February 11, 2018

6 Epiphany

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



The Rev. James M.L. Grace

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

January 28, 2018

4 Epiphany

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

The Rev. James M.L. Grace



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

January 21, 2018

3 Epiphany

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

The Rev. James M.L. Grace

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

December 25, 2017

Christmas Day

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

The Rev. James M.L. Grace

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

December 31, 2017

 The First Sunday after Christmas



1 Christmas

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

The Rev. James M.L. Grace

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

January 7, 2018

1 Epiphany

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

The Rev. James M.L. Grace



 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

December 24, 2017

Christmas Eve, 4:30 pm service

The Rev. Carissa Baldwin-McGinnis



Christmas Eve – Lessons & Carols, 4:30 PM

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

The Rev. James M.L. Grace

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

December 17, 2017

3 Advent

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

The Rev. James M.L. Grace



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

December 10, 2017

2 Advent

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

The Rev. James M.L. Grace



 

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

            Mark’s Gospel is lean on details.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

December 3, 2017

Advent 1

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


 

THE REV. CARISSA BALDWIN-MCGINNIS

I pray that your hope will be easily found.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

November 26, 2017

The Feast of St. Andrew (transferred)   

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

The Rev. James M.L. Grace


 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

November 19, 2017

Proper 28



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

THE REV. CARISSA BALDWIN-MCGINNIS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The chorus or refrain is as follows:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

November 12, 2017

Pentecost – Proper 27           Remembrance Sunday

Amos 5: 18-24; Wisdom of Solomon 6: 17-20; 1 Thessalonians 4: 13-18; Matthew 25: 1-13

The Rev. James M.L. Grace


Into paradise may the angels lead thee, and at thy coming may the martyrs receive thee, and bring thee into the holy city, Jerusalem.  AMEN.

            Yesterday, November 11, our country recognized Veteran’s Day, a day set aside to celebrate the sacrifices of members of our military in times of conflict.  We commemorate those who have died in the service of our country on Memorial Day in late May.  In other places outside of America November 11 is called Remembrance Day or Armistice Day, and it is more similar to our observance of Memorial Day in the United States. 

            The reason why Remembrance Day is celebrated on the 11th of November is because World War I formally ended at 11 o’clock on the 11th day of the 11th month, thus November 11.  At St. Andrew’s we honor this day with an act of remembrance, a Commitment, and at our 10:30 service, a sung portion of Gabriel Faure’s Requiem in D Minor entitled “In Paradisum.”

            The purpose in all of this is to honor those who have fallen in the service of this country.  It is appropriate to do since the freedom we enjoy in this country is built upon the sacrifices of roughly three million human lives, and upon the shoulders of countless veterans in all branches of our armed services today, and in decades past.  It is the soldier, who courageously enters situations unimaginable to us or to most politicians we recognize today. 

            If you are a veteran of any branch of the United States military, I would ask that you please take a moment to stand, so that we, as a church, might recognize, and publicly thank you for your service [Veterans stand]. 

            As our Vestry person, Lisa Mustacchia, mentioned earlier, today at St. Andrew’s we are donating all loose funds received into the collection plate to Operation Finally Home, a non partisan non-profit organization which provides mortgage free homes for veterans injured in the line of duty to protect this country.

            So I am asking you to give and to give generously.  I know that some, or many, of you might be wondering “when is that priest ever going to stop asking me to give money?”  And here’s my answer:  when every person on this earth is treated with dignity and respect, I will stop.  Until then, I will ask, I will ask, I will ask, until I can speak no more. 

            Because here is what I believe about the collection plate - that plate that the ushers will pass around in a few moments.  I believe that plate represents opportunity.  It represents a moment when an opportunity to literally change the world for the good, for the better, is placed literally right into your hands. 

            I don’t know how you all feel about the phrase “thoughts and prayers.”  I hear it so much  now “thoughts and prayers for Las Vegas, thoughts and prayers for Sutherland Springs, thoughts and prayers for Orlando, thoughts and prayers for Charleston.”  That phrase is like nails on a chalkboard to me because it feels so empty and lethargic.  The purpose of prayer, is that it leads to right and moral action.  A group of Episcopal Bishops earlier this week released a statement on gun violence and the oft repeated phrase we hear of “thoughts and prayers” from I which I quote directly: “Prayer is not an offering of vague good wishes. It is not a spiritual exercise that successfully completed exempts one from focusing on urgent issues of common concern. Prayer is not a dodge. In prayer we examine our own hearts and our own deeds to determine whether we are complicit in the evils we deplore. And if we are, we resolve to take action; we resolve to amend our lives.”

