September 15, 2019

Proper 19   

Jeremiah 4:11-12, 22-28; Psalm 14; 1 Timothy 1: 12-17; Luke 15: 1-10

The Rev. James M.L. Grace


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In the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  AMEN

Earlier this week, I lost my wallet.  It was an unsettling feeling as anyone who has ever lost a wallet understands.  It was while driving one of my kids to football practice when I realized where I might have placed it.  I called my wife, explained to her that I had lost my wallet, and then said, and - this is going to sound weird – asked her “could you check in the garbage can?” 

Earlier in the day, I had unloaded some garbage from my car, placed it into our garbage can.  When I am preoccupied in thought and not always paying attention, I will do things like, throw my wallet into the garbage along with the hamburger wrapper from Whataburger or whatever else ends up in my car.  Thank God she checked, and she successfully found my lost wallet.  This is an important insight into our marriage: I am good at misplacing things; my wife is much better at finding them. 

To rejoice over something that we have found, we must first experience losing it.  To lose something is rarely pleasant for us, and yet loss is a necessary part of our existence.  To live means that we will lose things – some things superficial, like a wallet.  We will lose things very close to us – parents, animal companions, children, relationships, dreams. 

Today we hear two stories about about lost things – a lost sheep and a lost coin – which invite us to consider the strange paradox that sometimes the way God gives us things is by us losing them.  I will give you an example.

Twelve years ago, I sat with my mother during the final days of her life which she spent at the Houston Hospice.  During that time, I told her everything I needed to tell her.  I told her I loved her, I thanked her for being such a wonderful, loving mother to me, for supporting me through really difficult times.  When she died a day or two later, I did not feel as if there was any unfinished business between us. 

As many of us know, grieving the loss of someone is very hard work.  For me, it was draining physically, emotionally, and spiritually.  Losing something so close to us is painful.

I know that Jesus understood loss, and the pain it created in the human heart.  Jesus lost one of his close friends John the Baptist.  He wept at the grave of another close friend, Lazarus. 

But I also think that Jesus understood loss as a pathway that can draw us closer to God.  I believe that is why he tells these stories of a lost coin and a lost sheep so that we might understand that losing things creates a space for us to receive God in a powerful way.  When the woman loses a coin, she lights a lamp and searches all over the house until the coin is found.  When the shepherd loses one sheep, he leaves the group to find the one that was lost.  These stories point to the reckless abandon which God demonstrates upon finding what was once lost.

I believe God demonstrated such reckless abandon to find me.  Prior to losing my mother, I struggled to believe, or to trust in heaven, and in life after death.  Years in seminary, which I thought would offer qualitative proof that resurrection was real, failed to do so.  I wanted proof, I wanted answers, and nowhere I looked could I find either.  Early in my priesthood, I officiated at many funerals where I wondered if I believed the words I was saying about Christ raising the dead to life.  I’m not proud of that, but it is the truth. 

That struggle for certainty and proof finally ended when I lost my mother.  I can’t explain what happened exactly, except to say that I no longer needed proof that there was life after death, I know longer needed answers to my questions.  In losing my mother, God with reckless abandon, found me, and I experienced, perhaps for the first time in my life, true peace and serenity.  Or to put in another way, I received a peace in losing my mother, a trust, that she was in Jesus’ hands, and that she would be okay.

For whatever reason, before her death, I struggled to believe this.  I wanted desperately to believe in heaven and life after death, to be like other Christians I knew who seemed to have no problem believing these things. When my mother died, so also died my need for proof, my need for evidence.  When the student is ready, the teacher appears.  I wasn’t ready before she died, but somehow, I was after.  I learned at her funeral (where I did believe the words of the liturgy the priest said, and believe them still), that sometimes we have to lose something close to us to find God. 

 As Jesus says elsewhere in another Gospel “those who want to save their life will lose it, those who lose their life for my sake will save it.” 

Only in Jesus is loss really a gain for everlasting life.  What are you willing to lose for the sake of Christ’s sake and yours?  AMEN.   

September 8, 2019

Proper 18
Jeremiah 18:1-11, Psalm 139:1-5, 12-17, Philemon 1-21, Luke 14:25-33

The Rev. Bradley Varnell, Curate



Jesus’ message today is stark. This large crowd of women and men and children are following him to Jerusalem, and he stops them, turns to them, confronts them head on and he lays out his terms: to follow him you’ve got to hate your family, hate your own life, and pick up the cross. Not exactly the most uplifting pitch you’ve ever heard. Jesus’ words today challenge us to take stock, to make a decision, to consider whether or not we are willing to pay the price of following him. To follow Jesus will cost us. But hidden under Jesus’ startling words is the good news, the great news that the cost is a small price to pay for what we receive in turn.

Jesus invites those in the crowd to be his disciples. To go where he goes. But that means they will have to carry the cross, like Jesus must carry the cross. To follow Jesus is to be willing to face death in some way. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a martyr under Nazi Germany, famously wrote “when Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” For some Christians in the past and present, like Bonhoeffer, following Jesus has meant a willingness to face literal death. But for all Christians, following Christ means a willingness to die to those things that would keep us from Christ and from living as citizens of God’s Kingdom. Followers of Christ have to die to selfishness, to bitterness, to greed, to sin. Followers of Christ must make loyalty to Christ more important than any other loyalty.

This is quite the demand. But that’s part of the very nature of discipleship. Discipleship was a deep, intimate, trusting relationship between a master and the disciple. In ancient Israel for a teacher to have disciples wasn’t a strange thing at all, it was the norm, it was how knowledge and insight and wisdom and practice were all passed on. Disciples devoted themselves to spending time with the master, to learning how to think and act like him, to building a relationship with him. Being a disciple wasn’t just about gaining head-knowledge, it was about being formed and shaped into a certain kind of person. It was learning to be like someone. Disciples of a master didn’t just attend classes a few times a week, they lived and breathed with the master. Their lives and the lives of the master became intertwined. Where he went, they went.

This, of course, had a cost. People had to leave their homes and families, they had to order their life around this other person. They couldn’t be a disciple on their terms. They had to make their teacher, their master the priority.

So Jesus is asking those in the crowd to make him the priority in their lives. More important than family. Even more important than their own lives. Now, he’s engaging in a bit of prophetic hyperbole to get his point across. Think of a wedding ceremony – the couple promises to forsake all others. The promise isn’t about abandoning every relationship other than the one with their spouse, the promise is that of all the relationships a person has, this new relationship, this marital relationship takes precedence. Jesus says hate your family, hate your life but his point isn’t that we should harbor some kind of disdain for others or ourselves, rather his point is that he should be our priority, he should be the center of our lives, the one we love most.

But why? Why make Jesus the center? Why follow him where he goes? Why make him our teacher and master? Because Christ has fully and completely animated by the love of God. Christ’s life is all about the love of God and sharing God’s love for others. To follow Christ, to be his disciple is to devote ourselves to becoming people who are more and more animated by God’s love, it is to become people who, like Christ, can share God’s love with others. Discipleship is about learning to walk in the way of God’s love.

At Duke we often sang a song during communion called “We are One in the Spirit,” the chorus goes “and they’ll know we are Christians by our love.” The mark of Christians is that we love like Christ loves – but that’s easier said, or sung, than done. The hard work of devoting ourselves to discipleship, to following Christ, is how we learn to love like Christ loves.

Jesus asks us to make him the center of our life, to put him and our relationship with him first before our families and ourselves, not so we can forget our families or forget ourselves. It’s so we can learn to love our families and love ourselves better, so that we can learn to love our families and ourselves like Christ loves them and us. We carry our crosses and follow Jesus so that all those things that stop us from loving as Christ loves can be crucified, so that we can learn how to love as recklessly, as freely, as abundantly, as extravagantly as he loves us. Can you imagine what our lives, our families, our parishes would look like if we could love like Christ loves? It would change our world.

But we can only love as Christ loves us if we know Christ. And we can only come to know Christ by spending time with him. This is one thing I’ve been thinking a lot about in the last few months. I spent a lot of time studying religion and theology – in undergrad and then at seminary – and I feel like I know a lot of facts about Jesus, but I think I could know Jesus – the living Jesus, the resurrected Jesus – better. What I’m realizing in my own spiritual life is that I can’t just think about Jesus or know facts about Jesus. I’ve got to know the living Christ. Facts about Jesus don’t love me, don’t love us, but Jesus does.

We’re all busy though. We’re all running in what seems to be hundreds of different directions, with many commitments vying for our time and it seems downright selfish of Jesus to ask for more. So many of us are strapped for “more” to offer. We’re running on empty. There’s barely enough time to spend with family and friends – and now we’ve got to fit Jesus in? So, what do we do? How do we set off to follow Jesus, to go where he goes? Well, we start small. We do what we can. 

