March 18, 2018

5 Lent  

Jeremiah 31:31-34; Psalm 51:1-13; Hebrews 5: 5-10; John 12: 20-33

The Rev. James M.L. Grace

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

            There are many things that are unpopular in the world today. We are about one month from the deadline for filing income tax returns, and I don’t think that I have ever heard anyone say: “preparing my taxes is so much fun, I can’t wait to do it again next year.”  To be fair, I would have to say the same thing about church, I’ve been in this job for over fifteen years, and I don’t know if I have ever heard someone, especially any child say, “church is so fun – I can’t wait to wake up early instead of sleeping in on a Sunday morning and do this all over again next week, sitting in pews is awesome!”

            To this list of unpopular things – taxes, church – I will add one more: reading the book of Jeremiah.  To hopefully prove this point, I want you to raise your hand only if you have read the entire book of Jeremiah – be honest!

            When people ask me about reading the Bible, which book they should start with, I guarantee you I never say, “start with Jeremiah” because the book, to a large extent, is kind of a downer, which is why it is one of my favorite books of the Bible – it’s honest.  I want to preach today entirely on this book on occasion that we hear a very brief snippet of it read today in church.

            Jeremiah was a Hebrew prophet. That doesn’t mean he could predict the future.  A prophet was someone who was able to courageously comment on the present, often by saying provacative and uncomfortable things. 

            What we know of Jeremiah historically was that he was a priest during a critical time in Israel’s history.  Jeremiah was a descendent of Abiathar, one of the two chief priests of King David, arguably Israel’s most well-known king.  David had two priests: Abiathar and Zadok. 

            Here is my crash course on early Jewish priesthood: two priests, Abiathar and Zadok.  Starting with Abiathar: Abiathar was a Levitical priest, meaning he belonged to a priesthood that was prominent during the early formation of the Israelite nation.  The Levitical priests are named after their founder, Levi, one of the first priests appointed by Moses. 

            Zadok, King David’s other priest, was the founder of the Zadokite priesthood, a priesthood that was competitive with the Levitical priesthood for control over the religion in Jerusalem.  Abiathar, the Levitical priest, was banished from Jerusalem by King David’s son, Solomon, because Abiathar advocated for someone else other then Solomon to be king. Why does all this matter?  It matters for our understanding of Jeremiah, because Jeremiah was a descendant of Abiathar, this banished Levitical priest, which means that much of what Jeremiah writes is strongly critical of kingship of Solomon and even the Jewish temple itself which was built under Solomon’s reign.

            Now that might not sound like a big deal to you, but it made Jermiah vastly unpopular during the time it was written. 

            Jeremiah was written over a period of approximately forty years, from 627 BCE to 587 BCE.  This was a very difficult time in the history of the Hebrew people because it was the time in which the small remnant of the Israelite kingdom was captured under the direction of Nebuchadrezzar, ruler of Babylon. 

            With everything lost for the Israelite people, Jeremiah advocates in this book primarily for two things, which also made him unpopular.  Unpopular thing #1: Jeremiah teaches that what remains of Israel, the people that are left, must become acquiescent to the Babylonians as the only way of avoiding complete annihilation as a country and as a people.  This was not a popular message, and Jeremiah was persecuted for saying it. 

            Unpopular thing #2: Jeremiah strongly advocates for a return to the ancestral, earlier faith of Israel.  It is not coincidental that the kind of faith Jeremiah is lobbying for is one of Levitical heritage. Jeremiah was so oppositional to the royal religion in Jerusalem and the worship in the temple that he proclaimed that Israel’s only hope for survival was to return to the commandments and covenants of Moses.  Jeremiah even said that the contemporary religious practices he observed in Jerusalem were a false religion that was sure to fail.   Again, not a message that was popular, especially to those who preferred the Zadokite expression.

            Jeremiah lived to see the destruction of both Jerusalem and the temple he was so critical of.  Was it God’s retribution, or just another incident of earthly violence at the hands of human empire?  Jeremiah believed that the destruction of Jerusalem and its temple was an act of God, though enacted by the hands of the Babylonian army.  He believed that this destruction (unpopular though it was) was necessary so that God could begin a new thing.

            That new thing we hear about in today’s reading.  “The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah…I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people…I will forgive their iniquity and remember their sin no more.” This is a rare thing to find in Jeremiah – hope.  But it is there.  Ultimately, Jeremiah finds hope amid religious partisanship and geopolitical conflict. 

            Partisanship and conflict exist today as they did in the past, as do their critics and prophets.  Who is right, who is wrong?  We all have our unique opinions, but it is during divisive times such as we are experiencing in our country that Jeremiah becomes my curmudgeonly unpopular anchor I cling to.  I return to Jeremiah because of his values.  He spoke truth courageously and paid a dire price for it.  His life would have been much easier, and probably more pleasant had he kept his mouth shut.  But he didn’t.  And I am so thankful for that, thankful that because of his labor we have this strange book full of unpopular truths that speak to us today.

            The truth will set you free, but first it’s going to make you miserable.  It always does.  Jeremiah reminds us that though the truth hurts, it is what we hunger for, it is what we need most.  AMEN. 

March 11, 2018

4 Lent   

Numbers 21: 4-9; Psalm 19; Ephesians 2: 1-10; John 3: 14-21

The Rev. James M.L. Grace


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

            It was 1979.  Mother Teresa had just received the Nobel Peace Prize, a prize awarded to her for her work with the Missionaries of Charity that cared for the sick and the dying in the slums of Calcutta, India, and around the world.  After receiving this prestigious award, Mother Teresa was asked to speak to a gathering of catholic bishops in Rome.  In her brief address to them Mother Teresa spoke on John 3:16 – that familiar verse which we hear today: “for God so loved the world that he gave his only Son.” 

            That verse is probably one of the most well-known in the Bible, it is one that many of us have certainly heard a lot.  We’ve probably heard it so much that even when we hear it we don’t really listen to it anymore.  Kind of like when your on an airplane and before the plane takes off the flight attendants do the whole airplane safety spiel about the seatbelts and the no smoking in the bathrooms, that some spiel we hear every time we get on an airplane and we we’ve heard it so much we stop listening – like some of you have already stopped listening to this sermon.  That’s how John 3:16 feels to me – familiar, safe, and we have heard it a 1,000 times.

            Which makes what Mother Teresa did all the more extraordinary.  This is how she read John 3:16 to those bishops in Rome, translating it this way: “Today God loves the world so much that God gives you.  God gives you to love the world, to be God’s love, to be God’s compassion.”  It’s brilliant what she does – she takes this familiar verse and puts you in the center of it.  For God so loved the world he gave you. 

            Could that really be true?  Could our birth actually be a sign that God so loved this world that you and I were born?  If I am a sign of God’s love to the world, then I have fallen very short of living like it were so.  Is it true?  Are you, am I, God’s chosen?

            Centuries ago a nomadic people made their way through the desert wilderness, a place the book of Deuteronomy describes as “an arid wasteland with poisonous snakes and scorpions.”  These people were God’s chosen, the Hebrews.  And as we quickly learn, being a chosen people does not insure that one’s life will be easy.  The Hebrews knew they were God’s chosen precisely because of how difficult their lives were.  Case in point: to punish them for their impatience and complaining, God sends poisonous snakes which bite and many of the Hebrews die.

This brings up all kinds of difficult questions that pertain to the nature of God, such as: why was God impatient?  Why did God assault the chosen people, the Hebrews, with snakes?  What do these actions say about God?  All fair questions to ask.  My answer is simple and brief: context.  We need to understand the context in which this story was told.  We need to understand the story behind the story.  And this is the story behind the story: The story of the Hebrews in the wilderness perilously assaulted by serpents sent by God was likely written following the Jewish exile to Babylon.  Prior to their exile, the Babylonian armies destroyed the city of Jerusalem, desecrated the sacred temple where they believed God resided, took away all the gold temple appointments including possibly the ark of the covenant.  Many of the Hebrews were forced into exile under the hand of Nebuchadrezzar, the king of Babylon at the time. 

            The Hebrews had all kinds of questions: why would God allow Jerusalem and the holy temple be destroyed?  Why would God allow the chosen people, the Hebrews, to be forced into exile out of their homeland to Babylon?  What God would do such a thing?  Answers were hard to find.  It was likely around this time in Israel’s history when the story we hear today in Numbers was written.  Just as the people could not find answers to these vexing questions regarding the purpose of the temple’s destruction, the purpose of exile, perhaps the authors of this story so deemed that there would be no answer given to why the serpents plagued the Hebrews centuries before in the wilderness.

            In the wilderness, the Hebrews appeal to their leader, Moses, begging him to apologize on their behalf to God, that the poisonous serpents might go away.  Moses obliges, and receives instruction from God to fashion a serpent out of bronze and affix it to a pole.  Moses is instructed to raise the pole with the bronze serpent affixed to it and instruct the people that if they look toward the bronze serpent, they would be healed. 

            Incidentally the symbol for medicine, the serpent wrapped around a pole likely comes from this story because when the Hebrews looked to the serpent on the pole, they were healed. 

We’ve looked at the story – God sending serpents to punish the complaining chosen people.  We’ve looked at the story behind the story – that of the destruction of Jerusalem and its hallowed temple, and the resulting exile which likely were the circumstances that created the story we hear in Numbers.  Now I want to briefly consider the story after the story – the story of how Jesus explained the Numbers story to his followers.  Hundreds of years after Moses and the Hebrews in the wilderness, Jesus looks back to this story, and says to those gathered around him what we hear in today’s Gospel: “just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so also will the Son of Man be lifted up.”

            Jesus is drawing a comparison between the bronze serpent on the pole Moses lifted up and himself and his looming crucifixion, when like that bronze serpent, his body will be affixed to a cross.  As the Hebrews gazed upon the serpent and were healed, so to does Jesus suggest that those who gaze upon him crucified will understand, finally, the completeness and absolute healing that comes from self surrender. 

