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 19, Year A
September 13, 2020
It is wonderfully comforting and inspiring to be part of something really big and positive.
As many of you know, I grew up in Athens, Georgia, the son of a professor at the University of Georgia. Athens is a lot, like Charlottesville, except it is bigger. Whereas UVA has 21 thousand students, Georgia has 38 thousand. When school is in session, the town is electric.
Then, there is football season. On seven fall Saturdays a year, it seems like the whole world comes to Athens. Georgians are rabid about their football fandom. They call themselves the Bulldog Nation. The stadium seats more than 93 thousand fans and there are an equal number of folks are tailgating out on lawns and in parking lots within a mile or so of the stadium. Everyone cheers for the dogs. Everyone wears red and black. Everyone shares a language and speaks in a common voice: “Go dogs.” Depending on your provenance, you can spell dogs normally, or with a w in there, and for emphasis you can add a “woof, woof.”
“Go dogs” is not just a cheer. It is a statement of belonging, of hope, and of commitment. One speaks it as a greeting. One speaks it as a farewell. It is intoned on the streets as greeting among intimate friends and hospitality for complete strangers. It is spoken in the school carpool line, in the check-out line, and, even, at the end of prayer.
All are welcome in the Bulldog Nation. All you have to do is proclaim that you belong and you are in. I did not attend the University of Georgia, but it is no matter, I pull for the dogs and that is the only passport needed.
Being in the stadium on gameday is a nothing else like it experience. There is ritual, tradition, pageantry, special music, and lots of full-throated screaming. Go dogs. C’mon dogs. Sic ‘em dogs. Hold ‘em dogs. How ‘bout them dawgs. I know of few places where people gather from countless ethnic backgrounds, divergent perspectives, the broad swath of political persuasions, and people of all ages and stages in life, united around one event, pulling in the same direction. It is a modern sociological miracle.
I will leave the arguments about the massive amounts of money involved, the really expensive single use facilities, and the distractions from true academic pursuits to others. What we experience on gameday is rare, needed, and fulsome unity. And that is in short supply these days. The experience is a lot like church – or really, a spirit filled revival in a massive outdoor cathedral.
The metaphor between fandom and faith is not exact, and both can be idolatrous when taken to extremes, but it is not a bad lens for the world Jesus seeks to build through today’s gospel.
Once again Peter plays the straight man, asking how many times he should forgive a fellow member of the church. This is a big statement as the church is a new idea and membership is wide open to all who follow, so really, Peter is asking about how much we should accept and allow from others. He lobs up a big number: “seven times?” And Jesus says nope, seventy times that – really a number beyond counting. Then, he tells a completely hyperbolic tale of a king who forgives a slave of an enormous debt that he could never pay in a thousand lifetimes. Afterall, he is a slave. But the slave goes and demands repayment from someone who owes him a relatively small sum: a few hundred bucks. And he will not let it go. The king is outraged. How could one who was forgiven of so much, not, out of sheer gratitude, forgive as he has been forgiven. It does not end well for the slave.
It is an unusual and fantastical story told to drive home an essential message. We are all beneficiaries of a generous, loving, creative, and forgiving God. We are not perfect. We fall short. We are capable of so much destruction and division, but we are capable of so much love as we lean into belonging with God.
Forgiveness is difficult, especially when wounds fester and memories of being done wrong linger. Resentments are hard to carry and they are heavy burdens for the one who is harmed. In AA, it is said that a carrying resentment is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die. The story Jesus tells gives us perspective. It gives us direction. It gives us a way forward. Rather than hanging on to when and how we have been done wrong, we can pivot completely and focus on where we are done right, which is large.
Jesus shows us and tells us that we are beloved. We belong to the immensity of God. We are beautiful, and capable, and plenty enough for this world. So often we are clear about what we are against, and that gives us fellowship with like minds or experiences. But the pivot we need is to come together on what we are for. What Jesus asks is that we suit up, show up, and pull for Team God. We have ritual, tradition, pageantry, stories, songs, prayers. More importantly, we have the power of the Holy Spirit to draw us together, across all man-made divides, to heal our resentments, and to show us exactly who and what we are for: the love of God in Jesus Christ.
It is wonderfully comforting and inspiring to be part of something that big and that positive. The good news is that are all on the same team. It is gameday. Everyday. Go God!
Emmanuel Episcopal Church, Greenwood, Virginia
Proper 17, Year A
August 30, 2020
If Matthew’s gospel was made into a Netflix series, this week would be Season 3, Episode 2.
The first season was short, but packed with imagery and foreshadowing included a little background of Jesus historical connection to King David, the oddly romantic, but hard to understand Joseph and Mary story, and a miraculous birth story. Then, there is an exotic, international twist with sages coming from the far east to visit the infant whom they foretell will become great leader and shepherd of his people. Herod plays the villain in season one, seeing this baby as a threat to his power, and the season closes with the holy family escaping to Egypt.
In season two, we meet Jesus as a grown man and we follow the beginning of his ministry. We meet John the Baptist at the riverside. We meet the disciples one by one as they are compelled to follow Jesus. We then see Jesus laying down the foundations of proclaiming God’s power and presence even in this little, out of the way, occupied territory. He encounters doubters and hecklers. He runs afoul of the religious establishment, but never stops his encouragement of faith in higher and greater love that they have ever known. He teaches not with erudite theology, but with earthly parables about seeds and soil. He speaks of eternal treasure in simple things. And as we near the end of the season, he finds his miraculous gift for feeding, helping, and physical healing. In the last episode, Jesus walks on water, calms a storm, and then travels across physical, social, and religious boundaries, helping desperate young mother in healing her child. His mission is expanding outside of his tight circle.
Now we come to Season 3. There is an abrupt scene change as it opens in Caesarea Philippi. Caesarea Philippi is a grand city, a resort kind of place, where idols to pagan gods enshrined and worshipped, alongside the Roman Emperor. In that setting, Peter, who has become an attractive costar in the series, identifies Jesus as “Messiah.” “Messiah” is a term his people have used for centuries of hopeful anticipation. The Messiah is expected to come into history and reconcile the world to God, establish permanent rule over all people, and set everything to its rightful place in the divine creation. In a moment of profound revelation, Jesus accepts that mantel, that role, that divine identity, as God made human. He confirms what has been suspected ever since Season 1.
