September 17, 2017

Pentecost – Proper 19

Genesis 50:15-21; Psalm 103; Romans 14: 1 - 12; Matthew 18: 21-35

The Rev. James M.L. Grace



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

            While life in the Heights seems to be more or less back to normal after Harvey, a trip to flood affected areas in west Houston tells a very different story.  Streets lined with piles of mucked out sheet rock, flooded appliances: televisions, washing machines, refrigerators.  The horizontal water line, an eerie reminder of just how high the waters rose, is evident across buildings and walls.  Upon seeing it for the first time, it immediately brought me back to working in New Orleans after Katrina, seeing the water line there, how high the water got. 

            So what has St. Andrew’s done?  You all have done a lot, as I shared last week. We have collected and distributed cleaning supplies, water, food, clothing, diapers, and more all across the city.  We have partnered with Episcopal churches in Houston including Lord of the Streets, San Pablo, and San Pedro and with Christ Church in Covington, Lousiana, to bring assistance to people who need it most.  So many of you have stepped in to lend a hand.  We are making an impact on this city. 

            We’ve also collected money these past two Sundays, and I want to offer a brief update on the funds we have received for both Harvey and Irma relief.  As of last Sunday, St. Andrew’s has received approximately $8,000 to go towards relief work.  And I want to thank you for your generosity, whether you wrote a check, volunteered at the Heights Interfaith Food Pantry, at our supply warehouse with PJ (introduce her).  You all have been so generous with your time and your resources.  Funds for Harvey have already been dispersed.  An example of what we did with some of those dollars was to help three of members of St. Andrew’s School staff who were affected by the flooding and so as a church we have given them money, along with our prayers, to help those employees of the school begin to rebuild their lives.  The School community has been incredibly generous in collecting clothing, furniture, appliances, and more to create warm new homes for school employees who had lost so much.

            For money collected last week for Irma relief, I am coordinating with the Rev. Canon Simon Bautista at Christ Church Cathedral to get our Irma dollars down to Puerto Rico, which Canon Bautista informs me has was heavily hit by Hurricane Irma.  Thankfully, the Dominican Republic, especially vulnerable to natural disasters such as Irma, was largely spared.  Canon Bautista has personal Episcopal Church connections in Puerto Rico, and he can help us bypass

bureaucracy and red tape to get the dollars you have given to where they will do the most good.  If you want to contribute to either Harvey or Irma relief, you can write a check payable to St. Andrew’s and notate in the memo line either Hurricane Harvey or Hurricane Irma relief, and we will get those funds to where they can do the most good.    

            This morning I want to talk about forgiveness, and I want to do so through story.  The story begins this way: I was standing out in the street outside my home a day after the hurricane blew through.  It was the first day we had sunlight after what seemed to be an eternity of cloudy dark days.  Remember how good it felt to look up to the sky and see blue?

            The streets were still wet, and I was outside throwing a football with my son, and because the football would land in wet areas, the football got wet, which meant that my hands got wet from touching it.  My wedding ring, which I have had for thirteen years, was loose on my ring finger.  Somehow, when throwing the ball with my left hand, because I am left handed, the laces of the football caught my ring in some kind of unpredictable way, and the ring flew off my finger along with the football.

            When my ring fell off, I didn’t hear it hit the ground, so I assumed it didn’t fall into the street but into the grass somewhere.  We looked for it for awhile, but it never showed up.  So the ring I wear on my finger now is wedding ring 2.0.  What have I learned from this?  Nothing is permanent.  When Marla put that ring on my finger twelve years ago, I thought “I will wear this ring until I am an old man.”   That thought was also coupled with this one: “I hope I don’t ever lose this ring.”  When I told my wife that I lost my ring, I don’t really know what I was expecting, except maybe she would be angry, maybe it would be hard for her to forgive me.            I was kind of apprehensive to tell her.  When I did, she didn’t say “You did what!!!???”  She didn’t seem angry at all, and I think I heard the tone of forgiveness in her voice when she said “oh, okay.  My dad has a metal detector.  We’ll see if we can find it.”  That’s forgiveness.  If I were to run through the whole list of things I have asked her forgiveness for, we would be here a long time, but I share that one, because in that moment I was made aware, yet again, that relationships are not strong because of things.  Relationships are strong because we forgive.  That’s the point of Jesus’ parable this morning.  That’s the point of the reading from Genesis where Joseph forgives his brothers.

