Monday, September 24, 2012

Proper 20B. 23 September 2012.

To listen, click here.


Mark 9.30-32


            Today we are reading from Mark's gospel, chapter nine verses thirty to thirty-seven, which contain two stories about Jesus and his disciples.  These are not parables, or straight teachings; they are accounts of Jesus and the disciples in private.  They would have been even more fascinating for Mark's first readers, because very few people knew Jesus intimately when he walked the earth, and even fewer knew what transpired between the disciples. 

            The accounts we have are the best recollections Mark and others had.  Mark and the other gospel writers likely drew from the oral history that was carried along by the early church.  Remember that we did not have the Gospels till some thirty to fifty years after Jesus' ascension.  No one felt the need to write the stories and teachings down, because they were told one to another, and the first Christians believed that Jesus would return any day.  It was only when the first Christians began to die that it became absolutely necessary to have some written account that could be securely passed along to future generations. 

            So imagine what it must have been like to have a written account for the church to recall and imagine these stories that had been passed along.  I can imagine that some of them said, "Oh, is that how you remember it?  I thought it went like this…"  That's why each Gospel has its own emphases and variations.

            But to get into the culture Jesus had with his disciples would be utterly fascinating.  And we have so little information, even within the gospels, about what it was like to walk the roads with Jesus.  What it was really like to speak with Jesus informally, how he behaved in private, or what his preferences may have been. Verses thirty to thirty-seven pull back the curtain a little bit, and let us see into their world.

            I want to focus on just the first two verses we've been given, 9:31-32.  Let me read it to you again,  "Jesus and his disciples went on from there and passed through Galilee.  He did not want anyone to know it; for he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, "The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again." But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him."

            There is no way to experience the kind of fear the disciples felt on the road that day.  We know the story far too well.  Even the original hearers of Mark's gospel understood that the placement of this story in the overall plot of the gospel is an obvious foreshadowing of the end.  The intention of it is—at least on the surface—very clear: that Jesus believed that he was going to be betrayed and killed.  He also believed, according to Mark, that he would be raised from the dead.  The reaction of the disciples makes a lot of sense, because Mark's depiction of the disciples is always as a bunch of lost balls in tall grass.

            "They did not understand what he was saying, and were afraid to ask him." 

            They understood his words, surely.  They understood the literal meaning of betrayal and death.  What they did not understand was not the words.  They didn't understand Jesus.  And I would suggest that even though we know the story very, very well, we still do not understand Jesus.  Jesus was and is a mystery. 

            A large part of that mystery is how he was able to live among us, doing what he did, constantly and consistently offering himself, and all the while believing that the story was going to end with his violent and ignominious death.  Yes, he believed he would rise.  But the resurrection does not erase the horror of the torture and death that was coming.

            Jesus knew that what he was doing would arouse the suspicion of both the political and religious establishments.  He must have known that in order for him to be obedient to the Father would mean that he would become a marked man.  The disciples saw Jesus moving about the people with ease—teaching, curing, performing miracles—and it must have seemed at times that he was larger than life itself.  How could he possibly come to harm?  


            Surely no one would want to kill someone so unfailingly righteous.  If we are going to have a messiah, this is what a messiah should do.  He is fulfilling all the commandments and then some.  He enjoys the favor of humanity—clearly the favor of God is upon him.  If he comes into any trouble at all, surely all he will have to do is reason with them.  


            They didn't understand the words in this context.  If you put Jesus in one column and try to add betrayal, plus arrest, plus death…let's see here…carry the two…it doesn't add up.  And it certainly doesn't add up to "rise again from the dead."  That continues to be almost unimaginable. 
            But the disciples have seen so many things that they cannot explain.  Walking on water, five thousand people fed with a little boy's lunch, sick healed—even people born blind.  He was out on the boat and a storm came, and he stilled the storm.  Even the wind and sea obeyed him.  (Pause.)  But to rise from the dead..?   (Pause.)

            "They did not understand what he was saying, and were afraid to ask him."

            They were afraid.  I don't really blame them at all, especially when I think of their proximity to him.  If they're coming for Jesus—and he's going to be killed—what's going to happen to us?  We're his disciples; they know that. 

