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
March 28, 2021
Follow your passion. That bit of self-help advice is a consistent theme as we seek our way in this world. Graduates in this spring season will hear variations on this theme in commencement addresses as someone of note attempts to help them launch to whatever is next for them. Passion is what drives us. Passion is what moves us. But do we ever stop and think about what passion really means?
The word entered our language from the Latin word meaning to suffer. As language tends to do, especially when the root is unpleasant, the word passion has been whitewashed to indicate a strong emotional feeling or commitment. Given the original meaning, telling people to follow their passion is better advice than the cliché it has become.
There is a great line in the movie, The Princess Bride where Wesley, a main character, tells Princess Buttercup: “Life is suffering, highness, any who tells you otherwise is trying to sell you something.” And yet, for the rest of the story, the two characters continue to suffer and struggle out of a deepening love for one another. The story is a comedy, which Carol Burnette one quipped is tragedy plus time.
We do not need to be reminded about suffering. Suffering has been front and center with a global pandemic, children separated from families at our borders, two mass shootings in the past week, and the now standard and predictable divide of partisans pointing fingers and gridlocking thoughtful and compassionate solutions. There is that root word again. Compassion means, literally, to suffer with.
In stark contrast were are bathed in beauty too. Spring is happening in this particularly verdant part of creation. Healing and help is happening as folks are being vaccinated through the collaborative efforts of science, industry, and health care providers. Folks are cautious, but gathering again as they feel more safe in doing so. Houston, Texas is reports that traffic is really bad again, touting that as a blessing to go with a curse.
Today is Passion Sunday. It all starts out wonderful. Jesus comes to Jerusalem and is welcomed as a hero. He has embodied compassion for them. The crowds turn out because they want to believe Jesus will overturn an oppressive regime and set the world right. But he shows up on a donkey, not in a horse drawn chariot like all the good conquerors do. And very soon, all turns dark as the powers that be act out of fear, blaming Jesus for stirring up the people, and seeking to silence his threat to their tightly held control. His own people deny Jesus, run off, or join the crowd in screaming “Crucify him,” all because things do not go as they expected, they wanted and they needed. We are not as removed from the story as we might like to think.
As we know, this is only part of the story. It is more appealing to skip ahead to Easter, but all that goodness does not come without passion, without suffering. We have to go there on the way to glory.
Is there anything worth anything in life that is not experienced without some measure of suffering? Loving another person enough to put their needs ahead of our own? Birthing a child? Raising a child? Finding our own path through failure at following the wrong ones? Passion is not a feel-good emotion. It is a hard scrabble commitment to knowing what is worth suffering for. In the end, love is not a feeling, it is an action and a decision.
Jesus suffers on the cross to show us that even in the face of the worst fate imaginable, even in the face of hate, shame, and blame, Love does not back down or leave us hanging. God’s action, God’s decision is to love us, anyway.
The whole journey of this Holy Week walks us through the unvarnished Truth. Life can be terrible and filled with pain, loss, and suffering. Life can be amazing, glorious, and beautiful. Both of these things are true. To deny one negates the other. The secret of life not to follow our passion, it is to live in the light of God’s Passion for us. At the cross, Jesus shows is that nothing else in this world holds power over Passion, Compassion, and Love. Amen.
March 14, 2021
“Your wife called. She needs you to come home now.”
Sue, the parish secretary, said this in the hallway outside my office because she did not want to yell that down the hall. My phone was not hooked up yet because I had not been in my first parish job for much more than a week. The cigarette bounced on her lips as she said it while smoking hands free. She smirked a little, so I knew it was not a tragic “come home now.” We were working on our new house, and I assumed that she needed me to pick out a paint color or something. We were newly married, and still collaborated on such matters. Fortunately, we lived two miles from our new parish.
When I arrived, Janice was visibly upset, flustered, and, clearly, anxious. Now this is a woman who, at the time, took care of premature babies in the intensive care. She could intubate, insert a chest tube, and start a pic line in any sized patient. This was a woman who climbed into helicopters and flew to outlying medical centers to retrieve sick newborns and keep them stable long enough to get to the neonatal unit. What in the world?
Fighting back tears, she said, “I saw a snake on our front porch.” Though I wanted to laugh, I did not. We were newly married after all. She had told me that she was terrified of snakes. This was not the time to tell her that is called Ophidiophobia. Like many phobias it is irrational. As I have acrophobia, a fear of heights, in the same irrational way, I got it. She wanted me to find the snake and kill it or call the realtor and list the house for sale. It turned out that it was a baby rat snake, but no amount of telling her that those are the “good” kind of snakes would help. While calm returned with the passage of time, that visceral fear remains to this day.
The wandering Israelites had snake troubles too. Their fears were real because most of the snakes they met in the desert were not the “good” kind. People were dying from poisonous snake bites and they begged Moses to get God to intervene. We cannot help but think that Moses was tiring of them using him like God’s bellhop. They had already complained that there was no food, only to complete the sentence with the fact that they detested “this miserable food.” While they had been freed from slavery in Egypt, delivered from the wrath of Pharoah’s army, escaped through the parted Red Sea, been given water to drink, and manna from heaven to eat, their response seems to be yeah, Moses, but what have you done for us lately. Get God on this right away.
