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.

June 17, 2018

1 samuel 15:34-16:13; psalm 20; 2 corinthians 5:6-10, 14-17; mark 4:26-34

The Rev. Carissa Baldwin-McGinnis

I have been thinking about story telling perhaps because I have had more time to spend with you, and you have been generous in sharing your stories.

Stories are integrating and impact us at many levels.   Stories convey more than a simple list of facts.  For example, I can tell you my mother is a consummate helper with the spirit of St. Francis.  The statement tells you something.  But if I tell you the story of the time she followed a hairless Chow around her neighborhood for hours to rescue it only to be bitten on the hand.  It would tell you more.  The hand became infected and swelled up like a baseball glove.  That Chow remained hairless and in my mother’s home for a few years until it died.  This story conveys more about my mother than my original statement.

Stories are told in public and private.  Stories are told for a multitude of purposes; for bonding, healing, threatening, or instruction.  A history professor I know said she uses stories to introduce her college students to larger concepts.  She says if she can compel them emotionally or personally with a story, their minds are more likely to grasp a larger concept that may be new to them.

Story telling can be a way of loving people, especially in dying.  Hospice workers remind us that hearing is the last sense to go.  When a dying person hears stories about themselves and their life, they are reassured that they are not alone in their final hours.

It occurs to me that Jesus sometimes loved people through story telling.  One type of story he told is the parable.  The parable a timeless tool for agitating, elevating and even illuminating the minds of its hearers.  Parables cannot always be understood at first or without help, because like myths parables point to something beyond themselves. 

The realm of God is best described in parables.  While it has universal properties, it cannot sufficiently be portrayed by a straightforward description.

Perfume, for example, cannot sufficiently be described by simply enumerating its scientific characteristics.  It is a liquid that when dispersed is more than its dispersal.  The scent carries beyond the reach of those diffused droplets.  It has an olfactory impact that sometimes triggers emotion, attraction, repulsion.  Perfume can make us to follow someone or to think we are falling in love.

Like perfume, the phenomenon of God’s realm, reign, kingdom or kindom cannot be explained by a list of characteristics.  So, Jesus uses parallels.  He said the Kingdom of God is like one who makes provision.  It is like one who brings in harvest with seemingly no effort of his own.  It is like the tiny seed that makes great shade in the middle of the desert.

The Kingdom of God has the capacity to grow and spread always for the good.  We never say the Kingdom of God has the capacity to grow and spread like a mushroom cloud, colony of roaches, or aggressive cancer.  Kingdom of God always makes a provision for something good; something necessary.  Food.  Shelter.  Survival.  Survival beyond the body.  Survival beyond one single person.

Edward Sellner writes of the St. Ciaran of the 6th Century, one of the first founders of Celtic monasticism in the early Irish church.  The lore of St. Ciaran is that he went to visit a friend.  Upon meeting both had a vision of a grand tree growing in the middle of Ireland.  “This tree, while protecting Ireland, also had its fruit carried across the Irish Sea by birds from around the world which filled its branches.”  It is said that Ciaran speaks to his friend of the vision, and the friend interprets it back to Ciaran.  “The tree is you, Ciaran.  For you are great in the eyes of God.  All of Ireland will be sheltered by the grace within you, and many people will be fed by your fasting and prayers.”

This story about Ciaran and the parables of the kingdom of God offer concrete images to convey a most complex mystical phenomenon; that the seed of divinity which dwells in you has enough life or life force to effortlessly yield something plentiful and sheltering.

A contemporary spiritual teacher from India puts it this way:

The seed of purity [in our own hearts] must be nurtured and made to grow in such a manner that it radiates beyond the confines of the individual human system, radiates beyond his home and beyond his small world until finally the whole universe comes within its divine embrace.

From a miniscule, spiritual seed The Kingdom, or work, or realm of God has the power to sprout concrete expressions of provision for the world.  Provisions of love, acceptance, compassion, food, water and shelter.  “For I was hungry, and you gave me to eat,” says the Lord.

On this Father’s Day we could say that the nature of the Kingdom of is a guideline for the highest order of fatherhood.  It is the spiritual seed that provides for all of creation.  It is a spiritual seed that works in a very particular way.

In his poem, “The Seeds,” Wendell Berry writes, “The seeds begin abstract as their species…But the sower going forth to sow sets foot into time … the seeds falling on his own place.  He has prepared a way for his life to come to him, if it will.”

What starts out as a seed of spiritual abstraction has the potential to grow into the life of a saint.

The life is yours.  The tree is you.  The grace within any one of us has the power to shelter a nation and bring fruit to the world.  What starts out in any person as a seeded spiritual abstraction turns into a life lived.  Your life is the kingdom of God.  May it provide for your own needs as well as the needs of others.

May 27, 2018

Trinity Sunday

Isaiah 6:1-8; Canticle 13; Romans 8:12-17; John 3:1-17

The Rev. Carissa Baldwin-McGinnis

The church season after Pentecost is long and sustained by the Holy Spirit.  Lent lasts forty days.  Easter season lasts fifty days.  The season between Pentecost and Advent this year lasts twenty-seven weeks.  That is 189 days, many of which will reach temperatures above 90 degrees Fahrenheit here in Houston.  The season after Pentecost for us can feel long, hot and boring.

