable. Then, on Saturday night we’ll tell more of the story and celebrate an early Easter. Then next Sunday morning we’ll settle into the joy part and celebrate the resurrection. And then we’ll really feast at coffee hour and family gatherings.

Now, all this may seem schizoid, or confusing but while planning this morning’s service, I’ve come to feel very excited about this particular mash up of liturgies.

You see.  This morning we are going to drown young Stone Iglehart! He will die unto Christ.  Now, that’s a really scary idea and we know that he will only get a little wet and keep on living, right?  But this is not just a mere symbol of death we speak of. Baptism is the most important sacrament of the church, next to Holy Eucharist.  In our baptism we die unto Christ so that we can rise with him in the resurrection. In our baptism we die unto our selves, we die unto our selfish ways and we die with Christ and become one with him.

Then, as soon as young Stone is dried off we’ll anoint him with oil, the same oil that Jesus was anointed with by Mary of Bethany a week ago, the same oil we anoint each other with at our Noon Eucharist and Healing service on Wednesdays when we pray together for healing and wholeness, the same oil that the women took to the tomb to anoint the body of Jesus on that first Easter morning. And he wasn’t there.

We will anoint Stone in this way because he will have died unto Christ and risen as Christ’s own forever.  We are anointed like royalty.

Nearly a hundred years ago, the Italian sculptor Guido Galletti created a statue of Jesus looking up towards heaven with his arms raised in orans position. Orans position is an ancient way of holding your arms when praying.  It is the way I hold my arms and my hands, palms up, when I lead us in the Eucharistic prayers and any prayer really. It is a prayer pose.

In 1954, the story goes, this statue, which is named Christ of the Abyss, somehow fell into the waters of the Italian Riviera and sank (near Portofino). (Apparently, he landed on his feet!) Coincidentally, this was right near the spot where a famous Italian diver (Duilo Merchant) had died. So, the statue was left where it sank as a beautiful memorial to that diver.  It is still there and a favorite spot to this day for scuba diving.

Ten or fifteen years later, someone built a replica of the Christ of the Abyss statue and gave it to Key Largo  who placed it in more shallow waters where you can see it from the surface. So, if you’d like to go see this lovely statue, you can do that a little closer to home. It weighs two tons and I have no idea how they got it into the water the way they did.

A colleague who was a military chaplain once told me he was traveling with the Army in Panama and was a part of a large transport of soldiers in several small vessels.  Each vessel had a local guide. The guide in my friend’s boat kept staring at this chaplain. His Army uniform had a cross or two on it so he was clearly a chaplain. The guide finally spoke to him, in Spanish.

Cristo es in el agua!

My friend, like me, did not speak much Spanish and wasn’t sure what he was saying.

Cristo es in el agua!

The chaplain strained to understand as the guide excitedly pointed to the water beneath them.

Cristo es in el agua!

Finally, the chaplain saw it.  The statue of Christ, in the water. Just like the one in Italy and Key Largo.

Cristo es in el agua! Christ is in the water!

The replica of this famous statue that stands in the port near Panama is said to represent the prayers of Jesus for the fishermen coming and going each day in their work.

Our reading from St. Paul’s letter to the Philippians this morning is that lovely poem that is remembered as “The Christ Hymn.”  

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,

who, though he was in the form of God,

did not regard equality with God

as something to be exploited,

but emptied himself,

taking the form of a slave,

being born in human likeness.

Paul was explaining to the church in Philippi that facing the joy of the Christ the King and his resurrection at the same time as the agony of his crucifixion is not schizoid at all.  Paul points out that we are to “be in the same mind” as Jesus. So we must empty ourselves in our baptism.

Further, we must realize that we are commanded by Jesus to renounce Satan, turn to Jesus and “put our whole trust in his grace and love.”  That is the vow Stone’s parents and Godparents will take on his behalf this morning. And then we, all of us, will renew our own baptismal vows by saying - out loud, together, right here in front of God and everybody, that we believe, that we continue in the teachings and fellowship and the breaking of the bread and in the prayers, that we will strive for justice and “respect the dignity of every human being.” We made these vows when we were baptized and we repeat them now so that we can be one in Christ.

Christ is in the water and we are in Christ because of our baptism.  We can face the retelling of the passion because we know that, though we sad, and we might get wet, we have died unto him. And we have risen in him as well. And now we continue on our journey following Christ for the rest of our lives filled with joy, the joy of the king of kings. The joy of our salvation.

Amen.


Fifth Sunday of Lent - Sunday, April 7, 2019

Lent 5C, 2019

Isaiah 43:16-21

Philippians 3:4b-14

John 12:1-8

The Rev. Dr. Kathy Dunagan

 

A few years ago, I encountered the story of a woman who faced many losses and challenges in her life.  She lost friendships and a marriage and really struggled to get her feet back on the ground. Then shortly after that she had a really terrible string of losses of several loved ones.  So, she grieved and put herself back together again.  But then she lost her job when her company felt forced to layoff many of their employees. So, she talked to her priest again and he suggested she spend some time in silence and prayer and rest and listen for God to lead her in the next phase of her life. So she went to a monastery to heal.  She signed up for two weeks of silent retreat, packed comfortable clothes and just one book and checked in to this large monastery. She was riding an elevator to her room and found herself weeping quietly and pondering how utterly tired she felt. She had hardly noticed the only other person on the elevator with her. It was one of the brothers. He asked her why she was so troubled and she told him her story, listing her long list of losses. The monk said, “God must love you very much.”  Then they parted to return to their silences but she was left with much to ponder for the next two weeks.

Indeed to realize that we endure much suffering is to realize how much God loves us and walks with us in our struggles.

There is a saying in the church that God doesn’t give us more than we can handle.  But that’s not in the Bible (unless you misinterpret 1 Corinthians 10:13) and it’s really not very good theology.  Life is full of challenges because we are a fallible and fallen people who struggle with the fact of evil in the world, and we struggle too with the long list of other facts that follow this evil: hunger, poverty, ignorance and greed to name just a few.

God does not cause us to suffer.  We have plenty of suffering just being human.  But God does love us and call us to love each other so that we can face all these losses and challenges as a community, supporting each other.

I have a practice of always writing a book in my head.  Sometimes I actually do some research, note taking and actual writing.  I’ve got three book projects on the back burner right now.  I may never finish any of them. 

Lately, I came to the realization that I don’t really want to write a book on the concept, I just am working something out in my thoughts. I’ve seen others do this.  It’s a way of saying, “I’m working on something, an idea, a concept, a new value. And, while some of these back burner books are worth the discipline and hard work it takes to finish and publish, I’ve found that many of my unwritten books are just as valuable staying there, on the back burner. These un-written books are full of learning for the failed writer, as it were.

One such book on my back burner is titled “Loser.”  I imagine this image for the cover - a forefinger and thumb in the shape of an L on a forehead. Maybe my forehead. That gesture is a mocking gesture that teenagers have been throwing at each other for decades as a way of name calling. “You’re such a loser!”

Well, in my book, and in today’s lectionary lessons, being a loser, it turns out, is a good thing.  In fact, it is the best way of living.  You see, because trying all the ways we try to avoid our losses leaves us running, and hiding and pretending and missing out of the healing of living through the grief, the worry, the heartache that is just life. Recognition of our suffering brings us closer to Christ.

Isaiah says that the Lord says, “Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old.  I am about to do a new thing.” This could be translated essentially, “You’re all a bunch of losers (or at least sinners) but never mind all that, let’s move forward with this new creation stuff!”

The Israelites had to suffer much and lose everything multiple times before they were ready for God to free them, before they were ready for the messiah.

Now, in the Epistle reading, Paul says, “Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to be regarded as loss because of Christ.” He waxes poetically in this passage about the importance of being a loser.

Paul begins this section by outlining everything about himself that might be considered of value and significance. All those things which will increase and maintain his self-esteem and status in the eyes of himself and others.

•        Paul lists his background and his heritage: “circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews.”

•        He makes clear his education and training: “as to the law, a Pharisee.”

•        Then he boasts of his religious and political convictions and activism: “as to zeal, a persecutor of the church,” because that was still something to brag about.

•        And finally, he notes his lifestyle: “as to righteousness under the law, blameless.”

These are all gains, all plusses, all valuable in our life also, as ways to achieve status and significance.  Paul emphasizes that whatever anyone else might claim, he is sure that his resume equals if not eclipses all the others. Paul has “made it!”

But, Paul then makes an extraordinary statement. He describes the value of all this within the value system of the kingdom of Christ Jesus his Lord -- complete rubbish! Absolute trash!

Paul understands that if he is to “attain the resurrection from the dead” then first he must share in the sufferings of Christ. The sufferings of Christ have been articulated in the beautiful Christ Hymn in the chapter of Philippians just before our reading this morning (verses 7 and 8):

He “emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death -- even death on a cross.”

So, here we are, in the next chapter of this letter and Paul is talking about  salvation through resurrection to which Paul aspires.  And he tells us that this requires one simple thing: The willingness to let go of all status and significance in the eyes of the culture in which we live. Nothing we have been, nor that we have worked for previously is of value unless it is rooted in and built upon the foundation of love in Christ.

In the Gospel lesson, we find Jesus, six days before his arrest sitting at a dinner party in his honor at Martha and Mary’s house.  Their recently-raised-from-the-dead brother Lazarus is at that table.  But Jesus sits in between a winner and a loser.  Mary, the sister whom Jesus praised for sitting at his feet and listening as he taught and Judas who is the keeper of the purse.

Who’s the loser?

Mary anoints Jesus with expensive oil worth the equivalent of a year’s wages for these day laborers. Judas questions her stewardship of their resources.

Who’s the loser?

Mary’s anointing has two meanings. Two big events in ancient Palestine would call for an anointing like this: a coronation and a burial. This scene shows that Jesus is a king, about to ride into Jerusalem among crowds of people praising him. It also shows that he is about to die. And Mary knows this.  Judas knows that he can gain from his betrayal, get more money, the poor be damned.

Who’s the loser?

Jesus doesn’t take this moment to point out losers and winners.  Instead he says something quite mysterious.

The poor you always have with you.

At least 46.5 million people, including 1 of every 5 children, are living in poverty, an increase of more than 9 million since 2008. An additional 97.3 million people are officially designated as low-income. Taken together, this means that 48% of the U.S. population, nearly one in every two people, is poor or low income.

The poor you always have with you.

The top 1% of the population own 43% of the nation’s wealth; the top 5% own 72% of wealth and the bottom 80% are left with just 7% of wealth. At the same time, racial and gender inequality remains as deep as ever.