            Self surrender, giving – that brings us back to Mother Teresa.  If ever a person lived who was known for these values, it was her.  Many are the images of her kindness – wearing her robes in the streets of Calcutta, tending to the poorest, the sickest, those dying from HIV.  We might imagine that Mother Teresa’s faith in God was strong.  It was.  But what is less known is her struggle with doubt and her experience of unendurable silence from God.  In writings published after her death, Mother Theresa writes of the inner spiritual void she felt – of the pain of God’s perceived absence and emptiness. 

            Why would God seemingly turn a deaf ear to prayers of Teresa, a saint who is a model of Christian service and now a recognized Saint in the catholic church?  Why was her experience of God silence and emptiness?  Why would God allow the holiest temple dedicated to God’s name be destroyed by the hands of an invading foreign army?  Why would God send serpents to assail his own chosen people? 

            Why the suffering, why the pain?  It is because God loves the world.  That’s not a reassuring answer, but it is true.  God loves the world enough to push the limits of all pain and all suffering.  If God loves the world, that is why God created you.  God created you to walk the vulnerable and often painful path of suffering, not because it is easy, but because it is a holy path.  It is your path.  AMEN.

March 4, 2018

3 Lent

Exodus 20: 1-17; Psalm 19; 1 Corinthians 1:18-25; John 2: 13-22

The Rev. James M.L. Grace

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

            Earlier this week I had a conversation with Jack Ogg, a parishioner at this church who because of mobility issues related to his age (he’s 84) isn’t able to easily come to church.  So, I visit him on occasion, and as you might imagine our conversations focus on several things: University of Houston football, the Houston Texans, and God – not necessarily in that order.

            The conversation I had with Jack last week was different.  We talked about death.  I suppose I prompted the conversation when I asked him if he was afraid of dying.  He said that he used to be, but that now he wasn’t.  And then he told me the story of how he learned to not fear death.  Nearly forty years ago, when Jack was in his mid forties, he was swimming in the ocean when at some point he got caught up in a riptide or strong current that began to drag him down in to the water.   Jack admits to not being a strong swimmer, and he was scared of dying. 

            Until this point Jack was afraid of death.  He was afraid of dying because he wasn’t sure if he would meet God or not.  In the experience of being caught up in that riptide, Jack said he saw something – an image familiar to many who describe near death experiences.  Jack said he saw a tunnel, and at the end of the tunnel was this light, but not just any light, the light was like a stained glass window, like one of the windows in this church, with a bright light shining behind it, reflecting color through the tunnel.  And when Jack saw this light he said that “when he saw death, it was beautiful.”

            Jack Ogg died peacefully yesterday in his home.  Prior to that, just a few days before, Jack told me he was ready. 

            Tomorrow morning in this church we will have a funeral for Oscar Wright, a man most, if not all of you, know.  He was not a member of this church, but I know him from another church at another time.  Ten years ago I buried Oscar’s wife, and weeks after that, I buried Oscar’s son, and tomorrow, I will bury Oscar.  Oscar was 94 when he died. 

            When you live to be 94, there aren’t many who make it to your funeral – frankly because Oscar has outlived most of them.  He lived an extraordinary life, serving in three branches of the United States Military.  While he was in the Army, Oscar drove General Patton’s jeep during World War II.  He was also amongst the first wave of military forces to liberate the Dachau and Buchenwald concentration camp.    

            One final story.  Last week I received a phone call from a person also of advanced age, and this person wants to meet with me to make a final confession before dying.  So I will meet with this person, and will hear their final confession next week.  Hearing a confession is one of the most personal things I do, though I do not do it often in a formal way.  Typically the confessions I hear are more spontaneous and outside of the church, when a person shares with me troubles they are having with money, or their marriage, or their children. 

            When I think of what drew me to the priesthood initially, it was ultimately the sharing of an experience between two people when secrets and confessions are admitted.  To me the sharing of a confession or of a secret is itself an act of dying.  The death one undertakes through confession, is in Jack Ogg’s words, a beautiful death.  We are in a confessional season, a season called Lent.  Lent begins with our acknowledgment of death when we receive ashes upon our heads, and Lent is also a time for confession, which results from an inward examination of our hearts and souls.

            This is the perfectly appropriate time of the year when we acknowledge the things we have done, and the things we have left undone.  We do this every Sunday together – it’s how we began our service this morning – it is an important moment for us every Sunday, that moment when all of us acknowledge our shortcomings, our failures, our mistakes, our sin.  We confess those things together, and we receive God’s forgiveness together.   And although that is a powerful experience, the prayer book of our church also offers a service for individual confession.  The prayer book offers that service, called “reconciliation of a penitent,” because the church knows that sometimes we have something in our heart that we need to confess to a person.  Sometimes, there is something in us that needs to die so that we may live.  If you are feeling that way, know that I am here.  If there is something that is weighing on your conscience that you feel you need to share with another being in a safe manner, where that person will not share it with anyone else – Carissa and I are here.  We will hear your confession.  We will pray with you, but we will also ask you to do something in return: we will ask you to pray for us. 

            What does this sermon have to do with the readings we have heard this morning?  Not much.  But I have spent the better part of last week in and out of hospitals, visiting the sick and dying and so confession and reconciliation and death is very much on my mind.  And if mortality and repentance are not appropriate themes for a Lenten sermon, then I don’t know what is.

            Last Wednesday night during the Music for the Soul concert series, James Derkits, himself a priest in Port Aransas, shared his thoughts on suffering as being a pathway to God.  I believe he is right – I believe that one of the ways we encounter God most profoundly is in our suffering, in our daily dying to our ego and our agenda.  In this way, death is beautiful as Jack describes, because death transforms our soul, and when the parts of our soul that are inhibiting the passage of God into our life die – God moves in.  As a surgeon removes a blockage in an artery to allow the flow of blood, when we remove our spiritual blockage, God flows.  Suffering and repentance are the tools that accomplish this.  Anyone who has had surgery knows that surgery is painful.  And so is surgery on the soul.  It too is painful, it too is hard work. 

            But it is so worth it.  In confession an old part of yourself that prevents you from being who God intended you to be – that part of your self dies a beautiful death, so that you may live.  AMEN.   

February 25, 2018

2 Lent

Genesis 17: 1-7, 15-16; Psalm 22:22-30; Romans 4: 13-26; Mark 8:31-38

The Rev. James M.L. Grace

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

            “As surely as there are camels’ backs and straws to break them, moments arrive when citizens say they’ve had enough, when they rise up against political leaders who do not speak for them and whose moral fecklessness imperils lives.  We may be witness to such a moment now with the protests by American teenagers sickened – and terrified – by the latest mass murder at the hands of someone with easy access to a weapon fit for a battlefield, not a school.

            These kids have had enough of empty expressions of sympathy in the wake of the sort of atrocities they’ve grown up with, like last week’s mass shooting that took 17 lives at a high school in Parkland, Florida.  These kids have had enough of the ritualistic mouthing of thoughts and prayers for the victims.  They’ve had enough of living in fear that they could be in the cross-hairs of a well-armed and deranged killer.

            ‘I was born thirteen months after Columbine,’ a 12th grader named Faith Ward said this past Monday, referring to the school massacre in Littleton, Colorado in 1999, which ushered in the modern wave of school shootings.  Ms. Ward spoke to a television reporter outside her school in Plantation, Florida saying ‘this is all I have ever known, this culture of being gunned down for no reason, and this culture of people saying ‘oh, let’s send thoughts and prayers’ for three days and then move on.  I’m sick of it.’”

            Every word I have just said – all of it – does not come from me.  I wish it did.  I begin with those words today, which come from an editorial I read in a newspaper two days ago, because I don’t know what to say this morning. 

            We have many in this congregation who go to school, and we have teachers who work in schools that are a part of this church.  St. Andrew’s itself has a Montessori school which meets here during the week. Hamilton Junior High School which serves grades 6-8 is our neighbor just up Heights Blvd. 

            Like others here today, I am finding it difficult to make sense of the world.  
I find it more and more difficult to come up with something hopeful to give you this morning, because in many ways at least for me, hope seems so remote and so distant.  This is not the first time, of course, when hope has seemed to be so far from our grasp.  Humanity has known many of such times.

            Some of you have perhaps heard the quote which says that “the moral arc of the universe is long and it bends towards justice.” The quote is attributed to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., although others claim to have said it.  The point of it is simple: we see injustice, was see suffering, we see pain, and we want to give up hope.  The moral arc is long, and though it might seem that it is not bending towards justice, eventually it will.

            There are critics of this concept, including myself, at times.  I have often found a similar quote more truthful, if not more controversial, a quote which states that “the moral arc of the universe is short and it bends towards chaos.”  I don’t know who said that, but it has certainly been true in my life.

            So, which will it be: justice or chaos?  Will our country listen to the outcry of our youth or of gun lobbyists? 

            Jesus began to teach his disciples that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”  Those aren’t my words, either.  They are from Mark’s Gospel, the one we hear this morning. I select that passage because for me it is God’s response to the words I began with – that editorial.

            As a nation, we are suffering greatly.  Jesus suffered.  As a nation, the voices of our politicians drown out the voices of the persecuted, the children, the parents, the teachers.  Jesus’ voice was ignored by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes.  Our children are dying.  Christ was crucified.  It seems our nation wants to maintain status quo – to send thoughts and prayers, and then passively wait for it to happen again.  Jesus says “Get behind me Satan!  For you are setting your mind not on divine things, but human things.”

            Which direction does that arc really bend – does it bend toward human chaos or divine justice?  Where do you lean? 

            Last week our nation lost one of the great teachers and prophets of the Christian faith, the Rev. Billy Graham, a courageous man who did many great things.  I hold Rev. Graham in high esteem because of a courageous decision he made in 1953 to desegregate his religious crusades, despite the hatred this stirred up among Southern Christian segregationists.  Rev. Graham believed that if there were no separation ropes at the cross or in heaven, there should be none at his crusades.  He wasn’t perfect – none of us are – but he demonstrated a conviction, a belief, a hope, that in the midst of racial turmoil, the arc could bend toward justice.

