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
Second Sunday of Christmas, Year B
January 10, 2021
Driving into work on Wednesday, I listened to the goings on in to the day’s news from Washington DC on my car radio. Having gone to Seminary in the DC metro area, and later, living there for nine years, and serving a parish in the District, I have seen lots of protests, vigils, Inaugurations, and marches come and go. Our family participated in a few of them in our role as concerned and engaged American citizens. Doing so was a good civics lesson for our children, and a positive perk of living in DC despite dealing with hopelessly lost tourists, hordes of school children on class trips, and regularly gridlocked traffic.
What I heard from the folks who were interviewed on Wednesday did not sound like any protesters I ever encountered. They were impassioned beyond all reason, calling for revolution, and spoke of heading into battle. I feared for those I know and love who still live and work there. I wish that what I heard later in the day, about the storming of the Capitol building and the ensuing violence and destruction was altogether surprising, but it was not. This is not to say that I have great skill in divining the future, all that rage just was rising way beyond what we saw in the worst of what happened over the summer. These folks were not against something they saw as unjust, many were all in for violent overthrow. The closeness of the election, aided by dysfunctional leadership stoked visceral anger, blame, and hatred. All of this proved to be a toxic cocktail on Wednesday as due process, and respect for the rule of law was overrun, literally.
We must say, without political bias, that what happened was an epic human failure. The various actors in the drama are not to be excused, justified, or proclaimed innocent as if such effrontery was, somehow, acceptable or necessary. Seditious attempts, destruction, injuries, and loss of life were tragic and avoidable. Before the dust settled, more blame, more baseless conspiracy theories, and more incendiary rhetoric continued to rise from the smoking crime scene. Human sin had a field day.
We all play a part in human sin as none of us are holy, righteous, and blameless in our own fervent passions. We can go too far, objectify others, and look past the worth and value of those we label as “them.” We dare not go as far as some did on Wednesday, but we are not pure victors over the powers of darkness. At times, we all struggle to be children of light. Peace is not the absence of conflict. It is the condition under which respectful conversation can continue. Such peace perilously fragile right now.
Piling on to the election angst, we are weary from months of lonely isolation, record breaking COVID infections, an erratic response, and death on a scale of almost 2 9/11s per day. Tempers are short, anger is palpable, and hope seems elusive. Perhaps, we reached an inflection point on Wednesday. It feels like we hit bottom. Perhaps, most if not all of us, will, finally say: “enough!” Perhaps most if not all of us we will refuse abide and allow manipulative provocation of hatred in all forms. I pray this will be so, not just in the shock phase of the event, but in living into a new way forward. Healing is needed and necessary.
In case it got lost in the headlines, Wednesday was also the Feast of the Epiphany. This is not a footnote to the day, rather, it is an appropriate lens through which to look at what happened. The Epiphany story has plenty of light in it. The wise men come from the far east, following a star, believing that it leads them to even greater light. Upon seeing Jesus, they are overwhelmed with joy. Their wildest hopes of seeing God joined with humanity are realized. We tend to use this lesson to encourage ourselves to look for God busting into our lives in unexpected places. As Bishop Jennifer Brooke-Davidson said in a recent meditation: “the word EPIPHANY comes from the Greek and means, loosely translated, "Dang - didn't see THAT coming in a million years!" We need to be reminded that Epiphany is not a one and done event from ancient history, it is the experiential affirmation that God is still working, even now. When we are on the lookout for God moving, we see some amazing things.
At the same time, the Epiphany story tells of darkness lurking in the all too human will to power. Before they find Bethlehem, the wise men find King Herod in Jerusalem. When they inquire as to the birth of the new born King, Herod freaks out. This is assault on his hold on power. He asks the wise men to report back as to where they find this King, so he can pay him homage. They agreed and departed, though certainly as wise men, they perceived the beady eyes and wringing hands of Herod’s duplicitous ambition. After they saw Jesus, partied a bit, gave him gifts, and departed. Being wise and discerning men, they heeded their dream’s warning about the despotic Herod, and returned home by another road.
Even though we are very near the beginning of Jesus’ story, tensions between the will to power and the contrasting Divine will to love begin to rear their ugly head. This will play out as those wielding privileges of status and high office clash with Jesus as he reveals their hypocrisy, loves those they hate, and points to God’s ultimate Kingdom, Power, and Glory. Jesus story takes us all the way to the cross: a shameful symbol that is transformed. Not to spoil the ending, but God wins. God always will, though it may be hard to see or believe in the moment.
Our present darkness is not radically new or different in long story of humanity. When the will to power denies the worth and dignity of every human being, we see darkness swallowing life. We are not without guidance and we do have hope. If we are to grow through human tragedy, we are to surrender all pretense that we are in charge, seek God’s way, and find a new Way.
A lesson we can take from the wise men is that when those with great power, specifically political power, ask us to act in any hate fueled, unethical, or immoral way, disobey. Turn around, and walk in the other direction.
The unwanted but much needed Epiphany of Wednesday seems clear. Hate, in all forms, destroys everything in its path. Hate is not an acceptable tactic. Hate is not acceptable as rhetoric. Hate is antithetical to the God’s love. God is speaking. To us. Now. Can we listen?
St. Paul gives good direction for troubling times, saying that peace, patience, gentleness, and self-control are signs of God at work in us. If we are looking for guidance, the right people and path to follow, and join in the goodness of God, these are the qualities to seek. The wise men of old followed the light, found the Savior, and left Herod to his own devices. Now, with peace, patience, gentleness and self-control as our guideposts, with light of love guiding our way, let us walk each other home by another way. Amen.
Emmanuel Episcopal Church, Greenwood, Virginia
The Rev. John Taliaferro Thomas
Second Sunday of Christmas, Year B, January 3, 2021
Trust your gut. That may sound basic and cliché, but it is among the soundest advice I have ever received. There is something inside of us that is intuitive. There is something inside of us that guides us to see beyond the surface of things, to set aside mere self-centered things, and listen for the rhythm of what is good. That something comes when we are listening for the Word of love, for the Way of God, or the Wisdom that some just call our Higher Power. Trust your gut, but be sure to be plugged into the right power source. This gives us a better shot at deep listening, holy hearing, and faithful participation in God’s will.