The poor you always have with you.

What does it mean to fight against poverty, when we face the reality: That the poor we always have with us?

There’s a common misinterpretation in this passage. Good Christian people use this passage to explain away our inability to help the poor - and unfortunately they also use this passage as an excuse to do less to reach out to the poor.

Maybe we should work to re-imagine the meaning of this mysterious response from Jesus at this dinner party. In response to Jesus who says, “You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me,” some argue that we should attend to our spiritual needs over, above, or instead of the tangible needs of the marginalized all around us.  As one scholar put it, “Just a closer walk with Thee instead of a march on Washington; thoughts and prayers as opposed to votes and legislation. Even at its best, this perspective promotes only individual acts of kindness but keeps the church out of the realm of policy making and community activism.”

It’s worth spending some time in this last week of Lent 2019 pondering these realities. Jesus didn’t mean for us to ignore the poor as some insurmountable problem out there.  Rather, Jesus commands us to help the poor because there are always poor who need help.

For one last look at the idea that we should become poor in order to join the poor, I would give you a sermon illustration from Winnie-the-Pooh. I would use Pooh stories every week if  I could.  I love those stories.  I guess because I grew up with them. But, I realize they have been overused and risk becoming trivialized and I don’t want to participate in that or to bore you with the same old images of Pooh and Piglet.

But, in reflecting on the idea that living into our suffering is our way to join the Kingdom of God, I cant’ help but think this morning about gloomy old Eeyore.  Do you remember Eeyore?  He was a sad and withdrawn donkey whose house seemed to always be falling down and he was always losing his tail.  He’s a strange character who sometimes offers some profound comment but mostly is just off being depressed or something.  Why did A. A. Milne add this funny, sad little donkey to the mix of personified stuffed animals?

Maybe it was so that Christopher Robin and his friends could rush to the rescue of their gloomy friend.  Maybe it was an example of human kindness, Christian charity or the societal necessity of keeping depressed and grieving people part of the community rather than marginalizing them.

The truth is, A. A. Milne had PTSD.  He came back from WWII shell shocked and depressed.  He lost his marriage, had great difficulty working and was left with one friend and one son who had a funny collection of stuffed animals.

I think Eeyore is autobiographical.  Eeyore was an embodiment of Milne’s post war depression.  I think that sad donkey was in there just to remind us to keep those grieving friends close to the community and care for them.  It also turns out that Eeyore is the wisest - even more wise than Owl.

But there’s another possibility.  Maybe Eeyore is the luckiest one of all.  Because he has faced great losses, least of all his house and his tail, Eeyore is the one who is most likely to be charitable, to be Christ like.

 So, my friends. As we step out on the spiritual journey of the next two weeks to finish out Lent, walk with Christ to Jerusalem, to the cross and prepare our hearts for Holy Week and Easter, I ask you to consider all your losses as gains and all your gains as stumbling blocks.

Because God does love you very much.

Amen.

First Sunday of Lent - Sunday, March 10, 2019

Lent 1C, 2019

Romans 10:8b-13

Luke 4:1-13

The Rev. Dr. Kathy Dunagan

 

On Wednesday for our Ash Wednesday observance, I shared the etymology of one of my favorite words.  It is a word that is relatively new to me.  I want to share it again this morning because it is a word that is packed full of meaning and I skipped over one of those meanings.

The word is Paraprosdokian and at root it means “From Ancient Greek παρά (pará, “against”) + προσδοκία (prosdokía, “expectation”).

If you were here for Ash Wednesday, you learned that this is a literary term that describes a comedic technique like the ones Groucho Marx used.  So, for example, “One morning I shot an elephant in my pajamas. How he got in my pajamas I’ll never know.”  That’s a paraprosdokian.  It’s where the second phrase or sentence takes a spin on the first part.  Here’s another example: “Hospitality is making your guests feel like they’re at home, even if you wish they were.”

See how that works?

On Ash Wednesday I had some fun with that as an example of the ways Jesus gets our attention with similar plays on words.  He did this a lot, especially in the Sermon on the Mount.

But today I want to dig a little deeper and look at the very basis of the word paraprosdokian: Against expectation.  That  simple, two-word phrase explains so much about life, love, the Bible, and our Christian faith.  We frequently expect God to do things our way, on our schedule.  The disciples expected Jesus to be a warrior king and raise up an army to defeat the Romans and send them packing.

And the Holy Spirit always seems to lead us in directions we don’t see as possible or as best for our career or dreams or other aspirations.  But when we are courageous enough to follow, hind sight usually shows us the Spirit knew best all along.

So we have learned, throughout the history of the church that God doesn’t work that way.  God doesn’t do things the way we want.  God sometimes doesn’t seem to even answer prayer.  God seems to allow evil to continue to reign.  And we end up disappointed, angry with God and confused.

Today’s Gospel lesson reminds us that our capacity to repent and to resist temptation comes from our relationship with God and the grace of his deliverance rather than from our own strength and initiative.

Jesus started his ministry in the wilderness.  Just after his baptism, he went into the wilderness filled with the Holy Spirit and spent forty days and nights there fasting and struggling with temptation. 

This story takes place in two significant locations: the wilderness and Jerusalem. The wilderness was the place where God met the Jewish people at Sinai after rescuing them from Egypt. In the wilderness God shaped them into God’s covenant people, cared for and led by God with cloud and fire.  Forty years in the wilderness then, frothy days for Jesus later.

In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus is also led, this time by the Holy Spirit, through the wilderness and he faces temptation by his adversary, the devil.

Jerusalem, the city of David, is the center of Jewish power, identity, and worship. This place of power and worship is the setting for the final temptation where the devil takes Jesus to the pentacle of the temple and tempts him with power.

Underlying the dialogue between the devil and Jesus are two competing storylines. The devil offers a storyline of self-indulgence (make yourself bread from stones), self-aggrandizement (all the nations of the world will belong to you if you worship me), and self-serving religious identity (if you are the son of God cast yourself from the top of the temple). Meanwhile, Jesus responds with quotations drawn from the Old Testament that show awareness of the true source of life and identity (he knows that life is more than food), his reliance on God (the one worthy of true worship and service), and his understanding of God’s character (not one to be tested). Jesus’ responses are rooted in an underlying narrative that he is dependent on God rather than self for life, power, and identity.

That which Jesus resists, his “passing of the test,” his resistance to temptation, in the end for Jesus, is a bold “no” to power as we know it. Power that dominates. Power that controls. Power that lifts up for the sake of idolatry and ideology. Power that insists on your own power. And the temptation not only to power itself, but what the claim of power then leads to, has a hold on, or determines. Our attraction to power is often unable to see the consequences on the other side.

The first words of this story are that Jesus was “filled with the Holy Spirit.” It is hard, so very hard, to resist the power that the world loves and values. But how this story starts is the promise of this text. You do not do this on your own. Jesus was “filled with the Holy Spirit.”

And you are too.

This is your promise too.

One of the temptations we struggle with is our expectations.  We have expectations of each other that leave us disappointed and we have expectations of God that leave us angry.

Another temptation we struggle with is what I call the Lone Ranger-ism of American values.  We are influenced by that famous rugged individualism of our culture and we each do our own thing and go our own way.  There’s noting wrong with personal growth and strength, but we err in the direction of losing community when each of us goes our own way and forsakes the community.

We always read this story the first Sunday of Lent (or any other time we may read it) and try to imagine how difficult it must have been for the fully human Christ to suffer these challenges of fasting and fighting with the devil by himself for forty days.  And we try to try this on and use it as a measurement of how short we fall in emulating Jesus in his ability to forego temptation.

Well, we’re missing the point when we do that.  While Lent is a time to examine ourselves, each of us, individually, Bible stories about Jesus were usually parables and examples for the community (or nation) as a whole - not the individuals therein.

So my Lenten challenge for the good people of Grace Church, is to consider, rather than giving up chocolate and wine, or maybe along side those personal disciplines, my challenge is that this year during Lent this parish works on being a better community, not just a collection of better individuals.  Because Jesus calls us to be a community of disciples, not factions in competition.

Previous parishes I have served struggled with internal conflict.  We don’t have that problem at Grace. Everyone gets along with each other here. The problem we have at Grace is our conflict with our Bishop and diocese.  We need to stop being strong out of an us-versus-them stance with the diocese and return to the never ending work of tending this garden, in this community. We need to tap more deeply into the power of the love amongst us and then ask what God is calling this parish to do, collectively, to reach out to our neighbors in need. Each of you are very busy and doing lots of good works, but what good work is Grace doing as a parish?

If it feels like I’m stepping on toes, that’s not my intention.  I’m not trying to spread a guilt trip.  I’m just challenging us to consider where the Holy Spirit is leading this parish. We’ve seen enough wilderness around here.  I think it’s time to move into our next era of working with each other, side by side.  Just as Jesus did when his time in the wilderness was over.  He went to work.

One of my favorite Garrison Keillor stories is not one of his most popular or even remembered stories.  It is a story about adultery and I was left wondering, especially in light of recent news about Garrison, how autobiographical this story might have been.

It was an early story in his career - sometime in the 80’s - and it was about a business man packing to go on a business trip.  The journey was a business conference, a conference in a hotel, away from home, a conference which his younger, sexy co-worker was also attending.  I really don’t remember the set up.  I just remember the image of a mid-life, married man backing out of his driveway and coming to the sudden realization of what he was about to do.  Keillor listed a montage of images like so many dominos falling, that happen at the moment of such sins; a little girl spills her milk, a horse a mile away goes lame, a car crashes on the road at the edge of town.  This series of events, the storyteller implied, were directly related to the sin at the crux of the story - these two adults, off to seek selfish pleasures, ignoring their commitments and actual real love for those left at home and in the dark.

In this mostly forgotten story, Garrison Keillor painted an image of the wilderness of temptation.  And his protagonist, in the end, resists this temptation in his realization of the fact that all hearts are interconnected, that sin has a ripple effect like that of a drop in water, that encouragement and truthfulness are interconnected too.

So, communities are called to repentance together so that they can grow and change and clear up the confusion, anger and disappointment - together.  That’s the point of our Lord’s love story with us.  The story within the larger story begins and ends with sacrifice.  It is not just one man against the devil, it is Emmanuel, God with us - all of us - giving all God can to model for us and to live and die for us because of God’s love for us. 

It is the “us” part we need to work on in response.

Amen.

