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 7, Year B
June 20, 2021
“There’s no need to fear, Underdog is here!”
Saturday mornings always had a ritual. My brother and I would get up as early as we wanted, leaving our parents alone. We turned on the old black and white TV. to warm up, and we poured cereal and milk for breakfast in front of the Saturday morning cartoons. No on TV demand then, just on when it is on, and we had our favorites all mapped out.
Along with Rocky and Bullwinkle, our favorite cartoon was Underdog. Underdog was like a parody of Superman, wherein the lowly Shoeshine Boy would turn into Underdog whenever the forces of evil took hold. Usually, he swooped in to rescue Sweet Polly Purebred, who was a canine television reporter. Obviously, the willing suspension of disbelief was never the problem for us.
By the time our parents awoke, we were all sugared up, and diving/flying from couch to chair, proclaiming, like our hero, “There’s no need to fear, Underdog is here.” When my grandparents came, Grandmother Taliaferro took some old bath towels and safety pinned them you our pajama tops, so we would have real capes to help us fly. I think yielded was my brother’s first trip to the emergency room. Maybe they should put a “not for flying” warning label on old bath towels.
The thing about Underdog is that he is kind of a deconstructed super hero. He is not strong. In fact, when he flexes his muscles, the bulge goes down instead of up. He has no lasers or knock out punch abilities. Usually, he prevails through an awkward series clumsy mistakes whereby things get knocked over and fall on top of the ne’er-do-wells. Sweet Polly Purebred is always grateful. Then, Underdog flies off, though awkwardly, declaring “There’s no need to fear, Underdog is here!” When folks look up in the sky, they do not mistake him for a bird or a plane, they think he is a frog.
The lessons for this week are all about underdogs. First, we have the epic David and Goliath tale, where the small and ruddy last child and shepherd boy defeats the massive imposing champion of the dreaded Philistines. This elevates the young nobody to hero status right quick, and the story leads to him becoming a mighty king who will unite the Israelites and build a great fortress at Jerusalem. He does not get there through size, strength, or layers of armor. He gets there through faith in God, l who will prevail through him, and when he is successful, it is always through faith in God’s guidance. When he eventually fails, it is because he goes it alone and abuses his power.
Next, we have Paul writing to the Corinthians who seem to want success, power, and victory in exchange for their good works and obedience. It is a kind of early yearning for the Prosperity Gospel that megachurch stars tend to put forth on TV. Paul writes eloquently about the faithful “having nothing and yet possessing everything.” He tells them that they cannot earn God’s favor or salvation, as that has already been done and assured through the person and work of Jesus. Abundant life is not about earning holy merit badges that exempt us from suffering, it is about accepting the grace of being loved and loving others in kind. It is about reframing what we see as abundance.
Finally, we come to Jesus and the storm. To put this in context, we are hearing from Mark’s gospel near the beginning. Jesus is a nobody from nowhere too. He is still in Galilee, but gaining some notice as he has been casting out demons. His people believed that all forms of sickness comes from some form of evil overtaking a person or people. As love in person, Jesus counteracts such forces and sends the demons packing.
After a long day of that work, he asks to be taken to the other side of the Sea of Galilee where he might rest and refresh. As the story goes, he falls asleep in the stern of the boat, and a huge storm comes up form nowhere. The word for this storm in Greek implies something otherworldly, devastating, and much larger than an afternoon thunderstorm. Such a thing is like the destructive and capricious Goliath. Seen as an evil foe as much as a meteorological event, Jesus rises, speaks of having faith, and stills the thing to a dead calm. And this leaves the disciples wondering… “who is this that even the wind and the seas obey him.” The story sets the stage for more casting out of demons, but also for the constant challenge of those who find Jesus threatening and who plot against him. Such challenges will follow him all the way to the cross.
We cannot help but root for the underdogs of this world. When someone unlikely prevails in sport, or business, or even to get to college from a tough upbringing, we love to hear about it. These events help us see the world turned upside down and shaken out. They give us hope for humanity. They speak to our feelings of never being enough. Many such stories often involve deep faith and good-hearted help from others who believe in the underdog.
