SERMON 12/6/18 Advent 2C St. Monica’s Episcopal Church

Malachi 3:1-4; The Song of Zechariah; Philippians 1:3-11; Luke 3:1-6

A Time for Repentance for All

“It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas” but in the church, the Advent fast comes first, long before the Christmas festivities are supposed to begin.  We are still not quite there yet.  This is a time of preparation for the coming of Christ, and the second week of Advent’s theme shifts from “Peace” to “Hope” and it is hope, which we find in today’s Gospel reading.  Today, Luke introduces us to John the Baptizer, who was the forerunner of Jesus, the one to make pathways straight, and the one “crying in the wilderness.” John through his preaching and call to repentance was preparing the people to be ready for the coming of the promised messiah.

John is preparing us too, so that we can recognize Christ when he comes, to heed his words, and to respond to his mandate for righteousness (or right relationship) with God and with one another. John proclaimed a “baptism of repentance” for the forgiveness of sins, and it was not a mere dip in the river that miraculously washed off the grubbiness of people’s sin. It was an outward sign of the contrite heart and repentant spirit that happened long before the first toe dipped into the water.

Repentance is a word that for some of us comes with unappealing memories. Maybe we have heard a preacher in a pulpit, or a street preacher with bullhorn in hand shouting and screaming with fury, “Repent and be saved.”  Maybe we have heard a preacher shout, “Turn or burn.”   That fear-based, manipulative, and often punishment avoidant call to repentance is not what John was talking about.

Repentance is not mere sorrow for the wrongs we may have done, or the sin we have committed. Repentance literally means to change one’s mind, to actually turn around.  To repent means to leave the wrong path on which, we are traveling and then, to take a new direction.  John was calling the first century Palestinian people, and we 21stcentury Christians, to turn from broken relationships, from sin, from our misdeeds, and to once again follow the way of Jesus.

Repentance – “We fall down and we get back up”

Repentance is also not merely a “once and done” proposition. Bernard of Clairvaux, a French abbot and a major leader in the reform of Benedictine monasticism, caused the formation of the Cistercian order. He once said, “The difference between the damned and the saved is that everyone, except the damned, gets up and stumbles on.” (3) Another unnamed monk once said, “We fall down and we get back up.” There is hope in these statements if you listen closely, because hope is found in accepting that our failings, our sin, and our missing the mark is not the end of the story.  That is Good News.

However, forgiveness, second chances, and new life are not what we hear about in the news or on social media, when we see people fall down.  Today, if you make the least public misstep, or you make the misguided slip of the tongue, or you write a naive Tweet or Facebook post, our culture condemns you to judgment and thus, “you are no longer good enough, you are damaged, and you are no longer capable of good.”  The problem is that we have forgotten owning one’s own mistakes; saying, “I am sorry;”  and admitting, “I was wrong.”   We sure could use a little repentant hope right now.

We all get sidetracked and the little detours we take, keep us from being in right relationship with God and with our neighbor, but the hope is that God is still working on us and there is a way home.  We find hope in the promises of God’s forgiveness and restoration through the practice of repentance, which is the path to life, not as we were, but to life a new person in Christ.  Nonetheless, this pathway of Jesus we all desire to walk is not a leisurely stroll along a well-groomed and cushy thoroughfare. Being a Christian is a rugged corridor and if you are traversing it, you will fall down and with God’s help, get back up again and again every day.

 

Promises, Repentance, and Hope

A community brought together in Christ, even one with its sinful and repentant people, is a beacon of hope to the world.  A few days ago,our own church (the Episcopal Church) more specifically, the National Cathedral in Washington hosted, supported, and proclaimed the virtues and character of a former president, whose life was a reflection of what humility, repentance, hope, and life of loving neighbor might look like.  That branch of the Jesus movement shined God’s promises brightly, and so does this local branch of the Jesus movement (St. Monica’s).

 Our mission statement here at St. Monica’s is, “Engaging, equipping and empowering one another to live our baptismal promises.”  In the shadows of John the Baptist’s cry to repent, it is a good time for a reminder of own baptismal promises to God and each other.  Those promises include: (1) continuing in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers; (2) persevering in resisting evil, and, whenever we fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord; (3) proclaiming by word and example the Good News of God in Christ; (4) seeking and serving Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself; (5) striving for justice and peace among all people, and (6) respecting the dignity of every human being.  We as a community respond to these promises with, “I will, with God’s help” because we know we cannot keep those promises without God’s grace, but that does not make it an easy journey.

Following Jesus is not just a nice hobby, an alternative past time to daily life, or an occasional social gathering of like-minded folks.  There are plenty of clubs, fraternities, and other charitable organizations out there, which can fulfill those kinds of needs, and none of them have these high expectations.  Being the church means, that very simply we really follow Jesus.  We cannot just respond to the challenge of these promises with “we will with God’s help” and then move on to life as it was before. We have to own those promises and then, when we stray, we turn and live them anew.  We must get back up.

 

Repentance, with God’s help

We stumble and fall down when we succumb to sin.  We stumble and fall down when we fail to be Good News in our daily lives.  We stumble and fall down when we overlook the image of Christ in others. We stumble and fall down when we when we fail to love our neighbor, at least as much as we love ourselves.  We stumble and fall down when we fail to advocate for justice and peace for all people, and in all circumstances. We stumble and fall down when we weaken the dignity and worth of every human being.  If we are honest each and every one of us falls down, and each and every one of us has something for which, we must acknowledge, ask for forgiveness, and then turn away from.  We all need to repent.

Faithful discipleship comes with high expectations, and often we believe we cannot live up to them and so maybe we just quit trying. There is hopewhen we say, “I will with God’s help,” because God is with us all along the path nudging us back to the straight path of righteousness.  Theologian Richard Benke writes, “God softens hearts, removes stubbornness, overcomes rebellion and provides whatever we lack.” God makes the way for our salvation.

So, the Baptizer’s call to turn should not frighten us from seeking God’s help to change, and to be transformed by grace. Our hope and the Good News we hear on this second Sunday of Advent is that we have a promised hope that proclaims, “our failures are not the end of the story.”  God makes a way home for us.  God promises that every valley blocking our way shall be filled, every mountain and hill we face shall be made low, the crooked roads before us shall be made straight, and the rough ways we traverse will be made smooth. God promises, “ all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”

We have to take our part in the salvation God is making possible.  We have to choose to turn, choose to be changed, and choose to follow that path of hope and promise, by following Jesus and trusting because he is the one who gently lifts us up when we fall, and he will never abandon us all along the way.

REFERENCES

(1) Benke, Richard. “2D Sunday in Advent.” Concordia Journal, vol. 11, no. 6, Nov. 1985, pp. 224–225.

(2) Ochs, Peter. “Church and Sociality.” The Living Pulpit, vol. 9, no. 4, Oct. 2000, pp. 4–5

(3)https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bernard_of_Clairvaux

 

 

 

SERMON 12/2/18 Advent 1C St Monica’s Episcopal Church, Naples, FL

Screen Shot 2018-11-29 at 8.13.38 AMJeremiah 33:14-16; Psalm 25:1-9; 1 Thessalonians 3:9-13; Luke 21:25-36

Hallmark or Advent?

Over the next four weeks there will be ten Hallmark Channel Holiday movies playing on television.  Someone I love, really loves these movies, and as much as I would rather not admit it, I kind of enjoy them myself.  There is nothing like mindless, holiday themed entertainment to take your mind off of the crazy stuff of everyday life.  There are a few essentials needed for any good Hallmark Christmas movie. For instance, there must be:  “A 90’s actress you almost forgot about,” “A good looking actor you probably do not know,” “A town with a dumb name,” “A failing family business,” “a dead spouse,” “a supernatural element that changes everything,” “a family trauma,” and finally, “two unlikely people, who fall in love.”  These television movies always come to a close with a fairytale ending where hope, peace, joy, and love abounds.  Nonetheless, the storylines of these ten, made for hot chocolate and cookies movies, we will never once hear the real story of the “reason for the season.”  Somehow if we rely merely on the way the world counts down to Christmas, we will have missed the story of the Incarnation of God in Christ.

