SERMON 6/23/19 Proper 7 Pentecost 2C St. Monica’s Episcopal Church

gerasenesIsaiah 65:1-9; Psalm 22:18-27; Galatians 3:23-29; Luke 8:26-39

INTRODUCTION

Today’s gospel reading on the surface may seem like another simple encounter with Jesus. However, there is a lot more going on in this story. There is a man possessed by demons, the fear and anxiety of a village, a miraculous exorcism or healing, a porcine (or swine-like) tragedy, and the mission call of the one who was healed. Deeply embedded in this story however, if we listen closely, we may find we too need healing, we may experience renewed healing, and we may discover our true calling as Christians.

First, there was a man possessed by some force within (and/or without him), which caused him to behave in ways outside the norms of society. He was afflicted, as Scripture tells us, by Demonic possession, which has perplexed many scholars over the centuries. Some have said, “Demon possession was the first century equivalent of mental illness, and the person who was possessed by many demons was severely mentally ill.” (2) The demoniac was someone who needed to be healed by the grace of God in Christ.

Next, you have an entire village, whose fear and anxiety about the man’s unique ailment, caused them to cast the man out of the community and treat him as “less than.” Their treatment left him bound to perpetual incapacity, social insignificance, and possessed by a lack of wholeness. The villagers had some degree of emotional or mental impairment themselves and like the demoniac, they needed to be healed by the grace of God in Christ.

We all need Healing

How many of us need to experience healing? Most of us are not 100% whole, 100% of the time. Most of us have suffered or do suffer from some emotional ailments: sadness over the loss of ability to do what we used to do, anxiety over something happening in our work life, or maybe depression over a major unexpected life change. There are many of us struggling more than we want to acknowledge, accept, or address. Yet even when afflicted, we may forget compassion and empathy, then fear leads us to single out others who are different from so-called norms, and then isolate them from a community that is intended to be a place of grace and care.

The Suffering may cause Suffering

The ancient people in today’s story were not familiar with the science we have today about the human psyche. For instance, (at any given point) about 20% of Americans are experiencing some form of mental illness today, and at least 50% of these illnesses go untreated every day. The same percentage of people suffer from normal physical illnesses like the flu, or arthritis, or food poisoning. Yet, society stigmatizes people who suffer from these disorders, despite the fact that at any given point, most of us have walked this journey of pain. Those suffering, may be the ones, who cause suffering.

We are seeing a shift in our society like a time in our recent past. We are again shunning and labeling folks because they may be different, and by our actions, we cause suffering. We diminish the dignity of the diversity of God’s people, just like the people of Gerasene did to the poor man afflicted by his own demons. Listen close for the nuance and complexity of this gospel story, because in it we will find Jesus’ mission, and the church’s mission, which is to refocus our efforts on exorcising the demons that bind all people, and keep all people from what God desires for all of us.

The Spiritual Realm

On the surface the story seems “other worldly” or “spooky” or maybe a miraculous healing “fairy tale.” We want to both rationalize the man’s behavior we hear about in today’s gospel, and scorn the possibility that there is some connection to the reality of the spiritual realm.

Clinton Arnold’s Christianity Today article asserts, “Christians from other parts of the world—including Africa and Asia—have witnessed these phenomena and engaged in struggles with spirits.”(3) Why then do we dismiss the possibility of evil personified, agents of that evil, and the struggle between good and evil? We have no problem with the truth that God’s Spirit indwells in each of us and guides and nudges us to goodness, joy, and peace in our lives. However, the struggle within us makes us forget that sometimes the potential for evil, for creating suffering, injustice, and pain also resides in us.

At the heart of the gospel story today is that one person’s difference, one person’s uniqueness, caused an entire village to treat him as an outcast, and Jesus restored him back to the community, then sent him to bring healing to the community that cast him out. God desires for God’s people to be whole, and ultimately our own healing in Christ, will lead us into mission, so we might serve as the vehicles for healing in others.

The Exorcism, Healing and Restoration

When the Gerasene man saw Jesus, he fell down before him and shouted, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, do not torment me. “(4) How many of us, do not recognize that we need the spiritual healing Jesus provides. Jesus’ exorcism not only cast out that which bound the man and kept him from wholeness, but Jesus through that man would also cast out the indifference and prejudice of the villagers as well. Jesus knows we all need healing and we all need exorcism in our lives, in order to find the wholeness God promises.

Webster defines exorcism as adjuring (commanding) or getting rid of something troublesome. In our baptismal rite, we ask candidates/sponsors: Do you renounce: Satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God, etc. Exorcism as we know it does not include a rite of incantations and holy water to exercise a demon per se, but it is the sanctification God brings about, when we decide to turn from the forces that would turn us from God, and this is where our healing begins.

So, whether the Gerasene demoniac wrestled with personifications of evil or he suffered from mental or emotional ailments is not the point. Whether the demons literally left the man, ran into those poor swine that ran off the hill to their demise, is not the point of the story either. The point is that God in Christ works in us to make us whole, so we might become effective witnesses of grace in the world, sent out to restore God’s people (all people) from the abyss of pain, suffering, social disdain, and indignity.

Effective Witnesses and Workers of Grace

The Apostle Paul wrote, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” We forget Paul’s words today, and sometimes we fail to be Christ’s vehicles of healing. We actually through inaction or actions, bind people into an abyss of oppression, violence, degradation, and inhuman treatment. Let me give you some examples.

God’s children, who by their own choice (right or wrong) have come to reside in this land, most running from circumstances none of us could ever imagine, and yet because of our fears and anxiety, we have created circumstances in which, they live as animals in cages. God’s people are suffering because of a status label we have given them, a label that thwarts the truth that we all are the common humanity that Paul described. God’s people are being possessed by indignity, oppression, and inhumanity, and as followers of Jesus we are called to exorcise those demons of our own making.

God’s people, people who have the courage to claim their true identity and orientation have been forever treated as “less than,” made to believe their rights to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” infringe on the rights others, as if freedom were a pie and there were only so many pieces. God’s people are possessed by indignity, oppression, and inhumanity and as followers of Jesus we are called to exorcise those demons of our own making.

God’s people are made up of ethnic or racial diversity and beauty, but because the fear of the community, some people are treated as second-class citizens, made victims of violence, and treated as scapegoats for all that is wrong in society. God’s people are possessed by indignity, oppression, and inhumanity and we are called to exorcise those demons of our own making.

God’s people need medical AND mental health care, often beyond their financial means, and yet as a nation we fail to provide the resources to make possible wholeness, dignity, humanity, and healing for all people. God’s people are possessed by indignity, oppression, and inhumanity and we are called to exorcise those demons of our own making.