Over and over in our sacred stories, the people who go for God, and make a difference, are those who have nothing particularly earthly going for them. At the very least they challenge us not to look at might, strength, status and wealth as precursors for being worthy of love or as signs of holy favor. The bible is not about super heroes. It is about ordinary, flawed people made extraordinary through love and faith.
And who is this Jesus? He travels only on foot around a relatively unimportant outpost of the Roman realm. He never went beyond a 90-mile radius in his whole life. He had no money and no stuff. He hung out with the wrong sort of people. Most of his followers were illiterate. He had no governmental office, no corporate sponsorship, and no mass media publicity. People only heard about him through word of mouth, and they came to believe him as God through personal experience and experiencing the power of love over all. People still do.
Who is this Jesus? He is an unlikely underdog come to save us, all of us underdogs. And there is no need to fear, this Underdog is here. Amen.
Emmanuel Episcopal Church, Greenwood, Virginia
Proper 6, Year B
June 13, 2021
Grandaddy Thomas was a grower. He had a farm and, over the course of years, he raised cows, sheep, chickens, horses, and lots of rotating crops. Fortunately, he had furniture store too, because farming is a precarious business. When he retired, he leased out the land for someone else to do the planting, harvesting -- letting them place their faith in forty sacks of seed and good weather. But at heart, Grandaddy Thomas was a grower. When he stopped tending creatures and field crops, his vegetable garden became epic. It’s bounty filled cases and cases of mason jars for the stovetop canner, and boxes and boxes of plastic bags to be filled, labeled, and stuffed into one of the three chest freezers. If a great famine ever came, Grandaddy Thomas was ready.
It all started in the dead of winter. After the Christmas cards cleared out, P.O. Box 35 was crammed with thick catalogs from Burpee, FedCo, and any number of seed club publications. The Thomas garden was hip to heirloom seeds before that was even cool. As hope soared, Grandaddy ordered some of everything. He grew rows of silver queen corn, fifteen varieties of tomatoes, strawberries, blueberries, raspberries, pole beans, wax beans, snap beans and butter beans, new potatoes, sweet potatoes, and all kinds of onions. He grew vegetables nobody liked just to see if he could. Thus, a summer trip to the farm meant cool mornings in the garden, picking our favorite foods for supper, oh, and some mandatory weeding.
Right now, we are on the front end of that season when all of that winter dreaming would come to fruition. This is the time of fruition following winter’s dreaming, ordering, and planning, spring’s back breaking tilling, and delicate planting of row upon row of seeds: those tiny little containers of promise, gently placed, and covered, and watered. And, of course, there has been constant weeding and thinning, and more watering, and thank God for good farm dogs who know it is their job to keep the rabbits, moles, and groundhogs running to safety at the margins of the woods.
Even now, though Grandaddy’s garden plot is covered with grass, the heat, humidity, and afternoon storms remind me that it is about time for the produce to come in. It is kind of built into me troll the farmers markets and find what is fresh or just ripe, to find out what is coming in. As important as procuring fresh deliciousness is talking with the growers about what crops are flourishing and what crops are struggling. Inevitably we get too little rain or not enough and we look to the heavens for signs.
So perfectly, produce season always follows Easter, Pentecost, and Trinity Sunday. This is my favorite part of the liturgical calendar, and I have to admit that though I really enjoy the big church days, there is some sweet relief as we move through the things that are large and hard to encapsulate and fathom. There is real joy in getting back to basics, coming back to earth and where we live and move and have our being. Taking the cue from spring becoming summer, the rhythm of our remembering invites us to hear Jesus teach though the word pictures of parables, opening our mind’s eye to see God’s abundance and grace. As if on cue, today he speaks of the tiny smallness of a seed becoming something great and prolific. He speaks of how the earth mirrors the love and creativity of God, working to make all things new.