“An angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, "Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him… When Herod died, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, "Get up, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who were seeking the child's life are dead… And after being warned in a dream. [not to go to Judea] he went away to the district of Galilee [to Nazareth].” That is three important and revelatory dreams in just one short Gospel passage.
To be sure, Joseph is an enigmatic character in the Jesus story. Luke and Matthew talk about Joseph and what he does, but unlike John the Baptist, the shepherds, the wise men, and Mary, the mother of Jesus, we never hear him say or proclaim anything. He is a bit player in the Christmas pageant who has no lines.
Let’s reflect on his predicament. His fiancé comes to him with a wild story about meeting and angel and being told that she is with child though a decidedly unheard-of method of conception. It is a tough story to believe. He knows that the child cannot be his for obvious reasons. In that day, a bona fide marriage happened when the two families came together, the bride was given from her family to the groom’s family, and the covenant between them was sealed in a ritual ceremony. Then, there was a feast, sometimes lasting days on end, and finally, the couple retired together, alone at last. Up to that point, they did not share much if any time together. In many cases, they hardly knew each other.
As everyone knew the traditions, and as Mary began to show her expectant child, Joseph faced all kinds of shame and ridicule. By law, he could break the deal, and send her away. In Matthew’s telling, Joseph resolves to send her away quietly, and help her avoid public disgrace, though we are not sure how that could happen. At the last minute, God comes to him in a dream, yes, a dream before the dreams Luke tells us about today (that makes four!), and tells him that the child is of God, shall be named Jesus, and will be the Savior of the world. We hear nothing about what Joseph said, all we know is what he did. He just hung in there, stuck with Mary, and believed God. To be sure, there would be gossip, sideways looks, and all kinds of ridicule.
It is phenomenal and intriguing that all of holy history, the mysterious and precarious birth of Jesus, and the faith fueled commitment of a precarious marriage commitment intertwine to change to world. A couple of poor, vulnerable, and relatively powerless people, align with God’s power and what happens changes the world forever. All of this comes about, comes from serious, gut trusting faith in action.
It is hard for me to believe that a dream could inspire such bravery and faith. My recurring dreams are like the one where I have to take the SAT all over again and I arrive without my number two pencils. Or the one where I have to take a final exam in Organic Chemistry and I have never been to the class. I am not alone in having wacky dreams wherein the subconscious goes to work when all rationality is unconscious. It is pretty obvious to us what such things mean as more often than not, those kinds of dreams expose our worries and insecurities.
The gospelers are not talking about those kinds of dreams, but it is the best language they have for mystic encounters with God. What that are trying to tell us is that when we listen for God, when we seek what God desires with and for us, when we are thoughtful and prayerful, God can and will lead us. Some call this God speaking to them. Many of us doubt that God can or will speak to us. But this is not the season of rationalization or logical explanation.
As we consider the people of this world, and throughout history, who have followed God’s leading, generally, their actions are not self-serving. Standing for love, justice, and kindness, caring for the lost, lonely, and those who are poor in all kinds of ways takes guts. Doing so risks personal comfort, requires all kinds of time and energy, and can compromise one’s status and standing in the eyes of a material world. On the surface, following Jesus makes little sense, but as we do, we fill our empty places, and find unexpected joy.
As we believe into to the whole of God’s story, from Genesis to Revelation, and in the person and work of Jesus, we join with a company of unlikely folks who hear the rhythm of holy happenings as we watch and listen for that which God urges, wills, and creates.
This whole Christmas thing is not based on evidentiary propositions of assured outcomes. God choosing to come among us all comes through the ordinary us, choosing to welcome God’s working in our unlikely, vulnerable, and relatively powerless lives. Self-will is always something to check and filter when listening for God. It is good to seek God’s will with others who walk with us in faith.
We can trust our gut as we see God acting, God speaking, and God moving as we go toward knowing in our knowing place what God desires. Listen. Hear. The reason we do church is to plug into God’s power source: remembering the stories of how God comes to humans like us, believing that God will use us for good, and following the Way of Jesus. As we do, we might lose the self we thought we were, but then, we will find the abundant life that God dreams for all creation. Amen.
Emmanuel Episcopal Church, Greenwood, Virginia
First Sunday of Christmas, Year B
December 27, 2020
Christmas Day has happened. Even if different that most years, we did what we could to be merry and bright. Our soggy Christmas Eve came off beautifully! Thank goodness for the technology that helps connect us, and the warmth of homes that surround us.
As a kid, I remember the days after Christmas to be a letdown. I was not alone in that. Even though the Church tells us that the Christmas season begins on Christmas Day and extends for 12 days until Epiphany, I was pretty much burned out on all the carols and decorations. The Sunday after Christmas was sounded like a retread of the Christmas service presided over by the least senior clergy person who struggled to keep our enthusiasm going. As I am the only one priest at Emmanuel here, you get me.
I have been reading about Christmases past, Christmases in history when times were difficult. In tough times, the depression, war, plagues and pandemics dampened much of the season’s joy and left folks with little feeling of celebration. Nevertheless, the message of the season prevailed. As John’s gospel proclaims: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” Notice the words did not overcome it … it does not say might not or may not … its says did not. In becoming one of us, God announces that God lives and moves among us and in us.
In my reflections of past struggles, I was intrigued by stories of British frontline soldiers in World War I. The battle lines and trenches were desolate, muddy, and freezing on Christmas Day in 1914. The way they waged that war involved agonizing waiting and static vigilance, punctuated by brutal and deadly episodes of shooting and shelling. Not much ground was traded. Not much was accomplished for the cost thousands of lives. The troops saw futility, but their leaders persisted in holding the line.
As relief organizations attempted to boost morale and send support, boxes of chocolates and cigarettes flowed toward the front lines. The troops begged their superiors to negotiate a temporary ceasefire, to give them a break, to give them rest, and give them something to celebrate in the darkness and drear of what was known as no man’s land. Their requests were met with orders to stay the course. Any let down could result in giving the enemy an advantage.