            They don't want to ask, because they're scared.  They may even be so scared that they don't want to know.  The little child watches the scary movie—too scared to watch, too scared to look away.  It's a strange thing fear.  It holds your attention when you most want to look away.

            But, if you stay scared and don't ask, there can be a comfort in the time elapsing.  Just hold tight and wait.  (Pause.)  And the clock continues to tick…


            Maybe he'll say something else and you can move on from this.  Maybe he just had a stomach ache and wasn't feeling well, and you know…  You're not the same when you don't feel well, or you're tired.  Maybe he's just tired…?

            You know, you can feel off some days.  It seems likely that that might have even happened to Jesus.  He was a human being, too…  He must have had the occasional bad day.  Everyone knows what it's like to want to lie down for a few minutes, but you can't, so you keep hammering on through the afternoon, and long about four o'clock, you start to think "What's the point?  Why bother?  Let's just chuck it in and call it a day."

            It's that malaise that comes on you when you've been out in the garden pulling weeds and you look around with sweat coming down the sides of your eyes and you've still got a billion more to go, and you throw you hands in the air.  "What's the point?  They'll just grow back."


            Was this a hard day for Jesus?  No, I don't think so. 

            But here's what I'd like to know: if he really believed that this was how his life was going to end—even though he believed he'd be raised—how did go about his life with that hanging over him?

            Most of us walk around will a very clear understanding that we're going to die.  I remember exactly where I was when I learned that I would die one day.  It was just after my grandmother had died—it was the first death in the family I'd experienced—and I was sitting on the porch steps, talking across the street to the girl who lived there. 

            Her name was Kathleen.  She was a couple years older.  (Actually, she still is!) I was talking about my grandmother's death, and I said, "I sure hope that doesn't happen to me."  She said, "Of course it will happen to you.  Everybody dies, Alexander.  In time it happens to everyone." 

            And it was like Eve gave Adam the apple of the tree of knowledge and I bit into it, and realized I was naked.  That's how it feels—to realize that you are vulnerable when you thought you were safe.

            Most of us go around with either a conscious or unconscious awareness that we are going to die.  I just recently read and interview of an author who is 97 years young—he is still writing books.  And the interviewer asked him what his biggest fear was, and he said, "Well, I'm 97, what do you think?"

            We know it's going to happen.  Obviously we hope it will be with an absolute minimum of suffering.  And we go around washing our hands, looking both ways before crossing the street, being as careful as we can reasonably be, because we know that bad things can happen.  We worry about it.  We worry that a sickness will get worse before it gets better.  We worry about decisions large and small that may affect our quality of life and our quantity of life.

            Jesus walked around believing in his heart that he was going to be betrayed, and killed.  And the disciples didn't understand, and were afraid to ask him.  The whole thing is scary.  The betrayal, the death...  What does it all mean?

            And that's a question that time and faith have never taken away.  What does it profit that we grow old and die, or that we are killed, or that something happens that robs our innocence and our life.  What are we headed towards? 

            And the answer Jesus gives is that he will rise again.  The Son of Man, the human being, will meet an end of the road of life—sooner or later—in sickness or in health.  It may be awful, or it may be peaceful—even beautiful.  But no matter how it happens, it won't be over.

            Jesus will rise again.  You and I will rise again—from whatever it is.   Whether it's the actual death, when the heart ceases to beat and the organs shut down, or the little deaths of sin and misbehavior, humiliations endured at the hands of others, injuries, sicknesses.  Whether it's the big death or the many little deaths that come to human being over the span of a life, it doesn't end there.

            How it happens, when it happens, I can't tell you; but it is the Church's proclamation that any death—large or small—does not really end the human life.   Christ is risen.  We shall be risen with him.  We continue not to understand it, and we continue to be too scared to ask, but we also continue to walk beside Jesus, praying, believing, and I would hope above all trusting that it will make sense to us when it comes. 





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, September 19, 2012

Proper 19B. 16 September 2012.

 To listen, click here.

            I would really like  to look at the lesson from James for today.  I'll read it again.  This, then, is our text for today:  James 3:1-12

Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. For all of us make many mistakes. Anyone who makes no mistakes in speaking is perfect, able to keep the whole body in check with a bridle. If we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we guide their whole bodies. Or look at ships: though they are so large that it takes strong winds to drive them, yet they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs. So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great exploits.

