November 4, 2018

Proper 26 – Sunday After All Saint’s Day

Job 42:1-6, 10-17; Psalm 34: 1-8; Hebrews 7:23-28; Mark 10: 46-52

The Rev. James M.L. Grace


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

Today marks the rare appearance of a reading from a book that is not considered part of the Hebrew Bible.  It is called the Wisdom of Solomon, and it was our first reading today.  The Wisdom of Solomon is part of the apocrypha, a set of books positioned in between the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament.  If you want to know more about the apocrypha, google it! 

In today’s reading from the Wisdom of Solomon we hear these words: “The souls of the righteous are in the hand of God, and no torment will ever touch them.”  While there is some uncertainty surrounding the time when the Wisdom of Solomon was written, credible evidence suggests that it was written around the time of Christ’s crucifixion.

To be more specific – a case for the Wisdom of Solomon’s authorship during the final years of Christ’s life on earth is based upon it being dated specifically to the year 38 CE.  This date, 38, is important because that is the year in which there is historical record of anti-Jewish riots in the city of Alexandria, Egypt. 

There seems to be consensus among Biblical scholars that the Wisdom of Solomon was not only written in the year 38 CE, but that it was also of Alexandrian Jewish authorship.  Let me restate what I’ve just said – the year is 38 CE, the setting is Alexandria Egypt, the author likely is from a persecuted Jewish community that is suffering.

Much of this book deals with a conflict between those who consider themselves righteous and those whom the righteous consider to be wicked.  In the mindset of the author of this book, the Jewish community facing persecution and annhilation is of the righteous sort, while those who violently seek their demise (Greek, Roman, or otherwise) fall into the wicked category. 

The verses read today from the Wisdom of Solomon are sometimes read at burial services in the Episcopal Church, for obvious reasons.  I do not know if they are used with similar frequency in the Jewish community today, but I would not be surprised if they were read at the eleven funerals in Pittsburg this past week.

The Wisdom of Solomon is one of the Jewish books of the Bible that begins to develop a theology of resurrection, of life following death – well before any Christian writings on the topic emerged.  We see evidence of that in todays excerpt from this book.  The author writes “In the eyes of the foolish, the [righteous] seemed to have died, and their departure was thought to be a disaster (again this is during a time of violent Jewish persecution) and their going from us to be their destruction; but they are at peace.” 

Today we celebrate All Saint’s Day – a day to honor the souls of all the righteous.  A day to remember loved ones, friends, and family no longer in our presence, who also are at peace.  Author Henri Nouwen, in his book entitled In Memorium writes “As we grow older we have more and more people to remember, people who have died before us. It is very important to remember those who have loved us and those we have loved. Remembering them means letting their spirits inspire us in our daily lives. They can become part of our spiritual communities and gently help us as we make decisions on our journeys. Parents, spouses, [siblings], children, and friends can become true spiritual companions after they have died. Sometimes they can become even more intimate to us after death than when they were with us in life.  Remembering the dead is choosing their ongoing companionship.”

            Today, I choose to remember Joseph, a neighbor of mine when I lived in Phoenix, Arizona as a child.  Joseph died probably thirty years ago, he was much older than me.  I knew as an elderly man.  Joseph told me his story, how he grew up in Poland, and lived there during the 1940s.  As a boy I was curious about the numerical tattoo on his forearm, and I would ask him questions about it.  He told me that he had that number because for a time in Poland he lived in a camp.  Joseph had this beautiful, friendly smile and a warmth about him that I still feel today.  He is alive to me today even though he died decades ago.  I consider him a saint.  So it is with all the saints – “the souls of the righteous are in the hand of God, and no torment will ever touch them.” 

            I will close with a verse from the Gospel of John, which we did not hear today.  In this verse, Jesus is speaking to a crowd of people, and in chapter 8, v.51, Jesus says: “Very truly I tell you, whoever keeps my word will never see death.”  [Pause]  Today we will baptize children – a bold statement of faith that some would argue borders on the ridiculous: that in God no one really dies, even though their bodies fail.  Do you believe it?  I don’t.  I know it.  AMEN.    


October 28, 2018

Proper 25

Job 42:1-6, 10-17; Psalm 34: 1-8; Hebrews 7:23-28; Mark 10: 46-52

The Rev. James M.L. Grace

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

How many of you all have ever heard a sermon preached on a psalm before?  You are about to hear

One!  Every Sunday at this church we read, or perhaps sing, part of a psalm, but it seems we don’t often talk about them, and their words, and the wisdom they might impart, are forgotten as soon as we move on to the next part of the service.

            Today’s psalm, as you all know, is psalm 34, and we actually don’t have all of it today, we just have eight verses of the psalm.  But if you were to look up psalm 34 in a Bible, you would see that it actually has 22 verses.  This number, 22, is important. 

            Would anyone care to guess how many letters are in the Hebrew alphabet?  That is correct, twenty-two letters.  So in Psalm 34 we have 22 verses, there are 22 letters in the Hebrew alphabet, is this some coincidence?  It actually isn’t.  See, Psalm 34 is called an acrostic psalm, which just means that each verse is associated with a letter in the Hebrew alphabet. 

            Verse 1 of the psalm, which we hear today begins with the word “I will bless” in Hebrew, that word is pronounced “ah-bar-ah-kah” which begins with the letter aleph, the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet.  Verse 2 begins with the phrase “I will glory,” which pronounced in Hebrew is “ba-donay”, a word that begins with the letter beth, the second letter of the Hebrew alphabet.  This pattern repeats for the rest of the psalm. 