Today we come to Matthew’s Season 3, Episode 2. We get a quick preview of last week’s big proclamation, but then the plot takes a major twist. Jesus begins to explain that though he is the promised messiah, not all of the lore about what he will do is accurate. He says his love will be met with resistance. He tells them he will suffer. He tells them that he will go to the cross and be executed. Even when he says that will not be the end of the story, the disciples get more than very uneasy. They signed on to follow this great leader. They are planning to be in the inner circle of the new regime, wherein God will lay waste to their enemies and reward them greatly. Their spokesperson, Peter, calls foul. He tells Jesus that they will not let the authorities get their hands on him.
Whereas last week, Peter was the divine seer and the episode hero, this week is a different story. Jesus rebukes his close friend. Jesus talks of taking up the cross, and losing life as we would shape it, in order to gain new life, as God will make it. This is a perplexing shocker. He is reframing traditional expectations, redefining power over against the common perception that power that this world offers and embraces. From now on, we are going to find out what God in human person will do to upend misaligned values, show radical and sacrificial love, and confound even death’s perceived finality. There is much more to come this season. Still, it is crucial to the story that we see the difference between God’s plan for us rather than our plans for God. Sticking with Jesus will be more and more challenging as it gets personal.
This is a hard thing to hear, especially when we face difficult times. We are divided and hurting. We are not the first to suffer, to be challenged, or to be divided. This has happened throughout history and is repeating itself of late. It is not that we lack resolve or that we lack passion, it is that we too often lose our way. We buy into false narratives about goodness and greatness. We fail to see of humanity as God sees us. We become consumed with self-centeredness and the whole industry of self-actualization. Like Peter, we like Jesus being there with and for us, but we resist his call to deeper love and service. It is hard to know where to start.
If we look to politics to be the savior, we will be disappointed. If we believe that a catchy slogan makes us right, or assign a label to what makes others wrong, we miss the point of being in communion with God and one another. While we need to follow our conscience in advocating justice and equity, we do well to approach such things with humility and open hearts.
What we hear today is that the power that we need, the power that saves, the power that lasts is God’s. All the rest is playing around the edges. God’s love is our true north, our bedrock, our only salvation. In this episode, we see that following Jesus leads us away from chaos, mess, and hatred that vexes our interconnectedness. Our times are really challenging. Our opportunity is to break the cycle of self- centered or self-actualized notions of power. Our moment invites us to be together as a way of finding our way in God’s way.
The story is getting wild and interesting. We need to be prepared for what is to come. We have a part to play in God’s holy history. As we tune in for the rest of the story, we do well to pray as St. Francis encouraged:
Lord, make us instruments of your peace
Where there is hatred, let us sow love
Where there is injury, pardon
Where there is doubt, faith
Where there is despair, hope
Where there is darkness, light
And where there is sadness, joy
O Divine Master, grant that we may
Not so much seek to be consoled as to console
To be understood, as to understand
To be loved, as to love
For it is in giving that we receive
And it's in pardoning that we are pardoned
And it's in dying that we are born to Eternal Life
This is what real power is, and it will save us all.
Emmanuel Episcopal Church, Greenwood, Virginia
Proper 16, Year A
August 23, 2020
“It is raining in the watershed!” That one phrase brought such great joy and anticipation back when I was a whitewater raft guide and kayaker. As the summer progressed, rain tended to be scarcer, and without rain, we were doomed to dragging rubber rafts across rocks, repairing the tears, and providing less of an exciting experience for our customers. One August was so dry, we had to cancel our trips, meaning we did not get paid or tipped. But when it rained, it was like sweet salvation. The boats flowed freely and faster, the waves got bigger, and there was much more excitement for all of us. “It is raining in the watershed!” That proclamation is the whitewater enthusiast’s equivalent of “Alleluia.”
Rushing water has always been a sound of solace and comfort ever since my younger adult days. The smells of wet moss, mountain laurel, and rhododendrons take me to the riverside. I have been known to set out in the midst of a rainstorm to see the waters come alive. Even when was little, my brother and I would go out and race sticks down the street gutters until they washed into the drains.
As I grew older and put myself in to river running boats, I did learn to be respectful of water’s momentous power. As soon as I was able, I ran the entire Colorado River through the Grand Canyon, and saw how It shaped the land and moved enormous boulders in real time. I learned to work with the current, to read the water, and find the safest passage. I learned always to watch downstream for dangerous ledges or strainers. In raft guide training, we were taught that deep river knowledge meant respecting its power. You never beat the river; you only work with it.
All of that power comes into being in the watershed. While we were always focused on where we were and where we were going, there was that unseen dynamic upstream that made what we experienced happen. I could go on about watershed protection as essential for the ecosystem, but these natural lessons, learned early in life, have translated into both practical and theological guideposts for much of my life. As a teacher and parent of adolescent children, I was adamant and, possibly, annoying, insisting that they look downstream of their attitudes and actions, believing that small decisions can shape larger outcomes, impacting them, others, and the world they hope to help form. And as a Christ follower, I have come to believe that the waters of baptism flow from the source, from Jesus, the ground of all love, health, and wholeness.
Where all of this is going is that the stories of God and God’s people that we tell today are, truly, watershed moments fin faith. In Moses birth and life-saving story, we see the contrast between what everyone supposes is powerful, and what ends up being truly powerful. The King of Egypt is afraid of the Israelites and out of that fear, he commands all of the newborn males to be killed. As the King, his commands are absolute. But compassion and love find another way. The midwives cannot and will not bring themselves to carry out orders. In her own defiance, Moses’s mother hides him for three months, finally, putting him in a basket, to float him downstream to safety. The King’s daughter finds the babe, which she should have reported, but her compassion leads her to name the child, and provide or his survival. The king’s command may be law, but through these women, these life bringers, these life savers, the greater power of love prevails. Thank God they did what they did, because downstream, that child, Moses, will lead the people out of slavery and into a future of promise.
