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.

April 28, 2019

2 Easter

Acts 5:27-32; Psalm 118: 14-29; Revelation 1: 4-8; John 20: 19-31

The Rev. James M.L. Grace



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

            Today is the second Sunday of the Easter season.  And on this Sunday, the reading that we always have is this story from the Gospel of John.  It is probably a familiar story to you – this story of Thomas the disciple who struggled to believe in the resurrection of Jesus.  That is, until, Thomas saw Jesus with his own eyes, and came to believe himself.  To this Jesus says, Thomas you believe because you see me with your eyes, but blessed are those who have not seen me and yet believe.”

            The later part of that sentence describes basically every person who somehow has chosen to believe this story of Jesus – that he died, and now mysteriously, lives again through us, and through the church.  A lot of us believe this, as much as we struggle with this.

            We are rational people, with minds trained to see things empirically. The idea of a person coming back to life after dying can be a real stretch for us whose observation of death does not match that hopeful description. 

            At a recent Bible study here at this church, a prayer was offered which said this: “God, help us to remember that the struggle to have faith, is faith itself.”  Let that sink in.  The struggle to have faith is faith itself.  Thomas no more doubted than any of us would or could.  He struggled to have faith, just like us. 

            And that struggle to have faith is faith itself.  

            Today, April 28, is not only the second Sunday of Easter.  April 28 is also Worker’s Memorial Day.  Workers Memorial Day is celebrated each year on April 28, the anniversary

of passage of the Occupational Safety and Health Act in 1970. It is an opportunity to remember and honor the people who are killed or injured in work-places, as well as a chance for people to recommit to making workplaces safer and healthier.

             More than 100 workers were fatally injured on the job in the Houston area during 2018. Some fell from heights, some were electrocuted, some were overcome by gases or were struck by equipment. On this Workers’ Memorial Day---in Houston, across the U.S. and the globe---we remember all people who die from work-related injuries and illnesses.

In 2013 Pope Francis offered these words regarding the necessity for safe working environments.  He said, “work is fundamental to the dignity of a person. Work, to use an image, "anoints" us with dignity, fills us with dignity, makes us similar to God, who has worked and still works, who always acts.”

            As people of faith, we have a moral obligation to stand for and defend those vulnerable workers in our city.  To do our part, St. Andrew’s today will dedicate all of our loose plate collection (that is, all cash and coin collection) to the Fe Y Justicia Worker Center here in Houston.  So, give generously.  We will also pray for those who died while working last year. 

            As a church, it is our job, as Mother Jones once said, “to pray for the dead and to fight like hell for the living.”  Today we will baptize six new members into the church.  We celebrate with them the beginning of their Christian journey alongside Thomas and all of us, to know Christ and to make him known.  Today encompasses the work of the church: to have faith, to pray for the dead, to baptize the living.  In all we do, may Christ be glorified.  AMEN.

April 21, 2019

Easter

Acts 10: 34-43; Psalm 118; 1 Corinthians 15: 19-26; John 20: 1-18

The Rev. James M.L. Grace

 

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

            In the words of St. Augustine, “we are an Easter people, and Alleluia is our cry.”  How good it feels to say “Alleluia” on this beautiful Easter day.  We are surrounded by flowers, the Paschal candle is lit, Christ’s resurrection is proclaimed joyfully on this day.  How precious this day of resurrection is, and yet, how easy it is to discard such a precious, beautiful, sought-after gift when this day is done.

            I will share with you an old story about a valuable stone, called a “touchstone” that was rumored to be somewhere along the coast of the Black Sea.  If one ever was to find this stone, you would know it immediately because of its warmth.  Any other stone you might find would feel could to the touch, but when you found the touchstone, it would warm your hand. 

            Rumor was that whoever found this stone would be able to turn anything they wanted into pure gold.  A man heard this rumor and sold everything he had and went to the coast of the Black Sea in search of the touchstone.  He began immediately to walk along the shoreline, picking up one stone after another in his diligent and intentional search.

            He was consumed with this dream of holding such a treasure in his hand.  However, after several days of fruitless searching, he realized he was just picking up the same stones again and again.  So he came up with a plan: he would pick up a stone.  If the stone was cold, the man, in his disappointment would throw the stone into the sea.  This he did for weeks and weeks.