Last Sunday after the Epiphany - Sunday, March 3, 2019

Epiphany Last/Transfiguration C, 2019

Exodus 34:29-35

Luke 9:28-36, [37-43a]

The Rev. Dr. Kathy Dunagan

 

O. M. G!

I’m sure you have heard that phrase a lot.  I’ve been listening and watching the evolution of this phrase for about 20 years. I am fascinated with the way that we use this particular acronym in our culture.  So I want to bend your ears for a moment on what exactly we mean when we say,  “Oh. My. God.”

When I first heard Kate begin to throw the phrase around, she was about 6 years old and usually used it with a squeal, sing-songy tone for overemphasis of drama, she was 6.  I asked her nicely, “Honey, don’t say that.”  I told her that it was taking the Lord’s name in vain and that her excuse of, “everybody does it, mom” was not good enough.  She tried to not say it around me, after that but she really didn’t change her ways.  Why should she?  She’s right.  It is in the vernacular and it does not offend most people.  Perhaps it should offend though.  Perhaps we should fight that cause more fervently than I did.  But, too, perhaps that would be a loosing battle at this point in time and there are more important battles to fight than to die in that ditch.  Maybe. Maybe not.

Today’s Gospel lesson is the story of the Transfiguration of our Lord.  It is a strange story and difficult to understand.  Most preachers would rather explain the Trinity to you than this.  Jesus took three of his disciples one day, Peter, James and John, and hiked up a mountain.  Then he was transformed before them. Most interpretations of this are that his body changed in some way it is clear that his garments were extremely white. The greek word used (in the original Markan version) is Metamorph, which literally means, “to change (something) into a completely different appearance.” 

Why did Jesus do this?  -  and more importantly, why was it that only these three of his disciples were allowed to see it and why were they told to tell no one?  Why bother with such a glorious miracle if you’re only going to keep it a secret?

Maybe it was too much for the others at the time and would have overwhelmed the rest of the community too for them to tell about it.  Maybe it would rush the ending of the story by freaking out those who wanted to kill him to and they might have jumped ahead to the crucifixion before the chance for some more healings, exorcisms and a last supper.  Maybe he still had some work to do before the cross.  There are 12 more chapters of teaching and miracles in Luke.  Maybe he couldn't help it, you know, like trying to hide a late term pregnancy or a significant weight loss.  Sometimes you just can’t help but glow!

But the disciples did tell, eventually, after the resurrection, as instructed.  And they wrote it down, and to this day we are baffled a bit by this image of Jesus becoming transfigured and glowing more white than any could create with earthly efforts.

So, we are left to imagine what it might have felt like to climb that particular holy mountain that particular holy day and see that particular holy event and as I have imagined this this week, I think that if I had been there I would very likely have dropped my jaw and only been able to utter one phrase.

Oh. My. God.

It’s funny to me how much we use that phrase and how easily our culture has moved away from thinking it an abomination.  I ask myself times when I have said it aloud, or even thought it, and recall that I most likely said OMG when seeing footage of catastrophes like hurricane Katrina, Tsunamis, or the huge earth quake in Haiti ten years ago.  It was all that would come to mind when realizing such devastation. 

I also said these words, which honestly, I still try not to say, but I have said them at times when I head the news of violent catastrophes like mass shootings, terroristic bombings or jumbo jets being flown into tall buildings.

Many times I did not say “oh my god.” I did not say it when I held my baby for the first time. I did not say it when I have enjoyed the beauty of a sunset or full moon or the flight of a bird.

I have said “oh my god” when excited about some new possession like a new car, house or cute outfit.

The point of not saying “oh my god” in such flippant ways as are usually used in text messaging is that it is, or was at one time, considered blasphemous, a breaking of the third commandment. 

“Thou shalt not use the Lord’s name in vain.”

When I was a kid we were told that to use the Lord’s name in vain was the unforgivable sin.  This never really made sense to me for several reasons.  One is that, maybe after a slip and saying something like “oh my god,” lightening did not strike. Life went on.  And, since God doesn’t really have a name anyway what name are we supposedly using in vain?  For that matter, what is vain treatment of a name?  I mean, we don’t go around saying curse YHWH, or down with Jehovah or darn that Elohim, or threaten Adonai (literally "my lords”) nor do we swear against the one who is called “I Am.”  These are all words and phrases that were made up by the early Hebrew people in order to avoid calling our God by any particular name because of the belief that God deserves such reverence that even calling God by any name at all would be risky business. 

When pressed about his name, God told Moses, just call me “I Am.”  Elijah called God Yahweh.  Elijah’s name itself means literally, “My God is Yahweh.” So, he also had a name that meant in essence, “no name.”

To use the name of God in any promise, oath, or vow was, until relatively recently considered an unbreakable vow.  That is to say, if you broke an oath including reference to God, your life as you knew it would end.  Perhaps, at least, you would get a bad reputation for being untrustworthy.

Oaths in antiquity were considered equal with conjuring and blaspheming.  You either swore to those who could hear you and record your oath that you are or will be truthful or you used similar use of naming the divine to call forth spirits, magical spells or you just cursed it all. 

Until the 18th century people were still executed in Christian cultures for committing blasphemy.

My great, great grandfather, David Xavier Junkin, a presbyterian minister who lived in Pennsylvania before the Civil War, published a book on the importance of the oath.  In Rev. Junkin’s day, a man would stake his life on his word.  Rev. Junkin’s book was titled: The Oath a Divine Ordinance and an Element of the Social Constitution.  I doubt anyone cares about that any more, though some historical group decided both of his books were worth a reprint and that is how I came to own a recent copy.

We have had some strange weather lately but we enjoyed a couple of sunny days this week.  On one of them, while walking Prancer around the church property, I felt that my eyes were suddenly opened to the coming of Spring! It wasn’t just the sun shine, but I saw crocuses, daffodils and even tulips coming up and I even saw a flock of Robins scrounging for worms in our neighbor’s yard.

I was shocked and upset. I wanted to shout “Oh, my god!” but didn’t. Still, I fear winter is far from over and snow will come soon and kill my favorite flowers.  I wanted to tell them to go back under ground, to stop growing! “You’ll get killed out here! It’s not safe!”

Don’t worry. I didn’t yell at the flowers. No one will call you complaining about your crazy priest.

But, unlike most of us, I am not ready for Spring yet.  And I worry that our seasons have gotten too off kilter.  But I had an epiphany at that moment.  As I watched those Robins and Tulips coming up I realized that I should be shouting - but not to stop Spring.  These are the times we should shout Oh, my God!” - when S;pring comes early, when babies are born, when wars end, when relationships are reconciled, when the hungry are fed, the fearful comforted, the weak encouraged, the sick healed.  The list goes on and on. These are the times we should shout “Oh my God!” because these are the moments in life when the glory of God is seen just as clearly as those three disciples saw the very face of God glowing that day at the Transfiguration.

The glory of God shines all around us, all the time.  We didn’t miss the Transfiguration and there is no need to keep it a secret.  The glory of God shines in the faces of everyone, all the time, all around us.  It just takes some mindfulness to notice.

Seeing the glory of God in the face of everyone. Yes.  That is what I just said.  But that’s impossible, right?  I mean, to see the glory of God in the innocent and beautiful face of a baby, or a child or a graduate or a winner of some honor, that’s doable.  But to see the glory of God in the faces of our enemies, or those we see as evil, that’s not possible, right? Did the faces of Lee Harvey Oswald, Charles Manson or Saddam Hussein glow with the glory of God? How far do we take the commandment to love our enemies?

Jesus says, all the way.  Jesus calls us to seek the glory of God in the glowing faces all around us.  If we can seek Christ in all persons, if we can respect the dignity of every human being, if we can love, forgive, and hope for all persons, then we can see that glory.  We just have to take off our blinders.

Jesus changed the law by revealing in the world the light of love. That Peter, James and John saw him transfigured is not so weird when you realize that all of this love that Jesus bestows on us is glowing, glowing in the light of love.  We know this.  We know that we are changed by this love and we know about glowing too, we all have felt that glow in our Christian journeys.  All we are called to do, my friends, is to share that love.  We are not expected to light up like stadium lights, like Jesus did on the mountain that day.  We are only expected to keep the light, this little light of mine, this little light of yours, this light of love that shines through us from our encounter with the glory of God in Jesus.

Then, through this sharing, our eyes will be opened to the glory of God in all places, and faces, and all of life.

Amen.

Seventh Sunday after the Epiphany - Sunday, February 24, 2019

Epiphany 7C, 2019

Genesis 45:3-11, 15

Luke 6:27-38

The Rev. Dr. Kathy Dunagan

 

Last year I watched a short run, two season series on NBC called “Timeless.”  The characters have time machines and are chasing each other around in history. It got canceled and I’m still on a cliff hanger wondering if they ever got back to real time unharmed! It really wasn’t very good, but I got caught up in that fantasy of jumping around through time. There are hundreds of such TV and movie storylines out there. And one theme is that the characters from the present must not interact with the people they encounter in the past or future lest they upset the “time-space continuum.”  Whatever that is.

Some folks, like me, love the fantasy of playing with time.  I guess we long to go back and fix things or go forward and see how things turn out.  If you remember the “Back to the Future” movies, you’ll remember that they had a story line about a book of sports scores that one bad character used to cheat at gambling by taking it back in time and so he got rich that way. 

Perhaps there are a variety of desires in the fantasy of leaving the present and going back or forward in time.  I wonder why that is so appealing. Why do we have so much trouble with just living in the present?

One answer to the question is that we wish we could have a do-over and make different choices and avoid some of the regrets we carry with us now. 

This weekend I decided to finally get around to a rainy day chore of going through some old storage boxes of old pictures and I came upon a stack of old letters.  Between the letters and the pictures, I got caught up in remembering how things were in my relationships and aspirations back as far as 35 years ago!

As I prepared this sermon, I found myself realizing that I stand today on a sort of time precipice that might be a door to the “time-space continuum,” if this were a Sci-fi movie.

You see, today is the 20th anniversary of my ordination as a deacon. For 20 years I’ve served the church in ordained ministry. This month also is the first anniversary of when I was called as your Rector.  This time last year I was going through the process of an interview with the search committee and vestry and I was asked to preach and lead a Eucharist service.  I got to choose what scriptures to preach on for that service since it was outside of the discipline of preaching the Sunday lectionary.

So, I chose to preach on forgiveness. If you think about it, it is obvious why I felt the theme of forgiveness was needed at Grace. It still is.

