July 23, 2017

The Seventh Sunday of Pentecost, Proper 11


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Isaiah 44:6-8; Psalm 86:11-17; Romans 8:12-25; Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43

The Rev. James M.L. Grace

The parable Jesus teaches today is a challenging one about the end of the world, something we don't tend to talk about much, at least at this church.  But that also seems true for most other Episcopal, Methodist, Lutheran, Baptist, and Catholic Churches as well.
The crude and simple dichotomy of heaven or hell, or the world ending seems a bit off-putting, and frankly embarrassing for many with modern sensibilities.  History is littered with examples of people predicting the end of the world would come, only to be proven wrong when the sun rose the following morning.
            I admit that I am similar to many of my colleagues when I confess my ambivalence in talking about a last judgment, as Jesus does so this morning.  Today’s passage challenges my concept of Jesus as a never-ending reservoir of grace, mercy, and forgiveness.  That's the Jesus I am personally comfortable with, the one who speaks of love and mercy, not the one I hear today speaking about fire and eternal judgment.
            And maybe that's the problem.  My deafness to this particular Gospel passage might be a microcosm of a much larger deafness many mainline denominations also have toward this and other passages in the Bible dealing with final judgment and the end of the world.   As much of the church’s voice has silenced on this topic, other voices and interpretations have emerged culturally and elsewhere in the church.  A trip to a local movie theater or quick search on Netflix will generate any number of films with apocalyptic imagery of the world's end.  Disaster movies with cities falling before tidal waves, earthquakes leveling countries, alien invasions, all of those kinds of movies seem to roll out in a consistent and predicatable way.  Why?  The apocalypse is big business, generating millions of dollars in revenue annually!  Not just in film, mind you.  Remember fifteen years ago the “Left Behind” book series that was based literally on the book of Revelation, itself not a book written for literal interpretation?  Those book flew off the shelves, no matter how bland the writing was.  Why?  I think it is because we are curious about our own demise.
            I once enjoyed those movies.  There was once a time when all that computer generated destruction and mayhem was fresh to these eyes.  But now those movies bore me.  And yet one thing these movies all have in common is that there is always a remnant of humanity that survives.  No movie I have ever seen featured the total annhilation of humanity.  Someone always survives.  Why?  You need characters to continue a story, that’s the obvious reason.  But there’s a deeper, more important one, too.  I think it is because we need hope.  Someone will carry on, grim as things may be. 