            Tomorrow morning, I am meeting with principal of Hamilton Junior High School, our neighbor.  We’re meeting to get to know each other, and to see how Hamilton might minister to St. Andrew’s, and how St. Andrew’s might minister to Hamilton.  There are so many positive possibilities and outcomes that could emerge from a relationship between this church and that school. 

            The point is that whatever the direction that arc is bending – toward justice or chaos – I want to trust God and I want to follow God out of this church and into places like Hamilton School.   I want to see where God is leading, because I believe that this is the time. This is the season.  We shouldn’t be speaking about schools only when disaster strikes, we should be looking at them and saying “what is God calling us to do?” And that is why I continue to hope.  Because when night is darkest, that is when the sun rises.   AMEN.

February 18, 2018

Lent 1

GENESIS 9:8-17; Psalm 25:1-9; 1 PETER 3:18-22; MARK 1:9-15

The Rev.  Carissa Baldwin-McGinnis

The Bible teaches us that studying God is a way of loving God, and that we have a God who studies us back. 

Somewhere in my four-year college education I chose anthropology as a major.  It was said by some to be a futile discipline; people studying people.  But for me exploring the infinite facets of humanity’s languages, foods, locations, religions, etc. was a way of loving people.

Later with my college studies far behind me I picked up the study of divinity.  Again I got push back for my choice.  How futile and foolish to devote oneself to the pursuit of that which is improbable, unproveable and potentially non-existent.  But for me exploring God and the expressions of the church was a way of loving God.

The Bible teaches us that studying God is a way of loving God, and that we have a God who studies and loves us back.

But begin the student of anything bears the consequence of feelings and mutual relationship.  We affect what we study and what we study affects us.  Today I am wondering if the Lord who looks constantly at creation does not suffer at times from compassion fatigue.

Harriet Hodgson explains that compassion fatigue is a type of stress caused by caring for others. Although burnout develops over time, compassion fatigue can come on suddenly.  This sounds so much like the God of Genesis who looks down on creation and so disliked it that God wanted to annihilate it.

Psychotherapist Dennis Portnoy explains  “Compassion fatigue is caused by empathy…It is the natural consequence of stress resulting from caring for and helping traumatized or suffering people.”  This sounds so much like the God of Genesis who looked down on creation and saw only violence and corruption to a degree that rendered creation intolerable.

The LORD saw that the wickedness of humankind was great in the earth…And the LORD was sorry that he had made humankind on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart.  So the LORD said, “I will blot out from the earth the human beings I have created – people together with animals and creeping things and birds of the air, for I am sorry that I have made them.”

The problem in God’s eyes was corruption and violence.

Now the earth was corrupt in God’s sight, and the earth was filled with violence…God said to Noah I have determined to make an end of all flesh, for the earth is filled with violence because of them; now I am going to destroy them along with the earth.

This kind of anger and indifference on God’s part is akin to the symptoms of compassion fatigue which sets in for people who care for people; particularly victims of violence or other trauma.  Maybe that is what went on with the Lord who was so displeased and disheartened by creation.  Maybe the Lord who studies and loves us constantly suffers at times from compassion fatigue.

News commentators this week have explored the concern that we ourselves may become indifferent to the steady stream of violence and mass shootings such as the Parkland High School shooting in Florida.  These have become so regular that we are at risk of suffering the fatigue of constant fear and grief, or worse still at risk of going numb and feeling nothing at all.

Compassion for ourselves, for victims, for perpetrators, and for responders becomes a non-option during compassion fatigue as does our wherewithal to name the greed so increasingly indifferent to the slaughter of innocents.  It is possible to amass an arsenal that has no redemption.  I wonder today what the impact of this is on God.

Yet even in an impulse to annihilate God makes provision for preservation.  Noah’s family remained after the flood as did procreative pairs of living things.  And the Lord made a covenant that life will go on.  The colors of the rainbow – the spectrum of light – is a sign and symbol of that promise that is understood to have no end.

After the flood and destruction, God said to Noah and to his sons, “I establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.”

In this promise God seems to have recovered from God’s own fatigue and once again can exercise compassion and love for creation.  As Walter Brueggeman explains, “Yahweh will not be brainwashed by the flood.”  Instead God recovers God’s compassion and love for they are from everlasting.  Oh, that in studying the LORD we might learn to hate what is violent and corrupt while pursuing resiliency for the most abiding love and the very deepest compassion.

February 14, 2018

Ash Wednesday

joel 2:1-2,12-17; psalm 103:8-14; 2 corinthians 5:20b-6:10; matthew 6:1-6,16-21

The Rev.  Carissa Baldwin-McGinnis

Welcome to you on the beginning of your 40-day journey to the Holy of Holies.  You may be short on time, but here you are giving yourselves the gift of time at the noon hour or as evening falls.  For today begins forty days of cleansing our hearts, resetting our intensions and turning to new directions that lead us to God.

Like moths to a flame, we hope to be drawn to the light that is the source of all life.  These forty days are about letting that light come into focus.

Some of us in Lent will pray more.  Others will eat less.  Others will set aside wine and strong drink.  None of this is to become pure, but rather to more purely experience the connection to God.

I previously told some of you about my clergy friend who had to sit Lent out the year his young adult son died of cancer.  This season of penitence and introspection can be the Debbie Downer of the church calendar which makes me want to ask the question anew: What is Lent’s essential purpose?  What is to be the focus or intention of these forty days?

If we look to the Bible we can find clues about the nature of the biblical interval of forty days.  If we look at Biblical precedents for this length of time, we may find some characteristics the pertain to the purpose of the 40 days of Lent.

Moses was on Mont Sinai for 40 days and nights (Exodus 24:18, 34:1-28). This was the first time the glory of God was revealed.  There he was to have received God’s law.  So, the nature of these forty days for some of us may be about revelation or receiving direct instruction from God about our lives, our work, relationships or our faith.

Also, Moses sent spies to the land of Canaan for 40 days to investigate the land God promised the Israelites as an inheritance. (Numbers 13:25, 14:34)  So, the nature of these forty days for others of us may be about investigating what God may have in store for us around the bend.

Jesus of course fasted for forty days in the wilderness and was tempted many times but prevailed. For others still Lent may be about building spiritual fortitude and strength for an endeavor yet unknown.

Whatever these days mean to you, I would invite you to step into them fully and boldly.  I would invite you to assume these days as a time of your own preparation for soon enough we will enter together some of the darkest days of the Bible still ahead.

As we open ourselves to revelation, divine instruction, spiritual exploration and personal strengthening I invite us to do so with instruction from Jesus that is refreshed for our culture today.  I invite us to do quite the opposite of what is written and what was read, because time and faith are so hard to come by.

Go ahead and practice your piety before others, so that others may know more of who you are.

Give alms in ways that shine a light on the public option to help the stranger.

Pray in public so that the rest of us can be reminded to pray.

Let us know you are fasting, for you may be an inspiration to us all.

Lay out plainly the heavenly treasures that you already have in store on earth, so that we too can know how to collect and display our own set of spiritual gems.

These forty days will be as efficacious as our efforts to be open to God and demonstrably devoted to God.  This is what enables us to access and interpret the work that God is constantly doing in and for us but which we often are too busy to tap into.  By taking on practices and letting them be known, we will serve to support and inspire one another.

These forty days are given to us.  They have been hallowed by God, and we observe them to remind ourselves that all time is hallowed.  Participating in worship on Ash Wednesday sets us on the road to Holy Week and Easter.  You may find that those ceremonies will mean more to you – have greater impact on you – for having been here today to hear the prayers, receive the imposition of ashes and to set your hearts toward Jerusalem.

In as much as we begin a season of repentance this day, may we also enter a time of revelation, exploration and clarification.  Yes, we are but dust.  And we are dust that still has its breath and therefore a life forever in need of a God and a guide.

February 11, 2018

6 Epiphany

2 Kings 2: 1-12; Psalm 50:1-6; 2 Corinthians 4:3-6; Mark 9: 2-9

The Rev. James M.L. Grace

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

            It seemed to be the perfect sermon, the kind of sermon I had always wanted to deliver but never quite had the ability to do so.  I watched from a distance as this priest delivered this sermon, to a group of mostly teenagers who had just finished a high school weekend retreat at Camp Allen.  The sermon the priest delivered did everything right – it was funny, it seemed to hold the attention of both teenagers and adults alike – no easy feat.

            I wondered to myself, how does he do it?  He does this priest accomplish telling a story of a told a story about a man who was basically a lecherous sleeze ball, a man clearly in need of God’s grace, of healing.   The priest had this refrain in his sermon which got everyone laughing where he would describe this man as “sleezy, slimy, good for nothing” and I can’t remember why, but everyone laughed, it was funny.

            I watched - amazed at the moral authority I saw emanating from this priest as he, a married man, a father, and a priest spoke clearly against adultery and infidelity. It was impressive.  He was the kind of priest I wished that I could be, the kind of person who seemed to have everything together.  I looked up to him.

            Two years later, I received a form letter from the bishop of this diocese stating that this priest, the man I projected so much moral authority upon, the man who captivated me and many others at Camp Allen, this priest was suspended, defrocked, because of sexual misconduct.  And in an instant, as soon as I read the letter, the respect, the authority, the esteem I had for this person – it washed away.  The letter was a reminder to me that there is always a price one pays for having authority.  Theologian Richard Rohr reminds us that “the more elevated a person is within a system, the more entrapped they are by it.”  There is a price for authority.  Everytime.

