Lent 4 – 03192023

Download the worship bulletin for this service here:

Bumgarner and Jordan Wedding

Download the wedding bulletin for the Jill Bumgarner and Erik Jordan wedding here.

Space Tourism – The Last Frontier for Super-rich Narcissists

Alas, the owner of Amazon will blast into space on his company-built rocket along with his brother and the winner of an online auction. It will be a suborbital, eleven-minute flight like the earliest days of NASA space travel with the Mercury capsules. Other private companies are gearing up for space tourism too. Just imagine the bragging rights at a cocktail party,

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Make straight in the desert a highway …

We hear these words of Isaiah in the Messiah and other church hymns this time of year. We are to clear a path in our souls for God’s return to us in judgement. But did you know we are discovering highways in space?

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Psalm 119

Of the 150 psalms (Greek for “song”), psalm 119 is the longest. It is an “acrostic” poem spanning 176 verses in 22 stanzas; one stanza for each letter of the Hebrew alphabet. Acrostic means that each letter of the Hebrew alphabet is the first letter of the first word of each stanza (aleph, bet, gimmel, dalet, heh …). There are about a dozen acrostic poems in the bible. These literary techniques were done to help people memorize the scripture.

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The Big Ease

There is a spot on the surface of the earth in the Oklo (uranium mining) region of Gabon in Africa where radioactive material smoldered at “sub-critical mass” for thousands of years. It was a natural accumulation of radioactive elements brought together where their radioactivity was sufficient to generate enough heat to melt tons of metal and rock and ignite any biologic materials nearby, but not enough radioactivity for the pile to become critical and explode. With entirely natural processes, this pile of material cycled on and off every three hours creating intense bursts of heat and radioactivity for 150,000 years. You can mathematically model a nuclear chain reaction the same way you model an epidemic (or vice versa).

Right now, the entire globe is smoldering with this pandemic. You even hear on the news of “local hot spots” (a term borrowed from nuclear chain reaction modeling), outbreaks or critical areas. We have kept the terrible contagion from infecting ten or a hundred times more people in the same month or two (that would be like a nuclear explosion). Given the politics of anti-vaccination movements and lack of sound leadership, I am concerned that this disease will continue to smolder for a long time. Perhaps for several years to come.

The need for social distancing, precautions and so forth will not suddenly vanish because the potential for infection will linger like an unwanted guest far longer than anyone is willing to discuss these days. Getting 60 to 80% of the global population vaccinated is going to take a while. So how should we carry on in the meantime? Why should we carry on? And what value will the church add in the lives of its members and the surrounding community?

How should we go forward?

  • Hold virtual Sunday worship until we are told it is safe to resume in-person worship
  • Increased phone calls and letters to parishioners
  • Facilitate outside group meetings as advised
  • Gradually ease back existing church meetings based upon medical advice
  • Find expanded ways to use our church and enhanced video network
    • Educational programs
    • Entertainment
    • Outreach educational programs
  • Explore new ways to engage people at home
    • Small group, family lessons
    • Icebreakers, games, conversation starters

  Why should we carry on?

  • With courage, resolve and presence we demonstrate that the love of God is with us and for us
  • Only God’s love brought to the world by those who know it can cast out the fear, ignorance and darkness
  • We desire to make the world a better place

  What is our value-added to the community?

  • Grace Church does not guilt people into becoming baptized so they will be free from sin and go to heaven
  • We don’t sell fire insurance
  • We stress that the kingdom of God is right here, right now
  • We share the love of God with others to give hope and belonging
  • We develop solid spirituality and maturity in our children and youth
  • We reach out in support of the wider community with no strings attached and no guilt
  • We try to be the arms, mouth, hands, feet and heart of Jesus in a broken and battered world

We have used this down time to address a century of deferred maintenance on the property. Many things were deteriorating, and some things were not safe. We are turning our attention to what Grace Episcopal Church in Muskogee needs to become for the century ahead.

