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
May 9, 2021
“The Lord be with you” should be “The Lord be with y’all.” You see what I did there? I took that pesky indeterminate you and made it plural as it ought to be. I used to say that phrase is the polite Episcopal way of saying: Y’all hush. Nowadays, I reflect that it has a deeper meaning – one of those deeper meanings that familiarity and frequency tend to obscure. Back when we used the 1928 Book of Common Prayer, the call was the same, but the response was “And with thy spirit.” My grandfather Taliaferro declared that the 1928 book was God’s Prayer Book and despite the change in our most recent prayer book, he just continued to respond with what he knew.
When I first began to learn Biblical Greek in seminary, after we learned the alphabet, we moved on to the basics of verb tenses and all that. Now, I know that whenever the preacher starts talking about seminary Greek class, the congregant eyes begin to glaze over. I assure you that this is not some erudite attempt to prove some elite smartness. I have forgotten most of the Greek I learned, so whatever I tell you comes from careful Google searching to try and remember what I may have known at one time. Bear with me here. I promise there is something in here for us to consider in our understanding of what Jesus is telling his disciples as recorded in John’s gospel.
So back to those verb tenses. We got the singular stuff straight: I, you, he she or it and all that. Then to the plurals: we, you, and they. Don’t tune out yet, it is getting more pointed here. Our professor, who was old enough to claim that he was there when it was all written, asked us the important question: “How do you refer to others, familiarly, in the plural, like in the phrase “How are you doing?” The southerners all said “How are y’all doing?” Folks from other places inserted you guys, yous or youns. And then, Jimmy, from inner city Philadelphia, said “In the city of brotherly love we just say “How ya doin? Singular, plural, who cares?” And the response is “How you doin?”
The method in this romp through regional parlance served as an important lesson. Whereas our language is a bit imprecise, and has necessitated slang additions, Greek is not. The you in the plural has its own word, best translated as y’all. A contraction of the words you all. Y’all means all. And most of the time, when Jesus says you, he really says y’all. Y’all means all. That same old Greek professor proclaimed that we did not have to know Greek to get to heaven, however, it might prove really helpful to know what is going on when you get there.
It turns out that this particular detail is kind of important. “The Lord be with you” is a declarative statement. Maybe it is best translated “God is with y’all,” and the response might be the affirmative, “God is with you too.” In saying this, we are not making some isolated or individual claim. Remember, y’all means all, not just the good Episcopalians, not just the fervent faithful, but everyone, everywhere, always.
In the lesson from Acts of the Apostles, Peter has been telling Jesus’ story to some Jews, a group of Italians, and other hangers on. This group has a little of everyone in it. They are more folks from the edges of groups than the centers of power. Right there, the Holy Spirit inspires their belief, and Peter baptizes the whole lot. All of them.
When we read this portion of John’s gospel, where Jesus says “As the Father loves me, so I have loved you.” That love is a verb, not a noun. It is an action. And that is another whole sermon that I will spare you, for now. And even more crucial is that the “you” that Jesus says he loves are really “y’all.” And, again, y’all means all.
In this crazy time of pandemic and vaccination and the politicization of science, many have veered or retreated sharply toward individualism. This is not new. It has some claim on the particularly American ethos. It has been rampant in other times of stress, anxiety, and challenge. First, we take care of our own: ourselves, our families, and closest people in our orbit. The fight or flight response we have to real or perceived threat is embedded deeply in our biology. And whatever conflict that pits us against them, is the root of division. It drives suspicion of whoever the other is, and helps us lump them into some amorphous blob of wrongness as opposed to our rightness.
The good news and the hard news is the same. Jesus comes among us to blow up whatever divides us. “Love one another as I have loved y’all.” He doesn’t say this to lead us all to holding hands and singing kumbaya, forgetting the differences or ignoring the challenges. He does this, he says, so that y’all’s joy may be complete. It is a nice thing to say, but this part of the story does not give us anything about what this joy really is.
Later, John gets into joy, which he makes clear is not the same as happiness. Appropriately for this day, John points to women who go through the pain and difficulty of childbirth, saying they do not dwell on the anguish because of the joy of bring new life into the world. Joy is rooted in co-creating, and finding the depth and breadth of self-giving love. The word he uses for love is not transactional, rather it is self-emptying.
My friend, David’s, mother was not all that fond of Mother’s Day. While she loved the Church, she was a rare church goer, and if she came, it was cause for notice. But she never came on Mother’s Day. As I got to know her, I learned that she had lost a son in childbirth and she had a running argument with God over the pain that she said never healed. Being a complicated woman of fierce love and a hidden, but tender heart, I came to see her faith as real and visceral and argumentative. Mother’s Day she proclaimed, is not a thing. She would say “Every day is Mother’s Day for me.”
Joy can be wrapped in pain and difficulty and, even, unresolved grief. As we dig a little deeper into what seems like straightforward life instructions -- love God and love one another -- It is not all that straightforward, and for sure, not all that easy as the world wears on us. What Jesus proclaims for us today is that whatever we have to let go of, whatever we have to undo in our ways of seeing and being, whatever we have to forgive or bless or birth for the sake of new life, it is worth it. Jesus’ love is complete. Already there, abiding. We are beloved so that we can love. And y’all, that is a big deal. God is with y’all. All of y’all. Amen.
Emmanuel Episcopal Church, Greenwood, Virginia
April 25, 2021
Today is known, affectionately, as Good Shepherd Sunday. It is a good day to engage in a deep dive into the living metaphor of Jesus as the Good Shepherd and all of us as sheep.
Here, I quote myself from a year ago:
“(Sheep) are not naturally smart. Apart from being particularly smelly and overwhelmed with matted fur, sheep do not have much in the way of defensive capability. They have no claws, no fangs, or particularly frightening roar. Their panicked and cacophonous bleating only serves to tell a predator exactly where they are.
About the best they can do for defense is to run away and clump up together so the predator can pick out the slowest or fattest one and leave the rest alone. In extreme danger, sheep tend to scatter, and that leads to no good. Sheep have been known to run off cliffs or fall into deep ravines. I will let you do you own interpretation of sheep and the parallels to human nature. It is not such a flattering exercise.”