Let me explain, for most of us, right after Thanksgiving, we all want to immediately flash forward three weeks ahead, go straight to that manger scene where baby, mother, step dad, shepherds, angels, and stars bring us hope of peace on earth and good will to all the world.  We are anxious for Christ to come, and we forget that we are not quite there yet.  In many of our homes, the tree is already trimmed, the lights are on the outside of the house, we have Pandora or XM Radio in our cars tuned to the “holiday channels,” and parties, soirees, and dinners are being planned.

But we are not there quite yet.  There is more to come before the babe arrives, and before the :King Returns.” That is where Advent comes in. The church calendar includes a season of hiatus when our culture diminishes the importance of the incarnation narrative, which we will commemorate in three weeks; we have the season of Advent to remind us for whom it is, and why it is that we can truly live in hope, peace, joy, and love.  

Warning Signs

Last week at the “Feast of Christ the King,” we ended the church year exploring the motif of Christ’s return as ‘King of Kings’ in troubling times.  We begin the Church year with the First Sunday of Advent, once again hearing Jesus’ words about the world filled with future trouble, foreboding, and fear.  However, these dire warnings are not the end of the story, and there is more to come.

Jesus said, “There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken.”  We hear Jesus’ words today in the midst of our early Christmas planning, we try to forget that we too are living in troubling times.

I “Googled” foreboding headlines the other day and came up with the following:

Thousands Flee As Guatemalan Volcano Erupts Again;” “Tons Of Dead Fish Washing Ashore On Florida Beaches;” “Asteroid Makes Surprise Flyby of Earth;” “Evacuation orders, flash flood watches for areas burned by California wildfires;”“Ukraine urges NATO to deploy ships amid Russia standoff;” and“North Korea ‘tests new high-tech weapon.Jesus was right, we are living in troubled times, and all around us seems to be falling apart, the world seems on the edge of some cataclysmic occurrence.

So, when the news is so bad, it is easy for us to want to put it all out of our minds, and “party hearty” before the actual celebration of Christmas. Advent is the season for us to reflect on what is going on around us, to recognize the reality of this time we live in now, and to wait in expectant and anticipatory hope for the coming of Christ.  While all the world is celebrating a season, which has in many ways lost its meaning, the church stands in the midst of all it, and reminds the world that we are waiting not only for the babe in the manger to arrive, but we are awaiting the return of the King, who will bring hope, peace, joy, and love in the midst of foreboding headlines and fear.   We just cannot skip over Luke 21 and jump straight to the manger, because even though ‘our “Christian’ world (has) 20 centuries behind it, is far from redeemed.” (1)

Hope and Promises

Jesus promises, “They will see the “Son of Man” coming in a cloud with power and great glory.”  These are Jesus’ “hang in there” encouragement words.  When all seems lost, when headlines seem ominous, when the fish are dying, wars are looming, and the economy is taking a dive, Jesus says simply, “Hang in there, I am on my way.”  As theologian Gracia Grindal writes, Jesus, “wants us to be able to see things for what they are and not be fooled by the powers of this world. He wants us to be able to take the long view, so that we can see the arrival of a world yet to come.”(2) Jesus said, “when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”  Jesus tells us to “Hang in there, I’m on the way”

This promise is not mere sentimentality, but words on which, we can hang our hope, peace, joy, and love.   James Kay writes, “When we least expect it, and when there is no evidence for it, God’s power comes into this godless world in ways the world itself could never predict or foresee.”

Even in the midst of gloomy headlines, we get little glimpses of God’s promises fulfilled, right here and right now.  You have to really dig into the newspaper to find them, but there is some good news out there.  Hopeful news is out there like:  “Businessman Hands Out $1,000 Checks to Every Student and Staffer of Wildfire-Affected California School,” “In Largest Ever Donation to US College, $1.8 Billion is Donated for Low-Income Students,” “Community of Tiny Homes Breaks Cycle of Addiction and Homelessness for Single Moms,” “Scientists Growing Rice With Seawater Could Feed ‘Entire Arab World’,” and “North andSouth Korea Have Begun Clearing the Mines in the DMZ.” 

These holiday headlines are not mere Hallmark themed stories of hope, peace, joy, and love.  These are stories of God’s promises becoming a present reality now, in a world filled with the frightening signs of expectant destruction.  You see, even in the midst of fear and foreboding, we can see little hints of the coming of the Son of Man bringing to the world its redemption, that is if we can stop long enough to actually look for it.

Preparation for the Coming of Christ

So, how then Eric, can I spend my time in preparation this Advent, anticipating the “babe in the manger” and the “King of Kings?”  Simply put, live in anticipation and prayer.  John Morris in a Christian Century article wrote, “As we wait and prepare for those days, we are to imagine this new age. We are invited to think with anticipation, pray with confidence, and work with commitment for that future.” (4)  Over the next four weeks, do not be too quick to hang the holly and tensile, trim the tree, and indulge in the parties and celebrations.  Do not be too ready to listen to the golden oldie Christmas music, or change your favorite Starbucks indulgence into an Egg Nog latte.  Just take some time each day for prayer, and to wait with anticipation for Christ to come, looking for the signs of it all around you, that is if you are looking for it.

Turn off the Hallmark blissful happy clappy shows, and search the headlines, search your hearts, and search in your own neighborhood for signs, glimpses, and little glints of Christ’s returning hope.  Look beyond the menacing and dreadful stories permeating our phones and televisions, and look for the hope, peace, joy, and love that is coming amongst us now and in the age to come.

This Advent my sisters and brothers, be on guard, be alert at all times, avoid heavy hearts burdened with the worries of life.  Do not turn to self-medicating television and other stimulations as an alternative for quiet, reflective, and dedicated time with God. Live in expectation hop of Christ’s return and most of all pray for strength, pray for courage, and pray for peace, joy, and love.  Live in expectation and anticipation of God’s promises, for as Our Lord says, even in these great times of trouble, “Hang in there, I am on my way.”

REFERENCES

(1) Kay, James F. “Redemption Draws Near.” The Christian Century, vol. 114, no. 32, Nov. 1997, p. 1033

(2) Adams, Joanna. “Light the Candles.” The Christian Century, vol. 123, no. 24, Nov. 2006, p. 18.

(3) Grindal, Gracia. “Promises, Promises.” Word & World, vol. 8, no. 4, Fall 1988, pp. 389–394.

(4) Morris, John C. “Anticipation.” The Christian Century, vol. 117, no. 33, Nov. 2000, p. 1214. Screen Shot 2018-11-29 at 8.13.38 AM

SERMON 11/25/18 Feast of “Christ the King” St. Monica’s Episcopal Church Naples, FL

Daniel 7:9-10, 13-14; Psalm 93 ; Revelation 1:4b-8; John 18:33-37

A Paradox:  “Christ the King”

We mainline Christians live our liturgical lives through a cycle in which, we participate in the narrative of the salvation history of God. Today’s feast (Christ the King) is observed not only in the Episcopal Church, but in the Roman, Lutheran, as well as the Russian Orthodox Churches.  In 1969, Pope Paul VI gave it a new date, the last Sunday after Pentecost, which is the last Sunday of the church year. The church year begins with Advent, which is a time of anticipation and waiting for the coming of Christ.  After Advent, we commemorate Christmas, the Incarnation of Christ the celebration of when God in flesh arrived among us, as an infant in a humble manger.  The next season of Epiphany commemorates the revelation of Christ to Gentiles through the Maggi (the Wise Men who visited him).

