Thursday, December 27, 2012

7 Advent, Year C. December 23, 2012

Micah 5:2-5a; Psalm 80:1-7; Hebrews 10:5-10; Luke 1:39-45 [46-55]
Preached by Rev. Dr. Jason Haddox

I was in the church last week in the afternoon the other day, visiting the windows. The late sunshine was streaming through the Prophets’ Window—I saw Isaiah standing with one foot on the Scroll, and an angel carrying a flaming-bright coal extended to touch his lips, to go forth to speak the Word of God to those who will listen, and those who will not. The shape of the glass and concrete suggest both tongs to hold that bright coal, and the silhouette of a bird in flight. The bird—the Dove of Holy Scripture, which in the Celtic church of the British Isles becomes the Wild Goose—indicates the presence of the Holy Spirit. And that same shape appears again, mirrored in the Nativity window, with an angelic figure on one side, and a human figure dressed in blue on the other side. The bird in flight, the Holy Spirit’s outward and visible representative, comes to rest and nest and initiate a miraculous transformation in Mary and Elizabeth, and Joseph and Zachariah, to stir up the beginnings of their own lives’ transformation.

When the angels visit, they always begin with the same with the introduction: Fear not. Do not be afraid. Even though your life is about is about to change: Fear not.

Mary’s world, and Elizabeth’s, and Joseph’s and Zechariah’s, have all been turned upside down. How can this be? This should not be! But it is. An unmarried adolescent girl, and a woman well past childbearing years are both pregnant with miracle children, and there they stand together in Elizabeth’s front room, hollering and singing and laughing until the rafters ring.
We’ve had some world-turning-upside-down-events lately. On Friday at 9:30 am we kept silence as a nation, in memory of the victims of Sandy Hook Elementary School only a week previously. We forget, far too easily, to remember the people in our own town who have died because of violence—some of whom are laid to rest only a few feet from where we sit this day. We hear speculations of the end of the world, predictions of disasters great and small; we hear shrieking voices threatening a plunge over the edge of a fiscal cliff, whatever that might actually mean.

And we’ve welcomed William and Ehlana and Addison into the world; we have seen the joy and delight and wonder on the faces of their parents. We have given thanks for these new lives. We’ve gathered in each others’ homes for our Cottage Meetings, and told our own stories about how God has touched our lives—those “Thin Places” where we have seen with our eyes and heard with our ears, and touched and tasted and smelled the very Spirit of God present with us.

All of these things, both joyful and terrible, have the power to turn our world upside down, and bring us into a reality that forces us to take another look, think another thing, change the direction in which we are going. Metanoia.
Mary has come in haste to the house of Elizabeth and Zechariah. She has been visited by the angel, who tells her that she will have a miraculous child—if she is willing. (An early legend not in the biblical account suggests that Mary was the first one to say “yes”’ to the angel’s message. All the others before her had rejected the invitation outright.) She finds Elizabeth in the sixth month of her own pregnancy, she who had been childless all those years. And they both have had an invitation, a miraculous visit by the Spirit of God, prefaced by that formula: Fear not.

It is a LOUD scene in the gospel this morning. Elizabeth feels the baby leap inside her, and commences to hollering: “Blessed are you! Blessed is the child you bear! Blessed is she who believed that God’s word to her would indeed be fulfilled!” They are shouting and embracing, laughing until the tears run down their faces, a teenager and a post-menopausal woman, at the greatest joke of the cosmos, that the messengers and servants of God, whom we now call “Blessed”—Mary, Joseph, Elizabeth, Zechariah, and all the others—are simply the ones whom God chooses, through no great merit of their own, to do something amazing. To talk to Pharaoh, tell him ‘Let my people go.” To leave home and family and livestock, and become the king of Israel. To bear a child, the child of God. And in the company of all these ancestors, with Moses and Miriam, David and Esther, Isaiah and Deborah and and all the others, Mary says “Yes.” And she begins to sing aloud—the words we know as the “Magnificat.”

Words which we know well—possibly too well. We’ve gotten used to them through frequent use. Perhaps we’re afraid of them. And for good reason. Listen to this:

“My soul magnifies the Lord…he has shown the strength of his arm; he has scattered the proud in their conceit. He has cast down the mighty from their thrones; and has lifted up the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things; and the rich he has sent away empty.”

Them’s fighting words, folks. In the ‘80s the Song of Mary was on the forbidden list of several South American governments, who considered it too revolutionary for public recitation—even in the monasteries and convents. The monks and nuns kept on saying and singing it, of course.

In 21st century America, we may miss, ignore, or deny the political tones of Mary’s song, but Herod wouldn’t have missed it; not even for a second. Herod had family members executed if he so much smelled a hint of insurrection in the air. Any man, much less any woman, who would so openly sing of his downfall; any woman who would so openly sing of a world turned upside down, was nothing short of a subversive radical.

WE may have reduced Mary to a demure vehicle for the birth of a child, but she is nothing short of a prophet singing of a new world order. She is the slave singing a field chant of a coming day when the slave will be exalted and the master turned out. Mary is more than merely the apparatus for Jesus’ arrival: she is the first member of Jesus’ household. She says yes to that call, to that invitation, knowing that her life will change but not having any idea what that will look like. Nor does she ask for any such assurance.

Instead, she says Yes. Yes to incarnation—yes to taking into herself the power and potency of God Almighty, to being Theotokos—the “God Bearer” as our friends at Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church would name her. She said yes, not simply to a God who dwelt outside of her, beyond her, but yes to a God who desired to dwell within and through her. That is incarnational theology. God isn’t just with us, but can be within us; distinct yet inseparable. This is what Mary’s yes was about. She chose to participate in the divine and the holy, even as the holy and divine chose to participate in and through her.

But here’s the thing. This word of invitation hasn’t just been extended to Mary; it’s been

extended to me and you as well. Every single one of us is receiving an invitation this Christmas, not to a cocktail party, but to start establishing the world that Mary sang of in the Magnificat.

What God asks of Mary of Galilee back then and there, God also asks of each of us, here and now. God wants nothing less than for us to become pregnant with divine possibilities and then to give birth to the holy and precious in our own time. To be “God-Bearers” in our own places of work and play, in our homes and neighborhoods and communities.

This morning a teenage girl and an old woman are laughing in delight at God’s irrepresible desire to be in our midst, even if it must be by the most undignified means imaginable.

But that’s Mary’s story, and Elizabeth’s.

What’s yours? What’s our story, St. Augustine’s Church?

Do you say yes to God’s intrusive invitations?

Do we say yes to new horizons, new possibilities, new lives?

Do you and I say with Isaiah, “Here am I, send me”?

Do you say yes to questions that challenge “the powers that be” with the dominion of God? Will you bear and give birth to the holy?

Let us pray:

The angel of the Lord announced to Mary: and she conceived by the Holy Ghost.

Mary said: Behold the handmaid of the Lord: Be it unto me according to thy word.

And the Word was made flesh: and dwelt amongst us.

Hail Mary, full of Grace, the Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou amongst women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death. Amen.

6 Advent, Year C, December 16, 2012

Zephaniah 3:14-20; Canticle 9; Philippians 4:4-7; Luke 3:7-28
Preached by Rev. Dr. Jason Haddox

Last week: the prelude. John appears, with words from Isaiah about preparing the way of God to come in and among and to the people. A baptism for the repentance of sins—metanoia. Changing of hearts and actions, with the expectation that something is going to happen. Does something happen BECAUSE of this repentence, or is the “something” inevitable, and repentance makes one able to receive it? Or both?

“Metanoia” as coming to a right mind, and right actions, within which “Something” is both welcomed from afar and revealed as already present all along.

John the Baptist lived in a land occupied by the army of a foreign empire. It was nothing new even then. Before Rome occupied Jerusalem and the Holy Land, it had been conquered by Philip of Macedonia, and before that, the armies of Babylon. The presence of the outsiders, the military and civilian occupation, was everywhere. It was simply the way things were. And with that occupation, then as now, came the oppression of ordinary people, especially those on the edges of society. And with that came the desire among those so oppressed, to see the destruction of their enemies, in shame and catastrophe. To see those who had mistreated them, receive the same mistreatment or more, in retribution.

The impulses toward vengeance, domination, violence, and the belief that “might-makes-right” have always been part of the human condition. These are among the favorite temptations presented to humanity by the powers of darkness, and we continue to believe the lies they tell. In the devilish desire for victory at any price, we commit violent acts against one another. We take up arms to destroy, perhaps weapons that we can hold in our hands to make war on other bodies—guns and bombs if we can get them; rocks and sticks if not. Even more insidiously, we raise weapons of defaming speech and hateful language, by which we attack, damn, and destroy the souls other human beings, created in the image and likeness of God Almighty.

And so the prophets’ work continues, as we hear them calling out (even in the wilderness; even in the midst of great crowds): STOP IT!! Quit that nonsense! You claim that you are God’s people: Start acting like it! You believe that God is on your side: are you on God’s side? Where do God’s influence, or presence, or values, show up in your life?

And do not imagine that your ancestry, or your possessions, or your accomplishments, or any Thing that you have gathered to yourself, puts you any higher in God’s favor. In fact, it may be exactly the other way around. Those “things” can become objects of idolatry real fast.

Ancient Wendy’s Hamburger ad: “Where’s the Beef?”

John the Baptist: Where’s the fruit?

Ordinary people, and tax collectors, and Roman soldiers were there at the Jordan River that day. They didn’t have to be—they deliberately came out for the occasion. Maybe just to see the action. The “looky loos” who came to gawk and joke and have a good laugh. And yet somehow, they’re drawn in to what John has to say.

