SERMON Palm Sunday 4/11/19 St. Monica’s Episcopal Church

PalmSunday Bulletin imageIsaiah 50:4-9a; Psalm 31:9-16; Philippians 2:5-11; Luke 22:14-23:56

 Palm Procession

I bet with our lengthy gospel narrative today, you may be sitting there hoping for an abbreviated sermon. I will oblige my sisters and brother and so, there will be no references to cartoon characters, perfume commercials, Fig Newtons, or Super Heroes today. However, the lighthearted Lenten sermon metaphors you have heard over the past few weeks, the teachings of Lent have provided us with some important discipleship lessons.

After five weeks of hearing about “following Jesus,” we may wonder how we end up today with the liturgy of palms.  You may say, “I have participated in this liturgy for years and I still do not understand what is going on. Why do process into the sanctuary waving palms and singing “All Glory Laud and Honor.” “Why then, does that joyous celebration, abruptly change into a dramatic reading of Our Lord’s journey to the cross?”  Let me explain.

            The Palm Procession has been a tradition in the Roman, Anglican, and other Christian traditions for centuries and there is more than a reenactment ritual going on here.  Many churches begin with a brief sojourn, usually from the parish hall or an outdoor spot, in order bring into the present moment the events of the cheering crowd at Jesus’ triumphant arrival in the city.  We actually take our place among the crowd shouting, “All Glory Laud and Honor,” just as they did so long ago.

Then, we enact the gospel narrative by having select parishioners read certain parts of the story, thus putting us in the roles of the characters themselves.  We do all this, so that we might bring into the present moment, our place in the same crowd, and in the group of closest disciples.  We join the story that goes from “All Glory Laud and Honor” to “Crucify Him, Crucify Him,” which makes present for us, our own struggle with discipleship.  Each one of us, if we are honest wrestle with what kind of Savior it is that we seek and what symbol of our discipleship we are willing to carry; a palm or a cross.

Palms or Cross?

             Let me give you a few examples of the folks in today’s gospel that could not decide between palms or cross.  From the Last Supper, we find the disciples with Jesus in the Garden praying, where he asked them merely to stay with him and pray, but they all fall asleep.  Later, Jesus was arrested and did not resist his own apprehension. However, Peter forgot what Jesus taught him about loving neighbor, and he cut the ear off of one of the soldiers.  Jesus healed the man’s injury though.  Later, Peter the bold defender of the Savior denied Jesus three times when accused of being a disciple.  Later, the crowd that cheered Jesus upon his arrival, asked for the release of a violent insurrectionist in place of the innocent one we follow.

After shouts of “Crucify Him,” we still hear Jesus on the cross say, “Father forgive them for they know not what they do.”  As the crowd taunted the tortured savior the shouting, “You saved others, save yourself Jesus,” we hear a criminal’s plea, “ Jesus remember Me when you come into your Kingdom.” Jesus last words were, “Father I commend my spirit,” and then we hear a soldier’s regret for his action,  “Surely, this man was innocent,” and then Jesus died.

The crowd, his disciples, and others just sitting on the sidelines debated about who Jesus was, and in their struggles, they experienced cycles of adulation, rejection, and regret.  How many of us do the same? As the baptized we journey in faith with Jesus every day, but the path of our discipleship is lined with both palms and crosses, and like the crowd, we are often unsure what kind of Savior we really want.

What Kind of King?

We are not that different from those early disciples. When they shared that meal of memorial with Jesus, it was not an hour later that they were arguing about who was going to be greatest among them.  They seemed to forget his teachings and warnings about self-denial and self-giving love.  It was as if they forgot all that he taught them and they still had hopes of a power-wielding King, who would satisfy their own personal desires.  Most Christians struggle to choose whether we want to follow a “king of the palms,” or a “king of the cross.”

To follow the “King of the Cross” means we choose the counter-cultural, arduous path of self-giving love, while rejecting the normative, tranquil path of self-satisfaction or self-preservation.  When life becomes uncomfortable and we must take a stand to protect the innocent, to bring justice to the oppressed, to claim peace in the midst of chaos, or to merely claim Jesus as the Lord of our lives, we have the capacity to be like Peter, and deny our affiliation. I personally wonder sometimes, if I faced the same threat of rejection, violence, or arrest over my faith, would I be like Peter?

 If were in the crowd

            Wepost-resurrection Christians hear this story each year, but we hear it from the perspective of looking back, but what if we did not know the outcome of the story; what if we did not know about resurrection?  I wonder if would seek also a Savior that would wield power against our enemies, rather than a Savior who shows us how to love our enemies.

It is a frightening thought, but maybe we might have been the one that pounded the nails into his hands, or the one who spit in his face, or the one who denied him three times.  Imagine for a moment you were in the crowd, would you have shouted “Crucify him, Crucify him.”  Despite their rejection of his radical love in action, Jesus still said, “Father, for­give them; for they do not know what they are doing.”

We educated, postmodern, post-resurrection Christians process with palms in hand and enact the story every year, but we need to be reminded that we too need ongoing sanctification in our lives, because each one of us must decide whether we want a humble, self-giving, serving Lord, or a Lord who serves our own desires.

 The Choice is Ours

Palm or a cross; the choice is always ours.  Will we follow Jesus all the way to Golgotha, or will we stop in the courtyard near the warm and comfortable fire, and deny him like Peter.  Honestly, none of us want to go the full distance to the disgraceful death of a cross, but thanks be to God, none of us have to do so, that is because we have God’s grace.

God’s grace is the gift we merely accept.  We cannot work for it, do enough to gain it, or serve in enough ministries to manipulate it.  It is the free gift of love from God, and it is ours despite, how we often reject the humbled Lord, who intercedes on our behalf saying, “Father forgive them for they know not what they do.”

So, which will it be, a palm or a cross?  It really is an easy choice, that is if we can trust in God’s grace, rely on God’s direction, and seek God’s will and humbly pray, “Father, I nee you every day.  Father, please, also forgive me; because when it comes to following you, I really DO NOT know what I am doing.”

REFERENCES

(1)  King, Michael A. “Holy Hate.” The Christian Century, vol. 124, no. 23, Nov. 2007, p. 18.

SERMON 4/7/19 Lent 5C St Monica’s Episcopal Church, Naples FL

Lent 5CEnjoli …I can do it all.

In the 1980’s there was a television commercial for women’s perfume that seemed to change how not just women, but all of us, attempt to “do it all,” “accomplish it all,” all while looking and feeling our best.  The commercial claimed, I can bring home the bacon, fry it up in a pan or rather, I can do it all and keep all the priorities in their proper place!”   We guys also have such commercials, like the Matthew McConaughey Lincoln commercials, which make us believe we have ultimate control in our lives and superstar coolness, brought to us through vehicular material fulfillment.

This Enjoli/Lincoln attitude of trying to be all and do all is a formula for burnout, depression, and redirected faith in self, not God. Brene Brown in a Ted Talk described the Enjoli/Lincoln temperament when she stated, “I don’t know how much perfume that commercial sold, but I guarantee you it moved a lot of anti-depressants and anti-anxiety meds.”  When we strive for success and achievement for its sake alone, we live chaotic lives. We will take for granted God’s gift of life and the gift of love for those closest to us.  The pressures of success invade us, and we are obsessed in the moment and try to accomplish it all, and the most important things of life diminish from view.  We often fail to look past the chaos and tragedy, and see new life possibilities emerging before her.

The story in today’s gospel reading shows us a brief snapshot of a chaotic situation in the life of those earliest followers of Our Lord.  Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem, and along the way he learned about the death of a friend. Miraculously, Jesus raised his friend Lazarus, and then stops for dinner at his friend’s home in order to celebrate. The drama after the miracle, that we just heard, depicts how one of Jesus’ friends was busyed preparing a dinner for the others, another friend was consumed with anger about perceived wasteful extravagance, and another friend did something so outlandish, yet she took the time to focus on what was most important. She look looked past the chaos and tragedy and saw new life possibilities emerging before her.