We start by inviting Jesus into our lives – not just on Sunday. Jesus can’t be the center of our life if Jesus isn’t involved in our lives. But it’s our lives he wants to be the center of – our lives in all their busyness and messiness. I’ve often been trapped by the idea that I have to be “holier” or “more Christian” for God to really be invested or involved in me – but it’s just not true! God isn’t waiting for us to get somewhere for him to be present with us. He wants to meet us right now, wherever we are.

So we invite Jesus into our lives, this requires, though, that we talk to him – we pray to him. These don’t have to be elaborate prayers found in the prayer book, though they can be. Prayer can be simple notes to God that we send off. We can pray at meals, as we begin our day, as we go into school or a meeting, as we hang out with friends – simply asking Christ to be with us, to help us love like he loves in these settings and with these people. These prayers can happen in the little spare moments we already have.

Part of inviting Christ into our life is making Scripture a part of our life. Scripture is the word of God, that means God speaks through its pages – by sitting with Scripture we can begin to hear God better, as God uses the words that have shaped Jews and Christians for thousands of years to shape us.  Spending time with Scripture is super hard for me, personally, but I’ve found the daily office in the prayer book to be really helpful in giving me a guide for reading the Bible. A Psalm a day is also a great way to begin a Bible reading discipline, but there are many other ways to spend time with Scripture: there are apps, and Bible reading guides. Bible studies here at church. Forward Day by Day is another wonderful print and electronic resource that provides a small verse and brief reflection for each day of the week. Scripture is a gift, and what matters most is finding what works for you in exploring it.

Prayer and Scripture are small ways we can begin inviting Jesus into our life. These are little steps we can take to spend more time with the one who will teach us how to be more like him, how to love ourselves and others like he loves. These are ways we can begin building our relationship with Christ. This will take time, but good relationships always do. Like any relationship, there will be ups and downs, starts and stops, seasons where it is easier, and seasons where it just seems impossible. But like the best relationships, sticking it out is worth it.

Amen.


September 1, 2019

Proper 17  

Jeremiah 2:4-13; Psalm 81: 1, 10-16; Hebrews 13: 1-8, 15-16, Luke 14: 1, 7-14

The Rev. James M.L. Grace



 

In the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  AMEN

            Did you catch it?  Did you notice in the Gospel that we did not get the whole story from Luke’s Gospel today?  We started with v.1 of chapter 14, then we skipped over verses 2-6, to begin once again at verse 7, continuing to v 14. Why?  I don’t know.  St. Andrew’s doesn’t choose our Sunday readings, but rather we follow something called a “lectionary” which is a weekly cycle of readings that Episcopal churches follow. 

            I’m always suspect when I see an omission like this, and I wonder if you are too.  Good news is that there are Bibles in your pews, there are Bible apps you can download on your phone, so that you all have a means to read the omitted verses.  And I will in a moment, because it’s those omitted verses (2-6) that I want to talk about today.  Look up Luke in your pew Bible or just listen as I read these verses:

 

“On one occasion when Jesus was going to the house of a leader of the pharisees to eat a meal on the sabbath, they were watching him closely.  [we already heard that, here begins v. 2]  Just then, in front of him there was a man who had dropsy.  And Jesus asked the lawyers and Pharisees, ‘Is it lawful to cure people on the sabbath or not?’ But they were silent, so Jesus took him and said to them, ‘if one of you has a child or an ox that has fallen into a well, will you not immediately pull it out on a sabbath day?’  And they could not reply to this.” 

            First of all, a word about dropsy, because I had no idea what it was, or is.  Dropsy is akin to edema, a swelling in the body which is connected to heart failure, or at least that’s what Wikipedia tells me.  Perhaps the person brought before Jesus was having congestive heart failure.  It was a sabbath day, meaning no work was to be done, to honor the commandment given by God to not work on the Sabbath.  Jesus challenged this religious law and asked the lawyers and pharisees if it was lawful to heal on a sabbath day, or not.  He made the point very personal for them, saying if it was your own child who had fallen into a well, would you not immediately pull them out, even if that act was considered “work” on a sabbath day? 

            We don’t know if Jesus healed this man with the severe swelling or not.  The Gospel does not tell us.  But I would not be surprised if he did, given that there are about thirteen other occasions in the four Gospels where Jesus breaks the rule, healing people on a sabbath day, and really infuriating people like the Pharisees in the process.

            What does this strange story, a story omitted from today’s Gospel mean for us today?  Does it matter?   It matters to me, and this is why.  I believe in healing.  I believe that Jesus heals us no matter what day of the week it is.  I am not saying that if I were diagnosed with cancer tomorrow that I believe I could simply ask Jesus to heal me and the tumor will miraculously disappear.  That’s a cure.  And while a cure is of course desirable, I don’t think it is always in our best interest.    

            Healing is different.  Healing doesn’t mean getting rid of dropsy or cancer, it means that we are given the strength, through Christ, to meet such adversity with courage.  Healing, at least to me, is not something I pray for only when I am sick or injured.  I try to pray for healing daily when I am well, when everything seems to be going fine.  Because I know that there will come a day when my body will fail me, when I will face something which cannot be cured.  And in that moment, I hope to have the serenity and peace which comes only from God.  I hope that I will have the spiritual depth to know that even if what I have is incurable, it won’t matter, because God has already healed me.

            Today we baptize a newborn child into the kingdom of God.  In baptism, one is marked permanently as Christ’s own forever.  Baptism it is not a guarantee against illness or adversity, as many baptized already know.  Baptism instead recognizes the promise God makes to us.  Part of that promise, I believe, is that Christ will heal you, whether or not you arecured.

Did you catch it?  Did you miss seeing that God is healing you, even as your body ages and weakens?  It’s easy to miss, kind of like the Gospel reading we skipped over today.  And yet, God’s healing is available to all of us, if we just are willing to slow down, and not skip past it.  AMEN.

August 25, 2019

Proper 16     

Jeremiah 1:4-10; Psalm 71: 1-6; Hebrews 12: 18-29, Luke 13:10-17

The Rev. James M.L. Grace



In the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  AMEN

            “Therefore since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us give thanks, by which we offer to God an acceptable worship with reverence and awe; for indeed our God is a consuming fire.”  Those words from the letter to the Hebrews travel a long distance to meet us here in church this morning. 

            Every Christian who is humble before God receives a kingdom which cannot be shaken, so the author of Hebrews writes.  What an astounding claim.  I wonder how many of you who consider yourselves Christian would feel today that you are the inheritor of a kingdom which knows no limits.

            When my mother died twelve years ago, she left behind for my siblings and I some land out in the hill country.  It is far cry from a “kingdom which cannot be shaken,” but it is beautiful.  But with the bequest of that land comes a lot of responsibility that I don’t really want. 

            So my siblings and I have put it on the market to sell.  Real estate tends to move slowly in the country, and we will see if anyone is interested in purchasing it.  I hope so. 

            The things which we inherit, be they material possessions, land, or otherwise, can become problematic for us.  We might not be interested in having such things.  The things we inherit might add more complication to our lives which are already complicated enough.

            But it is not so with the kingdom of God. Whether we feel we are worthy or not, whether we feel we deserve it or not, all Christians are inheritors of this kingdom. 

            And like the land which I inherited, the kingdom of God comes with responsibility, but not the kind of responsibility one must have to take care of earthly things.  The responsibility as an inheritor of the kingdom of God is simple: it is that we have faith, and that we live with humility.

            In the midst of a world that is changing so fast, in a world many of us might not understand now, God offers us what God has always offered since the beginning of time – an unchanging, abiding, presence – a kingdom that cannot be shaken.

            The kingdom of God is not a place or a thing – it is the presence of God that is living and active in our lives.  Neither is the kingdom of God something only available to deceased faithful Christians, a “sweet bye and bye” a “Heavenly reward” for those who live faithfully.  The kingdom of God is the real, tangible, visceral presence of Jesus Christ in our lives that establishes for us an unshakable foundation.

            The unshakeable kingdom reveals itself in the face of a woman or man that in spite of the challenges they face day in and day out, their face shows not pain, not fatigue, not sorrow.  Their face shows joy and gratitude.  Whenever I meet a person demonstrating authentic gratitude, I know I am near to this unshakable kingdom. 

            As inheritors of this kingdom, we are called to step out in faith, to follow God with humility, trusting God as God leads us into new and uncomfortable places.  There is no kingdom greater than the unshakeable one, no presence stronger than the love of Christ, which redeems everything, and covers all wounds, all sin, all evil. 

            That is the power of God which is freely given to us, which we inherit.  The power of Christ’s love is stronger than any political party, any agenda, or any army or military force.  It is Christ’s love which is unshakeable, freely given to all who humble themselves to receive it. 

It is the greatest inheritance.  And it is already given to you, if you will just receive it.  AMEN.

August 18, 2019


Proper 15

Isaiah 5:1-7, Psalm 80:1-2, 8-18, Hebrews 11:29-12:2, Luke 12:49-56

The Rev. Bradley Varnell



Merciful God – grant that only your word would be proclaimed, and only your word heard. Amen.