They call out to him: “What shall we do?”

Teacher, what should we do?” “Over, here, what about us?” And he tells them, each receiving a particular and pointed reply.

To those who have more than they need:

“Share what you have with those who don’t have any.”

To those who have power over others: “Don’t abuse it. Don’t abuse them.”

To those who made themselves great at the expense of other people:

“Be content with what you have; don’t threaten or tell lies about folks to get more stuff. You have enough.”

They were all wondering and questioning…Is this one The One? Will he be the fulfillment of all our hopes and expectations? Will he be the one who will set us free from the power of our enemies?

No: And we know that already. (Luke 1:72, the Benedictus Dominus Deus Israel, The Song of Zechariah, p. 92 in the BCP, paraphrased in Hymn 444 and sung every Sunday among us this Advent season) God’s promise to free the people is to be accomplished by another.

And John cuts that speculation off at the knees. “No, I’m not him. You ain’t seen nothing yet…”

He is great…I am little.

I baptize with water…he will baptize with Spirit and Fire.

(Immediately after which, of course, Jesus comes to be baptized and is revealed as the Beloved of God by the Holy Spirit, who then sends him out into the desert for forty days of spiritual boot camp—so it’s not all sweetness and light by any means. But that’s another sermon altogether…)

And so in this way, “with many other exortations, John preached the good news to the people.” Good news here = evangelion, “gospel”, but in a rather intensified form. It’s not “preaching” in the sense of he’s over here talking to people over there—it’s more like he’s running around among them, sort of getting in their faces with it—rubbing it into them from himself. Anointing them in advance of what is to come, helping them get ready. “Exhortation” is related to the word we translate as “parable”…again, not just him shouting at the audience, but talking to them in their own language and context. You can imagine more of “What should we do—we have this situation…” and John telling them “This is what you should do, right away…don’t postpone for a moment.”

I was asking that same question on Friday afternoon. Maybe you were as well. “What should we do? Oh God, what can we do?” The news has been unrelenting, some facts and much speculation, and at the heart of it, a horrible horrible act of violence. A situation that should not be, and yet is altogether too common. Mental illness plus easy access to weaponry plus a culture that is addicted to violence in every form equals potential disaster—and so it was. And so it has been before, and doubtless shall be again.

“What should we do?” we cry out—and there will be conversations about this yet to come. I hope that there will be some good out of all this; that Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut will not only be known forever as another place of death and disaster, but somehow a place where a change began—how we as a people deal with mental illness, how we deal with violence, how we deal with the easy availability of firearms. But those are conversations for a future day.

Today, we grieve. We offer our prayers for those who have died, and more importantly for those who are suffering the unspeakable loss of their beloveds. Today we hold in remembrance not only these, but all who have died by massacre and violence not of their own making, the Holy Innocents in every place and time.

Today is the penultimate Sunday in Advent—traditionally called “Gaudete” Sunday, which means “Rejoice.” We sang “rejoice” at the introit; and again during the Psalm. We hear the call to rejoice in the epistle, Paul’s words to the Christians in the city of Philippi, and in the first reading from Zephaniah. In all of these places, the invitation to joy is not based on the circumstances in which those who hear the words find themselves—Zephaniah writes to people who have been carried off into exile in Babylon; Paul addresses a community of believers who are themselves facing persecution and possibly death. This rejoicing is not a call to merely enjoy oneself in the goodness of God’s creation—although that’s not a bad thing either. Listen again: “Rejoice in the Lord ALWAYS. I’ll say it one more time: Rejoice!”

Not “Be happy always.” Not “Everything is wonderful and sunshine and roses always.” But Rejoice in the Lord always. Take joy in God—when you feel like it, and even when you don’t. It’s always there for you, that joy and mercy and grace.

“And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds, through Christ Jesus.” We know that language; we hear it often at the end of the Eucharist. That peace—which is beyond comprehension, beyond outward circumstance, beyond any logic or worldly sense, but is wholly and Holy the gift of God—is more than the absence of conflict or anxiety or worry, though it includes those things too. This is the shalom of God, the well-being of the entire creation and every being in it, from the stars to the starfish to the sub-atomic particles. That peace, deep and wide and strong, which is yet to come, for which we pray, and which even now we experience by faith. We pray that peace for ourselves; we pray that peace for the families in Connecticut; we pray that peace for the world, to which Christ has come, and is coming, and shall come.

Let us pray.

Come to us, O Prince of Peace, and be with those who cry out in grief and loss today. Comfort them with your deep peace, draw them to yourself, and fill them with your light. You are the Redeemer of the world, O Christ; redeem these losses, that out of great evil, in your time great good may yet come. We ask this in your name, and in the power of your resurrection from the dead. AMEN.

Sandy Hook Elementary School, December 14, 2012

Charlotte Bacon, 6
Daniel Barden, 7
Rachel Davino, 29
Olivia Engel, 6
Josephine Gay, 7
Ana Marquez-Greene, 6
Dylan Hockley, 6
Dawn Hocksprung, 47
Madeline Hsu, 6
Catherine Hubbard, 6
Chase Kowalski, 7
Jesse Lewis, 6
James Mattioli, 6
Grace McDonnell, 7
Anne Marie Murphy, 52
Emilie Parker, 6
Jack Pinto, 6
Noah Pozner, 6
Caroline Previdi, 6
Jessica Rekos, 6
Avielle Richman, 6
Lauren Russeau, 30
Mary Sherlach, 56
Victoria Soto, 27
Benjamin Wheeler, 6
Allison Wyatt, 6

Rest eternal grant to them, O Lord . . .

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Advent 5, Year C, 9 December 2012

Malachi 5:1-9; Canticle 16; Philippians 1:3-11; Luke 3:1-6

Preached by Rev. Dr. Jason Haddox

“You keep us waiting.
You, the God of all time,
Want us to wait.
For the right time in which to discover
Who we are, where we are to go,

Who will be with us, and what we must do.
So thank you … for the waiting time.”
~ John Bell

Where were you, and what were you doing, when you got the news? The news that changed your life forever. “We’re going to have a baby.” “The war is over.” “It’s cancer.” “I want a divorce.” “The Twin Towers just collapsed.”

You remember that moment. The room where you were standing; the people to whom you were speaking. You remember feeling the world shift. It didn’t matter if the news was wonderfully good or unspeakably bad. Regardless, it threw you, and everything around you, into a spin, and a place where nothing seemed to hold together. Where everything was in confusion and chaos.

“On such a day, in such a year, at such a place, when so-and-so was ruling in the capital city…something happened.” The author of the Gospel of Luke, and the Book of Acts, tells the reader over and over where and when these things are taking place. This is very much a Lucan concern, from the very beginning of the Gospel:

“Since many have undertaken to set down an orderly account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed on to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses…I too decided…to write an orderly account…so that you may know the truth concerning the things about which you have been instructed.” (Luke 1:1-4)

“In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberias, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruling in Galilee...the word of God came to John, son of Zechariah, in the wilderness around the Jordan.” Not once upon a time in a kingdom far away, but in a real place at a real time. Not just any place, of course. The wilderness—the place where God’s people had wandered forty years, led by the pillar of cloud in the daytime and the pillar of fire by night. The place where they encountered God as both demanding and protecting; as requiring obedience and steadfast faith, and yet always there for them regardless of their frequent disobedience and faithlessness.

And not just any wilderness—the desert, the uninhabited area away from towns and villages, the desolate, parched places near the Jordan River. The border country; the place where years earlier God’s people had passed through the water together and entered into the promised land.

It is here—in a place resonant with the echoes of God’s saving acts—that John the Baptizer appears.

He comes “proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” Baptism, and the use of water in a variety of religious cleansing rites, was not unknown in those days—many religious sects within Judaism used water for ritual purification, as well as ordinary washing. John’s baptism is of a particular sort—to signify a change of heart and action in the one so baptized, and to prepare the participants for the arrival of God’s kingdom. And so Luke explains this baptism, and the ministry of John the Baptizer, by quoting the prophet Isaiah:

The voice of one crying in the wilderness:

“Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.
Every valley shall be filled,
and every mountain and hill shall be made low,
and the crooked shall be made straight,
and the rough ways made smooth:
and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”

It is for this that John baptizes—to prepare the way of God’s arrival, in the lives and hearts of those who have begun to suspect, even ever so faintly, that something is about to change. That something big is on the way, something for which “getting ready” is necessary.

Last week I had the honor of visiting Erin and Carson Scott at University Hospital. Something big had arrived on November 30th, something that had indeed created enormous change in their lives. Ehlana Orin Scott is not large of body, but her coming has been the source of “Getting ready” for many people. And now that she has come, the beginning has come to an end, and a new beginning is underway, the beginning of something even more wonderful and amazing. For this one life has already affected many other lives, and will continue to do so for years, decades, maybe centuries yet to come. The transition from “getting ready” to “here she is, the new life has begun” is so quick.

We are in Advent—the season of “getting ready.” And it’s not just about getting ready for the baby in the manger on Christmas Eve, much less trying to recreate some sort of Norman Rockwell-meets-Andy Griffith fantasy about picture-perfect holiday gatherings. I don’t know any perfect people. Truth be told, I don’t think you do either. A friend of mine shared a thought with me last week, what she called her “Advent Mantra—‘Christmas will come even without a , and Martha Stewart's not coming by to judge.’”

John the Baptizer is calling his hearers to get ready—in every way—for what is already coming. He is not calling them to somehow make themselves into perfect specimens of humanity, “OR ELSE.” He’s inviting them to recognize God’s kin-dom already showing up among them, and to act in harmony with it. To cease from acquisition of power and possessions; to share what they have with those who are in need of even the basics; to see in the face of a neighbor or stranger the very image and likeness of God.

