July 19, 2015

Pentecost – Proper 11

Jeremiah 23: 1-6; Psalm 23; Ephesians 2: 11-22; Mark 6: 30-34, 53-56


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

Every year our family takes a vacation to Colorado to temporarily escape the summer heat and humidity of Houston. We always drive, and we do the drive in two days, using the city of Amarillo as a halfway point where we spend the night. One year on the trip when our family was in Amarillo staying at the hotel, I was rolling one of those luggage carts to our room that had all our bags and the kids blankets and stuffed animals, to an elevator. As I was pushing the cart into the elevator, an older woman walked by, looked at the stuff on the cart, and said, “look at you – travelling with kids! I remember those days.” As she walked off, she stopped and turned around looking back at me and said, “Remember – when kids are with you, it’s called a trip, not a vacation!”

I think many parents here would probably agree with her words! A long time ago I read a beautiful statement about travelling, and I have found it to be very true.  The words are simply this: “travelling allows you to remember who you want to be.” Those words become more true for me every day. Vacations afford all of us the time to think, reflect, and ponder things that our more busy schedules prevent us from doing at home.  Not only that, vacations give us a sense of perspective on our lives that most of us, ok – me – are unable to maintain at home. That’s one of the reasons why vacations are essential. Whether we our vacation is a trip somewhere or a “staycation” here in Houston, time off, time away, is necessary for all of us.Which is why I am going on a six month vacation starting tomorrow. I’m just kidding.  It’s really nine months.  

The closest word in the Bible to “vacation” is Sabbath.  In the Bible, Sabbath is a time of rest. So important was Sabbath, that it was included as one of the Ten Commandments – to keep the Sabbath day holy. The importance that scripture gives to the idea of time off, of rest, of Sabbath, is tremendous. And yet in scripture there is also irony and contradiction. This upholding of the idea of Sabbath rest, as conveyed in the Ten Commandments, seemed to apply to everyone, except Jesus.

If you read through the Gospels, it will quickly become obvious to you that Jesus never really got a day off. I have yet to read anything in the Gospels along the lines of “Yea, after healing several thousand near Capernaum, Jesus and his disciples ubered to Sidon where they embarked on a cruise to Nassau that Matthew found on Travelocity.” No, it seems Jesus rarely, if ever, got a break.      

We hear today an account of Jesus, who had just sent away his disciples two by two to go throughout the land to heal, feed, and care for the people they encountered. The disciples did that, and when they returned to Jesus, they were tired. They are worn out, they need a break – a Sabbath. And Jesus tells them to do just that – saying “go put your feet up, relax, sip a cold refreshing beverage by the Sea of Galilee.” That’s a loose translation of the Greek – what he says more clearly is “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest awhile.” So the disciples get in the boat, excited about having some down time, but they’ve got a problem.

They are celebrities now. People know who they are, and they say “Look! There are those guys who fed and healed all those people – let’s see if they can feed and take care of us!” So no one seems to get a break. Jesus is there and he watches all this happening, the people crowding around the disciples, a literal body slam of human need, and the Bible says Jesus had compassion on them – but the Bible is unclear whether Jesus’ compassion is directed toward the needy crowds or toward his tired and worn out disciples.

I don’t think it is difficult for us to find some common ground with these worn out and fatigued disciples who apparently get very little, if any, down time. Many of us are tired. Some of us cannot afford to stop working for a day just to take a day of rest.  Some of us are workaholics, working way longer than we need or should.  And that is a form of idolatry, by the way. The reality is for most of us, there is no real break, there is no real lull. Even if we can afford a vacation, it’s just blip on our calendar – but is the best we can do.

There is too much work to be done, too many mouths to feed, too many sick to heal. There is no clear sense as a global community amidst our financial insecurity, environmental, political, and social concerns that and real break, vacation, or Sabbath is near. Or is there?

Jesus never promised time away or a vacation to any of us. But what Jesus does promise is far more real and far more significant. In another Gospel, the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus says “Come to me all you that are weary and I will offer you rest.” Not a break, not a vacation, but true rest – a place to bring our tired and weary selves and rest.

How do we do that?  We pray. We create a space in our lives for God.  See, God does not come into the world unreceived or uninvited. God is gentle and will not come into your world unless you actually want God to, unless you prepare a place for God. Whatever prayer is, it is true rest for weary souls.

