Thursday, February 1, 2018

The Fourth Sunday After the Epiphany

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.
-- BCP, page 215

This Sunday's Texts

Deuteronomy 18:15-20; Psalm 111;
1 Corinthians 8:1-13; Mark 1:21-28

The annual meeting of the congregation is this Sunday.

It is very important that a significant portion of the active membership be present to elect four new vestry members, receive written reports, and have a conversation around the highlights and challenges of the past year, as well as the opportunities that lie before us this year.

The annual meeting is a moment of both empowerment and mutual accountability.

It is a moment of empowerment because the membership elects one-third of the Vestry. Our church board has its authority from the people who empower them to act on their behalf for the glory of God. You make church happen.
It is a moment of mutual accountability because the congregation receives written and oral reports about the state of the parish, its finances, facilities, ministries, and programs. We, together, call one another to service.

I want to repeat this statement that I wrote last week: "Emmanuel exists to change lives."

Each facet of our common life is ordered for the purpose of changing lives. Not just the preaching. Teaching, fellowship, outreach, the very building that we use: everything is in the service of changing our lives more and more into the likeness of Jesus.

The question, of course, is: How well are we doing that?

I have to confess that I cannot imagine any way of producing metrics on that! And on any given day, we may not discern any significant change in ourselves, much less in the life of someone else. However, the annual meeting helps us gauge our progress in terms of the relative health of our ministries, programs, and priorities.

Ultimately, how well we are fulfilling our purpose is known only to God. But we can see how the activities, events, and choices that we make about our common life are meeting their particular objectives and we can learn what else we need to be doing.

Our presence is needed to have the mutual empowerment and accountability that makes us healthier and more faithful. I ask you to come to the annual meeting this Sunday at noon, immediately following the 10:30 service. The Vestry is bringing lunch and the Nursery is open to take care of the young ones.

Almighty and everliving God, source of all wisdom and understanding, be present with those who take counsel in Emmanuel Church, Harrisonburg, for the renewal and mission of your Church. Teach us in all things to seek first your honor and glory. Guide us to perceive what is right, and grant us both the courage to pursue it and the grace to accomplish it; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

-- BCP, page 818

Under the Mercy,

Fr. Daniel+

Saturday, January 20, 2018

The Third Sunday After the Epiphany

Give us grace, O Lord, to answer readily the call of our Savior Jesus Christ and proclaim to all people the Good News of his salvation, that we and the whole world may perceive the glory of his marvelous works; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
-- BCP, page 215


Jonah 3:1-5, 10; Psalm 62:6-14;
1 Corinthians 7:29-31; Mark 1:14-20

We are beginning to have an important conversation in the Education Committee about the kind of Adult Forum programs that can be presented and the expectations we may reasonably have for both presenters and participants.

The context for the conversation is the congregation's shift in attendance patterns. As you'll see when you read the Annual Report to the Congregation (on January 28 after the 10:30 service -- the vestry will provide lunch), our Sunday attendance is smaller now.

The paradox is that we have more people attending services. That is to say, there are more people now who participate in the worship life of Emmanuel and who call this church their spiritual home. So why the smaller Sunday average and total annual attendance? Quite simply, because more of us go to church fewer times in the year than what used to be the case.

I want to be clear about two things: on the one hand, this column is not a guilt trip to beat people up for not being in church; on the other hand, I believe it would be beneficial for each person and for the community as a whole if we all came to church more frequently.

It's not a guilt trip because I am not going to tell you that you're a bad person or that your salvation is imperiled by your lack of attendance. I do not believe either of those things.

I've noticed over the years that fear is an effective seller of religion -- in the short term. But a spiritual life based on fire and brimstone is a poor sort indeed, not one I want to have, much less inflict on other people.

It's like behaving ethically because you fear getting caught and going to prison instead of being ethical because doing the right thing is the right thing, a good in itself. Both approaches may keep you on the straight and narrow road, but the former withers your soul while the latter widens it.

A fear-based spirituality asks, "What do I have to do?" It looks for the lowest possible effort to meet minimal requirements. A sound spirituality asks, "What will be a loving thing to do?" It seeks excellence with maximum effort and a good will.

Emmanuel exists to change lives. We are here because our own lives are in need of transformation. God isn't done with us yet -- and we know it. Removing violence and fear from our hearts and filling them with genuine love and compassion is a life-long process.

