January 20, 2019

2 Epiphany

Isaiah 62:1-5; Psalm 36:5-10; 1 Corinthians 12: 1-11; John 2:1-11

The Rev. James M.L. Grace



 

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

            Today we hear part of Psalm 36, a Psalm scholars believe was written by David.  If you know even the basics of the Hebrew Bible, you probably know a thing or two about David.  David started out as a shepherd, the youngest of several brothers, who was chosen to be the next king of Israel by the prophet Samuel.

            David did so many things right.  For a long time he allowed his faith in God to lead him.  Through his faith in God, David triumphed over the Philistine giant Goliath.  David’s faith in God protected him from the jealous and violent rampage of his predecessor, King Saul.  David enjoyed military victories over the Philistines and the Amalekites.  He brought the ark of the covenant into the city of Jerusalem. 

            Everything was going so well for David, and that was the problem.  Because of his success, David became entitled.  As he earned more prestige, as the kingdom of Israel grew, David allowed himself to slip into behavior that was contrary to his calling as God’s servant.  One of the most obvious ways in which David’s arrogance and entitlement corrupted him was in his lust toward Bathsheba.  Bathsheba was a beautiful, married woman whom David seduced, and Bathsheba became pregnant.    

Bathseba’s pregnany was problematic for David primarily because Bathsheba’s husband, Uriah, served in David’s army.  Uriah had no idea Bathsheba was pregnant, and David wanted to keep it that way, so he ordered Uriah to the front lines of battle, to where the fighting was hardest.  Uriah died in battle, presumably never aware of his wife’s pregnancy, or of David’s cowardice.  Months later Bathsheba gave birth to the baby boy and named him Solomon, who would go on to become king of Israel, and repeat the mistakes of his father David.    

David: a soldier, a king, an adulterer, a coward, fool, and murderer.  When it comes to the kings of Israel, David was considered among the best of the kings of Israel, which should tell you something about how problematic Israel’s monarchy was. 

David desired after God’s own heart, but he was a broken man.   Yet before any of us write David off for all his mistakes, before we ignore the words of the beautiful psalm he wrote, we should look at ourselves, honestly and rigorously.  An honest inventory of our life’s behavior will show that we are like David: we are both faithful and fearful, we are both honest and hypocritical, we are both loving and prejudiced. 

That’s why the Bible is so accessible: the people whose story the Bible tells are broken people who make mistakes, who are wayward in their faithfulness toward God, and yet God steadfastly loves anyway.  That should give all of us hope.  It doesn’t matter how far away we wander from God – God is always ready to receive us back.

David writes in the psalm today “Your steadfast love, O Lord, extends to the heavens, your faithfulness to the clouds.  Your righteousness is like the mighty mountains.”  That image of God’s righteousness as a mountain is a powerful one for me, because personally I am spiritually drawn to the mountains.  Have been all my life.

Last summer, I was in Colorado hiking Long’s Peak in Rocky Mountain National Park.  The last mile and a half of that climb is all rock and boulders, so there is basically no trail, except for these targets that are spray painted onto the boulders you are climbing on. 

When I was climbing down the mountain from the summit, I realized after awhile that I was lost.  The familiar spray-painted targets on the boulders were nowhere to be found.  I had somehow wandered off the path.  For a moment I was scared, but then I prayed and began to retrace my steps and eventually got back onto the trail.

It struck me then, and now, that getting lost is an imperative on the spiritual journey.  Sometimes, it is only when we are lost, sometimes it is only when we are defeated, that we are able to clearly see God.   I believe that was true for David.  I know that it is true for me.  The victory of spiritual defeat is knowledge of God.

God’s righteousness is like the mighty mountains, God’s steadfast love extends to the heavens.  If you feel you are lost, like you’ve wandered off the trail, and you want to find your way back - one of the best ways to find God is by helping another person.  Tomorrow is Martin Luther King Jr. Day.  MLK day is a national day of service and there are many opportunities to serve in our community tomorrow.  A simple google search of “MLK service day Houston” will give you ample opportunities to find God through helping your neighbor.  The opportunities are there for you to get outside yourself and find your way back to God.

No matter how far you wander, you can never wander beyond the righteousness and steadfast love of God.  AMEN.

January 6, 2019

THE EPIPHANY

Isaiah 60: 1-6; Psalm 72; Ephesians 3:1-12; Matthew 2:1-12

The Rev. James M.L. Grace



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

            “Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.  For darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples; but the Lord will arise upon you, and his glory will appear over you.”  Those are not the words I was thinking while watching the Houston Texans game yesterday. 

