Monday, November 28, 2011

Advent 1A. 27 November 2011.

For the audio version, click here and select 1st Sunday of Advent.


I can't believe it's Advent already.  How did we let this happen?  I am beginning to feel as if time is simply slipping through my fingers.  Of course, I know, and you know, that it doesn't.  A minute is a minute is a minute.  But that's not how it seems.  


I remember some years ago hearing Brother Curtis Almquist of the Society of St. John the Evangelist at clergy retreat.  He told the story about an Abbot in a monastery who was known for his absolute devotion to God.  He would go and spend hours and hours in silent meditation and prayer, and had the respect of the older and younger brothers.  


Well, the Abbot had contracted some sort of illness that advanced very quickly, and within a month's time, he lay dying in his cell.  The Prior of the monastery sat by his bed, and in time, behind him sat the sub-Prior.  In a little while, the novice master sat behind him, and then the elder monks, and down through the seniority all the way to the youngest novices.   


The Abbot was dying.  The question arose and came up through the line, "What is the Abbot's parting wisdom?"  The Prior asked him, "Father Abbot, what would you tell us?"  After a few minutes of silence, the Abbot whispered to the Prior, "Life is like a cup of tea."  (Pause.)  Nothing else was said.


So the Prior turned to the sub-Prior and said, "The Abbot says, `Life is like a cup of tea.'"  The sub-Prior turned to the novice master, and he to the elder monks, and the wisdom was passed, verbatim, down through the ranks to the youngest monk.  The youngest monk thought about it for a few minutes, and said, "Why is life like a cup of tea?"  And, then that question was passed through the ranks, back up to the Prior, who turned asked the question, "Father Abbot.  Why is life like a cup of tea?"


Again, silence.  The whole monastery was positively on edge.  Finally, the Abbot responded, "Perhaps...   perhaps life..  is not like a cup of tea."


When I first heard this story, I thought probably the same thing you did—that what was supposed to be serious was indeed a joke.  Or that what was supposed to be meaningful turned out to be meaningless.  


I suspect that many of you are all too familiar with expecting one and getting the other.  How many times have you sat down to a book or a church service, or a television program, expecting something profound, and feeling unfulfilled?  Of course.  We've all been there.


I'm going to tell another story, but this one, while it may or may not have actually happened, is genuinely meaningful.  It sounds very similar.  A man went to visit a Buddhist holy man, high in the mountains.  He was allowed to visit the holy man, and ask his question, "What is truly real?"  And after a respectful silence—but not too long—the holy man responded, "What is truly real is what takes your awareness."


Christians don't usually talk in these terms, except among people who really pray, and who desire to follow God.  The pulpit is always tempted to talk about doing better, or being better.   I recently heard that Christians don't really come to hear a sermon—they come to learn how to pray.  I like that a lot.  I think it's very true—at least, it's true for me.  I come to church to know God better. And awareness of God is something that every Christian wants.  

            Do you realize that awareness is the most precious commodity the developed world?  Businesses want our awareness of their products.  The competition is for as many eyes and ears as possible.  If you are aware of something that you like, you may think of buying it.  If you are aware of something, someone, someplace that might fulfill a need, you may pursue it.  Without awareness, you can't make decisions.  

            Of course there are levels of awareness.   When I work on a sermon, I can't listen to music, or do other things.  I have to be aware of my thoughts and listen for the Holy Spirit.  I like to have that kind of attention when I'm talking to someone.  It's easier in person than on the phone.

            Have you ever been to one of these restaurants where there is too much going on?  It's too loud.  There are televisions on in the corners of the room.  There are servers running everywhere.  

            You try to focus on the person across the table, but the table is large, so you can't hear them very well, and there's a television in the corner of your eye that is constantly seducing your attention with it's light and movement and sound...

            I'm starting to sound like my dad.  Or perhaps I'm finally beginning to understand why I like things to be settled.  (Pause.)  Wanting peace and quiet is not wishing for some kind of absence of life—but a better awareness of it.  

            Think for a moment...  Be aware of!  The things you spend your awareness on.  Are they meaningful?  Consider how many things really aren't!   Consider how many things are only relevant to today, or this week, or this month.   

            Now I have to be careful here, because just because something is temporary doesn't mean it's meaningless.  Little things can be very big.  I was talking with a friend of mine who is a lawyer in Richmond, and he told the story of the judge who refused to hear certain cases on Mondays during the autumn, because he might give a harsher sentence if his college football team lost the day before.  