            Today we hear a story about this price one pays for having authority.  It comes to us from the Hebrew Bible, the book of 2 Kings, and it tells of Elijah, one of the greatest of the Hebrew prophets.  That Elijah had authority there is no doubt.  Many looked up to him, and for good reason.  As one of the greatest of the prophets, Elijah courageously spoke truth to power, he risked his own life in speaking out publicly against Ahab, the wicked king of Israel and his wife, Jezebel. 

            So Elijah has tremendous authority, the weight of which is symbolized in an article of clothing, a mantle, Elijah wears, which is basically like an overcoat.  The mantle represents Elijah’s authority.  In a similar way, the priest who celebrates the Eucharist at this altar wears a similar garment, called a chasuble, which hearkens back to this ancient biblical concept of a mantle symbolizing authority given to a person by God.

            Anyway, Elijah identifies his successor, another prophet named Elisha, and in a dramatic climax of the story Elijah removes his mantle from his shoulders and rolls it up and strikes the waters of the Jordan river, and according to the story, the waters part, they split, and Elijah and Elisha walk across the parted waters of the Jordan river on dry ground.

            It’s an intentionally familiar motif – the parting of the waters of the Jordan by Elijah recalls the parting of the Red Sea by an earlier and also great prophet, Moses.  The gesture, by design, places Elijah at the same level of greatness as Moses.

            I think about Elijah, removing his mantle, the article of clothing that symbolizes his pastoral authority, and striking the water with it.  How odd that must have been for Elisha to watch – this revered prophet, taking a symbolic garb of clothing, and hitting the water with it.  What an odd thing to do with something that contains so much symbolic power. 

It reminds me of the moment in the latest Star Wars movie (yes – I am a Star Wars nerd) when Rey, the protagonist, finally meets Luke Skywalker, and she presents him with his long lost lightsaber, a Jedi’s weapon, the one he lost at the end of The Empire Strikes Back – it is something in Rey’s mind she thinks Luke has been looking for for a long time – and when look finally receives it after many years, what does Luke do?  He receives it, he scowls, and then throws it over his shoulder, discarding the icon which represented his power and authority, seemingly having no need for it anymore.

            Elijah was not unique in wearing a mantle, in having authority.  We all wear one.  We all have authority in different capacities – work, home, school, church.  But sometimes that mantle we wear can be too heavy.  The mantle we wear as a spouse, a partner, a mother, an addict, a father, a teacher, an alcoholic – sometimes the weight becomes unmanageable.  Every person I have ever known has struggled with the burden of the responsibilities they bear, myself included.  Part of wearing the mantle that we do means that we fail in our efforts, we make mistakes, and we fail to live up to other’s expectations.  We all do.

            Failure is but one of the costs of wearing the mantle someone either places upon us or we put on ourselves.  Many of us are uncomfortable with failure, and certainly much of what passes for popular Christianity these days seems uninterested in discovering God’s presence in failure. 

            It’s been ten years since I received that sad letter from the bishop detailing that fallen priest’s fate.  I wonder where that priest is now – that priest who once spoke so eloquently about the demons of others, while cleverly hiding his own.  His mantle taken from him, his priestly authority revoked, where is he now?  Of course his acting out behavior was unquestionably wrong.  But we should not be so quick to judge.  Because that priest is more like us than we might be ready to admit.

            Every one of us speaks from one side of our mouth, and then does the opposite.  Everyone of us wears a mantle. It might be one, like Elijah, that we are ready to remove and throw onto the ground.  It might be one we enjoy wearing.  It might be one we have no idea what to do with.  It doesn’t matter.  Because whatever the mantle is that you wear – you do not wear it alone.  God gives you the strength, the ability, the courage to wear it – no matter how often you fail, no matter how much you may dislike it, no matter if you feel unqualified to wear it.

            God has given you authority.  What will you do with it?  Will you part waters?  Will you act out?  It’s your choice.  You will do the rest.  AMEN. 

January 28, 2018

4 Epiphany

Deuteronomy 18:15-20; Psalm 111; 1 Corinthians 8:1-13; Mark 1: 21-28

The Rev. James M.L. Grace

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

            The easy thing this morning would be to preach on the reading from Deuteronomy, where Moses, near the end of his life, offers what is essentially his farewell address to the people whom he led for many years.  It would probably be a boring, but at least non-controversial sermon. 

            The other easy thing to do would be to preach on the reading from 1 Corinthians – the one where Paul, the author, encourages the community to whom he is writing in the commercial city of Corinth to be humble.  This was a community that had a bit of ego, and they thought of themselves perhaps as better than others because they were well educated.   Probably another boring and non-controversial sermon.

            Instead I choose Mark – with its off-putting story of an insane man in a synagogue purporting to be possessed by a demon.  What a weird story, but I love it.  I love it because it happens so immediately in Mark’s Gospel – this encounter between Jesus and the man possessed by a demon occurs in the very first chapter, beginning at verse 21.  At this point after only twenty verses in Mark’s Gospel, Jesus is already born, he’s gone through puberty, he’s been baptized, he’s called his first disciples, and now he’s teaching in the synagogue and confronting evil – all in twenty verses.

            Demons tend not to be the subject matter of many sermons, at least those that I have heard.  Perhaps that is because since we have moved through the age of Enlightenment with its emphasis on science and logic and reason, the idea of a demon, some kind of evil and malevolent force at work in the world that can possess people, while once a very successful scare tactic to bolster the numbers of the church centuries ago, today, the idea of a demon is considered more an embarrassment by the church.

            A moment of personal confession: since 1986, I have been an ardent, and dedicated fan of an art form not known for its cultural sophistication, but by its annoyance to many, including my wife: heavy metal.  I am a heavy metal loving priest.  Iron Maiden, Judas Priest, Metallica, and so many more bands that most people move on from after high school, I still listen to.  One of the heavy metal bands that I have loved for a long time, is a band called Slayer.  In the 1980s, Slayer, who were notoriously anti-Christian in their message, were a band that parents were instructed to tell their children: don’t listen to this music.”  My mom let me listen to their albums, laughably entitled  “Hell Awaits,” “South of Heaven,” and one album name with a name that I still cannot say without laughing: “God Hates Us All”  I just imagine as a sermon title on the marquee of a church: “Next week’s inspiring message from Pastor Grace: “God Hates Us All!” 

            Today the members of Slayer are older, they have kids, they have grand kids, they shop at Wal Mart.  One of the members is ironically a devout and practicing Roman Catholic.  After an almost forty-year career, Slayer is calling it quits.  They are embarking on one final farewell tour, and when it comes to Houston, Slayer, this once fiery angry and fearsome band, will play the Smart Financial Center in Sugarland, which is basically Sugarland’s version of a civic center.  And yes, I’m going.  And I can’t wait.

For many years, my spirituality, my understanding of God, has been one that has endeavored to reconcile things that appear oppositional in an effort to synthesize them – to bring them together.  That is the meaning of the word religion: it comes from the Latin re-ligare which means to “bind together.” The work of religion is to bind together a person and God, and as a practice of my own faith, I seek to bind together disparate things, while holding onto my identity in the process.  Slayer and Sugarland.  A demon and a synagogue.  Where is God in both?

Another example.  I volunteer on a committee for the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo that is made up of people who mostly are quite different from me.  I am a liberal priest at an Episcopal church, and the members of the rodeo committee I serve are pretty much the exact opposite of people at St. Andrew’s.  At a recent training event just last year, one of the committee members who knows that I am a priest asked me this question this past October: “You don’t marry people of the same gender, do you?”  To which I responded unapologetically, but also not condescendingly: “I have many times, and I have another this weekend.”  It is at that intersection – where disparate groups and ideas meet – that I seek to find God.  Which is why I find the story of a man showing up in a synagogue supposedly possessed so interesting.

            Critical for our understanding and respect for this story of Jesus in the temple is that he was teaching with authority.  The authority Jesus had then was not something he acquired through years of study or a degree.  Authority is not something a person claims for themselves.  Authority is something that is given to a person by people who respect that person, and who trust that person.  Jesus had authority in the Temple, not because he cited scripture by chapter and verse, not because he read all the commentaries on the Bible.  Jesus had authority in the Temple, because the people gave it to him.  

            The man with the demon challenges this authority.  The man with the demon says: “I know who you are, the Holy One of God.”  That is a very important sentence because during the time of Jesus, knowledge of a person’s name or identity was thought to provide power over that person.  Immediately Jesus replies: “Be silent!” And the demon leaves the man.  And others in the synagogue were perplexed at what they saw, saying “what is this? A new teaching – with authority!”

            The point of the story is simple and clear: Jesus has authority over everything, including evil.  Evil exists – of that there is no ambiguity.  Evil is a problem, a problem that cannot be addressed or worked out in one or one thousand sermons.  But we can say today that somehow within the presence of evil, God has authority over it.  God has authority over evil not because God has demanded it.  God has authority over evil not because God is omniscient or omnipresent (which God is).  God has authority over evil, because evil, like those people gathered in the synagogue, willingly gave it to God.  Evil has surrendered its authority, and given to God.  That’s the point of the Gospel this morning.

            And if God has authority over all evil, perhaps that means that God can work evil for good.  The demon can enter the synagogue and be welcomed.  Slayer can come to Sugarland, and everything will be ok.  Because God is in charge.  AMEN.

January 21, 2018

3 Epiphany

Jonah 3: 1-5, 10; Psalm 62:6-14; 1 Corinthians 7:29-31; Mark 1: 14-20

The Rev. James M.L. Grace

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

            One of the things that I needed to accomplish in my first year of seminary was choosing an Episcopal Church where I would do my field education.  “Field ed” as we called it constituted being placed in a church where we would be a seminarian for a year or two – assisting with services, preaching, attending Vestry meetings, going on parish retreats, that kind of thing.

            I went to seminary in Alexandria, VA, just outside of Washington DC, and so there was no shortage of Episcopal churches in the area to choose from.  I found the church that I was really interested in serving as a seminarian, and it was St. Mark’s, Capital Hill.  The church was in a cool neighborhood near the Capital, it was a parish that was doing interesting things at the time, it was a place I really wanted to go.