If there “are no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus,” then we have a lot of work to do my sisters and brothers. We Christians are not called to be merely a voice, or advocates for the oppressed, we are called to be thwarters of injustice. We have been given the God-given mission to bring healing action and wholeness to all of God’s people, to unbind the shackled, and to return the outcast to wholeness. As people who have been healed by God’s inexorable grace, we are called to be instruments of healing for all people.

Partnering with God

The Gerasene man wanted to remain by Jesus’ side after his healing. Jesus told him, “Return home and tell how much God has done for you.” Our healing that began at our baptism is not for our benefit alone, but so we might be instruments of healing for others. People around us are still suffering from the “demons” of the spirit, the devils that bind them in the physical, mental, emotional and social abyss, but we who are here today have a healing story, and most of us can recall when Jesus met us in our pain, suffering, depression, anxiety, bad memories, (you name it) and healed us and restored us.

So, if we have been healed, then our faithfulness will not be measured by how often we gather at the Master’s feet to receive the benefit of his healing power. Our faithful discipleship will be measured by the courage we have demonstrated by going to tell the good news, going to be the good news, and going to bring the good news to others. Our faithfulness and healing will be demonstrated by how we (like Jesus) exorcise the demons of oppression and hatred, made possibly by our work to restore dignity, justice, and healing to all people.

The point of today’s healing story is this, the Gerasene man was healed, then he “went away, proclaiming throughout the city how much Jesus had done for him,” and brought healing to the same village that had cast him out; the healed became the healer. My dear sisters and brothers, we are called to be like him and so, Jesus commands us who have been healed, Go, “return and declare how much God has done for you.”

REFERENCES

(a) https://www.nami.org/Learn-More/Mental-Health-By-the-Numbers (2)http://www.sermonsfromseattle.com/series_c_modern_demons_depressed_and_dysfunctional.htm

(3) Arnold, Clinton E. “Exorcism 101: What Can We Learn from the Way Jesus Cast out Demons?” Christianity Today, vol. 45, no. 11, Sept. 2001, p. 58

(4) http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2865

(5) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Exorcism_of_the_Gerasene_demoniac

(6) Wainwright, Jones, Yarnold, Bradshaw, 133.

SERMON Trinity Sunday 6/16/19 St. Monica’s Episcopal Church

Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31; Psalm 8; Romans 5:1-5 John 16:12-15

The Trinity

Today is Trinity Sunday. Many clergy take vacation during this particular weekend, and leave the preaching on this last Feast Day before Ordinary Time to Supply Clergy or their Assisting Priests. Why, Trinitarian theology is not an easy thing to preach about. For instance, there are many metaphors folks use to try and explain the Trinity and some are good, and some not so good. A colleague of mine once preached a wonderful sermon, whereas she described the structure of a banana to try and explain the Trinity. She preached how three individual parts of the inner core of a banana are of one substance, but are actuall three distinct parts. However, when peeled, the separate pieces are a whole and remain indistinguishable. Not a bad attempt, but I was still left perplexed after hearing it.

I have heard preachers attempt to explain the Trinity by referring to the movie “The Matrix”. They taught that the character Morpheus represented the First Person of the Trinity sent into the matrix Neo or “the One” as they called him (an allusion to the Second Person of the Trinity), to reveal the truth and to set the people free. Additionally, there was wise female character named Trinity (self explanatory), who guided, prodded, and instructed the group to stay on mission task. This movie is not the best way to explain God, but for some preachers it has worked. I love the movie itself, but theologically it still leaves me scratching my head for answers.

The doctrine of the Trinity is not an easy concept to understand. We are sometimes left confused, merely to accept Trinitarian theology as “ a mystery that we must take on faith.” That is fine of course, if you merely want to “tip your hat” to the concept, and then move on with your daily life unscathed. However, the idea of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is not just an intellectual concept to which we make an assent, and then move on.

The study of Trinity is a life-long task of seeking to comprehend and engage in relationship with the mysterious but transcendent God. The concept of Trinity poses for us not only a theological and intellectual challenge, but most importantly a relational challenge, because mystery and love are not objective topics, and we 21st century Christians love our certainty.

Theology, Intellect, and the Church

In seminary, I spent three years trying to theologically and systematically understand the Doctrine of the Trinity. We studied how the early members of the Church exaIIned their experiences of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and tried to use feeble human language to explain it. Even today, we still wrestle with questions like, “Why can’t God be Father at one time, Son the another time, and Holy Spirit yet another time?” (the heresy of modalism).

The Councils of the church tried to understand that Three in One concept, and they came up with using a Greek word “Homoousios,” which was a Christological doctrine formulated at the first ecumenical council at Nicaea in 325, to affirm that God the Son and God the Father are of the same substance.” These questions and many more, represent intellectual concepts, some were deemed heretical, but they were attempts to try and explain their journey to comprehend God.

When we speak of God, we are trying to describe the unfathomable, awesome, and inexplicable source of all, the creator, redeemer, and sustainer of the cosmos. Yet the depth of God is beyond our simple cerebral neuron firings. Even the Psalmist understood this when they wrote, “I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars you have set in their courses.” To even grasp God, we must go to the heart, and take our yearning for God, where in the discovery labs of emotion and relationship, we find God. We must explore how we have experienced and will experience God as ”Three in one” and as an inner life of communal love, manifested through God’s action in the world, and in our daily lives.

Inner Life of God

We all have heard the phrase, “God is love.” Augustine, the great theologian of the church, the son of our patron saint Monica once wrote, “Now when I, who am asking about this, love anything, there are three things present: I myself, what I love, and love itself. For I cannot love love unless I love a lover; for there is no love where nothing is loved. So there are three things: the lover, the loved and the love.” (4) Augustine was attempting to explain the Triune God in terms that we understand; love and relationship.

In other words, for love (Spirit) to be shared, there must be a lover (Father), a beloved (Son), and the ongoing cycle of the love (Spirit) they share. Let’s be a little cautious here, because we could inch close to the edge of heresy or alternatively, we may actually fail to fully explain God, but I think we are on the right track to understanding this Father, Son, and Holy Spirit idea.

First, this Trinity we speak of is God in relationship to Godself. There is an inner life of God; a mysterious loving communal existence undivided, of same substance, acting together, loving together. Next, this Trinity we speak of is transcending, showing up in creation to bring that love to us, and inviting us into that circle of love we just described.

The Trinity we speak of is God acting and transcending in relationship with Godself and with creation. It sounds simple, but to grasp it, we have to broaden our minds, expand our thinking, and be open to a mystery we cannot fully explain, but one that we experience every day.