The repentance of which John speaks (and will speak further in the gospel next week) is not about feeling miserably sorry for past misdeeds. There may be need for something like that, but that’s not really the point either. Repentance—metanoia—turning around, changing the mind, changing the direction in which you’re going when you realize “I don’t want to go that way, I don’t want to live like that.” The ah-ha moment. Maybe dramatic and public—Paul on the road to Damascus; Peter in the house of Cornelius the Roman military officer—maybe private and known only to one person or a few—the alcoholic who wakes up one morning and decides “Enough—today I quit this behavior,” and takes himself to an AA meeting.

It is the practice—sustained over time—of taking on the kingdom values for oneself, even in the face of cultural and societal expectations that run completely counter to those values. Love God above all things; Love your neighbor as yourself. Then, and now, it is radical stuff.

This is the call of Advent. In the midst noise and chaos—a call to silence, and deep listening. In the midst of seemingly limitless consumption and desire—a call to simplicity and gratitude. In the midst of temptation to give in to despair and anxiety—a call to live lives of hope, faith, and love, in which all people shall see and know the salvation of God.

May it be so with us;

May it be so among us.

Friday, October 12, 2012

19 Pentecost, Year B, 7 October 2012

Job 1:1; 2:1-10; Psalm 26; Hebrews 1:1-4; 2:5-12; Mark 10:2-16

Preached by Rev. Dr. Jason Haddox

The Righteous, we are told by the psalmist this morning, will walk on level ground. “I have lived, and will live, with integrity.”

Sounds pretty good for the most part. Live the right way; do the right things (and avoid the wrong ones) and all will be well. Presumably that means in the opposite case, that the one who does not live righteously, who does all the wrong things and breaks the rules will be punished. We sort of like that idea—it certainly undergirds our notions of justice, and many of our modern public discussions (or battles) over a number of hot-topic issues. The deserving should be rewarded and the undeserving passed over; the good people should get the good stuff, and the wicked ones cast into outer darkness. We want (or we think we want) everyone to get what they deserve.

Here’s the problem: It doesn’t work that way. In spite of his protestations of right behavior, nevertheless the Psalmist is asking for God’s mercy. He (or she) pleads for a favorable judgment against foes and adversaries: “Give judgment for me, O Lord…redeem me and have pity upon me.” Something is already amiss; something has gone terribly wrong. How is it, that those who do the right thing often are not rewarded; or even worse (or so we think) that those who blatantly do the wrong thing are not punished?

It’s not FAIR! We screech in our best five-year-old temper-tantrum voice…internally or externally. I don’t deserve this—this sickness, this hardship, this unemployment, this struggle. And mostly, we are right to say so. Because mostly it’s not about deserving. Mostly, IT happens. IT happens to everyone. We can tell our own stories of when IT happened to me; we can tell other stories, of people we know and love, when IT happened to them.

This morning we begin to read the book of Job. Whom, we are told from the beginning, is a righteous man, who honors God and oversees the well-being of his family and those around him; who pays all his bills on time and gives generously to those in need; who goes to the gym every morning and works out, does his cardio workout and eats plenty of leafy green vegetables…and yet. And yet. In one day (the passage is omitted from the reading this morning) IT happens: Job loses all ten of his children in a terrible accident; he loses all of his livestock and slaves to foreign invaders; and now he loses health and strength and bodily comfort as well.

Thus begins the story of Job, written centuries before the time of Jesus. The book of Job is the closest thing we have in scripture to a theatrical play, with a cast of actors and dramatic speeches on all sides. It takes as its subject a sustained inquiry into the ways of God, which do not always make sense to us human beings. Perhaps there is a pattern, or a plan we can’t see. Perhaps God is intending something in all of this, which is yet beyond our comprehension. Perhaps it’s just random—as the bumper sticker has it, “Stuff Happens”, no pattern or plan at all. The fact is, we don’t know. It remains beyond our ability to know, in the sense of possessing sufficient factual evidence to construct a plausible scenario according to the rules of human logic. God is beyond human logic, as Job will find out.

When Job’s friends come to comfort him, they sit with him on the ground for seven days and seven nights, in absolute silence. No one says a word… “For they saw that his suffering was very great.”

I have often counseled families who are in mourning, after losing a loved one, that they are now in the ding-dong zone. The Ding-Dong Zone is that emotionally fragile time where friends and neighbors mean to be comforting, but often try too hard and say things that don’t really help at all. They mean well…BUT.

For which reason, Job’s friends (in this at least) are a good example. They sit with him in silence. They don’t try to explain, or excuse, or make it all better. They do not fill the silence with chatter to relieve their own discomfort. They simply go to be with him. They are there to weep with him. And for then, that is enough.

When IT happens, all explanations are hollow.

Only later, when there has been silence, and weeping, and rage; when IT has been received and acknowledged and dealt with insofar as possible, can explanation and interpretation possibly begin to unfold. And that is what happens in this morning’s second reading, from the Letter to the Hebrews.

It’s not really a letter at all—it’s a sermon or teaching document, looking at the ministry of Jesus, using the work and ministry of the high priest in the Jerusalem temple as an interpretive key. Over and over the writer (who was not St. Paul, by the way) contrasts the ministry of the earthly priest in the temple with the ministry of Jesus, understood to be the heavenly pattern and perfection of the earthly temple ministry.

The writer of the letter to the Hebrews is trying to make sense of what has happened: Christ died and was buried; Christ was raised, and was seen by many before his ascension and return to God. Who is this Jesus after all, and how are we to understand him? The writer makes significant claims for who Jesus is—listen again to the opening lines: (1:3-4)

“He is the reflection of God's glory and the exact imprint of God's very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word. When he had made purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, having become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs.”

And yet…and yet. In spite of this magnificent beginning (from the beginning, IN the beginning, was the Word…echoes of the gospel of John, itself echoing the first chapter of Genesis), in spite of all these amazing credentials, nevertheless… “we…[have seen] Jesus, who for a little while was made lower than the angels, now crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.”

Somehow that suffering, in his arrest and trial, at the hands of the Roman soldiers and as he hung on the cross had meaning in it, or perhaps meaning was found out later. “Christ died, and was buried; Christ rose, and was seen.” (I Cor. 15: 3-5) The suffering alone is only suffering, even for Jesus; when IT happened, IT required the others, watching and waiting, in silence, to discover that IT was more than just suffering. To see the resurrection on the third day, and thus begin to understand what could God be up to, in THIS?

In “tasting death for everyone”, Jesus participates fully in what it means to be human. There is nothing left out, from birth to death, that he does not undergo as part of the human experience. And so there is no part of our human experience that gets left out of his redeeming, saving work.

When IT happens in our lives—the deaths, the undeserved sufferings, the stuff that makes us look up and ask WHY?—we may not get the answer we’re looking for at all. Because mostly we’re not looking for explanations. We’re looking for someone to be with us. Someone to sit on the ground and weep with us. Someone to help us feel that we are loved, and that we have not been abandoned, and that we will be able to take the next breath, the next step. That light and life and love will come again, even into the midst of our own loss and grief and pain.

Our gospel this morning adresses a subject that has caused enormous loss and grief and pain in many lives. Every person in this room has been touched by divorce, either their own or that of someone close to them. It is part of the world in which we live. The Pharisees are looking to get Jesus into trouble—the verse immediately prior to the section we heard read tells us that they are back in Judea near Jerusalem. In their world, King Herod the Not-So-Great and his courtiers made a regular practice of divorce and remarriages for political advantage, at times between family members of blood kinship. So it may be that this passage is reflecting a political soap opera going on in the background. Again—we don’t know.

We do know that Jesus has been preaching the kin-dom of God from the beginning. He is always directing hearers in a consistent direction: That God, who created all things and called them good, desires the well-being of all the creation and everyone in it. That the world and all who dwell therein have one Maker, and share one source and one ultimate goal. And that when we lose sight of that, and start drawing lines in the sand and circles to keep one another apart, we’ve missed the point altogether. “What God has joined together” doesn’t just mean the bride and groom on their wedding day; it means you and me and all of us together in this world, along with the stars and the starfish and the sub-atomic particles. We are all part of one another, at the heart of things. We may try to divide ourselves from one another—and we do try. We may imagine that we can just walk away, not look back, you go your way and I’ll go my way—but life in God’s creation really doesn’t work like that.

One of my wisdom people, a great mentor and priest in New Jersey (who was himself divorced many years before I knew him) made the comment that “You can’t “un-marry” someone. You always have them with you, regardless.”

This gospel passage and others like it have been misused over the years, creating guilt and shame, to keep people in miserable and even violent relationships that had long since lost any quality resembling Holy Matrimony. That is no longer AS true as it used to be—although we could all tell stories about people we know, for whom that twisting of the Gospel is still operative. Although I suppose there are persons who thoughtlessly get married and then divorced, I don’t think I know any. (Well, maybe one. But he’s got much bigger issues that have yet to be addressed…) No one I know goes into marriage “unadvisedly or lightly” as the Prayer Book says, and part of my ministry as a priest is to help folks who are intending to get married to do so with the best possible preparation available, so that they can be successful in their marriages.

But sometimes IT happens there too. For whatever reason, under whatever circumstances may be operative.

And there also, in the midst of loss and brokenness and shame and anger and all the other attendant emotions that may show up, we look for God’s presence. We look for Jesus’ word to his followers on that Sunday evening in the upper room: Peace be with you. We look for the Holy Spirit to come with fire for cleansing and healing; with breath for life and renewal. We look for Grace, believing always that it is indeed holy, transforming, Amazing Grace that saves us, and restores us, and that will lead us home to God, who created us in his image and likeness and loves us always, even (especially) in the midst of the IT of our lives.