Yesterday, when I was digging through those old letters, I found they lined up like a novel. Now, I didn’t have whatever letters I had mailed to Nancy and Barbara and other friends.  These were responses to letters I had sent.  And they were telling a story of what was going on in our lives at the time. And I realized that the characters in this story were living in a time before the rest of the story.  And I knew the rest of the story.  The story went through about a year and ended abruptly in mid-February. And I know now things like the fact that Nancy met her husband two weeks later. It was a powerful experience and I’m left bereft of the idea that letters of old have been destroyed and letters in today’s world, well, they’re no longer written.

At the bottom of the bin was a letter form a girl I knew when we were just 18 and freshmen in college.  Romana had been courted a bit by David and so I told him no when he invited me out. But he told me that he and Romona had only gone out a couple of times and that it didn’t work out. So when he invited me again, just to go on a walk, I accepted.  And we did just that. David and I strolled around the beautiful Emory and Henry campus on a beautiful Fall day in the early 1980s and Ramona saw us from her dorm room window and she was angry.

Ramona told lots of the other girls that I stole her boyfriend and she stirred up a whole group of kids who were giving me the evil eye and excluding me from social stuff over the next few weeks.  This all culminated at a weekend church retreat, by the way. I was left standing alone in a corner, isolated, hurt and angry.

But yesterday, when I found her 35-year-old letter, I had forgotten all about all that. I had forgotten all about Ramona.  What I did remember, before I opened that box, was the pain and embarrassment she caused me in her actions of telling lies about me and ostracizing me. I remembered that when I saw the return address on the envelop and the signature at the end. And I remembered next that I never spoke to her again. I remembered that our lives went in different directions shortly after all that so I guessed it didn’t really matter.

But I read the letter anyway, because I was reading my way through the whole box and was really amused with all of the letters so I decided to read each and every one.  And this was fun. Until I read the second page of Ramona’s letter. 

It was an apology. The letter was written from her home to mine during the Christmas break just after all that badness between us had happened that Fall. She wrote a carefully worded, kind, sincere, mature apology for her actions.  And yesterday, I was floored reading a 35 year old apology that I never accepted.

When Joseph was confronted with his long lost brothers, at this point in the story, his brothers who had tried to murder him, he acted at first like he didn’t know them. Maybe he wanted to forget them and maybe he had tried for years to forget them.  They didn’t recognize him at this encounter because they thought he was dead and he had only been a kid when they last saw him anyway. They were refugees of the famine, seeking a generous neighbor, seeking food for their families. They weren’t expecting to encounter their old, dead-to-them, little brother.

Joseph had been a big dreamer as a kid and his gift of interpreting dreams had gotten him where he was at this point in the story. Joseph is now second only to the Pharaoh himself. The path to this unexpected blessing was not an easy one.

False accusation in response to his repeated rejection of Potiphar’s wife’s sexual advances had put him in prison and favor with the prison wardens had put him in charge of the prisoners. Correctly interpreting the dreams of a baker and a cupbearer moved him from prison to the palace. His wisdom interpreting Pharaoh’s dreams and his gift for administration made Egypt the “breadbasket of the world” during a seven-year famine. Through all of this, it is important to remember, Joseph always credited Yahweh with these blessings.

Joseph had been their father’s favorite when he was a kid and he was given that special coat of many colors, as you remember. His bothers, jealous of this favoritism, had sold him into slavery where he had not only survived but prospered.

So, at this point in the story, the entire region, including Egypt, is suffering the seven-year period of famine foreseen by Joseph, and, two years into this famine, the brothers come looking for food.

The part of the story we have read today is a speech by Joseph once he finally reveals himself to them. It is filled with the emotion of the reunion. When Joseph says who he is, the brothers are “dumfounded” by fear and unbelief. Will Joseph, who now is so powerful, repay them with what they did to him and have them killed? The brothers quickly learn what we, the readers know already - that instead, he will choose to forgive them.

So, today I want to lift up again for you, as I did a year ago, the unavoidable Christian commandment to forgive our enemies.

This is very difficult.  And it is very tricky.

First of all, we have to identify who our enemies are.  Maybe that means recognizing not evil foreigners but folks in our lives whom we have spitefully cut off because they angered or hurt us.  Folks like me and Ramona.  I didn’t even remember her. What might have happened if I’d been more accepting of her repentance? What might have happened if I’d been more repentant too?

Forgiveness is tricky.  We think we forgive when we really don’t.  We don’t forgive when we thought we did. Or, we stay angry and can’t forgive because the other party is not repentant.  That’s the hardest scenario. 

Jesus says, forgive them anyway.

As we prepare our hearts for Lent this year, I invite you to take a long hard look at our need for forgiveness, repentance and reconciliation in the relationships of the people in our lives.

To begin some of that pondering, hear these words from my colleague Rev. Penny Nash:

Penny reminds us that “We begin the Eucharist during the season of Lent saying, ‘Bless the Lord who forgives all our sins.’”

“We need this reminder as often as possible - every day would not be too often to hear that God forgives all our sins.  My experience,” says Penny, “is that many of us are not sure we believe that God forgives all our sins and, furthermore, that most of us need to learn how to forgive ourselves as well.  We carry around these heavy loads and can't put them down for fear of being selfish or being careless or being an even bigger sinner than before.”

“There are many reasons why we don't trust that God forgives our sins  We may imagine that a God who forgives must be too soft to really be God.  Certainly, we think, a holy God cannot countenance or abide unholiness and so we imagine a mighty and stern God always on the lookout for us missing the mark.  And then holding it against us.”

“Sometimes we don't understand the nature of forgiveness. We may think that if we forgive someone (who seems unrepentant that) we are saying that what they did wrong - what they did to us - was ok.   That it was ok to hurt us, it was ok to cheat, it was ok to lie to or about us.  We decide that the only way we will forgive is if the person does about a million things to convince us that he or she is really. really sorry, and perhaps we will require some kind of restitution, and even then we may not actually forgive them.  Because otherwise we're saying it was ok for them to do what they did.  And then they get off the hook somehow.”

“And then we impute this line of reasoning upon God.  And then we can't grovel enough, and even after we have groveled and said the confession every Sunday and perhaps even participated in the Rite of Reconciliation with a priest who has, in God's name, absolved us, we secretly fear that God is still holding our sins against us.”

“But this is not how it works with God.  (And not how it should work between  us, either.)  Forgiveness does not mean that the sin was ok.  We still have to live with the consequences of our sins.  We have to repent, to learn from our missing the mark and try to change because of it.  Forgiveness means not carrying that grudge around, not letting someone else's stuff clog us up inside (someone once called it "no longer renting space inside me to someone else's toxic junk").  Letting go means not letting something fester and hold us back from health and wholeness.  God forgives us because God wants for us to be able to be what God made us to be.  And God did not make us to be crushed under a load of guilt and misery.”

“Christians claim that what we know about God is what we have seen in Jesus Christ, who died for us while we were yet sinners.  Jesus came to reconcile us to one another and to God.  He said, I came that you might have life, and have it abundantly. That means, we have to learn how to forgive and we have to learn how to accept forgiveness.  That is a truth that will set us free.”

So, my brothers and sisters, as we enter into Lent this year I ask you to ponder these questions in your hearts: Where is the famine in your life? In the life of this parish?  Who are our brothers and sisters who are hungry and have come to us for help? The ones who apologized, the ones who didn’t? With whom do you need to practice forgiveness? And most of all, can you really practice the Golden Rule? “If anyone strikes you on the cheek, (can you) offer the other also?; and from anyone who takes away your coat (can you give also) your shirt? (Can you) give to everyone who begs from you?; . . . (Can you really) Do to others as you would have them do to you?

Yes. Yes. Yes you can. Because God first loved us. Because God first forgave us. Because God sends us letters from throughout all of time to remind you that this is the life for which we were created.

So, “Bless the Lord who forgives all our sins.  God's mercy endures forever.”

Amen.

Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany - Sunday, February 17, 2019

Epiphany 6C

Jeremiah 17:5-10

1 Corinthians 15:12-20

Luke 6:17-26

The Rev. Dr. Kathy Dunagan

 

Kate and I had an interesting conversation the other day about our generation gap.  She pointed out a phenomenon that is a difference between my generation and hers and I have to say, she was spot on!

We were taking her car to get serviced so we were driving two cars so we could go get some lunch while we waited for the oil change and I was going on and on about which route to take to the garage in Christiansburg.  I mean, it seems to me that it’s shorter and less traffic to take Route 11 when going to something near or just past downtown Christiansburg even though the speed limits might be faster on the interstate and the mileage actually less on Peppers Ferry depending on the final destination and I was repeating this assessment when Kate said she just goes to wherever GPS says to go.

We laughed over lunch about this.  People my age lived in a time before GPS and also a slower, simpler time when discussion of which route to take was interesting to us, different routes kept boredom at bay in our small town, daily commutes, and maybe even paper maps were involved! I remember this begin the main topic of dinner conversation in my home as a teenager.  You know, something like, “Mom, which way did you go to get to the dry cleaners today? Did you go down main street or around behind the high school?”  Around here I suppose that would include the difference between east and west sides and main street or back way or which side of the river the destination is on. Kate may find this topic of conversation boring and “just taking GPS” seems simpler to her but to me GPS is the boring method.

So, it is still the season of Epiphany and we are knee deep in our Sunday morning pondering about recognizing God in Jesus the Christ in all the ways and at all the times in which God manifests God’s self to us.

Now, for a really bad sermon anecdote, I could compare Jesus to Waldo, as in the lovable children's puzzle books with pages and pages of cartoon Waldo in a crowd of people doing interesting and mundane things and the effort it takes to pick him out. “Where’s Jesus?!” Only, Jesus is not wearing a red and white stripped shirt, hat and glasses.  Well, I did say that is a bad example.

Finding Christ in all things does, however, take some effort.  And if we seek him as the wise men did, we must do so patiently, perseveringly and prayerfully.  The best way I have experienced this is through contemplative prayer.  I don’t see how any of us can figure out how to follow the resurrected Lord if we don’t take time to quiet our minds and rest our brains and bodies and focus our attention on Love.  Because, as we know by now from our Presiding Bishop, “If it’s not about love, it’s not about God.” 

So I bring to us this morning some hints about how to seek the Christ.

But first, some cautions or woe’s if you will.

Finding Jesus is not about seeking a personal relationship with him.  Now, this does not mean all of us do not have a personal relationship with Jesus or that a personal relationship with Jesus is not a desirable quest.  It’s just not really what Epiphany is all about.  And it is dangerous to use the concept of a personal relationship with Jesus as a spiritual priority.

If we want to really be lead by God in Christ, we have to learn to see Christ in all persons and in all things and at all times.  Secondly, we have to realize that seeking Christ is a community effort, not something for lone rangers to pursue.