Lent is the next season after the Epiphany season, and is a period of preparation and repentance that mirrors Jesus’ journey in the desert after his baptism and before his ministry began.  The story reaches its peak during Holy Week and Easter, in which Jesus passion, death, resurrection, and ascension took place.  The “long green season” happens after the Day of Pentecost, the birth of the church when the Holy Spirit descended on those first followers, and the time we live in now, anticipating Christ’s return. Finally, we celebrate the “Feast of Christ the King,” which is the fulfillment of the promises of the return of Christ in power, but I believe we need to explore a little closer, what that kind of power looks like.

This particular feast is paradoxical both in observance and theological perspective. For example, it is not easy to understand how a monarch (as we know them today) can be someone who was nurtured in poverty, lived in humble service to others, and then faced betrayal, beatings, and crucifixion.  Something doesn’t add up does it?  Jesus’ kingship is not characteristic of the royal trappings of gold crowns, thrones, power, pomp and circumstance, but by the humble accoutrements of manger, destitution, servant hood, vulnerability, and an shameful death.  We commemorate the Feast of Christ the King, set against the backdrop of Jesus’ trial before Pilate.

Jesus’ Trial before PIlate

In today’s Gospel reading, Pilate was questioning the young rabbi Jesus about the accusations waged against him by his opponents.  It is interesting to note that the challenges to Jesus kingship, took place in Jerusalem in the shadows of a neighboring Roman puppet king, named Herod Antipas.  Jesus, the popular with the people, righteous, and life-giving king would, as a result of this trial, come face to face with the corrupt, power-wielding, politically astute so called, King of the Jews, Herod.

But first, Pilate asked Jesus, “Are you the King of the Jews?”  Jesus responded, ”Is this your question or did someone else tell you this?“  Pilate responded to a question with another question, ”I’m not one of your people am I, what wrong have you done?“  Then Jesus responded and listen closely, “My kingdom is not from this world.  If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews.”  And there it is, the key to the kingdom (no pun intended).

Jesus’ rule and reign is not based on the wielding of power or force, or the use of political coercion like Herod to influence the people. Jesus’ rule and reign is built on the truth of his mission, manifested in the nature of God’s love.  “Christ as King” is a new kind of pronouncement, without royal trumpets blaring, but announced by his own voice and actions, declaring God’s Kingdom is not one of force, power, and dominion, but one based on vulnerability, love, and self-sacrifice.  It now all makes sense, when we consider Jesus’ meek birth in a manger, his life of poverty and preference to the poor, his service to the outcast and down-trodden, his ultimate vulnerability to power, all of which, led to his death on the cross.

“Christ the King” is a different kind of king as we know it.  The God who created all, whom the seas obey, by whom the lame walk, the deaf hear, the blind have sight, and the ostracized find justice, is the King of vulnerability, who identifies with those whom he came to save.  You see, true love, God’s love, finds its power not in manipulation or coercion.  God’s love finds its power in vulnerability and freedom of choice, because no one can strong-arm someone to love them and still call it love.

“My Jesus is no Wimp”

Now you may think, Eric that humble Jesus all sounds well and good, but I want a powerful King Jesus, who will come in at the right time, wield a sword of power, come with clouds, horses, tanks, and jets and turn this world back to God.  Really? This Jesus we call Lord, this Jesus we claim as the ruler of our lives is not a king of worldly power, but one of humility and freedom, and his return will bring about a world order, which we may not find living up to our standard.  Are we sure this is the king we desire?

The whole notion of a king who rules over a people is an absurd notion for we Americansisle who have a democratically elected government. Even most Brits with their Constitutional Monarchy where the Queen reigns and Parliament actually rules would have a hard time with life under a sovereign, dictatorial, all-powerful ruler. So how do we deal with this idea of “Christ as King?”

Jesus’ authority is wielded over us by his authority, which comes from how he attracts, swoons, and calls us to willingly align our lives with the purposes of God: mercy, grace, justice, peace, and Self-giving love.  When we choose to accept the King Jesus, who was born in a manger, lived in poverty and offered preference to the poor, who served the outcast and down-trodden, who was ultimately vulnerable to the power of the world, and who was obedient unto death on the cross, we are choosing to live under Christ’s sovereign rule of love. Then and only then are we living in the Kingdom of God and yet, we remain exiled in a culture that resists that kind of kingdom.

Small Realms of God’s Kingdom and the Kingdom to come

The kingdom over which, Christ is king is not merely a futuristic, apocalyptic, cloud-covered returning event some time and some place out there.  God’s Kingdom is a present reality existing right now. Theologian Bruce Metzger asserts, “the Kingdom of God is not merely promised, but announced as a divine activity that demand(s) repentance (a turning from ways not of the kingdom) and that could be entered into by participating in its divine nature.”(2)  In other words, to follow this king, we must enter into that kingdom every day of our lives, and the beauty of God’s kingdom is the fact that we have the option to make the choice, to live into that reality today, right here, and right now or to reject it.

So then, who or what reigns and rules your life? In who or what do you find the ultimate truth? How or where do you find peace and promise?  For some of us, that kingdom is not a possibility, because we submit to the powers of consumerism, and we hand over the power in our lives to self-fulfillment.  For some of us, that kingdom is not a possibility, because we seek a false image of Christ the King, as the one who favors a select few and disregards those on the outskirts of so-called acceptability.  For some of us, that kingdom is not a possibility, because we seek a kingship of Christ where my particular agenda, or political leanings, or worldview includes a King that fits my desire.

I had a friend one time tell me, “Eric, that meek and mild Jesus you talk about just doesn’t seem real for a world like this one.  I mean I like that buff, powerful Jesus who turned over tables, went “toe to toe” with demons, and rebuked his disciples when they acted foolishly.”  I had to laugh a little, because although correct about those moments in Jesus’ ministry, my friend seemed to miss the whole point.  The King of Kings life, which although included moments of anger, spiritual warfare, and discipline, was an example to us of how we are to realign of our hearts with God’s heart, and to make it a real possibility right now. What is your image of Christ the King?

The “Christus Rex” found on your bulletin cover and the one displayed in many Episcopal churches, depicts the paradox of Jesus’ kingship.  Jesus is adorned in royal raiment and crown and yet, he is nailed to the cross.  When we think of the return of Christ the King, we envision him adorned in clouds with power and sword ready to bring vengeance and destruction to those who rejected him, but that is not ”Christ the King.” When Jesus said, “My kingdom is not from this world,” he meant that he rules and reigns over all of creation, not by the ways we expect, by using earthly power and force.  Jesus’ divine power comes from the vulnerability of love, manifested in his words from the cross, “ forgive them father, for they know not what they do.”

If Christ is truly King over our lives, we will, like our King, renounce self-serving power, and we will embrace grace, mercy, love, vulnerability, and justice.  Jesus said, “Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”  The Master Jesus is calling us into his court, which exists in its fullness and in reality right here and right now that is, if we are willing to live into it. So, the question is, “Are we really listening for his voice?”

1 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Monarchy

2 The Oxford Companion to the Bible, Metzger, Bruce M. (editor), Oxford University Press, 1993, Oxford, p. 408

 

SERMON 11/18/18 Pentecost 26B St. Monica’s Episcopal Church

Daniel 12:1-3; Psalm 16 ; Hebrews 10:11-14 (15-18) 19-25; Mark 13:1-8

The Perfect Temples We Create

A few years ago, I was sent into a church that was deeply divided and in conflict, and the purpose of my ministry there was to help that community through their crisis.  I listened, provided pastoral care, and to tried to uncover the source of the strife. I was hopeful for this church, because on my first Sunday the choir sang the hymn, “We are one in the Spirit.” The lyrics are:

We are one in the Spirit, we are one in the Lord
We are one in the Spirit, we are one in the Lord
And we pray that our unity will one day be restored
And they’ll know we are Christians by our love, by our love
Yeah they’ll know we are Christians by our love.

