Monday, January 29, 2018

Father Riley's homily from January 28, 2018

4 EPIPHANY - B - 18           MARK 1. 21-28

“….and when the Sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught.”

Last week’s gospel introduced us to Jesus’ first sermon and the calling of the local fishermen, Peter and Andrew, James and John to be his disciples. All of which took place in the region of Galilee. In today’s gospel, we find Jesus teaching in the synagogue at Capernaum.

Capernaum was on the NW shore of the Sea of Galilee. It was situated on the great trade route to Damascus and was a center for customs. Jesus would later call Matthew from his position of collecting taxes from this same customhouse to be one of his disciples. There was also a Roman garrison quartered in the town.

Each time I read this passage or think about it I am reminded of the occasion where I found myself standing on the remains of the mosaic floor where the first century synagogue once stood. It was here, St. Mark says in today’s gospel, that Jesus exercised a demon or unclean spirit from one who heard him teach about God and the coming kingdom.

It is strange that a possessed man would be present within the synagogue precincts. Stranger yet that it always seems to be the enemies of God that recognize Jesus as the Holy One of God while those that should appear to be blinded to his true identity.

Of all the places, I visited in the Holy Land where it was said that Jesus was supposed to have approximately been, the ruins of the synagogue in Capernaum, I believe, are the closest I came to being where Jesus had actually once stood. It was an awesome experience.

Jesus’ teaching astonished his listeners that day, but the man with an unclean spirit interrupted his teaching. The unclean spirit speaking through the man identified Jesus as the Holy One of God. Jesus commanded him to be silent and then cast him out.

The very first event of Jesus’ ministry, as Mark presents it, is one that expresses his authority. True it was Jesus’ teaching with authority that had astonished those who were present that day, but it was his authority to cast out the unclean spirit that literally amazed them.

He had come to preach and teach about God and the coming kingdom, according to Mark, but it was his power over the kingdom of Satan, demonstrated in the synagogue at Capernaum, that caused his fame to spread. He cast out the demon and in doing so restored the man to wholeness.

The first miracle, if you will, in Jesus’ pubic ministry signifies that Satan’s power over the world has come to an end. The kingdom of darkness has been shattered by the kingdom of light and with it the dominion of God has broken into human history. Belief in demons was widespread in the time of Jesus. If he could cast out demons, what else could he do?

No wonder, then, as Jesus began to travel about preaching and teaching, the people who were sick, diseased, or possessed flocked to be touched by him, or were brought, and in some cases, even carried by relatives or friends in the hope that they too might be healed and made whole.

This short gospel reading centers on Jesus’ authority. Not as the scribes, in terms of teaching, Mark records, or the prophets of old who taught in the third person, “thus saith the Lord.” Nor as the legal experts of the day who quoted the opinions of eminent Rabbis as a basis of authority as to what might be legally done or what might not. Christ taught in the first person.

He spoke as having authority from God to enunciate and enforce the principles that underlay the law, and to carry them on into a new expression and a more complete correspondence with the will of God in the coming kingdom. Christ’s authority over the kingdom of darkness was guaranteed by the submission of the unclean spirit.

Moreover, it did not take long for the news of what he had said and done in the synagogue at Capernaum to reach the authorities in Jerusalem. How do we see Jesus? How do we recognize him? The demon, as well as the authorities in Jerusalem saw him as a threat. Do we?

For those whose lives had become a total nightmare, however, whose personalities seemed to be taken over by alien powers, Jesus was seen as their savior and redeemer. These folk seemed to have a kind of inside track on recognizing him, knowing who he was and what he had come to do.

He had come to stop the nightmares, to rescue people, both nations and individuals, from the destructive forces that enslaved them. Therefore, whether it was a shrieking demon, a woman with fever, a leper, or whatever disease, sickness, mental, physical, or spiritual people suffered from, Jesus dealt with them all with the same gentle but deeply effective authority.

We all have nightmares. We all become beside ourselves through frustration and anger that can easily change our personalities. We all find ourselves at wits end. We all conclude from time to time that we find ourselves in circumstances that we feel powerless over. When we do, we can not see the light of hope, only darkness and despair.

Is it then that we recognize Jesus as our savior and redeemer? It is only in time of need that we turn to Him and call his name. Is it only when we need rescuing that we recognize him as the one who saves? Jesus came to save us from our nightmares and our feelings of hopelessness and despair. He came to heal us and make us whole. In essence, Jesus came to give us life.

