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Shepherds and Magi

Hi friends, today I want to write about the third and fourth candles on our Advent wreath.  They remind us of the shepherds and magi, respectively.
 
This Sunday is the third Sunday of Advent, and our candle is rose.  It reminds us of the shepherds we read about in Luke’s Gospel.  Basically, the shepherds are out in the fields, just doing their jobs one night, when an angel shows up.  They’re terrified—who wouldn’t be?—and the first thing the angel says is, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all people” (Luke 2:10).  The angel tells them what to look for—“a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger”—and then a whole host of other angels appears, praising God.  The shepherds do as they were told and take off for Bethlehem to “see this thing that has taken place” (Luke 2:15).
 
What strikes me most about the shepherds’ involvement in the birth of Jesus is that they were just doing their jobs when the time came for the Messiah to be born.  They weren’t particularly well-educated or knowledgeable.  We have no reason to suspect that they were any more or less devout than other folks.  It’s a little ironic that the shepherds should have such a central place in the nativity story.  Advent is a season of preparation and expectation…and yet the shepherds weren’t especially prepared for or expecting anything!
 
Perhaps the shepherds are God’s way of reminding us that fidelity in our everyday, mundane work is precisely where an angel might appear to us with good news.  That word mundane comes from a Latin word that means “world.”  Mundane work is work of the actual world you and I inhabit.  Simple, material things: washing the coffee pot, pruning the hedges, keeping your livestock safe.  The shepherds are people close to the good earth of the world.  In Luke, it is to them that God’s angel announces the birth of the Messiah.  And where will they find him?  In a manger, a kind of feed bin for livestock that shepherds would know well.  The God of the heavens and beyond the heavens has taken on the mundane flesh and blood of the world.  The truth is that God is not “up there” or only in Church.  God is here, now, in the very fields in which we stand.
 
The shepherds stand in contrast to the magi, or wise men, of Matthew’s Gospel.  We will remember the magi when we light the fourth candle of our Advent wreath next week…even though the magi show up late to the party and don’t arrive until Epiphany! 
 
Unlike the shepherds, the magi didn’t get a visit from an angel.  Instead, the magi found out about the birth of Jesus because they were looking for it: “we observed his star at its rising,” they say (Matt. 2:2).  The magi were scholars and dreamers.  Instead of a manger, they knew where to look because of a star, a far-off light in the heavens.  To most folks, it would’ve appeared to be just another star like any other.  But the magi were educated and practiced in the art of paying attention.  Their eyes and ears were trained to look for significant and out of the ordinary events.  They’re seekers who arrive at understanding by asking questions and interpreting events.  They make their way to Jerusalem and then begin inquiring, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews?” (Matt. 2:2).
 
They follow their peculiar star until they reach the house in Bethlehem where Jesus is.  (No stable or manger in Matthew!)  They see Mary with Jesus, and they kneel down in homage, presenting to him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh (Matt. 2:10-11).  Their homage and gifts are grand, symbolic gestures.  Gold is a symbol of kingship.  Frankincense suggests divinity since frankincense was used in religious temples of all kinds.  Myrrh was a spiced ointment used to anoint the bodies of the dead in preparation for burial.  (See John 19:39.)   That the magi offer myrrh to Jesus as a gift suggests that even in his very early childhood, the magi suspected that the powers of the world would conspire against him to bring about his death.  Indeed, the magi are warned in a dream not to return to Herod, who immediately plots to destroy the child Jesus (Matt. 2:12-14).
 
Perhaps the magi are God’s way of reminding us to pay attention, to look for significance in what might otherwise seem perfectly ordinary.  Like the magi, one of the ways we can do this is through study, particularly studying the bible.  I don’t necessarily mean intensive study of Greek or obscure Israelite genealogies, either.  Learning the stories, familiarizing yourself with a parable, or memorizing a few verses from a psalm goes a lot further than we often think.  That kind of study helps us to remember that we are a part of God’s story.  The magi are no more or less characters in it than you and I.  The truth is that no character in God’s story has ever seen the rise of an ordinary star; all is laden with miracle.
 
God’s angel visits the shepherds in the midst of their ordinary work and tells them where to find Jesus.  Had the shepherds not been faithful in the very mundane work of watching their flocks, they would’ve missed it.  The magi find Jesus by paying careful attention to the rising of an extraordinary star, one other folks missed or were unable to interpret.  Had they not studied diligently and practiced the art of paying careful attention, they would’ve missed it, too.  Taken together, the shepherds and magi remind us to be faithful to what is ordinary while always training our imaginations to notice the extraordinary around us. 
 
Most of us have seasons of each.  Like a faithful shepherd, you were just doing your job when God intruded.  Like a seeking magi, you had an intuition that there’s more out there and have been desperately looking for it.  The end is the same for Shepherd and Magus alike.  And these are only two of the many roads that lead to the Son of God.
 
God’s Peace,
 
Fr. Daniel+
 

A Dimly Burning Wick

Hi friends, I got to see my Godson last weekend.  His dad is one of my best friends and was being ordained to the Episcopal priesthood, and I flew to Birmingham, AL for a very quick visit to surprise him.  There was a lot going on the day of the ordination, but since I was a surprise visit I didn’t have any formal responsibilities in the service—which meant I was free to goof off with (and help keep an eye on) my Godson.  He’s five, and his name is Thompson.
 
