Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Years ago, when I was a teenager

I had the opportunity to visit Longwood Gardens in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania.  It is one of the most beautiful places I have ever visited.  I dearly wish to return there one day, and take my wife and children. 


Inline image 1When I visited, I was there to see a production of Iolanthe that was part of a Gilbert and Sullivan conference that my family was attending.  We never saw Iolanthe, because the rain cancelled the performance.  It is a tragedy I still lament, as the glory of the gardens would have been the perfect environment for the Arcadian woods in which the operetta is set.


But I will never forget seeing the gardens in the golden gloaming of midsummer.  I can only remember little bits of the evening now.  I wore a blue blazer that had become completely soaked with rain as I wandered around the gardens.  I remember the twilight slanting through the panes of glass in the greenhouses, and spreading out on the masonry footpaths.  I remember the plants, heavy with raindrops.  Life enjoying life.    


There would be no way to recreate it, but I remember it as a deeply sensual experience of natural beauty, and I tend to revisit that memory when spring gives way to summer.


We need beauty.  We need more than air, water, food and drink.  We need the flowers and the gardens; we need music.  They are not extras.   God created flowers, and trees, and paths into the woods.  God created tall boxwood hedges, and evening sunlight filtered though oaks and pines. 


God created the seduction of twilight:

the sparkle in a woman's eyes just after she laughs,

the flicker of candle light,

the lushness of grass,

the heavy smell of mimosa trees. 


God created all of these with a wink of his eye, knowing that we would not soon forget them, or cease to give thanks.


There are chapels for worship that are called by other names.  One of these is Longwood Gardens.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

The Day of Pentecost B. 27 May 2012.

For the audio version, click here and select Pentecost.


            We have come to Pentecost, which has long been called the birthday of the Church.  As we read from the Luke's account of Pentecost in the Acts of the Apostles, this was the day the Holy Spirit descended upon the Apostles—giving them the gifts of the Spirit for the mission and ministry of the Church. 


            To my mind, our celebration of Pentecost is meant to renew the Church's memory of the power that was given on that day—to remember that it was given on that day, but for all time.  Many years ago, I remember encountering a praise song—a kind of modern hymn—that had in its lyrics "We need another Pentecost," which bothered me then, and bothers me now.  We do not need another one; any more than we need another Baptism.  The Holy Spirit has come and is present within us—corporately and individually—at all times, whether we feel it or not.   


            So, our celebration is meant to renew our awareness that the Spirit is within us.  It was the Holy Spirit that anointed the Apostles and gave them the grace and power to bring the Gospel of Jesus to the world.  We are inheritors of that ministry.  Just think for a moment about that—that the Holy Spirit which came upon the Church at Pentecost has reverberated through the lives of believers right down to you and me today. 


            Two thousand years of that dynamic Spirit has been passed down baptism by baptism—sermon by sermon—missionary by missionary.  And now, we are the Church.  We are the missionaries—the heralds of the Gospel to the world around us.


            Today I am going to take a break from my standard method of preaching, to speak about how we can collaborate with the Holy Spirit in bringing about a more faithful witness to the Gospel: in our own lives, in our Church.



            First, I will talk about things you can do that will give the Holy Spirit more places to move around in your personal life.  And then I'll talk about the Church.


1.      Spend time in prayer. 

a.       Make it a priority in your life.

b.      Think of it as "showing up."

c.       "Listen for the dial tone."

d.      Don't make it more complicated than it needs to be.

e.       A lot of people feel like they don't know how to pray—or they worry that they're not doing it right. 

                                                  i.      Step One: stop worrying about it.

                                                ii.      Step Two: Say "God, teach me to pray."  And then give the Holy Spirit time to move within you.  The Holy Spirit was given to you at your Baptism.  Let the Spirit teach you to pray.


2.      Be honest with yourself and God at all times.  Be authentic in your prayers and in your heart.

a.       Shakespeare, Hamlet:  This above all: to thine own self be true, And it must follow, as the night the day, Thou canst not then be false to any man.

b.      1662 BCP phrase:  "That we should not cloak or dissemble."

c.       If you are angry with God, be angry with God.

d.      If you don't want to admit to yourself or to God any feelings of frustration, bitterness, envy, regret, etc., it will hinder ALL your prayers.


3.      Read the Bible.  The actual Bible, not just what someone says about the Bible. 

a.       Get a modern version like the NRSV or the New English.

b.      Start where you want to start.

c.       If you get bored, look for something interesting.

d.      Just read it.  Don't think you have to "apply to your life" it for it to be meaningful.  It can be meaningful just to read it and to spend time with the Bible in your hands. 

e.       The Holy Spirit inspired the writers and continues to inspire the readers.