            Scholars figure that acrostic psalms were utilized because their alphabetical structure helped people to memorize them.  This design of the psalm is also characteristic of a peculiar genre of writing in the Bible called “Wisdom Literature.”  Wisdom literature, which includes a number of psalms, and other books in the Hebrew Bible such as the book of Job, which we hear the conclusion of today, and it also includes books like Proverbs and Ecclesiastes.  Great, rich, poignant books in the Bible which if you haven’t read yet – you really should.  They are worth your time.

 At its heart, the purpose of these books in the Bible which are identified as wisdom literature, they function to instill wisdom upon the reader.  This is not always easy to do, especially for a rather naïve reader of these books, such as myself.  Wisdom, as many of us probably have learned the hard way, comes not necessarily from books as much as it does from experience.  At least that’s the way it has been in my life.

Nevertheless, I believe that these books, and this psalm, can teach us wisdom, because at their very heart, they instruct – and this is the point of this whole sermon, so if you hear this, this is it – the fear of the the Lord is the beginning of all wisdom.  Now what comes to mind when you hear the word “fear”?  Things that make you afraid, right?  In Hebrew, the understanding of the word “fear” is different – the word for fear is yare (yah-rey) and it is used in this psalm.

If you look at verse 7 of the psalm, when the author writes “The angel of the Lord encompasses those who fear him,” the word fear does not mean “afraid.”  The word fear/yah-rey, means to revere, to trust, to be completely dependent upon God.  Trusting God, absolutely relying upon God, that is the beginning of wisdom, and that is the point of this sermon. 

But I will not end there, at least not yet.  I feel the need to say that complete reliance upon God in all things is of course absolute and necessary.  It is the only way I know to live my life.  But I would be remiss if I didn’t also add that reliance upon God, or as the psalm says “fear of the Lord” naturally produces gratitude. 

And gratitude – that just seems to be in real short supply in our world today.  We hear so much negativity, so much anger, so much cynicism.  We don’t hear much gratitude.  I want to challenge each of you to write down and name five things you are grateful for.  That will be called your gratitude list.  And when you are distraught, frustrated, or confused, I hope you will have the wisdom to return to that list and see all that you really have to be grateful for.  I keep mine on my phone, and I read it daily, because I’m not a very wise person, and I easily forget all the things that I should be grateful for. 

So that’s it – true wisdom is reliance upon God in all things.  That reliance produces gratitude, something all of us could use a bit more of.  AMEN.

October 21, 2018

Proper 24

Job 38:1-7; Psalm 104:1-9, 25, 37b; Hebrews 5: 1-10; Mark 10: 35-45

The Rev. James M.L. Grace


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

            If you spend enough time reading the Bible, one of the things that you might figure out pretty quickly is that the Bible has a sense of humor.  I know that seems like an oxymoron: humor and the Bible, really?  Granted, finding humor in the Bible isn’t always easy, and looking for it sometimes does seem to resemble searching for a needle in a haystack, but it is there for the patient reader.

            Today’s passage from the Gospel of Mark introduces us to one such humorous moment.  To provide a bit of context: the disciples are walking with Jesus toward Jerusalem.  This will be the last time Jesus enters the city – his crucifixion is drawing near.  In any case, they are walking toward Jerusalem and two of the disciples, James and John, who were close with Jesus, say “Teacher we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.”  That’s a rather bold ask, in my opinion.  I can’t think of anyone, especially God, whose response to me if I said that wouldn’t be a slap to my face, and that’s if their being polite.  Jesus has some patience with this strange request, and replies, “What is it you want me to do for you?”  And here is where they ask for a position of prestige and honor at Jesus’ left and right side. 

            Why is this funny?  It’s humorous because immediately before this incident, like the paragraph right before, Jesus says this to the disciples “the Son of man will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles, they will mock him, and spit upon him, and flog him, and kill him.”

            And it’s like James and John didn’t hear any of that!  When they ask for a position of honor next to Jesus, it’s like they are requesting honor and recognition after Jesus goes through all the suffering.  “Jesus, after you go through all that horrible stuff, which we’re not really interested in doing, can we sort of slide in next to you in heaven have a good seat there close to you?” 

            I love how this story presents these two disciples in such an unflattering light.  Their desire for cheap honor and prestige is just so human, right?  Our brains seem to be wired to find the easiest path to dealing with adversity – it’s like genetically we are hard wired to prefer the path of least resistance.  And while that might get us to where we want to go quickly, and we might even arrive at where we want to be, it’s not always the best path.

            When I think of the most hard won, valuable, and relevant lessons I have learned in life – none of them came easily to me.  The most important things that I have learned in life, and am still learning – have taken me years to learn, because I am a slow, and stubborn learner. 

            Jesus’ response to James and John is right on point – he basically tells them that they have no idea what they are asking, and they really don’t.  James and John have fallen suspect to the very real human desire for praise, honor, and recognition, at no cost.  While that might what our culture tells us we should want, it is not what Jesus says is most important.

            Instead of honor praise and recognition, Jesus advocates a completely different way.  He simply says to take up your cross and follow him.  To deny the very human need for honor, power, and status.  That James and John struggled with this, and that we struggle with it today, is a reminder of what a difficult task this reversal of values is.

            When I was in college, I felt certain that I would avoid the predictable rat race of working hard to get a job so I could get a promotion so I could get more recognition and honor, so I could work harder to get a better job, so I could get a better promotion, so I could get even more recognition and honor.  I tricked myself into thinking I wasn’t on that path, but in truth, I was.  Thankfully I woke up and realized that my selfish desires were all a product of my ego, running rampant.  My ego wanted recognition and honor, and what I learned was when I got what my ego wanted, it had a narcotic effect.  I got “high.”  I was willing to sacrifice so much just to win the approval, recognition, and honor of others.  But the feeling never lasted. 