Context:  A plot and a Dinner Party

            This dinner table story precedes the events leading to Jesus’ trial and execution, but we have to rewind just a little.   Right before the miracle and subsequent dinner party, the leaders of the Temple were plotting to kill Jesus.  Word was spreading about this new, young rabbi’s miracles and teachings, Caiaphas the high priest told his colleagues,  “You do not realize that it is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish.”  The plot was in motion now, Jesus was going to be arrested and executed, and chaos and death will soon be center stage.

Back at the dinner party, if you had been there you would have seen a former dead man, the stench of his grave still in the air sitting near you eating supper.  Amazement at the promises of God that became real before your very eyes but you would have been left dumbfounded.  There was anxiety in the air about the plot to kill Jesus, which threatened the entire group. Some expected Jesus to end the Roman oppression, while others were confused about his teachings about self-giving love, and even others could not fathom that their movement would end in Jesus’s death.  In this chaos and fear of death and failure, new life possibilities would soon be emerging before you.

Martha, one of the sisters was busied and hurried (trying to do it all) in the kitchen roasting some lamb, baking wonderful pita bread, and preparing some delicious treats for this hungry band of disciples. Judas’ one of the followers was watching all this take place, but he his agenda was filled with deceit and betrayal.  Then suddenly, Mary walks into the room and sits at Jesus’ feet and does something unexpected, outside the norm, and extravagant, and everyone present stops what they were doing and takes note.

She took a pound of costly perfume and anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair.  This was so excessive and “over the top” because the perfume was worth, in today’s money, over 50,000 U.S. dollars.  Mary’s extravagant love showed where her priorities were that night, and her example shows where our priorities in this life should be.  In the midst of chaos, the pursuit of success, and the fear of death, new life possibilities emerging are always before us. 

Extravagant Worship

Mary was completely focused on Jesus, and nothing stood in the way of her act of self-giving, no holds barred gift of love. Not a year’s wages, not the disdain of one of Jesus’ own followers who demeaned her act, and not the busy work of the kitchen would distract Mary from extravagant worship and the hope she had in life beyond tragedy.  Theologian Ramsey Michaels explains, “Mary’s … reckless act of pouring out a pint of expensive perfume on Jesus’ feet and wiping them with her hair dramatizes for Jesus—and for us—the truth that love is stronger than death. (1)

Mary disregarded the chaos all around her, the fear of arrest and execution, the anxiety of the agenda of Judas, and the uncertainty of tomorrow’s financial security, and chose an act of unimaginable love. Mary reminds us even today, that being with Our Lord, focusing on loving Christ, trusting in the promises of life beyond death is the key to a disciple’s life of peace, joy, mercy, love, and grace.

In other words, we need to silence that Enjoli/Lincoln voice in our heads that keeps whispering to us that we can be all, do all, and accomplish it all through our own works.  This is the same voice that will deceive us into believing that if we can just take the ”bull by the horns” in this chaotic life, we will never lose ourselves, nor stray from the path of faithful discipleship.  However, “it is (Mary’s) action that defines for John (and us) what being a servant or disciple finally entails. (1)

Judas’ concern for the poor?

            “So, what was Judas’ part in the drama,” you may ask.  Judas looked at Mary’s act of love and rebuked her and said, “we should have sold the perfume and given the money to the poor. Jesus’ responsed, “you will always have the poor with you.” Some might say that Jesus’ gives us the license to not worry about thosay living in poverty, and merely focus on my relationship with God.

            Judas did not care for the poor around him, because he could not understand the kind of love and devotion it took to give up something of so much value, for someone you love so much, hoping for life beyond the disarray and tragedy.  Judas could not let go of his own love of personal gain, and his hope of Jesus becoming a power-wielding King with whom he might share glory.  Judas did not even begin to understand the love and devotion Mary offered to Jesus.

Mary’s gift did not deprive the poor of their needs, but their is a contrast here. The contrast presented in the story is between extravagant love of Jesus and Judas’ pretentious care of those less fortunate. The story reminds us that we should not only care about those in need as matter of ethical “do goodery.” It reminds us that we need to spnd more time with Jesus, and that should lead us to sincerely want to help the poor to bring hope to the least and lost among us, but to serve the least, lost, and lonely -in the same way Mary sincerely served Jesus–extravagantly–and not in the hypocritical way Judas showed.

A blog I read stated, “It is often easier to love “humankind” or “the poor” or “the oppressed” in the abstract, than to show our love concretely for family who live under the same roof or friends who eat with us at the same table.” (4)  In our pursuit to do it all, be it all, and accomplish it all, on our own power and actions, we will forget to love those sitting in front of us, those who may be facing the most incredible challenges of their lives. Like Mary, we must be examples of our faith, and we must show others a faith that can overcome even the tragic, terrible loss, immense pain, and the grief of death itself.

A Glimpse of Resurrection

The same Mary said, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died” (11:32). Mary said these profound words that proclaimed her faith in the power of Christ’s presence in any moment. Mary, the woman in today’s story anointed Jesus with a year’s salary worth of burial oil as an act of faith, love, and devotion, made mere words real in action. Mary knew what Jerusalem held for the one she loved, but she also knew that “earthly death is insignificant wherever Christ appears.”(3)  Even when staring death in the face, Mary knew in her heart Jesus’ presence would overcome.   She believed in new life, in resurrection, and in the promises of God, that nothing comes between us and the love of God.   This story teaches us how we are supposed to live as disciples. It teaches to let go, to trust Jesus, to live in peace, so we might have the capacity to love not only those closest to us, but those who are beyond the bounds of our relational connections.  This story teaches us to look diligently every day for those little glimpses of resurrection in our lives.

I met with a young man the other day whose life was in utter chaos, and the future looked so bleak.  Despite his circumstances, he had hope that all would eventually work for the good.  He had hope that even if the worst might happen, he would be in the loving grace of God. My sisters and brothers that was a glimpse of resurrection and we all should be looking for those moments every day.  How can we see that happen?  If we pour out some extravagant, out of the norm love on those closest to us, and also those folks for whom we need to bring hope in the midst of their chaos, we will see the promises of new life possibilities emerging before us.

We need to silence that noisy Enjoli/Lincoln commercials that we are fed each day,  the recoding that calls us to into anxiety and depression.  We need to wake up each day and seek out new life emerging in our midst.  As the Apostle Paul encourages us, we need to “press on toward the real goal, for the real prize, which is the grace, peace, and joy we can only achieve, when we answer the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.”   Where do you think you might catch a glimpse of resurrection today, tomorrow, and in the weeks to come?

REFERENCES

(1) Michaels, J.Ramsey. “John 12:1-11.” Interpretation, vol. 43, no. 3, July 1989, pp. 287–291.

(2) Simmons, Elizabeth McGregor. “The Sense of the Text: An Invitation to Lenten Preaching.” Journal for Preachers, vol. 27, no. 2, Lent 2004, pp. 3–10.

