Unexpected Work

The work day was just about over for Simon, James, and John.  It hadn’t been a particularly fruitful night on the water, but in the fishing-game, that happens sometimes.  You can’t get too frustrated with fish – they are wild animals after all.  Catch or no catch, each day ended the same way, with cleaning and resetting the nets for tomorrow.  My job isn’t particularly strenuous, at least physically, but I still know what it feels like to be tired at the end of the day, ready to go home, when something or someone unexpected comes to call.  Given that swearing at people and casting them into outer darkness is frowned upon in my line of work, I’ve given my fair share of “Well, we were wrapping up for the day, but we’ll see what we can do” answers, just like Simon Peter tried with Jesus.

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The thing about this story from Luke is how no matter how different our circumstance might be from that encounter between Jesus and those who would be his first disciples, it doesn’t take too long to realize that following Jesus can mean all kinds of unexpected work.  Whether it is weekly meetings to pray about the rising presence of those experiencing homelessness in your community or sitting in on a stewardship meeting or stepping up to Usher when you thought you might just sit in the pew this Sunday, following Jesus means an ongoing invitation to loving service to God, God’s people, and the Church.

This was made clear to me on Monday afternoon as I sat in the gallery of one of the rooms where Warren County Circuit Court takes place.  I was there to offer pastoral support to a member of our community who has made a lot bad decisions over the years.  It was a hearing without much hope for my friend, but one which I knew I needed to attend.  What I wasn’t prepared for was the three hours of prayerful people watching that would follow.  Circuit Court is an interesting place, and for most of the first hour, the din of conversation in the gallery made it next to impossible to understand what was going on in the various hearings, but I was able to discern several things, most of which weren’t really new, but did reinforce old lessons.  First, most of the folks who were entering into plea deals with the Commonwealth hadn’t graduated from high school.  Second, methamphetamines destroy peoples lives.  Third, public defenders have a really difficult job to do.  Fourth, judges can be fair, reasoned, and despite the difficult work and too high a standard to which they are called, human.

I didn’t expect to sit in a courtroom for more than three hours on Monday.  I had hoped to go to the doctor for a sinus infection and get home early, but the work of following Jesus is often unexpected, and as was the case for Simon, James, and John, sometimes, it comes just as you think your day is ending.  Still, to do the holy work to which we are all called – not just us professional minister types – is a gift.  Unexpected work often brings with it unexpected joy.  Maybe part of this discipleship journey is being able to see the joy amidst the work.

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Our Unending Prayer

As I write this post, police are on the scene at yet another school shooting.  This one happens to have occurred in the geographical confines of the Diocese of Kentucky, where I am canonically resident.  I have a friend who graduated from Marshall County High School.  Because of these things, in spite of living in a world that has made me numb to such tragedy, this one feels different.

It won’t take but but few hours before the lives turned upside-down by this act of violence will be traded for political capital.  The sides will line up as they always do, wagging their fingers at the other.  Religious leaders will follow suit.  People will offer thoughts and prayers.  Others will respond by lambasting their thoughts and prayers as hollow.  I fear that we are on the verge of an era in which things are so politicized that as Christians, we forget what a powerful force prayer is.

Almighty and everlasting God, you govern all things both in heaven and on earth: Mercifully hear the supplications of your people, and in our time grant us your peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

I received word of the Marshall County High School shooting while reading the Collect for Epiphany 4.  According to Marion Hatchett’s Commentary on the American Prayer Book, this prayer was originally found in the Gregorian Sacramentary, which means that it is roughly 900 years old.  For 900 years, the people of God have prayed this prayer.  For eleven hundred years of Christian history before that, it can be assured that people prayed that God might grant peace.  Even before the advent of Christ, the Jewish word of greeting to stranger and friend alike was Shalom, a wish for peace and wholeness.  It is our unending prayer.