How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! And the tongue is a fire. The tongue is placed among our members as a world of iniquity; it stains the whole body, sets on fire the cycle of nature, and is itself set on fire by hell. For every species of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by the human species, but no one can tame the tongue-- a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so. Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and brackish water? Can a fig tree, my brothers and sisters, yield olives, or a grapevine figs? No more can salt water yield fresh."

            It's an interesting lesson, isn't it?  I love the way James invites the reader to imagine our use of speech with these similes.  The tongue is like a bit in a horse's mouth—move the bit, move the horse.  Or like a rudder on a ship—move the rudder, move the ship. 


            Or, says James, think of a large forest ablaze from a small fire.  A word whispered at the Ben Franklin about someone and within a couple hours phones begin to ring.  Listen to the others—"the tongue stains the whole community, it sets on fire the cycle of nature, and is itself set on fire by evil." 


            "…every species of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by the human species, but no one can tame the tongue—a restless evil, full of deadly poison."


            Every seven weeks, Psalm 52 comes around in Morning Prayer.  It's a lament about evil rulers who speak against the righteous:  (Ps 52.1-5)


"You tyrant, why do you boast of wickedness against the godly all day long.  You plot ruin; your tongue is like a sharpened razor, O worker of deception.  You love evil more than good and lying more than speaking the truth.  You love all words that hurt O you deceitful tongue.  O that God would demolish you utterly, topple you and snatch you from your dwelling and root you out of the land of the living."


            An angry psalm against obvious abuse.  But let's face it.  That's obvious.  The tongue does much more damage in subtlety and inference.  I was visiting the church of a friend during my vacation a year or so ago.  We sat in the back.  Peter played in the pew, and Maggie crawled around.  It was a good service.  The sermon was good.  We had the final blessing and hymn, and once we turned to leave a woman leaned over to greet us.  She was nice.  She said, "Did you enjoy the service?"


            We explained that of course we enjoyed it, the priest was a friend from seminary, Karin went to that church when she was younger.  And the woman started asking questions about the service.  "Didn't you think it went a little long?"  "Didn't you think the temperature was a bit high?"  "Don't you think it would be better if we blah, blah, blah…"


            Well, I didn't think too much about her questions.  When I go on vacation and go to church, I'm like a taxi cab with the light off.  I didn't pick up on the fact that she was complaining, because I don't think of complaining as being appropriate in church.  We're here to worship God, after all.  But on reflection, I noticed that she had adopted a very sneaky way of criticizing.  She wouldn't say, "I think the service was too long," she said, "Don't you think the service was too long?"  Sneaky. 


            If I can extend James' metaphor a little bit, I might say that she was playing with matches.  Let's see if I can set a fire over here…get a few people agreeing that the service is too long, maybe someone will say something, and then I get what I want and I don't have to be the one to say anything directly. 


            But even that's kind of obvious stuff.  Do you know that it can get much much simpler, and even more subtle?  You can just get yourself in an attitude where nothing's right.  It's like you didn't get the gas cap screwed in just right and the little light on the dash board came on, and now everything's a little off.  You get in a little snit.


            And what comes out of your mouth?  No, you're not outright cursing, but everything about you is.  "Coffee's too hot.  My hair won't lay right.  Karin, have you seen my book?  No, not that book, the other one."  Pick, pick, pick.


            And if you've got any sense of self-awareness you're thinking, "Why am I so crabby?  Stop it.  Listen Mister…you've got nothing to complain about.  Why can't you just be happy?"


            Or you get to feeling like you deserve to be upset, but you just can't remember why.  Or you remember why…and then that becomes a good enough reason for a little while longer.  And this anger starts to move around and sneak out with these little comments here and there.  "I wish you wouldn't do that.  I don't like the taste of this.  Why can't you settle down and leave me alone?"   


            And then when we have a few things to pray about, God seems like the furthest thing from our minds.  We can barely remember what it felt like to be still before God.  (Pause.)  James writes that with the tongue "we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God.  From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so.  Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and brackish water? Can a fig tree, my brothers and sisters, yield olives, or a grapevine figs? No more can salt water yield fresh."