When Christmas Day came, the soldiers were packed into their positions. With no announcement or organization, some of them began to sing. “Silent night, holy night, all is calm, all is bright.” Soon the whole regiment joined in and sang with heart and soul. And to their surprise, a few hundred yards away, they began to hear singing on the other side: Stille nacht, heilige nacht.” In what sounded to them a beautiful harmony, the singing swelled, orders to shoot and kill were set aside.
Slowly, faces rose above the trench lines on both sides. Rifles were set aside in favor of song. This was how the peaceful Word of God overcomes the destructive orders of men. They rose out of their cramped and muddy holes, standing tall and looked into the faces of their enemies. They moved closer to one another, exchanged greetings, shook hands, and shared cigarettes and chocolate (the German chocolates being highly prized). Someone produced a soccer ball and a game broke out, and for a time, they were just boys playing their game and seeing each other as fellow humans: children of God.
As evening fell, they returned to their assignments. Fearing reprisals from their commanding officers, they took up their positions once again. The games were over and the war was on again. If it had been left up to those soldiers, they would have all gone home, but tragically, the principalities and powers this world had other plans.
This moment of grace lives on in the remembering and telling of this story. It stands in stark contrast of the way of God’s love over against the sort lived mercy of men. The Prince of Peace broke through the lines that divided them, and granted them a vision of Christmas: the insistent promise that light overcomes darkness.
If we are feeling a little blue, that is part of the longing for hope, and hope is never lost so long as the Word of God is heard, embodied, and welcomed in our daily intentions. We have a ways to go in navigating our current struggles. The meaning of the Light is that we will rise out of the cramped spaces of our isolation. The Word of God is a living thing: sharp and clarifying. Christmas happens as we welcome that Word, the Christ Child, the person and work of Jesus. He shows that resurrection happens again and again.
My friends, Christmas is happening too. It is happening not for a day or a season, it is happening as we know and love God as a living presence in and among us. Christmas is not a tale or legend of long ago. It is an ongoing and continuing action. Love is a verb not a feeling.
Today, as much as ever, we need our Savior. In Christ, we have a fighting chance to overcome the selfish urge to win at all cost, to serve beyond ourselves, and to scatter hope and peace generously and liberally.
Christmas Day has happened, but Christmas must keep happening as the Word becomes flesh and dwells among us, full of grace and truth. Hang in there. Hope is alive, healing happens, and love always wins. Amen.
Emmanuel Episcopal Church, Greenwood, Virginia
Advent IV, Year B
December 20, 2020
“No.” It is a word we hated to hear when we were kids. “No” is one of the first words we learned as toddler terrorists as in no, “I will not eat beans. No, I will not take a nap. No, I will do it myself!” Fast forward to teen years. We are, then, encouraged to “Just say no to all kinds of peer pressure and vices.” As we age, “no” becomes harder for us to say because we want whatever pleasure “yes” brings, and we want to go along, get along, make peace, avoid conflict, and please others.
“Yes” is easier to say in many situations, but it is a problematic word. Our “yes” can bring extra responsibility on us, demand serious time commitment, and unexpected challenges. If we are too easy or quick to say “yes,” we risk being overwhelmed, overburdened, and harboring feelings of regret and resentment.
“No” and “yes” are simple words, but they have great power. They are gatekeeper words that impact our circumstances, our actions, and our choices.
Mary, the soon to be mother of Jesus, was born into a world that, externally, gave her a bunch of “no’s.” No, she was not very old. No, she did not have property or status. No, she was not a citizen, rather she and her people were under the thumb of Roman occupation and oppression. No, she was not able to be educated beyond whatever the women in her religious community were allowed… which was not much. No, she could not make basic choices about where she lived, what she did, and with whom she lived. The males in her family we the only ones empowered with any choice… which in that place and time, was not much either. No, she was not courted, and she did not date her intended, the carpenter Joseph, in any way we might understand. According to custom, her betrothal and subsequent marriage was arranged, typically as a family merger, as a business deal, or as a way to give her a provider, relieving her family’s need to feed, clothe, and house her, and to be sure she remained in the family of Judaism. The only “yes” she had going for her was that she was of the house of David, meaning that she was distantly descendant of the legendary king and leader. That counted for something, but David lived a thousand years before her, there were thousands of descendants, and things had not been so grand for her people in a long, long time.
With little or no money, property, or assets, it is assured that Mary came to Joseph with no measurable dowry. What she had to offer was the strength of her youth: her ability to work and her capacity to procreate. Children were perceived a burden at first, as surviving infancy was precarious at best. Children counted even less than women, until their survival and usefulness as herders, crafters, or other kinds of workers was realized. With no social security, no retirement plans, and no health care of any kind, able bodied children represented security as they were obliged to care for their elders, honor the family name, and embody their religious and cultural traditions. This is why they wanted and needed many children, and why having a large family was seen as a blessing, a future, and the potential to thrive.
In the sixth month, an angel, Gabriel, comes to Mary, greeting her with honor, honor for of all people? He tells Mary that she will conceive and bear a son, and that son would be called “son of the Most High,” and that son will reign on the throne of David, and have a limitless and unending kingdom. That is more than heavy for a young woman from nowhere Nazareth, of no means, and no choices and a precarious future. He goes on to say that will not alone in her expectancy. He cousin Elizabeth who was, up to that point barren and thus, seen as relatively useless, would also bear a child. Good thing. Mary would not go it all completely alone.
Even so, Mary may not have been educated but she was not ignorant of biology. In an agrarian society, where flocks and herds were a primary food source, the facts of the birds and the bees were known, understood, and enabled as a matter of survival. As she inquires how this conception could happen, the angel proclaims the power of the Holy Spirit and a miracle that will happen within her own body. For those of us with any experience or knowledge, every birth is miraculous, so the Holy Spirit is not just engaged with Mary in that sense.