The Apostle Paul said,  “Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace.” Theologian Karoline Lewis explains, “Paul is an example of what happens when you assert something particular about God — it leads to something that you can then know as promise about your relationship with God.” (1) Lewis adds, “For Paul, this something about God could not just be descriptive of God, but had to make a difference for our very existence and life with God.” (1) You see, it really doesn’t matter if we say, “I wholeheartedly believe what the Creed says about God,” if that assertion does not change us, and bring us into a deeper relationship with God.”

Blue Pill or Red Pill

Sister Joan Chittister, prolific and well-known theologian once wrote, “Scripture maintains that wisdom—which it defines in another place as “fear of the lord”—means holy astonishment, complete wonder and awe at what God does in my life and the life of everyone around me.” (2) Maybe you have experiences of this perfect relationship of love between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit and through those moments, you find yourself yearning to take your place at God’s table where you share in that love. Well, the invitation is always there. We are invited to take our place in the cycle of love shared between the First, Second, and Third Person of the Trinity and by extending that cycle of love with our neighbors. We see little images of that love invitation each day, if we are open to it.

Fof instance, I am reminded each day of the awesomeness of God’s creation, when I hear the birds sing their songs, and shout in all that they are the glory of the one who brought it all together. I am reminded each day of the Redeemer, whose love for all of creation made it possible for me, to recognize every human being as my sister and brother. Whether it be the homeless man who stops for water, or a traveling family who has run out of gas on the way home after the promise of a job falls apart, or a fellow St. Monican whose health keeps them away from community and yet, mine or someone else’s phone call or visit brings them joy and connection. I am reminded each day of God’s Spirit of wisdom that brings new ideas, new approaches, and renewed commitment to mission opportunities around us, guiding us as a community toward our purpose and mission. God has acted, acts today, and call us to action as well, as we are called to an awesome, unfathomable, indescribable love relationship with God.

“The Latin “homo” means human; the Latin “sapientia” means “wisdom”.  We are meant to be “wise humans”, made in the image of Wisdom, made in the image of God.  We are meant to be God’s delight” (2) but love requires that we have the option to choose. We humans (homo sapiens) are intelligent beings who have the God-given wisdom to choose, either to recognize and respond to the love of God, or to reject it outright.

In the movie “The Matrix,” Morpheus offers Neo a choice. As Neo stands on the precipice of learning the truth about life (or the false life of the Matrix) Morpheus says, “This is your last chance. After this, there is no turning back. You take the blue pill – the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill – you stay in Wonderland and I show you how deep the rabbit-hole goes.”

We Christians stand each day on the precipice of the truth of life as it is meant to be and there, we have a choice. We can choose the “blue pill” and merely accept God as an intellectual concept alone, or we can just reject the truth of God as fantasy. In so doing we “return to our comfortable bed and believe whatever we want to believe,” all while being unscathed, unchanged, and just living life just as it is on the surface.

Alternatively, we can choose to embrace the mystery of God, and choose to go deeper with God, by entering into that cycle of love that is shared between the Three Persons of the Trinity. We can open our eyes to the reality of God revealing Godself to us each and every day, and in so doing, we can see just “how deep the rabbit-hole goes.”

Which will it be my friends? Will you open your eyes next week and look for God in all things. Will you ask God to reveal Godself to you this coming week? Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself? You know, we have a choice, just like Neo, who chose to seek out the reality of life where love and grace and freedom really existed, outside the false reality around him. May I offer you this same option? Seek God out this week and experience love unfathomable and beyond your ability to explain or capacity to understand fully. Seek God out in others and seek God through your own experience of creation in all things. In other words, my sisters and brothers, as you leave this place and enter into the matrix of every day life out there, “May I suggest you take the Red pill?”

REFERENCES

(1) http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=4648 by Karoline Lewis

(2) https://journeytopenuel.com/2016/05/15/trinity-c-3-x-1-one/

(3) https://colourfuldreamer.blogspot.com/2019/06/letting-go-of-small-mind-and-doctrines.html?spref=fb&fbclid=IwAR382SbZSEzFi3mjnS_pdlGSLGmvOxhA9qs_wFw4GI2SNXbkr-ZhyO3j4xQ

(4) St. Augustine, “On the Trinity,” Basic Writings of St. Augustine, Volume 2, Ed. Whitney J. Oates (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1992), 790.

SERMON 6-9-19 Day of Pentecost (Baptisms) St. Monica’s

Acts 2:1-21; Psalm 104:25-35, 37; Romans 8:14-17; John 14:8-17 (25-27 Sailing Ships

A few weeks ago, Terri and I embarked on a seven-day journey aboard a beautiful, massive cruise ship.  From the outside for some, it may seem like just a big boat, created for a leisurely stroll along the Caribbean islands, where everyone on board simply enjoys the ride, eats all they want, and basks in the pleasure of vacation or retirement.  However, there is much more going on aboard that ship, especially below the Lido deck, where all the dancing and fun takes place every day.

Ships have a purpose beyond merely making 3000+ people happy, fulfilled in their own fun, and full of delicious food.  Ships are incredibly intricate machines, and a well-trained and committed crew operates them. A ship like this requires many people who are committed to the mission of the ship.  Engineers make sure the engines are running properly. Maintenance folks keep the systems in top-notch condition.  Deck hands handle all the hard labor associated with the trip and port visits. Entertainers dance, sing, and keep the passengers happy.  Navigators keep the ship on course.  Managers oversee the staff.  The Captain/Master oversees the whole operation.  Each person has a part in the overall mission of the ship, and every person must take his or her place, or the mission fails.

The church has been described by some, as a ship sailing on the chaotic seas of life, serving as a respite for sin weary travelers. It is a great metaphor, but the church is more than a place of rest for her members.  Jesus said, “Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these.”

We are not merely passengers on the ship SS Church, we are actually the crew called to serve on God’s mission, and the Day of Pentecost was the day the missional church embarked on doing Jesus‘ works in the world.  Pentecost was the day we began to fulfill our purpose of making disciples, forming disciples, sending disciples out to be witnesses to God’s love, and making the Kingdom of God present.

 The Pentecost Experience

Barbara Brown Taylor, an Episcopal priest and lecturer once wrote, “Pentecost is not as much about what God has done for us, as what God wants us to do in the world.”(2) Brown adds, “that isn’t nearly as attractive to most of us.”(2) I believe what Taylor may be saying is that the Pentecost experience may seem like it is all about us as individuals, but it is really about ALL of God’s creation, those onboard the ship now, and those who have not yet boarded.  We the Church today are sent out on a mission to be witnesses of grace, but we often lose sight of the mission.   That is when we find ourselves rudderless without direction, tossing on the waves of uncertainty and maybe even distraction. Them again, we have the story of the Day of Pentecost.