We are also here to be agents of transformation in the lives of others. We realize that the conversion of our lives is deeply entwined with the renovation of other people's lives. We have met the Christ who tells us that we are beloved from before the foundation of the world, and that this love is one we share with all people, all living things, indeed with the whole creation. We want to experience God's love. We want to share God's love.

Everything we do at Emmanuel is in the service of our resolve of change lives. Some of these things we may do better than others; each aims to serve this goal.

As 2018 begins, I invite us all to reflect on who we are as followers of Jesus and how we may each renew our commitment to make our hearts open to God's ongoing transformation of our lives and the lives of the world around us.
In this season of Epiphany, we are invited to meet Jesus again for the first time, to borrow a Marcus Borg book title. And, as a wrote last week, we invite others to meet Jesus as well.

To us and to folks who are not connected in a faith community, to those seeking meaning and purpose, to those who hunger and thirst for a better world, to all who struggle for peace in their hearts -- to all we say: "Come!"

Under the Mercy,

Fr. Daniel+

Sunday, January 14, 2018

The Second Sunday After the Epiphany

Almighty God, whose Son our Savior Jesus Christ is the light of the world: Grant that your people, illumined by your Word and Sacraments, may shine with the radiance of Christ's glory, that he may be known, worshipped, and obeyed to the ends of the earth; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

-- BCP, page 215


1 Samuel 3:1-20; Psalm 139:1-5, 12-17;
1 Corinthians 6:12-20; John 1:43-51

An epiphany is a divine appearance or manifestation, God's self-disclosure in some form. The Epiphany is the astounding proclamation that "in the mystery of the Word made flesh, [God has] caused a new light to shine in our hearts, to give the knowledge of [God's] glory in the face of [God's] Son Jesus Christ our Lord." (Preface for Epiphany, BCP, page 378.)

Epiphany Tide makes two particular claims. First, it claims Jesus as God's eternal Logos ("Word," in John's gospel) who has entered human life in the flesh. Second, it affirms that this specific self-revealing of God is not private but public, not tribal but universal.

The story of the Incarnation (the first claim of Epiphany Tide) is told in the Christmas season, so I won't dwell on that in this brief space.

The universality of Jesus, however, is both the great glory and the scandal of this season, indeed of the Christian narrative itself.

The glory of this season is first of all that Jesus had a public life that was not confined to his few followers. The revelation of Jesus as the Christ, the Anointed of God, is not private. He never limited himself to a few illuminati. I choose that word intentionally, since both the collect of this day and the preface of the season speak of a light that shines in us. The reception of the "light of the world" is not so that we may secretly enjoy the warmth and radiance of enlightenment in our safe little tribal enclaves or in the seclusion of our private lives. No. The Light comes to us so that it may shine through us to the whole world.

"Come and see," said Philip to Nathanael, inviting him to meet Jesus. You don't hoard the Good News; you share it. Just like when something incredibly good happens to us and we rush to tell the people we know and love, so is our sharing the love of Jesus: not merely something we are called to do, but something that we can't help but do. It is a glorious thing that we get to participate in the sharing of the Light of the World.

We invite others to meet Jesus. To folks who are not connected in a faith community, to those who are seeking meaning and purpose, to those who hunger and thirst for a better world, to all who struggle for peace in their hearts -- to all we say: Come to Emmanuel and see.

The scandal of this season, and of the Christian community itself, is that you and I know that we Christians are the biggest impediment to anyone wanting to hear about, much less get to know, Jesus. Individually and as communities, we in the many branches of the Christian family give Jesus a bad name. Our pettiness, our divisions, our self-righteousness, and on and on goes the list-in so many ways, we fail to share the Good News with our stunted hearts and small souls.

All of which makes the Collect of Epiphany 2 so relevant. The petition is pretty simple: Please, God! May the illumination we have received so shine in and through us that the world may know your love!

May we fervently pray this collect and be ready to rise from our knees empowered to share the love of Jesus in word and deed.

Under the Mercy,

Fr. Daniel+

The Second Sunday After the Epiphany

O God, by the leading of a star you manifested your only Son to the peoples of the earth: Lead us, who know you now by faith, to your presence, where we may see your glory face to face; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

-- BCP, page 214


Isaiah 60:1-6; Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14;
Ephesians 3:1-12; Matthew 2:1-12

This year the Visitation of the Magi is on Saturday.  On the next day, January 7, the first Sunday after The Epiphany, we celebrate the Baptism of Jesus.

The Feast of the Epiphany is central to the story of Jesus but it has become peripheral to most of us in our context today.

