~ VGM+The word peace appears nearly three hundred and fifty times in the Bible. It is far more than the absence of war or strife. Nor is merely a polite “go along to get along” attitude. Peace is a state of wholeness and balance that comes from being in a right relationship with God and with neighbor – and within oneself. The ancient Hebrew word for peace was “shalom”, meaning wholeness, completeness, soundness, health, safety, prosperity, and serenity for an individual and for the community. It is still used as a greeting in modern Judaism. Peace is a positive state; the way God wants us to be. It is a value that is expressed in one of the blessings in our services: “The Peace of God which passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in the knowledge and love of God, and of his Son Jesus Christ our Lord.” ~ VGM+
Words of Faith
Words matter – what they mean, how we use them, the feelings they convey, the way they shape our experience of life. For centuries Christians have had a “vocabulary of faith” which was a collection of words and ideas that was generally understood by society at large and by believers in particular.
Over time that changed. Some words became very secularized; for example, in sports we hear about players making sacrifices for their team, but originally “sacrifice” meant “to make holy.” And then some Christian groups have taken faith words and defined them in ways that most Episcopalians would have trouble resonating with.
Add to all of that the perceived split between “public life” and “private faith” – and we have lost confidence in our ability to know and use the vocabulary of our Christian lives. That can make it difficult for us to think and reason clearly about our faith, and to express to others what it is we believe and why we behave as we do.
As we have been living through this time of health crisis, we know that whatever is on the other side of this will be different than what we started with. We will be different, and we will face some new challenges and realities.
It will be good for us to remember and renew and become confident once again in the words of our faith and our expression of the Christian life as we understand it in our Episcopal and Anglican tradition. To help us with this I’ll be sharing a word on most days, with a short definition or explanation of what it means, Christianly-speaking. I hope you find this encourages you to think about the words you say, the words you pray, and the way God is shaping, forming, and equipping you to do God’s work in the world.
Grace means gift – God’s gift to us of love and blessing that we neither earn nor deserve. God offers us grace before we are even aware that we are in need of it; and God already loves us fully, before we even do anything to respond to him.
We often think of someone being graceful or moving with a quality of grace, like a dancer. That image conveys a sense of fluidity, ease, motion, even beauty. When we are on the receiving end of God’s grace we gain that sense of moving through life with greater ease and dignity because we know that we are loved to our very depths.
Jesus said: “Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.” Luke 14:7
This is the season of The Schedule. It’s the time to make sure the family Google calendar syncs up with the new fall routine, after the glorious disruptions of summer and vacations. And if you have children in your household you know (or may remember) the particular September scramble of fitting in after-school activities, sports, homework, social events, with work, household chores, and volunteer efforts. Sometimes it feels like you need a computer program to figure out who needs to be where, with what, or whom, when. And heaven help you if a small detail changes and you have to rearrange everything! Even if you don’t have children at home, the early fall always arrives with the drive to get organized, make sure your commitments are in your calendar in ink, so you know what you are doing, and begin the new program year. It can feel like multiple requirements are pressing in on you all at the same time – at least until you can get your schedule somewhat tamed.
And into the midst of all of this September scramble comes Jesus, with his challenging and difficult words this morning. The carefully stacked blocks of our schedules and commitments may just get knocked over, like pulling out the last block which collapses the tower in a game of Jenga when we hear what Jesus has to say; and we may not like it at all!
He addresses the large crowd who were travelling with him, people who had seen his miracles and healing and wondrous works, who had heard him speak with authority about God’s purposes and had followed along to see what else was going to happen. Maybe there would be an even more spectacular miracle; maybe Jesus would even more brazenly denounce the Roman governing system and hand the running of the country back to Jewish rulers; maybe there would always be food enough for all of them. Curiosity and desire can draw people on for a long time.
But instead of encouraging the crowd, Jesus turns to them and says, “If you want to come with me and be part of what I’m doing, here’s what needs to happen: you can’t put your family first; you need to know that there’s a strong possibility this is going to end with a torturous death; you can’t be weighed down by an overabundance of possessions. You need to count the cost of all of this before we go any further together.” Wow. Take a minute and let all that sink in.
And then the objections come: isn’t Christianity supposed to be family-friendly? didn’t Jesus die so that we don’t have to suffer? What’s wrong with owning lots of things? These are all really good questions, and we could spend an hour pondering and discussing each one. For now, I’ll just say that Jesus is making it very clear that anyone who wants to follow him, to be his disciple, needs to be aware of the realities and costs involved.
I recently heard about a church in another part of the country, in a downtown area that had a big banner on its front lawn that read: “Come on in. It’s easy.” That may seem like a good marketing strategy – a low bar to get folks to cross the threshold. And in many ways, it’s what the socially-accepted expectation of church was – at least in America, in the decades after World War II: “Come through the doors, you’ll meet people like yourself, you can be comfortable, not too much is going to be required of you.” Now, of course, that’s an over-generalization, but the point here is that the message on that 2019 church’s banner is not true. It’s not true of Christian faith, of following Jesus, of worshiping God; it never has been true.
The very first commandment that God gave Moses after the Hebrew people were freed from their slavery and they were being gathered and shaped as a people, the very first command was “Hear the commandments of God to his people: I am the Lord your God who brought you out of bondage. You shall have no other gods but me.” This command to worship and serve God alone was of course about turning away from the various Egyptian deities, or the Canaanite gods they would later encounter. But it was always understood to include any person or idea or value that we might want to put in God’s place as an idol; whether we are intending to do that or not. And Jesus, as God Incarnate, is bidding his followers to make sure they understand and are prepared for this challenge. It’s anything but easy.
