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 21, Year B
September 26, 2021
One of the great things about the Episcopal Church is that we are bound together under a big tent. What I mean by that is that while center tends to hold, there are spaces and places for varied expressions of worship, divergent points of view, and worship spaces ranging from large gothic cathedrals to store front start-ups.
For more doctrinal folks, asking what Episcopalians believe meets with a puzzling answer: it depends of the Episcopalian. That said, we are best defined in looking at our Book of Common Prayer. There is a lot there: the three-legged stool of faith supported by scripture, tradition, and reason.
On September 12, one of our particular church characters, The Rt. Rev. Jack Spong, retired Bishop of Newark, well-known author, and provocateur died peacefully and quietly. To put it mildly, Spong was a controversial character who ministered under our tent. He pushed for the ordination of women in the 1970s. He pushed for full inclusion and ordination for LGBTQ folks in the 1980’s. In 1992, he wrote a book, Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism. Biblical literalists went crazy and his perspective riled up the so-called moral majority that was gaining cultural and political influence. His book was bestseller, and gained him even more notice, which he enjoyed for sure. He was so polarizing that he received death threats – Christian death threats – someone needs to explain that oxymoron.
When I was in seminary, Bishop Spong came as a visiting lecturer. Some of my fellow students refused to attend. If you wanted to start a heated theological argument in those days, all you had to do was say “Spong.” In person, Spong was not the fiery heretic many imagined him to be. He was generous, welcoming, and curious. He was human and had an ego for sure. Yet, he applied great scholarly investigation, imagination, and creativity in exploring Biblical texts, which was, sometimes, quite a stretch for many.
Spong served in this diocese as rector of St. Paul’s, Richmond, from 1969-1976. St. Paul’s is a downtown parish right next to our state capitol. When folks used to refer to Virginia Episcopalians as God’s frozen chosen, St. Paul’s would have been the headquarters. Spong shook it up. He started a feeding ministry for the poor and homeless. He challenged Christian complacency. Some fled to other parishes. Richmond rumbled. One might think this was a disaster. It was not. Spong helped folks to disagree, without being disagreeable. Those who took the time to get to know Spong, loved him, even if they muttered “bless his heart”under their breath now and again.
When I read of Jesus saying “Salt is good,” and, the same day, I read Spong’s obituary in the New York Times, a light went on. Spong was salt. For sure he was salty. We might not want a church full of Spongs, but if we are to have salt in ourselves, as Jesus says, we need those who push and prod us even if that is uncomfortable. As the old adage goes: Jesus came to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.
Sometimes the lessons for Sunday are like an arrow moving toward a target. Other times, like today, the lessons are more like a big pot of stew. If we dip into the pot, we can draw up nuggets of nourishment, but there is a lot in there and we cannot consume it all at once.
We started with the story of Esther. What was read is chopped up (Veggies?) and if you do not know the story, it would be helpful to have a program with the cast of characters. The legend is the stuff of pageants and feasting in the Jewish faith. Basically, it is a salvation story. The Israelites in exile faced a genocidal plot, and Esther saved the day currying favor with the king. The bottom line is that God works through people to deliver us from destruction.
The lesson from James is a letter to a fragmented and contentious church. He urges them claim their faith in helping the suffering, praying, confessing their sin, and forgiving others. (Broth?) He urges them to do this to bring those wandering away from the faith back under the tent of the church. Again, the bottom line is that God uses people, even sinners like us, to bring people together.
By the time we get to Mark’s gospel, the stew gets even more meaty (Protein?). The disciples are upset that someone is out there casting out demons in Jesus’ name, and they tried to stop him because he was not following them. Not following them? So now they make healing and helping about some sort of credentialing, like they own the franchise on ministry? Jesus sets them straight, setting them and all of us free from any illusion that we are not smart enough, good enough, righteous enough, or worthy enough to be the hands and feet of God’s love for the world.
The scriptural stew on the table today is a feast of welcome, nourishment, encouragement, and clarity. Maybe that stew needs a little salt or spice from us. Maybe we need to hear how God has used others and will use us, not just to be nice to people like us, but to be good to people we may not know or understand.
In his analysis of this stew of Holy Scripture, Bishop Spong said many provocative things.
He questioned that which many refuse to question. He pushed the church toward authenticity and honesty – even in disagreement. But then, he wrote:
“Even understanding these things, I am still attracted to this Jesus and I will pursue him both relentlessly and passionately. I will not surrender the truth I believe I find in him either to those who seek to defend the indefensible, or to those who want to be freed finally from ideas that no longer make sense… I prepare for death by living.”
If we are hungry for truth, the church is a good place to be. We are here to provide food for the journey, but we gather as church to point beyond church. We are about Jesus and the seeking, searching, and saving work of giving up our well-worn, self-centered ways and live for God. The psalmist says: “Taste and see that God is good.” Indeed, but sometimes, we need to add salt. Amen.
Emmanuel Episcopal Church, Greenwood, Virginia
Proper 20, Year B
September 19, 2021
I follow a feed called the Good News Movement on Instagram. It is not overtly religious, rather, it features images and stories of ordinary people, going about their lives, and doing extraordinarily good things. It a breath of fresh air from social media. As September is National Suicide Prevention Month, I received a picture in my Good News feed that grabbed my heart and soul.
The photo shows a man, standing outside a bridge railing over a highway. He is facing inward balanced on a precarious ledge. According to the story, he intended to end his life, but when he climbed over the railing, several passersby jumped into action, reaching out and put their arms around him. One has his chest, one his waist, and another has his legs, all of them in a hugging embrace. There is even a small length of rope securing him to the railing. These people were complete strangers to one another, but all of them huddled together, staying with the man, and holding him close, comforting him in his despair. They told him he was loved. They told they would stay with him as long as he needed them. Wherever they needed to be on that bustling work day had to wait. All of them remained there for two hours, holding a stranger, saving a life. This is greatness.
Speaking of greatness, on the way back to Capernaum, winding up a long road trip with Jesus, the disciples had been debating amongst themselves. They were talking about what roles they would get in the new regime, after Jesus takes out the Romans and becomes King of Israel. James wanted to be Chief of Staff, John, Secretary of State, and Peter, Director of Communications. Ok, that may be a stretch, but we get the idea. They are jockeying for position, extolling their own merits, seeking fame and fortune.
