Rejoice!

The Rev. Jimmy Abbott
The Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost
October 15, 2017

Philippians 4:1-9

After my sophomore year of college, I spent the summer in northern Maine as a canoe river guide. You’ve heard me talk about this before. My job was to take crews of nine Boy Scouts, two adults, and me on two week canoe expeditions in the middle of nowhere Maine. And I realized, like many outdoorsman do, that there are two types of fun. Type One fun is the kind of fun that is fun while you’re doing it. Taking a canoe down some rapids is actually a lot of fun. Or, when we would be out on the big lakes in Maine, we would set up a sail and hold our canoes together and go flying with the wind. That was the kind of fun that is fun while you’re doing it.

But then, there is Type Two fun. This is the kind of fun that is miserable while you’re doing it, but once you look back, it makes for a great story. Any time we had to portage that was Type Two Fun. That’s when there is a waterfall on the river so you have to carry the ninety pound canoe on your back and walk. Miserable while you’re doing it, fun to sit around the campfire afterwards and retell the story.

This past year at Holy Comforter, our Year of Joy, we’ve had Type One joy and Type Two joy. Type One Joy – the kind of joy that is joyful while it’s happening. The capital campaign kickoff. Christmas. Easter. The groundbreaking. God was close to us while it was happening and we felt God’s presence.

But you know, we’ve also had our fair share of Type Two joy. The kind that wasn’t so joyful while it was happening. We had Sunday services out in the Parish Hall, because the church was damaged from the rain, but actually it was nice to be so close to each other. We came close to, but did not fully achieve our capital campaign goal, yet we are still able to build. We had our groundbreaking in June for the new church, and since then, it’s been a whole lot of waiting. That’s Type Two joy.

Now Saint Paul, Saint Paul has a third gear. He has Type Three joy. Type Three joy is when things are miserable, you are joyful anyway. Think of it – he’s writing the letter to the Philippians while he’s in prison. Prison in the ancient world was horrendous. You were usually chained to a wall or a post. Prisons were usually in a dungeon or a place with no ventilation. You weren’t given food by the prison – you depended on the kindness of strangers and friends to bring you food. If you didn’t have any friends, you would probably starve. So there’s Paul, in prison, hungry, thirsty, in the dark, chained to a wall; on the face of it, he should be absolutely miserable. But what does he say? “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplications with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.”

Those are brave and joyful words for a man in a tiny prison cell with no air to breathe who is constantly hungry and thirsty. Those are brave and joyful words for a man who is in prison precisely because of his faith in Jesus Christ. Imagine Saint Paul, with the prison stench, with rats and vermin crawling all around, with hunger pains, and he says, “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” That, my friends, is joy. Not the fleeting happiness of type one joy, not the pessimistic pain of type two joy. Saint Paul is neither saying he enjoys his situations, nor does he deny his pain. He sees through his situation, and he sees that God loves him and that Jesus is with him despite his circumstances.

Rejoice in the Lord always, again I will say, Rejoice. It puts a perspective on things, doesn’t it? Rejoice in the Lord always, again I will say, Rejoice. As we begin our pledge campaign this year, our Year of Joy, that’s where I want us to start. We do not prayerfully consider our financial gifts to the church out of a place of scarcity. We don’t sit down and figure out how much money we’ll give based on what we think the Church deserves. No, we give out of joy. A deep sense that God loves us and that Jesus is with us and that the money we give to the church is our way of saying, “thank you,” to God for all that God has done for us. We give out of joy for the eternal life given to us in Jesus Christ. We give out of joy.

Think about it, think about the joy in our parish family. A church that turned out immediately to help our friends and neighbors who were flooded. A church that gives of itself by worshipping with the elderly, by mentoring students. A church that opened its doors to the public library. A church that is so joyful that we are not afraid to give our money to build a church.

Now I wish, I wish I could stand here this morning with great joy and tell you that the construction trucks arrive tomorrow. But I can’t tell you that. This is what I can tell you – the building contract is signed. Frost Bank is ready. The builders are ready. You’re ready. I’m ready. And still we wait for we’re on the backlog of building permits from Harris County. We will start as soon as we have that little piece of paper in hand. It could be this week, it could be next week. That is simply the reality of it.