God bless you all. Stay safe.


Tikkun Olam

Tikkun olam is a concept in Judaism, interpreted in Orthodox Judaism as the prospect of overcoming all forms of idolatry, and by other Jewish denominations as an aspiration to behave and act constructively and beneficially. A Jewish concept defined by acts of kindness performed to perfect or repair the world. The phrase is found in the Mishnah, a body of classical rabbinic teachings. It is often used when discussing issues of social policy, insuring a safeguard to those who may be at a disadvantage.   The ideas behind the term have evolved over the centuries.  To modern Jewish ears, it is  the idea that Jews bear responsibility not only for their own moral, spiritual, and material welfare, but also for the welfare of society at large. To the ears of contemporary pluralistic Rabbis, the term connotes “the establishment of Godly qualities throughout the world” Read more…

Magic Bread Machine

I was told a few years ago in Washington, D.C., that I was one of very few Episcopal priests who actually used the word “Jesus” in preaching. Today we’re going to talk about relationships with Jesus. We might even use the word “Jesus” a lot this morning.

The setting for today’s story follows on last week’s feeding of the five thousand. The story begins with the people who remained overnight after having their bellies filled the day before. “They themselves got into their boats and followed Jesus to Capernaum.”

I have no scholarly backing for this, but from the few words describing this setting, it must be early morning and Capernaum must have been enough of a rowing job across the sea that for Jesus and the disciples to be there already would have meant that they departed while it was still dark. The people are hungry so they ask Jesus a loaded question. “Rabbi when did YOU get here?” Translation: “We’re hungry again. Are you going to feed us like you did yesterday?”

Let’s stop the story right there because our childhood memories of Jesus are going to help us understand what happens next. As children, many of us were taught that if we did not give our life over to Jesus, we would spend eternity in hell. You can see that today on a billboard sign coming back from Tahlequah. Jesus is pictured in the background as this hip looking white guy who might have just stepped out of a tattoo parlor. The sign reads “Eternity without Jesus is hell.”

Once presented with that rosy concept, most children and adults will say “I’ll take Jesus.” They may not believe all the rest of the stuff, but if for no other reason than to hedge their bets, they’ll go along with the program. “What if it’s true?”, they ask. So with this approach to Christian formation, we manipulate our children and adults into having a relationship with Jesus, even though they probably don’t even know what that means. Hook, line and sinker they have just purchased fire insurance.

Isn’t it odd that we manipulate people into believing, and as a result the new believers turn around and manipulate Jesus? It’s a theological “what goes around comes around” thing.

Back to Capernaum: Jesus sees the same kind of manipulation going on. He tells them, “You are looking for me not because you saw signs but because I filled your bellies yesterday.” For them, Jesus was a kind of magic bread machine that required no coins or expense. Many people today, thousands in Muskogee, preserve this kind of magic thinking. For them, all they need to do is stand up in church saying, “I have a relationship with Jesus”, and Jesus will bless them with full bank accounts, beautiful spouses, and well behaved children.

Trouble is, Jesus would have nothing to do with this nonsense.

Somewhere along the line, as children, most of us learn a thing or two about the nature of relationships. We learn that healthy relationships are based on self-giving and unhealthy ones focus on receiving. We learn that having a relationship with someone because of what they can do for you is wrong. We call that “using” someone else or manipulation.

Now here’s the interesting thing: The majority of people who call themselves Christians are just like the people at Capernaum. They profess to believe in Jesus because of what he can do for them. It is an unhealthy, manipulative relationship. They actually tell Jesus, “Give us some bread.”

Each time the crowd at Capernaum asks Jesus a question, he responds by talking about the bread of life that is imperishable, that leads to eternal life. Let me back you up to the purpose of the entire Gospel of John – that you may have faith in Jesus who reveals the nature of God. The five-thousand, who were fed, filled their bellies but missed the sign. Poet T. S. Elliot says, “They had the experience, but they missed the meaning.” Jesus tells them that. They missed the nature of God revealed by Jesus. It went right over their heads.