Even though Jesus repeats himself, telling them that his being the Messiah is not what they envision, they are hard headed, and a little dense. They are not about this business of suffering even unto death, they are into rising: rising up and taking charge. That is what they believe makes for greatness.
It is hard to blame the disciples. What they see is the powerful are the rich and well-armed Romans. The powerful are the elite Scribes and Pharisees luxuriating in fine robes, well financed through the temple taxes and kickbacks from the sale of sacrificial animals. In their experience, blessings of health, wealth and security come from power and power is what makes greatness.
It may be easy for us to think of the disciples as dupes. Mark sets them up for criticism in just about every encounter with Jesus. And yet, what kind of Messiah do we expect Jesus to be? Do we bargain convenient good works for blessings? Are we more than a little impressed with wealth and celebrity? Might we believe the following “our” messiah makes us better than all those godless and unrepentant secular folks? We might think that if we were in charge, we would fix them for sure.
There is a great song all about this by the Who, Won’t get fooled again that puts it this way:
We'll be fighting in the streets
With our children at our feet
And the morals that they worship will be gone
And the men who spurred us on
Sit in judgement of all wrong
They decide and the shotgun sings the song…
And I get on my knees and pray, we won’t get fooled again
And the last line is this: Meet the new boss, same as the old boss. Yeah.
At the dinner table back in Capernaum, Jesus asks the disciples what they had been arguing about on the road. They do not answer as they do not want another fiery lecture on dying to self in order to rise in glory. Being Jesus, we must believe that he knows all about their conversations and their will to power, and ours too.
Jesus, then, takes a child onto his lap. And as the text says, he put it among them. It? This tells us about what they thought of children. Likely this child was running around with lots of other children, scruffy, snotty, and raggedy. Child mortality was staggering. They were the poorest of the poor, living precariously, only of value when they grew up to work and contribute. But not for Jesus, he wraps his arms around this squirmy little girl, holding her, saying, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.” In that moment, Jesus shows that he will break the cycle. His power is not material, it comes through sacrifice. His way is not about domination, his blessings come from love, not stuff.
I would love to say that the disciples got it once and for all. I would love to say that all humanity immediately followed Jesus’ way. I would love to say the human will to power flipped over to become the will to service and self-emptying love. The disciples did not get it, at least not until Easter happened to them. We don’t get it until, in moments of clarity and grace, we give up on the old boss or the new boss, and follow the real boss.
Jesus wraps his arms around a child to change the picture of power and blessing. At a moment of clarity and grace, a bunch of perfect strangers, on a typical work day, put their arms around a fellow child of God with saving him with power and blessing. They were not going to let go. Whatever despair or pain or grief or loss we know, Jesus tells us that God is there. He is there as God in all of us too. We are here because we need that Good News in our feed. We need to see real pictures of greatness to lose ourselves in love and save our lives.
Emmanuel Episcopal Church, Greenwood, Virginia
Proper 19, Year B
September 12, 2021
In August of 2020, retired pastor from Oklahoma, Steve Epp, began walking through North Dakota as part of his seven-year, 4000-mile journey across every state in the union. Not your typical thru hiker, Epps carries a 35-pound cross with wheels on the back, hooked to a trailer with food, water, and clothing. I know about this because, as he passed through towns and cities, lots of local of news outlets reported his story.
He tells folks that when he retired, he got depressed, and sought God’s guidance to do something new to spread the message of Jesus’ love. The vision he received was one of sacrifice and simple service: walk across the country, carry the cross, pray with and for people he meets along the way. Epps says “The main thing I’m trying to do is give hope. We’re living in a time where people just don’t have a lot of hope.” On his Facebook page, he says that many hurting people are not coming to church, so “I go out and find them.” It is as crazy and simple as that.
When we scratch the surface, Brother Epps comes from an intense theological place. He has some fire and brimstone and turn or burn theology in his preaching. There is some Christian nationalism in there too. He saves that for when he is preaching to the converted, and only when he is invited to do so. That can be distracting, but let’s not dismiss the guy. Nobody is perfect. We all have our blind spots. The letter of James we read today acknowledges that and urges us to be careful what we say. And yet, God is using this guy to draw notice, attention, and connection to our God of love. He puts that first, and rightly so. Epps has prayed with and for thousands of people along the way. He has met soldiers, bankers, lawyers, addicts, and outlaws, all on an equal footing, right there by the side of the road.
Today’s Gospel takes us on the road with Jesus and his disciples in Caesarea Philippi. It is a grand place where King Herod, a Jewish puppet of the Roman Empire has built an immense temple. Being a political conniver, he names the place for Caesar. Herod knows where his bread is buttered. Up to this point, Jesus has been an itinerant healer and preacher for the Kingdom of God, so when he rolls into this monument to the Kingdom of Empire, he stands at odds with what he sees. Jesus asks the disciples who folks say he is. Some say he is a reincarnated John the Baptist, Elijah, or one of the prophets. Good ole Peter, who jumps in and says he is the “Messiah.”
When we hear that we might think Peter is right on the money, and he is, …sort of. The Jewish hope for a messiah had long been foretold and longed for, but the kind of messiah they imagine is a warrior and conqueror; one who will rally the troops, cast out the Romans and reestablish Israel as a mighty kingdom. When Jesus says that his messiahship is about confronting earthly power systems, and acknowledging suffering and death, they cannot get his hearts and minds around that. And there is a showdown. Peter says, say it is not so, and he gets the “get behind me, Satan rebuke.
Here in the middle of Mark’s Gospel, we are at a crossroad. It is a place where Jesus clarifies the mission. What the disciples hear is defeat, shame, and death. After all, that is what the cross represents to them. Far from being an adorned symbol of hope, they see crosses as hangman’s gallows. Crosses are stand all over the place, warning everyone not to cross the those in charge. Their crosses stand as signs of real and violent domination.
