The Rev. John Taliaferro Thomas
A reasonable facsimile of what was preached on Sunday: always a reflection on the Word, but never the final word.
The Rev. John Taliaferro Thomas
A reasonable facsimile of what was preached on Sunday: always a reflection on the Word, but never the final word.
Emmanuel Episcopal Church, Greenwood, Virginia
Proper 13, Year C
July 31, 2022
It is hard for me to think about greed without thinking of the character, Gordon Gecko,, and the mid 90s movie, Wall Street. The role won Michael Douglas an academy award. The classic scene shows Gecko at a shareholder meeting for a company he intends to grab in a hostile takeover. Here is a transcript of what he says:
“The point is, ladies and gentleman, that greed -- for lack of a better word -- is good.
Greed is right. Greed works. Greed clarifies, cuts through, and captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit. Greed, in all of its forms -- greed for life, for money, for love, knowledge -- has marked the upward surge of mankind.”
“And greed -- you mark my words -- will not only save [you], but that other malfunctioning corporation called the USA.”
Gecko goes on to “succeed” through insider trading, acquisition of all manner of things, using up people and bankrupting others, and leveraging his wealth power to stand above all in his wake, including his protégé Buddy Fox. In the Hollywood ending, greed does not save him. His buddy, Fox, slyly flips on him and the system brings him to justice, exposing Gecko’s not so subtle mirage.
In 2010, there is a sequel, Money Never Sleeps, the trailer has Gecko getting out of prison and back to his old tricks. The tag line is this: “Someone reminded me I once said that greed is good. Now it’s seems it’s legal.”
Charlatans of all kinds never go away for good, rather they resurface with new angles, new promises, and the same old grift. History is full of cautionary tales, but repackaged get rich quick schemes remain sly and enticing. If the rules do not serve the huckster, the huckster gets in the pockets of those who can change the rules.
The Bible is not soft on this topic. It is loaded with poems, stories, and all kinds of entreaties that expose that deep and destructive desire of our inmost parts to acquire, to have, and to achieve more without limits.
I will admit here and now that, as remembered by my family, my first word was “more.” In context, I was requesting for more green beans. We all struggle with a need for security and survival over against the reality of empty and soul crushing material want. If we cannot admit this tension, we need only to examine our bank statements to map our behavior and chronicle our choices.
When Jesus is asked to settle a family matter, a brother seeking an equal division of inherited assets, Jesus sees the question behind the question. The backstory is that this must be a younger brother, because by right of custom, the older brother gets it all. This man was not entitled to anything, and yet, he seizes on what he knows of Jesus community minded teaching, to suggest a rule change. Really, with the human God right in front of him, this man plays the angle to his advantage. He is so human it hurts.
Jesus does not play ball. Instead, he tells of a rich person who is so good at his business that he builds bigger storage units to hold onto all of his stuff. Having done so, the man says to himself that he can finally relax, and enjoy his insulation and isolation from need. Time to party. Sure, there will be people who see his large storage units, and come begging. As they say when someone wins the lottery, they tend to find long lost family members. But wealth brings power of choice, and with a fence, a gate, and a guard, the man can limit his exposure.
Jesus plays it out with God saying to the man, well, this is the last day of your life, your preparation will only become the source of litigation for your heirs. The Brinks truck does not follow the hearse. Might be good to have thought about richness toward God. The phrase translated “rich toward God” is not a spiritual philosophy of more frequent meditation, it is a practical practice of seeing the suffering of God’s people and helping.
Jesus reminds us time and time again, the we are in this together in whatever time we have, with whatever abilities we have, and with whatever stuff we have. None of what we claim to have, is not had at all, not ours for keeps. Stuff is all fluff. Rich toward God is rich toward needs of the suffering.
As a reader of obituaries, I follow stories of lives. They are partial, with all of the messiness edited out, enumerating family members, achievements, memberships, and leadership positions. And yet, I have never read about someone whose storage units are praised for their size, or their capacity to relax because they are all set. In contrast, memorial gift opportunities point to some passion or interest ranging from pet rescue to disease research. The last words tend to point to what matters.
What Gordon Gecko proclaims is that greed works. Kudos to him for saying it, even if it is wrong, because all of us need to expose its folly. It is not greed that works, is love that clarifies, cuts through, and captures the essence of the human and Holy Spirit at work. Our net worth was established at the cross.
So, do we need to go away feeling guilty? Hardly. The fact is we are all capable philanthropists. Philanthropy is not a word that only applies to those with foundations and grant making cycles. Philanthropy is our holy handling of stuff, meaning literally giving out of love for… Love has no need of storage space, has no expiration date, and infinite rate of return. Getting may be fun, but giving is more fun, more generative, and more joy inducing. Ask any kid who has made a “Best Dad Ever” mug and cannot wait until Father’s Day.
As one who has made buckets of money telling stories that scare us to death, the author Stephen King says it better, “All that lasts is what you pass on. The rest is smoke and mirrors.”
Greed? Love? Go all in on Love and get rich.
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Lately, I have been experimenting with outlining sermons and focusing on the speaking of the sermon more than the written craft. For this writer, this is a stretch, but it has been informative.