Sound overwhelming?  Well, that’s why we need more prayer time.

Richard Rohr, in his recent writings says a lot about this concept of seeking Christ. In this understanding of what we are seeking, the incarnate God is seen as The Christ, not just Jesus the physical man who walked among us and then resurrected and ascended. This is a bigger-than-us, amazing, love action image of the Christ that sort of pops up in places and ways that always surprise us.  Rohr says that practicing a personal relationship with Jesus is limiting ourselves and frankly, projecting our selves, our wants, our needs and our selfishness onto our image of God in Jesus. It is also a dangerously individual quest that takes away from the community. 

Seeking Christ in all things and people and places and times is more about seeking, as the community of believers, the fruits of the Spirit -  “patience, gentleness, self control, joy, peace, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, and love” as Paul says in his letter to the Galatians (5:22-23) or the first fruits of the resurrection, as Paul says in today’s reading from his first letter to the Corinthians.

Richard Rohr puts it this way: “When Jesus Christ calls himself the “Light of the World” (John 8:12), he is not telling us to look just at him, but to look out at life with his all-merciful and non-dualistic eyes. We see him so we can see like him - with the same infinite compassion. When your isolated “I” turns into a connected “we,” you have moved from Jesus to Christ. We no longer have to carry the burden of being a perfect “I” because we are saved “in Christ” and as Christ. Or, as Christians say correctly, but too quickly, at the end of our official prayers: “Through Christ, Our Lord, Amen.”[1]

Now, that’s may sound like some deep theology Rohr is suggesting, but its really simple.  So, let’s just look at the text of these Beatitudes from Luke.

Jesus talks of opposites in this most important of his sermons.  He teaches outside the walls of the temple, outside the walls of the city and outside the walls and ridged-ness of the law itself.  There are so many Christians, especially in our country it seems, who sincerely want to follow Jesus but attempt to follow him by building walls - us and them walls.  These poor souls hear the message of the Beatitudes as an instruction list for the individual.

So that goes something like this: “If I work really hard at being ‘meek, poor in spirit, mournful, peacekeeping and hungry and thirsty for righteousness’ I’ll be right with Jesus and then my life will be good.”

That may seem a bit terse.  After all, a personal relationship with Jesus takes more than just trying to keep these nice attitudes we find in the Beatitudes.

But here’s the catch in today’s Gospel lesson.  This is Luke’s version.  He doesn’t use such nice language as Matthew.  Luke says that the blessed are the poor, the hungry and those who weep.  It’s a much simpler list but no one really wants to strive for just those three things. So we humans complicate it and try to own it.

Then Luke emphasizes the woes. “Woe to those who are not nice,” might be the overly reduced version.  This is where the me-first of the lone ranger Christian’s interpretation breaks down:

"But woe to you who are rich,” . . . “full,” . . . “laughing,” . . . and essentially have a good reputation. Ouch. If that shoe fits, you’re in for some woeful (and not righteous) indignation.  If not now then in the after life, “for you will be hungry”. . . “you will mourn and weep,” . . . and/or you are a “false prophet.”

This is too much for the individual to sort through.

My brother Mike is a Latin teacher so I called him yesterday and asked him to help me understand why they call this passage, in both Matthew and Luke, the Beatitudes.  The word itself, he helped me to understand, means from its Latin root, the quality of being happy. Beatus means happy.  the -tude part is an English suffix, from when the Vulgate was translated into the King James English, that means to be.  This is like the word gratitude: “the quality of being thankful.”

So, the word means “the quality of being happy” and naturally the passage has been interpreted to mean that if we each practice these qualities of being that are on the list of things that will leave us blessed, we will be happy.  The problem with this interpretation is that folks turned it into magical thinking.  Like, “I’ll act like I’m meek, poor in spirit, mournful, peacekeeping and hungry and thirsty for righteousness and maybe Jesus will buy me a Mercedes! Clearly if we find ourselves down this rabbit hole we have missed something!

Jesus was not teaching each disciple how to be happy.  Jesus was teaching the people how to love one another.  The lesson is for the whole community.  It is not a list of things to do to get into heaven or have power over and against your neighbor.

Seeking Christ in all people, in all places at all times works better. Better even than seeking a personal relationship with Jesus.  Seeking the Christ in this way is a way of looking out with the very eyes of God and seeking ways to give of God’s love through us, in spite of us.

I was moved this week to read the blog report of a colleague whose parish was victimized by the Westboro Baptist Church members a couple of weeks ago. Stuart tells the story well of the panic that ran through his large suburban parish when they were informed by the local police two weeks prior to the protestors arrival.  That’s just within the rules.  Westboro has lawyers who set up their protests so that they are sure to get police and media attention.

Stuart had to think quick about how to respond to these haters who apparently chose his parish just because it is Episcopalian and the people of Westboro believe that all Episcopalians are evil. And, well, Stuart’s church is near where the Super Bowl was being played later that day.

Stuart chose to start with prayer.  He is an advocate and teacher of contemplative prayer and has taught me a great deal about prayer through his writings and at least one weekend retreat. I have learned through him and others about the importance of carving out time - lots of time - every day - to sit quietly with God.  Empty the mind, or focus on some scripture or a favorite written prayer or a mantra or sing or something. But we need to spend more time quieting ourselves in order to protect our souls from the daily onslaught of noise and busy-ness.

So, Stuart prayed and then he lead his large congregation to respond with prayer too. They gathered during the weeks ahead and sat in silent prayer.  They gathered early prior to the service that morning to sit in silence.  And, well, then they pealed the tower bells and drowned out the noise of the protesters who stood across the street spewing hatred. 

Stuart figures we should use all the gifts we have in the Episcopal Church.

But they also did this:  They decided to put some action into the mix.  Perhaps because of the media coverage or perhaps because of the stirring to support each other, that particular Sunday morning was going to draw a big crowd.  So they asked everyone to bring non-perishable food for the food pantry and pet supplies for the humane society and both bins were overflowing.

Hate did not out-sound these seekers of Christ that day.

To follow Jesus, to find him in the crowd or to seek answers and guidance does not come best in a stance of personal relationship with Jesus.  At least not a personal relationship that imitates ownership. As in a “my Jesus will protect and provide for me and everyone else can go hang” sort of posture.

Seeking Christ in all people works better.

So, step away from the GPS and let’s look together at our quest to find the Christ in new way, using an old map.  This will mean widening the circle and challenging our ingrained understanding of what it means to be a member of the church.  It will mean traveling along side folks who see things differently. But maybe if we tried to seek Christ as a community, with a shared map, though it may show us multiple routes, maybe if we follow together we will learn from each other and grow toward the one body in Christ that we are called to be.

Amen.


[1] Adapted from Richard Rohr, The Universal Christ: How a Forgotten Reality Can Change Everything We See, Hope For, and Believe (Convergent Books: 2019), 36-37.

Fifth Sunday After Epiphany - Sunday, February 10, 2019

Epiphany 5C

1 Corinthians 15:1-11

Luke 5:1-11

 

“Life is a banquet, and most poor suckers are starving to death! So live! live! live!”

This is a quote from a favorite movie.  Now you may remember the story of Mame when Lucille Ball played the character in the musical in the 1970s but I prefer the original non-musical version with Rosalind Russell. They sort of messed up the story with the musical too. I think this quote is foundational to the story and was kept from the book.

“Life is a banquet, and most poor suckers are starving to death! So live! live! live!” Mame is exubérant.  She loves life.  She loves people.  She spends her life partying and connecting and laughing and exploring and creating.  But many people around her consider her a sinner, a heathen, a hedonist.  And she is.  She is a sinner, like you, like me. And her exubérant ways are suspect as she raises a young boy, a boy who is her only living relative, and she his only living relative. They have ti figure out how to be in relationship with each other and learn to depend on each other. And Mame’s exubérant ways are challenged by others in the story even more when this boy comes to be her responsibility.

But Mame keeps on living large and loud and has this saying that the boy remembers the rest of his life, though he does go on to a boarding school for a better upbringing after a short time with Mame.

“Life is a banquet, and most poor suckers are starving to death! So live! live! live!”

When I first moved into the rectory, I didn’t have internet for a few weeks but I did have a DVD player and TV. So I borrowed some DVDs from An and Tim Walker and enjoyed particularly binge watching the television show Joan of Arcadia. This lesser known show ran from September of 2003 through April of 2005. It introduced viewers to a teenage girl named Joan, but with a twist: Joan’s character is loosely based on the life of the 15th-century saint, Joan of Arc. The overarching plot showed Joan Girardi as a modern 16-year old girl who is visited by God in various forms, such as a garbage man, a dog walker, a little girl, a teenage punk rocker, an elder lady and other unexpected people. God continually asks Joan to do things that seem strange at the time, but work themselves out in transformational ways within Joan’s character and the lives that she touches.  

In one episode, God, in the form of a cute teenage boy, tells Joan that he wants her to do something that scares her. As soon as he tells her this, he turns around and walks down the school hallway, leaving Joan alone with a million questions. She is afraid of so many things, how is she supposed to know which one to pick? 

Responding to God’s request to do something that scares us is exactly that: scary. When this happens, the fear of change hits us on a personal level—a change of will, an attitude of openness to change one’s heart, a change of perception toward another person. In many cases, people would rather have a 40-foot wave of water come down on them or be shot up into the sky without a parachute than make such a change. But if we stop for a minute and breathe, we notice that deep down inside—sometimes not until afterward—what God is asking of us is the right thing to do.

At the end of each episode, when Joan of Arcadia would fulfill what God asked of her in, it always made her grow as a person and brought her closer to others. Such things are usually signs that we have done or are doing the right thing in answering God’s call.

Fear is paralyzing, though. It motivates us to maintain the status quo and to resist growing into who God is calling us to be. Fear is what made Saul of Tarsus, who would later become the apostle Paul, persecute Christians. Fear is what makes us believe we are not worthy of being loved—by others, by ourselves, and by God.

Fear casts out reason. Fear lacks God’s imagination of wonder for the future. We can certainly imagine any number of horrible things that might happen, but it is more difficult to visualize something entirely new. Fear tells us it will keep us safe, but it does not tell the whole story. It also traps us and makes us unable to experience the freedom of what Jesus offers.

Yet, this is where God finds us. Just like Jesus found Simon Peter in his boat and Paul on the road to Damascus, God comes to where we are and asks us to do something that seems unthinkable, laughable, bizarre, or just plain scary. We could stay the same, but it would go against our Baptismal Covenant and against the transforming power of living a life of faith by following Jesus. With Jesus meeting us where we are, we have a wonderful opportunity to experience God’s grace. We do not have to be perfect in order for God to want to be in relationship with us. We just have to be willing to drop our own baggage around our fears and follow, like Peter, James, and John did when they brought their boats, overflowing with fish, to shore.