An often untold secret is that the season after Pentecost is the season of the life and labor of the church.  We have celebrated Easter and the cycle of death that is rebirthed into new life.  Without saying so, we simultaneously tip our hats to spring.  By now flowers have bloomed and summer crops have been planted.  Cucumber and tomatoes are already maturing in our backyards.  Hatchlings have emerged in our trees, and some have been pushed from their nests.  Now begins the season when we steward what has sprouted and take care of what has been born.

The season after Pentecost includes at the end of which crops will be brought to table.  The season after Pentecost also includes fall when even more food will be taken to market and brought into homes.   The season after Pentecost is the season when worship is not fancy, and we are left to labor in the vineyards with permission to enjoy their produce.  The season after Pentecost need not be boring, if we are up for the work of our Father in Heaven that needs to be done here on Earth.

The call to Isaiah read aloud today is often heard as his first call by God into service.  But is it not.  Isaiah is already prophesying.  He is already a poet and a servant of YHWY.  He is, however, disoriented in his vocation.  “Woe is me for I am lost!”  He does not know the know the likes of his own people anymore.  He does not recognize the immoral character of his own kingdom.  Isaiah in chapter 6 of the book of the Bible named for him is an overwhelmed prophet. 

God responds to Isaiah’s cry of disorientation with a new mission.  The kingdom built of the Israelites is likely to fall to foreign powers.  It’s leaders are being coerced, and they are making poor strategic decisions.  God wants to send Isaiah into this confusion as a clarifier and light post.  So, God asks, “Whom shall I send [into this mess]?  Who will go for us?”

Isaiah responds, “Here am I; send me!”

I was already a swimmer the summer my mother played a trick on me.  I knew how to swim, but I was a young simmer.  I could dive off the board, swim to the side, and do it all again.  I could float, hold my breath, sink, spring from the bottom and do flips in the pool.  What I had never done was swim the pool’s full length.

My mother delighted me one day by swimming into the deep end just before I jumped off the board.  I was thrilled by her interest in what I was doing.  After I leapt into the depths and rose again to the surface, she called me to swim to her.  So, rather than go the ladder on side of the pool, I sawm toward her.  “Come on!  Swim to me!” she said with a bit of a laugh.  So, I did.  As soon as I reached the location from which she had called me, she was no longer in that location.  She had moved away from me and then beckoned again, “Come here!  Swim to me!”  Again, she spoke with a wry chuckle that I did not appreciate any more than her betraying backward movement.  This happened over and over until I had reached the far end and shallow water of the pool.

This is not exactly a positive memory for me.  Therefore, the story is not a perfect analogy for the call of God.  But it was a moment in which I, already a swimmer, was lured past the pool tricks I had mastered into a much more challenging swim.  When it was all over, I was alive and had the proven ability to swim the full length of the pool.

There are seasons in which we are called past, lured past, or carried past our original vocational call.  For example, we remember on Memorial Day that a person becomes a soldier once but is likely called into service many times.  The same is true for saints.  Perhaps you have been serving as a Christian, accountant, parent, married person or whatever you were called to be for a while already.  It sometimes happens that God circles back around to call us to a deeper thing or harder thing or the same thing in new location.

In Easter we are lured by resurrection not into hope for an afterlife but into the life of the world.  God may say, “There is sugar cane to the north.  There is rice to the south.  Who will harvest?”  God may say, “There is loneliness to the east.  There is violence to the west.  Who will go for us?”  Or in the hot, boring, season of Pentecost, God may say nothing at all and assume that we know we are expected to go out, to harvest and to heal.

As with Isaiah, God calls upon the church in abundant times and in confusing times.  God will point to the complexities of the world and say, “Who will go for us?” 

Someone has to speak up.

May 13, 2018

7 Easter

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

The Rev. James M.L. Grace

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May 6, 2018

Easter 6

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

The Rev. Carissa Baldwin-McGinnis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

April 29, 2018

5 Easter

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

The Rev. James M.L. Grace

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

April 22, 2018

4 Easter

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

The Rev. James M.L. Grace

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

April 15, 2018

3 Easter

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

The Rev. James M.L. Grace

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

April 8, 2018

Easter 2

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

the rev.  Carissa baldwin-McGinnis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yet Jesus is suddenly inside.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

April 1, 2018

Easter Sunday

The Rev. Carissa Baldwin-McGinnis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Welcome out!

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

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

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

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

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

To the Lord let praises be

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

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


March 30, 2018

Good Friday

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

The Rev. Carissa Baldwin-Mcginnis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

March 29, 2018

Maundy Thursday

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

The Rev. James M.L. Grace

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


March 18, 2018

5 Lent  

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

The Rev. James M.L. Grace

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

March 11, 2018

4 Lent   

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

The Rev. James M.L. Grace


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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