The New Testament scholar Tom Wright uses this image in commenting on this passage: ‘… think of the leader of a great expedition, forging a way through a high and dangerous mountain pass to bring urgent medical aid to villagers cut off from the rest of the world. ‘If you want to come any further,’ the leader says, ‘you’ll have to leave your packs behind. From here on the path is too steep to carry all that stuff. You probably won’t find it again. And you’d better send your last postcard home; this is a dangerous route and it’s very likely some of us won’t make it back.’ That’s truth, that’s real; there’s a lot at stake in following Jesus.
And if we think that setting out the costs of discipleship in a clear way is a lousy recruitment tool, that it merely drives people away, I would ask us to think again. I would offer the example of a number mythic stories that have been written by faithful practicing Christians as an expression of their understanding of God and the world and being disciples, books that are beloved and have huge followings: The Lord of the Rings, The Chronicles of Narnia, and Harry Potter.
In each of these books, while there are one or two central characters, there is always a larger core group of people and beings (because not all the characters are human). Each member of the group has their own very different gifts, abilities, personalities, graces, physical features, and attributes. And they are all drawn together, not by their fondness for each other, but to take on a dangerous and important mission that that they could not ever have imagined on their own: those who are loyal to Aslan, the Fellowship of the Ring, Dumbledore’s Army and the Order of the Phoenix.
Certainly, each of these series of books – which have spoken so profoundly to so many - is full of stirring, heroic scenes and battles between good and evil. And they seem very exciting and attractive… from a distance; kind of like the feeling of watching a video of runners crossing the finish line at the New York City Marathon and thinking that would be a really cool thing to do – until you start the actual training. But the crux of these stories, the turning point, the truth-with-a-capital-T in each book has to do with the protagonists making a hard choice, giving something up, coming to a costly awareness or decision – whether it is mercy or repentance or sacrifice. It is because Tolkien, and Lewis, and JK Rowling write the Truth – even without mentioning God – that their work endures and continually finds new audiences. The Truth they portray is hard and beautiful and good.
Jesus’s words are hard; they are challenging. They call us to examine our lives, our schedules, our commitments. Did we think faith was going to be easy? Do we try to fit God in as an after-thought, a “nice-to-have”? As the Prayer Book puts it in Eucharistic Prayer C, do we look to church “for solace only, and not for strength; for pardon only, and not for renewal”? Solace and pardon can be good places to start, but we can’t stay there – not if we are going to go the whole way with Jesus.
So, at the start of this new season, let’s take the time – each one of us - to ask God how we might count the cost of our faith, the cost of what God is asking us to do and to be, so that we can be more fit and ready to serve our Lord with truth, mercy, beauty, and goodness.
Let us pray.
Grant, Lord God, to all who have been baptized into the death and resurrection of your Son Jesus Christ, that, as we have put away the old life of sin, so we may be renewed in the spirit of our minds, and live in righteousness and true holiness; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen. ~ BCP, p. 252
Victoria Geer McGrath
All Saints’ Church, Millington, NJ
Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost
September 8, 2019
But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous." Luke 14:13-14
For many Americans, Thanksgiving is their favorite holiday. Gathering with family and friends, cooking together, telling family stories, sharing reminiscences, playing games (whether touch football or board games), relaxing around a table of abundance and taking time for gratitude - all these help us remember what life is all about, they help us press the re-set button.
In quite a number of ways the Jewish Sabbath – Shabbat – does the same thing as Thanksgiving does. Far more than just being a day of prayer and worship on which work is prohibited, Shabbat is the weekly remembrance and observance of God’s good and abundant blessings in the gift of Creation (“In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth... Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all their multitude. And on the seventh day God finished the work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all the work that he had done. So God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested from all the work that he had done in creation.” Genesis 1:1, 2:1-3). It is a time for leisurely feasting and enjoyment of family, friends, and guests. It is a time to let go of the troubles of the world, and rest secure in the knowledge that the world does not revolve around us and our efforts but is in God’s loving and powerful hands.
And this Shabbat celebration happens every week – not just once a year. In the ancient world this weekly day of rest and refreshment was quite radical. The Greeks even considered Jews to be lazy because in the pagan world work went on all the time, punctuated only every so often by a public festival; unless, of course, you were wealthy and didn’t need to work every day.
This picture of the Sabbath is what we need to have in mind as we consider today’s passage about Jesus attending a Sabbath meal at the home of an important religious leader. Jesus is the guest at this meal, but he very quickly takes on the role of the host, the one in charge. As he observes the other guests and their behavior and takes notice of who has been invited to this Sabbath meal, he has some pretty sharp things to say to them. He tells the guests not to jockey for places of honor, not to assume that they should get the best seats at the table just because they are impressed with their own importance. And he tells the owner of the house not to invite his friends, brothers, relatives, or rich neighbors, who will just repay him with an invitation in return. But he is to invite those who are poor, crippled, lame, blind – all considered markers in Jesus’ day of somehow not measuring up, not living according to God’s Law, getting what you deserve.
Jesus is speaking here on several levels at once – as he so often does. To begin with, Shabbat is not a time for human distinctions and divisions, but a recognition that all we have and all we are is a gift from God. Some may have more, some may have less, but fundamentally life and all its blessings are given by God’s gracious loving-kindness; full stop. In the face of God’s generosity, humility is called for, not jockeying for position. And since God has treated us with such goodness, we ought to act in like manner, sharing God’s blessings with others who cannot repay us any more than we can ever repay God.