But now, Mary has another set of “no’s” working against her. No, she has no credible story as to how this came about to tell Joseph. No, she might not have the security of marrying Joseph or anyone else, as it is his right to expose her to scandal, and choose to dismiss her outright. No, Joseph was not obliged to honor the betrothal by law and custom. No, her family does not have to accept her back if she has brought shame upon them. No, she will not have guaranteed support, assistance, or any security at all in giving birth, caring for herself and her infant, let alone raising a child alone. No, people in her circumstance rarely survived.
However, and this is crucial, the Angel tells her that “nothing will be impossible with God.” In this, the angel is dropping a spiritual breadcrumb leading Mary to see a bigger picture. While she may not have been able to read, Mary knew God’s story with God’s people from the very beginning. Through regular and repeated storytelling, she knew the epic stories of her people’s journey with God from generation to generation despite the odds of being extinguished. She knew of Abraham and Sarah and the birth of Isaac to them in old age. They were told “nothing was impossible with God.” She knew of the precarious birth story of Moses, the deliverer and law giver, who was told and shown that “nothing is impossible with God.” She knew of the unlikely youngest and scrawniest son of Jesse, David, being chosen as the greatest king and leader they had even known, told time and again that “nothing is impossible with God.” Her people’s stories of God and God’s people are shot through with unlikely birth stories. In them, God empowers powerless and unlikely people in far out of the way places. In them, faithful followers overcome long odds, working with God and playing a role God’s wish and will for the world. When she hears about her cousin Elizabeth’s unlikely conception, that smacks of God’s handywork. But it is the clarion and clear statement: “nothing is impossible with God,” that seals the deal. God is on the move in yet another unlikely person and place. In this, Mary hears a divine yes: yes, you Mary, you have a part to play in God’s love affair with the world.
With that, Mary utters the holy words of her ancestors. Hers are the words of the patriarchs and matriarchs stepping out in faith. Hers of the words of prophets called to tell of God’s purposes and plans. Hers are the words of those who hears and affirm the divine “yes.” She says: “Here am I. Let it be with me according to your word.” Out of all the no’s, all the barriers, and all of the circumstantial impossibilities, Mary says “yes.”
As we approach the celebration of God coming to be with us in Jesus -- of Emmanuel – we are prodded, encouraged, and invited from wherever we are: out of the way, unremarkable, and unlikely, to listen for the divine “yes” and our call to follow. In a world full of no’s, our God is a God of yes. Yes, you are beloved. Yes, you are just one person. Yes, the world is large and its problems are vast. Even so, yes, we are have a role in the divine mystery, the way of love, and being the hands and feel of Christ. So, what’ll it be. For God’s sake, let it be yes. Here we are. Let it be with us according to God’s Word. Amen.
Emmanuel Episcopal Church, Greenwood, Virginia
Advent I, Year B
November 29, 2020
When our kids were young, we lived in the Washington DC metro area. Janice and I commuted in different directions, and even though we lived inside the Beltway, we participated in daily gridlock. Getting us to work, getting the kids to two different schools, shuttling them to theater and sports practices, and choir practice on Wednesday night. Saturdays were busy with games and birthday parties. While I was a school chaplain, teacher, and coach during the week, Sunday were big days too. Janice was the parish pastoral care coordinator in our very large parish, and I helped out with some of the five Sunday services. Needless to say, we had to coordinate regularly. Janice was our master of planning and logistics, keeping up with our supply chain, transportation, and laundry. I did groceries and dinner. And God help us if someone got sick.
I do not wish for those days again, but I would not trade them either. We made great, diverse, and lasting friendships through church and school as we shared being in the crucible of child rearing. About the best thing that could ever happen during those times was a snow day. As John Kennedy once said Washington is a great blend of “Northern charm and Southern efficiency.” While some from points north would grumble about how nobody knew how to drive in the snow and lamented the uncoordinated snow removal abilities of the surrounding jurisdictions, we found a snow day to be pure grace: an opportunity to stay put and play outside, and snuggle under blankets. The tragedy of distance learning may be that snow days will be a things of the past.
While I do not miss the traffic and the crowds, we did have an astounding array of restaurants that would deliver great food right to our door. Our name, address, and order were well known to our favorite establishments. The credit card was on file. After some of our craziest days, when we had schlepped miles, made it to all of our activities -- with the right uniforms, costumes, birthday presents, and sports equipment, there was no better joy than making a quick phone call and saying to the harried and hungry family five salvific words: pizzas are on the way. I am reminded of a truism that still speaks, even to this day: “you cannot make everyone happy, because in the end, you are not pizza.”
After one of the strangest Thanksgivings I can remember, with one child getting tested to come home, and the other in quarantine at a Holiday Inn Express, with my parents and extended family all hunkered down elsewhere, and finding ourselves with about seven pounds of turkey for each of us to eat, I can say in solidarity with what I have heard from the many of you, we are so over this pandemic. We are so over troubling news and political shenanigans. We are so over masks and distancing and not being able to gather, hug, or even, sing in the season. We cannot even plan for what we cannot even anticipate.
Today, Advent begins, and perhaps this in between season is more fitting, more resonant, and more reflective of where we are than ever. Advent starts in the dark. It starts with Mark’s account of Jesus speaking into a gathering gloom. Mark’s listeners are well acquainted with hardship. Their pitiful rebellion against mighty Rome has been squashed. As retribution, Rome destroyed the enormous Temple in Jerusalem. They were under the thumb of heavy taxation, hand to mouth poverty, and a precarious future. In what is called Mark’s “Little Apocalypse,” Jesus gets real with his followers. He makes no promises of a soft berth or an easy way. He acknowledges and accepts hardship as part of the journey. But right there in the middle of this text, he lights a candle of hope. He points to the fig tree and says that when we see its budding, we know that summer will come. In his classic poem, Ode to the West Wind, Percy Shelley draws on this passage writing:
Scatter, as from an unextinguish'd hearth
Ashes and sparks, my words among mankind!
Be through my lips to unawaken'd earth
The trumpet of a prophecy! O Wind,
If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?
These texts set us in motion and invite us to see things anew. Advent is all about preparing for Jesus to be born into this world: in our hearts and in our lives. To get there, we have to take life on life’s terms. Even so, God’s deep message continues to be that there is nothing, no time, no situation, no difficulty, that God will not redeem it. Even where we do our worst, God does the best in becoming one of us. In some crazy way, this season falls at a particular moment in our history, as Jesus words met his people in theirs.