I agree with Pope Francis who said, “You pray for the hungry and then you feed them.  That’s how prayer works.”  When we pray for peace, it requires that we are ready to work for it.  This doesn’t mean that we work only so our political agenda can win the day, but rather, we work toward the restoration of all of humanity to right relationship with God and with each other.  It means praying for and working toward a spirit of cooperation, in which our government can make sensible choices around gun control, mental health spending, and law enforcement policy.  It means praying and caring for those who are ostracized and marginalized.  It means sacrifices on our part in order to make the world a safer, healthier, and holier place than it is right now.

Prayer works.  And so, today, I invite us all to add our voices to the unending prayers of the saints who have asked God to bring peace to our world.

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Eternal God, in whose perfect kingdom no sword is drawn but the sword of righteousness, no strength known but the strength of love: So mightily spread abroad your Spirit, that all peoples may be gathered under the banner of the Prince of Peace, as children of one Father; to whom be dominion and glory, now and for ever. Amen.

Staying Awake is Prayer and Action

I’ve written so many of these posts over the years that I’m tired.  So tired, in fact, that I contemplated not doing it.  You no doubt noticed that I skipped it yesterday.  I just couldn’t bring myself to write another post about another mass shooting.  I was on vacation the week that Las Vegas happened.  I posted on Facebook, but didn’t have a chance to write anything here.

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But honestly, after Sandy Hook and the Pulse Nightclub, I really thought I had written my last post about people being slaughtered in a place where they should have been safe from the evils of anger, mental illness, domestic violence, and semi-automatic machine guns.  And then Sunday happened, and while the people of First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs were saying their prayers, at least 27 of them were killed by an angry white man hellbent on destroying the world as he had come to understand it.

The doors of FBC Sutherland Springs are red, just like the doors of Christ Episcopal Church in Bowling Green and thousands of others around the world.  The red doors can symbolize many things, from a mortgage free church to a welcoming congregation, but if you ask around, you are most likely to hear that it means a place of sanctuary.  Soldiers and law enforcement, it is said, are unable to pursue someone inside the red doors of a church.  It is supposed to be a place of safety.  While harm has come to worshipers inside the safety of the red doors before, this time, we have a 24 hour news cycle and social media to ensure that every person on the planet knows that it happened.  And, as if like clockwork, the various sides began to circle their wagons.

As has been a growing trend of late, the zero sum game between those who would offer prayer and those who would work for change has come to the forefront in the aftermath of Sunday’s tragedy.  It has become as if praying for the victims of such events is now offensive while only those who are actively working for reasonable gun control are real disciples of Jesus.  This is, of course, absurd.  The zero sum game between prayer and work is a falsehood, most likely handed to us by the devil himself, to make sure Christians continue to present in the wider culture as angry, ill mannered, and hypocritical.

Sunday’s Gospel lesson invites us to consider that famous seminary phrase, “both/and.”  In the parable of the foolish and wise bridesmaids, Jesus gives us a glimpse of the Kingdom of Heaven.  In it, Jesus seemingly admonishes his disciples to not be like either set of bridesmaids, since they all fell asleep, but rather, we are called to keep awake for the return of the bridegroom.  For those who know the larger story, this will immediately bring to mind the disciples in the Garden of Gethsemane on the night Jesus was arrested.  Despite Jesus imploring them to keep awake and pray with him, they fell asleep.  Three times, they failed to stay awake.

In times like these, disciples of Jesus are certainly called to stay awake and pray, but I think we are also called to the obvious meaning of the parable as well.  In order to be like the wise bridesmaids, we are called to do the work required to be ready when Jesus comes.  That work of preparation means working toward just solutions on topics like common sense gun control, funding for mental health, social safety nets, and quality public education.  Can we just pray?  Probably not.  Can we just call our Senators?  No, that won’t work either.  It is only through both prayer and work that we will be able to join with God in building the Kingdom Jesus describes in his parables.

