Archive for August 2016

Luke 14:1, 7-14 8/28/16 Epiphany, Norfolk

All three of our readings this morning deal with the theme of “humility.” Now, your lesson sheet says that our first reading is from the Book of Sirach. If you’re wondering where Sirach came from, it used to be called Ecclesiasticus, and is in the Apocrypha, which is a collection of “non-canonical” books that sometimes are included with the Old Testament. Well, everyone always got Ecclesiasticus confused with Ecclesiastes, which is in the Old Testament. So, they have renamed Ecclesiasticus to help sort this out. Well, the writer of Sirach just puts it very bluntly – “The beginning of human pride is to forsake the Lord; the heart has withdrawn from its Maker. And then it goes on to talk about the ravages of pride, and ends with the phrase “Pride is not created for human beings.”

Then, our second reading from Hebrews urges us to be compassionate – care about each other: strangers, prisoners, and victims of torture. And then it implores us to keep our marriage beds undefiled – at least I don’t have to worry about that one – and to keep our lives free from the love of money. I don’t have to worry about that one, either, since I don’t have any.

And then our Gospel – good old Luke. He has Jesus eating on the Sabbath with the leader of the Pharisees. Now remember, the Pharisees were the ones who made such a big deal out of keeping to the letter of the law. And the text says: “They were watching him closely.” You better believe they were watching him. This was a trap! They were checking him out, to make sure he knew the law; also, to go after him if he broke the law. And the law was so complicated that it was almost impossible not to break it. I deal with HUD regulations all the time. For almost every regulation in the book, there is another in a different section, that counteracts the first. So, we’re told that as the group sat down to dinner, Jesus watched the guests clamor for the best seats, the seats of honor, presumably, those closer to the leader.

I think all of us have seen this sort of thing. Watch the political appearances on TV. There always seems to be a group that sort of hovers around important people, trying to get in the picture, or trying to appear important, hoping for that personal acknowledgement.

A few years ago I read an article by the member of the National Cathedral staff who had been responsible for “protocol” at President Reagan’s funeral service at the Cathedral. They have “playbooks” worked up years in advance for these events. And she mentioned that a huge amount of energy was devoted to “seating protocol” – who would sit nearest to which important personalities at the funeral. The Reagan funeral had been in the works for two years, and the seating had to be revised every time someone important died or fell out of favor. When you deal with government figures, who is seen with whom is everything. People lose their jobs for not “getting it right.” But it’s not just in our government. We’ve all known a few people who will claw eyes out to get “that place of honor.”

Well, back to our story. They all get settled, and Jesus, obviously pretty disgusted, tells them the well known “Parable of the Wedding Banquet.” And then he gets in a little “dig” at the Pharisees by encouraging them to invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind to their banquets. This would have been totally outrageous to the Pharisees, because Pharisees considered anyone who was poor, or disabled to be under the punishment of God, unclean, untouchable. The Pharisees could not be in the presence of “those people.” That was the “Law According to the Pharisees”, but it was in conflict with “The Law of Moses.” Jesus had just caught the Pharisees at their own game.

I know I’ve told this story before, so if you’ve heard it, please forgive. It’s just one of those “formative events” in my life. About 40 years ago, I was living in Ghent. Now, Ghent was not yet fashionable like it is today, but it was great, cheap living. I had rented a big old townhouse: 18 rooms, 9 fireplaces, and termites everywhere, for $65 a month. It really was sort of “high bohemian” living, and I loved it. Well, I had a neighbor – a really nice guy who rented a third floor apartment across the street from me. He was a navy lawyer, good looking, a lot of money, from a wealthy Mormon family. Daddy was big in the Mormon Temple. This guy had everything in the world going for him, except, he had no humility – absolutely none. He just thought he was the greatest. One of his favorite and frequent remarks was, “I am so pleased with myself”, and indeed he was. He loved to talk about how good he looked, especially in his uniform, how impressive he was in his sports car, which was fantastic, how “with it” he was living in Ghent, how clever he has at managing his investments, how smart he was, what a good cook he was, what good company he was, and on and on it went. Well, one day I had enough of it. I just told him pretty much what I thought of him. It didn’t faze him. He just informed me that I didn’t know how lucky I was to have his friendship. And you know, the sad part of this was that he would have been a fantastic person with just a little humility. Just a little bit would have done it. I still get Christmas cards from him. He’s now an Episcopalian and attending one of the big wealthy parishes in Washington DC. I’m just so glad he’s not at Epiphany.