By the time Luke was writing and circulating his two-volume Good News concerning Jesus – the Gospel and the Book of Acts – about fifty years after the Resurrection, the Christian imagery around festive, holy meals had taken on a new meaning. The change began with Jesus’ teaching and language in passages such as the one we are considering this morning when he began to speak of wedding banquets and resurrection, and started to point to images of God’s Kingdom as being like a wedding feast to which all were invited to join in. The idea of the feast, with its celebration and joy, was to reach its fulfillment at the time of God’s Kingdom coming on earth in the same way it already exists in God’s realm that we call heaven. But even now, Jesus’ disciples could participate in that heavenly banquet through the celebration of the Eucharist – a foretaste of what God will do in God’s own good time.
Many of the qualities of the Christian Eucharist are drawn from Shabbat, as well including some that are new and distinctively Christian – thanksgiving, gratitude, recognition of God’s sovereignty and power, abundance, blessing, resting in God’s gift of life, and God’s gift of New Life and New Creation in Christ’s Resurrection.
And so, Jesus’ words in this passage look both forward and backward: forward to the fulfillment of God’s Kingdom as much and backward to God’s original act of Creation and rest. If our goal is God’s Kingdom which is akin to a banquet of joy and celebration, inclusive of all God’s people, then it would behoove us to start acting as if the banquet were underway now, whenever we have the opportunity. Practicing traits, markers of God’s Kingdom such as humility and generosity, are ways that we grow more into Christ-likeness and help to make Jesus’ presence felt and known in life here and now.
Humility and generosity fly in the face of much that the world wants us to believe. We are told that if we are to succeed, we need to start by assuming that we are the best, the most deserving, that anything good we have is because we have earned it. And that then makes it hard to be generous, because we are never sure if another person has earned or deserves what we might give them. Or perhaps we are afraid that if we share something, or give something away it will diminish us, that we won’t have enough for ourselves.
But as Jesus’ followers, as those who already know the abundance and loving-kindness and goodness of God, we know a deeper truth than what the world knows. We know that we are both made in God’s image and always in need of grace and forgiveness. We know that God’s goodness is greater than our fear, and that God is the Giver from whom all blessings flow.
So we need to practice these traits of humility and generosity, so they become even deeper than second-nature to us. We live in a world of overlapping realities, of “already” and “not yet”, of knowing that Jesus is present with us always, and also looking for the fulfillment of God’s Kingdom. This is not easy. It can be disorienting at times. None of us ever gets it perfectly, and yet we are called by Christ and gifted and empowered by the Holy Spirit to do this very thing, to be the heralds and guests and celebrants of God’s great feast.
Humility, and generosity; generosity and humility – twin attitudes and practices that express the truth of God’s goodness to us and to all whom God has made, and the joyful feast to which we are invited.
Let us pray.
Almighty God, Father of all mercies,
we your unworthy servants give you humble thanks
for all your goodness and loving-kindness
to us and to all whom you have made.
We bless you for our creation, preservation,
and all the blessings of this life;
but above all for your immeasurable love
in the redemption of the world by our Lord Jesus Christ;
for the means of grace, and for the hope of glory.
And, we pray, give us such an awareness of your mercies,
that with truly thankful hearts we may show forth your praise,
not only with our lips, but in our lives,
by giving up our selves to your service,
and by walking before you
in holiness and righteousness all our days;
through Jesus Christ our Lord,
to whom, with you and the Holy Spirit,
be honor and glory throughout all ages. Amen.
~ A General Thanksgiving, Book of Common Prayer, p. 101
Victoria Geer McGrath
All Saints’ Church, Millington, NJ
Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost
September 1, 2019
Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Luke 10:41
One again, we have a very familiar Gospel passage at the center of our worship. Last week we heard Jesus tell the parable of the man from Samaria. Today we have an account of an event from Jesus’ ministry. And just like last week it will be helpful to hear the story afresh, lest we think we know what it says and just gloss over it.
In the course of his ministry travels towards Jerusalem, Jesus arrives in the village of Bethany and a woman named Martha opens her home to him, and his traveling companions. Remember back several weeks ago we heard Jesus sending out the seventy disciples and telling them to expect and accept the hospitality of those strangers they encountered? Well, here is a real-life example of what he was saying.
Martha is the homeowner, there doesn’t seem to be any husband, brother, or father around; her sister Mary lives with her [In the Gospel of John we do hear about their brother Lazarus, but he does not appear at all in Luke’s Gospel]. Somehow in the village, Martha encounters Jesus and extends an invitation to her house.
Martha welcomes Jesus and then sets about to prepare a meal. Mary takes a place in the front room, sitting and listening to what Jesus has to say. Something that would have been very obvious to first-century hearers of this story but may be lost on us is the fact that in faithful Jewish households the areas for men and women were pretty clearly demarcated. The kitchen was a woman’s area of influence and activity; the public room belonged to the men. And it's still that way in traditional Muslim households.
So when Martha comes to the door and tries to recruit Mary’s assistance, she’s not just asking for help, or chiding Mary for shirking responsibility for their guests, she’s trying to get Mary to conform to the traditional division of men’s and women’s spaces; and not to scandalize the important visiting rabbi.
But Jesus tells Martha that she’s so frantic and distracted that she’s missing the point of his visit, and missing out on being able to hear what he has to say; that in fact he wants both Mary and Martha to be in on this conversation.
It’s like those times when family or friends come to visit and you or someone else in your family has to be coaxed out of the kitchen, or whatever other place they are working, to set that aside for a while and spend time with the folks who have come to call – which is the whole purpose of the visit! After all, how easy would it be to put off reading a story to a young child or hearing about a teen-ager’s college plans or an adult son or daughter’s new young man or young woman because you were hyper-focused on getting a meal served or meeting some last-minute work deadline? We’ve all done that; and we’ve probably all regretted it later. Those moments come and go, and you can’t always get them back.