Pentecost is not merely a birthday party for the church that we celebrate each year.  We commemorate that day as a renewed call to action, a calling to be sent out on Jesus’ mission. The best part of the Pentecost experience is that we are never alone but are given a gift of power, which we are asked not to hold onto for merely ourselves, but to give it away.  The gift to which I am speaking about is the gift of the Holy Spirit, given to us at each of our baptisms.

            Today (or tomorrow Sunday at 9:30) another beginning and another day of embarkation happens for the crew of the ship we call Church. We are baptizing four beautiful children: Cecilia Perez and Katie, Emily, and Andrew Mcartney. These innocent children of God will be embarking on the first day of the long voyage on their mission as disciples.  They begin a lifelong journey of faith, being formed by the love of parents and godparents who follow Jesus, and by this community of Jesus followers, who know the way, show the way, and go the way of Jesus.  They too are not mere passengers on the ship, they are crew entering initial training and preparation for the mission they will carry on, long after each of us have joined the saints in glory.  But they (like us) will never journey alone, as long as they (and we) remain in a community of faith that will help us all along the path of grace, and as long as they (and we) rely on the Holy Spirit to guide us.

 We are Crew!

The Book of Common Prayer asserts that the “Holy Spirit is the Third Person of the Trinity, God at work in the world and in the Church even now.”  This mission we the SS Church is on is not our own, or is it a mission we get to come up with all by ourselves. Our mission is God’s mission of love, and God works in us today to fulfill that mission.  Don’t forget that the Holy Spirit is the rudder of the ship, and the guiding beacon that keeps our sights on the horizon line.  God’s Spirit is our reference point that guides us, gives us direction, and keeps us focused on God’s mission of love.

In the church, like the crew of a ship, many of us remain below deck doing the things we do each day:  maintenance, cleaning, cooking, singing, managing, teaching, and interacting with each other.  So when we are in the midst of our busy crew duties, we may think we have no clue where we are on the journey.  Even while the work continues each day, the perfect rudder of the Holy Spirit is moving us ever so gently on our path, guiding the church along God’s perfect mission of love.

The church moves slowly sometimes because like a ship, we just cannot turn quickly and abruptly, because if we do, we risk throwing the crew overboard. So, the ship can never lose sight of the horizon line, and the church can never move forward with her mission, unless guided by the Holy Spirit. Likewise, the mission takes all of us to make it a reality.  The great works of Jesus we are called to do cannot be accomplished by just 1, 2, or 3 people.  It takes the whole bunch!

 Holy Spirit guiding, leading, nudging

Now we do not have to be overly mature Christians either to join God’s mission. Theologian Matthew L. Skinner tells us, these “ignorant, backwater folks” (a stereotype conveyed by the term “Galileans,” but perhaps lost to readers today) became impassioned, eloquent spokespersons for the gift of new life, the beginning of a brand new era in which God is fulfilling promises and salvation.” (1) If that group can fulfill God’s mission, so can we.

So, like the crews that came before us, we all have a place onboard the ship of grace.  Whether you have been a Christian for 40, 50, 60, 70, 80, or 90 years; or you are the new crew members that we welcome today (or Sunday at 9:30): Cecilia, Katie, Emily, and Andrew, each of us have a part in moving forward on this voyage.  We are the instruments of God’s grace, witnesses of God’s love, and the people through which God’s Kingdom will become a reality on the tempestuous seas of this old nightmare of a world we live in today.

Now, here is the key to a successful trip.  As long as God’s Spirit guides us, nothing can deter us from the mission; not language differences, not our lack of resources, not our lack of motivation, or any challenges we will face.  We just need to remember that like those first Christians on that Day of Pentecost, when we feel rudderless, we need to cry, “Abba! Father!” When we do, we will know it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, children who are sent out to change the world for Christ.  Jesus’ mission of love is before us, so let’s trust the Spirit.  How many of you ready to set sail right here and right now?

REFERENCES

(1) https://www.ucc.org/worship_samuel_sermon_seeds_june_9_2019

(2) Taylor, Barbara Brown. “God’s Breath.” Journal For Preachers 26.4 (2003): 37-40. ATLASerials, Religion Collection. Web. 12 May 2013.

 

SERMON Easter 6C 5/26/19 St Monica’s Episcopal Church

Acts 16:9-15; Psalm 67; Revelation 21:10, 22-22:5; John 14:23-29

Fear and An Anxious World

A few years ago, a friend gave me a framed picture that today, sits on a shelf in my office. The caption on the picture says, “Courage is fear that has said its prayers.” For me, those words mean, “having the faith to face and move through my own fears, means I must rely solely on a power greater than my own.” I look at this picture every day and it reminds me that anxiety can literally control our everyday existence. Fear is a natural part of life, but thanks be to God we are not left alone to face our fears, or to live with the outcomes our fears can create.

An article in Psychology Today reports, “Fear is a vital response to physical and emotional danger; and it has strong roots in human evolution.”(6) In our earlier existence, we managed to avoid being eaten by saber toothed tigers or other wild beasts, because of our “fight of flight” response brought on by fear. The articles also said, “in the modern world, individuals often fear situations where the stakes are much lower, but their body and brain still treat the threat as lethal.” In other words, modern humans still see non-life threatening issues as life threatening and thus, we may react in ways that are illogical. We may decide to fight the perceived fear (or the person creating it), or we may even take flight, or “avoid challenges that could benefit (us) in the long run.” (6) We are an anxious nation today, and I am concerned how many of us live in perpetual fear, fear that can stifle our creativity, our openness to intimacy, and the inevitable ways fear will cause us to treat one another. Jesus offers a third path to freedom from fear.

I imagine Our Lord knew that we his church will always be capable of living in fear, and he knew that his church would face many grave terrors, as she carried out her mission over the centuries. When you bring a message of radical joy to this world, you have to expect challenges, but Jesus said, as we heard in today’s gospel,” Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives.” Despite the fears and anxiety each of us face in our lives today, we have an abundant source of peace that passes all understanding, but many of us fail to tap into it.

Conflict and Jesus’ Promises

When I served on the bishop’s staff, a couple of times I was sent in to help with some incredibly surprising conflicted parish situations. I saw first hand how fear and anxiety, and the inability to openly, lovingly, and calmly speak to one another about our differences, can end up tearing a community apart. Little things usually were the early catalysts for the kinds of troubles that led to strife and infighting. I always wondered what would have happened in those situations, if the people had been willing to seek the guidance and presence of God’s Spirit throughout the conflict, or even to actually talked to each other about their fears, concerns, mistakes, or misunderstandings. You know, that kind thing Jesus told us about loving one another?

Jesus said: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.” Loving God seems to be the easy command for many of us to follow, but loving neighbor (even today) seems to be our struggle. Differing political opinions have become the dividing wedge of very fabric of our great union, so we should not be surprised to see conflict ultimately divide churches. Conflict happens, disagreements happen, misunderstandings happen, and these things have the potential to move communities to new levels of effective ministry. However, an unhealthy approach to those challenges we face, results in our abandoning the “loving neighbor” Jesus speaks about.