Here in Easter season, with all of the grace of Jesus suffering to death and coming back to live and forgive, I have seen Good Shepherd Sunday an occasion humble ourselves with an exposition of low anthropology. It is a good time to throw in one of my favorite observations that many want to serve God, but mostly as advisors.
I have not been alone in my estimation of sheep. Here in the time of COVID, we hear cries from folks who are suspicious or anxious or feel done wrong. Here, I quote news story from a large newspaper reporting on a rally against a state mask mandate: "’Don't be a sheep,’ a local sheriff said, to loud applause from a mostly mask-less crowd, gathered in a church parking lot.” How ironic is that?
A quick internet search shows memes and t-shirts and bumper stickers carrying the slogan: “Don’t be a sheep. Think for yourself.” While I am all for critical thinking, and for sure, our systems are imperfect and fail miserably at times, this is not because we need no systems, rather, we need to remember that most things human are imperfect, and respond rationally.
As a result of further study, I have discovered that my estimation of sheep and my yearly harangue about human nature has been unnecessarily harsh. I confess to God and you all that I have been wrong about sheep. An in-depth BBC article, reporting on a longitudinal, scientific study of sheep says this: “Sheep are actually surprisingly intelligent, with impressive memory and recognition skills. They build friendships, stick up for one another in fights, and feel sad when their friends are sent to slaughter… [many] were found to form long term relationships… [they] intervened on behalf of weaker colleagues and supported each other in fights”[i]
It turns out that sheep are capable of all kinds of admirable traits, and it is not so bad to be called a sheep. The reason the shepherd is so valued is that the shepherd leads sheep to sustenance and safety. Sheep imprint the shepherd’s voice in their brains, knowing from experience that following that voice is a good thing for their survival.
Rather than lamenting our sheepness as a liability, today, we might reconsider the cultural baggage that being sheep implies. Sheep are not blind followers. Sheep are discerning followers. Thus, we can be sheep and think for ourselves all at once.
This opens up a whole new way of thinking, believing, and following. The wolf, a natural sheep predator looks for the lone sheep, the weakened sheep, and the lost sheep as easy prey. Thus, those who are crying for us not to be sheep might be described more accurately as wolves in sheep’s clothing. I include a humorous cartoon from the Far Side series of comics in your service bulletin for today. This is oddly prescient, as so much of what we hear from the shrill extremes comes from self-styled would-be shepherds, whipping up fear, and excluding so-called undesirables from the herd, mostly to feed their own ego or pocketbook. Radical or rugged individualism finds no purchase in the Gospel. Jesus never asks us to go it alone, quite the opposite, his resurrection life and example invites to go it together with God and one another.
The term “herd immunity” has found great attention these days. It is seen as critical, desirable, and necessary. If we cannot or do not accept that we are, in fact, members of the herd, we leave ourselves vulnerable to the wolves of disease, despair, division, and death. So much of what is afoot in skepticism, whataboutism, all the other isms, and all manners of divisiveness is the work of wolves, not the Good Shepherd.
The whole being sheep and having a Good Shepherd is wonderfully empowering. The image gives us guidance as to where to look for health, safety, leadership, and abundant life. We are capable of so much beauty, creativity, and love. While keeping a healthy view of our weaknesses and foibles is needed and necessary, the Jesus story shows us again and again that we are worthy. We are worthy of Jesus presence among us. We are worthy of God’s infinite love. We are worthy and powerful in our love for others. Resurrection happens because God chooses it for us, and with us.
As it turns out, the revelatory nature of our sheepness is deeply and accurately descriptive. But the fact that we belong to the Good Shepherd is what matters most. While ego and ambition can draw us into more wolfness than sheepness, it is the Shepherd who helps us sort that out. We do not have a crisis of leadership as many decry, we have a crisis of followship that dogs us most.
There are so many voices talking out there, taking up valuable space ion our consciousness. In the wake of the Minnesota verdict this week, we have been bombarded by statements, postures, and positioning from just about anyone who could grab a microphone. Justice does not come from a verdict. Justice does not come from talking. Justice comes from listening to the pain of another and working together to help. The voice of the Good Shepherd calls the herd together. The voice of the Good shepherd proclaims love for every single one of us. The voice of the Good Shepherd calls us to follow. That is the only voice that matters. Amen.
[i] Earth - Sheep are not stupid, and they are not helpless ... - BBC
Emmanuel Episcopal Church, Greenwood, Virginia
April 18, 2021
“Open the eyes of our faith, that we may behold Jesus in all his redeeming work.”
Or, to quote the British rocker Rod Stewart: “Every picture tells a story. Don’t it?”
I addition to poetry, one of my favorite expressive art forms is photography. I took a few photo classes in college and back then, it was all old school. We used black and white film and manually adjusted cameras. In the field, we learned to capture shapes and patterns, use depth of field, shutter speed, and f stop aperture settings. As we gained competence, we moved on to images of people beyond snapshots, and there was a day we even had a nude model to see the human body as a creative palate. That was exciting and difficult at once. In the darkroom, we learned the art of framing an image, zooming in and out for composition, and timing for developer, stop bath, and fixer. Dust specks were the enemy of a good grade, and we were maniacally precise as light sensitive photo paper was really expensive.
Remember that back then, photographs were precious. We saw them in print newspapers and magazines, but if you wanted your own to be developed, you had to drop off your film, wait a few days, and come back to pay for every single print, even if the subject’s eyes were closed. These days, we just hit delete and print few if any through online services.
There was a woman on my college campus who made a whole job out of taking pictures of students. She was odd for sure, a true artist who never allowed pictures to be posed. She would say “life does not look like that, so I won’t shoot it.” Between classes, in the theater, at sporting events, and outdoor gatherings, she looked for moments, scenes, and interactions that she could capture and sell for two bucks a print. Her name was Lynn, and we all called her Katie Kodak, but not to her face. Twenty years after I graduated, I became the Head of School at the local prep school where I went to college. The day of my installation ceremony, Katie Kodak came to take pictures, and on the sly, handed me a few particularly embarrassing negatives dating back to my senior year. That day, she won my undying affection.