At one point amidst the flurry of activity before the service, Thompson wandered off into the children’s chapel.  The children’s chapel at my friend’s church is similar to our Godly Play room.  There are low shelves with different kinds of work the children can do, wooden figures of the Holy Family and Bethlehem, mats to get out and sit on, and, most important to Thompson, candles, five tea lights in glass holders.  He found a box of matches somewhere, so after we had a short but very serious conversation about always asking before doing anything with fire, Thompson started to light the candles.
 
He moved very slowly and deliberately, using one match per candle.  He’d light one, blow out the match, take the burnt match to the sink to run a little water on it just to be safe, and then throw the blackened matchstick into the trash.  The wick of one of the candles had broken off and was barely a nub.  It took a few tries to light, Thompson holding the match directly on top of the wick, lifting it up to see if it had taken, pressing the flame back to the wick.  I chewed my bottom lip as the match burnt closer to Thompson’s fingers, but when it got close and the wick still hadn’t caught, he very calmly blew it out and struck another one.  The wick caught on the second match but the flame was small.  Thompson dropped the second match on the shelf next to the first and put his hands on either side of the flame.
 
There was no wind in the chapel, no ceiling fan.  Thompson and I weren’t even talking.  The rhythm of the candle lighting had slowed us down from running around in the parish hall like we had been doing.  But what you do when a flame burns low is put your hands around it to protect it from sneeze and storm, even if there’s not so much as a breeze coming in through the window.  It’s as though the flame knows, as though it recognizes the hands of the one who struck it.  It perches a little more securely on its wick, trusting your good will.  Thompson knows this.
 
I flew back to Texas a few hours later.  The next day was our first Sunday of Advent, and in Godly Play our leader told a story to help us understand the Advent wreath.  The Godly Play story demonstrated the first Advent candle, the Prophets’ Candle, with a pointing hand.  God sent us the prophets to be like a hand pointing us towards Jesus.  We lit the candle, and I remembered the slow seriousness with which Thompson struck the matches and lit the candles the day before, how for a few brief seconds he held his hands around a little flame to help it stay alight.  I remembered the words of the prophet Isaiah, who says of the one we call Jesus, “a dimly burning wick he will not quench” (42:3). 
 
In Advent, we await the birth of Emmanuel, God with us.  If your wick is burning low, the wait can be painful, and it can feel like a long time.
 
Each of us waits in our own way.  It’s as though each soul is its own waiting room.  We flip through magazines, refusing to make eye contact with the grief across the coffee table.  We’re angry and afraid of this strange illness who suddenly sat down in the chair next to ours.  We stare at the television mounted on the wall because the news anchor looks so much like our son, and much like our son, the television is muted and not speaking to us.  We hand our iPhone to our four year old so they can watch another cartoon because we’re doing Advent alone this year, and we just can’t fight another battle today.  Shame arches an eyebrow in the corner.
 
If that’s you, I hope you feel the hands of God around you, cupped like the dome of the sky to shelter your dimly burning wick.  I hope for you peaceful moments in which your heart ceases its panicked flicker and grows calm, and rises, ever so slightly, at the Mysterious Presence of the One who struck it first into flame. 
 
God’s Peace,
 
Fr. Daniel+

 

Advent Wreaths and Holy Family

Hi friends, this Sunday we’re making Advent Wreaths together in the Mission Hall after the service.  Today I want to write a bit about how Advent Wreaths came about and how they can help us become a more holy family.
 
Like most traditions, Advent Wreaths evolved over time.  Christians and non-Christians have used wreaths for centuries both ritually and as decoration.  Evergreen wreaths were particularly common in Scandinavian countries where evergreens were important symbols of life in long, dark winters.  For Christians today, a circular wreath can symbolize God’s eternity: just as a circle has no beginning and end, neither does God, who is eternal.  The evergreen fronds symbolize God’s continued presence with us even amidst darker, colder times like winter, though Texas winter usually isn’t that dire!
 
As far as I can tell, the first real Advent Wreath was made in 1839 by a Lutheran minister named Johann Hinrich Wichern.  He worked at a children’s home in Hamburg, Germany, and each year near Christmas, the kids would ask him, “Is it Christmas yet?!  Is it Christmas?!”  As a way of both answering and channeling their excitement, Johann took the wooden wheel off a cart, turned it on its side, and drilled holes into it along the rim.  He put four big white candles in for the four Sundays before Christmas and smaller red candles for the week days.  The kids counted down each day until Christmas by lighting a new candle.
 
Roman Catholics adopted the tradition in the 1920s, and Anglicans (that’s us!) not long after.  In many Roman Catholic and Anglican parishes, the color for Advent is purple and is seen as a time of penitential preparation, much like Lent.  Thus, the candles became purple.  The pink candle was for Gaudete Sunday and marked a rough mid-point for Advent.  It’s pink to symbolize a kind of refreshment or break from penitence on our way to Christmas. 
 
In many Anglican churches, including St. Elizabeth, the Advent color is blue.  I appreciate this distinction because, while Advent is very much about preparation, it’s not as explicitly penitential as Lent.  Advent is about expectation and preparing the way of the Lord.  I think those little German kids in Hamburg back in the 1830s had it right: we should be excited about this!  Our preparation should be active: decorate, cook food for each other, take particularly good care of the “least of these” who are members of God’s family.
 