We don’t always get to know what God is up to, in our lives or in the lives of other people. Occasionally we get a glimpse—the tapestry gets flipped over for a moment, and instead of random threads going every which-a-way we see the big picture. But mostly we’re on the back of the tapestry, trusting that even if we don’t understand, even if we don’t see anything sensible in all this, that God is still God, and that we need not be afraid. As people of faith (and even just the tiniest little mustard seed bit of it some days; and some days we have to go next door to borrow some because we are all out ourselves), we hold fast to the belief that God is always present.

That Bidden or Unbidden, God will be there.

Friday, October 5, 2012

18 Pentecost, Year B, 30 September 2012

Esther 7:1-6, 9-10; 9;20-22; Psalm 124; James 5:13-20; Mark 9:38-50

Preached by Rev. Dr. Jason Haddox

The Animal Channel has a reality/pet care show entitled “My Cat From Hell.” For those of us who own cats (or who are owned by them) this is an intriguing title, and one that I thought worthy of investigation when I discovered it. The story line is always the same: The pet owners apply to be on the show because their cat (or cats) are acting out in some way that is disrupting the household. The cat guru (a tattooed rock-n-roll musician by the unlikely name of Jackson Galaxy) comes to the house, meets the humans and the cat, observes their interactions, and helps them figure out what’s really going on. Inevitably, there is some source of distress that is upsetting the cat, and the cat is responding to that upset. Remove the source of distress, and the cat will relax and be just fine. And the signal of that relaxing is when the cat allows its belly and chest to be exposed to the humans.

The willingness to expose one’s vulnerable places to other human beings is a signal of great trust. The opening of the midline—from neck to navel—in felines, or canines, or in humans—is a gesture of absolute openness. Arms spread, defenses lowered, hands open to give and to receive. Very different from arms crossed, hands made into fists, tensed to strike, the gestures of self-protection and immanent combat.

The disciples seem to be ready for combat this morning. They have seen someone, someone not of their inner circle, an outsider, who is casting out demons in Jesus’ name, and they want to know what to do about this interloper on their turf.

We know that instinct. That all-too-human habit of drawing lines, and circles, and classifying things and people into “like” and “unlike”, “Us” and “Them.” It is a way of protecting ourselves from the unknown. And it’s a useful way of dealing with the world to a point, but past that point it can become more of a problem than a solution.

Both our Epistle reading from the Letter of James this morning, and the gospel passage from Mark are dealing with this inside/outside dichotomy. In the church, and often here at St. Augustine’s, we use the language of “Family” to describe ourselves. The problem with that language is that in scripture, “Family” in Jesus’ time was not what we think of when we use that word. A family meant more than just Mom, Dad and 2.5 kids. Multiple generations lived together in a household, with attendant slaves, indentured servants, and various others. When Jesus or Paul or other New Testament writers use the language of “brothers and sisters” to address the followers of Jesus, they are making a very particular claim about what that relationship is, or at least ought to be. That concern for one another—and that willingness to be open and present to one another—is a remarkable thing.

The middle of the gospel passage is terrifying. We can’t just take it at face value, and yet people try to do just that. The early Christian teacher and writer Origen cut off his “boy parts” because he felt that that was the only way he could avoid temptation to sin. Which is one way to do it, I suppose. But I don’t think that most of us are going to do anything of the kind…and Jesus knew that. So what’s really going on here?

An exasperated parent says to a child: “I’ve told you a million times—don’t exaggerate!” This is called hyperbole: Figures of speech deliberately drawn so absurdly large as to be laughable, but impossible to miss.

Jesus is using hyperbole to be sure—but the context is an accumulation of the disciples “not getting it.” Over and over they have seen for themselves, they have touched with their own hands and heard with their own ears and tasted with their own mouths the miraculous and outrageous and just plain WEIRD quality of what Jesus has been sharing with them. This “kingdom of God” that he keeps talking about, utterly confounds all the ordinary expectations they’ve been carrying around. He’s just gotten through telling them that the image, the icon of power in this way of living is complete powerlessness, that it looks very much like a little child—who is utterly dependent, utterly trusting in someone outside of itself for everything. And then John—JOHN, the beloved disciple, the closest of all to Jesus, the one who leans against Jesus’ heart at the last supper—asks if they should try to stop someone who is doing good in Jesus’ name “because he’s not doing it the way we do it.”

Jesus surely must have done another double face-palm on this. And in annoyance and perhaps amusement decides to just go with it. “Okay, fine. Have it your way. You want to talk about power like that? You want to condemn other people because they are not doing my Father’s will according to your gameplan? Let’s talk about YOU for a bit. Who is the powerful? Who is the wise guy? Who is the one who’s got it all together? You? You there? Oh really?”

He’s turning on them—more than a little bit—using exaggerated imagery and an over-the-top preaching style to make the point. Which is, NOBODY has got it perfectly together all the time. No one always knows what God is up to, even in their own lives, let alone the life or ministry of someone else in the Christian household. I may not like the message that the pastor of First Church of What’s Happening Now is preaching—but maybe God is doing something through him. I may think that the writings of some Christian author are really drippy and sentimental and vacuous, but who am I to say that the Holy Spirit cannot use those words, and that writer?

Psalm 131: “O Lord, I am not proud; I have no haughty looks. I do not occupy myself with great matters; nor with things that are too hard for me.” We meditated on that text at our Wonderful Wednesday gathering this week. I have a facial expression that Shannon calls my “You are too stupid to live” look—and I realized that I probably need to cut that out. It’s not helping me, or anyone else, to use that look on someone.

“It is better to cut off parts of yourself, than to throw a rock in the path of another believer.” Not body parts, but parts that interfere with others’ and our own growth in faith.

This concern with caring for others, with making a generous space for others in the household of faith, does not mean we cease to be ourselves, any of us. And it does not mean putting up with abuse, couched in religious language. But it does call us to mutual forbearance, to always look to the well-being of one another as a first principle. And in that, to be vulnerable and open to one another. To hold the position of vulnerability, which is the position of prayer—the Orans position. Breast and belly exposed, hands uplifted and open. To model that in our bodies and in our spirits. To tell the truth about ourselves—that we are NOT perfect, that things are not always “oh just fine, thanks very much.” We cannot possibly follow the instructions of the letter of James—“Pray for one another, that you may be healed” if we are closed off and hiding from one another. We cannot be the body of Christ if we dis-member our own selves from one another.

Jesus is not encouraging anyone to “dis-member” themselves this morning. Quite the opposite. He is urging them to “re-member” who they really are, and WHOSE they really are, and how very LARGE their new family of faith is—and especially to look after and care for those who are on the edges. The little ones, the least of these, the children, the most vulnerable.

To do this—to pay attention to those on the edge, in “re-memberance” of Jesus, himself marginalized, vulnerable, crucified and raised from death on the third day by the power of God—is to participate in the kin-dom of Christ, the household of faith, in this world, in our own time.

May it be so for us.

May it be so among us.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

16 Pentecost, Year B, 16 September 2012

Proverbs 1:20-33; Psalm 19; James 3:1-12; Mark 8:27-38

Preached by Rev. Dr. Jason Haddox

Who are your “wisdom people?” The people you know, and who know you even better than you know yourself, to whom you turn when you need to get a grip on reality. We’ve all got such people in our lives. The ones who are intimately in touch with the way things are at the roots, deep down in the heart of the universe. Perhaps a parent, or a grandparent. Perhaps someone who is, for you, what the early Celtic Christians called an anamchara—a friend of the soul.

Our first lesson this morning describes the character and actions of Wisdom in its most perfect form. Wisdom is portrayed as the personification (and mouthpiece) of God’s power and intelligence. She (and note that it is “she”, sometimes called “Lady Wisdom” in the biblical commentaries) represents God’s spirit and presence in the world and human activity, and she is held as an example for all people who are themselves wise enough to know their own limitations. “Wisdom” is not intellect as such, nor cleverness, nor formal education—but something else altogether. We all have “wisdom people” who are in touch with the way things are, deep down at the roots.

And we all have folks who are quite the opposite of wisdom people in our lives. The letter of James gives an indirect description of such a person in this morning’s passage about the power of the tongue. We see this power all around us, especially now as the November elections approach, with seemingly endless talking, regardless of the truth of the statements made, regardless of the chaos and ill-will and misery that such statements may create. The author of James pleads with his hearers to be distinctly different in their lives, and in their speech. He invites them to silence, or at least to think before opening their mouths. A humorous bumper sticker prayer I saw years ago said it well: Dear God, let my words this day be sweet and tender, for tomorrow I may have to eat them.

When I worked for Retriever Payment Systems in Houston, a good friend of mine shared an office with a woman—let’s call her Kate—who was the opposite of a wisdom person. She was loud and brash and self-absorbed, and from my cubicle I could frequently hear her talking all the way down the hall. On such occasions I would send my friend an email: “Tell her to put a sock in it!” Eventually this got shortened to a one-word note: “Sock!” I once left a clean white gym sock in a ball on my friend’s desk, and a few minutes later heard her unmistakable guffaw when she found it, followed by a barrage of “Oh GROSS! What is that nasty sock doing on your desk?”

Once I walked into the lunchroom and found Kate rattling on about something her husband had done, or failed to do, concluding with the statement: “I don’t know why I have this terrible temper, God just gave me this terrible temper, but hell hath no fury like a woman. That’s in the Bible, you know.” (It’s not, by the way…but you knew that already.)