            But why do we focus our awareness so often on truly meaningless things?  Why is it that I, for instance, will read a book, knowing that by the last page I will likely have forgotten most of it already?  Why do I listen to the news about a celebrity, knowing that it has no actual relevance to my life?   

            I could make a longer list here, but you know what I'm saying.  If take the intellectual change out of my pocket on a really good day there's a silver dollar, but most days it's just pennies and nickels.  

            Why do we consistently fix our minds on meaningless things?  Well... I think I might know.  Because when we fix our minds on things that are truly meaningful, it scares the living daylights out of us.  

            That's why the lesson from Mark is so jarring.  We feel this whenever we read something from the apocalyptic tradition in the Bible.  Apocalypse comes from the Greek--calypso, meaning Afro-Caribbean music about bananas and the daylight coming.  Anyone?  Day-o?

            No... apocalypse comes from apokalyptein  which means "to lift the veil," or to uncover.  I like to think of it as the curtains getting pulled back so that you can see what's on the stage.   It's this notion that there is a deeper reality, or a more profound meaning and function of existence that we are either oblivious to, or have forgotten.  The role of the prophet is to remind the people of this.

            The pastor or priest stands within the people.  The prophet is one of the people, but stands slightly outside, often calling the people to awareness.  Awareness of the lives we lead, awareness of the sin that infects our lives, and even our noblest actions.  Awareness that God cares and sees and loves.  Awareness that God is aware.

At first, Jesus was called a prophet, precisely for this reason—he was calling people to repentance, just like John the Baptizer—whom we will encounter in the next two weeks.  Of course, Jesus was much more than a prophet, but that's how he first got the awareness of the people around him.


In the thirteenth chapter of Mark's gospel he describes the end of all things.  A revelation, an apocalypse—the sun being darkened, the powers in the heavens shaken, and this depiction of the Son coming in the clouds with great power and glory.  And the theme he repeats again and again is "keep alert, keep awake."  He says it several times, "Beware, keep alert, keep awake, keep awake."


Now, speaking frankly being  "alert" or "aware," or "awake" is not one of our weaknesses.  In the morning I drink my coffee and I watch the news.  I begin my day trying to become as alert and aware as I can, and I'm sure you do, too. 


The point of the apocalyptic genre—whether from Jesus or John, or any of the prophets—is to be aware that there is more around us than just the latest news.  That there is a deeper story than who said what to whom, and which team won the latest whatever.  And that deeper story is the story of God's ongoing relationship with humanity. 


If you read or listen to these words as an outsider—they seem foreign and scary.  Maybe they even sound a little scary as a Christian!  I know what that feels like. 

I remember when I was in seminary, I was watching television one evening and I flipped around and discovered a rebroadcast of a Billy Graham Crusade.  I sat there listening to Billy Graham, recorded in the 1970s.  He was wearing a polyester suit, wide lapels.  Big fat necktie.  I was absolutely riveted.


He came to the end of his sermon, and he was talking about something missing from my life. –something that I knew just wasn't quite what it should be, and that what was missing was God. 


Now… I've been baptized, confirmed, and have the stamp of the Commission on Ministry and the Bishop of Virginia on my forehead. I'm in seminary, for Pete's sake!  And I still sat there wondering if I had turned my back on God!


Maybe you sometimes feel that way, too?  Do you?  No matter how long you've been coming to church.. prayers said…read the Bible, served the poor, served on the vestry, helped out here and there all your life…  And you come across the apocalyptic language and you begin to wonder…  "Have I missed it?" 


I think that's the point.  I think that's why we read something from the apocalyptic genre in the Bible every year on the First Sunday of Advent.  It's like the lectionary has built in a little alarm clock that goes off like 6:30 in the morning.  Wake up.  Keep awake.  Be alert.  There is more to your life than just the news of the day.


So be attentive—as we head into Advent to the ways of the Spirit, because that story—the story of God's desire for you, and me, and all of us—is about to unfold all over again.  We are about to launch into another year of remembering the sacred, profound, passionate story of God.


Have you heard it before?  Of course, you have.  Some of you know it like the back of your hand.  But though the story doesn't change, we do.  We are not the same people we were last year.  We are different.  So let this story baptize you again, and wash over you, and come into you.


Like a little child, welcome it into your hearts and let it blossom and flower.


"Hear, O Shepherd of Israel, leading Joseph like a flock; shine forth, you that are enthroned upon the cherubim…Stir up your strength and come to help us..." Behold, the King is coming. 