When I have a mostly complete manuscript. I will include it here. I am happy for forward my outlines and notes of you so desire. I may be reached at:
Emmanuel Episcopal Church, Greenwood, Virginia
June 12, 2022
About once a decade, I go to an arcade. Perhaps, I go because I have acquired too much money, or I have enjoyed way too much peace and quiet, or I crave the smell of bubble gum, popcorn, and sweaty adolescents. Even so, I was a child once, and I have children, so experiencing an arcade once a decade is about right. After all, who does not love an old-fashioned game of Ms. Pac Man now and again. I first played that game in a certain establishment on the Corner when visiting my brother in his first year at UVA. My college was not so sophisticated as to have such modern electronic enticements.
There is a certain arcade game that I have only witnessed others playing called Whack a Mole. The premise is rather simple. There are six holes on a board. The player wields a large rubber mallet, and when a stuffed mole head pops up, the player is to whack said mole head so that it retreats back to its lair. It starts out simple enough, but as time passes the moles pop out of the holes in more rapid succession, testing the players whack ability. Drummers play this game well, but inevitably, no mortal can whack all of the moles in increasingly rapid succession and the game is over. It is great fun to watch, but rather pointless to play. This is the nature of arcade games, designed to amp-up the endorphins with a siren call to stuff another quarter in the slot and give it a go.
The term Whack a Mole has entered popular relational and corporate consultant vocabularies as the game stands as a great metaphor for life. No sooner have we solved one pesky problem; another one arises. And sometimes even before one problem is sufficiently whacked, another one rears its pesky head. This raises the question in my mind about the myth of restorative violence. Hardly any problem that I can identify is resolved with a good mallet whack, and what do we have against little stuffed mole heads anyway. I fear this is a dark commentary, but maybe I need to let that go. Sometimes we just want to whack something. This is why we play sports.
In the stately arcade that is the Church year, we have walked through, and past, Holy Week and Easter, taken a lively spin through Pentecost, and today, we reach Trinity Sunday: a whole Sunday dedicated to a theological concept, a foundation of doctrinal construction, the subject of many a Church council, a liberating and creative vision and understanding of God that is utterly incomprehensible, inspiring incomplete metaphors, and defying all logical explanation. Welcome my friends, to theological whack a mole.
The Creator is, even in the beginning. Jesus is as Creator is, even in the beginning. The Holy Spirit is, even in the beginning. God is one. Creation happens using nothing to make everything. Start the clock of time. Jesus, who is Creator and is Spirit, enters time and place in creation, participates in the cycle of life and death, but does not die. Creator/Jesus/Spirit cannot die. But Jesus is fully human even though fully One too. Jesus is overheard praying to Creator, and seen teaming up with Holy Spirit, but they are never separate. They always have been One, even as they tag team in moving the world around, talking to themselves. The Three are one, but two of them take male pronouns (he) and one uses the feminine pronoun (she). They are never inanimate, so they are never it. If we isolate any one of these assertions, it only raises other questions about all of the others. Welcome to Theological Whack a Mole.
For Trinity Sunday, the Collect of the day, the Canticle, the Epistle, and the Gospel are mercifully brief, but oh so gymnastic in their expression. This is one instance where Holy Scripture reveals its limitations in giving language to Divine experience. Apparently, the Church is ever too restless in its attempt to explain mystery. Officially, we have been arguing about how all of this works since the year 325. In reality, we have always wrestled with trying to make The Great One squeeze in shoe that is too small, and cannot be large enough.
This is not to say that the Trinity is not worth observing, naming, or celebrating. In fact, doing so is good for us in order to realize, experience, and remember that whatever our concept of the Divine is, it is way too small, and we are way too limited in trying to get out heads around a matter of the heart, soul, and infinity.
Perhaps Trinitarian consideration, we can learn a thing or two from Whack a Mole. First, what we see is never all there is. As one expression of God emerges in our view, there are always others that will surface. What we see and name comes and goes. Sometimes, more than one expression of God surfaces even if we are focused on one in particular mole. It is good to bring friends into the game because we can never see the whole board. Finally, like the game, there is no winning. We cannot get it right, hold it all in perfect tension, but unlike the game, time is just a mortal boundary. This game is never over. Rather than take up our mallets of particularity and closely held dogma, it is well that we just look, listen, and feel as much or more than we think.
Thus, me standing here trying to express, explain, or enlighten our understanding, is a fools errand. In deference to the mystery, perhaps it is best to shelve our proverbial mallets and be quiet: look out the windows, look at each other, listen for silence, feel the air, and know that the One is here, now, and always. Game on. …… Amen.
Emmanuel Episcopal Church, Greenwood, Virginia
Easter VI, Year C
May 22, 2022
The picture on the front of you bulletin today is one by a new artist. He has broken free from all historical or established schools of painting. The labels of classical, baroque, rococo, neo classical, romantic, impressionist, expressionist, cubist, surrealist, and any other defined style cannot be applied to this freer expression. The painting is, really, fascinating. It suggests movement and life without specificity. Perhaps, we see body shapes, parts, trees and animals. The color is rich, but not exaggerated. The painting is eight feet high and twenty feet long. Its painter grew up in Wyoming, and moved to New York, working as a museum janitor. An art loving woman saw some of his work, spotted him 150 dollars a month to paint, and to offset her stipend, she kept or sold the paintings. In 1943, $150.00 a month was decent wage. Such a deal. I said this artist is new, but that is a relative term when it comes to art. The patron was a woman named Guggenheim, and she never sold this painting. She gave it to the University of Iowa, as long as they would pay for shipping. Its current estimated worth is 140 million dollars. The artist is Jackson Pollock.