Then we hear Matthew tell us of Jesus, going to Caesarea Philippi. Caesarea Philippi is a sort of Roman retreat center, a place to the north at the base of Mount Hermon, at the headwaters of the Jordan river. The geography of the place is no accident to its significance. A sort of Las Vegas of the Greco-Roman world, it was a place where everything goes, where polytheistic pagan cults supported worship of Emperor Augustus, himself. And this is the place where Jesus takes his disciples to see what secular power thinks of itself.
With all the idol statuary, and cultic craziness, Jesus asks his followers who people think he is in that setting. They say that some think of him as a prophet, a sort of patriarch, or one of so many mystic characters from Israel’s history. “But who do you say that I am” he asks. And good ole Peter. The first to speak and the last to measure his words, says the Jesus is the Messiah, the one sent to save the world. This event is called the confession of Peter, it is the watershed of the church’s beginnings, and it is a turning point as to what God is doing in Christ. If we know anything about Peter, we know that he stumbles upon this truth, not through his innate brightness, but as the divine speaks through him.
As a preacher and theologian, I tend to point at all of the biblical narrative as a vehicle through which we are shown who God is and told about what God does. In doing so, I hold what we call a low anthropology, that is, a view of humanity that is at best a supporting role in the bigger picture. Such as view is long on grace and suspicious of good works as a way of righteousness.
And yet, the players in the stories we tell today do have a substantial role. While they may be responding to what has been revealed, or what is given them in creation, they are part of the watershed that enables the story to flow downstream.
The theologian, Richard Rohr puts it this way:
“If you want to see the future of Christianity as a great spiritual migration, don’t look at a church building. Go look in the mirror and look at your neighbor. God’s message of love is sent into the world in human envelopes. If you want to see a great spiritual migration begin, then let it start right in your body. Let your life be a foothold of liberation.”
We find ourselves in a time of some tribulation. You all know the deep divisions, the great challenges, and the helplessness we often face and feel. But if our story tells us anything today, it is that we may not powerful, but we love and serve a God who is. If we look at what is floating past us on the river, we are apt just to react and respond. But if we want to seek the will of God, if we trust that God is not finished with us, if we are to be hope, help and be those human envelopes of God’s message, we need to look to the watershed: the person and work of Jesus.
So much of what consumes us is what is in front of us and what is downstream. Will we be safe, healthy, prosperous and happy? But what feeds that outcome, what informs our actions, what washes over us as baptized people, is the source, the ground, the being of God in and for us. There is so much love upstream ready to flow through us. It is raining in that watershed. Alleluia.
Emmanuel Episcopal Church, Greenwood, Virginia
Proper 15, Year A
August 16, 2020
These things happen. It is nothing new. It is not really that surprising because nobody is perfect. Last week, Jerry Falwell, Junior posted a rather suggestive picture on Instagram. He is now on an indefinite leave of absence from being Chancellor and President of Liberty University. Those two facts were not connected in the announcement, but clearly, they are related. That is big news in this region.
I drove by Liberty last week when taking my son back to college. It looks like their mascot is the construction crane. The place has grown and continues to grow tremendously. They have some 15,000 students on campus and another 95,000 online. Liberty was doing distance learning before distance learning was a necessity, and they have kept tuition reasonably low in comparison with other colleges and universities. While I do not choose their particular take on Christianity, it is hard to doubt their commitment to service and ministry as integral in education, and admire their forward thinking model for making education accessible.
Falwell has had a number of public gaffes, but this latest photo, mostly because if he were enrolled as a student at Liberty, he could have been fined, sanctioned, or expelled according to their published standards of conduct. He is not the first leader to hold high standards only to fall short of them himself. He is just one of the latest ones. There is plenty of room for repentance and redemption in our faith.
Having grown up in Georgia, I always cringe when a wacky news story comes out of that state. I feel the same way about particularly prominent professing Christians who reveal some sort of hypocrisy or dishonesty. It is not a good look all of us – and ought to be a cautionary tale for all of us to remain humble and aware of our own shortcomings.
The gospel for today pounds that point home with a one two punch. The first section takes on the exceptionally strict Jewish purity laws. Jesus disciples warn him that he is making the Pharisees mad, but he keeps at it, saying that following strict rules does not result in more authentic faith or righteousness. As Garrison Keillor puts it a bit differently: “Going to church does not make me a Christian any more than sleeping in the garage makes me a car.”
After that, there is an immediate location change to Tyre and Sidon which is modern day Lebanon. After dropping his criticism on the religious elites, Jesus makes a 40-mile journey to a region completely outside of their influence. Word must have spread about Jesus because just as he arrives, a local woman chases after him, pleading with him to heal her daughter. This is culturally wrong on so many levels. The Jews of Israel look down on those folks, and those folks look down on Jews. Their rivalry makes Virginia and Duke seem cordial. As a woman in that time and place, she was never to speak publicly, especially to a man. So, this woman is so out of bounds, so outside of cultural standards, so loud, and so persistent.
Though they are particularly scruffy, even the disciples are shocked at her forward behavior, asking Jesus to send her away. And at first, Jesus goes along. But her response shocks even Jesus. She settles down, she kneels and bows before him, and in complete, surrender of dignity and decorum, acknowledges his power and presence, and begs for healing on her daughter’s behalf. Such desperation is something the parent of any sick child can understand easily.
This woman, this stranger, this outsider, this marginalized person shocks even Jesus. Her humility and kindness shake his own very human assumptions. Praising her pure humility in recognition of God’s very presence in him, Jesus grants her request for healing, immediately. Matthew recounts this story right after Jesus encounter with the Pharisees as it is a groundbreaking shift in Jesus ministry and message. God’s love and saving grace is not reserved for any particular group, sect, sex, heritage, class, or race. Jesus comes to the world, revealing God - to and for - all creation.
The event is unsettling for the disciples. It is scandalous for the Jewish authorities. It ought to convict us as well. While we may think of ourselves as open minded, tolerant, and accepting, there lurks in all of us some deep distrust, some enmity, some disdain for those whose ways, thoughts, traditions, or practices may be foreign to ours. We have labels for whole swaths of our fellow humans that we use to lump people into categories. We call them illegal, alien, conservative, liberal, white, black, brown, gay, straight. It is natural and to recognize difference, and it is appropriate to celebrate diversity, but Jesus challenges us to recognize sameness as much as difference. The woman in our Gospel breaks through the barriers and boundaries as she is seen, heard, and loved: human, worthy, a child of God, like us.