These days, we are all photographers. We all have the capacity to make art. Most of you have a camera on or near you right now. I do not wax nostalgic for the old days as much as I appreciate the democratization of art. I still love to see a well composed reflection of a moment, a mood, or emotion. I remain suspicious of filters, photo shop, and anything posed. We see lots of pictures now, but the realm of photographic art is still powerful. An artist with a perceptive eye, a seeing heart, and honed technical skill can create such beautiful art. Erin Edgerton from the Daily Progress gave us the amazing gift of shooting images our Easter experience for the newspaper. I have looked at those photos online just about every day since.
In our Emmanuel Bible study this week, we studied the lessons but came back around to the collect, inviting us to “open the eyes of our faith to behold Jesus in all his redeeming work”. Stories are crucial, but stories that come with, or create, images are even more moving. The lessons for the week are like artfully composed pictures of resurrection seen, appreciated, and experienced from different angles and perspectives. There is no one way to capture Jesus resurrection. If there were, we would not need to strive daily to remind ourselves of its immensity. In the Acts of the Apostles, Peter paints a large canvas, placing Jesus in the larger scene of God’s expansive landscape. In First John, we are invited to see ourselves as children of God with some dark spots of sin getting in the way of light and life. And finally, we see Luke’s picture of the resurrected Jesus coming into focus while fear, doubt, joy, and wonder shape the disciples’ expressions.
A picture is not worth a thousand words. A picture takes us beyond words, which is where we ask God to help our faith take us. What does resurrection look like? What does peace look like? What does forgiveness look like? Those are just big words without a fleshy, world worn images to bring them to real life.
I remember two moving images from this week. The first was of a masked little girl wiping the tears of her masked mother at the ceremony honoring of the Capital Police officer, William Evans, killed in the line of duty. The President was there, but he is not even in the picture. That picture says so much about what is important, and about the agony of human grief, and honor, and, yes, a child’s love and resilience. The other picture is of a baseball team mid-jumping celebration after the pitcher has struck out the last batter on the opposing team. In the foreground, however, at home plate, the pitcher is hugging the disconsolate batter. We come to find out that he had just struck out his best friend to win the game. Character, love, sportsmanship, friendship, victory, and defeat are all there. The story is good. The picture is better.
Circling back to Katy Kodak, I am reminded that there is no such thing as still life. Still life is an oxymoron, like a small crowd, acting naturally, or social distancing. Good images show us how we look and how the world looks when frozen in one fleeting frame of a moment. Great images tell a story, evoking memory, making connections, and unmasking a panoply of feelings.
When we gather for church, we read from Holy Scripture, we give words to praise and prayer, and we break bread to image God’s love broken open in Jesus. If we get caught in mundane explanations of pure theology, we are apt to get up in our heads, to remain at a distance, or just get bored. But when we tell stories, we start the process of developing an image, an image that we can relate to real life. As disciples too, we wonder, we doubt, we fear, and we find joy. But what does that look like? What does that feel like? Where are we in the picture? Admit it, we have to find where we are in a picture when we see it. Are we in it, near it, or just looking at it?
“Open the eyes of our faith,” we pray. What an invitation to get off the pages and seek God in our never still life. And in that, we might behold Jesus in all his redeeming work, as a child showing immense compassion, or friends hugging at the intersection of agony and ecstasy.
The image of God shines throughout life. Faith is the lens that helps us see God more clearly. Faith begs us look for ourselves in frozen moments of experience and memory. And most importantly, faith helps us find the living and resurrected Christ right there in the picture with us. Amen.
Emmanuel Episcopal Church, Greenwood, Virginia
April 11, 2021
Good morning and welcome to what is known in the church world as “Low Sunday.” Church statistics keepers look at this Sunday and the Sunday after Christmas as outliers and throw out the numbers when assessing average attendance. As you are here today you are here today, you are the hard core. Good on you.
Really, there is some good stuff to be considered on the Sunday after Easter. All of the resurrection stories are as bit shadowy and mysterious. They kind of leave us hanging with some followers heading home to Galilee and some hiding out in a locked room in Jerusalem. We have to wonder what they all were thinking. Like, so what now? It is one thing for we who have the benefit of a few thousand years of resurrection talk, but it is quite another for those who were getting their hearts and minds around it for the first time. So, what now?
Given this fact, I am proposing a name change for this Sunday. Rather than Low Sunday, I believe we should call this “So What Sunday.” Last week we had more than 200 folks here to shout “Alleluia” and the “Christ is Risen,” but today we get to the more meaty and earthy reality of how this whole story continues.
John’s gospel gives us more of the resurrection story. As he tells it, later on Easter Day, the disciples are in their locked room, the same room where they had the Passover meal with Jesus. Jesus appears and rather than explaining the whole resurrection thing, he shows them his wounds, bids them peace, breathes the Holy Spirit on them and tells them that they are to practice forgiveness and let go of blame and shame. Thomas was not there. Who knows where he was? Maybe he was checking to see if the coast was clear or maybe he was getting some food. But when the others tell him about what they saw, he says he needs to see this for himself in order to believe, thus he is forever known as Doubting Thomas.
If we are honest, most of us are doubters some of the time, and some of us are doubters most of the time. Frederic Buechner puts it this way: “Whether your faith is that there is a God or that there is not a God, if you don't have any doubts, you are either kidding yourself or asleep. Doubts are the ants in the pants of faith. They keep it awake and moving.”
Thomas’s questioning does not mean he is faithless, it means he is practical. He gives us permission keep our own seeking lively and be on the lookout for life busting through death. Then natural world gives us quite a show of this. Albert Einstein once said: “that it is not that one thing is a miracle, but that the whole thing is a miracle!” This is a good message for Easter because resurrection is not a one-time event, it is a process with a very long time-line.
When Jesus meets his disciples in the locked room, he might have had some choice words for them. He might have pointed our Peter’s denials or the way that all of them ran off to save their own skins as love suffered on the cross. When he appeared, his words were not an indictment, they were words of encouragement. He bids them peace and tells them to be forgiving. The resurrection shows that God is not interested in eye for an eye justice, God is all about setting us free from the messes we create and helping us love our way into new and full life.
