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
Lent IV, Year C
March 27, 2022
It is an oldie and a goodie, this parable of the Prodigal Son. Church folks know it well. It is about the kid who takes an early withdrawal on his inheritance, takes off to Vegas and blows the whole wad. Once he is reduced to homelessness, he decides to go home and ask to work for his father for minimum wage. But the father, takes him in, cleans him up, and throws a big party for his return. But the older brother, the one who stayed back on the farm and did his chores dutifully, objects strenuously, to which the father says “get over yourself, your brother was lost, destined to die, but here he is: found, alive, we are preparing a feast.”
But I want to go back to some particulars in the middle of the story. After the so stated period of “dissolute living,” there is a famine and jobs are scarce, but the younger brother is lucky to get a job feeding pigs. Of course, the Jews hearing this story did not keep or eat pigs. In fact, for them, touching a pig rendered them unclean before God, and one who did so had to undergo a ritual of purification before the priests, and then, rejoin their community. But the younger son was hungry and, as the text says: no one gave him anything. Back home, even the poorest of the poor were given something as a matter of decency and respect for God, if not the beggar. Two strikes.
But then, or as the text says “when he came to himself” [comma] he decides to go home, confess his sin, and accept the consequences. It is a curious phrase “he came to himself [comma].” The comma is a small and underappreciated centerpiece here. A comma is a punctuation mark, indicating a pause between parts of a sentence. (It is also used to separate items in a list and to mark the place of thousands in a large numeral, but that is not the case here). Neither Ancient Hebrew, nor Biblical Greek has commas, or periods, or question marks. The sense of the sentence tells you what to do. Where we put a comma, they might well just start another line for emphasis. All this is to say, that there is a pause there. When he came to himself, pause, there is moment to think, to notice, to give silence to a moment of realization.
True, I am a grammar nerd, but I read this comma as significant. The pause might just need to sit there, echoing in our imagination for a bit. How does he come to himself? How do we come to ourselves? Does the necessity of “coming to” happen all at once, through a process, or just a flash of holy hope in the depths of despair? The philosopher and theologian Soren Kierkegaard defines sin as the despairing refusal to be ourselves. He goes on to say that getting to that despairing place is a not necessarily a bad thing, but if we stay there, stuck there, we are never fully alive.
This is where the story gets personal for this sinner. I can bear witness to what that comma was in my own experience. Without getting into the gory detail, I can say that I thought I had years ago taken my place on the wagon of sobriety. I had recognized that I was not one who can drink alcohol. While many can, I cannot. Whether this is genetic or situational is a matter of debate, but the chemical nature of dependency means my brain, with alcohol, flips switches that bypass the off button. The disease of alcoholism is fatal when left unchecked. I had been on the wagon, but I had never really taken my seat, put on a seat belt, and taken it slowly. Instead, hung my feet off the sides, and drove too fast across some really uneven ground, and, as a result, fell hard. I had talked with my family too much and not enough. On a morning in late September, I sat on the floor of our living room and talked to the dogs. “I surrender.” I felt really physically, emotionally, and spiritually horrible. But then, I felt really good, even right there in the horrible. I made some difficult phone calls. Others stepped up and gave me space to go for help. Janice was supportive and anxious and weary. Her journey is her story to tell. There have been many angels along the way. I guess I had begun to come to myself [comma].
When I check myself into residential treatment, I walked into a lobby, gave my name, and went back through an empty dining room to a conference room. With the nurse and clinical director, I answered a bunch of questions, signed a bunch of papers, answered the same questions again, and was told that the house manager would meet me in the dining room. Anxious, ashamed, nervous, and emotionally raw, I walked out into the dining room, and found the table to be full. People were eating, talking, and laughing… a lot. One woman said, “I guess you are new. You are in the right place. We can help.” Apparently, I interrupted a staff meeting as folks introduced themselves one by one. One guy put his fork down, grabbed my suitcase, and showed me to my room. The woman who had welcomed gave me a brief tour: the snack room, the laundry room, and the meeting rooms. Then, she got me some lunch, took me to the dining room, and set a place for me at the table. I asked her how long she had worked there. She laughed and so did the others. “We are here for treatment, just like you. You may feel awful right now. We have been where you are. It gets better” [comma]
It got better. It still does. I experienced coming to myself not as some gargantuan self-actualized achievement, rather as a real, complete, and unconditional surrender, giving up, and letting God welcome me back to me, welcoming me home. [comma]. And you all did the same.