(3) http://leftbehindandlovingit.blogspot.com/2013/03/the-sweet-smell-of-faithfulness.html

(4) https://twoodeh378.wordpress.com/2013/01/14/how-expensive-was-the-ointment-that-the-woman-poured-on-jesuss-head-and-what-made-it-so-valuable/

(5) https://www.apmex.com/spotprices/silver-price

 

Lent 5C

SERMON 3/31/19 Lent 4C St Monica’s Episcopal Church, Naples, FL

lent 4Joshua 5:9-12; Psalm 32; 2 Corinthians 5:16-21; Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32

Television Drama – Binge Watching

Have you ever noticed that the four television channels we all grew up with has changed to On Demand television, which allows us to watch whatever we want, whenever we want, for as long as we want.  “According to a survey done by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average American spends around 2.7 hours watching TV per day, which adds up to almost 20 hours per week in total.” (5) With Cheetos, Doritos, or popcorn in hand, we spend more time watching television than we do praying, reading scripture, spending time with friends, or gathering together in community for worship.  I have to admit I have been a binge watcher of certain dramas for some time, namely the Walking Dead, Downton Abbey, and now Breaking Bad. The writers of these stories exude creative genius through their complex character development, which seems to hook us into the lives of the key players.

We actually seem to identify with the characters in a show that we see ourselves in.” (5)  According to an NBC story we actually experience through these dramas, “’wishful identification,’ where plots and characters offer opportunity for fantasy and immersion in the world the viewer wishes they lived in.” (5)  “We get drawn into story lines, become attached to characters and truly care about outcomes of conflicts.” (5) Jesus had a knack for sharing a good story about the characters that represent us in many ways, and if we listen closely to the character development of his parables, like a good binge session of Downton Abbey, we may find ourselves in one of the characters in the story.

In today’s gospel reading we are witness to Jesus’ antagonists, the Pharisees and the scribes, who were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”  The folks who most often rejected Jesus’ teachings were pointing out to him in this little drama, where they thought our main character was falling short of prescribed cultural and religious expectations. The antagonists believed that God ostracized and detached from sinners, and abandons us to some place where grace is something strange and elusive.  Jesus the Hero of our story turns this misunderstanding on its head, and he does so by using a little familial drama, to show the religious leaders that God’s grace is abundant for all.

The Rest of the Drama

The plot begins when Jesus was accepting invitations of the social outcast to dine with him.  Back then, to eat at someone’s table meant you accepted them, you had a social connection with them, and that you were associated with them.   In other words, Jesus was identifying with sinners. “Not only is he blamed for eating with “sinners” — that is, at their invitation, but apparently for extending hospitality to them as well. Jesus thus behaves toward these outsiders, these unclean, contemptible persons of low status, as though they were acceptable, as though they were his own kin.” (3) That drove the religious folks absolutely batty, so Jesus counters their indignation with the story of a wasteful and reckless son, his older faithful but angry and jealous brother, and the father who showed immense love for both sons.

You know the story of the prodigal son, or as Webster’s defines him, the “profuse or wasteful expenditure; reckless spendthrift ” (1) son.  The story begins when the young lad asked for his inheritance early, and went and spent it on debaucherous living.  We need to know how sinful that act was in those times.  To ask for his inheritance while his father was still living, implied that as far as the young son was concerned, his father was as good as dead to him.  The young son left his father, his brother, and his whole identity behind and went off to live it up.

You know the rest of the story.  The young man comes to his senses, travels back home hoping to at least be a slave, but gets the greeting he never expected.  He confesses his sins to the father, but the father does not chastise or punish.  He throws a party for him!  All seems well in the drama except, the older son, the faithful one who stayed by dad’s side was jealous, angry, and hurt, and refused to go the party.  I imagine we would have been like that had we been in his shoes.  He never received a party, a big dinner, or even a thank you according to the story, but here Dad throws a big shindig for that “son of yours.”

Listen closely to the language of relationship you hear in this story and how the older brother, in an interesting way, falls into the same sinful trap of casting off relationships over sinful intentions.  The older brother, like the younger ,left the family himself and refused to participate in the festivities.  The father went to the older son to call him back to the celebration.  Listen to this, the older brother said, “this son of yours” and proceeds to names his brother’s sins with indignation.  He too walked away from the relationship and no longer acknowledged the younger as his brother.

The father though, says to him, “’Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.”  The gather reminds the lad of their family connection, how much he means to him, and his status in the household.  Then he says something we often overlook.  He reminds the older son of the family relationship that he too rejected, “this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.'”  The words “this brother of yours” seem subtle, but like the character development of any good drama, it is the subtleties that mean the most.  The older son rejected his younger brother through the words “this son of yours,” but the father reminds the older of his relationship to the younger through his phrase “this brother of yours.”  The father speaks reconciliation by reminding the sons of their relationship to one another. 

Relationships and Reconciliation

You see, reconciliation is not about sin and punishment. The work of reconciliation is about restoring relationships, healing divisions, and making a way for grace to become the glue that binds us together.  As Hulitt Gloer explains, “Reconciliation, belongs to the sphere of personal relationships, and ours is an age which is acutely aware of the alienation between people, which exists at every level. Ours is an age hungry for the healing of broken relationships.” (2)

Reconciliation happens not because of our own efforts, but because of the loving Father God who constantly reminds us every one, of our connection to one another, even when we are estranged.  God reminds us, “this brother of yours,” “this sister of your.” “It is God who acts to bring about this reconciliation.” (2)  It is through the work of reconciling love in Christ that the dramas of our lives are no longer played out on the big screen of competitive, judgmental, disingenuous, and “dog eat dog” relational estrangement.

Ambassadors in the story

If we are to be Christ-like, we must be like Christ, the father who welcomes home the lost, and then actively engages in the work of bringing us back together with those we have hurt or those who have been hurt by us, by those things we have done and left undone.  God never lets us alone to wander aimlessly in the estrangement we often create, but God makes righteousness (right relationships) possible. However, this reconciling work does not begin and end with just a “me and God” notion of reconciliation.

The Apostle Paul writes, “So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us.”  (Jesus) “has given us the ministry of reconciliation.”  We have known the loving embrace of the father that meets us on the road when we have strayed from the path.  We are the same ones that are called to go and meet those, with whom we are estranged.  In contrast to our television drama addiction, Christians must be at the work of binge reconciling, rampant self-giving, abundant loving, and copious compassion for all of God’s children.  We need to get hooked into the drama of reconciling relationships with others.

As Ambassadors of Christ, recipients of grace unmerited and underserved, we may need to leave the spiritual pigsties of relational estrangement, self-serving apathy, and the hurt feelings of disaffection towards others, and make our way back home to the Way of Jesus.  His work of reconciling love will continue in and through us, but if we do not respond, what then will be the outcome of the story? Theologian Karl Barth once said “if Jesus himself had not left the Father and traveled into the far country, to share a table with sinners, we would still be there, eating those pig pods.“ (4)

Who are you in the story

So, in our own binge watching relationship dramas of life, who are we most like, most of the time? Maybe we are the Hero father, who pours out grace unexpected, unearned, and unmerited on both sons. Maybe we are the prodigal one, who left his closest relationships, to live it up, but finally came home to find grace unexpected.  Maybe we are the older one, who refused to welcome back his closest relationship, in order to sulk in self-righteousness anger.  If we are honest, I imagine we have been and are, all three characters.  I know I have been.

I guess what we need today, in a world desirous of reconciliation and grace is a little more “wishful identification” with the characters in the drama of life around us and not on the television screen.  We need to get “drawn into the story lines of others, and become attached to characters (of our lives) and truly care about outcomes of conflicts, celebrations, and struggles.”

So, what will happen if we fail to become the ambassadors we are called by God to be?  Well, if we choose to not answer the call, we might as well sit in our comfortable recliners, remote in hand, eating popcorn, and binging on Episode 10 of Season 20 of the Kardashians.  If we fail to be the instruments through which God is making his appeal, we will merely be sideline observers of reconciliation and grace, lived out and experienced by others. We will miss the opportunity to actually participate in the best drama ever, the Kingdom of God, where grace calls us back home, and all along the way, we are commissioned and sent out, to bring somebody else back home along with us.