In one of his poems about finding the meaning in things, Billy Collins laments that all folks want to do is “tie the poem to a chair with rope and torture a confession out of it.” Likewise, we have to remember that a parable is a picture, not moralistic fable. Sometimes we are the seeds, sometimes we are the soil, and sometimes we are the weeds. Most of the time a parable is not about us, really, at all. They are about God, seeking, searching and finding a way through to us. Jesus knows that his hearers are inextricably tied to the land and dependent on it for survival. It is be good for us to remember that too, not matter far removed we may seem.
There are so many things that parables can do with us. This is the genius of speaking and thinking of God in big and bold pictures, opening our minds, rather than narrowing them down. Those little seeds we planted in lent are now bushes of rosemary and blooming marigolds – so long as they were tended and watered.
Today, we are back inside our beloved sanctuary. This space which housed a big wedding yesterday, is a suitcase for growing us in love too. We are back in the space of remembering and a space where we host crucial rites of passage. Here, we plant seeds, we work the soil of our hearts, and we name the weeds and worries that beset us with doubts or uncertainties. Here too, we find comfort, hope, and weekly refreshment to live abundant life.
Emmanuel Church has not been dormant, we have just been doing things differently, improvising where we have needed to do so. I am grateful to all who have schlepped chairs and tables, loudspeakers, boxes of masks and hand sanitizer. With some of that behind us, we are in a new space, a new season, and it is ripe with opportunity. As worship is the work of the people, we welcome all of us into the privilege of ushering, acolyting, welcoming, setting the altar table, and adorning the space with flowers. If you used to do some of these things in here, and want to do so again, it’s time to return. If you never did any of this before, there is a place for you. If you want to do something different do something new, there is a place for that too. We have a nice long summer ahead to plant and grow and weed and water.
From last week’s Book and Author Day, we saw how so many hands and hearts came together for something really special. When the food truck crashed it’s hood and had to shut down, the Emmanuel Hot Dog Miracle came together and folks got well fed. We do not have to do big things like that all of the time, but the ingredients of that day: welcome, play time, feasting, and loving on each other, that is what Emmanuel does well.
We are in a new season. It is time for us to dream and hope and plan. Not everything will just get back to whatever we thought was normal. At least, I hope not. Surely, we have learned from being apart, and outside, and covered up. This is a great season in our life and in our history to fling the seeds of love and faith generously, to pull the weeds that bring us down, and gather whatever produce is ready to come in. We are God’s growers in this world, and the garden ripe. Amen.
Emmanuel Episcopal Church, Greenwood, Virginia
Proper 5, Year B
June 6, 2021
When I was little, may parents had one of those really high up antique beds. I think they made them that way to get those poor colonial folks far off the cold, cold floor. Their bed had this white floor length skirt and underneath it was a really great hiding place.
Rumor has it that my brother went missing when I was being born. My grandmother phoned the hospital in a panic, adding a little more tension to the day. Out of her labor haze, my mom told her to look under the bed, and there he was. She stretched the phone cord and handed it to him under the bed, where and he said, and I quote “She won’t feed me. She won’t give me a thing to eat.”
Despite my parents knowing full well that under the bed was our go to hiding place, we sheltered there whenever we needed alone time, or to escape from the wrath of whatever was sure to come our way when we did something wrong. We stocked supplies in there: pillows, books, and a stuffed animal or two for company.
Whenever I read the Genesis story of Adam and Eve in the garden, I think of that space. It is a familiar story that, often, passes without being unpacked. I want us to go there today and reflect on how the story tells us about ourselves, and more importantly, about God.
The caper begins when they eat of the forbidden fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. The crafty serpent convinces them that when they eat the fruit, their eyes will be opened and they will be and see like God. The first thing they see is that they are nekkid. I say nekkid because if they were naked, it would just be artistic or freeing. Nekkid is the state of having done something wrong, and being self-conscious about it. So, they hide in the shrubbery – the moral equivalent of under the bed.