They are instead words from a book written long ago during a time of great despair by the prophet Isaiah.  The setting was the city of Jerusalem.  The year was about 700 years before Christ was born.  These words were written to offer hope to a population living in a land devastated by war and desolation.  People were hungry, tired, bored, and frustrated.  They had no hope.   They felt themselves in a great thick darkness that literally seeped into them.

To this assembly of peoples whose hopes had been broken, who had lost their possessions, their dreams, and perhaps their dignity, Isaiah says “the glory of the Lord has risen upon you . . . and his glory will appear over you.”  Was that helpful to hear?  I mean imagine you are downtrodden and nothing is going right in your life, and your problems seem never ending.  If someone appeared and said darkness will cover the earth, thick darkness, but the Lord will arise upon you, and his glory appear over you.  Would you want to hear that?  I don’t know.

            I do know that when I personally feel surrounded by darkness, I tend to look for something bright.  Call it the glory of the Lord or whatever you want – when I am in the midst of darkness – I try to find a way out.  We all do that.

            That’s the power of this day – a day we call Epiphany.  On this day we recall another time when things weren’t going so great for the people of Israel.  Seven hundred years after Isaiah spoke those words, a child was born in Bethlehem.  We know the story – we heard it in Matthew’s Gospel.  Wise men from the east (there’s an oxymoron for you – “wise man”) they came from the east, following a bright light, in the sky, which brought them to Bethlehem.

            “Nations shall come to your light, and kings to brightness of your dawn,” writes Isaiah in our reading today, a foreshadowing of the visitation of the magi, the wise men, the three kings.   

This story of a group of people following a bright light is not unprecedented in the Bible, by the way.  It occurs elsewhere, and much earlier, in the story of the Exodus, when the Hebrew people followed a pillar of fire by night that lead them to Israel, where centuries later, a distraught group of people would gather to hear a prophet named Isaiah proclaim to them that the glory of God would one day appear to them. 

            I love these stories in the Bible of people following a light or a pillar of fire in the darkness, because that is our story, too.  All of us are following something, and the something that we choose to follow, is taking us somewhere.  The question becomes – what are we following, and where is it taking us?

            I have spent much of my life following the wrong things.  The typical garbage: status, prestige, popularity.  I spent so much time following the wrong things that I like to say that I am a really good example of a bad example of what not to follow.  But when I started to put God first in front of everything else – things began to change, for the better.  Not overnight.  But over time.    

            It’s easy to feel consumed by darkness, and if you do, remember Isaiah’s words – that the glory of God will appear upon you.  Because the glory of God will always appear to the person who is humble and ready to receive it.  [PAUSE].

            Last week I was having a conversation with a person and this person didn’t know what my job was.  And I eventually told him and upon hearing that I’m a priest, the person said “well, I think plumbers help more people than pastors do.”  What a great statement.  I was so glad he said that.  It was exactly what I needed to hear.  And maybe he’s right. 

            All any of us can do, is follow where God leads us.  Whatever form of light God might be for you– a bright star, a pillar of fire, words said long ago from an ancient prophet, or an insulting comment from a friend – whatever it is – follow it, because God has a holy path set for you to walk upon.  We don’t know where it goes, all we have to do is walk towards the light, even if we are surrounded by darkness – taking one step at a time.  AMEN.

December 30, 2018

First Sunday after Christmas

The Rev. Carissa Baldwin-McGinnis

Merry Christmas!  Even in Big City, Texas is it appropriate to say, “Merry Christmas, Ya’ll!”

The ‘Merry Christmas’ part of “Merry Christmas, Ya’ll!” is self-explanatory.  The question I would propose to reflect on today, is who do we mean by ‘Ya’ll’?  For whom do we intend the wish of profound spiritual merriment that is conveyed by this familiar phrase?

It is a question for the church today as it has been since the time of Apostle Paul’s missionary work.  Who is our ‘ya’ll’, worthy of so much good spiritual news?

Bob Ekblad in his book “Reading the Bible with the Damned” writes about the church’s challenge of bringing good news to those labeled as poor, ex-cons, illegals, homeless, underprivileged, disabled, white trash, street workers, Mexicans, disenfranchised and more.  Eckblad who ministered in Southern Honduras and county jails in Washington state, explains that the mainstream church has a hard time doing so, because we are overly identified with the mainstream and the protection of the status quo.  But what would it mean to read the Bible with the damned?

It is about offering a word of forgiveness, hope and compassion.  It means shedding the universal human tendency to categorize, and instead listen to other people’s stories.  The risk of listening is that our own stories will want more and more to be heard such that we are likely to discover that we are more broken than we wanted to admit.