4.      Let your holy imagination run wild.

a.       When reading the Bible.

b.      When praying.

c.       When receiving the Communion.

d.      When visiting with others.

e.       Be expansive in your thinking. 

                                                  i.      If you have trouble with this, read the hymns. 





            These are some real things you can do to make space for the Holy Spirit to move in and through the Church.


1.      Try to come to church every Sunday.  I know it's the summer; and I know some of you can't always make it; but I hope you will try to make it a priority, if you don't already.  In a small church, it really makes a difference when just a few people decide to stay home. 


2.      Be involved in the life of this community.  If you notice that someone is absent, and you are concerned about them, call them and let them know you care.  When I call, they think "Well, he has to do that, that's part of his job"—but when you do it, it's the community coming together. 


3.      Get to know other parishioners.  I was talking with a parishioner a couple weeks ago who "knew" Jan Murphy for years, but never "got to know" her. 




4.      Invite people to this church.  And I would even suggest inviting people who are already members of another church. 

a.       It's not sheep stealing!  They're not "prospects"—it's about giving the church a broader exposure.  They may not come back, but might suggest us to someone else.

                                                  i.      You never know when someone goes to another church more out of habit than desire—they might want a change and wouldn't even know that unless someone invited them.

                                                ii.      They might come here and think…wow!  This is the way I always thought church should be.  Story.

                                              iii.      If you can't invite them, let me know, and I'll invite them.

b.      Tell them specifically what and how the Church, Jesus, means to you.

                                                  i.      It's one thing to say, I would like you to come to church, but it's another thing to say that being part of this community has helped me live my life, or see things in a new way, or saved my soul!


5.      Think of your financial giving to the Church as worship.  Most of us don't like to talk about money and the church, but our  giving is very much a spiritual activity.

a.       Story: Rubrics say the Alms go on the Altar


b.      The vestry and I would never want anyone to think we are not grateful for any level of support, but there is so much good we could do as a Church, if we had better stewardship.

                                                  i.      Music

                                                ii.      Education

                                              iii.      Outreach


6.      Pray for this church.  I mean that.  We are not a charity organization; we are the Church. And please don't think of prayer as just a feckless sort of hope for the future.  Ask God to help us provide the financial and person power resources we need.  We all want Emmanuel to be healthy, happy, and growing.  Devoutly pray for that, please. 


            Those are solid, concrete things we can do that give the Holy Spirit a chance to move around in our community and beyond.


            But the last thing is probably the most important:


            Entrust the future to God.  I talked at length about this last Sunday.  In Christ's prayer before his Ascension into heaven, he entrusts the future to the Father.  He does not entrust the future to us. 


            It is crucial for both our personal lives, and for our life as an active Church, that we not succumb to the seductive belief that we can place our trust for the future in ourselves.  At no point in the Gospels did Jesus ever turn aside from the Father, and attempt to do this ministry alone. 

            Time after time, if you read the Bible, Jesus drew aside for prayer and study to make space and time for the Holy Spirit to refresh and bless him. 


            If we are to be the authentic embodiment of the Church that God has Baptized us to be—by the power of the Holy Spirit—we must be a people who are constantly learning to trust that God is the source and destination of our future.


Let us pray.


COME Holy Spirit.  Come among us.  Allow us to taste of your fire, and inspire us to discover the fullness of our Baptism.  Deepen our devotion; instill in us your wisdom and understanding.  Make us authentically trusting in your movement in our lives so that we may be faithful to the Father and his beloved Son, Jesus, who is the King of Glory, the King of Peace.  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, May 21, 2012

Easter 7B. 20 May 2012.

For the audio version, click here and select the 7th Sunday of Easter.


            Last Thursday, the Church celebrated the Ascension of Jesus into heaven, as we do, 40 days after Easter Day.  This is the Sunday within the Octave (or Week) of Ascension—a very unique time between the Ascent of the Son and the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.


            It is, therefore, very fitting that we should read the words from our Gospel lesson today—what is known in biblical parlance as the "high priestly prayer" of Jesus.  It is recorded in John's Gospel—a prayer for the future well being of the community of disciples and other believers, who would indeed become the Church.


            Since every strand of Christianity can trace it's ecclesiastical ancestry back to the disciples, we feel an instant kinship with them—such that the words of Jesus seem just as much as for us as for them.  Indeed, I would guess that when I say "disciple," you readily do the math and know that I will—at least by the end of the sermon—know that I am also talking about us.


