June 11, 2017

Trinity Sunday

Genesis 1:1 – 2:4a; Psalm 8; 2 Corinthians 13: 11-13; Matthew 28:16-20



 

The Rev. James M.L. Grace

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

            “Agree with one another, live in peace; and the God of love and peace will be with you.”  Those are the words Paul concludes his second correspondence to the church in Corinth with.  Three simple statements: agree with one another, live in peace, and God of love and peace will be with you.  They are deceptively simple sounding, aren’t they?

            I can almost imagine Paul just finishing his letter, saying “oh just get along, be cool with each other, and everything will be alright.”  It’s easy to think that those pithy statements which conclude the end of 2 Corinthians were simple add-ons to his letter, a simple “oh and by the way…”  But they’re not.

            The thing about reading Paul’s letters is that there is always a reason behind what is written.  The problem is, we don’t know exactly what the reason was for Paul to write those words.  See, reading the letters of Paul to his church communities is kind of like listening to one half of a telephone conversation.  Imagine you are in a room, the phone rings, and someone answers, and this is what you hear: “Hello”  “yeah, okay”  “No, it needs to be there by Tuesday, not Thursday.”  “She needs it for her class Tuesday”  “I’m not sure where but I know she can get it by then”  “She’s in New York City.”  “Okay”  “Love you, too, bye.”  Well, you don’t really know what that conversation was about, but your intuition would suggest that it was about someone who lived in New York City who needed something by Tuesday, and that the person talking on the phone obviously was in close relationship with the other, why else would they say “love you too”?

            It’s the same when reading, or hearing Paul’s letters – when we read, or hear, Paul, we are witnessing one half of a conversation.  A little context here. Paul started a church in Corinth, Greece, but he left, to start churches elsewhere.  Probably what happened was that after leaving Corinth, Paul received a letter or something that conveyed to him things were not going great back at that church he started in Corinth, which is presumably why he writes this letter in the first place. 

            If Paul is offering three statements to close this letter, there must be a reason why.  When Paul says “agree with one another,” then that probably means, people in the church weren’t in agreement, about something.  People were probably arguing about something. When Paul says “live in peace” that suggests there was conflict of some kind.  And finally, Paul’s admonition that if they agree with each other and they live in peace, then the God of love and peace will be with them.  Perhaps that suggests to us that the church Paul started was uncertain God was even with them in the first place. 

            What all of this suggests is this: from its very beginning, the church there has been no stranger to conflict!  So why does any of this matter?  I think this is why.  When I hear Paul say “agree with one another” I don’t think what Paul meant was “everybody think the same.”  And I don’t think he meant “everyone has to agree about who or what God is.”  What I hear is different: that the church is large and diverse enough to embrace a variety of belief and practice.  The church is large enough for disagreement.  It is large enough so that one person doesn’t need to be right.  That’s the kind of agreement Paul was encouraging – not an agreement of ideas or belief, but an agreement of love which gives space so that people can disagree, and it’s okay.

            When Paul says “live in peace” he’s saying exactly the same thing, but just in a different way.  And finally, when Paul says “the God of love and peace will be with you” he’s simply restating, for a third time, what he said in the beginning: agree in love, because it is love that holds everything together.

            And if that message falls on deaf, cynical, or jaded ears this morning – I understand.  The news, the stories of global violence, conflict in our government, people hating each other, all of it makes me feel cynical, too.  But then I read Paul, and I hear something said three times, because once is not enough: Agree. Peace. Love.  All variations on the same theme, and I remember yet again that we are called by God to be united, not uniform; peaceful, not passive; loving, not judging. 

            Today is Trinity Sunday, a day that tries to acknowledge how God exists in many ways, and yet somehow is one.  I’ve been to seminary, I’ve been a priest for twelve years – I still don’t understand the idea of the Trinity, which is fine, because as author Karen Armstong says, “Jesus did not spend a great deal of time discoursing about the Trinity . . . which has preoccupied later Christians.  Instead he went around doing good and being compassionate.” 

            Today Paul offers a triune agreement to model our lives upon.  Agree with one another, live in peace, and know that God is with you.  Maybe that’s what the Trinity is: a model of love that turns and turns, reaching out, reaching in, always offering, always knowing.  AMEN.

June 4, 2017

Pentecost

Acts 2:1-21; Psalm 104:25-35, 37b; 1 Corinthians 12: 3b-13; John 20: 19-23



The Rev. James M.L. Grace

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

            We have billboards all over this city.  You drive along the freeways, you can’t miss them.  I try to ignore most of them, but some occasionally catch my eye.  Like one that used to be on 1-10 which asked a provocative question regarding our mortality.  You all might have seen it when driving back into Houston from San Antonio – the billboard said something like “If you were to die right now would you go to heaven (the word “heaven” was in elegant blue cursive script) or hell (written in giant red letters H-E-L-L)?” 

            The effect of this particular billboard was somewhat diminished, however, by a sign for the “Buffalo Wild Wings” restaurant which was placed almost immediately in front of it.  If you were driving by at just the right moment and glanced up at the billboard, the question presented would read this way: “If you were to die right now would you go to heaven or Buffalo Wild Wings?”  That’s a tough question, especially if you like wings as much as I do.

            Something I’ve noticed about billboards in our city that advertise churches is that those billboards frequently feature a person or two on them.   Typically the person on a church billboard advertisement is the Sr. pastor or head priest (and because they all tend to be mostly men and straight, they are pictured alongside their wives, who stand beside them with perfect hair and smiles plastered smile on their face as if the perception of “success” those billboards present are what being a Christian is all about.  Those billboards depress me for a number of reasons, including the fact that they promote and perhaps reinforce the idea that the pastor or priest in charge of the church has it altogether, which is a lie, but more distressing to me is that these billboards promote, at least to me, the toxic idea that the head priest or pastor (and of course their spouses) are the center of the church, the very hub at the center of the wheel.

            Nothing could be further from the truth.  Today we hear part of a letter written by the Apostle Paul to a church he helped establish in the Greek city of Corinth.  The recipients of the letter 1 Corinthians lived in a commercial city accustomed to trade, commerce, and culture – similar to Houston, just without all the billboards. 

            Which is probably for the better, because in the part of the letter to the church in Corinth we hear today, Paul reminds the community that every person in the church has a gift given to them by God.  Paul calls them spiritual gifts: the gifts of knowledge, faith, wisdom, healing, working of miracles, discernment, and the list goes on.

            I can only imagine that the purpose behind Paul writing these words was that the church he was writing to was not dependent upon the person on the billboard to run the show.  It was understood back then that a church was not about a leader or even a building, it was about the community.  The word in Greek used to describe this community is ekklesia, which means “to call out.”  It’s another word for “church.” An ekklesia community was one in which the people brought their diverse gifts to the table for the well-being and betterment of the whole. 

            Three years ago this month, we had a service in this church in which I was “installed” as the Rector of this congregation.  I always have found that language confusing – it makes me sound like an appliance.  You install a refrigerator or a microwave, and apparently in the Episcopal Church we “install” clergy too.  During the service, the priest who gave the homily said something which stands out in my memory, and it was this.  He said that priest, or a Rector, whatever you want to call me, can do very little acting alone.  He continued to say that if I and by extension, Carissa, were to try anything by ourselves at this church, the chances of failure would be high and the reason is simple: it takes a community – an ekklesia, a church to affect change.

            For the past several months you all have heard about the work we have been doing as a parish in order to consider our vision for where and what we believe God is calling us to be in the coming years.  We have had meetings, a parish survey; you can read an update on our Visioning work in the June issue of our newsletter, The Voice.  And there is much work left for all of us to do, and that is a good thing, because it’s not just a few people doing this work, it’s an effort of this community, of you all, of the Vestry, the staff, because if we want to become God’s dream, we cannot do it alone – we need each other.

            Today is Pentecost, a day when we celebrate the birth of God’s dream, which some call an ekklesia, a community of people coming together for a purpose and a meaning larger than themselves – a community which recognizes that the power of the people is greater than the people in power.  When the Holy Spirit descended, she didn't say ‘you all go do a bunch of stuff, go out and minister but make sure Paul is involved because he's in charge.”  If that would've happened - the church would have died, quickly.  Thank God it didn’t.  Thank God people listened to the Spirit, and began doing new things. 

            That same spirit that empowered the disciples is here, and it is calling us to do the same.  And we are listening.  We are going out into the world, serving.  Next week part of our church will help cook and serve breakfast to a homeless community of two hundred people.  One of our parishioners, John Ibanez, has answered a call to pursue the ministry of serving as a Deacon in the church, and been approved by the Diocese to begin that work.  Things are happening here!  So what is your gift?  How have you shared your gift with this community?  And if you haven’t yet, how would this church be improved because of your contribution, your gift, your ministry?