During my first year at Duke Divinity, where I went to seminary, there was a protest organized by the Black Seminarians Union against the Dean and Administration of the Divinity School to raise awareness of the institutionalized racism of the school, it’s anti-blackness, it’s lack of commitment to the needs of students of color and to call attention to the need for change. It was going to take place outside of the chapel during the closing worship service of the school year. A friend invited me to attend. It was an opportunity to show the administration how many students recognized the problems at the divinity school and wanted something done about them. It was also an opportunity for white students to come alongside students of color and physically show our support for them, it was a chance for those of us to take a stand with people who were suffering, who were fed up, to stand with people who wanted a change. 

I declined. I was happy for other people to do what they needed to do; I just didn’t want to join.

I had plenty of reasons why I didn’t go – I wasn’t on campus that day, I didn’t know if I thought this was the best method of addressing concerns, it seemed mean to the dean who really was trying her best. The real reason, though, was that the idea of standing out there protesting in front of the chapel, as guests, and faculty, and fellow students walked by sounded stressful.

It wasn’t that I didn’t support the issues they were raising awareness about, I just didn’t want to support them in that way. I’m not, by nature, a “protester,” I’m not by nature someone who wants to hold up a sign, and chant, or be a part of a crowd like that. Stuff like that makes me uncomfortable. Joining the protest would have meant giving up my peace and I just wasn’t interested in that. And I want to be clear – it wasn’t that I risked arrest, or expulsion, or any sort of repercussion really. It wasn’t that there was a danger to me being there. It just would have been outside of my comfort-zone.

So, I didn’t go. I didn’t stand with the protesters.

Afterwards there was some tension on campus, as you can imagine, between those who attended the protest and those who hadn’t. I was annoyed that there was any sort of problem. I didn’t know why couldn’t people just accept that protesting isn’t for everyone. A friend of mine, who I was in a few classes with, had been at the protest. She’s a woman of color, wonderful, brilliant. She was one of the most vocal advocates for African American and Queer students at Duke. It was relayed to me through the grapevine that on the day of the protest, outside the chapel, she asked where I was and was told that I wasn’t there. And y’all that got me. God convicted me, like God often does. I was her friend, I knew her story, I knew all the crap she had to deal with as a woman of color and LGBTQ person at Duke and I didn’t show up. I wasn’t there. In one swift moment this protest, this amorphous, abstract protest became concrete. I had chosen to be comfortable, instead of showing up and supporting a friend. I chose my peace at the expense of a friend, instead of choosing my friend at the expense of my peace.

Pause

So much of what we call peace in our lives is like this - an attempt to avoid those things that make us uncomfortable, so we avoid saying or doing those things that might disturb our spiritual, emotional, physical, economic equilibrium, and we call that peace. In this peace, though, we can forget about the pain and suffering of others. That’s what happened to me, I forgot that real people at Duke, people I knew and loved, were suffering and asked for support.

But this also cuts the other way – we can so value other people’s comfort that we avoid our own pain and suffering. We don’t bring up how another’s words or actions hurt us or we don't talk about the ways our needs aren’t being met. Our goal becomes keeping the peace at our expense.

All of this is normal. We live in a world that is hurting, that is broken, that is suffering. Our lives are affected by that, we have to find a way to deal with it. We can’t spend every hour glued to the news absorbing the tragedies in around us. And we can’t spend every hour ruminating on our own hurt. We have to live at some point. In talking about the peace we often pursue my point isn’t how bad we are that we do this, it’s that whether we’re focused on our own peace or another’s the basic issue remains the same: the comfort of peace rests on the avoidance of someone’s pain and suffering, on someone’s discomfort. And our own peace or another’s doesn’t actually heal the hurt around us.

I think this is what our Gospel is all about today: the way in which the peace we seek in our world, the peace we try and secure for ourselves or others, is disrupted by Christ, who offers us something far better, but far more challenging.  When I hear Jesus say that he has not come to bring peace, this is the peace I think of. The peace that ignores and avoids, peace that doesn’t offer healing. Jesus doesn’t have any of that. Today we hear that all Jesus has, all Jesus brings with him is fire.

Now this sounds pretty bad. Fire, in almost any religion but especially Christianity, often conjures up images of hellfire and brimstone. It’s true that in scripture “fire” serves as a sort of shorthand for judgement or punishment. But “fire” in scripture, can also serve as a shorthand for revelation and exposure. Fire in a lamp casts light in dark places exposing what’s hidden, fire in a refiner’s furnace brings impurities to the surface showing what’s precious and what’s not. Jesus comes bringing this kind of fire – not fire of judgement or punishment, but fire that shines light in our world, that exposes those things we want to keep hidden – like our pain and suffering and the pain and suffering of others.

Where we want to avoid the places of discomfort, Jesus seeks them out. Where our attempts at peace ignore, Jesus’ ministry acknowledges. Jesus has come into our world bringing the fire of God’s love. And God’s love exposes everything in our world that is hurting, that is suffering, that isn’t as it should be. And God’s love heals, it liberates, it renews.

Pause

Jesus invites us to experience the fire of God’s love. To experience the power of the love of God to heal and transform the pain and suffering in our own lives. But we can’t embrace the love of God and then hope for a peaceful, tranquil life afterwards. When we are touched by God’s love we are called to pay it forward, to follow Jesus into uncomfortable spots, to spread God’s love to the places of pain and suffering in the lives of others. This will make our lives hard. Jesus talks about bringing division today not because he like stirring up drama for the sake of drama – but because living out of the love of God, sharing the love of God in a world that’s dedicated to keeping peace at the expense of acknowledging pain and suffering will require we take a stand, maybe even against our own families if our families would rather keep the peace instead of experiencing healing and transformation.

The greatest example of the cost of sharing God’s love is Jesus’. Jesus comes bringing the love of God to our world and he’s killed, killed by those who prioritized their own peace, who were threatened by the way Jesus made the pain and suffering around him unavoidable. But the pain and suffering of the cross didn’t stop the love of God. The love of God overcame death, transfiguring the tragedy of Good Friday into the joy of Easter Sunday.

The same love that brought Jesus back from the dead is with us as we go out into the world. As we go about our lives this week, I hope we’ll all keep this Gospel in mind. As followers of Christ we aren’t promised peace, instead we’re invited to share the love of God with others. As we try and share God’s love we’ll be met with opposition sometimes, and we’ll encounter hard moments. It’s ok to be scared or nervous. It’s ok to fumble. There will be times when we won’t take a stand, when our nerve will fail us; times when we seek our own peace at the expense of sharing God’s love. That’s ok too – there’s always grace, there’s always forgiveness. And in our world, there’s always another opportunity to share God’s love.  The challenge isn’t to be perfect, it’s to be ok with being uncomfortable, because Jesus didn’t come to bring us comfort. Jesus came to bring us God’s love. Amen.

July 28, 2019

Proper 12     

Hosea 1: 2-10; Psalm 85; Colossians 2:6-19, Luke 11:1-13

The Rev. James M.L. Grace 



In the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  AMEN

            There are so many reasons not to embrace the Christian faith: the hypocrisy of Christians, the narrow mindedness of denominations, clergy sexual abuse scandals, clergy who drive Lamborghinis, and the list just goes on and on.  So many reasons.  Here’s one more to add to the list: prayers that seem to go unanswered.  That’s the ace in the hole for every atheist’s denouncement of Christianity – which is that the God we purport to worship is asleep on the job, otherwise our prayers for healing and peace in the world would be answered.  Any quick glance at the newspaper or of the news would seem to provide evidence to the contrary.

Epidemics of famine, disease, pollution, war – they all are all seemingly valid arguments for every atheist who wishes to proclaim that if God isn’t dead, God at least is either passed out, unaware, detached, or completely uninterested. 

            Why do we pray?  Are we asking God to do something for us?  Are we asking God to alter physical properties of the world so that we might be protected, even if that means other people suffer?  If a hurricane forms in the Gulf of Mexico, and we pray that Houston not be in its path, then where do we expect it to go?

If you remember nothing else from this sermon (and you probably won’t) remember this: prayer is not about changing God’s mind.  Prayer is not about asking God for a promotion, or to win the lottery, or to magically change your spouse or significant other into someone who is less annoying.  Prayer isn’t magic. 

            Neither is prayer is not an attempt to micro-manage God into following our agenda.  It is not a process where if we just pray enough we will some how change God’s mind about something, and maybe enlist God onto “our side”  - that we will manipulate God into doing our will.  That’s not prayer, though I thought it was, for a long time.

Prayer is something else entirely.  Prayer is a conscious surrender of our will to God, that God would take it, redeem it, transform it, and that somehow through a miracle, we would ask not that our will be done, but God’s will be done.  Someone much smarter than I, a Danish philosopher named Soren Kierkagaard, once said that “prayer does not change God, it changes the person who prays.” 