What is this bread of life, this imperishable food that gives eternal life? First of all, it is not something you can do on your own. You cannot be “spiritual but not religious” and really grasp God’s signs while hiking alone in the woods. God’s nature is revealed to us though Jesus Christ who is really, truly present right here in our community. It is what we do in our common life together; in our community, in our communion that enables us to see the signs.

Jesus constantly referred to his followers as sheep. That is why we don’t sit in our comfortable places and receive a little cup of wine and a morsel of bread. Like sheep, we must go to the altar rail, getting down on our knees, extending our hands in the ancient symbol of a person pleading for mercy. Like sheep we need frequent, regular feeding. Like sheep, we need to know there is a shepherd who will bring us back to the flock when we mess up.

Frankly, fire insurance is an easy sales job. This bread of life stuff is a lot more difficult to market. People won’t sit still long enough to get the concept. Then they won’t come to church often enough to experience the presence of Jesus. Finally when they become old and life’s infirmities slow them down, they may pause to ask themselves if they made the right decisions, but their life patterns are all set by then. A magic bread machine is a lot easier.

Week after week, we come to the altar rail. We leave all the messy stuff of life behind in our pews. We no longer worry about the problem we have with our brother or sister. We are alone, on our knees, with hands extended for bread, pleading for mercy. At the same time we are together shoulder to shoulder with other people in our community. We are in this together. Every now and then we get a little glimmer of heaven. We KNOW that there is a lot more going on than some bread, a little wine, and some old music. We absolutely know there is more. We return to our seats with the peace of God that passes all understanding. It doesn’t happen every time; hopefully, just often enough to keep us coming back.

When we are old and life’s infirmities have really slowed us down, we are going to pass through that glimmer we saw at the altar rail years earlier. We will know that Jesus has called us home.

Show up and engage with scripture

The first thing you need to know is that the Episcopal Church does not bestow “sainthood” on anyone. We have adopted many of the traditional saints of ages past such as St. Francis, St. Paul, and St. Mary. I am not sure where the cutoff date is, but at some point in the past, say the 19th century or so, the Episcopal Church simply recognizes significant contributions on our annual calendar. We have dates for Harriett Tubman and Martin Luther King, Jr. This week we celebrate the “Feast Day” for Jonathan Daniels. The story is important to our individual and national lives.

In 1965, Daniels was a seminary student at the Episcopal Theological School in Cambridge Massachusetts. In March of that year, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. asked students and others to join on a march to the state capital of Alabama demonstrating support for the civil rights movement. At evening prayer in the chapel that week, Daniels reflected on Mary’s song we just heard in the Gospel. He wrote the following in his journal:

“I had come to Evening Prayer as usual that evening, and as usual I was singing the Magnificat with the special love and reverence I have always felt for Mary’s glad song. ‘He hath showed strength with his arm.’ As the lovely hymn of the God-bearer continued, I found myself peculiarly alert, suddenly straining toward the decisive, luminous, Spirit-filled ‘moment’ … Then it came. ‘He hath put down the mighty from their seat, and hath exalted the humble and meek. He hath filled the hungry with good things.’ I knew then that I must go to Selma. The Virgin’s song was to grow more and more dear in the weeks ahead.”

Jon worked tirelessly in Alabama, bringing black people to the local Episcopal Church, setting up tutoring programs, registering people to vote and protesting discrimination. Picketing local businesses landed him in jail for a week. Upon release from jail on August 20, the racially mixed group attempted to enter a local store for lunch. They were met at the door by a man with a shotgun. After a brief confrontation the man pointed his gun at the young black girl in the front of the group. They were less than ten feet from the shooter. Jon pushed the young woman to the ground. In the process, he took the gunshot in his chest. He died within minutes.