I wish that wasn’t the reality. I’ve had over one thousand separate email conversations about this building project, so yeah, I am ready. But here’s another piece of the reality. At the very beginning of this process, way back in January of 2014 I said that this whole timeline was going to be a spiritual journey. In fact, here’s a line from that very first sermon.

“I am resolutely convinced that this vision of building a church is a vision to which God is calling us. But it will not be easy. This process will take everything we have and everything we are as a congregation to accomplish. This process will not be a mere fundraising campaign or building plan. This process on which we are embarking will be a spiritual exercise. We will learn how to corporately trust in God, trust in one another, and give of our time, gifts, and money to the mission of this church.”

I never knew how true those words would become. And so of course we should expect another spiritual lesson at this moment. The lesson we are learning is how to find joy despite the present circumstances, despite the waiting.

You might think I’m saying this because it’s convenient. That it’s a nice, clever way to tie a bow on this. It’s not. I actually do believe in God, I believe in Jesus Christ who teaches us spiritual lessons through the circumstances of life. And I realize that we need to learn this lesson of looking for joy even while we wait. We gripe all the time of this culture of instant gratification and how people should learn how to wait. Well, here is our opportunity to learn the lesson for ourselves.

And more than that, this is a spiritual lesson that we can take into our personal lives. There has been some point in your life when you had to wait for something, or maybe you’re waiting right now. You had to consciously look for joy.  It’s not enjoyable, and you wish you could speed up time. Sometimes this lesson has real world costs. I have given my money to this capital campaign, you have given your money, we have talked, and dreamed, and labored, and we wish that right now, it was different.

I’m sure that Saint Paul wished it was different, too. I’m sure he wished that he wasn’t chained to a wall and didn’t have rats crawling all over him in the dark. I’m sure he wished he had all the food and water he could want. Yet there he sat, waiting. But that never stole his joy.

Saint Paul knew that God was with him; his fellow Christians were with him. Look back to what Paul says about his friends. He talks about Euodia, Syntyche, Clement, his co-workers, and his loyal companion. Who were Euodia, Syntyche, and Clement? We’ll never know. But what we do know, is that even Saint Paul could not do it by himself.

The Church is a living example of this. We need each other. I cannot have Holy Communion by myself. We cannot gather in worship if there is no one to gather with. This is a community – we need each other as loyal companions. Or think of our new building – there’s wood, and concrete, and brick, and drywall. There’s no one thing – each material needs each other, like loyal companions.

This is also clear in a pledge campaign. We need each other. One of the wonderful things about Holy Comforter is that no one person can fund it. It takes everybody, as loyal companions, together in this thing to be the church. The beautiful thing, is to see all sorts of people from all walks of life commit themselves to each other to be loyal companions, to make this thing work. Our companionship means that we’ll pray for each other, care for each other, worship with each other, and yes, to give our money together. I give my money to Holy Comforter because I believe that God is present in this church. I give my money to Holy Comforter because it gives me incredible joy to be part of a church that has chosen to be loyal companions.

And now, more than ever, in the waiting, we need each other. And a year from now, when all is said and done, we will give thanks to God for this collective moment. Because God has given us this time, this waiting time, as an opportunity; so that we can see what we’re really made of as a church. Not Type One joy, not Type Two joy, but the joy that comes from Jesus Christ.

Rejoice in the Lord always, again I will say, Rejoice. As you consider your financial gifts to this church, I ask you first to rejoice that God has given us this church, this community. Rejoice that we are one church of loyal companions, sharing Christ’s message of hope, peace, and grace with all.

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This Heavy Burden

The Rev. Jimmy Abbott
18th Sunday after Pentecost
October 8, 2017

Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20

We’re going to start this morning with a pop quiz. A pop geometry quiz. You thought you were never back to tenth grade, ha! We’re going to calculate the weight of a solid object using its dimensions and pounds per cubic feet of the material used to create this thing. So here we go!

It’s six feet tall, three feet wide, and let’s just say eight inches deep. Multiply all that together and you get twenty thousand seven hundred and thirty six. Convert that to cubic feet by dividing it by one thousand seven hundred and twenty eight (twelve times twelve time twelve). Oddly enough, that gives you twelve. You kept up with that, right?

Okay, our object is made of that beautiful pink Texas granite. Pink Texas granite weighs roughly one hundred and seventy five pounds per cubic foot. So, one more little equation – twelve times one hundred and seventy five – and this thing, this object, weights two thousand one hundred pounds. Over a ton.