            We get in that awful spot where we are "crucified between the great blue sky of our intention and the dusty, dry earth of our performance."[1]  We want to be nice.  We want to be charitable.  We want to be generous and noble of mind; but we can't—at least not always. 


            And it's this tongue…this awful unbridled tongue…  We sing hymns with it.  In our most pious moments we pray, we give thanks to God and to one another.  You know, when our parents raised us they taught us to say "please and thank you."  You didn't just get that from a heart rich and fertile with love—you started by having your parents tell you, "Can you say thank you to him for giving you that piece of candy?"  And in time the thank you came out because you were genuinely grateful—but it didn't start out that way—it started because you'd been taught to do it.


            Manners do not naturally come to a child.  But we grow up and we move on, and the manners we were taught are adapted to meet the social needs of the situation, but being pleasant is not really a natural state—it's has to be taught. 


            And it has to be relearned.  Life wears out our manners and we have to go back and relearn to share and to say thank you and please.  And we have to relearn what's appropriate to say and not say. 


            Karin and I are in that phase of child-rearing where we are learning—I should say I am learning—that every little thing I say is building Peter's and Maggie's sense of the world.  If I go around negative, he'll go around negative.  If I hug, he'll hug.


            But I'm starting to understand that this is not at all unique to parenthood.  You walk up to the sales lady and get huffy about not finding something and she might be nice to you there, but she might go get huffy around her children or her husband.  You didn't realize your tongue started a fire, but it did.  And her husband goes to work and yells at someone, and that man gets angry and there it goes…like wildfire.


            It shouldn't be like that, says James.  You shouldn't be able to use the same tongue to praise God, and then moments later cut someone down to size.  It shouldn't be like that. 


            Do you ever look inside yourself?  I got myself worked up recently about some silly thing, and I was going about my business, cleaning something up or whatever and all these angry thoughts and words were just running around my head.  So I decided to take a break from them for a minute.  I decided that there had to be some other place inside me that had nicer furniture and a better view.  And sure enough I opened the door and found myself in this amazing kitchen.


            It was a kitchen overlooking the sea, and it had fresh cut flowers—buckets of fresh cut flowers.  Roses.  And outside there were—all along the path to the beach—flowers of every shape and kind.  Just beautiful.  And in this kitchen there was so much food.  Beans, rice, produce of every variety.  Oranges, apples, blueberries and raspberries, bananas.  And meats, and spices and herbs, and everything you could ever want to make dinner, or lunch, or breakfast. 


            And God turned to me and said, "All this is inside you, Alexander."  And I asked God, "Is it all for me?"  And God said, "No.  All this is so you can feed the other people in your life.  What have you been serving them so far?"


            And that's when I realized—here I've been walking around feeding people these little snacks, that are really nothing more than leftovers from my own meals.  I have enough to prepare a five course meal to everyone I know—God has given you and me stacks and stacks—a bottomless supply of love and good things—and yet we're more likely to hand out tiny little snacks and sips of water. 


            What would it look like if we all went into our kitchens when we saw each other?  What would our conversations be like if we fed everyone we met with the abundance of affection and generosity that God has placed inside us?  Imagine how different we would be with each other. 


            In this world, in this country…with all the incivility and all the impatience around us, think what a welcome change we could bring to people's lives, simply by deciding that we will bless, and not curse.  Please think about that.  Because it's a choice.






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.

[1] Craddock expression

Monday, September 10, 2012

Proper 18B. 9 September 2012.

To listen to this sermon, click here.


            As many of you know, I have recently been recovering from pneumonia.  Most of us deal with illnesses from time to time.  Is it an allergy or is it a cold?  You try to shake it and can't.  You go to the doctor. 


            We have come to know that when we catch something that it's not a direct result of some "defect" in our moral fiber, as was believed in old times.   The pathogenic theory of medicine, or germ theory—as it is popularly known—has explained that microorganisms are responsible for many of our illnesses.  It is hard to believe that we've only really known about that for a little over a hundred years.  We've only had electric light for a little over a hundred years.  Hard to believe.


            But even though germ theory is relatively new in the scope of history, the link from cleanliness to health reaches back centuries, and for obvious reasons.  It doesn't take much smarts to put those two together, but it is surprising how "clean and unclean" figure so prominently in the religious history of the world.