REFERENCES

(1) https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/prodigal

(2)  Gloer, Hulitt. “Ambassadors of Reconciliation: Paul’s Genius in Applying the Gospel in a Multi-Cultural World: 2 Corinthians 5:14-21.” Review & Expositor, vol. 104, no. 3, Sum 2007, pp. 589–601

(3) http://www.crossmarks.com/brian/luke15x1x10.htm

(4) Grieb, A.Katherine. “The Real Prodigal.” The Christian Century, vol. 121, no. 5, Mar. 2004, p. 21

(5) https://www.nbcnews.com/better/health/what-happens-your-brain-when-you-binge-watch-tv-series-ncna816991

SERMON 3-24-19 Lent 3C St. Monica’s Episcopal Church

Exodus 3:1-15; Psalm 63:1-8; 1 Corinthians 10:1-13; Luke 13:1-9

Figs Trees

“A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none.” I really never understood until later in life, the significance of the fig tree in scripture. The reason being is we did not have fig trees in East Tennessee when I was a kid. My first taste of fig was some mysterious sweet, tasty goo in the middle of a cake-like cookie substance, and packaged in a bright yellow Nabisco wrapper.  You remember, Fig Newtons those little sweet treats that sort of resembles the fig it contains.

Unfortunately, like the fig, we have turned so many things, including our relationships, into something that does not resemble the source from which they came. We often toss aside our key connections with people because of misunderstandings, failures to communicate, and a growing lack of empathy and compassion. It should not surprise us to find Jesus using the fig tree as a metaphor in his teachings, because it was a prolific ancient food source. Also, its abundant fruit represented the outward sign of a healthy tree, a tree whose life purpose was to provide nutrition and health for all it fed.

In scripture, the fig tree was a common symbol for Israel, whose fruit of righteousness would be the source of God’s grace for so many.  The fig tree to which Jesus referred, may also be we Christians, who have heard the gospel of Christ, and serve as witnesses of his grace.  Unfortunately, like the people of Israel whose purpose was to reflect God’s mission of reconciling love in the world, we toohave turned away from God.  We turn away from God, when we follow our own way, rather than the “Way of reconciling love.”  We all say we want to follow the Way of Jesus, we want to love one another, care for one another, and restore broken relationships, but we struggle with the hard work of repentance.

We all need to repent because we all have missed the mark.  We all have hurt one another.  We all have and will fail one another.  Yes, we all are sinners, but God is the God of mercy and not vengeance.  God is calling us back into loving relationship, but   we forget that, and some even believe that the tragedies, failures, and suffering of this life are judgments put upon us by a vengeful God, who seeks to pay us back for our sin, but that is not the character of Jesus Christ.

Sin and Circumstances

This misconception that God creates tragic circumstances to punish us for our failures may come from “certain strands of the Old Testament wisdom traditions (that) seem to assume that suffering and death are the result of sin, whereas righteousness results in life and peace.” (2)  Jesus turns the tables on this idea when he in today’s reading, he responded to the crowd who thought “the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices,” and the story of the“eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them” suffered, because they were great sinners.

Jesus said, “ I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.”  In other words, we cannotconclude that God doles out sin speeding tickets when we exceed the limits of God’s relational traffic laws. Stuff in life just happens and most of it is beyond our control, and none of it is a result of God’s judgment and punishment on us. Therefore, the practice of repentance is not something we do to avoid a punishment we expect from God.  Repentance is how we respond and accept God’s grace, when we have decided it is no longer important or necessary.  We are called to be at peace with God and with one another, not out of fear, but because love awaits the sinner who comes back to God.

God does not turn from us

Some of us misunderstand what repentance really means. I used to think that repentance was merely a God apology I say, and then I could move on to life as normal.  Repentance is much more than a rote weekly apology to God for “those things done and left undone.”   Wikipedia defines repentance as “the activity of reviewing one’s actions and feeling regret for past wrongs, (and here is the key) which is accompanied by commitment to change for the better.” Repentance is changing.  “Repentance is …  the act of constantly turning to Christ” (1) and trusting in him as much has he trusts in us.

When our faith seems so distant, when we feel like we have lost touch with God, it is we who must turn back to God, because God never turns away from us.  We always are the ones who walk away from God, and from one another.  Because of the circumstances of life, we may feel abandoned by God, but God never really forsakes us.  God is the father, who is like the father of the prodigal son.  That son whose own personal desires drove him to abandon his relationship with his father and brother and go off and live it up.  One day the young man came to his senses and found himself in the pigsty, and decided to come back to the family hoping to at least be a slave.  His father saw him approach, and ran to him and embraced him.

His loving parent did not chastise the prodigal one, nor did he condemn him for his sinful ways, but rather he embraced the boy and restored him to wholeness in the family.   The young man found the forgiveness available to him all along, even on the day he left his family behind.  Nonetheless, the young man had to repent or rather, return, or more clearly, he had come back home to experience the grace available to him all along.  Returning is the fruit of God’s grace enacted in us, through the healing and restoration of broken relationships, which causes that fruit to be born in us.

The God of Second, Third, and Unlimited Chances

Jesus said of the non-bearing fig tree, “Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.'”  Jesus’ parable of the fig tree reminds us of God’s unlimited grace, but do we offer that same grace to others? Too often people fail us and we are ready to write them off.  We are disappointed by others sins and letdowns (especially if it is we clergy) and so, we want to end the relationship and move on.  Maybe we are too quick to decide to chop down the non-fruit bearing relationships, which are taking up the valuable emotional soil in our lives. A friend overlooks your contributions to their project, you no longer feel valued by someone, you are hurt because the other person has been distracted by their own stuff, or maybe you had higher expectations of that person, which they could never live into. So, we cut the roots of the relational connection and walk away, but God teaches us another way.

Jesus says, “Hold off with that axe.” “Give them some more time.” he states.  “Let me add some grace fertilizer to the soil of those relationships, and see what some time will do,” Jesus reassures us.  Author Emily Freeman wrote, “God believes in second chances and even third chances. “He believes in moving past the mistake. He believes in helping us to become who he knows we can become.”   God does not abandon us, but rather, God tends the soil of our relational lives, even when we would rather just let them wither and die. God is the cultivator of reconciling relationships, and God requires that become reconcilers as well.

 God is with us, God has faith in us

God wants to set his people free from the bondage of our choices that often sever relationships with God and with each other. Like our brother Moses, God calls us to partner with him in that work of reconciling love, but we sometimes refuse or make excuses. Like Moses, when God calls us to return to the Way we may say, “What if they do not believe me or listen.” Maybe we just fail to realize that we have a part in the circumstances of the broken relationship.

This whole following Jesus thing is not about being in control of your life because you are not, but it has so much more to do with being vulnerable and open and willing to be changed by God. Jesus is always waiting for us to return, and with infinite patience, he wants us to return to one another, even when we are afraid of the change that reconciliation might create.

So, the heart of story of the fig tree is this, “Jesus is not seeking out a chance to cut us off at our knees when we turn away from him, when we are afraid because we are out of control, or when we sever a tie with someone.  God is always making a way back home, by giving us opportunities to come back to love and mercy and grace, and for all us, to invite each other back into relationship with one another.

All of us need to take a long hard look in the mirror and rather than beating ourselves up for our sin, or beating each other up when we fail one another, we need to be reconcilers that turn back to relationships of trust and love. God is the God of infinite chances, but our struggle is not with God, it is often ourself.  We have to ask ourselves whether, “we can be people of infinite chances for one another.”

Reconciling love begins with our own repentance, which is letting go of the self delusions of being right, and accepting the truth that we all need God’s grace.  If we do that, we can bear some delightful fruit in our relationships with God and with one another.  Repentance is not some guilt-laden task we do just during Lent.  It can be a daily treat, or a spiritual Fig Newton, with its life-giving, ooey gooey, rich and chewy delicious fruit of forgiveness, mercy, and grace, all sandwiched between a golden flakey tender cakey outsideof God’s mission of reconciling love.