            My decision made, I called the rector when it was time, and set up an interview.  I don’t remember much of my interview with the Rector except that I don’t think I impressed him very much.  I remember walking out of the interview feeling I had no chance of going to St. Mark’s.  So I went to the next church on my list, one that was much closer to the seminary – about a mile’s drive – and I interviewed with that Rector and had a much more favorable experience.  Here was the problem.  The church where I interviewed well, I didn’t want to go.  It was in a pretty boring neighborhood.  This church wasn’t really doing anything interesting.  And if the award existed for the ugliest church built in the 1960s, this church would have been a top contender.

            The Rector of that church, the ugly church, called me back and offered me the position as their seminarian, which wasn’t a big deal, since I was the only person in my seminary class to interview for it.  I accepted, and the day after accepting the Rector’s call to be seminarian at the ugly church, the Rector from the hip, cool, St. Mark’s Capital Hill called me and said “would you like to be the seminarian at St. Mark’s?”  What to do.  I said something to him I never thought I would have said, which was “Thank you, but I’ll decline.”  I made a commitment, and although I rather would have gone to the cool church, I sucked it up and went to the church no one else in my seminary class wanted to go.

            The book of Jonah is a story about a person going to a place he didn’t want to go.  In this case, it was Nineveh.  Jonah had no desire to go to Nineveh, not only because it was the capital of the Assyrian Empire – a staunch enemy of Israel – but also that Jonah couldn’t imagine that there was anyone in that area worth helping.  But God believed otherwise, and called Jonah to a courageous mission to proclaim God’s judgment against them.  Jonah didn’t believe that anyone would listen, but after saying one sentence, “Forty days more and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” the people, remarkably, listen.  And they part from whatever it was that they were doing that angered God, and God forgave Nineveh, because a reluctant prophet spoke truth to them.

            Much of the Bible consists of stories where people are asked to go places they don’t want to go and to do things that they do not want to do.  And while that is much of the Bible, it is also much of our life as well.  I don’t know about you, but the times in my life where I have felt God calling me to go, initially I have not had much interest in going.  But every time, after going, I realize how grateful I am that I went.  Because it is in that surrender to God’s leadership, where we grow most abundantly. 

            Once I arrived at that the church, the 1960s ugly one, I learned why I was there.  It was the people.  There are so many stories from that congregation, but I will share one: I met an elderly gentleman there who each Sunday came early and prepared the coffee for the whole day. 

He ushered most services, and when I asked him what brought him to the church, he told me the story of his son.  In the 1970s, his son committed suicide, and while this man was not much of a church going man, and probably agnostic at best, he wanted a church burial for his son, but all the churches he went to and asked, refused.  But not this one.  Not Church of the Resurrection in Alexandria, Virginia.  The Rector at the time said, “of course we will bury your son with the respect and the dignity he deserves.” 

            Ever since, this man, whom I saw early every Sunday, came, made the coffee, handed out bulletins, because he found in that church a priest who would bury his son.  He felt accepted, in the midst of the impossible scenario he was facing. 

            The question for us to ask ourselves is this: where is God calling you?  I would bet that if you can think of the one thing in your life that you don’t want to do, the one person you don’t want to confront, the nagging responsibility that keeps coming back to you again and again and again?  That is God calling you – calling you to where you are perhaps afraid or uninterested in going.  Will you go?  Will you accept God’s call to go to Nineveh or the ugly church you don’t want to go to and then find yourself surprised that that was where you belonged all along?  AMEN.

December 25, 2017

Christmas Day

Isaiah 52: 7-10; Psalm 98; Hebrews 1: 1-12; John 1: 1-14

The Rev. James M.L. Grace

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

            “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”  Those words sound familiar to you this morning presumably because we heard them only moments ago as the introduction to the Gospel of John.  That sentence which begins John’s Gospel with the phrase “in the beginning” might also stir your memory of another famous verse from the Bible, in fact it is the very first verse of the Bible in the book of Genesis in which the author writes these words: “in the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.”

            So we have two beginnings.  In the beginning God created, and in the beginning was the Word.  This is no accident, by the way.  It was intentional that John’s Gospel begin in a way that is so similar to the beginning of Genesis.  Why?

            In beginning his Gospel this way John is making a bold statement – which is that Jesus is God.  And if Jesus is God, then that means that Jesus has always existed, since the beginning.  If Jesus is God, then he was alive, and this sounds strange, but follow me here, Jesus was alive before he was born to his parents Mary and Joseph. 

            In the same way that Jesus continued to live after his death, he was alive before his birth.  That’s the point of that first sentence in John’s Gospel.  Jesus has always existed alongside God and alongside the Holy Spirit.  The way that John messages that is by referring to Jesus as a Word.  A Word with a capital “W,” and translated into Greek that word with a capital “W” is the word “logos.”

            In Greek philosophy, the “logos” or “Word” was an eternal, unchanging principle, something that was perfect and constant.  The author of John’s Gospel says that “in the beginning was this Word” and his point is simply that the “Word” is Jesus himself, who existed before his birth and exists after his death. 

            John’s Gospel is unique in introducing us to this more cosmic understanding of Jesus, whereas the other three gospels of Mark, Matthew, and Luke, offer a more human portrayal of Jesus.  John’s sweeping theological understanding of Jesus was considered somewhat controversial for the day, and because of it, the entire Gospel of John almost didn’t make it into the Bible.

            In John’s Gospel there is no telling of the familiar Christmas story.  There is no manger, no angels, no shepherds, no wise men.  Just a statement that Christ is the permanent word of God, since the beginning, and that and if Jesus isn’t the word of God, then God never spoke.

            Today we celebrate Christmas, a day set aside to honor the mystery of Christ’s birth.  I want to move away from John’s Gospel, and offer a very brief history of today, because I do believe that there are parallels between Christmas and this reading from John. 

            In the first few centuries of the church, Christmas was not celebrated, that we know of.   What was celebrated from the very beginning was the feast of Easter.  What this tells us is that early in the history of the church it was Christ’s death and resurrection, rather than his birth, that were clearly emphasized.

            It was not until December 25, 336 (almost three hundred years after the death and resurrection of Jesus) that we have record of a Christmas service.  That also is not accidental.  Christmas became important during the early to mid-fourth century because that was the time in the history of the church in which leaders finally were able to agree on exactly who Jesus was.

            Their agreement, worked on at a variety of church gatherings and council meetings was this: Jesus was fully human, and Jesus was fully divine.  This concept – of God and humanity residing fully and completely in one person was a difficult idea for people to understand fully.  It remains so to this day.

            To help solidify this agreement of the church, liturgies were formed to celebrate the birth of Jesus, a Christ Mass, that honored the ancient mystery of God and human residing fully together in Jesus. In the year 325, a council of church leaders was convened at Nicea in modern day Turkey, and one of the outcomes of the council gathering at Nicea was the Nicene Creed, which we will say in just a few minutes.   In the Nicene Creed professes that Jesus is both a human, born of a woman, but also “of one Being with the Father” meaning that Jesus is also God.  One of the church leaders who attended the council at Nicea was a local bishop named Nicholas of Myra, or St. Nicholas.  St. Nicholas of Myra was known for more activity than his involvement at this church council gathering.  He also had a habit of secret gift giving, which apparently earned him enough of a reputation that Nicholas of Myra, or “St. Nick” as we might call him, became the prototype for that jolly man in a red suit and white beard that slipped down your chimney early this morning.    

            In the beginning was the Word.  And the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  God’s word is often called the Bible, but if we take John seriously, we remember that the word of God is not a book, it’s a person. A person who lived and died and who lives now.  That Word, God’s word, is the gift given freely by God, not just on Christmas, but everyday, because God’s word never ends.  AMEN.

December 31, 2017

 The First Sunday after Christmas

1 Christmas

Isaiah 61: 10 – 62:3; Psalm 147; Galatians 3:23 -25, 4: 4-7; John 1: 1-18

The Rev. James M.L. Grace

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

            Three stories from last week.  Story number 1:  Last week I got a call from a friend of mine who is also an Episcopal priest.  We talk most weeks, and he is a rector of an Episcopal church in another state.  When I asked him how he was doing, he said “Jimmy, do you really want to know?”  And I said “Well, yes…I think?” 

And my friend told me how he was doing by beginning in this way: “Jimmy, I just found out that the parish administrator at my church embezzled $95,000 in the last few months.  How’s that for a Merry Christmas?” 

            I didn’t know what to say – I was speechless.  I finally said how sorry I was that this had happened at the church and that I hoped they would be able to work things out. And it seems like they are.

            I begin a sermon on the first Sunday after Christmas with that story, because the story is a reminder to all of us that Christmas is never perfect.  We are on day seven of the Christmas season, halfway through.  By now, all the presents are unwrapped, family has come and gone, the customer service and gift exchange lines at the stores are all as long as they will be all year.  We are done with Christmas, by and large.  And now is the time in the Christmas season, particularly today, on New Year’s Eve, when we begin to think about all of the expectations we had for Christmas, or maybe for this year, that just didn’t happen.

            The ground swell of enthusiasm for Christmas evident in this church on Christmas Eve and Day, has now receded.  We are back to normal, whatever “normal” is.  And yet, here we are on day seven of Christmas, with Christmas already over, on the eve of a new year, 2018.

            In spite of our best intentions toward New Year’s resolutions, problems like embezzled funds and unpredictable circumstances will carry over into next year.  So, what do we do?

            For me, I return to Scripture, and there I encounter an uncomfortable truth that is as haunting as it is nurturing, and the truth I discover this morning read is from the Gospel of John, chapter 1, verse10, which describes Jesus in this particular way: “He was in the world, and world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him.  He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him.”  The truth of that verse, for me, is that God, desiring to be known by us, becomes human in Jesus.  That’s the Christmas story.  But the uncomfortable part of the Christmas story is this:  God wants to know us, but we reject our creator, we reject this God who wants to know creation.  We crucify this God who seeks to reach out to us.  [PAUSE]. 