            Ritual baths are some of the oldest religious observances.  I well remember hearing that some of the ancient cities were built around a common bathing area, and that religious significance became attributed to that act.  Holy Baptism has its roots in those ritual baths, and in the "baptism of repentance" that devout Jews would undertake whenever they felt the need. 


            Our catholic understanding of Christian baptism—held by Roman Catholics, Anglicans, and Orthodox—is that Baptism is a Sacrament that is only offered once to each individual as a sufficient means of being part of the Body of Christ.


            Baptism is meant to wash away the old nature, and raise us to the new life of Christ's Resurrection.  We are baptized into the past, present, and future of God—grafted into the Body of Christ, and made heirs of his eternal kingdom.  Parenthetically, I will be baptizing Josephine Hoffman on October 21st, and am very much looking forward to that. 


            The theological meaning of Baptism is unfathomably deep, as is its root system in ancient religious observance.  Human beings have always felt the need to wash away stains, literally and symbolically.


            Pharisaic Judaism—that branch of the Hebrew faith that arose sometime after the Babylonian exile—was almost crazy about propriety.  There were strict codes about cleanliness.  Not only being clean, but how you cleaned yourself, how long you had been clean before you did something.  You can see how this naturally extended to people being considered clean and unclean.  If you are taking pains to be ritually and physically clean, then those who do not observe the customs seem unclean, and therefore a threat to your own cleanliness.


            We have a more nuanced way of thinking of this now.  For instance, if you see someone sneeze into their hand, and then later offer their unwashed hand to shake yours, you may not think well of them in the moment, but you wouldn't consider that person to be unclean.  Their hand may be unclean at the moment, but I would hope we wouldn't write the whole person off as an unclean or sub-human. 


            But for the Hebrew mind—at least in the prevailing culture of Jesus' day—there was none of that Greek division between mind, soul, and body.  If you were unclean in your body, you were unclean in everything else.  If your family, your people, were not descendents of the children of Israel, then you were not God's chosen people, and therefore you were not clean—not to be touched or consorted with for any reason.  What's the point?


            It was like a documentary I just watched with Karin about prisoners being exonerated for crimes they did not commit.  People serving life sentences, proven wrong by DNA evidence, or whatever, and they found themselves back in the world after thirty years behind bars with no earthly idea how to function.  The reason I bring it up was because one of men who was released was sixty some years old. 


            He had been incarcerated when he was a teenager, and never even got a Graduate Equivalency Diploma.  I wondered why.  I have heard of prisoners getting GEDs and college and even master's degrees behind bars.  Why not this man?  And then they told us.  Prisoners serving life sentences without possibility of parole—at least in that state—weren't offered any educational opportunities.  (Pause.) 


            Does that offend you as much as it offends me: to not offer any educational possibilities to someone just because they would likely, likely, never be released?  It's like back to the old Pharisaical thought:  He's unclean.  Likely in prison all his life.  Why bother?  Don't touch him.  Never mind that it was that kind of neglect that likely led him down that path to begin with.


            Today we are reading from chapter seven of Mark's gospel.  Chapter seven begins with the Pharisees observing and then complaining that Jesus' disciples were eating with unclean hands.   It was the custom of the elders to wash your hands, wash your food, and cups and bowls and plates, and everything else, before eating.  We read about that in the Gospel lesson last week.


            Jesus responds with a teaching that what goes into us does not defile us.  It's what comes out.  His point is not an endorsement of being physically unclean—his point is that physically unclean and spiritually unclean are two different things.  He's trying to get them to stop equating the two.  And to punctuate this teaching—to put a big exclamation point behind it—Jesus then travels to Tyre and Sidon and the region known as the ten cities—the Decapolis. 


            That's where our gospel lesson for today begins.  Tyre and Sidon are beach cities in a region that is known as Phoenicia, which at the time was part of the Syria.  So the woman is Syrophoencian, and she is a Gentile, meaning simply that she is not part of the small Jewish enclave in Tyre. 