The part they miss is where Jesus says, yes, there will be rejection, suffering and death, and, and that is a big AND, after three days, he will rise again. All of Jesus’ talk about denying self, taking up their cross and following tells them that they are made for rising, not dying. Letting go of the world’s temporary and empty power creates a new reality, a kingdom not of empires and dominance, but a Kingdom of Love. Jesus goes there to show all of us that God does not leave us, run away, or give us ammunition to fight. Jesus goes there to change the rules, to transform this sign and symbol of death, into a sign of bigger, deeper, and forever life. He does not go in with fists clenched and swords drawn. He goes in with open hands and a generous heart.
One of my mentors often says that the central symbol of our faith is not an easy chair, it is the cross. Suffering happens. Letting go of our self-centered, and self-motivated devices and desires is not easy. What Jesus shows is that as we do so, holiness happens, neighbors are loved, God gets God’s Word, edgewise, into the noise of earthly banter.
Lord knows we are seeing a large measure of suffering in our world. We do not have an historical distance from Rome and its machinations. Empires are rising and falling all over the place. The poor are getting poorer and the proliferation of natural disasters makes things worse. Let’s face it, there are so many preventable outflows of human selfishness. The world’s noise is mostly about who to blame and who to fear. All of that is wielded as emotional leverage to secure some power or platform to dominate and control the spin, closing fists instead of opening hands.
At Caesarea Philippi, Jesus calls the foul. Politicians and partisans may cloak their will to power with religious language, but life is not about them or us, our bravado, or rallies for adulation or affirmation. The Messiah is Almighty, but not as we might think of almighty. Bringing the Kingdom of Love to the world is not about right religion, it is about changing what we encourage and esteem to work in a completely different set of physics: an economy where losing is gaining, and falling brings about rising. We are built to rise. We miss that. We need Jesus to remind us.
The cross carrying Pastor Epps is not the first to do something provocative. He will not be the last. He seems to be mixture of crazy and holy, just like the rest of us. We may not go to the literal extreme of taking up a 35-pound cross, but seeing one do so is an apt challenge for us to consider how and where we might carry the message of unconditional love, especially when doing so challenges us to be remade in Jesus’ Way of love.
God can and will use us, sometimes in spite of ourselves. The good news is that we cannot, and will not, save ourselves. It is not about us. The true Messiah saves all at the cross. There, he invites us to take the white knuckled, clenched fist of fear or blame, and open it wide as generous in loving, serving, and caring for all of God’s people. Amen.
Emmanuel Episcopal Church, Greenwood, Virginia
Proper 17, Year B
August 29, 2021
Say your prayers and wash your hands, because Jesus and germs are everywhere.
We have that saying on a dishtowel. These days you can get that saying on a mug, cup, bumper sticker, t-shirt, sweatshirt, soap dispenser, and all manner of signage of any size and font. It is an old saying, but talk about a message meeting a moment. The statement is not trademarked or copyrighted, so purveyors of cutesy ephemera have gone to town.
While the pandemic has left many desolate and ruined, it has opened up a whole series of new markets. Once in short supply, masks are now everywhere. They are right there with the tabloids in the grocery checkout aisle. Instead of calendars and key chains, the institutions of higher learning I support have sent us logo branded masks, I am sporting a Virginia Seminary one regularly (Go Fighting Flamingos). Covid tests were once the thing nobody could find and get in any timely way. Now we can get in home tests by the dozen for free. Restaurants now have very robust takeout and delivery services. Temperature scanners are legion. Zoom has exploded as the main platform for meeting. The paper products aisle is crammed with new players in the market for paper towels and that previously coveted and horded toilet paper. Our economic system responds quickly, but we are only a selectively clever bunch of humans.
And then, there is hand sanitizer. Once scarce, it is everywhere and widely available. In the earlier days of the virus, my pharmacist told me they had every bottle she had put out for customers was lifted at the rate of ten a day. Finally, they put out a three-gallon container that would be really awkward to put in one’s purse or pocket. Nowadays, we hardly have to carry our own, though we do. Hand sanitizer is on every retail counter, in every office, and everywhere people with potentially dirty hands gather.
While we are creative and markets adapt quickly, the hand sanitizer thing is a telling obsession. First, soap and water are just as or more effective as a disinfectant. And, of course, once sanitized, there is no protective wall around our hands that lasts for hours. Once we open the door, grab our wallet and keys, or scratch our nose, we are right back in the germ pool. Though there is little to no evidence that the virus spreads on surfaces, that does not stop us. When faced with something we cannot control, we arm ourselves. It gives us the illusion of safety or immunity. We cleanse to feel clean.
Please note, I am a rabid proponent of doing everything we can to protect ourselves and one another. Washing hands is a good thing and always has been. Wearing masks and keeping respectful distance is something we can do that is effective. Even if the chances of our masked and distanced, twice vaccinated selves will spread infection is small. It is a possibility, thus we do so because some are not able to be vaccinated, some are immunocompromised, and all of us are in this together as fellow humans, called to love neighbor as self. This is not partisan, political, or philosophical. It is Gospel.
After the last five weeks of John’s gospel taking us into the deep mysteries of bread and wine, body and blood, over and over, finally we have a lesson that we can get our hands on. It is all about hand washing. Or so the uptight religious folks think. Apparently, some of the disciples were seen eating without washing their hands. For the Scribes and Pharisees, washing hands was not just a soap and water thing where you sing the happy birthday song to give it the time it needs. For the super exclusive religious, hand washing had a whole ritual. They had special prayers, special fancy pitchers and basins. The in crowd practiced and believed that doing such ablutions were like the magic of hand sanitizer, giving them belief in their purity. They believed that doing that “right” thing, made the righteous. And more important, more righteous than others.
Thus, some of the disciples were not eating with dirty hands, so much as they were not playing the ritualistic game of magical thinking. Jesus supports them, telling their critics that uncleanness is not washed away in an external practice. We are made right in looking inside ourselves, seeing where we think and do things that hurt or exclude people we ought to love. Sin is not the devil on forcing us into vile behavior, rather, sin is an inside job working in our self-centric insecurities and greed.