Allowed? Yes. Wise? Well…

While in seminary, I brought in some extra income by working with the maintenance crew at the seminary.  I learned all sorts of interesting things: how to run a backhoe, how to thread pipe, how to test for a gas leak, how to epoxy a basement floor, how to rebuild a Sloan flush valve, and how to stretch your breaks for as long as possible without getting in trouble.  Part of stretching your breaks was learning how to make trips to the store last.  Always drive the speed limit.  Stop to pick up donuts for the rest of the crew.  Be very specific about which stores you will go to.  On trips to the Home Depot, I also learned a theological lesson about the parable of the laborers in the vineyard.

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Day laborers were a big thing in the DC metro area.  There were spots all around town where (usually) young Latino men would congregate waiting for work.   One popular spot was near an apartment complex on Route 7.  As the day went on, the crowd would dwindle, but like in the parable, there were some who, desperate for any work to feed themselves and their families, would wait all day, hoping to get hired.  In the parking lot of the Home Depot, it was a whole different story.  Here the competition was fierce.  Men who were ready, willing, and able to work would all but open your van door and jump in.  If you had an open bed on your pickup, the situation was made even more interesting.  These men were dying to work, and by stopping at the stop sign in the parking lot, you were inviting them to join your crew.

As I think about the parable of the laborers, I can’t help but think of those guys and how much they wanted/needed to work.  I wonder what the end of the day might have been like if the situation Jesus described took place.  Would some have grumbled that those who worked one hour got paid the same as those who worked all day?  Sure, that’s human nature.  Is it the prerogative of the landowner to pay whatever he chooses?  Absolutely, the landowner is allowed to do whatever she or he pleases.  Is is wise to operate that way?  The Invisible-Hand-Capitalist in me says no way.  This system would mean that the next day, nobody will be in the parking lot looking for work until 5pm.

Of course, Jesus isn’t suggesting an economic model in this parable, which is where the theological lesson comes in.  The Kingdom-of-God-Theologian in my says that this is a brilliant model upon which to build God’s reign.  Sure, there are some who might wait until the eleventh hour to come on board, but for so many of us, the sheer delight of working alongside God as the Kingdom is being unveiled is worth more than any day’s wage.  Maybe it wasn’t that the men in the Home Depot lot needed the money so much as they found delight in being useful.  To take our part in the building of something larger than ourselves can be a source of true joy.  Each morning, God invites us to take join in the work of building the Kingdom.  The payment, eternal life, is good, but the satisfaction that comes from the work itself, is inestimable.

Not the Time for Rest – a sermon

Today’s sermon, which includes the announcement of my new call to Christ Episcopal Church in Bowling Green, KY, is available on the Saint Paul’s website, or you can read it here.


At some point over the past year my favorite All Saints’ Day hymn changed.  I’m not when or how it happened, but this week, when I found myself humming a hymn to myself it wasn’t “I sing a song of the saints of God” as it has been for many years now.  Instead, I’ve fallen in love with our opening hymn [at 10 o’clock this morning], “For all the saints.”  I am particularly drawn to the opening line: “For all the saints, who from their labors rest, who thee by faith before the world confessed…”  Especially this week, as I’ve been coming to grips with the massive amount of change that will happen in my life, and your lives, and our collective life, I’ve found myself giving thanks for the saints who have gone to rest, but I’m also finding renewed motivation to get up and go. I’m feeling like now is not the time to rest, but to go forth and make a difference in the world for the sake of Jesus, which is my word for all of us this morning.  We are not called to be saints who from their labors rest, but saints on the march, moving ever forward to confess the name of Jesus Christ to a world full of people who desperately need to hear that God loves them more than they can even begin to imagine.