In my case, for example, I am just now learning as a parent learning the importance of the apology.  I did not grow up in a family that had the culture or tradition of apologies so much as a preference for acceptance and moving on.  But I can see now the gains of the rite or ritual of apologizing – of giving the offended the gift of being seen while acknowledging the slight or harm that came to them; of seeing the impact of my on behavior of those around me in a way that does not take place without the slowing down to recognize and retelling.  Apologies clear the deck and yield reconciliation, and they also create a rich, scarce and much needed byproduct for our time which is intimacy.

What the Apostle Paul understood that Ekblad understands that we are all knowing but not want to admit is that all of us - even those of us who live in the comfortable bubble of the mainstream of today’s culture - we are all ‘the damned’. 

Paul did in his day just what Ekblad has done in rural Southern Honduras and in a county jail in Washington state.  He brought good news to a Roman world beyond Jerusalem about a God with compassion, forgiveness and hope.  Resurrection and a hope for the saints and martyrs to be restored was also important for Paul.  But Paul offered an image almost more powerful in the timeline of life lived on earth.  It is the image of the holy or cosmological family.

He offers a God known as a loving Father who has sent the spirit of his Son into our hearts.  We have received adoption as God’s children, he announced.  Therefore, we are offered a kinship with Christ and the creator that unites and reunites in the form of Church.

Ours is to be a family that knows how to apologize and that offers compassion, love and hope.  A family built on faith over and above any cultural, legal, religious or geographic distinction.  For he taught us that faith allows such holy currencies of love and hope to flow.  Ours is a family not led by priests but headed by the Creator.

Father Greg Boyle, Founder of Homeboy Industries, Original Priest bringing good news of Jesus to a multitude of home boys and girls in Los Angeles reminds us in every story he tells of the nature of the kinship Paul describes.  Amid the stories about the men and women he serves, Boyle inserts a poem by Hafez.  I share it now because it speaks to the longing the church must live into if we are going to read the Bible with the damned who is everyone including ourselves.

 

With That Moon Language

Admit something;

Everyone you see, you say to them,

“Love me.”

Of course you do not do this out loud;

            Otherwise,

Someone would call the cops.

Still though, think about this,

This great pull in us to connect.

Why not become the one

Who lives with a full moon in each eye

That is always saying

With that sweet moon

            Language

What every other eye in this world

            Is dying to

            Hear.

I share it know because the images speak to the longing the church must live into if we are going to read the Bible with the damned who is everyone including ourselves.  Merry Christmas, Ya’ll.  The news is and always has been good.

December 24, 2018

The Rev. Carissa Baldwin-McGinnis

 

The last days of Advent and much of Christmas Eve feel like a holding of my priestly breath.  By 10:30pm as we begin a quieter revere winding the night down to candle light, the church is like a slowly leaking balloon.  Haven’t we all been waiting to exhale?

By this time on Christmas Eve the night consistently falls into that familiar state of thinness in which we are so very close to our maker.

Our attachments to this world fall off.

The waters of our worries have broken.

Unto us the bearer of truth and light has been born.

The air we breathe is compassion.

Tikun Olam.

We sing and pray this night such as though the world might be healed through none of our own labor, but the faithfulness of a teenage woman and the immense courage of her son.

We need not work.  We need only pray, breathe and be at rest this night in order that the world might be saved.

Tonight is the night when there is no disbelief. The improbable and the impossible vanish.  Sheep are said to lie down with lions.  Garments rolled in the blood of oppression will be burned as fuel for fire.  Justice is upheld with righteousness, and we need only pray, breathe and be at rest in order that the world might be saved.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu writes: “…the only way we can make it…is together.  We can be truly free..only together.  We can be human only together.”  It is true that we need each other, but tonight we need not strive toward one another, and instead meditate on the birth of a holy child in order that the world might be saved.

The letter of Titus reads: “Show yourself in all respects to be a model of good works.”  It is true that we need good works.  Yet this hour, we are called to the waiting room of the loveliest of low places to receive the power of God born unto us that there be reason to want that the world might be saved.

The Jewish commandments say: “Six days you shall labor and do all your work.”  It is true that we have responsibilities.  But this night is considered the dawning of a sabbath in which the world shall rest from its labors such that the same world might be saved.


This night, for this hour, your children are at rest.  Your cancer is in remission.  Your light bill has been paid.  For this hour there is no doubt or discomfort, and instead a recognition that in prayerful rest we experience a sort of salvation akin to a promise that without our own effort this world, our world, might be saved.

The emphasis on this night is no narrow pathway to the one true God, but rather an expansive universe and a God contained of everything that might be saved.  Salvation knows not from sin.  Salvation knows rather from love, peace, wholeness, repair, reparation, indwelling, Immanuel, God with us, God to save us not as Christians but as Creation.