It has been a week of hard news and of good news. While we face the ravages of disease and its ensuing poverty and despair, we have word of brilliant work from scientists and researchers too. Vaccines have been shown to be effective and safe. Millions of doses are being produced. It is likely that people will begin to be inoculated in the coming month. Word of hope and help is beginning to spread. There is light coming to this darkness. If that is not a holy serendipity, I do not know what is.
For our part, we will be heralding the light. We will be making space for renewed life even in the midst of grief. We will be doing whatever we can to be creative and welcoming as we celebrate good news of great joy that has come and will come to all the world.
Like the pizza proclamation, Advent reminds us that help is on the way. Hope on the horizon. And God is bringing all us home. Amen.
Emmanuel Episcopal Church, Greenwood, Virginia
The Feast of Christ the King, Year A
November 22, 2020
It all started with as car accident in 2013. Dolly Parton, of country music fame, had been in a fender bender, and out of an abundance of caution, she went to Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville to be evaluated. Her injuries were not serious, but she did need a surgical consult in case there were internal injuries.
Her doctor was a man named Naji Abumrad, professor of surgery at the prestigious research hospital. Dolly being Dolly chatted up her doctor. By all appearances, they had little in common, but in getting to know one another they found real common ground. Dr. Abumrad is a Lebanese immigrant from a remote and very poor mountain village. Immediately, Dolly identified. She grew up poor in a remote mountain community too. They both had large families. They both had found success in their respective fields. They both had deep gratitude for what they had been able to accomplish from their humble beginnings. They both had a heart for helping others.
Dolly being Dolly kept up with her new friend, asking about his work and taking an interest in his scientific research. In April of this year, just after the big COVID lockdown, Dolly asked Dr. Abumrad about what research that could be done to find a vaccine. He told her about Vanderbilt’s partnership with Moderna and promising work in some initial stages for a vaccine. Without even being asked, Dolly made a gift of one million dollars in honor of Dr. Naji Abumrad.
To be clear, a million dollars is not nearly enough to fund such a massive and emergent effort, but her gift got the project off the ground and as it did, they drew attention and were able to secure gifts and grants of many more millions. This past week, Moderna announced that their trials had yielded a 95% effectiveness rate. What started through an unlikely friendship led to a vaccine with the potential of saving millions of lives and helping us all regain opportunity to be together. If all goes as well as we hope, plans are already in the works to begin rolling out the vaccine in early 2021. This is a great story and a great gift to humanity. It all came from a human-to-human connection about the experience of poverty and the opportunities of generosity.
Today we celebrate the last Sunday of our Church year. Advent begins next Sunday. On this occasion that we call the Feast of Christ the King, we are put in mind of the primacy of Jesus way of love that rises above all earthly constructs of power and control. And the lessons we read for this day, we are invited to turn our perspective of power inside out and upside down.
In gathering his disciples for one of their last meetings, Jesus reminds them and us that the highest and best acts we can do out of love for God is to help one another. The disciples have been angling for places of privilege in the coming Kingdom of God, but Jesus challenges them to bring about the Kingdom of God in the here and now. Doing so does not happen through flashy displays of wealth and influence, rather doing do comes through serving God in serving people in need.
The pastoral metaphor Jesus employs is separating the sheep and the goats. Sheep are well known to his folks. They are sources of clothing and food. They are low maintenance creatures that feed on grasses and cause very little trouble. They may not be the brightest of beasts, but they are gentle and easy to tend. Goats, on the other hand, are more ravenous and combative. They consume everything in sight, pulling up plants be the roots and laying waste to pastures. They need to be corralled and limited in number to protect precious grazing land. When Jesus talks about separating the sheep from the goats to bring about the reign of God, the people know exactly what he means.
The story is not so much about damning the goats to eternal fire as it is helping us to remember to channel our inner sheepness and put away our tendency toward goatness. This reign of God that folks seem to put off as some apocalyptic event is meant to break into the here and now. We do not care for the least and the lost in order to gain favor with God as much as we care for the least and the lost because of the favor God has already shown to us. We are not about dominance. We are about humble service.
On this Christ the King Sunday, we do our formal ingathering of pledges for the work of God through Emmanuel Church in the coming year. You all are really generous folks, even in an uncertain time. If you have yet to pledge, please do so that we might plan and budget appropriately for 2021. It will be a year when healing and hope will come together and it will be a year of restoration and revival even if it is gradual.
We give of our treasure, our time, and our abilities not because it will gain us more favor with God. We give because we are grateful and we are gifted and we are all in this world together for God. Early in my ministry, one of my mentors had me look at the list of the most generous givers in the parish relative to their abilities. He wanted me to see that list to teach me that those were the most engaged, active, and joyful folks in our community. The grumblers, as he called them, kind of remained on the fringes of our community and rarely gave much at all. I will never forget that lesson. In this parish, I do not look at who gives how much, but generosity of spirit abounds here. I know that first hand. Thank you and thank God. Emmanuel lives into its name: God with us. The Kingdom of God is not far off or some futuristic reckoning. The kingdom of God is here and now.
I believe this because holiness happens. What started with a car accident in 2013 resulted in a friendship and unlikely kinship between Dolly Parton and Naji Abumrad. From that, love gave way to generosity, which gave way to opportunity, which gave way to help and healing for who knows how many. They did not do it all, they simply played their role in the helping the reign of God thrive. They took what they had and what they knew and leveraged all of it for good. Seriously, Dolly Parton has plenty of money, but she does not have as much as she could have because she gives lots and lots of it to serve others.
Love in action works this way. It multiplies. We do not have to have hit songs or medical brilliance. We do not have to have great wealth or enjoy positions of high esteem. We do not have to be perfectly pious or completely put together. All Jesus asks is that we are willing, that we are available, that we are creative, and that we are grateful. Even as we do small things with great love, God does great things through the likes of us. Amen.