            Then one morning he wearily went out to continue his search for the touchstone.  He picked up a stone.  It was cold, so he threw it into the sea.  He picked up another – stone cold.  He kept picking up stone after stone, feeling their coolness, and throwing them into the sea.  Finally he picked up another, and the stone turned warm in his hand, and before he realized a miracle had occurred, he threw the touchstone into the sea, where it sunk deep to the bottom of the sea, never to be found.       

            I would suggest that in the miracle of Easter, we have stumbled upon a mystery of inestimable value.  We hold this Easter mystery in our hand, like the man held the touchstone.   We may not have the power to change things to gold, but we have something much more valuable.  We have hope.  Don’t waste it.  Don’t throw Easter hope away like the man threw the touchstone out into the ocean.  Hold onto this Easter hope.  It will warm your hand.  It will change your life. 

            “We are an Easter people, and Alleluia is our cry”

            Alleulia.  The Lord is Risen.

            The Lord is Risen indeed.  Alleluia.  AMEN.


April 21, 2019

The Great Vigil of Easter

Acts 10: 34-43; Psalm 118; 1 Corinthians 15: 19-26; John 20: 1-18

The Rev. James M.L. Grace

 

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

            We have heard a lot of scripture this morning, we have sung hymns and canticles, we have had baptisms.  So what I know that you all are really wanting now is a long Easter sermon.  There has not been enough “church.”  This will not be a long sermon!

            This morning’s service is the most important service in the Christian calendar.  From our entry into a darkened church that felt, at least to me, slightly like walking into a tomb to the lighting of our Paschal candle, the light spreading throughout the church, the new life emerging as promised through baptism, to the great “Alleluia” where we proclaim as Easter people that Christ is risen from the dead. 

            In Jesus’ resurrection, God reveals the retreat of death and the victory of life. 

            That is what is proclaimed in Christian baptism.

            Resurrection is a promise for all of us.  In his book Immortal Diamond, priest and author Richard Rohr writes this: “The True Self is the Risen Christ in you, and hence is not afraid of death.  It has already been to hell and back.”  I believe that what Rohr is wanting to remind us of is that the Jesus that dwells within each of us is the Risen Christ.  It is the Christ who has defeated death and now lives eternally that dwells within each of us.  When we are in touch with the Risen Christ within us through prayer, reading Scripture, and meditation, we will begin to see resurrection out of every situation, especially the most difficult ones.

            For some of us, we might experience a resurrection in three days, but for most of us, I think, it takes much longer.  The most significant resurrections in my life have taken years.  A beautiful story of resurrection on my mind this year is of the mother of one of my closest childhood friends.  My friend loved golf and had an energetic smile about him.  He also had a sadness to him that grew into a depression in high school leading him to, tragically, take his own life.  My friend’s mother, upon losing her son, entered into a long season of grief, and of darkness. 

            But even in the darkness she now found herself in, she prayed, and in her prayers, she entrusted the life of her deceased son into the care of God.  In the midst of her praying, one day she experienced a resurrection.  The Risen Christ within her reached out to her and said “it is time share your grief, and your pain, because that is what will bring healing to your broken heart and to the broken hearts of others.  They need to hear your story.”  So she did. But the Risen Christ was not finished with her, yet, because in her journey out of grief, she came to realize that God was also calling her to serve as a Deacon in the Episcopal Church.  And that is what she continues to do this day.  Today she serves in a congregation in another state, as a faithful deacon.  A defining part of her ministry is in leading grief recovery groups where she encounters grief in all forms.  Through telling her story about her walk through grief, she is practicing resurrection daily because her story is giving many others hope.  She is Christ to so many people, meeting them in their grief, and helping to bring them out of it, so that they can know the power of resurrection.

            Nothing is lost to God, not even the dead.  For the God we worship is a God of the living.  And on this Holy morning, we proclaim resurrection in all forms, and in all places. 

            Alleluia!  The Lord is Risen.  The Lord is Risen, indeed.  AMEN.