Dying for the cause of advancing the dignity and rights of people you don’t even know is one way to get on the Episcopal Church calendar.

They say that hindsight is 20:20. It is easy to look back in history and retroject our present values. We can look back with clarity on those days in the 1960s and say “Civil rights and the sexual revolution were difficult things in their day, but in the end, they were the right things to do.”

But in 1965 when the rector of the local parish was supportive but not totally enthusiastic about integration; when politicians on all sides mourned about the death of the country; when school boards refused Federal orders and when storekeepers took shots at young blacks, was the decision to join in protests and help with integration so clear cut? Would you have joined Jon Daniels? In our baptismal covenant we pledge to “respect the freedom and dignity of every human being.” Those are easy words to say, but how far would you go in carrying them out?

In our day, political and religious leaders have learned to grow their followers by fanning the flames of extreme positions, and systems of oppression have grown even more powerful and interlocking. What are the evils that we are called to confront and how far will we go? Are we even able to clearly identify the issues that oppress and marginalize people today? Can we do this without falling prey to one extreme ideology or another?

C. S. Lewis pointed out that evil does not go away. It just changes costumes. Can we recognize it when it walks in the room?

Life may not present opportunities to us as it did for Jon Daniels. We are not all destined to take a bullet for someone else. But we are expected to help others and respect their freedom and dignity. Christian living is not about going to heaven when we die. It is about making the world a better place for other people. The question is, how do we know what to do? How do we know when to act? Where do we get our marching orders?

Look at what motivated Jonathan Daniels. He was obviously attuned to the issues of the day. He had obviously been thinking and praying about the evils of segregation and the unfair ways that black people were treated. What was it that led him to delay his seminary training and head to Alabama into the unknown?

Two things: First was regular hearing and reading of scripture and serious reflection on it. How can we grow this practice here at Grace? One thing I plan to start this fall is a Wednesday night Bible study. I will lead one track for teens and youth. We will find another person to lead a parallel adult track. Both groups will discuss the same scripture every week. This year we will tackle the major stories of the bible. We also have Education for Ministry for adults as well as adult and youth Sunday school. What else can we do to ground our lives in scripture?

One goal of regular reflection on scripture is for you to have the same experience Daniels had where he said “I found myself peculiarly alert, suddenly straining toward the decisive, luminous, Spirit-filled ‘moment’…” Straining toward the decisive, Spirit-filled moment.

Second was his regular attendance in church. That Spirit-filled moment may happen to you at the grocery store or in your morning workout, but chances are much better that something stirring will happen to you at church.

The Episcopal church Daniels attended was in downtown Boston. It has always been a lively place with a huge diversity of social and economic classes. There the marginalized gather alongside the wealthy. It is a “high Anglo-Catholic” church with “smells and bells,” genuflecting, Latin psalms, chanted Eucharist, the whole enchilada. Prayers of the people at Church of the Advent in Boston are a riot of petitions. Poor people pray for situations in their neighborhoods while the wealthy pray that fair solutions can be found to the problems of the day. I knew people who attended that church during Jonathan Daniels’ day and it remained that way thirty years later when I attended it.

So regular worship and reflection on the Bible are the two things that set Jon Daniels on his path. You don’t have to go to seminary or be ordained to make a difference. You just have to show up and engage with the Bible.

We have baptized some babies and a few adults since I have been at Grace. I sometimes wish I had the guts to tell people that the Holy Spirit writes a tattoo across your forehead. “Warning, taking your baptism seriously might be hazardous to your health.” But it’s the best thing you’ll ever do.

How are we to live?

Come, eat of my bread
  and drink of the wine I have mixed.

Lay aside immaturity, and live,
  and walk in the way of insight

Lady Wisdom has labored to build a house. She has prepared a rich banquet and invites everyone to come and eat. She invites the already wise, the powerful and the rich, as well as the simple, the poor and those lacking wisdom. This banquet of meat and wine and this all-inclusive invitation should be familiar to you. We are made in God’s image and here we have the essence of the invitation – to gain the wisdom of God by sitting down with lady Wisdom for a meal.