Later that same week I remember vividly a conversation I had with one woman about her experience of church there.  She said, “I came here two years ago, seeking a community where it was different from the outside world.  I wanted a community that did not fight, where power struggles did not happen, and where everyone treated each other with love and respect.  I always felt church should be better than the outside world I lived in, but I was so disappointed.”  Many of us have come to church expecting it to be the perfect society, and we too have been disappointed.

Often we create false relational edifices in our minds that come with misconceptions of what church should be.  We construct images and expectations of the perfect temple we hope to one day stumble upon, only to discover that once we arrive, everyone there still comes each week with the same attitudes, challenges, and problems, they have out there in everyday life.  We all show up with our stuff, our spiritual needs, and yes, our sin, plus we think the grass is greener on the inside of the church walls, but wherever we go, we are there.

Even though the Body of Christ carries the scars of battles and spats, she must remember that she is called by God to serve as a witness, where God’s grace can emerge and abound through her authentic self.  Grace is effective when we can take off our ego armor, and we can pull down the great stones of our ego walls that keep us from being vulnerable to and open to the saving grace of God.

Temples of False Expectation

Today, in the gospel reading, Jesus was leaving the temple with his disciples and one of them pointed out to him,  “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings.” Jesus responded, “Do you see these great buildings, not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.” I wonder if after being disappointed with how people in the temple system treated one another, and how that system created relational divisions among God’s people, Jesus rolled his eyes at the disciple’s star struck comment about the temple.

I wonder if Jesus thought, “Wow, all those false structures of expectation and grandeur about the temple, which they have, and all of that false perfection they seek in that place are mere spiritual window dressings that cover up the desperate need for reconciliation and forgiveness within themselves.” We too get star struck when we hope for that perfect church.  It is like planning to go on a dream vacation, building it all up in your mind, only to arrive at your destination, and you are disappointed with the reality of the food, the service, and the décor that your hotel brochure promised.

Jesus’ warned his disciples about putting too much hope in the temple, and his forewarnings of its demise were not about its literal destruction by the Roman occupiers in 70 AD.  Jesus was telling the disciples that worldly edifices do not last, unless they are a place where justice abounds, oppression ends, mercy overflows, and reconciliation is the way of life. Then and only then will it withstand any false ideals of perfection that we construct in our minds?   In other words, we have to hope that our life together will always provide opportunities for grace to be made present, even in times of trouble.

Wars and Rumors of Wars

Jesus warned his disciples of these kinds of apocalyptic end times, and he used foreboding imagery to describe it. Today, on television and the big screen, real calamity and chaos is being played out on the world stage.  We live in a time when the heat of the Cold War era rivalries is rekindling.  The world power relationships that we thought were reframed by former “wars and rumors of wars” are being pushed to back to the brink of division, and the battles do not stop there.

Some of us have experienced the pain of family relationships being torn apart.  Some of us have been separated from long-time friends because of social media political tweets or Facebook posts.  Even in churches, among sisters and brothers in Christ, we have unfortunately hurt one another.  Even though strife, disappointment, and broken relationships permeate our times, we can still live in the hope that these tragedies are not the end of the story.

Jesus said, “These are but the beginning of the birth pangs.” Why do you think he used this metaphor?  I believe it’s because after the life threatening, body changing, experience of childbirth, the parent’s lives are never the same again.  Someone new is now in the midst of the once couple and the child has changed everything. That sounds hopeful to me.  “In the middle of those cataclysmic, apocalyptic, foreboding, and fear-inducing events, which the “end times” promise to bring, Jesus is offering us the hope of new life – which God desires for all creation.”.

 Life Together

We are supposed to be a people of hope and promise even when this common life together is challenging, imperfect, and filled with little spats and misunderstandings.   When we show up expecting this or that to be perfect we are not putting our hope in Christ but in something or someone else.  I think we need to let go of unrealistic expectations of Church and of all relationships, and we need to approach things differently.

In her book Daring Greatly, author, researcher and Episcopalian Brene Brown writes, “Vulnerability is the birthplace of love, belonging, joy, courage, empathy, and creativity. It is the source of hope, empathy, accountability, and authenticity. If we want greater clarity in our purpose or deeper and more meaningful spiritual lives, vulnerability is the path.” (4)

When the little “wars and rumors of wars” of life raise their ugly head, reconciling love and forgiveness is the only way lasting new life and new beginnings are possible.   In order to practice reconciliation, we must take off the armor of perfection, and get real with one another again.  If we can be vulnerable with one another, then love for one another has a chance to flourish and grow.   Then and only then can we be the kind of community that will be a shining example of reconciling love, especially for this world fraught with “wars and rumors of wars.”

Imagine what could happen in the world, if our political strife, broken families, shredded friendships, and tumultuous organizations were transformed by unity and love.  It is possible if we choose to live and love as if the end were coming tomorrow. What if the church universal recognized her frailty and faults, and embraced the fact that her true strength is found in the vulnerability of the cross. What an example we could be of God’s transformative grace if we but strive to live in peace, and at the same time, believe God’s grace can truly change us. Then our example will transform the hearts of unbelievers in the world that is if they can recognizewe are Christians by our love.

REFERENCES

1 Anderson, Mary W. “Time’s Up.” Christian Century 120.22 (2003): 19-318. ATLASerials, Religion Collection. Web. 16 Nov. 2012.

2 McGrath, Alister E. “Christian Theology: An Introduction” Blackwell Publishing, 2007, Oxford, p. 475

3 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hope

4 https://www.goodreads.com/work/quotes/19175758-daring-greatly-how-the-courage-to-be-vulnerable-transforms-the-way-we

SERMON 11-11-18 Pentecost 25B St. Monica’s Episcopal Church

1 Kings 17:8-16; Psalm 146; Hebrews 9:24-28; Mark 12:38-44

INTRODUCTION

Pledge Cards, Stewardship dinners, and church budgets, oh my.  It is that time of the church year again, when churches start talking about pledges, giving, and stewardship. It is nothing new. When it comes to talking about money in church, there is a stigma about it. Maybe it is because televangelists, who beg folks to give to their TV ministries, have contaminated us.  USA Today recently reported that a popular televangelists who told his virtual flock that God told him he needs a Dassault Falcon 7X a private jet, to whisk him to around to preach the gospel.  This type of religious fundraising program sounds a lot less like, the life of gratitude that Jesus teaches us about and a lot more like spiritual shakedown.

A theologian Peter Gomes wrote about our aversion to money talk and church.  He asserts that we need to “break the conspiracy of discreet silence sustained by both clergy and laity on money matters, if stewardship is to be more than a form of (sneaky) extortion.” (2) We avoid the topic of money and church, because it tends to be about a budget need, and not about the theological truth, that we all are called to live as faithful, generous stewards. Gomes writes, “Whatever the reason, November confronts us with the material necessity of the church, and hard as it may be to accept, the Bible makes clear that giving is sacrifice, not surplus generosity.” (2) Stewardship should not be a program to raise donations next year, in order to fund the operating budget. Jesus teaches us that stewardship is a matter of each of our own relationship to God, and God’s call for us to live a life of gratitude.

The Plight of Two Widows 

In today’s Gospel, Jesus told his disciples about a widow’s, who sacrificed all she had, even in the midst of her poverty.  In that first century Palestine culture, “There was no such thing as a rich widow. Women were totally dependent on their male relatives for their livelihood. Widows were forced to live off of the good graces of other male relatives and anyone in the community, who might provide a meal here, a little money there.” (1) We heard another story about a widow as well.

In the Old Testament, Elijah went to a region of Palestine and there found a widow who had only enough meal and oil to make a little food for her and her son. Elijah asked her for food, and reminded her that despite what little she had, God would provide for her. This widow was hungry but shared with someone else with gratitude, and from her poverty.  God provided, and there was enough for her, her son, and the stranger with whom she shared.  The truth in this story is this, “the widow recognized that at the center of her life was God, and she understood herself as dependent on the God who provides.  From that place of gratitude and dependence, she responded with abundant thankfulness to God.