It sounds so simple to follow Jesus, doesn’t it? It should be compelling to hear about his miracles in scripture and witness that the work of God is full of abundance and grace in our own lives—so compelling that we want to leave everything and follow Jesus, too. Jesus tells Peter, James, and John that they should not be afraid of what has happened and that from then on, they would be catching people, too, just as Jesus has caught them—by being with them where they were and exemplifying the blessing and abundance of God. In leaving everything and following Jesus, they immediately reorder their entire lives, with Jesus at the center of every decision they make.

What would that be like for us?

What if we applied this type of order to our Christian life? What if, like those first disciples and Paul, Jesus was at the center of every decision we made? It is not just asking ourselves what Jesus would do, but more deeply and pointedly, what would Jesus have me do. What Jesus would have us do as a parish.

Perhaps the list of values we would use come from the Baptismal Covenant or the fruits of the spirit, values such as seeking to serve Christ in all persons, faithfulness, proclaiming by word and example the Good News of God in Jesus Christ, embodying gentleness, living in peace, or administering self-control. Would our lives be different if we did this? Would our world?[1]

One of the things I learned about this Gospel story this week is that Jesus got on to the boat to teach for more than one reason. It seems that getting some distance from the crowd who were “pressing in on him” was a way for them to see him as he taught.  But there was another possibility at play here.  The water between the boat and the crowd acted as a natural amplifier of his voice.

My family has an old pontoon boat on South Holston Lake which straddles the Virginia-Tennessee state line.  The boat dock we use is in a cove and my brother gets the boat from the slip and brings it up further into the cover to a peer to pick us up so my aging mom doesn’t have to walk so far.  This cove is between some steep cliffs too so the natural acoustics up in there are amazing.  We have learned that we can speak at almost a whisper and hear each other.  That’s because our voices are bouncing off of the water.  It is a lovely sound, especially when there is not much else going on.

This gives me an experiential access to this story.  I can imagine standing on that beach leaning in to hear the voice of the rabbi in the proper seated position speaking quietly and yet there is no other sound buy his voice and no other wisdom to learn and no turning back.  I can imagine being gobsmacked by what he teaches. A new, radical way of life. The way of love. And he didn’t have to yell.  It just bounced off of the water.

But then Jesus did something.  He took action after he taught.  So, not just words here.  He commands us to follow up the lesson with action too. And he models some action.

In this story he took the fishermen out to deep water.  Now, this would have been scary for even these seasoned fishermen.  The deep water is where the monsters lived. The deep water is a place of great respect and big time safety practices.  No one wants to fall overboard into the deep water. One is certain to perish there. But Jesus tells them to fish there and they do. Reluctantly. And the catch is miraculous.  This abundance of fish comes so easily that they are overwhelmed.

Jesus asks us too to go to deeper places.  Jesus asks us to take chances and go to places and do things that are scary to us.  He doesn’t just ask this.  He commands it.  And when we are able to follow, especially to the scary and deep places, the abundance of his love and action in the world, through us in spite of us, is always more surprising.

So, back to Mame. Mame can be compared to Jesus. Well, maybe if you leave out the bathtub gin! Like Mame who said to live! live! live! Jesus wants us to get out of our shells, get off the shore, get into the deep water and dive into the waters of life.  The abundance of his love will guide us. The abundance, like so many fish, will nurture us.  And when we dare to answer our call to follow Jesus, our eyes will be opened to the riches of the sea, and the earth and the beauty of all of God’s creation, even sinful, human kind.

To be called by God to follow Jesus takes more than just a willingness of heart and living through our core Christian values. It takes the humble response that we repeat every time we recite our Baptismal Covenant: I will, with God’s help. We have the will, but God is the way. We must actively choose to follow Jesus and we need God’s help to do so, as that road is unknown and will present us with challenges and joys which we are unable to predict.

In our modern time, we have control over a great many things in our lives and therefore perceive that we can control everything, including other people and events. When we come up against uncontrollable circumstances, we are often at a loss. In a difficult circumstance, people may tell us platitudes such as “Let go and let God,” or “There’s a reason for everything.” Although the person means well, these sayings are not helpful when facing a life-altering event. Or, we may be going along, happy with our daily lives like Simon-Peter, when suddenly we experience a miracle—something unexpected and uncontrolled. Something that we did not order from the menu of what we thought was our life.

Regardless if it is a positive or negative circumstance that comes up, we are challenged to respond faithfully, knowing that Jesus is getting into the boat with us, no matter what. No matter if we deserve it or not, no matter how great our fear or joy is, Jesus meets us where we are and this is why we grasp his outstretched hand—unexpected, full of grace, in invitation—and we follow.

Amen.


[1] The Rev. Danae M. Ashley, https://www.episcopalchurch.org/library/sermon/trusting-jesus-epiphany-5-c-february-10-2019.

Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany - Sunday, February 3, 2019

“Beyond the tribe”

Rev. Jon Greene, Deacon

Grace Episcopal Church, Radford, VA

February 3, 2019

 

Jeremiah 1:4-10

1 Corinthians 13:1-13

Luke 4:21-30

Psalm 71:1-6

 

May change bring hope, may hope bring love, may love bring change.

 

Some of you will know that Elise and I have four daughters.  There are 11 years between our oldest and youngest, so for 18 years we had a teenage girl in the house (kind of explains this—don’t you think?)

There was a pattern that played out over the years in our house. 

Elise and I would be downstairs and would hear screaming and yelling.

I would go upstairs and find two of the girls, red-faced, necks bulging in fury.

At issue was the ownership of a certain item—sometimes an item of make-up, a blouse or a necklace

—most often a pair of jeans.

One of the girls would be wearing said jeans, the other would be yelling, “Those are mine!” with the fury of the innocent victim.

“No they’re not!” would scream the other, with the righteous anger of the falsely accused.

 

Now, I always thought of myself as a clever and wise father, and would intervene in the situation and would offer what I felt was a brilliant solution.

Now despite my perceived cleverness and wisdom the result of my intervention was typically both girls crying hysterically in their room, my wife wondering how I could be such an idiot and me recognizing I was going to end up buy two pairs of jeans that weekend.

Inevitably I ended up asking myself, “What just happened here?”

 

I have a similar reaction to today’s Gospel passage. 

Jesus is in the temple reading scripture in his hometown.  The next thing you know his own people want to throw him off a cliff.  Luckily, he “passes through” the crowd.

Huh?  What just happened here?

 

Now the folks that select the lectionary in their Solomonic wisdom have split this passage in half.

Last week Kathy read that Jesus had taken the scroll from Isaiah and read this passage:

18 “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,

    because he has anointed me

        to bring good news to the poor.

He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives

    and recovery of sight to the blind,

        to let the oppressed go free,

19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

This week he states “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing”.

According to Matthew and Mark’s Gospel, when he said that it didn’t sit well with the good folks of Nazareth.

They claim “they took offense at him”. 

Luke, tells it differently. 

According to him “all spoke well of him and were amazed at his gracious words,” 

but then Jesus goes off on them.

He says you people are going to throw proverbs at me

and you’re going to ask why I’m not doing the acts of power that you heard in Capernaum.

Then he tells them that like Elijah and Elisha, who took care of foreigners while many Israelites were suffering, that he will be leaving town and going to do his works of power with others,

Maybe even Gentiles.

It’s the messianic equivalent of telling them, “I’m not doing business here in Radford, I’m going back over the river to Blacksburg.”

Fighting words.

Why did Jesus do this?  Why did he provoke the people of his home town?

 

We’ll never know for sure of course, but I have a theory.

I think he looked out on his own people and was disappointed.  He was disappointed that they expected him to take care of his tribe, his people first, then the rest of Israel, then the Gentiles if he had any juice left over.

He was disappointed that they were not ready to live the way of love that includes loving those that are different from us as well as those that are the same.

 

You see, we are wired to be tribal.  We are wired to form a group for our own protection and then build walls and fences and make weapons of iron or of words to keep the other side out.

Peter Gabriel, a songwriter from my youth and one of the founders of the art rock band Genesis wrote in a song

“How can we be in, if there is no outside?”

We see things as them or us, black or white, a or b and in response, Jesus looks at us with a wry, and disappointed, smile and says…

“All of the above.”

A researcher at Tech was recently published in an article about how we receive scandalous news about our own sports team (or our own political party).

It seems when our own team, our own party, our own tribe is accused of wrongdoing, we tend to view that news as biased, even when we believe the source of that news is credible.[1]

It’s fake news. They’re just trying to make us look bad.  It’s politically motivated.

 

That brings me to the topic of blackface.

I had a perfectly nice sermon to give you this morning, but then on Friday night I heard the news that our Governor, had a picture in his yearbook of two medical students, one of which may be him,—one in blackface, one in a Ku Klux Klan costume.

And, once again, I said, “What just happened here?”

Yesterday morning, my sermon was done…but I knew I had to go there, even if it makes us squirm a little, even if Kathy would wish I would shut up, even if it isn’t a nice topic.

You see the Gospel isn’t always about being nice, and we see that Jesus wasn’t particularly nice to his friends and family in Nazareth.  He was, in fact, a little snarky.

 

There is a wonderful article in the Washington Post yesterday about Governor Northam and blackface that I commend to you.[2]

It tells us that blackface began in the 1830’s when a performer by the name of Thomas Dartmouth Rice created a show and a character in which he darkened his face and then acted and danced like a buffoon and used an exaggerated accent and the expressions of African Americans.

Some people, mostly white, apparently thought it was funny.

Some people, I’m sure, did not.

The character he created was named, Jim Crow.  That name of course was then applied to the segregation practices that were adopted in Virginia and elsewhere after the civil war.

The practice of blackface entertainers continued well into the 20th century, with Vaudevillians such as Al Jolson making a fortune portraying wide-eyed and dopey characters with black faces and exaggerated lips.

So the black face that Governor Northam portrayed can be traced back to a practice that was making fun of enslaved people and bore the same name as the odious forms of segregation that we as a people practiced well into the last century.

While probably intended to be funny, it is offensive.  It is racist.  It is unacceptable

today, in 1830 and in 1984. 

The fact that we accepted this practice as a society, is what I would consider a societal sin which we need to redeem.

In 1984, some, maybe most, white folks, would have thought it was funny…

Today, I hope fewer find it funny, but I’m afraid some still will.

 

This is not about condemning a man.