REFERENCES

  1. http://www.lectionarystudies.com/studyg/lent3ceg.html
  2. http://www.crivoice.org/lectionary/YearC/Clent3nt.html
  3. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Repentance
  4. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Common_fig
  5. https://www.goodreads.com/author/quotes/162578.Bren_Brown

SERMON 3/16/19 Lent 2C St. Monica’s Episcopal Church

Lent 2 Revised

Genesis 15:1-12,17-18; Psalm 27; Philippians 3:17-4:1; Luke 13:31-35

Political Cartoons

I still remember that first Sunday coffee hour in my first parish after seminary, where a distinguished gentleman came up to me and said, “Fr. Eric, I hope you will not preach politics in the church.” I thought what he really meant to say was “Fr. Eric, please do not preach any sermons that come in conflict with my own political affiliation.”  The problem for any preacher today is that political ideas of all appetites infuse our every day lives, and we are inundated with their messages 24/7.

There was a time when news organizations set aside only a small section of the paper for partisan stories.  I remember when commentators expressed alternative ideas about what was going on in the world through political cartoons that served as artistic vehicles characterized by metaphorical and satirical language.  Today satire has taken a back seat and all bets are off for and all sides engage in direct and public conflict with their opponents.

Policymaking, policymakers, and the interactions between them are no longer motivated by common values, but now focus on personal attacks and undermining their opponents’ standing.  In the aftermath, we are becoming less of “One Nation under God” and more of a loose affiliation of partisan tribes of ideology and power, led by the leadership on all sides of the civil conversation.  None of this is really anything new in the history of human civilization.

 The Politics of Jesus

In today’s gospel reading, the Pharisees (political allies of the local tetrarch King Herod) brought a targeted message to Jesus as he approached Jerusalem the seat of political power in that area of the world. Trying to instill partisan fear in their opponent, the Pharisees said, “Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.” Some scholars assert, knowing the characterizations of the Pharisees throughout the gospels that they were really not trying to warn Jesus, in order to help his cause.  Jesus probably understood their partisan motivation, and he responded with his own rebuttle, “Go and tell that fox for me ….”  The Pharisees took a policy jab at Jesus, and he in turn responded with a warning to Herod, calling him a fox, or a “sly and crafty man.”

If there was a newspaper cartoon characterization of this partisan standoff between these first century challengers, the artist may have portrayed Jesus as a He-Man, WrestleMania-like character returning the threat of Herod, for another threat in kind, but that was not what was going on in the story.  Jesus was being really clear about his mission, his purpose, and the fact that nothing would stand in the way of God’s Kingdom, not even a little policy spat with the local government official.

 God’s Kingdom vs. Worldly Kingdoms

The mortal threat for Christians in the first century Roman Empire was real and it was a life-threatening proposition.. Dan Clendenin explains, “By confessing Jesus as Lord, they rejected Caesar as king. Loyalty to Christ the king was absolute and unconditional, whereas fidelity to the Roman state was relative and conditional.”(2) Believe it or not, we are so divided in our nation today that for we 21stcentury Christians, following the Way of Jesus may come with is own set of risks; our friendships and family connections.  Some of us believe that the Way of Jesus (the way of mercy, grace, peace, reconciliation, and service) becomes secondary to our partisan ideologies, and often we try and mold the gospel message to fit our own partisan proclivities.

We all need to use caution with that approach to being a disciple. Paul reminds us “in the epistle this week that Jesus gave us a “pattern” and “example” to follow, namely, that of “our citizenship is in heaven;” our first allegiance is always to God.  Imagine how things would be today, if the Way of Jesus formed our core platforms for all the policies, programs, and initiatives for all the problems and opportunities we all face.  Following the way of Jesus for Christians today is not so much about trying to fit our faith into a political ideology that pits one side against another on particular issues. Following the Way of Jesus means we literally set differences aside so we might embrace, emulate, and carry on the way Jesus ministered, served, and became self-giving love.  Christians must Jesus to form how we live, how we love, and how we advocate for others, and yes, maybe even how we participate in civil society.

Jesus warned the Pharisees, “Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work.” Jesus was really clear about his mission, where he was headed, and what he was teaching his disciples to do. Healing and deliverance are the central aspects of Jesus’ mission and daily work, and it is the central aspect of our mission as the church and as individual disciples. We Christians must be about the ministry of reconciliation, because our baptismal promises demand that we, “seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself” and “striving for justice and peace among all people, and respecting the dignity of every human being.” I would even add that we do those things even for the ones we do not like, and the ones with whom we have political differences.

 The Fox

The parishioner from my first parish call, who wanted to keep politics out of the pulpit I believe failed to realize that even Jesus’ message came in conflict with the political powers of the world.  Clendenin asserts, “A simple but important point — there was a deep antagonism between Jesus and the political powers of his day and thus the sharp response by Jesus, “go tell that fox I will do what I do.” (2)

Further, Jesus also said, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it!” Jerusalem was the seat of power for that little section of the Empire, and it had a history of quieting (or killing) those opponents who called the city to repentance and change. Throughout the biblical narrative, God’s people have always had to decide between following God’s way, or following the way of their own human desires.

Paul wrote, “But our citizenship is in heaven, and it is from there that we are expecting a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.”  The dilemma we Christians face is whether we think our principles define what the gospel says, or does the gospel define what our principles should be. Clendenin explains, “The Jesus of the gospels proposes no political program, but instead something far more strenuous, something “scary, dark and demanding.” No state or political party can indulge in the self-sacrifice that Jesus demands when he calls us to lovingly serve the least and the lost.” (2)  The Way of the Cross proclaims to us that our relationship with God and with each other (a relationship of reconciled love) is much more important than any ideology, policy, or program that we might support and thus, the church becomes a lighthouse of hope for folks moving away from one another over differing ideas, and can do so so under One Lord, One Faith, and One baptism.

 Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.

Jesus said, “How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!”  This caricature of Jesus ‘mission as a mother hen caring for her chicks, stands in juxtaposition to the cartoon image of the WWE wrestler political opponent who came to thwart the power of a local king bent on killing him. David Lose writes, “Jesus employs a feminine image for himself and, to the degree that we confess Jesus reveals his essential character and disposition.” (5)  Jesus was not a political antagonist to Herod who wanted to upend the political system of the day.  Jesus longs to bring us (all of us) lovingly and gently into his arms of reconciling love, regardless of where we stand on the issues of the day. Despite those loving arms calling us all together, it is harder to follow Jesus today, because choosing the naturalization journey to Divine Kingdom citizenship comes with a great cost.

Lent gives some space in the year to intentionally focus on growing in Christ. Lent can be a time to break down walls and come together through Christ, and with Christ, and in Christ.   We should try a new Lenten discipline this year, and seek out, with an open and compassionate ear, those family members, friends, and colleagues with whom we have differing ideas and create some space for conversation.  It would be a challenge, but it could be a blessing to gather with our own opinionated friends and intentionally read some scripture and study together, and to explore together, where Jesus stood on all the issues of this life, and on the many struggles we all face every single day.

Could you imagine if we tried just that one little practice for a few weeks what might happen. I wonder, if we could all be changed, and would we together, agree to choose the way of justice, peace, love, mercy, reconciliation, respect, self-giving love, and mutual service. In a time when dividing political commentary seems to be the norm, a good stump speech (or sermon) on a mountain or plain on the subject of reconciling love, sure sounds like what Jesus might preach if he were seeking our partisan allegiance, but wait, he is.