            Story number 2 from last week: I went with my family to see the new Star Wars film entitled “The Last Jedi.”  The latest film surprised me in many ways, and after methodically comparing this ninth entry into the star wars canon (I’m including Rogue One, for all you Star Wars fanatics out there) I liked it.  I liked it because it surprised me – it was not at all what I was expecting.  For the first, and likely only time in my preaching career I will create an intentional analogy in the way the film’s protagonist, Luke Skywalker, was misunderstood, much like many of the prophets of the Hebrew Bible, and like Jesus himself.  The film explores the last thirty years of Luke’s life, most of which are spent in monastic exile as a result of a personal failure of his.  Luke’s mentor, Yoda, appears to him, and says that failure is the best teacher.  I agree. 

            In a world that values, commodifies, and monetizes success, God, again kind of like of Yoda, invites us to embrace failure.  When we acknowledge our failure, we might, like Jesus, appear misunderstood, and we will be rejected.  But we will never be closer to the heart of God.         

            Story number 3.  A childhood friend of mine from grade school, whom I have not spoken to in over thirty years – he and I are friends on Facebook.  He suffers from acute depression, and has tried, unsuccessfully to complete a PHD in psychiatry.  Last week he posted an invoice of the student loans he has amassed trying to complete his degree.  Over $500,000 he owes.  He does not know how he will pay them off. 

            He is more like Jesus to me than many I know.  He is misunderstood, deemed by the world a failure.  Although he considers himself agnostic at best, I believe he is closer to the heart of God than many, including myself.

            That you will be misunderstood and not accepted is the haunting, yet beautiful truth of John’s Gospel.  The misunderstood and rejected prophet is our messiah – who invites us into relationship with the divine, knowing fully that we will reject the God who created us.  Knowing that our rejection of God might make God out to be the biggest failure of them all.  And God doesn’t seem to be bothered by that, as God is not tethered, like us, to competition and success and payoff. 

            I conclude with the conclusion of story #1.  Before I got off the phone with my priest friend, the one whose parish administrator embezzled $95,000 last week at his church, I said “Merry Christmas,” which felt like a stupid thing to say.  It wasn’t.  Christmas is merry regardless of mistakes or the unexpected, because Christmas is about recognizing a misunderstood and rejected prophet, and welcoming that prophet into our heart, so that we might learn and see that failure is not tragedy – it is blessing.  AMEN.

January 7, 2018

1 Epiphany

Genesis 1: 1-5; Psalm 29; Acts 19: 1-7; Mark 1: 4-11

The Rev. James M.L. Grace


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

            About a month ago I was visiting a parishioner at a hospital and in the hospital lobby there was a nativity scene, complete with near-life size statues of Mary, Joseph, a few cows, a donkey, three magi, and an empty manger with no Christ child.  This was before Christmas Day, mind you, and although I am the farthest from a liturgical snob, I was actually surprised to see how seemingly inaccurate this nativity scene was.

            What was wrong with it?  The manger was empty, there was no child, but there were three magi, or wise men, already there, waiting for the child to be born.  That might not sound like much of a big deal to you, but it was to me because of how far a departure it this nativity scene was from the only Gospel Gospel account of it, which comes from Matthew.  Matthew is the only Gospel that even mentions magi.  In that Gospel, the magi come from the east after seeing a star in the sky.  While Matthew’s Gospel is short on detail, the Gospel does clearly say that the magi arrived after the birth of Jesus, not before, so the Catholic Hospital with the nativity scene in it’s lobby got it wrong!

            I mention this because it seems every year after Christmas, we just glide right past the visiting magi, with barely a mention, and if we do mention them we probably are light on the details.  Today, thirteen days after Christmas, the focus is not on the visitation of the magi, but on Christ’s baptism in Jordan river as an adult. Obviously, Jesus’ baptism is important, especially on a day like today where we are baptizing children at this font.  Jesus’ baptism is mentioned in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John – all four Gospels – so I get how important it is.  The visit of the magi who bring gifts to the infant in the manger?  That’s only mentioned in one Gospel – Matthew.

            So today I want to give a shout out to those three mysterious visitors who brought gifts of frankincense, gold, and myrrh to the Christ child.  Because their day was yesterday, and while we had a Feast of Lights service to mark that moment, we didn’t have a sermon at that service  so I thought to myself “I’ll do it on Sunday, even though the Gospel is all about Christ’s baptism as an adult, I want to back up the timeline to the visit of the magi when Christ was an infant.”  [PAUSE].

            On Christmas Day last year, my sister lent me a book entitled “Revelation of the Magi: The Lost Tale of the Wise Men’s Journey to Bethlehem” by Brent Landau.  It’s a short book that I found very accessible, and I enjoyed reading the book so much, that I packed it on a ski trip last week and actually took it skiing with me one day in my backpack so that I could finish it by a fire while eating lunch.  Reading by a fire – that’s the best.

Here is the brief premise of the book: Not much is said about the magi (or wisemen) in Matthew’s Gospel.  Consequently, the author endeavors find any extra material describing the magi, and comes across an ancient document written in Syriac, which is a language that emerged from Aramaic, the language Jesus spoke.  This document, gives additional information about the wise men, and tells the story of their visit to the Christ child from their perspective.  It was written two to three centuries after the birth of Jesus, and Brent Landau translates it from Syriac to English.   It’s a marvelous story, and while I don’t follow a literal interpretation of the magi’s visit as described in this recently translated manuscript, it nevertheless offers some excellent context that helped me to more fully appreciate who these mysterious visitors were to Bethlehem.  Most surprising, and inspiring, to me was how theologically progressive this ancient manuscript is in terms of its openness and inclusion of others of other faith traditions.

            Were the magi astrologers or Zoroastrian priests, or rulers from the east?  We don’t really know, and that is part of their allure.  But they were clearly different and unique, and it is not accidental in Matthew’s Gospel that they were the first to observe the star, and travel to meet the newborn messiah.  The gifts they brought all had symbolic meaning: gold as symbol of kingship on earth, frankincense as a symbol of deity, and myrrh (an oil used for embalming corpses at that time) was an obvious and intentional foreshadowing of Christ’s death. 

            As mysterious as they remain, the stories told about these visitors from the east continue to have meaning for us as we begin a new season, called Epiphany, where we remember that Christ, symbolically through the magi’s visit, appeared before all people, regardless of skin color, religion, gender, or creed.

            That is why the magi matter.  In the centuries since their visit to the Christ child, Christianity has only become more divisive and argumentative.  The magi sought not to argue, but to wonder.  They did not seek to explain the marvelous mystery of a holy child that was divine, instead they brought gifts.

            The example of the magi, their desire to look outside of themselves, to take a journey – all of that is such an inspiration to me and how I want to live my life.  It is my hope that like the magi, we might be able to understand and to ponder people unlike us without judging.  That instead of bringing conflict into our relationships, we bring gifts.  Not things that we buy, but things that we make: a gift of caring, a gift of empathy, a gift of love, even when we don’t feel like it.  That is our story.  We will do the rest.  AMEN. 

December 24, 2017

Christmas Eve, 4:30 pm service

The Rev. Carissa Baldwin-McGinnis

Christmas Eve – Lessons & Carols, 4:30 PM

Isaiah 11: 1 – 10; Luke 1: 26-38; Luke 2: 1-7; Luke 2: 8-14; John 1: 1-18

The Rev. James M.L. Grace

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

            This year I received a Christmas gift from a parishioner which is a magnet, with the image of a two lane highway going off into the horizon.  The caption on the picture reads: “The fact that there’s a Highway to Hell and only a Stairway to Heaven should tell you something about anticipated traffic.”

            It’s a funny statement, but I don’t think it is true. 

            I don’t think it is true because what we are celebrating tonight, the birth of the Messiah, or to be more technical, the Incarnation, is God’s greatest endorsement of humanity.  The fact that God becomes a person to be with us, to learn from us, to love us, is almost beyond all belief. 

            But that is the story we hear today – the story of God’s desire to be in relationship with us.  But it is more than that, because God has already been in relationship with us prior to Jesus’ birth.  The story we hear today is a one of God becoming vulnerable. 

            Much has been written about vulnerability in the past ten or so years so I won’t go into that except to ponder what it says about God that God desires vulnerability and authenticity – to be amongst us as a child, an infant, who needs to be potty trained, who probably tantrums, and wakes up in the middle of the night.  In other words, God becomes just like us.  God assumes all our fears, all our insecurities, all our pain, and carries it with us.

            The reason why some call that “good news” is because it means that we never carry our burdens by ourselves.  It means that we have a companion who understands what it means to be human, and who understands what it means to be divine. 

            Tonight we celebrate Incarnation, which has at its root – the Latin incarno which means “in flesh.”  It’s the same word that informs the Spanish word for meat, which is carne as in chili con carne.  Incarnation is simply God putting flesh on.  Does Christianity have a monopoly on incarnation?  Is it the only religion that espouses this concept of a timeless God becoming somehow human?  No. 

            But for me, the Christian story of Jesus’ incarnation is by far the most compelling because it introduces a vulnerable God in human flesh, who ultimately gives everything, including his life, for the sake of the world.  So powerful is this message of the incarnate God in Jesus, that I know atheists who do not believe Jesus is God, but have tremendous respect for his teachings and the kind of life he lived.

            So, Merry Christmas.  Merry Christmas because God has chosen a body.  A body to work through to bring healing and salvation to this world.  The body of Christ accomplished this, but now God is in a new body, continuing the work of redemption, continuing the work of healing.  Which does God currently reside in?  Which body is God working in and through to bring hope into this world?  Well, it’s yours, of course.  You are God’s body now.  What will you do with it?  AMEN.   