This is such a great story of possibility, precarity, convention bending, rule defying, profligate spending, and potential. If Pollock were alive today, intellectual/creative property lawyers would have a field day, but the rules then were the rules. Pollock never sought further compensation. Once “discovered,” he made plenty of money with Guggenheim’s encouragement. Though valuable and revered, Pollock’s his art does not fall into any particular and defined style. The rule he brought about in his art is that there are no rules.
This is all well and good for art, but when it comes to the real world, we like to know the rules. Rules give us guidelines, standards, and structure. Rules tell us what to do, what not to do, and how to behave. Many rules are conventional, implied, and passed along from parents to children. Other rules have to be established, written, communicated, and enforced. Rules range from basic expectations to codified law. Consequences for breaking rules vary from social correction to sanction to specified legal ramifications.
Rules are great, except when they are inconsistent. What the younger child can do on weekends tends to be more liberal than the older child was allowed. In one of my schools, we did not have enough parking for all the students who could drive, so it was restricted to seniors only. There was more acrimony about that rule than just about anything. We like for rules to be fair, even though we all know that life is rarely fair.
Rules for landowning white people used to be different that they were for others. Rules for men were different than rules for women. Societal and legal changes are dynamic as culture changes. As law and some culture changes, those who benefit from and revere the old rules tend to resist and fight changes. Those in power like to keep it. We could go on about that, and have some really heated argument.
The Church is loaded with rules. Sure, we impose them on ourselves, but we band together hard to keep them. We worship with certain words, certain texts, decently, and in order. And hell hath no fury like Episcopalians reacting rule changes, to wit: the old fight over high church liturgy and low church liturgy, Prayer Book revision in 1928 and 1979, the ordination of women, and the ordination of gay people. All of these resulted in breakaway factions, new denominations, complete with a new set of rules in a so-called effort to be more faithful, more pure, more right with God than the apostate folks they left behind. At our worse, we litigate such matters in secular courts, at our best we laugh at ourselves, and accept difference and change as a sign of the Spirit moving us. Rules help keep us together and rules tear us apart. What do we do with that?
The last line of the Gospel we read today drops a crucial detail, and one we might miss on our way to settling in for a sermon about healing. It reads: “Now that day was the Sabbath.” The story is that Jesus goes to Jerusalem for a festival, enters at the Sheep Gate, and there is a spring fed pool there that bubbles up fresh water on a regular basis. Because sheep going to market are washed in that water, it is filled with lanolin, a natural balm and salve. People with all kinds of infirmities bathe in the water when it bubbles up, and the natural oils are soothing. There is a man there who is ill and has been there for 38 years. Jesus asks the man if he wants to be made well, which is a whole sermon for another day. Right there and then Jesus says Stand up, take your mat and walk.” The man does and we see this as a miracle. I have to believe there is more to the story.
Then, there is that last detail: “Now that day was a sabbath.” The religious rules were clear, fixed, and serious. The Sabbath was a day on which work was forbidden. All work. Picking up a mat would be defined as work. Healing someone would be defined as work. Even today, the strictest of the orthodox in Judaism will not turn dials on the oven to make the roast, or punch an elevator button to go up or down. It is a beautiful practice with some obvious down sides.
On the one hand, Jesus follows the rules. He goes up to the Temple for the festival. And on the other, he smashes the Sabbath barrier to heal and help. This is not the first time and it is not the last. He is clear and convincing in his explanation. The law is a human thing. Because we are apt to be selfish, inconsiderate, and wily, we need some order to live in community. The law is good where it brings grace. The law is an idol hinderance when it is wielded to subvert, separate, or prevent God’s blessing for all people, and even, the rest of creation.
We do not sit easy in interpreting this event. We like to insert psychological analysis, and theories of change in the man who sat for 38 years playing aggrieved victim. But what about the rules, Jesus, what about the rules? Jesus tells us that he comes to save us, and yet, he goes to the cross, looking more like one needing saving than a Savior. The Easter event, however, blasts us with fresh perspective, new thinking, and a completely broken old idea that death is the end. Rising from death to life defies the rules. We got that wrong. So, what else do we get wrong?
Rules are stated with periods and exclamation points. We need that punctuation to be clear. Here, Jesus shows us the absolute value of the question mark. Do we have to break some rules to set things right? Jesus does. As we are not Jesus, we are better off seeing life as free flowing art rather than paint by numbers. Something beautiful can be recreated from old shapes and dynamic color. Jesus does that. God does that. The Spirit does not follow rules.
We, my friends, are God’s work of art. Amen.
Emmanuel Episcopal Church, Greenwood, Virginia
Easter V, Year C
May 15, 2022
There is this great scene in the classic western, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. They are outlaws, bank robbers, but for a reason I will get to later, we are rooting for them. Of course, the fact that they are played by Paul Newman and Robert Redford helps win hearts.
Butch and Sundance are pinned down with a posse in hot pursuit. Behind them is a cliff that drops off about a hundred feet into a rushing river. This is tight spot. Sundance keeps leaning on the rock they behind for cover, clutching his pistol, saying that they are going to have to fight. Butch keeps looking behind them, seeking escape. Quickly, he tells Sundance that they are going to have to jump. The law has more manpower and firepower. If they fight the law, they will die. Sundance will have none of it, he is in full panic mode. Butch says “what’s the matter with you.” Silence. Sundance? Sheepishly, he says “I can’t swim. I can’t swim.” Butch erupts in roaring laughter. You can’t swim? The fall will probably kill you. At that, Sundance and Butch turn toward the cliff and jump. It is leap of faith. Where they should have died, they live, and they are free again.