            Tyre was an affluent port city, and imported food from the farms of northern Galilee.  When the woman comes to Jesus and asks him to exorcise the demon from her daughter, Jesus responds, "It is not right to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs."  There is nothing I can do to soften the sting of Jesus' words.  They hurt.


            Gentiles were often referred to as dogs.  So Jesus is responding as a Jewish man from Galilee who has seen much of their farmers' produce going to feed the wealthy Gentiles in Tyre.  The children of Israel's food is thrown to the dogs.  But the woman responds with a challenge, "Even the dogs get to eat the crumbs."  Mark offers no reason for why Jesus relented and gave her what she wanted, but he does. 


            After this Jesus meets a man in the region of the Decapolis—again a mostly Gentile area—and he heals the man of his deafness and speech impediment.  In both stories, Jesus is interacting and even touching people considered unknowable, and unclean.


            We continue to read these stories because they are scripture, and because they remind us of the audacity of Jesus: breaking through boundaries to be fully present with humanity.  Jesus does not now seem to us as subversive as he truly was, because our attitudes have evolved.  We have come a long way in our understanding of cleanliness and social equality; but also because we are not bound by the Jewish expectations of what a messiah would be.


            But even beyond that, do you know what Jesus really changed here?  What he changed is much, much more than the normative customs of his people?   Jesus redrew the lines of God's chosen people to include all people.  Jesus changed the way people thought about God: that God cares about people we have believed ourselves wise in avoiding because they're unclean—that they are not God's people. 


            For the community for which Mark wrote his gospel, these accounts would have served to remind them that their mission to the Gentiles is not just an outgrowth of the resurrection—Jesus brought the good news to them himself.  (Pause.)


            The Church in every age, and Christians individually, have always struggled to embrace people who are easy to ignore, and to excuse our ignorance.  I don't know why.  Somehow we are unable to recognize that every human being had to be the product of someone who cared—who held, and rocked, and changed diapers, and fed.  Everyone had to learn to walk, and had nightmares, and has faced struggles in life.


            Coming back to the documentary that I mentioned about exonerated prisoners.  I looked at one of those men, who was being interviewed, and if you didn't know he'd been through what he had been through, you would have thought that he had had the opportunities of education, marriage, children, work. 

            I watched him cast a fishing line in the water and slowly reel it in.  He looked like the kind of man you'd like to know, but because his story is what it is, no one want to know that man.  It was easy to just write him off—and that's exactly what the justice system did for 30-40 years. 


            It was only when a handful of lawyers paid out of their own pockets for some DNA testing and pushed the court system until they released the evidence that the injustice was righted.  But the story doesn't end as happily as I'd like.  He doesn't have the education or income—and years of unjust punishment have made him unable to stand up for himself anymore.  He's been written off for so long, that he seems to have given up hope on himself.  Maybe you have known people who have felt that way. 


            Or maybe you have had experiences that have tried to take your dignity and your sense of being included among the people God cares about. 


            I remember when I was working at the Salvation Army before seminary, a man came to the door and said he needed help, but he couldn't stay at the shelter.  I asked him if was homeless.  He said yes.  I asked if he was hungry.  He said yes.  I said, "Well, you can stay here until you get your life back on track."  He said, "No, I can't do that."  He said, "I'm a ….."  "I'm a …." And told me in painful language that he wasn't fit to be around other people.


            I said, "I don't understand."  He said, "I'm not worthy of staying anywhere…it's not your fault.  It's just some of us just aren't worth living."  I said, "I can't help you if you don't come in, and take part in our program, but you are welcome to be here."  He said, "Thanks, anyway," and disappeared just as mysteriously as he arrived.  (Pause.)


            I never saw him again.  But I have seen that look in other people's eyes.  Hollow.  Worn out.  "Harassed and helpless, like sheep needing a shepherd." 


            Maybe you have felt like that from time to time—or maybe you have been told that you were outside the boundaries of decent people.  I hope not.  In the kingdom of God, no one has to make due with the crumbs under the table. 


            I have told you this before.  And I've told you recently, but I'm going to say it again, because it's true and because I see it everywhere I go.  When I go to Lowes or Food Lion or wherever, I invariably pass by people who do not expect to be greeted.  There could be any number of reasons why.  They might just be shy.  It might be because of a difference in age, or because I'm male and they are female.