            So I would repeat the cycle, working harder, sacrificing more, to get the recognition and honor.  But it was never as good as the first time.  So I would try to work harder, sacrifice even more, to get the recognition and honor I so desired.  But it was never enough and it would never be enough, and if what I’ve just described sounds close to a definition of insanity to you, you would be correct.  My problem was that I knew cognitively that I was loved by God, but I didn’t believe it with my heart.  So I sought approval and honor anywhere I could find it, until finally I realized that being loved by God was the only thing that could give me what I needed.  Nothing else.  Not honor, not praise, not recognition.  All of that is irrelevant when compared to God’s unceasing and unconditional love. 

            We don’t need to be at Christ’s left or right side, we don’t need the recognition or the approval of others.  The recognition of God’s eternal love is, and will always be, enough.  AMEN. 

October 14, 2018

Proper 23

Job 23:1-9; Psalm 22:1-15; Hebrews 4: 12-16; Mark 10: 17-31

The Rev. James M.L. Grace


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

St. Andrew’s begins its annual stewardship campaign today, a campaign to raise awareness of the financial needs of this growing congregation.  But this will not be a stewardship sermon.   I would rather use my time in this pulpit today to speak on something else entirely - and that is this rather peculiar reading we have from the book of Job this morning.

A quick recap of Job’s story: Job was a faithful man, obedient to God, but has now entered a season of tremendous difficulty and suffering. He has lost all of his material possessions, he has lost his children, he has lost his health.  

As a result of losing all these things, Job’s faith in God is naturally tested.  We hear Job say things like “my complaint is bitter . . . God has made my heart faint; the almighty has terrified me; if only I could vanish in darkness, and thick darkness cover my face!”

I remember some time ago I listening to a woman who once, like Job, wished that she could vanish into darkness, and have thick darkness cover her face.

To make a long story very short, this woman’s life had gradually entered into a deep and lasting depression that resulted in chemical dependency and a bottoming out experience for her where she found herself in a hotel room in another city and state, by herself.  Like Job, so consumed by the darkness clouding in her own mind, that this woman pulled out her phone and typed the phrase “how do I successfully hang myself in a hotel closet?” into her internet browser.

Her question returned a list of sites that answered her inquiry. Thank God she did not act on her impulse, and today she is alive and through help, has learned to call God her friend.

The existential pain touched upon by a book like Job recalls the same pain that dwells within each of us. We all have it, and all of us are pretty good hiding it behind a smile. We’ve all  had the experience where we might be so emotionally torn up inside - we’re upset, life isn’t working out the way we had hoped, we’re in pain, we’re hurting . Somebody enters our space and says “How are you doing?” And we mask all that inner turmoil with a smile and say “oh I’m fine.” Clergy, like me, we are really good at doing this!

I think grief is such a hard emotion for us because we just don’t know what to do with it. We can’t easily fix it.  Sometimes there are no obvious solutions. 

This past week I was in Washington, DC, for work, and as I was thinking a lot about this passage from Job, I was thinking about Job’s grief, and I wanted to go to a place where I could sit with that and feel it on an emotional level.  Not think about grief from an intellectual perspective, but to feel it.  So I visited the United States Holocaust Museum, because I felt that museum in such a tangible way addresses the grief and lament expressed in today’s reading from Job. I went and soaked the exhibits in. As a father of a child with special needs I felt myself viscerally connected to grief as I learned about Operation T4, which legalized the euthanization of children with disabilities because they were considered too much of a drain financially upon the state.  I was struck at how powerless I was - there is nothing I could do to change what had happened.  I could not save those children’s lives.  I wanted, like Job, to disappear into a cloud of darkness.  As I made my way toward the museum’s exit, I met a volunteer at the museum, a woman, named Ruth.  Ruth is 88 years old.  As I teenager, she spent several years at Auschwitz and survived. She told her story to a group of people gathered around her.  Ruth smiled at young girl standing close by.

Watching this, I was then reminded of a prayer I pray daily, and a line within it which asks God for wisdom in order to learn to “accept hardship as a pathway to peace.” That experiences of hardship, of grief, and of pain, are the very pathway that leads to peace might not sound like good news to you. I know, I get it. But it’s true.  Somehow God works through our hardship, and God has a way of transforming that pain into peace.

Job’s story does not end in sorrow and loss, but in God’s embrace. God is faithful to Job, and restores what was once taken from him. It is the same with us. Our stories don’t end in pain or grief. Ultimately, our story is redeemed through Christ. Our hardship is transformed into peace, as God renews our bodies and our minds, if we allow God to do so.

If you are grieving right now, you will be okay, because you are not in charge of your grief - God is. And the God that grieves with you will restore you.

The woman whose life nearly ended in that hotel room – she is now a spiritual mentor to me – she is a beautiful, alive, vibrant, example of hardship and pain fashioned into peace. I thank God for her. I thank God for you.   AMEN.

October 7, 2018

Proper 22

The Rev. Carissa Baldwin-McGinnis

I love richly flavored food.  The more layers of spice the better.  I remember a conversation a few years ago with a colleague.  I asked, “Why is Mexican food so rich and flavorful and the food of my people – Britts and Irish - so boring?”  “It is because in my culture for thousands of years we have been preparing food for the gods.”