            That word – hope – is the very lens through which I read and understand this gospel passage today.  I read and understand it not as a passage of eternal judgment, but of eternal hope. 
And so I offer to you this morning my understanding of this passage, which pushes me into an uncomfortable place, but I am will go there, and we can go there together.  Fasten your seat belts.
            Jesus is speaking about the end of the world and God's presence in it.  In the parable he distinguishes between wheat, or the good seed, which he calls the children of God.  In stark contrast to the wheat are the weeds, which Jesus identifies as children of the evil one.  Wheatand weeds.  Good and bad.  Clear absolutes.
            And I want to stop here because I don’t think it is that easy.  Weeds are subjective.  Technically a weed is anything you don’t want growing in your garden or yard.  But that doesn’t make weeds bad.  What might be a weed to you could be a beautiful plant to someone else.  Outside our front gate at our home is a plant that is ugly to me because its leaves are brown, it's stocky, and just not very attractive to look at.  It’s a weed to me.  I want to uproot it.  A few days ago I ordered something on Amazon Prime home delivery.  Two hours later a driver arrived with the item I ordered.  As he walked out beside our front gate, he looked at the plant I find so ugly it and he smiled. "We have these plants all over back home," he said.  "Where is home for you?" I asked.  "Nigeria," the man continued.  "This is the first time I have seen this plant in Houston," the man smiled as he spoke.  "It is a beautiful plant," the man concluded.  I had to keep myself from replying "really?"
            What is a plant to one, is a weed to another.  Who decides which is which?
            The parable suggests that God handles that at the end, whenever that is.  This action of God, where God separates the worthy from the unworthy, is an act commonly referred to as the last judgment - that moment in time when God separates the wheat from the weeds, the good from the bad.
            I remember twenty years ago sitting inside the Sistine Chapel and staring at Michelangelo's painting of the Last Judgment on the altar wall.  It is a grand painting.  Unique to this painting however is that it contains what many art historians believe to be a self portrait of Michelangelo himself.  In the painting, St. Barthalomew is holding flayed skin, it looks like a garment, the face depicted on which many believe is Michelangelo's.
            The idea is of a snake shedding its old skin for his hope for a new life following death.  And that is how I understand the parable: it's not about a permanent separation of just and the unjust.  It is not a parable about the future.  It is a parable about the present.  It says to us that what we do now, today, matters.
            How we think about time, we think of the end of the world coming sometime in the future.  But time is a human invention.  God doesn't seem to have much need for it, because in God's eye what might appear as weed to you, is a plant of unrelenting beauty. The future for us, is God’s past, present, and future all rolled into one. 
            What appears as a last judgment to us, might appear to God not an act of judgment that is in the future, but mercy that is in the present.  What appears to be the end of the world sometime in the future for us, is something that has already happened and is happening for God.  What appears to us as God's judgment, is in fact mercy.
            I believe in a final judgment, but I believe that it is not in the future but in the past.  It has already happened.  The separation of wheat and weeds has already occurred, and the verdict given on our behalf was an emphatic "yes" to eternal life, not because we deserve it.  God’s “yes” was given to us because before we were wheat or weeds, we belonged to God.  And that is more important to God than any judgment.  AMEN.

July 16, 2017

The Sixth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 10

Isaiah 55:10-13; Psalm 65:1-14; Romans 8:1-11; Matthew 13:1-9,18-23

The Rev. Carissa Baldwin-McGinnis



 Just as the farmer cultivates the earth, God cultivates our lives.

One Bible scholar wrote in relation to today’s psalm that, “God is the cosmic farmer.”  Even with our theology of creation, I was taken aback by this idea.  I have always thought of God more like stardust and light, darkness and expansion moreso than as the one with dirt permanently embedded under fingernails.

 

In 2008 a book of photos by Paul Mobley was published under the title, “American Farmer: The Heart of our Country.”  The book presents faces that look somehow like the land they tend.  Some clear.  Some ruddy.  Some young.  Many weathered by years in the elements with contours and crevices galore.

 

I do not know our own congregation well enough to know what knowledge of farming we may have at St. Andrew’s.  Generally I am guessing the longer we are in the city, the less we know about cultivating food.  I married someone who grew up on a0 farm.  I have read books about farming.  I sometimes shop at farmers markets.  In the late eighties I did a week of gleaning in zucchini fields in south Texas.  I grow rosemary and scallions in pots in my back yard.  Yet in actuality I know nothing about farming.

 

Of the farming stories I’ve heard, I love the ones that seem most like miracles.  One is the story of Detroit having died to industry and came to life anew first through urban farming.  My father told me about a recent podcast which told of a man who makes his life traveling America in search of diverse apple species.  He knows them all and relishes in seeking native trees growing without the help of humans.  Of all the apple species this expert knows and has tried, he found a specimen of the one he considers the most delicious growing out of simple crack in a sidewalk of an otherwise concrete, urban jungle.  Stories like these make the idea of God as farmer particularly pleasing.

In his introduction to the photography book, “American Farmer”, Michael Martin Murphey says those outside of rural America will “be astounded to find that those who are close to the land have a startling sense of where they belong in the universe.  They love their lives, accept the inherent struggles, and are surprisingly at peace considering that they confront so many daily challenges.  Perhaps it is because they know what it is to grow things, have worked to understand and to accept the forces of Nature.  It becomes a spiritual quest in the end.”

