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.

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.