Emmanuel Episcopal Church, Greenwood, Virginia
Proper 28, Year A
November 15, 2020
If I were to begin this sermon as I would like, I would hand out big pieces of drawing paper, markers, crayons, paint, and even glitter. Then, I would invite you to draw a picture of God. Some would balk claiming they do not have artistic gifts. That is not the assignment. Still others would jump on the task and do a stick figure something just to humor me and get to the point. Still others would be delighted to enter into a creative exercise and would ask for extra time to cover the page. If we were in an art studio with big tables and easels, we could have a big day together.
The fact is that as a teacher of An Introduction to Theology for high schoolers, I gave this assignment on the first day of class. I took them into a big airy space and gave them all kinds of media to create. Some took it seriously. Some wondered what my point was. The rest of them just played along because they knew that, as I had that I told them, I would grade them -- if only on effort.
In 15 years of teaching that course, I noticed a ubiquitous and major theme. In drawing God at the beginning of the class, most of the pictures portrayed God as an old, bearded man in a white robe. There were varied versions of the man, gazing over the earth, and often, he was hurling thunder bolts. It became clear to me that the image of God the drew was informed more by the Far Side comics and the Simpsons T.V. show than anything else. This gave me the opening and the opportunity to offer the class as a way of consulting new and different sources. If their pictures were more abstract, that gave us an opportunity to begin to put words to their perceptions.
Among preachers of the lectionary, this is known as Holy Scripture Sunday or Bible Sunday because the opening prayer invites us to read, mark, learn and inwardly digest the holy scriptures which we say “were written for our learning.” It is a classic prayer that expresses the way we approach the Bible as the Word of God.
Inevitably that leads us to interpretive problems in developing our image of God. We have that grim first lesson from Judges where the presumption is that when the people do what God wants, they succeed, and when they do not, they founder and suffer. Remember that the Hebrew Bible or Old Testament is a living account of how people thought of God and interpreted what was happening to them. Their lives were precarious and they came from a context of believing that God or gods needed to be pleased and appeased. Some of that mythology holds on even to this day.
When we come to the Gospel, we hear the parable of the talents. It is an old chestnut of the faith and a popular lection for stewardship season. If we read it as straight allegory, we are servants or slaves to a master with high expectations. If we take what we are given and make more with it, God is pleased. If we hoard what we are given and play it safe, we are to be left out in the dark. Matthew is fond of the theme of weeping and gnashing of teeth. There is a kernel of truth in here. We do believe God as wildly generous, and we believe that our response to such generosity is to be responsive and creative in serving God.
There are problems with the direct allegory style of imagining God through this lens. It sets up God as a cruel master who expects some sort of measurable return on investment from us. The power dynamic also implies and unequal distribution of resources according to ability. This could lead to seeing the wealthy as more able or more blessed. And all of this runs counter to everything Jesus preaches about the poor being mightily loved and blessed as well.
It is no wonder that the Far Side, Simpsons old, bearded, thunderbolt wielding God is pretty standard in folks imagination. We need to dig deeper. Today, I raise the possibility that, in this parable, Jesus is questioning our view of the way God works. Jesus begins in saying that the kingdom of God had been thought about this way…. He may be saying that we have some of it right: God is wildly generous, and hopeful for us to take what is given and thrive for God’s sake and out own. It is also possible that Jesus is telling us that we have some of it wrong too, especially if we consider what we are given as a measure of our ability -- or our power as some translations put it. Remember, Jesus is in the Temple and addressing the religious elites. They are plenty hopped up on their power. Their position provides them with lots of material wealth and, they believe they have all the answers. They are trying to trap this Jesus character as misguided as he criticizes their narrow understanding of who God loves most.
Remember that this is the last parable Jesus tells before he will be arrested, tried, and executed as a blasphemer and traitor. He is about to show that God will stick with us, forgive us, and even rise to live with us no matter what. St. Paul summarizes this, in his letter to the Thessalonians, reminding us that “we are not destined for wrath, but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ who died for us… that we may live with him.” The last word is not punishing, it is loving. Maybe we are not so much about getting people to heaven in the future, as we are about helping them out of hell now.
We do need to take the Bible seriously. We do need to mine it, meditate on it, argue with it, and pray with it to develop our picture of God. And to do so, we need to look at it whole. Parts of it will always be problematic. We have reason and rational minds as gifts to use too.
For the final exam in An Introduction to Theology, I asked my students to draw God again and write an artist’s statement explaining the picture. Most of what I got was expansive, imaginative, and profound. In holding the Bible, various teachings, and the right use of reason in creative tension, we grew together.
The challenge of today is to consider how we are to account for what we are given all the while understanding that there is a God of grace, mercy, and forgiveness rooting for us to thrive. As we grow in faith, our picture of God will change and develop over time and through experience. Pull out your crayons, markers, paint, and the glitter of imagination. Imagine God. This is not blasphemy. It is a creative way to seek God and a deeper relationship with God. Have fun with it. God wants to be seen and known just as surely as God sees and knows us all as beloved creation. We are all an unfinished masterpiece in progress.
Emmanuel Episcopal Church, Greenwood, Virginia
Proper 27, Year A
November 8, 2020
Introduction to Poetry
By Billy Collins
I ask them to take a poem
and hold it up to the light
like a color slide
or press an ear against its hive.
I say drop a mouse into a poem
and watch him probe his way out,
or walk inside the poem’s room
and feel the walls for a light switch.
I want them to waterski
across the surface of a poem
waving at the author’s name on the shore.
But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.
They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.
I love this poem. I loved it because of its irony, its ambiguity, and its paradox. Here we are, hearing a poem that criticizes any narrow interpretation of its meaning, all while the poet wants to make a point about its meaning. The joke, here, is on all of us.
When we gather each week to hear parts of the sacred story of God in relationship with us, we wrestle with the truth as presented. We look through different lenses: the Hebrew Bible (or Old Testament) Letters from Paul and other early Christians, and the Gospels (literally Good news) of Jesus the Christ. It is not always easy to interpret what we read. Sometimes, it is just hard to pay attention to what is said. And there are so many holy words, cultural nuances, translational issues, historical contexts to understand, and scads of commentary and literary criticism from their time to our time. And then there is theology (literally God words). Theology is extracted from the texts as well. Heaps and volumes of theology have spewed forth from monastics, clerics and academic researchers. I you want to read about a word, a line, a passage, a parable, or book of the Bible, there is more than one could ever read out there.