            Forgiveness is our greatest strength because it gives us an opportunity to look outside of ourselves.  Several weeks ago when my son and I were part of a human chain off loading humanitarian aid from a United Airlines truck at the George R Brown, I looked at everyone helping - women, men, people of all color, people who voted for Hillary Clinton, people who voted for Donald Trump, and no one was arguing or fighting.  It was great - people setting aside their differences for a much greater good.  I told my son to look around and watch - that this was our city at its finest.  We saw people reaching out beyond themselves to help others, and when you see that again and again, it makes you realize the good that we can do.   

            So much was washed away in the flood.  People’s dreams.  People’s homes. People’s hope.  But that was not everything.  Other things were washed, too.  Anger, cynicism, selfishness - they didn’t have a chance when the waters rose - they too washed away.  Did you notice that?  Perhaps the great irony of the flood in which so much was lost, was that buried in those piles of garbage lining our city streets, we rediscovered our dignity.  At the bottom of every one of those piles there is forgiveness.  That’s how forgiveness works.  We have to pull away all the garbage and find it there, buried in the rubble.  And once we find it, once we rediscover it, life becomes new for us all, and the garbage, the trash heaps - they disappear.  AMEN.

September 3, 2017

Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 17

Jeremiah 15:15-21, Psalm 26"1-8. Romans 12:9-21, Matthew 16:21-28

THE REV. CARISSA BALDWIN-MCGINNIS



 

Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.

You and I have seen many things over the last week-and-a-half.  Some of them were beautiful.  Some of them we wish we would not have seen.  These are some of the things that we saw.

A woman in a orange raincoat on a roof

Thousands of cots

A floating carpet of fire ants

Water, water, water

Chemical containers ablaze

Leadership in tears

A swimming cat

Two dogs floating in a beer cooler

Alligator eyes

Thousands of people soaking wet

Coast Guard copters

Boats sent from heaven

Mountains of clothing

Text messages from friends everywhere

Fresh bread from a local bakery that refused to surrender

We have suffered and lost.  Not each of us the same, but everyone together.  We have rejoiced over our good fortune and what we have been spared, and we have wept over all that has been destroyed.

Perhaps you recall your own transition from high alert to a more relaxed posture during Hurricane Harvey.  I remember the transition from constant tornado watch alerts screaming from every piece of technology in my home to a quieter time when I was back to checking email and news in print.  Several pieces of correspondence in my inbox laid out the three stages of natural disaster.  I took so much comfort from reading about them.

Phase one is rescue.  The rescue phase is focused on saving lives and securing property.  Phase two is relief.  The relief effort is about seeking and providing assistance and shelter.  Phase three is recovery.  Recovery from natural disaster has to do with restoring services, repairing houses and buildings, returning individuals to self-sufficiency and rebuilding communities.

The comfort of these categories was fleeting, as I recognized them to be a matter or operations without addressing the needs of the heart.

Trauma has a way of taking us by the nervous system and hacking and scrambling.  The knots left in our neurology are not easily undone.  Nor are the deep impressions of our sorrow.  For over this last week we said good-bye to many things.  Food on shelves.  The freedom to move about.  The privilege of work.  Our homes.  Cars.  Possessions.  Loved ones.  Standard access to medical care.  The illusion of control.  The delusion of self-sufficiency.  The ‘defendedness’ of the heart.  And the myth that we survive alone.

We have lost.  We are grieving.  We will continue to be overwhelmed.  We are likely to remain in spiritual shock for sometime, and our hearts lament.  These psalms may speak your lament, and I share them aloud as a way of letting them speak for mine.

How much longer must I endure grief

In my soul,

And sorrow in my heart by day and by

Night? (Ps. 13:2)

 

Take pity on me, Yahweh,

I am in trouble now.

Grief wastes away my eye,

My throat, my inmost parts.

For my life is worn out with sorrow,

My years with sighs.

September 10, 2017

Pentecost – Proper 18

Ezekiel 33:7-11; Psalm 119: 33-40; Romans 13: 8-14; Matthew 18: 15-20



The Rev. James M.L. Grace

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

            “Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.  Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.” 

Two days ago, my good friend and Episcopal Priest Bill Miller walked onto the campus of Gallery Furniture looking for Jim McIngvale, or Mattress Mac as he is know to many of us.  How many us have seen his commercials - with him enthusiastically jumping up and down proclaiming “Gallery Furniture will save you money!”