            Are you being changed by your prayers?

            Today in the Gospel reading from Luke, we observe Jesus teaching his disciples how to pray, and he does so in a very simple way, sharing a prayer with them that we call today “The Lord’s Prayer.”  He then follows the prayer with a short anecdote about being persistent in prayer.

For a long time the meaning I took away from the story of the friend who comes and knocks at the door asking for bread in the middle of the night was this: if at first you don’t succeed, try and try again.  If I offer a prayer to God, and it seems to go unanswered, that just means I need to pray more persistently.  I need to try harder.  My prayer wasn’t good enough.  I need to go back to the door, knock harder on it, even bang on it if I have to.  If that doesn’t work, I should start trying to kick it, or even try breaking and entering if need be.  If God won’t answer the prayer, I’ll just have to answer it myself.

            Much of my spiritual life has been ruled with this kind of thinking, that if I knock and the door isn’t opened, I have to find a way to open it myself.  In doing this for a long time, I was blind to the fact that I was leaving God out of the equation.  If I could answer the prayer myself, I had no need for God.  You are correct if your assumption is that this never worked out well for me.

I see the story of the persistent, middle of the night, friend knocking on the door quite differently now. It’s no longer a story about trying harder with more persistence, about forcing my will upon God.  It’s rather a story about praying without ceasing.  Prayer without stopping.  It’s about an ongoing prayer life that deepens over time, not because we’re trying harder at it, not because we’re forcing it; but because we are voluntarily surrendering our lives over to God and we are feeling the peace which comes as an inevitable result of that decision.

We pray in a persistent way not to try to change God’s mind, but to allow the opportunity for God to change ours.  I promise you that if you choose to pray in an ongoing, persistent way, if you try to imagine how your life will be improved one, two three years from now, I guarantee you that you will sell yourself short every time.  You will be amazed at what God does in your life not because you did anything to earn it, but because you showed up to the door every day to knock on it – not that it would be opened, but that your soul would be.

            That’s the power of prayer, for me.  What is its power for you?  AMEN.

July 21, 2019

Proper 11  

Amos 8:1-12; Psalm 52; Colossians 1:15-28, Luke 10: 38-42

The Rev. James M.L. Grace

 

In the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  AMEN

            Close your eyes and I want you to clear your mind, and once your mind is relatively clear – your not thinking about what you need at the grocery store, or that unpaid credit card bill, the argument you had night before, let all of that go – just for a moment.  With your slate hopefully cleared, I want you to think about what the city of Houston will look like 50 years from now.  Now think about the world. 

            What will the world be like in fifty years?  Think about climate, think about cities, our homes.  Now open your eyes.  I am not going to ask for a show of hands, but I want you to think about your imagination of the world as it might be fifty years from now.  Were the images of the future in your mind pessimistic or were they optimistic?  Did you see a bright future ahead for humanity, or an uncertain one?

            My guess is that in this exercise the images in your mind were likely more pessimistic.  I think that’s how many of us are.  When hard pressed to consider the future, we tend to lean more toward dystopia than some grand future where everything is just fine and there are no environmental threats, no threat of war, no threat of anything.

            Dystopia sells, period.  When you think of books or films that present an image of the future, not many of them present images of the future that are heartwarming and comforting.  Films like BladerunnerMad Max, or the Terminator series present a future in which humanity is on the verge of extinction at worst, or vastly consumed with technology, at best.  In novels, books like 1984The Handmaid’s Tale, and Brave New World share a dystopic vision of future.

            Come to think of it, I don’t think I have heard of a book or film based on the future that presents a story where people solve all their problems, humanity figures out a way to sustain life on the planet and everything’s good.  I have yet to see that movie or read that book. 

            I am not sure why as a species our views of the future tend to lean toward the more pessimistic, but I do know that this is not a new phenomenon for people.  For centuries, humans have looked toward the future with skepticism and fear, and this is certainly true of the Bible, where we get a real taste of it in the form of a book attributed to a Hebrew prophet named Amos.

            The book of Amos is a shorter book in the Bible, it’s only nine chapters.  It was written, scholars believe, around the year 760 BCE, or 760 years before the birth of Christ.  This was during the reign of an Israelite king named Jeroboam II, whose rule over Israel was one that was relatively peaceful.  There were no major threats from neighbors Egypt or Assyria.  This time of peace brought with is a season of prosperity.  While that all sounds good on the surface, trouble was brewing underneath.

            The prosperity of Israel came with a price.  According to Amos, the economic prosperity of Israel came at the expense of many, and only benefitted a few.  There seems to have been a breakdown in older systems of tribal and family land ownership, and an emergence of a wealthy class at the top of society. 

            While this was going on in Israel a new and aggressive king came to the throne in Assyria.  His name was Tiglath-pileser II.  His goal was to incorporate Israel into his empire.  He failed to do this, but one of his successors, Sargon II, conquered the northern part of Israel, and it fell into Assyrian hands in the year 722, about forty years after the prophet Amos warned that it might. 

            That’s a lot of context for today’s reading from Amos, full of dystopic imagery about Israel’s future.  Is there good news here?  I believe that there is, and it is this: no matter what the future brings, God is there.  And if God is in the future, and that I am assured of, I am not worried. 

            “Today is the tomorrow you worried about yesterday.”  I am not sure who said that, but it is true for me.  I can choose to borrow trouble and anxiety and worry about the future, even though I have absolutely no control over it.  Or, I can choose not to worry, and instead place my trust in a God who is already there in the future.  If I place my trust in God, then I am not guaranteed anything, but I am promised everything.

            The future is unknown, uncertain, and unrelenting.  Each day I try to remember to place the future the only place where it rightfully belongs – in God’s hands.  Because I have placed my future in God’s hands, I am not pessimistic.  I’m optimistic.  I thank God for it.

            I close with the very last verses of the prophet Amos, not read today.  These come from the ninth and final chapter of the book, which point toward a future filled with hope.  “I will restore the fortunes of my people Israel, and they shall rebuild the ruined cities and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and drink their wine, and they shall make gardens and eat their fruit.  I will plant them upon their land, and they shall never be plucked up out of the land I have given them, says the Lord your God.”  AMEN.

July 14, 2019

Proper 10

Amos 7: 7-17; Psalm 82; Colossians 1:1-14, Luke 10: 25-37

The Rev. James M.L. Grace

 

In the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  AMEN

            Imagine you are at a street corner, in your car.  It’s the middle of summer in Houston, there’s traffic, your windows are rolled up, your air conditioning is on full blast. Maybe you are listening to a podcast, or to XM radio, or if you are like me, probably listening to music playing on one of those archaic CD players children born today will likely never see or understand.   

            The light turns red, you stop your car.  There is one car ahead of you.  You gaze down at your phone, scrolling through email, facebook, Instagram, or some other app which clamors for your attention.  In the midst of reading that email, or sending a text, you don’t see the disheveled and pregnant woman standing at the corner, holding a sign which reads “anything helps, god bless.”

            But you look up, you see her.  You wonder about the series of unfortunate events which led to her standing on the street corner, pregnant, holding a sign.  Is she hungry or thirsty?  What will become of this child whom she carries?  Can you help her?  Should you give her money?  If you did, what might she use it for?  For food or shelter, or for drugs or alcohol?  It’s impossible to know.  The light turns green, the car in front of you moves forward, you drive past her.  

            What I have just described should be a common experience for anyone in this church who drives a car.  We see people on street corners asking for money, and when we do, we might wonder what should we do?  What meaningful help might we provide?  Sometimes, it’s too much, and the sight of the people on the street corners or living in tents under freeways becomes overwhelming to us because we might feel powerless to effect any kind of lasting, meaningful change. Almost daily, I drive by a person living by a freeway feeder road.  This person is frequently undressed, and laying on a sidewalk, and yet I drive by, daily, along with thousands of other Houston drivers.  We see the person, we do nothing, because we don’t know what to do. 

            This existential sense of complete powerlessness in the face of disease, poverty, grief, and death, was as present during the time of Jesus as it is to us today.  When a young lawyer approaches Jesus asking “what can we do to help these people, and are they are our neighbors?” Jesus doesn’t offer an answer which is immediately useful.  He does not offer a simple answer suitable for a 10 second soundbite on televised news.  Instead he offers the long story of the Good Samaritan.  This is why Jesus would likely perform so poorly on Fox News or CNN – both stations who want 10 second answers, Jesus gives us a ten minute one.  Can you imagine Jesus on the screen with Anderson Cooper or Sean Hannity and they are talk to Jesus about the immigrant crisis on our nation’s border and they say “Okay, Jesus, who is our neighbor?”  And Jesus doesn’t answers “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho…”  And Hannity and Cooper are like “what?”   Instead of a street person, Jesus speaks about a wounded man who was beat up and robbed while travelling.  As we drive by those on street corners with our windows rolled up, so to did people pass by and ignore the man beaten and lying in a ditch. 