April 19, 2019

Good Friday

Luke 22:47-23:56

The Rev. Genevieve Razim

“When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus…” (Luke 23:33).

The place of The Skull can be found in the territory of our hearts. Where we know — from our own experiences and those of loved ones — the pain and trauma of fear, violence, loss, and grief. All of the places we’d never go if we’d had a choice.

But what can feel like a God-forsaken place in these experiences — my God, my God, why have you forsaken me? (Psalm 22) — Good Friday is Christ choosing to go there, to be with us.

Jesus had been on a collision course with the values of the Roman Empire and religious authorities had felt threatened by his popularity and teachings for some time. This was not a secret. So when Jesus set his face toward Jerusalem, he knew that his ministry of liberating souls in this life (Luke 4:18-19) would take him to the end of his.

Emmanuel — God with us — is with us. All the way to death on a cross.

As the writer of Hebrews proclaims:

“For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weakness, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin.

Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (4:15-16).

As Hurricane Irma’s gusts finally ceased, Bishop Rafael Morales Maldonado, Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Puerto Rico, ventured outside to survey the damage to churches and neighborhoods. He had only been bishop for four months, and shared with those of us with Episcopal Relief & Development, that he was overwhelmed by what he saw.

The devastation was immense. As the grief he felt for his people met the learning curve of his new role as bishop, his heart sank. 

But as he continued to survey the damage, he came upon a cross. Still standing strong and tall, undamaged by the storm. 

He knew in that moment that Christ was with him and all who suffered. He knew that Christ would be with them, through it all, and provide him with the strength to persevere and lead through the disaster.

Because of the cross of Christ, the godforsaken landscape of death and destruction is no longer forsaken by God.

The cross means more than “Christ died for our sins” … the cross means that “God is with the suffering.” The cross of Christ says: I love you. I am with you. I will not forsake you.

Allow this truth to reach the deepest, most tender territory of your heart; that place of piercing pain, grief, loss.

Emmanuel — God with us — is with you.

All will be redeemed.

But for now we wait. Holding fast to our confession of hope … for God is faithful (Hebrews 10:23).

AMEN.

April 18, 2019

Maundy Thursday

John 13:1-17, 3b-35 

The Rev. Genevieve Razim

Thousands of miles from this gospel scene in Jerusalem is Ireland, where the good news of Jesus arrived in the 5th century. From the region of West Kerry, which faces the mighty Atlantic Ocean, comes an old saying: You are the place where I stand on the day when my feet are sore.[1]

Lovely, isn’t it? Comforting. Worth remembering as we remove our socks and shoes in God’s sanctuary. 

For every year on this night during the foot-washing, I find it rather easy to get distracted. Distracted from what is actually happening here; distracted from what Christ is doing.

It’s true. I get caught up in the liturgical logistics: water pitchers, basins, towels, altar guild – how’s it going? I can also become distracted by my feelings of vulnerability. As someone who always likes to put her best foot forward, on Maundy Thursday, I put calloused and tired feet forward hoping not to be judged. 

I know I’m not alone. Over the years, I’ve heard folks in anticipation of this tradition express feelings ranging from excitement to dread; inspiring pedicures for some, boycotts for others. Notice what this ritual stirs up.

Peter had feelings about foot-washing too, but for different reasons. His objections take us deeper into the heart of this sign. Hospitality in 1stcentury Palestine included foot-washing, so he wasn’t objecting to the washing, he was objecting to Jesus in the role of a servant.

He must have sensed that being on the receiving end of Christ’s humble act was going to disrupt his understanding of leadership and of power. What Jesus — the Word Made Flesh — was doing would require “a radical reinterpretation of his own life-world, a genuine conversion of some kind, which he was not prepared to undergo.”[2]

To this, the contemporary disciple – with or without pedicure – responds: yeah, that too, Peter. That too. I am uneasy about that as well. 

Into this mix of emotions and role-reversals, Jesus asks his disciples then, and his disciples now: 

“Do you know what I have done to you?” 

Do you know what is really happening here?

Graciously, Christ leads us to understanding. He says: I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you (13:15). Just as I have loved you, you should also love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another (13:34-35). 

