May 13, 2018

7 Easter

Acts 1:15-17, 21-26; Psalm 1;1 John 5: 9-13; John 17: 6-19

The Rev. James M.L. Grace

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

            Last Sunday, one week ago around 8:30 AM, a young man wandered into this church.  He was barefoot, had shoulder length hair, a beard, and was dressed in tan pants and a brown shirt.  He kind of looked like the cartoon character “Shaggy” from the children’s television show Scooby Doo.  Some of you all may have seen him last week. 

By the time I encountered him, he was sitting outside the church along with an unleashed dog, who was clearly his companion.  I asked him his name, and he introduced himself as Eric.  After learning his name, I quickly realized that Eric was on drugs.  My first guess was that he was on LSD, but when I shared this story with a college friend of mine who has, shall we say, intimate knowledge of such things, he said “no way, Jimmy, that was definitely PCP he was on.”  I will leave it to your imagination as to how my friend could be so…confident.  The point is, Eric was clearly not in his right mind.  He was not well, emotionally or psychologically.  Which is perhaps why he chose a church to cycle through his high. 

Sadly, many churches including this one, are not set up to offer these services, and when people started coming to the service, and his unleashed dog started barking at parishioners, and I could not be certain this man would be a harm to himself or others, I made the decision to call the Constable, and the Constable arrived and began asking Eric questions, which revealed my suspicion of LSD was correct.  At some point Eric lost his girlfriend, who the police found wandering 610 on foot – like Eric, also high. 

By this time, four police cars and one ambulance were outside our church on Heights Boulevard while you all were saying the prayers of the people.  In the midst of all these uniformed personnel, a woman came by the church walking her dog.  She stopped on the sidewalk, and looked at Eric, now handcuffed, and the police surrounding him.  She started talking to me, and then began to tell me about her son – this woman I had never met before in my life.

She looked at Eric, and quickly understood everything she needed to know about him, and then commented to me that her adult son grown son had been homeless for ten years, and that he was addicted to crack cocaine.  She said all this very matter of fact, as if to say she had tried everything she could possibly do to help her son, but to no avail.  She could no longer help him, if he didn’t want to help himself.  And so, like Eric, this woman’s son is wandering the streets in some city, homeless, on drugs, and sleeping under city bridges.

I was amazed at the courage this woman displayed to share something with me so personal, admitting either her own failure as a mother, or her son’s failure in life.  Either way, it took courage.  And when she told me that, I looked back at Eric, and I wondered about his mother.  I wonder what Mother’s Day is like for Eric’s mother. 

Like everything else, there is a shadow side to Mother’s Day.  Underneath flowery cards, brunches, and gifts there can be a deep and profound existential angst - a fear, a sadness, a brokenness.  For those who grew up without a mother, or for those who for whatever reason are no longer in relationship with their mother, for those whose mothers are no longer among the living – this can be a hard day.  

Life is a moving target – there are no guarantees.  Nothing is certain.  Life is not fair, nor was it ever promised to be.  Life is chaotic, something I was reminded of last Sunday standing outside this church, watching the scene with the police unfold.  I was not at my best last Sunday during all this.  I was annoyed, frustrated, and angry that Eric had selected this place to rest his bare feet and his dog.  That event literally threw my entire day off last week. 

But a week has passed, and through my praying and through my reflecting I am beginning to see this event in a different light.  Through prayer, I remembered that Eric is no different from anyone inside this church.  Because like Eric, we all bring our problems here.  Eric’s problems were easy to see, but the only difference between his and ours, is that we more cleverly disguise our issues.  We dress ours up, or pretend they just aren’t there.  Eric has just as much of a right to be here as any of us. 

In his gibberish and jargon, Eric somehow made sense of a truth to me that I was not ready to receive one week ago, which is why I found his presence so annoying.  Eric was a bold reminder to me, sitting on the step of our church building, that God’s kingdom is open to everyone.  God sees no difference between the person who is nicely dressed in the church pew versus some barefoot, drugged out guy.  We are all equally loved by God.

That’s the message Eric gave me.  And what did we do with Eric, the messenger, the bringer of this message of God’s radical inclusive love that is free and available to every addict, every motherless child, every alcoholic, every codependent, every racist, every homophobe, every transgendered person?  We handcuffed him and put him in a police car to be driven away.  Now the officer assured me that no charges would be pressed, that they were taking him to a place where he could detox and have a meal before being released. But that didn’t change the fact that when I saw him sitting in the back of that car I wondered whose son is he?

This annoying messenger of God’s complete and total love for all humanity.   And then I remembered that in the bible the word used to describe a messenger is “angelos” – angel.  For a moment I wondered if I had just witnessed a constable handcuffing an angel and escorting him off church property.  Think about the irony of that. 

I think also of that woman and her homeless son, wherever he is today.  For better or worse, we are the offspring of our parents.  For better or worse, our children are the offspring of ourselves.  There is tremendous beauty in that.  There is redemption and beauty and grace in store for all of us who are broken.  That is why I’m here.  I hope that is why you are here.  I know that is why Eric was here.  AMEN. 

May 6, 2018

Easter 6

Acts 10:44-48, Psalm 98, 1 John 5:1-6, John 15:9-17

The Rev. Carissa Baldwin-McGinnis

Last week I phoned a friend in the middle of the work day.  He answered in a whisper, “Just a minute.”  In a normal tone I inquired, “Friend, are you acting like I am an important call so that you can get out of a work meeting?”  “Yes,” he replied.  “Yes, I am.”