How we deal with one another, how we engage together in the mutual work of love becomes the icon through which, the world hears and sees the gospel enacted. Theologian Gregory Jones, in an article he wrote stated, “The peace Jesus brings is not the superficial avoidance of conflict; rather it is the peace embodied by communities that deal constructively with conflict through the power of the Spirit.” (2) Jesus’ promise of “Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid” is not mere sentimentality, but it is a promise of hope into which we all can live. Fear, anxiety, and conflict are real, and they can be paralyzing or freeing, and Jesus promises a helper in the midst of these struggles, fear, and anxiety.

Advocate

Jesus said, “But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you.” The Greek word for Advocate is παράκλητος, which means, “one summoned and called to one’s side (to one’s aid); or a helper, aider, assistant. Jesus promises that although his earthly resurrected bodily presence would be no longer visible until his return, we were not to be left alone.

In other words, when fear and anxiety raises its ugly head, “Imagine the Spirit in this other role, as one who cares for the church in the interim between Jesus’ departure and return, as one who comforts, teaches, reminds us.”(3) God does not abandon us to our own devices, but we must be willing to invite the Spirit to lead us.

Theologian Gregory Jones asserts, “We need to be written in the Lamb’s book of life (Rev. 21:10, 27). That is likely to happen only insofar as we are active in communities that take time for the Spirit’s guidance about how we might become holy in faithful discipleship.”(2) In other words, if seek the guidance of the Advocate who will show us the way, if we seek God’s way, if we lean on the Paraclete, the Holy Spirit for all we do, we will never lose sight of our purpose; and God’s mission enacted through us.

Mission

Our mission statement at St. Monica’s is simple, easy to remember, and rock solid. “Engaging, equipping and empowering one another to live our baptismal promises.” In other words, the core purpose of St. Monica’s is to engage, or to attract others to become involved and participate in the life of this community. Our purpose is to equip, or supply the necessary resources and prepare someone for life in this community. Our purpose is to empower, or share leadership and make someone stronger and more confident to live in this community. We are to be about the work of Engaging, equipping, and empowering God’s people to actually live out the promises we have taken, which are:

To continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers?

To persevere in resisting evil, and, whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord.

To proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ

To seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself

To strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being

We do not need to form a new committee or task force to develop some fancy, catchy, new vision or mission statement, we need to embrace the vision God has already given us. This is our vision and our purpose, but we cannot do these things as mere rugged individuals with our own agendas, doing our own thing, and hoping everyone else will see it our way. It is only when we as a community are vitalized by the Holy Spirit of God, and unified in common mission that we will be able to fulfill our purpose.

At the ordination of a priest, on the Day of Pentecost, and during other solemn occasions in the church, it is appropriate to sing a beautiful hymn, Veni Creator Spiritus, or “Come Creator Spirit.” Incredibly powerful words are found in two of these verses :

“Come, Holy Ghost, Creator, come, from thy bright heav’nly throne; come, take possession of our souls, and make them all thine own.” “Far from us drive our deadly foe; true peace unto us bring; and through all perils lead us safe beneath thy sacred wing.”

We are not alone in this mission of God’s love and so, we must call upon God’s Spirit to take possession of our souls. We cannot let fear and anxiety become the stumbling blocks that keep us from God’s mission in the world. We must not allow unhealthy conflict to constrain our unity in common mission. We must be willing to do the hard work of honest, open, loving dialogue even when we disagree, or when we unintentionally hurt one another, or when we are struggling in our own anxiety and fear.

Jesus promises us, “Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not be afraid.” For us to faithfully live into that promise, even when our fear and anxiety move us to seek our own self-preserving agendas and actions, when conflict happens (and it will) we need the Holy Spirit to guide and show us the way. We cannot do this work of love alone and so, in those moments when we are afraid, uncertain, and frustrated; in those moments when we hurt one another unintentionally, or we are confused, or we feel lost all we need to do is love one another. If courage really is fear that has said its prayers, then let our prayer be, “Come Creator Spirit Come.”

REFERENCES

(1) Guthrie, Suzanne. “The Turn in the Path.” The Christian Century, vol. 118, no. 15, May 2001, p. 13. 

(2) Jones, L.Gregory. “Taking Time for the Spirit.” The Christian Century, vol. 109, no. 15, Apr. 1992, p. 451.

(3) Somerville, James Green. “Who Will Take Care of Us.” The Christian Century, vol. 115, no. 14, May 1998, p. 471.

(4) Welker, Michael. “The Holy Spirit.” Theology Today, vol. 46, no. 1, Apr. 1989, pp. 5–20

(5) http://wordandworld.luthersem.edu/content/pdfs/15-2_Revelation/15-2_Olson.pdf

(6) https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/basics/fear

SERMON Easter 3C 5-5-19 St. Monica’s Episcopal Church, Naples, FL

Acts 9:1-6, (7-20); Psalm 30; Revelation 5:11-14; John 21:1-19

Bulletin 5-5-19Now Hiring – Disciples

Have you ever wondered what a disciple job interview with Jesus would be like?  Jesus might say, “So tell me why you think you are qualified for this position as disciple.”  We might say, “Let’s see, I have no background in evangelism, healing, leading, teaching, or walking long distances in sandals, but I am a fan of your work Jesus.” Jesus would say, “Great, you are hired!” I do not know about you, but that applicant does not seem qualified for such an incredible mission.  You would think Jesus would call only the best people, the most qualified, the best educated, but that has never been the case. Jesus trusted his mission of love to the most unlikely characters, and over the centuries he continues to trust that mission to us.

In two of the readings today, we hear about two unlikely disciples (leaders even), who despite their resumes, their sinful pasts, and even their frustrations and desire to return to the “easy life,” God still used both of these people, to spread the Gospel throughout the world.  The truth is, we all are sitting here today as members of the beloved mission community, and not on the golf course, the airport, or the mall, because these two unlikely followers of Jesus, faithfully (and yet reluctantly) allowed God to use them for his mission of love.

 

Paul of Tarsus – Impossible Disciple

Paul of Tarsus was both a Roman citizen and a devout Jewish man who had deep connections to the Pharisaic tradition.  He was on the ladder of religious success and well respected among his peers. Paul attended the Harvard of Pharisaic studies, being instructed “at the school of Gamaliel one of the most noted rabbis in history”.  His early work was as a persecutor of the church, being given a license to arrest, detain, and haul Christians to Jerusalem for trial.  He took an active role in the martyrdom of St. Stephen.  Despite all that, Jesus still found use for Paul in the work of his mission of love.

