March 31, 2019

4 Lent

Joshua 5: 9-12; Psalm 32; 2 Corinthians 5:16-21; Luke 15: 1-3, 11b-32

The Rev. James M.L. Grace


If you are not as close to God as you once were, or as you would like to be, make no mistake – you are the one who has moved, not God.  God has always been there.  We are the ones who have been away.  Every time.   It is not difficult to find God, it really isn’t.  It’s not hard to find God, because God isn’t lost.  God is all around us, always. 

I’m not sure how many of you believe that, I’m not sure how many of you think all that business I just said about God is nothing but a fantasy.  I don’t know.  But I believe it.  I believe it because I have been lost – spiritually lost so many times in my life because I wander away from God.  I do it every day

I get lost every day, and at night before I go to bed, I try most nights to say this prayer that helps me find my way back to God.  The prayer goes like this:  “I lay my head to rest and in doing so lay at your feet the faces I have seen, the voices I have heard, the words I have spoken, the hands I have shaken, the service I have given, the joys I have shared, the sorrows revealed.  I lay them at your feet and in doing so lay my head to rest.  Amen.”  [That prayer is included in your service bulletin if you want to take a picture of it or bring home to use]. Praying that prayer is an action I take to find my way back to God daily.  Maybe it will be helpful for you.  I hope so. 

I want to talk about the parable of the prodigal son, and I do so somewhat reluctantly because I talked about the Gospel reading last week, and I am doing it again today.  But this is too important of a story to not consider today.  I think the parable is not named correctly.  I think it should be called the parable of the prodigalsons, not son, because in my opinion, both sons are wasteful, though in different ways. 

Let me explain.  The first son goes to his dad and says “dad, I’ve been doing some thinking and I have some ideas.  I want to go to Las Vegas.  See, I’ve heard about this card game out there called poker where you can win a lot of money and so I want my inheritance so I can go there and become rich.”  Notice what the father does not say: “oh no that sounds like a bad idea, you have everything you need at home, you are cared for here, you have everything you need here.”  The father says, “here is your inheritance.”  He must not be a helicopter parent.  It must have hurt the father so much.  He probably knew that if he kept his son close by and safe, his son would never create his own identity.  He would live out his life in his father’s shadow and hate him for it.  He knew that for his son, if there was no suffering, there would be no growth, no wisdom.  What a risk the father took.

We know the rest of the story.  He goes to Las Vegas, stays at some fancy hotels, sees some shows, plays poker, and loses everything.  He hits bottom and it hurts.  No longer the big spender with an entourage arriving at Caesar’s Palace, he’s now homeless, sitting on the sidewalk outside the casino wall, begging for money.  What a waste.  He returns home, embarrassed, ashamed, broken.  His father welcomes him home with open arms and throws a party.  The prodigal son returns. 

And his older brother is so angry.  The older brother is angry at how his father welcomes his younger, wasteful, irresponsible brother home.  He’s angry because while he stayed home, and was reliable, hardworking, and trustworthy, his brother snorted his inheritance up his nose and wasted it on prostitutes, alcohol, and games of chance.  And when the older brother sees his younger irresponsible brother come home, he is filled with rageful anger and resentment toward him. The older brother goes to his dad, and says “Dad, I ran the family business for you, I opened and closed every day, I managed the accounts, I handled purchases, I even cleaned the bathrooms, and you’ve never threw a party for me, not once.” 

Do hear the resentment in the older brother’s voice?    He thinks his resentment toward his irresponsible younger brother is justified.  It’s not.  The older brother is just as prodigal, just as wasteful as the younger brother.  He didn’t go out and waste his inheritance on prostitutes like his younger brother did, but he was wasteful with his resentment.  The way resentment works, is that when you harbor a resentment toward another person, you begin think that you are a victim, that you have been wronged. 

And sometimes it might feel good to be the victim.  We get to say, “poor me,” “nobody understands how hard it is for me.”  A victim gets to blame their problems on other people, rather than assume responsibility for them.  The older brother is just as lost in resentment as his younger brother was lost in drugs, alcohol, and gambling.  But I would say that the older brother is worse off than the younger, because at least the younger brother knows that Las Vegas was a mistake – he knew he blew it.  It appears the older brother has no idea how lost he is in resentment and anger, and that hurt him in life until he learns.   

And what does the father say to the older brother’s complaint?  He says “I love you, Son.  You are always with me, and everything that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours made some bad decisions.  He almost died, but now here he is.  He was lost to all of us, but by God’s grace, he found his way back to us.”

Lent is a season where we intentionally find our way back to God.  The prayer in your service bulletin is helpful to me.  I suppose it’s helpful because it allows me to give up whatever resentment I bring with me to bed, when I am lost like the older brother in the parable.  When I lay my head on the pillow, I say those words, and as I say them, the resentment begins to lift, and I close my eyes, and find my way back home.  AMEN.     

March 24, 2019

3 Lent

Exodus 3: 1-15; Psalm 63: 1-8; 1 Corinthians 10:1-13; Luke 13: 1-9

The Rev. James M.L. Grace


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

I am going to offer a spoiler alert before I even start this sermon.  This is a political sermon.  For those of you who told me that politics doesn’t belong in the pulpit, you are probably not going to like this sermon very much.  But at least you have been warned.  I cannot preach today without acknowledging, from this pulpit, the ruthless and horrific loss of life at the hands of a white supremacist at both the Al Noor Mosque and the Linwood Islamic Center in Christ Church, New Zealand. 

In the wake of tragedies like this, that seem to become more and more common in our common life together, many find themselves wondering why God would allow something so awful, such as what happened in New Zealand, occur. 

The dilemma of how God is supposedly good and powerful, and yet evil perseveres, is known in theological studies as theodicy.  The word theodicy comes from two Greek words: Theo meaning God and diké which means judgment or trial.   Three common responses to the problem of evil that theodicy offers are as follows: Response #1:  God is not all powerful. God is limited in some ways, and there are some things God cannot do in an orderly universe.  God is powerless to prevent an airplane from crashing in Ethiopia, or a cyclone from striking Mozambique.  Response #2 on the problem of evil, is that evil can sometimes be good for you. This reason presumes that things are not truly evil but a disguised form of good. For example, suffering can be a challenge to faith, a hidden growth experience, a spiritual test.  Suffering can draw us closer to God.  Response #3 on  why God permits evil is that evil and suffering are a mystery. These matters cannot be understood by our limited human minds. Just as there are some colors on the color spectrum our eyes cannot see, so to are we unable to really see the big picture.