He also says a bit further into his discourse: I do not call you servants any longer […] but I have called you friends (15:15).

Jesus shapes this gathering of disciples into a particular kind of community: a community of love, a community of friends. The creation of this community is a component of what John’s gospel means when it says: “he loved them to the end” (13:1).

This is what is happening here, so don’t be distracted! 

Just as it happened on that night two thousand years ago, so it happens again. Just as surely, just as truly. Christ is washing our feet: loving and transforming us, further shaping us into a community of love, community of friends. 

To borrow words from Brené Brown, no longer must we perfect, perform, and “hustle for our worth”[3], for the Son of God washes all of that away with water and love. And he gives us the gift of hope; secure in the reality that our worth and belonging is in God: as created in God’s image and baptized in Christ. 

With a towel and water basin, Christ is getting on with his mission of loving the world and showing us what it looks like to lead, to love, and to be in community. Making us a holy web of relationships, empowered by God’s grace: creating a space and a place to love, trust, forgive, serve, and belong. It is nothing less than an in-breaking of God’s reign in this world…

Christ’s community of love, community of friends — in Houston. You are the place where I stand on the day when my feet are sore; thousands of miles from Jerusalem, a couple thousand years since the first Holy Week.

Early-church theologian Turtullian reported in the 2nd century that Romans would say: “Look at these Christians — see how they love one another!”

What might our neighbors and acquaintances say about us? Might they receive the good news of Jesus, as the people of Ireland did in the 5thcentury? 

Our age is marked by increasing loneliness, especially among young people. There is a palpable coarsening of our society and an erosion of empathy.

But these Episcopalians! See how they love one another … how might I be one of them?

God so loved the world that he gave his only-begotten son, who on this night shapes us — with all of our vulnerabilities and imperfections — into a beloved community. 

So that in the days ahead, we will not only be there to love and care for one another, but also to take the hand of the lonely, the lost, and the broken … and invite them into this sacred web of relationships knit together by God’s love and grace … that one day they may also say:

You, St. Andrew’s, are the place where stand I stand on the day when my feet are sore. A community of Christ’s love, a community of God’s friends.

AMEN. 

April 7, 2019

5 Lent

Isaiah 43: 16-21; Psalm 126; Philippians 3:4b-14; John 12:1-8

The Rev. James M.L. Grace



 

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

As a father of three boys, I have heard numerous colorful and creative ways to describe the act of…pooping.  It’s hard to say that with a straight face on Sunday morning.  As a toddler, one of my boys created a new term for poop, he called it “dope.”  If I had reason to suspect that he needed a diaper change, I wouldn’t ask him if there was poop in his diaper, but instead ask if there was any “dope.”  He would usually offer two responses: “dope, dad” which I am still unclear about if it was intended as an insult or meant he needed a new diaper.  If he said, “no dope” that meant, “we’re good.

This is a strange way to begin a sermon, I admit.  The reason I do so, is because in today’s reading from Philippians, dope, poop, excrement, or whatever you may call it is mentioned.  Although, you would be hard pressed to find the word, because another word is used in its place.  Why?  I will answer that question, but first a very short introduction on Philippians.

The Apostle Paul likely wrote Philippians as a letter to Christians living in Philippi, a Roman province in modern day Greece.  Scholars believe that Paul wrote this letter while doing time in a Roman jail.  Roman jails were not known for their hospitality.  Paul is in jail because of publicly supporting a Jewish insurrectionist named Jesus of Nazareth.    

In today’s excerpt from this letter, Paul presents all his qualifications - his resume – everything that qualifies him to be an apostle.  There seems to be a ton of bravado here, and at first glance Paul’s arrogance seems really of putting.  Paul says “If anyone has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more, circumcised on the eighth day (that was the day to be  circumcised according to Leviticus 12:3) a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin (really good tribe that included Jerusalem), a Hebrew born of Hebrews (he’s basically saying that he is the best Hebrew, ever) as to the law, a Pharisee (the Pharisees were the in-group in Jerusalem) as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.  You hear Paul’s self-description and at least I think “what a pompous, arrogant, jerk.” 