Let me take up that assertion in reverse order. The Epiphany -- the Visitation of the Magi -- has become peripheral to very many because January 6 does not fall on Sunday but every six years or so. I cannot remember when most church people stopped attending non-Sunday services other than Christmas Eve; this has been happening for quite some time.

To be clear: I am not going on a rant here about church attendance. I am only naming the reality that most Christians in our little part of the world miss out on most Feasts and Fasts that fall outside of Sunday: from The Epiphany to Ash Wednesday to Maundy Thursday and Good Friday to Easter Eve and the Ascension. We are sorting through this cultural shift in the United States.

Why not just add them to the Christmas story, like "The First Nowell" (Hymn 109) and so many carols do?

We can admittedly debate the merits of conflating and combining the stories from Luke and Matthew into one single narrative. My answer is that we blunt the stories when we combine them. Luke has shepherds coming to the newborn's manger while Matthew has wise men visiting the infant in a house. Now you know why the magi no longer appear in the Christmas Pageant. Our crèche at the back of the nave also shows the Magi in transit on Christmas (though look for them to adore the Child this Sunday before we take it down).

The shepherds get directions from a choir of angels while the magi follow a star. In Luke, the Archangel Gabriel appears to Mary in the midst of her day while in Matthew an unnamed angel speaks to Joseph at night in a dream. The stories are very different, with different chronologies. As long as our calendar separates the shepherds from the Magi, we will tell their stories at different times.

What makes the Visitation of the Magi a central story is that it proclaims the universality of Jesus.

This child, born to two displaced parents who are striving to survive in a conquered nation that is but a little corner of a vast empire, has come to transform our world and indeed all creation. The heavens rejoice with a new star. People from all over the earth seek to worship him. Herod shakes in his throne and eventually unleashes all the violence he can muster, to no avail. The sages who come from afar seeking "the king of the Jews" delegitimize the self-importance of all earthly kingdoms and their pretentions of ultimacy. Magi bearing regal gifts show us that God and only God is worthy of our complete worship, allegiance, and obedience. All other fealties are partial and relative.

The Visitation of the Magi then shows us the universality of God's love. God's tribe is much bigger than our limited experience and understanding can imagine. Jesus is God-with-us, Emmanuel. But just who is this "Us" that God is with? The coming of the wise men uncovers the truth that God actually does love everybody, without exception. Nobody is left out of God's embrace.

The Feast of the Epiphany is therefore not only central to the story of Jesus but to the human story itself because it expands our awareness that, on earth, in this little corner of the cosmos, no one is Other -- we all belong together, to each other and to God.

Under the Mercy,

Fr. Daniel+

Sunday, December 17, 2017

The Third Sunday of Advent

Stir up your power, O Lord, and with great might come among us; and, because we are sorely hindered by our sins, let your bountiful grace and mercy speedily help and deliver us; through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom, with you and the Holy Spirit, be honor and glory, now and for ever. Amen.
-- BCP, page 212

Sunday's texts
Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11; Psalm 126;
1 Thessalonians 5:16-24; John 1:6-8,19-28.

Some call this Sunday "Stir-up Sunday," given the unusual format and tone of this collect.

Except for the Trinitarian doxology at the end, the classical structure of the collect is missing here.

It doesn't start with the usual and customary O/ merciful/gracious/Almighty/God, you-are-thus-andsuch-and-because-of-that-quality-we-make-the-following-petition. That is how a collect is supposed to begin.

There's no time for that. The urgency of the moment requires getting straight to the point. You're in your car, you skid on the ice and you're headed toward a telephone pole. There's no time to start a prayer with: "O gracious God, you gave us knowledge and skill to build and operate machines: Strengthen therefore my ability to maneuver this vehicle that I may steer it away from the danger before me..."

Yeah. Right. Of course not! As a woman famously said some time ago in a video that went viral on the internet: "Ain't nobody got time for that!" About all we might manage is a plain cry: "Omygod!!"

Stir up your power! Come! Deliver us! This is a collect from the heart in the heat of the moment, not a literary composition in the cool of a calm evening.  We are sorely hindered by our sins. Right now. And headed for trouble. Our failures of soul-strength are real.

Why this focus on our sins in Advent-tide? Because Advent graces us with the inescapable awareness us that no day of our ephemeral life can be wasted with a business-as-usual attitude. The times are short; we are in a crisis. We cannot afford to get weighted down with unnecessary baggage.