            Finally, someone extends their hand to help the poor man, buying him a night in a hotel, feeding him, cleaning his wounds.  It’s a tale of extravagant generosity.  But what does the story mean for us today?  Certainly we are not meant to stop and help every person we see on the road, lest we never arrive at our destination.

            The story Jesus tells asks us a haunting, difficult question: who is my neighbor?  Is my neighbor the man beaten lying in a ditch?  Is my neighbor the meth-addicted, gaunt, toothless man sleeping on a bare mattress under Yale Street bridge at White Oak Bayou?  Is my neighbor the arrogant, know it all, holier than thou minister who condemns people living in same sex marriages to hell on Sunday mornings? Is my neighbor the young Honduran child arriving at a Migrant Detention Center in Clint, Texas on our southern border?  

            There are no easy answers to these questions, but one.  Jesus never specifically answers the lawyer’s question of “Who is my neighbor.”  Jesus doesn’t say “your neighbors are the people whom you agree with, or the people whom you enjoy each other’s company.”   The answer to the lawyer’s question of “who is my neighbor” comes in the form of the story of the Good Samaritan, and as the Good Samaritan helps the beat up and robbed man lying in the ditch, Jesus simply tells the lawyer to “go and do likewise.”

            How do we do that?  How do we go and do likewise, meeting the needs of the desperate and broken in our community?  This church isn’t equipped to service all the needs of the poor, but we can do our part.  Beginning next month, you will see at baskets near several of the exits at this church.  In those baskets, you will find bags which right now I am calling a “helping hand” bag.  In it will be a bottle of water, something to eat, a Houston help card which contains phone numbers and addresses of multiple agencies in our city working to provide services to the chronically homeless in our community.  A prayer will be included.

            The idea behind these bags is that you all take them with you as you leave the church to keep in your car.  When you find yourself at a street corner and you encounter a person there asking for assistance, you might give them a Helping Hand bag.  You might ask them their name, and let them know that you will say a prayer for them.  

            What you give to them might be discarded, never used, or ignored.  That is not your responsibility.  Our responsibility is to go and do likewise, as Jesus said.  Help where we can.  Will it change the world?  It won’t.  But it might help, and you might learn a stranger’s name, and you might find yourself praying for someone you only met once and likely will never see again.  That is not a bad thing.  That is a holy thing.  And holy things will change us, and the world.  AMEN.

July 7, 2019

Proper 9   

2 Kings 5:1-14; Psalm 30; Galatians 6:(1-6)7-16, Luke 10: 1-11, 16-20

The Rev. James M.L. Grace

 

In the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  AMEN.

            Several weeks ago, a friend of mine from seminary, fellow priest, and die-hard Chicago Cubs fan, visited Houston when the Cubs played the Astros at Minute Maid Field.  He had dinner at our home, and I drove him, and his two children back to their hotel downtown.  It was about 10 PM, and we were in my car driving down Texas Avenue.

            We stopped at a red light on Main Street, and police car on Main crossed the intersection and turned right into a Metro Light Rail train that was heading in the same direction.  Crash!  Glass and metal sprayed in different directions as the police car and the train collided.  Immediately after the collision, there was a moment where people looked around at each other with this look of “did this really just happen?” on their eyes. 

            People got out of their cars, took out their cell phones and started videoing the wrecked car.  For a moment I was afraid, as I saw people walking toward the police car.  I wasn’t sure what was going to happen. The passenger door of the police car opened, and the officer climbed out, unharmed, but clearly shaken, brushing broken glass off his shoulders and head.

            I and others approaching the car were afraid he was hurt, or worse.  We were relieved he was okay.  Immediately other police cars pulled up, and the officer went into the company of other officers.  And we got back in our cars and continued to the hotel.

            For me it was a primal experience – the shock of the collision, the fear the officer was injured, the relief that he was okay.  Most of us have experienced a feeling of shock, or even a moment where we feared our life might be taken from us, only to have the reassurance that it was not yet our time.   

            I believe that this feeling of shock comes close to that what the author of today’s psalm, Psalm 30, might have experienced.   In the psalm, the author writes these words: “O Lord my God, I cried to you for help, and you have healed me.  O Lord, you brought up my soul from Sheol, restored me to life from among those gone down to the Pit.”   We don’t know the circumstances around the person who wrote those words in the psalm.  We don’t know what kind of near-death experience he or she had. 

            But it is obvious to me that whatever it was, it made a profound impact on the author.  In one of my classes on the psalms in seminary, our professor, Dr. Cook, described to us that in ancient Israel there were deep water wells, or pits that people likely fell into.  We’re talking fifty to one hundred feet in the ground.  Some made it out, some did not.  Perhaps for this reason, the water well, or “pit” as described in the psalm became associated with total loss, even death.  I believe archeologists have discovered human skeletons at the bottoms of these ancient wells, suggesting that the experience which the author of the psalm describes was tragically real.

            And it continues to happen today – how many of us remember in 1987 watching the news as police, firefighters, and other volunteers worked to rescue young Jessica McClure who, as an infant, fell deep down into a well in Midland, Texas?  While we may not all have fallen deep into the bottom of a well, fearing for our, life – most of us can probably hit some kind of “bottom” in our lives, where we felt alone, abandoned, forsaken, left in the dark.  Raise your hand if what I’ve said applied to you – it does to me.  Great!  Isn’t relieving to know that church is not a country club for people who have it all together and live perfect lives, but rather a hospital for broken people like you and me?  The gift of that dark place is that for many of us, it is through abandonment, pain, and humility where we come to know God most intimately.

            “You have turned my mourning into dancing; you have taken off my sackcloth and clothed me with joy, so that my soul may praise you and not be silent.”  Again, powerful words here spoken by someone who was blessed enough to be brought low, to be humbled, to be broken.  Because the gift of being broken is that brokenness is where you learn to have true joy.  Joy is not the same as happiness.  Happiness happens when you get what you want, and then wears off over time.  Happiness is fleeting.  Joy is what is produced when you trust God.  That’s what happens when you choose to place your life into God’s hands.  You just become joyful.

            You still suffer, you still feel pain, you still get frustrated.  But because you are at a place where you can put your life into God’s hands and you know that even though life doesn’t make sense now, it is in God’s hands.  In the end, everything will be okay. 

            What a gift.  What a tremendous gift that even when we fall deep into the pit, when we bottom out, God is there waiting to pick us up.  I close with a brief poem John McCreery, entitled “There is no Death”

 

There is no death!  The stars go down

To rise upon some other shore,

And bright in heaven’s jeweled crown

They shine for evermore.

 

Time is no death!  The dust we tread

Shall change beneath the summer

Showers

To golden grain, or mellow fruit,

Or rainbow-tinted flowers.

 

And ever near us though unseen,

The dear immortal spirits tread;

For all the boundless universe

Is life – there are no dead!

 

AMEN.

June 30, 2019

Proper 8     

2 Kings 2:1-2, 6-14; Psalm 77: 1-2, 11-20; Galatians 5:1, 13-25; Luke 9:51-62

The Rev. James M.L. Grace



 

In the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  AMEN.

                Last month I completed a four-year term as a board member of an institution affiliated with the Episcopal Church.  It was an enjoyable experience for me, but at the end, I was grateful to rotate off, and in doing so, I noticed a slight weight of responsibility lifted from my shoulders, which felt nice.

                I know many of you, particularly those of you who have served on the Vestry, can relate to that wonderful euphoric feeling of finishing out your three-year term of Vestry service.  I have yet to meet a Vestry member in any church I have served, who has finished out their Vestry service with tears in their eyes.  Wait, that’s not correct, I have seen tears of joy, but never tears of sadness. 

                Leadership and responsibility are meant to be shared, and all of us are called, for a season, to lead in some way or another, just as we are called to step down from positions of responsibility so that others may take our place.  Today we hear a story from the book of 2 Kings, that describes a transition in leadership from one prophet (Elijah) to another (Elisha). 

                Elijah was a prophet of the ages.  He raised a widow’s son from the dead, he contended with, and ultimately triumphed over the priests of Baal (a Canaanite storm god).  If that were not enough Elijah courageously confronted the wicked and arrogant Ahab, king of Israel, and his sinister wife, Jezebel, who wanted Elijah murdered.  In a grand final act to Elijah’s story, Elijah becomes the only prophet in the Hebrew scriptures to designate his successor.  And he chose Elisha.

                Elijah and Elisha journeyed to the Jordan River, where Elijah removed an article of clothing called a mantle, which was a similar to a cape one would wear to keep warm, something we don’t need to worry about wearing in June in Houston.  He took his mantle, wrapped it up and struck the water of the Jordan River with it, and the waters parted, and they crossed. 