December 17, 2017

3 Advent

Isaiah 61: 1-4, 8-11; Psalm 126; 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24; John 1: 6-8; 19-28

The Rev. James M.L. Grace

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

            Calling the book of Isaiah, a “book” is a bit of a misnomer.  It is a misnomer because the book of Isaiah likely was not written by one author, but several.  It also appears that the different authors who contributed material to Isaiah were also not writing at the same period. 

            I recognize that this is a really “dry” introduction to a sermon, but I offer it because I believe that to really understand what Isaiah is saying, context matters.  So, what follows is a brief history of the book of Isaiah, and I hope you listen, because this history is the history of a remote and disconnected people – it is our history. 

            Isaiah a composite work, the product of several different prophets who lived at different points in the history of Israel.  More specifically, Isaiah is informally divided into three sections – each section is a body of work written by a prophet, during a particular time.  The first section of Isaiah (chapters 1 – 39) are referred to as First Isaiah, and are attributed in general to an eighth century prophet, whose name the book bears, Isaiah.  This is the eighth century before the birth of Jesus, so approximately eight hundred years prior to when John the Baptist arrives on the scene as we hear in today’s Gospel.

            The second section of Isaiah, often called (let people answer) comprises chapters 40-55, and is attributed to an unknown prophet who lived in Babylon, which is in modern day Iraq, writing around the time of the sixth century before Christ?  Why was this prophet writing in Babylon?  Probably because this prophet, the author of second Isaiah, was among those in Judah who were captured when the army of Babylon invaded Judah and destroyed the city of Jerusalem.  When the city of Jerusalem was destroyed by the Babylonian army under King Nebuchadnezzar around 587 before the common era, or before the birth of Christ, many inhabitants of Jerusalem and of the surrounding region called Judea, were forced into exile.  They were forcibly marched to Babylon, which is where the author of second Isaiah writes.

            Which brings us to the third and final section of Isaiah, commonly called (let people answer) third Isaiah.  This section comprises chapters 56-66, and this section of work is attributed to an unknown prophet writing to a community of people who had returned from exile, and were living back in the destroyed city of Jerusalem and the razed grounds of Judea.  This section was probably written sometime around the year 539 before the common era or birth of Christ.

            Today we hear from the author of third Isaiah, who is addressing the struggles that this group of people who have returned to a conquered land and are tasked with rebuilding are now facing.  When these same people were in Babylon, they assumed that their liberation and exodus from Babylon, and their subsequent return to their homeland of Judea would be grand and glorious, in the tradition of Moses leading the Hebrews out of Egypt. 

            But it wasn’t.  When the people returned to Judea, they faced multiple challenges, including economic oppression, and unimaginable stress.  They had to rebuild, but the process of rebuilding the city of Jerusalem and rebuilding their sacred temple was fraught with challenge and setback after setback.  The people became disillusioned, cynical, frustrated, and tired.   To cope with the new pressures and stress, the people returning from exile abandoned their faith in God, and they, once again, adopted the beliefs and practices associated with local gods and religions.  They didn’t have Xanax or cocaine, or martinis, so their stress relief came through foreign religion. 

            This is who today’s reading from Isaiah is addressed: a tired, stressed, agnostic, cynical culture of ancient Israel.  To this group dwelling in a soupy mire of resignation and indifference, the prophet courageously proclaims to them that “they shall build up the ancient ruins, they shall raise up the former devastations; they shall raise the ruined cities.”  To the forsaken, the prophet says God will give them “a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.”

            I need these words.  I need to know that in midst of our culture, in the midst of my life which at times feels tired, stressed, agnostic, cynical, resigned, and indifferent, that there is hope.  And there is.  The reason I know there is hope is not because I know it cognitively, but because I know it in my heart.  I know it and I feel it in my praying, I know it and I feel it in my reading of the Bible, I know it and feel it in my living. 

            Context matters because the story of Israel’s exile and return from Babylon is our story.  All of us have, for a season, felt exiled from God, and all of us, having returned from that exile, have encountered disappointment and resentment.  The people in the Bible certainly did.  You can read all about it in the book of Jeremiah or Lamentations, but what makes the expression of Israel’s lament and pain and suffering so poetic and so meaningful, is that there are clear demarcations, clear boundaries put in place to limit it.

            Yes, the prophet will question God’s justice, the prophet will raise a fist in anger to God for the suffering and pain endured by the Hebrew people, but that is always tempered with praise, with the realization, that God is sovereign, and that God is compassionate. 

            We need to remember that, and perhaps that is why the prophet of third Isaiah says to us today that God is in the midst of our pain, redeeming it and transforming it, so that while we shout to the heavens, we also offer our praise – for God is faithful through all things, and in all times.  AMEN.

December 10, 2017

2 Advent

Isaiah 40: 1-11; Psalm 85; 2 Peter 3:8-15a; Mark 1:1-8

The Rev. James M.L. Grace


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

            Mark’s Gospel is lean on details.

            It reads less like a book, and more like a screenplay for a drama unfolding before our eyes.  Mark’s Gospel is fast-paced, action-oriented, and brief.  It is Mark’s lack of detail that makes what little details we find in the Gospel stand out as peculiar and alluring.

            Notice that today’s reading is from the beginning of Mark’s Gospel, which was the earliest written of the four included in the Bible.  Mark was written sometime around 60 AD, so a good thirty or so years following the death and resurrection of Jesus.  Notice how Mark’s Gospel begins – not with the birth of the Messiah, there is no mention of Mary or Joseph or Bethlehem.  It begins with the immediate and rather strange introduction of John the Baptist.

            Mark writes: “John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.”  It’s almost like John the Baptist just appears all of a sudden, baptizing people.  No one knows where he came from, how old he was, where he lived, or if he was out of his mind.  But Mark provides for us a small clue, a tiny detail that at first glance seems to be unintentional.  In describing the appearance of John the Baptist, Mark writes “John was clothed in camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist.” 

            That’s an odd detail for Mark, who doesn’t provide much detail or description of anyone in his Gospel, including its protagonist, Jesus.  So why would Mark offer up a seemingly random and unintentional description of John the Baptist’s appearance?  No one else, that I am aware of, is worthy of this kind of detail in Mark’s Gospel, so why John?

            Approximately eight hundred years before John the Baptist, stories are told in the Hebrew Bible about the prophet Elijah, a courageous man who spoke truth to power and stood against wicked and treacherous king Ahab of Israel.  Elijah performed miracles including raising the dead, bringing fire down from the sky, and ascending to heaven in a whirlwind.  In the Hebrew Bible, Elijah is a prophet in the tradition of Moses.  

            One of the books of the Hebrew Bible that talks about Elijah is the book of Kings.  In the second half of that book, or as is called in our Bible “2 Kings” Elijah the prophet is described as “a hairy man with a leather belt around his waist,” a description similar to that of John the Baptist in Mark, who was clothed with camel’s hair, and a leather belt around his waist.”  So what we learn about prophets from the Bible is that they had a thing for leather belts, and they had long hair or were unshaven or otherwise unkempt. 

            What is Mark doing here?  I believe that the similar description of John the Baptist and Elijah is no accident.  Elijah was greatly revered amongst the Hebrew people, and the fact that John the Baptist fits so similar a description of Elijah suggests that John was not only a prophet himself, but a prophet in the great tradition of Elijah.

            Why does any of this matter?  I like long hair on dudes.  I used to have long hair myself, and wish I still had it, though my wife reminds me that if I had had long hair when we met she never would have dated me, so there is that.  I believe the connection of John and Elijah matters because the work of a prophet was to upset expectations, which is why so many of them were so unpopular.

            Elijah upset the expectation that power and loyalty to a God other than Yahweh would be good for Israel, a message very unpopular to the wicked king Ahab.  John upset the expectation amongst many in Israel that God was absent, for indeed it was the opposite, God was to be in their immediate presence through Jesus.

            A prophet’s job is to take the community’s expectations, and turn the tables on them.  I don’t know about you, but when I have expectations that go unmet, I am never at my best in my response.  Few of us ever are. 

In Advent this year, I am taking a spiritual journey that I have never been on before, at least not that I realize.  The journey I am on is to follow my expectations, paying close attention to where, and when, they are not met.  How will I feel?  Angry?  Upset?  Sad?  I am trying to see my unmet expectations through the eyes of the prophet with a leather belt around their waist. 

Could it be that my unmet expectations, which I have seen merely as a graveyard for things that might have been; could it be that those unmet expectations, in the presence of Elijah or John the Baptist are not a cemetery, but rather a manger?  In other words, the question I am asking is this: Are my unmet expectations in fact the manger where the Christ child is to be born? 

Can I then look at unmet expectations not with sadness, but with hope?  Hope that in what is unmet is in fact the place the prophet said God would be born?  AMEN.

December 3, 2017

Advent 1

ISAIAH 64:1-9; PSALM 80:1-7, 16-18; 1 CORINTHIANS 1::3-9; MARK 13:24-37



I pray that your hope will be easily found.

We lit this morning the first candle of Advent, and we call it the Prophet’s Candle.  The candle’s flame is a symbol and the voice of the prophet a beckoner of the inbreaking of hope into the world.  The lighting of the Advent wreath is a community ritual for the church inside the church as well as a ritual for the people of the church inside their homes.  In the nightly lighting ritual, every child becomes an acolyte.  Every adult or parent becomes a priest.  Advent is a joyous season in which we have permission to try on special roles and duties and in which we have permission to express our hope.

Hope can be like a mighty thunder or like a small, singing bird.  Hope can be as when a fire kindles brushwood or as when a switch flips on a simple battery-operated tea light.  While hope too big can invite despair, hope made small can invite a miracle.

I can remember being a child in Advent and lying in my bed at night, wondering if a manger and baby might magically appear at the foot of my bed.  For if the story told at church was of a true miracle of the past, such a miracle could potentially be repeated in the present.   I wondered if I were a good enough child for that miracle to come to me.  Looking back, I can see I was likely confused about what exactly I to hope for in Advent leading up to Christmas.  Was it a new bike with a banana seat or a little baby at the end of my bed?