            When we found Mac, he was standing in his parking lot, directing traffic, as thousands of people were there because his store is set up as a major distribution point in the city of Houston for cleaning supplies, toiletry items, water, etc.  I asked Mac if Bill and I could join with Taco Bell and Papa John’s pizza to help serve food we had brought - enough jambalaya to feed hundreds of people.

            Mac looked at me, and was then quickly distracted by a car blocking traffic in his parking lot, and walked away to tell the driver of the car to move.  We approached Mac a second time, this time saying we were priests, to see if that could potentially grab his attention.  It didn’t.  He said something like “it’s about time the church showed up to do something.”   And then he walked away a second time, to address another traffic issue is his densely populated parking lot. 

            Like the persistent widow who keeps pleading before the judge for justice in Jesus’ parable, Bill and I approached Mac a third time, then a fourth.  The fourth time, Mac was agitated, not by our persistence, but by another car driver blocking traffic in his parking lot.  This Mac let out some pretty colorful language, and looked back at us and said “Dominicans taught me those words!” 

            And finally, after a fifth attempt, Mac relented, and said “There’s enough chaos here already, why not more - bring your food!”  So we did, and people ate.  Mattress Mac, opening his store as a place for first responders and evacuees, is loving his neighbor.  Love is the highest law, and as remind us today, love does no wrong to a neighbor.

            There have been so many examples of self giving love on display in this city, and at this parish.  Since we announced that we would be collecting cleaning supplies, the contributions of these to the church has been nothing short of miraculous.  So many of you have stepped up, helped to clean houses devastated by flooding, you have written checks, you have volunteered your time. 

            Last Thursday, St. Andrew’s received a shipment of $50,000 in cleaning supplies, food, water, and other items.  We had no place to store it all, so your Vestry member Pj Arendt-Ford reached out to another parishioner, Ben Esquivel, who owns a warehouse across the street from Gallery Furniture, where these items were received.  Many of you have helped distribute them to Lord of the Streets, San Pablo Episcopal Church, and San Pedro Episcopal Church. 

            This is a long-term recovery, we all know that, and we are committed to doing everything we can.  We have an additional 1,000 cases of water coming to our distribution site, and we need your help to get water and supplies out to the people who need it most.  IF you can spare your car or truck, either tell Pj or Carissa.  If you want to tell me fine, but please do it in email, because I will forget.

            But there is also this matter of Hurricane Irma.  And as we have seen on the news, Irma’s path has left devastation in its wake across the Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, the state of Florida.  The people who live in those places are also our neighbor.  And our responsibility is to show love.  So this is what we are going to do.

            In your announcements, it says that all loose plate collections will go toward Hurricane Harvey relief.  I’m changing that to all loose plate collections will go to Hurricane Irma relief.  That means any cash or coins you put in the plate will not go to St. Andrew’s, but will go toward relief efforts for Irma.

            If you want to make a designated gift for Hurricane Harvey relief, you may do so in the form of a check, and just write “Hurricane Harvey Relief” on the memo line.  A closing story.

Last week I went to the NRG center to volunteer at the shelter started there by Baker Ripley.  I was assigned “guard duty” next to a gate, and while standing at my post, I was approached by a pastor. 

            Full disclosure - I hadn’t showered, I looked kind of disheveled.  Probably looked tired.  I wasn’t dressed as a priest, I was in a t shirt and jeans.  The pastor approached me, started up a conversation, and perhaps thinking I was a person staying at the shelter said, “Can I pray for you?”  And I said, “yes.”  And he put his arm on my shoulder, and began to pray.  I felt so loved by this complete stranger.  I saw love in his eyes.  I felt God’s presence.  And I was reminded, yet again, of Paul’s words: “love does no wrong to a neighbor.”  AMEN. 

August 20, 2017



The Rev. James M.L. Grace

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

            The Dachau Concentration Camp was the first of its kind to be opened in Germany.  It opened in 1933 under direct orders from Heinrich Himmler, and it functioned originally as a labor camp, where tens of thousands of prisoners including Jewish citizens, artists, homosexuals, and enemies of Nazi Germany were forced into labor.  Dachau’s original purpose as a place of forced labor gradually changed as Hitler’s final solution calling for the death of millions transformed Dachau into a death camp.  There were 32,000 documented deaths at the camp, including 1,034 Christian clergy.  It is believed that there were thousands more deaths that went undocumented.  Dachau was the end result of a perverse and unchristian ideology in which one group of people, Nazis, believed other races, sexual orientations, and religions were a drain on the purity of their country. 