            God says to the prophet Amos this morning: “I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies…take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps.  But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream.”  Were God speaking to Amos today, I believe Amos would hear God say “I take no delight in your thoughts and prayers, Amos.”  And I believe God would say to me “Don’t post about this on Facebook, Jimmy.  Not one person’s mind has ever been changed because of an opinion they read on Facebook, and I know, because I am God.” 

            We honor the sacrifices members of our armed forces make on our behalf by choosing to act, by choosing to reach across the aisle, by choosing to love our enemy, and by choosing to sacrifice.  This my check. It’s going to Operation Finally Home. My check isn’t going to singlehandedly fill the void between what veteran’s needs and what the government provides, but it will help, a little.

            Sacrifice takes no holiday, it affords no Sabbath, because the need is so large.  But so is our ability to create sustainable change.  It begins with us, each Sunday, when that plate comes into our hands.  What will put into it - what you left to give, or will you sacrifice, as millions have done so before you to guarantee your right and your safety to sit in church this morning, and wonder, “what will I contribute to God’s kingdom today?”  AMEN. 

November 5, 2017

All Saints’ Sunday (Baptisms and Episcopal Schools Sunday)



The Rev. David Madison

I am a dyed in the wool Episcopal school guy. Well, wait a minute, who is this strange priest in your pulpit this morning? I’m David Madison, and I serve as the Executive Director the Southwestern Association of Episcopal Schools. I’ve have consumed every drop of Kool Aid when it comes to our schools

I’m a product of Episcopal schools, I credit the spiritual formation that took place at an Episcopal school as the main reason I recognized a call to the priesthood. I was the bad penny they couldn’t get rid of and after ordination and serving a parish, I ended up back at my old school, All Saints Fort Worth, where I served in ever possible capacity—one year I taught both Kindergarten and 12th grade religion.

 In my current role, I get to speak and preach a lot about Episcopal schools. And I also get to be with different parishes on special events like today. I’m especially excited to be at St. Andrew’s on a day for baptisms—why? To me, there is nothing that explains our schools better than the baptismal covenant. 

People always ask me—what does it mean to be an Episcopal school? The Baptismal Covenant—to me, this is the cornerstone of Episcopal Identity in our schools. Today is All Saints Sunday, and our understanding of what it means to be a saint of God—is contained in the covenant. And the questions asked within the context of that covenant—well, our schools, our faculty and students work through what it means to be a disciple of the teachings of Christ each and every day.

Will you continue in the Apostles teaching and fellowship? Do you think the apostles always agreed on everything? In disagreement, wherever we are on the journey, we maintain fellowship, and join together around the altar in thanks for the myriad ways that we have been blessed. In Episcopal schools, the teacher-student relationship is critical, and quality instruction can’t be separated from relationship and fellowship. 

When you sin, will you repent and return to the Lord? My favorite part of this question? It’s “when,” not “if”—this is a daily occurrence on a school campus.  Students mess up.  Adults mess up.  This is a fact of life. It’s how we respond that is critical.  The caring teachers in our schools are there to pick up the pieces when our students fall short and everyone is stronger as a result.

Proclaiming by word and example, the good news of a Christ—My favorite quote is attributed to St Francis. “Preach the gospel always, if necessary, use words.

And the final two questions—these are especially critical to us right now because our students are seeing all sorts of different approaches regarding how to treat people today.  They are seeing approaches from our political leaders, from celebrities, from newsmakers…so of the approaches are good and some are pretty miserable.  Will you seek and serving Christ in all persons? Will you protect the dignity of every human being? Episcopal schools do this each and every day—and now more than ever, our world needs communities that uphold these values—and the future, our future together depends on communities that embrace these values

This is a day for giving thanks. We give thanks for the Saints of God that have touched our lives and have moved on to eternal glory. We give thanks that we will all be reunited in God’s time. We give thanks that we are adding to the multitude of God’s saints today through the sacrament of baptism. We give thanks for the great work taking place at St. Andrew’s Episcopal School under the leadership of Nancy Simpson and her amazing team of talented teachers.  And we give thanks for our Episcopal schools across the country that teach these truths each and every day in a world that desperately needs it.

 

October 29, 2017

Proper 25



LEVITICUS 19:1-2, 15-18; PSALM 1; 1 THESSALONIANS 2:1-8; MATTHEW 222:34-46

THE REV. CARISSA BALDWIN-MCGINNIS

The church is to serve as a heart center of the community.