Moreover, He has the authority and the power to do so. It is God’s will that we live the new life to which we have been called; to step from the darkness into the light, and like the man once possessed in the synagogue at Capernaum come to know who Jesus is and why He came. For it is through the merits of His life, death, and resurrection that the way to eternal life has been opened to us.

It is in our acknowledging him as the Holy One of God that we discover that we have been rescued from a life of sin and death. It is when we live a life of faith based on our love of God that we discover our true identity and to whom we ultimately belong.

Today’s gospel reading, as short as it is, is how Mark begins to tell us both about how Jesus became so popular so quickly and of how the course of his public career pointed inexorably to its dramatic conclusion. On the cross, Christ completed the healing work he began that day in the synagogue in Capernaum and the world has never been the same. Thanks be to God. AMEN+

Sunday, January 21, 2018

Rev. Riley's homily for January 21, 2018

3 EPIPHANY - B - 18                 MARK 1.14-20

“Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

Jesus’ first sermon echoes that of the prophet Jonah in today’s first lesson: repent and believe. Sounds more like a Lenten sermon doesn’t it? To repent and believe go hand in hand. Why should one repent if he is not going to believe, that is, accept the good news?

Jesus waited for the right moment to begin his ministry. John’s arrest was that moment in time. The purpose of the Old covenant was to prepare the people for Christ. John Baptist completed the preparation. The present age was ending and a new one just beginning. The coming of the Kingdom was at hand with Jesus as Messiah.

Jesus knew who he was from the moment of his baptism and what his mission and message was to be. Jonah, on the other hand, was a reluctant prophet. God sent him to a city that represented paganism at its worst. It was the last place on earth Jonah wanted to go.

Ninevah was the ancient capitol of Assyria. It was located on the eastern bank of the river Tigris opposite modern day Mosul. God sent Jonah there around 800 B.C. According to historians, the dimensions of the city were from 32 to 60 miles in circuit, which makes Jonah’s three-day journey around the city possible to believe.

Regardless of its size, Jonah did not want to be there. The Ninevites were the enemies of Israel. Yet he obeyed God and proclaimed to the inhabitants of the great city that in 40 days they would be destroyed if they did not repent. The people believed him and called for a fast. They openly repented of their sins and turned from their evil ways.

God accepted their change of heart and relented of the devastation he had planned to visit upon them. In contrast to Jesus, the message Jonah delivered was not about him, it was a message sent by God and gives us an insight into the character of God who does not desire the death of a sinner, but rather that he repent and live.

In Jesus’ case, it is a message about him, rather than a message by him, and it too reveals God’s true nature. God so loved the world that he sent his son, not to condemn it, but to save it. In sending Jesus, God initiated a divine rescue mission.

The old age of strife, evil and opposition to God would be replaced by the Kingdom of God and the way to enter it was by repentance and belief in the good news. Jesus is the good news. The message he preached brought new light on the nature and character of the One true God in contrast to the polytheism of the empire.

He preached that the time was fulfilled and that the kingdom of God was at hand. The whole of Mark’s gospel is an expression of this verse. A new day was about to dawn when the will and sovereignty of God will sway the hearts and thoughts of men. Those who would have the experience must repent.

Jesus stressed the importance of a complete break with the past. To repent is to do a total “about face.” The word in Greek literally means, “To change one’s mind.” Repentance is a radical change of one’s spirit, mind, thought, and heart; a complete re-orientation to a life centered on Christ. Repentance and belief go hand in hand.

With Jesus, the kingdom of God was being ushered in and God in Christ was inviting all to enter by way of turning back to a true loyalty to God. This would mean they would have to tear themselves away from all they had trusted in before and believe and trust in what God was now doing in and through Christ. That was not easy then, and it is not easy now. There is always a cost to discipleship.

However, that is precisely what Peter and Andrew, James and John did, and it is what all Christians are called to do. Only when you think a bit about the sort of life Peter, Andrew, James and John had, and the totally unknown future Jesus was inviting them to, do you understand just how earth shattering this little story was and is.

To leave everything you have ever known, all of your security, even your family, and follow Jesus indeed calls for a radical departure. God’s grace helps us to come to new options that are possible for us. Our prejudices and our pride can be changed. Inner healing is possible. We can have peace of mind and heart.

But only if we break from the past and place our trust in Him who is the good news. True repentance is more than reluctant obedience (Jonah). It is a full change of heart. We have to be willing to change by doing that “about face” and believing in the good news. Are we ready to turn from hatred, prejudice, and fear, and accept openness, freedom and goodwill?