                For those of you familiar with that other story in the Bible involving water miraculously parting – yes Elijah’s act is an obvious homage to what Moses did at the Red Sea.  After a triumphal exit involving a chariot of fire, Elijah drops this mantle (the same one he used to part the Jordan) and Elisha retrieves it.  To test if he is really the prophet’s successor, Elisha rolls up the mantle and slaps it onto the Jordan River, which parts just as it did for Elijah.  The mantle of leadership is passed from one to another.  The succession plan worked!

                What does this story communicate to us today?  I have two answers, and will be brief in sharing them.  First, this story reminds us that there is a time and a season for everything.  There is a time to lead, and a time to step aside.  The property and finance committees of this church are living into this time-honored truth, having recently adopted three year terms of membership.

                Secondly, perhaps most practically, the reading today is opportune moment to inform you all that in a few months we will be passing the mantle of leadership from one to another in terms of leadership at this parish.  While we won’t be providing mantles or bodies of water to strike them upon, or even fiery chariots to whisk away those parishioners rotating off committees and Vestry, we will provide more ordinary symbols of succession in leadership: ballots and pencils.

                Yes, I am speaking of our annual parish nominations, which are way off in the distant, November 10, to be precise.  Yet, it is not too early to be thinking about who among you all feel called to serve on numerous committees that will have openings come November 10.  Are you skilled in administration, passionate about ministry, or love this church?  You might think about serving on the Vestry.  Are you a numbers person?  The Finance Committee will have an opening in November, as will the Property Committee, and more. 

                If you would like to be considered for these or other committees, you may nominate yourself or someone else by sending an email to nominations@saecheights.org and the Nominations Committee will review all names before presenting a ballot for all members to vote on November 10.  That date seems a long time from now, I know, but our Fall will be busy, and November 10 will be here before any of us realize.  Prayerfully consider how God might be calling you to serve at this church.

                And to those who are serving now – those on our Vestry, Property, Finance, Liturgy Committees, and more - thank you.  Thank you for wearing the mantle.  Thank you for wrapping it up and slapping the waters with it.  What waves you all are making!  The waters are parting before you.  AMEN.

June 23, 2019

Proper 7

Luke 8:26-39

The Rev. Genevieve Razim

Preached at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, The Heights, Houston.

“Hey, those were my pigs!”

These words are not in the gospel. But it’s not too much of a stretch to imagine that someone probably said them. 

Hey, Jesus — those were my pigs.

Immediately prior to this (Luke 8:26-39), Jesus stilled the storm. You know the story: Jesus and his disciples got into a boat to cross the lake. As they sailed, Jesus fell asleep and a storm overcame them. The fear-stricken disciples shouted at Jesus, and “…he woke up and rebuked the wind and the raging waves; they ceased, and there was calm.”

Once they arrive at the other side of the lake, Jesus steps out of the boat into Gentile territory and is greeted by this unfortunate man who is demon-possessed, naked, and living in tombs. This poor man has three, no – actually four, strikes against him in the “unclean” category before the pigs are even mentioned.

Note that Jesus doesn’t avoid the man for purity reasons. He doesn’t consult the locals. He doesn’t go into town and check out this man’s story. God’s kingdom values light the way and Jesus heals him on the spot. 

After Jesus gave permission for the demons to enter the swine and the herd ran off a cliff and drowned, the news of this event spread quickly. 

When the townspeople came out to see for themselves, did they rejoice to see this once deranged man clothed and in his right mind? Did they fetch other folks who needed healing? Did they host a dinner party in honor of this compassionate and powerful guest? No, they didn’t. They were afraid. They were filled with great fear and asked Jesus to leave.

Fear is an appropriate feeling for being in the presence of the divine. For this reason, when angels — God’s messengers — appear in holy scripture, they often begin by saying: do not be afraid! So, yes, fear is an appropriate response to the divine.

But was that the only fear? Or was it mingled with other fears? 

Fear of change. Fear of loss. Fear of Jesus disrupting life as they knew it? “Khalil lost his whole herd of pigs when that Jesus fellah showed up.”

What will he do next … and how will it affect me?

Those are fair questions, and as it turns out, “the gospel often offends people who profit from” the way things presently are.

This tension is notable because today’s healing (and the townspeople’s reaction) foreshadows events in Acts of the Apostles where economic interests face-off with kingdom purposes, kingdom values.

For example, the enslaved girl whose fortune-telling abilities brought her captors a great deal of money. Paul ordered the spirit out of her … and it landed him in jail, along with Silas. They were accused of “disturbing our city.”

Silversmiths felt threatened because Gentile Christian converts were no longer purchasing idols and silver shrines of Artemis. As a result, a riot broke out in Ephesus. 1st and 2nd century Roman documents record intermittent and localized persecutions of Christians which were stirred up by the complaints of silversmiths and others with economic motives. 

When Jesus kicked-off his ministry by reading from the scroll of Isaiah, one of the promised actions named was “release to the captives.” Today’s gospel witnesses to the power of Jesus and this un-named man being released from spiritual, physical, mental, and social captivity. All of it! 

So, the wind and the water obeyed Jesus, and now the demonic powers possessing this man obey as well. As powerful as Jesus is, we see in the townspeople’s response, it is the human heart held captive by fear that remains Jesus’ challenge. 

He stepped out of the boat that day and brought change to that Gentile city. Holy, life-giving change. And yet it was a change that filled them with fear, and they told him to leave! Jesus and his disciples honored their request. 

So how might we respond differently? How might we allow Christ to set us free from the captivity of our fears? How can we faithfully respond to God’s call in our day and time?

First, do what Jesus told the healed man to do: declare how much God has done for you. We encourage one another by sharing our faith experiences. And for those who have not yet received Christ, sharing what God has done for you gives them hope. It reveals another way to live, a better way. The way of love, the way of Jesus.

Second, follow Jesus in his example of letting the values of God’s kingdom light the way for his actions. When he saw suffering, he responded. We can too. We know right from wrong. Allow God’s empowering grace give you the courage to live out the values shown by Jesus in the gospels and stated in our baptismal vows.

And finally, remember that you are never alone. God promises to be with us through the Holy Spirit and in community. God has given us one another to face challenges together, sacrifice together for the common good. Banding together in Christian community to weather the storms of change and loss, economic or otherwise. Responding and adapting to challenges with creativity, compassion, and the mind of Christ. 

It is heart-breaking to imagine the Gerasene community gathered on the lakeshore, sending Jesus away after this dramatic experience of his saving grace. So much potential and promise for this community, but no. 

It brings to mind a scene from The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. In an exchange between Susan and Mr. Beaver, Susan prepares to meet Aslan for the first time. Susan says: “Is he – quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion” … “Safe?” said Mr. Beaver … “Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”

Here’s the thing: loss is at the heart of the Christian story, and so is resurrection. A seed must fall to the ground for it to rise. There’s something dangerous about the gospel, but not as dangerous as living without it.

If our response to the healing of the Gerasene demoniac is: “hey, those were my pigs”, then we have some soul-searching to do. Are we willing to allow fear to rule and harden our hearts to the suffering and injustices of our time? What will we choose?

I will close with the words of St. Paul from his letter to the Ephesians — the Christian community in Ephesus, where the silversmith riot took place … “Glory to God whose power, working in us, can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine: Glory to him from generation to generation in the Church, and in Christ Jesus for ever and ever.” AMEN.

June 16, 2019

Trinity Sunday

Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31; Psalm 8; Romans 5: 1-5; John 16:12-15

The Rev. James M.L. Grace

 

In the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  AMEN

            Last week a man sat in my office and with some desperation, began to share with me, a crisis he was experiencing.  In full disclosure, this man is completely unaffiliated with this church, and doesn’t even live in Houston.  I say this to save you all from looking around church wondering who this person might be – he’s not here.  He began to tell me the story regarding the demise of his marriage to his wife.  Together they have young children, and he went on to describe to me the alcohol and substance abuse problems he and his wife struggle with.  He ended his lament telling me that though she had not yet submitted them, his wife has filled out the papers to file for divorce.

            As I listened to this man tell his story, I was struck with what he said after telling me the details.  He said something along the lines of “I just never expected that my life would turn out this way.”  In saying those words, the man had done what many of us do.  He had created a narrative for how his life was supposed to go.  Marriage, two kids, growing old together, grandchildren in the future, perhaps.  That’s the way it was supposed to be.  There was nothing in his narrative about divorce or addiction.  Who wants that in their future planning?

            When then man sitting on my couch said, “I never expected my life to turn out this way,” it struck a familiar feeling within me.  Like him, I have found myself at moments examining my life and thinking, “Well I never would have predicted this!”  But isn’t that the human experience?  It is, at least according to the Bible.

            In the very first book of the Bible, the book of Genesis, a man and a woman have everything provided for them in an extravagant garden.  But as good as they have it, the serpent whispers a lie to the woman, which the woman believes, and the man and the woman are banished from paradise as a natural consequence.  Upon their banishment, I imagine the man and the woman both saying “well, we never expected that!”  Although I do not personally receive the story of Adam and Eve literally and as fact, I do believe it is a true story.  A true story about human suffering and pain.