I guess we all fall prey to this, on occasion. All of us like to feel a little special, a little important.

Another formative story – again told before. My first real job as a teenager was working as a bag boy at Colonial Stores, which was a popular grocery chain in this area. I had gotten the job because my family knew the President of the Company. And apparently someone had alerted the checkers and other bag boys to be careful around me because I knew people “in high places.” I was young and full of typical 15 year old cockiness. About three days after I started work, I said something that ticked off one of the checkers. And I can remember her turning to me and snapping, “I don’t care who you are, or who you know, you will stand in the same line for your paycheck as I will, so shut your mouth and get those groceries bagged.”

I’ve never forgotten that. That woman, Mary Ellen, I still remember her name, probably did me the biggest favor of my life. She was right. I would stand in line with her, and with all of my other co-workers, for my pay check. And I also realized that they had their jobs on their own merits – not on who their families knew, and that probably made them just a little bit more important than me.

Humility is one of those things we learn, and we learn it young, or we learn it hard. Somewhere along the way we find out, that we all stand in the “same line” for a paycheck, for friendship, for acceptance, for God’s love, for whatever. No – we aren’t all exactly equal. No, we aren’t all just the same. Each of us has special skills, and talents, and abilities, and personalities, and knowledge. These things become our ministries – what we bring to the “table of life” as our offerings.

“Pride was not created for human beings.” That wonderful cashier, and my very puffed up friend/neighbor in Ghent – they taught me some things about life. They helped me discover the type of person I wanted to be, and didn’t want to be. That’s something we each have to discover for ourselves.

My hope is that as we leave this room today, and return to that world out there, maybe we can be conscious of our own pride and the impact that it has on those around us. Pride and lack of humility can be awesome stumbling blocks to otherwise wonderful lives and relationships.

“Pride was not created for human beings.”

Amen.

Posted August 30, 2016 by Church of the Epiphany in Epiphany Moments

Luke 12:49-56 8/14/16 Epiphany, Norfolk

Our Gospel Reading this morning is one of my least favorite in the whole preaching cycle. It rolls around every 3 years, and I always have trouble with it. It seems that Luke pictures Jesus as really angry and confrontational, and that just doesn’t reflect the Jesus I was taught in Sunday School, or the Jesus of many of our hymns, or the Jesus of our stained glass windows, or the Jesus whose life we’re supposed to try to emulate. This seems to be an angry, “lashing out” Jesus. And that makes me uncomfortable. The probability is that he may have had that side to his personality, like all of us do, but I don’t like to look at that in the personality of Jesus, or in my own personality, either.

But there are a couple of really important themes in this morning’s readings, and one of those is the theme of “fire.” In Jeremiah we read: “Is not my word like fire, says the Lord?” There is no mention of “fire” in our Psalm. But in Hebrews we’re told that a group of patriarchs, kings, and prophets “quenched the raging fire.” And then our Gospel begins with Jesus saying, “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled.”

Fire holds importance for every religion with which I am familiar, whether ancient or modern. It’s seen as one of those “hinge pin elements” of all creation. And the Hebrews were no exception. They saw God as living and hiding in fire. God appears to them in things like the burning bush. God leads them out of slavery in Egypt as a pillar of fire going before them. And God hands down the Law to Moses on Mt. Sinai, which scholars feel was an active volcano. So God even LIVED in fire. And because of this, burning fire was always present on Hebrew altars. And that comes down to us in the burning candles on our altar. The burning fire is seen as God’s presence all the way through the Biblical narrative, and even here in this room, today.