It’s funny how we call today’s gospel the story of the Prodigal Son. Jesus never calls it that. The word prodigal is a describing word for one who spends money or resources freely; one who is extravagant. True enough, the younger son does some expensive dissolute living, but he does not die. He comes to himself and goes home where his father welcomes him, cleans him up, and throws a big feast to celebrate. The father is not duped. He knows his child, his children, and he loves them beyond ways words or actions can measure. With no promise of perfection or smooth sailing for the rest of time, he seizes a moment, celebrates the son’s return, and shows him what love does.
The son is not a hero because he left and came back. The older brother is not a hero because he never left home. The hero is the father’s unwavering and unchanging love for all of them. Some might call the father one who spends resources freely; one who is extravagant. [comma]
This is a story of the prodigal alright, but not the Prodigal Son so much as the Prodigal Father who welcomes the one who ran off, the one who stayed home, and everyone he can find, making a place at the table, so we, too, can come to ourselves [comma] and find our way home.
Emmanuel Episcopal Church, Greenwood, Virginia
Lent III, Year C
March 20, 2022
We were getting ready for the business portion of our weekly Staff Meeting at Emmanuel last week, and I asked everyone what their favorite movie was. I will not give up my colleagues, but I said one of my favorites is O Brother, Where Art Thou, (starring George Clooney) which is a stylized version of Homer’s epic Odyssey tale, set in the 1930s as the four main characters break out of prison. I could go on about that film, its genius, its wit, and its extended metaphor. I can quote from it extensively, but we can save that for coffee hour. Then I was telling somebody else about the choices, and she said, “What is it with men, and prison movies?” Then I thought about it and remembered that I love Raising Arizona (Nicholas Cage) which also begins in a prison, and then there’s the Great Escape (Steve McQueen), another classic, and then I went and watched Cool Hand Luke (Paul Newman), but really, the best prison movie men seem to love is The Shawshank Redemption (Morgan Freeman and Tim Robins). There are so many great lines there, so many metaphors for life, so many so excellent expositions of Lenten themes. My next book shall be entitled: Lent at the Movies, featuring all of the above.
I stayed up way too late that night, watching Shawshank again. And so many lines struck me. A recurring theme is when Red, the main character, goes before the Parole Board. They ask him the same question each time. “Do feel you have been rehabilitated? Ready to reenter society?” Red answers “Yes, sir,” and each time, year after year, Red’s form is stamped “Rejected.” Near the end of the film, he goes before the board again, and he is asked the same question: “Do feel you have been rehabilitated?” And he says the following:
Rehabilitated? Well, now, let me see. You know, I don’t have any idea what that means. I know what you think it means, sonny. To me, it’s just a made-up word. A politician’s word, sonny, so young fellas like yourself can wear a suit and a tie and have a job. What do you really want to know? Am I sorry for what I did? There’s not a day goes by I don’t feel regret. Not because I’m in here. Because you think I should. I look back on the way I was then. A young, stupid kid who committed that terrible crime. I want to talk to him. I want to try to talk some sense to him. Tell him the way things are. But I can’t. That kid’s long gone and this old man’s all that’s left. I got to live with that. Rehabilitated? That’s just a [B.S.] word. So, you go on and stamp your form, sonny, and stop wasting my time.
And, spoiler alert, Red is set free. Preachers love this movie, and with good reason.
In God’s relationship with humanity, and humanity’s relationship with God, there is always a tension between our broken-bless our hearts, hot mess selves, and the holiness, righteousness, and perfection our pandering selves attempt to curate to please the Almighty. We are apt to believe that God keeps score, that Church really has an attendance record that gets faxed to heaven, and that if we just did enough, prayed enough, kept our morning quiet time, read the Bible more, we will be good enough for God. All of that is the self-centered curation a type of prison we inhabit.
There are some who profess to feel none of that guilt, borderline of full-blown narcissists, who are sure that they are right, righteous, entitled, deserving, and worthy of admiration. These folks are not unsuccessful in this world, but they hurt people quite a lot, with heaps of self-justification as to why that is just fine. Such folks may have no use for God, or such a shallow view of God so as to use God like everyone else. They rely on cheap grace, their own wit, and a limited view of reality. The bad news is that this offense is on our rap sheet too. Same prison, different way of being there.