Fast forward back to the temple in Jerusalem, where Jesus was sitting across from the Treasury, watching and listening to all that was happening.  He observed the “big shots” putting in their offering in the treasury, while they walked around town with flashy robes, receiving accolades from everyone, and sitting in the best seats in the temple.  Jesus saw this spectacle unfolding and then, suddenly someone caught his eye.  A poor widow walked up and put in two small copper coins in the treasury. In Jesus’ times in Judea, that small copper coin was called a lepton, which was of miniscule value.  The denariuswas the coin for which, someone was paid a day’s wages, and with it, they could buy bread for themselves and family for the day.  Relatively speaking, the widow’s two copper leptons were worth only 15 minutes of a day’s wages, but she gave all she had, which was not even enough to buy food for a quarter hour.  Jesus taught his disciples about gratitude, sacrificial giving, and faithfulness, when he shared his observations of where God stood in the lives of two very different people; the scribes and the widow.

By the worlds standard the donations of the scribes and teachers made them feel like they were of great value to the temple system.  Using the same standard, the poor widow who depended on charity for survival, gave a miniscule offering and thus she was considered unimportant in the temple system.  Whom though, do you think was in right relationship with God?  The gospel reading today is not about romanticizing poverty or was it a call to live a life of destitution. This story is about being in right relationship with God, by showing us who was fully, completely, and inarguably dependent on God.  The widow was poor by culture standards, but she lived in an abundant, responsive gratitude to God, for all she had been given, and over which she was called to be a steward. The truth in this story is that our relationship with God, being in right relationship with God, depends on who is at the center of our lives and on whom do we depend; God or ourselves.

Righteousness vs. Right Relationships

The scribes in the temple were independent, “pull themselves up from their bootstraps,” folks where dependence on, and gratitude to God was an afterthought. They liked to “walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets.”  Where was God in the pecking order of their lives?  Where is God in the mere pursuit of self-satisfaction, self-embellishment, and independence?  The scribes put God way back in the back seat, and that showed where their true treasure resided.

When we talk about stewardship in church, it should not be about giving enough to keep the lights on, although (thanks be to God) through the abundant responsive generosity of God’s people, the church is able to keep the lights on, to pay staff, to seed ministries of local mission, and to provide for the ongoing formation of all of God’s people as disciples.  Our stewardship should not be an exercise in church budget planning, but it should be how we every day focus, pray, discern, and practice living in abundant, responsive gratitude, for God’s abundant grace in our lives.

Stewardship – Responsive Abundant Gratitude

“Psychology today” describes gratitude as, “an emotion expressing appreciation for what one has—as opposed to, for instance, a consumer-driven emphasis on what one wants or thinks they need. Tossing off the half-hearted “thanks” won’t cut it; deep gratitude has to come from within and in a meaningful way.” (3)

The article goes on to say, “practicing gratitude means paying attention to what we are thankful for to the degree of feeling more kind and compassionate toward the world at large.” (3) “Stewardship, rightly understood, proceeds not from what we give to God but from what God has given to us.” (2) If we are honest, none of us are really independent, self-made, “I can do it all myself” persons, because everything over which we are mere curators; we only have for a time, and all that we have comes from God.

“We are embarrassed and a little nervous at the thought that what we “have” is not ours to “keep” but only to give.” (2) The old saying, “you cannot take it with you,” seems to apply here.  We all are walking through this life with an expiration date, and one day we will leave behind all that we have held so dear, unless that is God whom we hold dear, and if so, we will never be without abundant grace, because we recognized we are dependent on God.

What or who is your God?

Theologian Mary Anderson once wrote, “As good Americans we’ve been taught to celebrate our independence, but Jesus teaches us to celebrate our great dependence on God alone.” (1) We think we know what we need and thus, we strive through our own feeble human efforts, never once thinking that we are utterly dependent on the God who provides.   So, we must ask, “Who or what is my God, what takes center stage in the great play of my life, and on what or who do I depend for security, fulfillment, peace, joy, and the feeling of being “okay?”  Maybe we depend on our investments, our secure employment, our pensions, or maybe, it is something else taking center stage.

Anderson asserts what many of us feel, “My money gives me independence and freedom from living like a poor widow, (but is it not like a widow how) … we are to be like before God—dependent on nothing but the grace of God. We are to be people without any resources except the riches of God’s mercy.” (1)  So, if God does takes center stage, and if we acknowledge that God is the source of all of which, we have been given to curate (and only for a time), then we should live a life of abundant responsive gratitude, and thus we return to the topic of our stewardship.

Why is money talk in church off limits? It is often as taboo as talking about political parties and government policies in church, but Jesus never shied away from that debate either; nor should we.   This whole stewardship dance we do this time of year should never be an exercise in “funding an operating budget” through which, we all will figure out how much will need to give in order to support it.  Clergy are guilty of this practice too by the way, but that is how businesses, non-profit charities, and other secular organizations work. You know that everything we need to accomplish God’s mission through St. Monica’s and to do it well is available in abundance.

This Jesus version of stewardship starts not with budget, but with a focused, prayerful, discerning practice of living in abundant responsive gratitude for God’s abundant grace in our lives.  Stewardship is a “heart and hands” matter, and it is a relationship to God matter.  When we talk about church and money, we are really talking about what Jesus taught his disciples, when by a widow’s sacrificial giving he showed us how to love God and love our neighbors.  Jesus teaches us that we are utterly dependent on him and not ourselves, our jobs, or our assets (all of which are not ours to keep).

When God takes center stage in our lives, then this whole stewardship matter will stop being merely an October/ November church program, and it will become a year round way of life.   As I was looking on Google for pictures of the widow’s pennies, I ran across a site that showed pictures of every U.S. currency denomination and minted coin.  I find it ironic that on each monetary legal tender are these words, “In God We Trust.”  For some reason, I had forgotten that little fact.  I wonder if in the wisdom of the designers of our currency, that those words were put there to remind us, that not this bill in our hand, but God is the one with whom we should put our trust.  Maybe the designer was a good Episcopalian who during one Stewardship Sunday reflected back on what that young, radical Jewish rabbi preached in one of his best stewardship sermons, “where your treasure is that is where your heart will be also.”

REFERENCES

(1) Anderson, Mary W. “Widow’s Walk.” The Christian Century, vol. 120, no. 22, Nov. 2003, p. 18.

(2) Gomes, Peter J.(Peter John). “Veterans and Stewards.” The Christian Century, vol. 114, no. 30, Oct. 1997, p. 971.

(3)  https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/basics/gratitude

All Saint’s Day, St. Monica’s Episcopal Church 11/4/18

Isaiah 25:6-9; Psalm 24; Revelation 21:1-6a; John 11:32-44

Superheroes or Saints

I am a huge fan of superheroes.  I grew up watching Batman and Spiderman cartoons on Saturday mornings, but even today as an adult, I still love to watch the Avengers movies on the big screen. Superheroes are mythical people who combat the forces of injustice, evil, and oppression, and they give us hope of the better angels of our nature.  My favorite superheroes are not the ones imbued with superhuman strength or powers.  I look up to the superheroes like Batman, Iron Man, and Black Widow who are just regular people that rely on their intellects, and their high tech suits and gadgets.  These heroes’ strengths come from their tenacity and commitment to their call, while overcoming their own human frailties.  Legendary superheroes give society examples for whom they can model our lives. The church throughout the year commemorates the lives of certain people (saints), who by their faith and commitment to Christ have given us, an example by which we can model our faith journeys.