The “so what” of this message is crucial and important. The folks who turn up to see the baby in the manger and then to hear of the empty tomb miss out on the whole forgiveness part. We might want to get out there with some of the Holy Spirit in our step, and show folks the rest of the story.
I do not mean this as some sort of holier than thou sour grapes. It is good to have people here to celebrate whenever they come, and however they get here. But Easter is not over when the lilies turn brown and the jelly beans are all consumed. It is just beginning. As the poet Wendell Barry says: “practice resurrection.”
What does that mean? It means looking at all of the brokenness in this world and jumping into it with love. It means letting go of shame and blame. Contrary to popular culture, it does not mean canceling others worth or dignity. It means admitting when we are judgmental or out of line. It means saying we are sorry, and meaning it rather than, ‘I am sorry you feel that way.’
I had the unfortunate occasion of spending time at my local auto repair store this week. Contrary to how some folks feel about such places, I found them to be honest, helpful, and generous. The place is not much to look at. There are decades old stacks of Popular Mechanics magazines. There are a few muscle car calendars. And there are always two to three guys, who do not work there, available for advice and consolation. They also have free coffee.
On the wall there is a great sign that reads: “Your beliefs don’t make you a better person. You behavior does.” If that is their business motto, I am all in. That is a practical statement that tells us what to do about resurrection. We are to live it.
Nobody ever come to believe anything through being shamed or having things explained as we believe they ought to believe. The old adage is that faith is caught, not taught. That is what Jesus embodies in this mystical encounter with Thomas and the rest of them. Legend has it that Thomas took off and went to India to tell the story, and when the first missionaries got there, lo and behold, there was already Christ following community.
Happy “So what Sunday.” Today we remember Thomas, not in spite of his doubt, but because of it. He accepted Jesus’ forgiveness, the gift of the Holy Spirit, and set out to show it to others. There is so much more to learn in our faith and through our doubts. Meanwhile, practice resurrection. And if in doubt as to what that means, love somebody else, and meet God there.
Emmanuel Episcopal Church, Greenwood, Virginia
April 4, 2021
Bill was a beloved priest in one of my former congregations died in his sleep at a ripe old age. Being a priest of the Church who had officiated at who knows how many funerals, he left very strict instructions for his own service of Resurrection. He said that his life is to be celebrated “at whatever church I am a member of at the time of my death… and while such an occasion warrants the attendance of any number of bishops and priestly colleagues, the local priest is fine, wherever. A five-minute homily is enough at any funeral – especially mine.” We were to sing Easter hymns only, we were to read the particularly uplifting lessons he chose, and the officiant, me, was to read a letter he wrote to his family and friends. Thus, that guy got to preach at his own funeral. Take that death.
The letter was typed on an old-school type writer with r’s that were a half a line too high. He addressed his wife of sixty plus years with loving praise for enduring life with him and life with him in the Church. He addressed his sons, enumerating the unique things he loved about them. And he addressed the congregation of friends and extended family with gratitude for their companionship. Essentially, he said, that we were to rejoice as he now knew all about the depths of the great mysteries of God which he had spent his life trying to articulate, embrace, and comprehend. The letter was a testament of humor and humility and life.
As I read it for the first time, weeping, I wondered how he could ever end with a proper salutation. He had already told of his love. He had already encouraged all of us in the faith. And there at the top of the second page, that is right, he gave thanks for his life and more than 50 years as a priest, author, educator, theologian, and seminary dean, in one page. Even at the end, he knew that a long sermon was never a good one. So how did he sign off? Simply this: “See ya later, Bill”
The Easter Word we hear from Mark’s gospel this morning is the earliest of the written texts. It is the simplest and the most to the point. It is early morning, the first day of the week, the men disciples are hiding out, but three loving women who come to anoint Jesus body with scented balm, caring for their friend even in death. The stone, as heavy as their grief, is rolled back. An angelic messenger greets them Jesus is not there, rather he is alive and gone on to Galilee, back where the journey began. He tells them: “Go home, and you will see Jesus.”
It is important to note that the men folk are nowhere to be found. At that moment, they are more concerned with hiding out than burying their dead. The women are the feelers here. When they show up for a goodbye ritual, the whole thing is turned upside down. It may take a while for them to process, but this is not a ‘goodbye moment,’ this is a ‘we will always be together moment.’
Unlike many accounts, this earliest telling ends right there. No explanation. No rationalization. Drop the mic. This leaves us knowing is that there has to be a sequel. And we will the ones to write that one in our lives. Mark’s last word tells us to change the scene. No longer will God’s love story told from the capitals of corruption, from the places of death dealing, and hope squashing subjugation. The rest of the story happens where we really live, and move and have our being. The rest of the story happens where we love on each other, where we gather for encouragement, and where work thorough our struggles together. God lives and moves and has being in the circles of love, no more in the circular firing squad hate, blame, or despairing apathy.
Easter is not the end of a long slog through sin and pain and death. It is our beginning as full and eternal partners with God.
The poet T.S. Eliot puts this Eternal Easter message this way:
What we call the beginning is often the end
And to make an end is to make a beginning.
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
(The Four Quartets, Little Gidding)
One of my favorite theologians put the Eternal Easter message, more succinctly, in this way:
“See ya later.” Amen
Emmanuel Episcopal Church, Greenwood, Virginia
March 28, 2021
Follow your passion. That bit of self-help advice is a consistent theme as we seek our way in this world. Graduates in this spring season will hear variations on this theme in commencement addresses as someone of note attempts to help them launch to whatever is next for them. Passion is what drives us. Passion is what moves us. But do we ever stop and think about what passion really means?
The word entered our language from the Latin word meaning to suffer. As language tends to do, especially when the root is unpleasant, the word passion has been whitewashed to indicate a strong emotional feeling or commitment. Given the original meaning, telling people to follow their passion is better advice than the cliché it has become.