Be the recipes simple or complex, good cooks and culinary artists of every culture generate satisfaction through flavor parings, and classically the parings of opposites or contrasts.  Like the salty and sweet of barbeque or kettle corn, or the sweet with the sour of sweet-and-sour pork and the addition of lime juice to sweet melon.

The pairing of contrasting textures can also be a winner.  I spent years as a child wishing for the world’s largest Twix bar.  The Twix candy bar has the crunch of the cookie and the satin of the caramel; not to mention the salty and sweet combination.  And, when all else fails for flavoring, there is always salt and pepper.

The phenomenon of pairing two distinct flavors or two opposites in a way that generates a third reality or singular taste is a winning culinary strategy, and it is a phenomenon that recurs outside of the culinary arts.  It is a universal phenomenon that pervades many dimensions such as color, music, and even relationships.

It is curious to pair two opposites and have the outcome of the pairing bring delight or harmony or strength.  Yet it can be done and seems to be a recurring phenomenon.

Several of the Bible passages for today suggest that mastering this phenomenon is an imperative exercise for spiritual growth.  First, this seems to be a fundamental thread of the hyperbolic, over-the-top story of Job.  At the onset of his troubles Job’s oxen and donkeys have been stolen, his servants killed, his sheep destroyed by fire, his camels raided and carried off, and all his adult children swept up and destroyed by a fierce wind.  To top it off, Job is then inflicted with sores from head to foot.  What is his response?  To insist that a person may not experience what is good without also experiencing what is bad.  Job is unwilling to divorce them, implying that good and bad are inseparable components of a singular phenomenon; the human experience.

We cannot take our lives and chop them in half – my good life and my bad life.  It is one life.

Job’s words suggest that such a separation is a false one.  The division is not real.  Furthermore, that kind of division is not faithful.  He tells his wife who wants him to condemn his own suffering, “You speak as a fool…Shall we receive the good at the hand of God, and not receive the bad?”

In Job’s words the discipline for reconciling contrasts is shown to be an act of spiritual formation and faithfulness.  The ability to accept and contain two distinctions or distinct realities and reconcile them as one is the spiritual conundrum and discipline that is highlighted in both the book of Job and also the gospel for today.

When Jesus insists that the little children be received in the inner circle of society, he is saying you cannot separate the undesirables from the desirables.  It is one singular society and set of people.  The power class cannot eliminate or pretend that those with no power do not exist.  This conceptual divorce is a denial of reality.  It is one population.

It is a similar principal that Jesus highlights in divorce discourse when he says, “So they are no longer two, but one flesh.  Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”  Here we have the same formula: one person plus one person equals one new singular spiritual entity.

Can we try to set aside our fears and trauma of divorce to hear these words not in their moral context, but in the context of the phenomenon of reconciling two contrasting elements?  If we can for a moment peel off the layer of ethical concern about divorce, we may hear Jesus speaking of an ethical concern more focused on the general human tendency to sever and separate when what humanity most needs is reconciliation.  Maybe the point is less about staying married to the same person, and more about the ways and places – marriage chief among them – we can constantly build muscle for reconciling difference.

Yes, opposites attract.  We build friendships, courtships and engagements based on contrast.  The introvert is drawn to the extrovert; the scientist to the artist; the emotive person to the intellectual; the spender and the saver; and most dangerously – the dancer to the non-dancer.  These differences are reassuring, interesting, even thrilling at first.  Once we get married, these same pairings would seem to threaten our very lives.  In this way, inside the sacramental life of marriage we constantly practice reconciliation.

One of my favorite breakfast dishes is huevos divorciados, divorced eggs.  But the name is dishonest.  While the dish is comprised of two fried eggs, the eggs are almost always conjoined.  They are called divorciados because one egg is covered in green salsa and one egg is covered in red.  The flavors are distinct and complementary.  While it is two eggs, it is one dish.  While some people neatly eat one side followed by the other taking care not to mix the salsas, others love it when the juices all start to mix together.

Opposites, distinctions, dualities are not inherently problematic.  In fact they can come together to a balancing or strengthening effect; but that effect must be sought and seized upon.  We must want it.  We have a choice to make.  And the human tendency to literally divorce aspects of society, one from the other; populations one from the other; races one from the other; species one from the other is when danger sets in.  It is when we pit one against the other that we step completely out of the flow of the Spirit and our spiritual potential.

Whereas practicing acceptance and mastery of contrasts and opposite pairings, we can gain the power for the highest levels of reconciliation, healing and peace.  The measure of our mastery of this art is most certainly a measure  of wisdom.  May we seek it.  May it find us.


September 30, 2018

Proper 21

Genesis 28: 10-17; Psalm 103: 19-22; Revelation 12:7-12; John 1:47-51

The Rev. James M.L. Grace

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

Then war broke out in heaven; Michael and his angels fought against the dragon.  The dragon and his angels fought back, but they were defeated, and there was no longer any place for them in heaven.  The great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, who is called the Devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world – he was thrown down to the earth, and his angels were thrown down with him.

            What a bizarre reading.  A dragon? Angels?  War in heaven?   This doesn’t sound like the Bible, it sounds like The National Enquirer!  What do we do with this language, can we make sense of it?  Is it relevant?  I am going to try my best to answer those questions.

            A good place to begin might be to identify what kind of book Revelation is in the first place.  Revelation falls into a particular genre writing, called “apocalyptic literature.”  Apocalyptic literature was pretty popular back then.  I used to think that was odd until walking through a bookstore one day I noticed that they had an entire section of the store dedicated to a particular genre of writing called “paranormal teen fiction.”  Basically teen romance novels involving werewolves and vampires.  Suddenly apocalyptic literature doesn’t seem so strange, does it? 