Prior to the movie, the legend of Butch and Sundance depicts them as ruthless killers, but this take humanizes them and helps us see their misfit, flawed, and quirky human nature. If we look hard, we can see that they are us: awkward, broken, but even so, lovable. Even so, Butch and Sundance remain prominent faces on “Wanted” posters. So, they go to Bolivia and rob banks there, because they are outlaws.
Jesus is no poster child for his people’s brand of the law either. The story we tell today is an Easter look back. Jesus is about to be betrayed, tried, and executed for insurrection and blasphemy. Rather than fight, plan, or scheme, Jesus has supper with his friends and tells them that in fact, this tragedy is really comedy, but that is a leap of faith that is hard for them to make. Jesus gives his gang what he calls a new command: that they love one another. It is not the kind of loving others he encourages lots of times in his ministry. This is a specific call to love “one another,” meaning the people in the room. Love the ones you know well enough to know how awkward, broken, and irritating thy are. Love them like Jesus loves them.
Notice that Jesus does not say this is a law. Religious folks are big on laws, and laws come in handy when we want to distinguish who is in and who is out. That whole lesson about Peter hanging out with Gentiles is a scandal to the law followers because Gentiles (the word for they) are not clean. Jesus does not give another law to be entered into the rulebook as he goes to the cross, Jesus gives them a commandment. The other commandments are the big 10 Moses got in the desert, and they are not so much about do’s and don’ts as ways being in right relationship. A commandment is a way to love God and love others. Run through the list of thou shalts and thou shalt nots and check me if I am wrong.
It is said that the job of a lighthouse is not to run around the island shouting at ships and telling them what to do. The job is to stand tall and shine. Jesus commandment is like that. Be the love God has for us, the love Jesus shows for us, and the law will take care of itself. We call that living under grace. It is easier said than done.
In case we forget grace, we have young Bo Webel among us today to receive the sacrament of baptism. Bo has not done anything for us, and yet we are recognizing his all-inclusive and unlimited membership in the household of God, prepaid and guaranteed. Bo has been born among us, and his parents and godparents have brought him here, where we get to hold him up and tell him that along with the rest of us, he is a child of God. His family is us.
Like I said, Bo has not done anything for us. He has not followed the law, or paid the fee, or recited a pledge in any way that would earn his place there in the front row. He does not have to be perfect when he is out there growing up. Nope. We are telling him that he has a home. He is welcome home, along with the rest of humanity, to remember exactly who he is and whose he is. There is no law he has to follow to earn this. Grace is not earned. It is given. When Jesus says “it is finished” from the cross, that deal is sealed: over, done, account closed. All we can do is be grateful, but not even that is required.
God’s grace is God’s leap of faith for humanity. All we can do is grab a hand, and jump in the baptismal pool where that water will break our many falls and give all of us outlaws a chance to live again. Amen
I remember when we used to answer the phone. Back in that technological Eden, we had the device connected to walls and cords, so they could not chase us wherever we went. When those phones rang, we answered, knowing that the voice on the other end brought us connection, conversation, and information that the caller knew we needed. Sin being what it is, ambitious marketers began calling when they knew we were home, during the dinner hour, and mostly, we learned not to answer as nobody we knew and loved would have the bad sense to interrupt sacred time. The amoral nature of technology gave rise to answering machines, caller identification, and we learned how to unplug the phone, or turn off the ringer. Over time, we learned that not every voice is friendly.
Enter the world of the mobile phone. It used to be a luxury, and opportunity to move around and still connect. The expense of the phone and the cost per minute tempered their use. Now, of course, mobile devices are a necessity for participating in the world of the living. Even in the poorest corners of Haiti, arguable the most destitute, corrupt, and dangerous nation in our hemisphere, if not the world, a place where 63% of the population lives on less than one dollar a day, and get this, 63% of their population has a cell phone. That is more than one phone per household, showing that modern inconvenience is for everyone.
Being a clever lot, we have adapted to avoiding useless intrusions. With incoming caller identification, we can avoid calls that come from places where we know no one, reject calls, and block pesky repeat callers. As telemarketers and scammers have become wilier, our discernment and defenses are heightened. Email has become so saturated with spam folder avoiding intrusions, that younger folks have quit using it altogether. Uninvited voices now send texts through mined data extracted and processed from every bit and byte of information we consume. A recent documentary we watched concluded that if we are not paying for it, we are the product and not the consumer.
All of this is a long way of saying that I do not answer calls from unknown sources. If you call me, I identify your number, save it, and know it is you. I expect that many of you do the same. We were not designed to hold and process so much information or to feel all of the feels that others want us to feel for their gain. Unfriendly voices can sound attractive at first, and that goes back to Homer’s Odyssey where sirens alluring songs that luring ships to wreckage and plunder.
It is now an important life skill to limit and filter the siren voices we hear, and this has a direct connection to the Word Jesus brings in this morning’s gospel. Spinning a message for nefarious purposes is not a new thing. Controlling the narrative was as important in the first century as it is now. When Jesus challenges to the religious monolith of the day, he encourages the faithful to hang up on curated messaging that leverages political power and keeps the shekels flowing inward and not outward. While the Church is slow to change, it has always provided fertile ground for manipulation, ego feeding, and positive cashflow. Of our leaders are holier than us, invulnerable to questioning, or more focused on power than the poor in material or spirit, it might be good to block that voice.