There is a great line in the movie, The Princess Bride where Wesley, a main character, tells Princess Buttercup: “Life is suffering, highness, any who tells you otherwise is trying to sell you something.” And yet, for the rest of the story, the two characters continue to suffer and struggle out of a deepening love for one another. The story is a comedy, which Carol Burnette one quipped is tragedy plus time.
We do not need to be reminded about suffering. Suffering has been front and center with a global pandemic, children separated from families at our borders, two mass shootings in the past week, and the now standard and predictable divide of partisans pointing fingers and gridlocking thoughtful and compassionate solutions. There is that root word again. Compassion means, literally, to suffer with.
In stark contrast were are bathed in beauty too. Spring is happening in this particularly verdant part of creation. Healing and help is happening as folks are being vaccinated through the collaborative efforts of science, industry, and health care providers. Folks are cautious, but gathering again as they feel more safe in doing so. Houston, Texas is reports that traffic is really bad again, touting that as a blessing to go with a curse.
Today is Passion Sunday. It all starts out wonderful. Jesus comes to Jerusalem and is welcomed as a hero. He has embodied compassion for them. The crowds turn out because they want to believe Jesus will overturn an oppressive regime and set the world right. But he shows up on a donkey, not in a horse drawn chariot like all the good conquerors do. And very soon, all turns dark as the powers that be act out of fear, blaming Jesus for stirring up the people, and seeking to silence his threat to their tightly held control. His own people deny Jesus, run off, or join the crowd in screaming “Crucify him,” all because things do not go as they expected, they wanted and they needed. We are not as removed from the story as we might like to think.
As we know, this is only part of the story. It is more appealing to skip ahead to Easter, but all that goodness does not come without passion, without suffering. We have to go there on the way to glory.
Is there anything worth anything in life that is not experienced without some measure of suffering? Loving another person enough to put their needs ahead of our own? Birthing a child? Raising a child? Finding our own path through failure at following the wrong ones? Passion is not a feel-good emotion. It is a hard scrabble commitment to knowing what is worth suffering for. In the end, love is not a feeling, it is an action and a decision.
Jesus suffers on the cross to show us that even in the face of the worst fate imaginable, even in the face of hate, shame, and blame, Love does not back down or leave us hanging. God’s action, God’s decision is to love us, anyway.
The whole journey of this Holy Week walks us through the unvarnished Truth. Life can be terrible and filled with pain, loss, and suffering. Life can be amazing, glorious, and beautiful. Both of these things are true. To deny one negates the other. The secret of life not to follow our passion, it is to live in the light of God’s Passion for us. At the cross, Jesus shows is that nothing else in this world holds power over Passion, Compassion, and Love. Amen.
March 14, 2021
“Your wife called. She needs you to come home now.”
Sue, the parish secretary, said this in the hallway outside my office because she did not want to yell that down the hall. My phone was not hooked up yet because I had not been in my first parish job for much more than a week. The cigarette bounced on her lips as she said it while smoking hands free. She smirked a little, so I knew it was not a tragic “come home now.” We were working on our new house, and I assumed that she needed me to pick out a paint color or something. We were newly married, and still collaborated on such matters. Fortunately, we lived two miles from our new parish.
When I arrived, Janice was visibly upset, flustered, and, clearly, anxious. Now this is a woman who, at the time, took care of premature babies in the intensive care. She could intubate, insert a chest tube, and start a pic line in any sized patient. This was a woman who climbed into helicopters and flew to outlying medical centers to retrieve sick newborns and keep them stable long enough to get to the neonatal unit. What in the world?
Fighting back tears, she said, “I saw a snake on our front porch.” Though I wanted to laugh, I did not. We were newly married after all. She had told me that she was terrified of snakes. This was not the time to tell her that is called Ophidiophobia. Like many phobias it is irrational. As I have acrophobia, a fear of heights, in the same irrational way, I got it. She wanted me to find the snake and kill it or call the realtor and list the house for sale. It turned out that it was a baby rat snake, but no amount of telling her that those are the “good” kind of snakes would help. While calm returned with the passage of time, that visceral fear remains to this day.
The wandering Israelites had snake troubles too. Their fears were real because most of the snakes they met in the desert were not the “good” kind. People were dying from poisonous snake bites and they begged Moses to get God to intervene. We cannot help but think that Moses was tiring of them using him like God’s bellhop. They had already complained that there was no food, only to complete the sentence with the fact that they detested “this miserable food.” While they had been freed from slavery in Egypt, delivered from the wrath of Pharoah’s army, escaped through the parted Red Sea, been given water to drink, and manna from heaven to eat, their response seems to be yeah, Moses, but what have you done for us lately. Get God on this right away.
The story has a mythic quality that we often find in the most ancient stories. These stories were told over and over around campfires, even with wide-eyed children listening, long before they were written down. Moses fashions a bronze image of two staring serpents intertwined around a long staff. And, as the story goes, anyone who got snakebit was to look into the eyes of the bronze serpent and they would recover. From there, the story moves on, and we never hear if it worked, but this early form of aversion therapy brought calm to the hysteria, and more than likely, it reminded folks to be careful in the desert. As I learned when I visited there, most things that crawl and slither in the desert are deadly.
Some stories are true as told. Good stories, even if embellished or exaggerated, are just as true, because they tell us something about ourselves. Going back to the beginning story in Eden, the snake represents the insipient craftiness of human sin. In that story, the serpent tempts Adam and Eve to believe that they can eat the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil and become all knowing and all seeing, just like God. When they give it a go, they become aware that they are naked (or nekkid as we say in the South), and they left to wander outside of paradise.
When Moses sets up the bronze serpent, God’s people are put in mind of that beginning story as well as their current plight. They cannot help but be reminded of their sin, their self-will run rampant, and maybe, just maybe, they might substitute gratitude for grumbling. They have a long way to go, yet, but whining is lousy fuel for a journey with God.
It is an ancient story, but it is true to our own journey with God. The first step is to remember that we are not all knowing and all seeing. It is important to look our fears and sins in the face of them to be more honest, more real, and humbled before our powerlessness. This is not a one-and-done thing. It is an everyday thing. It is a lifetime journey of becoming.