Many of us have had seasons of work or volunteering when it felt like our job was to sit in meeting after meeting.  Bored and excruciated we would have happily taken part in the cheesiest of ice breakers or the most difficult of yoga poses to break the cycle of sitting and listening.

I was once in a two-day meeting feeling certain my body would meet its lethargic demise by the end of the second day.  But half way through the first day, we were called to our feet and into techniques from the Theater of the Oppressed.  During the activity we became sculptors using one another as our media.  “Sculpt compassion,” said our guide.  The sculptor then had three or four people to shape somehow into a human expression of compassion.  A second technique called “freeze frame” was also applied.  In freeze frame, the sculpture taps one of the subjects and assumes the shape they were in.

Amazingly whether you were the sculptor, the subject or the viewer, you almost always experienced the feeling depicted or an emotional response to the phenomenon depicted.  I might have sculpted love and then been made to take the shape of love that I had created.  In so doing I could feel love.

One of the concerns of the poetry of the Gospel of John is the replication of love.  How does the pattern of love get repeated?  More specifically, how can human love pattern after divine love? 

There is a line in the song “The Night They Drove Ol’ Dixie Down” that says, “Like my father before me, I will work the land.”  In the song, the voice of Virgil Cain harkens back to an era when vocations were inherited.  The farmer’s child is raised up to work the land.  The bricklayer’s son becomes a bricklayer, because he grew up into the trade.  The midwife’s daughter becomes a midwife, because she came of age at the side of her mother in works of midwifery service.

While it does not happen often in the modern era, vocations sometimes get handed down from one generation to the next.  A beloved Episcopalian with an art gallery and frame shop in the Montrose died unexpectedly a few years ago.  Arden’s occupies the first floor of a two-story stand-alone building on West Alabama.  On the second floor above the shop, the owner and his wife raised their children.  After his death, the owner’s daughter took over the business as a rather young adult, and you can find her there extending the business with the same grace and kindness her father showed to all who entered there.

In the Gospel of John, Jesus is the tradesman who inherits the craft of essential love.  He is the answer to the question of how human love patterns itself after divine love.  His craft he inherited from his birth father, a carpenter, but from the one to whom he prayed; his father in heaven. 

Jesus mastered his craft and became the mediator of divine love for anyone who would care to learn it in his era and through to today.  For generations people the world over have signed on for Jesus’ apprenticeship program.

And yet some days it can be hard to want to show up for work.  So often we want to replicate divine love, but do not try because we feel certain we will fail.  Poets, sages and healers agree that the place of love in the body is the heart.  So Christian apprenticeship is fundamentally an exercise of cultivating our hearts.  In theory it should be a simple exercise to mediate and live from that central organ of our being.

In reality, however, we do not often pursue Jesus vocation fully because we fear we do not have enough love in us.  We are overly aware of our non-loving feelings like anxiety, distraction, ambivalence or resentment and cannot always the love that we manage to make.  It can be easier to believe in God sometimes that it can be to believe in ourselves.

Some of us do not pursue the Jesus apprenticeship, because the church tells us Jesus was perfect.  We know we are not.  So we need not apply or try.

I like to believe that Jesus was exceptional not because of some tale of his born perfection, but because of his attainment to God’s love in the record time of his short life span.  I like the think this is what makes him the timeless intermediary and spiritual master to those who pursue his essence and spirit even today.  For those of us in the Christian apprenticeship program, we have a spiritual teacher whom we cannot see but who we somehow can come to understand, imitate and be sculpted by.  Someone whose shape we try to take in hopes of attaining original Love.

As a child I slipped my feet into the shoes of my father and my mother.  I was not trying to be them.  I was trying to be the bigger me I was on my way to becoming.  Today my three-year-old daughter slips her feet into my shoes.  I am convinced she is not pretending to be me but rather she is practicing the version of herself that she intends to become.  The way to Christ feels impossible when we go it alone or when we make it overly serious.  The way to loving as God loves is easier when we step into shoes left for us in our spiritual dress up box by someone who already knows how to love in the ways we want to learn to love.  Following, borrowing and imitating is how we will imitate the love we wish to generate, and in so doing explore becoming the spiritual persons we are training to become.

April 29, 2018

5 Easter

Acts 8:26-40; Psalm 22: 24-30;1 John 4: 7-21; John 15: 1-8

The Rev. James M.L. Grace

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

            Sometime over a year ago I presided a funeral at the VA cemetery in North Houston.  After the funeral, I drove my car to a nearby gas station to fill up my tank.  When I pulled up into the station, I noticed a woman standing near her car and she was very upset – crying.  After talking to this woman, I learned that she was just in a car accident and the person in the other car had driven away.

            Meanwhile another customer at the gas station joined me and together we offered this woman what comfort we could, punched out the remaining chunks of glass left in her shattered car window, swept up the glass on the concrete, threw it away, and remained with the woman until she felt comfortable to get back into her car.

            After the woman drove away, the other customer at the gas station with me and this woman talked for a while.  I explained to her that I was a priest, that I worked at this church, and that was it.  This was about a year ago.