Recent surveys reveal that when asked about their religious affiliation, Americans who check to box labeled “none” are rising at an exponential rate, especially among young men. Many in the big “C” Church believe the sky is falling. I do not. I see this as the freedom from cultural strictures that brings more honesty to the table. Every threat is an opportunity to refine our approach to living this love life. If Jesus is to have a voice in our world, it might be good for us to listen for his voice. And that may be easier said than done.
Aside from being Mother’s Day, (more on that at announcement time), today is known in the Church as Good Shepherd Sunday. We harvest various and fertile messages that play on the metaphor of sheep, shepherds, and the ubiquitous love for babies. Lambs are so innocent and cute looking. Protecting them used to be important for sustenance. If we are not as agrarian in our experience, we must know that shepherds are known for benevolence and caretaking qualities. Their voice is the voice of safety and security, and any sheep that wants to survive and thrive knows that voice. A voice is such a particular and unique thing, that it is hard to imitate. When I say treat to our dogs, in that particular way, they come running. It doesn’t work as well for the dog sitter. Hers is a different voice.
And here is the obvious place where I tell you how to hear the voice of God, of Jesus the Good Shepherd of all of us, the Holy Spirit that moves like the wind, breathing well-being joy or peace or belonging into us, or like a raging fire that moves us to act and speak truth in love. Here is where I might tie all of this up into a neat little pastoral package and keep The King of Love my Shepherd is resounding as an earworm tune, set on repeat in your brains. And yet, I cannot. Try as I may, Jesus voice is not my voice. It is not yours either. It is not to be crafted or contained in a message, text, email, podcast, book, or even, gasp, the Bible. We are so painfully human, so necessarily defensive, and so conditioned by our own self-styled desires that Jesus voice gets garbled, or stuck in our inbox, waiting for a quieter space for us to hear it clearly.
How can we hear God’s voice? I am not all that sure. What I believe from experience is that I believe I know it when I hear it, but I cannot prove that. What I believe from experience is that when I hear God’s voice, it doesn’t sound like my voice, but I cannot prove it. What I believe from experience is that when I hear God’s voice, energy and hope and healing that does not come from me, washes through my being, but I cannot prove it.
I do know and can prove what God’s voice is not. If is not a cacophony of messaging (notice the root of that is phony). It is not about anger, entitlement, ego inflation, blaming, shaming, and name calling. It is not about scarcity, fear, and revenge. It is not about legalism, destruction, domination, material excess, and any form, fashion, or feed that leverages feelings that we are not worthy, beloved, beautiful, capable, and important. I wish that we had a good scam filter for such cacophonies. They are legion as we are vulnerable in our insecurity. To hear Jesus’ voice, the good start is screening out and hanging up when we feel less than enough.
All I can say is that like those who describe jazz, great barbecue, moments of birth, bone crushing grief, and, even, a mama’s love, we know it when we taste and see - know our Good Shepherd’s voice in our knowing places - and move with the Spirit in a harmony we cannot make alone. This why we come here, and seek other spaces for holy listening, to feel with God and for God, forgetting formulary thought and the burden of proof, to flow out of us and into God. When Love’s voice speaks to that unutterable peace of our being, hang up on all the discordant clatter, and take that call. Amen.
Easter Sunday, April 17, 2022
Emmanuel Episcopal Church, Greenwood, Virginia
The Rev. John Taliaferro Thomas
“But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them.” The women did not believe what they had seen. The men blew them off completely, thinking it was some sort of wishful thinking. Not sure how that went for them. Nobody used the word resurrection because it had not been invented yet…. Because such things don’t happen. Dead people stay dead. The whole tale is a little nuts. Ridiculous!
These people lived in a world without AEDs, EKGs, and maps of the human genome. But they knew what dead was. They knew it happened when a person’s blood poured out of them. They knew the pallid look of modeled flesh. They knew how death smelled. And Jesus was dead. He had been cleaned, anointed with sweet smelling balm, wrapped in white, and placed in a stone sealed tomb.
We will hear the rest of the story in time. Jesus shows up to a couple of sad sacks on the road to Emmaus. Jesus shows up in a locked and guarded room, in the flesh, for Doubting Thomas and many others to see. Jesus shows up and makes a fish breakfast for the disciples turned back to fishermen on the lake. There are even more tales, but the central plot but they all share one central detail: Jesus shows up, and they do not recognize him at first.
In more time, the cockamamie story spreads, crazy talk many still think. With none of the modern inconveniences the story continues to by word of mouth. There are no printing presses, nothing beyond hand written scrolls and letters, and, of course, there is a 98% illiteracy rate with the two percent literates being folks who would like this story to go away. Transportation happened on foot, by donkey, or in slow and frighteningly tiny ships of trade. Most never traveled more than a fifty of sixty miles from where they were born. There is no Twitter or Instagram. How would Jesus tweet others? @Sonof God or @theRealJesus or, simply, @Savoir?
It took years for the story to get to Greece and Rome, told at great peril to the tellers, as sole allegiance to emperor types was mandated. The fact that Jesus’ story survives is a miracle in and of itself. The story’s wildly illogical plotline runs counter to reason, basic biology, and the survival of anyone telling it.