 

The theologian Noel Dermott O’Donoghue writes from his experience as a child in southwest Ireland where every turn of the agricultural year has had a corresponding prayer and ritual.  He writes, “The seedsman is his own priest.  The work is equally labor and liturgy.”  In that he introduces us to the concept of farmer as priest and farm labor as liturgy.  This Scottish farmer’s prayer is piece of that spiritual farming tradition.

I will go out to sow the seed,

In name of [God] who gave it growth;

I will place my front in the wind,

And throw a gracious handful on high.

Should a grain fall on a bare rock,

It shall have no soil in which to grow;

As much as falls into the earth,

The dew will make to be full.

 

Oh that the seeds of our lives would evade rock and weed.  Oh that the seeds of our hearts would always find the soil with plenteous dew to moisten its first sprouting.  We know all too well that our lives fall on hard times just as they fall on good times.  Sometimes we and our distractions choke off what wants to live in us, and sometimes others choke off the life that wants to grow there.  What we say and do to God and with God and also to ourselves and to one another matters.  Our words and deeds are the ways in which we farm well or farm poorly our relationships and our legacies.  One farmer was quoted as saying, “A farmer never has a perfect year, but he’s always striving for one.”  So it is in our spiritual lives.

A common refrain by farmers is, “You either marry it or inherit it.”  This is as if to say farming is not a job people would otherwise choose, because it is so hard.  As children of God we are born into a life of farming.  Just like the early disciples were not fishers of fish, we are not farmers of fields.  We are farmers of the spiritual presence of God in every person, every place, everything; especially and including ourselves.  When we are raising a child, caring for an elder, loving a lover, sweeping our stoop, watering our house plants, or giving food to our pets, we city slickers are farming and being farmed in a most basic spiritual sense.

In worship we praise, pray, ask and give thanks.  That prayer life is farm life.  Churches are communities of cultivators.  Monasteries are small farms for the faithful.  We may come to church to hear good children’s sermons or to be filled up with sacred music, but more deeply we come to sow and be sown.

John O’Donohue wrote a Blessing for farmers.

Before the human mind could warm to itself,

The hands of the farmer had first to work,

Creating clearances in the earth’s thicket:

Cut into the thorn-screens of wild briar,

Uproot the clusters of scrub-bush,

Dig out loose rock until a field emerged

Whose clay could be loosened and softened

To take seed and bring forth crops.

 

Let us bless God and praise God’s name forever.  AMEN

July 9, 2017

Proper 9 

Zechariah 9: 9-12; Psalm 45:11-18; Romans 7: 15-25a; Matthew 11: 16-19, 25-30

The Rev. James M.L. Grace



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

            Ten years ago, on July 9th, 2007, my second child, William Grace, was born.  It seems so long ago.  He was born at St. Luke’s Hospital in the Medical Center, back when that hospital was owned by the Episcopal Church, and when they used to deliver babies there, before outsourcing that to Texas Children’s. 

            I remember the joy of holding my second child in my arms, looking upon his face for the first time.  I remember a close friend visiting my wife and I in the hospital, and bringing us a beautiful plant with yellow blossoms.  The name of the plant, I learned, was an Esperanza, Spanish for the word “hope.” 

            That word – hope – characterized my whole experience of William’s birth, an experience vastly different from the birth of our first child.  But that is now past, and I now have a ten year old son closer to adolescence and adulthood than I am admittedly comfortable with.  Those of us who are adults here understand the ambiguity and complexity of adulthood – the challenges, the loss of innocence that precipitates our journey to adulthood.

            I know that becoming an adult is necessary and inevitable, but I wish I could shield my son from the pain that often accompanies it.  I wish I could shield my son from the self-doubt and disappointment he will inevitably experience, I wish I could protect him from doing what he knows he should not do, but I too know that seems inevitable as well.

            Perhaps as a result of fathering a ten year old son, Paul’s words in the letter to the Romans seem to ring so true.  Paul’s description of his own actions, his own selfishness, his own impulsivity and hypocrisy – are they not also descriptive of our behavior as well?  Paul writes, “For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.”  If we are honest with ourselves, we can admit that Paul’s words I just read are an accurate description of our behavior at times.