But then Paul does something unexpected.  All that self-praising he says about himself, all the “I’m so great,” stuff he calls rubbish.  At least that’s the word we hear today, but that is not the word Paul wrote.  The word “rubbish” is unfortunately a very polite translation of the Greek word skybala, which means human excrement.  

Now, in my very experience, a person doesn’t just decide one day that the external qualifiers that they once were defined by and once valued (like money, like a job, like status, like the kind of home you live in or the kind of car your drive).  A person doesn’t just go to bed one night loving all those things, and the next morning wake up and say that they skybala.  I think something big must happen to change your perspective.  And that something for Paul, I believe, was meeting Jesus for the first time.  I think that Paul’s encounter with Jesus must have been so powerful for Paul, that it literally changed his perspective on everything.  All the stuff he thought was so valuable – status, prestige, respect – he now calls crap, and he and seems more content without all of it, residing in a filthy Roman prison cell because he met Christ.  Author Richard Rohr would perhaps call Paul’s story a Falling Upwardmoment. 

Not too long ago, I listened to a retired local sports celebrity speak about their life.  Like Paul, this person has checked all the boxes that would indicate a life defined by success.  Respected career, notoriety, tens of thousands of athletic jerseys sold with this person’s name on the back of them, big fancy house.  All those things, which were once so valuable, I heard this person, like Paul, call all of it rubbish.  Like today’s reading from Philippians, that’s not the actual phrase this person used to describe those things.  But you get the idea. 

Here again, what changes in a person’s life that causes them to see highly sought after and valued things now as rubbish?  For this athlete, it is the story of a recovery from a demoralizing and crippling substance addiction.  Now clean, this person says that what is most important to them is not all the stuff – the trophies, the records, the recognition.  What matters most to this athlete today is that they came to rely and trust that God would lead them to sobriety. And it is that relationship with God and the peace of mind that comes from that rather than a chemical, that today this athlete would gladly trade in every trophy, record, and jersey sold.  The relationship with God is that precious.  

What do you value most in your life?  Easter is coming.  Our Lenten pilgrimage is drawing to a close.  It is time to clean house, get rid of the rubbish in your life, and make room for resurrection.  AMEN.

March 31, 2019

4 Lent

Joshua 5: 9-12; Psalm 32; 2 Corinthians 5:16-21; Luke 15: 1-3, 11b-32

The Rev. James M.L. Grace



 

If you are not as close to God as you once were, or as you would like to be, make no mistake – you are the one who has moved, not God.  God has always been there.  We are the ones who have been away.  Every time.   It is not difficult to find God, it really isn’t.  It’s not hard to find God, because God isn’t lost.  God is all around us, always. 

I’m not sure how many of you believe that, I’m not sure how many of you think all that business I just said about God is nothing but a fantasy.  I don’t know.  But I believe it.  I believe it because I have been lost – spiritually lost so many times in my life because I wander away from God.  I do it every day

I get lost every day, and at night before I go to bed, I try most nights to say this prayer that helps me find my way back to God.  The prayer goes like this:  “I lay my head to rest and in doing so lay at your feet the faces I have seen, the voices I have heard, the words I have spoken, the hands I have shaken, the service I have given, the joys I have shared, the sorrows revealed.  I lay them at your feet and in doing so lay my head to rest.  Amen.”  [That prayer is included in your service bulletin if you want to take a picture of it or bring home to use]. Praying that prayer is an action I take to find my way back to God daily.  Maybe it will be helpful for you.  I hope so. 

I want to talk about the parable of the prodigal son, and I do so somewhat reluctantly because I talked about the Gospel reading last week, and I am doing it again today.  But this is too important of a story to not consider today.  I think the parable is not named correctly.  I think it should be called the parable of the prodigalsons, not son, because in my opinion, both sons are wasteful, though in different ways. 

Let me explain.  The first son goes to his dad and says “dad, I’ve been doing some thinking and I have some ideas.  I want to go to Las Vegas.  See, I’ve heard about this card game out there called poker where you can win a lot of money and so I want my inheritance so I can go there and become rich.”  Notice what the father does not say: “oh no that sounds like a bad idea, you have everything you need at home, you are cared for here, you have everything you need here.”  The father says, “here is your inheritance.”  He must not be a helicopter parent.  It must have hurt the father so much.  He probably knew that if he kept his son close by and safe, his son would never create his own identity.  He would live out his life in his father’s shadow and hate him for it.  He knew that for his son, if there was no suffering, there would be no growth, no wisdom.  What a risk the father took.