It’s massive. And it’s on the back lawn of the Texas State Capitol. It’s that behemoth monument of the Ten Commandments put there in 1961 in part by Cecil B. DeMille, the guy who directed the Charlton Heston movie.

Let’s break down that number down again – how much does each commandment weigh? Well, that’s easy. Two thousand one hundred divided by ten – each commandment weights two hundred and ten pounds. And you know what I think? I think that’s too much. That burden is too much for us to bear.

See, when we read the ten commandments like we did from Exodus this morning, we get this picture in our minds of a God who pokes himself in our business. Like a giant, disciplinarian in the sky wagging his finger at us. Thou shalt not, thou shalt not, thou shalt not… Over two thousand pounds of pink Texas granite hung around our necks.

This is a disservice to the ten commandments. The commandments are not burdens, they are gifts from God. They are a sign of God’s love for his people. Think of it – the Israelites have been slaves in Egypt. God, through Moses, has delivered the Israelites over the Red Sea, out of slavery and into the freedom of the wilderness. The whole point of getting the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt was so that they could go this mountain, this very mountain where they now stand, and worship God. What we read this morning is the culmination of being freed from slavery. Receiving the ten commandments are not burdens, they are gifts from God in celebration of being freed from slavery.

Look back to how the ten commandments begin. They don’t begin with, “thou shalt not.” The first line of the ten commandments is, “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” This whole thing is based upon a relationship. “I am your God, you are my people.” These are not arbitrary rules that fell from heaven and landed on the Texas capitol like a big pink meteorite from the sky. These are the guidelines for a relationship, the relationship between God and God’s people. When the people follow the commandments they celebrate the God who delivered them from slavery. It’s like marriage vows – if you were to make those promises to a complete stranger, they would come across as heavy burdens. I have to care for this person, even if they get sick, even if they go broke? That sounds like a miserable burden. But in the context of the relationship, between two people who love each other, the marriage vows are gifts.

I could preach all day about each one of these commandments, because each one of them is about being freed from some type of slavery. Being freed from greed, from lust, from anger. I’m going to restrain myself, and just talk about one of them. The fourth commandment. Perhaps the greatest gift of them all.

“Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work.” This commandment surely doesn’t weight two hundred pounds. This commandment is a gift from God.

See, our burden is work. I’ll put it more explicitly, we are addicted to work. We are hooked on it. It’s how we define ourselves. Think what happens when you meet a stranger. “What’s your name?” “What do you do?” “Oh, I’m a lawyer, an engineer, an accountant, a bus driver, a teacher, the rector of Holy Comforter.” Work is not only what we do, it’s become who we are. We must not carry this burden any longer.

The gift of the commandment to remember the sabbath day is that for one day, one day, you are more than what you do for a living. On that one day, that day when you rest and worship, you remember that at your very core, you are God’s beloved child. The world, and your boss, wants to define you by how much you work, how many hours you’re putting in, how many emails you’re cranking out, how many deals you’re closing. But the gift of the fourth commandment is that God does not judge you that way. God sees the you that is really you. That you can rest, you can take a day off, and God will love you for who you are.

And I know how hard it is. We thought that laptops and smart phones would make work easier, when in fact, all they did was make us work more because we can’t get away from it. We can’t get away from the emails, the text messages, the phone calls. Like the Israelites of old, we are enslaved and can’t escape from our work. And usually, the person enslaving us to work, is ourselves. It’s the work that feels like two hundred pounds around our neck.

But what concerns me even more, is how hooked we are on the news. Those same little devices that we use for work are the same little devices that play out world dramas six inches from our face. Our brains are now so hooked on the drama, on the news, that we have a hard time separating out what’s important and what’s not. Every little thing enrages us. It starts our hearts pumping and our minds racing. North Korea has nuclear weapons, Puerto Rico is a disaster zone, another hurricane is coming, people are kneeling during the National Anthem, there’s a massive shooting in Las Vegas, it just won’t stop.

We are slaves to it all. And rather than turning it off, we go looking for more. It’s like we, as a culture, are dealing with post-traumatic stress. Constantly going from one trauma to another; all the while we’re working so hard that we are completely exhausted. Completely spent. And so what do we do? We self-medicate with the bottle, the pill, the TV. This is no way to live. And in fact, it is killing people.