The bigger idea of all our lessons for today is all about religion. If our religion does not lead us to compassion and moves us to widen our embrace of all humanity, it is the wrong application of religion. Believing the right thing is not the right thing unless our life shows the fruit. If our so-called righteousness stifles the generosity, yields less empathy, and shuns diversity, we are confusing what we claim as right with what righteousness is. If we have enough religion to hate, but not enough religion to love, we are using religion as a barrier, rather than inviting our religion to use us. Righteousness is an outflow, not a set of practices that work some magic.
Granted, we do things in church that are ritualistic and repeated. We do this to open our hearts and minds, not to close them down and shut others out. The 20th century poets Edwin Markham put it this way:
“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!”
Say your prayers and wash your hands. Jesus and germs are everywhere. True enough. We cannot ever be fully sanitized souls this side of heaven. We may not get right - or even righteous - at least not on our own. But stick with it. There are flashes of righteousness happening all around us, and sometimes, because of us, and through us. Be careful out there. The world is volatile and life is a chronic condition. We can, however show up, wash up, be nice, and make good, knowing that we will have to do so again and again. After all, even a life of love can be messy. Amen.
Emmanuel Episcopal Church, Greenwood, Virginia
Proper 16, Year B
August 22, 2021
The late columnist, humorist and author, Lewis Grizzard, once wrote a book entitled Elvis Is Dead, and I Don’t Feel So Good Myself. While it was not great piece of literature, it was a funny take on nostalgia which, I would like to remind us is not what it used to be.
I was reminded of his book as I read about the annual observation of Death Week at Elvis Presley’s Graceland in Memphis, Tennessee. While I have made the pilgrimage to Graceland, and taken the Platinum Tour, Death Week goes to a whole different level. Elvis fans show up in large numbers, bearing the August Memphis heat. They dress up, hold candle light vigils, and on the fated day, make a somber walk to the eternal flame at the King’s gravesite to pay their respects.
For his eighth birthday, Elvis wanted a bicycle. Coming from a poor family in Tupelo, Mississippi, there was no money for a bike. Nevertheless, Elvis’s mother, Gladys splurged, spending $6.95 on a small guitar. That changed everything. Thank Gladys!
I am an Elvis fan because he was a fascinating blend of talent, opportunity, and a case study in how fame ravages all naiveté. Elvis was a connector, a bridge builder, and an unexpected phenomenon. He crossed rigid boundaries of class, race, musical genre, fame, and family. His favorite place at Graceland was the kitchen, where he and his friends ate peanut butter and banana sandwiches. Don’t knock ‘em til you have tried ‘em! For sure, young Elvis had a rhythm all his own, moving those hips like nobody had done before. His style was both ecstatic and scandalous, like most big changes.
Now, I do not want to go into a psychosocial or theological analysis of fandom, but most of us have time bound touchstones in our life such as music. Whether that music is Frank Sinatra, Bob Dylan, Beyonce, or Taylor Swift, we connect certain soundtracks to important times in our lives. The Texas folk singer, Nanci Griffith, died this week, and as I listened to her catalogue of music, I remembered many good times in my life. I remembered some hard times in life too. Most of all, I heard the poetry and rhythm of seeing and feeling deeply. Of course, Nanci was no Elvis. She did not have the flash, but her art is a touchstone all the same.
When Lewis Grizzard wrote about Elvis Death, he was both philosophical and wickedly funny. Yet, even among the laughter, there was a well-articulated grief about love always including some loss along with it. Time does not stand still. People age. All things fade. Then world presses in on us, and it is hard to make sense of it.
This has been a hard week. As the virus resurges, people are frightened, suffering, and angry. As disaster after disaster strikes Haiti, people are frightened, suffering, and angry. As Afghanistan implodes and, people are frightened, suffering, and angry. Fires continue to burn. Tempers are hot all around. Human fragility is on full display. It doesn’t help that much of the public energy in response is to focus on blame, on self-interest, and rage. None of that will be helpful.
To be a Christ follower is helpful, but it is difficult too. It is hard to shake of the fight or flight instincts embedded in our DNA. It is hard to shake a sort of globalized anxiety that leaves us suspicious, accusatory, and just plain mad. Jesus’ Way asks that we shake off the dust of the world, and follow a new path where unity overcomes estrangement, forgiveness heals guilt, and joy conquers despair. While all that sounds good, it is really hard to do. Our hearts and minds are full.
We come to a serious inflection point in John’s Gospel today. Speaking through the metaphors of body and blood, Jesus tells his followers that it is the “Spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless.” Wait, what. John started this whole thing out saying the “Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth.” Now the flesh is useless? Hardly. The flesh he refers to is the earthy kind: the finite and shot lived mercy of humanity versus the infinite mercy of the Creator. Jesus own physical body is a container for God’s Spirit. His fleshy, time bound, earthy body will not permanent. It is the Spirit’s ongoing life that animates a new and eternal body that goes way beyond skin and bones.
“This teaching is difficult,” his disciples respond, “who can accept it?” It is difficult for us too, requiring as complete reframing of our well-worn assumptions and instincts. Sadly, many strike camp and take off. They do not want to go the Way of love and peace. They close the door on this Son of God business, but Jesus leaves it open.
He asks Peter, “do you want to leave too?” And good ole Peter, the one who always addresses the elephant in the room, says “where would I go? You have the words of life beyond just this life and we have come to believe that you are the Holy One of God.” Of all of Peter’s great proclamations, this ranks highly and pushes us deeper into faith.
If not with Jesus and God’s Word of life, where will we go? To the altar of self-help? To the comfortable echo chambers of tribe or party? To the competing gods of exclusion, self-righteousness, and material idolatry? That might be easier and more comforting, but in the end, those are empty calories of spiritual nourishment over against the Bread of Life.
All week some lyrics from my musical touchstone, Nanci Griffith, have rung in my soul. “It’s a hard life, it’s a hard life, it’s a very hard life. It’s a hard life wherever you go. But if we poison our children with hatred, then the hard life is all they’ll know.”