None of these explanations are very satisfactory, especially for a parent who has just lost a child or for an innocent bystander gunned down in a synagogue, mosque, or church.  These questions of evil and suffering which we struggle to answer today, were also addressed to Jesus.  That’s what the Gospel reading today is essentially about.  How does Jesus respond to this question?  Let’s take a look and see.  As the Gospel opens, Jesus is teaching in a crowd, and one of the people in the crowd mentions to Jesus an incident that occurred involving Pontius Pilate.  Pilate was a Roman official, he was a governor, and he tolerated no rebellion.  One day Galilean citizens, whom Pilate believed to be in opposition to Rome, came to the temple in Jerusalem to present an animal sacrifice at the temple, which involved the shedding of the animal’s blood.  Enraged at their audacity to enter into the very seat of his power, Pilate ordered the execution of the Galilean visitors, in the temple courtyard.  In this horrific act, the blood of the victims was mingled with that of the sacrificial animals.   

Jesus asks “do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way?”  He answers his own question, saying “I tell you, no.”  In other words, what I understand Jesus to be saying, is that as tragic as this was, God is not responsible for causing tragedy.   God is not a detached observer of our suffering, but on the contrary God is immersed in the suffering with us, sharing every step of our deepest and most painful grief.  That is the point of the cross.

When confronted with tragedy we naturally want to ask, “why did it happen?”  There is a better to question that should be asking in wake of a tragedy and it is not “why did it happen?”  but “What are we going to make of it?”  Jesus doesn’t offer an answer in the Gospel today about why bad things happen to innocent people.  He does however, tell us what we should do in response.  He says, very clearly, that we all need to repent.  To repent literally means to return to God.  What does repentance look like?  I will offer two examples.

The first model of repentance I look to, and am inspired by, is the leadership of Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, Prime Minister of New Zealand.  Following the terrorist attacks on the mosques in her country, Prime Minister Ardern donned a headscarf, and joined in Muslim prayers outside the Al Noor Mosque.  She then promised reform on New Zealand’s gun policy, and in less than one week, following the attack, she delivered on her promise, announcing a ban on all military-style semiautomatic weapons, all high-capacity ammunition magazines and all parts that allow weapons to be modified into the kinds of guns used in last week’s attack. 

Prime Minister Ardern’s courageous response and act of repentance at both the mosque, and in the decisions made in her parliament, recall the words the prophet Isaiah said many years ago: “And He shall judge among the nations, and shall rebuke many people: and they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning hooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.”

New Zealand stands as an example to me of what prayerful and political repentance looks like.  Meanwhile, we struggle here in the United States with this.  After multiple shootings in churches, synagogues, mosques, night clubs, schools, all we get from our politicians, both republicans and democrats, are thoughts and prayers, with very little action.  About as far as we have moved in this country on this issue is by posting signs outside our places of worship that basically say “please don’t bring a gun into church.”  As a country, we have failed to repent.  And I am bracing myself for the next shooting, wherever it will be – a school, church, movie theater, and for the candlelight vigil that will follow, the usual offerings of thoughts and prayers offered by political officials, and capped of with minimal to zero legislative change, zero meaningful repentance.

Lent is a season of repentance.  Jesus calls all of us to repent.  We cannot truly live unless we repent, and the church’s job is to help you with this.  If you are carrying around something that is bothering you, that is causing you pain and you want to get rid of it, you can give it to God, today, and not have to hold onto it anymore.  That’s the beauty of repentance.  If you feel that you need to share your confession with another person in private, just ask me, and I will hear your confession.  I will not share what you say with anyone.  God offers forgiveness to the repentant with mercy upon mercy upon mercy.   AMEN.


March 17, 2019

Second Sunday in Lent                

Luke 13:31-35, Psalm  27,  Phillipians 3:17-4:1, Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18

Beth Woodson, Seminarian 

Christ be with us, Christ within us, Christ before us, Christ beside us, Christ to win us, Christ to comfort and restore us, Christ beneath us, Christ above us, Christ in quiet, Christ in danger, Christ in hearts of all that love us, Christ in mouth of friend and stranger.   St. Patrick  5th century  Ireland

Happy St. Patrick’s Day.  In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, in remembrance of St. Patrick and all the many saints, Capital and lower case “S” that have gone before.    Though it has become quite the cultural holiday for merriment, imbibing and wearing green, Patrick too was a follower of Jesus. He was the Bishop of Ireland, but was in fact not a true Irishman.   He was a fifth century Roman Britain who left his home country to go to the far reaches of the British Isles to bring the gospel to Ireland.  He took with him people of skill and craft, old and young, religious and families to go live and be the gospel in words and deeds, long before they ever spoke an Irish tongue.

I am sure that Patrick knew of this story that we read today in Luke.  It is a passage that contains unique verses that are found only here in the Gospel of Luke.  This story really begins a few verses prior in verse 22. It tells of Jesus traveling, going through one town and village after another, teaching, healing some and making his way to Jerusalem.  Luke is reminding us that Jesus, prophet in that day is making an exodus journey, prophetically teaching along the way, leading God’s people to ultimate deliverance from the bondage of sin.  This is part of the mosaic theme of this particular Gospel.

As Jesus goes about his daily work of healing and deliverance, he is also keenly aware of his destination. There are two senses here. He knows he is headed to Jerusalem and to his death. While Herod (the same ruler who had John the Baptist beheaded) wants to kill Jesus, it is clear that Jesus is in charge of his own timetable. Today and tomorrow Jesus will continue his daily work, and Jesus is the one who will complete that work. It will be completed on the third day. The third day is an allusion to Jesus’ resurrection (Luke 9:22; 18:33; 24:7).