The story has a mythic quality that we often find in the most ancient stories. These stories were told over and over around campfires, even with wide-eyed children listening, long before they were written down. Moses fashions a bronze image of two staring serpents intertwined around a long staff. And, as the story goes, anyone who got snakebit was to look into the eyes of the bronze serpent and they would recover. From there, the story moves on, and we never hear if it worked, but this early form of aversion therapy brought calm to the hysteria, and more than likely, it reminded folks to be careful in the desert. As I learned when I visited there, most things that crawl and slither in the desert are deadly.
Some stories are true as told. Good stories, even if embellished or exaggerated, are just as true, because they tell us something about ourselves. Going back to the beginning story in Eden, the snake represents the insipient craftiness of human sin. In that story, the serpent tempts Adam and Eve to believe that they can eat the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil and become all knowing and all seeing, just like God. When they give it a go, they become aware that they are naked (or nekkid as we say in the South), and they left to wander outside of paradise.
When Moses sets up the bronze serpent, God’s people are put in mind of that beginning story as well as their current plight. They cannot help but be reminded of their sin, their self-will run rampant, and maybe, just maybe, they might substitute gratitude for grumbling. They have a long way to go, yet, but whining is lousy fuel for a journey with God.
It is an ancient story, but it is true to our own journey with God. The first step is to remember that we are not all knowing and all seeing. It is important to look our fears and sins in the face of them to be more honest, more real, and humbled before our powerlessness. This is not a one-and-done thing. It is an everyday thing. It is a lifetime journey of becoming.
That bad news is that we will never get it right. We will swing and miss more times than we get a hit. When John’s gospel has Jesus giving a summation of the journey, Jesus goes right back to staring the slithery and sliminess of our nature in the face, referring back to Moses and his whiners in the desert. But then Jesus delivers a walk off home run shot we know well as John 3:16. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” We know that one from the rainbow haired guy who used to hold up the placards in sports stadiums. Remember him? Unfortunately, that passage is often leveraged against anyone who does not believe, anyone who doubts, or dares ask questions. Can we really say that we believe 100% all of the time?
While John 3:16 is good news, it is conditional and it not the whole thought Jesus delivers the completion of that statement comes in 3:17. “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved” that is, put right again. The world will not get more right because we work harder, pray more earnestly, or let that person cut in line at the grocery store. The world gets more right because Jesus does not point fingers and tell us we are bad. We do that to ourselves and others. The world gets right as Jesus is lifted up on a cross, staring us all in the face, and showing us the lengths to which God will go to love us. Rainbow hair man should have pointed to 3:16 and 3:17. Think of all the seekers and searchers that might have been welcomed with the full text. Alas, Rainbow man is now in jail for kidnapping and assault. Apparently, his now ex-wife, stood in the wrong place with the sign and he lost his temper. Things went downhill from there. A little John 3:17 might have helped him too.
In the Book of Kings, we read that in a fit of graven image reform, King Hezekiah had Moses’ bronze snake pole destroyed. It seems folks were taking the symbol too literally and worshipping before it a bit too enthusiastically. Nevertheless, that symbol remains in what we know as the medical symbol. The snakes represent the judicious use of potent medicine and their shedding of skin represents the body’s ability to grow anew and heal. The COVID vaccine many have had, and we all need to get, helps teach our body’s immune system to recognize and stop the beast before it can take hold. Recognizing the form of the very thing that can make us ill, or kill us, is then, leveraged for good. The pain of a needle prick is a saving grace.
Even though we are God’s body, we are not immune from fear, pain, anxiety, and all the rest. Sometimes, we are so human, it hurts. There is joy in there too. Lots of it. And joy is just as potent as pain. In the end, our physical life is a temporary condition, just as was God’s earthly life in Jesus. When our time comes, we will get the call. Come home now… where perfect Love casts out all fear -- for good. Amen.
March 7, 2021
For some of you, who have encouraged, aided and abetted my latest obsession, the starting place of this sermon will come as no surprise. I am speaking of my newly acquired devotion for the television series, Ted Lasso. You can, and should, watch it for yourself. It can be streamed on Apple TV. The first week’s subscription to that streaming service is free and you can watch all ten half-hour episodes in a week, or even a few days. I am not being compensated for this endorsement, but we might consider that as an alternate source of revenue for the parish someday.
Ted Lasso is about a successful American Football coach from nowhere in Kansas who wins a national title and, is then recruited to coach an English Premiere League Soccer Team in London. To say that the Brits are maniacal fans for soccer is an understatement. They make any American football fandom seem timid at best. The fans are bewildered by management’s choice and they are none too kind to Coach Lasso, hurtling constant insults as only the British do so well. At his first press conference, Lasso proclaims that he is excited to be there, but says they could fill two whole internets with what he does not know about soccer. All through the whole first season, he is learning the rules.