            But have learned—and I'm not perfect at this—but I have learned that it takes nothing at all to smile just a little bit and say hello.  And when I do this—especially to people who think I don't notice them—they seem entirely different in just that brief exchange.

            I have even had moments when a brief conversation started that might have been the only time that person had spoken to someone all day.  Now, they might think I'm from Tyre or Sidon or the Decapolis.  Or they might think I'm from Galilee.  But that doesn't really matter. 


            What matters is that those little distances we like to put up to keep ourselves insulated were suspended—at least for a moment—and humanity had a chance to do something holy: to connect, to value, to be one.  


            You can do it, too.  It takes nothing at all.  It won't even slow you down, and I'd be willing to bet you dollars to donuts that it will change your day—and your life—for the better, because in some small way you'll be showing the compassion of Jesus that was instilled in you at your Baptism: where you learned that God washes and embraces those who are considered unclean.  Even us.






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, September 4, 2012

Proper 17B. 2 September 2012.

James 1.17-27


            One of my dear mentors, who is a former Benedictine monk, loves to tell the story of visiting Rome and the Vatican years ago, when he was part of a monastery.  There was a young monk who was part of their community who was particularly scrupulous—as most young monks tend to be.  He strictly observed the sacramental rite of Confession—such that he probably didn't have many grave sins to confess. 


            But being in Rome, and being the day when he always went to Confession, he asked the Abbot if he could find some nearby church where he could go, and the Abbot decided to play a little trick on him.  There is a place in Rome called the Apostolic Penitentiary.  Actually, the official title is, "The Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Penitentiary."  It is one of the three tribunals of the Roman Curia, and its jurisdiction involves hearing the most grievous sins one can commit, assigning penance, and offering absolution.


            The young monk was sent to there, and my mentor said that he knocked on the door and a priest appeared.  The monk communicated the desire to make a confession, and was escorted to an ornate inner chamber and told to wait.  After a considerable amount of time, a confessor was arranged, in full vestments, and probably after a lengthy series of preparations and prayers, assuming that he would be hearing the worst. 


            Well, the young monk probably confessed to several instances of being inattentive at prayer, maybe taking an extra dessert, or being envious of other bothers.  And the priest listened, and listened, and asked, "Is that all?"  The monk responded, "Yes, Father, that is all."  The priest asked, "Do you know where you have come?"  "Not really," said the young monk.  And then the priest expressed—in terms I'm not going to share with you—that the monk had darn well better commit some real sins before coming back!


            I've heard confessions periodically in my years as a priest, and can tell you that it can be very moving.   We have the option of private confession in the Episcopal Church, which you will find on page 466 of The Book of Common Prayer.  It is not as well observed in our Church as it is in the Roman Catholic tradition, but it's there. 


            I would never reveal what was confessed, but I can tell you that the idea of measuring a sin as being large or small is a very petty thing to do.  Because, you see, unless it involves hurting another person, the size of a sin is completely immaterial.  If it involves hurting other people, the size is exponentially different for both the sinner and the victim.  But if it's about personal failings...  Those sins that we commit against ourselves… then it almost doesn't matter what it was.  What matters is how the person feels about the sins, and about themselves.


            In some sense, the Apostolic Penitentiary is the perfect place for the young monk.  He may not have committed heresy, or an act of violence, or anything the priest thought he might have done, but so what?  Confession and absolution are not bigger or smaller—it's the burden of those things that brings a person to their knees.


            Your sins are your sins.  My sins are mine.  In either case, ultimately it is ourselves we have hurt.  And we seek God's forgiveness, because we have brought pain to God's creation.  We were created by God in God's own image, and when we commit sins we damage the image of God.


            I have known what it is—and so have you—to ask God for forgiveness, knowing that God understands and forgives, but still feeling unable to forgive myself.  I think the most crushing sins I ever carried were when I was a teenager—living somewhere between the noble desire to be some day ordained by the Church, and the many other desires to be unaccountable, and free to do as I pleased.   