The word “apocalypse” comes from a Greek word which simply means “to reveal.” A book in the Bible like Revelation is considered apocalyptic because it reveals a world to the reader previously unseen. 

            So this language about dragons, wars, the angel Michael (who is pictured on the cover of your worship bulletin this morning and whom you can read about more on the last page of your worship bulletin if this sermon is already boring to you).  This language about war in heaven, angels, and dragons is meant to be revelatory – it is meant to show us a world we’ve never seen before, kind of like if you go to a theater that has a large curtain in front of the stage before the performance.

            Before the performance, you don’t know what is behind the curtain, do you, because the curtain is drawn – it forms a wall between the audience and what is behind it.  You can guess.  You can think of the actors or the set pieces or props that might be behind the curtain, but you don’t really know what is behind it until the curtain rises and the performance begins.  When the curtain on the stage rises – that is an apocalyptic moment – it is a great revealing – it’s a revelation – of what lies behind it.

            That is what apocalyptic literature sets out to do.  That is what our reading today sets out to do.  So what is revealed?  What do we learn?  I have identified three revelatory moments.

            Revelation #1 Perhaps most obviously, we learn how uncomfortable this language of the dragon (who is the Devil, or Satan) is.  I saw you all roll your eyes and squirm in your pew when I read those  verses earlier – I know you all and how uncomfortable this talk about dragon slaying angels is.  Modern, progressive people don’t talk about this.  Are we meant to take it seriously? 

A second revelation I have concerns the problematic nature of the story itself.  There is a war in heaven between Michael and all the angels and the dragon and the solution to this great war is that the dragon and all the forces of evil are kicked out of heaven, which is great for them, but bad for us on earth, because guess where the dragon and all of its followers end up – here!  Earth!  Something else that is revelatory about this reading is that it is an attempt to explain why evil exists.  This mythological explanation may seem crude. 

            Finally, a third revelation is in regard to the church, which throughout history has used demonic and punitive imagery for good reason – it brought great financial profit.  Several hundred years ago, a clergy person could open Revelation and threaten good church going folks of eternity in hell, but also that that eternity could be reduced with a financial gift to the church.  Putting the fear of hell into people was tremendously profitable for the church in the middle ages.  As an example, Johann Tetzel was a 16th century Dominican friar, famously was quoted saying “when the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs."  Fear of hell helped build a lot of grand cathedrals in Europe. 

            So the symbolism of evil in the Revelation is problematic.  But it is also purposeful.  This language is purposeful in that it pulls the curtain back, allowing us to comprehend and understand forces at work that upset and subvert our lives.  There are so many in our world today.  What would the author of Revelation today reveal to a 21st century culture that addicted to chemicals and technology?  I don’t know.  Perhaps the voice of Revelation’s author spoke a century ago through a wise German philosopher, who said that “the best slave is the one who thinks he is free.”  That’s my revelation.  I know many of us, including myself, are here today thinking that we are free, because we haven’t allowed the curtain to pull itself back, revealing that really we are enslaved.  We are enslaved by fear.  Enslaved by anger.  Enslaved by resentment.  The list just goes on and on – and still somehow we think we’re free.

            The dragon symbolizes that which stands between people and the divine presence of God.  Revelation works because it seeks to unmask, it seeks to unveil the power evil holds in this world so that we can see it, rebel against it, and no longer be enslaved to it.  As an example, corporations spend billions of dollars in advertising each year just to convince us that we are worthless, that we are without value, that we are without importance, unless we buy their product - spending money we don’t have on things we don’t need to impress people we don’t like.  How is that not evil?

            I will close with this: it is no coincidence that when Jesus was crucified, the large curtain hanging in the Jerusalem Temple – the curtain which blocked off the Holy of Holies, the holiest part of the temple, from everyone else except the clergy on certain holy days – this curtain which maintained the mystique of an institution and kept ruling elite clergy in power – that curtain was torn in two when Christ was crucified.  It was an apocalyptic moment – a revealing.  The curtain raised.  All was revealed.  Nothing, not evil, not death, nothing separated humankind from God.

            May we see with new eyes the world God reveals to us.  May we be courageous together, to unmask evil, and, with God’s help may we all be emancipated, no longer slaves, but free.  AMEN.

September 2, 2018

Proper 17

Song of Solomon 2: 8-13; Psalm 45 1-2, 7-10; James 1:17-27; Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

The Rev. James M.L. Grace, 8:30 am service

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

            “You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness.” James 1: 19-20.

            If you are coming to church today because you need to hear a message.  This perhaps may be it.  Be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger, for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness. We have so many reasons to be angry, don’t we?  So and so did this to me.  They don’t understand how I feel.  Bob is a lousy co-worker.  Sue is a lousy wife.  And on and on and on. 

            The anger we carry often expresses itself in resentments.  I want to explain the meaning of that word, resentment.  Now if you put the word “re” in front of something it means to do something again.  As in remember or repeat.  The other part of that word resentment is the second half, sentment, which comes from the Latin word sentir, which means to feel something.  So the word resentment literally means to feel again.

            Each one of you has a part of your brain that is a resentment machine.  When you get up in the morning and you start playing all your resentments, over and over again.  “No one at my work respects me.”  “That priest at the church doesn’t understand a thing about me.”  “My sister doesn’t care about me at all.” Blah, blah, blah.  Now tell me – do you think God can get through to us with all that garbage in our minds?  You bet not. 