May the Christ child be your beginning and a power that knows no end.  For tonight belongs to all without effort that we might be saved.

December 25, 2018

Christmas Day

Isaiah 52:7-10; Psalm 98; Hebrews 1:1-12; John 1:1-14

The Rev. James M.L. Grace



 

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

            I don’t know what it’s like at your house, but at my house all the presents are unwrapped, we’ve all been up since about 6 AM this morning.  I went to bed after church late last night and am now on like my fifth cup of coffee.  Actually, I’ve slept so little, and had so many cups of coffee, I think I have honestly lost count. 

            And it doesn’t end there.  Family is coming over to our house later today, and then we are going over to another family member’s home to spend the afternoon and evening, after our kids have enjoyed a steady Christmas diet of chocolate Santas, candy canes, cake, cinnamon rolls, and ice cream.  Merry Christmas, indeed.

            Some of us here today might have a love/hate relationship with Christmas and the end of year holiday season.  For me, we had four Christmas Eve services yesterday, Christmas morning festivities, and now at 10:15 AM, I’m tired.  Christmas Day service is the “finishing line” for church employees who look forward to some much-needed rest. 

            One of the beautiful things about this service, is that it’s not very popular.  Many people crowd into churches on Christmas Eve in America, but few on Christmas Day.  In another church I used to serve many members were from Africa, and they always found the small attendance on Christmas Day confusing.  In Africa, they would tell me, Christmas Day the churches were packed.  But not on Christmas Eve. 

            What we get today by being here is a moment in time to pause from the busyness around us.  For a moment we can quiet and center ourselves long enough to consider the birth of the Messiah.    

            In the reading from the book of Hebrews today, we hear this wonderful verse of scripture in which the author writes that Jesus is the “reflection of God’s glory and exact imprint of God’s very being, and he sustains everything.”  A more sufficient summary of what Christmas is and what Christmas means I am unable to find.  Jesus is the exact imprint of God’s being, and he sustains everything in the world – no exceptions.

            What wonderful news that is for us to hear today – that Christ sustains everything.  You might be tempted to look at the brokenness of the world or the brokenness of your own life and ask if Christ sustains all things, then why are things broken?  That’s a fair question.  The world is broken.   My answer is that Christ was born into a broken, incomplete, and imperfect world.  And Jesus did not turn his back on the broken world he was born into.  Rather, he loved it.   

            And he still does.  Whatever the reason is you are here today – whether it is because of Christmas Eve services are too crowded, whether you are here today because of tradition.  If you have no idea why you are here – Christ is born unto you, Christ sustains you, and Christ loves you.

            When I get back to my house this morning, there will be wrapping paper to pick up, dishes to wash, and, very likely, a new toy that is already in need of fixing.  I will jump back into the craziness of the holidays not because I want to, but because I get to.  You get to jump back into your life once you walk outside the doors of this church.  Our lives are worth living because they are sustained by a God worth loving.  AMEN.

December 23, 2018

Advent 4

Micah 5:2-5a, Hebrews 10:5-10, Luke 1:39-45, (46-55)

John Ibanez, Deacon Postulant

   In the segments of Luke's Gospel that appears immediately before today's Gospel Readings  the Angel appears to Mary and announces to her that she will “conceive and bear a son,....whom she will name Jesus…He will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David.”  Mary, the perfect role model of discipleship obediently responds “I am the Lord’s servant. May it be done  to me as you have said” (Luke 1:38).  Given the phenomenal nature of what the Angel has announced to Mary, it would not be too far fetched, for Mary to have some doubts, not about God's word, but about herself.  Did this simple young girl rightly understand what the Angel said to her?

     So, in today's Gospel reading, Mary comes to her cousin, not only to share her story,, but perhaps to obtain some confirmation from the the cousin who the Angel said is also with child . At their very greeting the child in Elizabeth's womb  “leaped for joy.". And filled with the Spirit of God, Elizabeth acknowledges Mary as “Holy Mary, mother of God" ,(Theotokos).  The emotion produced by that confirmation is so compelling that Mary  breaks into song, “My Soul Magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior….”.

      We are told by scripture scholars that this phrase, to magnify, in Greek means  “to shout as though one is using a megaphone, literally a "big" or "mega" voice, an outdoor voice.  Mary's Magnificat, pierces the veil of the ordinary and opens a window by which to perceive afresh the extraordinary and unexpected goodness of God. In doing so, Mary, through her song, promises that the Holy One of Israel may also encounter us amid the ordinary, mundane, and even difficult activities of daily life.