            For those of you who have already shared your gifts and are resting on your laurels – you’re not off the hook.  Your job is to invite others to share their gifts in this place, because we are too big for that responsibility to fall on one person alone.  We are a community.  Nothing is more powerful than a community that knows its purpose and knows what God is calling them to do – nothing is more powerful than the Spirit of God present in the gifts, talents, and ministries of her people.  AMEN.

May 28, 2017

Easter 7

Acts 1:6-14; Psalm 68:1-10, 33-36; 1 Peter 4:12-14;5:6-11; John 17: 1-11



THE REV. CARISSA BALDWIN-MCGINNIS

At the time of our death, we long for the mystery of love extended through God.

My spouse and I recently took care of an important piece of overdue business.  We finally signed and made legal our wills which had been drafted months before.  Our delay felt reckless, because we have a special needs toddler.  Guardians had been named and had agreed, but the legal documents were not in place.  The technical process could not have been more emotional.  While the documents were being prepared, I imagined every possible scenario in which we could orphan our child and all the ways that she might possibly subsequently be abandoned in the world.

As I cried my tears and worried and worried, I came to recognize that destitution was not what I feared for my child.  My greatest fear was that she might end up with no one to love her.  My heart and my liver were overcome with a toxic grief of total fantasy.  Luckily, a lawyer type in the family reminded me of how statistically unlikely the realization of my grotesque fears was.  With the documents signed and the activity behind us, I have more or less recovered a state of sound mind.  And I was reminded from this experience that a common death time wish is release for ourselves and extended love for those whom we have taken most to heart.

There are so many ways we love and fall in love.  There is summer camp love and war time love.  There are beloved friendships that develop through shared work, marriage, hobbies, places of worship and places of learning.  There are many patterns of the process of taking someone or some ones deep into our hearts.  There are also sad times when we recognize that we have failed to take someone to heart or to hold them close to our center.  Hopefully in those cases, we take new habits.  We start over.  Or we try again with someone new, doing it differently the next time around.

Sometimes we have to fake love until we can make it a reality.  My foster son has had to learn how to give and receive love.  While he spent much of his time with us defending against it, because he did not feel safe I saw him practicing with a most unlikely recipient of his affections.  A clove of garlic he named “Baby Garlic.”  With Baby Garlic he could safely exercise his words of compassion and actions of caring.  “Baby Garlic, are you hungry?  Baby Garlic, time for bed.”  Somehow thatclove of garlic traveled the path to my son’s heart, so that he could make way for the rest of us to map to his heart.

Much like us the church also takes people to heart and in a number of ways.  We offer sacraments.  We provide pastoral care.  And we reach out in mercy with healing hands or food and clothing.  One of the things that most impressed me about St. Andrew’s was the number of hands that assemble our 300 sack lunches every month as though it was the obvious thing to do with your time and resources.  I was equally impressed by the dissemination of those lunches.  One staff person and one parishioner know the names and stories of the dozens of people who ring our doorbell Monday through Friday and ask to be fed.  They never say ‘no.’  They always say ‘yes.’  They ask no qualifying questions but more often something like, ‘Would you like some water or fresh fruit to go with that?’

I thought and thought about the depth of those relationships the door, and then it hit me.  Trish and Dave are the two who have taken these brothers and sisters to heart, but the rest of us as a whole still do not know them nor they us.  As a result fourteen of us set up tables in St. Andrew’s House one Saturday morning and covered them with placemats, flowers, bread baskets, jelly, butter, flatware, glass plates and coffee mugs.  We invited members of the sack lunch community to join us for breakfast.  Twenty-two came.  Thick, delicious, homemade casseroles abounded, and we shared stories and listened and no one tried to fix anyone else.

As the hosts our hearts were touched.  We had taken our new friends to be ‘our own’ in the gospel sense, and we had felt unconditionally loved by them while they were with us.  If we ever thought that we or our sack lunches were to go away, we would likely pray the prayer that Jesus prayed.  “Take care of them, God.  Protect them in your name.  For they became ours and now they are yours.”

I hear a vulnerable Jesus, working on his final will and testament in this Gospel of John.  I hear Jesus begging God that his comrades and companions whom he had taken so to heart would somehow know and feel the extended power of his care even after he would be gone.  It is a final plea that reminds us of the mysterious way that God can take multiple forms, drawing us into the divine circle of endless love.

Lately the church at large asks itself an ethical question which is whether or not ministries like our sack lunch are toxic.  Do they perpetuate helplessness? Do they keep people from their strength?  It is an open question that we at St. Andrew’s have neither asked nor answered.  The question can lead us anywhere.  We know the Biblical admonishments to feed the hungry, and we know the feasting stories.  And we at St. Andrew’s know how to love through food.  So as we pray our way through World Hunger Day and as we potentially ask the toxicity question, let our goal and our guide take us to that place put forth in hymn 487 – the place Jesus was asking for his friends - a place of “… joy as none can move…” and a place of “…love as none part.”

May 21, 2017

6 Easter

Acts 17:22-31; Psalm 66: 7-18; 1 Peter 3:13-22; John 14: 15-21



The Rev. James M.L. Grace

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

            It’s time to learn a fancy Greek word.  Before you all think “wow, we’re learning Greek in church, the Rector is so sophisticated and smart,” just know that the Greek word I am about to share with you is one of like two actual Greek words that I know.  Though I wish I were the person who could throw out Greek or Latin words at a moment’s notice, I am not.  But there are a few leftovers from seminary that I still remember, and one of them is the word “paraklatos” (par-ah-clay-tas).  Try saying it, it’s fun.  Paraklatos is a word used throughout the Second, or New Testament, and translated into English, the word is “paraclete.” 

            I know all of this is deeply fascinating to all of you, but here is why the word is important.  Paraklatos, or paraclete, literally means “to call alongside.”  During the time of Jesus, a paraclete was a person you called upon if you were hauled into court on false charges.  The paraclete would come to your defense, your rescue, and would defend you.  A paraclete was like a lawyer.

            We hear this word, paraclete, in today’s Gospel from John – sort of.  Here is where we hear it, from the beginning of the reading when Jesus is having dinner with the disciples.  Jesus says: “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.  And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate to be with you forever.”  That word – Advocate – is one of several meanings of the word paraclete.

            So, why is this even important?  It’s important because in saying all this I have used up five minutes of sermon time, which means we only have a few minutes left.  But more importantly than that, it is important because “paraklatos” is the word Jesus used to describe the Holy Spirit when he was having his final meal with his disciples, the night before his crucifixion.  Think about it – Jesus knows how all this is going to go down.  He knows that he is going to the cross.  The disciples don’t know as much, and they are nervous, and scared, and basically freaking out.  They didn’t have Zoloft or Prozac back then, so Jesus is telling them “it’s going to be okay.  When I leave you all, I will send the paraclete, the advocate, to be with you.”  In saying this, Jesus is not telling the disciples that he is going to send a bunch of lawyers who are going to bill the disciples hourly for their work.

            Jesus is talking about the Holy Spirit.  Jesus is promising to them that the Holy Spirit, the paraklatos, will be their advocate, will be a constant present among them, throughout their anxiety and their fear.  Even though Jesus is leaving them, they will not be orphaned. 

            He says to the disciples: “I will not leave you orphaned.”  And even though he was saying those words to the disciples, he is also saying them to us.  Because God will never forsake us.  It doesn’t matter what happens in our lives, how awful things get, nothing truly has the power to rob us of our hope, unless we allow it.  We have hope because the paraclete, the paraklatos, the Holy Spirit, the advocate, whatever you want to call it, is with us, always. 

            And hope is one of the few things in out lives that is not constrained by our situation.  Our lives can be giant mess – everything falling apart – but if we have hope, that means we know the Holy Spirit is with us, and if that is true, we will be fine, even if we are not. 

            I remember early on in my ministry in one week marking two events that were both characterized by hope.  The first was the joyful news that former parishioners – a Jamaican woman, her Vietnamese husband, and their beautiful children became United States citizens after years of hard work.  Their future was full of hope.  The second event, though full of hope, was also tragic.  The same week I celebrated this families good news, I was called in to grieve with a man who lost his wife to a brain anyeurism when she was only 35 years old, leaving behind two young children, a two year old and a four year old. 