As many of you have read or heard by now, this week I accepted a call to serve as the next Rector at Christ Episcopal Church in Bowling Green, Kentucky.  You will be stuck with me for another couple of months, but I can’t help but already be thinking about what sort of imprint I hope my ministry will leave on Saint Paul’s in Foley, and I think it is summed up well in the lessons for All Saints’ Day, especially the lesson from the Book of Ecclesiasticus.  Not that I hope to be counted among the “famous men,” if my picture never goes up in that hall of horrors it’ll be all right with me, but because I hope that our common life together will be recalled not by the names of who did this or that, but based on the work that we have accomplished together for the sake of the Gospel.  Someday, there may be no memory of any of us; we may perish as though we never existed, but the impact that Saint Paul’s in Foley has had on the world around us will never be forgotten.

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I have caught myself this week giving thanks for the saints who have adopted the students of Foley Elementary School as their own.  Whether it was teaching kindergartners their ABC, entering hundreds of students’ immunization records into the nurse’s computer, riding the Zamboni-like floor cleaning machine, making copies, escorting kids here there and everywhere, or simply providing clean socks, underwear, pencils, and paper, there are thousands of children who have had the chance at a quality education because of Saint Paul’s in Foley.

The saints who have volunteered with Family Promise also came to mind.  Whether you donated money to buy lunch meat, cooked spaghetti, ordered pizza, or spent a sleepless night on a less than comfortable cot in the Mission House, dozens of families: mommies, daddies, and especially their precious little ones, have been able to get back on their feet and find the dignity and strength that comes from having stable living conditions because Saint Paul’s in Foley was willing to take a risk.

Then there are the saints who spend their Thanksgiving eve and day volunteering with Turkey Take-Out.  Those who are up before the sun to prep birds, cook them, carve them, scoop potatoes and pack meals; Those who donated thousands of pounds of canned goods, and did the hard work of sorting them and packing them for delivery; Those who got up early on Thanksgiving morning to deliver meals, hopefully not getting lost along the way, in neighborhoods that appeared too nice to have hungry families and those that looked too scary for children to live there; and then gathered here at 10am to give thanks to God for his many blessings.  Thousands of hungry families have been able to enjoy a proper Thanksgiving Dinner because Saint Paul’s in Foley was willing to say “yes” when Dr. Lawrence called.

And how could I fail to give thanks for all the saints who give of their time, talent, and treasure to make sure that the members of this parish are able to pray, worship, serve, and share the love of God together? The office volunteers who covered for Karla and Penny, the Sunday School and Follow the Word Teachers, the readers, prayers, chalice bearers, choir members, kneeler vacuumers, altar guild members, torch bearers, cleaning teams, weed pullers, EYC leaders, swing set builders, ditch maintainers, check writers, and more cooks than you can begin to imagine.  Each week, we are able to gather in praise and worship to deepen our relationship with God here at Saint Paul’s because of saints who are willing to do the work of the gospel inside and outside these walls.

It is right and honorable to spend time on All Saints’ Day remembering those saints who now rest from their labors, but I am of the firm belief that it is just as right and honorable to spend some time giving thanks for those saints who are still hard at work spreading the love of God in a world that desperately needs it.  Today I give thanks for the almost 10 years we have, as the collect for today says, been knit together in fellowship, and the ineffable joys that have come along with it.  Now is not the time to be saints at rest, but rather today begins a new task: the work of saying goodbye, of planning for the future, and of offering to Almighty God thanks and praise for the saints at work and the saints at rest who confess the name and love of Jesus here in Foley, Alabama.  May God bless our work: past, present, and future; to his honor and glory.  Amen.

Repentance Requires Action

A good deal of my personal idiomatic dictionary revolves around the Simpsons, but only really from the period of about seasons 5-9.  I quit watching the show with any regularity while I was in college, but it had long since done its job to embiggen my vocabulary with perfectly cromulent words.  During season 8 there was an episode entitled “Bart after Dark,” in which Bart, after breaking a gargoyle at what turns out to be a burlesque house, has to work the front door in order to pay off the damage.  Hilarity ensues, of course, especially when Grandpa Simpson comes through the front door.

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If you watch that gif closely, you can see in Grandpa Simpson’s eyes the moment that repentance takes place.  Which leads me to the Bible because, of course it would.