Every now and then I just google a verse or two and see what people have written about them. I am not sure how their search engine chooses what to show me, but usually Wikipedia is in there as are some super fundamentalist sites that want to tell me what to think and where to send my money. The internet can take us from being a searcher to being a product for commerce pretty quickly. I do not recommend this form of inquiry as more than entertainment.
I am all for scholarly inquiry and I spend much of my life immersed in interpretation, but in the end the Word of God is more like a poem than a theological treatise. The Word of God is a story not a text book. And that story intersects with my story as a Christ follower and our story as a faithful body. It might be good to take Billy Collins’s advice and hold it up to the light like a color slide rather than tie it down to find out what it really means.
All of our lessons for today are both revelatory and problematic. Joshua issues the clarion and bedrock call to “choose this day whom we will serve,” but in process portrays God as jealous and vengeful God. Saint Paul, in his effort to comfort the Thessalonians who are expect God’s kingdom to come immediately, gives us this end times apocalyptic rapture image of being drawn up into the sky. All of that muddies the waters of what happens when we die because, he says, the dead do not rise until some second coming of Christ, but at the cross Jesus tells the thief at his side he will be with him in paradise that day.
We tend to look to the Gospels to be more definitive and central as they focus on God made human. And yet, Jesus’ parable of the ten bridesmaids is more of a head scratcher than an affirmation of truth. We can’t be sure who the bridegroom represents or if we are the wise or the foolish bridesmaids, or if we have enough to share or not. About the only clarity to be found here is the final line’s admonition “Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.”
I am not suggesting that the Word of God is meant to confuse us, but it is meant to challenge us as much as it is to comfort us. Holding these passages up to the light, we might find a broader and wider meaning rather than chasing details down a rabbit hole. As the Orthodox say: “Is mystery.”
From Joshua, it is fair to say that we set up false gods of money, ego, and power. They may not be Amorite or Egyptian gods, but they do obscure our faith and devotion to our One God.
From Saint Paul, the details of what happens when we die may be unknown, but we rest in hope of resurrection as is promised. This life is part of a much bigger life in God.
And from Matthew, the parable may be confusing, but the conclusion is not. God comes to us whether or not we expect God to show up, and it is good to be on the lookout for holy happenings.
We have just lived through a week of shifting sands. The back and forth of our election have us all reeling to the extent that we are concerned or paying attention. There are and will be endless analyses, speculations, accusations, and interpretations. What does it all mean? It means we are divided and not of one mind as people and as a nation. That is really nothing new, and it was true before the first votes were cast.
If your candidate lost, fellow Christians we still have our mission. It comes not from party affiliation but from baptism: to proclaim the Good News of God in Christ, to seek and serve all persons, loving our neighbor as ourselves, and to strive for justice and peace among all people, respecting the dignity of every human being. If your candidate won, we still have that same mission.
There is a great scene in the classic movie Rudy that helps sum this up. In the film Rudy is young man working tirelessly to make the Notre Dame football team. Along the way he in befriended by a Catholic priest who looks out for him. Near the end, Rudy asks the priest if he has done enough, if he has prayed enough. The priest responds: “Prayers happen in our time, the answers come in God’s time. And in 35 years of religious studies, I have come to realize only two incontrovertible facts: There is a God, and I am not Him.”
We can wax philosophical, theological, and even poetic, but the truth remains: our meaning, our existence, and our destiny is a gift of God. In all of the confusion and chaos of life, may we hold ourselves and one another up to the light and shine.
Emmanuel Episcopal Church, Greenwood, Virginia
All Saints, Year A
November 1, 2020
Today is a great church day: All Saints Day. It is a day when we remember and celebrate that we are members incorporate in the communion of saints. We are part of a great cloud of witnesses to the love that goes back centuries and centuries and stretches forward into eternity. Today is a celebration day, a remembering day, and a perspective gathering day. With so much cluttering our short-term spheres of concern, it is good to take a long view and remind ourselves of the power of God outlasting and overcoming whatever chances and changes vex our souls. We even use the term ineffable joys to describe the horizon of our hope. Ineffable means indescribable and unutterable, but still we ought to talk about it.
Today, I want us to talk about saints and sainthood. To get there, I invite you to engage in a simple exercise:
First, as you consider all of Holy Scripture and all of the passages and verses that impact our life of faith, which stand out as most important or impactful. This is not a moment to bible shame if you did not do the whole memory verse competition in Vacation Bible School as a kid. But what are the ones you remember. What are the ones that guide you, comfort you, and challenge you to live into what we believe? Is there a biblical greatest hits list in your mind? Got that? Ok, let’s move on.
Second, as you consider all of the great music and hymnody of the Church, can you come up with the most impactful of all the songs we sing in worship and praise? All Saints has some great ones: I sing a song of the saints of God, For all the Saints from whom their labors rest, Ye watchers and ye holy ones. It is really rough not to be able to sing together. We will again, and by will we appreciate what we have missed. There are, however, no rules against humming loudly behind our masks. Think of all the tunes and word that come to mind. Can you list the top five? Got that? Ok, let’s move on.
Third, could you name the top five sermons that you remember having a lasting impact on your life of faith and formation? Ok, that one is fraught with danger as sermons can be like a good joke. You may remember that you liked it, but cannot retell it exactly. It does not hurt my feelings if you have a hard time with this one. We all do. Got that? Well, neither do I.
Finally, as you consider your life of faith and your own personal formation, can you identify those individuals who have had the greatest impact? These can be people you know or people who have achieved some notoriety. In your mind, can you make that list of the mentors, friends, and people of greatest influence in your life?
Now, which of these lists were the easiest to formulate? Which of these lists got you really thinking and connecting to who and how you have become who you are: what you believe, how you behave, and what you hope to become? Most people say that list of people was the easiest to assemble, the most evocative of goodness, righteousness, and, even, holiness.