As the story goes, God moves about the garden and asks where are you. God being God knows where they are, but Adam says they are hiding because they are nekkid. God asks the following question: Who told you that you were naked? And then, the whole blame game starts. First Adam: “It’s Eve’s fault, she gave me that gosh darned fruit.” Then Eve: “It’s the serpent’s fault because he convinced me to eat the gosh darned fruit.” And so it goes. In that all too human moment, the move to deflect, deny, and blame is set in motion.
In all of the casting out from Eden, and cursing the serpent, and all that stuff about labor pains and the necessity of work for survival, we might overlook the important question. Who told you that you were Nekkid?
Most of go through life figuring that we are somehow broken, guilty, or unworthy. When we are loved, it helps, but the urge to hide, deflect, and deny is in there. It is part of the soup of being human. Largely, that is a prison we build all on our own. Yes, we are sinners, because we are not God and we are not perfect. The rest of the story endeavors to show us where to look for help, and to show us that we are completely and utterly forgiven. All we need do is accept that, stay close to God, and clean up whatever messes we make.
When Jesus comes on the scene and those who oppose him proclaim him mad or demonic, he explains that human nekkidness comes division and distraction. If we will cannot, or will not, work together, we are exposed to all kinds of rotten thinking and acting.
Finally, he looks at those who sat around him, family, friends, foes, scruffy fishermen, squealing children – the whole lot and says “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.” Those are Jesus’ family values. As I said a few weeks ago, a good translation here is “y’all means all.”
Today, we welcome Roger Hutchison whose published art and poetry and texts invite us into belonging. As crazy as family can be, we are all part of God’s great family. And today’s event with games and art and food and cake is all about being a place and people of welcome, nurture, acceptance, support, and encouragement. This is not a complicated theology. Even though it is hard to be in a world that divides, labels, categorizes, blames and shames at its worst, there is an easier and softer way. Love them all. Feed, clothe, help, and refuse to empower whatever demons work to divide us. We do not have to hide. God knows where we are anyway. In the whole of the story God shows us that we are wonderfully made, and capable of so much creative love, because, plain and simple, God loves us. All of us. That is what we celebrate today, and every day. Welcome to the family. Amen.
May 30, 2021
Let's go Phil! Let’s go Phil! Let’s go Phil!
This was a constant refrain chanted last Sunday, as Phil Mickelson hung on to win the Professional Golfers’ Association Championship, earning him the record for being the oldest golfer ever to win a major tournament. If you are not a golf fan, I get it. It is a sport of privilege, it can be nap inducing to watch, and it is maddeningly difficult. My focus here is not talk about golf, though I can talk about golf a lot. My focus here is on an unexpected human moment, a seemingly random encounter, a relatively little thing that really stuck out last Sunday afternoon on the Ocean Course at Kiawah Island, South Carolina; a moment that made a difference, and given my proclivity to watch for such things, a Holy Spirit moment.
Phil Mickelson has not been universally beloved. He emerged on the professional golf scene thirty years ago. He was kind of bratty, mouthy, and very, very talented. Even Phil admits that he is best taken in small doses. On his way to winning 45 professional golf tournaments, and amassing a large fortune, life happened. Phil’s wife, Amy, nearly died giving birth to one of their three children. Then she battled breast cancer. Phil dropped out of the tour to care for her. He gained weight and got arthritis. Together, Phil and Amy established a foundation that funds cancer research and helps at risk youth gain access to a quality education. All the while, Tiger Woods was roaring through tournaments and swallowing up victory after victory. Phil was on his way to becoming a has been.
To his credit, he made some changes. He worked hard, tuned up his body, and his game. He brought his brother along to be his caddy. Even so, the sport favors those with younger backs and much greater flexibility. This year, Phil had not finished in the top 20 even once and his ranking fell to 115th in the world. Last week, he came out strong and had the three-day lead going into Sunday on a kill-you-to-death long and windy course. The big question was could he hold on to the lead, handle the pressure, and finish strong.