What stands in our way from absolute mayhem? What can take this heavy burden from us? God’s gift of the fourth commandment. Remember the sabbath day and keep it holy. The day, or maybe just that hour when you can turn off your phone. When you don’t have to answer an email. When you see that little red badge on your Facebook icon, and you don’t click on it. Sabbath is about going to church, about worshipping, but also about remembering that you are God’s beloved child. It’s about having a day to detox. To let the work and the news pass out of your system. Like the ancient Israelites who would let a field lay fallow for a year so that the soil could replenish its nutrients, the sabbath is a day to stop, and to be fed, to be restored.

I know that some of us long for the good old days when we had the blue laws, when stores and restaurants were closed on Sundays. Sure, we might have more people in church when that happens. But even then, if we need a government to dictate our spirituality, then it’s not really spirituality. It’s just another burden, another massive weight hung around our necks.

Jesus has brought us into the land of freedom. Those burdens that we carry, those thousands of pounds of emotion, of work, of exhaustion – Jesus wants to take those off our backs. The gift of Jesus Christ is that we are loved not for what we do, but for who we are.

Now that we’ve reached the end of the sermon, I seriously considered giving you all another little pop quiz – to see if you could list all ten commandments. But I will not lay that burden on you. Now, I do want you to go home this week and memorize them. The pop quiz will be next week. Memorize them not because they are the rules of some disciplinarian, wagging his finger at you; or because they are these huge stones set in public places. No, memorize them because they are a gift. Because in each commandment, God is freeing us from a certain type of slavery.

And as your priest, I am pleading with you for your spiritual well-being – escape the slavery of being plugged in. Find time when you can stop, detox, and breathe deeply with God. And as you breathe, to feel Jesus lifting those great burdens off your shoulders. So that you can stand taller, and remember that God loves you for who you are, not for what you do. Because you are God’s beloved child.

Every Knee Should Bend

The Rev. Jimmy Abbott
17th Sunday after Pentecost
October 1, 2017

Philippians 2:1-13

It’s the age old question in the Episcopal Church. The question that has plagued us for generations. This fight cuts closer to home than revising the Book of Common Prayer. It’s more important than who can be a priest or a bishop. This is the question that has torn congregations apart: at what temperature should we set the air conditioning?

Here at Holy Comforter this is an acute question. See, I have learned quite a bit about air conditioning in my five years here. First of all, I’ve learned that we do not have a system designed for churches; our system is designed for residential spaces. And as much as might like our church, no one lives here. Second, you can see that the air conditioning vents are not placed strategically in our space. Some people freeze, other people sweat depending on how close or far away from the aisle you happen to sit. The difference is minute – just one click, one degree means fanning yourself or grabbing a sweater. Creeds, sacraments, whatever – what we care about is the thermostat.

Well, there’s an old story about this, it might be legend, but it’s good story. There was a little congregation in England in the middle of the 1800s, and they were having a similar issue. One Sunday morning, while the priest was droning on and on about something or other, the people started to get a little hot. Imagine, those stuffy wool clothes, those tiny little pews, and on that day, the windows above the altar that were supposed to be open as the ventilation system happened to be closed. It was stifling. Eventually, the atmosphere in the church became so unbearable that one of the wardens, a leading layperson, took matters into his own hands. During the middle of the service, he marched right up to the front of the church, climbed on top the altar, and opened the windows high upon the wall. The priest was horrified.

This began what is commonly known as the Cambridge Movement; a movement within the Church to instill order, formality, and reverence into the worship services. It was because of the Cambridge Movement that we now have candles on the altar, it’s why we love Gothic architecture, and it’s why priests wear four layers of clothes on Sundays. When everybody else was kneeling, one man decided to stand, and the church noticed. Today it’s the other way around – some have decided to take a knee when others were standing, and we’ve all noticed.

Even if we don’t watch football or care about the NFL, we all have an opinion. But more than anything, what strikes me is how this conversation has been framed. It’s gone beyond civics, it’s now almost religious. As good Episcopalians, we know that standing and kneeling are religious postures. What we do with our bodies – stand, sit, kneel – expresses what we mean with our souls.