That bad news is that we will never get it right. We will swing and miss more times than we get a hit. When John’s gospel has Jesus giving a summation of the journey, Jesus goes right back to staring the slithery and sliminess of our nature in the face, referring back to Moses and his whiners in the desert. But then Jesus delivers a walk off home run shot we know well as John 3:16. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” We know that one from the rainbow haired guy who used to hold up the placards in sports stadiums. Remember him? Unfortunately, that passage is often leveraged against anyone who does not believe, anyone who doubts, or dares ask questions. Can we really say that we believe 100% all of the time?
While John 3:16 is good news, it is conditional and it not the whole thought Jesus delivers the completion of that statement comes in 3:17. “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved” that is, put right again. The world will not get more right because we work harder, pray more earnestly, or let that person cut in line at the grocery store. The world gets more right because Jesus does not point fingers and tell us we are bad. We do that to ourselves and others. The world gets right as Jesus is lifted up on a cross, staring us all in the face, and showing us the lengths to which God will go to love us. Rainbow hair man should have pointed to 3:16 and 3:17. Think of all the seekers and searchers that might have been welcomed with the full text. Alas, Rainbow man is now in jail for kidnapping and assault. Apparently, his now ex-wife, stood in the wrong place with the sign and he lost his temper. Things went downhill from there. A little John 3:17 might have helped him too.
In the Book of Kings, we read that in a fit of graven image reform, King Hezekiah had Moses’ bronze snake pole destroyed. It seems folks were taking the symbol too literally and worshipping before it a bit too enthusiastically. Nevertheless, that symbol remains in what we know as the medical symbol. The snakes represent the judicious use of potent medicine and their shedding of skin represents the body’s ability to grow anew and heal. The COVID vaccine many have had, and we all need to get, helps teach our body’s immune system to recognize and stop the beast before it can take hold. Recognizing the form of the very thing that can make us ill, or kill us, is then, leveraged for good. The pain of a needle prick is a saving grace.
Even though we are God’s body, we are not immune from fear, pain, anxiety, and all the rest. Sometimes, we are so human, it hurts. There is joy in there too. Lots of it. And joy is just as potent as pain. In the end, our physical life is a temporary condition, just as was God’s earthly life in Jesus. When our time comes, we will get the call. Come home now… where perfect Love casts out all fear -- for good. Amen.
March 7, 2021
For some of you, who have encouraged, aided and abetted my latest obsession, the starting place of this sermon will come as no surprise. I am speaking of my newly acquired devotion for the television series, Ted Lasso. You can, and should, watch it for yourself. It can be streamed on Apple TV. The first week’s subscription to that streaming service is free and you can watch all ten half-hour episodes in a week, or even a few days. I am not being compensated for this endorsement, but we might consider that as an alternate source of revenue for the parish someday.
Ted Lasso is about a successful American Football coach from nowhere in Kansas who wins a national title and, is then recruited to coach an English Premiere League Soccer Team in London. To say that the Brits are maniacal fans for soccer is an understatement. They make any American football fandom seem timid at best. The fans are bewildered by management’s choice and they are none too kind to Coach Lasso, hurtling constant insults as only the British do so well. At his first press conference, Lasso proclaims that he is excited to be there, but says they could fill two whole internets with what he does not know about soccer. All through the whole first season, he is learning the rules.
But Lasso is indefatigable. He is generous and loving and forgiving. He makes friends with many who have no interest in liking him. He may not know soccer, but he knows people. Though everyone underestimates Coach Lasso, together with the unwitting participation of so many great characters, he leads the team to deep growth and some athletic success. To the aging and injured former star, he is loyal and understanding. To the upstart truly gifted but hot-headed star, he gives gentle lessons in humility. When he consults the lowly and picked on equipment manager for strategy, he shares and gives power to one who is neglected and overlooked. While I could fill this sermon with Ted Lasso-isms, and analyze each episode as a master stroke of writing and truly soothing balm for our contentious times, I will save that for a forum series in the future. Whereas in 2020, I was consumed with the character and generosity of Dolly Parton (and I still am), in 2021 I am digging into Ted Lasso and its lead actor and writer, Jason Sudekis.
So, is Coach Lasso sounding familiar? He comes from nowhere, meets people where they are, responds to anger and threats with gentleness and self-control. He surprises everyone with his wisdom and ability to bring people along with him. He tells the truth even when it hurts, and sacrifices fame and glory to make life better for all he encounters. He puts up one sign in the locker room and invites others to live into its simple encouragement: “Believe.” He is a Christ-like figure, for sure.
Of course, Lasso is not Jesus. He is going through a divorce and trying hard to be a good father to a kid who is half way across the world. But the Lasso character creates an archetype that is largely missing our self-obsessed culture, and all that goes with the worship of fame, fortune, and winning at all costs. He is a reluctant, self-deprecating, self-sacrificing hero, but he is no pushover.
This is much like the Jesus we come to know in the gospels. What stands out about Jesus against our vast human history of power, vainglory, and achievement, is that God’s way is not always our way. Jesus is like none other. He is human and divine. He upends all preconceived notions, and calls everyone, everyone, to God’s almighty love.
Of all of the passages in the gospels, the story of Jesus turning over the tables and driving the people out of the Temple courtyard, we hear of an atypical raging Jesus. Like nowhere else, he is visibly angry. This is not Gentle Jesus Meek and Mild hymn, or the old Sunday School poem kids used to memorize. This is a picture of Jesus we do not find in stained glass. This is a story we only tell well into Lent because, in this time, we are challenged to contemplate the hard truths as well as the softer ones.
As we look into the Temple incident, beyond what it looks like on the surface, we discover that Jesus has good reason for some righteous anger. The courtyard of the Temple was a place where folks could buy and sell animals for ritual sacrifice. A big Temple event looked more like a slaughter house than a worship service. Rich folks sought to be more holy in offering lambs or fat cattle. In return for their largesse, they got to go inside and get close. The poor were relegated to the outside where the best they could offer were doves or pigeons. Of course, all of the sacrificed critters had to be “without blemish,” meeting certain standards of, you guessed it, the sellers of critters in cahoots with the priests. Thus, the people get fleeced. They had to pay a Temple Tax too, but they could not do it with regular currency, so they had to exchange it for Temple approved currency, thus, the money changers made a market with large margins of markup, again, in cahoots with the priests
While the Temple was built to the glory of God, it had long strayed from its mission, becoming an idol to be worshipped, threatening folks with an angry God who demands sacrifice. This is why Jesus let them have it. This tirade gets him into trouble because, well, follow the money.