That brings us to the candles.  A Lutheran tradition many Episcopal Churches have picked up is that each candle of the first four candles represents different figures who helped prepare Jesus’ way.  Here again, there’s variety, but the order we’ll use at St. Elizabeth this year is this: Patriarchs and Matriarchs, Prophets, the Holy Family Journeying to Bethlehem, and Angels visiting the Shepherds.  We’ll talk more about each of these on Sunday.
 
The final candle in the center is for Christ himself.  We’ll have some white candles you can take home as your household’s Christ candle this Sunday if you like, but you’re also welcome to use a candle of your own family’s choosing.  This can be a powerful reminder that God became incarnate as a particular person: a child from Nazareth born in Bethlehem.  Just as Jesus wasn’t some non-descript generic man, but a particular man who walked a certain way and maybe preferred fish to gyros, so too does Christ become incarnate in particular ways in your family and at our church, St. Elizabeth.  We all have the same blue and pink candles in our wreaths because we all share the same patriarchs and matriarchs, prophets, Holy Family, shepherd and angels—but that story comes to fullness in Christ today in different ways in each of our lives.
 
This is why last week I made such a big deal about taking care of “the least of these who are members of [God’s] family,” and why I made a Facebook video about it.  Just as God became a real, unique flesh and blood body in a specific time and place 2,000 years ago to feed and heal and comfort particular people, so too is God becoming incarnate today by taking on the body of Christ, which is the Church.  It’s imperative that we be God’s unique heart, hands and feet in our specific times and places.  We do this by paying extra attention to the particular needs of folks around us, especially folks who might otherwise get overlooked (whether in our social groups or by society at large).  This is how we, as the Church, become a Holy Family: we are set apart for God’s ‘use,’ so to speak, in redeeming the world.
 
It doesn’t have to be something grand.  Just as a regular friends and family are bound together mostly by small things—phone calls, cards, pecan pie and Love Actually—so too are we as God’s family bound together by small things: a cup of coffee, a ride to the doctor’s office, bread, wine, laying on of hands, words of comfort.  This is how we prepare for the coming of Christ into the world, both then and now.  This is how we become God’s Holy Family through whom Christ is born anew.
 
 See you Sunday, everyone.  A blessed Advent awaits.
 
Fr. Daniel+
 

A Cat, a Piano, and the Living Fire of Praise

Hi friends, I wrote a few weeks ago about the turtleness of turtles.  Today, I am quite surprised to say I feel called to reflect on the catness of cats and what catness might have to teach us.
 
I say I’m “surprised” because I am not a cat person.  Don’t get me wrong: I have a healthy respect for cats, and if I lived on a farm or on several acres of land I would want at least one around to fulfill the cattish duty of striking terror into troublesome varmints like rats and mice—but lauding the virtues of catness does not come as naturally to me as enjoying the dogness of dogs or horseness of horses does.  But choosing to praise a creature I’d rather keep at arm’s length is perhaps part of my point: to praise is a natural inclination of the soul, but it’s also one we have to practice.
 
What’s so special about cats?  To be a cat means to purr one’s contentment.  Have you ever noticed how utterly unselfconscious cats are in letting you know when they’re happy?  When a cat is content in its body in the world, whether because of a scratch behind the ears or a quiet moment in the sunshine on the back of your couch, it broadcasts its satisfaction.  It’s as though the breath of life given to it by God is just idling away like an engine at rest: “Yes, here I am, God’s elegant creature.  It is well with my soul.” 
 
A cat purrs because its animal life instinctively recognizes that a world in which to live has been given to it.  A cat purrs its enjoyment of the given world, a world built for catness, filled with food, affection, aluminum foil balls to bat about the kitchen.
 
I read a poem the other day by a man named Edward Hirsch.  The poem is called “Wild Gratitude.”  It’s a poem about kneeling down to play with his cat.  The poem ends with these lines:
 
And only then did I understand
It is Jeoffry—and every creature like him—
Who can teach us how to praise—purring
In their own language,
Wreathing themselves in the living fire.

 
I like that idea, that when we praise we are wreathed in living fire.  This is what cats have to teach us: when we receive something good and enjoy it without embarrassment and without too much concern over what people might think, we are praising God.  We are praising God because we are living our gratitude, receiving the world as a gift, which I think is how God intends us to receive it.
 
Here’s what I mean: if you got your friend a piano for her birthday, she would likely write you a thank you note for the piano to express her gratitude.  That’s great, and that’s as it should be.  (Thank you notes are good!)  But let’s say that at some point over the next year, you’re over at her house for a dinner party, and after dinner she just slips away to the piano in the next room.  You hear her around the corner, starting in on a Chopin nocturne.  You move quietly to the doorway to watch, and you see that her eyes are closed, and that she’s swaying a little to the music, and that she’s positively wreathed in the living fire of what she’s playing—that might make you weep knowing you had given someone a gift they loved so deeply.  That would be your friend’s living gratitude—the strongest form of praise. 
 
I think God watches us from the world’s doorway like that, hoping we’ll get lost in making the world’s music.  Hoping we’ll purr in all the diverse ways that people purr, wreathing ourselves in the living fire of praise.
 