            The high priestly prayer is—like Ascentiontide itself—a very unique quantity.  It is a prayer that scholars have said was offered between heaven and earth.  Jesus is making his way to the Father, and so his words hang suspended over us as he is departing.  They remain, like a final benediction, long after the Church has made its way to the door.


            The words are also unique because they are a prayer.  Not a parable, not a story.  The words themselves teach, but they are not a teaching.  They inform, even if they are not meant to be informative.


            The preacher could spend hours dissecting and teasing out possible meanings for each sentence of the prayer.  The same can be said for all of John's gospel, as you know.  But today, I'm not going to do my usual kind of sermon about the textual and narrative elements.  Instead, I'm going to point out just one facet of the prayer that I had not noticed before I sat down to this text this year. 


            I did not—and have never before (I don't believe)—noticed the ultimate intention of Christ's prayer in John 17.  In fact, I am so geared to think of every word from Jesus as an implicit teaching to "go and do" that I never noticed something that one of my commentaries taught me.


            Notice that in Jesus' prayer, he is entrusting the future of the community that he has formed.  He is commending it, praying for it, desiring for it, entrusting it.  And to whom is he entrusting it?  He's entrusting it the Father.


            What I never really noticed what that Jesus was not entrusting the future of the community to the community!


            I will pause for a moment now to let the theological impact of that concept sink in. 


            It may be that the force of that concept does not hit you as hard as it hits me.  It may be that because I'm a priest, it often feels as if the future of the Church is all on us.  It would not surprise me if some of you also feel as if the future of the Church is on your shoulders as well.  For those who really row the boat, it can be hard to watch others enjoy the ride. 


            I will own up to feelings of frustration when the Church needs help, because I don't like to think of the Church as ever being in need for the great and powerful ministry that we've been given to do. 


            Christ said, "Feed the hungry." And the Church has often gone looking in an empty pantry for packages of stale Saltines.  Christ said, "Care for the poor." And the Church has double checked its pockets for spare change.  Like the wedding at Cana where the water became gallons and gallons of wine, I like to think of the Church as a place of unlimited resource—capable of meeting any and all needs. 


            So when the vestry gathers together to count our nickels and pennies to scrape together the kingdom of God, it can feel as if the future of the Church was entrusted to the community, not to God.  Because, if God really is watching over the Church, why isn't he providing so lavishly that we don't need to worry about stewardship, or having people to stand for vestry, or a choir, or anything else for that matter?



            A couple weeks ago, I was at the Bishop's Conference, and I was listening to people talk about all kinds of energy and resources going into bringing about new ministries and churches.  The implicit message was that we need to work harder.  We need to think more broadly about how we make our churches visible, and the Gospel visible in our communities.  And of course I nodded my head in agreement. 


            We can always work harder.  I don't know a single priest or dedicated lay person who doesn't think we could work harder and do more.  I have been a parish priest for almost 10 years, and in that time I have never gone home for the day believing that I couldn't have done more.   The question becomes: What is enough? 


            For many people, a one and half hour worship service on Sunday morning is enough.  A prayer or two during the week is enough.  The box gets checked, and you get on with your life.  But if you're serious about the Gospel, there is always more that could be done.  You never really get to check the box. 


            I'm not crying on your shoulders here, folks, I'm just being honest.  The Gospel of Christ is a beautiful, wonderful, compelling thing—and it calls forth the very best we have to offer.  To my mind, it deserves every effort I can possibly give it.  If you are Baptized, it calls for every effort you can give, too.



            However, that line of reasoning, followed to its logical conclusion, is that it's all on us.  Perhaps you've even heard that little saying, "Pray like it all depends on God; act like it all depends on you."  That's a very, very seductive mentality for devout people.


            The Gospel is so rich, so powerful, so beautiful that we can become so absorbed that we begin to think that if we stop doing anything, the community will die.  And maybe parts of it will.  Maybe parts of it should


            In John's gospel, Jesus talks about himself as the vine, and us as the branches.  Branches that bear fruit are pruned to produce more fruit.  Some churches may have to struggle under the vinedresser's pruning hook.  I have a friend who is the rector of a church in one of the most rural places in Virginia.  He had been there by then for 23 years.  Small church, limping along.  Every time I saw him he was talking about another funeral he had to do.  I said, "You're going to bury yourself out of a church."  He said, "They told me that 20 years hasn't happened yet." 


            About two years later, there were five people in the parish who committed suicide.  You have to understand that it is rare for a priest to have more than two in his or her ministry.  He had five in one year.  You would think that a church that has been through that kind of sustained trauma would just implode completely, but it didn't happen.  In fact, the community held together, and they even began to grow after that. 