            Last Tuesday I got an email from this other customer, a young woman who I assume to be in her 20s.  She said, “I was the person at the gas station, do you remember cleaning up all the glass,” and I said, “yes of course,” and then she indicated that the reason for her writing was because of all these questions of faith she was having.  It was standard stuff – she had grown up Christian, but began wrestling with deeper questions of faith, including – what does God think of all the other religions outside of Christianity, does God work through those, too, which religion is right – all that kind of stuff.  Because of these questions she felt that she wasn’t a good Christian (her words) and I replied to her saying that the opposite of faith is not doubt.  The opposite of faith is fear.

            The questions this young woman is asking are all the right questions, and I explained to her that I have struggled with all those questions myself, and still struggle with them, and that the fact she is thinking that way does not mean she is far away from God.  In my experience when I am asking those kinds of serious, deep questions of my own faith, I have found it to mean that I am closer to God than I probably realize.

            When I read this woman’s email, I understood that she was in a process of re-evaluating her faith – something we all need to do to keep our faith alive and vibrant.  Eventually the old models of faith no longer work for us, and we need to discard them when they become a hindrance, rather than helpful, in our relationship with God.  This woman, I assume, was doing just that.  Questioning the validity of things she had been taught as a child about God, and testing them – do they still hold water?  She is pruning her faith, removing the dead branches of old beliefs and practices that no longer serve her in her journey with God.    

            Jesus says “"I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit.”  I am not a really a “plant person,” so when Jesus pulls out this agricultural stuff, it’s hard for me to connect.  But I will try you an example.  We have a Crape Myrtle tree in our front yard.  For about a year or so, we didn’t really cut any branches on it.  You can imagine what happened, right – the branches grew and grew to the point where they became so long they started drooping, which was a problem because they drooped over the sidewalk that leads to our front door.  It got so bad that for a time if you were coming to our house, you would have to limbo thing to get under the branches to get to our front door.

            For that tree to be useful, we needed to cut the branches back, we needed to prune it. And we have, and now if you come to our house it’s a straight shot to our front door – no limbo necessary.  That is what Jesus is saying – for a vine, or a person, to be healthy, sometimes you need to cut away the unnecessary branches, so that the energy of the vine (or the tree or the person) can be better applied to growing more fruit. That’s what I believe this woman was doing by asking me these questions of faith – I believe she was examining her own spiritual landscape, and saying through these questions, what is worth keeping, and what does she need to cut off and do away with.

            This is important work, according to Jesus, because Jesus says that vine that does not have to be concerned with unproductive branches will produce the best fruit.  The question that should uncomfortably challenge every person who hears this Gospel is this: are we (you and I) – producing our best fruit?  And by “fruit” I mean the quality of our actions and our lives – because they both are intimately tied to our relationship with God.   If you are like me, your vine has a lot of branches that have become unruly, and no longer serve a purpose.  They need to be pruned, cut off because they no longer serve my primary interest, which is closeness and peace with my God. 

            Healthy churches do this consistently – evaluating the ministries that produce fruit, while cutting off the ones that no longer serve their intended purpose.  It can be painful.  But pain is a necessary prerequisite for healthy growth. 

             In a few weeks I am going on a three-month sabbatical – hopefully that is not news for you - I’ve written about it, you can read about on our website, I am handing Carissa the reigns, she will be working full-time during my absence, and you all will be in her excellent care.  The only thing I want to say about my upcoming sabbatical, which begins four Sundays from now (not that I’m counting) is that it will be a time I use that time to think, pray, and consider what I need to prune in my life – meaning what are the things I am doing that no longer serve to deepen my relationship with God.  That takes time, but I believe an unexamined life is not worth living.

            So – don’t be afraid to use the garden sheers on your faith and your spirituality.  It when we courageously let go off old habits and patterns of our faith where our true faith journey begins.  True life always begins outside your comfort zone.  AMEN.

April 22, 2018

4 Easter

Acts 4: 5-12; Psalm 23;1 John 3: 16-24; John 10: 11-18

The Rev. James M.L. Grace

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

      “The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not be in want.  He maketh me to lay down in green pastures, he leadeth me beside the still waters.  He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his names’ sake. Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for thou art with me, thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.”

      I want to talk about fear today.  I want to talk about fear because fear is something that intimately touches every single one of us here today.  We are all scared of something, at some time.  What am I afraid of?  How much time do we have?  Here’s a short list of my personal fears, but be assured there is much more I am afraid of than listed here. I am the father of a child with special needs.  I worry about his future when my wife and I are gone.  I worry about all of my children and their future.  I worry about this church.  I worry about the conflict and warmongering in the world today.  I am fearful about the state of our environment, and our ability to sustain life on this planet for generations to come.  That’s just he beginning of the list, friends – there are so many other fears I have, but I will stop there, except to say this – fear is no stranger to me.

      As a child, I remember being described as “anxious” by a psychologist to my mother.  Early child memories include me crying in the grocery store when I lost my mother, afraid that she had abandoned me there to fend for my own self.  Another early childhood memory  involved a leaking water hose on the side of our house that steadily dripped water.  No matter how hard I tried to turn the faucet off, it still would leak.  So afraid was I that the water droplets coming out of the hose would unleash a flood of water not seen since the days of Noah and the Ark – I would cover the end of the dripping hose with gravel, in the hopes of staving off the inevitable flood that was sure to come.  It never occurred to me to ask my parents if they could just fix the leak.