Like so called cultural superheroes, we often envision saints to be superhero Christians like Peter, Paul, Mary Magdalene, Mother Teresa, or St. Francis of Assisi.  The truth is these folks were far less like Superman and Wonder Woman with super Christian powers, and more like Batman and Iron Man, who were just regular folk that remained faithful, committed, and prayerful in their quest to follow Jesus. Being a saint is not about carrying around superhuman faith, but being a saint means we are just regular people who rely on a faith as small as a mustard seed.

All Saints

Today, we commemorate All Saints; the Communion of Saints.  Wikipedia defines the Communion of Saints as “the spiritual union of the members of the Christian Church, living and the dead. They are all part of a single “mystical body”, with Christ as the head, in which each member contributes to the good of all and shares in the welfare of all. “ Today especially, we remember, honor, and look to the examples of all Jesus’ disciples (living and dead) as icons of hope, who trusted God’s promises. Likewise today, we look to those saints who are sitting around us, gathered here in communion and in fellowship, who live in the hope of God’s promise of life everlasting, the promise “that nothing, not even death stands between us and God’s love.”

In today’s gospel reading, we hear the story of Jesus raising his dear friend Lazarus from the grave.  In our tradition, we often hear this reading at a burial service.  It offers the grieving comfort in the fact that, “Jesus wept,” and that reminds us that Our Lord understood and empathizes with the grief we experience, when the ones we love pass on to the communion of saints.

The raising of Lazarus is a symbol of the hope we have in the resurrection, it happened at a critical moment in Jesus’ ministry, and it was a decisive miracle that demonstrated his power over life and death.  I believe this moment of his ministry gives us hope to live the life of a saint.  Although Jesus experienced suffering, betrayal, and death, nothing dissuaded him from his mission.  Through his own experience, Jesus forewarned his church that being faithful to God’s mission and partnering with God’s mission in the world comes with a great cost.

Mission focus

Today, the church is facing many challenges unseen since the early days of its inception and growth.   We now live in a time when one-third of our nation claims no religious affiliation at all.  Many churches are experiencing decline in membership and attendance (including the evangelical churches), but the real threat to the church is not the latest trend of a declining religiosity, declining attendance on Sunday, or even the sustainability issues of building and property maintenance.  The real threat to the church is our growing shift away from making God’s mission of love and reconciliation both inside and outside our walls, our highest priority.

God did not fashion a communion of saints for the mere purpose of gathering together once a week. God consecrated (or set aside) faith communities for a specific purpose, which is to of carry God’s Good News of abundant love into the neighborhoods where we have been planted. Like Lazarus, Jesus calls us out of our burial wrappings of self-absorption, fear, and anxiety, to go out into the desperate places of people’s lives.

We are called out of the grave in order to call others out of their graves.  Through our hands and hearts carrying God’s grace, we raise up hope in others. The church is not in the grave, or even headed toward it by any means and yet, we can become distracted from being raised up and unbound from our chains of inward focus.

God acts and calls us out of death into new life.

Episcopal priest and writer Barbara Brown Taylor wrote, We have a “God who resurrects us from the dead, putting an end to it by … creating life in the midst of grief, creating love in the midst of loss, creating faith in the midst of despair—resurrecting us from our big and little deaths, showing us by his own example that the only road to Easter morning runs smack through Good Friday.”1  “Lazarus, come out!”  Jesus calls us out of uncertainty and the fear of death into new life!

When religious naysayers warn us of possible institutional death, and when negativity tries to slip in amongst us, we must make God’s mission priority one, and ask ourselves, “What is our ministry to the neighborhoods in which, we have been planted?”  “Who is God is calling us to love, serve, and restore?”  “Who is our neighbor, and how should we get back to the basics of being a lighthouse of love in the neighborhoods around us?”  This mission to which we have been called is fraught with fear and uncertainty, because when we engage in God’s mission faithfully as the Saints of God, we must die to our comfortable way of being, in order to experience new life.

Change is a frightening concept, but dying to that which holds us back from God’s purposes is a natural part of becoming a saint. Suzanne Guthrie writes, “In small ways we practice dying: dying to sin, dying to shame, to prejudices, opinions, stagnant ideas, dying to one old life and then another, ever striving toward new life. You consciously practice rising, from whatever tomb you have holed yourself up in lately.”2

To experience new life, we must shrug off some of grave clothes that have the power to keep us bound up, and to deter us from God’s mission in the world.  We must die a little to those comfy elements of our way of being, our contented ways of sharing grace, our narrow definitions of our local mission, or our often, restrictive boundaries that keep others from finding hope in God’s grace. Jesus said, “Unbind him and let him go!” Like Lazarus, the saints need to be unbound.

Unbind them and let them Go

Now, many of us have fond memories of church gone by and so, we believe that is how church should be today.  Some may look at our community, and think well, it used to be like this or that, or we may e some think we are no longer enough, or we don’t have enough resources and people to do local mission.  This kind of thinking is just old grave clothes that will keep us from God’s purposes for God’s church.

Dean Chandler of the Diocese of Atlanta once said in a sermon,  “Unbind somebody. Where you find someone in bondage: your friend, your wife, your husband, your companion, even the stranger.”3 “Jesus commanded his followers who were standing and watching him raise his friend from the power of death, “Unbind him,” or rather, he commanded them and us, “Saints, take a part in what I am already doing, and get back to work in the mission of love I have just begun, go and unbind each other and all around you.”   Jesus calls us to unbounded sainthood.

Am I a Saint?

You may be sitting there saying, “Fr. Eric, I am no saint.”  Well, we are all saints, because we have been given the assurance that death has no power over us, and through hope we have been raised to new life in Christ.  We are a people that are brought together in love, not merely for the edification of ourselves, but we gather for the ultimate purpose of sharing God’s abundant grace with others.  That is what being a saint is all about.  We are not called to be perfect, nor are we called to become some kind of superhero Christian (like Iron Man, Black Widow, or Wonder Woman) or even a culturally popular saint like Mother Teresa or St. Francis.  We all are saints who strive everyday, in every way, to share God’s abundance with others, and to set others free from what holds them back from experiencing God’s grace.

Nelson Mandela once said, “I am not a saint, unless you think of a saint as a sinner who keeps on trying.” In other words, we are not going to get this saint thing right every time, but we still must try. I mess it up every day, and I know you do too, but that is what grace is all about. Being a saint is not easy, because we saints have to die a little, so new life might spring up.  The good news is that sainthood requires no superhuman strength, but just the faith of a little mustard seed, which looks like our contributing “to the good of all and sharing in the welfare of all.”

Maybe sainthood looks like Sir Nicholas Winton who saved 669 Jewish children from the Holocaust, or Lee Gelernt a vocal and active advocate for the rights of at risk children in our midst.  Maybe sainthood looks like some of you who work tirelessly to insure local working moms have diapers for their babies, freeing up funds for food and rent. Maybe sainthood looks like some of you, who go each week to the Immokalee Soup kitchen to bring hope and love to folks who need a hot meal and an encouraging smile.  We saints are just regular people, who have been unbound from the grave clothes of despair and fear, then sent out into the world to love God, to love one another, and love our neighbors, just “as Christ loved us and gave himself for us, an offering, and a sacrifice to God.” Dear loving God, unbind your Saints.

REFERENCES

1Taylor, Barbara Brown. “Can These Bones Live.” The Christian Century23.9 (1996): 291. ATLASerials, Religion Collection. Web. 26 Oct. 2015.

2 Guthrie, Suzanne. “Back To Life.”The Christian Century122.5 (2005): 22. ATLASerials, Religion Collection. Web. 26 Oct. 2015.)

3Very Rev. Samuel G. Candler Dean of the Cathedral of St. Philip in the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta, GA. http://day1.org/1086-unbind_him_and_let_him_go

 

SERMON 10-28-18, Pentecost 23B, St. Monica’s Episcopal Church Naples

vision

Jeremiah 31:7-9; Psalm 126; Hebrews 7:23-28; Mark 10:46-52

Blind

At the age of 15, my father introduced me to beauty, sights, and thrill of aviation.  Dad loved to fly and he loved the panorama from those lofty heights.  Tragically, Macular Degeneration took my dad’s sight from him in his mid 70’s.  Its debilitating symptoms transformed a once self-assured, hard-working, lover of the beauty of creation, into a man depressed, despondent, and dependent upon others for even the basics of life.