Despite our particularly polarized perspectives, most people really want the same things: to love and be loved, to be safe, seen, heard, and valued, to be healthy, and to find joy. While we may disagree on how to get there collectively, humans are not as different as we make them out to be. Our faith challenges us be more creative than destructive, more together than separate, and more forgiving than aggrieved. If we set ourselves up to be more righteous, more important, or more deserving of God’s love, we put ourselves farther from the heart of God, but never outside of God’s love.
If today’s Gospel does not make us a little uncomfortable and a little more self-aware, then we are not listening carefully. The great circle of God’s grace is ever expanding. As the poet, Edwin Markham, wrote:
“He drew a circle that shut me out-
Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.
But love and I had the wit to win:
We drew a circle and took him In!”
We are all a work in progress, and perfection is not something we attain this side of heaven. We have all been extended such grace through God in Christ. We have not been done wrong in this life. When we take the long view, we see that we have been done so right. Thus, when we flop and fail, when we fall short and flounder in our humanity, God’s grace is sufficient to pick us up dust us off, and help us to extend that grace to others. All of them are us. Amen.
Emmanuel Episcopal Church, Greenwood, Virginia
Proper 14, Year A
August 9, 2020
Barbecue by the Pound, Ribs, and Chicken. I pass that sign at Paulie’s Pig Out on my way up 151 to church just about every day. It is quiet from Monday to Wednesday, but like clockwork, on Thursday morning, the sweet incense of the smokers wafts through the air, into my car, and reminds me that preparations for the weekend are underway. It is the smell of optimism.
While many small businesses and restaurants are really struggling, Paulie’s Pig Out has the perfect set up for our times. Everything, from barbecue to beans and taters to sweet tea is sold out the front plexiglass window in Styrofoam and plastic vessels. From Thursday afternoon through Sunday, bikers, truckers, tourists, and locals draw near and feast. I have been known to be in that congregation.
Barbecue is an amazing culinary phenomenon. Just about every culture and region has its own version. Some are partial to a vinegar and mustard base, others are into tomato and brown sugar. Texans do brisket. Easter Virginians and Carolinians argue about whether pulled or chopped pork is the appropriate preparation. No matter, as long as someone who knows what they are doing, keeping the fire low and slow, and making sure somebody’s mama is out in the kitchen fixing up the sides, the best barbecue is a labor of love and the science of fire, smoke, and time.
The way we have measured time since last March has changed so dramatically. With so many routines, rituals, and events cancelled, shrunk, or radically altered, spring and summer have been unusually disorienting. Along with Barbecue, fireworks sales have been brisk since May, signaling that folks need to blow up something. Pools opened late and some not at all. But to be sure, when I smell Paulie’s sweet scent of the approaching weekend, this preacher knows that he had better be getting a sermon in shape and whatever preparations need to be made for Sunday worship. Even in a pandemic, life continues to happen.
This business about the immediacy of life is a crucial point to which our bible lessons point this week. As Saint Paul is writing to the Christ followers in Rome, he takes them to task, warning them against just waiting around for something big and holy to happen. They are expecting a cosmic return of Jesus to set things right and welcome them as the righteous elect. But Paul tells them not to hang out in that in between space. He reminds them what Moses insisted: “The Word is near you, on your lips and in your heart.” The Word, now being Jesus, Paul points to the fulfillment of all they have been taught. The saving work has already been done in the resurrection, and it is available not just for observant Jews, but for everyone. He tells them to get on with it: telling the story, living the love, and practicing God’s generosity.
Matthew takes us back to Jesus and his disciples at a crucial time when God shows up. Jesus puts the disciples in a boat and goes off for some solitary prayer time. In the night, a storm comes and batters the crowded boat as the wind drives them away from safety, but at the end of the night, Jesus walks to them on the water. Naturally, they are frightened and weary, suspecting that the shadowy figure is a ghost, but he tells them who he is and not to be afraid. Peter, always a man of action with little thought, asks to walk on water too, but soon he realizes his limits and begins to sink. Jesus pulls Peter in, gets in the boat with all of the others, and the storm and wind cease. Then, they get it, again. This Jesus is showing them who God is.
People often ask where God is when things get tough. The original language used to describe the storm carries a deeper meaning that just a weather event. The word for storm connotes the darkness of evil and chaos – a place where God may seem absent. In this story, we get one solid response to that question as we see what God does with the chaos. God does not hang out at the fringes. God shows up, coming through the storm, getting in it with us, urging faith, and eventually, bringing calm.
If we take this to an even more symbolic level, the boat is the Church. It is where we stick together and shelter from the storm. While Peter’s faith is admirable, and we could talk about moving outside what is safe and comfortable, the point is that Jesus comes to him, comes to them, and soothes their doubt, confusion, and exhaustion.
We can relate to the storm-tossed disciples for sure. We are in our own storm of forces we cannot control with a virus we cannot predict. The temptation is to sit on the sidelines and wait it out, and bury ourselves in isolation or paralyzed fear. But the power and presence of Jesus is not far off or remote to tragedy. Jesus, the Word, is very near, right here, right now.
Like many, I was moved to read John Lewis’s last words published as an editorial on the day of his funeral. I was honored to meet him once as he was a guest preacher at my church in Atlanta. Like so many, I was amazed by his calm and authentic presence with everyone he met. It is fitting that his last words were words of faith, saying:
“When historians pick up their pens to write the story of the 21st century, let them say that it was your generation who laid down the heavy burdens of hate at last and that peace finally triumphed over violence, aggression and war. So, I say to you, walk with the wind, brothers and sisters, and let the spirit of peace and the power of everlasting love be your guide.”
No matter our political persuasion, we knew John Lewis as a man of authentic and deep faith. He moved toward what he called “good trouble,” believing that God was with us, and for us, in striving for good. He helped steer the boat for many years, even with substantial headwind.