      This anxiety and fear would later manifest itself in my adolescence, when I would receive the diagnosis of obsessive-compulsive disorder, or OCD, as it is commonly referred to.  That was in 1992, before being diagnosed OCD was considered cool.  Now everybody’s OCD – but back in ’92, OCD was new territory.

The Bible is of course full of stories about imperfect, messed up people, who face their fears with courage, not relying on their own strength, but upon the strength of God.  One book in the bible – the book of psalms – contains writings written by different authors, who wrote out their fears, describing harrowing, scary, and dangerous situations.  Some of the psalms were written by people fleeing for their lives, who did not know whether they would live or die, and they candidly express that fear to God.

      We don’t know the context of psalm 23, meaning what was going on when it was written, but it is believed to have been written by King David, who arguably experienced more dark and desolate moments in his life than times of prosperity and success. 

      But what the author says about fear in this psalm is absolute and true for all of us: “yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for thou art with me.”  Every Christian right now is either in the midst of that valley of the shadow of death, coming out of that valley, or getting ready to walk into it.  That’s true for all of us.  Not one of us is exempt.  Know that if you are in the valley of the shadow of death, you are not particularly special.  Lots of other people are there, too.  Know also that if you are in this valley right now – don’t express self pity about it – “why me?” “why do I have to go through this awful experience?”  Because you’re not the only one.   Now that might sound like a real downer to you this morning, but the fact that we are either in the valley of the shadow of death, coming out of it, or getting ready to enter back into it – that is not a downer for me. It’s truth, and I receive that truth with gratitude because if you want to find God – go into the valley – that is where God is.  It is in that valley of the shadow of death where you will find resurrection, it is where you will find new life. 

      Last week former first lady Barbara Bush declined any further medical measures to keep her alive.  She did so because of her faith in God – which was strong.  She was ready to walk into the valley with her God trusting that God is mighty and strong to save.  Also last week aboard Southwest Airlines flight 1380, twenty minutes after takeoff, an engine on the wing exploded, and debris from that explosion broke open a plane window.  Fortunately, the pilot of that aircraft was former Navy fighter pilot Tammi Jo Shults, who in spite of unimaginable terror on that flight, landed it safely.  Tammi didn’t ask to go into the valley that day, but she didn’t have a choice.  So she went, with courage, and in that valley of death, she was a miracle. 

      God walks through the valley of the shadow of death by our side.  That’s what the psalm says, and it is true – “thou art with me, thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me.”  So yes, we go into these awful, scary places again and again and again. But God is with us each and every time.  We get to be strong and courageous, because we have a God who we get to give all our fear, all our anxiety, and all of our pain to.  We don’t need to worry about our lives, or our deaths – God will provide.  God will receive your fear.  

This runs completely against our culture, by the way.  In our culture we are encouraged to trust ourselves, to work hard to secure our own lives and future.  That’s not what the psalm says.  The psalm says that God has your future.  Any attempt to create stability and security in your life will be met with failure, unless you surrender that need for stability and security to God.  And when God receives it, God will transform it.  

      That valley which God brings you through will become your friend.  That scary, fearful place you don’t want to go will become your greatest teacher. 

      When fear comes knocking at your door, as it always will, answer the door with courage, and you will find there’s nothing at the door.  AMEN.

April 15, 2018

3 Easter

Acts 3: 12-19; Psalm 4;1 John 3: 1-7; Luke 24: 36b-48

The Rev. James M.L. Grace

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

For most of my life, I have been a Christian.  What that means, is that for most of my life, though I have claimed belief in Jesus, I have nevertheless failed in a myriad of ways in which the action of my faith was paired with the action of my words.  What that also means is that in several ways though I claimed Christianity as a belief, I struggled with its teachings – I struggled to understand, I struggled to believe.  And finally, what I think I mean when I say that I have been a Christian most of my life is that I have tended to be uncomfortable around most people in church environments. 

The reason I have felt uncomfortable around many church going Christians, is not because I either agreed or disagreed with their beliefs or their theology – that doesn’t matter to me.  What mattered was that I felt was that many of us, including myself, were lying to each other for that one hour of the week on a Sunday morning.  We go to church, we plaster smiles on our faces, we show up for the charade and pretend that everything in our lives is perfect and fine, and then we leave, and then we become honest again once we have returned to our homes. 

For many years I have been guilty of this – I have covered up my real feelings for a few hours on a Sundaymorning, I’ve dressed up my anxieties, I have presented false images of confidence, and then go home and remove it as I do my plastic clerical collar, put it all back on the shelf, to pick up another day.  I was rewarded for it externally – people would praise my false self for what I said in the pulpit, I would receive that admiration of parishioners – and while it felt good in the moment, it didn’t in the long run. 

Because where it led me to was not a place of spiritual wholeness, but rather a place of spiritual dis-ease.  I was like a cake that looked beautiful on the outside, the frosting was perfect, it looked pretty, but on the inside, it was garbage. 

I felt that way for a long time, like I could get by as long as I kept fooling everyone, as long as they believed the false image I portrayed as a superficial Christian.  But then Jesus showed up, again.  And for me, at least, Jesus did what Jesus does best – he ruined the charade for me.  That’s what Jesus does in our lives – he shows up unexpectedly and sees right through the lies we are all living, calls us on it, and then invites us to live in a different way.