As a pilot and flight instructor myself, I have the opportunity weekly to see our world from a unique perspective.  From that altitude you see cars, homes, streets, buildings, and structures that seem so insignificant. You see how roads, telephone lines, and public work systems make our daily lives possible, and connect us to one another.  From that altitude, you see that there is a much bigger picture of life than what we perceive up close.  Troubles, challenges, and the difficulties that often obstruct us, seem so small and unimportant, that is when you take a step back and take a strategic look at things. We often take for granted the gift of sight and how it influences the paths of life.

“He and his disciples and a large crowd were leaving Jericho, Bartimaeus son of Timaeus, a blind beggar, was sitting by the roadside.”  Today’s healing story is about a man whose life (whose place) as a member of the community was reduced to being merely a beggar, an outcast, and a “less than” as a result of his inability to see.  The blind beggar was unable to experience the fullness of God’s grace with others, because he was bound up by the symptoms of an unknown ailment.  He lived in despondency, with a lack of direction, and he was dependent on the charity of others; that is until Jesus came along, and turned everything on its head with a miraculous healing.

Sight Restored

Sometimes we postmodern Christians hear these healing stories of Jesus and think, “Is healing like that really possible?”  Science will tell you that we do not yet fully understand the mysterious connections between spiritual and physical health.  I believe the miracles of Jesus hold great truths for us and here is why.  Two years ago at a conference, I taught a class on spiritual resiliency to unit commanders from all over the State of Florida. I shared with them the results of a study on spiritual resiliency conducted by Mayo Clinic.  Their research asserted that in multiple studies examining the spiritual variable in physical and mental health, those people who have religious involvement, experienced a 75% positive effect on health outcomes vs. those who did not.   The health of body and spirit go hand-in-hand.

Theologian Walter Brueggemann writes, “Healing is mediated through social processes and social structures. Religion is never simply about “me and Jesus.” It is also neversimply a matter of psychology, as if problems are just in one’s psyche or have to do only with one’s self- understanding.” (3) What Jesus did for the blind man had positive repercussions for him that went way beyond just the physical restoration of his sight, and Jesus heals us in ways we do not always understand but in which, we must participate actively. The blind man was restored to physical health, but he was restored to community.  Blind Bartimaeus was restored to spiritual, emotional, and mental health, and made able again to take his place as an active, participating, and supporting member of the health of the whole community.  Like him, we Christians who have been healed, become the healers for others.

Blindness to A New Vision

I want to share with you a story about a faith community who for many years was (in some ways) blind to the plight of their neighbors around them, and yet they had their eyes opened by Jesus. A nimble little church, about two hours north of us was struggling to keep one of its outreach ministries alive.  The ministry eventually came to an end and the space where it was located was left empty and unused, but God had another plan.  A team of parishioners began looking at their neighborhood around them and realized that many retired seniors (their neighbors) were being forced to decide between buying nutritious food or buying life sustaining prescription drugs.  The little church also discovered that the children in the local elementary school who were on the food program went home on the weekends without nutritious food to sustain them.  Jesus opened their eyes and they listened when Jesus said, “Go, your faith has made you well.”

Today that little church provides backpack meals for over 100 elementary school students in their neighborhoods, and they have a full-blown food pantry that provides shelf stable food for seniors, families, and children alike. That little church had been blinded by the circumstances before them, but when Jesus gave them a new vision and the church folk listened to their neighbors’ needs, Jesus said to the church, “Go, because your faith had made you well,” and the Kingdom of God burst forth in their midst.

When we bring our resources and talents of hands and hearts to bear on the plight of others, we are essentially bringing health to our neighbors or rather, we are doing the ministry of Jesus.  The mission of Jesus Christ and his church is to bring healing to all of creation, to open our eyes, cure our blindness, turn everything on its head, especially in our little corner of the world.  

Faith

If we are honest, we all need someone to restore hope and bring back sight to our eyes.  Some of the best teachers and mentors I have had in my life had faith in me, when I had no faith in myself, and they saw gifts in me, that I could not seen in myself.  They opened my eyes to new potential, new ideas, new ways of being, and a new vision. That is what Jesus did for the blind man, the crowd around him, and that is what Jesus does for us.  Jesus is always at work giving fresh eyes to his Church, so she might see and respond to his mission of love in the little corners of our world.

Jesus said to the beggar upon his regaining his sight, “Go, your faith has made you well.”
 GO!  The man did not wait around and throw a party about his new sight, nor did he go back home to his family (if he had any).  No, the man found physical and spiritual freedom through Jesus’ healing, and he decided to follow him and share his story with others. We need our eyes opened, so we can see that there is so much more going on in our world than what we perceive to be right in front of us.  Imagine how the inability to see and to have hope, could encumber us from the healing God has in store for us.  We need Jesus to heal us, and open our eyes to renewed vision for our ministry.

I wish I could take each one of you up for a flight and let you see the beauty of the neighborhoods around us.  As an alternative, for the next couple of minutes, let me take you on a metaphorical journey, and share with you a vision for us, and maybe give you a new perspective and renewed hope.

Take a look over there at those neighborhoods around us for a moment.  I wonder if in a year we could have at least five new Outreach teams directly and actively serving (or partnering with) area agencies in our local neighborhood to bring God’s Kingdom to bear on the poverty, suffering, emptiness, and loneliness of our neighbors?  Take a look over there at how new people are finding God’s grace in this place.  I wonder if St. Monica’s could grow our membership by at least 10-20% and embrace the diversity and gifts of our neighbors, growing our capacity for further mission in the local community?

Take a look over there at those awesome kids in our Sunday school each week.  I wonder if St. Monica’s could grow in a deeper love of Jesus Christ, through more intentional, transformational, and life giving opportunities for Christian formation for all ages?  Take a look over there at those who are healers in our midst.  I wonder if we could grow our pastoral care teams: Lay Eucharistic Visitors, Healing Team, Stephen Ministers, Pastoral Care Team, and Prayer Chain Team to ensure all are cared for with the love of Christ carried within each of us?

Take a look over there at how much fun we have together during our coffee hour and other events like the one last night.  I wonder if we could grow together as the family of God, coming together more often to love one another more deeply, know one another better, and transform as a church that plays and eats together, and one that shares our lives together.  Take a look over there at our financial statements and how we are improving our oversight.  I wonder if we could become more nimble, flexible, and responsible by developing financial strategies, budgets, expense controls, decision-making processes, and accountabilities to insure the longevity of our parish mission for decades to come?

How do you like the view from that lofty height?    Can you see it?  You know we cannot do any of this alone, nor can any of it come to life by only the work of one person or even a few people, but all of it is all possible.  First, we need the great healer Jesus to open our eyes, to show us the way, to heal the wounds of doubt and despair, and then set us on the course to “Go.”  Next, we need all of us, all of us who need the healing of the Master Jesus, to embrace the beauty of the vision before us.  Are you ready for the hope, healing, and restoration God has in store for us?  Can you see it?  Let us pray, “My teacher Jesus, let me see again.” Amen

 

REFERENCES

(1) Anderson, Mary W. “Blind Spots.” The Christian Century, vol. 120, no. 21, Oct. 2003, p. 20.

(2) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jericho#cite_note-46

(3) Brueggemann, Walter. “Theological Education: Healing the Blind Beggar.” The Christian Century, vol. 103, no. 5, Feb. 1986, pp. 114–116.