We may not feel so good right now, and with good reason. It is ok to be full, overwhelmed, and upset. God does not call us to permanent positivity, or to wall off suffering. God calls us to keep love alive, even in the face of loss. There may not be enough water in our bucket to put out the fires, or quench all the massive thirst for justice. But we can use our bucket to cool things off, to help somehow or some way no matter how small or simple. Then, where will we go? Not off alone and empty, but back to the deep well of the Word of Life -- that is God -- to refill, to refresh, and renew… the steadfast and ever-present Spirit within us. Amen.
Emmanuel Episcopal Church, Greenwood, Virginia
Proper 15, Year B
August 15, 2021
Lizzie was three years old. Each week she took her place on the front row with the rest of Mrs. Belk’s PreK-3s for Episcopal Day School’s weekly chapel service. On the major feast days of the Church, we celebrated Eucharist, and as an orientation to this rite, I visited with the PreK3s before chapel. I brought down some wafers and some wine. I showed them the chalice and paten. As a newly minted priest, I tried to explain Eucharist so they would know what was going on. My big error was trying to “explain” the Eucharist, and my young charges kept me honest. “Is that really bread? Is that real wine? Is that really a piece of Jesus? Isn’t it just gross to drink blood?” These students were on to something that adults think but do not ask.
I was stumped. With a head full of theology, I was trying to convey an experience, poorly. God love Mrs. Belk, a seasoned pro; she turned to the children and said “what do you think?” This was my first and best lesson in becoming a teacher: get out of the way, they know things. Hands shot up all over the front row. “I think Jesus wants us to remember him. I think Jesus knows that we must eat and drink, and he wants to be food for us. I like communion because it is special and because we get to move around instead of just listening all the time. Jesus is here because we believe.”
Lizzie was clearly interested, but quiet and reflective. I had explained that they could come forward for a blessing if they did not want to receive and they could cross their arms across their chest and pray with me. When the time came for communion, Lizzie came forward with her classmates with her arms crossed. Mrs. Belk went first. I spoke the words: “The Body of Christ the bread of heaven.” and gave Mrs. Belk the bread. Lizzie was next. She was thinking, hesitated, then unfolded her arms, reached into the sanctuary with both hands, and looked up and into my eyes. I want this, she whispered. Yes. “The Body of Christ, the bread of heaven.”
In its infinite wrestling with mystery, the Church and her theologians have an entire language for conversing about what the Eucharist is. We have the Greek term anamnesis which is a liturgical remembrance that takes us where it points. There is transubstantiation, which is big for Roman Catholic doctrine, that is the bread and wine literally become the body and blood of Jesus. Ironically, in dialogue among Anglicans and Catholics, both affirmed the principle of transubstantiation, but then could not agree on its definition. This is not to shade theological ideas or dismiss thoughtful conversation, it is just to say that being sure of something that is a matter of faith can be tricky, as our head cannot always take us where our heart needs to go
There is a running argument in the church about children and communion. On the one hand, we should not cheapen the experience in being too casual or relative, and on the other hand arguing that a child does not understand what they are doing implies that adults do. When any one of any age knows they belong, and seek to be part of something big and beyond mere explanation, when any one of any age reaches into the sanctuary hands and heart open to receive, Jesus is mightily present.
Driving home the gift and grace of the Eucharist is where John’s Gospel takes us today. This is his version of the last supper. His words and images are meant to have shock value. Eat my flesh and drink my blood. How can this be they ask, and we do too. We do not know it all, but we know that touch, and taste, and smell are powerful and evocative senses. The words John’s Jesus uses have greater meaning than they do in English. Bread is necessary, life sustaining, and holy food in Hebrew history. God provided it in the wilderness and helped the people survive the desert. Bread goes bad fast if it is not broken and eaten. And wine is a common drink in a world with lots of bad water. Blood is a big word as it is seen as the life force and energy literally pulsing in our veins. Jesus tells his people that he comes to be in us and among us. How can bread and wine become body and blood? How can a rag tag bunch of imperfect followers become the body of Christ? These things happen as gift and grace. We do not control them, earn them, or define what God can and will do.
Back in that same school where I started as a chaplain, there was another kid who was new to any kind of prayer. In one of our lessons, he said that he liked the prayers because they all end with “I’m in.” He mistook amen for I’m in, and to be honest, that is not bad theology. The word amen literally means so be it. And if we listen to what we pray, and take it seriously, it may sound rote, but it is important. To say amen is to say we are in, we affirm what we pray, and we challenge ourselves to believe what is hard or mysterious.
Very soon, it will be our turn to rise, come forward, and take in the very life of Jesus. Whoever said that we are what we eat is right on. These are the gifts of God for the people of God. Are we in? Yes. Amen.
Emmanuel Episcopal Church, Greenwood, Virginia
Proper 13, Year B
August 1, 2021
My first full sentence was this: “I want more beans.” Lest you believe I started out life as legume loving vegetarian, I am sure these were Great Grandmother Swope’s recipe, cooked to death beans with onion and a ham hock. Our son, Sam’s, first sentence was “I want a donut, now.” Our parish church at the time had fresh, hot donuts every week, and we had a robust children’s program. Coincidence? I think not. Our daughter, Emily’s, first sentence was “No, no I do it myself.” Clearly, we had some work to do on subject and verb agreement. Janice is the last of six children, and with all of that noise, nobody heard her first sentence, hence her enthusiastic extroversion is well developed.
I am fascinated with developmental milestones in the life of children. As an educator and teacher, I studied a lot on how people learn what they learn and know what they know. As a priest, I remain fascinate with how all God’s children come to believe what we believe. No two stories about that are the same.
What I do know is that as children grow and develop, they do what experts call: individuation. Gradually, they move from dependence to independence, and an expert once said in a lecture that “adolescence happens when children become aware that they have something to hide.” Hence there is the push me pull you relationship with so-called adults. It is no picnic for the adolescent or the adult.
As I consider the first sentences of my family, I see how that individuation begins. With words, we are able to express preferences, speak up for our wants and needs, and claim our personal power and space. However, we have to get along in this world, so the first lesson in the sandbox is all about sharing shovels and buckets. Those who are not good at that have a hard way to go… as senators and members of congress. Occasionally we get it right, and good things happen when we do. As humans we dance between asserting our will, and belonging to that which is great than ourselves. This requires practice.