If we look at the end of the book of Proverbs, we will see the opposite. Like Wisdom, Folly also competes for followers. Both Wisdom and Folly call out to people with the same words. Like Wisdom, Folly also prepares a banquet. Wisdom serves meat and wine – things not usually consumed by common people. In contrast, Folly offers only bread and water. The verses make it clear that the meal offered by Folly is death itself.

Almost a thousand years later, Paul tells his flock in Ephesus (in modern day Turkey) to “be careful how you live… as wise people, making the most of time because the days are evil.”

Last week I posed an important question that practically demands follow up. What are the evils of our day that we may be called to confront? Let me name two.

First up: Nuclear weapons. I am the nephew of one of the Manhattan Project physicists. I not only learned a great deal of science from my uncle, but I learned the inner story of the anguish of a faithful Christian who was partly responsible for incinerating a half million civilians in a matter of seconds.

Most of us simply cannot comprehend how forty pounds of plutonium surrounded by some special water could turn Tulsa into a crater; or on a smaller scale, how another radioisotope smaller than a grain of sand, when mixed in a drink could kill a person and contaminate everyone at the bar. Yes there are peaceful uses of nuclear physics in energy and healthcare, but our political solutions to contain this lurking evil are inadequate as you will see next.

The New York Times reports that two weeks ago, 82 year old Roman Catholic Sister Megan Rice with two male accomplices broke into the inner sanctum of the Oak Ridge Nuclear Reservation in Tennessee. They made it through all the levels of security, past big signs stating that “lethal force” would be used. They made it into the control room of the highly enriched uranium facility where weapons grade uranium is processed. They managed to splash bull’s blood on the controls and hung banners outside the facility before being arrested.

If this can happen in the most secure facility in the United States, how secure do you think the forty thousand nuclear devices held by the former Soviet Union are today? Some of these devices can fit in a small suitcase and be carried by hand. Others are the size of a soda machine.

I do not share this with you as an alarmist. We all know too well that politicians will not spend the time or money on an issue until the public insists on it. In this case, the stakes are way too high for us to wait for the next disaster before we take action.

My second candidate for modern evil is the scourge of drug abuse. Right now there are several babies in Oklahoma who are in comas because they ate their parents’ marijuana. We have young teenagers who have positive drug screens for four or five controlled substances. When asked about their home life, they respond matter-of-factly about the different drugs their parents take. We have school systems that have no good alternatives for the difficult to manage students. Nowadays, the school district simply “sends” such kids to on-line schools where the bored and unsupervised adolescent eventually turns to drug abuse.

Sister Megan Rice literally risked bullets and lethal force to make her protest against nuclear weapons. While we may not be in a geographic position to do much rid the planet of nuclear weapons, drug abuse and its cousin, lack of education, are all around us. I bet you cannot find a single city block in Muskogee where there is no instance of drug abuse or lack of education.

The city is beginning to notice our new buildings, but what kind of new heart are we giving to the city? What new needs can we address? How will the people out there recognize our renewed hearts in here?

Could we take the Mother Teresa approach? Could we take the kids who have been rejected in their education? Where lacking no other alternatives, the courts send them to “on-line schools”? In most cases the kids lack the role models and discipline to complete their studies on-line. Eventually, most of them will turn to crime and drug abuse. Can we obtain grants and volunteers so that we can take on the kids who are rejected everywhere else?

If we could turn around just one kid in five, I guarantee you the community would take notice. Such work is the bread of Christ that lives forever. Such work is the work of Christ himself.

Psalm 34 tells us to “Turn from evil and do good; seek peace and pursue it.” We have ALL the ingredients needed to turn some of our city’s rejects into productive members of society. The only thing that stands in the way is the question: “For Christ’s sake, how much of yourselves are you willing to risk?”