If this sermon was meaningful to you, please consider giving to the church where you feel most at home.


The churches of Beckford Parish, where this sermon was preached, are:

Emmanuel Episcopal Church, 122 East Court Street, Woodstock, VA 22664, & St. Andrew's Episcopal Church, P.O. Box 117, Mt. Jackson, VA 22842.


Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Community Thanksgiving Service. 20 November 2011.

Community Thanksgiving Service. 20 November 2011.

The Union Church in Mt. Jackson, Virginia

The Rev. Alexander D. MacPhail


          Many a school child in the United States has been taught that Thanksgiving began with a celebration between the Indians and the English settlers, and while that may be true, it did not thereafter become the holiday known as Thanksgiving.  President Lincoln established Thanksgiving in a proclamation on October 3, 1863.  And I would like to share part of that proclamation with you now.  The next words will be those of Abraham Lincoln:


The year that is drawing towards its close has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies.  To these bounties…others have been added, which are of so extraordinary a nature that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften even the heart, which is habitually insensible to the ever-watchful providence of Almighty God.  In the midst of a civil war of unequalled magnitude and severity…peace has been preserved with all nations, order has been maintained, the laws have been respected and obeyed, and harmony has prevailed everywhere except in the theatre of military conflict…

No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things.  They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy.

It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and voice by the whole American people.  I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens.  And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him …[that they] fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility and Union.


          It is quite a proclamation, isn't it?  You might be surprised by how intimately President Lincoln has communicated his desire that the people of the United States give thanks to God.  His language is incredibly moving on a heart level, while at the same time presidential. He acknowledges the strife of the battlefield, and celebrates our lack of conflict with other nations.  He says that harmony has prevailed, except in the theatre of battle—that we were good to each other except in the place of our greatest disagreement.

          We are sitting in a building that has known first hand the division between North and South.  The Union Church housed both armies at one time or another during the Civil War. It was owned by Alexander Doyle, but purchased by Reuben Moore and left in his Will to be used in perpetuity as a religious meeting place, school house—and the land, a place of burial.  It predates the Civil War, and will likely be here long after us.  It would not surprise me at all if the Lincoln Proclamation was read aloud in this place to an assembly of people like us.  And as I read it again, I wonder, if these bricks, mortar, and plaster could talk, what would they say to us?

          We are still, and will always be, in need of the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal our wounds.  We are still, and will likely always be—by the very nature of our democracy—a land where some measure of conflict is unavoidable.

          But the substance of the proclamation is not the conflict.  The substance, and indeed, the soul of this holiday, is that we draw aside from what separates us—we call a truce to the divisions of party politics, and denominational identity—and give thanks to God with one heartfelt voice.

          Notice that there is no turkey in the proclamation.  No mashed potatoes, no pumpkin pie.  They have nothing to do with the original vision of this holiday, which is simply to thank God, and fervently pray for the healing of our country.

          There are no sermons preached in the proclamation.  It is simply an invocation, a call to prayer.  I don't want to take the proclamation beyond it's original intention, and thereby show disrespect for Lincoln by hyper-extending his words; however, I am a Christian, and I am addressing Christians.  And it is therefore appropriate to bring this impulse of Thanksgiving from religious neutrality of the public sphere, and speak of it as Christians do. 

          In our context, our thanksgivings may be enumerated generally as friends, family, recovering from illness, God's provision of money and food, shelter, but ultimately the thanksgivings culminate and find their fullest expression in thanksgiving for Jesus, whom, we believe, is the one we should be most grateful for.  For his life, death, and resurrection—which, all together, save us now and eternally.

          This is a deeper story than the Civil War—and a deeper reality.  Implicit in Mr. Moore's desire that this building should be used in perpetuity as a church building is a desire that the Gospel of Christ should be proclaimed in this place.

          And this is the Gospel: that Jesus of Nazareth is the one anointed by God to be the Savior of the World.  We believe that he was born of God and Mary, lived and died as one of us—a human being.  But Jesus did not stay dead.  God raised Jesus from the dead.  Through his resurrection, into which we are baptized, we are granted new life that extends into all eternity.  And that is the beautiful source of our hope and courage and dignity, and peace.

          Many people who do not believe in Jesus have simply never heard why this tradition works, or understood what it really means.  They do not know, or have never experienced the deep beauty that can well up inside our hearts for no apparent reason.  They may never have experienced a holy tear on Christmas Eve, or a joyful Alleluia on Easter Sunday.  Or they may have experienced those things, but the feeling never deepened—it did not reverberate into their soul in a way that changed their lives.