       The raindrop sliding on a window pane may unveil the Holiness of God to such profound level that it causes the soul of the observer to Magnify the Lord. The face of parents seeing their newborn son or daughter for the first time will glow with a shimmer of transparent joy that says “My Soul Magnifies the Lord!!”.  The  glee of a child running toward his or her parent with a perfect progress report may reach such levels of excitement that in body language he or she effuses “My soul Magnifies the Lord” The athlete that wins, breaking that sport's  world record may boast with shouts of joy that echo Mary's “My soul Magnifies the Lord” There are times, however. when the magnitude of the experience is such  that without effort and almost as a natural progression or outgrowth of the experience the voice will shout: “My soul Magnifies the Lord”

     A few years ago John and I were.traveling in Europe, and when we got to Paris, John began complaining of a sore throat.  Thinking it something minor that would subside in a few days,  we continued vacationing.  He was medicating his throat with lozenges and gargling with saltwater.. However, by the time we got to Amsterdam, he was running a high fever, so we. consulted a doctor who diagnosed it as strep throat.  We were told we needed to be very careful with him because there had been some deaths associated with this strain. Under no circumstances were we to travel.

     We stayed put in our room.  I only went out to bring him food and medications;  and to check emails from back home, letting family

know the latest prognosis.   One morning when I opened my email, I had emails from almost everyone of my family members. I found out the urgency the minute i opened the first email.  My Dad had suffered a heart attack, was on life support, and I was being urged to fly home immediately.

     This situation continued for about a week,with us waiting for the doctor to release John, and at the same time both of us mourning a Dad we both loved. I lost count of the rosaries I prayed. I no longer relied on email.  I would call everyday to check on Dad's status.  The dad who taught me how to bike, who taught me how to use a typewriter. and who also would laugh at all my off color jokes.  My Dad was dying. No, not some relative. It was My Dad who was dying, and I could not be there!!!! I was trying my best to nurse John back to health, and what improvement there was, was done in very small baby steps.  My worst nightmare was to loose them both

      After seven days of antibiotics and constant bed rest, John

finally was given the all clear and immediately I made arrangements to fly home the following morning, I went down the street to the telephone booth to call the hospital, and inform family we were coming.  The phone rang and who should answer but my Dad. I was ecstatic I laughed and cried at the same time. As if the surprise were not enough, when I opened the door to leave the telephone booth, a title-wave of balloons of all colors were released into the air.  It was the Beginning of Gay Pride Amsterdam.  For me it was God telling me he had heard my prayers, At that very moment My Soul Magnified the Lord and My Spirit Rejoiced at God my Savior!!!!

     May this Christmas bring you health and good cheer.  And may an awareness of God working in each of your lives ignite your heart's with love, the joy of which causes you to shout with your mega voice:

My Soul Magnifies the Lord, and my Spirit Rejoices in God my Savior.

December 16, 2018

3 Advent

Zephaniah 3:14-20; Canticle 9 (Isaiah 12:2-6); Philippians 4:4-7; Luke 3: 7-18

The Rev. James M.L. Grace



 

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

            When writing sermons, clergy might spend lots of time scratching their heads, trying to figure the first line of a sermon that will capture people and draw them in immediately.  The first line of a sermon should be witty, perhaps unexpected, it should arouse curiosity.  In that spirit I have prepared an opening line for this sermon that is sure to dazzle and amaze you.  Are you ready to hear it?   Are you sure? 

            Here it is: Today is the third Sunday of Advent.  How’s that for unconventional, out of the box thinking?  Admittedly beginning a sermon with the opener “Today is the third Sunday of Advent” is not very compelling.  Most of us don’t even know what Advent is, except for this strange season in the church where we light candles on a wreath, wear blue, and wait for Christmas. 

            The word “Advent” simply means the arrival of a notable person, thing, or event.  I learned that on Google this week.  An example of the word’s use, Google told me, was this “the advent of television.”  Advent is also the name of a company that used to make stereos and stereo speakers.  I once owned a pair of “Advent” stereo speakers.  I used to listen to an industrial/heavy metal band called “Ministry” super loud on my “Advent” speakers, perhaps a strange foreshadowing of my future vocation.

            Anyway in the church “Advent” is a four week season that always occurs the four weeks before Christmas.   The first mention of Advent dates to about 300 AD, and it gradually developed into a season that stretched across the month of December.  So that’s Advent.  But what about this wreath over here with candles and evergreen?  It’s called an “Advent wreath.”  The Advent wreath appeared much later, emerging in Germany in 1839.

The Advent wreath was invented by a Lutheran minister working at a mission for children.  One day he created a wreath out of the wheel of a cart. He placed twenty small red candles and four large white candles inside the ring. The red candles were lit on weekdays and the four white candles were lit on Sundays.