Somewhere in our sordid story of prison time, we resort to blame. We are the real victims! It is the system’s fault. Then warden, guards, and parole board are corrupt. And, when we are honest, we throw the blame on God for all sorts of random tragedies, some of which we perpetrate, doing so in the name of our own self-styled truth: “my truth” as we like to say.
When Jesus comes to us, he tackles all the tough reasons that lock us up. Like anything difficult, we are complicated. There is no simple answer or solution. Today, Jesus is asked about a couple of tragedies where innocent people suffered. He gives a partial answer, only, saying that we may feel better about such things, believing that those who suffered were somehow lower on the holy tote board, but that is not helpful. Nobody has a clean slate, and that should keep us humble. The right definition of humility is not just I am no good – it is I am no better than anyone else and I am no worse than anybody else either. The question of suffering never gets a good answer. It never has, except to say that God does not desire, require, or exempt us from suffering. The miracle is that God can use it, but that is not all that helpful if you are the one suffering while others are not.
Finally, he tells a parable. A man plants a fig tree. For three years, it bears no fruit. He tells the gardener to cut it down, but the gardener implores the man to give it another year. The gardener will tend it and feed it, and if it does not bear fruit, it will be cut down. This is both hopeful and grim. But Jesus never explains the story. He rarely does, so it is open to interpretation.
There is one more fact that his listeners were bound to know. Fig trees never produce fruit in their first three years. Thus, the gardener stacks the deck for success, asking for more time. All of a sudden, no matter how we seek to twist the metaphor, and label the parts, we are not hopeless. Hope is the connective between our mess and God’s glory. Hope is the winning ticket, and the get out of jail card, but unlike in Monopoly, Hope is not free from suffering. God suffers for us. God suffers because of us. And as Hope (another good name for God), God does not consign us to rot in solitary confinement. Turns out, we are not even in prison at all – only the prisons of our own making.
Back in prison, before his friend Andy escapes, Shawshank Red warns him: “hope is a dangerous thing. Hope can drive a man insane.” But Andy says, no, “hope is a good thing maybe even the best of things and good things never die.” And when Red finally gets free too, he heads off to find Andy, concluding: “it is a terrible thing to live in fear… Get busy living, or get busy dying… So, I hope”
We hope our way to freedom. Amen.
In spite of yesterday’s climatological slap in the face, we are getting close. I have begun to map my driving through Child’s Peach Orchard to go anywhere west of the church. There is nothing like seeing life rise in the orchards: blooms, bees, and babies. All of it. Every blossom tells us there will be strawberries, peaches, blackberries, apples, and grapes, all through the divine gathering of species and critters. We will feast on such things, but not just yet. This already but not yet time is an in-between time, and even in-between spaces are holy.
I have about a thousand pictures of the Grand Canyon, trying to capture a different kind in-between time and none of them do it justice. What looks like still life is not still at all as pressure and time and rock and rain wash a new land. Inevitably, we have to accept the fact that we cannot capture a moment in time. Sometimes, we have to put making art aside in order to be the art of life in all of its multisensory glory.
Walt Whitman uses word art to shape this idea. In his poem, Song of Myself, he says: “I believe a leaf of grass is no less than the journey-work of the stars.” Perspective, he claims, is everything. What we see depends on when, where, and how we look. In all matters, large and small, we are part of the picture too.
Luke’s Gospel today is word art, giving us look into Jesus, who is an eternity and a moment. Where he stands in this picture is crucial to placing ourselves in the picture. Jesus is at a wayside, a viewpoint on the Mount of Olives, looking east across a narrow valley to the walled, mountain top city of Jerusalem. We find all kinds of fortifications on mountaintops, but not many teeming cities. What makes Jerusalem particular is its strategic position with 360-degree views, one can see whatever is coming from Jerusalem. Just as important, it has a unique water source welling up beneath it.
Those who study civilizations know that the presence of plentiful fresh water is the first and most important need for groups of people to survive. The major cities of our country can be mapped as waypoints on waterways of sustenance, travel, and trade. Water is life.
Where Jesus stands in today’s story an unobstructed viewpoint. The place affords a panoramic eastern view of the ancient and modern city, then and now. The picture of that place on the front of your service bulletin for today comes from a Franciscan church built on the site of a Byzantine church, built on the site of a pagan shrine, where travelers marked their arrival, making offerings to what they believed were the local gods, seeking their favor.
From where Jesus stands, he sees Roman soldiers at the gates and on the parapets guarding, commanding, and flexing the muscle the empire they preserve. Jesus sees the grand towers of the Temple, the sacred center of Judaism, with its ornate ceremonies, animal sacrifice business, and lots of pious and elaborately bedecked religious leaders. Within the walls as well are a host of others come to trade, negotiate, and curry favor with all kinds of power.