I am remembering Bishop Ted Gulick, quoting a source I cannot now remember, who said: "Never waste a crisis!" Time to act decisively to advance the God's Dream of a reconciled humanity gathered in love and harmony around the King of kings and Lord of lords.

We have work to do. And the work of Advent begins with our own hearts. To make space for the Dream of God in our hearts, we need to discard all the encumbrances that get in the way of living into God's Dream. We are sorely hindered, like a backpacker carrying too much weight on the Appalachian Trail. The miles are long, the grade is steep. Let us only carry that which will sustain us on the journey: doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with our God.

What is hindering you today? Is it the encumbrance of past failures? Is it not coming to terms with the reality of current failures? Of what are you having trouble letting go? Take the power of Stir-up Sunday to heart and pray fervently for the grace to be delivered from sin. Start with this collect. Or simply say, Help me, God!

Then, let us get off our knees and do something.

Under the Mercy,

Fr. Daniel+

Saturday, November 25, 2017

The Last Sunday After Pentecost

"Christ the King"
Almighty and everlasting God, whose will it is to restore all things in your well-beloved Son, the King of kings and Lord of lords: Mercifully grant that the peoples of the earth, divided and enslaved by sin, may be freed and brought together under his most gracious rule; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
-- BCP, page 236
Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24; Psalm 100;
Ephesians 1:15-23; Matthew 25:31-46

Almighty and gracious Father, we give you thanks for the fruits of the earth in their season and for the labors of those who harvest them. Make us, we pray, faithful stewards of your great bounty for the provision of our necessities and the relief of all who are in need, to the glory of your Name; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

-- BCP, page 246
Deuteronomy 8:7-18; Psalm 65;
2 Corinthians 9:6-15; Luke 17:11-19

Every Sunday at the exchange of the Peace during the 10:30 service, we eagerly anticipate the children's return from Sunday School with their big-eyed smiles and boundless energy, often carrying -- or wearing -- something that tells us what they were learning and doing downstairs. Who can forget the costumed throng that partied for All Hallows Eve? Last Sunday, when we saw them sporting pilgrim hats and Native American headgear, we knew that Thanks-Giving was the lesson plan.

The national narrative about Thanksgiving Day is filled with pictures of Non-conformist English immigrants (the Pilgrims) and local Native Americans who had saved them from starvation, gathered to break bread together in the first Thanksgiving feast.

We Virginians know quite well that the very first official Thanksgiving Day celebration in North America actually took place in what is now Berkeley Plantation in Charles City County on December 4, 1619, when 38 English settlers disembarked from the Margaret -- a full two years and 17 days before the Mayflower landed at Plymouth, Massachusetts. (Just a little Commonwealth pride!)

Both occasions were a recognition of our complete dependence on God for all the goodness we enjoy. Those English settlers were grateful for safe passage across the Atlantic -- which was never a sure thing -- and for survival in a new land where they had to learn new ways to grow food, much of which was very different from the motherland's, and where, in general, they had to re-invent themselves. This is, of course, what immigrants the world over and from time immemorial do.

"Pray as if everything depends on God; work as if everything depends on you," says the Talmud. Thanksgiving Day is a perfect example of this. At the end of the fall season, before the earth settles into its winter sleep, we gather to celebrate the accomplishments of the sweat of our brow and to give thanks to God for making a bountiful world that is capable of sustaining all living things. We celebrate the prodigal, grace of God.

Notice that in the collect we then ask for the gift of sound stewardship of both the earth and of the organization and structures of human society. Thanksgiving Day reminds us that our stewardship of the earth and of human society needs improvement. God's bounty is given us for the provision of our necessities and the relief of all who are in need, to the glory of [God's] Name. God's bounty is not to be hoarded but shared.

We still have work to do. I don't mean to rain on our Thanksgiving Day parade, so to speak, but we need to remember that Native Americans became less than humans in our eyes as we pursued their extinction, that our exploitation of earth threatens the viability of the ecosphere itself, and that we chose to build the wealth of our society largely on the backs of people plundered from their African homelands and sold into slavery. (Berkeley Plantation, by the way, was one of the first slave-rearing estates in the country.) I say this not to induce liberal or conservative guilt; I say it because the reality is that in our own time we have not resolved the consequences of the choices of our ancestors.

I say it because Thanksgiving Day invites us to recommit to the work of restoring human relationships to their proper state, to labor and pray for the day when all the peoples of the earth, as the collect for Sunday says, are freed and brought under [Christ's] most gracious rule.

Under the Mercy,

Fr. Daniel+