            In this excerpt from Romans, we have a candid and honest look at Paul’s own inner conflict.  And yet Paul did many great things.  He started many Christian communities, and some scholars even argue that if it were not for Paul, Christianity would not exist today.  But, Paul was human.  He was broken.  And while we don’t know precisely what Paul’s inner conflict was or what where the things he did that he was ashamed of, perhaps we can be grateful that Paul owned his shortcomings.  In spite of all that Paul accomplished, the churches he started, the communities formed, the lives changed – Paul sums up his own self opinion of himself in these words: “Wretched man that I am!”

            Thank God Paul does not stop there.  He continues, realizing, that it is through God that he is loved, that he is saved from himself.   His humanity, his brokeness, his selfishness and impulsivity, his reality of doing what he knows he should not do, it’s all healed, it’s all redeemed, in Christ. 

            Another reason today is special for me is that this is the only Sunday that we hear a reading from the book of Zechariah, a small book near the very end of the Hebrew Bible, or Old Testament.  It tells the story of the Hebrew people’s return to Jerusalem, after a period of painful exile in Babylon, in modern day Iraq.  In the book of that prophet, we hear these words: “Return to your stronghold, O prisoners of hope.”  That line is part of the larger reading which is intended to be a hopeful reassurance to those returning that their lives would begin anew.  They are prisoners, though not to the limitations of their desires, or imprisoned to their own hypocrisy, brokenness, or impulsivity.  They are prisoners of hope.

            I, too, am a prisoner of hope, because I have found nothing more liberating. 

            That is the paradox of Jesus.  To follow Jesus means that we accept a burden, a weight, or as described in today’s Gospel from Matthew, a yoke.  But the paradox of accepting that weight is that the burden is light, because God carries it with us.  God offers us hope, and if I am to be imprisoned by anything, I will always choose hope.

            So, as I celebrate my son’s tenth circle around the son today, I do so with hope.  I have hope that as he faces the complexities and ambiguities of adult life, that he does not journey alone.  And neither do we. 

            I will offer a special invitation to you all today, and maybe this is something you already do, but if you haven’t – consider this.  If you choose to come forward for communion today, or to receive a blessing, I want to invite you to think about what you can bring to the altar today.  Is there something within you, that you no longer need, something draining you of hope?  Is there something within you that you feel God will not or cannot forgive?  Bring that up here, and leave it.  Give it to God.  Because even though, like Paul, we do the things we should not do, never forget that we also are prisoners of hope.  Give to God what you need to.  Because in that giving away, you create space inside to receive.  For God is faithful, always, and all of us, in spite of our imperfections, are perfect in God’s eyes.  AMEN.  

July 2, 2017

Proper 8

Jeremiah 28: 5-9; Psalm 13; Romans 6: 12-23; Matthew 10: 40-42

The Rev. James M.L. Grace



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

            The other day I went to the Department of Public Safety, or DPS, off 290 and Dacoma Boulevard, to get a new picture taken for my driver’s license, since my current one is now twelve years old, and as much as I don’t want to admit it, I also look twelve years older. 

            I was issue my number, and I waited.  While waiting, I used the men’s room, and couldn’t help notice that while in the men’s room washing my hands, a man that was in a stall in the restroom, opened the stall door, and walked out, without washing his hands.  Same thing happened yesterday – I was at the movie theater with my family, in the restroom, some other guy walks out the stall and out the door – no washing of hands.  Gross, right?   

            It is this mild lack of consideration for everyone else in the DPS or the movie theater that was a little offensive to me.  Same thing if you are a patient at a hospital, and you’re in the bed, and a doctor comes in, and they try to talk to you without washing their hands first, you say, “hey, doc – I don’t know where those hands have been, wash them!”