Eventually, the Advent wreath was created out of evergreens, symbolizing everlasting life in the midst of winter and death. The circle reminds us of God’s unending love and the eternal life God makes possible.

Today we have five candles on the wreath: three blue, one pink, and one white.  What do they mean?  On this wreath a candle is lit for each week that passes in the season of Advent, and today the third candle of wreath is lit, and it’s as you might notice, the pink candle. 

As you probably suspect the pink candle is there not because we couldn’t find a fourth blue candle and just had to make do with what ever oddly colored candle we could find in the Altar Guild Sacristy.  The third candle is there to represent the third Sunday of Advent, which is often called Gaudete Sunday.  Gaudete is Latin for the word “rejoice”, and Gaudete Sunday takes its name from the first line of Philippians, in which Paul writes: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice.”  In Latin, that verse is translated as Gaudete in Domino semper: iterum dico, gaudete.  I learned that from Wikipedia!

The point is that this is a Sunday set aside for one reason: to rejoice.  Why?  I think because the act of rejoicing does not come naturally to us.  Most of us tend to be preoccupied with what is wrong, or broken, in the world.  We see all the negativity and anger, and sometimes that doesn’t leave us with much to rejoice about.  Family gatherings this time of year might dredge up old dysfunctional, painful behavior that confuses us, and sometimes hurts us. 

The reason why Paul probably wrote the words “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice” is probably not because the church to whom he was writing was busy rejoicing.  Probably this church in Philippi to whom Paul said “rejoice, again I will say rejoice” was not being very joyful.  Sadly churches, who should have the market on joy, sometimes feel anything but.   I am reminded of a sermon I heard long ago in which the priest, with absolutely no joy in his heart said “Let us always remember to be joyful in the Lord.”

I want you to think about what you are truly joyful for today.  What gives you reason to rejoice?  And I want your to take a pencil from the pew racks – and write down what you are joyful for.  Write it on the service bulletin, and tear it off.  You are not allowed to write “family” or “church.”  Those are great things to be joyful about – but they are easy answers.  I want you to think deeper.  What are you really joyful about today.  Write it onto your bulletin, and then tear it off.  When the collection plate comes by you, place your paper into it.  The plates will come to the altar, and we will offer to God what we are joyful for today.   “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice.”  AMEN.

December 9, 2018

2 Advent

Malachi 3:1-4; Canticle 16; Philippians 1:3-11; Luke 3:1-6

The Rev. James M.L. Grace



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

            I am currently reading through the book of Acts in the New Testament.  This book, Acts, or “Acts of the Apostles” as it is also known, is the fifth book that you find in the New Testament.  It follows right after the four Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.  The book of Acts is itself a sequel, actually.  It was written by the same person who wrote the Gospel of Luke.  In its original form, the Gospel of Luke and the book of Acts were originally one book. 

            Luke and Acts were divided because Luke tells the story of Jesus while Acts tells the story of what follows after Jesus.  Luke becomes a Gospel once it is divided from what we call the book of Acts. 

            There are many key players in the book of Acts, but arguably one of the most influential was a man named Saul.  Saul was Jewish, and was member of a group called the Pharisees.  The Pharisees were a group of devout and faithful followers of Judaism, the primary religion in Israel during the time of Jesus. 

            The pharisees believed in the Law as documented in the first five books of the Hebrew Bible, and upheld those commandments given by God in those scriptures.  Central to the identity of a pharisee was the temple in Jerusalem.  This temple, rebuilt following the destruction of Israel five hundred years before the birth of Christ, was the heart of Jewish religion. 

            Readers of the Gospels know that Jesus often critiqued the temple, and did not hesitate to call out the hypocrisy of its clergy.  This put him in opposition against the pharisees, a tension that is especially obvious in reading Matthew’s Gospel.  Saul is a pharisee.  And a very good one at that.  So good that Saul sought out to persecute people – Jews and non Jews alike – who stated that they believed that Jesus was the messiah God had promised Israel, a belief the pharisees disagreed with.

            Saul persecuted and hurt many people.  He was present, and gave his consent, to the public stoning of a man named Stephen, the first deacon chosen for the church.  Yet Saul had a change of heart, which resulted from an epiphany.  Saul was traveling to Damascus, on his way to persecute and arrest people there who proclaimed that Jesus was the messiah, and on his journey Saul encountered this bright light which blinded him, and he heard Jesus say to him: “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” 

            Saul’s life changed dramatically because of this event, and the story of Saul’s conversion is told in Acts chapter 9.  He got a new name for starters – now he was called “Paul.”  Paul came to believe that Jesus was the messiah whom God had promised Israel.  He no longer persecuted people who believed this.  And Paul, formerly Saul, travelled around the known world at that time, to do what Carissa is about to do – he began to start new communities of people who believed, as Paul now did, that Jesus was God’s messiah.