We sit to listen, to be inspired. We sit to hear the scriptures and the sermon. We stand to sing, to hear the gospel. We bend the knee to pray. We bend the knee to say our confession of sins. Many of us kneel to receive the Holy Communion. For the Christian, kneeling is the sign of ultimate respect and humility toward God. Whether we sit, stand, or kneel, we are making a religious statement.

Saint Paul was not an Episcopalian, but he understood the difference. In our reading from Philippians this morning he says, “at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth, and under the earth.” This phrase is part of what is called, “the Christ hymn.” What we read from Philippians this morning was most likely an ancient Christian hymn that was sung in churches two thousand years ago.

Jesus Christ emptied himself for us, poured himself out for us, and humbled himself. Even though he was God, Jesus Christ became one of us. He was obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. He may have been treated as the lowest of the low while he hung on the cross, but now he is king of all. So that at the name of Jesus, every knee should bend.

When faced with the reality of who God is, we can’t help but kneel in humility. Jesus Christ is so loving, so gracious, so merciful, that we are compelled to bend our knees and our hearts.

What we do with our bodies is a sign of what we mean with our hearts. The public maelstrom that is brewing over the NFL reveals something deep about the heart of our country. We are a people terribly uneasy with each other. We’re fighting over the cultural thermostat. For some of us, the temperature is quite cool, just fine. But for others, it’s stifling. Some cheered and some were horrified when that warden climbed the altar to open the window. Some will cheer, and some will be horrified this Sunday afternoon when the whole drama is played out again.

Don’t hear what I’m not saying. Indeed,  I am grateful to be a citizen of the United States of America. I am grateful to live in this country. I am grateful for the freedoms and liberties I enjoy. I am grateful for our leaders – both political leaders and military leaders. I am proud of my country. And honestly, I don’t even watch football. I take a nap on Sunday afternoons.

And maybe I have no more to say than I simply find it interesting – providential, perhaps – that our New Testament lesson was about kneeling, when all everybody is talking about is taking a knee. Saint Paul did not have the San Francisco 49ers in mind when he wrote his letter to the Philippians. If anything, it’s simply a lesson that what we do with our bodies says something about our souls. And the kneeling, the standing, the interlocking of arms at football games makes us uncomfortable because it is asking us to consider the soul of America. And if you’re anything like me, I don’t necessarily like examining my own soul, my own conscience. I’m afraid of what I might find there. The same goes for our society. The mirror can be a scary place.

I also understand that in this current environment, everything is heard as having a political bent. You may even think that I have gone too far in this sermon by bringing up this issue; that I have become too political. Be that as it may. I am first and foremost a disciple of Jesus Christ. At the end of the day, I bend the knee to the cross of Jesus Christ, because that is an indication of what I mean with my soul; a sign of reverence, of deep humility, a sure and certain knowledge of my own frailty. And I suppose this is a political statement, political insofar as I believe the Kingdom of God is just that, a Kingdom. A Kingdom in which the Lord is Jesus Christ, the same Jesus Christ who gave himself for me, and for you, and for everybody. The Kingdom that I want to belong to is the peaceable kingdom. The kingdom in which no sword is drawn but the sword of righteousness, no strength known but the strength of love. Along with everyone in heaven, and on earth, and under the earth, I will bend the knee at the name of Jesus Christ. And all people, regardless of who they are, what they look like, or where they come from, are also welcome to bend the knee to Jesus Christ.

Saint Paul was not thinking about football players, but he was thinking about us; he’s writing to followers of Jesus. And if we think we live in troubling times, Paul did even more so. Those were times when Christians could be killed, literally killed, for not assuming the proper posture in reverence to the Roman Emperor. In a way, Saint Paul gets us. He understands that we will always be uneasy with each other. That we won’t always agree on the temperature. But that something more, something deeper must define who we are as a people. We must be a people of mercy because Jesus Christ is merciful. We must be a people of forgiveness, because Jesus Christ is forgiving. We must be a people of love, because Jesus Christ first loved us. And so to that fledgling Christian community in Philippi, Paul says:

“Be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interest, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.”

Eclipse

The Rev. Jimmy Abbott
The Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost
August 20, 2017

Genesis 45:1-15

At exactly 11:46 AM tomorrow morning, the eclipse will begin. 238,900 miles out there in outer space, the Moon will pass in front of the Sun and cast a shadow back on Earth. I think we’ve all got a little bit of eclipse fever, and are excited to watch it.