I promise you that if for the next week, everyday you pray, not for yourself, not for what you want or what you need, but if you create space in your heart to pray for ten people – it can be anybody – your parents, your friends, your spouse, the president – it doesn’t matter.  If you pray for ten people every day, I promise that you will feel that sense of true rest, which only God provides. Not a break, not a vacation, but true abiding rest. That’s the paradox of prayer: when we pray for others, our hearts are calmed, our spirits rest in peace. AMEN.

January 4, 2015

2 Christmas

Jeremiah 31: 7-14; Psalm 84; Ephesians 1: 3-6, 15-19a, Matthew 2: 13-15, 19-23


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

A few nights ago, I was sitting in my favorite chair at home reading the newspaper.  I am a luddite – I still prefer a real paper newspaper in my hands.  I love the smell of the paper, seeing the pictures.  It was that time of night when most of the kids were asleep or at least on their way there and one of my children was awake and in the peaceful quietness of my end of day reading, he lobbed this question at me: “Dad, is the devil real?” If he had asked this question in the morning, after I had a couple cups of coffee, and was primed for the day, he maybe would have received a halfway decent answer. But it was night, and I was already thinking about going to sleep myself, so I told him “Great question – let me get back to you!” 

An expectation many people have for someone like me who works in a church is that we would have the “easy” answer for any question dealing with God, eternity, you name it. I am no doctor, but at least for me, the part of my brain that goes immediately to the easy answer, is a dull place. There’s just not much creativity or life there. Easy answers lose their appeal over time, and I know longer have much need, or interest in them, because often they just seem inadequate. I am more interested in the question. Part of the reason I didn’t answer my child’s question immediately, was that I didn’t like the answer that came to my mind at first – the easy answer. Another reason why I punted his question is because – I’ll be honest with you – I am uncomfortable with the idea of evil.  

I am not alone, but in good company on this – as the church often is not very comfortable with it either.  Take today’s reading from the Gospel of Matthew. It tells the story of the Holy Family’s hurried departure out of Israel and into Egypt for safety. The Bible tells the whole story, but this morning we get the “edited version” – the version that omits three verses (16,17,and 18) in which something really bad happens.  

Without those three reasons, it seems that the reason why Mary, Joseph and Jesus flee to Egypt is because Herod, the Roman Ruler, wanted to have Jesus imprisoned or possibly killed in order to preserve his own rule.  But while that might be an “easy answer,” it’s not the whole story. The full story is not easy for any of us to hear, and I suspect that is why the church, who decides our readings for today likely omitted these three verses, which I will read now. “When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated and he sent and killed all the children around Bethlehem who were two years old and under.” Not real pleasant, is it? 

This is probably not the best reading for the day we welcome Lisa Puccio, who will be working with our children at St. Andrew’s, but there it is. It’s in the Bible, there’s no ignoring this painful part of the story of Jesus’ birth.  

Most churches that hear this story will not hear that part, the part about Herod’s slaughter of the innocent children. It’s just not a real popular reading for family-friendly churches, and our children’s Christmas Eve pageant tastefully omitted that part Jesus’ birth story as well. Why? What are we afraid of? 

The church seems to be comfortable in discussing evil during Holy Week, in which evil meets its demise in the crucifixion. But the church seems to cower from it at other times, like Christmas, because it just isn’t a palatable concept to entertain amongst all the Christmas trees, gingerbread houses, and gum drops. So we omit it, like the verses in Matthew’s Gospel, we brush it under the carpet, and do our best to ignore it. Except that we can’t really. Because it’s there, and it’s uncomfortable, and in our heart of hearts we know that there is nothing seemingly redemptive about Herod’s violent act. There is no easy answer. Which is exactly why we need to hear the story.  

Those children were not alone in their death – because Jesus who was crucified upon the cross, died with them for them. And in his death, and theirs – they conquered death – stripped it of its power, and death came undone. There’s no easy way to say that, but it’s true.  

What I told my son after reflecting on his question about the reality of the devil is that evil is real. It doesn’t matter really what name you want to attach to it – it is real, and we are all affected by it. But much more important than that is that evil has been conquered, undone, by the resurrection of Jesus Christ. In God’s own time, all evil will be redeemed. And that is the miracle of Christmas, the miracle of the baby in the manger – is that through his birth all death and all evil ultimately were undone. And that’s an easy answer I have use for. AMEN.