            Dachau was liberated by Allied forces on April 26, 1945.  For the Orthodox church, Easter was late that year, falling just a few weeks later on May 6.  And so on Easter Sunday, in a prison cell block, Greek and Serbian priests gathered to celebrate Easter at Dachau, boldly proclaiming resurrection in a hellish place known only by death and hate.

            Today, there is a Jewish Memorial at Dachau, designed by a German architect, and built in 1967.  Inside the memorial is a prayer room that is approximately six feet underground.   To get to this room, you walk down a ramp that goes into the earth.  It is dark there.  Some have interpreted the underground room as a metaphor for the underground gas chambers at Auschwitz or the crematorium ovens at Dachau, but this was not the architect’s intent.  Rather, the underground room represents the hiding places of the Jews who tried to escape Nazi persecution.  

            When you go into this room, there are no windows.  It is solemn.  But in the midst of the darkness, there is light.  Light falls from a hole in the ceiling that opens to the sky.  From this hole in the ceiling, a stone Menorah is visible, extending outward with seven arms.  The Menorah’s visibility reminds those in the dark room that somehow in death and darkness, God is present.

            “I ask then, has God rejected his people?” writes Paul, the author of Romans.  We hear these words today in the reading from Paul’s letter in which Paul, a Jew, advocates for the inclusion of all people – Jewish and non-Jewish – as part of God’s family.  That is the central theme of this – Paul’s greatest work.  Simply put, Paul argues that Jews and people who would later be called “Christian” are equally embraced by God.  One is not more favored than the other.  One is not right, the other wrong.  Both traditions of Judaism and what we would later call Christianity were, in Paul’s mind, equal, period. 

            In Charlottesville, Virginia, last week, protestors gathered carrying confederate flags and flags bearing the symbol of nazi Germany, chanting nazi-era slogans and saying, and I quote “Jews will not replace us.”  When I hear that, I have no choice but to speak against the hate.  I have no choice as a priest, as a follower of Jesus to say simply, clearly, and unambiguously: there is no place for racism, bigotry, homophobia, or hate of any kind, period.  White supremacy is clearly evil.  It saddens me deeply that this simple message seems so difficult for our president to articulate.  [not about the president, president didn’t invent racism, it’s bigger than the president].

            Russell Moore, an American theologian, ethicist, and preacher associated with the Southern Baptist Convention offered a response to the events in Charlottesville last week, saying, and I quote:  “the so-called Alt-Right white supremacist ideologies are anti-Christ and satanic to the core.  We should say so.”  Why do I quote Dr. Moore?  Because his statement was offensive to a group of people, though not the group you might expect.  The group offended by Dr. Moore’s words was the Church of Satan who replied on Twitter to Dr. Moore on August 12, saying: “[Charlottesville was] not satanic, please leave us out of this.”  In case you missed that, even the church of Satan doesn’t want to be associated with Charlottesville!   

            What do we do? How do we respond?  In Matthew 5:43 Jesus says, ‘You have heard it said that you should love your neighbor and hate your enemy.  But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”  If I understand Jesus correctly, I am to pray for my enemy.  I am to pray for those who persecute me.  There is nothing easy about this for me.  Praying for intolerant and hateful people, I don’t know if I can do.  And that’s the problem. 

            See, I would be lying if I told you that I am at a place of having compassion toward people's intolerant and bigoted beliefs.  I would be lying if I said I was able to see even the most hateful person as someone lovingly created in God's image.  I am at a place right now where I think the only response to the hate and intolerance I see is just more hate and intolerance toward people who are hateful and intolerant!  And that’s not going to get me anywhere.  That’s not what Jesus is advocating in Matthew 5:43.

            Jesus advocates compassion, and there is a reason for this.  Our capacity to show compassion to the most hate-filled person will be an indication of the nature of our Christianity.  Few can do this.  One person who could was Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a Lutheran pastor imprisoned in Nazi Germany for his role in attempting to assassinate Adolf Hitler.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer, executed at German death camp days before Hitler’s death, learned to see the German prison guards as his brothers in Christ.  As a prisoner, he ministered to them, and he prayed for them.  He practiced compassion, living Matthew 5:43.    