So, Jesus is saying to Martha: it’s important for you to be here, too. I want you to hear what I have to say, as well. We can take time for conversation now and enjoy the meal a bit later.
When Luke describes Mary as sitting at Jesus’ feet, he’s saying that she’s taking the role of a student who will one day be a teacher. That’s the way first-century rabbis-in-training were talked about; St. Paul describes himself as having sat at the feet of Rabbi Gamliel. It means that Jesus was inviting and expecting Mary to listen to his teaching, so that she would be equipped to share his teaching with others. And Jesus was inviting, urging, Martha to do the same.
In the Kingdom of God, as Jesus was living it and teaching it, the old boundaries were being broken down. Paul puts it very succinctly later on in the Letter to the Christians in Galatia: “There is no longer Jew or Greek; there is no longer slave or free; there is no ‘male and female’; you are all one in the Messiah, Jesus.” (Gal. 3:28).
It’s a mistake, therefore, for us to think that there is some sort of hierarchy between different modes of service – as in, prayer and study are better than hands-on care for others. That is a false dichotomy that is very unhelpful. After all, in last week’s Gospel the Samaritan’s physical and financial care of the beaten Jewish man was offered as a very clear example of living God’s law. And at the start of that reading when the religious law scholar gave Jesus the answer about inheriting eternal life and the answer was: Love God and love your neighbor as yourself, that covered both contemplation and action. And the week prior to that, when Jesus was sending out the seventy disciples he fully expected them to accept the hospitality that was offered them; so clearly cooking, serving a meal, providing a clean and restful place are all valuable, and those things don’t just happen by themselves.
But today the invitation is to stay focused on Jesus and on what he wants us to learn, on what he wants us to receive from him. Jesus wants us – men and women both – to take the time to listen, to learn, to put what we hear into practice, to take what we live and believe as disciples and share it with others. We can’t do that if we are worried, and frantic, and distracted. The challenge for most of us, I suspect, is to find ways to take time intentionally on as close to a daily basis as possible. Coming to church to worship with others, to hear the Sunday Scriptures, to listen to the sermon, to pray the liturgy are all essential – but it can be a long time between Sundays; and even longer when your schedule doesn’t permit you to be here every week. At those times the near-daily practice of sitting quietly, listening to God in prayer and Scripture and silence becomes even more important. Otherwise we will all too easily find ourselves running on fumes and getting spiritually exhausted and ill-equipped, and even lose the thread of what the Holy Spirit is trying to say to us.
So hear the voice of Jesus speaking to you: come, sit, rest, listen, pay attention, and know that I am calling you in love so that I may send you forth in compassion to the world.
Let us pray.
O God of peace, you have taught us that in returning and
rest we shall be saved, in quietness and confidence shall be
our strength: By the might of your Spirit lift us, we pray you,
to your presence, where we may be still and know that you
are God; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. ~ BCP
Victoria Geer McGrath
All Saints’ Church, Millington, NJ
Sixth Sunday after Pentecost
July 21, 2019
Today’s Gospel contains four encounters between Jesus and other people, and when you look at these four encounters, at first, it might look like they’re unrelated.
There isn’t ever just one way to interpret any passage of scripture. There are actually myriad ways to look at it, and whenever Jesus speaks in the Gospels he is always saying a multitude of things at the same time. One way we might look at this particular text is to sort of helicopter up and try and understand what Jesus might have been saying in a general, thematic way.
The first encounter, between Jesus and James and John, always makes me laugh because it’s one of those Three Stooges moments in the Gospels, where the disciples were completely clueless about the nature of God. The setting here is that Jesus and his followers had gone to a village of Samaritans. Now, Samaritans were actually Jews who had been left behind in Israel after the other Jews were taken into exile in Assyria and Babylon and so after the exile, there was a disagreement between the Samaritans and the Jews about where the center of worship should be. So here the Samaritan village had rejected Jesus' teachings because he was a Jew who believed Jerusalem was the center of worship and the Samaritans believed that their temple on Mt. Gerizim was the center, and because of this disagreement, James and John turn to Jesus in complete seriousness and ask him “So – do you want us to incinerate them?” And it says here “Jesus rebuked them”, so I can just imagine Jesus going “NO!! I do not want you to set them on fire! Let’s just move on!” and what I see here, in my own interpretation of this scripture, is Jesus telling them, as he does people over and over in the Gospels “I’m not that kind of god,” meaning here “I am not the god of vengeance and destruction that you have been brought up to believe I am. I am not the god who’s going to destroy all your enemies and help you all take over the world.” And so here, Jesus is telling the people to let go of their old notions about what they think God is, and instead listen to him, the incarnation of God himself, explaining that he is actually a God of love and compassion.
The other three encounters in this Gospel, between Jesus and people who are curious about following him, might seem to go into the category of what my esteemed former colleague, the Rev. Stephen Gerth at the Church of Saint Mary the Virgin in New York City, refers to as the “Mean Jesus." Father Gerth says that in the Gospels there are instances of the Nice Jesus and the Mean Jesus because Jesus says some pretty harsh things to people. I tend to reject that theory, though. I don't think Jesus is ever a mean Jesus. I think he's the loving God of my understanding all the time so I am going to let him off the hook here.
With the first man, I would like to think that Jesus is simply telling him “The Son of man has nowhere to lay his head” as a profound observation about the inability of society to understand who he actually is, rather than ignoring the poor guy’s desire to follow him and simply complaining about not having a permanent place to live. Jesus here is simply telling the man yes, come and follow me, but it is not going to be easy. He is saying to him “Right now there is no safe place for my teachings to dwell, in such a broken, dangerous world.” He’s probably also speaking symbolically here in reference to foxes and birds. Later in Luke he calls Herod Antipas an “old fox” and in the book of Isaiah, Cyrus of Persia was referred to as a bird of prey, so it’s possible Jesus was saying the rulers and the false teachers of the world have a safe, secure place for themselves and their message, but God does not.