This Thanksgiving, whatever gifts come your way—a good meal, a football game, time on the couch with all your cousins or grandkids or that novel you’ve not had time to read, or just a few minutes on the phone with that step-brother you never see—whatever it is, I pray you’ll receive the full weight of that goodness.  Laugh, cry, wash the dishes in amused silence, watch the slow sink of the sun behind the trees at evening.  However you respond, remember that real enjoyment and contentment are ways we “show forth our praise, not only with our lips, but in our lives” (BCP, 101).
 
This Thanksgiving, I pray you have occasion to purr.  And even if you’re mostly around creatures you’d rather keep at arm’s length, perhaps practice praising anyway.  It might come more naturally than you think.
 
Happy Thanksgiving,
 
Fr. Daniel+
 

@theAccuser

Hi friends, as many of you know, I’m from Alabama.  My home state has had a rough week in the news.  I’ll spare you the details, but a special election to fill Alabama’s vacant U.S. Senate seat started the trouble.  My task today isn’t to write about Roy Moore or Doug Jones.  (I trust that those of you who are interested can arrive at your own conclusions.)  Instead, I want to write about one of the spiritual dangers of living in a 24-hour, multimedia information culture.  As I was keeping tabs on events in my home state, I read a tweet by a prominent religious leader.  I agreed with the Tweet—but then I made the mistake of reading the comments.
 
It’s hard to explain exactly what happened next.  As I read, the comments became smugger, angrier, and more anxious.  Inevitably, posts started including CAPITAL LETTERS BECAUSE NOW WE’RE SHOUTING SO YOU KNOW IT’S SERIOUS.  Commenters introduced new, unrelated issues with “Oh yeah?  But what about XYZ?” as a way of trying to reclaim moral high ground.  This would hook another commenter, and soon they were spiraling downward like birds grappling mid-flight.  This happened with everyone, including folks with whom I basically agreed.  One by one, each fell from the sky.
 
When we get locked into a fight like that, the fall is inevitable because we lose sight of anything and anyone who isn’t an opponent.  We no longer pursue the truth, which might entail conceding a point here and there; we simply try to shout down any voice that isn’t our own.  What’s so sinister about this is that the more we shout, the more power we yield to opposing voices.  Even when we put the iPhone down, or step away from the laptop, we’re still fighting in our heads, plotting the end-all, be-all post to put one over on @WhoeverYouAre.  We imagine ourselves hitting the “Reply” button, dropping the proverbial microphone, and walking away.
 
But of course, we can’t walk away.  We’re not having a real argument with a real person about real ideas.  We’ve imagined for ourselves the semblance of an opponent, an ignorant and immoral character who desperately needs our forceful but ultimately benevolent correction.  We build a debate podium in our minds and give this invented shadow persona the other microphone.  We keep running through our position, point after point, and before long we’re no longer sure exactly who it is against whom we’re defending ourselves.
 
That’s how the Accuser gets in: an iPhone screen becomes a debate stage; the debate stage becomes a courtroom—and we’re the defendant.  It’s a subtle descent.  It leaves us anxious and on edge.  We roil like tea kettles on the inside.  All that we say and do shrieks out like steam.  Why?  Because we’re afraid of…well, we can’t say exactly, but something bad will happen if we don’t justify ourselves.
 
I believe in the power of argument.  It’s how we pursue truth together.  But in the data-static of our current political climate, it’s a fine line between practicing the pursuit of God’s truth in community and practicing accusation, which will always leave us feeling panicked and alone on the Accuser’s witness stand.
 
As I read the comments section, I remembered a scene from Paradise Lost.  The poem opens with Satan’s falling into hell after rebelling against God.  Soon after, Satan holds a great consultation with all the demons about how they’re going to get revenge on the Almighty.  Demons named Moloch, Belial, Mammon, and Beelzebub give speeches advocating different ideas.  They’re erudite, elegant, and entertaining.  Reading these characters’ speeches, it’s easy to forget how absurd they are.  They’re hatching a scheme to get back at God?!  If Satan and his demons think this is going to work, they’ve clearly lost touch with reality.
 
A classmate of mine in college once said of this scene, “Isn’t it possible that all these demons are just voices in Satan’s own head?  He just tried to overthrow the Creator of the Universe, which is basically like saying he just tried to force God into not being God.  He’s got no sense of reality.  Aren’t these demons basically just broken pieces of his own mind?”
 
Reading the comments section was like stepping into Satan’s mind and hearing all the broken voices, as though one of America’s better angels had fallen and turned on itself.  Free Speech, Democracy, Connectedness—I’m not sure what angel it was I saw falling, but @Moloch, @Belial, and the rest were the voices left over.  Each wanted to be king of the comments section, not to better understand the truth.  Better to rule in hell than serve in heaven, apparently.
 
I don’t want that for us.  We’re Christian people.  The Truth is true whether or not we understand all of it, whether or not we defend it on the anonymous marches of the internet.  Argument is good, but it’s a practice best undertaken over time, amongst people who love each other.  The internet is also good, but it’s a medium best used to connect people who already have a foundational affection for each other.  If the Truth God articulates is a man from Nazareth, who ate and walked and wept and got sunburns and met people face to face, then I think we must admit the limits of what 140 Twitter characters can accomplish.
 
God’s peace,
 
Fr. Daniel+
 

Time, Talent, and Nehemiah 3

Hi friends, recently I’ve been writing about financial giving in preparation for Consecration Sunday this week on November 12th.  Today, I want to focus on other kinds of stewardship.  We’ve talked about treasure, but we’ve not said much about time and talent.
 