            The woman was a nurse, and she was born in Nigeria, which means that she had a beautiful name: her name was N’kiruka, a Nigerian word which means “what is in the future is better.”  Hope would be another way to define this name.  It was not lost upon the community grieving her death, that they were not grieving the death of hope, but rather witnessing its resurrection.  Like Jesus,N’kiruka departed the world prematurely – too soon.  But her name, N’kiruka is a bold statement that even in death, we, as Jesus says, are not orphaned, because hope never dies. 

            In the midst of whatever scares us – fear, darkness, death – the paraklatos stands to remind us that we will never be alone, because we have been given a powerful gift: hope.  We have been given a name: N’kiruka – hope.  You have a precious hope within you.  Don’t waste it.  Share it.  Because we need it.  All of us.  AMEN.      

May 14, 2017

Easter 5

Acts 7:55-7:60; Psalm 31: 1-5, 15-16; 1 Peter 2:2-10; John 14: 1-14

 



The Rev. James M.L. Grace

 

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

            Happy Mother’s Day, Carissa.  Happy Mother’s Day, everyone.  However you feel about Mother’s Day – for some it is a day of joy, for some it is a day of sadness, some people who decide to come to church on this day come expecting a sermon about good ol’ mom, filled with sentimental platitudes and cute stories about motherhood and children. I have given those sermons in the past, but I am about to commit the grave sin of not preaching about mothers on Mothers Day.  No funny stories, no emotional tug to get you to call mom today.  Strike one.  If this is what you were expecting and you are disappointed you are free to get up and leave, and my feelings will not be hurt.

            I should say that’s not all, though.  It gets worse, actually.  Today, on a day celebrating the many gifts women offer, motherhood being one of them, I am not even going to talk about women, that’s right, my sermon today is based on our reading from Acts, which is a story about a bunch of dudes.  Strike two.  And the third strike against this sermon is that I am going to retell the story we just heard from Acts, a huge preaching violation for me that I am loathe to commit but am doing so to provide context to this story.  Wow, what a doozy of a sermon!  Who wants to hear this?

            Here we go.  It all starts with the Apostle Paul – the first theologian, the author of some of the greatest early Christian writing contained in the Second, or New Testament.  Paul wrote profound statements of God’s capacity to love, the most famous in 1 Corinthians 13: “And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.”  At his best moments, Paul stood for radical inclusion in the early church as expressed in Romans 1:16 “I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first, and also to the Greek.”  Paul paved the way for non Jews, or gentiles, like you and me, to be incorporated into the church.  Without Paul there is no theology, there is no depth of understanding the power of what God did on our behalf in Christ.  Paul is the foundation of Christian thought (some of his letters in the Second Testament pre – date the four Gospels).  Some even go so far as to say without Paul, Christianity would not have survived.  It did.  But there’s a problem.

            And the problem is that this great ambassador for the Christian faith was also a murderer.  The reading from Acts this morning tells the story of Stephen, recognized as the first Christian martyr, or witness, to die because of his faith, and guess who allowed it?  Good old, “the greatest of these is love” Paul.  See, Stephen was one of seven people selected by the disciples to help them in figuring out how to carry out all the work that they were doing.  What this means is that while Jesus’ original followers were doing things like praying, studying, teaching, there were a number of needs in the community that were going unmet, for example people were going hungry, people needed clothing, shelter, you get the idea.  Stephen, and others, were chosen for this purpose by the disciples. 

            In the midst of doing his work, Stephen raised the ire of some because of his preaching.  He was arrested for preaching publicly about the life of Jesus and of Christ’s claim to be the Messiah, God’s anointed.  Stephen was brought before the council of priests in Jerusalem, likely the same council that ended up sentencing Jesus.  Before the high priest of the council, Stephen presents his case in a lengthy speech, recalled in chapter 7 of Acts. 

            Rather than having their minds changed about Stephen in light of his defense to them, the council instead responds out of anger, threatening him, and eventually dragging him out of the city of Jerusalem, where like Jesus, he was condemned to die a humiliating death.  Not upon a cross, but to be stoned.  The reason Stephen was brought outside the city for his murder by stoning is because of a requirement in Leviticus 24:14 which reads: “Take the blasphemer outside the camp; and let all who were within hearing lay their hands on his head, and let the whole congregation stone him.”  Uplifting stuff, right?

            Watching over all this, is a man introduced in the Bible for the first time by the name of Saul.  The part of Stephen’s murder we don’t hear about is in the very next verse which follows, Acts 8:1 which reads “[a]nd Saul approved of their killing him.”  Saul, later named Paul, arguably the world’s greatest Christian theologian and apologist for the faith, allowed people to murder an innocent man.  How’s that for a feel-good Mother’s Day sermon!          

            You know – it actually is, I think, and here is why.

            If you are a mother, has your child ever done something you were unable to forgive?  Something so bad, so sinister, so evil – you could not, and will not forgive?  Or, for the rest of you non-mothers out there, have you personally ever done something that you feel is unforgivable, something so mean, so selfish, so hurtful? 

            Saul did.  He in effect murdered one of the first Deacons of the church.   

            And God forgave him.  God sought him out, blinded him on the road to Damascus, and gave him a new name, Paul.  If God can forgive, perhaps we should too.  So forget all that stuff I said earlier about this not being a Mother’s Day sermon.  It really is.

            What parent doesn’t struggle with their child, as God struggled with Saul?  And yet in spite of the awful things Saul did, God still found a redeeming quality in him.  Maybe we can learn to look at our parents, our children, our neighbors the same way. 

            None of us – parent or child – is perfect.  Like Saul we struggle and we all make horrible mistakes.  But not one of those mistakes, no matter how errant, is outside the realm God’s forgiveness.  Everything is forgiven, and if God can find a way to forgive Saul, then perhaps God has already forgiven your mother or your father, or even, perhaps, you.  Happy Mother’s Day.  AMEN. 

           

May 7, 2017

4 Easter

Acts 2:42-47; Psalm 23; 1 Peter 2:19-25; John 10: 1-10



The Rev. James M.L. Grace

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

            In a brightly lit emergency room inside a hospital, I pulled out my prayer book and opened to the 23rd psalm.  I looked into the eyes of a woman standing a few feet away from and watched as tears fell from her face towards the floor.  I began to read: “The Lord is My Shepherd, I shall not be in want, he makes me to lie down in green pastures and leads me besides still waters, he revives my soul and guides me along right pathways for his Name’s sake.  Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil.”

            I stopped. 

            The woman’s tears continued, as she stared at the body lying on a gurney – a woman who was her friend, who had breathed her last.  Shortly after, a nurse entered the room, and draped a sheet over the deceased woman’s face, and rolled the gurney out of the room to the morgue. 

            Like the teary eyes of that woman in the emergency room, the 23rd psalm today brings us immediately to death’s doorstep.  But we are not meant to stay there.  We are meant to walk through it, and with God beside us, we fear no evil.

            Today is Good Shepherd Sunday – a reference to the image of God as our shepherd in the 23rd Psalm, and also in the Gospel of John today, in which Jesus is identified as the Good Shepherd.  What these two readings in the Bible – John chapter 10 and the 23rd psalm – have in common is that they both point us toward life, and away from death.

            In John chapter 10 Jesus is talking to a group of people, employing the common image of a shepherd watching over a flock, and using that image to describe who he is as a Good Shepherd.  In essence Jesus is borrowing on the image of a shepherd in the23rd Psalm, stating that he, the Lord is our shepherd.  This kind of imagery is lost on many of us in the 21st century, but I will never forget seeing an honest to god real shepherd, over twenty years ago. 

            I was travelling with my brother, and we were in the middle eastern country of Jordan, which borders Israel, visiting the ancient city of Petra, a city carved into the rose-colored rock of the land.  While exploring the outlaying areas, I from out of nowhere  a shepherd with a heard of twenty of so sheep walked past us.  At first I thought I stumbled into some Six Flags over Jordan Bible theme park, but this was the real thing.  The shepherd kept his flock close, led them to his home, which is in a cave.  It was like going back two thousand years in time. 

            If, as Psalm 23 and John 10 both proclaim that God is our shepherd, then what does that mean for us today?  The answer is simple.  In the Gospel today, Jesus says:  “The thief comes only to kill and destroy.  I came that they might have life and have it abundantly.”  That’s the answer, the sole purpose why Jesus came to us – so that we could have abundant life.  So what does it mean to live abundantly, following God’s shepherd?  Not what you think, probably.