            Whatever you want to call this: lack of concern for others, laziness, indifference, or disregard -  it not only occurs at the DPS, movie theaters, or hospital, it also happens in churches.  Here’s an example: about a year ago I was upstairs in our Parish Hall on a Sunday morning, and while looking out a window to the outside of our church, I saw attending service that day extinguish their cigarette on the brick exterior wall of the church. Is a church building any different from a DPS?  That’s another sermon, but the act nevertheless struck me in a similar vein of disregard. 

            Having worked in churches for twelve years, this laziness, this indifference, this desire to settle for second best, is something I have experienced again and again in multiple congregations.  Most churches, like any other human organization, prefer not to be pushed, or stretched, because it’s uncomfortable.  It takes work, and I get it.  If I am supposed to run five miles, and at mile four, my body hurts and I get a cramp, and my mind says “stop it!”  But Iknow if I stop, I will be disappointed in myself.

            I recently came across a cartoon of a church committee that was searching for their new priest.  One of the people in the cartoon summarized their conversation with these words: “Basically, what we’re looking for is an innovative pastor with a fresh vision who will inspire our church to remain exactly the same.”  Churches don’t like change!  No church does.

            This is nothing new, by the way.  We have a glimpse of this in our reading from the Hebrew prophet Jeremiah this morning.  Today we hear the prophet Jeremiah speaking an unpopular truth to the people of Israel – a truth no one wanted hear.  Jeremiah was stretching the community, and it was a community that wasn’t interested in being stretched.  A bit of context here.  In Jeremiah chapter 28 we hear from two prophets, Hananiah and Jeremiah. One is a true prophet, the other, not so much.  Both Jeremiah and Hananiah claim to be God’s spokesperson, but their messages today could not be any more different. 

            Let’s begin with Hananiah – Hananiah brings good news: the people of Israel, many of whom lived in exile in Babylon, would return to Jerusalem.  The king of Israel, the sacred vessels plundered from the temple by Babylonian hands – all would return to Jerusalem and things would be great.  Tthings were going to work out.

            Those of you familiar with Jeremiah might not be surprised to hear that he has a different take on things.  Countering Hananiah, Jeremiah says “actually the king of Babylon is the Lord’s servant and we need to follow him, because Israel is being punished for its waywardness.”  In other words, Jeremiah is saying that because of their lack of discipline, because of their disregard for the needs of the community and their relationship to God, Israel was being punished. 

            Imagine you were alive 2,500 years ago, listening to Jeremiah and Hananiah. Which message would you want to hear?  Hananiah with his upbeat message, or Jeremiah, who proclaimed a courageous, but hard to stomach, truth?  Turns out Jeremiah was the real prophet, and Hananiah, though we don’t hear it today, is later punished for uttering a false promise, the promise people wanted to hear.  Jeremiah spoke the truth.

        Speaking the truth, especially when unpopular, is not easy, and does not always come naturally to me.  But I am going to try to do so anyway.  I have a truth to share that might be uncomfortable for some of you, and for others you know this already.  The truth I wish to convey is simply this: as a whole, the Episcopal Church not growing, in fact it is shrinking.  Data recently released from the national church office indicates that in the last decade, average attendance has decreased by twenty-five percent.  That’s a big number.  But what is the reason?  There are many.  A very good read on the topic is the book Christianity After Religion by Diana Butler Bass, which we studied last year in our Faith Matters Class.  In her book, she suugests  that the main reason the Episcopal Church is shrinking (and other denominations as well) is because of an overall loss of the integrity of the church.  An ecclesiastical disregard, a laziness.

        Multiple incidents of clergy misconduct, financial mismanagement, lawsuits, property disputes - all of that has brought decreased attendance, reduced budgets, and missional scarcity.  I kind of feel like Jeremiah right now, bringing you all an uncomfortable truth.  Who wants to go to seminary?!

        While this is the reality of the national landscape of the Episcopal Church, it is not the story of this parish.  This church is not shrinking, it is growing.  It is growing not because of any one person’s efforts, but because we collectively are looking outside ourselves to serve our community.