Jesus’ work of healing and deliverance does not end with his crucifixion. No. It is made perfect and complete by his resurrection. Although Jesus is aware that he is traveling towards Jerusalem -- a city with a hostile record towards prophets -- his work will not be undone by death. Rather, it will be completed by resurrection. As we contemplate Jesus’ passion during Lent, let us also remember that Jesus’ death was only one part of the process by which Jesus completes his work of deliverance and healing among his people. Attention to his death should not exclude reflection on his resurrection during this season.

Jesus is headed towards the historic seat of Jewish power where both kings and priests have their home. Prophetic ministry in the face of power is a dangerous activity that jeopardizes the lives of those who would speak the truth of God’s kingdom to the powers that be. Jesus is no exception.

But what is surprising is Jesus’ reaction. He characterizes the city as killing prophets and apostles (“those who are sent,” Luke 13:34), but his response is the compassion of a mother. Jesus longs to gather Jerusalem under his wings (v. 34). Jesus longs to comfort those who would reject him. He envisions Jerusalem as a brood of vulnerable chicks in need of their mother’s protection and longs to offer the same protection, salvation, to the very city where he will die.  

Nancy Rockwell shares,  "Part of the way in which Jesus spreads his wings over us is that in our work we, too, find our courage to stay and face ugly challenges, to let life bite deeply into our flesh and shelter those in our care even while Herod is menacing."
"That Fox," Nancy Rockwell, Bite in the Apple, 2013.

Unfortunately, Jerusalem also has a longing. The city does not want to be gathered under the salvation of Jesus.  They want to be rid of this prophet who threatens their power and way of life.

In this passage, we see three examples of longing. First, the Pharisees report that Herod wants to kill Jesus (v. 31). Next, Jesus tells us that he wanted to gather Jerusalem under his wings (v. 34). Finally, Jerusalem is described as a city that did not want to be gathered (v. 34). During this season of Lent, we might ask ourselves what it is that we long for and desire. Do we want to experience the ministry of Jesus even if it is uncomfortable or challenging? Or, are we tempted to respond with destructive anger (Herod) or perhaps rejection (Jerusalem)? Do we long to be like Jesus, to be able to find compassion for our enemies, even those who want to put us to death? In this world of religious and political violence, what does it mean to long for our enemies to experience Jesus’ compassion even as we ourselves have?

Jerusalem’s refusal to be gathered by Jesus is not without consequences. The city is described as abandoned and unable to see Jesus until the day when they receive “the one who comes in the name of the Lord” (Psalm 118:26).

In this season of Lent, as we contemplate the ministry and passion of Jesus, we must also remember that rejection of his ministry comes with consequences of our own choosing. Jesus’ longing is to have compassion, but his longing must be met by our own longing for salvation, deliverance, and healing.

Paul’s letter to the Philippians reminds us that  "Faith enables us to move out of the essential hopelessness of our world and to step into the 'glorious liberty' that God is bringing to the whole creation through Jesus. It is a different path, a whole new way of life that sees the possibility of new life in every death, sees the light shining in the deepest darkness, and sees hope in the midst of despair."                                 "Crossing Over," Alan Brehm, The Waking Dreamer, 201

+++Faith for the Christian, in Paul's way of thinking, is not a passport - a ticket - into the kingdom of God.  Faith is the indwelling of Christ's spirit in the heart of the believer.  Faith is the growing principle and quality that believers have.  It affects us.  And, it is the faith which grows in us as we continually try and lead a life worthy of Jesus’ gift.

When we hold fast to what has been given by Jesus, we are formed.  Between our faith and our human will, there is a rub and that rub itself is what forms us.  For the Christian it is the work of living this faith that creates our return again and again to God.  

It is as if like a lump of clay being formed by the potter we push against his hands.  It is in this friction that the we as Christians live - between human life lived in a world of human law and then a life lived in the hands of a loving God.  

THIS is the work that we address during this time of Lenten reflection.
Here at St. Andrews, it is this work of living faithfully that binds us into community with others trying to do the same thing.  We are joined together trying to imitate the apostles and Jesus.  Our citizenship is in a heavenly bond of faith, bound by the saving grace of God.    Much like Patrick and his band of followers that moved to Ireland to bring the gospel and share the liberating love of Christ in that land, so we are called to do the same.

In the spirit of bringing life and grace to those outside our walls last Wed, Father Jimmy and your own fellow parishioners offered ashes and hot coffee and a warm breakfast on a chilly 37 degree morning in our parking lot and on the street corner. It was a reminder that need, humility and healing are not to be confined to a church building. They brought grace where it was most needed, in the middle of the daily business of life.

The ashes we received last week are to remind us of our need for God in our lives, and of God’s call to us. God meets us not just in worship, but in the midst of life, giving us courage to live into the authentic self he created us to be.

In the process of being changed day by day—Jesus doesn’t require a perfect heart, only a heart that is willing to be taught, and a will to follow him.  “I do not understand this mystery of grace—only that it meets us where we are but does not leave us where it found us.”  (quote from Contemplative Monk.)

So, I invite you to join me this Lent-- to yield your hearts to be molded, made new, to be recreated and infused with His love and grace.  I invite you to shelter under the wings of Almighty God when you are so moved. And when you see someone doing kingdom work well, like Patrick, imitate them.  The world is changed by example, not by opinion.

Patricks word’s echo in this famous hymn, “St Patrick’s Breastplate” written in the 19th century. I encourage you to find it and read all the verses this Lenten season.

Christ be with me, Christ within me, Christ before me, Christ beside me, Christ to win me, Christ to guide me, Christ to comfort and restore me;

Christ beneath me, Christ above me, Christ in quiet, Christ in danger, Christ in hearts of all that love me, Christ in mouth of friend and stranger.

March 10, 2019

1 Lent

Deuteronomy 26: 1-11; Psalm 91:1-2, 9-16; Romans 10:8b-13; Luke 4: 1-13

The Rev. James M.L. Grace


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

Of the three temptations Jesus experiences in the wilderness, the one which references another reading we hear today is the third and final temptation. This occurs when the devil confronts Jesus, doing what the devil does best: quoting scripture.  I am not very good, okay I’m really bad, at quoting scripture.  The devil does it much better than I do.  To be honest, I become very uncomfortable when a person quotes scripture to me, because I usually feel that the person quoting scripture is doing it to support their personal agenda, rather than God’s.  At least that’s what the devil seems to be doing in the story today.