            Abundant life is not about easy living.  It’s not about the soul less acquisition of more and more things.  Abundant life, as Christ teaches it, is about one thing: sacrifice.  I know that doesn’t sound enticing, but it’s the truth.  Our culture tries to sell us lies about abundant living being all about ownership of stuff, but Jesus teaches us that abundant living is the result of sacrifice in our life.  This teaching, whether we realize it or not, is the message we hear every Sunday – our Sunday service is about sacrifice.  We put money in a plate – that’s a sacrifice.  We gather around a table where God is offered to us in bread and wine, where we hear the words “Christ our passover is…sacrificed…for us.” 

            An unpopular, but necessary spiritual truth is that there is no such thing as abundant life without sacrifice.  If we don’t learn that, then spiritually we are still in pre-school.  Think about what you sacrificed to be here today – sleeping in, brunch, a casual morning.  Was the sacrifice you made worth the abundance you now feel? 

            Years ago I attended a retreat with Episcopal clergy from all over the country, and we began each day with worship, which included a sermon.  I don’t remember any of the sermon’s – except one.  The priest, who was from Alabama, stood up, and said “The world and the church do not owe you a damn thing.”  He actually used more colorful language than that, which is why it was so memorable to me.  But it was true - his words were prophetic to me then, a realization that all of us are not entitled to anything, rather we are called to abundant life, a life that though full is not equated with being comfortable or easy.  Jesus’ life certainly wasn’t.  Jesus taught us a graduate –level hard hitting spiritual truth that the prerequisite for true abundance in life is sacrifice.  Maybe that doesn’t sound like good news to you this morning, but it does to me, and here is why.  All of us know the feeling of helping another person.  We feel good.  We feel abundant.  Why?  Because we are created to give ourselves to others. 

            So if God is calling you to abundant life, and you feel that everything in your life is scarce, you don’t have enough time, you don’t have enough money, you don’t have enough love.  Jesus would say you don’t need more of those things, and challenges us today instead to consider then what do we need to give up, what do we need to sacrifice?  What needs to die, so that resurrection can occur?

            The body, now wheeled out from the room.  I sat beside the woman, her tears still flowing down her face, in shock about losing her friend.  I held her hand, and said nothing.  She looked at me, and it was something like 2:30 in the morning – we were both tired, and she squeezed my hand, tightly, and said “thank you.”  And in that holy moment, for the first time, I understood life, abundantly.  AMEN.

April 30, 2017

3 Easter

Acts 2:14a, 36-41; Psalm 116: 1-3, 10-17; 1 Peter 1:17-23; Luke 24: 13-35



THE REV. JAMES M. L. GRACE

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

I have kind of a weird relationship with the Bible.  I have read it, I have studied it, and I continue to do that.  Some times when I read the Bible I am amazed beyond words at all the meaning contained on those thin, tissue paper like pages.  But other times, when I read the Bible, I can find it so challenging.  And there are some books of the Bible that just present a real challenge to me, because so much of what I read in them, I disagree with as a human being and as a priest.  One of those books is 1Peter, which we hear today.  1 Peter is in the part of the Bible most call the “New Testament,” and while I’ve already said there are parts of the Bible I disagree with, I’ll go a step further and say I don’t like the phrase “New Testament.”  Why?

Because when we hear “New Testament” we might think, “newer is better” therefore the New Testament is newer, better, than the “Old Testament.”  Our culture seems to place greater value on new things than it does on old things.  So I just try to avoid using those terms old and new testament altogether,  because when Jesus was alive, he didn’t call it the “old testament.”  He called it scripture, so I that’s what I call the Old testament – I call the Hebrew Bible.  Others prefer to call it the First Testament, andI like to call the “new testament” the “Second Testament.”  Because the new does not replace the old, nor is it better.  The only times I use the words “old testament” and “new testament” are in reference to the heavy metal band “Testament,” to refer to albums they released in the 1980s “old” and in the last five years “new.”   

So I think I was trying to talk about 1 Peter, a difficult book for me in the Bible, and here is why.  I am going to share with you several verses that I really struggle with in this book:

1 Peter 2:18-19: “Slaves, accept the authority of your masters with all deference, not only those who are kind and gentle but also those who are harsh.  For it is a credit to you if, being aware of God, you endure pain while suffering unjustly.”  1 Peter 3:1: “Wives…accept the authority of your husbands, so that, even if some of them do not obey the word, they may be won over without a word by their wives’ conduct.  1 Peter 3:7: “Husbands, show consideration for your wives in your life together, paying honor to the woman as the weaker sex.”  Now I need to stop there, because there is just a lot of bad theology there.  Women as the weaker sex?  Watch the actresses Sigourney Weaver as Ripley in the movie “Aliens” or Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in the movie “Mad Max: Fury Road” and it’s obvious those characters had more strength and resolve than all the men sitting in this church today, myself included!  And in Mad Max, Charlize Theron’s character only was one arm!

But there are parts of 1 Peter that are really good, like the part we hear today.  I love what the author’s description of what Christ does on our behalf.  In essence, the author of 1 Peter says that in his dying and in his resurrection, Jesus ransoms us from death.  So what does that mean?  To ransom someone is to purchase their freedom, like a slave’s freedom bought from a Roman master.  The point 1 Peter makes is that this is what Jesus did for us.  He bought our freedom from death, not with money, but with his life.

If you sit with that for a moment, and really think about, it is powerful.  We are all free, ransomed from death, because Christ paid the price on our behalf.  So yes, we die, and our bodies grow old.  But that is not the end of our story.  The end of our story has already been written, by Christ, who has saved us, freed us, from really dying. 

One final note on context.  I shared with you all challenging verses in 1 Peter, about marriage and slave ownership.  1 Peter was written about forty years after the crucifixion of Jesus, so like around the year 70-ish.  The world at that time was densely patriarchal, and it was a world in which slavery was common.

After almost two thousand years, how much has the world really changed?  That’s another sermon for another time.  But my point is simply that in the Episcopal Church, we value and embrace a reading of the Bible that makes room for context.   That means there are many ways to interpret scripture, to read it, and to understand it.  The verses I shared earlier pertaining to marriage and slavery – I read those simply as history, cultural evidence from the first century.  Interesting, but not necessarily relevant for me in 2017. 

But what we hear in 1 Peter today is relevant.  We are emancipated, we are freed from the tyranny of death.  How many of us today really live our lives knowing we are free and truly alive?   To live free from death means that we are not concerned with small things.  To live a life emancipated from death means to look outside ourselves, to look outside this church, and consider, where are we needed?  Where can we bring life?  That’s the whole point of the visioning work we are doing as a church together.  And for everyone who completed our parish survey – thank you for doing so.  The Vestry will be reviewing your responses soon, and we will continue to move forward together.  But bigger than that, God has already called out our name, and brought us out from our grave.  We are neither new or old, slave or master, male or female.  We are free, and God is calling us out into the world to show others what true freedom looks like.  Will you go?  AMEN.

     

April 23, 2017

2 Easter

Acts 2:14a, 22-32; Psalm 16; 1 Peter 1:3-9; John 20: 19-31


THE REV. JAMES M. L. GRACE

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

Easter is a season – last Sunday was the first Sunday of Easter, and was kind of a big deal.  There were a lot of people here, there was an Easter Egg hunt, we had an Easter brunch in the parish hall – we did a lot of things here last Sunday.  Today is the second Sunday of the Easter season, and today there is no egg hunt, there is no brunch in the parish hall, and our pews, well, shall we say, have more room to “stretch out” in, kind of like that “economy plus” seating you have to pay extra for on the airlines.

If you were to ask someone who works in a church to describe today, there’s a good chance you would hear today described as a  “low Sunday” a reference to the common lower attendance that most churches experience the Sunday after Easter Sunday. At least that is the phrase that I have always heard. “Low Sunday” doesn’t just translate to “lower” attendance the Sunday after Easter, but it also refers to “lower energy” in the church overall.  The church volunteers and staff are tired from all the activity of the week before, maybe the priest giving the sermon on “low Sunday” is using an old recycled sermon from last year – not that I have ever done that before - but you get the idea – low energy, lower attendance, low Sunday.

I used to work for a priest who didn’t believe in the concept of “low Sunday,” who would intentionally schedule activities on anticipated “low Sundays” -maybe like having baptisms at the 10:30 service –  in an effort to keep momentum going.

While once I was uncomfortable with the concept of “low Sundays” – I didn’t like the feel of low energy Sunday mornings, I feel differently about them now, because of what I read in the Bible about them.  The story that we hear in today’s Gospel is a story about a “low Sunday” if there ever was one.  We learn that Jesus’ closest friends and disciples are gathered in a room on the first day of the week – a Sunday.