            He started these communities all around the Mediterranean world.  In one instance Paul sailed to a city called Philippi in Macedonia.  Philippi was named for the Phillip II, the father of Alexander the Great.  You can read about Paul’s journey to Philippi in chapter 16 of Acts. In Philippi, Paul began a Christian community that he grew very close to.  And in the New Testament book entitled “The Letter of Paul to the Philippians” or “Philippians” for short, we have a copy of a letter written by Paul to this community.

            An excerpt of the letter to the Philippians is one of our readings today.  It’s helpful to know that in this letter, Paul mentions that he is in prison.  We hear that in v. 7 of today’ reading.  Imprisonment was pretty common for Paul in this new life, an ironic turn of events for a person whose former career was arresting people.   Paul’s pattern was fairly predictable: he would arrive  into a city, start a church, get into conflict with Roman authority because of the new church, get arrested, and put in jail.  Nowadays, when new churches are started, people like Carissa tend to follow Paul’s model of starting churches, with the exception of the getting thrown in jail part.

            From prison, Paul writes these words to this community in Philippi whom he loves: “I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ.”  I am convinced that Paul could not write those words as a prisoner on his strength alone.  I believe it is God’s strength, not Paul’s, that enables him to say those words. 

            We would be wise to learn from Paul’s example.  Because Paul was open, he allowed God to transform his heart, so that he was no longer a person defined by hate, but of love and of hope.  If Paul could be transformed, allowing God to heal his anger and resentment, than we can too.  Paul was not perfect.  No one is.  But in prison, at least he was free.  AMEN.

November 25, 2018

Proper 29

2 Samuel 23:1-7; Psalm 132: 1-13; Revelation 1:4b-8; John 18 33-37

The Rev. James M.L. Grace



 

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

Today is Christ the King Sunday, the very last Sunday of the church calendar.   Today is like New Year’s Eve for the church and next Sunday, the first season of Advent, is like New Year’s Day – it is the first Sunday of the new church year.  So, at the end of December when they drop that big ball in New York City, we all get to say, “we did that already…like a month ago.”   

The church chooses to end its year with a bang – proclaiming Christ as King.  We hear themes of kingship in all our readings today: in 2 Samuel we hear the dying words of Israel’s great king David.  The psalm selected for today, Psalm 123, is called a “royal psalm” because it speaks of the king.  Revelation gives us the image of Jesus sitting upon a heavenly throne, and in John’s Gospel we hear Pontius Pilate ask Jesus “are you the king of the Jews?” 

So yes – the theme of Christ as king is unmistakable today.  Which is ironic.  It is ironic because the whole idea of a king is not something God seemed to interested in.  If you read through the Old Testament, you will hear the story of Israel’s consistent lament to God: give us a king.  Before Israel had established a monarchy, they looked outside themselves to places like Egypt, Babylonia, and Assyria, and they saw what all three of those powerful empires had in common: a king. 

And Israel wanted power.   They wanted to be strong like their neighbors, and they were convinced that a king was the answer they needed.  So, they beg God for a king, and God refuses, until finally relenting and giving Israel a king: a man named Saul.  That Saul was likely a manic depressive and severely codependent should have been a warning to Israel that a king was not really in their best interest.  Yet Israel persisted, and God relented, and Israel established a monarchy, full of kings, many of whom were ineffective at best, and ruthlessly sinister at worst.  A monarchy did not save Israel, they eventually, like all kingdoms, fell. 

A king in ancient Israel was anointed – which means that oil was poured upon their forehead at the time they became king.  The Hebrew word for a person who was anointed with this oil is messiah.  Messiah means “God’s anointed.”  In Greek, the word messiah is translated as Christ.  

So “Christ” is not Jesus’ last name – it’s a title, so that the literal meaning of Jesus Christ is Jesus the Messiah, or Jesus, God’s anointed.  When the church proclaims Christ as King, the term “king” is misleading.  The church is not saying that Christ is a king like all the human kings this earth has known with their yearning for power, wealth, and relevance.  Rather, when the church proclaims Christ as King, the church is offering a radical reinterpretation of power: Christ is a king who wears a crown of thorns.  Christ is a king who owns no property, has no home, and dies a criminal’s death.  Christ is a king because he is anointed – he is a messiah. 

And Christ is not the only king.  Others are anointed by God to do important things.  Not only men.  Theresa of Avila, Hildegard of Bingen, Joan of Arc, Rosa Parks, Wangari Mathai, Florence Lee Tim Oh are all examples of women anointed by God to be a messiah.  And to that long list of brave women anointed by God, I will add one more: Carissa. 