Well, what was it that made fire so important? Fire was multi-dimensional. It gave light, which broke the darkness and offered safety. It gave warmth. It cooked food. It sterilized. It smelted ore and made metals. It tempered metals and made them strong. It did all sorts of wonderful things, but it could also harm and destroy. If you put your hand in it, it hurt. If you kept your hand in it, your hand would disappear. It could keep a tent warm, but it could also burn down the tent. It could cook meat, but it could char a wonderful lamb chop beyond recognition.

And in volcanic form, it smelled bad, it offered mass destruction, and it was generally terrifying. As a volcano, it was a portal into the underworld, into the abyss, where humans couldn’t go. That whole Eastern Mediterranean Region has always been full of seismic activity. The earth rumbles all the time. And volcanoes do blow over there. When I was in Istanbul, the guide said that the city has over 100 “shakes” every day. The great city of Ephesus was abandoned because earthquakes made it unsafe. The buildings were falling down on the people. And so often, seismic activity is accompanied by fire.

Fire was even up in the firmament – the heavens. There was the sun, and the “night sun”, or moon. There were the stars and comets. And all of these things moved in the heavens, and it was thought, had lives of their own.

So, fire was everywhere, and with it, so was God. For many pagan religions, fire was actually a god, or there would be a “God of Fire.” For the Hebrews, it was the dwelling place of God, the “righteousness” in which God clothed himself.

So, in our Gospel this morning, Jesus says: “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it was already kindled.” That’s a little different from how it first sounded. “I came to bring purification. I came to bring the dwelling place of God. I came to bring tempering. And yes, I came to bring destruction. Perhaps Jesus isn’t as angry as we first thought. He’s saying that he came to prepare the earth for the presence of God.

Today, if we want fire, we strike a match, or push a button, or turn a knob. It’s such a simple thing. And we have all sorts of tools for putting out a fire when we don’t want it. For the most part, fire is controllable today, except for forest fires and catastrophic fires. But, it was different in ancient times. Fire had to be kindled, or carried around, which they also did. If they were traveling, they would often “pack” a small bunch of burning coals so that they could have fire when they needed it. There was an “art” to handling fire that we just don’t need today.

We’ve also pretty much lost the idea of God and fire being so closely associated – even inseparable. For the Hebrews, fire actually became the symbol of “holiness” – or God’s presence. We’ve lost that understanding today. To share a quote from the Interpreter’s Bible Dictionary: “In most cases, fire represents the divine action on earth. As stated in Hebrews and Deuteronomy, ‘Our God is a consuming fire. Fire is God’s servant, and God’s word is like fire’.”

So, when our Gospel passage from Luke begins: “Jesus said, ‘I come to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled’,” Luke is putting a lot of power in those words: purification, punishment, the divine presence, the movement and action of God. It’s a really important statement by Jesus, and quite different from how it first appears.

Amen.

Posted August 17, 2016 by Church of the Epiphany in Epiphany Moments

Our new mermaid

diosovaOur very own mermaid, created by Marysharon Melchiorre and commissioned by Valerie Smith!

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Posted August 10, 2016 by Church of the Epiphany in Epiphany Moments

Our most recent wedding!

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Posted August 3, 2016 by Church of the Epiphany in Epiphany Moments