That is not just a Lenten question. It is a question we must answer on a daily basis as life has a way of challenging our loyalty to God. The basic thesis of Jesus’ coming is a declaration of God’s universal Love, of God’s willingness to receive and bless all who turn to Him in humble repentance and obedience.

God has an unfolding purpose for the world and we are meant to be part of it. We are not only invited to believe in the kingdom of God; we are invited to participate in ushering it in. We do this by being willing to accept our roles as disciples in proclaiming the good news, not by a reluctant obedience, as Jonah displayed, but in thanksgiving for God having rescued us through the merits of His Son, Jesus.

The calling of these early disciples is an example of the ideal response to God’s call to each of us as opposed to the response of Jonah. There is always a cost to discipleship, and that cost is different for each of us. However, the promise of God in Christ of new an unending life in Him is the same for all who repent and believe. AMEN+

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Canon Rev. Gregg Riley's homily for January 14, 2018

2 EPIPHANY - B - 18               JOHN 1:43-51

A lot has happened in a short period of time, liturgically speaking since we last met. Just a few weeks ago, we celebrated Jesus’ birth, and then came the visit of the Magi to the Christ child in the manger. Last week we heard St. John describe Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan River where the voice of God was heard from heaven proclaiming Jesus as His Beloved Son.

Today Jesus is calling his first disciples from among those who belong to the Baptist. In each of the last few weeks, the gospel has been an eye-opener, or as we say in Churchy terms, a manifestation or revealing of whom Jesus really is. That is what the Epiphany season is all about. Today’s gospel is no different.

Christ looks into the heart of Nathanael, sees the depth of his soon to be disciple’s faith and integrity, and commends him for it. Nathanael is completely overwhelmed by Jesus’ knowledge of him and responds to Jesus’ divine intuition by declaring Jesus the Son of God.

Sometimes we merely stumble upon a great discovery, at other times the discovery is made after an invitation has been given and we dare to respond to it. In today’s gospel, for example, Phillip rushes out, finds his friend Nathanael, and announces to him that the Christ has been found.

When Phillip tells him, who and where Jesus is from, Nathanael balks unwilling to believe that something as wonderful as Messiah’s coming could possibly be from Nazareth. Then Phillip extends the invitation “Come and See.” Nathanael is inquisitive enough to follow Phillip and that is when Jesus sees them coming and makes his pronouncement concerning Nathanael.

What little it took for Nathanael to believe. For others, including most of us, it takes a lifetime of God revealing himself, and making his presence known before we can find it in ourselves to dare to respond by taking the leap of faith. Nathanael is the exception.

Today we might say that Phillip witnessed to Nathanael. Some Christians think that this kind of witnessing is all that there is to it.  You simply go and tell people about Christ, and then hope that they will believe it.  However, there is much more involved in coming to belief.

What does it take to come to belief?

Looking at Church history, we see that the early converts to Christianity did not, for the most part, understand and believe the gospel and then decide to become part of the church. They did in fact the reverse. They were first attracted to the Christian community.

Then and only then, by committing themselves to live the lifestyle of that community, as outlined by St. Paul in his letter to the church at Corinth, and elsewhere, did they grow to believe. Notice I said grow. From the font of life, we are called to grow in our love and knowledge of the Lord and that growth is meant for this lifetime and beyond.

This is why, when Nathanael scoffs at Phillip’s witness by saying, “What good can come out of Nazareth?” Phillip does not turn away dejected, rather he invites Nathanael to come and see. It is important for us to understand that Phillip’s word to Nathanael is more than a mere invitation to come and take a look. St. John’s vocabulary here means, “Come and live,” “come and experience,” “come and be a part of” the community Jesus came to build.

God reveals himself and his plan for us a little at a time. Otherwise, we would be totally overwhelmed and unable to receive it. The discovery is made within the community in our sharing our experiences of God with one another.

Thus, the invitation is the same for us and for those to whom we extend it in His name. “Come and be a part of the community Jesus came to build,” “Come and live into the new life Jesus is calling all of us to.

Of the four gospels, St. John’s is unique. Unlike St. Mark, for example who let’s us know up front what and to whom he is writing about, St. John holds his explanation to the end. Throughout his gospel, he presents a series of “signs” that for John points to the true identity of Jesus.

It is his way of making the case that Jesus is indeed the Word made flesh, which has come into our world. Near the end of his gospel, St. John explains “…but these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in his name.”

John wrote his gospel so that people would be able to believe, but he knows that people do not come to belief in Christ in the same way as they come to believe in other truths, like the cause of the Revolutionary War, or how electricity works for example.