            The promise that we make, and which is made on our behalf at our baptism is that we will resist evil and respect the dignity of every human being.  The luxury of this moment, if there is one, is that evil is so easy to identify.  Resist it.  Resist evil not with just more hate, resist the evil of prejudice not with just more prejudice.  But choose the way of Jesus, which is to resist evil with love and compassion.  Because if you show compassion toward evil, the evil will flee from your presence, always.  There is a light within you.  A light that falls upon you like the light that is in Dachau that withstands all darkness and hate.  The world needs that light – the world needs your light.  Let it shine, let everyone see it, and when your light shines with the light of Jesus, the darkness which seems to be everywhere will be revealed for what it really is – merely a speck, almost unnoticeable in the midst of Christ’s almighty love.  AMEN.  

August 13, 2017


The 10th Sunday After Pentecost

1 Kings 19:9-18; Psalm 85:8-13; Romans 10:5-15; Matthew 14:22-33

The Rev. James M.L. Grace

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

            Thinking myself smart and productive, I wrote this morning’s sermon two weeks ago while on a flight to Colorado for vacation.  Appreciative, and a bit smug, that I had completed the sermon so early, I was ready to enjoy my vacation. 

            That sermon was in my mind yesterday as we flew back to Houston, but not for the same reason.  At the airport waiting for the airplane to take us back to Houston, I caught up on the news, and as I did, I noticed a sinking feeling in my heart.  And it wasn’t the usual sinking feeling when you come back from vacation and you know that there’s a mountain of mail to go through and much work to be done – I had that feeling – but it was compounded by what I read in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal and watched on CNN.  And that’s when I took the sermon I had written two weeks ago, and threw it into the recycling bin.  So what you all are getting today is fresh – as in written just a few hours ago, fresh. 

            News of North Korea’s intention to build nuclear weapons to reach further distances, including Guam, scares me.  The dialog I read between the leaders of our country and of North Korea scares me.

            Watching the protest unfold yesterday in Charlottesville, Virginia was in my mind, yet another manifestation for us and for all the world to see that the issues of race in this country are from being settled.  It was deeply disturbing for me to see protestors carrying flags which bore the insignia of an inverted swastika, the same symbol used by Nazi Germany during World War II.  The hatred I witnessed yesterday in that clash sits with me now, and I stand in this pulpit today, with many other clergy to add my voice to the condemnation of the hatred witnessed yesterday in Charlottesville.  White supremacy is evil, there is no place for it in a country which upholds diversity of faith and ethnicity as a virtue.  No place for it.   Germany tried that once in World War II, and we all know the result.

            This is the world we are creating for our children to live in.  This is the future we are creating.  Is this world we really want?  That question drove to try to look at the world from God’s perspective, what does God think about what’s going on?  To try to answer that question, I opened my Bible to the very first book, Genesis, to the first chapter which tells the story about how God created the heavens and the earth.  Early on in the story there is a verse which describes God hovering, or brooding, over the waters. The way God is described in this verse is as if God is controlling the water.  And that is exactly what God is doing.  God moves the water, separating it to create land, earth.
            This act of God's ability to control water was of great importance to the ancient author of Genesis, and here is why.  In early Hebrew thinking, water was understood as a metaphor for chaos and even death.  This understanding of water as something scary, something uncontrollable, something chaotic - was probably based in part on experience.  Anyone who has witnessed a flooding, as we have in Houston, can speak of water's chaotic nature.   But this concept of water was also based on ancient Babylonian mythology which featured its own watery chaos monsters which symbolizes their dominion of the sea.

            I remember when one of my son's was learning to swim, and we were in the pool and my son stepped off a step in the pool and suddenly found himself in deep water he could not swim in.  I was right there, fortunately, but the image of seeing my son's frightened face and his open eyes underwater looking right to me is burned into my mind.   He could have drowned.
            This context, this understanding of water as something scary and unpredicatable, perhaps allows us to see Jesus' walking upon it in a new light.  His presence upon the water, like God in Genesis, indicates yes, that God can control the elements, but big deal.   What is more important is that Jesus upon the water is a clear indication that not only does Jesus walk over the chaos, he subdues it.  His walking upon the water is an act of defiance and resistance to the power of death, because the waters do not swallow him up.  He doesn't drown.
            Seeing such a remarkable sight, Peter steps out side the boat and follow's Jesus' call to come and join him. Notice that when Peter steps out of the boat, it's not a calm sea he is stepping onto.  The waves are rough, scary, and intimidating.  Into the tempestuous sea Peter steps and, while he is able to focus on Christ, he, like Jesus, stands triumphantly over the chaotic waters.