And speaking of human nature, the lessons of this week begin with some pretty unvarnished truth about the Israelites. They are in the desert, finally free after more than 200 years of being enslaved. They get hot, tired, and hungry and resort to whining. “Moses, where there not enough graves in Egypt? Why bring us here to die?” Never mind the miracles of deliverance, the Red Sea parting, the pillar of fire to lead them, and when they get thirsty, they are led to fresh cool water flowing from a rock. God provides for them every step of the way. And yet, the whiny Israelites say yeah, great, but what has God done for us lately. In response, we hear of the abundant provision of bread in the morning and quail in the evening. Even then, they become picky eaters – “Moses, what is this manna stuff?” --and quail in the evening. “Oy,” Moses says, “it is bread from God, enough to sustain you very well.” They do not like being dependent. They do not stop complaining for another 40 years. Moses is a patient. It is a good thing that God is too.
Fast forward to Jesus at Capernaum. The day before, Jesus fed five thousand folks with five loaves and two fish. He walked on water and calmed a storm. Prior to that he has healed and helped and loved on everyone he meets on his way through all of Galilee. And the people, ancestors of the Israelites, come to him with this: “What must we do to perform the works of God?” Jesus answered them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” Simple, nuanced, but clear. And then, we get their yeah, but… “What sign are you going to give us then, so that we may see it and believe you? What work are you performing?” Good grief, these folks never stop nit picking. What complete whiners?
But then, they are us. While the Gospel is revelation, it is also a mirror. We want to believe, but we want to believe on our own terms. We want to will of God to be done, so long as it matches up with our will. Wwe want to serve God, but mostly in an advisory capacity. In his epic work called Confessions, Saint Augustine, writes “Lord give me chastity and self-control - but not yet.” The question of the day is what is holding us back? Where are we expecting God to do more and better for us, and in the process, forgetting everything God has done and is doing for us?
The reason I am fascinated with babies and child development is that they show us how to be dependent, spontaneously joyful, and content in being part of something large they do not understand. It is wonderful when they can dress and potty and walk on their own, but there is a loss there too. Those first words tell that story. Perhaps that is why there are second children. Islam has a beautiful teaching about sin called “the forgetting.” They articulate that we know how to be dependent on God, we just get out in the world and forget.
This drives me to a Mary Oliver poem, encouraging us to remember. It is called Don’t Hesitate.
“If you suddenly and unexpectedly feel joy, don’t hesitate. Give in to it. There are plenty of lives and whole towns destroyed or about to be. We are not wise, and not very often kind. And much can never be redeemed. Still life has some possibility left. Perhaps this is its way of fighting back, that sometimes something happened better than all the riches or power in the world. It could be anything, but very likely you notice it in the instant when love begins. Anyway, that’s often the case. Anyway, whatever it is, don’t be afraid of its plenty. Joy is not made to be a crumb.”
Remember: in our telling of God’s story, in the beginning there was a formless and desolate void. God’s first words are “Let there be light.” God sees that light is good, and God keeps on creating and creating and creating. God still does. Deep in the basement of time, at all moments of creation, and even now, God’s Word echoes. Let there be… light, life, love, forgiveness, grace. Can we be God’s children, lean in, and silence our own noise and to hear that? What God done has for us lately is… Everything. To believe is to begin. That is the first full sentence of faith.
Emmanuel Episcopal Church, Greenwood, Virginia
Proper 12, Year B
July 25, 2021
Cause I try, and I try, and I try,
I can’t get no. No, no, no.
Satisfaction, the Rolling Stones classic rock tome makes this important observation. The harder we try to find satisfaction, the farther away it seems to be. Such is the paradox of being human.
I wonder if Jeff Bezos is satisfied this week. The Amazon billionaire turned rocket man went to space cost him somewhere north of $19 million dollars to spend five weightless minutes. That is $3.8 million per minute, or $63,333 per second for that… “achievement.” When they landed in a Texas desert, Bezos got out of the craft, put on a big ole cowboy hat, and said a few words. While I am sure his flight helped with some research, employed some folks, the adventure burned 902,000 pounds of fuel. The claim is that there was no carbon emissions for the flight, but the production, transportation, and storage of that much liquified natural gas fuel begs that question.
I wonder if Richard Branson is satisfied following his Space X flight into a short while before Branson’s. He only got three minutes of weightlessness and has not revealed what it cost, but they are talking reservations for future flights at $250,000 per person. His vehicle is more plane-like rather than a rocket, so that may have some future applications. I don’t know.
Satisfaction is different for different people, I guess, and people are free to do what they wish, but the whole thing looks like a race to fill some emptiness of spirit, to make some sort of power statement, or find a new frontier to dominate as they have seemingly conquered the world of commerce and industry already.
Satisfaction can be understood as the state of contentment. What does that require? Perhaps the bar need not be so high, so complicated, or so costly?
We get a glance into the quest for satisfaction in our lessons for today. King David, the Mac Daddy of the Old Testament, the accomplished statesman, warrior, and empire builder finds himself seeking some other satisfaction. In the painfully detailed Bathsheba incident, he spies another man’s spouse from his roof top perch, while his people are out at war. David exercises his power and might to bring her into his chambers. When she reveals that she is with child, David tries to cover the whole thing up, leading to the calculated murder of Bathsheba’s husband, General Uriah. David’s fall from grace, favor, and fortune is thundering. He hits hard. And from then on, his life, his reign, and his spirit crumbles. The child of that sin dies. His eldest son rebels against him, and is killed in that same rebellion. Israel, the great hope for a holy kingdom falls with him. There was no satisfaction.
In absolute contrast, we hear John’s version the feeding of the five thousand story. This is the only story that we find in all four gospels. The details are all remarkably similar. There are hordes of people following Jesus. They want to be healed and helped. They want to accept his invitation to abide in the Kingdom of God, though their understanding of what that is… is a bit vague at first. You know how it goes, it gets late, and folks get hungry. There is a good bit of chaos and complaining. A little boy appears with five loaves and two fish. Jesus tells everyone to sit down, as he takes the loaves, blesses them, breaks them open, and all are fed. And get this: “When all were satisfied, he told his disciples to gather up the leftovers. They filed twelve baskets. There was enough. There was plenty. There was more than they could eat.