People come to faith in Christ only by being drawn into the story and into the community of Jesus. Like young Samuel in the Temple, we do not instantly recognize the claim of God upon our lives. It takes time, and it demands the testing of our shared experiences with others.

Only when we have experienced the story of Jesus by listening to it lovingly told by the church, gradually learning to make it our own story, and slowly being able to see our selves and the world in its light, can we truly say, “I believe.” Someone has said that full and authentic believing comes at the end of the journey, and not at the beginning.

I would say that this is true for the most part, but to this, I would also add that God in his loving kindness grants us little epiphanies along the way, visions, if you will, of the coming age. He does this to remind us that He is present, that we do not make the journey alone, and that His promises are true.

How do people come to believe? John says, by “coming and seeing.” By responding to the open invitation, which every true Christian community gives to all who will hear, an invitation to come and join us for worship and service.

The invitation does not demand that people believe at the beginning of the journey. It rather beckons them to join us by being willing to reach out and serve others in Christ’s name. For it is in serving others, St. John knows, that we will encounter the living Christ and “find life in his name.” AMEN+

Monday, January 1, 2018

Reading from December 31, 2017 from Bishop Jake Owensby

For Morning Prayer homily we offered a reading from Bishop Jake Owensby.  You may follow Bishop Jake's blogging at:
Here is a portion of the "Love Without Exception" text:

Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Western Louisiana

God’s love speaks each specific, unrepeatable person—and each hippo and salamander and brook trout—into being. God calls you and me to recognize, to respect, and to take joy in the unique beauty and goodness of each creature.

In other words, God urges us to love what God loves. That’s part of what it means to be created in the image of God. And if you’re anything like me, loving at this depth is something you’re still learning to do.

For instance, some years ago my friend Emile and I were driving back from a monthly clergy lunch in Athens, Alabama, to our homes in Huntsville. Emile had retired years earlier from Huntsville’s mother church and would hitch a ride with one priest or another to wherever we had decided to get together. He seemed to know everybody in northern Alabama, and my colleagues and I admired and adored him as our wise and nurturing elder.

When I picked Emile up at his house to head over to lunch, he had asked me if I minded making a stop on the way back. He knew a beekeeper and wanted to pick up some honey. On the return trip we pulled off the main road and wound a short way up a dirt track until we arrived at a ramshackle trailer sitting alone on a scrubby, red-clay lot.
The door of the trailer opened and a tall, lanky man sprang down the steps and strode energetically toward us. His long, wind-tossed hair brushed his shoulders. His wiry beard reached to his chest. His broad smile revealed large gaps between his few remaining teeth.
We shook hands as Emile briefly introduced me to Jim. I smiled back thinking, “Wow! This is so Emile! He befriends every sort and condition of person. This poor, uneducated guy feels as comfortable with Emile as the bank presidents and lawyers and doctors back in his old congregation do.”
Jim nodded at me and quickly turned to Emile and said, “You know, I’ve been giving a lot of thought to that conversation we had about the Oxford Movement and rereading their tracts. They’ve revolutionized my doctrine of the Church, the Sacraments, and the relationship between Church and State.”
Um. What?!?
I had seen only a backwoods hick. But hicks don’t talk like this. Or read Pusey and Newman. Or talk about sacramental theology.
We see most people in passing. From habit or for convenience, sometimes from fear or prejudice, we lump people into one group or another and then assume that we know all we need to know about them. That’s a Jew or an Arab or a gay person or a teenaged black male or a redneck.
The philosopher Martin Buber said that when we size people up in this way we form an I-It relationship with them. We radically depersonalize them. Condescension, disrespect, and even hatred become much easier when “Jim” is just one of those people. An It.
God doesn’t sort people into groups like Muslim or red-blooded American. God recognizes this person’s unmistakable scent, feels the unique rhythm of this person’s pulse, hears the tones and cadences of this person’s voice.
God embraces our radical particularity. No one can be exchanged for someone else. Martin Buber calls this an I-Thou relationship. You can’t hate, objectify, exploit, debase, or ignore the suffering of a Thou.
God does not love humanity. “Humanity” is an abstraction. God loves Maria and Youssef, Kalifa and Bubba. God loves the twinkle in those eyes, the rasp of that voice, the shyness of that smile. No two laughs, no two souls, no two hearts, no two life-stories are alike.
God loves real flesh and blood people. Each and every one. And if we seek to love God, the only way forward is to love real people. Without exception.