Recently, our Old Testament readings during Morning Prayer have been mostly from Ezra and Nehemiah.  Those two books tell a fascinating story.  Here’s the background: in 586 BCE, the empire of Babylon conquers Judah and destroys Jerusalem and its Temple.  Babylon captures many of Jerusalem’s citizens and holds them in captivity in Babylon.  Soon enough, however, the Persian Empire conquers once mighty Babylon.  The Persians aren’t interested in keeping the Israelites hostage, so in 538 BCE, the king decrees that all the Jewish captives  “are now permitted to go up to Jerusalem in Judah, and rebuild the house of the Lord, the God of Israel” (Ezra 1:3).  The books of Ezra and Nehemiah tell the story of the Israelites’ returning from exile and their work rebuilding the city of Jerusalem.
 
It took a long time.  Work began in 538 BCE, and the Temple likely wasn’t finished until around 515 BCE.  The city itself wasn’t completed and filled with people until sometime after 445BCE.  That’s a century worth of work, more than one generation’s best efforts.
 
One of my favorite sections is Nehemiah 3 (even though the lectionary skips it).  It’s a specific account of all the repairs being made to the city walls, gates, and towers, along with details about who was doing what. Six towers and eleven gates are mentioned.  The first and last gate mentioned is the Sheep Gate (3:1 and 32).  I imagine this is because the author is walking the perimeter of the city, just telling us what he sees, and he eventually arrives back where he started.
 
What’s startling about chapter three is the number of people: by my count, thirty-six distinct households or people groups are named.  Only six of those are mentioned as making multiple repairs.  Among the workers are goldsmiths, perfumers, priests, merchants, and the daughters of a ruler.  Thirty-six households rebuild the walls of an entire city, and not a single architect, contractor, or bricklayer mentioned.
 
These unqualified but faithful volunteers rebuild a city the grandeur of which causes Jesus’ disciples to marvel over four-hundred years later (Mark 13:1).  Thirty-six households committed for the long term can build the city in which God accomplishes the redemption of the world.
 
Thirty-six households.  According to our most recent directory, St. Elizabeth has 111.  “But,” you say, “church directories are notoriously inaccurate compared to the number of active participants!”  Fair enough.  But if even one-third of our directory are active participants, we’re at thirty-seven households.  And that’s not counting the Boy Scouts!
 
This past Sunday was the Feast of All Saints.  We had extra special music, baptisms, guests, and some friends we hadn’t seen in a while.  Just this past Sunday morning, at least all of the following people were directly involved: Mark and Wanda Slater and the choir; the Altar Guild; our ushers; the Bishop’s Committee members of the day; Rocki Fiero and our coffee hour hosts; Krista Piferrer who makes the butterfly stones for baptisms; our acolytes; our LEMs, lectors, and intercessors; Kimra Hamilton and Ruth Anne Bloor in Godly Play; Kevin Hammond’s acolyte leadership; our round-up verger before the service; David and Rachel Joiner greeting people and making sure there are plenty of welcome bags for us to deliver to any visitors; Philip Williams who makes the faith chests for baptisms; all the pour souls I “voluntold” to help me with my sermon—and that’s not counting any of the folks who offer their time and talent the other six days of the week making fidget-buster bags, keeping the facilities and grounds looking pretty and in order, tracking our expenses and revenues, supporting each other in life groups, or any of the other hundred gates, towers, and walls in need of constant attention.  I could go on, and I haven’t said anything about the million ways you offer God a sacrifice of time and talent outside our church community—but that’s a different newsletter for a different day.
 
St. Elizabeth a mission of the Diocese of West Texas.  It’s tempting to imagine that “we’re just a small church.”  So what?  Jesus started with a handful of fishermen, a tax collector, and a scandalized Samaritan woman he met at a well.  Lots of times when I or another of our leaders asks someone to help with something, they protest, “But I’m not qualified to do that.”  So what?  Perfumers and jewelers rebuilt Jerusalem. 
 
What I’m saying is this: your presence and your best efforts matter.  Your time, your talent, your loving attention and affection—they are the only tools God has ever used to build the City in which He might dwell with His people.  The City we’re building here isn’t primarily a literal one of walls and buildings; it’s community, relationship, service, spiritual food for people of all ages.  Without you, all the money in the world couldn’t build Jerusalem.  Without you, there is no city on a hill where the gates are always open to those seeking the love of God.  Without you, there is no Church.  Like the first Israelites returning from exile, the work of building God’s City requires the best efforts of more than just our generation; we won’t complete it in our lifetime.  Thankfully, God calls us unqualified laborers home to faithfulness, not success.  I’m grateful to be with you, tending the walls, gates, and towers of God’s City.  Let’s keep the Sheep Gate open.
 
God’s Peace,
 
Fr. Daniel+
 

A Handful of Herbs

Hi friends, our lectionary has us skipping a great deal of text in Matthew’s Gospel over the next couple weeks.  Today, I want to write about a portion of chapter 23 we won’t get to hear on a Sunday.  Chapter 23 is Jesus’ long invective against the scribes and Pharisees, replete with lots of “woe to you” statements.  There’s one verse in particular, 23:23, I’m interested in:
 
Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill, and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith.  It is these you ought to have practiced without neglecting the others.
 