All were satisfied. They encountered tangible experience and reality of God’s Kingdom, right there and then. Whatever Jesus was connected to, they want in on that. But as the only model they had for leadership was a monarchy of dominance, they sought to take him, by force if necessary, and make him king. As is the way feeble visioned humanity, they got it, but then, they didn’t get it. Jesus slips away and retreats, as this is not the kind of reign he will fulfill. He does not play earthly power games as a way to God. When anyone dominates, someone else is dominated. That did not work out so well for David. Later, Jesus is praised as great David’s greater son. And how. Satisfaction happens when the power of love is ultimate, when all are fed, all are loved, and, all are saved, finally, from our worst power hungry, self-serving, and empty quests for domination.
The novelist and critic Samuel Butler observed that “People in general are equally horrified at hearing the Christian religion doubted, as they are at seeing it practiced.” To which theologian G.K. Chesterton added “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried.” Indeed, it is really hard to see through the lenses our world sets up as filters for what is real and life giving; that is what the Rolling Stones decry as no satisfaction.
Saint Paul steers us this way: “I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.
There is one Way to satisfaction. One Truth. One God. One love.
It will not come through holding office, making some kind of conquest, banking a few billion dollars, or a finding few minutes of weightlessness in space. Satisfaction comes when God’s abundant love is known, shared, and celebrated. Satisfaction guaranteed. Amen.
Emmanuel Episcopal Church, Greenwood, Virginia
Proper 9, Year B
July 4, 2021
In a mere sixty days, it will be time to awaken the nation. We have a ritual for game day. I have a big red G flag that I fly proudly. We prepare special foods. We decorate the house. We wear special clothes. We sing special songs. We chant special chants. In a mere sixty days, it will be time to awaken the “Bulldog Nation.”
For the uninitiated, I am speaking the University of Georgia Bulldogs football team. I grew up right by the campus in Athens. My father taught there for thirty-five years. Our family has had season tickets for more than forty years. Ever since I can remember, fall Saturdays have been reserved for game day. Some of you share passions for other teams. To each her own.
If I am fortunate enough to be in town, I go to the massive cathedral of SEC football. I go to tailgate party feasts. I go to the “Dawg Walk” when the team processes into at the stadium hours before game time. I get in my pew in time to see the Redcoat Marching band spell out G.E.O.R.G.I.A. on the field while playing Glory, Glory to Old Georgia before the team takes the field. We tend to win, but the National Championship has eluded us since 1980. I went to every home game that season. I can still name the players.
For the life of me, it all sounds like an Easter church service. Special clothes, food, hymns, chants and other ritual. More than one doctoral dissertation has been written on college football as modern religion. But we have to remember that these are young men who fumble and drop passes sometimes. Coaches are not perfect. Our devotion to our cause is not ultimate or life giving. Fandom may look religious, but life does not depend on a game. It is important for us remember that.
Incidentally, my father played football for Virginia from 1958-1961. They lost all but one of their first year Cavalyearling games in 1958. In 1959 and 1960, they lost twenty straight. In his fourth year they ended a 28 game Cavalier losing streak which was a dubious record at the time. That year they won four of ten games. Thus, the potential and reality of defeat is part of my DNA. If football is religion, it is a bad one.
As you all know, today is a game day for America. We celebrate the birth of the American Idea, wearing our team colors, feasting on grilled food, singing patriotic songs, and cheering with parades and fireworks. My devotion to our nation is strong, and the national flag is flying at our home. Many have given much more than I to preserve the best of American ideals. And we owe them deep gratitude.
And yet, today is also Sunday, the day on which we remember and celebrate our ultimate devotion. The cross stands above the flag, reminding us that we are but one nation in the Kingdom of God. It is important for us remember that too.
Not without coincidence, the lesson from Second Samuel is all about the formation of a nation: Israel. This is not the modern country of Israel’s founding, it is the establishment of an idea, a nation devoted to God and God alone. The narrative is prescient and powerful. David, who will be the greatest leader of that nation, ever, makes a covenant, a promise to lead faithfully with the people, but more importantly to God. In doing so he is a uniter, bringing people of differing religious factions together for good. All is well. Until it is not. David will come to abuse his power. Subsequent leaders will go their own way. Corruption and greed do their worst. Eventually they all fail. The nation fails too. As nations are constructs of human design, they are never perfect, though they may aspire to the best of ideals. In 586 BCE, the Assyrians and Babylonians wipe out Jerusalem and take them into slavery. While they attempt form again after hundreds of years, it never really works to be a nation and practice faith in perfect harmony.
When God takes human form in Jesus, the people are under the thumb of an elite religious ruling class and the militaristic empire of Rome. As Jesus challenges the powers that be as greedy, self-centered, and oppressive, he gets run out of his own home town. Unfazed, Jesus goes to other towns and villages, and sends his disciples two by two to go tell the story of God as loving, forgiving, and just for all people. He does not hand out jerseys. They are not going out to conquer a foe. They are to take nothing, and depend on the kindness of those they serve. If that doesn’t work, he tells them, they are to shake it off are to keep on keeping on. And when they do, they bring healing and help to hurting people no matter their nation, religion, or station in life. That is what God does.
In this very parish, during World War II, the rector was a known and avowed pacifist. On a Sunday in 1942, The Rev. H Lee Marston processed down the aisle and when he turned to face the congregation, he saw a giant American flag hanging from the middle of balcony where the organ is today. Promptly and with few words, he dismissed the congregation and left the building. He held fast and proclaimed that the parish would worship God and not America. That took courage, and showed deep conviction. While we have an American flag in our sanctuary, it is a symbol, not an idol. We have an Episcopal Church flag here too. It is a symbol, not an idol. There are no adjectives before the word Christian, neither American nor Episcopalian. God does not do boundaries or play favorites.
Thomas Jefferson once said “I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just; that his justice cannot sleep forever.” He was speaking of slavery which would not be abolished for another 82 years. It is hard to question Jefferson’s patriotism, and yet his words stand as fair warning that striving for a more perfect union does not make us perfect. Perfection is God alone.