          The only way I know to change that is for those of us who authentically believe to be willing to share what is different in us, because of our ongoing experience of Jesus.  It is quite simply not enough to just live our faith, as if people will interpret our kindness as Christianity in disguise.  Even the tax collectors and sinners do that.  Being nice has never really distinguished a Christian from anyone else. 

          We have to say something.  Some of us are from a time when the rules of politeness were such that we don't talk about politics, sex, or religion.  It seems like people talk very freely about sex and politics now.  Maybe it's time we talked about religion, too. 



          And I think many of us who hear the sermons encouraging evangelism find ourselves somewhat wanting to do that, but when we actually get into a situation where we are on the cusp of telling someone, we freak out.  We become frightened that talking like this will change our relationship with the other person.  And that it will brand us as a crazy person.

          I was recently reading the New Yorker magazine and came across a cartoon that showed a solitary man on a subway, and he was wearing a t-shirt that read, "Ask me about my religion."  And the caption read—something like—"How to have the train all to yourself." 

          I think the reason why evangelism has become such a dirty word—can I be honest with you all?  The reason is because the old way of doing it is selling something that very few people believe they need.  If you talk about getting to heaven, or eternal salvation—getting your ticket punched by St. Peter—you can just forget about it.  No one wants to hear about that.

          But if you talk about how living your life in relationship with God—with Jesus—has helped you through the loss of your husband or your wife.  How this faith has kept you from being overwhelmed by the sufferings and craziness of life, people will listen to that.  People will listen to the real story of how just the simple act of praying each day keeps you sane and grounded. 

          How you feel in your soul when a certain hymn is sung, or a certain prayer means something to you that you don't even fully understand…  I could preach a million sermons and they'd never be as effective as just one non-preacher Christian speaking from the heart about this.

          It's why John the Baptizer was so effective.  Have you ever thought about John the Baptist?  Rough man, rough clothes, out in the wilderness.  He wasn't a rabbi.  He wasn't someone who was taught how to preach, and people came from all the surrounding areas, including Jerusalem, to hear him talk.  He was so effective that it worried the leading Pharisees and Temple priests, because people were coming to hear him instead of going to the synagogue.  They were listening because what he was saying was real.  It was from the depth of who he was.  And people will listen when you say "This is really important in my life." 

          But I think there is actually an even deeper issue here.  I think many of us don't really even know how to express the contours and benefits of the Christian life.  How do you get your mind around it?  How do you describe it? 

          It's like a flower that blooms inside of us—ethereal and wonderful in its beauty.  It blooms, it dies, and it blooms again.  As often as it dies, it blooms.  It is a source of endless hope and love, and when properly nurtured with prayer, it blooms even larger and brighter.

          The most beautiful people I know are Christians.  To be around them is to be in the presence of God.  When they speak, there is a richness to their language and their being.  I don't know how better to describe it.  You feel safe in their presence.  You feel that God has let you see just a glimpse of heaven in their laugh and in their smile.  Do you know what I mean? 

          These are the people who have been my mentors and teachers, my neighbors and friends, my family—some are ordained, but many are not.  People who drink daily from the living water.  I grew up wanting to be like them.  I grew up with this vision of the kingdom of God being here and now among people like you and me. 

          Thanksgiving, for us, is not just a civic holiday.  It is yet another opportunity to recall the deeper story, and to have that Word become flesh again.  Our flesh. 

          If you are a Christian, I want you to think about how you might describe to someone—authentically—why you believe in Jesus.  How does this faith make you different inside?  And then, I hope, you will share that with someone else.  If you think it would kill you to do it, just think—they'll write on your tomb stone—"Died in the mission field."  It doesn't get better than that.

          So, let's give thanks this evening, as Mr. Lincoln has asked us to do—for our country, for the healing of our nation's wounds.  But as the Church, let us also give thanks for the deeper story of Jesus.  And may God anoint us and help us tell this story so that more people will come to know and believe and give thanks.



Christ the King A. 20 November 2011.

For the audio version, click here and select Last Sunday after Pentecost.


          We have come at last to the end of the Church's year.  Next Sunday is the First Sunday of Advent, and we will be reintroduced to the themes of expectancy for the birth and return of Jesus.  The Church enjoys playing with time in that way—which is often confusing to people who are new to the Faith.  Yes, we are preparing for his coming as a baby, and his coming again, full grown, Resurrected, in glory.  How can we think of both arrivals together?  Because we are not regulated by the lines on a calendar.  Through Holy Baptism, we have become citizens of eternity.  We are bound together in Jesus, who is alive and reigns in glory for ever and ever. 