I wanted to ask her: Do you even want to be less angry? Less agitated every single day when you come to work? You can, you know. There are other ways to live—but you’ll have to let go of some old ways. You’ll have to let those ways and habits of yours die.

Jesus and the disciples are on the road, near Caesarea Philippi.

1) Jesus asks them: Who do people say I am? They reply: Some say this one, some say that one, and some say someone else…finally Peter answers “You are the Messiah,” the Christ, the chosen messenger of God. Immediately Jesus warns them not to tell anyone about this (Which is a guarantee that it’s gonna get told!)

2) Jesus responds to their reply: Guess what friends? Following the Messiah isn’t going to mean what you think—it’s not gonna be a ticker-tape parade down Broad Street with a brass band playing Seventy-Six Trombones! It will take everything you’ve got and have ever thought you knew, and turn it inside out and upside down—life as you have known it gets redefined, right now.

(Back in seminary, Professor Charlie Cook used to tell us, “You shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free; but first it will make you strange!”)

3) Continuation of (2), Jesus speaks to the crowds who are following him around…the shadow of the cross is falling chronologically “backward” into this narrative, though Jerusalem is still some distance away. But of course the hearers/readers were hearing the story well after the fact, and perhaps experiencing some kind of persecution, or struggle, in “carrying their own cross” as well. “Those who lose their life will save it; those who try to hold on to their life will lose it.”

This paradoxical statement signals that we’re dealing with more than just bumper-sticker feel-good pop spirituality. But understand also, that what Jesus is saying is not a dreary call to an endless succession of Good Fridays either. This is the Gospel, after all, which means “good news.”

Here’s the news, here’s the paradox: In the dominion of God, in the Kingdom of heaven to which Jesus is always directing his followers, the distinction is about the attitude and behavior of holding on. Clinging tightly to “the things that make for life”—whatever we think those may be—versus refusing to cling, but holding rather lightly.

When we remain open and trusting, in ways that lay us open to mistreatment and abuse, we are not playing it safe. This is a vulnerable posture, to be sure. Chest and belly exposed, arms extended and hands open—it looks just like the cross. It looks just like Jesus, whose hands on the cross were not balled into fists to strike out against his abusers, but who opened his hands and prayed, and continues to pray, for them and for us: Father, forgive them, they don’t know what they’re doing.”

To go about in the world, to live lives marked by refusing to seize power or status or possessions, refusing to cling, refusing to meet abuse and violence with the same abuse and violence, but praying also for forgiveness for enemies, to manifest love and joy and peace, patience and kindness and goodness, control of the tongue and control of the emotions—this is to be very STRANGE indeed. It is a rejection of the ways of the world around us, to say (in word and deed) that we belong to another sort of world.

The early Christians thought of themselves not only as part of the Body of Christ, the brothers and sisters of Jesus himself, but citizens of God’s kingdom even now. They lived in Rome and Antioch and Athens, and Canterbury and London and Edinburgh, and Savannah and Atlanta and even Augusta and Grovetown, but they knew that their true citizenship, their true identity, was not limited to earthly geography. They were citizens of the heavenly Jerusalem, on a journey, a pilgrimage, to their true and eternal home.

This was the wisdom that gave them courage, and strength, and joy, and the peace that passes all understanding and human comprehension. They did not have to ask “Who do people say that we are?” They knew who they were, and whose they were—and no earthly power system could shake their confidence in that wisdom and knowledge.

May it be so for us as well. May it be so among us today.

Monday, September 10, 2012

15 Pentecost, Year B, 9 Sept. 2012

James 2:1-10 [11-13] 14-17; Mark 7:24-37

Preached by Rev. Dr. Jason Haddox

This morning, when you got ready for church, did you…

…have more than one pair of shoes to choose from?

…have more than one kind of food available for breakfast?

…have another way to get here besides walking?

Congratulations! You’re rich! At least, richer than 95% of the population of the world.

We hear the first lesson this morning from Proverbs, contrasting the value of right behavior against merely having and acquiring wealth for its own sake, that “a good name” is better than riches; a good reputation has greater value than silver and gold in abundance. That rich people and poor people alike are God’s creatures, and one group has no superiority over the other merely by virtue of having more of the world’s goods. That in sharing what we have, who are rich in so many ways, we honor God, who is present in those who are in need.

The letter to James goes even further with this: the famous one-two punch of the letter is the conclusion of today’s portion: Faith, without works, is dead.

How can faith be seen, the writer asks, if it does not show itself in some outward and visible way? If favoritism and class status hold sway in your assemblies, O church, and those whom Christ loves especially (the little ones, the poor ones, the marginalized ones) are further pushed aside and ignored, how can you call yourselves followers of Christ?

The author is essentially accusing the readers of functional atheism—that is, they say that they are following the ways of God, but give no evidence of anything of the kind. They say “We believe in God the Father, maker of heaven and earth” but apparently have forgotten the words of the writer of Proverbs: “The rich and the poor have this in common: the Lord is the maker of them all.” All means all; nobody gets special status over and against the others.

And this is a lesson we have trouble with, we inhabitants of planet earth. We love to draw circles and lines and build walls and borders and say “We’re here; you stay over there. You’re not us; we are not you.” We rejoice in our supposed specialness and look askance at “them people,” however defined. We forget the Great Commandment, or what the author of James calls “the royal law…You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

And so God continues to push us out of our self-crafted envelopes and safety zones, out into the big scary places where borders and lines and circles break down and dissolve into meaninglessness. Out to the margins where things are fuzzy and hazy, where God can sneak into our lives, and open us up in ways we don’t expect.

Jesus is on the margin this morning, in the region of Tyre, way up north away from Galilee. He’s in gentile territory for sure—surrounded by “them people”—because things were getting a bit too hot to handle back home. After beginning a significant ministry, which included the feeding of five thousand people with twelve big baskets of bread and fish left over afterward, Jesus has attracted the attention of the religious leadership, who do not like what he’s up to. Who are suspicious that he is already pushing the envelope too far, and who come all the way from Jerusalem to see what this itinerant rabbi is doing. His cousin John the Baptizer has been put to death by Herod the not-so-Great, and Jesus and the disciples have removed themselves into foreign parts for a while.

“He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there. But a woman, whose little girl had an unclean spirit, immediately heard about him.” I wonder what she heard? That he was able to heal those who were sick; that he had fed five thousand people with miraculous bread and fish? That he was on the run from his own people in Galilee and Jerusalem?

In any case she comes to him, in faith and desperation equally mixed. You know what that feels like when you are in a situation—both believing that God can do something for the person you love, and desperately unsure even what to ask for.

She is a woman (Strike one); a non-Jew (strike two); and a citizen of a community with which ancient Israel had a thorny relationship at best (strike three.) And Jesus himself has not discovered just how God is pushing him out of the comfort zone.

“It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” The children of Israel, as far as Jesus was concerned, were the proper objects of his ministry, and no one else. He was not sent to minister to “them people” outside the covenant community. And let me be clear: For a male, a rabbi, an observant Jew, to call a gentile woman “DOG” is not a compliment. Period.

The woman will not be dissuaded—in fact, she gives back as good as she gets. “True, sir (the word could also be translated “Lord”), yet even the dogs under the table eat the children’s leftovers.” It’s a bit of a slap—she knows somehow that the mission in Galilee has not been completely well-received, that there are indeed plenty of “leftovers” that the “Children” have refused or ignored or turned up their noses at. She calls Jesus out!

And he is able to hear that—and respond to it, in a way that I think even surprised him. He turns around—commits an act of repentence. Metanoia. “For that, go—you have what you asked.” And she went, and found the child safe and sound.

Jesus goes back to Galilee, back into familiar territory, back to those with whom he feels far more at home. And there he encounters a man who is both deaf and unable to speak clearly. He heals this man of both his deafness and his speech impediment, and he uses a wonderful, strange word: Ephphatha. Say it with me. Ephphatha. It means “be opened.” It’s one of the words that we think Jesus truly used, because it’s Aramaic, the language that Jesus spoke. Ephphatha—be opened. And the man’s ears were opened, to hear Jesus speaking to him; the man’s mouth was opened, to share the words he heard Jesus saying, and to tell what Jesus had done for him. And then he wouldn’t shut up!

Ephphatha—be opened. Opened to the voice of God speaking; open to speaking the words of God to those nearby. Both the deaf man and Jesus himself underwent an experince of being opened, to discover something new and startling and life-changing in this morning’s gospel. Neither the deaf man, nor Jesus himself, could ever experience the world in quite the same way again.

Pray with me:

Give us, O God, the gift of ephphatha—open our ears, and eyes, and hearts, to see and hear and speak and tell of your love and mercy and grace in our lives, to those nearby, in this world, this day. Help us to know and love our neighbors as ourselves, as you have known and loved us from the beginning, in Jesus Christ our Lord.

Monday, August 27, 2012

12 Pentecost, Year B, 19 August 2012

Ephesians 5:15-20; John 6:51-58

Preached by Rev. Dr. Jason Haddox

Jesus said: “I am the Living Bread, which comes down from heaven… Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.”

“The Jews disputed among themselves: How can this man give us his flesh to eat?”

How indeed? It’s a shocking, revolting image if we take it literally. The notion of eating the flesh of another human being crosses into the forbidden zones of human culture; the idea of drinking the blood of another person is equally gruesome. We cannot interpret this passage merely at face value. Something else is at work here.