When Jesus tells the second man “let the dead bury their own dead” I don’t think he was literally saying “Don’t go to your own father’s funeral. I know they’re expecting you and that you probably have some duties to perform for your family, but don’t go. Follow me instead.” That sounds a little too egotistical and dictatorial for the Jesus of my understanding. I would like to think maybe Jesus might have instead meant something about inviting this man to reject old religious practices and the beliefs of his family and his culture that are no longer working, and instead embrace something new.
The third man tells Jesus he will follow him but he first needs to say goodbye to his loved ones back at home. Jesus says to him “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” I think what he means here is not “Don’t go to be with your loved ones and set things right with them.” But rather “If you want to follow me, don’t do it halfway. Don’t stay stuck in old ways of thinking and keep wondering if you should go back to that. If you’re going to commit to my new way, you have to commit with your whole heart.”
We can see Jesus' instructions to embrace something new in our own spiritual lives today. We can try to be vigilant about not becoming what they sometimes call "the mechanical church" – to not fall into a pattern of just going through the motions and saying the words without having any real energy or meaning behind them. In our prayer life, we can try to leave behind any methods that have become dry and empty and instead find ways to connect with God that are alive and that promote our spiritual growth. In the church, we can try to always remember the reasons why we do things, and if we can’t remember, then we need to ask ourselves why we are still doing them.
Jesus’ entry into the world was meant to turn everything upside down and to challenge the beliefs and structures that were in place at that time, and I believe that in our lives, and in the life of our world, Jesus is still trying to do this. He is asking us to leave behind the things that are empty, negative or destructive and instead embrace his good news of life and love and hope.
For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.
2 Corinthians 5:21
In our day and age we don’t like the word sin – at least as it applies to us personally, to our habits, our short-comings, to the behavior groups to which we belong. For many of us the word sin carries with it all the images of an angry God who is hateful and punishing, just waiting to catch us out, and all wrapped in the cadences of a hellfire-and-brimstone preacher. That language strikes us as unseemly, over-the-top dramatic, a God we have no interest in believing in.
And yet, Ash Wednesday is all about sin – our sin, personal sin, corporate sin, the sin of humanity and human structures, and the very real ways we have all failed and fallen short of the glory of God. When we stand still long enough to really look, when we take our fingers out of our ears and listen, we will be able to acknowledge – at least to ourselves – that we have sinned in any number of ways large and small. In fact, St. Augustine, writing around the year 400 AD said that it was not possible for men and women not to sin; it’s baked into our human nature, at one level.
There are, of course, preachers, and teachers, and traditions that spend all their time talking about sin and its ravages. When that happens, it pulls our picture of God out of focus, gives a skewed sense of God’s nature. But we can also go too far in the opposite direction – running away from ever facing or addressing the presence of sin in our lives, and instead trying to bask solely in the warmth of God’s approval.
As with most things connected to God, the Bible, and the Christian life, sin and grace are a both/and, not an either/or. And really, as Episcopalians who have our roots as a Church in the via media, the middle way, this should not be too hard to wrap our minds around. Sin is real, and God’s grace and forgiveness are real, and we have to keep both of these in the picture.
The Collect for Ash Wednesday gives us a lot of help with this. We start by remembering and claiming that God hates nothing he has made – nothing; that includes us. It also includes the person or group who most vexes us and over whom we fret and fume the most. God does not hate us – and God forgives the sins of all those who come in humility and penitence to ask for forgiveness. There it is, right up front, the two together: love and sin; grace and penitence.
The Collect goes on to ask God to do what God does best – to create, to make anew, to bring order out of chaos, and goodness out of pain and sorrow: Create and make in us new and contrite hearts. We do not ask to be made perfect, but we do pray for God’s perfect forgiveness and mercy. This is the language of a God whose first impulse is to love, to create, to bless.
The hitch is, that if we stay stuck in out sin, if we refuse to see our condition – what is actually going on with us – then we will miss the grace, and mercy, and blessing. It’s not something God forces on us. We can close and lock the door from the inside, keeping God our...along with anyone else we don’t want to deal with.
So the Church in her wisdom has given us time to work on our aversion to the truth about ourselves. We get forty whole days – not including the Sundays – to take stock, to examine our behavior and attitudes and relationships. We’ll each have different things we need to bring to the surface, to let the light of the Holy Spirit begin to disinfect our hearts and minds. Some of us will have really big and hard burdens of sin to address. And for some people, this is where the practice of private sacramental confession can be helpful. Others of us will have smaller, less obvious, but no less painful on-going failures to address. In every case a good place to start is by asking oneself about Jesus’ Great Commandment:
God doesn’t point out our sin to us so that we will be miserable and feel ourselves beyond redemption – quite the opposite. God calls us out from our sin so that we no longer have to be miserable – to ourselves and to those around us. Wounds that fester need to be cleaned and bound up; infections need to heal; relationships that have been breached need to be mended; the brokenness of the world needs to be repaired. That is what God does, in God’s mercy, that is what is on offer this Ash Wednesday, this Lent.
It may not be possible for us not to sin, but God’s grace and mercy are greater than our human nature, if we allow God access to our soul.
Let us pray.
Almighty and everlasting God, you indeed hate nothing you have made and forgive the sins of all who are penitent: Create and make in us new and contrite hearts, that we, worthily lamenting our sins and acknowledging our wretchedness, may obtain of you, the God of all mercy, perfect remission and forgiveness; that we may live in your love and walk in your ways. In Jesus’ Name, Amen.