            I know of a mission church that a young priest and his wife and children gave their lives to start.   You have never met a more handsome and dynamic priest in your life.  I would never want you to meet him, because if you did, you wouldn't want me anymore.  I'm not kidding around.  He's the total package. 


            Have you ever tried to light a fire by rubbing two sticks together, and got nowhere?  That's what this mission church was like for them.  But they gave their lives to it.  They had a core group, and they would get a couple new people for a little while, and lose them.  They tried everything they could do to evangelize and advertize and everything else.  They gave their savings accounts to stay afloat financially.  Years of hard work.  Years of sitting down with a bottle of Pepto-Bismol to write up the budget.  They pieced together with nickels and dimes, grants from the Diocese, rubber bands, and chewing gum.  And finally, it became apparent that this little community was not able to get off the ground.  The painful call was placed to the Bishop's office.  The Bishop came to officiate the liturgy to formally dissolve them as an Episcopal mission.   It was sad.  It was really sad.


            A couple months after the closing liturgy, we had a Regional Council, and there was a lady who had been part of that church plant.  She said, "Remember us?"  We looked around at each other.  We didn't know her.  She said, "We're the church plant that was closed."  And she started to tell us that a little, tiny group of people who had gotten to know each other over the wine and the bread and the Bible had stayed in touch, and got together to pray every couple weeks.  And that that those every couple weeks became every Sunday in someone's house. 


            They had in time invited a retired priest to come out every couple weeks and offer the Holy Eucharist, and bit by bit…well… They're not big, but they're a community.  They don't have a budget.  They don't have a building.  They have wine and bread, Prayer Books and Bibles, and they want to be with God together.


            Now you look at that and wonder: why didn't that happen when the young, dynamic priest was there rubbing his sticks together to start the fire?  I think it's because the people and the priest had entrusted the community to the community.  "We gotta get this."  "We gotta get that."  "If we don't look more like a church, we won't be a church…"


            But after the last service, I think what happened was that the community started to entrust their future to God—and not to themselves, or to the priest.   They didn't work so hard to look like the Church—they just became the Church by their faithfulness to the Gospel.


            From time to time, every parish, every vestry, every bishop, priest, and deacon, takes their eyes, and their trust, off of God.  It happens more often than any of us would like to admit.  It happens because we want success in every category it can be measured: money, attendance, membership.  And at the same time, we minimize our estimation of the intangible success of offering our prayers, being together in peace, laughing at the little things, trying to bring the Gospel to the world. 


            We minimize the deep, silent bond of affection that God creates with bread and wine, and the steady rhythm of gatherings and benedictions, but that's the life blood of the church.  The Holy Spirit.  Agape.  Jesus entrusted the future of the community not to the community, but to God.


            I have no doubt that this community, this church has a future.  Even if the money dries up completely, and I have to move on.  Even if the buildings are boarded up and many people drift away, I know what will likely happen.  Someone will call someone else and say,


            "We're getting together at my house next Sunday.  Bring your Prayer Book.  We're just going to read Morning Prayer and have some lunch."

            "Can we bring some cake?"

            "Yes. You can bring cake."

            "Have you called so and so?  I'm sure she'd like to come."

            "Yes, she said she's coming and also this person and that person, and you remember Mr. Whatshisname?  Well, he's coming, too."


            I know that that's what would happen.  As long as the trust for the future is placed in God, and not in ourselves, there will always be a community.  And it will always be the kind of community for which Jesus prayed. 




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, May 14, 2012

Easter 6B. 13 May 2012.

For the audio version, click here and select The 6th Sunday of Easter.


          Many years ago, I attended a workshop that was about growing the church, and one of the main points the speaker wanted to stress was how completely foreign the church can be to someone who has no experience in one.  We use all kinds of terms that you don't find any other places—like ambo, font, sacristy, vestry, narthex—and we assume that people know what those terms mean.  Sometimes the terms don't even line up across the denominations.  Like the word "sanctuary."  Many churches refer to a sanctuary as the place where the people sit for a worship service, but in the Episcopal and Roman Catholic churches, this is the Nave.  The Sanctuary is the specific area where the Altar resides.  It can be very confusing, if you don't know. 


          The workshop speaker called these sorts of things secrets.  Not that we are trying to hide anything, but if you don't know, and people assume you do, the church vocabulary can seem like a bunch of secrets.  And that can—I'm not saying it does, but it can—cause people to become frustrated and give up on "this whole church thing."