In considering what Emmanuel Church might do in the face of all of the world’s challenges, our vestry and regathering committee opted to get back together in as safe a way as possible. What we have learned about how this virus spreads informs how we get together, but we know, as I have said, in our knowing place, that we need to be together. We need to see one another. We need to celebrate our life. We need to share joy and divide sorrow. If you need to remain at home, you are still part of us and those who are able will gather for us and with you in spirit.
The winds of change are strong even though everything may seem out of kilter. Life is so different than we evert expected or could predict. School is a big question mark. People are divided, scared, and many are angry. And still, we must continue to live our common life with purpose, patience, and great care for all. As sure as the rhythm of the days, weeks, and seasons, life is happening, and we have now to worship, pray, and praise. To mark each Sunday, as the Church has done for centuries, we will celebrate the feast of God’s goodness, God’s saving power and presence among us. And while we are at it, we will feast with a substantial lovingly prepared sides of joy. Amen.
Emmanuel Episcopal Church, Greenwood, Virginia
Proper 12, Year A
July 26, 2020
In the world of being a modern digital family, we have shared accounts. We have a family Netflix account to watch movies and documentaries. We have a family Amazon Prime account to buy books and watch more movies. We have a family Audible account to listen to, and share audio books. As are a multi-generational collective, it is fascinating to review our watch, read, and listen list.
Some of the newer titles are about race and contemporary politics, but throughout what I refer to as “Corona Time,” the Thomas collective has been circling back on some old favorites.
I cannot help but notice that we are trending toward classic narrative, uplifting stories of discovery and becoming, and some things that just make us laugh.
The Harry Potter books and movies have been getting some new listens and watches. That is a commitment as there are 7 books and 8 movies. While they are wild and fantastical, they are not all that complicated. Young Harry and his friends come of age throughout the series, finding their own voices, gifts, and foibles in a classic fight of good versus evil.
Another of our categories I would call: inspiring biography and history. Through the stories of real people, from folk musician James Taylor, to Alexander Hamilton (the Musical), we engage with the chances and changes of fate and history, complete with confessed flaws and unexpected greatness.
The last category, I will just call Pixar. This is a collective of animated stories about bugs in A Bug’s Life, loveable monsters in Monsters Inc. and Monsters University, and all of the characters of a young girl’s psyche in Inside Out. Here again, these stories are not complicated, but they are clever takes on realizing who we are, how we grow, and what we can do when we work together.
This romp through our watch and listen list is pretty typical as I have tracked the many popular watches and trends in streaming media. With more time at home, and less time out and about, we are connecting with more narrative style stories than ever. While there are plenty of tell all books and political polemics to be consumed out there, people are being drawn back to classic telling and retelling of coming of age stories, surprising success stories, and tales of discovering great joy and abundant life. When art does not exactly imitate life, we seek for art to inspire and reinvigorate life with hope and promise. A good story, well told, is good for the soul.
As we encounter Jesus in today’s gospel, we experience a rapid-fire set of parables (stories) about the Kingdom of Heaven. Matthew’s gospel is set up most like storytelling of all the gospels. When we think about this Kingdom of Heaven, we might expect fantastic, regal, and celestial special effects. We might think of a lavishly decorated place full of everything we want. We might look for a realm of conquering victory, good crushing evil, and some sort vindication of all that is holy and righteous and good. Instead we hear of a little mustard seed, yeast leavening flour, a treasure found in a field, a pearl picked out as precious, and a huge net full of fish.
When Jesus asks his people “Have you understood this?” Matthew reports that they answered “Yes.” I bet it sounded more like “Uh, yes? They had to be a little disappointed in the imagery. They had to be a little more expectant of something more fantastic, and grander when talking about the glorious “Kingdom of Heaven.” I suspect this because that may be our reaction as well. The metaphors are, at best, mixed. Nevertheless, there they are.
In context, we have a group of people following this amazing rabbi, prophet, and healer. They believe he is purely of God. They have seen him be and do what no mere human would be or could do. But they are also people who are occupied, oppressed, poor, and seemingly powerless. Again, and again, they ask when the big campaign, takeover, and divine reckoning will take place. They seek to be on the side of Jesus partially because they seek to be on God’s winning team. Instead, Jesus tells them about seeds, yeast, treasures and fish.
In wholeness of its telling, God’s story is not about conquest, victory, and domination. Those are earthly takes on power and prestige. Instead, God’s story is about the gentle and insistent force of love wearing down hatred, bitterness, and division. God’s story is about divine forgiveness and God’s work of changing what is ordinary into that which is extraordinary, even with the most basic elements.
The popular theologian, Richard Rohr, puts it this way: “Sometimes, God comes to you disguised as your life.” If we are seeking something fantastic, it is most likely to start out as something small. A seed is a remarkable thing, really. It is a bundle of energy and design that draws energy from water, soil, and sun, all working in concert to make something new and regenerative and quite spectacular. I see many sunflowers these days and wonder how on earth they became so grand, starting with a tiny little thing we eat in salads.
These days, we face big and daunting challenges. There is a pandemic race to combine science, ingenuity, and hard work to find good medicine and vaccines. There are standards of public health and safety all of us need to tend and enable. There are problems of racial and economic inequity demanding thoughtful and active engagement. And there are our children, parents, and teachers facing the impossible realities of beginning a school year. My biggest worry was what to wear on the first day. Their situation is really tough.
We are tempted to throw up our hands, declare everything too complicated, too polarizing, and too impossible to address. But the Gospel story, and all of the other great stories we come back to over and over, do not end in futility and despair. Instead, they tell us of the simple power of goodness applied liberally and regularly. They show us love extending us beyond what may be easy or comfortable, beginning with small, but great things.
This is the story that is our destiny. This is the story that remains as the truth of what is to be. While we have a role in it, the story is not about us. The story is about God. It about finding greatness in the common and ordinary matter of life. It is about coming of age, the power of working together, and the embedded giftedness in all creation.
Why do we come back to this story again and again even in dark times? Because it is true, because it is great, and because God is continuing to tell it in and through us. Amen.