Over time, groups gather, feast, and celebrate Jesus showing up. Others are moved to tell the story and live in particular ways in its light. Christ followers gather to take council, establish a consistent written record, develop calendars and rites, and ritual. Still later, people build soaring Cathedrals and tiny village churches. Of course, the groups, being full of humans, bend and twist and coopt the message, missing the mark, and fitting their own needs for power and control. When people get involved, faith, empire, and material stuff can get all twisted together in ways that do not resemble the basic and humble person and work of Jesus.
And still, in every generation from then to now, people have been baptized into the death and resurrection of Jesus. And here we are. We may be here by obligation, arm twisting, sentimental attachment, curiosity, habit, and the promise of a great brunch, an world class egg hunt, and a larger than normal spread at coffee hour. We may be here for reasons historic, affiliative, associative, or thoroughgoing, daily, big deal faith. Nevertheless, we are here. No scoffing is allowed because for this story to be told, divergent perspectives are necessary. In the family of God, there are no guests, there are no right answers, no easy explanations. We deal more in question marks than periods. But why?
Through all of the illogical, biological, epistemological, legendary, and apparent impossibility, we are here because the story gets us. Perhaps, it is because we would love for Jesus to show up, maybe as a blinding light, a voice from heaven, or mystic sign like the face of the Blessed Virgin Mary in the stump of the Emmanuel Oak would be nice. What we seek tells us more about us than it does about Jesus.
But allow me to step out on a limb of the deep-rooted tree of life, in the faith I have deep in my bones. Jesus is always showing up, as he says he will. Here. Now, in the intergenerational love we attempt to practice at Emmanuel (God with us). In the bread we break and the cup we offer, not just at Eucharist, but at coffee, picnics, dinner parties, Bread Fund, and Disciple’s Kitchen. Jesus shows up as we go, in the many hands that make things work here from ushers to Altar Guild, flower people, setter uppers and taker downers. Jesus may be easier for me to name as showing up here, but this is just practice to see Jesus showing up out there, at the gas station, the grocery store, in the carpool and in the peace and quiet of the dawn. From before our momentary birth and after our inevitable last breath, Jesus shows up.
Whether we see this as Jesus, God, Spirit, Higher Power, or Love, the showing up shows us clearly and simply that we belong in this world, and that we are being held by some Larger Force. In that, life feels okay and even good and right and purposeful. This is what it feels like to be “saved.” (paraphrased from Richard Rohr on salvation in Breathing Underwater).
Jesus’ Resurrection is an old story, told from many different perspectives even in our own sacred texts. We cannot prove that and more than we can prove a parent’s love for our children, which is very real. But something happened. That something that has captured hearts, minds, imaginations, art, music, creativity, across all generations. Somehow, we remain joyful, though we have considered all the facts. We remain hopeful, though we have been disappointed often. We love, and give, and love some more, because we find that in the end, love is the only permanence ever meet.
We are not here because the Resurrection happened. We are here because Resurrection happens. Look out! The world will Easter up on us when we look for it. Jesus shows up. Amen.
Emmanuel Episcopal Church, Greenwood, Virginia
Palm Sunday, Year C
April 10, 2022
When you go to a big city, it is easy to spot the tourists. They are the ones looking up. They are the ones who are amazed at the size, the grandeur, and the energy that is so unlike things back home. Jesus gathered all kinds of people and met them where they were, which was, mostly, a long way from the big city.
The excitement is palpable. Even from a distance, they see the walls, the guarded gates, and inside, the majestic temple, built on the highest point. The largest stones at the base weigh in at more than 500 tons. The smallest stones, near the top, weigh 2 tons. In their time, Jerusalem is a remarkable human achievement of engineering, constructed over centuries at incalculable expense.
How could they not be excited as their man, Jesus, enters this citadel: the intersection of religion and empire. This is the big time. This is where big things happen. If you make it here, you have made it. And now, Jesus arrives.
It is hard to tell what Jesus and Jesus’ people expect. They have seen him work miracles and gather all kinds of people to join the procession. Jesus tells them he is there to set things right and show the power of God. God can make the stone shout. Whatever is going to happen, it will be big.
Between the triumphal procession and the eventual retreat back to Gethsemane on the Mount of Olives, Luke tells story after story of Jesus leaving no stone unturned. He wrecks the temple market as an offense and a farce before God. He denounces religious leaders as greedy and self-serving profiteers, he denounces the Romans as just the latest of a long string of strongmen there to extract wealth, and demand worship and honor for their leader. He tells a biting parable about wicked tenants, implying that the powers that have taken hold are not rightful heirs of God.
We are about to tell the story of what happens when human power is threatened and challenged. We are about to hear how God’s power does not come through might and wealth making right, through some twist of redemptive violence wherein regimes are toppled and their adherents get what is coming to them.
What we will see is the fully human God stand up and take the absolute worst that humanity can dish out. God does not pull back, regroup, and attack. God stays there, as tragedy unfolds, and power does what threatened powers do.
But God is not finished. God is about the long game. Immense stones are impressive, but they area not eternal. With water and pressure and time, stones become sand, and wash into the sea. Nothing we build will outlast, overpower, or divert the oceanic love of God.
On the walk of Holy Week, we will look up to see the massive monoliths of human power appear fixed and immovable. We will look up, see love on the cross, and see what is big beyond time. We will see what is all powerful. We will see the Way of Eternity. Love is God. Everything else is just so much sand. Amen.