          One of the things they said was that we should all wear name tags—even longstanding parishioners—even the clergy—because it shows newcomers that we are mindful of how difficult it is to come into a new group of people and you don't know everyone's name.  It was an interesting workshop.


          I thought about those things when I was reading over the gospel lesson from the fifteenth chapter of John.  It's the section of John called the farewell discourse—a unique portion of that gospel where John has compiled many of Jesus' most intimate teachings to his disciples.  Remember that John's gospel is all about how those who received Jesus and believed in him were granted the power to become children of God, and those who did not see the signs, did not understand him.  John spells that out in the first chapter.


          So this section of John is understood to be the teachings Jesus gave to those who understood him—who he was, and what he was about.  You could make the argument that the Church is now shouting in the marketplace what was meant to be whispered in the night watch—that we now read these sacred, tender, holy words to anyone and everyone, even though they were meant for the inner group. 


          We could do things differently.  We could just read the parables on Sunday morning; and then later on, after dinner on Sunday evening, we could have a worship service that is not publicized, and no visitors are welcome—only the very devout would come.  We would gather together by candle light, and in hushed tones, we would read from John's gospel.  I'm not saying we should do that, but if we did, and if you were there, I think you might hear these words a little differently—they might sound a little more as they were meant to be read.  Tender, intimate. 


          Let me read these words again, and as I do, try to picture yourself as one of the twelve.  He's about to tell you what he cannot tell the crowds—because many of them do not believe in him. 

9As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. 12 'This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. 13No one has greater love than this, to lay down one's life for one's friends. 15I do not call you servants* any longer, because the servant* does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father.16You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name. 

          Do you hear what he is saying?  Do you really hear it?  It's kind of like the end of the school year and you're into those golden days of Spring when you realize that you will never again be surrounded by these people, and you already miss them.  You pretend like it's business as usual, but it's not. 

          I remember those days before graduating from high school and college and at some point I would be walking along with a teacher or a professor, and it seemed as if they were trying to pass along more than just knowledge.  Something in their eyes and in their manner of speaking—and it sounded like, "You are not my student anymore; you are my friend.  You're going to go out there, and it's not always going to be easy, but I've taught you what I know and I'll be here for you, if you need me."

          It's like a passing the baton.  The relationship is changing.  "Don't try to hold on to the days when we were out in Galilee and I said do this, do this…c'mon, now…  You know what to do.  You know how I do things.  It's time for you to run the shop now."

          He says, "I have appointed you to bear fruit, fruit that will last…"  It's time for you to do this.  The training wheels are coming off.  What is it going to look like, though?  How are they going to do what he did? (Pause.)

          I don't know if you think about this like I do, but I envision first century Palestine as a place where it was a lot easier to meet people and do the ministry Jesus did.  Do you know what I mean? People mostly travelled on foot; there was no TV or internet; the poor and sick were obviously poor and sick.  You didn't have work very hard to find people in need—they were everywhere.  And people listened to travelling prophets.  If you wanted to get up and say a few words, go ahead.  If you have something to say, people will listen. 

          Not like it is now.  People move around in their cars—insulated from interacting with others.  You don't really bump into anyone on the street, and meet a new friend.  In fact, it seems like the custom now is to apologize if you have to interact with anyone you don't know.  Disciples going out and meeting folks then seems a lot easier than us going out and bearing fruit now.  But maybe not. 

          There is something fundamental about life that has not changed a single bit—no matter how much culture and society has changed, and will continue to change.  And that is the need to connect with others. 

          I was visiting Peter and Mary-Claire's baby, Josephine, at the NICU at UVA hospital a few weeks ago.  Mary-Claire has tried to stay as close to her baby as possible—as any good mother would.  I was talking with her father and he said one of the factors of survival is the proximity of the mother.  So true. 

          It's part of the pathos of human life that we are born completely unable to care for ourselves.  Unable to stand; unable to eat solid food; unable to clean up after ourselves.  It takes a connection with someone else for us to survive—but let's face it, it takes a whole lot more than that.  It takes sacrificial love.  The mother and/or father who is willing to get up in the middle of the night to feed, and change, and comfort. 

          Maturity is a process of expanding independence—but no matter how old we get, we will always, always crave the love of a person, or people who are willing to make sacrifices for us.  People who can look into our eyes, and even before we say the first word, they know...  We will always need that. 

          When Jesus looked into people's eyes, he could see that deep need for human connection—and he poured out his life for them.  They could see it in him—that he was willing to make sacrifices so that they wouldn't be lonely. 