Jesus is still very much alive as the story is being told; on the previous day, from a few loaves of bread and a few small fish, he has provided enough food for five thousand people. The use of bread as a symbol of life and sustanence is very old. For Jesus’ first hearers, the image of the bread of the ancestors refers to the manna, the mysterious food that had sustained the children of Israel during their 40 years wandering in the wilderness. Any bread, even the most ordinary, is a complex object and symbol, full of meaning. This series of images, from the feeding of the five thousand through today’s passage of the gospel are not “just” about ordinary eating and drinking in any case.

“Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.” Jesus is no longer physically present among his followers by the time these words were first written down and read aloud. And yet they understood him to be present with them, among them, in their eating and drinking together.

We will hear Jesus say something like that later on, in the Upper Room on the night before his arrest and trial and crucifixion. “Abide in me” he tells his followers “as I abide in you. Those who abide in me, and I in them, bear much fruit; apart from me you are rootless and fruitless and barren.” (John 15: 4-5)

In that upper room, as John the evangelist tells the story, the bread and wine of the Last Supper are not mentioned. Jesus washes the feet of his friends, and then teaches them what that means for them. As a result of what he has done among them and with them, they will now go and do these things among and with others, who will themselves become the friends and followers of Jesus. They will wash feet, and teach others to do so as well. They will eat and drink together, and teach other table companions how to recognize Jesus present among them as they do so.

Abide in Me, Jesus tells them. Remain and live and flourish, in and through my life growing in and through you.

This “abiding,” this “remaining” is not geographic—because Jesus’ followers did not remain static in the places where he spoke to them. They went out, from that synagogue in Capernum where he was teaching them after the feeding of the five thousand. They went out from that Upper Room, where they ate and drank and had their feet washed, where they talked and questioned and sang and prayed. On the day of Pentecost, they went out from the place where they had been listening and waiting for the power of God to move in and through them. And even so, they continued to abide, to remain in deep contact and relationship, with Jesus and one another, wherever they went.

It is this same call to “abide in Christ,” to remain rooted and grounded in the life of the Spirit of God, to which the writer to the Ephesians calls his hearers. “Be filled with the Spirit,” he says, “singing and making melody to the Lord in your hearts, giving thanks to God at all times and for everything in the name of Jesus.”

Perhaps we need to add a line here, our own interpolation of Scripture.

“And the people of St. Augustine’s disputed among themselves: Giving thanks—at all times? For everything? Really?”

Here as before, a deeper reality is being brought forth into our awareness. The call to give thanks, always and everywhere (as we will say again in the liturgy in a few minutes) is not because everything is always easy and comfortable and hunky-dory. It’s not. Sometimes the circumstances of life are really truly awful—for us as individuals, for us as a community, or a nation, or as residents of planet Earth. We are worried about our children, or our parents. We wonder how we are going to pay the bills, or get through the next electoral cycle, or survive the next natural disaster predicted on the nightly news or the Hysterical Channel. We wonder what—if anything—can be done.

And that fear and anxiety can stop us in our tracks faster than anything else, more than even some imagined potential disaster itself. For it is still and always, FEAR—nothing more or less—that stops our breath, stops our hearts, seizes us with a cold hard death grip that seems unbreakable. We feel unable to move, unable to flee, unable to resist.

And it is precisely in that place, that hell of paralysis and panic and desperation, that we hear God’s invitation in Christ Jesus.

In Jesus’ call to remain and abide in him, in the call to give thanks—always and everywhere, regardless of circumstance or emotion—we receive the tools, as God’s beloved daughters and sons, to break that grip of fear. To say, to those powers and principalities of death and destruction, that regardless of circumstance, we have placed our trust in One who has faced the forces of fear and sin and death, and who in all these things has had the last word.

And what is that word?

Peace be with you. My peace, which is beyond all understanding and circumstance, be with you all.

It is this deep peace to which we are called, brothers and sisters. And it is this peace we are called to carry with us, and to share with those around us. Not a false peace based on domination of the powerful over the powerless; not an imposed peace that forces uniformity upon diversity of persons or points of view. But the peace of Christ, crucified and risen, who holds nothing back but gives himself in every way, that we may take the fullness of himself into ourselves, and so become his body, his blood, his life-force, in this world.

We eat the bread and drink the wine, which we call the Body and Blood, so that we may become the body and blood. We receive the outward and visible signs of the Sacraments so that we ourselves may become sacraments—outward and visible signs of the grace and mercy and peace and love of God in this world.

May it be so for us.

May it be so among us.

May it be so in this world, this place, this day.

Monday, August 13, 2012

11 Pentecost, Year B, 12 August 2012

2 Samuel 18:5-9, 15, 31-33; Psalm 130; Ephesians 4:25-5:2;

John 6:35, 41-51
Preached by Rev. Lou Scales

This particular time of the year makes predictable the images that will fill television, video screens, smart phones, notebooks, laptops, desktop computer screens and radio newscasts. The political primaries and runoffs are, for the most part, finished. As we prepare for the elections coming in November, we will spend much time and energy looking after what this or that candidate says (as compared to what he or she said about similar or different issues 3 or 5 or 10 or 25 years ago.)

As an example of what this has looked like in the past, eight years ago, in the hot summer of the national conventions when, like now, presidential nominations were at stake, one PBS news broadcast reported that there were approximately 5,005 Republican Convention Delegates, approximately 5,005 Republican Convention Alternate Delegates, and approximately 15,000 members of the media covering the words and actions of those delegates and alternate delegates, all present in Philadelphia that year. I don’t know, but I suspect the numbers will be similar in both Tampa and Charlotte this year. I’ll leave you to do the arithmetic and analysis about the extent and depth of coverage. Do I dare speculate that they were (and will be) listening to each other, or were they (and will they be) only talking to each other?

In either case, make no mistake, the words were and are important. What we say, and what we understand are critical to the ways we live and move and have our being. They are the ways we transmit ideas, and feelings and thoughts. They are the ways we provide guidance, orders, admonitions, warnings, praise, condemnation, despair and hope. It is with words that we encourage those who are downtrodden. It is with words we attempt to convey our efforts to solve the mysteries of disease and poverty, of peace and economic prosperity. It is with words that we search desperately for the viable alternatives to hostility and prejudice, hatred and war.

In Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, he speaks of falsehood, anger, thievery, evil talk, bitterness, wrath, wrangling, slander, malice, and grieving the Holy Spirit in general. And he was speaking to the Ephesians. Seems as though at times, Paul could just as easily been speaking to the Washingtonians, the Atlantans, the New Yorkers, …do I dare say the Augustans and even those in Columbia County? Paul points accurately to the ways we abuse our communication, sully our civil discourse, and make our basic conversations weapons of bloodless cruelty. Paul’s practical advice to the Ephesians, and to us, is, “This is no way to run a community, a village, a city, a state, a nation.” As you have probably noticed, there is seldom a week that passes without the media informing us of a politician, a city, county, state or federal official, who has come under fire for his or her use of words. Bottom line in some circles – What you say can get you fired.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus is discussing the kingdom in terms of his relationship with God, and how what God has provided to Jesus will be made known to those who come to him and follow him. John’s gospel has regaled us with the stories of what Jesus did at the sending out of the disciples, the feeding of the five thousand, his early morning stroll on the Sea of Galilee. Up to this point, the crowd is with him, soaking up the spectacular demonstrations as veritable signs from God that something really big is happening. Jesus, WE might say, is on a roll. Seeing is believing, and even the storm-tossed disciples in the boat could not for long speak of ghosts once Jesus stepped out of the water, into the boat, and told the sea to be quiet.

After being fed miraculously and well with only 5 loaves and two fish, the crowd that followed Jesus catches up with him again, but doesn’t seem to know what it wants from him. Jesus then explains to them his relationship with God, and why Jesus has come into the world. Philip Apol suggests that this is where, in John’s account, Jesus really gets himself into trouble. It’s almost as though, in John’s Gospel, it is what Jesus says, more than what he does, that finally brings him to grief. If only Jesus had allowed the miracles to speak for themselves, he might have avoided significant unpleasantness. His works were getting rave reviews; it was his words that got him crucified.

Words do matter. They matter in the context of interpreting the miracles so that they point to the kingdom of God, not just to themselves as mere grandstand parlor tricks. Jesus was so sure of this that he bet his life the words were necessary.

Words do matter. They matter in the context of how we live together as people of faith in the community of faith. Paul was just as sure that words spoken in love and compassion, words spoken in mercy and hope, words spoken that bring God’s grace to life before our eyes—these are words that bring the Kingdom of God into our midst.

In the sacrament of Holy Baptism, we welcome into the household of faith, really, really young people, young adults, and sometimes, those who have the wisdom of age and experience. This celebration of the Sacrament of Holy Baptism, as you well know, involves water, oil for anointing, and words. Words we ask the parents and godparents and other sponsors to say on behalf of our baptismal candidates; words we ask them to say concerning their commitment to these children and adults, and their growth in faith; words we, as a parish, as a church, affirm and support as we pledge to uphold them in their new lives in the Christian faith. Some of the things we will say are as old as the church itself. All of the things we say must be as new and renewing as God’s mercy every day.

Once the Sacrament of Baptism is completed, then the real work begins. Those children of God that we baptize in Christ’s name will continue that marvelous journey of growing and learning. And we will be here, showing them and telling them and teaching them. And, trust me, they will learn – for better and for worse.

We will teach them how valuable they are by the ways we regard and respect one another when they are around. They will see us in action; they will hear us in conversation. From us, these brand new Christians will learn compassion and caring, sarcasm and selfishness. They will be able to discern when we say words of grace and reconciliation, or when we say words of judgment and arrogance. We will teach them with our actions, and we will teach them with our words. In all these instances, let us ensure we teach all of them faithfully and well.