Jesus has made clear that he goes there, and belongs there, at the symbolic and geographic center, the crossroads of religion, commerce, and empire. He is the Word of God, water crashing over the rocks of time, drawing us together in an ocean of God’s love.
The elite religious folks come out to meet Jesus, trying to redirect his flow. They tell Jesus that Herod wants to kill him. Herod is a local boy, a nominal Jew, who made a backroom deal with Rome to get appointed governor, biding his time with the Jews, waiting for Rome to snuff them out and give him a real kingdom to rule on his own. That will not go well for him, but the Romans want him to keep the peace and dispatch with any rabble rousing. Convenient that, religion leveraging amoral politics to wall off the threat to their way of life. Jesus dismisses Herod, likening him to a fox in the henhouse. Jesus is there for all of them, to the whole of Jerusalem, religion, empire, pagans all of them. He tells them God is not about domination, but about gathering. He wants to bring them together as a hen gathers her chicks. Where they see conflict, competition, and the physical structures of power, Jesus sees an orchard, fallow, but fertile.
In a preview of coming attractions, he tells them they will welcome him in God’s name, but it will not be all sweetness and kumbaya. He knows that principalities and powers work to preserve themselves at all cost. Their beliefs about power, authority, and control will be exposed for what they are: selfishness, greed, and bottomless ambition. Such things do not surrender quietly.
Modern-day Jerusalem is much like it was then. The structures are of ancient and insistent powers. On closer inspection, we may see glorious gold Muslim Dome of the Rock, the El Aqsa Mosque, The Western wall of the Temple - the so-called wailing wall - where Jews go to lament and hope for restoration. There are spires of Christian churches and immense Church of the Holy Sepulcher, literally built around, the place of Jesus’ crucifixion. That place is a teeming amalgam of Christianity: Eastern and Western traditions, reeking of incense and multi-lingual noise. In the background, there are modern structures of commerce national pride, with power lines, satellite dishes and skyscrapers. Police and soldiers are everywhere, not with spears, but with Uzi machine guns to keep the peace. Someone will have to explain to me the concept of arming and invading as peace keeping. Such things are ironic and sad misnomers. There is little secular peace in this view of humanity.
And yet, can we see the Holy humor in all of this? The political, cultural, and social intersection of East and West, the sacred spots of the three main monotheistic traditions all within five city blocks of one another? Crumbling structures of power built one on top of another? Jesus will show this to be a perfect place to begin setting things right. Love prevails, but not through right religion as righteousness, not with guns and bombs for national victory, and not in dividing the haves and the have nots in some twisted form of moral calculus. No. Love is not a battle to be won. It is a force that shapes all life and whatever goodness we see. If we look carefully, love gets its way, as surely as water carves the earth.
Of course, what we see depends on when, where, and how we look. In all matters, large and small, we are part of the picture too. Jesus stands at the crossroads and provides a complete overview. God is the Gatherer. Nothing stops God. Not the worst we are. Not the worst we do. Not the powers we put in place of God. We may not see this from our particular perch, but as sure as the water greens the grass, and shapes the rocks, Love shapes everything. This is the view Jesus sees, and helps us to see. And unlike all things, all moments, all of our worrying or wondering, God’s glorious gathering action is the best view we have of the Way home.
Mark Twain once said that a classic piece of literature is a book that everyone talks about, but no one ever reads. He placed the Bible at the top of his list of classics.
This does not mean that people do not know something about the Bible. The highly regarded pollster, George Barna, who happens to be an Episcopalian, has been tracking what he calls the “State of the Bible” for years (https://www.barna.com/research/sotb-2021/). His results are fascinating and sobering. In 2021, 73% of Americans identified as Christian. 50% of Americans claim to be “Bible users,” which Barna defines as one who reads some part of the Bible four or more times a year. This is a low bar, for sure, but it is up from 48% in 2020. When asked where Jesus was born, only 72% of those claiming to be Christian Bible users could identify Jesus birthplace as Bethlehem. In reading the whole Barna report, the findings tend to bear out what Twain said over 100 years ago.