But Lasso is indefatigable. He is generous and loving and forgiving. He makes friends with many who have no interest in liking him. He may not know soccer, but he knows people. Though everyone underestimates Coach Lasso, together with the unwitting participation of so many great characters, he leads the team to deep growth and some athletic success. To the aging and injured former star, he is loyal and understanding. To the upstart truly gifted but hot-headed star, he gives gentle lessons in humility. When he consults the lowly and picked on equipment manager for strategy, he shares and gives power to one who is neglected and overlooked. While I could fill this sermon with Ted Lasso-isms, and analyze each episode as a master stroke of writing and truly soothing balm for our contentious times, I will save that for a forum series in the future. Whereas in 2020, I was consumed with the character and generosity of Dolly Parton (and I still am), in 2021 I am digging into Ted Lasso and its lead actor and writer, Jason Sudekis.
So, is Coach Lasso sounding familiar? He comes from nowhere, meets people where they are, responds to anger and threats with gentleness and self-control. He surprises everyone with his wisdom and ability to bring people along with him. He tells the truth even when it hurts, and sacrifices fame and glory to make life better for all he encounters. He puts up one sign in the locker room and invites others to live into its simple encouragement: “Believe.” He is a Christ-like figure, for sure.
Of course, Lasso is not Jesus. He is going through a divorce and trying hard to be a good father to a kid who is half way across the world. But the Lasso character creates an archetype that is largely missing our self-obsessed culture, and all that goes with the worship of fame, fortune, and winning at all costs. He is a reluctant, self-deprecating, self-sacrificing hero, but he is no pushover.
This is much like the Jesus we come to know in the gospels. What stands out about Jesus against our vast human history of power, vainglory, and achievement, is that God’s way is not always our way. Jesus is like none other. He is human and divine. He upends all preconceived notions, and calls everyone, everyone, to God’s almighty love.
Of all of the passages in the gospels, the story of Jesus turning over the tables and driving the people out of the Temple courtyard, we hear of an atypical raging Jesus. Like nowhere else, he is visibly angry. This is not Gentle Jesus Meek and Mild hymn, or the old Sunday School poem kids used to memorize. This is a picture of Jesus we do not find in stained glass. This is a story we only tell well into Lent because, in this time, we are challenged to contemplate the hard truths as well as the softer ones.
As we look into the Temple incident, beyond what it looks like on the surface, we discover that Jesus has good reason for some righteous anger. The courtyard of the Temple was a place where folks could buy and sell animals for ritual sacrifice. A big Temple event looked more like a slaughter house than a worship service. Rich folks sought to be more holy in offering lambs or fat cattle. In return for their largesse, they got to go inside and get close. The poor were relegated to the outside where the best they could offer were doves or pigeons. Of course, all of the sacrificed critters had to be “without blemish,” meeting certain standards of, you guessed it, the sellers of critters in cahoots with the priests. Thus, the people get fleeced. They had to pay a Temple Tax too, but they could not do it with regular currency, so they had to exchange it for Temple approved currency, thus, the money changers made a market with large margins of markup, again, in cahoots with the priests
While the Temple was built to the glory of God, it had long strayed from its mission, becoming an idol to be worshipped, threatening folks with an angry God who demands sacrifice. This is why Jesus let them have it. This tirade gets him into trouble because, well, follow the money.
What Jesus insists that God is not the resident of a building. God is not most accessible to the well-heeled. That old model was steeped in pagan sacrifice. What Jesus comes to do is offer himself for the world with the central sacrifice: unconditional love. Jesus shows God is not to be used for a scheme, or coopted to make some better than others. As God, Jesus is everywhere and for everyone. He becomes the Temple through which we come closer to God.
We see all kinds of anger these days. I do not need to enumerate the power of rage to divide and destroy our bonds of affection. Self-serving anger is a major stumbling block insofar was it consumes us in judging others. Jesus will show us and tell us, that judgement is for God, not us. But there are times when God’s cause of love need our anger energy to hold fast to what is good and of God.
Returning to Ted Lasso for a moment, at one point in the show, Ted reflects on people who have under estimated him for his entire life. And it used to bother him, he says, until one day he saw a quotation from Walt Whitman on the walls of his kid’s school. “Be curious not judgmental.” Then he realized that all those folks putting him down were not curious. They thought they knew everything and had everything figured out, “so they judged everything and judged everyone.” Then he says that “if they were curious, they would have asked questions.”
In our gospel today, we might like to look past the unpleasantness, and figure that Jesus was having a bad day, or throw judgement on the priests and on all religion as corrupt. But if we are curious, we might ask questions like “What is our role in going along to please others?” “What does God desire for God’s people?” “How can I help?” Getting riled up is not a bad thing, it is just a tricky thing. When we get there – and we should - it is good to ask questions and consider how can we be curious and not judgmental. Amen.
The Rev. John Thomas is Rector of Emmanuel Episcopal Church, Greenwood