Hope can be like expectations or wants of something yet to come, and we may feel most hopeful at the onset of something new.  Hope for the marriage about to be blessed.  Hope for the child about to be born.  Hope for the heart surgery scheduled for the morning.  Hope that the last round of radiation will do the trick.  Sometimes life exceeds our wants and expectations.  The bike comes not only with a banana seat but also a flag, a bell and pompoms.  At other times in life our hopes are dashed.  No manger or baby appears at the end of the bed.

When our expectations are exceeded, we may be blessed to suffer what a priest friend of mine calls “a glory attack.”  This is when we feel such joy and elation that we think we might explode.  When our expectations meet disappointment, we are given the opportunity to experience what another priest calls “mystical hope.”  Mystical hope is something described by Cynthia Bourgeault as “an abiding state of being.”  She teaches that we live in the state of mystical hope when we develop a conscious and permanent connection to the wellspring of God’s grace, whether the heart surgery can save us or not.

She writes about the death of her spiritual guide, mentor and friend, and says that she was keeping overnight vigil with his body when she heard his voice speak to her saying, “I’ll meet you…in the body of hope.”

Where do you suppose is the body of hope?  Where might be your personal body of hope?  Is it a person, place, thing? Is it your work, your family, your community?  Is it a place deep down in the soul?  We may say that our hope is in the LORD.  We also sometimes say that God is everywhere.  So then we still get to ask ourselves: where is my body of hope?

I am sure that my hope resides in the children of the school and children’s chapel every week.  My hope resides in the sound of beautiful music.  My hope resides in a rare, long and quiet walk.  As I age my hope resides even more in time spent with my parents.

One meme I found on the internet read, “Hope is the little voice you hear whispering “maybe” when it seems the entire world is shouting “no!”

Another read, “Hope is the thing with feathers, that perches in the soul, and sings the tune without the words and never stops at all.”

Whatever you hope for, and wherever your hope may reside, I pray that you will seek it out and know it.  And I pray that your hope will be easily found.

November 26, 2017

The Feast of St. Andrew (transferred)   

Deuteronomy 30:11-14; Psalm 19: 1-6; Romans 10: 8b-18; Matthew 4: 18-22

The Rev. James M.L. Grace


            In the name of God: Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer.  AMEN.

            In the late nineteenth century, an Episcopal priest named Benjamin Rogers started a parish church here in the Heights neighborhood.  It was recognized by Bishop Kinsolving as St. Stephen’s Mission on May 29, 1895, and was admitted for the first time to Diocesan Council in 1896.  St. Stephen’s held the first religious services that we know of in the Heights neighborhood, meeting in what was then Cooley Public School Building no. 3 on 17th and Rutland.

            St. Stephen’s Mission later dissolved, and many of its founding members were responsible for starting this congregation, becoming charter, or founding members of this church.

When it became time to identify a name for this church, which started officially in 1911, 106 years ago, the founding members decided on the name “St. Andrew’s.”   The name “Andrew” was selected, in part, to honor the saint we remember today, but also in homage toward the Rev. Benjamin Rogers, whose middle name was…Andrew.

            Today we honor and celebrate St. Andrew’s Day, a day which honors the patron saint of this parish.  According to the Gospels, Andrew was one of the first disciples called by Jesus to follow him.  He is sometimes given the honorary title of “The first-called” or “the first missionary” because it was he who went and brought his brother Simon to meet Jesus. 

            We don’t know much about our saint, except that he was a fisherman.  It appears that Andrew remained with Jesus throughout his ministry.  Scripture informs us that Andrew was present at the feeding of the five thousand.  Tradition suggests that after Jesus’ death, Andrew travelled to modern day Kazakhstan where he brought the Gospel.  Eventually, Andrew was crucified upon an X-shaped cross.  He later became the patron saint of Scotland because of a legend that some of his relics were brought there in the eighth century. 

            Today we hear the story of Andrew’s call as he was approached by Jesus.  Seeing that Andrew was fishing with a net, Jesus called out “follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” I continue to be struck with Andrew’s response at this chance encounter with Jesus.  Andrew dropped his net and followed him, until he himself died.  Andrew left a stable career with guaranteed revenue, he presumably left his family, all to follow this young traveling rabbi or teacher. 

            For many in the church Andrew stands as an icon of what a call means.  A call means that you devote yourself to a cause, whatever that cause might be, and you stick with it through thick and thin.  That is what Andrew did.  That sense of duty and call permeates the Bible, as we see this theme of devotion echoing throughout the Bible.

            One of the greatest stories of call comes from the book of Ruth, a young woman who devotes herself to her mother in law Naomi, following the tragic death of Naomi’s son, Ruth’s husband.  Rather than leaving Naomi, Ruth tells her “where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God.” (Ruth 1:16).

            Perhaps it was that sense of call, that dedication, in partnership with the Holy Spirit, that convinced a group of people to begin a small mission in this neighborhood.  Perhaps people understood then, as we understand now, that when a call is placed on your life by God, you will know it is a true call if the only response to God’s siren call upon your life is to repeat Ruth’s words: “wherever you go, I will go.”  You will know that the sincerity of God’s call upon your life if like Andrew, you know that there is only one response to God’s call – to simply follow, in faith, never knowing where God’s call will take you. 

            Think of all the people in our past with the devotion of Andrew and Ruth who have made this church what it is today.  Though in our past, the saints who began this congregation named for the priest who had the courage to begin a new thing in the Heights, those saints are with us and in our midst as we celebrate St. Andrew’s Day today.

            The amount of faith to build this church, the strength and the resilience of those before us who had the foresight to start this church, without them, without Ruth, without Andrew, we wouldn’t be here today.

            It is difficult to find God in safety and security.  So if you want to prevent yourself from an encounter with the divine and insure that you will never hear God’s call, then never take a risk.  Never step out in faith, make safety and security your God, and you will guarantee yourself a life that is sufficiently stable and boring. 

            God is calling every person to ministry.  All of us are called.  No one is exempt.  What is the ministry God is calling, or has called you to?  Are you doing it?  If so, thank God.  Thank God, because the world is in desperate need for those who are called to restore it.  People like you.  AMEN.  

November 19, 2017

Proper 28

ZEPHANIAH 1:7,12-18; PSALM 90:1-8, (9-11), 12; 1 THESSALONIANS 5:1-11; MATTHEW 25:14-30


If you had one daughter, what would you do with her?  Would you, like the cowardly servant given one talent, hide her away, or would you spin her out into the world to flourish?

If you had two daughters, what would you do with them?  Would you guard them, or would you send them out into the world in strength?

If you had five daughters, what then?  Would you bury them, or would you spin them out into the world to flourish?

The church this week was faced with America’s moral confusion about the worth of girls and women.

I borrow the phrase ‘moral confusion’ from an African intellectual who writes that moral confusion arises, “When what is used as a criterion of right and wrong [by some] is different from what other participants elsewhere use; …   Moral confusion can arise not because there is no objective instrument to measure morality but simply because the people who ought to make moral judgements are mistaken about applying moral principles.”

We were told this week that the Bible condones through the example of Joseph and Mary, sexual relationships between older men and minor girls.  A part of the Christian church defended certain abuses of women, belying that our secular moral confusion is also our religious moral confusion.

So, the church must sort out if parts of itself are using different criterion for morality and if so, what we must do about that.  Do we simply agree to disagree about the moral principal of the inherent worth of all people, or do we have a problem here more akin to mismanagement of a true and universal value for all persons?

The new song entitled, “Female,” written by the highly respected and exceedingly successful country music star Keith Urban, continues to gain power and relevance as the moral confusion about women’s worth is more and more grossly exposed.

The chorus or refrain is as follows:

Sister, shoulder
Daughter, lover
Healer, broken halo
Mother nature
Fire, suit of armor
Soul survivor, Holy Water
Secret keeper, fortune teller
Virgin Mary, scarlet letter
Technicolor river wild
Baby girl, women shine

When somebody talks about how it was Adam first
Does that make you second best?
Or did he save the best for last?

How important it is for influential men like Keith Urban to stand on a stage and attempt to clarify our moral confusion.  Urban received a standing ovation after his debut performance of this song at the 51st Annual Country Music Association Awards earlier in November.  Women need men of conscious to help clarify moral confusion, and it is always powerful when a man with a public role takes a stand for the inherent worth of all people.  I am personally moved by the song and am grateful for it.  I also grieve that it is so much better received when a man takes a stand on behalf of a woman than when a woman speaks out on behalf of herself.  Our moral confusion rings even in our ears.

Michael Sokolove in his book Warrior Girls wrote, “Millions of dads have come to see their daughters as strong, rather than as delicate flowers who need their fierce protection. But strong is not invincible.”  The Christian tradition wants all people to find their strength and the Christian tradition also knows the devastation of woundedness.

God says, “Come to me all ye that are heavy laden, and I will refresh you.”  I want to say to all women and girls, come to the Episcopal Church, and we will do everything we can to refresh you.  There is no parallel between the ancient marriage customs of Mesopotamia and Israel and assaults on today’s young women and girls.  As described in scripture a woman’s body is a sacred formation not an onramp for her to earn her inheritance in this life.  Women were never intended to be a scratching post for the shadow side of our society.

With or without Christianity, all people are created equal.  What makes Christianity relevant to this moment is its moral agency to assert and defend the inherent dignity of all as it is being denied.

This week we enter a season of feasting, starting with Thanksgiving.  Thanksgiving is a day that consistently manifests America’s moral clarity.  During this week the returns from the fields will be abundant and abundantly shared.  We will cook.  We will wash.  We will take care.  We will travel to be with others.  And many of us will remember anew those who are often forgotten.  Thanksgiving is a day of our moral clarity in that we prioritize relationships.  We feed our bodies.  And we are mindful of the present without distraction.  May the clarity of this week’s feast be a lighthouse to the moral standard of the worth of us all.