But you know, it didn’t always used to be that way with a solar eclipse. We now know when an eclipse is coming, but imagine if you didn’t know it was coming. Darkness during the day was interpreted as an omen. The stunning and unpredicted nature of a solar eclipse was a portent from above. In 585 BC there was a solar eclipse during a battle between the Medes and the Lydians in modern day Turkey. The soldiers on both sides put down their weapons immediately and brokered a peace agreement then and there, because they thought it was a sign from above.

The darkness, the unexpected insecurity, is frightening. Think of Joseph, from the story in the bible from Genesis. Joseph has eleven brothers. Their father is Jacob; Jacob’s father is Isaac; Isaac’s father is Abraham. Joseph comes from a proud family, and on top of that, Joseph is his father’s favorite son, even though he’s the youngest. His father has given Joseph a long-sleeved coat of many colors, showing just how loved he is. You all get the gist, you’ve seen the musical.

Well, this doesn’t sit well with the eleven older brothers. When the opportunity arises, they capture Joseph, and sell him into slavery to Egypt. And that’s exactly when the dark shadow starts to cross the light in Joseph’s life. See, Joseph thought everything was going along just fine, his sun was shining brightly, until the unexpected darkness.

He’s in darkness in Egypt for many, many years. He’s a slave, and then when you thought it couldn’t get any worse, he’s in prison. His life should have been going one way but the unexpected eclipse has turned the potential light into utter darkness.

The maximum of the solar eclipse here in Houston will take place at precisely 1:16 PM tomorrow. The full extent of our shadow. Rock bottom. Just when you thought things couldn’t get any worse, they do. A prescient lesson for today, as many in this church go back to school tomorrow. This year at school, you will have a struggle. It will be a math problem, it will be some other kid at school, a tough class. Teachers, you’ll have long hours, tiresome work, that one student. Parents, you’ll see your children grow and struggle. I know from experience – the smiles and fresh clothes in the pictures on the first day of school don’t last long. The shadow creeps in front of the light.

And we as Holy Comforter, we know about this light, and about this shadow. I remember three and a half years ago, hard to believe it was that long ago, that I stood in this pulpit and said they were going to build a church. And there was light, there was joy. Finally, finally this thing is going to be done. But, as we’ve all learned, building projects take time. And maybe for a few brief moments, we all thought it would never happen, or it’s not happening exactly as we would have hoped it to. The shadow creeping against the light.

We know about the shadow. We have lived in the shadow. And so has Joseph.

Joseph finds himself in prison, but, as God would have it, the eclipse isn’t going to last forever. As God would have it, Joseph eventually becomes the second most powerful person in Egypt, next to only the pharaoh himself. And then the darkness begins to lift. See, God reveals to Joseph in a dream that a famine is coming to strike the land. Joseph then orders enough grain to be stored so that no one would starve. When the famine does in fact come, the people of Egypt are fed from the reserves.

The light is starting to return. But, Joseph’s brothers and his family back in Canaan are beginning to starve. So Jacob, their father, tells all of them to go to Egypt to find food. Lo and behold, it’s Joseph that helps his family to avoid starvation. The same Joseph they sold into slavery. But they don’t know it’s Joseph until he reveals himself to them. He actually has to say, “I am your brother, Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt.”

And then comes the key to the story. Joseph says to his brothers, “and now do not be distressed, or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life.” Joseph sees that even though a dark shadow eclipsed the light, the light had been shining all along.

And of course, that’s what happens during an eclipse. It’s not that the Sun goes out, it’s that momentarily we cannot see the Sun. Tomorrow, at precisely 2:45 PM, the eclipse will be over. The Moon and the shadow will move on to reveal the full brightness of the Sun.

How often is it the case, that when you look back on life, even in the dark times, you see that the light was still shining? Of course, it didn’t seem that way in the moment. There was shadow. But the light always returns. I don’t mean to glorify Joseph’s suffering and slavery, but I do mean to say that God is able to bring good out of evil. The Sun is always shining even when we cannot see it. God is always loving, even when we’re caught in the shadow.