            Two hundred years ago, Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote these words: “God will not have his work made manifest by cowards.”  It is my intention that as this church grows, we preserve our intimacy, but that we also grow courageously, because the world needs us.  One of the ways we grow courageously, and not indifferently, is by having honest conversations around traditionally taboo topics.  One of the topics your may not be accustomed to hearing about from this pulpit is money. 

            Money might seem an offensive topic coming from the pulpit, but it is helpful for us to remember that half of Jesus’ parables were on the topic of money.  One out of every seven verses in the Gospel of Luke is also about money.  And the news I have to share with you is good news!  Our church budget over the last four years has not decreased, but has increased thirty-eight percent.

            Midway through this year, our treasurer, Chris Barker told me that St. Andrew’s has received approximately $192,000, or forty-eight percent of the money pledged for this year.  For every one of you who filled out a pledge card last year, and have been paying your pledge – thank you.   If you haven’t filled out a pledge card and you want “in” on the action, I am sure you can find a pledge card somewhere in pew close to you.  Fill it out and place in the collection plate. 

            Midwaythrough this year, St. Andrew’s has received $27,000, or approximately sixty-seven percent of our budgeted non-pledged income.  We are fortunate as a parish to not only be debt-free, but to also have a strong financial position, because of your generosity. 
            About three months from now, we will once again have a stewardship campaign for 2018, and I will share with you all now what I have already shared with our finance committee and our Vestry, which is that as great as we are doing right now, our budget needs to grow next year.  Our budget needs to grow because our mission to bring the gospel to all people is also growing.  Our mission is growing because we are choosing discomfort over status quo, which is exactly what Jesus did.  
            St. Andrew’s is bucking the trend.  We are not shriveling, we are growing.  We are not indifferent, but are purposeful.  We are reaching out to know and to be known.  AMEN.

June 25, 2017

Proper 7 – Third Sunday after Pentecost



jeremiah 20:7-13; psalm 69: 8-11, (12-17), 18-20; Romans 6:1b-11; Matthew 10:24-39

THE REV. CARISSA BALDWIN-MCGINNIS

The shackles of sin are released through love of God and prayer.

If I had a dollar for every pastoral engagement with a person who was breaking their own spirit by rehearsing their sins, I would be a rich woman.  If I had a twenty dollar bill for every time I myself have fallen on the sword of my imperfection only to wallow there wasting precious time, I would be closer to retirement.  Why is it so hard to free ourselves from the shackles of our mistakes in order to live in spiritual freedom with confidence?  Why is this harder still for Christians.

It is hard in part because along the road of history the church laid out a slip of tar.  The idea was for our sins to stick to the tar so that we ourselves could walk away, but the tar was too sticky.  At times the church has taught and emphasized sin in ways that resulted in the bodies and souls of the faithful got stuck thinking we were bad to the core.  This has come at such a cost that some churches and clergy are going so far as to eliminate the confession from Sunday worship to prevent unintended consequence of further spiritual harm to worshipers.

The medieval church had a particular way of catching people in the tar, and yet out of times of great shadow or pain the beauty of insight arises.  This happened in the middle ages of Christianity in any number of ways.  One example specifically was through the vocation of Brother Lawrence who was Carmelite monk in Paris, France.  He was born in 1614 and died in 1691.  He started his vocational life as a soldier.  After fighting in the Thirty Year’s War and following an injury, he left the army and served as a valet.  After some time, he chose monastic life and joined a Priory in Paris.  Lawrence dedicated himself to humble work in the priory – serving in the kitchen and mending sandals.  Yet his wisdom for praying our way through life and through our sin is legend.  “The Practice of the Presence of God” is a title you can find easily on Amazon.

Brother Lawrence answered the burden of sin with practical instruction.

1.       Do not bring into confession sins you have already confessed.  Don’t go over them again and again.

2.      Don’t call to mind other people who have been connected with your sins.  Judge yourself only.

3.      Acknowledge your sins in general.  Don’t rehearse the details.

4.      What you think is your sin is small and insignificant in comparison with your true sin which is most likely a failure to love God.

