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.

October 1, 2017

The Rt. Rev Jeff W. Fisher, Bishop Suffragan of Texas

Philippians 2: 1-13



My wife and I met each other in the Young Singles group at St. John the Divine Episcopal Church here in Houston.

And when we were in our 20s, my wife and I even volunteered together to be adult sponsors of the youth group at St. John the Divine.

And in our youth group was an exceptional little junior high kid, a kid named – Jimmy Grace.
{Jimmy is now the rector of St. Andrew’s.}

Anyway, at St. John the Divine, my wife and I went to the 9am worship service most every Sunday.

We participated fully in the liturgy:
Sitting to listen to the sermon,
Standing to affirm our faith in the words of the Nicene Creed,
Kneeling to confess our sins.

On one Sunday, the priest said the familiar words:
“Let us confess our sins against God and our neighbor.”
And immediately, everyone got down to kneel.
I pulled the kneeler down.
And, to confess our sins, my wife and I hit our knees.
Except on this Sunday, my wife then proceeded to move away from the kneeler and to sit her bottom back on the pew.

Silently, I gave her the look, and I whispered:
“What are you doing??”

And she mischievously whispered back:
“I think I’ll just sit this one out.”

To which I spouted back:
“Get back down here on your knees!”

The Apostle Paul teaches us in his letter to the Philippians:
“Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.
Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.
So that at the name of Jesus, every knee should bend.”

Take a knee.
In the age of Twitter, this little phrase, “take a knee,” has become a hashtag.
Yet for two thousand years, Christians have been taught to have the same mind that was in Christ Jesus.
Christians have been taught to look not to our own interests, but to the interests of others.
For at the name of Jesus, every knee should bend.
Take a knee.

Because when we take a knee, we are not sitting out the confession of our sins, sins against God and our neighbor.
When we take a knee, we have the same mind as Christ Jesus, who humbled himself, humbling himself even to death on a cross.
When we take a knee, we look not at our own interests, but to the interests of others.

In the last five weeks, our lives have been changed – by Hurricane Harvey.
In Houston and in Southeast Texas, we have all witnessed destruction and tragedy.
At various levels of intensity, many of us are feeling the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder.

We know this because when we now hear rain falling, we hear that sound with different ears.

We have watched the nation and the world focus on us – and on our vast tragedy.
And now we have watched the nation and the world move on to the next crisis du jour.

And in the midst of all of the sadness and destruction, we have also witnessed human beings rise up to the best of our nature:

We have witnessed salvation – rescuing people out of rising waters in bass fishing boats.
We have witnessed sacrifice – leaning out of helicopters to pluck people up off roofs.
We have witnessed service – mucking out our neighbor’s home.
We have witnessed human beings –
Take a knee.

For when we take a knee, we have the same mind as Christ Jesus, who humbled himself.
When we take a knee, we look not to our own interests, but to the interests of others.

Lately, for good or ill, the phrase “take a knee” has become wrapped up in football, and racism, and nationalism.

And yet the Apostle Paul teaches us in his letter to the Philippians:
“Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.

Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.
So that at the name of Jesus, every knee should bend.”

In my own life, I am also entangled in this soup that we live in –
A soup that is a mix of football, racism, and nationalism.

And all the while I am striving to have the same mind that was in Christ Jesus.
I want to look not to my own interests, but to the interests of others.
I want to take a knee.

And I love college football, especially the Texas Longhorns.
And on Saturday morning, I like to get pumped up for the day by watching College Game Day on ESPN.

On College Game Day on ESPN yesterday, they had a story about football at the University of Iowa.

And next door to the football stadium at the University of Iowa, is a brand new, towering 14-story building.
The new building next door to the stadium – is Iowa Children’s Hospital.

Some of the kids who are patients at Iowa Children’s Hospital have cancer and are under going chemotherapy.
Some of the kids are in excruciating rehab.
Some of the kids are terminally ill, with their parents trying their best to provide hope.
And on football Saturdays, these kids and their families can look down out of their hospital window and watch the Iowa Hawkeyes play football in the stadium.

The University of Iowa has started a new football tradition.
At the end of the first quarter of every game, everyone in the football stadium, including the players and the coaches, they all turn their gaze away from the football field.
Everyone in the stadium then turns around and faces the towering Iowa Children’s Hospital.
They look up.
And they wave to the children, who are gazing out the windows with hope.

In a recent night game, at the end of the first quarter,
The people in the stadium all took out their smartphones, turned on their flashlights, turned away from the field, and waved up at the patients in the children’s hospital.

On College Game Day on ESPN, several of the patients at Iowa Children’s Hospital were interviewed for the story.
One of the teen-aged patients explained how this gesture in the stadium has now given him hope.

This teenager explained:
“It makes me feel good.
It makes me feel good when people turn away from their own interests.
It makes me feel good when I know that they are interested in others,
When I know that they are interested –
In me.”