Recall that in this part of the story the devil takes Jesus to Jerusalem and somehow they end up on top of the temple there.  Remember the temple the very center of Jewish religion, the temple is like the Washington DC of American politics, the temple is like the Nashville of country music, it’s the Vatican to the Catholic Church.  The temple in Jerusalem was the geographic heart of Judaism. 

From atop the temple, the devil says to Jesus, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here for it is written ‘He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you.’” In the last part of the verse, the devil quotes psalm 91, v. 11-12 which we heard today. That verse, printed in your service leaflet, reads: “On their hands they will bear you up so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.” 

Anyway, the belief which this verse suggests, and what the devil intends, is that if Jesus were to jump from the temple in Jerusalem, that angels would protect him from hitting the ground.

On a very superficial level this is a ridiculous request that the devil makes: jump off from the roof of the temple and see if the angels really will catch you, as the Bible says they will.  Notice here the devil’s insistence on a literal reading of scripture. 

On a deeper level, this is a story more about the temptation to get God to do what we want. Jesus rebukes the devil, saying “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” With that rebuttal, Jesus reminds the devil that he is subordinate to God.  Even the devil is below the Lord his God.  And so are we, of course.

It’s embarrassing how often I put, to use Jesus’ words, “the Lord my God” to the test. I do this most coercively in my praying. I’ll give you an example. Sometimes when praying, I reverse the roles of God and I.  I become God, God becomes my subordinate. It usually will go something like this: I tell God in my prayers how it’s going to be. I’ve already got it figured out.  I know what’s best for me, I don’t need God’s help on that.  I tell God I want this and this is when I want it and this is how I want it. Does this sound familiar to any of you? Any of you all mistake telling God what to do and call that prayer like I sometimes do?  If you’ve never tried this way of praying before, I’ll give you some advice: it doesn’t work!

I once prayed to God, and I told God what kind of car I wanted to drive, what kind of house I wanted to live in and what kind of vacation I wanted.  Did you know that God answered every single one of those prayers?  Every one.  The answer was “no!”  “

Do not put the Lord your God to the test.

Prayer is not about telling God what we want or what we need. God already knows that and doesn’t need to hear it from us. Neither is prayer about trying to change God’s mind.

Prayer is about relationship with God, period. And a relationship with God is the most important relationship any of us have.  A relationship with God is more important than a relationship with a spouse or with parents or with children.

Last week, I got a voice mail from a man I’ve never met before. Let’s call him Len. Len called and said that he had just arrived in Houston and was the victim of a heart attack, and had only a few months to live and he wanted to talk to a priest.  He claimed to be a lifelong Episcopalian from Panama City, Florida and he needed help.  I called him back and he said that of all the Episcopal Churches in Houston he had I called, I was the only who had returned his call.  He told me his whole story, and it was long and convoluted.  It sounded made up, and to test him, I asked him where his home parish in Panama City was and he told me.  After hanging up the phone, I called the church Len claimed to be a member of and asked the secretary, “Do you know anybody named Len that goes to your church?” The secretary said, “I’ve been going here fourteen years, and I don’t think I’ve ever met the person your describing.”

Even before calling the church I’d already figured I was the target in Len’s con act. Why do I share this story? I share it because Len is all of us.  We all have a con.  We’ve all pretended, or are still pretending, to be something or someone else other than who God created us to be.  Lent is about giving up the con act, and being who we really are. Do not put the Lord your God to the test. 

Lent has begun. How will you pray, and who will you be? AMEN.

March 6, 2019

Ash Wednesday

Joel 2: 1-2, 12-17; Psalm 103; 2 Corinthians 5:20b – 6:10; Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

The Rev. James M.L. Grace 

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

            If you believe in the Big Bang Theory, (the scientific theory that explains the origins of the universe, not the TV show), then you probably believe that the universe began sometime around 13.8 billion years ago.  The theory is basically that the universe started 13.8 billion years ago with some sort of catalyst or “bang” that sent matter out in all directions.  Scientists point to the evidence of galaxies in the universe which appear to be spreading out further from each other to defend this theory.  The Big Bang Theory also proposes that the beginning of the universe involved a massive amount of very hot energy which was released into space.  When the energy cooled, sub atomic particles emerged, which formed atoms, the building blocks of all matter.  Atoms joined with other atoms to form molecules.  These molecules, scientists hypothesize, grew in complexity, joining together to form larger structures, eventually forming into the thing we will put on our foreheads momentarily: dust.

            Dust, in the expanding universe, was forced together at speeds we cannot even comprehend, to form rocks, which eventually became stars, which clustered together, form galaxies, and so on. 

            At some point in the future, some scientists believe, the universe will stop expanding, and begin to shrink.  Basically, a reversal of the Big Bang, scientists call this the “Big Crunch”.  The idea of the Big Crunch is that everything in the universe will collapse into itself at astounding velocity, until the universe is compressed into a rock, then dust, then molecules, then atoms, then subatomic particles, then nothing.  The universe would end as it began.

            Massively intricate galaxies, nebulae, dark matter, and black holes that were created from dust, will once again return to that primal state.  It seems that singer Joni Mitchell got it right in her song “Woodstock” when she sang “we are stardust.”  We are made of the same dust, the same atoms, that presumably existed at the very beginning of the universe.  So, in a few minutes when a dark cross made of ash is imposed upon your forehead and you hear the words “remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return,” those words are literally true.

            Ultimately, we are made of dust, but that is not all.  In the second chapter of the book of Genesis, we find the story of God creating a person literally out of the ground.  God gives this person the name “Adam,” which is closely related to the Hebrew word adamah, which means “ground, dirt, or earth.”  “Adamah” also sounds a lot like “Adama” which is the last name of Edward James Olmos’ character in “Battlestar Galactica” a TV show set in outer space that follows the remnants of humanity as they search for the planet Earth.  Adamah – Adama – Adam – Earth.   The name Adam is a reminder that this person is made of the earth, of dirt, and of dust.  It is into this dirt person that God breathes a spirit, and Adam comes alive. 