            As long as you hold on to your resentment and your anger you won’t hear God say a thing.  You have to let it go, and it has hard.  It is painful.  But when you let go of your resentment and anger, you begin to hear God’s voice.  I am slowly learning to do it, and it is changing my life.  I will give you an example. 

For the last seven months, the church staff has prepared for our annual Bishop visitation, which we have assumed, would be September 9 – which is next Sunday.  On Tuesday of this week, we learned that the Bishop would in fact be coming today, September 2.  Surprise!

            Now if that’s not an opportunity for resentment and anger to settle in, I don’t know what is.  Who made this mistake, and why didn’t we find out earlier? That was what the garbage in my brain was telling me initially, and I had to stop it right there.  No one set out to do this intentionally, it was just a mistake. Things happen, it’s okay.  I wasn’t angry, I wasn’t resentful.  Now I guarantee you that the me from a few years ago would have been.  Oh I would’ve gotten real angry.  Instead I had serenity.  I had peace.  I was not disturbed.  This had nothing to do with me.  This was God – I can’t explain to you the feeling of peace and serenity that I had in any other way.  The outcome of knowing that God was present with me and leading me, well that meant that I could pause.  I could listen.  I didn’t need to speak.  I didn’t need to be angry.

            What a gift that is.  What useful information that is to know that we have a God that we can entrust everything to.  That God will meet our deepest needs. That is so important, and yet, I forget that all the time.  I hear the message that God is leading me and leading you through this life, and I believe it and I know it, and then something happens, the phone rings, a news headline appears on my phone, and then that security, that knowledge of God’s consistent presence, it vanishes.  And I forget.  How frustrating that is to me. 

            Elsewhere in the passage from James we hear verses 23-24, which read: “For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror; for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like.”  I don’t know about you, but those verses describe me perfectly. 

            In a few weeks I am going camping with some close friends for a week in the Pacific Northwest.  For that week I won’t have access to a mirror.  I don’t know about you, but when I go for awhile without looking at myself in the mirror, I forget what I look like.  That first glance at myself in a mirror after a week-long trip is always surprising.  Is my nose really that big? Wow – I forgot. 

            In the ancient world, mirrors were not common as they are today.  A mirror was state of the art – something that only the very wealthy had access to. Most people lived their lives not knowing what they looked like, as they never had mirrors.  How easy we forget – not only my appearance after time away from a mirror – but how easy I forget God’s reassuring message of abiding love.  That is why I go to church – I need to be reminded of this good news.  I need to hear, and hear again, the message that there is a God much larger than I, that will make all things right, if I surrender everything to God’s will.  I cannot hear that message enough. 

            Return to God again and again.  Once a week is not enough.  Pray daily.  Start your day with meditation, and you will suddenly realize that God is doing for you what you cannot do for yourself.  AMEN.

August 26, 2018

Proper 16

1 Kings 8:1, 6, 10-11, 22-30, 41-43; Psalm 84; Ephesians 6: 10-20; John 6:56-69

The Rev. James M.L. Grace

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

            So I am going to do something today which I have never done before – I am going to talk about the letter to the Ephesians, which we hear today.  Why have I never preached this chapter of Ephesians before?  There is a story there, and I will share it briefly.  When I was an impressionable teenager I was instructed by an evangelical adult Christian, who was also one of my teachers at school, to read a really bad Christian fiction book entitled “This Present Darkness” – which takes its name from the Ephesians reading today.  The book told the story of a fictional small town in Idaho or somewhere where angelic and demonic forces were locked into this spiritual battle over the souls of the people living there.   

            If you were to read the book today, you would probably laugh at the poorly written dialogue, the predictable plot, and clichéd characters.  But for a twelve year old reading that book, even though I knew it was fiction, I was told that “you know there really are demons in the world, and they will find you, and they will possess you unless you follow Jesus perfectly.  Don’t mess up.”   Yeah – that was part of my childhood.  Fortunately a really good therapist helped me through all that.  Thank God for therapy, right?   

So perhaps context can be helpful for us here.  How can we understand what the author of Ephesians is really trying to say?  Here are a few facts about Ephesians – everything you ever wanted to know about this letter in a one minute crash course history.  First, Ephesians was probably not written by the apostle Paul.  Second, it was probably written toward the end of the first century – approximately sixty years after the crucifixion.  Third, we are unclear who Ephesians was addressed to.  Finally, we do know that Ephesians was addressed to people who were living within the Roman Empire. 

The Roman Empire was big on military as many of us know.  The strength of its military  helped to ensure the Pax Romana, or the peace of Rome, which was the glue that held the Empire together.  Because of the obvious military presence all over the Roman Empire, things like breastplates, shields, helmets, and swords were as common a sight to the average Roman citizen as iphones are to us today. 

One more piece of context is important for our understanding of this passage.  Rome was not a Christian Empire at this time.  Ephesians was written a short time after Nero was emperor.  If you have studied Roman history, then you might remember that Nero was an ineffectual and brutal leader who was notorious for persecuting and killing Christians.  He famously burned Christians at the stake in the evenings to create light.  Nero’s reputation amongst Christians was so evil that in the book of Revelation, chapter 13, v. 18, refers to Nero.  The verse reads: “let anyone with understanding calculate the number of the beast, for it is the number of a person.  It’s number is six hundred sixty-six.  That number, the number of the Beast, in Hebrew, is the numeric value of the name Nero Caesar.  In this hostile environment, it is understandable to me why the author of Ephesians would advocate wearing the armor of God.  The Number of the Beast is also a great Iron Maiden album.