Luke 12:13-21 7/31/16 Epiphany, Norfolk

Our Gospel Reading this morning is from Luke, and it presents us with an idea that I’ve always found fascinating. The story is a little convoluted, so let me recap it for you and try to sort it out.
Jesus is asked to mediate a dispute around an inheritance. Now in Jesus’ day, they followed the practice of progenitor, which meant that inheritance was very straight forward. The eldest son inherited everything. And here we have a younger brother upset because his older brother wouldn’t share the inheritance, and he wants Jesus to “fix it.” But Jesus wants nothing to do with all this. He says, “Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?” But then he gives some advice to both of them, to be on their guard against greed. I guess he sees the older brother as being greedy by not sharing with his younger brother, and the younger brother by coveting the older brother’s legitimate inheritance.
And then Jesus tells them the parable of a rich farmer whose land produced so much that he could not get it all into his barn. So he decided to build a bigger barn and store all of his crops. And in the planning stage for this building project, he has a little conversation with himself. And here is my favorite line: “And I will say to my soul, ‘Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, but merry’.” And we all know the rest of the story. God pipes up and says to the rich farmer that he will give up his life that night, and asks to whom all of this will belong.
Well, I love that line, “And I will say to my soul, ‘Soul……” The idea of a “soul” is always a puzzlement to me. The “soul” is one of those metaphysical concepts, like “spirit”, that is really hard to describe. In fact, for both the Hebrews and the Greeks, there was sort of a blurring of “soul” and “spirit.” For the Hebrews, “spirit” was the “breath of life” that God breathed into Adam. And in some strange way, that “breath of life” rested in a person as his/her “soul.” And this is what we find in the Old Testament.
But the New Testament picks up the Greek understanding of life. And the Greeks saw things in dualities, or opposites. There was the physical body, and there was the spiritual body. And the “soul” was the embodiment of the spiritual body. And for the Greeks, living a good and healthy life revolved around keeping the “soul” and the “body” in harmony. If one got out of balance, it caused great pain for the other, which was “disease”, or, “dis-ease.” Well, our reading this morning is from Luke. And Luke’s understanding of “the soul” would have fallen under the Greek school of a separate body and soul that had to be balanced.
So, the question becomes, do we have a soul, whether in the Hebrew sense, or the Greek sense? I think we do. I think I’m aware of having a soul, or a spirit, or some kind of a non-physical consciousness. But what is it? Is it our conscience, that advises us on right and wrong? Is it our “alter egos”, that are another side of our personhood? Is it the “Spirit of God”, or the “Spirit of Life”, or the “Spirit of Truth” within us? Is it in our heart, or in our brain, or in our psyche? I don’t know. But I’m pretty sure that I have a soul, and that you have a soul, too. It doesn’t show up in an MRI, or a CT scan, but it’s somewhere in here, and it’s very powerful.
And like our successful farmer in today’s reading, I talk to my soul, and I think my soul talks to me. When I do something right and good, I can feel my soul “smiling.” When I do something wrong, I can feel my soul “frowning.” And sometimes, I think I can even feel my soul nagging me with direction. Sometimes I ask my soul for advice. “Soul. I have this dilemma. What are my options?” And I think my soul answers me. Sometimes I don’t like the answer, but I think I can trust my soul to be honest.
I like to think of my soul as “the holy” in me. My soul seems to know good from bad, right from wrong, what I should do and what I should not do, how I should feel and how I should not feel. My soul seems to know these things.
Sometimes, I think my soul acts like a filter. My soul can filter out my selfishness, my excessive ego needs, my envy, my disdain, my judgmental attitudes, my greed, all of those “things” that I find “unholy” about myself. If I ask my soul, and if I listen to my soul’s quiet answer, I find my life to be more centered.
I think a lot of my personal prayer life is actually addressed to my soul. And if, in fact, my soul is “The Holy” within me, that makes sense.
Now, in today’s Gospel, the farmer has decided what he will do. It sounds reasonable to me. He has had good fortune, and he wants to take care of it. So, he checks with his soul and lets his soul know what’s he’s thinking. But apparently God is listening in. And God speaks up and tells the farmer that it’s all for naught because he’s going to die that night. The idea is that none of the wealth he has amassed will be his after this night.
This really confuses the whole thing, doesn’t it? If the text is authentic, it creates this strange relationship between “the soul” and God. And that doesn’t work for me. I think there’s really something wrong with the text, and I can’t sort it out.
But it is a parable, and parables are teaching tools, and sometimes they don’t hold up when we look too hard. Luke was trying to talk about greed, and selfishness, and all things ultimately belonging to God. I’m the one who muddled it up by picking up on “the soul.” But it’s one of those things I ponder.
I believe in a soul. I trust my soul. I see my soul as an element of the Holy within me. I see my soul as what makes me a “Creature of God”, and what makes you a “Creature of God” that must be respected. And that makes sense to me.
Amen.

Posted August 3, 2016 by Church of the Epiphany in Epiphany Moments

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