            Ash Wednesday is a day in which we acknowledge the life God has breathed into each of us.  It is also a day in which we are reminded that it is not God’s design for this life, this breath, to remain in our bodies forever.  We will die.

            But if God breathed life into us, as God did when we took our first breath as a newborn baby, God will, at the end of our life, breathe in our very last breath.  We will return to God, the source of all life, the architect of the expanding universe we find ourselves in.  If, as some scientists predict, that the universe will one day eventually return to itself, as the dust of the stars in our bodies will one day become dust once again, so to will God reclaim us, as we will be absorbed into God’s embrace. 

            All of us go down to the dust, yet even at the grave we make our song: Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.  AMEN.


March 3, 2019

Last Epiphany

Exodus 34: 29-35; Psalm 99; 2 Corinthians 3: 12-4:2; Luke 9:28-36 [37-43a]

The Rev. James M.L. Grace

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

Part of today’s Gospel reading today was optional, meaning we didn’t have to hear all of it.  Can you guess which part?  Was it the story of a strange, seemingly drug induced vision atop a mountain involving clouds, loud voices, and the reappearance of Moses and Elijah?  Or was it what happened afterward – the strange encounter with a shrieking, convulsing, demon possessed boy foaming at the mouth? 

If you guessed the later, you would be right.  The first story, the one with Jesus on top of the mountain, glowing like Moses, is a story that is probably familiar to you, and it is probably what most people standing in pulpits this morning are talking about.  But I want to talk about the optional part, that second story with the shrieking child.

Shrieking children are nothing new to parents, or to anyone who has sat behind one on an airplane.  But demon possessed?  I’ve had parents of young children whom I’ve baptized joke with me asking if I can perform an exorcism on their screaming child tantrumming over not being allowed to have another piece of chocolate cake. 

I’m not sure what makes people uncomfortable with this reading more – is it the demonic innuendo, the presence of evil, the disturbing behavior of the young boy in the story, or is it that we don’t quite know what to do with an angry, confrontational Jesus?

I don’t know.  It’s probably some combination of both, but I am going to lead toward Jesus’ anger.  And, more specifically, it is anger that I want to talk about today, by way of a personal story.  As a child I learned at a young age that in my family, I played the role of the peace maker.  What that means was that whenever there was conflict in our home – arguing parents, sibling fights – my role was to try to calm everybody down.  I learned to be conflict averse, avoiding strong emotions like anger or rage, and allowed my siblings to display those feelings more outwardly, while I handled my anger and my rage by sweeping it under the carpet, by internalizing it.

So, it has been that since childhood, my relationship with anger has been a bit unhealthy.  I found it very difficult to express anger directly, preferring instead to express it a bit more passively, cloaking my anger in sarcastic and cynical statements.  In seminary I learned that my conflict avoidant tendencies were quite common in clergy such as myself.  I am, slowly, getting better at anger.  I now know that my relationship with anger has been dysfunctional for most of my life.  I am healing, slowly. 

I gather that I am not alone in my relationship with anger.  A lot of us struggle with venting our anger in healthy ways.  Our nation is struggles expressing anger in healthy ways.  So, what do we learn from Jesus’s anger today?  We learn that he is angry because the day after his literal mountain-top experience, he is once again back in the dregs of ordinary life with all its frustrations, including, but not limited to, faithless disciples unable to perform a routine exorcism on a young boy. 

It’s not rocket science.  Jesus probably explained the whole “how to exorcise a demon” thing pretty clearly.  You call out the demon in Jesus’ name, the boy is healed, and everyone goes home.  But the disciple was unable to do it and Jesus lost his patience as a result. Fair enough.  Whatever the reason for his anger, he displays it appropriately.  He makes his point, expresses his anger, and moves on. 

I wish, I so wish, one of the stained-glass windows in this church was one of Jesus, losing his you know-what-with the disciples who were unable to heal this boy.  Can you imagine how great that would be?  There’s Jesus, arm’s out in frustration, the disciples all pointing at each other “it was his fault.”  That would be priceless.  It would be priceless because it is so honest and so human, which Jesus was. 

I love that these stories go together in in Luke’s Gospel: the mountain top encounter with God followed by the disappointing debacle with inept disciples.  Because that is our story.  We experience both.  Sometimes we’re on the mountain, and everything is great, and sometimes we’re at the bottom dealing with the demonic, or our anger, or both.

The good news is that God is in both places.  God is on the mountain, and God is deeply in the anger and the evil at the bottom.  But the good news doesn’t stop there.  Because God has redeemed the mountain top and the anger and evil at the bottom.  Both experiences are united, drawn into God, redeemed, made holy.  That’s good news for the frustrated, the angry, the demon, and the holy.  AMEN.

February 24, 2019

7th Epiphany

John Ibanez, Deacon Postulant

I grew up with a brother that was a year-and-a-half older than me.  Any of you grow up with an. older brother?  Well, if you did then you know that it can be a real blessing that at times can become  a real challenge. Now being the older of the two, my brother, had the unique ability to manipulate me into doing almost anything. On one occasion he and his friends had created an airport in the sky.   They made the plane out of the trunk of a palm tree.  They dug out a hole in it for the pilot, and used some old  wood for wings.  On top of two different trees bout 20 feet high, they made wooden platforms, where this technological masterpiece was supposed to land after being hoisted up with ropes and tied to a branch.  What they needed  for this aviary experiment was a brave and courageous pilot who would navigate this plane from the platform where it was sitting to the platform awaiting the arrival that had been built in the opposite tree. So, my brother, knowing how vain and gullible I was, proceeded to pump me up with compliments of how courageous and brave I was, the bravest kid in the whole block.  That's how I became the first pilot of Ibanez Airways.

      In mid flight, halfway across to the landing pad  in the opposite tree, the branch on which the airplane was hoisted busted and down went the plane along with the pilot.  It is a miracle I  was not killed, but I did sustain a few cuts and bruises to the laughter of my brother and our neighborhood friends.  His usual modus operandi was to apologize a few days later.  I, however, was not going to forgive, I was going to get even.