REFERENCES

(1) http://leftbehindandlovingit.blogspot.com/2013/02/from-threat-to-lament.html

(2) https://www.journeywithjesus.net/essays/833-herod-wants-to-kill-you

(3) https://politicaltheology.com/the-politics-of-the-dangerous-city-luke-1331-35/

(4) http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2770

(5) http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=2460

SERMON 3-10-19 Lent 1C St. Monica’s Episcopal Church

Deuteronomy 26:1-11; Psalm 91:1-2, 9-16; Romans 10:8b-13; Luke 4:1-13

Survival Shows

In the last few years, there has emerged a whole new genre of television shows on the Discovery and Science Channel. A series called Man, Woman, Wild was about a married couple (one, a Special Forces operative, the other a journalist) who teamed up to face the wildernesses of jungle, tundra, and desert. Another great series is called Dual Survival that pairs a naturalist skilled in Aboriginal living skills and a U.S. Special Forces operative, and they are dropped into some very difficult, wild places and forced to survive off the land.

My favorite survival series is called Survivorman,” which stars naturalist Les Stroud, who is not a Special Forces operative, nor aboriginal expert, nor is he specially trained survivalist. Stroud is a regular guy each week he goes up against some of the most difficult survival wildernesses known. The most interesting part of this show is that Stroud is always alone: no camera crew, no backup plan, just himself, a few cameras, and the elements.

Stroud is a self-assured and independent kind of guy, and despite his skills and rugged individualism, things do not always go his way. His show is the “real deal” because sometimes he fails at surviving, and he does so at his own peril. Christian discipleship in the 21st century can often seem like a survival television series. In this journey of discipleship, we think we are like Stroud, out there all alone in the spiritual elements, trying to rely on our self assured, rugged individualist, attitude. Sometimes as Christians we fall short, and just crash and burn because we try and do it all alone. I have even heard people say, “I really do not need to go to church to be a good person do I.” Jesus was all alone in the desert trying to survive the temptations many of us face, but by his example and faithfulness, he taught us something we could never learn watching a television survivor shows.

Ultimate Survivor Showdown

Listening to today’s gospel reading, can you picture Jesus’ wondering around for 40 days in the desert like “Survivorman.” He was out there in the arid climate with no disciples around, no camera crew catching his every word, no knapsack filled with energy bars and no magnesium flint fire starter. It was just Jesus, the elements, and the temptations that often come in the weakened state of hunger, fear, and being left to the elements, of our own character.

Scripture tells us, “Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit.” From the baptism in the Jordon, from the voice from heaven declaring, “You are my Son, with you I am well pleased,” Jesus was led into a desert place and at his weakest, a situation in which, he was deprived of sustenance, he was without the aid and protection of others. There in that condition, Jesus engaged directly with all that the “oppressor” could bring upon him..

Jesus faced the same challenges we face, when it comes to the choices we have with the freedom we carry. This freedom gives us the option to choose an easy path of discipleship; a more fulfilling road, a more self-comforting option. We also have another choice, which is the one that will test our faithfulness, our character, and our metal. Let me give you an example. Three times, the devil said to Jesus, “If you are the Son of God.” Jesus was being challenged with the truth of who he was in the wilderness. If you are this, then test God by doing this. Our temptations in life come when we face the uncertainty of who we are and whose we are.

Maybe we face the temptations to cheat a little on a work project, talk about a sister or brother behind their back, plot to undermine someone, or scheme to get our way, and at those moments we must ask, “As a follower of Jesus, how do I respond?” Jesus knew what it is like to be human, because he was both divine and human. It was there in the weakened state of temptation that he showed us how to face those desert moments faithfully, by understanding whose we are and who we are. We find the strength to survive the trials, when we surrender and become reliant on God, knowing the Holy Spirit is with us, and we are never really alone. In those moments of temptation, we must trust thatGod is not trying to trip us up.

Tripped Up

Some of our brothers and sisters in the faith believe that being a Christian is like a survival showdown. They believe our hardships, uncertainties, doubts, and tragedies come to us so from God, so we might be tested and tried by God, all to experiment whether we are faithful enough and worthy enough. Remember, it was Satan who was tempting Jesus in the desert, trying to trip him up.

Maybe we get the idea that it is God trying test our metal, from the story of Job. That story seems like a showdown between God, and Satan trying to see whether Job will succumb to the test. Satan fails with him as well. Maybe we get the idea God is trying to trip us up, from that part in the Lord’s Prayer, that states, “And lead us not into temptation,” as if God would lead us to sin. Franciscan priest and monk Fr. Richard Rohr asserts that this phrase in the Lord’s Prayer, and the whole notion of God’s test is really about who we are and whose we are. Rhor asserts that it means, ‘Lead us away from any illusions about ourselves.” 2 In other words, God would never tempt us to sin, God wants us to learn that we are God’s children and to reject any other identity we might desire.

Like Jesus, in our deserts, we seem to find ourselves in a weakened state of a deception that in this life, we are able to rely on our own spiritual survival skills—that somehow, we are capable alone, to deal with the wilderness temptations of our own freedom. The truth is that as Christians, we face spiritual survival, fueled by the freedom to follow the illusions of ours own grandeur. In other words, we are deceived into believing that we can survive this life without God.

Surviving those spiritual caverns of self-assurance, those thick jungles of rugged independence, and that frozen tundra of a “git-er-done” attitude, will require us to accept that in all things, we must rely on God and not on ourselves. When we embark on this journey of faith, what we have to bring along with us will never fit into a backpack, but is carried in our hearts and souls. That survival skill training happens when we spend time each day with God, especially in those desert places.

Lenten Survival

Lent, is a forty-day wilderness journey, in which we like Jesus have the opportunity to face head on, our own human frailties. Lent reminds us, “what it is like to live by the grace of God alone and not by what we can supply for ourselves.”1 Lent is like the ultimate spiritual survival series, because it is intentional time to follow a spiritual discipline. “Giving up” or “taking on” during Lent is virtuous, and I commend wholeheartedly a discipline of self denial or spiritual practice, however, these things alone do not a wilderness journey of spiritual growth make.

You can prepare for this rugged spiritual mission by transforming your minds and hearts. You can ask God to go with you into deep valleys of your need for God’s grace. In the next few weeks, I encourage you to trod through those unexplored caverns, thick jungles, and frozen tundra of your very soul. Explore the depths of those never seen crevices, those illusions of character, and those places where the fear of our own vulnerability lie.

Desert Places

Commit to a practice of daily scripture reading: poke around in the psalms or Old Testament, take a hike in one of the gospels, or wander around in one of Paul’s letters. Take a leisurely stroll with God in prayer by committing to a few minutes a day to quiet your spirit with God. Invite God’s Spirit into your present moment, and seek God’s movement in your life. Share that experience with another sister or brother in Christ. You can also attend our Thursday night “Soup and Study” where we will do just these things together.

If we are going to be intentional about entering the desert places with God, we have to remember that God is more than merely a guide. God is our survival partner from whom we obtain our strength, sustenance, and wisdom in our weakened and vulnerable places. In God, we find out who we truly are because with God beside us, we release the illusions of our own self-reliance.

I have to warn you though as you embark on this sojourn in the deserts of the soul, it will be tempting as the days of Lent wonder on, to cast it all aside for an easier path. You may want to grab the remote control and turn off the survival show, because it is much easier and less treacherous to just watch a more relaxing movie on the Hallmark channel. Please for this Lent, stay in the desert awhile. It may not be easy, it may become uncomfortable, it may even be treacherous, but if you truly rely on God to lead you, and if you let go of the illusion that you can do it all alone, then I promise you this, you will survive Lent and maybe survive the temptations of our own delusions of our own self-reliance. Remember, the Psalmist promises, “You will live in the shelter of the Most High, and abide in the shadow of the Almighty, and you will say to the Lord, “(you are) My refuge and my fortress; my God, in whom I trust.” Trust God, and go take a walk in the desert this Lent.