I don’t know why, and I can’t explain it well – but I have felt more close to Jesus recently than I have in years. And I have been thinking repeatedly, why now?  What has changed?  What am I doing differently?  Nothing earth shattering.  I pray and I read the Bible.  That is leading me to surrender my life to God in a scary way (at least to me) that I don’t think I have done before.  I am becoming more honest with myself, and with others.  I am letting people see the garbage hiding behind the neat frosting on the cake. 

And in all that, I can’t explain, but Jesus has shown up.  Like he did with the disciples this morning.  They were together a few days after the resurrection, and Jesus just shows up in their midst, and says “You got anything to eat around here?”  Were the disciples doing anything different?  I don’t know.  But that’s what Jesus does in our lives.

Jesus walks through the front door of our heart, finds a comfortable chair to sit in, and says “What do you have to eat?”  It sounds so ordinary – like an annoying friend that comes to our home uninvited and asks us what hospitality we might offer.  It is ordinary, but that is what Jesus does.

One of the many great ironies of my life is that it was when I was studying to become a priest in seminary, that was where I felt I was furthest from God on my spiritual journey.  I couldn’t find Jesus in any of the classes I took on the Bible, I didn’t find Jesus in either the Greek or Hebrew language classes I took, and I certainly did not find Jesus in the seminary library.  What a boring place!  I believe I felt most distant from God during that time because I was fixated on trying to find the answers, trying to prove God’s existence.  I couldn’t.  Now I’ve stopped that foolishness.  And once I gave up trying to understand God, once I gave up trying to explain God – that’s when I believe Jesus showed up, again. 

So, Jesus is sitting on the couch of my spiritual living room.  He doesn’t seem to mind that it’s a mess, that my spiritual, emotional, and psychological baggage is strewn all over the floor and that there is left over Chinese Food from two days ago on the living room table. 

He’s there.  And that is the power of resurrection for me this Easter Season, that Jesus shows up in our lives when we least expect it, and probably least deserve it.  I think that is what Jesus prefers – our honesty over our piety, our progress over our perfection, our humility over our pride. 

Is your spiritual living room as messy as mine?  Is it littered with the clutter of arrogance, pride, and selfishness, as mine is?  Because what I’ve learned is that I don’t need to clean it up for Jesus to be there.  Jesus is cool with the mess. Because the mess is honest – it is who we really are.  We don’t need to pretend we have it all together on a Sunday, because God knows, none of us do.

And we are fine with messiness at St. Andrew’s.  In our Rhythms of Grace service a few weeks ago a parent expressed regret that their child with autism was dysregulated, screaming during the service and breaking a musical instrument.  Our response to that parent who was feeling shameful and embarrassed about her child’s behavior, was, God is a dysregulated God who creates dysregulated people.  It’s okay.  Because every Sunday Jesus shows up at Rhythms of Grace, because that is a place were every parent gets what it means to raise a child or adult with developmental challenges.  There’s no hiding, there’s no dressing up.  There’ no pretending.  It’s real. 

Our lives are a mess, and that is okay.  Because it is in the mess, it is in the dysregulation, it is in the honest surrender, when Jesus shows up and says, “what are we having for dinner?”  AMEN.

April 8, 2018

Easter 2

acts 4:32-35; psalm 133; 1 john 1:1-2:2; John 20:19-31

the rev.  Carissa baldwin-McGinnis

Last week I shared a 5th Century assertion by John Chrysostom that Easter is the feast of our inclusion.  In his Easter homily he invited the first, the last, the rich, the poor, the sober and the users to “celebrate the day!!!”

It is great to have a festival day where everyone is invited, but now we are into the Great 50 Days of our inclusion.  Inclusion for one day seems doable, but inclusion for a protracted season seems less likely.

Inclusion is akin to diversity.  Those of us who have tried to value and navigate diversity in American culture in recent decades have attended to difference carefully.  We mostly cross over cultural boundaries in an organized way.  We have customs and agreements about how to navigate difference in ways that keep us safe while allowing us to learn and grow.

The nature of inclusion seems to be slightly different than the nature of diversity.  With inclusion, it is as if the boundaries of difference themselves have been eliminated.  In a season of inclusion, we would have to experience a protracted elimination of the boundaries of difference?

There are certainly implications for attempting to live in inclusive community for more than just one day.  It might involve sharing all things in common as is described in Acts of the earliest post-Jesus, Jesus-following community.  Or it might involve the challenges of living together in unity as described in the first letter of John. 

A helpful analogy of the challenge of inclusion might be the political infrastructure of nationhood and immigration.  Nation states issue permits and visas for residency and citizenship.  They do so to broker boundaries of belonging, location and the distribution of resources.  Liberals and conservatives alike value some amount of order to our nationhood and national boundary crossing, because it helps keep us safe when we are the stranger in a strange land.

But when people cross boundaries without order, it makes us uncomfortable.  We fear that the balance of social and political systems will be disrupted.  We wonder how we can keep up with mass movements that governments cannot control.  It is almost impossible for even the most generous person to imagine the elimination of these boundaries and controls.  Yet the fantasy that kind of boundary elimination is the dream of a global inclusion of one human race with a single, shared homeland.

There are so many boundary crossings in the Gospel reading from John.