In response to a gospel story that at once is about love of God and disputes over the validity of the church, I have written for you a legend.  The story is about a simple tortoise and a simple church.  My message is that the Jesus-following congregation is to be the heart center of the community for the congregation gathered and the surrounding geographic community.  The validity of the church is fundamentally tested by the truth and integrity of its commitment to profound love and the stewardship of that function.

*          *          *

Once upon a time Love was born into the world in the form of a tortoise.  Like all hatchlings she used her egg tooth to break open her shell.  Her mother laid her egg in a hole she dug in the ground and then covered with sand, soil, leaves and twigs to camouflage and protect her.  After breaking through her shell, the hatchling tortoise dug her way out of her coverings and began her life’s journey. 

The tortoise lived many years in desert lands.  From time to time she laid and buried her own eggs, leaving them to hatch and fend for themselves as is the tortoise tradition.  After a while she moved on to a swamp land where she would spend many more years.  (The oldest tortoise known to humans is said to have lived 225 years.)  The tortoise laid more eggs in the swamp and after many more years moved on again.  This time she found herself in a city.  She walked along gravel paths, sidewalks and curbs until one Sunday morning she made her way into neighborhood church.  A slow mover, the tortoise managed to evade notice until a child spotted her in the corner.

The child’s enthusiasm for the creature could not be contained, and without delay many children and adults had gathered around.  There was much debate about what to do, but in the end the children’s desire to keep the tortoise prevailed.  So, the adults went to work and learning about the diet and habitat needs of the creature.

“We love her.  We love her.  We must call her Love,” said the children.  And Love it was.  Love was the name.

Over the years the adults would gather around the tortoise to say their prayers.  The children would feed her lettuce and special tortoise food which was purchased from the local zoo.  When no one was looking, the priests would consult the tortoise about their concerns and conundrums.  Being a reptile, the tortoise could not respond.  But the priests always left their consultations with a sense relief and greater clarity.

One day the tortoise went missing.  The church was beside itself and implemented a search.  They went into every business and restaurant asking for her.  They knocked on the doors of every apartment, house, condominium and duplex, inquiring if anyone had seen their tortoise.  Eventually she was found beside the dumpster of the nearby grocery, feasting on soggy, discarded produce.

By then word was out about the tortoise, and people started coming to the church to investigate.  Some came once.  Some came many times.  The clergy noticed that young and old alike were now talking to the tortoise about what was heavy on their hearts.  The priests always pretended not to see and move along about their day.

For a while the church chained the tortoise to be sure she remined on the inside of the building.  But the youth protested her incarceration.  After the chains were removed, the tortoise would escape the building many times.  Every time a faithful neighbor would bring her back or the congregants would go out knocking until they found her again.

Over the years Love remained, and generations of children grew into adults and then brought their children to the church.  Some moved away.  Others came.

Eventually the tortoise’s time on earth would come to an end, and the community would grieve.  The children cried.  The grown-ups held in their despair until no one else was looking.  All of them wished and waited for another tortoise to come, but it was a futile expectation.  Still every year on the anniversary of the tortoise’s arrival, the children lay lettuce and special tortoise food at the altar as a remembrance of the one who came and went.  The grown-ups still pray in a circle formation as if she were still resting at the center.  Occasionally the church goes knocking on doors just to keep her memory alive.  And it is said that if one looks closely at the walking paths in springtime, mounds of sand, soil, sticks and leaves can be seen.  No one dares to bother them.

“To love God with the whole heart is the cause of every other good,” wrote Cyril of Alexandria.  “To love God with the whole heart is the cause of every other good.”

October 22, 2017

Pentecost – Proper 24

Isaiah 45:1-7; Psalm 96: 1-9 (10-13); 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10; Matthew 22: 15-22

The Rev. James M.L. Grace



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

         I grew up in a home where money was sometimes used as a way of control.  For example, if I did not complete my chores at home, I didn’t receive my weekly allowance of 25 cents.   The allowance, the money, was an incentive for me to attend to my responsibilities around the home.  This is common for all of us - we are all impacted, and controlled by money.  Isn’t that interesting?  The numbers on a computer screen reflecting back a dollar amount or the dollar amount on a check can motivate us to do all kinds of things.  Some of us get up in the morning, shower, comb our hair, and even brush our teeth because we have these things called “jobs” that pay us money. 

            Jesus talked a lot about money, but was neither controlled nor compelled by it.  Today we hear religious leaders confronting Jesus about money.  They try to manipulate him with a simple question: “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor or not?”  This is a trick question, by the way.