On hole number one, he dropped two strokes, and out of the lead. Heads were shaking. It looked like he was crumbling. On hole number five, he landed in a sand trap: another bad omen. But then, he made an impossible looking shot, punching out to within inches from the hole. He made the putt, and took the lead. As he walked to hole number six, he walked by a wheel chair bound fan with cerebral palsy who was cheering “Let’s go Phil!” Phil stopped, walked back, talked with the young man for a full minute, and handed him the lucky ball he had just put in the hole, thanking him for the support.
From that point, Phil Mickelson never wavered. He was strong and confident. And I have to think that his softness in taking a moment to serve someone else reminded him what it was all about. The older Phil knows failure, and disease, and difficulty. He knows that success in not all about him. He was joking around with his brother, the caddy, whose wife was texting them both advice.
That happened on Pentecost when church people celebrate the gift of the Holy Spirit. Phil proclaims Christian faith and speaks openly about it. I know nothing of his heart, but I know what we saw between holes five and six. It was a little moment and a footnote in the bigger story, but that stuff really matters.
This Sunday is Trinity Sunday. It is the only day we give to a doctrine. It is the bane of preachers everywhere as they try to unpack or explain an enormous mystery of the Godhead. Like the Sunday after Easter, it is often handed off to an associate or a seminarian. Properly approached, Trinity Sunday is not a day for explanation at all. It is a day for observation. God shows up as creator, as Jesus, and as the Holy Spirit: all one God, all kinds of expressions.
Back in Isaiah’s day, they did not have the witness of Jesus, but the prophet was not short on God encounters. In today’s reading, we hear of a wild and fantastic experience in the Temple as Isaiah meets some six-winged seraphs who touch his lips with live incense coals. Holy, holy, holy is about all he can say about that until God’s question thunders in the Temple as he says, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” Wait. Who will go for us? Us? We are part of this? Holy, holy, holy indeed. Without hesitation, Isaiah says “Here am I; send me!”
After that, the rest of the lessons are interesting and puzzling. Romans delivers the word that we are all adopted as God’s family. Jesus plays linguistic ping pong with Nicodemus talking about being born anew. That gives born-again fanatics lots of talking points. But essentially, that is all mystery, better experienced than explained. The Isaiah lesson – though - that one is the one that rings in our ears. It has all of the mystery, but the clear invitation to be sent into this world to go with and for God.
For all of the theologizing and systematizing and liturgizing, we might get caught up in some intellectual spin cycle of trying to figure everything out, trying to create a construct that makes sense, and trying to out holy those who have not digest Augustine’s or Aquinas’s theology whole. It can be daunting to contemplate the big things and the big words and bigness of God’s love for each and every one. We can’t find God through more self-actualization, more deep breathing yoga, or some big plan to fix all that is broken in this world. We cannot really find God at all. The Word of today is that God finds us. God has finds us in making us so intricately wonderful and creative. God finds us in the person and work of a self-emptying love as Jesus. God finds us in the mischievous and persistent Spirit that blows through all kinds of material moments – in bread and wine and hymns and prayers, but also in a meals dropped at the front door, the silence of listening to someone’s grief or anxiety, and the simple moments of saying thank you, I am with you, and I love you.
It was not about the golf ball last Sunday. It was about reconnecting to the ground of belonging and being grateful. It was a moment that got swept away in the roar of the crowd and big excitement - but not for that guy in the wheel chair, and not for Phil either.
As we go into our world to pick up the pieces of what got really broken and disjointed since last March, and we are relearning how to be together, we have an amazing chance to do so with intention, with sharpened attention, and with a pure love of the little things, that are not little after all.
Who will go for us? Send me. Send us. We have hearts to love and hands to serve. Let’s go Emmanuel! Let’s go God’s beloved people! Let’s go! Amen.
The Rev. John Thomas is Rector of Emmanuel Episcopal Church, Greenwood