            But soon he, like my son, begins to sink into the water.  And Peter becomes scared.   He thinks he will die, and all this walking on water business wasn't worth stepping out of the boat.  But Jesus is there, and Jesus lifts Peter out of the water, and Peter lives.
            I admire Peter for his courage and tenacity.  Peter understood the most important thing - that if he wanted to meet Jesus in all that chaos and water, he needed to leave the safe confines of the boat.  He figured it was a risk worth taking - to step outside the boat and try his hand at waking on water.
            Perhaps Peter had the foresight to realize that his boat, though it kept him safe, was really a prison - because it was keeping him at a distance from Jesus.
            Many of us are fine in our boats – we are comfortable being around those who agree with us.  Our beliefs are validated by like minded friends on our social media feeds.  And that’s the problem.  Jesus isn’t calling us to stay in our boat, where it’s comfortable.  He’s calling us out into the water.  And here’s the paradox: it is in that water, removed from the safety of your boat where you will find the kingdom of God, and that’s where I end today, with a story about my encounter of God’s surprising kingdom, which occurred not in a place of power like Washington, DC, or a place of conflict, like Charlottesville.  It occurred in a forest, and this is what happened.

            I went to my son’s day camp at the YMCA to watch him receive his junior ranger badge.  I had no idea what I was getting myself into.  I had no idea I was about to witness God’s kingdom in such a powerful way, but I did, and it was obvious to me that I was a spectator to God’s kingdom as I watched a group of 100 or so children and adult counselors gather for the presentation.
            I saw a four year old girl with blond hair who obviously had a physical or mental disability of some kind.  She was walking with her counselor, smiling.  Her counselor engaged her, and the love on the counselor's face for this young girl whom I never heard speak was palpable.
            Then I saw my twelve year old son, James, eagerly but patiently awaiting receiving his Jr. Ranger badge.  James was with his inclusion counselor, Nick, who I am convinced is an angel.
            For reasons I cannot explain, tears started falling from my eyes.  I have never been so grateful to be wearing sunglasses, as my tears were embarrassing to me.  My crying intensified when I saw another counselor push a nine year old girl with Down syndrome in a wheelchair to join with her group.

            I couldn't help it.  The young girl, my son with his brother, a resolute guardian standing proudly by him, the girl in the wheelchair.  Children of all abilities and ethnicities singing, dancing, laughing, together was a beauty I cannot describe.
            I realized the reason why what I was witnessing was so indescribably beautiful: it was the Kingdom of God.  I learned at that moment how you know you are witnessing the Kingdom:  when you experience something so beautiful, so transcendent, that the only response one can offer is not in the form of words or action, but something closer to the heart, something intimate and uncomfortable - tears.  Tears are a sign that the Kingdom of God is present.
            So cry - cry without fear or abandon because the tears you shed are the tears that bear witness to promise that God is with us in all things.  Step out of your boat and find the things in like that make you cry, because that is what makes you human. 

            To conclude, finally – pray.  Pray for the moral conscience of our nation and the world.  If your prayers compel you to act, do so with grace and dignity, because the world we occupy is not ours, it is God’s.  AMEN.

August 6, 2017

Feast of the Transfiguration

EXODUS 34:29-35; PSALM 99; 2 PETER 1:13-21; LUKE 9:28-36

THE REV. CARISSA BALDWIN-MCGINNIS



There are a number of things I love about living in Houston.  Chief among those are its people.  There are a number of things I lament about being a Houstonian.  Among those things is that I never see the sunset.  I grew up in the hills west of Austin, Texas and literally every night as a teen experienced the radiance and beauty of a colorful and expansive sunset.  Always this triggered in me a sense of divine wonder and gratitude to the God who had colored all over my sky.  Those visions are embedded in the memory of my spirituality.

Years later in an attempt to understand the worldview of a partner, who was atheist, I returned to the phenomenon of sunsets.  “So, when you see a beautiful sunset,” I began,  “what precise thoughts are you having about its beauty and its origins?”  He replied, “I suppose I am proud of myself for being in a place where I can see it.”  This was a fine response but a sign to me that we might have irreconcilable differences.