            The question posed to Jesus about whether or not to pay taxes to the emperor is a trick question because if Jesus declares publicly that it is forbidden to pay taxes to Rome, then he easily could be arrested for treason by the Roman Empire.  On the other hand, if Jesus answered that the Torah allowed people to pay taxes, knowing that the income received from tax payments would be used to maintain pagan temples and sustain Roman rule, Jesus’ teaching on money, and his growing reputation would be renounced.  The religious officials weren’t asking the question about paying taxes to the emperor because they wanted to know Jesus’ answer.  They wanted to paint him into a corner by getting Jesus to say something either treasonous to Rome or offensive to Jews.

            That’s a tough spot to be in, and Jesus was cornered, with no easy answer to give.  So he didn’t give one.  Instead he asked for the coin used to pay the Empire’s tax.  This coin was called a denarius, and was worth roughly one day’s wage for a common laborer.  So whatever amount you would pay someone for a day’s work back then, that was what one denarius was worth.  One of the religious officials produced a denarius and hand it to Jesus.  Jesus asks to see the coin because he himself does not have one.  This detail matters because the likely reason Jesus was not able to produce a denarius was that denarii were produced in Gaul, far away from Jerusalem.  The circulation of denarii in Jerusalem was likely scarce, and it was probably limited to people who were in collaboration with the Roman Empire.  Different coinage was used instead of the denarius to buy things like fish or produce or clothing. 

            The denarius Jesus held was a coin that bore the likely image of Emperor Tiberius. The Emperor’s image was considered profane to observant Jews, and nothing profane was permitted inside the Temple, which is where this encounter with Jesus takes place. 

            That the religious officials questioning Jesus easily have a denarius to show Jesus demonstrates two things: (one) they are revealing their own hypocrisy by bringing something profane into a holy space, because a denarius bears the image of a pagan emperor and (two) that they routinely used them, taking advantage of Roman financial largesse. 

            Jesus held up the coin and asked them “whose head is on this coin?” and they replied “the emperor’s.”  And Jesus said, “very well, this coin belongs to the emperor, return it to him.”  “But also return to God the things that are God’s.”

            The denarius belonged to the emperor because the emperor’s image was imprinted upon it.  The point Jesus made was simple: A coin that had the emperor’s image on it belonged to the emperor, but creation is made in God’s image.   Every person, the Bible teaches, is made in the image of God.  Creation is made in the image of God.  The point Jesus makes is simple, yet profound: if we are to return coins with the Emperor’s image upon them to the Emperor, what are we to return to God if everything already bears God’s image?

            What do we give back to God?  Jesus never clearly answered this question, at least in a way that we might prefer.  Instead he asks each of us, what will you return, what will you give back?

            That’s the question we are asking as a church this month as we prepare our budget for 2018.  What do we give back to God?  What number do we write onto that pledge card?  I have had people come and speak to me about their stewardship, asking me what the “right” number is for a financial pledge commitment to St. Andrew’s.  And in each case, I have said “I don’t know” - stewardship is between you and God. Every person’s situation is different, and every pledge tells a unique, intimate, and powerful story.

            This month we are fortunate to have the stories of parishioners who have been courageous enough to tell the story of why they return back to God what already belongs to God through their financial commitment to this church.  They are powerful stories that inspire me.  Next week as we draw our campaign to a close, we will offer all our pledges for 2018 at the altar to be blessed.  We will give back to God a portion of what God has already given us, in gratitude that God always gives, while never counting the cost.  AMEN.

October 8, 2017

Pentecost – Proper 22

Isaiah 5: 1-7; Psalm 80: 7-14; Philippians 3: 4b - 14; Matthew 21: 33 - 46

The Rev. James M.L. Grace



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

            You all are very brave, coming to church so soon after our stewardship materials have been mailed out.  Did any of you receive them?  We are today beginning a four week stewardship campaign, as many churches do during this time of year.  The campaign is entitled “The Future is Bright.”  Our logo for the campaign is a painting of our church doors opening with a great light emanating from inside.  It is a beautiful painting, created by one of our parishioners, Steve Duffin.

            We selected a verse from Scripture as a spiritual anchor for these next few weeks, and the verse is Jeremiah 29:11, in which the prophet writes: “For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.”  I love those words, and they for me are very much of a personal anchor, because they remind me that God has hope for the future, and so should I.

            Last Sunday was a powerful Sunday for me in so many ways.  We had two bishops visit St. Andrew’s to confirm and receive a total of 13 new members at the 10:30 service and at the 2 PM services.  The joy this past Sunday both in this church in the morning and outside of it in the afternoon during our blessing of the animals service.  What a great day last Sunday was. 