Imagine how they are feeling – their friend, their leader, Jesus, has been dead only a few days.  The person who united them, who did miraculous things with them, who taught them to be better than themselves, he was gone.  And those disciples, those men and women who accomplished great things with Jesus when he was alive, now find themselves without him wondering what do we do now?

There probably was not a lot of energy in the room.   There were no great crowds, no miracles, no brunches, no Easter egg hunts.  Just a bunch of people wondering, where do we go from here?   And then, of all days, Jesus shows up – on a low Sunday.  Jesus appears in the room somehow – we don’t know how, since the doors of the house were locked.  Either Jesus was really handy picking locks or somehow he was able to supernaturally appear there with them.  Regardless – it doesn’t matter, because when they all see Jesus, they must have been scared because Jesus says “Peace be with you.”  In other words, if this event were to happen today, Jesus would probably quote Bob Marley: “Don’t Worry – Every little thing is gonna be alright!”

The power of this story, at least for me, is that Jesus shows up in our lives, regardless.  We don’t need pageantry, we don’t need to have our lives figured out, because often it is during the “low Sundays” of our lives, where like the disciples, Jesus meets us.  In other words, it’s in the everyday moments of our lives.  It’s in the parts of our lives that are boring, the parts of our lives that are far from glamorous, where it is easiest to see Jesus showing up.  Somehow, like walking into the room with the disciples, Jesus figures out a way into our hearts, no matter how well we have locked them up. 

Some time ago at another church I had a conversation with a person who was struggling to be reconciled to another person in the congregation.  This person was just mad at the other.  The struggle lasted for awhile, until one day, this person shared with me, mysteriously, how they came to accept the person with whom they were once angry.   I asked the person, “what changed” and he said, “I have no idea, I think it might have been Jesus, sneaking up on, and changing my heart.”  That’s what Jesus does, especially on the low Sundays of our lives.

So watch out!  If today is a low Sunday, Jesus is on the prowl.

At our lowest moments, Jesus finds a way in.  When we see no path forward, Jesus makes a path for us.  And that is a blessing, and a gift.  So I don’t know if today is a “low Sunday” or not, and it doesn’t matter, because Jesus is here, and our hearts are being changed at this very moment.   AMEN. 

 

 

April 16, 2017

Easter Vigil

Acts 10:34-43; Psalm 118: 1-2, 14-24; Colossians 3:1-4; Matthew 28:1-10



THE REV. CARISSA BALDWIN-MCGINNESS

Where are your bones?

Did you leave them buried under darkness in a formless void before the beginning of time?

Where are your bones?

Are they reaching for the love of the heavens from a mountain far and away from this city?

Where did you leave you bones?

Are they trembling beside the Red Sea trembling in fear of the demon that chases them?

Where are our bones?

Are they lying in the valley of a dry desert, listening for a prophesy of breath from the wind of Creation?

What have we done with our bones?

Are they rattling around in search of the one who would say “I know what you are searching for, but he is not here.  He has been raised.”

You see every bag of bones wants to dance; needs a life.

And every life needs a story that will inspire it to dance.

And every dancer wants to move without fear of retribution.

Rise up

Rise up

Rise up

Into the cloud of unknowing

And suppress every sandbag that would keep our souls from soaring.

Where are our bones?

In the dark of night we all go rattling around our deep subconscious looking for one common thing; a way to remove the effects of the traumas we have suffered.  Like so many jailhouse tattoos, violence makes carvings in our bones.  It is nothing so beautiful as an ivory tusk or whale’s tooth transformed into ‘art’ and sold for a premium.  No, our bones have too often been carved out of the blunt instruments of human dysfunction.  Se we go looking for a way to un-break what has been broken in us as individuals, as a society, as a species.  We go to in search.  And the angel says, “I know what you are looking for.  But he is not here.”

Rise up

Rise up

Rise up

Johannes Hofer explains that trauma is a “disease due essentially to a disordered imagination.”

So we go in search of a well-functioning and holy imagination.  And we find in our search not someTHING, but someONE.   Someone specific.  Someone familiar.  Someone salvific with the simplest of messages: “Do not be afraid.”  The words help our bones to forget to flee from every perceived threat and instead to be bold in the face of what we fear.

God uses human erasers to revise the scars of our emotional damage.  God uses love erasers to mend what seemingly cannot be mended.  Like the school counselor who can tell something is not well and sticks with it until the problem is revealed.   Or like the gentle second spouse who makes up for the violence suffered at the hands of the first.  Or perhaps like the one in line with cash simply offering to pay for the one in line who is chronically anxious and without means.  We can be love notes to one another.  We can be encouragers of one another as we seek to remove the scars of the past.

Do not be afraid.

These words collect our bones from a formless void and put them into formation.

Do not be afraid.

The phrase relocates our bones from the seaside of our fear to the present moment here and now.

Do not be afraid.

The command pulls our bones down from the mountains unto sea level where we can breathe more easily.

Do not be afraid.

The words give our bones sinew and breath.   Our scars are now filled with water and tissue.

Rise up

Rise up

And dance

For we have our courage.  We have found the one we seek.  He is ours, and we are his.

April 16, 2017

Easter

Acts 10:34-43; Psalm 118: 1-2, 14-24; Colossians 3:1-4; Matthew 28:1-10



THE REV. JAMES M. L. GRACE

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

Two weeks ago, the fifth Sunday in Lent, I preached my Easter Sunday sermon.  I couldn’t help it.  We had great readings for that Sunday – the story of Ezekiel in the valley of dry bones, the raising of Lazarus from the dead.  During that sermon, I said I had no idea what I would preach about on Easter Sunday but I’ve decided to go ahead and preach on Good Friday this morning!  I know, it’s confusing, isn’t it! 

On Good Friday , St. Andrew’s did something new called the “Good Friday Project,” which was a series of artistic responses to the story of the crucifixion.  The reflections embraced a variety of art forms, including dance, music, drama, visual art, silence.  All of the reflections were offered by members of the church, and as I watched it, I was moved.

See the story of the crucifixion is familiar to me – dangerously familiar so that when I hear it, I think “I know how the story ends, I studied all that in seminary.”  But to see it presented in a new way, by some of you all, was powerful beyond words – it brought new life to the story of Jesus’ death that is so central to our lives as Christians.  I would go so far as to say I  experienced an Easter moment of resurrection on of all days, Good Friday.  It was a moment in death where I experienced resurrection.

I have served at this church for three years now, which is not a very long time, but it is long enough for me to have grown close to people for whom I am inevitably called upon to bury.  Presiding at memorial services for Sally Salisbury and Dorothy Yanuzzi was hard – there is no way around it.  Yet even in those moments, where all seems dead, there was new life, there was resurrection, there was Easter. 

One more story of Good Friday.  On Good Friday earlier this week I was humbled to visit a young man named Hunter, nineteen years old, in the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit at Memorial Hermann Hospital.  Hunter was in the hospital because of a seizure he had suffered earlier in the week, and it was clear from a number of tests that the doctors performed that the seizure adversely affected his brain activity, and that his body was beginning to shut down at 19 years of age.  I met Hunter’s mother in the room with him, and she told me that the family was getting together, the siblings, and they would be with Hunter when he breathed his last. 

But that is not the end of Hunter’s story.  His mother told me they had contacted Gift of Life, a group which helps foster organ transplant.  Their plan was for Hunter’s organs to be donated so that other people on waitlists could receive healthy organs, and live enriched lives.   This was the Easter miracle the family was praying for.  Their prayers were answered when they found out that Hunter’s body could be used to save the lives of who knows how many people. 

In his dying, Hunter is helping others live, giving them an Easter miracle of life.  Easter is about celebrating the mystery of life and death, that even death itself creates life.  The resurrection of Hunter and of Christ are the same.  So, happy Good Friday, or Easter, or whatever.  It’s all actually the same – for what God works in death and dying, God also works in life and living.  The tomb is empty, friends.  Hunter is with God now, and one day, so to shall we be.  Because that is God’s promise to us on Easter – all will be given new life, all will live, forever.   AMEN.

April 14, 2017

Good Friday

Isaiah 52:13-53:12; Psalm 22; Hebrews 10:16-25; John 18:1-19:42


The REV. JAMES M. L. GRACE

Earlier this week I had lunch with another Episcopal priest who is a Rector of another church here in Houston.  In the course of our conversation, we both shared about the churches where we serve – he told me things about the church where he is a priest, and I shared with him things about St. Andrew’s.  Eventually, we ended up talking about mistakes that we had made, things that we had learned, and new opportunities that seemed to emerge once things fell apart.