1.      The doors of the house where the disciples are gathered are locked for fear of attack.

Yet Jesus is suddenly inside.

2.      In his appearance, Jesus crosses the boundary between the dead and the living.

3.      In his presence he crosses be line between the material and the mystical.

4.      Thomas crosses these as well, when he insists on reaching back to touch Jesus.

5.      Jesus eliminates a primary religious boundary of 1st Century Judaism when he himself offers the power of forgiveness to his friends when it was something only Yahweh would have been able to grant by way of temple priests through inner sanctum sacrifice and prayer.  Jesus crossed the barrier into the role and realm of priesthood and role and realm of YHWY himself.  This was more than theological boundary crossing, but rather an explosion of the boundary itself.

As for Thomas, we traditionally disparage him as weak and doubting.  Why not call him brave Thomas or prudent Thomas instead?  My wife has taught me to trust and verify all things.  She has taught me the wisdom in setting your intentions while making sure there is evidence to prove that what is promised to you has been delivered.  Every person here must have a story of time they now wish they had verified.

In an era where there were many asserting themselves as the Jewish messiah, only a foolish Jesus follower would have failed to verify that this person who appeared was the same one whom they had loved and followed.  At best he could have been a fraud.  At worst, a Roman enemy in disguise.

And how brave must Thomas have been to cross that barrier between the material and the mystical.  If we let ourselves acknowledge it, we can see that we too are crossing it all the time.  Matthew Fox says we are all mystics, and we should use our spiritual experience ton guide us as we navigate the challenges of our lives and our time.  We live into our own mysticism on this Baptismal day along with the mysticism of the church.  As we baptize, we uphold the spiritual power of the water, oil and fire beyond its physical manifestation as we confess that we gathered are more than just people in the pews; we are the body of Christ.

As the body of Christ, it is our job to invite this child as he grows to get to know us even in our tender places.

St. Andrew’s usually gets high marks for inclusion.  In this season of Eastertide, then, I invite you to study your own heart and why you have chosen this place.  What has St. Andrew’s culture of inclusion done for you personally?  And how does the practice of inclusion enhance your relationship to God?  May the map of inclusion be our community’s guide as we pray and celebrate together these Great Fifty Days of Eastertide.

April 1, 2018

Easter Sunday

The Rev. Carissa Baldwin-McGinnis

Happy Easter.  Or as they say at the Gap, “Welcome in!”

Have you noticed that every sales establishment says that now.?  “Welcome in!” as though we are being welcomed in to our family reunion.  Granted shopping in person is much more intimate than shopping online.  But still ‘welcome in’ as a standard greeting for apparel shops feels like an assumption of an intimacy that is just not there.

Nonetheless, I think here today we can legitimately say, “Welcome.  Welcome in.”

Sixteen hundred years ago St. John Chrysostom in his Easter homily said just that. “Welcome all.”

“Come you all: enter into the joy of your Lord. You the first and you the last, …you rich and you poor…you sober and you weaklings… celebrate the day!!!”

I love that, because there should be no bouncer at the door of the church on Easter whether you were here last Sunday or this is the first time you have attended worship.  On Easter, everybody is in.  This is the feast of your and my inclusion.

If I have seen the movie, “Sing” once, I have seen it one million times.  In one scene from the animated film, a little male mouse is in line to enter a fancy night club driven by his attraction to a beautiful female mouse dressed to the nines.  The female mouse waltz straight past the bouncers and through the club entrance, but no so for her pursuer.  He gets bounced by gigantic bears into what one thinks might be neverland.

But not here.  Not today.  There is no bouncer at the red doors of the church.  So, welcome in.

Today I also want to say to you, “Welcome out!”  Welcome out of the cave of whatever has enclosed you as of late.  Maybe it is solitude or sorrow.  Maybe it is depression or grief.  Maybe it is some trouble you are having with someone else at work or home or school.  I want to say, “Welcome out into freedom and peace.”  I pray that whatever stone has been the barrier to your life, your love or your future has been rolled away at least for this one hour in time.

Welcome out!

Now that we are all here together, I wanted to ask you to consider something with me.  Have you ever noticed that the disciples before they go to for the body of Jesus first take their rest?  Have you ever noticed that?  They do not rush to find his body do be sure it is safe from further desecration.  They do not rush out for the body for sake of their own need to grieve or for the reassurance we all seek when we long to see or touch a loved one after their soul has taken its leave.

The disciples do not do this.  Rather, they observe the sabbath – a day of rest – which is completely bizarre to us in this culture and time when no one is entitled to rest.  And it would seem even more bizarre to us if the state had executed the love of our spiritual life.  The last thing we would do would be to sit back for a day.  It would be unheard of to us.  But to do otherwise would have been unheard of to Jesus’ friends and followers.  Yes, because it was the Jewish law.  But I wonder if it was not also a sign of the fear and alarm that pervaded their community at that time.  Might it have been safer to stay away for a day until they could observe how things were shaking out with the Romans, the temple priests and police, the scribes, the elder?  Were they needing to case the situation and only then go looking for Jesus.  Maybe observing the sabbath for Jesus’ followers was a tactical choice of an occupied people not just a religious choice among the pious.  Perhaps taking the pause was both a practical and spiritual approach to one of the most vexing problems Jesus’ community had had to face.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote about the sabbath that Jews observe it to ensure that they do not embezzle their our own lives.  He wrote, “The solution of mankind’s most vexing problem will not be found in renouncing … civilization, but in attaining some degree of independence from it.”  In other words, the sacred pause will always be the best source of solutions to our most complex problems.