Our words and our actions matter in this business of faith, and in this business of living together as God’s people. I believe this, and I today I say it to you in the name of the Father, the Son and The Holy Spirit. AMEN.

9 Pentecost, Year B, 29 July 2012

2 Samuel 11:1-15; Psalm 14; Ephesians 3:14-21; Saint John 6:1-21

Preached by Rev. Lou Scales

You and I use the term “gifted” in much the same way Webster’s intended, that is, as an adjective, generally describing a person as having a natural ability or aptitude, or more notably describing someone with superior intelligence. With that kind of description, you and I generally think of the child prodigy whose talent and capabilities make them candidates for graduation from high school by the time they are 12 years old, and possessing masters’ degrees by the tender age of 15.

More cynically, we may even think of them compassionately with such observations as, “Oh, the poor dear will not have a normal childhood, no good friends, and will grow up without the normal childhood most of us come to label as good and desirable.” In fact, the most prevalent stereotype that comes to my mind is the somewhat condescending way we discuss “gifted” people as having enormous skills in difficult intellectual areas, but having very little of what we might call “common sense”. While they may be good at rocket science, they don’t possess the common sense, as it were, to “get in out of the rain”. In so many cases, people identified as “gifted” become targets of either our envy or our pity.

If this is, indeed, the case, I wonder what you might be thinking right now of Paul’s words to the Christians in Ephesus in general, and how we think about Paul’s observations and guidance today in particular.

I don’t know, but I suspect if someone asked you if you are a gifted person, you would probably mumble some kind of modest denial, and quickly try to shift the focus of the conversation. And you probably would do this for the very reasons we just mentioned. It would be considered rude and self-promoting to go around describing ourselves as gifted, because in routine conversation, we use the word “gifted” in much the same way we use the word “talented”. Since we generally understand “talented” to mean being better at something than most other people, it is generally prudent to be cautious about identifying ourselves in such a way.

Fr. Frank Wade reminds us that “being gifted in the Biblical sense, is not the same thing as being talented. Not all of us are talented, but by God’s design, all of us are gifted. As you heard earlier, at the reading of the Second Lesson, Paul tells us, “..each of us was given grace according to the measure of Christ’s gift. The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers…” Obviously, these examples do not exhaust God’s gift list. There are many, many ways to be gifted by God.

One way to understand these gifts is to see them as the raw material and the tools God gives us for a certain purpose. And that purpose, about which Paul is very clear, is for building the Body of Christ. You see, this is not about how we use our gifts for our own benefit. It’s about how we use our gifts to benefit this community of faith.

Our gifts may well be the obvious ones that come to mind immediately ~ like abilities, aptitudes, interests and enthusiasms. Some are less obvious, like the insights we have gained in growing up where we did, when we did. These are the wonderful insights that may well have been born of hard times. They are the insights we have from enjoying affluence, or enduring poverty; of working for education, or overcoming addiction; of stepping up to take responsibility, or surviving abuse. The GIFTS of our race, culture, economics, religion ~ the gifts of our heritage are all part of what we have to work with in life. And they are gifts.

You may have the gift of being high-strung or laid back; happy, serious, depressed, concerned, anxious, eager, funny, emotional, supportive or confrontive. Some of these gifts are not necessarily ones we would choose, but we have them ~ they are what has been given to us to be about the business of life in this world as God’s people. Who you are, in fact, is God’s gift to you.

Along with those gifts that make up who you are as a unique and wonderfully made Child of God, are the gifts all of us possess in some measure. These are the gifts of time, place and opportunity. It is up to us to use our gifts when we have the opportunity, where we have the chance. I guarantee you, there are many, many priests and pastors who could do a better job this morning bringing this sermon to you.

Only trouble is, they are not here ~ I am. The gift of being in this place, at this time, has been given to me, and not to someone far better qualified. It is, and is, for me, a profound gift of opportunity.

There may well be those who can sing God’s praise in a much richer way than you think you can. But if you are the one with the gifts of time, place and opportunity, it is up to you to use them for the glory of God, and the building of the Body of Christ.

We might think our gifts are meager, and not worth much. We might even wish we had other gifts, or had gifts that were like others we admire. But, my friends, we are who we are, and we have the gifts we have. No amount of wishing for different sets of gifts will change them. There’s a wonderful story from the Talmud about a man named Simon. Simon wanted always to be more like Moses ~ that was his constant worry. He kept going back to the Rabbi and saying, “Rabbi I must lead my life so that I live more like Moses did.” Finally, after many discussions on this, the Rabbi told Simon, “ Simon, God will not ask you why you were not more like Moses. God will ask you why you were not more like Simon.”

We have our own lives to live, and I do not know why you have the gifts you have, and I have the ones I have. I only know we have them for the same reason ~ to build the Body of Christ, which we call the church, to live in service for others, to uphold one another in our journeys of faith. That is the measure of God’s grace we have all been given.

When the disciples set out on the Sea of Galilee toward Capernaum, they did so after having their gifts tested to the maximum extent possible. In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus had earlier sent them out, two by two, to cast out unclean spirits, anoint the sick and heal them. Upon their return, they had to bury John the Baptist, beheaded as a gift to Herod’s stepdaughter. Then, on their way to a retreat, a crowd of people seeking to hear this Jesus overtook them. One thing led to another, and they managed to take what meager food they had, offer it to God for blessing, and feed five thousand people. Now they were headed for Capernaum, into a headwind against which they could barely make progress, no matter how hard they rowed. Modern day writers would call it sheer irony that the boat ride into the headwinds became the metaphor for the journeys they had just made. They used their gifts of Jesus’ power and their personalities to cast out demons, to heal the sick. But the more they did, the more people kept coming. In today’s language and action, the Apostles did all the things a committed church could and should do – they cast out the demons, they fed the hungry, they cared for those to whom they were sent, they prepared meals for the elderly, and they just couldn’t make any progress on their own, NOT UNTIL JESUS GOT IN THE BOAT WITH THEM.

Does it occur to you that we in the parish do all manner of good things in our communities, but sometimes overlook the basic and fundamental reason for us to do those things? And that reason is the call and the grace of the Risen Lord. The One who so marvelously gives us our gifts must be in our midst as we use those gifts to build the community of faith, to reach out to those who so desperately need to be touched by the grace of God, and the love of Christ.

We must continue giving our selves and our gifts of time and place and opportunity for the service of those around us, and in that process, we must never forget WHOSE we are, and WHO is present with us in all that we do. When we set out to row this ship we call the church out into the headwinds of this chaotic world and all the pain and frustration that is around us, we need to make sure Jesus is in the boat, calming the seas and blessing our gifts to serve the multitudes of people who so desperately need a Savior.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

6 Pentecost, Year B, July 8, 2012

2 Samuel 5: 1-5, 9-10; Psalm 48; 2 Corinthians 12: 2-10; St. Mark 6:1-13
Preached by Rev. Lou Scales

During the broadcast of the final round of the FedEx/St. Jude Golf Classic from Memphis on the 25th of June 2000, an interesting bit of conversation took place among the commentators during particular shots of one Loren Roberts (who, by the way, finished 8th and in the money that year). During Loren Roberts’s setup of a difficult birdie putt, the conversation turned to the observation that Roberts’ hometown is Memphis, and he wanted to do well before the hometown crowd. After all, doing well is what Loren Roberts’ fellow townspeople would expect.

In dealing with Mark’s Gospel for today from a slightly different and more extreme context, John Claypool relates the following story, credited to the works of Soren Kierkegaard. Kierkegaard tells of a traveling circus that moved from town to town in his native Denmark. One afternoon they had set up on the outskirts of a village. About 45 minutes before the performance was to begin, the circus tent caught fire. It so happened that the clown was the only one in the entire circus troop who was fully dressed, and so he was dispatched into the village to get help.

He did his job extraordinarily well. He apprized everyone he encountered of the emergency, and implored their assistance. However, the problem was that this one was dressed as a clown, and across the years people had developed certain expectations of this sort of person. Therefore, they heard him in light of how they saw him. They concluded that all these wild antics and talk of fire were simply a new way of drumming up a crowd. It was not until they looked on the horizon and saw the ominous red glow that they realized that at this moment, this one was not doing a clown act at all, but was a human being, bearing an extremely urgent message.

One has to wonder if the upstanding citizens of Nazareth had, over the years, seen much too much carpenter behavior out of Jesus. After all, he and his father Joseph had probably built cradles for their children, tables for taking their meals, perhaps even remodeled some of their houses as their family constellations, and therefore, their accommodation needs had changed over the years. This was Jesus, son of Joseph and Mary, the son of a carpenter; one who had grown up here, learned his father’s trade, and was a familiar part of the landscape of Nazareth.

Therefore, when they heard the words of a teacher, or a prophet, talking about things carpenters in those days didn’t discuss with much facility – it isn’t too surprising that they either sold him way short, ignored him completely, or worse, took exceeding offense that he should pretend to speak as someone other than a carpenter. Jesus was a familiar face, from a familiar family, and was expected to do and say familiar things. The past intruded upon the present in such a way that the words of the hometown hero fell on not only deaf, but probably hostile ears.

You and I have the capability to see what is before us in terms we understand from our history. And that capability is stronger and more certain than the possibility of hearing a new and relevant message from one of our own who may just be bringing the Saving Word.

But, for better or worse, that is who we are. That is how we learn. We learn from our experience. We learn from what we see, what we hear, what we observe. Then we translate those learnings into the rules by which we learn other things. But the danger in learning from experience is that it may keep us from the newest revelation from God, if that revelation is delivered by someone or something that is familiar to us. At its best, this is called familiarity – at its worst, it is called stereotyping or prejudice. I would suggest to you that ONE operational definition of prejudice and stereotyping is the inability to hear or experience something new and revealing from an all too familiar source. It is not only possible, but likely, that we resist insight if it comes from people we know, or people we have already written off.