We know the rest of the story.  He goes to Las Vegas, stays at some fancy hotels, sees some shows, plays poker, and loses everything.  He hits bottom and it hurts.  No longer the big spender with an entourage arriving at Caesar’s Palace, he’s now homeless, sitting on the sidewalk outside the casino wall, begging for money.  What a waste.  He returns home, embarrassed, ashamed, broken.  His father welcomes him home with open arms and throws a party.  The prodigal son returns. 

And his older brother is so angry.  The older brother is angry at how his father welcomes his younger, wasteful, irresponsible brother home.  He’s angry because while he stayed home, and was reliable, hardworking, and trustworthy, his brother snorted his inheritance up his nose and wasted it on prostitutes, alcohol, and games of chance.  And when the older brother sees his younger irresponsible brother come home, he is filled with rageful anger and resentment toward him. The older brother goes to his dad, and says “Dad, I ran the family business for you, I opened and closed every day, I managed the accounts, I handled purchases, I even cleaned the bathrooms, and you’ve never threw a party for me, not once.” 

Do hear the resentment in the older brother’s voice?    He thinks his resentment toward his irresponsible younger brother is justified.  It’s not.  The older brother is just as prodigal, just as wasteful as the younger brother.  He didn’t go out and waste his inheritance on prostitutes like his younger brother did, but he was wasteful with his resentment.  The way resentment works, is that when you harbor a resentment toward another person, you begin think that you are a victim, that you have been wronged. 

And sometimes it might feel good to be the victim.  We get to say, “poor me,” “nobody understands how hard it is for me.”  A victim gets to blame their problems on other people, rather than assume responsibility for them.  The older brother is just as lost in resentment as his younger brother was lost in drugs, alcohol, and gambling.  But I would say that the older brother is worse off than the younger, because at least the younger brother knows that Las Vegas was a mistake – he knew he blew it.  It appears the older brother has no idea how lost he is in resentment and anger, and that hurt him in life until he learns.   

And what does the father say to the older brother’s complaint?  He says “I love you, Son.  You are always with me, and everything that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours made some bad decisions.  He almost died, but now here he is.  He was lost to all of us, but by God’s grace, he found his way back to us.”

Lent is a season where we intentionally find our way back to God.  The prayer in your service bulletin is helpful to me.  I suppose it’s helpful because it allows me to give up whatever resentment I bring with me to bed, when I am lost like the older brother in the parable.  When I lay my head on the pillow, I say those words, and as I say them, the resentment begins to lift, and I close my eyes, and find my way back home.  AMEN.     

March 24, 2019

3 Lent

Exodus 3: 1-15; Psalm 63: 1-8; 1 Corinthians 10:1-13; Luke 13: 1-9

The Rev. James M.L. Grace



 

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

I am going to offer a spoiler alert before I even start this sermon.  This is a political sermon.  For those of you who told me that politics doesn’t belong in the pulpit, you are probably not going to like this sermon very much.  But at least you have been warned.  I cannot preach today without acknowledging, from this pulpit, the ruthless and horrific loss of life at the hands of a white supremacist at both the Al Noor Mosque and the Linwood Islamic Center in Christ Church, New Zealand. 

In the wake of tragedies like this, that seem to become more and more common in our common life together, many find themselves wondering why God would allow something so awful, such as what happened in New Zealand, occur. 