First, some background.  Matthew writes his gospel during a time of conflict between his community of Christian Jews and the leaders of Rabbinic Judaism.  The Pharisees and scribes are part of that group, and they are deeply concerned with the faithful interpretation of the Torah.  With all the “woe to you” phrases in chapter 23, Matthew highlights Jesus’ role as a prophet of Israel calling Israel’s religious leadership to account.  Thus, Jesus isn’t an opponent of Israel; he’s a prophetic voice within it.  Jesus’ invective against scribes and Pharisees is like a bitter fight between siblings at the dinner table.
 
Second, and more close to home for me, is the focus on tithing.  I wrote last week about Lucy’s and my own practice of tithing, a practice we’ve only just begun at St. Liz—and here is Jesus convicting us with “the weightier matters of the law!”  What are our little twice-a-month checks compared to mercy, justice, and faith?  Insubstantial, like sprigs of dill blown about.
 
To tithe is to set one tenth of one’s wealth apart for the Lord’s use: “All tithes of herd and flock, every tenth one that passes under the shepherd’s staff, shall be holy to the Lord” (Lev. 27:32).  Tithes went to the Temple: “In the presence of the Lord your God, in the place that he will choose as a dwelling for his name [the Temple], you shall eat the tithe of your grain, your wine, and your oil, as well as the firstlings of your herd and flock, so that you may learn to fear the Lord your God always” (Deut. 14:23).
 
Two things about this are significant.  First, this one tenth number isn’t random.  It was common for vassals to pay one tenth of their produce to their monarch as a tribute.  For example, when the Israelites ask for a king, the prophet Samuel says it’s a terrible idea, warning them that an Israelite king will do what all kings do: demand a ten percent tribute (1 Sam. 8:15-17).  By tithing to God, however, the Israelites are acknowledging God’s kingship: they are tenants tilling the land of the one true King (Lev. 25:23-24).
 
This is where the mint, dill, and cumin come in.  The Deuteronomy commandment about tithing includes grain, wine, oil, and flocks—nothing about herbs in there.  The Pharisees and other students of the Torah interpreted this as meaning anything that comes from the ground should be tithed to God.  The earth and all its resources belong to God, even down to the little box of herbs you grow on the window sill. 
 
It’s no wonder that Jesus doesn’t actually disagree with the Pharisees about tithing herbs.  We must not neglect the weightier matters of the law (mercy, etc.), but neither should we “neglect the others” (mint, etc.).  After all, the earth, even the earth in your little window pots, is the Lord’s.
 
Perhaps that handful of herbs isn’t so insubstantial.  Mercy, justice, faith—these are the meat and potatoes, so to speak, the spiritual food on which we live.  Our financial offerings are more like the mint, dill, and cumin: they don’t make much of a meal on their own, but they are part of God’s recipe.  That handful of herbs brings the meat and potatoes to their fullest flavor.
 
That’s the second significant piece to this tithing business in the bible: it’s almost always about food!  Did you notice anything odd about Deuteronomy 14:23 quoted above?  Here it is again: “In the presence of the Lord your God, in the place that he will choose as a dwelling for his name, you shall eat the tithe of your grain, your wine, and your oil, as well as the firstlings of your herd and flock, so that you may learn to fear the Lord your God always.”   What we offer to God is returned to us as a feast.  We are united by a meal we share with God.  Bread and wine become body and blood; individuals become one body at God’s table. 
 
One tenth of a paycheck, a handful of coins, the two-percent your family can manage right now—whatever it is, that handful of herbs can sweeten the world if the hand holding them is God’s.
 
God’s peace, friends.
 
Fr. Daniel+
 
 
 

First Fruits

Hi friends, I mentioned on Sunday that over the next few weeks, we’ll be talking more about financial stewardship and giving than we usually do.  That’s not all we’ll be talking about; we’ll be doing life groups, Godly Play, altar guild training, worship, baptisms on November 5th, and all of our usual things, too!  As a reminder, Consecration Sunday is on Sunday, November 12th.  I hope you’ll plan to attend both worship and our celebratory lunch afterwards.  As part of our preparation for Consecration Sunday, today I want to write about Lucy’s and my own practice of giving.
As Lucy is a fulltime student, we’re a one income household.  We tithe 10% of my stipend from St. Liz, before taxes.  Two things about that are significant for us: first, we write a check the old-fashioned way, and two, while we’ve pledged in the past, this is the first time in our marriage we’ve tithed.  I have to say, it feels really good, like coming home.
We write a check the old-fashioned way partly because I’ve always had a checkbook, and writing a check to St. Elizabeth twice a month is one of the few times I get to use it anymore!  More important, however, is that for us, physically writing a check and placing it in the offering plate is how we offer to God from our ‘first fruits.’  Payroll happens twice a month, so each Sunday after a pay week, I do what my Dad taught me: look at the paystub, move the decimal one place to the left, and write a check to the church for that amount.  Simple, easy, habitual.
Offering to God from our first fruits has a long history.  When God leads the Israelites out of bondage in Egypt, God promises to lead them safely into a land of their own, to give them the land of Canaan (Ex. 13:11).  This is God’s end of the covenant.  God then tells the Israelites how they are to respond: “All the firstborn of your livestock…shall be the Lord’s” (Ex. 13:12).  The first fruits of harvested crops shall also be offered—a better word might be returned—to God (Ex. 23:19).  Again and again and again God reiterates the command to set aside as holy the first fruits of one’s harvest, be it livestock, grain, oil, wine, or fleece (Ex. 34:22; Lev. 2:14, 23:20; Num 18:12 and 17; Deut 18:3-4, etc.).  Lucy and I don’t harvest much in the way of livestock or fleece, so we write a check.
It’s taken us a while to arrive at 10%.  We’ve gone from pledging 5% to making what for us was a significant increase to pledging 6%; we’ve had seasons of pledging around 2.5%; we’ve had seasons of not pledging at all and giving sporadically—we’ve been all over the ledger (and not necessarily in the order listed).  We’ve given electronically on an automatically recurring system, given cash directly to parish financial administrators, done plate offerings, and everything in between.
I say all of that simply to demonstrate that a spiritual discipline of giving, particularly tithing, can take time to emerge.  It’s taken us seven years to arrive at our current practice, one that feels good and right.  
 