Sunday’s Track 2 Old Testament lesson, disjointed as it may be, is a perfect story of repentance.  It even uses the Hebrew word “shoob” that would become the Greek “metanoia,” which is the basis of our idea of repentance.

Naaman was a hard-hearted sort of guy.  He had to be.  As a military leader, his success was dependent upon his ability to lead men into battle.  This task is not for the faint of heart, and the author of 2 Kings tells us that Naaman was very good at his job.  To top it off, he suffered from leprosy, a disease which, under normal circumstances, would have left Naaman ostracized and jobless, but this was not the case for Naaman.  Likely due to nothing more than his own tenacity in sticking up for himself, Naaman was able to keep his rank, his power, and his prestige, despite his unsightly affliction.

Still, Naaman knew that his life would be a whole lot easier if he was cured of his leprosy, and so, when his wife’s slave girl told him of a prophet in Israel who might be able to help him, he swallowed his pride and went.  His stiff-neck was bowed up at the prescription of Elisha, and yet, he was convinced by his servants to try and bathe seven times in the Jordan if it meant he would be healed.  Slowly, in fits and starts, Naaman was making his way toward repentance.

Finally, when he arose from the water the last time and saw that he was healed, Naaman repented, literally he re-turned, making his way back to Elisha in order to give thanks and to declare, unequivocally that there was only one God in the world, and that God resided in Israel.

Naaman’s journey to repentance wasn’t easy.  It required trust, some prodding, a gut check, and finally, following a set of directions that seemed ridiculous, but in the end, he found God.  Sometimes, that how it works in our lives.  In order to find God through repentance, it requires action.  We have to first find ourselves in need.  We have to trust that someone or something outside of ourselves can meet that need.  We might need someone else to help us along the way.  We might even find ourselves in an unknown place following a ridiculous set of instructions. In the end, when we have seen the work of God in the unlikeliest of places, true repentance then is to reorient our lives toward God and give thanks.  None of this is easy, but no one said it would be.  Repentance isn’t just the work of the mind or the heart, but it often requires physical action to find God’s grace.

One Thing

What is the crux of the Christian faith?  Well, that’s not exactly an easy question to answer.  In Sunday’s Gospel lesson, we get something of an answer, but Jesus being Jesus is a bit opaque in his language.  Failing to give us a direct antecedent, we are stuck with an awkward Greek phrase,”henos de estin chreia” which literally translated is “one but is needed,” which is more easily read as “but there is need of only one thing.”  It is complicated, to be sure, and unfortunately, Jesus never tells us what that one thing is; he only tells Martha that Mary has chosen it.

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As I’ve thought about this lesson throughout a hectic week, with a minimum of six tabs open in my browser, four unread emails begging my attention, and a to-do list eight items deep, I’ve become more and more convicted that the reason Jesus didn’t have a direct antecedent for his “one thing” is because it isn’t the thing that is important, it is the one.

Jesus did not fuss at Martha because she was engaged in the work of hospitality, but rather because her hospitality became a distraction.  As distraction, which, as I noted on Monday, was so great as to be unprecedented.  She had lost sight of one thing, and was instead distracted by many things.  She was angry with her sister for not helping out, she was frustrated with Jesus for not fussing at Mary, and so was upset that there were so many disciples to feed.  The bread was probably burning in the oven as the tears from slicing onions ran down her face while the dishes piled up in the sink, and the wine began to run low.  Martha’s brain was in 1,000 different places instead of being focuses on the one thing that should have been of utmost importance: showing hospitality to Jesus.

Mary, on the other hand, had chosen to pay attention solely to Jesus.  She didn’t get distracted by her sister’s passive aggressive banging of pots and pans in the kitchen.  She paid no mind to the huffing and puffing from the doorway.  Even the smell of bread burning didn’t distract her from the one thing she had chosen to be fully present for: the Son of God sitting in her living room.