1 Taylor, Barbara Brown. “Settling For Less.” Christian Century 115.5 (1998): 169-318. ATLASerials, Religion Collection. Web. 14 Feb. 2013.

2 http://richardrohr.wordpress.com/2012/06/17/lead-us-not-into-temptation/

SERMON 2-24-19 Epiphany 7C St Monica’s Naples, FL

Genesis 45:3-11, 15; Psalm 37:1-12, 41-42; 1 Corinthians 15:35-38,42-50; Luke 6:27-38

Enemies

Many of us grew up on Saturday mornings watching awesome cartoons like the “Bugs Bunny Roadrunner Hour” and “Tom and Jerry.” I loved how Elmer, Sylvester, Wile E Coyote and Tom the Cat tried endlessly to get one over on Bugs, Tweety Bird, the Roadrunner and Jerry the mouse. It was entertaining to see these characters interact with one another, sometimes teaching us about “good and evil,” “right and wrong,” or maybe we just needed to see something different displayed in living color. Maybe what really entertained us were some misguided lessons about how we treat people with whom, we are in conflict, or how we interact with people we sometimes call our adversaries.

Behavior between adversaries often looks like when someone does you wrong, and you retaliate. That would be like when Wile E Coyote dropped an anvil on that poor Roadrunner, and the whole thing backfired and the Coyote suffered a flattening experience. That would be like when Sylvester climbed up on a stool to snatch the little Tweety Bird from his cage, but the Cat stumbled and fell and suffered the consequences of his ill-gotten gains.

People can often behave this way, out of our own animalistic natures. Charles Darwin called this self-preservation, the “Survival of the Fittest.” We are inclined to improve our own individual standing, to get what we need/want/desire, all at the expense of the well being of the other.

In today’s gospel reading, Jesus describes how we can revert to our natural tendencies through violent acts, hatred, and emotional/mental abuse (curses) inflicted upon others. We are more than mere cartoon characters, and are we more than mere animals trying to get to the top of the food chain.

Christians believe that we are beloved creatures of God created out of love, for the purpose of love. Jesus says that we should be defined, not by how we love in response to those who reciprocate love to us, but how we love, even those who might do us harm. That is a very difficult kind of love for most of us. It rubs up against what our culture tells us about being on top,and living the “dog eat dog” world of competition and success.

Cartoons Redux

Jesus said, “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same.” “Expect nothing in return.” Could you imagine what lessons we might have learned as children, if Bugs, Tweety Bird, Roadrunner, and Jerry the Mouse, turned the other cheek, and loved their enemies Elmer Fudd, Sylvester the Cat, Wile E Coyote, and Tom the Cat the way they wanted to be loved; or did they?

To love one’s enemies is as counter-cultural today as it was in the violent and oppressive times of the first century Roman Empire, but Jesus teaches us a new way of loving one another. He says to pray for others, return violence with non-violence, and give more, when people desire to take away what little we have. How many of us really want to do these things? But if we were to really follow Jesus’ teachings about loving enemies, we could literally shift power away from the oppressor, and toward the oppressed.

We can literally thwart the evil imposed by oppressors without resorting to retaliation, but that change does not begin with changing the mind of the oppressor, it begins with changing the oppressed. When we change ourselves and refuse to retaliate, then the bully’s power is spoiled.

Gary Simpson wrote about Martin Luther King, Jr.’s non-violent protest against racism in the U.S. in the 1960’s. He wrote, “Loving one’s enemies begins by confronting the hate response in the soul of the one oppressed.”(2) Simpson elaborates, “Nonviolent direct action seeks reconciliation, not the defeat of an adversary.” (2) He adds, “Nonviolent direct action is directed at removing evil forces, not at destroying persons who perpetrate evil deeds.” (2)

We can bring the unquenchable power of love through peaceful resolve, holy strength in responsive love, and spiritual life change in the midst of the actions of misguided cartoon behavior, and we do so when we name the behavior and call others to account, in love.

In other words, when we “bless those who curse, pray for those who hurt, give to those who take, and do unto others as we would have them do unto to us,” we change the circumstances, or rather God changes them.

Listen closely, Jesus is not suggesting we roll over and be a good victim if someone is abusing us, and he is not calling us to some perfect utopian society where we all walk around with fake smiles and happy clappy attitudes, and just let others continue their evil ways.

Kingdom come

Let me give you an example. Have you ever met folks in church who just put on a fake Christian face on Sunday mornings, then act differently throughout the week? Honestly, I have been a little guilty of that cartoon behavior myself. You do know that we all don’t always get along perfectly in church, and if we did, I would be very concerned, and wonder about the authenticity of our community.

Webster defines conflict as, “the opposition of persons or forces that gives rise to dramatic action.” Church conflict is not unusual and it is not really a bad thing. Most of us arrived at church this morning because of the conflicting forces between the rubber on our car tires, and the heat and rigidity of the asphalt pavement we drove on.

Conflict is a natural, necessary occurrence because it makes change happen and it moves us forward. Conflict elicits new ideas, initiatives, growth, and change. However, conflict can be destructive depending on how we Christians deal with it. Unhealthy conflict results in anvils being dropped on heads, the making of an emotional meal of the innocent (like Tweety Bird), or going on a character assault hunting expedition (like Elmer Fudd) chasing a wabbit who is just trying to enjoy a good carrot. . The healthy way of dealing with conflict, disagreements, little spats, and our own personal wants and desires can be found in the teachings of our Lord, and the example of loving others (even enemies) found in the narratives of the lives of his many sainted followers through the centuries.

Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, “Our goal is to create a beloved community and this will require a qualitative change in our souls as well as a quantitative change in our lives.” We the church must show the world the possibility of “Beloved Community.” We Jesus followers must work in partnership with God, to make God’s Kingdom present now, and we can do that by how we love one another.

Cartoons or Church

So, “How are we doing?” When we do not like a sister or brother in church, do we avoid them or refuse to talk to them? Do we gossip and undermine a sister or brother behind their backs? Do we refuse to reconcile with a sister or brother who may have slighted us, or spoke badly of us, or hurt us in some way? Do we have an unhealthy self-serving agenda, and do we use tactics and strategies to get our own way regardless of who gets hurt? We must always ask if we are really following Jesus, who teaches a way of being beloved community that stands in direct conflict with our very human nature.

Jesus calls us to a mutual vulnerability that can only be actuated and manifested by love as Jesus demonstrated during his trial and beatings, and later on that cross on Calvary. Jesus suffered at the hands of his enemies. They spat on him, beat him, slapped him, and then nailed him to a tree and he died, but love overcame even death. Jesus did not return violence for violence, nor did he direct vile name calling at those who rejected him and called him a Blasphemer. Jesus said to those who killed him, “Forgive them Father, for they know not what they do.”

Life in this beloved community must be different from how we may have and may often still do live,out there in our every day worlds. Church is not a Tom and Jerry, Roadrunner/Bugs Bunny, Tweety and Sylvester cartoon hour on Sundays, or any other day of the week. Church is community in which we struggle every day to do the hard work of trying to love as Jesus loves.

How do we do it? We follow the one who commanded us to “Love, do good, bless, and pray” for those, whom we may call our enemies, but with God’s help maybe in time, we will be able to call them our sisters and brothers in Christ. So, give up that old “tit for tat,” “competition,” and “survival of the fittest,” way of life. Rather, in the words of one of my favorite cartoon characters Bugs Bunny, just simply love one another and “that’s All Folks.”