Victoria Geer McGrath
All Saints’ Church, Millington, NJ
March 6, 2019
And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, "Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing." Luke 4:20-21
Have you ever had the experience of going back to a place where you grew up, or where you had once lived, but hadn’t visited in a long time? What was that like? Childhood places often seem much smaller when we see them as adults. One of my elementary schools was on a hill, and you got to the front door from the sidewalk by climbing a very long flight of stairs. When I visited it recently the stairs were as imposing as ever, but the hill from school down to Main Street was much shorter and less steep than I remembered from when I walked it as a nine-year old.
Or maybe your experience of return was one of a changed landscape – houses torn down, new buildings built, fancier or more run-down, much busier or lacking vitality. Going home can be full of surprises, and even disappointments. But going home or going back can also help us to get perspective on ourselves, on where we have been, on how we’ve changed, on what life has been like for us and what we have learned.
In the Scripture readings this morning we’ve heard two going-home stories: one from the book of Nehemiah in the much longer account of the return of Jewish exiles from Babylon to Jerusalem; and the other from Luke’s telling of Jesus’ visit as an adult to his hometown synagogue in Nazareth at the start of his public ministry.
Jews of Nehemiah’s day (5th century BCE) began returning to Jerusalem from their exile and were faced with the ruins of the Temple and the destruction of the city walls. Under Nehemiah’s leadership the walls were rebuilt, and the work of restoring the Temple continued. But what really restored the Jewish community – after all the work of physical building – was to hear the Torah, God’s Law, the Holy Scriptures such as they had them – read aloud at the gathering of the community. God was present with his people through these words which many of them had not heard read aloud in decades, and they were filled with life and joy and the power of God’s holiness. God was being revealed to them in a deep and life-giving way, and they learned that without God’s presence in their midst, their community was not complete.
In the Gospel we hear Jesus returning to his home congregation, the place he was raised, where he studied the Torah with the other men, the place where he prayed and learned and gathered with the rest of his community. I’m sure they felt they knew him well. They must have been excited and proud to have Jesus home, this young rabbi who was gathering followers and making a name for himself. He might even put Nazareth on the map! They might have said to themselves. So, the synagogue attendant handed Jesus the scroll to read the day’s Torah portion – a passage from Isaiah. Jesus read the passage and then sat down – the traditional posture of a teacher. Everyone was watching him. Everyone was eagerly waiting. What words of wisdom, what fresh insight into the Scriptures would he offer?
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me …” Jesus had read. And then he began his teaching with: "Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing." He was claiming those words of Isaiah for himself. And in claiming God’s mission outlined here, by identifying himself as the fulfillment of these words, by identifying himself with God’s holiness, Jesus revealed a glimpse of his true nature and purpose: to bring good news to the poor; to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind; to let the oppressed go free; to proclaim the year of jubilee (the year of the Lord’s favor) in which ancestral lands were returned to their original owners, debts were forgiven, and the burden of indenture on servants were lifted. All of this coming together, here and now in Jesus – much more than just an ordinary rabbi, local boy made good. Clearly, those in the synagogue were being asked to see Jesus in a new light. And they were going to have to decide whether their picture of Jesus and of the Scriptures was large enough to see them both in new and surprising ways. We’ll find out what their reaction was next week (or you can always read ahead)!
Both Nehemiah and Luke touch on what it is like to return to a familiar place or group and have a fresh revelation of ourselves and the Holy One. It’s not easy; we can have our settled assumptions challenged. The way we always thought God would be present with us may be quite different, when we have our eyes and ears and hearts open. Sometimes God wants to tell us that God’s truth is counter to what we want to hear. When that happens, we can turn away and stick our heads in the sand; *or* we can be brave and curious and listen to what God is trying to tell us. What makes it especially tricky is that God rarely gives us a big, flashing neon sign with an exact message spelled out for us. Far more often God is whispering to us in the “still, small voice”, in the hints and glimpses that come to us in so many ways.
The Season after Epiphany is the time in the Church year when we pay particular attention to all the ways that Christ is revealed, is made manifest in human life, and to the world at large – first to the Magi; then at his baptism; in the wedding feast at Cana turning water into wine; in healings and other wondrous works; in opening up the words of the Hebrew Scriptures.
Another way that God can and does speak to us is though our connection and relationship with our fellow Christians, other members of the Body of Christ. In the twelfth chapter of First Corinthians St. Paul delves into his metaphor for the Church as the Body of Christ. And here he means each believer, each follower of Jesus connected to one another in the same way the human body is connected, with Christ as the head. 'The foot cannot say to the hand ‘I have no need of you’…and if one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it
Paul sees us all connected intimately; and the health of our community, our faith, and our witness to the world depends on our connection with one another. Christian life is lived as much on the horizontal, with our brothers and sisters in Christ, our fellow body-parts, as much as it is lived in a vertical dimension – our own particular relationship with God. Christian life is lived on the horizontal as much as it is lived on the vertical.
When we gather, when we pray together, when we study Scripture or do ministry together, when we have fellowship and fun together, we show one another an aspect of God that comes through us uniquely. In fact, I would go so far as to say that when we gather for worship and you are not here, someone else is being deprived of your encouragement, your light, your wisdom, your care, your particular expression of God’s holiness; your questions, your joy – any of which another person may need desperately on any given Sunday. The presence of Christ in you flows out to those around you, here in this church we call our spiritual home.
The presence of God and the nature and holiness of Christ keep being revealed to us – in the Scriptures read and proclaimed, in the gathering of the community and the ways we share our lives, and in the life and presence of Jesus in our midst coming to us through liturgy and prayer and an open heart. How is Jesus appearing in your life, making himself manifest to you and through you this Season after Epiphany?