          And I think what Jesus was trying to say—intimately, tenderly—to his disciples is that they could do it, too.  "As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you."  So now that you have the one thing you want more than anything else—to be loved completely: share it.  Everyone wants to connect.  Everyone wants to know and be cared for by someone who is willing to make sacrifices for them.

          If you are willing to care about others at that level, then you will be able to ask anything of the Father, and he will give it to you, because God wants human beings to be loved like that. 

          God does not want people to be scared and lonely.  God wants all people to find and be found.  Salvation, therefore, is not just about heaven.  Salvation is about making these connections with people as Jesus did, so that they won't be alone in their need—that God cares.

          That is the fundamental mission of the church.  It has become obscured by some of our "secret" churchy language, and by our misguided efforts to make the church about power, and order and really anything else. 

          The real Gospel is that God became flesh and looked into our eyes, and absorbed the pain of our loneliness and fear.  He was willing to make sacrifices to love us.  He was willing to be rejected by his people, and even offer his life on the Cross if that's what it took—and that's what it took. 

          Years ago I knew a woman who had a young teenage son who was a quadriplegic—he could barely speak.  He was born that way.  The woman had suffered physical and verbal abuse from her husband over the course of many years, and finally she could stand it no longer.  She took her son and all the medical supplies she could, and came to the Salvation Army Homeless Shelter in Harrisonburg, where I was the manager. 

          She could not stay with her husband, but leaving him meant a Catch-22 situation.  The boy's needs required a considerable amount of money, but the mother could not work, because she had to do everything for her son: bathe him, feed him, change his adult sized diapers.  The social worker did everything she could to get the catheter supplies and medicine for the boy.  I have no idea what the long-term answer was, because I was just getting ready to leave that job to go to seminary. 

          I remember one evening I sat down to dinner at the shelter with that woman and her son.  She would take a few bites and then she'd spoon a little food into her son's mouth, and wipe his lips, and offer him some juice from a straw.  And then she would take another couple bites from her dinner, and then back to the boy. 

          We were talking about this and that, and at some point she said, "He's really depressed, you know.  He's been depressed all day.  He's been saying that his life isn't important." 

          I asked her, "How do you respond to that?"

          She said, "I tell him that his life may not be important to him, but it's important to me."




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.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Easter 5B. 6 May 2012.

For the audio version, click here and select the 5th Sunday of Easter.


          Today I'm preaching on the reading from the Acts of the Apostles.  I usually preach on the Gospel lesson, because I'm usually drawn to it, and because it's the lesson our tradition and the Prayer Book requires me to read.


          It would be a good Sunday to preach on the Gospel lesson.  It's John gospel.  The farewell discourses of Jesus.  They are tender words to a very tender audience—the twelve disciples.  "I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine grower."   Jesus uses some very lovely and poetic language to describe the relationship the he and Father have with humanity. 


          If you were to take the Bible out to the farm lands of Shenandoah County and read these words amongst the dew-pearled blades of grass and the vine branches, and consider the earthy power of these words, it might just bring a tear to the eye.  "Abide in me as I abide in you.  Just as the branch cannot bear bruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me."  It's beautiful.


          Three years ago today, I preached on that lesson.  I was very tempted to dust off that sermon and preach it again in the hopes that you wouldn't notice.  And I probably would have gotten away with it, but the only problem was that this is also the Sunday we read the story of the Ethiopian eunuch. 


          I have never preached on the Ethiopian eunuch, and I think I know why.  You see, I was ordained a priest in 2002, just before the Episcopal Church's General Convention of 2003, and it was at that General Convention that consents were given by the Bishops (with jurisdiction) and the House of Deputies to consecrate the Rev. V. Gene Robinson as bishop of New Hampshire. 


          The election complied with all the canons of the Episcopal Church and the Diocese of New Hampshire.  Bishop Robinson had served many, many years in that Diocese as a priest, and as Canon to the Ordinary.  On paper, he was the right candidate; and the election was beyond reproach.  The only aspect of his election that was out of the ordinary was the fact that he was a non-celibate homosexual—he was in a committed relationship with another man.


          Following those events, the Ethiopian eunuch has enjoyed a more scandalous place in our Church, because the story is very much about including someone in the Church, despite the fact that some places in Holy Scripture denounce their way of being. 