This is not to throw shade on anyone who does any Bible reading. While the Bible is the best seller of all times, four billion and going strong, is a complicated collection of stories that span more than four thousand years or storytelling. The title, Bible, comes from the Latin word for library, and that is really what it is. Each book comes from a different time, place, author, or group of authors, and has been translated from Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek, and Latin into most all but the most obscure of written world languages. The Bible’s existence is a miracle, really, having been preserved more or less intact for a massive chunk of human history. If you have shown up for worship, tuned in on-line, or read the Bible on your own four or more times of the year, you are deeper in your Bible engagement than most. The fact we can read the Bible for ourselves, or even own one, sets us apart from the majority of those across time who have lived with the Bible as text for their faith.
Polling of self-identified Christian “Bible users” also tells us that most favorite story in all of the Bible is… Noah’s Ark. The most well-known story, meaning people can recount it in detail, is Noah’s Ark. It is no wonder people think God is mean. Jesus’ birth story is third. In both categories, the miracle of Jesus turning water into wine and Jesus feeding the five thousand come next. Crucifixion and Resurrection just barely crack the top ten. You all can draw your own conclusions, remembering that Mark Twain also said there lies, damn lies, and statistics. Or the cynical quip that 90% of all statistics are just made up.
As we tell and consider the stories we read today, we are engaging in precious, rare and important work of Biblical study. I am suspicious as to why today’s stories, for all of their familiar bigness, are not among the most memorable or most favorite of stories. Moses is a major player in the Old Testament. Our Gospel mountain top, glowing white Jesus event, called the Transfiguration, is a story we tell often, twice a year. In our three-year cycle of lessons, where most of the stories only come up once in three years,
We start today with Moses. If it were not for Cecil B DeMille’s epic movie “The Ten Commandments,” I am not sure we would know it as well. Remember that scene where Charlton Heston as Moses comes down from the mountain, toting two stone tablets, and clearly, wearing a coat of red makeup on his face, and having had his hair teased out all frizzy? I laughed out loud when I saw the film. That was the cinematic attempt at capturing the glow and aura of one who has encountered God. Moses had gone into the clouds, and he came back to tell the Israelites what God revealed to him. Proof this divine encounter was the hairy, showy, glowy countenance. Due credit to DeMille, it is a hard thing to convey.
When Jesus goes up on the mountain, he takes three followers as witnesses. A cloud descends. Their report is that Jesus was praying, and suddenly, he glowed radiant white, then Moses and Elijah appeared for a heavenly conversation. About the best Peter, James, and John could do was watch and listen, as a straight up mystery was happening right before their eyes. But, Peter, whose middle name might as well be ‘bless his heart,’ pipes up: “Why don’t we build a house for each of the holy rockstars, and hang out here with God.” But then comes the booming voice, the same voice from Jesus’ baptism, “This is my Son, the chosen, listen to him!” Peter got the message. Listen. Yeah.
From this point forward, the text will tell us over and over that Jesus had set his face toward Jerusalem. If we were writing a movie script for this, the music would get more serious, and the pace would quicken. This central moment provides triumph, and clear revelation of identity, but it creates urgency as well. We might need an intermission here. When we come back, the music is more foreboding. The quaint stone and thatch villages and seaside miracles are fading into the background. The pace is quickening. The story is moving toward a confrontation toward Jerusalem, the center of politics, religion, and commerce. The time to face all of the worldly powers is at hand.
The Transfiguration this story is not among the favorite or most popular ones, but it deserves a good look. It is hard to get our mind around it. The details are wispy. How we see it depends on perspective. It looks like a Moses scene, but the light does not come from the outside, burning the subject’s face. The light comes from the subject himself. That light has always been there, veiled as it were in Jesus’ humanity, but now the divine light is Jesus. This is a hard story to tell. It is impossible to understand humanity and divinity all rolled into One. It is good idea to hear it often and see it regularly. Mysteries are really important to lively faith.
This time around, I hear this story differently. I have always thought this was about the disciples seeing Jesus transfigured before them. I have always thought that they were witnesses and by standers for a holy moment where Jesus changed, transformed, and converted from earth stuff to God stuff. Lucky disciples. But then, Jesus has always been the earthy God. He is always changing, transforming, and converting darkness into light. What happens on that mountain is not Jesus’ transfiguration. The transfiguration happens is in its witnesses as they know Jesus as God. The change this story is happening all of the time, as we come closer to the light, the mystery, the Power and the Glory as the prayer says. The transfiguration, yearning to be known, embraced, and lived… is ours. Amen.
The Rev. John Thomas is Rector of Emmanuel Episcopal Church, Greenwood