Let us pray.
Lord Jesus, we come to you in faith, asking for a fresh revelation and sense of your presence with us. May we each be a light to one another and to your world. And may we never fear coming to know you more truly and deeply, so that we may become your People. We ask this in your holy Name. Amen.
Victoria Geer McGrath
All Saints’ Church, Millington, NJ
Third Sunday after Epiphany
January 27, 2019
All flesh is grass, and all the goodliness thereof is as the flower of the field…. The grass withereth, the flower fadeth: but the word of our God shall stand for ever. Isaiah 40:6 & 8
Today is the hundredth anniversary of the armistice ending the First World War, the Great War, the “war to end all wars”, as it was thought to be at the time.
The causes of any armed conflict are always a mixture of economics, geo-political realities, territorial disputes, sometimes moral principles, bilateral misunderstandings, missed opportunities for reconciliation (sometimes opportunities deliberately rebuffed), defense of honor, fear of shame or retribution, honoring of alliances, defense of the realm or nation, even simple greed and pride – all in varied proportions. And World War I had all of these.
But it also had youth, confidence, optimism, and a certain cultural naiveté. The first declaration of war by the Austro-Hungarian Empire on Serbia, after the assassination of Austrian Archduke Ferdinand by Serbian nationalists, came at the end of July 1914. In a little over two weeks all the dominos began to fall: Russia, France, Germany, Great Britain, and Japan. They all declared war in support of their allies – as well as their own purposes. The first fighting began in August, and it was widely assumed – at least in England – that the war would all be over by Christmas; a brief dust-up, putting those upstarts in their place, a chance for adventure and glory, doing “one’s bit for one’s country.”
But the forces that had been unleashed were far greater and more powerful than anyone had really reckoned; the genii of war, once out of the bottle, could not be easily restrained. Turkey and Italy joined the war; Australian, New Zealand, and Canadian troops fought alongside the British; Belgium, Ukraine, and Polish lands were battlefields; the Balkan lands, Gallipoli, North Africa, parts of China and south Asia were all touched by war; in 1917 America came in to support the British. And by the time it was all over, not only had much of the map of the world been re-drawn, but “one in three” young men in Western Europe had been killed; a generation, and an optimism in the human ability to make progress, to be civilized, had died. Individual soldiers, military units, armies and navies served with courage and honor in the face of horrific and unspeakable conditions, and they deserve our gratitude and prayers.
But the façade of turn-of-the century confidence in merely human institutions and society had been exposed, leaving the world with a clearer picture of the sin, fallibility, and hubris of human nature. Yet in the moral, physical, and spiritual exhaustion at the end of the war our reach for true and lasting peace, and the conditions that support peace, did not go deep or far enough, and so many of those embers went underground and smoldered, until they erupted again twenty-odd years later, this time in metasticized form.
All flesh is grass, and all the goodliness thereof is as the flower of the field…. The grass withereth, the flower fadeth: but the word of our God shall stand for ever, says the prophet Isaiah. The war showed us that there is no human achievement, no culture or civilization alone, that can withstand the promise and pull of unbridled power and glory. We all stand under the judgement of God, our Creator. We are all accountable to God, and to one another - the brothers and sisters in the human family our God has given us.
But just as we know in Christian faith that death is not the end, so we also need to remember that war is not the true nature of human society and the human heart. Countless times in Scripture God tells a different narrative, paints an alternative picture to what we would make, left to our own devices. In God’s vision, the goal of human society and the whole created order is to be living in God’s shalom – peace, wholeness, health, well-being, celebration. The holy city, the New Jerusalem of the Book of Revelation is the promise and the invitation God holds before us.
It is there for us to accept, to embrace, as God’s gift, but it requires our cooperation. Peace is not made merely by the cessation of hostilities and armed conflict. Peace is made as we go through each day, encountering the people we live and work with as neighbor, looking for the best in each other – even as we are not surprised when we see the worst. It’s what St. Paul said in Firsh Corinthians: Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. (1 Cor 13:4-7). This is not some fresh naiveté, but the spiritual truth of God’s purposes in and for the world, and it operates on the level of individuals, families, communities, and cultures.
We cannot wait for someone else to start first; it begins with us each and every day, even when love is inconvenient, even when it would feel good to lash out and insult or hurt another, even when we are tempted in our defense to go beyond merely meeting strength with strength.
The shalom of God’s Kingdom is a reality we are invited to join and help build “on earth as it is in heaven” through our actions and our prayers. Let us work and pray so that the hope for peace and a better world for which those men and women of the Great War and all wars gave their lives can come to fruition – with God’s help and in God’s way.
Let us pray.
Father of all mercies, teach us to be merciful, as thou art merciful.
Father of all forgiveness, help us to forgive others, as thou hast forgiven us;
knowing that, with what measure we mete, it shall be measured to us again;
for Jesus Christ’s sake. Amen. ~ Eric Milner-White*
** Eric Milner-White (1884 –1963) was a British Anglican priest, academic, and decorated military chaplain. He was a founder of the Oratory of the Good Shepherd, an Anglican dispersed community, and served as its Superior between 1923 and 1938. From 1941 to 1963, he was the Dean of York in the Church of England.
Victoria Geer McGrath
All Saints’ Church, Millington, NJ
Service of Peace and Remembrance:
the Centenary of the End of World War I
November 11, 2018
[Jesus] asked them, "But who do you say that I am?" Peter answered him, "You are the Messiah." Mark 8:29
Have you ever had the experience of pondering a question or a problem and suddenly the answer or the truth pops into your head – maybe you even blurt it out? This not about recalling facts that you have memorized, or suddenly remembering something you are familiar with but may have temporarily forgotten. It’s more along the lines of a question you really hadn’t considered before, yet the recognition of the answer comes swift and clear. You may even find yourself saying Where did that come from? once you hear yourself say it.