          We get just the tiniest taste of this glorious reality whenever we hear the Hallelujah chorus from Handel's oratorio Messiah, and the sopranos and tenors seem to reach ever higher with the words, "And he shall reign for ever and ever."  It seems as if heaven is enlarged in our minds as every word of that chorus is repeated, "Hallelujah!  For the Lord God omnipotent reigneth!"


          As we head into the mystical season of Advent, we will recall themes of his coming.  Keep watch…you do not know the hour.  We will meet up that rough prophet, John the Baptizer, out in the wilderness. 



          All of these apocalyptic themes of uncertainty and prophecy, mixed with the poetic reassurance of Isaiah are like birth pangs throughout the month of December, culminating on that Holy Night when the stars and angels will sing the news of a newborn King. 


          The Church, in her wisdom, on the last Sunday of the Christian year, has drawn aside from the steady rhythm of the teaching parables of Jesus, to recall the person of Jesus—King of Glory, King of Peace. 


          Today, in every parish and cathedral—every church that uses the Revised Common Lectionary, and the standard, historic calendar of the church—the pulpit is speaking about Christ the King—or the Reign of Christ.  And it is very likely that many preachers are attempting to bridge the chasm of irrelevance between this kingly language and twenty-first century political reality. 


          The plain truth is that kings and queens no longer have the power they once enjoyed.  Through advancements in culture, access to education, and the spread of democracy, it is people, not heredity, who determine who the leaders are.  And I have no trouble at all allowing that system to pass completely into the history books, except for one man.  And he is, of course, Jesus.


          We speak of Jesus as a King because he was born of the house and lineage of David—as Luke takes great pains to remind us on Christmas Eve.  David was anointed king, and his descendents—while not royalty in the strictest sense—were still respected for that royal background. 

          Jesus' kingship comes through that human lineage, but also, and most especially, by being the Son of God.  But we have this beautiful irony, that though his family line was of David, and though he was and is the Son of the Living God, he was not born into great wealth.  He likely did not grow up shielded from the strife and sufferings of peasant life in first century Palestine.  Throughout his life and ministry, he made his place with the poor and lonely; the sick, the ritually unclean, and otherwise down and out. 


          He walked among them, associated with them freely; and yet, by his mastery of understanding how people felt—by knowing their deepest places of insecurity and need—he was able to lift them from their powerlessness, as only a powerful person can.  To be around Jesus, was to be around a king—in the fullest sense of what a king could be.


          Kings should not be kings because they like fancy robes and palaces.  They may enjoy the trappings and luxuries of power, but kings should not be kings for those reasons—or, as history has taught us—they will be hated by their people.  They will become so separated from the life most people live that they have nothing in common with the people they are meant to govern. 


          You know this as well as I do—and we'll likely be hearing more of it as our presidential election campaigns heat up—that one of the criticisms that is easy to lob at an incumbent is that they are out of touch.  Out of step.   




          For a president or a senator—who works 70 hour weeks for weeks on end—never buys their own groceries, or clothing—never has the time to watch a little mindless television… They don't know some of the stuff that you and I do.  Do you remember the first President Bush not knowing about the bar code scanner at the grocery store?  And it was all over the news: "the President is out of touch."


          Now, some of that is just silly, but where it does the most damage is when it seems obvious to everyone that the leader doesn't know, and doesn't care.  It can be understood if he or she doesn't know, but he or she doesn't care, then the effectiveness of that leader will vanish like a puff of smoke.  And it doesn't come back. 


          The French Revolution—storming the Bastille, the march on Versailles.  For years, school children have been taught the high points of that conflict in history, and what do most people remember?—at least most Americans—an expression that has been attributed to Marie Antoinette.  She probably never said it, but it's what we remember when we think of her being told that the common people of France had no bread to eat.  The response was, "Let them eat cake."


          It probably never happened, but it gets remembered, because it's indicative of an attitude we imagine among people in high positions of public trust, who don't really care.



          It turns our stomach to think of it.  In recent years we have seen the downfall and humiliation of several famous leaders, most recently Momar Khadafy.  I remember hearing his name mentioned on the news as a madman and a tyrant when I was in the fifth grade.  When he was finally captured, I have no doubt that part of the humiliation they inflicted on him was—on some level—a need for his people to believe that Khadafy could be made to feel helpless and harassed—as they had been for many, many years.