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.
Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.

Take a knee.

AMEN.

September 24, 2017

Proper 20

JONAH 3:10-4:11; PSALM 145:1-8; PHILIPPIANS 1:21-30; MATTHEW 20:1-6

THE REV. CARISSA BALDWIN-MCGINNIS



Ours is a market of grace and justice.

When my spouse and I were in training to become foster parents, we were instructed in the ways of parenting children who will have suffered trauma.  The assumption and assertion was that any child who would come into our home would without question have suffered some kind of trauma.  At best it could be a single trauma such as separation at birth from one’s biological parents.  Or, as is often the case, it could be what is called complex trauma.  Complex trauma is a clinical classifying a child’s experience when that child has suffered more than one trauma in their life.

Instructions for parenting children who have suffered trauma is counterintuitive for most of us.  The techniques known to nurture them and bring them a sense of safety and security look to the cultural expectations of our time to be highly generous and rewarding of bad behavior.  “A child must have accountability!” we might say.  But kids like ours need constant reassurance of their human connectedness and their overall safety.  Time outs, penalties, spankings and negative language are the responses least likely to result in enhanced behavior.  Rather they heighten a sense of fear which tends to set off their nervous systems and result in more undesirable behavior. So we implement time-ins.  We turn every ‘no’ into a ‘yes’ statement.  And when our children come at us on the attack, we practice non-violence and deep breathing.  We give the children infinite changes to ‘do it over.’

Of all the things I heard from our dozens of hours of training, the one I remember and have implemented most since becoming a foster and adoption parent is advice from our agency’s child psychologist.  The gist is this.  When you get to the point of being convinced that there is something wrong with the child in your care, you can be certain that there is something wrong not with your child but with your own expectations of the child.   I suspect this might be helpful parenting advice even for parents of typical kids.

It is certainly advice worthy of the laborers in today’s parable who are hired first for a day’s labor, expecting a days’ wages in return.  At the end of the day when the last laborers to come to the fields were paid first and paid a full day’s wages, “they expected to receive more.”  This was a logical expectations based on cultural mores and the agrarian economy of the Ancient Middle East.  Rather, the logical expectation was that they would have been paid first and that those who worked fewer hours would not receive the whole day’s pay.  But when they saw the others were paid last and in full, they could only assume their wages would be higher.   In keeping with the nature of a good parable, this one is upsetting.  The early-to-the-field laborers are upset.  Jesus listeners would have been disturbed by the outcome of the story.  And today this goes against our sense of fairness and good business practice.

But of course in a life of faith we are not working with convention, least of all conventional market practices.  We are not even dealing in an economy of fairness.  Ours is a market of grace and justice in which the bottom line is never profit but rather healing and wholeness.  The wage-and-hours worked equation may not have been ‘fair’ in this story, but all workers left at the end of the day ‘whole.’  There is no worker who will not end the day without that which would have needed from a day’s work.

We face ethical questions of fairness, justice, grace and wholeness in our own culture.  They are difficult because they demand we consider turning convention on its head.  We struggle with questions of  immigration policy, reparations to the formerly enslaved, minimum wage, who gets healthcare, who gets to take communion, where to direct our charitable giving and how to raise our children.

I personally cringe for every moment in which I failed to respond to my children in ways that reassured their sense of safety and connectedness.  And I grieve that I am likely to die before there is a consensus on one or more of our social concerns.  Yet, I find my consolation in the sacred advice given to me by our foster agency’s child psychologist.  It is the invitation to always be resetting my expectations of myself and the world around me.

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


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

The Rev. James M.L. Grace

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

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

July 16, 2017

The Sixth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 10

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

The Rev. Carissa Baldwin-McGinnis



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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

I will go out to sow the seed,

In name of [God] who gave it growth;

I will place my front in the wind,

And throw a gracious handful on high.

Should a grain fall on a bare rock,

It shall have no soil in which to grow;

As much as falls into the earth,

The dew will make to be full.

 

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

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

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

John O’Donohue wrote a Blessing for farmers.

Before the human mind could warm to itself,

The hands of the farmer had first to work,

Creating clearances in the earth’s thicket:

Cut into the thorn-screens of wild briar,

Uproot the clusters of scrub-bush,

Dig out loose rock until a field emerged

Whose clay could be loosened and softened

To take seed and bring forth crops.

 

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

July 9, 2017

Proper 9 

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

The Rev. James M.L. Grace



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

July 2, 2017

Proper 8

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

The Rev. James M.L. Grace



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

June 25, 2017

Proper 7 – Third Sunday after Pentecost



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

THE REV. CARISSA BALDWIN-MCGINNIS

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

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

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

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

Brother Lawrence answered the burden of sin with practical instruction.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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