          How can I describe for you how exotic the Ethiopian eunuch would have been to the people of the early church?  Ethiopia is located south of Sudan, which is south of Egypt.  It is a long, long way from Palestine.  He likely would have had a darker complexion than the Semitic people who lived in the Holy Lands.  He would likely have been dressed well, because, he was wealthy.  Several things tell you that.  He is a long way from home, and he has a chariot—he is not on foot.  He has a copy of Isaiah, which he is reading.  So he is educated, and he has enough money to buy his own personal copy of Isaiah.  Do you understand that this was before the Gideon Bible was in every hotel room?  You don't just get your own copy of Isaiah from the local bookshop—there are no bookshops!  How he got his own copy of that sacred text is anyone's guess, but he could afford it. 


          He was a court official of Candace, the queen of Ethiopia—in charge of her entire treasury.  He is a man of great importance and trust in the government.  It was not uncommon for men to be raised and educated within a very strict environment so that they could serve in this way.  Being a eunuch could be just a job title, but it most often meant that before they reached the age of sexual maturity, they were castrated, so that they could be trusted to take care of the aristocratic and royal people—without fear that they would misbehave.


          Now if you are horrified by that; you are not alone.  The Hebrew people did not like it either.  In Deuteronomy 23, you will find it written that if anything disastrous happens to the sexual anatomy of a man, he will not be admitted to the assembly of the Lord.  In fact, there was no way that he could make it past the courtyard of the Temple to worship there.  Why?  Because it's unmentionable, unthinkable, inconceivable that a man who has violated the way God had made him should be welcome in the company of the righteous.




          But what if it wasn't his choice?  (Pause.)  What if…  now hear me out…  what if he was raised in an environment where it was expected of him, or it was even an honor to be selected…?  What if his family was delivered from poverty, because he was willing to be castrated?  What if?  What if?  What if?


          Oh, but I have an even more scandalous thought…  What if it's okay to be a eunuch?  What if God accepts you, even if the people don't?  (Pause.)


          Well, now…  That's unthinkable.  See, he is not a Jew, and Jews are the chosen people. 

          Who said he wasn't a Jew? 

          Well, he can't be a Jew, right?  He's from Ethiopia.

          No.  I'm sorry, that doesn't mean he's not a Jew.  Remember the Diaspora?  Remember that when King Nebuchadnezzar exiled the Jews to Babylon, they didn't all go.  Some went west to Africa, others went north.  The Exodus brought them all to Israel, but after the exile, Jews were everywhere—they didn't all come back when the Exile was over.


          I remember some years ago watching a fascinating story on 60 Minutes where they took the DNA from people who claimed to be descended from the Temple priests in Jerusalem, and compared their DNA to a tribe in Africa that also claimed to be from a priestly family.  Now, you could not imagine two more different looking groups of people, but their stories lined up, and when the results of the DNA came in—drum roll, please—they were almost identical.  And that is very significant, because you couldn't join the Temple priests, you had to be born to a priestly family.  After the Exile began 597 years before the birth of Jesus, Jewish families were likely in every country on the map.


          So, no, you can't say for certain that this eunuch was not a Jew.  And did you know that the faith of the Hebrew people, the Jews, was known well beyond the Holy Lands?  Even if they didn't believe it, they knew what the faith and moral systems were. 


          This eunuch is making a pilgrimage to Jerusalem.  Why?  Well, he's interested.  But that's an understatement.  It's one thing to make a little trip to a holy place when it's just a couple miles away.  Maybe you've driven out to Shrine Mont for a day, or even up the National Cathedral.  Nice day, why not?  Have a nice lunch.  But see, in the ancient mind, the distance you travelled indicated the level of devotion, too.  Long distance equals deep devotion. 


          It's about 1500 miles from Ethiopia to Jerusalem.  That's about the distance we drove to visit Karin's family in west Texas.  And remember, he's got to go back, too.  That's a 3000 mile or more round trip.


          Acts says  that the eunuch has just come up from Ethiopia to worship in Jerusalem.  And that's a very provocative thing for Luke to write, because the eunuch would not have been welcome in the Temple.  He was on his way home, and he is reading Isaiah. 


          Philip, who had been a disciple of Jesus and was now an apostle, came alongside the chariot and heard him reading from Isaiah.  Philip asked him, "Do you understand that?"  And the eunuch said, "How can I understand, unless someone guides me?"  So he invites Philip into the chariot, and the eunuch reads.  He reads that part that we call the Song of the Suffering Servant,


"Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter, and like a lamb silent before its shearer, so he does not open his mouth.  In his humiliation justice was denied him.  Who can describe his generation?  For his life is taken away from the earth."


          The Song of the Suffering Servant was written by Isaiah to be about Israel as a whole people.  Isaiah used poetic license.  Instead of saying, "the people," he has one man embody all of the Hebrew people who had suffered and borne injustice and tried to remain faithful to God.  These are deep theological strands in the fabric of the Hebrew people.  But the eunuch doesn't know that.