            Human suffering and pain are common themes in the Bible, and in today’s reading from Romans, we hear the author, Paul, reflect on them.  Paul says these words: “suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.”

            I think what Paul might be saying is that human suffering, like what Adam and Eve experienced, like the suffering experienced by the man sitting in my office last week, like the suffering that you and I are going through, is painful.  It hurts.  Non one likes it.  But suffering is not the end of the story, at least for Paul.  Because if what Paul is saying is true, then suffering produces endurance.  I don’t know about you all, but I have learned in life that the more patiently I endure suffering, the easier it becomes.  When we are patient through our suffering, we build endurance. 

            What does that endurance do for us?  Well, according to Paul, the endurance we accrue through patient suffering is character.  When we patiently endure suffering, we produce character, and that character that we now have, it affects other people.  And other people see that character in you, and they look at you and they say, “Wow – look at her or him, and how they are going through this really hard time but look at how emotionally and spiritually strong they are.  Look how peaceful they appear.  I want what they have!”  That’s the power of character. 

            The character you have as a result of enduring suffering – that character is powerful, and it gives people hope.  For the person struggling with a broken marriage to see a couple that once were on the road to ruin but now recovered, that is powerful.  Your character is precious, because it was refined through your suffering.  Your character is a gift given to you by God, for the purpose of bringing hope to others.  And that hope – that precious, beautiful hope, it will never disappoint us because God’s love has been poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit. 

            Most of us in church are probably living lives that have not turned out exactly as we once expected them to.  But is that a bad thing.  We all suffer.  All of us hurt at times.  But out of suffering comes not just endurance or character.  Out of suffering comes hope.  Suffering is the birthplace of all hope.  With no suffering, there can be no hope, because to truly appreciate hope, you need to feel pain. 

            St. Andrew’s is a church in midst of growing pains.  We are no longer the church we were five or ten years ago.  We are not, today, the church we will be five or ten years from now.  Growth and change can hurt.  There is nothing easy about what this church is doing, right now.  For those of you who have been here a long time, you might be thinking “well I never thought the church would turn out this way!” 

            We are learning, we are falling, we are suffering – together. 

            We are enduring – together.

            We are building character – together.

            Finally, we are falling into hope which will never disappoint us – together.  AMEN.

June 9, 2019

Pentecost

Genesis 11:1-9; Psalm 104: 25-35, 37; Romans 8:14-17; John 14: 8-17, 25-27

The Rev. James M.L. Grace



 

In the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  AMEN.

            “All who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God.  For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption.”  Those words come from the Apostle Paul’s greatest writing, the Epistle to the Romans.  We hear a very short part of it today, which is just fine, because as good as Paul is, it’s nice to hear him in small doses, you know what I mean?

            All who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God.  What a confusing statement that is.  But more than confusing – what a terrifying statement that is.  How do we know we are being led by the spirit of God?  I mean, that’s a very difficult question to answer.  What if we feel we are being led by God’s spirit, and we find ourselves disagreeing with another person who feels equally led by God’s spirit?  Does God choose sides? 

            In my limited experience, I have found that more or less I feel I am following God’s spirit if I can answer “yes” to the following questions:  Does it seem impossible?  Is it pretty much the exact opposite of what I would do if left to my own devices?  Does it require hard work?  If I can answer “yes” to those questions, then I believe I am following God’s Spirit in life’s circumstances. 

            We are a child of God, if we choose to follow God’s Spirit.  That ineffable, unknowable, unimaginable spirit – the Holy Spirit.  That’s the mystery we honor today – a holy reality we call “Spirit” that is unavoidable to any who choose to follow God.   The Spirit blows where it chooses, it is not consolidated or relegated to any human agenda.  It is the Great Allower.  It does not cajole or persuade, it just is. 

            If you want what the Spirit has to offer, which is life, real life, then my suggestion to you is to get outside yourself.  Step outside yourself, risk vulnerability and uncertainty, and move away from what you feel so absolutely certain about, and humble yourself.  And the spirit will meet you. 

            That’s what we honor today, on this day we call Pentecost.  We honor the mystery of God’s spirit that just is, and so permeates all that we are and all that we do.  Today we will baptize an infant, to honor this mystery of God’s Spirit that is all around us if we just are willing to move out of ourselves in order to see it. 

            When a child is baptized in a church it is not magic.  It is not a magical “get out of hell free” card.  No person needs that, if we believe hell is voluntary, as I do.  The priest does nothing during a baptism except hold an infant, pour some water, and light a candle, maybe.  It is God’s Spirit that does everything in baptism.  And so what happens at baptism?

            I don’t know.  I can’t describe it.  The child to be baptized always has and always will be God’s child, there is no need for baptism for that.  Perhaps baptism is less for the person being baptized, and more for all of us. 

            If baptism is anything, it is a remainder that we all are invited, never forced, into relationship with God.  God will never manipulate nor micro-manage us into a forced relationship.  God is patient, and humble, and will wait for us to befriend the Spirit when we are ready.

            And when we are ready, the Spirit will be there.  When the student is ready, the teacher appears.  It is the same with God, I believe.  I am grateful for the Spirit of God which waits for us to choose and to receive it.  An infant will receive this spirit, but she already has received it long before her birth.  She, like all of us, will receive it today, and tomorrow, and again and again.  AMEN.  

May 26, 2019

6 Easter

Acts 16:9-15; Psalm 67; Revelation 21:10, 22-22:5; John 5: 1-9

The Rev. James M.L. Grace

 

In the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  AMEN.

            "In Flanders Fields" is a war poem written during the First World War by Canadian physician Lieutenant-Colonel John McCrae. He was inspired to write it on May 3, 1915, after presiding over the funeral of friend and fellow soldier Lieutenant Alexis Helmer.

It is one of the most quoted poems from the war. Its references to the red poppies that grew over the graves of fallen soldiers resulted in the remembrance poppy becoming one of the world's most recognized memorial symbols for soldiers who have died in conflict. The poem is also widely known in the United States, where it is associated with Memorial Day.  I share it with you now:

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
    Between the crosses, row on row,
  That mark our place; and in the sky
  The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
  Loved and were loved, and now we lie
      In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
  The torch; be yours to hold it high.
  If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
      In Flanders fields.

As with his earlier poems, "In Flanders Fields" continues McCrae's preoccupation with death and how it stands as the transition between the struggle of life and the peace that follows. It is written from the point of view of the dead. It speaks of their sacrifice and serves as their command to the living to press on.

Tomorrow is Memorial Day.  Many businesses, and churches, including this one, will be closed for its observance.  My hope for all of us is that we each dosomething tomorrow in honor and in recognition of those who paid the ultimate price in their defense of this country.  You might hang an American flag outside your home, or visit the Veteran’s Cemetery in Houston, where flags have been placed on countless headstones.  On your way out of the church, you might stop by the plaque in our narthex which lists the names of the brave men of this parish who died during World War I.  While this church does not currently have plaques installed commemorating the lives of brave women and men who died in the service of this country in wars that followed, no doubt there have been many.  In spite of all the clamor about Memorial Day sales, and the beginning of summer, tomorrow is a solemn day. 

I remember when I was in the eighth grade I went on a school trip to Washington DC, and was selected, with another classmate, to lay a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington.  At the young age of 14, standing there before that tomb, with impeccably dressed Army soldiers solemnly marching back and forth, keeping watch, I knew that I was participating in something that was much bigger than myself, my family, my school, or my city.  If you’ve ever visited the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, you understand, what I am trying to describe.

As much as Memorial Day is a day to honor the dead, it is also a day to renew our commitment to peace.  The prophet Isaiah spoke centuries ago about God’s redemption of human warfare, envisioning a world that no longer new war, a world that new only peace. In the second chapter of Isaiah we find here the prophet’s words: “He shall judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples; they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.”

In honor of those who have made the ultimate sacrifice on our behalf, I invite you to stand, as we renew our commitment to peace, praying together the prayer attributed to St. Francis, found in your prayer book on page 833. 

 

Lord make me an instrument of your peace
Where there is hatred let me sow love
Where there is injury, pardon
Where there is doubt, faith
Where there is despair, hope
Where there is darkness, light
And where there is sadness, joy

O divine master grant that I may
not so much seek to be consoled as to console
to be understood as to understand
To be loved as to love
For it is in giving that we receive
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned
And it's in dying that we are born to eternal life.  AMEN.

May 19, 2019

5 Easter

Acts 11:1-18; Psalm 148: 14-29; Revelation 21:1-6; John 13:31-35

The Rev. James M.L. Grace



 

In the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  AMEN.

            Last summer, while on sabbatical, our family travelled to Paris, among other places.  While in Paris we did the usual touristy things – we visited the Eiffel tower, the Arc de Triumph, and Louis IV’s massive residence, Versailles.  We also toured several grand churches, Saint Chapelle, and of course no visit to Paris is complete without a stop at the Notre Dame Cathedral. 