I was grateful for the honesty of our conversation, and I left lunch that day with new insight and clarity.  We both shared that the mistakes we had made, the things we got wrong, the failures, whatever you want to call them – rather than being depressing or draining, instead were the opposite.  Failure for me is painful of course – and so is admitting any mistakes we have made.  And the work of owning failure and making mistakes is about dying.  Our mistakes and failures highlight the lies we tell others about ourselves, and when we are honest about them, we can let them die.  We can bury them in the tomb.

In years of owning my own brokenness, in the years of gradually letting parts of myself die – the parts of myself I wanted others to believe, but were in fact not true, I have discovered great freedom.  And letting those things die is painful, but I have learned, over doing this many times, that allowing the parts of ourself to die that are not our truth, is one of the most liberating acts we can commit.

Death is integral to who God is.  It is in the dying, that space is freed for something new to be born.  That’s the gift of honesty, which allows us to shine an uncomfortable light on those things that we need to bring to the tomb, to bury them.

Resurrection is impossible without death.  And as many Christians will flock to churches on Sunday to proclaim the Easter message of resurrection, the message will ring hollow if we don’t first do the painful work of dying.  It’s not much fun.  And you can tell by the number of people here today, verses those who will be here on Sunday, what people are more comfortable with.

I like the dying, because it is honest.  But more than that, when I have allowed some of my own unhealthy expectations of myself to die, when I have acknowledged my brokenness, it feels painful, but it sure does feel good.  It feels good because it is honest, and that honesty and ownership brings freedom that feels right.

Its astounding to me how in our culture we are so afraid of dying and of death.  We don’t even like to use the word “die” or “death” if that is in fact what has happened to a person.  We instead say they’ve “passed on” or I’ve even heard of a person not dying, but “transitioning” from this world to the next.  Why is it so uncomfortable to call dying what it in fact, really is. 

I think one reason is that dying is an affront to our culture obsessed with appearance and perfection.  If you have ever been with someone dying or who has recently died, you know it’s not pretty.  But it’s honest.  And dying is holy work.

On Good Friday, that work is front and center as we consider God dying on our behalf, so that we might live.  In every death there is resurrection, and in every death there is freedom, and in every last breath there is hope, because God creates life out of dead things. 

Whatever it is in your life that is dying right now – it might be your ambition, an expectation, it might be your health – know that God is as present in things falling apart as God is present in their resurrection.  That is why we call this day “Good” – that even in the most barren, death-filled landscapes, God is present, already bringing new things to life.  AMEN.

April 13, 2017

Maundy Thursday

Exodus 12:1-4,(5-10),11-14; 1 Cor 11:23-26; John 13:1-17, 31b-35; Psalm 116:1, 10-17



THE REV. CARISSA BALDWIN-MCGINNESS

On this night we anticipate grief and loss.  On this night we project that anticipatory grief onto Jesus hoi paloi – the followers who are called in Greek “his own.”  Jesus on this night washes their feet to interrupt a pattern of expectation and comportment.  Through foot washing he sets for them a new neural pathway, a bodily experience of what love feels like.  And that experience will become a bodily memory that they will instinctively know how to repeat.  In being washed by their teacher, they gain a sensation of a new way of being divinely present to each other; a love pattern that can multiply similar to so many loaves and fishes.

 Martin Buber, a Vienna born Jewish philosopher of the 20th century, wrote a classic text titled, “I & Thou.”  Through it he reflects the ways that the relationships between two earthy beings are transcendent.  To make his point, he uses an unlikely example of a tree.

I contemplate a tree

I can accept it a picture: a rigid pillar in a flood of light…

I can assign it a species and observe it as an instance…

Throughout all of this the tree remains my object

But it can also happen, if will and grace are joined, that as I contemplate the tree I am drawn into a relation, and the tree ceases to be an It.

(I) Should try not to dilute the meaning of the relation:

Relation is reciprocity.

I can hear the echoes of Buber’s teaching now.  I can hear him asking us, “How can we relate one another in graceful, reciprocal ways?  Those in this room.  Those outside in this city.  Every tree, lady bug and lightening bolt.”  How can we relate to ‘the other’ such that the other is no longer an ‘it’?

The feet of Jesus’ washing are like the tree of Buber’s contemplation.  They are seemingly a subject of water and cloth; a subject in need of cleansing.  But in fact they serve as Jesus’ portal into the soul of his friends.  Their being washed by their teacher is their ultimate commissioning; their graduation day; their being sent forth in love.  But they did not like it, for it added confusion to what must have already been their state of anticipatory loss and grief.

But still the foot washing was a gift so much like the quilt Susan Surrandon’s character bestows upon her young children just before she dies of cancer in the movie, “Stepmom.” The sews into it pictures of herself and her children.  The quilt and the washing are both sacraments of love; both a promise of eternal, ethereal connection.  And both are brilliant expression of Martin Buber’s philosophy of “I and Thou.”  It is like the reciprocal Asian bow that says “the God in me acknowledges the God in you.”  I and Thou.

The foot washing by Jesus was a gesture that once received would not be forgotten but rather replicated until even today.  For the bodily memory of loving acts cannot be denied.  And its impact may be best captured by Francis J. Moloney who wrote:

As the knowledge and love of Jesus flowed into action, so must the knowledge and love of the disciple flow into action.  Therein lies blessedness.

April 9, 2017

Palm Sunday

Isaiah 50: 4-9a; Psalm 31: 9-16; Philippians 2: 5-11; Matthew 26:14 – 27:66



THE REV. JAMES M. L. GRACE

What is left to say that has not already been said?  Jesus gave everything – his life – for us.  Was it worth it?  

Author Brennan Manning tells a story of an aged monk who would meditate every morning on the banks of the Ganges River.  One morning after finishing his meditation the monk opened his eyes to see a scorpion floating helplessly in the water.  As dangerous a creature as it was, its struggle to remain afloat was strangely beautiful.  Moved by compassion, the monk reached out his long arm to try and rescue the drowning creature.

But as soon as he touched it, the scorpion stung him.  Instinctively the monk withdrew his hand, but a minute later put his hurting hand back into the water to again try to save the scorpion from drowning.  This time the scorpion stung him so badly with his poisonous tail that his hand became swollen and bloody.

While this was going on, another person walking down the road beside the river saw the monk lying on the ground grimacing with pain.  The person walking by stopped and said “What is wrong with you?  Don’t you know you could kill yourself trying to save that ungrateful scorpion?  What’s the point?”

The monk turned his head toward the person and said, “My friend, just because it is the scorpion’s nature to sting, that does not change my nature to save.” 

It is in God’s nature to save – everything, I believe.  Everything that God has created, every person, everything, I believe will be saved.  Like a scorpion we might try to sting that hand trying to save us, but while others give up on us God does not.

That is what Holy Week is all about – the limit God travels to save every one of us, no matter how many times we have stung others with our thoughts, words, or actions.  The power of Holy Week, is that there is nothing a person can do that is outside the possibility for God’s forgiveness.  Sin becomes nothing more but another opportunity for God to forgive.

This morning a news alert appeared on my phone that two Coptic Christian churches near Cairo, Egypt were bombed during their Palm Sunday services.  At least thirty six people were killed. We mourn and pray for them today.  And as we do so, we are faced with a terrifying proposition.  Is it possible for God to reach out his or her hand to the perpetrator of those crimes – the person who murdered all those people – to forgive?  Would the same God who freely went to the cross, and forgave those crucifying him, have the same capacity to forgive today, a person with an agenda of religiously motivated hatred?

  If you have heard the Gospel today, then you already know the answer.  AMEN.

 

April 2, 2017

5 Lent

Ezekiel 37: 1-14; Psalm 130; Romans 8: 6-11; John 11: 1-45



THE REV. JAMES. M. L. GRACE

Last Sunday I was not here, because I took the Sunday off, and I think as Carissa explained to you all I took last Sunday as a “continuing education” Sunday, of which I am given two each year.  So for continuing education last Sunday, I took my three kids to church and sat in a pew with them for a service, and boy did I learn a lot!  Sitting in a pew with your kids is work!  It’s much easier to be up here doing all this than sitting in a pew.

I also observed how hard it is to listen to a sermon – when you have kids sitting next to you asking questions “when is the service over?”  “when do we get to up to the altar and have snack time?”   I realized not very many people are actually listening to the sermon – I saw a guy looking at his phone, people having side conversations, and I too confess, I found myself looking at my watch thinking “when will the sermon be over?”  It is not lost on me that much of this might sound familiar to you.  So, just to see if anyone is really listening, I want to say “Happy Easter!”          