But there is more – one more thing that is super easy to miss in a quick reading of Ephesians 6:10-20, and it is this.  When you see the word “you” in these verses, it’s actually the plural form of you – “you all”, or in Texas – ‘y’all’  That is important because as a community, we stand against evil together.  We don’t do it alone.  You don’t stand against the wiles of the devil – we stand against the wiles of the devil.  It may seem superstitious to imagine a wily devil. However, it is helpful to remember that evil often comes in deceptively attractive forms rather than in the obviously repulsive.

The latter of course happens, for example in genocidal violence. But more often evil seems to lurk beneath the camouflage of cultural common sense.  Evil seems to find great comfort in compromise in the name of being reasonable, and unacknowledged personal benefit from unjust systems. Despite the ways such language gets abused, for example in really bad Christian fiction books, Ephesians call to “spiritual warfare” can remind us that we are called into a struggle deeper than private temptations, and that it is easy to fail to recognize the true enemy.

Only God can and will finally defeat all the forces of evil. We have been enlisted into this mission, and we can respond boldly only because God has already won the war and set us free. Therefore, there is no need for fear in the face of whatever challenges you are facing right now. We have been given all that we need to stand strong against the losing efforts of anything that opposes God’s peace.  We stand together.  AMEN.

August 19, 2018

Proper 15

Ezekiel 37: 1-14; Psalm 104:25-35, 37; Acts 2: 1-21; John 15: 26-27; 16: 4b-15

The Rev. James M.L. Grace 

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

            Hi, everyone.  It is good to see you all again, and good to be standing here now.  I had a great sabbatical, but I know sabbaticals are not possible without things like church vestries and church staff members.  So I want to recognize two people for whom this sabbatical would not have been possible.    First, the Rev. Carissa Baldwin-McGinnis, and her leadership of this congregation before, during, and following the sabbatical.  She made it seamless.  Thank you, Carissa. (Applause).  Secondly, your Senior Warden on the Vestry, Collin Ricklefs.  Collin stepped up to the plate (I’m using a sports analogy because Collin works for Academy and gets those kind of things) and went above and beyond as the Sr. Warden of this parish. (Applause).  Collin and Carissa are a both a blessing to this church.

            So I left three months ago, and if you follow my wife on facebook you have a pretty good idea of what we did and where we went.  So I’m not going to talk about that, but what I do want to do is see if any of you recall that when I left three months ago, I left you all with a prayer.  Anybody remember that?  Anybody remember what the prayer was?   The Prayer of St. Francis.  That is a really important prayer to me, it’s one I pray daily, arguably one of the greatest prayers ever written. 

            I hear from some of you all a desire to learn how to pray.  How do we talk to God?  What do we even say?  One of my favorite movies is one called “Gravity” which starred Sandra Bullock as an astronaut in outer space working on a space station.  When the space station she is working on is nearly destroyed by floating debris in space, she is the last one left alive and she has to figure out how to get to earth, while her oxygen is running out, and the space station continues to fall apart.  In the film there is a scene which was powerful for me where she believes she is going to die, her oxygen is nearly out, the space station is beginning to freeze and she is facing what seems to be her end. In a monologue she starts talking to herself, and she asks the question out loud if anyone is praying for her on earth.  Then she says “I would pray for myself, but I don’t know how.  No one ever taught me how to pray.”

            How do you learn to pray?  For me, I learned by praying.  A recall of my entire history of prayerful conversations with God would certainly yield many embarrassing moments as it would moments of sheer desperation.  My prayer life has not been consistent.  But over the past years or so, I have made daily prayer a priority for me.  And slowly, over time, I think I have changed because of it.  Here is an example

            Two weeks ago our family was at an indoor rock climbing gym in Berlin, Germany.  It was the kind of gym where you didn’t have a rope to catch you if you fell, it was all free climbing.  I was climbing down a wall when my hand slipped from a grip and I fell about a meter, landing onto my left shoulder.  I felt a pop, and knew pretty quickly that I had dislocated my left shoulder.  I went to the hospital and as I was waiting to see the doctor, laying on a hospital gurney in some hallway, I began to pray.  This desire to pray when I am injured does not come naturally to me.  I know this because I also dislocated my same left shoulder twenty years ago and when I was in the hospital for that, I was yelling at the doctors, complaining, and creating such a stir that they threatened to not fix my shoulder unless I stopped swearing at the doctors.  That was twenty years ago.  True, and embarrassing.  Two weeks ago, with a second shoulder injury, my experience in the hospital was very different.  Why?  I was older, maybe more mature.  That’s true, but I believe it is because of my praying.  While on that gurney in Berlin in some hallway, I thought, “I don’t know how long I will be here,  I’ll just go through my prayers.  Why not.  It’s not like I’m going anywhere!”  I began to pray for my family, for the doctors in the hospital, the patients.  I prayed for this parish, for each member of the staff of this church, for each member of our Vestry. 

            And those prayers took me out of that hospital somewhere else – into your hearts of those I was praying for and maybe somewhere into the heart of God. I prayed the Lord’s Prayer, which we will pray today, and then I prayed one more prayer – the prayer that is inserted into your service bulletin.  It’s often called the “Serenity Prayer,” and you might be familiar with the first few lines of the prayer, but I wanted to give to you all today the full version of this prayer.  It is one of my most favorite prayers, one I also pray each day, and I would like us to pray it together:   God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.  Living one day at a time, enjoying one moment at a time.  Accepting hardship as a pathway to peace, taking, as Jesus did, this sinful world as it is, not as I would like it.  Trusting that you will make all things right, if I surrender to your will. That I may be reasonably happy in this world and supremely happy with you forever in the next.  AMEN.