Emmanuel Episcopal Church, Greenwood, Virginia
Proper 11, Year A
July 19, 2020
I was taking a college calculus test when the pain really started. At first, I thought I was just anxious, but then I started sweating and having severe stomach pain. It was my last class before Spring Break, so when I finished, I caught up with a friend who was my ride home. It was a miserable journey as the pain got worse and the fever and chills started. When I arrived at home, I greeted my parents, and went straight to bed. My sleep was more than fitful, and by morning we all agreed something was really wrong. We called my doctor and he said to go straight to the emergency room, which we did.
There began a medical mystery tour began with blood work, x-rays, and scans. They ruled out stomach flu and food poisoning, and all kinds of scary diseases, but the pain continued to worsen and the fevers kept spiking. I knew that something was really wrong and it was not getting better. Finally, one of the scans revealed excess fluid in my belly so, they decided to do exploratory surgery and find the cause. My parents were worried. I was worried. It became clear that I would not have any kind of quality Spring Break.
Fast forward several hours. I came to in the recovery room, and the doctor asked me how I felt. I was in pain from the incision, but I told him that whatever it was, I could tell he got it. You know you must be pretty sick when you wake up from surgery feeling better than you did when you went in. As it turns out, I had a complicated case of appendicitis. There had been a rupture and I was septic. In the days before powerful antibiotics, I would have died.
It took a month to recover and I lost a total of 45 pounds. I could not stand up straight or lift anything heavy. I still bear a large scar as a reminder of that harrowing experience. That same general surgeon operated on my father’s neck a few years ago, and he remembered my vexing case some 30 years later.
I am still amazed at how I knew and could tell immediately that the surgery had worked. It was a powerful lesson in healing that I have encountered a number of different times in different ways throughout my life. When a broken relationship was mended, my whole being felt better. When I told the truth and took responsibility for my own shortcomings, I was able to forgive more easily. Jesus told his disciples that in naming the splinter in someone else’s eye, we often miss the log in our own. As such, we are all a work in progress, striving at times, and failing miserably at others. In hurting and healing, I have come to believe that we are not the sum of the worst we have been or the worst we have done.
This is particularly poignant in the current state of our seemingly ruthless cancel culture. Cancel culture describes a form of boycott in which an individual (usually a celebrity or public figure) who has acted or spoken in a questionable or controversial manner is shamed and shunned. While some who need to be called to account, and telling the truth is important, cancel culture leaves no room for repentance, contrition, forgiveness, and reconciliation. And it seems that just about every corporate or public entity these days is scrambling to make a public statement, declaring what will and will not be tolerated, and offering whatever amends to get ahead of the cancel culture curve.
Given the context, this week’s gospel parable of the wheat and the weeds is timely and poignant. This is another of Jesus’s agrarian metaphors in which the wheat field has been infiltrated by one who sows weeds in order to ruin the crop. He calls the perpetrator the evil one and the devil, who is meant to be the personification of divisive sin and destruction.
In the story, the workers ask the farmer if they should go out and pluck up all the weeds, but the wise farmer tells them not to do so as in plucking up weeds, they might pluck up the wheat. Instead, he tells them to wait until the harvest when wheat and weeds can be separated.
Time and time again, this week’s parable, like last week’s parable, has been leveraged as commentary on the difference between the true believer and those who do not measure up. The history of the Church is littered with groups and sects who claim righteous purity and choose to isolate themselves from those they judge as weeds. The seeds of cancel culture are not new to the scene. Inevitably, those who set themselves up as more righteous fail, finding that human sin follows them wherever they go. Mega pastors, televangelists, and politicians seem to be some of the most vulnerable as they tend to be the most strident in their condemnations.
Once again, it is important to remember that the parable of the wheat and the weeds is about God, and not the righteousness of human works. While the description of the end of days and the separation of the wheat and the weeds can sound final and foreboding, perhaps there is more comfort there than we might first expect.
In the end, at the time of the harvest, Jesus says the angels will come and collect all causes of sin and evil doing and throw it in the fire. Given the fact that we are all that work in progress, and that we are not either purely great or completely rotten, God knows our flawed raw material. And if a surgeon can remove causes of pain and disease, surely God Almighty can, and will, weed out that which separates us from God and one another.
While cancel culture and the short-lived mercy of humanity might lead us to believe that we are in our we are out, we are good or we are bad, that we are wheat or we are weeds, the economy of God is broader and more encompassing. This is the God who lets the whole crop grow together. This is the God who sends Jesus to show us a wide, deep, and forgiving love. This is our God who promises never to leave us or forsake us, even when we are at our worst.
The big take away is that we might go a bit easier on ourselves and on one another. We might consider that we are not the judge, jury, or arbiter of who and what is worthy of love. And if we can summon a small measure of the love God has for us and convert that into our own ways of seeing, doing, and being, we will know in that knowing place that we will be healed, and there is hope for all to shine like the sun. Amen.
Emmanuel Episcopal Church, Greenwood, Virginia
Proper 10, Year A
July 12, 2020
Now is the time I started thinking about in the early spring. It is the time when what has been planted comes to fruition. It is the time when tomato plants are heavy with fruit. It is the time when sweet corn is available and abundant. It is the time when peaches and blueberries and strawberries are plump and ripe. Our farmer’s market has just about everything that is fresh and just about everything else that can be made with what is fresh. I could go broke there each week.
On my day off last week, I journeyed over to the farm where my grandparents once lived. My grandfather was a part-time farmer and, in his retirement, a massive vegetable gardener. There are still vestiges grape vines, fruit trees, and a big open space where row after row was tilled and planted. The old house there has a basement kitchen that was set up just for canning and freezing. These were people of the land and children of the depression.
I guess I come by my obsession with all things grown naturally. I have started off with a modest container garden, but it will not be enough. There is nothing like picking a ripe cherry tomato off the vine and popping it in my mouth for an instant snack. And yes, I am that guy who asks farmers for dented and overripe tomatoes so I can make and jar sauce with my specially designed tomato squeezer machine.
As a person of faith, the matters and mechanics of growing things is a lively part of my consciousness. Paying attention to the rhythms of the natural world helps make sense of life and its vicissitudes. Seasons and soil, seeds and sowers fuel my understanding of how God works even in high minded ideals of mission and ministry.