Emmanuel Episcopal Church, Greenwood, Virginia
Lent V, Year C
April 3, 2022
“You always have the poor with you.”
I really wish Jesus had not said that. It is so radically off message. After all, 11 of his 39 parables are about the folly of hoarding money. One of Jesus’ most central messages is that we are to care for everyone, especially and particularly the poor. If we pull back and read the Bible Jesus had, even before the Gospels and the Epistles and Revelation, there are more than 2000 references to the poor as emblematic for our call to love all people, not with our emotions but with our actions.
“You always have the poor with you.” That is such an oft lifted line and hopeless view of poverty, usually giving the speaker an out, a justification for cynicism or fatalism about poor people, or at least, a way to end a conversation and move onto a more comfortable subject matter.
“You always have the poor with you.” The Muslim faith has a saying they repeat regularly roughly translated “It must be the will of God.” It is said often as a way of living with what cannot be explained, or that which is uncomfortable and frustrating. Further, my friend, Ed, reminded me that there are no weather reports in Saudi Arabia. The reason for this is that it would be presumptuous and arrogant to predict the will of Allah. It could also be that there are only two kinds of weather there: hot, and really hot. “It must be the will of God” is onthe one hand, a faithful way to accept reality. On the other, it is a safe out like “You always have the poor with you,” rendering us free of moral agency, innocent of what we allow or enable, as if we are just just flapping in the wind of God’s capricious activities.
The pervasiveness of evil, the random chance and cruelty of bad things happening to good people is a question for the ages with no satisfactory answers this side of eternity, does not mean we are created with no free will of our own. “Things happen for a reason” is what some folks tend to say because there is nothing else to say, and tends to do more harm than good. Rotten things can and do happen. The world can be terrible, tragic, and awful. The world can be beautiful, amazing, and wonderful too. Even in the face of unspeakable tragedy, we can show up with casserole, cookies, and the willingness to just be there, not trying to do anything to make us feel better. We may not know the will of God, but that does not mean that we are helpless to be God’s hands, feet, agents, actors, givers, and advocates in this world.
“You always have the poor with you.” This is the closer of this short vignette about Jesus’ stopover in Bethany, a bedroom community outside of Jerusalem. Unfortunately, it steals the thunder of the message, and provides the convenient line to put to rest our unease about the scandal of poverty. As with most things biblical, it is better expressed in context.
The backstory is this. Lazarus has been raised from the dead. Jesus is having a big celebration dinner with Lazarus. His sisters Mary and Martha are there serving up the feast. In the middle of all that, Mary cracks open the nard. Nard is an exceptionally expensive and fragrant oil used to anoint the dead, covering the stench of rotting flesh in an era without embalming and refrigeration. There are lesser quality oils, but the Lazarus family must have some resources. This pound of nard Mary slathers on Jesus tired and dirty feet is a left over from that which still gives Lazarus a sweet-smelling cologne. Of course, John the gospeler is all about symbol and metaphor too. Mary is foreshadowing Jesus’ death, and highlighting the sacrifice that is to be made.
Meanwhile, Judas is grumbling at his end of the table. A pound of nard is worth about an average year’s wages. Surely, it could have been sold and the money used to help the poor. Of course, John throws some shade on Judas, saying he was skimming of the communal bank account, so his sentiment is tainted at best. “You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.” Still, we have to wonder. Even if he is a scoundrel, does Judas have a point?
“You always have the poor with you.” Jesus knows that even 300 denarii is not enough to fix the problem, but the statement is not what it appears if we take it by itself, apart from all of his teaching about money and, people with money. Over and over, Jesus speaks of abundance in God’s kingdom. When people get money, people tend to see it as a limited resource. While it may be so for them and us, and the irony is that the more folks have, the more conscious folks are about protecting what we have. Clearly, a billion is not enough, if you are a striving and scrapping billionaire. In God’s economy there is plenty. It is not that there is not enough food, it is just that food is unevenly distributed. There are not too few resources for God, there is a lack of imagination, faith, and generosity on the side of humanity. Our nation spends more than half of all we have, collectively, on what we call defense. Defending what we have. And it is naive and idealistic to say that this is not needed, but it is no less shocking or scandalous that humanity is so short of our potential to wage peace.
“You always have the poor with you.” Maybe Jesus says this because poverty is a sign of opportunity for God’s people to participate in God’s abundance. Maybe Jesus says this because poverty is not just about money. As fallible humans, we experience a poverty of hope, imagination, generosity, peace, patience, kindness. This is not the will of God. This is the absolute, utter, and stark statement of our need for God to rearrange our wills, imaginations, and priorities.
True, we may not give it all away and go all ascetic on the world. True, we cannot blow up the world’s economic systems, rearrange the distribution of wealth, or enforce an ethic of enoughness for the 1 percent. The world may be as it is because humans are inherently sinful and selfish, BUT, that does not have to be because of us. Just because something is does not mean God wills it that way. We have agency. We have ability. We have influence.
“You always have the poor with you.” We always have the poor with us because we are broken and in need. I take it back. I am glad Jesus said it, because it is the Truth. Amen.