            I am convinced a lifetime of praying this prayer will not unveil all of its meaning.  One could spend decades alone learning to accept hardship as the pathway to peace, which I believe is true.  A reason why this prayer is so meaningful to me is because it is a prayer that is asking for wisdom.  More specifically this is a prayer which asks for the wisdom to know the difference between what we can change and what we are powerless to change. 

            Today we hear the story of another prayer asking for wisdom.  A prayer spoken by the Jewish king Solomon, the son of David, pictured in color on the first page of you order of service.  Solomon asks God for wisdom, in which he says, “[g]ive your servant an understanding mind to govern your people, able to discern between good and evil.” 

            Solomon prays for wisdom.  For those of us here today with no idea of how to pray, perhaps the words of the Serenity Prayer, or the words of Solomon might be helpful to you.  They are for me. 

            I will stop there.  I left you with the prayer of St. Francis three months ago.  I come back to you today with the Serenity Prayer – two prayers, that have changed my life.  If praying is too difficult for you, start with either one.  They are excellent, and slowly, over time, you will notice that as you pray these prayers, you will become them.  You will learn to pray.  AMEN.

July 8, 2018

Proper 9

2 samuel 5:1-5; psalm 48; 2 corinthians 12:2-10; mark 6:1-13

The Rev. Carissa Baldwin-McGinnis

What is grace?

To me grace is the gift of my daughter.  She was the favor shown to myself and my spouse after a sad and difficult journey to becoming parents.  So we named her Nori Grace, and Nori Grace was favor shown to us when we were certain there was nothing favorable to be found.

If you look up ‘grace’ in the Dictionary of Philosophy and Religion, the first thing you will encounter is the etymology of the word’s meaning.  It is from Latin gratus meaning “beloved, agreeable.”  The dictionary goes on to read, “grace is…favor…shown to man by God.”  In today’s parlance then grace is God’s favor shown to humanity.

There is a ministry in Houston called Grace Place.  It ministers to teens living on the streets.  Grace Place is a safe place with a hot meal, a clothing closet and small community support for youth who have been rejected by their families or aged out of foster care.  Grace Place is where they go to experience God’s favor through the work of the church.

A member of this congregation described for me grace as unearned forgiveness from God that provides a sense of peace.  That peace frees us from the shame of our weakness and our mistakes.  In that sense grace may be the source of that peace which surpasses all understanding.  Any person’s grace place, then, is their peace place that one cannot create for oneself, but it gets created for us somewhat mysteriously from beyond.

Grace is not something one is likely to miss.  Grace is hard to overlook.  My son who is obsessed with lightening and wants to see every illumination.  He will ask me desperately, “Did it flash?!” because he is worried he will miss one such instance.  One may miss a lightening’s strike, but you will never miss the sensation of God’s forgiveness, because it is a moment of relief from some agony - small or large – that refuses to be ignored.

There are little graces in life, like food on the table.  This is perhaps how the southern expression, “To say grace” came about.  On the surface saying grace is to to say thank you to God or to bless what has been provided.  But more than thanking God for the substance of what we may have grown or paid for, it is the food’s power to sustain us that we cannot generate.  The nutritive power of the food is the grace given to us in creation.  So we say thanks to God for that power as we bless it.

St. Paul says a word about God’s grace, speaking to its power dynamic.  He says, grace is “power made perfect in weakness.”   So then grace is the nourishing power of food as it comes to our hungry or depleted frames.  Or grace is the shelter of a church when its roof extends over the lives that are lived in total exposure.  Or grace is the power of the life of a child when it comes the into the care of the otherwise impotent and broken hearted.

When God’s power finds its way to our week places, that is grace.  Paul has me thinking of a God that touches our weakness with all the care in the world.  Paul has me thinking that contact with frailty is what makes God’s power perfect.  The more God’s power can meet what needs healing, the greater God’s power can flow in the world.  It is as though the nature of God is to seek out those encounters to keep the power in God’s power.  If so, then we need not strive to be perfect, nor need we pursue a perfect God.  We need rather to pursue a God who has a power made perfect through weakness; power expressed as grace.

Just as an experience of grace is nearly impossible to overlook, St. Agustine argued that grace is impossible to deny.  Some heady gentlemen in the earlier church asserted that because humans have free will we must not necessarily accept God’s grace.  But Agustine replied that while people exercise free will, there is no will to refuse grace.  For grace is irresistible.  Even when defended or defensive, we are defenseless against God’s grace.

Lay woman from this congregation, Priscilla Burroughs, wrote to me that “Grace is a gentle lullaby sung to us by our God. And, like the 1000 definitions of Love, no one definition [of grace] is the ultimate answer, but all together the one same thing.”

The church says sacraments are graces.  Communion is a grace.  Baptism is a grace.  So, Priscilla has me thinking that the invitation to the altar or the font, is an invitation to hear God’s singing.

The only problem with grace is that we cannot will it for ourselves.  We can only hope to channel it for others.  About this channeling, the Rev. Eric Law teaches about what he calls grace margin.  He says the church can create a margin of grace when we set up opportunities in the church for people to speak and be heard without interruption, without judgement.  He teaches ways for a church to foster the flow of God’s power and grace for its people, for those outside the church and in the church’s very way of life.

At last, if I could pick up my daughter’s play wand and wave it over us all, I would do so first to create grace places in all of us where God’s power could touch perfectly our weaknesses and our shame.  Then, I would wave it a second time in hopes of creating a grace margin so wide that we all would fall in.