Even today’s mid-summer gospel arrives in a moment where it is likely to capture this seasonal moment. Jesus uses gardening parables over and over to speak to his mostly agrarian followers. The parable of the sower is an old chestnut as it tells of a sower that spreads seeds liberally. Some fall on a path, some on rocky ground, some among thorns, and finally, some on good soil. The common interpretation might be for us to shape up, and get right, so that the Word of God, which is the seed, will bear fruit in us. And we must root out being shallow, or rocky, or thorny. But that takes us only so far, and to my agricultural sensibilities, misses the point. The parable is not about us, it is about God. Sometimes, we get so focused on us that we get lost in process.
What Jesus tells us, and what we need to hear, is that God is lavish, abundant, creative, and prodigious. The Word of God is flung all over, not just where it will bear fruit. The Way of God, the nature of God, and the promise of God is that God’s can always use our participation, but God does not depend on our goodness or perfection.
Consider where this story begins. Jesus is surrounded by a crowd, so much so, that he has to get into a boat and speak to them as they stand on the beach. This is in Galilee. It is a minor little place where people make their way fishing, foraging, and farming. These are not the educated elites. They are mostly illiterate. They are under the thumb of Roman occupation. They are unarmed, heavily taxed, and being kept in their place. If the spread of the Gospel depended on them, their abilities, and their resources, we would have much of a story to tell. But as we know, the Word spread, from person to person and community to community. That is the sign of God’s provision, not humanity’s innate cleverness.
And that is the point. With wild generosity, God will take whatever there is and grow it. As the twentieth century preacher, Vance Havner reminds us: “God uses broken things. It takes broken soil to produce a crop. Broken clouds to give rain, broken grains to give bread, and broken bread to give strength.”
There is a lot broken in our world, now as ever. With so much cancelled, on hold, or uncertain we are having a hard time gauging and marking time. Now is the time I usually get excited for college football to start. Now is the time when I am used to seeing extended family and going on a vacation or adventure. Now is the time when kids are supposed to be at camp, schools are beginning to prepare for the upcoming year, and our parish should be preparing for our annual Shrine Mont retreat. There is grief in not being able to look forward with any expectation or certainty. It is good to claim that, even if it is hard.
But, and this is a substantial but, God’s abundance is not on hold. God’s love is still as prodigal and prolific as ever. We may have to focus on the simpler and smaller things. We may have to shorten our horizon of looking forward and anticipating new life. We may have to pray with more silence, we may have to seek a little deeper, and we may have to listen a little longer for the voice of creation moving in us.
If all else fails, eat a ripe peach, slice a bright red water melon, smell the freshly mown grass, and listen for the birds coming alive each morning. This is not whistling in the dark, it is choosing to find the light even it has to shine through the cracks of our own brokenness.
I found great solace this week in reading Mary Oliver’s poetry. Her way with words is yet another sign of creative power. In particular, I was drawn to her poem, I Worried, and I close this with her holy words.
I worried a lot. Will the garden grow, will the rivers
flow in the right direction, will the earth turn
as it was taught, and if not how shall
I correct it?
Was I right, was I wrong, will I be forgiven,
can I do better?
Will I ever be able to sing, even the sparrows
can do it and I am, well,
Is my eyesight fading or am I just imagining it,
am I going to get rheumatism,
Finally, I saw that worrying had come to nothing.
And gave it up. And took my old body
and went out into the morning,
Emmanuel Episcopal Church, Greenwood, Virginia
Proper 9, Year A
July 5, 2020
The Rev. John Taliaferro Thomas
In the 1940s and 50s, Quaker Oats hired a number of black women to portray Aunt Jemimah for their pancake mix brand. The original Aunt Jemimah character was portrayed by a former slave, Nancy Green, and she represented the brand at the 1893 World’s Fair, receiving an award for her performances and creating lots of buzz.
The not so recent, but newly reactivated controversy over the stereotyped black servant woman has brought a number of stories to light. I will leave the controversy for others to argue and litigate, but what captured my interest was an interview I heard on the radio with Michelle Norris, the former NPR reporter, whose grandmother, named Ione Brown, was a member of the Quaker Oats pancake promotional sales force that covered a territory of upper mid-western states just after World War II. Norris did not learn of her grandmother’s work until more recently, but she has been able to search archival records and find some recordings of her grandmother on the road, promoting the Aunt Jemimah brand.
What she discovered is that a whole cast of black women were trained to play the character. They were costumed as domestic servants, taught the old slave patois that Nancy Green affected for her performances. Then, they were sent out to fairs and other solo appearances to do demonstrations for housewives on this “modern” convenience of having a pre-prepared mix. The Quaker Oats company paid them well and covered all of their expenses, but insisted that they remain in character when in public.
Apparently, Ione Brown played the game, but did not necessarily follow all of the rules when out of sight from corporate management. At the time, there were few if any hotels or boarding houses that would house blacks, therefore she had to stay in local black people’s homes. In some communities, there were no black people and she had to leave town to find a place to stay for the night. During the day, Ms. Brown played her role, singing gospel songs and making pancakes. But in the evening, she welcomed groups of young black women, reciting poetry, reading to them, encouraging their education, and urging them to seek new and empowered roles in a changing society.
In an interview, Ms. Brown’s granddaughter says she understands why her grandmother did not tell her about her job with Quaker Oats. She talks about the pain of being second class citizens and the grace of not wanting to wallow in pain of the past for the children of the future. And then, she says this:
“We're seeing a kind of activism in the streets right now where people are taking to the streets and demanding rights and demanding that this country live up to its promise. But, sometimes, activism takes on a quieter tone. Sometimes, activism rolls into a small town and shows the people of that town what black elegance and black eloquence and black success can sound and look like even when they're not expecting that.”
This is such a beautiful articulation of the power gentleness and love can command. While there are systemic tensions and needed collaboration, that Aunt Jemimah story tell of a faithfulness, gentleness, and hope for humanity that peace makers and peace bringers can provide.
The Bible is loaded with stories of folks, like Ms. Brown, who would not go along just to get along. The Pharaoh’s daughter would not kill Moses even though he was a Hebrew baby. Queen Esther prevailed upon her husband, the king, to avert mass killing of Jews. Even Mary and Joseph risked public scorn and humiliation in living and telling the story of the divinely conceived son who comes to save all people. These are the stories that fueled and inspired the work of the underground railroad, the Nazi resistance movement, and the struggle for human civil rights just seventy years ago in this country.