The American idea is worthy of celebration to be sure, but liberty and justice for all does not happen just because we say it. We have to remember that God calls people, not nations to embody God’s love. Liberty and justice for all happens when people, people like us, awaken to seek and serve God’s power, God’s kingdom, God’s glory. Glory, glory to God first and forever. Amen.
Emmanuel Episcopal Church, Greenwood, Virginia
Proper 8, Year B
June 27, 2021
I am forever grateful for a number of phrases we use in the south that speak far beyond the few words they utilize. “Bless your heart.” “She’s just not right.” “He’s a mess.” You can purchase signs, doormats, and dish towels that say: “In our family we do not hide crazy. We parade it on the front porch and give it some sweet tea.” Mostly, such things are said out of love or as a way not to dismiss the human behind questionable behavior. I appreciate these phrases as nuanced theological statements as well, not as excuse for outright cruelty or bigotry, but as acknowledgement that there is little bit of crazy in all of us. Life is messy.
Yes, sir, there is a good bit of crazy mess out there these days. As we stumble out of this pandemic, lots and lots of things are opening up again. We can dine indoors at restaurants, go to parties, send kids to camp, and wander around mask free in the grocery store. At the same time, there has been a precipitous rise in gun violence, road rage, and seemingly random assaults in grocery stores, convenience stores, and gas stations. We may be reopening but the new normal includes free floating anxiety, volatility, and misplaced anger.
It does not require deep psychological analysis to identify the source of this messed up behavior. We have endured a traumatic event. It may have been more like a slow drip than a sudden impact, but the effects are real and lasting. My friend, Kevin, is a psychiatrist who works with soldiers suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Through wartime stresses they have become ever aware of their mortality, deeply suspicious of others, hyper alert, and constantly on guard. His take is that living with a pandemic checks most all of those boxes in the volatile behaviors we are seeing. His patients become his patients because they have come home, just tried really hard to be normal, only to revert to their war-scarred brain unexpectedly. His work is focused on helping them tell their stories, write about what happened to them, and even, with the help of some Nashville song writers, to sing about it.
We read from the relatively obscure book of Lamentations today, and this book was written when the Israelites were off in exile, in slavery in Babylon. It is all about trauma and grief. Even as they return to their homeland, they continued to tell their story, the whole story, to ask God the hard questions of why, and to find comfort together, again, in being and belonging together. The ancients knew that story telling was the best way to acknowledge grief, loss, and begin to rebuild their lives.
We are not very good at remembering. The recent acrimony about telling the story of American slavery and its racist tentacles is white hot right now. My people participated in some of that regrettable story, and I suspect that some of you share in that truth too. There is confusion among many that telling the whole story is about blame or shame. It is not. Telling the story is about doing what the Israelites did: acknowledging grief, loss, and beginning to seek a better way forward. We are not good at this right now.
Like my friend Kevin’s soldiers, it looks like, for all the world, that we are coping with regathering in trying really hard just to be normal again. Instead of whistling past the graveyard of so much loss, we need to remember and tell the story of those who died, and of missing out on vital experiences: funerals, weddings, school years, graduations, family and holiday gatherings. We did not skip eighteen months of living. We spent those months seeing and fearing our fragile mortality, suspicious of who has it and how it spreads, hyper alert to be safe, and constantly on guard. That is exhausting and we need to take a collective deep breath and speak those truths. This is one way church can help.
This week’s gospel is a long one, which is completely atypical for Mark’s style of telling the story. He is a just the facts kind of guy, but this packet of stories must have been really important to his listeners for him to go into so much detail. And these stories are really messy. Jesus meets a rabbi, Jairus, whose daughter is deathly ill. As Jairus pleads for his help, we can hear his parental desperation. As he kneels before Jesus, he crosses a line rendering himself unclean according to strict Jewish purity laws. As Jesus heads off to help, he is interrupted as people are pushing in on him. And when the bleeding woman touches him, he, too, is rendered unclean.
Instead of running off to take on cleansing ritual before going back to work, Jesus stays present in the chaos. He takes time to hear the woman’s story and tells her that her faith has made her well. By this time, word comes that Jairus’s daughter has died. Nevertheless, Jesus stays with it. He goes to the child, and takes her by the hand. The whole story is a hot mess of boundary crossing: touching an untouchable, touching a woman not your wife, and touching a dead body. He speaks to the dead little girl, telling her to arise, and she does. The text says that people were amazed. What it does not say is that they were appalled, but we find that our later.
All of this speaks straight into where we may find ourselves in this time and place. Jesus makes no effort to whitewash pain and suffering. He does not encourage a “just get over” it kind of amnesia. He looks into the deep need to show what God does with grief and loss. God redeems it. God does not deny it or sweep the suffering under the rug. God gets down in the mess with us and helps us arise and be made new.
In these instances, Jesus provides a cure. But as we know, all cure is temporary. The woman’s hemorrhage stopped. The little girl lived. Those things happened for a time, but not forever. But what Jesus shows is how healing happens. Healing happens in acknowledging the suffering, feeling the grief, living with the messy reality, and telling the whole story.
I love nuanced southern sayings, but I am not a fan of dismissive or trite lines to explain away life’s messiness. “Everything happens for a reason.” “God will never give us anything we can’t handle.” “Thoughts and prayers, hashtag blessed.” Nope, we do not get back to normal and just get over grief. Ever. We can frame it, learn from it, and grow from it, but it is never neat and clean. God can be found in the love that surrounds us, the person who listens, and in the truth telling of loss, but grief does not go away. It becomes part of our story.
There is one more detail Mark includes at the end. Instead of carrying Jesus off on their shoulders to celebrate his godly miraculous powers, Jesus turns the attention back to the child. He says “give her something to eat.” Eucharist. Share the feast of life here and now. Take care of her. Take care of each other. Life may be messy, but we gotta eat. And when we do that, we come together, we belong, we take our place at the table, we say our prayers, we tell our stories, and healing happens. Amen.
The Rev. John Thomas is Rector of Emmanuel Episcopal Church, Greenwood