I realize it’s not Easter, but today, I offer my Easter sermon, two weeks early because It’s difficult, if not nearly impossible to not talk about Easter when we have a reading from John’s Gospel that talks about the raising of Lazarus from the dead.  But we also have an Easter message in the reading we hear today from Ezekiel, which talks about a valley of dry bones.  I don’t know what I will preach on Easter – maybe this sermon again!  In any case, indulge me if you will for a few minutes for us to explore the world of Ezekiel.  In a vision, God takes Ezekiel to a valley filled with dry bones, and asks Ezekiel a provocative question: “Can these bones live?  Ezekiel says “I have no idea,” and God says prophesy to them, or in other words, speak truth to them.   For a prophet like Ezekiel, speaking often painful truth is what he does best, and this comes a s no challenge to him.  When Ezekiel does this, the bones listen!  They begin to move, and they join together; bone to bone, ligament and tendon to bone, muscles and cartilage weave themselves around the bones, and flesh covers these newly assembled bodies and they breath in God’s spirit, God’s breath, and they come alive. 

What was once discarded, what was once dead, is now brought together – bones connecting to each other, forming a new person to receive God’s spirit, because they hear God’s truth spoken by Ezekiel.

During our weekly Lenten series on Wednesday evenings, we have heard our speaker, Brooke Summers-Perry speak share with us a very personal story of her undoing.  She calls it her breakdown – and she says what got her to that dark place was a combination of perfectionism and workaholism.  Brooke shared that she was not at a place where she could just “be” and receive God’s love and know that it was enough.  Rather, like so many of us, Brooke describes her own sense of distraction in over working driven by her own perfectionism to meet every one’s needs so that she could receive the praise of others.  The insatiable appetite she described for the approval and applause of everyone but God, led her to a valley of bones where she could not hear God’s truth spoken to her.

Personally, I am more familiar with life in the valley of bones that I wish I were.  I wish I were not as familiar with the arid vacancy of those bones, but it is a place I know like the back of my hand.  Thank God the story does not end there.

The word “religion” comes from the Latin phrase “re-ligare” which means literally “to bind together.”  “Ligare” is the root of the word “ligament” which binds muscle to bone.  As a ligament connects muscle to bone, such is the purpose of religion: to connect a person to God.  If we are honest with ourselves, we might feel that our lives represent a pile of dry bones.  Maybe the dry bones in your life are a failed marriage, a personal failure, a feeling of inadequacy, a lack of purpose.  Whatever happened, you may have found yourself in a similar position as I, where you became dead inside because the word fell silent to your ears. 

Whatever those bones are for you, know this – they are not the end – they are an opportunity for God to bring them together.  The old dusty bones in your valley are brought together by God because always God speaks to them, and breathes life into them, giving you a second chance.  And if it doesn’t work that time, God will do it all over again, giving you a third chance, a fourth chance.  There is no limit to God’s capacity to bring life out of dead things, because that is what God does!

I hope you know that God loves you enough to reach into your life and speak truth to the dead and dilapidated bones to create something new and better for you.  In God, there is no death.  For God, all death is, is another opportunity for resurrection.   I believe that same spirit that spoke to the bones in Ezekiel’s vision is present at St. Andrew’s today, and similar to Ezekiel, that spirit is speaking to us.  What is it saying?

I would never presume to speak on God’s behalf, but I believe the spirit is calling us to look outside our church to our neighborhood community to reach out in collaborative efforts that improve the well being of the poor and the needy.  Perhaps it was God’s spirit that spoke to us and invited us to collaborate with Meals on Wheels to feed the hungry in our community, which we begin tomorrow.  Perhaps it is God’s spirit that spoke to us, confronting us with the need to reach out and support financially the life giving work of the Heights Interfaith Food Pantry.  There is no limit to what God is doing and what God can do, for God is alive and God’s spirit speaks to us at St. Andrew’s.

And we have an opportunity, and I consider it an obligation, to add our voice to the work God is doing here.  If you have not yet taken the parish survey, please do.  Let your voice be heard.  I conclude with one final thought, which for the people checking their watches must be music to their ears.  My final thought is this: three years ago today I stood in this pulpit for the very first time.  The three years I have been with you have been a privilege.  It is humbling for me to see the steps we have taken together, and it is nothing short of inspiring to bear witness to God speaking to us.  It is said that God’s Spirit blows where it chooses, and if that is true, I thank God that today it appears to be blowing so clearly here.  AMEN.

March 19, 2017

3 Lent

Exodus 17: 1-7; Psalm 95; Romans 5: 1-11; John 4: 5-42



THE REV. JAMES M. L. GRACE

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

I have learned a lot about myself over the years.  I have learned, again and again, that I am far from perfect.  I have learned that I am not very good at so many things.  I have learned that the older I get, the less I feel I know.  I have also learned that platitudes, especially of the Christian variety, no longer resonate with me.  Let me give you an example: “God will not give you more than you can handle.”  I have heard well-intentioned Christians offer that platitude to people going through difficult times.  They do so because they feel those words are somewhere in the Bible, right?  It sounds like something the Bible would say – but in fact nowhere in the Bible does it ever say that God refrains from giving people more than they can bear. 

To the contrary, I believe people deal with more than they can bear constantly.  I would never think of saying “God won’t give you more than you can handle” to a child whose parents have died, or to a young woman carrying a child she does not have the means to care for.  I know many of us have felt that our burdens are greater than we can carry.   Here’s another platitude that I have long since disavowed myself from: “God has a wonderful plan for your life.”  When I see Jewish cemeteries desecrated in this country, Coptic Christians fleeing for their lives in Egypt, Muslim families forced out of their country by war and geopolitical conflict – well maybe God does have a plan, but when I see all that, I must confess that it does not seem like a plan that makes much sense to me at all. 

If I were God, my plan would look something like eradicating poverty, war, violence, injustice, and oppression.  This very issue accounts for the rise of global atheism today – as atheists rightfully ask “If God is good, if God is in control, as Christians proclaim, rightfully in my opinion, how can the world be so broken?”  For the atheist the answer is simple: there is no God, the world and our existence are an improbable occurrence, and we are responsible for the state of our world.

As a Christian, I return to the conundrum of suffering and pain all the time.  Why does God allow it?  I went to seminary hoping that I would find an answer to that question.  I didn’t.  Many authors have taken God to task on the question of God and suffering – there are books in the Bible devoted to it.  A branch of theology called “theodicy” is dedicated to exploring the question of how God can be just and good and yet allow injustice to exist upon the earth.  The only way I can answer this question is by paradox.  A paradox is simply a series of true statements that contradict each other, and I believe that paradox is more true than fact.  Here is an example: God is good, God is in control, and terrible things do happen. 

I think the reason why I am able to hold the tension of those three statements (God is good, God is in control, and terrible things can happen) is because of my personal suffering.  As much as I hate suffering, as much as I look back on the times in my life where I have suffered, and when I suffer today – I realize that suffering, pain, sorrow – they have been without a doubt my greatest teacher.  I have learned, and still have a lot more to learn about love and God through suffering.  So I say this to you today: if you feel you are in a terrible place, if you feel that God is so far out of the picture and is not even listening to you or doesn’t even care, know that often that is the sign that you are in fact nearer to God than you might imagine.  I say this because I know that to be true from my own life.

Today we hear a small part of a letter written by the Apostle Paul to the church in Rome –the letter is called “Romans.”  In that letter today, Paul talks about suffering directly, saying “we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God.  And not only that, we boast in our sufferings!”  Doesn’t that sound kind of weird?  We tend to be quiet about our suffering because we are ashamed or embarrassed by them.  But I don’t believe Paul understood suffering that way.  Paul says later in Romans that our suffering produces endurance, but he doesn’t stop there, but continues to say that suffering produces endurance, endurance produces character, character produces hope, and our hope does not disappoint us. 

In saying that, Paul suggests something that I still fail to fully comprehend today, and that is that suffering is the place where hope is born, and the hope born in that place will never disappoint us.  Victor Frankl, an Austrian neurologist, author, and holocaust survivor, proves Paul was right.  In Frankl’s book entitled “Man’s Search for Meaning,” which tells his story of living in a concentration camp, Frankl says that almost categorically it was the people in the camps who were able to envision themselves in the future no longer imprisoned, living with their families again, who had a much higher survival rate.  At the same time, Frankl observed that when people lost hope, who only could see themselves dying in that hellish place, their chance for survival was much lower.