     A few weeks later, my brother developed strep throat.  For whatever reason the medication prescribed was not available in oral form.  Neither was it an ointment to be rubbed on the skin.  It was to be self administered in the privacy of your own restroom.  I overheard my parents giving my brother his instructions, and I thought this is my opportunity.  No I did not mess with the medication, but only because I did not have access to it nor to some jalapeño peppers.  But in the ‘olden days’ of which I'm speaking there was no air conditioning and the screened windows were open to let in fresh air. 

     I gathered a few of our friends to come and watch, my brave and courageous brother, administer to himself this medication. We gave him a standing ovation, and he proceeded to beat the living daylights out of me.  The harder he hit, the louder I laughed.  My laughter stopped, however, when  our friends began to make fun of him.  This is when a profound remorse set in, and I realized how over the top my vengeance had been.

      That evening as I was undressing to go to bed, my brother noticed the bruises he had inflicted, he said “Oh, John I am so sorry, I did not know how hard I was hitting you."  This awakened a  deep remorse at what I had done to him, and we exchanged apologies. We also talked about when I fell from the plane, and apologies were given to me for that fiasco.  These acts of repentance, and willingness to eventually forgive were made possible by parents, grandparents, and extended family members - a community of living faith that modeled these behaviors for us, and placed on these ten and eight year olds  the expectation that they emulate the moral values they witnessed being done by the adults who sincerely valued the moral teachings  handed to them by the traditions of the Church Community to which they all belonged.

     I share these stories with you this morning because both the reading from the Hebrew Scriptures for this Sunday, as well as the gospel reading from the Gospel of Luke touch on the theme of reconciliation.  In the reading from Genesis, Joseph is forgiving his brothers for selling him when he was just a boy to a passing caravan of Ishmaelites.    Each generation of Israel’s founding family illustrates  their willingness to forgive.  Abraham (Sarah and Hagar), Isaac (Rebekah), Jacob (Leah, Rachel, Bilhah, and Zilpah), each found a way to resolve the dysfunction that tore them apart. In Genesis 25:9 Isaac and Ishmael bury Abraham, despite Abraham’s eviction of Ishmael and his mother Hagar at Sarah’s request. In Genesis 35:29 Esau and Jacob bury their father Isaac, despite Jacob’s stealing both Esau’s birthright and, with Rebekah’s help, his blessing from Isaac. In this passage we read of Joseph reconciling with his brothers, despite their malevolent attempt to kill him and their corrupt deal to instead sell him off to the Ishmaelites.

     While we get only a hint of the reconciliation between Isaac and Ishmael plus a few more details regarding Esau and Jacob’s reconciliation (Genesis 33:1-11), in Joseph’s story reconciliation is front and center, a major part of the drama. Of the thirteen chapters (Genesis 37, 39-50) that tell his story, four of them (Genesis 42-45 and a portion of Genesis 50) cover his reconciliation with his brothers.  That  four of the. thirteen chapters is devoted to making up with his brothers shows us how important reconciliation was to the authors of the Pentateuch.

    The Gospel reading complements the reading from Genesis by admonishing us to “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful…  Forgive, and you will be forgiven…A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back.”

  In a world much in need of healing and reconciliation, what other lessons might there be about reconciliation, both for our personal and corporate lives?
     First, reconciliation is possible in even the worst of circumstances. Although his brothers wronged him, Joseph, after a bit of making their lives miserable, sought reconciliation with them. No matter what happened in the past, Joseph and his brothers know that, ultimately, relationship is primary. They choose not to let the past stand in the way of reconciliation. Grudges can too often destroy families.  They  can also. destroy relationships between nations.

     Second, reconciliation requires facing and telling the truth, no matter how difficult or painful it may be. Joseph referenced, but did not dwell on how he had been wronged. The text notes: “Then Joseph said to his brothers, ‘Come closer to me.’ And they came closer. He said, ‘I am your brother, Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt. And now do not be distressed, or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life.” (Genesis 45:4-5). Realizing the effects of the famine on the future, not only does Joseph tell the truth about what happened in the past, he also tells the truth about how dire the situation is in the presentFor real reconciliation to take place, it is not enough to say I am sorry.  For a sincere reconciliation to take place it is important to converse and talk about all that took place.

In today’s world, this is the part that people often miss. They want reconciliation without the work of facing and dealing with the truth -- the truth about the past, the present, and the future. There can be no healing, no moving forward until the wounds of the past and their effect on the present and future are openly, honestly, and truthfully addressed. Jesus put it best, “You will know the truth and the truth will set you free.” Why stay stuck in the past when the truth will set you free?

     Third, Joseph does his part to make things right. He sends for his father, promising that he will provide for the entire family. Reconciliation involves action, not just words. Joseph did his part taking care of his family. The brothers did their part acknowledging that they had mistreated Joseph and honoring Joseph’s request to bring the family, including their father Jacob, to live in Egypt.  All repercussions from the injuries inflicted need to be discussed so that there be not a crumb left of recrimination.  For reconciliation to be effective, all aspects that can threaten to cause division and distance need to be discussed.  There needs to be a willingness to establish good relationship..

     Fourth, Joseph recognized God’s hand in his life. God is not a character in Joseph’s story. yet, Joseph recognizes God’s role in his life. He understands that everything that happened brought him to this moment of reconciliation and made it possible to him to bless many, including his family, Egypt, and nations beyond.

     Although the particulars of our stories may be different, the need for reconciliation is as necessary in today’s world as it was in Joseph’s day. In a world filled with so much pain and division, may we never cease to seek and do the work;  to do our part, whether at home with our family, at school with friends, in the workplace with our coworkers or in our nation, until reconciliation is a very present reality for one and all.

     And, when the pain that has been inflicted is so unbearable that we find it difficult to forgive, let us attentively listen to those words that echo through the ages and were uttered from the Cross: FORGIVE THEM FATHER FOR THEY KNOW NOT WHAT THEY ARE DOING.