I, sure as shootin’, don’t want to go back and examine all the things that I said and did in my teens and twenties.   I did plenty of things that were stupid and I wish I hadn’t done.

While I never dressed in blackface or as a KKK member.  Would I have if someone asked me to?  I don’t think so, but can I be sure?

Would I have thought it was funny if a couple had come dressed like that…maybe…if I’m honest, I might have laughed at it, nervously and probably seeing it as crossing the line, but laughing nonetheless.

 

As Bishop Curry would challenge us what we need to do is to look at the past, understand the truth and learn from it so that we can create a future that redeems the mistakes, the sins, of the past.

So what now?  What do we do when our leaders disappoint us?  What do we do we do when we find out they have behaved inappropriately in the past?  Can we apply today’s standards to what happened years ago?

Anyone that portrays this as an easy answer is mistaken, in my mind.

Does an act committed as a joke 35 years ago, negate all the good an individual has done before or after?

Can a person that has done something so inappropriate, so insensitive, then be the leader of the people that he or she has offended?

 

Michael Curry, last week, suggested that, when we face such difficult decisions, ask ourselves which of the options look like love?

In my mind, that doesn’t make the decision easy…should we fall on the side of forgiveness for the offender (and what, exactly, does forgiveness look like) or should we fall on the side of the oppressed?

This will always be tough and will always require a detailed examination of the facts and, then, most importantly, prayer, where we truly listen for the voice of God, to determine, in fact, what is the way of love.

 

I have my own opinions on this situation, but they don’t really matter and have no place in the pulpit.

What I will share for you is a challenge I’m giving myself and ask you to consider…

The challenge is how does the answer change if Governor Northam were with the other tribe?

If you are a Democrat, how would you feel about the situation if the Governor had beliefs that you disagreed with and, perhaps, you found him unlikeable?

If you are a Republican, how would you feel if the Governor was someone you liked and had beliefs that aligned with yours?

What is your response when a black man is killed by a white police officer?  How would you respond if the roles were reversed?

What is your response when a young white woman is killed by an undocumented immigrant driving under the influence?  What if, instead, it’s the white woman that kills the immigrant while driving impaired?

Now, most of us, myself included, convince ourselves that we are logical, even-handed and fair in such matters. 

The truth, however, is that we find it very easy to see the best in our tribe and see the worst in the other.  Go take a look at opinion polls, go take a look at the Virginia Tech research I mentioned.

We see our leaders, and far too often, each other, in categories. Democrat, Republican, independent, liberal, conservative, Tea Party, socialist, black, white, LGBTQ, straight, Brexit, Remain, transgender, cisgender, Radford, Blacksburg, Grace parishioner, from the diocese, male, female, American, or illegal alien. 

You name it…we are really good and dividing up humanity into us and them and most often we can find a way to see just about anyone as different from us,

But that’s not the way God sees us. 

In God’s eyes we are all beloved Children.

And that’s why I think Jesus looked out at the congregation at Nazareth and got snarky.  Because they were seeing division, while he was preaching unity.

So as you consider the situation with Governor Northam, with other elected officials, with our community, state and nation.  With our world…with all of God’s creation…invite Jesus into our congregation, our state, our nation and our hearts to help us see beyond our tribe.

 

Please pray with me…

Lord Jesus, teach us to see beyond ourselves and our tribes to live your way of love. 

Break our hearts of stone and let us see unity where today we see division,

Let us see God’s children where today we see tribes.

Let us see love, where today we see hate

Bless this gathering, the City of Radford, the Commonwealth of Virginia, the United States, this world and all of your creation for in the end, we all belong to you.

In your name we pray…

 

Amen.


“[1]Study draws connections between sports fandom and political tribalism,” VT News, January 30, 2019, https://vtnews.vt.edu/articles/2019/01/sports_fandom_study.html , retrieved February 2, 2019.

[2] “Northam’s ugly yearbook photo and the racist origins of blackface;” Washington Post; February 2, 2019; https://www.washingtonpost.com/history/2019/02/02/northams-ugly-yearbook-photo-racist-origins-blackface/?utm_term=.ad478b47b55d retrieved February 2, 2019.

Third Sunday after the Epiphany - Sunday, January 27, 2019

Epiphany 3C

January 27, 2018

Luke 4:14-21

Grace Episcopal Church

Radford, Virginia

The Rev. Dr. Kathy Dunagan

 

There’s a funny line I remember from the famous sit com, Friends. Phoebe, the stereotypical “dumb blonde” (played by the brilliant Lisa Kudrow) says something remarkable in this brief scene.  Now, this is late in the 2nd season and in the 47th episode of weekly scenes that have taken place in the coffee shop where the gang hangs out. The coffee shop is across from Central Park in New York and Phoebe suddenly sees the name of the coffee shop on the store front and says, “Oh! Central Perk! I just got that!”

It’s funny because it took her 47 episodes to get the play on words - and maybe half the fans of the show took that long to get it too.

This is an epiphany moment.

I have had moments like Phoebe’s.  They seem to come more rapidly the older I get.  You know, all of a sudden there is the realization of the double meaning in a logo or punch line.  Like the name of our parish newsletter - Grace Notes - I get it - but it took me a couple of months.  The double meaning is a reference to those short little musical notes that ornament a piece of music.  It’s primary meaning is those little messages that keep us all informed of what’s going on around here.

Well, the Bible is like that too. There are little “grace notes” throughout.  Little surprises and “aha” moments when we study the Word of God. Little moments in our continual study of the Word that cause us to understand Grace better.  There’s another double meaning because Grace is the name of our parish. Grace is who we are.

This week’s Gospel lesson is no exception to the surprises we encounter in scripture.

Jesus reads the scripture in a Sunday morning church service, of sorts. He specifically reads the words of the great prophet Isaiah, and then sits down in the rabbinic place of sitting to teach. This is topsy turvy.  He didn’t even go to seminary! And now he’s just shown up and announced that he is not only a rabbi, which is surprising enough to the assembly, but, well, he’s also actually the long awaited messiah.

This must have been astonishing to everyone that heard this.  And it wasn’t just in one synagogue, he apparently went on a tour and hit the local parish of each community with this message.

If you remember where we are in the story, Jesus was born, escaped murder in Egypt as a toddler, moved to Nazareth when things were safe and finished growing up. Then, when it was time to begin his ministry he began with Baptism by John in the river Jordan and then he suffered 40 days and nights of wilderness and temptation from Satan. 

His reading of this prophesy is the next thing he does, according to Luke. So it is the first thing he does after these other preparatory things.

Now, John tells us that the first miracle of Jesus, the first thing he did after Baptism, was to turn water into wine at that wedding in Cana.  That’s where the lectionary took us last week.

But this week we look at it from Luke’s perspective - The first thing Jesus does after his Baptism and this purification of sorts in that tussle with the devil, the first thing he does is take his rightful place as the Rabbi. The first thing he does is to take his rightful place, no doubt as the Messiah.  And he sits down among these assemblies and begins to teach us.

And the rest of the story is mostly about what he teaches. He teaches through  lectures like this and he teaches through actions like healing folks.  He teaches us to love, he teaches us to go and tell the good news, he teaches us to trust in the Spirit to lead us, and he commands us to take up our cross and follow him.

What does it mean to follow Jesus? Here are some thoughts from Richard Rohr:

“I believe that we are invited to gaze upon the image of the crucified Jesus to soften our hearts toward all suffering, to help us see how we ourselves have been “bitten” by hatred and violence, and to know that God’s heart has always been softened toward us. In turning our gaze to this divine truth—in dropping our many modes of scapegoating and self-justification—we gain compassion toward ourselves and all others who suffer.

History is continually graced with people who somehow learned to act beyond and outside their self-interest and for the good of the world, people who clearly operated by a power larger than their own. The Nelson Mandelas of the world, the Oskar Schindlers, the Martin Luther King, Jrs. Add to them Rosa Parks, Mother Teresa, Dorothy Day, Oscar Romero, Cesar Chavez, and (Michael Curry. Add to that also) many other “unknown soldiers.” These inspiring figures give us strong evidence that the mind of Christ still inhabits the world. Most of us are fortunate to have crossed paths with many lesser-known persons who exhibit the same presence. I can’t say how one becomes such a person. All I can presume is that they all had their Christ moments, in which they stopped denying their own shadows, stopped projecting those shadows elsewhere, and agreed to own their deepest identity in God.

But it is not an enviable position, this Christian thing. Following Jesus is a vocation to share the fate of God for the life of the world. To allow what God for some reason allows—and uses. And to suffer ever so slightly what God suffers eternally.

This has little to do with believing the right things about God—beyond the fact that God is love. Those who agree to carry and love what God loves, both the good and the bad, and to pay the price for its reconciliation within themselves—these are the followers of Jesus Christ. They are the leaven, the salt, the remnant, the mustard seed that God uses to transform the world. The cross, then, is a very dramatic image of what it takes to be usable for God. It does not mean you are going to heaven and others are not; rather, it means you have already entered heaven and thus can see things in a transcendent, whole, and healing way now.[1]

At convention this weekend, we listened to each other share our experiences with getting caught up in the Spirit. We were preparing for today’s revival (at the Bergland Center in Roanoke with Presiding Bishop Michael Curry.)

Bishop Curry talked a lot.  There is too much of what he said to quote but this one thing he talked about stayed with me.  He said that Christians must use a rule of life, or rule of thumb as he put it, to prioritize a life of love. He said that most of what Jesus taught us was about how to love our neighbor as ourself.

If we live with this priority of love, then we can always ask ourselves this question in each little momentary decision: “Is this about me or is it about love?” He elaborated on this and said that we should always ask this question of ourselves every day, every decision.  Is this decision I’m making or thing I’m about to say or thing I’m about to do about loving the other or is it about loving the self?  Am I about to spew words of hate or attack someone defensively? Or am I entering into relationship, listening, bending, forgiving and patient?

Then he talked a lot about how to go out into the mission field of our neighborhood, how to spread the love, how to care for the poor, the downtrodden, the hungry.  There was a lot said this weekend about how to do that, how to be good Christians.  There was a lot said about how to open ourselves to be renewed through efforts of spiritual revival.  There was a lot said about living out the commandment of Jesus to follow him.

But we kept coming back to this one basic tenet of our faith. Sacrificial, sacramental, selflessness.

We can’t follow Jesus if we don’t stop trying to run the world our way.

We can’t follow Jesus if we don’t stop judging our neighbor.

We can’t follow Jesus if we don’t open our hearts to the manifestation of the mystery of the incarnation.