As many of you know, Carissa has accepted a call from Bishop Doyle to start a new church in Houston’s north east side.  She will do this in partnership with the Diocese of Texas, and she will become the Vicar of that congregation. This is exciting for her and it is exciting for St. Andrew’s!  While the call came from Bishop Doyle, I know, and Carissa knows that it’s really God who has anointed her to do this work, to carry out this mission.  

Carissa will be at St. Andrew’s through the end of December, and we are celebrating her ministry with us formally on December 16th with a reception following the 10:30 service.

As you pray for Carissa during this time of transition for her and for her family, you might discover God speaking back to you. You might, in your prayers, hear God saying, “Follow me - come and see.”

And you might decide that God is calling you to follow in God’s footsteps (and Carissa’s) to this new place of ministry, and if that is true, then that is a good thing. A church should never “cling” to its parishioners with a clenched fist, but rather should be open, it should let people who feel called to leave. 

Churches should be generous in this way because when they are, it means they have no need to fear. Churches shouldn’t fear losing people, because we are not a people defined by scarcity, because we believe that God always provides.

What a marvelous gift Carissa is to St Andrew’s and to our Diocese and to the people of Houston. She has changed us for the better. She has changed me for the better. She will change a new community for the better, with God’s help.

Today, we celebrate Christ the King.  And we celebrate Carissa, the Vicar. AMEN.

November 11, 2018

Armistice Day

The Rev. Carissa Baldwin-McGinnis



We, people of faith, are meaning makers.  It is a human tendency at large for communities and cultures to make meaning of personal and shared experiences.

We make meaning of our work.

We make meaning of our marriages.

We make meaning of our losses.

We make meaning of death.

In the moments when we seem unable to make meaning of our experience, we are most at risk of personal or spiritual crisis; a sense of destitution.  And of all the systems of meaning making – political, religious, family-based – when our systems for understanding our experience in relation to God fail us, we are at risk of a most profound sense of abandonment.  “My God, my God.  Why have you forsaken me?”

A world at War as it was toward the end of WWI – a war that reached to every end of the earth - must have felt like a world groaning in labor pains, waiting “for adoption and the redemption of our bodies.”  These words from today’s letter to the Romans lend themselves well to our occasion.

A world at war must have come to feel like a world forsaken.  So the power of a centennial of Armistice Day – a day when the world stopped its waring to collect its shared breath – is the power of returning to that moments of global ceasefire that much have felt like the rest that comes after the final birthing contraction from which a baby is born.   That moment when the mother is confirmed to have breath, the child takes its first on its own, and there is nothing to do but shed tears made of the mix of every possible human emotion.

The end of war for Christians is an empty tomb, a breath of life, a posture of hope.  The end of war in the secular and political world involves a shared promise to regroup and reorganize.  The end of war for humanity is a cultural condition for beginning a new round of story telling in order that wisdom prevail, and sacrifice be recounted in its truest and most right conceptual form.

The end of war time is when we are most likely to have a sober concept of death and sacrifice.  Over time we must exercise discipline in our systems of meaning making to avoid stripping concepts like war sacrifice of their full truth and power.

It is a caution highlighted by lay theologian and liturgist, Gertrud Mueller Nelson, who warns against systems of meaning making or cultural narratives built on sentimentality.  In her estimation sentimentality tells half-truths.

Based on her caution, we might conclude then that every sacrifice ought to be weighed and measured on the full set of its circumstances and true conditions.  For in some cases the saying attributed to Horace may be true, “Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori.” How sweet and honorable to die for one’s country.  And in some cases, as WWI poet Wildred Owen assessed, the Roman assertion will be a lie.

To make meaning of our experience is to dive into the complexities of our lives and our deaths.  Any of you who, like me, have had to make meaning of your own wartime losses know the depths of this particular enterprise. 

As meaning makers of the political order, we make these deep dives to keep history alive and to honor the past as we lead toward the future.  As meaning makers of faith we do such deep dives in a commitment to hope, an intention toward universal love, and the longing for an ongoing peace.

November 4, 2018

Proper 26 – Sunday After All Saint’s Day

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

The Rev. James M.L. Grace

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

October 28, 2018

Proper 25

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

The Rev. James M.L. Grace



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

October 21, 2018

Proper 24

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

The Rev. James M.L. Grace



 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

October 14, 2018

Proper 23

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

The Rev. James M.L. Grace



 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

October 7, 2018

Proper 22

The Rev. Carissa Baldwin-McGinnis



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

September 30, 2018

Proper 21

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

The Rev. James M.L. Grace



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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