          Philip's interpretation is that the Hebrew people actually were—just like Isaiah wrote poetically—summed up in one man, and that man is Jesus.  So, he tells the eunuch the story of Jesus.  Someone who suffered unjustly for who he was.  Someone whose life was taken away from him. 


          Can you see how this would have been meaningful to the eunuch?  Look at the similarities.  Single man, no children, unjustly robbed of his youth.  Some people accepted him, many rejected him. 


          The eunuch was looking for something you can't find in the court of the Ethiopian queen.  He is looking for belonging.  Acceptance.  A place.  Oh, he's got money, sure.  He's got money and position.  He's got servants.  He can afford to make the trip, buy the copy of Isaiah.  He can't buy the one thing he wants and needs.  Belonging.


          Maybe he is a Jew, and was told that very recently, and so he's made the pilgrimage to Jerusalem to find out if his grandfather really was a Temple priest, or a something like that.  He might have family up there! 


          He gets to the Temple and they say, "I'm sorry…uhm…we don't need your kind around here."

          "Look, what'll it take?" he says, "I have money."

          "No, it's not about the money.  This is the Temple.  You don't draw any water around here.  You better just get back up on that chariot and head home."

          "Look, I think my dad's dad was a Temple priest."

          "What was his name?"

          "I don't know.  I never met him.  I was taken into the queen's court when I was three years old."

          "I'm sorry.  There is nothing I can do for you."


          The eunuch is making his way back to Ethiopia and he finds out about Jesus.  Jesus who got rejected by the same establishment—the same inflexible rules. 

          And the eunuch and Philip ride along and they come to some water, and the eunuch says, "Look here is water?  Is there any reason I can't be baptized?"


          What do you say, Church?  The Bible says what the Bible says.  Deuteronomy 23:1. Eunuchs are out. (Pause.) But, there's another section to Isaiah that you might not know about.  Turn in your pew bible to page 599, Isaiah 56:3.  I'm going to read from 3 to 8.  

3 Do not let the foreigner joined to the Lord say, 'The Lord will surely separate me from his people'; and do not let the eunuch say, 'I am just a dry tree.' 4 For thus says the Lord: To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths, who choose the things that please me and hold fast my covenant, 5 I will give, in my house and within my walls, a monument and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off.  6 And the foreigners who join themselves to the Lord, to minister to him, to love the name of the Lord, and to be his servants, all who keep the Sabbath, and do not profane it, and hold fast my covenant— 7 these I will bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer; their burnt-offerings and their sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.  8 Thus says the Lord God, who gathers the outcasts of Israel, I will gather others to them besides those already gathered.


          What do you say, Church?  Can we baptize him?  After all, the Bible says what the Bible says.







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.


Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Over the last several days

I have been reading, rereading, studying, praying, researching, and just plain living with what is called the high priestly prayer of Jesus in St. John's Gospel, chapter 17.  The Revised Common Lectionary offers part of it on the Seventh Sunday of Easter (May 20th), and I've elected to spend just a bit more time with this text than I usually give to lessons for preaching.

The reasons are several.  First, despite the simplicity of the language, this is John's recording Jesus at the apex of his theological self understanding as being one with the Father.  Second, it is at the same time a theological summation of the ministry Jesus claims he has been given, which contextualizes all that has come before, as the transition is made toward his glorification (crucifixion, resurrection, ascension.)  Fred Craddock's commentary in Preaching Through the Christian Year suggests that these words are written from a perspective that is "between heaven and earth"--a point that is both elegantly worded and beautiful.  

As with all sermons, some avenues of discovery must be forsaken for coherence.  One always hopes that the Holy Spirit is in charge of those decisions.  I will likely mention, but not expound at length on, the uniqueness of the genre of this text.  It is a prayer, but it is not our prayer.  It is the personal prayer of Jesus.  A prayer that only Jesus is entitled to pray, because it emanates from his hopes, desires, and his very personal experience.  The Church can add an Amen at the end, but we should not attempt to arrogate to ourselves the holy motivation that is unique to the soon-to-be-Crucified.  At best, we overhear this prayer.  And what we overhear is rather startling.  

Jesus entrusts the future of the community of the disciples--who would become the Church--to God.   He does not entrust the future of the community to the community.

Let that sink in for a moment.  It is a radical concept...with a lot of ramifications.  

It expresses Christ's total trust in God.  It is the kind of trust that the Church has never been able fully to embrace.