          It's what the mob wants to do.  It's what brings them together.  They have been held down by the dictator for so long that when the situation is finally reversed, the act of torturing and killing becomes a ritual—a celebration of what has brought them together.  It's the final act and curtain call of oppression and violence—to see the mistreators become mistreated. 


          Jesus walked among the people—one of them in every way, except without sin.  One of them in every way, except a king—a real king.  A man of great power who uses that power for the betterment of his people. 


          With cunning and craft, the religious establishment colluded with the Roman Empire, and it was decided that all their excesses, and all their abuses, would be attributed falsely to Jesus.  The real king was branded a rabble rouser, a man who stirs up the people.  He tells them that there is a righteousness that exceeds the righteousness of the Temple and synagogue—a care for the average person that goes beyond daily bread, and into the heart and the soul.  "Oh, he stirs up the people.  You should hear him preach.  He's a slick one.  He'll have you thinking that all this tradition and power are meaningless."


          And so they took the king, bound him hand and foot, and you know what happened.  They wanted to watch him suffer.  They believed that he was the problem, not the answer—that he was out of touch. 


          "Let them eat cake," he said. 

          "Is that what he said?  I never heard him say that." 

          "Well, that's what they say he said…" 


          "Look are you going to argue with them?   Are you going to argue with Rome?  We have an emperor!  Caesar!  We don't know this man.  And he doesn't know us…"


          Oh, yes, he did.  He knew us, all right.  He knew that we could not recognize the genuine article from the fake.  We could not recognize the real king from the Roman Empire and Temple priests, Pharisees and scribes.


          And from the Cross.  Looking down on an angry, hateful crowd, Jesus the King of Kings, under the kingly crown of thorns, pronounces us confused.  "Father, forgive them.  They do not know…"  They do not know the real from the fake. 


          He was laid to rest with over a hundred pounds of spices, which Nicodemus had brought for the burial.  A hundred pounds of spices.  It was the burial of a king.  No one had to tell Nicodemus that.  No one had to tell the disciples that.  Something about the way he died…they knew—moments after his dying breath—they knew who he was.  They could finally see it.


          We killed the King of Glory.  He offered his life by the way he let us do it, and we did not see that he understood us and loved us—even enough to respect our confusion—even enough to let us do this unspeakable horror.  How could he love us that much?  (Pause.)


          The sun went down, the sun came up.  The sun went down again.  Just before light the next day, distraught, tired, lost in world without hope, Mary Magdalene comes to the tomb.  She could probably smell the spices long before she neared the doorway.  Approaching the doorway she sees that it's open.  She looks inside.  The king is gone.  Someone has taken him.  She sees a man she thinks is the gardener.  He asks her, "Woman, why are you weeping?  Who are you looking for?"  She says,  "Sir, tell me where you put him, and I will bury him myself." 


          And then she hears him say her name.  "Mary."  "Do not handle me, but go and tell my brothers, I am ascending to your Father and my Father—to your God and my God."  Ascending.  It's what kings do, you know.  They ascend. 


          And from that day forward and for all eternity, we have been governed by a King who will never need to be overthrown, because he has proven to us—in the way that lived, the way that he died, and the way he was resurrected—that he will always care.


          Let us pray.


Eternal Father.  Thank you for sending your beloved Son into the world—not to condemn the world, but to redeem it.  We thank you for the boundless mercy of your Christ, whose love forgave us, even from the Cross.  Send your Holy Spirit into us anew, anointing us to care for your people in like manner as your only-begotten Son, who is the King of Glory, the King of Peace, and who is alive and reigns for ever and ever.  Amen.






If this sermon was meaningful to you, please consider giving to the church where you feel most at home.


The churches of Beckford Parish, where this sermon was preached, are:

Emmanuel Episcopal Church, 122 East Court Street, Woodstock, VA 22664, & St. Andrew's Episcopal Church, P.O. Box 117, Mt. Jackson, VA 22842.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Proper 27A. 6 November 2011.

For the audio version click here and select 21st Sunday after Pentecost.


          Last Sunday I joked that we were in the middle of Advent, because of the early snow.  I wonder if any of you heard today's Gospel lesson and began to wonder if suddenly we were in Advent rather than early November?  I certainly did.  When I sat down to look at the lessons, I had to double check that we were still in November.  Both this lesson and the Collect speak about the Parousia—the return of Jesus—which is a topic the Church always rehearses during Advent.