So, what is vexing or unsafe for you?  What keeps you from coming out of your house or your family?  What makes in unsafe for you to go in search of Jesus or Jesus’ body – the truth has been massacred but in the end is still the truth.  What truth is so scary?   What in the culture is so frightening that it would keep you home or keep you from your best self?  Whatever that thing is for you is precisely what we are to pass over as we come to the Easter banquet.  Today we do not have to break through our barriers.  We do not have to break down any walls.  We do not have to roll away a stone.  We simply have to pass over our challenges to get to the feast that awaits us.  No bouncers.  No stone.  Just the food of our freedom and the drink of our inclusion.

One of my favorite songs is about church and food.  It is a Lyle Lovett song entitled, “Church.”  As the song begins, everything is going fine.  Church starts on time.  The people are praying.  The preacher is preaching.  The preacher keeps preaching.  The preacher won’t stop preaching.  And everybody is getting hungry (just as I can remember being at church as a child.  I could not wait for the wafer, because my Cheerios always wore off too soon.)  Soon enough the choir remedies the situation in Lyle Lovett’s song, and the chorus goes:

To the Lord let praises be

It’s time for dinner now, let’s go eat.

Easter is the most important feast that the church puts on.  And when we eat, we eat like it is a family reunion no matter how long it has been since some of us have seen the others or if we are meeting one another for the first time.  This feast is for everyone.  This feast is forever.  Let’s eat.


March 30, 2018

Good Friday

ISAIAH 53:8-12; Psalm 22; HEBREWS 4:14-16; 5:7-9; LUKE 22:47-23:56

The Rev. Carissa Baldwin-Mcginnis

It is hard to know what is good about this Friday so weighed down by the causes of hatred and the heaviness of spiritual darkness.  Our hearts are made like led as we meditate on these things.

My own memories of darkness take me back several years to a day when winter was turning to spring.  Before the dawn of morning I and several others slipped silently onto bicycles and rolled quietly onto the mystery of a country road.  It was day two of the MS150 bicycle ride from Houston to Austin, and it was that hour when all things have wakened but not a one dares to stir.  Each is still guarded against any predators that might have found their way nearby and yet remain unseen before the light of dawn.

There is a thickness to all that remains veiled just before the break of dawn.  I remember nothing about how we navigated those last minutes of darkness, but it was as close to a physical mystery as I have come.  It was one of the most frightening moments of the two-day ride, simply because we could not see.

Soon after we set out, it was as if God had brought up a dimmer switch on North America.  What was a multitude grays began to transform into a multitude of colors; golds, greens, blacks and yellows.  Billions of grass blades.  And suddenly I could see the helmets of other riders.  Finally, the road itself could be seen.  The risks of the ride, now that we could see, were diminished.  So was the power and mystery of that darkness.  I was sad to see it go, and yet its end had brought me some relief.

I don’t have to explain why darkness is dangerous for riders.  Darkness appears to the rider as though it were a solid wall into which we are about to slam ourselves and our bicycles, yet we pass through somehow.  We pass through but with the threat of whatever may be in front of us that we cannot see.  Something to run into or run over.  Something we might run off of, or something unseen that might run into us.

The horror of Jesus’ crucifixion might be one of these apparent walls of the mystery of darkness into which we choose to ride year after year.  Despite the illusion that it is dense and solid, each time we pass through into the center and have movement even without visibility and even without explanation for the injustice; or for our choice to relive that which ends abominably every time, every year, no matter what gospel we choose to read from.

Sometimes the spiritual paths take us through mysteries that feel like blindness or walking full frontal into opacity.  Sometimes the spiritual path confronts us with mysteries that look like massacre.

Even while the story of Jesus’ crucifixion has a spiritual darkness, a multitude of beings are present.  As the mystery is told by Luke, we get that same dimmer switch experience.  The lights come up on the haters who have bodies and voices, but also the lights come up on the witnesses to truth who themselves are given mass and given sound.

The witnesses to the truth include Jesus himself who says to those who come to arrest him, “This is your hour, and the power of darkness!” not mine.

The witnesses include one woman and two men who say of Peter, “This man was with him!”

The witnesses include the centurion who declared, “Certainly this man was innocent.”

And there were the women who had walked all the way from the Galilee, following Jesus.

Finally, there was a man called Joseph from Arimathea who had a body, a name and a voice.  And he used that voice to ask Pilate for the body of Jesus, and he received it and laid it in a rock-hewn tomb.

All these were witnesses to the truth.  And it is the truth to which the mystery of Jesus’ crucifixion is devoted.  All of these people witnessed to the truth before the suffering, on a hillside near the suffering, at the side of the sufferer, and after his suffering had ended.  They remained throughout to tend to the truth.  They did the faithful work of carrying a cross for the crucifixion and of mixing spices and ointment for Jesus’ body.  They must have been exhausted.

If you have ever grieved a death or witnessed and injustice that leads to a death, you will remember how exhausting it is.  And then you can remember these witnesses who did their work and then took their rest.  They rest according to the commandment, because it was the sabbath day.  Like cyclist having ridden so very many miles, these witnesses dismounted their grief, their loss, their labor, their love, and they rested.  They rested.