This unlikely character actually spread the gospel throughout the Jewish Diaspora and the Greco-Roman culture of that time, and God’s wisdom prevailed. God chooses even the unqualified, the impatient, the self-absorbed, and the pursuers of “the shiny objects of life” to be his mission partners.  So, if God can put someone like Paul on the mission trail, and Paul was able by the grace of God to be an effective witness of grace, then he can use us too.

 

Reluctant disciple Peter

In today’s gospel, we hear Peter say, “I am going back to fishing” and then, he dragged some of the other so-called disciple heroes along with him.  Even though they saw the Risen Christ, even though their lives had been changed, for some reason they decided to go back to the comfort, easiness, and loosy-goosy life they knew before Jesus changed everything. They went back to fishing.  Listen to the irony of these so-called faithful followers who gave up on Jesus’ mission.

Nathaniel was one of the first few to be called by Jesus, who early on said boldly, “Rabbi, You are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!”  Thomas, who doubted the truth of the resurrection, when he saw the risen Lord said, “My Lord, My God.”  The Sons of Zebedee (James and John) whose mother wanted them on Jesus right and left in glory (little did they know) witnessed the glory of Jesus at the transfiguration. Peter who proclaimed Jesus as Messiah early on, was the leader of the band that abandoned the mission and went back to fishing. Each one of these claimed Jesus as Lord, and despite the evidence they had of that truth, they became weary, afraid, and disappointed, and went back to the comfort of how things were.

Jesus did not leave them there though, because even though he chooses the unqualified, impatient, self-absorbed, and pursuers of “the shiny objects of life,” he gives us endless chances to be his mission partners.  So, if Nathanial, James and John (Sons of Zebedee), Thomas, and yes, Simon Peter were able by grace to be effective witnesses of the Good News, then Jesus can change us too, but we must be willing.  We must decide if our love for Jesus is sufficient to open us up to the transformation he will bring, so we might be his mission partners.

 

Love is a verb

A dialogue between Jesus and Peter in today’s gospel explains that how we see Jesus in our lives (Lord, mere friend or pal) has a lot to do with our desire to get on the mission trail with him.  In verse 15 of John’s gosepl, Jesus asked Peter, “Do you love me.”  The Greek word for love Jesus used was “agape,” which refers to a love of deep fondness with a focus on a self-giving commitment.  Peter responded with, “Lord you know I love you,” but the Greek word for love Peter used was not “agape” but “phileo”, which means, “to like someone,” to treat them kindly, or to consider them a pal.” Peter said, “Lord, you know I love you like a pal.”  That sounds a little non-committal to the mission, especially for someone who would rather go fishing than do the hard work of discipleship.  Jesus gave Peter a mission assignment and said, “Peter, if you do “phileo” me, then “go feed my sheep” or in Greeke βόσκε, “go teach my people.”

Jesus asked Peter the same question a second and third time, but the third time he said, “Peter if you “phileo” like love me (or if you are at least my pal), thenποίμαινε, or go cherish and nourish my people and show themagape like love.”     In other words, even if you can’t love me with agape love, go give that kind of love to my people and show them the way. Three times Jesus gave Peter marching orders for being on his mission team, and Peter was frustrated and sad at Jesus’ questioning.

Was Peter sad because he knew he just could not love all the way with Jesus?  Was Jesus just his pal? Peter needed a shakeup, and a new attitude about his mission call, because he was so willing just to go back to the way things were before he met Jesus. . Peter still carried around his failure of Jesus and though forgiveness was not possible and that held him back, but Jesus never leaves us in our failures.

He brought this crew together for breakfast in order to comfort them, feed them, and then send them out into the world on mission.  Peter and the others could not go backward, and do things the way they had done before Jesus came into their lives.  Jesus was calling them to a new mission and he would not let them ever go back, because they would never go it alone.

 

God calls the faithful

Jesus also invites us to gather around the warm fire, the hearty meal, and the safety and comfort of our weekly gatherings where he tends to our needs, but there is more to this life of discipleship than comfort and peace at the Master’s feet. Jesus gives us all a mission, and he asks us if we if we are willing to be vessels of self-giving, for his mission of love.  We struggle to believe that God will lead us in the right paths, and the right mission, and the right goals and purpose,  but if we follow his marching orders to go love others in all that we do, how can we fail to haul in the big catch?

It is so easy to experience the grace of God each week, and once we leave the safety of this sacred space, to revert back to the way things were before, when it was comfortable, when everything was easy or “loosy goosey.” It is so easy to just go back to fishing, the way we fished before.

However, God is calling us, St. Monica’s, to a new way of being the beloved community of grace that he has in store for us, and we just cannot go back to the way things were before. We are being called to grow as a radically welcoming community that invites all people to experience the Risen Christ in our midst, and we help each one find their place of mission in the Body.  We are being called to grow to each one taking our places in the church’s mission, whether in leadership, service, or some other area of ministry.  We are being called to go out into the world around us, in these local neighborhoods, and bring Christ’s love to each one of the least, lost, and lonely.  St. Monica’s is not a clubhouse in which, our needs alone are the first priority. St. Monica’s is a lighthouse in which, our neighbors’ experience the Risen Christ through all our work is focused on Christ’s mission of love, even if we don’t feel qualified and ready.

The Mission Job Interview

“God does not call the equipped to do the work of mission, but rather God equips the called.” Well, we are all just like Peter, Paul, Nathaniel, Thomas and that whole motley crew, who reluctantly and haphazardly, but faithfully followed Jesus.  You do not have to be a super Christian, a seminary trained expert, or even a cradle Episcopalian to get on Jesus’ mission trail.  If God can use Peter, Paul, Nathaniel, Mary Magdalene, Thomas, and all those broken, messed up, and non-committal disciples to effectively carry on his mission, then he can use each one of us too.  But we have to answer the call.  We must show up, and we must be willing to stay focused on our purpose.

So, imagine for a moment you are being interviewed by Jesus for a position on his Mission Team.  Jesus says, “So let me get this straight, you do not feel qualified to do this work, right?” We say, “Yes, Lord.”  Jesus says, “So, sometimes you’d rather go back to the comfortable life you knew before you met me, right?” We say, “Uh, yes Lord.”  He says, “So, do you agape love me?”  Crickets.  Then he says, “Let’s try this again, do you consider me a pal and are you at least a fan of my movement?”  We say, “Yes sir!”  Jesus says, “Do you think you can go show the world around you the grace, mercy, peace, and reconciliation I pour out on you each and every day.  Can you do that?”  We reluctantly say, “I guess I can.” Jesus just smiles at us and says, “Well, guess what you are hired; you’re perfect for this position!”  Then with a grin, you know that all knowing, challenging, and trusting grin, he asks us, “So, when can you start?”