A six year old lad came home with a note from his teacher in which it was suggested that he be taken out of school. He was, in the words of his teacher’s note, “Too stupid to learn. That boy was Thomas Alva Edison.

Benjamin Franklin’s mother-in-law to be, hesitated at letting her daughter marry a printer. There were already two printing presses in the United States, and she feared the country might not be able to support a third.

When Jesus came to Nazareth, talking differently, and about different things, he was rejected. What Jesus said, and how he said it, did not fit with what the people of Nazareth expected to hear from a carpenter, and a carpenter’s son (especially not the son of Mary and Joseph!) All Jesus was able to do then was set up a health clinic. In the words of Mark’s Gospel, “And he could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them.”

In some sense, no one wants to be the bearer of unwelcome news. Particularly if that news challenges the very fiber of the being, the very existence of that community, and the closely held cultural assumptions upon which communities build heritage, honor, and the deeply held belief that they are doing God’s will and following God’s commandments just as faithfully as their forebears did. If you happen to be the person bearing that news, you know full well the danger you encounter. Lots of folk, sometimes you and me included, upon hearing news we don’t want to hear, do the only reasonable and rational thing available to us – we shoot the messenger - right? After all, by shooting the messenger, the unwelcome and uncomfortable revelation will be made to go away, right?

Like you and me, if the Nazarenes could discredit the messenger, then that invalidates the message. And once the message is invalidated, we can ignore it, RIGHT? It is, then, as though we never heard it.

I want to give you two scenarios, diametrically opposed, that illustrate how we see the reality of God’s activity in human history as it sometimes crashes in upon us.

One is the report of the priest who gave Martin Luther his catechetical instruction. It seems that as he entered the room of his catechecism class, he always took off his hat and bowed to these children of coal miners. When asked why he did this, the priest replied, “Who knows who might be sitting in that group. One of these lads might well change the world”.

The other is an episode that took place out from Hodgensville, Kentucky in February of 1809. A rural mail carrier was making his rounds and encountered a backwoodsman who eagerly asked him about what was happening in the larger world. The mail carrier told him about brewing hostility between the United States and Great Britain, about the possibility of a National Bank, and then he turned the question around, and said, “Tell me, what of significance is happening in these parts?” The backwoodsman replied, “Aw, shucks, mister, nothing happens in these parts. Last night Nancy Hanks and Tom Lincoln had a baby, but, shucks, mister, nothin’ ever happens back here.”

Jesus experienced the complete rejection of the people of Nazareth – those people who knew him best. Now if that could happen to Jesus, the Son of God, then what about those of us who listen to God’s call, and in our faithful response to that call make the effort to change our lives and our behavior so that our lives become living witnesses to the Gospel? What about those who hear the message of the goodness of faith and want desperately to share it? If Jesus couldn’t get to first base in his own hometown, then I don’t have a chance!

The Apostle Paul’s letter to the church in Corinth talks about his own doubts and fears for his weakness, and his earthly shackles that could keep him from proclaiming the gospel that had changed his life forever. Paul tells the Corinthians, very honestly, about weakness, about uncertainty, about fear of rejection and ridicule.

God’s answer to Paul is God’s response to us. “My Grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.”

In the midst of our weakness, in the midst of the familiarity that leaves us questioning God’s power in our lives, the grace of our God is enough. In our weakness, our God gives us strength.

Richard Fairchild reminds us of the power of God to transform our lives and our world with the words from a poem by a Confederate soldier near the end of the Civil War:

I asked for health that I might do greater things,

I was given infirmity that I do better things.

I asked for riches that I might be happy,

I was given poverty that I might be wise.

I asked for power that I might have the praise of men,

I was given weakness that I might feel the need of God…

I asked for all things that I might enjoy life,

I was given life that I might enjoy all things…

I got nothing that I asked for, but everything that I hoped for.

Almost despite myself my unspoken prayers were answered.

I am, among all men, most richly blessed.”

God’s grace was enough to see Our Lord through the withering experience of trying to teach and save the people of Nazareth. God’s grace was enough to both challenge and comfort Saint Paul in his weakness. God’s grace was enough to make Saint Paul understand that the Gospel gives us strength that our own weakness will never overcome. That being the case, I would submit to you that the Great God Almighty, the One who created the whole universe, the One who lives among us now, the One who raised Our Lord from the dead so we might know life eternal, That same Great God Almighty has enough grace to bless our lives, our calling to ministry, our struggles and our joys today, and all our tomorrows.

You and I may, and probably will, know frustration, failure and disappointment. So did our Lord Christ, especially among his own people. You and I will know weakness that will try to convince us it is fruitless to go on. So did Saint Paul. But the message comes to us again and again – God’s grace is enough to overcome all our doubts, our fears, our failures, our weakness. And God’s grace, dear friends, is enough to see us through.

Monday, June 18, 2012

3 Pentecost, Year B, June 17, 2012

Mark 4: 26-34; Preached by Rev. Dr. Jason M. Haddox

“He did not speak to them except in parables.”

The crowds have come to Jesus, seeking out this wonder-worker, this healer, this teacher from Galilee. Word has gotten around, and they are actively pursuing him. And his chosen teaching tool is not a three-point lecture, nor a Power Point presentation on an overhead screen. He tells them stories. Stories about the Kingdom (or, “kin-dom”) of God. Parables.

Over and over he begins: “The kingdom of God, the kingdom of heaven is like…a farmer sowing seeds in a field. It’s like a tiny plant that grows up big. It’s like a man who had two sons…”

We have to be careful with these stories. Because sometimes we get parables mixed up with proverbs. A parable is not a proverb, or a morality tale. Jesus’ parables are not a religious version of Aesop’s Fables, where there is a single definitive point, intended to help the hearers live better and wiser lives.

A parable is something else altogether.

A parable is a gift. It is simply given—you don’t buy it or take it away from someone else—it is given to you. You may not even want it, just at that moment.

A parable comes in a certain sort of package or box—perhaps very beautifully wrapped. But perhaps it looks really old, and it’s a little banged up at the corners too. Parables are often very old, and they get passed around a lot, and sometimes the edges get knocked off in passing.

A parable has to be unwrapped. It is not obvious right away what might be inside the box. We have to look at it, and take the lid off, and see what is there inside. And even when we think we’ve figured it out, there may be more inside a parable than we can see, just then. We can come back and look at it again later and see something totally different.

Jesus tells two parables this morning, both of them about the kin-dom of God.

First, it’s like someone who goes out and plants seeds in a field. That’s all. The seeds begin to take root and grow—because that’s what seeds do. The farmer watches the seeds grow, but he has no idea why or how this happens, only that it does happen. He watches, and waits, and then when the time is right and the grain is ready to harvest, he steps forward to take part in the work at hand.

This kin-dom Jesus talks about has something to do with watching, and waiting. It has to do with being attentive to subtle changes, and knowing when to stand back and get out of the way, and when to step in and start gathering what is now ready to be gathered. It has to do with not trying to control or rush the process, but being alert to what is going on, ever so quietly, right under the farmer’s own nose.

The parable of the mustard seed is perhaps one of the best known of Jesus’ parables. A tiny seed, planted in the earth, takes root and grows to become “the greatest of all shrubs” and shelters the birds of the air in its branches.

Here’s the problem. A mustard plant is a scraggly, pernicious weed. It will take over your front yard, your back yard, your fields. Jesus is comparing the kingdom of God to the first-century Palestinian equivalent of kudzu.

It’s not a pretty thing.

Somehow, the Kingdom is like a weed that gets out of control if you turn your back on it. And takes over every square inch available. And gives shade and shelter to all sorts of birds and critters and creepy-crawlies. If you leave it alone, it will become as tall as a tree. When it is in flower, it is beautiful with yellow-gold blossoms. But mostly it just looks lanky and leggy and drab.

Jesus knew about lanky and leggy and drab. He himself was a living parable of the Kin-dom, in whom there was (and is) always more to see and discover; who cannot be reduced to a single sound-byte bottom line definition or meaning. And who, at the last, when he hung on the cross, showed in his life and death and resurrection just what this Kin-dom of God was all about.

This dominion of God to which Jesus points, over and over again, is not what his hearers expected—at the time, or twenty centuries later. Neither a political reform of the existing order, nor a total revolution and overthrow of the powers and social structures from top to bottom, the Kin-dom of God is something else altogether.

It works by its own mysterious potency and power, in its own time. We don’t get to control or manage it—only to let it be what it is, and prepare our own hearts (that is, our whole selves) to see it appear.

When we see it—in whatever place, or person, or situation, or manner—we are invited into the mystery. We are invited to rise up and help harvest the ripe grain; we are invited to climb into the branches of the tree where birds and beasts and all sorts of God’s critters are to be found. And they, and the tree of life itself, probably won’t look quite the way we think they should.

So take “should” out of your vocabulary, at least for now. Because we don’t get to control, or manage, or decide what God’s kin-dom will look like.

It’s not up to us. It’s bigger, and deeper, and wider than we can even imagine. And higher, and broader, and grander. But it’s also smaller, and quieter, and lower. So we have to keep our eyes open for it. We have the chance to look for it, and discover it, always and everywhere. For it is all around us, for us to see as Christ sees. For us to be the Body of Christ, in our own place and time.

May it be so for us; may it be so among us. Today, and tomorrow, and all the days to come.