As a subscriber to the glory of God, I love apparitions of that glory.  Sunsets, as one example, are easy to take in.  But sometimes that glory of God is not so easy to receive.  Sometimes we are not equipped to handle the power or gifts of God’s radiance.

Andrew Harvey wrote about this in Buddhist terms in “The Way of the Passion.”

One day, one of his disciples came to Buddha and said, “You know nirvana, you live in nirvana.  Why don’t you give us nirvana?

The Buddha said, “I will give everybody nirvana, but first go around and ask everyone in the village what they most want.  Come back and tell me what it is that they most want.  Then I will give everybody nirvana.”

This pleased the disciple, so he went around asking everybody what they most wanted.  Naturally one said a Porsche, another said a girlfriend, another wanted a boyfriend, another said a raise of $3,000 more a year.  No one wanted nirvana.

 Nirvana in Buddhism is the highest state of consciousness.  It is a state in which there is no suffering or pleasure.  There is no sense of one’s birth or death.  Nirvana represents the final goal of Buddhism.

In today’s Gospel Jesus seems to have invited Peter, John and James to witness a Jewish version of nirvana.  What was their response?  A rush to build huts.  Jesus’ disappointment or even disgust is not scripted.  But we could deduce that as a possible response from the statement that Peter did not know what he was proposing.  It is as if the proper response to divine light is not likely to be bricks and mortar - not gates, not walls, not even temples.  The proper response to divine light would seem to have been divine light.

St. Basil is quoted as having said, “Man is a creature who has received the order to become God.”  And when the moment of invitation comes, we are often like those invited to the master’s banquet.  We have many excuses for why we cannot come.

Our resistance may have to do with the spiritual sloughing that is required of us if we were to pursue our highest consciousness.  Richard Rohr describes the process well.  “The path … involves letting go of our self-image, our titles, our status symbols—our false self. It will die anyway.”

I can find many excuses for pursuing the heights of my spirituality.  I can even find false substitutes.  For example, in my bathroom cabinet are at least three kinds of facial masks.  These are beauty products that one applies, leaves on for half-an-hour, and then removes.  Every product promises to leave the skin radiant.  Even I have a constant curiosity about how to make my plain ol’ face exceptional.  While my face is unlikely to change much, my countenance could.

Jalaluddin Rmi in the poem “Source and Goal” has so much to offer those who glimpse God’s glory in sunsets, in apparitions, in songs or in other people; we who are sad when God becomes elusive and we who prefer to deny our own opportunity to shine.

Every wonderful sight will vanish, every sweet word will fade,

But do not be disheartened,

The source they come from is eternal, growing,

Branching out, giving new life and new joy.

Why do you weep?

The source is within you.

July 30, 2017

Proper 12 – Eighth Sunday after Pentecost

I KINGS 3:5-12; PSALM 119:129-136; ROMANS 8:26-39; MATTHEW 13:31-11, 44-52

THE REV. CARISSA BALDWIN-MCGINNIS

Discernment is the discipline for a life of truth.

The Very Rev. Alan Jones, Dean Emeritus of Grace Cathedral in San Francisco, writes, “Human beings take a long time to come to maturity.  We are not made overnight.”

This statement seems to have pertained to Solomon who is said in Chapter 11 of 1 Kings to have “loved many foreign women along with the daughter of Pharaoh.”  “Among his wives were seven hundred princesses and three hundred concubines; and his wives turned away his heart.” The last statement is to say the Solomon, chief sovereign of YHWY’s kingdom – YHWY’s  being the one and only God – was known to worship the gods of his wives and build high places for their worship to boot.

Solomon’s grand foibles are said in the Biblical narrative to have led to the division of the Davidic kingdom.  And yet we have a reading today about his anointing by God to be a leader with a wise and discerning mind.  “No one like you has been before you and no on like you shall arise after you,” says the LORD.

That’s a challenge for a preacher.  Do I invite you into the wisdom tradition and try to say something helpful about the path of discernment, or I can convey the scholarship about how this story is pure political propaganda?  Perhaps instead of an either/or, we might talk about the place where wisdom and frailty intersect.  Perhaps we could call that intersection as the crossroads of truth.