 

SERMON Easter 2C 4/28/19 St. Monica’s Episcopal Church

Acts 5:27-32; Psalm 118:14-29; Revelation 1:4-8; John 20:19-31

Peace Be With you

One of my favorite old hymns begins with, “Let there be peace on earth and let it begin with me.”  Let it begin with me.  When he appeared to his disciples after his crucifixion and death, even while they were hiding behind fear and locked doors, Jesus said to them, “Peace be with you.” Peace today seems to be an elusive state we all seek, but what was this peace Jesus was talking about after his death? Some say peace ismmerely a “psychological” state that leads to peaceful behavior from a “serene inner disposition.” Some believe peace is inner tranquility.

The peace Jesus described is not just inner tranquility, but it is reality that comes from transformation within and through us.  Peace is a new way of life.  In John Lennon’s ballad “Imagine” he alludes to a hope for peace brought about by global change, action, and commitment to a new way of life.  Lennon’s song might make you believe from his words, “Imagine no heaven, no hell, and no religion” that maybe he was an unbeliever, a doubter, and maybe even a skeptic about God, but I disagree.

In the chorus of “Imagine,” Lennon sings, “You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one. I hope some day you’ll join us, and the world will be as one.”  Lennon believed in, hoped for, and diligently worked toward the Kingdom of God, and did so with conviction.  Lennon may have said there was no need for religion, but I wonder if he really rejected God, or was it he needed to see more proof of the transformative resurrection of Christ enacted faithfully, boldly, and effectively in the lives of Jesus’ followers.

There are many folks today, who live this life hoping, dreaming, and waiting for the peace and promises of the Kingdom of God.   I think the world hungers for the Peace of Christ and the hope of new life we Christians proclaim.  “Peace be with you” is an invitation to “Thomas, and all who will come after him, to believe the truth that is too good to be true,” which is this, “in Christ real peace is possible,” even if we live as disciples in cycles of doubt, co-mingled with trust. 

Thomas, the Hero?

The Apostle Thomas was in good company with folks like John Lennon, and the many others through the centuries, who needed proof of the hope of resurrected life.  Thomas said, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”

The Apostle Thomas has been called “Doubting Thomas,”  As if that was a bad thing.   From Sunday school, we all “learned that (Thomas) was a dull, doubting follower of Christ whom we should not imitate. The moral of the story was clear— Don’t be like Thomas! Believe! Don’t doubt!” (3)

“Thomas was not an unbeliever; he was a realist.” Let me explain.  Earlier in the gospel narrative, Thomas was the disciple that when “Jesus went to Bethany, a place he’d had to leave under threat of being stoned. Thomas supported Jesus’ apparent forlorn plan to go to Jerusalem to face the religious leaders when he said, “Let us also go that we may die with him.” (3) Doubt!  Thomas decided faithfully to go on the journey with Jesus, regardless of the outcome.

Later in the gospel, Jesus said, “‘And you know the way to the place where I am going,’ but Thomas replied somewhat frustrated and yet seemingly willing to go, ‘Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?”  Thomas was plainspoken and gutsy. He  had doubts, but wanted to understand what was going on, and he wanted to be able to face the situation at hand.”  Thomas wanted to follow the Master, but he needed more information, and a clear-cut path, some direction, and evidence of the way.

Doubter to Believer

Thomas may have been a doubter, but he was well on his way toward being a true believer.   There is a subtle bit of information in today’s reading that we tend to gloss over, but it is very important. When everyone else was locked behind closed doors cowering in fear, Thomas was not with them.  Maybe he was out buying food, maybe he was avoiding the guards and soldiers, or maybe, just maybe, he was out in the streets looking for evidence of resurrection that Mary Magdalene proclaimed.  Who knows, but what we do know is that Thomas was not like the others, stuck behind closed doors, afraid, hiding, and reluctant to get busy with the mission.  When you consider that, Thomas seems a lot less like the bad guy skeptic that we learned about in Sunday school, and more like a bold, practical, follower of Jesus, who was committed to the mission by trying to figure it all out.

Thomas is a hero for we practical, no-nonsense Christians, who need to see the “proof in the pudding.” When offered the chance to touch the Risen Lord’s wounds, when he saw before his eyes the reality of new life standing before him, everything changed and Thomas proclaimed this truth about Jesus, “My Lord and my God!”  “No one else offered such devotion or named Jesus as God.  The so-called doubter that needed proof, who needed to see Jesus face to face, was the hero of the story.   Thomas held out for an experience of Jesus on his own terms until he found his terms made foolish by the reality of seeing Jesus. Only then did he make his statement of faith.” (3)

How about us?  We all need to experience the Risen Jesus on our terms, and I think the world today needs the same.  The doubters and unbelievers need to see the proof of the Risen Christ in us who claim him as Lord.  The world needs more “Thomas Christians,” and less “Simon Peter” Christians.  We need to be less Peter-like Christians who have big plans to go the distance with Jesus, but fall short.  We need to stop saying, “I will go to the cross with you Lord, and I will never deny you Lord,” and then we never leave the security and safety of the locked doors of the sanctuary.

Also, the world needs us to be honest about our own doubts.  Maybe we all need to be honest and say, “I’m not sure I have this thing all worked out and I sometimes want to run away, but despite all that, I am absolutely committed to my convictions about the Kingdom God, about Jesus as my Lord, and about my desire to live the life of faith.  I’m not going to stay behind locked doors, but I will go out looking for answers.”  We Christians need to realize that doubt is not the antithesis of faith, but half-hearted claims of certainty, without the accompanying fruit of faith in our lives, that may very well be the fruit of unbelief.

There is a subtle difference between unbelief and doubt.  Doubt is a condition of spirit that lies between belief and disbelief.  Doubt involves uncertainty, distrust, and a lack of sureness about something.  When in doubt, we are suspended between two polar opposite conclusions, and we find ourselves in a place unable to commit to either assertion.  However, doubt is ok in this journey of faith.  Even so, at some point we have to jump in with both feet into this life in Christ.  Thomas may have been in a place of doubt, but when faced with the reality that the promises of God were true, in the flesh, right before him, his commitment led to action ,and he jumped in feet first saying, “My Lord and My God!”

Trust and Doubt

Thomas did not sit on the fence and say, well, maybe Jesus arose and maybe he’s God, and I am just not sure.  No, Thomas jumped over the fence and he became a believer who did something about it.  Thomas not only believed in the reality of the resurrection that took place in Jesus Christ, he reframed his whole life, and he put his trust fully in God. Thomas trusted God in all things.