            I went to bed last Sunday night, content and grateful.  And then I woke up Monday morning with the news of what happened in Las Vegas.  The more I read about it, the more I watched the news, the more I felt all that joy I had from the previous day just vaporize and float away.  All the hope I had, generated by a great Sunday, it felt like it went away. And I began to feel that the future isn’t bright, as we proclaim in our stewardship materials.  Maybe it’s all the hurricanes, all the pain we seem to be inflicting on each other - I don’t know - but for a time I didn’t have hope last week, and I know that in the wake of Las Vegas, many of you did or do not either.    

            Which brings me back to Jeremiah, my favorite of the Hebrew prophets.  I am studying the book of Jeremiah right now, and as I am reading through this book, it is so obvious how much struggle and suffering Jeremiah endured.  Jeremiah given the unenviable task to bring a very unpopular message to the Hebrew people.  Jeremiah’s message was simple: the people of Israel were to be punished for their infidelity to God.  The form of their punishment was to be exile from their homeland. Who wants to bring that message to the masses?  You can probably imagine how well it went for Jeremiah.  No one wanted to hear it, and when Jeremiah went to the temple in Jerusalem to proclaim this unpopular message, the temple priest found Jeremiah’s message so offensive, that temple priest struck Jeremiah, and had him arrested.  But Jeremiah was right.  The people of Israel lost their land, and they were forced into exile. 

              According to all appearances, there was no evidence of hope for Israel.  The strength of their past was gone.  But it is at this moment, when everything seems to be lost God says to Jeremiah: “I know the plans I have for you, plans for your welfare and not for harm - I am going to give you a future of hope.”  See that’s the strength of the verse for me.   In the verse that follows, God says to Jeremiah “when you call upon me and come to pray to me I will hear you.  When you search for me, you will find me.”   In other words, I believe God is saying to Jeremiah that hope is larger than hopelessness; the darkness which can appear so massive to us at times, is merely a tiny speck in a much larger light.   That is the strength of hope, the resiliency of hope - that it shines at its brightest during challenging moments.  Jeremiah knew that, and passes down to us this most vital spiritual lesson: our hope will never disappoint us because it is grounded in God. 

            That is why our future is bright, and always will be.  Our future is bright because it is not ours alone - our future is woven into God’s future - they are one and the same, and they are bright. 

            In light of that bright future that is our inheritance, I want to turn now and talk about the future of St. Andrew’s.  And I want to do so by addressing our stewardship campaign in further detail.   First of all, a stewardship campaign is something that we do every year at St. Andrew’s in order to plan our immediate future, in this case next year, 2018. 

            All the literature I have read about stewardship campaigns says that you are not supposed to announce the goal - the dollar amount you are trying to raise.  And there are good reasons for that.   But I have tried looked for the book on how to do a stewardship campaign at a church weeks after a category 4 hurricane ripped through your state and your city was flooded and I have not found it.  So this year we have a goal: our stewardship goal for 2018 is 140 pledges, totaling  $500,000.


            Is $500,000 ambitious? Of course. But we have the capacity to do this, together.  Look what we did with our hurricane response. Two months ago who would have thought that St. Andrew’s would be able to mobilize enough people to stockpile a warehouse of food, cleaning supplies, water, and clothing to distribute throughout our city?  That wasn’t on my radar.
            Three years ago, who would have thought that we would need more pews up here to fit a growing choir, not to mention a children’s choir?

            Two years ago, who would have thought I would receive this email from a person at the Episcopal Diocese of Texas which reads, in part: “Jimmy, I want to spend a little time gathering information on St. Andrew’s sustained growth over time to see if we can gain insight that might be shared with others.”   I wasn’t expecting that.

            Can we reach this goal of $500,000 and 140 pledges.  Of course we can.  The more pertinent question is will we?   I am asking you to pray. I want you to think about this church. Because there are so many organizations vying for your attention and your hard earned dollars during this time of the year. Where is St. Andrew’s on that list for you? Is it at the bottom? The middle? I hope it is at the very top of your list, because I believe that is where St. Andrew’s deserves to be. It is at the top of mine.

            I am asking you, humbly, to do two things.  First, if you have not filled out a pledge card, to prayerfully discern your financial commitment to this parish, and then return your card.  Second, if you have pledged in the past, I am asking you to prayerfully consider increasing your pledge.  I am asking you to increase your pledge because the cost of our ministry is not getting cheaper, but it sure is becoming more bountiful. 

            This is my family’s pledge for 2018. We have increased our pledge this year, because we believe in a future that is bright, and I know you do to.  Here’s to a bright future, made brighter by our joining together, made brightest, for what God has already accomplished on our behalf. 

AMEN.