          The Collect asks for the grace to purify ourselves so that when the Lord returns, we might be made like him.  It's a lovely thought, and one that stands—and has always stood—counter to the culture around us: this notion that we are to live lives of dignity and grace, purity and self-control.  In our noblest moments—perhaps after waking from a good night's sleep, having a healthy breakfast and some time to pray—we may even feel somewhat close to that ideal.  But as the day wears on, decisions get made, priorities get set—it is clear that the task of living this ideal is difficult.


          Making decisions about what we do, what we see, how we behave, it takes discipline—in the fullest sense of that word—to reach for purity of heart and mind.  And again, our culture does not, and never has, affirmed that. 


          What seems to be valuable is experience—of any kind.  To have been there and done that.  If you spend time around clergy—(and I don't advise that you do—we are a deeply strange group of people when we get together!)  We appear somewhat normal in our churches, but when we get together the war stories come out.  These are not combat stories in the traditional sense; they're stories about emotional conflict, parish conflict.  Things said and left unsaid.  Christians behaving badly—not living up to the baptismal vows, and sometimes clergy failing to live up to our baptismal and ordination vows.


          I don't like these conversations.  They are never edifying.  Part of that is because it can become a game of one-upsmanship.  "You had a hard vestry meeting?  Well, it wasn't anything like mine…Listen to this…"  Nothing at all to do with purifying ourselves.  And it's the bad experience that gets talked about. 


          The stories I like to hear are the stories about crises averted.  These are the stories the really solid clergy tell about seeing something coming from a mile away—and through phone calls and conversations, the church pulled together, and God was with us, and it didn't happen (whatever it was going to be.)  Great stories—quiet wisdom and quiet successes of just good, solid churchmanship, and faithfulness to the Gospel.


          I'm sure you know what this is like.  In every vocation—in every job—you've got the good and bad.  Sometimes you get the war story, and sometimes you get the story of diligent success.  Men get together at Ben Franklin or Lowes.  Women get together…wherever it is that women get together...and you hear the stories, don't you? 


          With men, it's usually about needing a 5/8ths and only having a 3/16ths.  That's how men talk.  "He put in galvanized when he should have put in stainless steel, and now he's got problems."  "Who did he use?"  "Sherman."  "No."  "Yep…and now he's got to rip the whole thing out and start again."  "You're kidding."  "Nope."  "Didn't anyone tell him?"


          But with the really solid men—the men who know better—it always ends with understanding.  Some compassion.  And the hope that it'll be all right.  They'll say something like, "You know, he's got his brother helping him now, and his brother used to do that stuff.  Anyway…you guys take it easy.  If you need any help, give me a call."


          That's how it is with the good ones, because at some point you realize that life is not really about winning or losing—it's about getting to sleep at night.  It's about making decisions you can live with.  It's about wearing good shoes, because you don't know how far you might need to walk.  Do you hear what I'm saying?


          If you do, then you will like the Gospel lesson.  The wise and foolish bridesmaids.  This parable would have been much easier for Matthew's church to understand, but wedding customs are very different now—so it seems a little strange. 


          Whenever you read of Jesus talking about weddings, he's almost always talking about his return.  It was the custom that a man and woman be betrothed for a period of time before they are married.  That time of betrothal is a time of preparation.  The man is preparing a house to receive his bride.  The bride is preparing herself to be married. 


          It was a very anxious time, just like engagement is now.  Everyone is excited for the couple.  The couple is excited, the community, the family, everyone is excited.  But here's the wrinkle.  The man does not decide when he gets to take his wife.  The man's father—the father of the groom—gets to decide when the man is mature enough and ready to married. 


          So you see how this carries over into our theology of the return of Jesus?  The Revelation to John uses this metaphor heavily.  The Church is the bride, Jesus is the groom.  Jesus has gone to prepare a place for us, and the Father will one day send the Son to claim the Church like a bride.  While Jesus is preparing the place, we are meant to prepare ourselves.  And we do that by purifying ourselves (as the Collect reads) so that we may be made like him when he comes again.


          Now for the purposes of this parable, Jesus has changed the metaphor a little.  Instead of the Church being the bride, he speaks of the Church as a group of bridesmaids—some wise and some foolish.  They are waiting for the return of the groom to claim his bride, and the wise have plenty of oil for their lamps, and the foolish do not. 


          So the groom comes at night.  "At an unexpected hour." And the wise ones have enough oil to see their way to the party.  The foolish ones run out of oil and can't find their way.  They try to buy oil, but it's night, the stores are closed, and door to the party is locked. 