Maybe tithing is your step to take this year.  Or maybe your step is simply to begin pledging.  If things are mostly unchanged and stable for you, maybe this year take a manageable step toward tithing by increasing last year’s pledge by 10% (from $500 to $550, for example). 
Tithing is a healthy biblical goal, but it’s not possible or good for everyone.  I promise, God doesn’t want you to put 10% in the plate if it means being late on rent.  Likewise, if you’re in a season of particular bounty, then perhaps moving beyond 10% is a holy response for you.
The Israelites responded gratefully to God’s saving action once they crossed the Jordan and entered the land promised to them.  Tithing of their first fruits was integral to their response.  Both the wilderness and Canaan belonged to God, but that land, the land across the Jordan, that geography of the soul was theirs to till and keep, theirs from which to offer to God the first fruits of their labor.  Just like discerning an ongoing spiritual discipline, it took time to get there, even though God never stopped being their God.
Lucy’s and my experience has been similar.  For a variety of reasons, it’s only now, with our arrival at St. Elizabeth, that we’ve begun tithing in earnest.  It’s one way we celebrate and thank God for the first fruits of this new harvest in this new place.  Perhaps we’ve crossed some Jordan River of our own without realizing it.  All I know is that we’re grateful that God has led us to St. Liz.  Like I said, for us, tithing is a bit like coming home.
God’s peace, friends.
 
Fr. Daniel+
 
 

On serving on the Altar Guild

Hi friends, after church on Sunday, October 29th, I’m leading a training for all current members of our Altar Guild and for anyone who would like to join.  More details below, but first, I want to tell you about all the household chores I did today.
 
Lucy has been out of town visiting our nieces for a few days, so today I set about getting the house ready for her return.  Laundry, washing dishes, scrubbing under the stove’s eyes, more laundry, taking out the garbage, realizing that the garbage bag leaked and then Cloroxing the garbage can itself—you know the drill. 
 
I really like this Lucy’s-coming-home ritual of mine.  Having a day every now and then where I clean everything satisfies me endlessly.  Our apartment at the seminary isn’t that big anyway, so it really is possible to transform the place in just a couple hours.  I open the balcony door and the front door to let the breeze and sunlight move in and out with Zooby as they wish, and then it’s just me, a dish rag, the vacuum, and the slow, careful ordering of our world.
 
               It feels good to take care of the place where you live.  “The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it” (Gen. 2:15).  After all, part of God’s purpose for human beings is to care for our environment.  Today, for me, that looked like folding laundry and using a little spray bottle to water Lucy’s mysterious air plants.  It’s not glamorous, but there is satisfaction and affection in it.
 
               There’s affection in scrubbing the grimy tiles by the dog bowls because it was part of my preparing to welcome Lucy home.  Not only do I clean and order the apartment because it’s mine, but because it’s ours.  It’s the place where I’ll meet her when she gets back, and it’s the place where I meet her every day after work, every morning when we wake up.  I want it to be ready.
 
               On Saturdays, one of our altar guild teams comes to the sanctuary, and they get everything ready.  They put the bread and wine on the table by the doors for the ushers.  They set the altar book just right.  They lay out the chalices and purificators just so, and they place the paten for the bread on the credence table behind the altar.  They lay out the reserve sacrament, just in case we need more.  They put flowers on the altar.  When the seasons change, they change the hangings to match.  They even fill the preacher’s water glass and cover it with a doyly.
 
               They do all this not only because this place is theirs, but because it’s ours.  The Altar Guild ‘gets the house ready’ so that we can meet each other, and so that, together, we can meet Jesus when he returns.
 
               It’s good work.  There’s washing dishes, folding towels, grocery shopping for flowers and wine and other supplies.  It’s not glamorous, and there’s nobody around watching you do it, but the work is holy.  It’s preparing the way, both for the Lord and for his people.
 
               Again, after worship on Sunday, October 29th, I’m going to lead a training for St. Elizabeth’s Altar Guild—both our existing members and for any of you out there who might be interested.  Coming to training doesn’t commit you.  If you are interested in serving on the Altar Guild, I ask that you be a confirmed communicant of St. Elizabeth who is at least 16 years of age.  If you’re not confirmed, or if you missed Bishop Reed’s visit last week ago, don’t let that stop you!  But know that I will expect you to participate in confirmation the next time it comes around.  The time commitment is usually a couple hours one Saturday per month when your team is scheduled, plus tidying up after service on Sunday that same weekend.  Additional time will be required as needed (around major feast days, for example).  It’s not a huge commitment in terms of time, but it’s work that must be done each week.
 