We can’t follow Jesus if we don’t turn around in repentant expectation of God’s daily surprises and epiphanies.

So, that it took Phoebe 47 hours of situation comedy before she noticed the play on words is a simple reminder that we too have “aha” moments when we realize we may have missed something along the way.  The holiest of moments is not when we hear the word of God or the law or the menu for our daily consumption and mutter to each other, “I knew that.”  No. The holiest of all of life is those moments when we turn and recognize the Christ in the blatant right-before-us ways we overlooked before.  A holy life is one in which enough humility is mixed with enough love to open our eyes to the surprises all around us all the time.

Just after I first moved to Radford I checked out Wildwood Park by driving by and trying to see what it looked like.  I drove by the trail head down by the round about, I drove by the entrance off of Main Street over by National Bank and saw the foot of that steep staircase that goes up the other side of the ravine.  I drove behind the high school when it was closed and tried to see the trail from near that bird watching deck back there.  I never could see much.  It was summer time and the trees were all full of leaves.

But on Christmas Day the weather warmed up and I was walking my dog Prancer and I decided to walk over to the high school and check it out.  When I got to that bird watching deck I could finally see the park.  This was because of three things. First, I ventured away from my usual routine, my usual route around in the same circle here in the neighborhood. Second, I was walking instead of driving so I had to stop and get a little closer and put down my phone and listen and I could hear the park, I could hear the wind in the trees, the ripple of the creek. I could feel, taste and smell the park too.  The third difference was that there were no leaves on the trees.  This opened up all those woods so that I could see.  And a whole new world was opened up to me and Prancer.  We easily found the path.  We easily followed the path. The rest was easy too. The rest was adventure and renewal and encounter with God’s creation and with God’s people.

This was and Epiphany moment.

I hope for us here at Grace Radford a new awareness like that.  I hope and pray and even expect that God has many surprises in store for us in the near future.  And, while I don’t think any of us is particularly selfish, I mean just look around at all the good works we do in the New River Valley! - It might be a good idea to do some introspection and root out our sinfulness in order to meet those surprises as they come lest we are blind to them.

If we can’t open ourselves to change, we might miss those opportunities the Spirit sends our way.  And we might never notice the signs.  And we might get stuck in the past or stuck in the present.

But each and every moment is an opportunity to see all the new ways Jesus is leading us to a better life of love and relationship.

Amen.

[1] Adapted from Richard Rohr, The Universal Christ: How a Forgotten Reality Can Change Everything We See, Hope For, and Believe (Convergent Books: 2019), 152-153.

Second Sunday After the Epiphany - January 20, 2019

Epiphany 2C

January 20, 2018

Isaiah 62:1-5

John 2:1-11

The Rev. Dr. Kathy Dunagan

 

Why start with this miracle?

In John’s Gospel, the first of Jesus’ signs was turning water into wine. The other Gospels call actions like this “miracles.” But John calls them signs.

Jesus’ first sign that inspired his disciples to believe in him was not healing a sick person, bringing someone back from the dead, forgiving sins, or exorcizing a demon, it was making gallons and gallons of excellent wine, about a hundred fifty gallons of wine. And in so doing he made a party last longer. Does this make Jesus seem like a more sophisticated savior, someone we would be less embarrassed about introducing to our friends than, say, Jesus the exorcist or the Jesus who touches lepers?

Or is Jesus’ first miracle a little trivial?

Maybe it’s not about Jesus loving a good party, although by all accounts he did. His opponents called him a glutton and a drunkard, and he often got in trouble for sharing table fellowship with the wrong kind of people.

And maybe it’s not just trivial, or the evangelist John wouldn’t have used one of his big words sign for it. The other things John calls signs that Jesus did include healing the sick, raising people from the dead, feeding a multitude on five loaves and two fish, and appearing, resurrected from the dead, among his amazed disciples. So signs are big, important, meaningful, reality-shifting events for John.

But how is making a ridiculous amount of wine at a small-town wedding reception on par with raising the dead, feeding the hungry, walking through locked doors to show the scars on his hands and feet and side and proclaiming that death has been defeated? As a sign, what does turning water into wine point to? What makes this wine so important?

A wedding or another big family celebration then, as for many of us now, was a time for good wine, a time to spend scarce money on the rarer things of life—a time to share food and drink that was special, less mundane. And because wine was something connected with special times and celebrations, this was a Biblical sign of the heavenly banquet, what’s called the eschatological—or last times— that great feast planned for the end of time as we know it.

For example, listen to the prophet Isaiah’s description of the age to come, the promised fulfillment of God’s plans and dreams for the end of time:

On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear. And he will destroy on this mountain the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that is spread over all nations; he will swallow up death forever. Then the Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces, and the disgrace of his people he will take away from all the earth, for the Lord has spoken. It will be said on that day, Lo, this is our God; we have waited for him, so that he might save us. This is the Lord for whom we have waited; let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation (Isaiah 25:6-9).

This is Isaiah’s image for the end of time, when all is brought to its fulfillment: an end to tears, a clear manifestation of our God, and a great feast for all peoples, a feast of really rich, fatty food, and wine better than the best you’ve ever tasted.

Furthermore, as we heard in today’s passage from Isaiah, a symbol of God’s joy over God’s people, of God’s deep love for God’s people, is a bride and a bridegroom and the delight and rejoicing they share, like at a marriage celebration.

So, when Jesus makes gallons and gallons of wine at a wedding reception, it is a sign­, pointing to the scriptural promises that God will bring all people to God’s own self, that God will pour down God’s love and the abundance of God’s joy on all people, that the perfection that lies in God’s great future is real. But more—that the future abundance and grace and joy has begun in Jesus Christ. The future is now, the glory and grace and love of God are available now.

That’s why turning water into wine is the first of the signs Jesus did, and the rest of the signs follow. It’s saying, look! God’s future is breaking in now, God’s future has begun in Jesus. What else does God’s future look like? It looks like hungry people being fed, sick people being healed, dead people being raised from death, death itself being defeated. (These are the kinds of daily miracles we have seen and sometimes taken for granted.)

God’s future is available now. In the present. In this life. We don’t have to wait to experience hope. And we can trust that God will keep God’s promises for the end of time, because Jesus already brought the possibility of joy and hope and new life now, even into this world. Perfection is not yet fully present; perfect wholeness still lies ahead. But trust Jesus—God will keep God’s promises. God’s future has already broken into the present in Jesus.

So, how do we participate in this new life, God’s perfect, joy-filled future available now?

Mary gives the answer: do whatever he tells you. Seek life at its source. Seek joy at its source. Seek to know what Jesus Christ asks of you. This is the essence of discipleship. This is the key for joining Jesus in his new way of being in the world. This is the key: do whatever he tells you.

Notice that the people who knew where the water turned into wine had come from, the people who grasped firsthand, who saw with their own eyes the amazing thing happening in their midst were the servants. The ones who did what Jesus told them to do. While everyone else around them was caught up in whatever was going on at the party, the servants got to witness a miracle.

And they got to participate in that miracle. They got to have a hand in Jesus’ first sign. They just did what Jesus told them to do.  They just did the simple, straightforward things Jesus told them to do and they got to participate in a miracle.

Do whatever Jesus tells you. Water becomes the finest wine. The mundane becomes miraculous.

Jesus tells us all some very simple, straightforward things to do. There are lots of verbs in the gospels—commands, instructions that really aren’t even that hard to understand when it comes right down to it that are about simple obedience. Jesus tells us to do things: love, share, give, serve, listen, learn, worship, pray.

(This list sounds a lot like what we are prayerfully following in our preparation for the upcoming revival with our presiding bishop next Sunday. Bishop Curry has asked us to seek to follow Jesus in his model for Christian life which he calls “The Way of Love, Practices for a Jesus-Centered Life.” The eight verbs on this list are: Turn, Learn, Pray, Worship, Bless, Go, Rest. There’s a poster on the bulletin board if you need a reminder.)

God even gives us particulars in our to-do lists: contexts and jobs and families, a community, and a church family in which to be obedient. Love him. Love her. Love them. Share your money, your time, your particular gift, your ability with that child, with that elder, with that family. Worship with this parish family. Pray at your desk, at your bedside, with your teenager, for your spouse, your partner, your parent, this world. Listen for what Jesus tells you to do. Do it. You may participate in a miracle, you may get a glimpse, a sign of God’s perfect future, a sign of God’s heavenly feast, even right here, right now.[1]

My favorite story to tell on this Sunday each year is about just that, listening to a call and answering by following in the here and now. This is a story of a young man just entering his calling, finding himself and finding God working through him.  This story is of a new father.  I share it with you by quoting this young man’s own words directly and letting him tell you how it went.

Imagine a new father in the mid-60s sitting in his kitchen late at night drinking coffee and feeling the weight of the world on his shoulders.

“I sat at that table thinking about that little girl,” he wrote later, “and thinking about the fact that she could be taken away from me any minute.  And I started thinking about a dedicated, devoted and loyal wife, who was over there asleep . . . and I got to the point that I couldn’t take it anymore.  I was weak . . .

“And I discovered then that religion had to be real to me, and I had to know God for myself.  And I bowed down over that cup of coffee.  I never will forget it.   . . . I prayed a prayer, and I prayed out loud that night.  I said, ‘Lord, I’m down here trying to do what’s right.  I think I’m right.  I think the cause that we represent is right.  But Lord, I must confess that I’m weak now.  I’m faltering.  I’m losing my courage.’”

“. . . And it seemed at that moment that I could hear an inner voice saying to me,  “. . . stand up for righteousness.  Stand up for justice.  Stand up for truth.  And lo I will be with you, even until the end of the world.” . . . I heard the voice of Jesus saying still to fight on.  He promised never to leave, me, never to leave me alone. No never alone.”

Three nights later, as promised by the threats that caused him to feel this desperate, a bomb exploded on the porch of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s home. It filled the house with smoke and broken glass but injured no one.  King took it calmly, saying, “My religious experience a few nights before had given me the strength to face it.”[2]

It takes courage to answer the call to follow Jesus. But when we are willing to do what he asks of us, those simple obvious things, we can turn the mundane into the miraculous.  A prayer over a late night cup of coffee can become the strength to endure difficulties.  The everyday experiences of our lives become miracles. And then soon you will begin to realize we are miracles, and we are the miracle makers.

So go and watch for the signs and be the signs.

Thanks be to God.

Amen.


[1] The previous is from a sermon by The Rev. Dr. Amy Richter. Parenthetic sections are mine.

[2] Excerpt paraphrased from Yancey, Philip, Soul Survivor, p. 20-21.

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