The dilemma of how God is supposedly good and powerful, and yet evil perseveres, is known in theological studies as theodicy.  The word theodicy comes from two Greek words: Theo meaning God and diké which means judgment or trial.   Three common responses to the problem of evil that theodicy offers are as follows: Response #1:  God is not all powerful. God is limited in some ways, and there are some things God cannot do in an orderly universe.  God is powerless to prevent an airplane from crashing in Ethiopia, or a cyclone from striking Mozambique.  Response #2 on the problem of evil, is that evil can sometimes be good for you. This reason presumes that things are not truly evil but a disguised form of good. For example, suffering can be a challenge to faith, a hidden growth experience, a spiritual test.  Suffering can draw us closer to God.  Response #3 on  why God permits evil is that evil and suffering are a mystery. These matters cannot be understood by our limited human minds. Just as there are some colors on the color spectrum our eyes cannot see, so to are we unable to really see the big picture.

None of these explanations are very satisfactory, especially for a parent who has just lost a child or for an innocent bystander gunned down in a synagogue, mosque, or church.  These questions of evil and suffering which we struggle to answer today, were also addressed to Jesus.  That’s what the Gospel reading today is essentially about.  How does Jesus respond to this question?  Let’s take a look and see.  As the Gospel opens, Jesus is teaching in a crowd, and one of the people in the crowd mentions to Jesus an incident that occurred involving Pontius Pilate.  Pilate was a Roman official, he was a governor, and he tolerated no rebellion.  One day Galilean citizens, whom Pilate believed to be in opposition to Rome, came to the temple in Jerusalem to present an animal sacrifice at the temple, which involved the shedding of the animal’s blood.  Enraged at their audacity to enter into the very seat of his power, Pilate ordered the execution of the Galilean visitors, in the temple courtyard.  In this horrific act, the blood of the victims was mingled with that of the sacrificial animals.   

Jesus asks “do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way?”  He answers his own question, saying “I tell you, no.”  In other words, what I understand Jesus to be saying, is that as tragic as this was, God is not responsible for causing tragedy.   God is not a detached observer of our suffering, but on the contrary God is immersed in the suffering with us, sharing every step of our deepest and most painful grief.  That is the point of the cross.

When confronted with tragedy we naturally want to ask, “why did it happen?”  There is a better to question that should be asking in wake of a tragedy and it is not “why did it happen?”  but “What are we going to make of it?”  Jesus doesn’t offer an answer in the Gospel today about why bad things happen to innocent people.  He does however, tell us what we should do in response.  He says, very clearly, that we all need to repent.  To repent literally means to return to God.  What does repentance look like?  I will offer two examples.

The first model of repentance I look to, and am inspired by, is the leadership of Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, Prime Minister of New Zealand.  Following the terrorist attacks on the mosques in her country, Prime Minister Ardern donned a headscarf, and joined in Muslim prayers outside the Al Noor Mosque.  She then promised reform on New Zealand’s gun policy, and in less than one week, following the attack, she delivered on her promise, announcing a ban on all military-style semiautomatic weapons, all high-capacity ammunition magazines and all parts that allow weapons to be modified into the kinds of guns used in last week’s attack. 

Prime Minister Ardern’s courageous response and act of repentance at both the mosque, and in the decisions made in her parliament, recall the words the prophet Isaiah said many years ago: “And He shall judge among the nations, and shall rebuke many people: and they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning hooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.”

New Zealand stands as an example to me of what prayerful and political repentance looks like.  Meanwhile, we struggle here in the United States with this.  After multiple shootings in churches, synagogues, mosques, night clubs, schools, all we get from our politicians, both republicans and democrats, are thoughts and prayers, with very little action.  About as far as we have moved in this country on this issue is by posting signs outside our places of worship that basically say “please don’t bring a gun into church.”  As a country, we have failed to repent.  And I am bracing myself for the next shooting, wherever it will be – a school, church, movie theater, and for the candlelight vigil that will follow, the usual offerings of thoughts and prayers offered by political officials, and capped of with minimal to zero legislative change, zero meaningful repentance.

Lent is a season of repentance.  Jesus calls all of us to repent.  We cannot truly live unless we repent, and the church’s job is to help you with this.  If you are carrying around something that is bothering you, that is causing you pain and you want to get rid of it, you can give it to God, today, and not have to hold onto it anymore.  That’s the beauty of repentance.  If you feel that you need to share your confession with another person in private, just ask me, and I will hear your confession.  I will not share what you say with anyone.  God offers forgiveness to the repentant with mercy upon mercy upon mercy.   AMEN.