That’s what was going on with Peter in this morning’s Gospel. Jesus and the disciples are on the road again. It gives Jesus some time for private conversation with his inner circle. They were a captive audience – just like teenagers being driven to an event by their parents. Those teen and parent car rides can be opportunities for important questions. And Jesus does, indeed, as an important question – even a really crucial question – of his followers: “Who do people say that I am” – what’s the buzz? what’s the word on the street?
The answer the disciples gave all had to do with the possibility that Jesus was someone from Jewish history who had somehow returned: Elijah, the man of God, who was thought to be the for-runner of the Messiah’s arrival; or one of the Old Testament prophets – those who spoke God’s truth to the power structures of their day; or even John the Baptist, who had recently been beheaded by the king because of John’s outspoken criticism of the king’s behavior while he was trying to call his fellow Jews to readiness for the Messiah’s arrival. These were the responses the disciples were reporting, but it’s almost as if we can hear them say, “Yes, but we know, Jesus, that you aren’t any of those people” without actually taking the next step and saying who they believe him to be.
And then Jesus does take the next step – and he asks the crucial question: “But who do you say that I am?” And Peter – out of nowhere - blurts out: “You are the Messiah;” God’s holy One, the One we have all been waiting for; the One who will come and clean up the mess, set the world to rights, vindicate God’s people in the eyes of the rest of the world. It just came bubbling up out of him, before he really had time to consider his answer. The Truth came to the fore.
This question of Jesus’ identity is crucial. It’s the core question - not about whether we agree with Jesus’ teaching or not. Because if Jesus is the Messiah then he is God’s Anointed, the Incarnate One, God in human flesh and blood, the Author and Creator of the universe in our own sphere of existence. And that raises a follow-on question: “Who am I, who are we, in relation to Jesus? What is my identity? What is our identity?” Because if we are disciples, if we are following Jesus, then his identity will shape our own.
Peter seems instinctively to have understood this, which is why he began to rebuke Jesus when the talk turned to his rejection, suffering, and dying before rising on the third day. ‘A Messiah who suffers and dies? No, no, we can’t have that. The Messiah is supposed to make everything all better, make all God’s promises come true, and I really want everything to be better without incurring any further cost on my part.’ Peter somehow sensed that if the Messiah had to undergo suffering, then he would have to, also.
And he was right. And that’s exactly why Jesus told Peter to get out of the way, if that was going to be his attitude. "If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.” If we are going to follow Jesus, then we had best be prepared to think and do and say some of the things that Jesus did; to live as his apprentices. Jesus is not saying that being a Christian is always hard, or that we should go out of our way to seek suffering or live life in such a way that is it always burdensome. In fact, quite the opposite; Jesus invites us to take up his yoke and find rest for our souls.
But make no mistake, when we give our loyalty and our allegiance to Christ – for that is what it means when he says we are to take up our cross and follow him – then we will indeed find ourselves in dark and difficult and painful places from time to time. Jesus has come to be the Light of World, to offer men and women and children a different way of being – what our Presiding Bishop Curry calls The Way of Love. And as Jesus’ followers we get deployed into places where God needs us to go.
Sometimes God’s love and truth and compassion and justice extended through us will be accepted, welcomed, even celebrated. But just as often it will be slighted, rejected, condemned – and we as the messengers will be, also. And yet it is all part of serving in God’s mission to heal, redeem, and reconcile the world to Godself.
And that mission can take us to all sorts of places that are strange, or surprising, or uncomfortable for us – whether it’s geographical or emotional or social or spiritual territory - if we really pay attention and listen.
Yesterday morning there was a motorcycle ride that started at the Stirling Shop-Rite and ended at the American Legion Post in Piscataway. It was a “Hunger Run” to raise money, a partnership with Shop-Rite and the Post to support local food pantries – and All Saints’ is one of the recipients of those funds. When the store employee who was organizing it told me about the run and invited me to come and watch the start of it, I took a chance and asked he if she’d like me to bless the ride. She was thrilled.
Now you have to know, I have never been on a motorcycle; no one in my family rides; it’s really outside my comfort zone. But those forty or more riders were eager for my prayer. They got into a huddle and put me in the middle of it. I prayed for safety and no rain; I prayed for the folks who would benefit from the food that would come from this fund-raising. The riders wanted me to pray for family members caught in the hurricane. Their former post commander had died Friday night, and they wanted to pray for him, as well. And one of the members wanted to talk to me about having lost two of her brothers to addiction and about her father’s PTSD after having served in the Korean War. So many important feelings and stories in a very short space of time.
Will some of those bikers be in a church this morning? Maybe. Are some of them intentional followers of Jesus? I bet so. But the more important question is: Did they have an experience of God in the Shop-Rite parking lot Saturday morning? Did Jesus, through my presence, show up in visible form to say: “Well done, good and faithful servants.”? I think the answer is yes.
Jesus always calls us to show up in places where people need hope, comfort, strength, and truth. And when we follow, when we pick up our cross, lay aside our own preferences and schedule and hesitation, God will always give us the words and the wisdom to say and do what is needed – for forty people, for five thousand, or for just one other person.
Jesus the Messiah was sent into the world to bring God’s hope to fruition; and we are called to do the same, each as the Holy Spirit leads us.
Let us pray.
Let the words of our mouths and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.
Victoria Geer McGrath
All Saints’ Church, Millington, NJ
Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost
September 16, 2018
Sermons & Reflections
Sermons and reflections from clergy and lay leadership at
All Saints' Millington