February 17, 2019

6 Epiphany

Jeremiah 17: 5-10; Psalm 1; 1 Corinthians 15: 12-20; Luke 6: 17-26

The Rev. James M.L. Grace


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

            It doesn’t happen always, but sometimes the scripture read on Sunday morning follows an obvious theme.  Today is one of those Sundays, where the three out of four lessons today (more specifically the reading from Jeremiah, the Psalm, and the Gospel from Luke) all have something in common.

            They all offer wisdom on how best to live life. 

            In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus says to a crowd gathered around him a series of statements like “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.”  We call these the beatitudes. When Jesus gives the beatitudes, he is not creating something new.  He’s likely borrowing from an earlier Jewish tradition, which we see in today’s readings from Jeremiah and from the Psalm.

            Let’s consider Jeremiah, for a minute. Notice how the reading from Jeremiah begins: “Cursed are those who trust in mere mortals and make mere flesh their strength, whose hearts turn away from the Lord.”  A few verses later we hear “Blessed are those who trust in the Lord.”  A similar pattern also occurs in Psalm 1, which begins with the verse “Happy are they who have not walked in the counsel of the wicked are like trees planted by streams of water, bearing fruit in due season, with leaves that do not wither.”

            Jesus knew the scriptures well, and so I think it is likely that readings we hear in Jeremiah and today’s psalm likely influenced what we hear him say in Luke’s Gospel today. 

            Now I want to talk about something completely different.  I want to talk about advertising, but I promise to get us back to the beatitudes.  Advertising is a multi-billion-dollar industry.  We all know companies spend millions of dollars to air 30 second commercials during the Super Bowl.  Why do they do it?  To get you to buy their product, of course.  All advertising exists for that one purpose: to convince you to buy what they’re selling.

            Much of modern advertising preys upon our fear of missing out or “FOMO” and our feelings of inadequacy.  Isn’t it interesting that an advertisement has the potential to touch us more intimately and deeply than even those we love most?  That’s not accidental.  Fear and guilt are the primary and powerful emotions advertisers use to get us to buy their brand of shaving cream or paper towels.  When successful, advertising instills in us a feeling that we will not be complete, we will not be whole, unless we buy into the message. 

            And all of us do.  We do it often without really thinking about it – that’s how powerful advertising is – we are motivated by it without even knowing it.  Theologian C.S. Lewis once said that the greatest thing the devil ever did was to convince the world he didn’t exist.  We could say the same about advertising.

            In contrast to these messages of consumption we are bombarded with daily, Jesus comes to us this morning with a radically alternative message that too often is domesticated by the church.  Jesus says: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.  Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled.  Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.  Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man.” 

            In contrast to the advertiser’s message, Jesus says you are complete, that you are in fact blessed, because you are lacking things.  What a message.  Who among us feels blessed when our lives aren’t turning out as expected?  Who among us feels blessed during tragedy?  I don’t, at first – until I read the beatitudes, and I am reminded of Jesus’ true message found there.

            Against the advertiser’s messages with billions of dollars behind it, Jesus says clearly today: woe to you who are rich, woe to you who are full now, woe to you who are laughing now, woe to you when all speak well of you.  What is Jesus saying?  I know some rich, happy, full people and they don’t seem cursed at all.   Perhaps what Jesus is saying is that those who have everything they need– if you are wealthy and full have a full stomach, that doesn’t necessarily mean that you blessed.  You could be cursed, if your affluence fosters self-satisfaction and complacency.

            There are no easy answers to Jesus’ message today, so I will not try to provide one.  In closing, I would invite you to consider in your life – which of your blessings are more like a curse, and which of the things in your life you consider a curse, may in fact be, a blessing. AMEN.

February 10, 2019

5 Epiphany

Isaiah 6: 1-13; Psalm 138; 1 Corinthians 15: 1-11; Luke 5: 1-11

The Rev. James M.L. Grace

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

            I was fourteen years old when I decided I wanted to be a priest.  Fourteen.  I realize now that’s kind of strange, but it’s true.  Fast forward ten years in my life to age 24.  At 24, I had decided I did not want to be a priest, and instead took a desk job in downtown Houston.  One day at work downtown I was walking through one of the underground tunnels that connect the office buildings together. I was taking a package to another office.

While in route on this delivery, I had an experience which I still, now almost twenty years later (I’m 43 now) I still can’t explain.  Here’s what I think happened.  While in a tunnel downtown somewhere, I believe I had a profound spiritual experience, in what I considered to be a very unspiritual place – a tunnel with white painted walls, no windows, a few artificial plants, and fluorescent lighting. 

            There was no dramatic voice, there was no blinding light, but I promise you I felt and heard something I cannot rationally explain today.  What I felt was intense anxiety coupled with intense peace.  What I heard, I believe, was God, saying to me “this is not the path for you.  Your path is in the church, serving me.”  I don’t know if those words were spoken or not, but that’s how I think I remember them.  Whatever I heard, or didn’t hear – it drove me to tears, and I left work that day, and went back to my apartment, knelt beside my bed, and said to God basically “your will be done.”  And that is the very strange story of how I became a priest in the Episcopal Church.

            An important detail of that story is where the experience of God happened.  This spiritual experience didn’t happen in a monastery, or on top of a mountain, or even in a church.  It happened in a generic, bland, downtown hallway corridor with fluorescent lights and vinyl tiling.  Isn’t that weird?

            It’s actually less so, when you consider that in the Bible, God approaches people during their ordinary everyday lives while doing ordinary things.  Moses encountered God while herding sheep in the desert.  Mary encountered the angel Gabriel in her home.  Today we hear two more stories of God calling people to do things. 

            In the reading from Isaiah today, we hear the story of Isaiah’s call by God.  Isaiah was in the temple praying, and he had this extraordinary vision of God, seated upon a throne, with angels or seraphim surrounding God in majestic glory.

            And immediately, Isaiah felt unqualified to see this vision, and he said “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips.” And an angel took a hot burning coal and touched it to Isaiah’s mouth (which sounds really painful) and God said “You are purified.  Your sin is erased.”  And God sends Isaiah to be his prophet.  Did the events in the story really happen that way?  I don’t know, and it doesn’t matter to me because the outcome of that holy moment what that Isaiah became God’s prophet. 