This is also the message of the cross. Jesus opens wide his arms of suffering on the hard wood of the cross. The pain he experienced, the agony of crucifixion was all too real. But God refuses evil to have the final word. God does not inflict evil on Joseph, but he turns that evil around in order to keep a family from starving. God does not inflict the cross upon Jesus, we do. But God turns the cross around so that an instrument of torture becomes the sign of life.

The darkness, the shadow, is but a precursor to the light. And remember that in order to have shadow, there must be light.

Yes, you will have a hard time at some point during this school year. It’s going to be a stack of homework, a pile of papers to grade, the dreaded STAAR test. It may seem like darkness but it is only a passing shadow.

And let’s be honest – this year of construction we have ahead of us, it’s not going to be fun! There will be shadow creeping in at times. You know, it’s a funny thing, for three and a half years we’ve been anxiously waiting for construction to start. But about five minutes after it does start, I know we’ll be tempted to complain about long it’s taking. Parking will be inconvenient, things might be noisy, loud, confusing. It will seem that it’s taking forever. Do not despair. It is only a passing shadow. The light, the light will always be burning. And at the end of it, we will have received a great gift. A gift that is beautiful, accessible, and visible. You can be tempted to live in the shadow – “it’s taking too long, it’s not exactly what I envision” – you can do that. But you will be missing out on the light. The light of joy, and peace, and love. This year, live in the light. Choose the light of grace and generosity.

See, sometimes the shadow is of our own creation. Sometimes we’re the ones who block the light of God. Sometimes we’re the ones who prefer the darkness because we think we can hide in the darkness. But the darkness is just a passing shadow that will not last forever. That’s the lesson that Joseph’s brothers have to learn.

For all these years they’ve been covering up how they sold Joseph into slavery. For all these years they’ve been living with that painful memory. For all these years they’ve lived in the shadow of what they had done. No matter how much they prefer the darkness, to try to keep things hidden, God will bring it all to light.

The same with the cross. No matter how hard the Romans tried to kill Jesus, he was always going to get up again. So you may as well step out from the shadows now, and live in light, because it’s going to happen sooner or later.

And herein is the lesson for such a time as this. Live in hope. Live in hope. As naive as it may sound, hope that the evils of the day are but a passing shadow. Hope, pray that the light of God will shine in the all the dark places. Hope, pray, trust that this church community will be a place where we refuse to live in the shadows. And live, live as if the shadow has already passed. Live in the light of loving your neighbor and loving your God.

3 A.M.

The Rev. Jimmy Abbott
The Tenth Sunday after Pentecost
August 13, 2017

Matthew 14:22-33

It’s been one of those days. One of those weeks. You wake up at 3 A.M., you’re tossing, you’re turning. 3 A.M., it’s the hour when all your worst anxieties, your worst fears come creeping in. 3 A.M., it’s when your mind starts racing, and you start making the worst case scenario into reality. 3 A.M. Please don’t tell me I’m the only one who wakes up then with their mind racing.

In “Something Wicked this Way Comes,” Ray Bradbury talks about 3 A.M. He says, “midnight’s not bad, you wake and go back to sleep, one or two’s not bad, you toss but sleep again. Five or six in the morning, there’s hope, for dawn’s just under the horizon.” He says that at 3 A.M. you summon all the fool things you’ve done in life. You’re too tired to get out of bed and put your worries to rest, but you’re too worried to go back to sleep. 3 A.M.

In the time of Jesus, 3 A.M. was the beginning of the fourth watch of the night. Or, as the gospel lesson from today is translated, “early in the morning.” And it’s at 3 A.M. that the disciples see Jesus walking on the water.

The disciples are rowing their boat, straining hard against the wind. They are far from land. Waves are battering the boat. They are tossing and turning, worried about their journey when they look up, and they see a ghost.

At 3 A.M. things look strange, worries become reality. They don’t see their Lord, they see a ghost. At 3 A.M. you have a hard time separating truth from fiction.

It’s 3 A.M. indeed. We are far from the land, the wind is against us, and the waves are battering the boat. Global powers are rattling the saber. Violent racism is very much alive. In our own lives, we are battered with worries about money, about our relationships, about our kids, about our parents. It’s 3 A.M., so we toss and we turn and we stew and we worry. We’re too tired to get up and do anything about it, and we’re too  worried to rest.