Emmanuel Episcopal Church, Greenwood, Virginia
Lent IV, Year C
March 27, 2022
It is an oldie and a goodie, this parable of the Prodigal Son. Church folks know it well. It is about the kid who takes an early withdrawal on his inheritance, takes off to Vegas and blows the whole wad. Once he is reduced to homelessness, he decides to go home and ask to work for his father for minimum wage. But the father, takes him in, cleans him up, and throws a big party for his return. But the older brother, the one who stayed back on the farm and did his chores dutifully, objects strenuously, to which the father says “get over yourself, your brother was lost, destined to die, but here he is: found, alive, we are preparing a feast.”
But I want to go back to some particulars in the middle of the story. After the so stated period of “dissolute living,” there is a famine and jobs are scarce, but the younger brother is lucky to get a job feeding pigs. Of course, the Jews hearing this story did not keep or eat pigs. In fact, for them, touching a pig rendered them unclean before God, and one who did so had to undergo a ritual of purification before the priests, and then, rejoin their community. But the younger son was hungry and, as the text says: no one gave him anything. Back home, even the poorest of the poor were given something as a matter of decency and respect for God, if not the beggar. Two strikes.
But then, or as the text says “when he came to himself” [comma] he decides to go home, confess his sin, and accept the consequences. It is a curious phrase “he came to himself [comma].” The comma is a small and underappreciated centerpiece here. A comma is a punctuation mark, indicating a pause between parts of a sentence. (It is also used to separate items in a list and to mark the place of thousands in a large numeral, but that is not the case here). Neither Ancient Hebrew, nor Biblical Greek has commas, or periods, or question marks. The sense of the sentence tells you what to do. Where we put a comma, they might well just start another line for emphasis. All this is to say, that there is a pause there. When he came to himself, pause, there is moment to think, to notice, to give silence to a moment of realization.
True, I am a grammar nerd, but I read this comma as significant. The pause might just need to sit there, echoing in our imagination for a bit. How does he come to himself? How do we come to ourselves? Does the necessity of “coming to” happen all at once, through a process, or just a flash of holy hope in the depths of despair? The philosopher and theologian Soren Kierkegaard defines sin as the despairing refusal to be ourselves. He goes on to say that getting to that despairing place is a not necessarily a bad thing, but if we stay there, stuck there, we are never fully alive.
This is where the story gets personal for this sinner. I can bear witness to what that comma was in my own experience. Without getting into the gory detail, I can say that I thought I had years ago taken my place on the wagon of sobriety. I had recognized that I was not one who can drink alcohol. While many can, I cannot. Whether this is genetic or situational is a matter of debate, but the chemical nature of dependency means my brain, with alcohol, flips switches that bypass the off button. The disease of alcoholism is fatal when left unchecked. I had been on the wagon, but I had never really taken my seat, put on a seat belt, and taken it slowly. Instead, hung my feet off the sides, and drove too fast across some really uneven ground, and, as a result, fell hard. I had talked with my family too much and not enough. On a morning in late September, I sat on the floor of our living room and talked to the dogs. “I surrender.” I felt really physically, emotionally, and spiritually horrible. But then, I felt really good, even right there in the horrible. I made some difficult phone calls. Others stepped up and gave me space to go for help. Janice was supportive and anxious and weary. Her journey is her story to tell. There have been many angels along the way. I guess I had begun to come to myself [comma].
When I check myself into residential treatment, I walked into a lobby, gave my name, and went back through an empty dining room to a conference room. With the nurse and clinical director, I answered a bunch of questions, signed a bunch of papers, answered the same questions again, and was told that the house manager would meet me in the dining room. Anxious, ashamed, nervous, and emotionally raw, I walked out into the dining room, and found the table to be full. People were eating, talking, and laughing… a lot. One woman said, “I guess you are new. You are in the right place. We can help.” Apparently, I interrupted a staff meeting as folks introduced themselves one by one. One guy put his fork down, grabbed my suitcase, and showed me to my room. The woman who had welcomed gave me a brief tour: the snack room, the laundry room, and the meeting rooms. Then, she got me some lunch, took me to the dining room, and set a place for me at the table. I asked her how long she had worked there. She laughed and so did the others. “We are here for treatment, just like you. You may feel awful right now. We have been where you are. It gets better” [comma]
It got better. It still does. I experienced coming to myself not as some gargantuan self-actualized achievement, rather as a real, complete, and unconditional surrender, giving up, and letting God welcome me back to me, welcoming me home. [comma]. And you all did the same.
It’s funny how we call today’s gospel the story of the Prodigal Son. Jesus never calls it that. The word prodigal is a describing word for one who spends money or resources freely; one who is extravagant. True enough, the younger son does some expensive dissolute living, but he does not die. He comes to himself and goes home where his father welcomes him, cleans him up, and throws a big feast to celebrate. The father is not duped. He knows his child, his children, and he loves them beyond ways words or actions can measure. With no promise of perfection or smooth sailing for the rest of time, he seizes a moment, celebrates the son’s return, and shows him what love does.
The son is not a hero because he left and came back. The older brother is not a hero because he never left home. The hero is the father’s unwavering and unchanging love for all of them. Some might call the father one who spends resources freely; one who is extravagant. [comma]
This is a story of the prodigal alright, but not the Prodigal Son so much as the Prodigal Father who welcomes the one who ran off, the one who stayed home, and everyone he can find, making a place at the table, so we, too, can come to ourselves [comma] and find our way home.
The Rev. John Thomas is Rector of Emmanuel Episcopal Church, Greenwood