In saying all this, I have no answer that comes close to adequately explaining how or why God allows suffering.  What little I can say is this: from the comparably small taste of suffering I have experienced in my life hope has emerged.  It is a hope that I have stumbled upon or fallen into, a hope birthed from suffering, perhaps a hope I don’t deserve.  But it is there, and to date, it has yet to disappoint. 

I don’t think I will ever be able to fully understand the purpose of suffering, but I am learning to grasp the beautiful hope that springs forth from it.  AMEN. 

March 1, 2017

Ash Wednesday

Joel 2: 1-2, 12-17; Psalm 103; 2 Corinthians 5:20b- 6:10; Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21



THE REV. JAMES M. L. GRACE

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

The British biologist and author Richard Dawkins stoked quite a bit of controversy when his book entitled The God Delusion was published.  In that book, Dawkins argued that a supernatural creator does not exist, and that religion itself is a delusion.  Some Christians found the premise slightly disturbing, however I think it’s a really interesting book, and one I think would be an interesting Lenten read.  But that’s not the book I want to talk about today.  It is another of Richard Dawkins books, entitled Unweaving the Rainbow, I wish to share with you today.  Published in 1998, the book has been warmly received by people of faith, agnostics, and atheists alike.  I would like to share the opening sentences with you now, in which Dawkins writes:

“We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones. Most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born. The potential people who could have been here in my place but who will in fact never see the light of day outnumber the sand grains of Arabia. Certainly those unborn ghosts include greater poets than Keats, scientists greater than Newton. We know this because the set of possible people allowed by our DNA so massively outnumbers the set of actual people. In the teeth of these stupefying odds it is you and I, in our ordinariness, that are here. We privileged few, who won the lottery of birth against all odds, how dare we whine at our inevitable return to that prior state from which the vast majority have never stirred?”

I have written many sermons for Ash Wednesday, but none of them, in my opinion, come close to matching the power of what Dawkins says in these few sentences.  How many of us ever viewed death as something reserved for the lucky ones?   I never had. 

Ash Wednesday is a day in which we all recognize a familiar truth about all of us: we’re all going to die someday, sometime.   Can we laugh about that?  I mean really, can we celebrate our dying as much as our living? 

Fifteen years ago I was scared of death.  The reason I was scared was because I couldn’t be certain that heaven or any kind of afterlife existed.  There was no way that I could prove it.  And if I couldn’t prove it, then I couldn’t really feel safe trusting it.  This went on for some time.  In seminary I continued to struggle believing in life after death.  I took a class on the resurrection, hoping that in the class I would discover some undeniable proof that would substantiate for me, once and for all, that death is not the end. 

I read a lot of books in that class, listened to a lot of lectures, but there was nothing in all that heady academic work that could satiate my desire to know that after death I would be ok.  That all changed for September 3, 2007, the day my mother died.  Her death was something I and my siblings knew was coming.  She was in hospice care, her body slowly shutting itself down, ravaged by an auto immune disease.

In the days leading up to her death, I was so scared of losing her.  When she died, I wept and wept.  Grief was a constant companion for months, years, and if I am honest, now almost ten years later, I grieve her loss frequently.  I lit a candle for her today. 

But something I never expected happened in all this.  It didn’t happen overnight, and neither did I realize it immediately after it happened.  But sometime after mom died, I stopped being afraid.  No longer did I feel this need to prove the existence of some kind of life after death, because it stopped being so important to me.  I realized that heaven was something I could never prove, but I found myself strangely comforted about its presence. 

That’s the paradox of her death – in losing her, something I was so scared of, she gave me something greater than I ever could have imagined – trust.  Trust, and knowing deep inside my bones that it’s all going to be okay.  So when Carissa puts a blackened ash cross on my forehead, I don’t feel sad, I don’t feel depressed – I feel grateful.  I will smile the smile I saw on the faces of our community neighbors who received ashes earlier this morning.   

I think the reason I will smile is because I finally learned to stop believing in the resurrection, and instead began to know it.  I never knew there was a difference, until I lost my mother, and that was the moment where a peculiar trust and grateful hope were born within me.   Our lives are gifts given to us by God, and the fact that we are here, as Richard Dawkins writes,  that is one of the greatest miracles in the world.  We are just dust, and one day we will return to the dust again.  What a gift that is.  What a gift that our return to dust from which we once came marks not the end of our journey, but just the beginning.  In our dying, and in our living, we are the lucky ones. AMEN.

February 26, 2017

Last Epiphany

Exodus 24: 12-18; Psalm 99; 2 Peter 1:16-21; Matthew 17: 1-9


THE REV. JAMES M. L. GRACE

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

Many years ago at a different church when I was a brand new priest I was visiting with a woman who was going to have surgery. We were in the hospital pre-op room, she was wearing her purple “Bear Paws” gowns that all hospitals seem to put you in before surgery, and she was laying in her bed.  It was early in the morning and we were having a good conversation in the midst of doctors and nurses coming in and checking her vital signs and administering medication.  Seeing that it was drawing near to the time for her to go into the operating room, I asked if I could pray with her, and she said yes.  Just before beginning our prayer together, a nurse pulls open the curtain and in a very polite but professional voice says: “I’m sorry but I need to ask when your last bowel movement was?” 

I remember thinking to myself “that’s a strange question to ask a priest.”  And then the woman I was visiting smiled and pointed to me and said “Do I have to answer in front of him?”  But before I could excuse myself and let this woman offer her answer with some degree of dignity and privacy, she blurted out “Yes – last night, 10 PM.”  And I thought to myself “Cool!  Me too!”

I share this story because it was revealing, it was a moment of complete transparency, or vulnerability.  For a moment, the woman was not a patient awaiting surgery, I was not a priest, the nurse was not a nurse.  We were all just human beings, talking about the very basic things people do, being open and honest with one another.   

Every week I participate in a conference call with several other priests I went to seminary with.  Sometimes our conversations are about boring things – church “shop talk”  “How was your Sunday, how was that Vestry meeting?”   And sometimes our conversations are really meaningful.  I have learned that the thing that distinguishes between a more mundane conversation, or a more meaningful one is vulnerability.  Every time, if one of us shares a real challenge, –a personal failure, a difficult argument with a spouse, trouble in the family, trouble at church -  then it gets real.  The conversation is not mundane, because inevitably, we all chime in, saying “I made that mistake too!” and we share similar experiences of our own failures and our own inadequacies.  And we are no longer priests, but just people, sharing who we really are, with all our humanity. 

These moments, whether in a hospital room, or a phone call, are about revelation.  In these moments, we are who we really are.  In the Gospel story today, we encounter Jesus upon the mountain top with three of his closest disciples, and Jesus reveals to them who he really is.  In a mystical way that words fail to capture, the divine nature of Jesus is revealed to James, Peter, and John and they see Jesus for a moment for who he really is. The Bible says that Christ’s face shone like the sun, and that his clothes were blinding white. 

It is a moment of radical transparency – where Jesus’ humanity becomes transparent, and the disciples, for a moment, see the divine being within.  Like the experience in the hospital room, like the moment in a conversation when someone courageously shares what is currently afflicting them – these are all holy moments.  They all point toward a deep reality of our lives – that we are not human beings having a spiritual experience, rather we are spiritual beings having a human experience.”

Each transparent moment reveals to us who we really are.  This parish had a similar moment of transparency last weekend when many of you helped articulate a vision of what we believe God is calling this church to do and to be.  Your work last weekend helped to make transparent the desire this church has to grow further in its outreach, to begin meeting in small groups together, and to grow in our ministry to jr. and sr. high youth. 

The work we did two Saturdays ago was “top of the mountain” stuff – to realize and see where we need to go.  Now we know.  In the months to come, our work continues, as we, like the disciples, find our way down from the mountain.  You will be hearing much more about this in the months to come, but know that we are taking this journey together, as one parish.  The journey we take together is one in which we explore and learn together the ways St. Andrew’s can share the light of Christ to this neighborhood and this city.

The Rev. Curtis Almquist writes that “we have been given the light of Christ not to hoard, not to squander, but to receive, to allow to penetrate the deepest crevices of our own darkness and shadows and then reflect this light.”  When we reflect the light of Christ individually, and as a parish, we, like Jesus, become transfigured, because weproclaim to the world who we really are.  We, like Jesus shine with the countenance of Christ.  We teem with that light, as we mirror it with all of God’s generosity to the whole of creation. 

In Jesus, God has become vulnerable to us.  God has become transparent, for all to see.  How is God calling St. Andrew’s to do the same?  AMEN.