Many of us know from our experience that there is a necessary connection between the ability to tell the truth about ourselves and the ability to discern the truth about what happens around us.  For example, we can blame a child for constantly acting out as though that child is the source of a family’s problems.  But if there is unaddressed issue with one of the parents (addition, protracted absence, etc.), then the child cannot be expected to change until the adult has changed.  Similarly, if work culture is mistrusting of its workers, then worker behavior is always going to reflect a fear which my compromise overall performance or lead to unhealthy acts of undermining the authority of the organization.  Until the truth of the culture of mistrust changes, little different can be expected of those who work therein.

Truth telling is a way to health and wisdom.  And wisdom depends on telling the truth.  Elizabeth Liebert puts it this way, “There is a necessary connection between God-knowledge and self-knowledge.” Self-knowledge involves the kind of truth-telling that clears out the cobwebs of our perspective on life in order to make way for divine intervention.  When we do our spiritual housekeeping, we often reap rewards.  Our intuition gets more pronounced and reliable.  Our dreams become more vivid and interesting.  We receive clarity about a question or problem that previously was unresolved.  Perhaps we need not be perfect in order to get our lives in line with God.  Perhaps we simply have to be honest.

This is where the phrase “Come to Jesus” comes in.  It is a phrase that means ‘truth telling.’ 

Truth telling is not complicated work, but it is hard labor.  It involves attending to every shade of gray in our lives and acknowledging the experiences of others.  The Rev. Eric Law writes about truth telling particularly as it relates to healthy congregations.  He affirms that “The spirit of truth does not see the world in either-or or binary from.”  He also reminds us that, “We do not have the whole truth unless we also listen and understand the experiences of the historically powerless.”

Judeo-Christian history is obsessed with the topic of truth telling and the voice of the voiceless.  The obsession manifests in 1 Kings as a question about Solomon and the integrity of his religious and political leadership.   About our own times Dean Jones writes:

We are in the middle of a world revolution in which old boundaries are breaking down. A New World Order? Or a New World Chaos?

Which is it for you, and where at present do you personally find leadership with integrity?  What truth do you personally need to hear in order to become more mature or wise?

It took Solomon a long time to grow up.  He was both fallible and discerning.  He is one of our many invitations into the truth telling that can make us individually whole and collectively well.

July 23, 2017

The Seventh Sunday of Pentecost, Proper 11


audio Block
Double-click here to upload or link to a .mp3. Learn more.

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

The Rev. James M.L. Grace

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

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

July 16, 2017

The Sixth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 10

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

The Rev. Carissa Baldwin-McGinnis



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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

I will go out to sow the seed,

In name of [God] who gave it growth;

I will place my front in the wind,

And throw a gracious handful on high.

Should a grain fall on a bare rock,

It shall have no soil in which to grow;

As much as falls into the earth,

The dew will make to be full.

 

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

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

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

John O’Donohue wrote a Blessing for farmers.

Before the human mind could warm to itself,

The hands of the farmer had first to work,

Creating clearances in the earth’s thicket:

Cut into the thorn-screens of wild briar,

Uproot the clusters of scrub-bush,

Dig out loose rock until a field emerged

Whose clay could be loosened and softened

To take seed and bring forth crops.

 

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

July 9, 2017

Proper 9 

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

The Rev. James M.L. Grace



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

July 2, 2017

Proper 8

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

The Rev. James M.L. Grace



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

June 25, 2017

Proper 7 – Third Sunday after Pentecost



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

THE REV. CARISSA BALDWIN-MCGINNIS

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

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

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

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

Brother Lawrence answered the burden of sin with practical instruction.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

June 18, 2017

Proper 6 (Father’s Day)

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

The Rev. James M.L. Grace



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

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

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

            But not always easy to follow.

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

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

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

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

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

Bottom of Form

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

            Metallica are my favorite non-Christian Christian band

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

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

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

June 11, 2017

Trinity Sunday

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



 

The Rev. James M.L. Grace

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

June 4, 2017

Pentecost

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



The Rev. James M.L. Grace

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May 28, 2017

Easter 7

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



THE REV. CARISSA BALDWIN-MCGINNIS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May 21, 2017

6 Easter

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



The Rev. James M.L. Grace

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May 14, 2017

Easter 5

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

 



The Rev. James M.L. Grace

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

           

May 7, 2017

4 Easter

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



The Rev. James M.L. Grace

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

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

            I stopped. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

April 30, 2017

3 Easter

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



THE REV. JAMES M. L. GRACE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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