REFERENCES

(1) Carter, Warren. “Love Your Enemies.” Word & World, vol. 28, no. 1, Wint 2008, pp. 13–21

(2) Simpson, Gary M. “‘Changing the Face of the Enemy’: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Beloved Community.” Word & World, vol. 28, no. 1, Wint 2008, pp. 57–65. 

(3)https://www.episcopalchurch.org/files/becoming_beloved_community_summary_0.pdf

SERMON 2/17/19 Epiphany 6C St. Monica’s Episcopal Church

blessedBecause I’m Happy   

On my IPhone, I have a special playlist, which I listen to mainly when I need a lift, when I need to feel good, or when I am a little blue.  The first tune on that playlist is Pharell William’s song, “Happy.”  It is the theme song from one of my favorite cartoon movies, “Despicable Me,” you know the one with those cute little yellow Minions with goggles for eyes. “Happy” is a simple, bubbly tune, and the chorus goes like this, “Because I’m happy, clap along if you feel like a room without a roof. Because I’m happy, clap along if you feel like happiness is the truth.  Clap along if you know what happiness is to you. Because I’m happy, clap along if you feel like that’s what you wanna do.” I love this song because Williams describes happiness as not merely as a fleeting emotion. He describes happiness as an attitude, which is the kind of happiness we hear about today in John’s gospel.

Jesus is with a crowd of followers on the plain and he preaches a sermon in which he says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven,” “Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled,” and “Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.”  The Greek word for“ Blessed” is most often translated as “happy.”  Jesus is preaching about happiness, but he is not talking about the personal happiness that seems to be the prime motivator for advertisers today. We are bombarded with offers and ads that guarantee happiness through material acquisition.

For example, I saw a Facebook ad the other day from Lens Crafters that guaranteed me that their eyeglasses will make me happy, or I could get my money back. Coca Cola claims that if you drink their product, happiness is surely yours.  You know, “have a Coke and a smile.”  Happiness is more than having the right house, the bossy sports car, hip new clothes, and the perfect Pantene hair products.  This kind happiness is not what Jesus is teaching the crowd about in today’s gospel, for these things offer only a temporary satisfaction, they do not bring about lasting joy, found only in the reality of the present and future hope we find only in Christ.

Happy are the Suburbanites???

In his “Sermon on the Plain,” Jesus taught, “Happy are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven,”  “happy are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled,” and “happy are you who weep now, for you will laugh.”  Jesus reframes our ideas about what is important in life, and redefines the situation and attitude we need, in order to discover real and lasting joy. The Christian journey is life lived out-of-sync with the world, and Jesus’ sermon affirms that and contradicts our consumerism-based pursuit of happiness.

Our culture would have us believe, “Happy are the poor and hungry when they can get a good job and buy a house in the suburbs, lease a new car, and build up a 401K.”  We all know that even when we attain those material symbols of happiness, we may find ourselves depressed, empty, and discontented.   Some folks have everything and still ask, “when is enough, enough?”  “Things” will not fill the spiritual destitution with which, many Americans struggle, but Jesus gives us the hope we can have joy found in him alone.

Theologian William Burghardt once wrote, “I discover (Christ) in my own insufficiency, when, dissatisfied with myself, I find the power to go beyond myself, and I know that the Power is Another.”(3)  In other words, our real joy is found in the grace, love, and peace we have in Christ, and not in something else or even our own selves.  Christian joy (happiness) manifests itself in the constant discovery of the grace of Christ poured out for us, and in all of life’s circumstances.

Joy, Happiness, Peace in the Storms

We can have joy right now, because Christian joy is not just some future reversal of all that is wrong in the world. It is a present reality. In my nine years of ordained ministry, I have witnessed the tangible evidence of real Christian joy in the lives of others.  In my first parish, I sat at the bedside of one of my parishioners who was facing her own imminent death.   I asked her the question, “Why are you so joyful?”  She proceeded to tell me about the life she lived, the peace she shared, the struggles she endured, and the hope she had in God’s promises.  Even when facing the end of her earthly journey, joy and peace abounded in her eyes. My dear friend and parishioner’s joy came not from the material things that surrounded her, but from a life she lived in faith, in steadfastness, and in peace in Christ.

Theologian George Thomas asserts,  “Joy brings with it a feeling of contentment and confidence, which can take us through a storm in our life-journey. Happiness is not present when we are in the midst of a storm; it just vanishes.” (5)  I believe that is why those who are poor in spirit, hungry, and weeping know real joy, because we all travel the journey of laughter and tears, with its ups and downs, but in all those moments, we find real joy in Christ, and the promises of Kingdom come.

The promise of the joy of God’s Kingdom comes when we discover the things of true value, those things sometimes lost but with God’s help found.  Do you remember Jesus’ parables of the woman who lost a solitary coin and the shepherd who lost a solitary sheep, and then both found their lost items, and then rejoiced with her friends?  The real joy of these folks in the parables is not when they reacquired their lost stuff. The recovery is a metaphor of the moment when they discovered their path back into relationship with Christ. Jesus explained, “there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.” Real joy (or happiness or blessedness) is found in our lives lived “Through Christ, and With Christ and In Christ”, and that my friends is Good News; good news we must share.

Happy are those who share happiness

Joy is something we do not hold onto, but something we share. However, we cannot just walk around as happy clappy Christians saying, “ I got my Jesus this week and all is well.” We cannot just sing, “Because I’m happy clap along if you feel like a room without a roof,” and who cares about anyone else.  Jesus warns us, “Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry.  “Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep.  “Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.” Jesus warns us about just being content with self-consumed happiness, which has no purpose or mission beyond ourselves.

The church is not called merely to have an attitude of mercy, but we are called to exhibit concrete acts of mercy towards others.  The church is not called to remain merely spiritually pure, but we must devote our lives to join in Christ’s mission to relieve the circumstances of the poor, downtrodden, and lonely. The church is not called to merely be at peace with each other within our four walls, but we must devote ourselves to the work of reconciliation, both within the walls, and in the world around us.

Moreover, Jesus is not calling us merely to some future utopia, where the rich are poor and poor are rich, where the hungry are fed and the fed are hungry, or even where those who weep will laugh and those who laugh will weep.  Jesus calls his church to turn upside down the spiritual poverty, hunger, and sorrow of our sisters and brothers found right here beside us, and then do the same for our neighbors out there around us.

God declares his people to be blessed, to be joyful, to be happy.  The community that hears itself so called, so pronounced as blessed, can thus act in accord with God’s coming Kingdom because for us, it is God’s Kingdom come right now. The community that hears itself so-called will be able to answer with no hesitation, a very important question if ever we are ever asked, “Why are you so joyful?”  If we are truly blessed, then with God’s help, we will always and every day sing, “Because we’re joyful, (won’t you) clap along if you feel like a room without a roof. Because we’re joyful, (won’t you) clap along if you feel like God’s grace is the truth. Because we’re joyful, (won’t you) clap along if you know what joyfulness is to you. Because we’re joyful, (won’t you) clap along if you feel like joy, peace, love, mercy, and reconciliation is really what we wanna do.”

REFERENCES

(1) Willimon, William H. “Damn Preacher.” The Christian Century, vol. 121, no. 3, Feb. 2004, p. 18

(2) Ellenwood, Lee K. “Face to Face with the Living God: Reflections on the Lectionary Readings for February.” The Living Pulpit, vol. 16, no. 1, Jan. 2007, pp. 34–36.

(3) Burghardt, William, S.J., “Gospel Joy, Christian Joy,” The Living Pulpit, 1996. (see Joy issue focus of The Living Pulpit 5.4, 1996.)

(4)  http://wwwstaff.murdoch.edu.au/~loader/LkEpiphany6.htm

(5) http://www.tvaerkulturelt-center.dk/index.php/docman-dokumenter/information/298-the-theology-of-joy-george-thomas/file