What Jesus insists that God is not the resident of a building. God is not most accessible to the well-heeled. That old model was steeped in pagan sacrifice. What Jesus comes to do is offer himself for the world with the central sacrifice: unconditional love. Jesus shows God is not to be used for a scheme, or coopted to make some better than others. As God, Jesus is everywhere and for everyone. He becomes the Temple through which we come closer to God.
We see all kinds of anger these days. I do not need to enumerate the power of rage to divide and destroy our bonds of affection. Self-serving anger is a major stumbling block insofar was it consumes us in judging others. Jesus will show us and tell us, that judgement is for God, not us. But there are times when God’s cause of love need our anger energy to hold fast to what is good and of God.
Returning to Ted Lasso for a moment, at one point in the show, Ted reflects on people who have under estimated him for his entire life. And it used to bother him, he says, until one day he saw a quotation from Walt Whitman on the walls of his kid’s school. “Be curious not judgmental.” Then he realized that all those folks putting him down were not curious. They thought they knew everything and had everything figured out, “so they judged everything and judged everyone.” Then he says that “if they were curious, they would have asked questions.”
In our gospel today, we might like to look past the unpleasantness, and figure that Jesus was having a bad day, or throw judgement on the priests and on all religion as corrupt. But if we are curious, we might ask questions like “What is our role in going along to please others?” “What does God desire for God’s people?” “How can I help?” Getting riled up is not a bad thing, it is just a tricky thing. When we get there – and we should - it is good to ask questions and consider how can we be curious and not judgmental. Amen.
Emmanuel Episcopal Church, Greenwood, Virginia
February 28, 2021
Names are important things. Think about how you got yours. Likely, your name has meaning and connection to family, close friends, or some other major significance. The people who named you thought long and hard for sure. Nowadays, there are books and websites and all kinds of surveys about what names are most popular and, even, which names for people make them more likely to get noticed or become successful.
There is a story in my wife’s family that she, being the youngest of six kids, got named by her oldest brother. No kidding. Apparently, he had the chicken pox and the deal was that if he stayed away from her, he could choose her name. As the story goes, he chose Janice, but being a good Catholic family, she had to have some form of Mary in there, thus, she is Janice Marie.
That is such a great story, and far more interesting than my super protestant one as I was named for John Marshall, a notable relative who was the first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. But he had ten children so there are lots and lots of Johns out there. My mother liked Feilding and Garland, but I can thank my father for nixing those choices.
When we have a baptism, we are deliberate in naming the candidate being brought into the faith. We say their name, and not their surname as that indicates their earthly family. Their first or given name is what matters in that ritual, because the family the person is joining is the family of God, so we call that their Christian name.
As we look over our biblical passages for the day, there are lots of names in there. Bible names almost always have deep meaning. Adam, for instance, means, literally, first man. Eve comes from the Hebrew word for breath and is indicates that she is one who gives life.
When we meet Abram and Sirai in Genesis, God gives them new names indicating their role and function in initiating a forever covenant of love between God and all humanity. Abram becomes Abraham which means father of many nations. Sirai becomes Sarah, which means princess. And given that she will birth a son at 99 years old, that is an apt title. Not only does this give a clue as to their role in the story, it helps all those generations of storytellers keep it straight.
Much later, as he is reviewing God’s great love for all, St. Paul harkens back to that ancient naming story to talk about faith. As he encourages the Romans to hold fast to their belief, he points to their common ancestor, father of many nations, to connect them to something really large and important for their identity. Not only is Abraham a great patriarch, he is one who listened to God, and believed in God, sending him on a journey to a new land and a new way of being. It all started with a promise and a new name.
When left his fishing boat to follow Jesus, he was called Simon. Later in the story, Jesus quizzes his followers about who people say that he is. Some say he is a giant like the fathers and mothers of old, like an Abraham or a Moses. Others say he is like one of the marquee prophets like Elijah or Isaiah. That is some pretty holy company. But Simon says no, Jesus is the Messiah, the promised savior and deliverer that God’s people have longed for. Seeing as they had been occupied, oppressed, and put down over and over, the Messiah was an almost unimaginable hope and grace bringer. To call Jesus Messiah was to hope against hope that he, right there with them, is God in human form.
That rung the bell. Immediately, Jesus gives Simon a new name, a great name, Petrus, the rock, Peter. He will be the cornerstone of building a new thing we know as the church. But good old Peter, who is so painfully human, misses the point so often that we could think of him as rock headed, dense, and hard to move too.
With that affirmation behind them, all they seek now is the plan. What will it be Jesus? Will we ride into Jerusalem, take out the Romans and set the chief priests straight? What kind of army will we need? Are you going to bring down all of the God powers of thunder, fire, and show them once and for all what real power is? They are kind of giddy with anticipation.
But then we get to today’s announcement. Jesus tells them that the way he will go is the way of suffering and death. He points them to the cross, which is far from the brassy and adorned icon we hold up as a sign of our faith. For them, the cross is an instrument of torture, shame, and defeat. When Peter hears that, it makes no sense. That is not victory. That is not a plan. That is suicidal. Peter takes him aside and lets him know that this is no way to gain followers. But Jesus calls him another name, a searing and harsh name: Satan, telling him that his mind is way to set on earthly things, and not heavenly ones. Then, in terms they cannot understand on their side of the cross, he explains that they (we) all have to take up the cross and suffer too.
That is the hard news. And it is not something that even centuries of theology can unravel sensibly. It is the great paradox of following Jesus. All the world shows and tells us is that success is all about winning, about coming out on top, about making ourselves happy and fulfilled on our terms.