 

SERMON 10-21-18 Pentecost 22B St. Monica’s Episcopal Church, Naples FL

sonsofthunderIsaiah 53:4-12; Psalm 91:9-16; Hebrews 5:1-10; Mark 10:35-45

Success vs. The Cross

James and John asked Jesus, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” Jesus nicknamed these two “Sons of Thunder.” The Greek word for “Thunder” is Βοανηργές, which I believe defined James and John’s fiery and destructive zeal.  True to their name, these two disciples’ request from Jesus sounds a bit entitled. Their longing for power and success made them so thunderous.  Like the “Sons of Thunder,” we all want to be successful be closely associated with successful, powerful people! We like winners.   Our culture world reserves seats of honor for those who are “on top.” The story in today’s gospel is about two of Jesus’ disciples who wanted their way, they wanted success, and they wanted glory, but they were very foolish.

The Sons of Thunder’s asked Jesus, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.”  When you hear this passage, knowing that Jesus path led to a cross and death, are you like me and think, “do these two not get what Jesus mission is all about; were they not listening to Jesus talk about going to Jerusalem to be rejected, beaten, and to die?”  They must have thought that Jesus was going to be welcomed into and be glorified in Jerusalem as a hero, as a great king, as a repairer of all that was wrong in Israel (initially he was).

James and John, the “Sons of Thunder” wanted their place, their seats of glory at that throne of their perception of Jesus’ upcoming success. They did not comprehend what it really meant to “be a follower of Jesus.” Sometimes, we are like the “Sons of Thunder and we are unaware of the costs of discipleship. Despite James and John’s ill-advised ideas about Jesus’ mission, and even with their bold claims upon the seats of Jesus’ glory, both of them still dared to be a disciple.

Get into the story

A few years ago, one of my college ministry interns at the University of South Florida asked, “what does it take to follow Jesus in the 21stcentury?” I easily could have suggested she read a good book or an article about some awe-inspiring saint, but I decided to encourage her to go to the source himself for the answer; Jesus Christ. I explained to my intern, “If you are going to follow someone, if you are going to call someone ‘Lord of my life,’ then you have to know who He is, how he lived, the depth of his love, and how he interacted with his disciples, as well as his opponents.”  We all need to learn more about him, live in gratitude for his grace, then go and show him within us to others.

We want to be disciples, but some of us are not versed in the narrative of Jesus’ life.  We followers once a week hear the scriptures read to us, but that is like eating a good appetizer, and missing the nutrition found in feeding on the whole meal.  We all need to eat often and ravenously on the life of Jesus every single day, so we can be changed by the one we all call Lord.

If Jesus’ story intrigues you, let me share are some facts about him to whet your appetite for more study: (1) Jesus was clear about who he was and what his mission was going to be in the world.  (2) Except when praying, resting, eating, Jesus was always moving towards an objective; reconciliation through the cross.  (3) Jesus let nothing stand in the way of his mission.  (4) Jesus reordered the power structures of his day by going head-to-head, with the religious and political leaders who kept the people in spiritual bondage.  (5) Jesus loved folks who did not love him back and gave of himself, when others denied him even a place to lay his head.  (6) Jesus was kind, compassionate, loving, and self-denying and yet, he was a bold, radical, and a truth teller who held people to account.  (7) Jesus endured the abandonment of his friends, and the rejection of his followers, as he died a gruesome, shameful, and scandalous death.  (8) Here is the key to it all: Jesus is fully God: Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer of all we perceive. God in Christ was born, lived, died, and his unimaginable love raised him to life again, and he lives today. Now that is something to sink your teeth into.

Seats in the Jesus’ Movement

Jesus’ focus on others was so unimaginable, that it ultimately led to his death.  Jesus loved in ways that to say the least, we all find difficult to incorporate into our own way of being today, especially when success is our primary driver. Jesus calls us to follow him, and in order to take our seats beside him in his movement, those seats have a shockingly different focus than that espoused by the success of our culture.

Jesus disappointed James and John, when they did not get the kind of seats of success they desired.  Even so, the Sons of Thunder continued on with him to Jerusalem.  As misguided as their ambition was, they did not become mere passive, disinterested sideline fans of his movement, they stayed with him on the path to the cross and remained, almost to the end.  We like them have a hard time going all the way in this Jesus movement, but Jesus does not turn his back on us.

Jesus loved James and John despite their foolish ambition, and maybe that kind of love is what we need, when we become distracted away from what it really means to follow him.  We often desire a discipleship that steers far away from the rugged path of the cross. What we need is a reminder that Kingdom life is about shedding our mistaken ideals about the kind of life to which we hold so dear. We get distracted from the Jesus’ way, and the way of success and ambition becomes our target.  One way to get back on track is to live a life of gratitude and to DARE to BE a DISCIPLE!

Gratitude

Take a deep breath and let it out.  You see, all that we have, all that we are, all that we see, even that little breath you just took is a gift from God.  Discipleship begins with a life of gratitude acknowledging God is the source of every aspect of our life.   Gratitude humbles us, makes us vulnerable, and infuses us with God’s love. Gratitude is more than a feeling.  Gratitude is our love for God and others in action. Our Presiding Bishop The Most Rev. Michael Curry said in his sermon last Friday night at Diocesan Convention, “if it isn’t about love, it isn’t about God.”  I will add, God’s love moves us to action.

Christians are not mere “fans,” “cheerleaders,” or “card-carrying members” of the movement of God’s love in the world.  When we proclaim Jesus as Lord, we should be moved to do more than just show up on the mission field.  We are Christ’s ambassadors in the world, and representing Jesus in the world requires us to go out, to move out, and let our lives proclaim the gospel.  When we call Jesus Lord, we are really saying, “I am willing to be Jesus for others in the world today.”  So, take a risk and DARE to BE a DISCIPLE!

Dare to be a Disciple

So, what does “Dare to be a disciple mean Eric?  It means that we have to really follow Jesus and we must do as he does, serve as he serves, take a risk and be faithful in love!  When each of us stands on the left or right of people traversing the pain and abyss of life’s terrible situations whatever they may be, we are daring to be a disciple.  When we bring solace to those living in poverty, loss and broken heartedness, we are daring to be a disciple.  When we love each other, even when it is difficult we are daring to be a disciple. When we love others outside our circle of friends we are daring to be a disciple.  When we live with a spirit of gentleness, compassion, mercy, boldness, and forgiveness we are daring to be a disciple.

Following Jesus means we must be engaged, we must be involved, we have to be generous, and be willing to be changed forever.  Following Jesus absolutely means that (when like James and John) we seek a place nearer to the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, we will certainly lose our life and the things that were once important to us.  In your bulletin, there is announcement for two or three people to discern a call to serve as Local Mission (Outreach) Team Leaders here at St. Monica’s.  If you hear this call from God, call me and let’s partner together in Jesus mission right here and right now.

God is calling his church in a bold way, to re-discover the physical and spiritual needs of our neighbors around us, and then to build teams to bring our gifts of love (hands and hearts) to bear on their situations. God is calling all of us, and when we decide to faithfully and fully engage in this Jesus’ way of life, we will surely discover a life of abundant love, peace, and joy.  If this Jesus Movement of active and engaged love is true and I believe it to be so, what are we waiting for?  Like James and John, the Sons of Thunder, it is time for us to Take a risk and DARE to BE a DISCIPLE! 

 

References

1 Wadell, Paul J. “Living By The Word: Reflections On The Lectionary [O 18, 2009].” Christian Century 126.20 (2009): 19-318. ATLASerials, Religion Collection. Web. 15 Oct. 2012.

2 Chapman, Stephen B. “Sons Of Entitlement.” Christian Century 123.21 (2006): 20-318. ATLASerials, Religion Collection. Web. 15 Oct. 2012.

3 Kim, Yung Suk. “Jesus’ Death In Context.” Living Pulpit 16.2 (2007): 12-13. ATLASerials, Religion Collection. Web. 15 Oct. 2012