When we come to today’s gospel, we meet Jesus as he talks about the fickleness of the world and its favoritism of one group, one party, or another. Jesus says they criticized John the Baptist for being too strange and aloof, and they criticize him for being too available and welcoming. He goes on to say that wisdom is vindicated by her deeds – actions speak louder than words. And then he closes with what we have come to call the comfortable words
“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”
The Wall Street Journal reported this week that Americans are more anxious and basically angrier than ever. I am not sure how they measure that, but it seems pretty obvious. There are many legitimate fears at play. But in the end, Jesus reminds us that his love for us keeps things simpler and plainer than we make them through our grandiose machinations and perceptions of power and influence.
When I consider the great struggles and aches for change and growth, I return to the echo of a U2 song “When Love Comes to Town,” and I pray for what it may be when love to comes to our town, to our hearts, and in our simple, basic, and daily actions.
In the end, Ms. Brown made some money and brought love to town, working with what she had, even though she found the role of Aunt Jemimah demeaning and ignorantly stereotypical. But in our minds eye, can we imagine what it must have been like for young women of color to find encouragement, grace, and love as she went about her subversive work for their good. We may never know what seeds she planted, but she labored long to birth a new image with a new voice of empowerment.
In his subversive work, Jesus invites us to let go: to put down the anger, the frustration, and the hatred that weighs heavily on human hearts. Instead he asks us to take on the mantle of love and the practice of forgiveness, allowing him to be our savior. There are all kinds of activism, but in being people of God, we can never underestimate the power of gentle, persistent, and subversive love. That is what will change the world, because that is what changes us.
Emmanuel Episcopal Church, Greenwood, Virginia
Proper 7, Year A
June 21, 2020
The Rev. John Taliaferro Thomas
We got married. We bought a small house. We started new jobs. And then, we got a puppy – our first child. We named her Grace. She was a lumpy, chunky Black Labrador Retriever, and we spoiled her rotten. She climbed into our laps, onto our couches, and she commanded much of our attention and love.
We got all of the stuff: matching collar and leash, sizeable food and water bowls, and a plethora of toys. We tried to keep her interested in her things, but Grace loved to chew our things too: fringes of rugs, chair legs, and socks left on the floor. But nothing even came close to her obsession with the tennis ball. She learned to fetch at ten weeks old. Soon thereafter, she learned to swim and fetch the ball in the water. Twice a day we took her for a walk, a swim and a long game of fetch. We could not wear her out. She had boundless energy. I threw until my arm was sore. She never stopped.
When we returned home and left her in the back yard to dry off, she would toss the ball at the door, bark, and beg for more. When we hid the ball, she found where we hid it, stood near it, and barked. Once, when throwing the ball in the water, Grace cut the pad of her foot on an oyster shell. Bleeding profusely all over our friend’s dock, she rolled the ball to us, begging to keep playing. Her natural retrieving instincts, her persistence, and her commitment to the ball were amazing. Even in her advanced age with arthritis and all that came with it, Grace never gave up her drive. You have to admire that spirit, even if it was annoying.
When I read the gospel for today, and consider the singlemindedness Jesus commands, I think about Grace’ dogged determination. In the passage, we find Jesus giving his disciples instruction and warnings about all of the things that will stand in the way of following the Way of Love. In their context, they faced threats from both the dominant religious establishment and the occupation authorities just trying to keep good order. In shocking and attention getting imagery, Jesus outlines the potential costs of discipleship. What he asks for is wholehearted commitment, even when it is uncomfortable, unexpected, or unsettling. This is his way of telling his followers to keep the main thing the main thing, no matter what. To stretch the metaphor, we are to keep our eye on the ball at all times.
This is not gentle Jesus, meek, and mild. This not a savior who will make peace at the cost of doing God’s will. This is not the Jesus we might like to style after our own desires and preferences. This is the Jesus who comes to comfort the afflicted, yes, but who also comes to afflict the comfortable. And this begs the question for us would be followers, where do we need to be challenged, confronted, and changed.
Not only do I think about my single-minded black lab today, but I consider the deep spiritual reflection of the modern author Annie Dillard from her classic collections of essays called Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. Though it was written in the 70’s it still stands up well. In one essay she reflects on our mission saying:
“On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside of the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return.”
So, what are we do? We are to follow Jesus, with dogged determination. That sounds simplistic, but if we read into his Word today, this is the way forward. First, we do not knuckle under to, or make friends with, oppression of coercion. And while we have international and national concerns, the place where we have the most and most effective influence is local and immediate. The change Jesus urges in us starts at home in our own hearts and minds.
If you are like me, the events of the past several months have had immense impact on our world view, challenging our values and assumptions. It is not up to me or anyone else to take a moral inventory of everyone else, but I do know that being a person of love, forgiveness, and healing is deeply complicated in considering matters of public safety, racial equity, and living at peace with all people.
The real kicker in this challenging passage comes at the end. “Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” This draws us into what is most essential and is most assuredly the center of God’s truth: we are in this together. That has been said about the virus and the challenges it has posed, but it is also true when it comes to matters of justice, equity, and inclusion.
There is a toxic nature to what we experience as “cancel culture” is where conversation is overcome by shouting and righteous indignation is overcome by rage. In living out the truth of togetherness, we are bound to be in conflict. But that is only a stuck place and not a stopping place.
No matter what narrative gets perpetrated from the polar extremes, there are plenty of people of good will who want to find our way forward together, not as one race or another, but as the human race, children of God, and aspiring disciples. We will not always get it right, but we will always have the embrace of a risen Christ to show us sacrificial love in person. People of God have the faith and the mandate to stand for better, and wrestle with the complexities of life in communion.
If today’s gospel disturbs us, perhaps that is the point. It stands as a stark challenge the disciples then and for us here and now. Now, as much as ever, the world needs the Church’s witness. It needs our language of reconciliation. It needs our focus on love as the highest and best of all. It needs our affirmation of God’s steadfastlove that will never move away from pain or struggle. Never. Ever. And that is Good News. Amen.