            Another story of God calling occurs in the Gospel to Peter.  Peter was a fisherman from Galilee, and again, notice here how Peter’s call happened while doing something ordinary – in midst of his day job.  Peter was in a boat, casting nets, trying to catch fish, and failing to do so.  Jesus appeared, and said to Peter, “why don’t you try throwing your nets on the other side of the boat?”  Peter does this, and immediately, his nets were full of fish.   

            Amazed by this miraculous catch, said the same thing Isaiah said when God called him: “Go away from me Lord, for I am a sinful man.”  And Jesus didn’t care about that, he loved sinful people - that’s why he loves us - and Jesus told Peter, “follow me, and we will catch people.”  Notice what didn’t happen in the story.  Jesus did not tell Peter to get a bigger boat, or to get fancier nets, or to hire more workers.  All Peter had to do was listen faithfully to what Jesus was saying to him.  Use what you have, but just try it on the other side of the boat.

            God’s call is enough no matter where you are or aren’t in your life.  There’s nothing you need to do to earn it.  If you are open and willing, you will meet your God in the middle of a regular day, and God will ask you to do something remarkable.  What will you say to God?  “Surely not me!  I am not worthy?”  You can try that excuse, but in the Bible, everyone who made that excuse ends up doing what God called them to do anyway.  Perhaps your answer to God could be like Mary’s, who told the angel Gabriel “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”     

            Two weeks ago, while on retreat with our new Vestry, I heard a curious comment from a new Vestry member, who said “before joining the Vestry, I thought St. Andrew’s was swimming in money!”  I quietly wondered what made this person think that – was it the stained ceiling tiles in the hallway or our scuffed up, well used parish hall floor that gave this illusion?  To clarify - St. Andrew’s is not swimming in money. 

            I share that story, why?  It’s funny, that’s one reason.  But the other reason I share it is to let you all know that there is a lot of opportunity at St. Andrew’s for God to call you.  Not to give money to the church (although we won’t turn it away) but much more importantly to discover here what God is calling you to do.  Because that is what matters most.  Every time, following God’s call will free us.  AMEN.

January 27, 2019

2 Epiphany

Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10; Psalm 19; 1 Corinthians 12: 12-31a; Luke 4: 14-21

The Rev. James M.L. Grace

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

            This morning we hear a fairly lengthy part of the Apostle Paul’s letter to a church in Corinth.  Corinth was a city in modern day Greece, and it was in some ways similar to Houston.  Like Houston, Corinth was a port city, which meant it was a center for commerce and trade.  Also, like Houston, Corinth was known for its culture arts.  Unlike Houston, Corinth was not known for its Tex-Mex cuisine.

            It was in the city of Corinth where the apostle Paul started a Christian community.  Church buildings at the time had not yet been invented, and this group of people likely met in someone’s home.  It sounds almost idyllic, doesn’t it?  People gathering together, to worship God and share what they had with the poor.  There was no vestry, for example.  There were no committees, no annual budgets, no air conditioning units to maintain, and best of all, no stewardship campaigns!  It must have been awesome!

            Except that it wasn’t.  In fact, Paul’s church in Corinth was anything but idyllic, and the part of the letter that we hear today offers several reasons why.

            The Corinthian church was one deeply steeped in arrogance.  Members of the community thought they were more sophisticated, more knowledgeable, and more capable than their counterparts.  Paul scolds this church elsewhere in the letter, telling them that they are not nearly as wise as they think, and that they are acting like babies.   The church at Corinth was immature, unspiritual, disorganized, and schismatic.  Which is why Paul writes this letter.

            In his letter, Paul reminds the Corinthian church that they are the body of Christ.  When Paul uses the word “body” to describe a church community, it is not the only metaphor Paul uses to describe the church – other metaphors he uses include the church as a building, or the church as a temple, or the church as a field.  But when Paul describes the church as a body, as he does today, that is intentional.  The “church as body metaphor” is one that Paul uses when there are problems of disunity in the church, as there clearly are in the Corinthian church.

            In saying that the church is the body of Christ Paul is not doing something new.  The metaphor of “one body with many parts” was pretty common during Paul’s time.  Also common was an extension of that metaphor where you have different parts of the body arguing with each other, as we see in today’s reading where an eye insults a hand, and a head insults a foot.  The point being, that all parts of the body are necessary and important. 

            I was trying to teach Paul’s concept of the church as the body of Christ to a group of children and how each of us is a part of the body, and one time a child asked me “if we are all parts of the body, is that why they call you (pointing to me) the rectum?”  I said “Well, it’s actually rector, but that’s kind of the same thing.”

            The point that Paul makes in the letter is that this church in Corinth is a body with different and diverse parts, each who contribute in their own way.  Each part of the body is unique, and each part is of equal importance.  What Paul is saying is that each person in the church is no more important than the other – they are all an indispensable part of the body and it is by God’s grace alone that each one belongs.

            Paul continues this analogy one step further, pointing out how each part of the church, of Christ’s body, is unique.  For Christians, to be different is not only acceptable, but it’s expected, even necessary for the wholeness and vigor of the church. 

            I love the epistles in the New Testament, because they openly show the struggles, mistakes, and hypocrisy of the church since its very beginning.  And yet, in spite of itself, God loves the church, with all its mistakes, all its conflicts, all its arrogance.  Why?  God continues to love the church because of its people.  The Episcopal Church is not a church nationally known for its diversity.  For a long time, the Episcopal Church has been criticized as the the church of affluent white Anglo Saxon protestants.  No more.  The Episcopal Church reflects the beauty of God’s creative diversity in many ways.  We still have more work to do, but we are proudly one body with many diverse parts.

            Each of us is called to contribute our part.  So many of you contribute so much to this part of Christ’s body – St. Andrew’s.  You give financially, you give time, you give talent.  For those newer to our community, how might you share part of what you have with Christ’s body the church?  That’s really a question all of us should consider regardless of whether we are new here or have been here for years.  What is your contribution to the body of Christ?

We are all equally loved by God, equally valuable, and equally asked to share our blessings and resources with one another.  AMEN.

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


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;


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


What every other eye in this world

            Is dying to


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.