I have my own list: family friends, teachers, some clergy, and even, a particular Sunday school teacher. In my life of working is parishes and schools, I have been blessed to encounter God in soaring sacred worship, profound celebrations of song, moving and eloquent preaching and proclamation, solemn liturgies, and seasonal blow outs, but the glue connected my faith into a relatively coherent and meaningful enterprise has come through the people of God. In God’s continuing love affair with the world, God’s people have kept the faith, and kept us faithful, more than anything we can read, study, sing, or proclaim.
These people are saints. We tend to think of saints as long dead giants of the faith. Some of them were persecuted or martyred. There is even a process for commending saints. The Episcopal Church has complied books of remembrance and mini biographies. It is a fair exercise, but a bit much as there are so many to recognize that the we have run out of days in the year. And if you ask me, the ones I know have had more impact on me than one who converted folks to Christianity at Antioch in the 8th century.
Today is a great church day because we get beyond all of the officialdom of churchiness, throw it all up in the air, and consider the great gift of those who have shown God to us. Despite all of the hype we give to the term saint, saints are not perfect people. No person is pure, holy, righteous, and blameless all of the time. Saints come with faults, foibles, and failings too. But the great power of God is to shine through the cracks of human brokenness and reveal great love.
So, hold up the saints of your life in the light today. Give thanks for them. Think on their witness. But there is one more thing. Know that it is not only possible, but likely, that you are a saint for someone else. Yes, you and I have the power to reveal God to others. We call our parish Emmanuel because that means God with us. Sure, God is revealed in the Bible, God is honored in the prayers, God is praised in songs and anthems, but God really becomes real as God’s love busts into now in the love we have and share together.
Today is a great church day because it is our day too. It is the feast of ALL SAINTS. That great cloud of witnesses stands beside us, behind us, and before us, helping us to be saints too. Amen.
Emmanuel Episcopal Church, Greenwood, Virginia
Proper 25, Year A
October 25, 2020
Listen to me. Listen to me.
We called him the big Mahaph. I am not sure why, but he was a large man with a large voice and plenty of passion. He was my best friend, James’s father. The Big Mahaph was a pediatric research doctor and professor at the Medical College of Georgia. He rose through the ranks of medical school, residency, and fellowships treating complicated cases. Trauma was a constant in his work.
I spent a lot of time at James’s house, especially on college breaks. And whenever we would leave to go to the road trip, go out on the town, go play golf, or just go to the store, the Big Mahaph would chase after us saying: “Listen to me. Listen to me.” And then he would tell us how careful we needed to be, regaling us with a trauma story. He had stories about how kids got hurt in every way imaginable, and he did not spare us the gory details. One time, when we were going to get some school supplies, he told us about a kid who fell down at school and stabbed a pencil through his hand. For Christmas that year, James and I got him 100 pencils with the words “Listen to me! Listen to me!” printed on them.
While we knew they were coming, we always stopped and listened to the Big Mahaph’s cautionary tales. It was best not to try to sneak off or get away. He would just chase after us. If we laughed, he would lengthen the story. And in the end, he would say “Listen to me. Listen to me, because I love you.”
Listen. Listen. As a culture, we are not all that good at listening. Listening is an art that requires intentionality. There is plenty of talking going on out there. Technology has brought more talking to our ears than ever. News noise is particularly loud right now, and rather than listening for deeper understanding, we are delivered the news noise that marketing algorithms determine what we want to hear. Thus, we are hearing, but not really listening.
The gospel we hear today takes us back to Jesus in the Temple where there is a lot pf talking going on. He is being grilled and tested yet again. “Which commandment is the greatest.” This is a popular intellectual parlor game for the Pharisees. They have extrapolated the law to include 613 particular commands and argue endlessly about each of them. There are a thousand things Jesus could say. Where will his plant his flag?
Rather play the game and argue for one particular rule or regulation, he says speaks the content of their most sacred prayer. “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind (and) You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” They know this as the Shema. It is the prayer they speak to their loved ones as they rise and before they sleep. Once again, Jesus does not answer their question directly, going, instead, for a deeper and most fulsome response. But there is a statement buried in this answer too. The know the Shema by heart, and the Shema is so named for the first word of the prayer, the first word of the command, and the centering utterance of the statement. Shema means listen and hear.
There has been so much noise around Jesus. Noise from the Romans who see him and his followers as a rebellious threat. Noise from the religious elites who see him as a threat to their authority, purity, and control. Even Jesus’ disciples make noise, jockeying for position, seeking a place in the plan, and hoping they will gain special blessings and powers. But Jesus stops them all dead in their tracks. Shema. Yes. Listen. Hear.
This was a perfect revelation for those around Jesus. He calls them back to the heart of who he is, who God is, and who we are for ourselves and one another. This is a perfect revelation for us right now. With the world spinning at a maddening pace in its polarities and politicization of everything, Jesus helps us get above and beyond our wallowing in details and points us to the heart of faith.
There is so much of God in the world for us to hear. The natural rhythms of winds in the trees, the rustling of leaves, and even the falling acorns. There is running water and crashing waves. There are the squeals of children and deep belly laughter. There are cries of pain and joy. If we listen beyond the noise, the world is so alive with God that we cannot help but see and love God with all of it: heart, mind, soul and strength. And if God gives us all of this, we must love us too, because we are awash in God.
The great theologian and author, Frederick Buechner puts it this way: “Listen to your life. See it for the fathomless mystery it is. In the boredom and pain of it, no less than in the excitement and gladness: touch, taste, smell your way to the holy and hidden heart of it, because in the last analysis all moments are key moments, and life itself is grace.”
After this, they stop asking Jesus questions. If they want to know who God is, they can see Jesus right in front of them. Even as they send him to the cross, he will not give up on them. The time for talking is over. The command to listen is dropped like a pebble in still water, rippling out for all to see.
Above all of the noise, the fear, the anger, the blame, and trauma of what we do to one another, Jesus calls us home. Listen to me, he says. Listen to me, because I love you. Amen.
The Rev. John Thomas is Rector of Emmanuel Episcopal Church, Greenwood