But, then, there is good news here, if we stick with it. Like Adam, Abraham, Moses and all those prophets, we are just human. We flop and fail and flounder even when we try as we might to look like we are winners. We miss the point again and again. God knows that. He does not ask us to be perfect, he shows us that we are being perfected in a life much larger than the one we know. In his harsh and perplexing way, Jesus tells us that he, that God, has this. God knows what God is doing.
We do church to remember that what we see is not all there is. We tell the stories to remember that even when life is hard and does not make sense, God is still God. What the cross shows us is that there is nothing so horrible, so difficult, so shameful, that God cannot redeem even that. And in case we forget, God has a name for all God is, and all God does: the only thing that matters. Love. Amen.
Emmanuel Episcopal Church, Greenwood, Virginia
February 21, 2021
Some close family friends recently birthed a beautiful baby boy. Being thoroughly hip parents, their nursery is lovely, painted in neutral hues of blue and gray. It is a far cry from the days of loud, primary colors when we figured that because children saw primary colors best, we used them everywhere, only to need a paint job when the child was old enough not to want to be a baby any more. There is, however, one ubiquitous feature that seems to have spanned all of decorative evolution. Right there in the hip nursery is a happy painting of the ark, complete with a rainbow, the animals, and a tiny self-satisfied looking Noah.
The story does make for some great children’s art, and provides an object lesson for thinking of animals, naming animals, and making their animal sounds. Googling Noah’s ark books yields 18 million results, though I am sure there repeats in there. Nevertheless, we have a curious relationship with this story. If we dig even a little, telling that story is problematic. As it goes, the people God created back in chapter 1 grew wicked, and now in chapter 9, God finds one righteous guy, Noah, and tells him to gather his family and two of each animal, build an immense ark our of gopher wood, and get ready for the rain. Even the young children know this one. They ark floats them to safety, and after forty days (which is Bible speak for a long time), they come to rest on dry land. And now, cue the primary colors. God sets a rainbow in the sky to serve as sign that God will never again send a flood. The promise extends to all living creatures. It is a reboot for creation.
What gets glossed over in the story is bound to raise questions as children age. What about the people who perished? Why would God send destructive weather to destroy God’s good creation? This is an apt question for Texans this week, for sure. And that rainbow, that bright sign that is set up as a sign of love and promise, well, is that not a warning too?
Here, we have to pull back a bit and see what the authors of this tale are telling us. The original hearers were more than aware that in many cultures and religions that they encountered, there were epic tales of floods and other natural disasters. These tales personified angry gods, fighting with each other, and exacting punishment to demand greater obedience and sacrifice. It is all pretty grim stuff.
The authors of the Noah story were not literalists or fundamentalists. They were story tellers. They spin their narratives in concert with other stories in their library, connecting symbols of creation and redemption in loaded language. Back in the beginning, God creates all that is out of the watery void of chaos. Of course, anyone familiar with birthing babies knows that all of us emerge from the watery womb to breathe new life. Look ahead, and we see the Israelites are delivered into freedom through the waters of the Red Sea. They will be in the wilderness for 40 (there’s that number again) 40 years, and will be given a Promised Land. Thus, the flood story takes a horror tale and turns it up on end. It is not about fear. It is about love and redemption, about one God, not many, a God who is creative, not destructive. And that bow, the word is the one also used for an archer’s bow. And as it appears, it is pointed away from the earth, thus the symbol of a weapon is transformed into a sign of peace.
As any student of children’s literature will tell you, stories work on many levels. Their appeal is their universality. They tell deep truth with creative artistry. Not everything has to be literal to be true. This is what all good artists know and practice.
Consider Van Gough’s Starry Night painting. It captures movement, feeling, and color in a way that a flat photograph or simple drawing never could. Recently, I was forwarded a video of a number van Gough’s paintings set to music. It is sublime and reminded me of the power that art has to capture thought, feeling, emotion, and deep truth. That is one of the reasons to love poetry as it uses and economy of words to paint connective images in the mind.
With the rainbow story as a backdrop canvas, we move to another beginning story with Jesus in today’s Gospel. Mark does not tell the Christmas story, rather, he begins with Jesus being baptized. And as he comes out of the water -- you see where this is going – he hears God saying: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” It is said for Jesus to hear and Mark helps us eavesdrop. With the strength of that affirmation, Jesus goes to the wilderness for, you guessed it, forty days. Ding, ding, ding, the stories are connected. God is about delivering Jesus through danger, discomfort, and potential tragedy, to be new life. In the very next sentence, Jesus shows up in Galilee to begin his saving work, announcing: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”
Jesus is off and running, and Mark will tell his story at a breakneck pace, using evocative language and familiar phrases, drawing on every connection he can make to the bigger story of God with God’s people. Jesus’ story, while connected, is not just another story. Jesus speaks in the present tense, rather than the past tense of fable. The plan of new creation and redemption already embedded, but the truth to which all of the biblical stories point, becomes human, God among us. We will follow this one, carefully.
It must be noted that Noah was a great guy, but he turned out to be a drunkard and wildly imperfect. The Israelites, while lively and committed, can be weak kneed and downright self-absorbed, falling down and getting up before God over and over. If God were to be destructive and vengeful, the story would tell of thousands of floods and arks. Jesus knows this. Jesus confronts this. And still, he invites us, all of us, to turn around, see that God is not distant and removed, but very near, so we can believe the good news.
We are off and running in the season of Lent. As I have said and written before, we do this season to make space for God to grow us in love. For forty days, (forty, again!) we take on some discomfort, some deprivation, or some new discipline, not to become better or get more holy, but to live into the story, to be brought through whatever watery chaos may be drowning us, and plant our feet on solid ground.
In beautiful summary, the Psalmist says:
I waited patiently upon the LORD; *
he stooped to me and heard my cry.
He lifted me out of the desolate pit, out of the mire and clay; *
he set my feet upon a high cliff and made my footing sure.
He put a new song in my mouth,
a song of praise to our God; *
many shall see, and stand in awe,
and put their trust in the LORD.
And you guessed it, that is Psalm… 40. Go figure. Amen.
The Rev. John Thomas is Rector of Emmanuel Episcopal Church, Greenwood