               If behind the scenes work is what you like, then maybe serving on the Altar Guild is for you.  Or if you’re looking for a way to get more involved but haven’t found the right fit for you yet, maybe this is it.  I hope you’ll consider serving.  Plus, I guarantee you’ll make a friend or two in the process! 
 
               If you’re interested in serving and/or attending the training, please let Laurie Haney know.  She’s our Altar Guild leader.  You can reach Laurie at laurienorene@yahoo.com or (512) 638-0461.
 
God’s Peace,
 
Fr. Daniel+
 

The Altar Party

Hi friends, we’re having a training for acolytes, lectors/intercessors, and Lay Eucharistic Ministers after church on Sunday, October 22nd.  This training is for everyone who currently serves in those roles, but it’s also an opportunity for people to join those ministries who never have before.  If that’s you, I’d like you to consider participating.  So today, I want to write about some of those roles, particularly the folks who wear funny clothes on Sunday mornings: acolytes, Lay Eucharistic Ministers, and clergy.  The work those ministers do has both theological and practical significance, and their dress, roles, and placement during the service reminds us that the Church always has dual citizenship: earth and heaven.
 
First, everything those folks do is both theologically and practically important.  For example, why does a robe-wearing crucifer carry a cross down the aisle as we’re singing at the beginning of the service?  The theological reason is that it signals the reign of Jesus in our community.  Just as a military leader or emperor would lead his people with a big banner or standard of some kind, so too do we acknowledge Jesus as our Lord. 
 
On a practical level, people need to know when the service is starting!  In the earliest years of the Church, the service just started with a reading from the Old Testament.  That worked fine for a while because the earliest Christian communities weren’t very big.  They gathered in somebody’s living room.  But as Christianity grew and more people came to church, it got harder to let everyone know when worship was starting.  Thus, we got processions with music.
 
Second, by wearing white robes and by processing in, gathering around the altar, and processing out, the altar party performs the truth that the Church as we experience it is on earth, but it’s also always a heavenly kingdom.  When we come to the altar rail at communion, it’s as though we’re touching the border of heaven: this is where we meet God and become part of the Body of His Son. 
 
Thus, it fits that the folks who are serving on the altar-side of the rail should look a little odd.  Neither the priest, nor the acolytes, nor anyone else up there has special powers or is more holy than anybody else or whatever.  It’s just that on Sunday mornings, the very architecture of our worship space reminds us that the Eucharist is a border crossing.  We’re not simply on earth anymore, and yet we’re also not simply in heaven.  We’re in both places at once.  It’s even more powerful when lectors in plain clothes come to read, or when the Gospel procession moves out into the midst of everyone: in each of those instances, the border is crossed.  Theologically, heaven and earth all mixed together.
 
The white robes also remind us of our baptism.  In the early Church, when somebody was baptized they were dressed in a white robe immediately after.  This was a symbol of new life, of Christ’s resurrection, that they were now a part of something different.  Clergy and chalice servers and acolytes don’t wear robes on Sunday morning because they’re different but because we’re all different.  We’re Christian people.
 
Plus, serving at the altar is fun!  You get to carry the torches, serve the chalice, even bang the big bell chime.  You’re up close and personal as people come to the altar rail.  That is one of the great gifts of the work I do: bearing witness as people receive the body and blood.  Some people are very somber and reverent, some are quite casual, some remain silent, some say “Amen,” and some—especially kids—say “Thank you!” after I give them bread.  (I usually respond, “You’re welcome!”)  It’s all beautiful.
 
I’d like you to consider if God is calling you to serve in one of these worship roles: acolyte, lector/intercessor, or chalice bearer.  We have acolyte rolls for kids as young as 3rd grade.  To be a lector or intercessor, I ask that you be a confirmed communicant of St. Elizabeth who is at least 16 years old.  To be a chalice server, I ask that you be a confirmed communicant of St. Elizabeth and at least 16 years of age.  I also expect that you pledge financially.
 
I want to be clear about that last one: the amount one pledges is not important, be it $12 a year or $12,000.  This is not some club we buy our way into.  I ask that pledging be part of the practice of chalice servers because I take the distribution of the blood of Jesus seriously.  If one is to help distribute the gifts from the altar, it fits that he or she should be intentional in offering material gifts on the altar.  Furthermore, as ministers who distribute the body and blood of Christ, we make a promise ahead of time that we will offer the bread and wine regardless of who is at the rail, regardless of whether they cross themselves beforehand or are smiling or are serious or have wounded us that week.  To pledge is to do the same: it’s making a promise ahead of time that we will offer our material resources to our community regardless of whether we want to six months from now, regardless of whether we’re upset about something, regardless of whether we won the lottery or are tightening our belts a bit. 
 
Here are the details again: we’re having a training for acolytes, lectors/intercessors, and Lay Eucharistic Ministers after church on Sunday, October 22nd.  If you’re already one of those ministers, this is for you!  If you’re not one yet but are interested, this is for you!  Acolyte families, please contact Kevin Hammond at Kevin.Hammond12@gmail.com Everyone else, please contact me at danielstelizabeth@gmail.com
 
God’s peace, and I hope to see you there!
 
Fr. Daniel+
 
 
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