Let us rest now.  All of us.  Shhhhhh .  Take your rest.

March 29, 2018

Maundy Thursday

Exodus 12: 1-14; Psalm 116: 1, 10-17;1 Corinthians 11:23-26; John 13: 1-17, 31b - 35

The Rev. James M.L. Grace

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

          When I try to imagine the Last Supper in my mind, the final meal that Jesus shares with the disciples the evening of his arrest, the image that most often comes to my mind is Leonardo Da Vinci’s painting of the Last Supper which is in the refectory, or eating hall, of the convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan, Italy.  Da Vinci’s painting of the Last Supper is arguably one of the world’s most recognizable paintings.

           Yet, Da Vinci’s painting of the Last Supper is certainly not the only depiction of this meal.  There are countless other paintings and illustrations of the Last Supper that reflect every imaginable cultural and ethnic nuance.  Years ago I read an article about these paintings and drawings of the Last Supper, and the article highlighted a surprising trend.  And the trend is that in all these paintings of the Last Supper, the physical size of the main course on the table – the food Jesus and the disciples were eating – increased by sixty-nine percent over the past few centuries.   

            But it’s not just the main course that has increased all these years.  The same article also revealed that the size of the bread on the table grew by twenty-three percent.  In summary, the article stated that over a period of one thousand years, the Last Super portion size became “super-sized,” or if you are a Whataburger aficionado like myself, the Last Supper, artistically at least, is now “what-a-sized.”

            Why the increase in the portion amounts of the Last Supper paintings?  The article suggested that over the centuries food has become increasingly more abundant, available, and cheap to produce.  Which leads me to another painting of the Last Supper I wish to share with you – one that is likely less familiar than Da Vinci.

            Though this depiction of the Last Supper is modeled exactly after Da Vinci’s painting, and everything is the same as Da Vinci’s setting: the room, the people, the clothes.  It’s all the same, except for one thing: the food.  In this modern Last Supper painting the traditional cuisine of the time is replaced with a modern counterpart: fast food.  Instead of a plate in front of Jesus, there is a paper bag with a McDonald’s logo on it.  The disciples are eating Big Macs, French fries, and sipping milk shakes.  Judas Iscariot is eating a double cheeseburger.

            Is the painting a commentary on the commercialization or mass production of the church or religion?  Is it an indictment of a culture that is obsessed with ease and convenience?  I don’t know.  But I love the painting.  I don’t find it offensive.  I find it human.  Of course the fast food packaging inserted into Da Vinci’s painting in place of the original food is tacky, but it is also deeply spiritual, as it reminds us that the Last Supper, the meal Jesus shared with the disciples, is timeless.  Yes, it happened in history over two thousand years ago, but it continues to happen again and again whenever Christians gather to share bread and wine in observance of that final meal. 

            For me, the Last Supper doesn’t belong in history – it belongs out of history, so that yes it makes sense to see 15th century Italian people eating cheap, mass produced, unhealthy, and chemically-laden 21st century fast food.  It makes sense to me because in the Eucharist, what has past becomes present.  Like the water that is poured into wine, the past and the present dissolve into one.  For me the Last Supper is a myth.

             When I say the word “myth” I am not talking about an old story that about something that never actually happened.  That is not myth.  A myth is a true story,  in fact a myth is the most true story, about something that has happened and continues to happen again and again. 

            Whoever that artist was that created that depiction of the Last Supper, incorporating Da Vinci’s famous setting with modern fast food fare, was in my mind not heretical, but brilliant.  Brilliant because the holy moment of Eucharist allows the Last Supper to be mythical: to happen again and again and again.  It will happen once again here this evening, as we gather around this table to share bread and wine. 

            We come to this table because we are hungry.  We have a spiritual hunger, a spiritual need that brings us back to this table again and again.  We return to this table because we are part of the story, we are the myth.  Our appetite for truth is larger than one here visit will allow, which is why we return to hear the story again, because it is here, where we learn from each other and from God, who we are.

            We are hungry and restless people.  We hunger for a truth that is “supersized” – a truth that will fill the emptiness that exists inside all of us.  Where is it?

            Perhaps you might find it if you choose to remove your shoes and allow a complete stranger to wash your feet.  Maybe you will uncover the truth when a small flat piece of bread that is somehow part of God is placed into your hand.  More than likely you will find God’s truth in whatever it is that is hurting you most right now.  That seems to be how God works, and that seems to be true of Holy Week.

            In any case, we have stepped into the myth.  We have become the story, we and we are becoming, by God’s grace alone, more true.  AMEN. 


March 18, 2018

5 Lent  

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

The Rev. James M.L. Grace

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

March 11, 2018

4 Lent   

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

The Rev. James M.L. Grace


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

March 4, 2018

3 Lent

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

The Rev. James M.L. Grace

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

February 25, 2018

2 Lent

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

The Rev. James M.L. Grace

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

February 18, 2018

Lent 1

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

The Rev.  Carissa Baldwin-McGinnis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

February 14, 2018

Ash Wednesday

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

The Rev.  Carissa Baldwin-McGinnis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

February 11, 2018

6 Epiphany

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

The Rev. James M.L. Grace

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

January 28, 2018

4 Epiphany

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

The Rev. James M.L. Grace

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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