            And I, like most young men, would laugh at my sins by night, and cry over them by day.  And the words of the Orlando Gibbons anthem would waft through empty corridors of my soul:


Drop, drop slow tears and bathe those beauteous feet / which brought from heaven the news, and Prince of Peace.  / Cease not, wet eyes, his mercies to entreat. / To cry for vengeance sin doth never cease. / In your deep floods, drown all my faults and fears, /  nor let his eyes see sin, but through my tears.


            And there was the sad face of contrition and punishment looking back at me in the mirror. 

"So you want to be a priest someday."

"Yes, I do."

"Is that how a priest behaves?"

"No, sir."

"Priest or no priest, is that how a Christian behaves?"

"No, sir."



            What were and are sins for me might not be sins for you, and vice versa.  But that's not the point.  It's the black, unhappy recognition that whatever our particular avenues of temptation are, we have, and do, succumb. 


            Inevitably, these moments of personal accountability come to a crossroads.   In one direction there is a continuation of the sin—that the painful accountability of our soul is not painful enough to choose differently.  And then there is the other direction called (in Greek) metanoia, to turn around and go another way—to end the behavior, and to take steps to avoid it.


            The letter of James, which we read from this morning, reads, "Rid yourselves of all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness, and welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls."


            "Rid yourselves of all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness."  What is the author really thinking of here? It doesn't sound like the garden variety sins that might grow amongst the dear hearts and gentle people of Beckford Parish.  Sordidness and wickedness are such harsh words, but again, what difference does that severity make?  The desired result is the same—to get rid of it.  To clean house.  To make a new beginning without the corrupting influences that possess us.


            It might not even be a sin we commit, per se, by waking up and taking action—it may be a pattern or habit.  Something so ingrained that it takes nothing at all to renew the hostility.  A grudge we nurse against an old injustice.   And there is the thought again—in our heads—without even needing to be called to mind.  A growth of wickedness so powerful, it even manages to convince us that it's just the wallpaper of our soul.  Always there, never noticed, but always there.


            Get rid of it.  Stop it.  Easy to say that, but it can be hard to do.  Habits are hard to break, especially the ones we have had for years.  They have become part of our identity.  Who would I be if I wasn't angry at soandso? And the lie we tell ourselves is that our anger is a measure of justice.  That if we don't stay angry, then we allow the deed to go unpunished.  But that's not how it works, is it?  Not really.  I've heard it said that grudges are like drinking poison, and expecting the other person to die.


            But the author says, "Stop it."  "Rid yourselves of all sordidness…and welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls."  The implanted word.


            The word that was pressed into you by all the good people in your life—the mentors and teachers, the family and friends—who tenderly pressed into your soul that undying thought that you would become a good and decent and honorable person. 


            That despite any personal failings, you would rise by power of repentance and disciplines of prayer, and by the generous agency of the Holy Spirit, emerging time and again older, wiser, kinder, gentler, more loving, more forgiving.  Because that's what Godly people do.


            Godly people.  Not self-righteous, not smug, not arrogant or conceited, not proud or boastful.  But real, authentic, heartfelt, tender, sincere, self-controlled, self-assured, confident without egotism, open to reason, open to reflection... 


            Those are the words…  Implanted in you by all who are loving and true—by the Church and the Bible and the Sunday school, by the "better angels" as Lincoln put it.  All trying to impart and implant and pass along a very sacred tradition that in secular terms is mere kindness, but to the devout, it is the dream of God—the dream of the kingdom of God where we are willing to get rid of all those perversities of behavior and thought, and "welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your soul."


            Its power is not invincible.  We always have the power to overcome it by force of our sins.  Its power is found in its truth—its ability to stand up to the harsh light of reason—its ability to offer hope after we have done our best to kill that hope within us.


            It has the power to save our souls—to speak to the place that can still appreciate the holy, and through careful reception and nurture, bring us back from the ravages of sin.


            Get rid of what you don't need.  Thumb through those cubby holes in the roll top desk that you keep your resentments.  Little fragments of notes scribbled on scratch paper that inadequately describe the context and person you were then, but still remind you that he said that.  She did that.  (Pause.) No one remembers but you.  Get rid of them. 


            Get rid of anxiety.  Get rid of those habits of thought and behavior that hold us back.  And welcome with meekness and sincerity of heart the implanted word, which has power to save your soul, and to transform you into the person God has redeemed you to be.






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.