Brother Lawrence’s discipline for overcoming sin and living a faithful life is simply this. “Pray without ceasing.”

It is simple instruction that feels impossible to accomplish.  But there are ways that it can be done.  I will never forget the story of a woman who said she talks to Jesus all the time.  She relayed that one morning the rushed out of her apartment, down the stairs, opened the car door, seated herself and put the keys in the ignition only to do the whole thing in reverse, returning to her abode.  She entered her front door and exclaimed, “Come on Jesus!  Sorry I forgot you!”  Off she went with her day.

Brother Lawrence teaches that we can pray a simple mantra without ceasing.  His was, “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.”  Ours might be something else such as “Peace be with you. Peace be with you.  Peace be with you.”

Another way to pray without ceasing is to bless everything in your site – your food, your car, your children.  Bless them with silent intention or bless them aloud with words and gestures.  And if you have young people in your life, let your children bless you.  The power and sensation of such blessings are remarkable.

We can even offer a litany of thanksgivings for the rotten things in our life.  I once suffered lower back pain for months due to stress.  It plagued me, and I hated it.  At the time I happened to be reading Brother Lawrence, so I created the mantra, “Thank you God for my back pain.”  I recited it in my head over and over.  This did not cure my ailment of course.  The pain only left when I fixed my life.  But what the prayer did was fix my brain.  It changed my constant consciousness from heavy and dreary to positive and grateful.

Thankfully the Episcopal tradition is not particularly hung up on sin.  We care less about personal sin than corporate sin.  We confess as a community more than we seek personal reconciliation.  But even Episcopalians are born into the human condition.  We are as Paulo Freire explains born into an exercise always of trying to humanize ourselves.  It is so easy to see ourselves through a critical or self-conscious lens.  It is up to us through God to set ourselves free.

Pride celebrations like the parade downtown last night or the coaching of young black children such as in the movie, The Help, insisting, “You are good.  You are smart.  You are important.’…These are the ceremonies and certainties that we undertake in order to stand strong.  These are the ceremonies and certainties that we must come to rehearse as the words of God in our own hearts and minds.

May we seek reconciliation with those we have harmed or whom we have perceived to have harmed us in order that we might be able to pray without ceasing.

June 18, 2017

Proper 6 (Father’s Day)

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.

            “You are going to die this death a thousand times.”  That’s what the therapist told me.  Comforting, isn’t it?  But true.  We were talking about my oldest son, and I was expressing frustration, grief, and anger that as a result of his diagnosis of autism, he wasn’t “stacking up” to his peers in a variety of areas.  The therapist listened, was candid and honest with me, and reminded me that for my son’s spiritual health and for mine, I needed to let me expectations for who I thought he should be or would be, go to the grave. 

            That was eleven years ago.  And I have lost count in the years since, the number of times I have put my expectations, my ego, my desire, to death.  It has hurt every time.  I hate it.  Every expectation of typical development for my son that I carried within me had to die, for his sake, and for mine.  Many fathers of special needs children refuse to do this, out of denial or out of shame because it sucks.  Nothing about dying is easy.   But it is necessary.   I’ve learned something in the ten years since my therapist said those words to me, and it is this: once I allowed the expectations, the needs, the desires, to die – I was freed to love my son not as I expected him to be, but for who God created him to be.  As a result of letting old expectations die, I was introduced to a new world more beautiful, than anything I could have possibly imagined.  James’ world.  It is a world where as a result of letting things die, I have arrived at an understanding of God who is more empathetic and loving than I ever could have imagined. 

            But not always easy to follow.

            Today we hear Jesus says these words to the disciples before sending them out to minister: “I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves.”  If you know anything about sheep and wolves, you know that sheep do not do well overall in the company of wolves.  Jesus knows this, and similar to the therapist’s words to me, Jesus tells them: “Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death.”  If that’s not a “Happy Father’s Day” message, I don’t know what is!