At 3 A.M., you say, “I wish I could go back to sleep.” And I bet those disciples, battered by the wind and waves said, “I wish we were closer to shore.” Like it says in Psalm 4, we cry out, “O, that we might see better times!” We wish the threat of war would abate. We wish that people wouldn’t hate each other for the color of their skin. We wish that we were close to shore – safe, sound asleep, with no worries to trouble our heads. As a Church, too, we wish that we were closer to the shore, that we would have smooth sailing. We wish that ministry just wasn’t so hard, we wish that more people would just come to us. We see plenty of ghosts – we see ghosts of how the church did in the past, we see ghosts of other churches closing down. It’s 3 A.M. and our restless minds have transformed worries into realities.

But then we see that it is no ghost walking on the water, it is Jesus. “Take heart, it is I, do not be afraid.” Take heart. Your mind is spinning out of control. Your worry and your anxiety, it all lives up here. Live, here. In your heart. Live with courage. When the waves are battering and the wind is blowing, live courageously because the one calling to you is none other than Jesus Christ. As they are straining against the wind and waves, the disciples heard the voice of Jesus, the voice of hope.

But, you know Peter, he’s got to open his big mouth. “Lord,” he says, “if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” Peter is still trying to figure out if this is a ghost or not. The Lord calls to him, and Peter takes that first, hesitant step out of the boat, onto the waves.

Pay attention to what happens next. Peter is doing fine until he notices the wind. Then he becomes afraid. And then he starts to sink. This is an interesting order of things. See, it would seem that he should start to sink and then become afraid. But it’s the other way around. Peter becomes afraid, and then he begins to sink. The fear is what is sinking him. Fear is what is sinking us. Fear is what is sinking the world.

And here is the key to whole story. See, I think what happens most of the time is that when we start sinking in fear, we do one of two things. First, is we just keep sinking. We keep tossing and turning, we let the fears fester and drag us down. And as we’re sinking below the waves, we start lashing out in fury. Fear is what makes us rattle the saber of war. Fear is what creates violent nationalism and racism. That’s why Jesus tells the disciples to not be afraid – because fear leads to sin.

When we’re sinking in fear, the other thing we try to do is to get back in the boat. When you’re afraid, seek safety. We try to jump back into the boat. Think of Peter, he was a fisherman, he was comfortable in boats. He could have tried to jump back in. He felt safe there. But if the wind and waves are really whipping, the boat is just an illusion of safety.

And how often do we cling to the illusion of safety? How often do we settle for safety instead of salvation? Because there is a difference. We settle for safety when we hide behind our weapons, our money, our status. But all that worldly power is an illusion. Boats can sink, weapons are unpredictable, money is fiction, status is fake. No really, think about it. Weapons are no guarantee of anything, and swords always have two edges. Money, money is an illusion. Remember the stock market crash of 2007? Money actually, simply disappeared. And status, status has no meaning. God didn’t make some to be great and some to be not so great. When we’re sinking in fear, the boats we try to climb back into are bound to sink.

When you’re out on the water, when you’re afraid, when it seems as if the whole world is sinking the only thing to do is to cry out, “Lord, save me!”

“Lord, save me!” Jesus reaches out his hand to catch Peter, to pull him up, to save him. “Lord, save me.” Because what we need today is not safety, but salvation. Salvation from the threat of war, salvation from racism, salvation from the fears that have sent us spiraling downward. Salvation from ourselves.

“Lord, save me.” That might be one of the shortest prayer in the holy scriptures. But also one of the most heartfelt. And perhaps that’s the lesson we need to remember at 3 A.M. Pray. Pray. Rather than letting your mind run a hundred miles an hour, listen to Jesus. “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” Don’t pray that you were closer to shore, don’t pray that the wind would stop blowing or that the waves would stop crashing.

We will always have worries – because no arsenal of weapons, no stack of money, no status will ever be enough to protect us. So quit trying to be safe, and ask Jesus for salvation instead. And the Church, the Church will always be far from the shore because that’s precisely where we meet Jesus. Out there, away from land, in the midst of the storm. Don’t pray for things to be easier. Pray that God gives us the courage to live these days in holiness.

Next time you wake up at 3 A.M., maybe it’ll be tonight, take heart. Do not allow your fears to drown you. When you are feeling the waves tug you toward hatred, toward terror, toward pride of race and nation, call out to Jesus. And Jesus will save you. Take heart, it is not a ghost, it is Jesus. Do not be afraid.