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

Christmas Eve Sermon - December 24, 2018

Christmas Eve 2018

Isaiah 9:2-7

Luke 2:1-20

The Rev. Dr. Kathy Dunagan

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But the original lyrics were dreary:

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

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

Ah, that’s better.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But that’s not real, is it?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is our brokenness.

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

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

The people who walked in darkness . . .

On them light has shined.

(God has) multiplied the nation,

(God has) increased its joy;

they rejoice . . .

as with joy at the harvest,

as people exult when dividing plunder.

For a child has been born for us,

a son given to us;

authority rests upon his shoulders;

and he is named

Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,

Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

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

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

And have yourselves a merry little Christmas -

Now.

Amen.

Advent 3 - Sunday, December 16, 2018

Advent 3C 2018

Philippians 4:4-7

Luke 3:7-18

The Rev. Dr. Kathy Dunagan

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

         

 

 

The basic dictionary definition of Reckon is:

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

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

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

The second definition of reckon in this dictionary was this:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

Advent 2 - Sunday, December 9, 2018

Advent 2C 2018

Philippians 1:3-11

Luke 3:1-6

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But there is fear in the Bible.

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

The difference in both cases is faith.

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

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

Or . . .

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

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

Oh, wait.  Michael Curry did that last Spring.

And all the world was a buzz that week about his sermon and all that it meant to all who heard it.  Some were fixated on their lack of understanding of his exposition on images of “fire” and “raging flame” which came from the text on which he was preaching from the Song of Solomon (2:10-13; 8:6-7 ) which is one of the scripture choices for weddings in the Book of Common Prayer.

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.


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

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

Proper 27 - Sunday, November 25, 2018

Christ The King

John 18:33-37

November 22, 2015

St. Thomas, Abingdon

The Rev. Canon Kathy Dunagan

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen

Proper 26 - Sunday, November 18, 2018

Proper 26B 2018

1 Samuel 1:4-20

Mark 13:1-8

The Rev. Dr. Kathy Dunagan

 

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

Almighty and gracious Father, we give you thanks for the

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

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

your great bounty, for the provision of our necessities and

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

through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And I long to teach you to pray.

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

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

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

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

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

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

And I long for us to learn to pray.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And I long for us to learn to pray together.

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

And I long to teach you this wisdom.

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

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

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

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

And praying. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But you must become quiet to pray.

And I long for us to learn to pray together.

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

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

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

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

Amen.

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

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

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

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

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

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

·       Maurice Stallard,

·       Vickie Jones,

·       Jerry Rabinowitz,

·       Cecil and David Rosenthal,

·       Rose Mallinger,

·       Bernice and Sylvan Simon,

·       Daniel Stein,

·       Joyce Fienberg,

·       Richard Gottfried,

·       Melvin Wax and

·       Irving Younger…dead.

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

They are important.

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

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

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

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

Where are we to look for hope?

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Is there no hope?

 

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

This was no parlor trick…Lazarus was dead. 

Dead dead. 

Deader than a doornail.

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

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

So being dead four days was REALLY dead.

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

Lazarus’s body was decomposing.

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

Hopelessly dead. 

But that didn’t stop Jesus.

 

 

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

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

Three days later, Mary Magdalene found that tomb empty.

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

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

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

Nadia Bolz-Weber observes:

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Turn:  Pause, listen and turn to follow Jesus

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

Pray: Dwell intentionally with God each day

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

Bless:  Share faith and unselfishly give and serve

Go: Cross boundaries, listen deeply and live like Jesus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Saints of God have come through again and again. 

I believe they…

I believe we will come through again.

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

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

We can offer the light of Christ’s love.

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

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

We need to Go and Bless.

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

This is our time!

THAT is the hope.  THAT is the good news.

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

It lies in the Saints of God. 

God help me to be one too.

AMEN!

[1] John 11:4-6

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

Proper 23 - Sunday, October, 14 2018

Proper 23B

October 14, 2018

Job 23:1-9, 16-17

Mark 10:17-31

The Rev. Dr. Kathy Dunagan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And we want answers.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It really is that simple.

So go and do likewise.

Amen.

Proper 21 - Sunday, September 30, 2018

Proper 21B 2018

James 5:13-20

Mark 9:38-50

The Rev. Dr. Kathy Dunagan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Satisfied Mind

How many times have

You heard someone say,

“If I had his money

I would do things my way?”

How little they know,

That it's so hard to find,

One rich man in ten

With a satisfied mind.

Once I was waitin’,

In fortune and fame,

Had everything that I needed

To get a start in life's game.

Then suddenly it happened,

I lost every dime ,

But I'm richer by far

With a satisfied mind.

 

Money can't buy back

Your youth when you're old

Or a friend when you're lonely

Or a love that's grown cold

The wealthiest person

Is a pauper at times

Compared to the man

With a satisfied mind

 

When my life has ended

And my time has run out

My friends and my loved ones

who have gone on before

One thing is for certain

When I’ve done my time,

I'll leave this old world

With a satisfied mind

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

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

I would have felt satisfied, I guess.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What would you write?  Would you feel satisfied?

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

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

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

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

Confess your sins to one another.

Be reconciled.

Be renewed.

Be whole.

Be salty.

Amen.

Proper 20 - Sunday, September 23, 2018

Proper 20B

September 23, 2018

Proverbs 31:10-31

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

Mark 9:30-37

The Rev. Dr. Kathy Dunagan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

          Thanks be to God.

          Amen.

Proper 19 - Sunday, September 16, 2018

Proper 19B

James 3:1-12

Mark 8:27-38

September 16, 2018

The Rev. Dr. Kathy Dunagan

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

Something's Missing

John Mayer

 

I'm not alone

I wish I was

'Cause then I'd know I was down because

I couldn't find a friend around

To love me like they do right now

They do right now

I'm dizzy from the shopping mall

I searched for joy, but I bought it all

It doesn't help the hunger pains

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

Something's missing

And I don't know how to fix it

Something's missing

And I don't know what it is

No I don't know what it is

At all

When autumn comes

It doesn't ask

It just walks in where it left you last

You never know when it starts

Until there's fog inside the glass around

Your summer heart

Something's missing

And I don't know how to fix it

Something's missing

And I don't know what it is

No I don't know what it is

At all

I can't be sure that this state of mind

Is not of my own design

I wish there was an over-the-counter test

For loneliness

For loneliness like this

Something's missing

And I don't know how to fix it

Something's missing

And I don't know what it is

No I don't know what it is

Something's different

And I don't know what it is

No I don't know what it is

 

Friends

(Check)

Money

(Check)

A well slept

(Check)

Opposite sex

(Check)

Guitar

(Check)

Microphone

(Check)

Messages waiting on me when

I come home

(Check)

What do you think it means?

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

 

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

Amen.