            I understand Jesus telling them that the ministry Jesus is calling them to, will kill them.  Was he speaking literally?  Perhaps.  Today, I believe Jesus was speaking metaphorically –saying to the disciples that to do this work, their ego, their expectations, their desire for things to be better would have to die a thousand times.  Jesus was right, because he knew the deep spiritual truth that is the root of many world religions, which is that dying is the only way we learn to live.  When I look back on my life as a father, and the things I have allowed to die, I don’t look back in remorse, and thing “how depressing!”  I look back and say “thank God” because in letting those parts of myself die, I have learned to live.

            My oldest son is God’s gift to me because he has taught me that if you have the courage to let something die, God provides something more profound in its place.  That is the story of the Bible.  The people of Israel watched their holy temple burn to the ground, they experienced exile to a foreign land, and out of all that, the books which begin our Bible, were created.  The Apostle Paul, writes of his experiences dying daily for the sake of his ministry in 2 Corinthians, writing: “three times I was beaten with rods; once I was stoned.  Three times have I been shipwrecked; a night and a day I have been adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brethren; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure.”  In the midst of all that, Paul had the courage to consider himself blessed.  Blessed because of the freedom the pain, the hardship, the dying, brought to him.

            A moment of personal confession: I have been a fan of the heavy metal band, Metallica, since high school.  During high school, when I was shamed by Christians for listening to a non-Christian heavy metal band, it made me like Christians less, and Metallica more. 

            At their concert last week at NRG Stadium, Metallica played a song from their new album entitled “Now That We’re Dead.”  By way of introduction, lead singer, James Hethfield, shouted out to the 75,000 people in attendance “if you want to live forever, first, you must die,” ironically a truth central to our Christian faith.  I think James understands these words more than he lets on, as witnessed by his own life.  James Hethfield is an icon of material success, selling millions of albums, he had all the money he needed and more: private jets, drugs, sex, mansions.  As a father Hethfield was absent, favoring extravagant hunting trips in Russia over attending birthdays for his young children at home.  It’s probably no surprise to anyone here that has material success was a spiritual nightmare.  Hethfield was an alcoholic, and a drug addict.  At a point of personal maturity, he admitted the crushing weight of his addiction, entered rehab, and has now been sober, married, and a father, for the past fourteen years.  The song “Now that We’re Dead” acknowledges what needed to let die in his own life, so that he might live.  Hethfield wrote the lyrics to “Now That We’re Dead,” including this excerpt that I now share

Bottom of Form

When darkness falls, may it be That we should see the light When doubt returns, may it be
That faith shall permeate our scars
When we’re seduced, then may it be That we not deviate our cause When flame consumes, may it be It warms our dying bones When kingdom comes, may it be We walk right through that open door Now that we're dead, my dear We can be together
Now that we're dead, my dear We can live, we can live forever

            Metallica are my favorite non-Christian Christian band

            What is inside of us that needs to die?  If you are like me, you probably have a long list.  That’s okay.  It all comes back to this – do we have the courage it takes to let it die?  Do we have the faith to let it die, trusting that in God death always leads to resurrection? 

            Today a clergy colleague of mine, Mark Brown, is spending his first Father’s Day following the death of his four year old son, Judah, six months ago, a pain incomprehensible to me.  On Facebook, he posts pictures of Judah’s grave, decorated with toys and lights, and flowers.  [PAUSE].   Yet somehow, from a strength that is not his, but is from God, he proclaims the resurrection which promises life.  He preaches it.  In the midst of this death, his faith has not died.  Today Mark Brown works as the CEO of West Houston Assistance Ministries, helping those in need, bringing life and healing to immigrants, the hungry, the homeless, and the poor.  The acronym for West Houston Assistance Ministries is W-H-A-M, or WHAM, which was also the name of a popular music group in the 1980s featuring the singer George Michael.  When Mark took that position, he was given a George Michael wig, which he was proudly photographed in.  Neither did death take away his sense of humor.

            The courage and faith of that father and priest, is with me today, a reminder that we die daily, and in our courageous dying, we are truly living.  AMEN.

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.