          If you ask the question, why didn't the groom or the wise bridesmaids help them out—that's a good question!—but it's beside the point.  The point is that the wise ones were prepared to wait.  And this would likely have been a timely parable for Matthew's community to hear. 


          Matthew's Gospel was written about thirty years after Jesus ascended into heaven—and thirty would have been a respectable lifespan for an average person.  Matthew's community, along with other Christian communities, were likely beginning to ask the question, "How long will it be until Jesus returns?"  It is a question that you still hear from earnestly devout Christians.  And one of the answers seems to be contained in this parable:  It may be awhile.  You need to be prepared to wait.


          Being prepared is having enough oil—in this parable.  What is the symbolism there?  I'm not exactly sure.  Enough faith?  Enough acts of devotion and charity?  I don't know.  All of the above, maybe?  I don't know.





          In my life, I have heard a lot of churchy language about this, but it all seems so stale to me that I'm not sure I know what it means.  It seems to me that the oil is something a little deeper than faith.  Faith is kind of a given in the parable.  I mean, even the foolish bridesmaids have faith.  They're out there waiting, too.


          What separates them is a reserve of…what?  It's a kind of energy.  It's a vision, and a slow burning kind of energy that doesn't just run out.   (Pause.) 


          As many of you know, Bishop David Jones, our Bishop Suffragan is retiring after next year's Annual Council.  Bishop Jones has served our diocese elegantly in that role since June of 1995.  At our clergy retreat of this past month, Bishop Shannon asked him to speak, and I would have thought that Bishop Jones would spend his time talking about the changes in the Diocese of Virginia.  I was almost expecting a "war story" or two, but he didn't do that.


          Instead, with the clergy sitting in rapt attention, he renewed in us the call of Jesus to "Go into all the world and preach the Gospel."  Those words will always mean just a bit more to those of us who graduated from Virginia Seminary, as they are the words painted in large letters in the chapel that burned on October 29th of last year.




          I cannot explain to you the depth of coming to Morning Prayer everyday in that chapel.  Standing up for the Venite, and seeing those words, "Go Ye Into All the World And Preach the Gospel."  The very building itself is telling you "Get out there."  Worship, pray…fine, great.  But then GET OUT THERE.  Preach the Gospel. 


          Bishop Jones is retiring, but his strength and vigor for the Gospel has never weakened, because he has cultivated it.  He has stretched his life into it—stretched his faith into it.  He has stretched clergy into it—never letting us rest on our "war stories," never being content to believe that just because it's hard, that we can't make progress for the kingdom of God.


          I am talking about something that is a rich substance in heart and soul of an authentic Christian.  It is deeper than faith.  It is so deep that it assumes faith.  It can't imagine life without faith in Christ.


          I don't know what this substance might be called.  It's not just perseverance.  It's not just tenacity or drive.  But it's this kind of oil that keeps the faith burning.


          And it shows up in people who spend their lives in relationship with God.  People who don't mind sharing with others that this relationship goes into every corner of their lives—how they make decisions about money, where to go, what to do, whom they spend time with, books they read…



          These are the people for whom Baptism doesn't just mean a nice service on a nice day—it means now.  Now.  Now.  Now.  "Go ye into all the world and preach the Gospel."  Go and do, sit and pray, but then go and do.  (Pause.)


          Life is not about winning and losing, it's about doing what gives life structure and meaning and dignity.  The groom will come when the groom comes, and we'll keep after it.  We'll keep going.


          Today (at St. Andrew's) we baptize Mary Claire Belyea.  In this Sacrament, the Church takes a deep breath with this new life.  A new light for Christ in a dark world.  As you see the water coming over her head, I want you to pray for the Holy Spirit's presence and power.  And I want you to pray that she may not just develop the faith in Christ, but that she may develop a deep well of this oil—this slow burning oil that will one day give her the energy to carry the Gospel of Jesus deeply into the world.  Pray that she may not think of life as winning and losing, but as properly spent with dignity and service and honor. 


          And pray that we will all be effective examples of that for her, and for each other, until Christ comes again. 





If this sermon was meaningful to you, please consider giving to the church where you feel most at home.


The churches of Beckford Parish, where this sermon was preached, are:

Emmanuel Episcopal Church, 122 East Court Street, Woodstock, VA 22664, & St. Andrew's Episcopal Church, P.O. Box 117, Mt. Jackson, VA 22842.