            Notre Dame is an architectural masterpiece in every sense of the word.  It is beautiful sight to behold.  And yet as I was walking through it, there was this feeling I had of sadness.  That’s the only way I know to describe it. As beautiful and opulent Notre Dame was, it felt empty to me.  I didn’t leave there feeling warmth or connection with a God greater than I.  I left instead with little more than a realization that while it is a beautiful building, I felt further, rather than closer to God, as a result of my visit there. 

            Months later, I along with millions of other viewers, watched the video of that strange yellow smoke emerging from the burning roof of Notre Dame.  I watched as the spire tower engulfed in flames, eventually toppled over.  That image struck me as a metaphor for something, though I’m not sure what.  

            Church buildings are strange animals.  For centuries, Christians have built churches to worship God.  And for centuries, Christians also have succumbed to worshipping the building, beautiful though it may be, instead of the God for whom the church was built. 

            This is my way of introducing the reading we hear from Revelation this morning.  Revelation is the final book of the New Testament.  It is a widely misunderstood book, and history is riddled with attempts by “experts” who have attempted to explain its unusual and sometimes disturbing imagery.  I do not personally believe that the unusual images in Revelation were ever meant to be interpreted literally.  That doesn’t mean that the images of dragons and seals and angels blowing trumpets are not true.  They absolutely are.  But they are true in the way that a contemporary American political cartoons, featuring a donkey and an elephant locked in struggle with each other, are true.  Readers of those cartoons don’t read them literally, believing that donkeys and elephants roam the floors of the United States Senate or House of Representatives.  Readers understand what those animals represent.  The same applies to the images in Revelation.

            Today we hear from the next to last chapter of the book, chapter 21.  In that chapter the author shares a vision with us of what he calls a new Jerusalem.  This new Jerusalem, as described in v. 2, reflects a belief in early Judaism and early Christianity of a heavenly counterpart to the physical, earthy city of Jerusalem.  In describing this new Jerusalem you might notice what is absent.  There is no mention of a temple or a church building. 

            Interesting.  In the new Jerusalem there is no temple or church because there is no need for it, because the glory of God pervades the whole city.  There is no need for an opulent, architecturally massive structure to communicate God’s glory.  This ambivalence toward buildings in Revelation raises a question about the enormous investment in its buildings by Christian churches throughout history.  Sadly, the history of Christianity is in part a story of Christians prioritizing buildings over relationship and real community.  The need for Christians to build holy spaces often betrays our failure to understand that the true holy space is not a gilded cathedral, it is the body of a crucified man and the people who identify with him. 

        When I used to walk into large opulent churches, I used to think: “Wow! How exquisite!  Wouldn’t it be great to be a priest in this place!”   Now when I find myself in such opulent places, I find myself asking instead “what are they hiding that demands such an expensive building to disguise?  What are they afraid of that they believe such a display of wealth will protect them from?”  The church is not a building, it is its people. 

I close with these words on religion, said by the Dalai Lama: “This is my simple religion. There is no need for temples; no need for complicated philosophy. Our own brain, our own heart is our temple; the philosophy is kindness.”  AMEN.

May 12, 2019

Easter 4, Good Shepherd Sunday

Psalm 23; John 10:22-30

The Rev. Genevieve Razim

Julia had been declining for quite some time. She was a faithful, stylish, elderly woman who I enjoyed getting to know during my pastoral visits. At one memorable hospital visit, we prayed and as I ended my prayer for her with “Amen”, the sound of church bells filled the room. 

Julia’s eyes opened wide and she asked, “Do you hear that?” I replied, smiling: “Yes, I do. It’s my cell phone. That’s the ringtone for the church.”

It was only a few months later that the emergency pastoral care cell phone rang. It was New Year’s Day and as the most junior clergy person on staff, it had been in my possession all week. Julia had died and her son was on the phone.

I was in my work-out clothes and was unsure of how urgent the situation was for him, so I asked. “So, here’s the deal: I’m in my workout clothes and I can be there right away as is, or if you can wait 45 minutes, I can get cleaned up and be over there all dressed up and in a collar.” 

“Come over now. As you are!” was the response.

Julia was always so put together. Now I was at her bedside in a pink SMU sweatshirt and no make-up, but wearing a stole, with a Book of Common Prayer in hand, and a lot of love in my heart.

Her son was amused by the pink SMU sweatshirt. He told me that his mother would have “absolutely adored” seeing me this way, and then said… “Now we must say the Shepherd’s Prayer.”

I was stumped. The Shepherd’s Prayer?

Oh no – I don’t remember a “shepherd’s prayer” from theology school at SMU … is this from another tradition, maybe the Baptists? I silently wondered.

“The Shepherd’s Prayer?” I asked. “Um, I can’t say that I know that one. Can you help me out?”

He looked at me in disbelief and I thought to myself: Darn, I should’ve worn that collar!

“You know, the Shepherd’s Prayer! The Shepherd’s Prayer!” He said emphatically.

Oh, this is not going well…“Can you share a few lines of it?” 

“Yes, yes, I can: The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not be in want…”

“Oh, my apologies. Yes, indeed, I do know that one.”

The 23rd Psalm. Associated with funerals and a source of comfort for millennia, Julia’s son is right: the 23rd Psalm is a prayer.

Psalms are songs: poetry meant to be set to music. And always meant to be prayed. This genre of Holy Scripture expresses the wide range of human emotions and experiences; all of it out in the open and in conversation with God. Real, and at times raw, psalms are come-as-you-are prayer.

And so today that wonderful “Shepherd’s Prayer” is the appointed psalm for this 4th Sunday of Easter, known as Good Shepherd Sunday.

We know Jesus as the Good Shepherd. In the Gospel of John, Jesus says: “I AM the Good Shepherd” and he tells us what that looks like (10:1-16). The Good Shepherd does not abandon the flock when the wolf appears. The Good Shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. And from today’s gospel: “My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me … No one will snatch them out of my hand. What my Father has given me is greater than all else, and no one can snatch it out of the Father’s hand. The Father and I are one.”

Which brings us back to the 23rd Psalm. Because “the LORD” who is my shepherd in the 23rd Psalm is YHWH. The Creator. God of the ancient Israelites. The first person of the Trinity. 

As Christians, we hear the 23rd Psalm and think of Jesus. While that is not wrong for us, what we end up missing out on is the depth of the character and love of God. 

Does your understanding of God change when you hear:  YHWH is my shepherd, I shall not be in want. YHWH makes me lie down in green pastures; YHWH leads me beside still waters…

I’ve heard educated people remark that the Old Testament is about an angry and vengeful God and the New Testament is about a loving God. But that is a false dichotomy because the most named attribute of God in the Old Testament is hesed: Hebrew for steadfast love

The whole bible — the entirety of salvation history — is about God shepherding creation to abundant life, driven by that steadfast love. The kind of love that looks like a shepherd, carrying a rescued sheep on her shoulders, and wearing the wounds it took to save that one.

As Christians we say we know God best through Jesus. When Jesus says the Father and I are one, he is telling us something important about the nature and character of God: The Good Shepherd identity goes deep into the heart of God and our experience of God.

For this image of God emerged for the ancient Israelites in Exodus, as they wandered in the desert; David articulates it in the psalms; Jesus reveals it in his life and teaching; early Christians painted it on the ceilings of their catacombs. God is the Good Shepherd. Jesus is the Good Shepherd. We shall not be in want.

So, let’s return to prayer and come-as-you-are encounters with God — the Good Shepherd. For within today’s appointed readings are some passages that can assist us in noticing and connecting to God’s steadfast love in our everyday lives.

The first, of course, is what Julia’s son had at the ready that day: The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not be in want. Now say it with me: The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not be in want.

During times of uncertainty, transition, and scarcity, using this as a mantra grounds us in the knowledge of God’s providential care and protection. 

Second: You hold me in the palm of your hand. Again, say it with me: You hold me in the palm of your hand.

This image is from today’s gospel in which Jesus says: No one will snatch them out of my hand. When the world seems upside and sideways; when we feel vulnerable, physically or emotionally or both … this mantra keeps us grounded in the knowledge that we belong to God and nothing can separate us from God’s love. As one wise person noted, when we pray this, the “effort to grasp is converted into the experience of being grasped.”[1] You hold me in the palm of your hand.

Finally: I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever. Together: I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.

Our home is with God. No matter where we find ourselves, should we need to relocate due to floods or family or economic reasons…wherever we may be in this life and the next, our home is with God. I know it was a comfort to Julia’s son to know that his mother was now with God. It is a comfort to him and to us that on this side of life, we are at home with God, too. I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.

May these “Shepherd Prayers” guide you to the green pastures and still waters of God’s steadfast love. The Good Shepherd who knows you and loves you deeply, calls each of us by name and calls us to follow. Come now, as you are!

AMEN.