In the Revelation to John, we hear these words of promise about Jesus’ return, when all things will be changed.  John recorded, “Look! He is coming with the clouds; every eye will see him, even those who pierced him; and on his account all the tribes of the earth will wail. So it is to be. Amen. “I am the Alpha and the Omega,” says the Lord God, who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.”   This promise of God’s Kingdom becoming a reality today and tomorrow is not just a little sentimental promise for we faithful church attenders, who make a shy nod to it, as if it were merely a sentence in our creed.  The reality of Jesus as Lord of All is a future possibility, but it is a present truth that should change us, and transform everything. Our lives must be a witness to that change and transformation.

Edgar Allen Poe once wrote, “The idea of God, infinity, or spirit stands for the possible attempt at an impossible conception.”   I am sorry to say that more and more people see the Gospel as an impossible conception, because they need to see evidence of it in flesh, in us.  We are the Good News in action and in flesh, when we love another, when we treat everyone with dignity and respect, when we say I’m sorry, and when we love the least, lost, and lonely among and around us.   We are Good News when we advocate for and work to relieve suffering in the world.  We are Good News when all that we do as a community is grounded in mission and God’s Kingdom.

“Imagine living in peace, imagine sharing all the world, and imagine living as one.” Despite our occasional periods of doubt, we must take a leap of faith.  When the world looks at we Christians and say, “I will not believe unless I see it,” then we must show them the peace and Good News they seek; gospel in flesh.  So, my sisters and brothers, maybe “we are just dreamers, but we are not the only ones.” We every day doubters in essence are inviting our neighbors and showing them the peace and Good News of Christ in us.  Maybe then, our song will be and our invitation to the world will resound loudly, that these promises of God and the peace of God’s love is real and then, “Someday maybe you will join us, and the world will live as one.”

REFERENCES

(1) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peace

(2) Grant, Kristen Bargeron. “No Joke.” The Christian Century, vol. 120, no. 8, Apr. 2003, p. 18.

(3) Hunter, Amy B. “The Show-Me Disciple.” The Christian Century, vol. 119, no. 6, Mar. 2002, p. 17.

U2 Lyrics    https://www.u2.com/lyrics/62

 

 

SERMON EASTER SUNDAY 4/21/19 St. Monica’s Naples

Acts 10:34-43; 1 Corinthians 15:19-26; John 20:1-18

Foolish and Slow of Heart

When I was a kid I used to ride along with my father on trips to make house calls to repair people’s television sets. Along those dusty gravel roads of East Tennessee,  we listened to the local AM radio station, which played bluegrass, country music, local news and a syndicated radio series called, “The Rest of the Story,” a Monday-through-Friday radio program hosted by Paul Harvey that consisted of stories presented as little-known or forgotten facts on a variety of subjects.  Each day, Paul Harvey would tantalize his listeners with little story details, but would hold back some key element of the story until the end. The broadcasts always concluded with a variation on the tag line “And now you know the rest of the story.”

Paul Harvey entertained us with his intriguing and fact sharing series, but he went further by giving us something we all desire.  He gave us a story conclusion that surprised us, drew us deeper into the circumstances of the story, revealed a new truth about a subject and in so doing, he shared with us renewed hope.  We all need a little hope today, especially as we live in a world fraught with increasing division, uncertainty, suffering, and joylessness.  We need a little hope, and all of us want the stories of our lives to have a happy end. The story of Jesus’ resurrection has brought hope to billions over the centuries, but that story is actually much more than just a good tale with an intriguing conclusion.

Today, we celebrate the Feast of the Resurrection of Our Lord Jesus Christ, the story of the empty tomb, but hang with me here, because there is so much more to the rest of this story.   After his death on the cross, scripture records events where Jesus appeared to his disciples alive and transformed, which was something the world had never experienced before.  In Mark’s gospel, a “young man discovered in the empty tomb, instructed the women to go tell “the disciples and Peter” that Jesus will see them again in Galilee.”  (1)  In Matthew’s gospel there are “two post-Resurrection appearances, the first to Mary Magdalene and “the other Mary” at the tomb, and the second, to all the disciples on a mountain in Galilee, where Jesus claimed authority over heaven and earth and commissions the disciples to preach the gospel to the whole world.”  In Luke’s rendition, “Jesus appeared to Cleopas and an unnamed disciple on the road to Emmaus, and to Peter (reported by the other apostles), and to the eleven remaining disciples.” (1) In the Acts of the Apostles there are “appearances to Paul on the Road to Damascus, to the martyr Stephen, and to Peter, who heard the voice of Jesus.” (1)

In John’s gospel, which we heard today, Jesus appeared to Mary Magdalene at the empty tomb, but Mary initially failed to recognize him, and only later, remembered her teacher, master, and Lord.  Her experience of the Risen Jesus was so overwhelming, so real, and so outside the norm of every day life, that she immediately ran to the other disciples and proclaimed, “I have seen the Lord.”

It should not surprise us that like Mary, his other followers did not recognize the risen Christ initially. Throughout Jesus’ ministry, his followers seemed confused and uncertain about him.  Some saw him as merely a prophet, a local rabbi with a new “old” message.  Some saw him as merely a healer and restorer and miracle worker.   Some saw him merely as a rabble-rouser and over-turner of tables and religious systems. Even to the end of the story, they remained skeptical and uncertain of the facts that stood alive before them.  Maybe even we find ourselves confused, uncertain, and skeptical about this Jesus we call Lord. 

Skeptics and Science

Today, the world certainly remains skeptical about who Jesus was, let alone unconvinced about his resurrection.  Some have even claimed that “Jesus’ followers are just delusional.”  Discovery and the Science Channel have made several attempts to bring scientific evidence and historical research to bear on the mystery we Christians stake our lives on.  However, the empty tomb and the promise of God ( the promise that nothing, not even death stands between us and the love of God) is not something that science can prove.  The mystery of God’s grace poured out onto us is a fact we must trust in through faith, but what is faith?  Is it merely an ascent to specific facts, or following a certain dogma, or participating in a weekly ritual, or is faith something totally different?

Faith, or a more accurate definition, trusting in God’s promises, is about living into the mystery that we like Mary can recognize the Risen Christ.  We can have hope in the Risen Christ, because we see him in ourselves, in others, and in the every day events of life.  When doubt, uncertainty, skepticism, and rejection of this mystery troubles us, when we become afraid, “Jesus himself stands among us and says, “Peace be with you.”

As if it is true

Over the years as a priest, I have met people of great faith, and others who have struggled with faith.  I mentioned in last night’s sermon a parishioner who had trouble with the resurrection, but yet she remained faithful to her journey with God. A couple of years ago, I managed a renewal of campus ministry in our diocese, and I remember meeting a young man at a university gathering, who said to me, “Father Eric, I cannot believe in a bodily resurrection, because there is no proof of it, so I don’t think I can be a Christian.” I said to him, “but what if it is true?” I asked him if he had a partner or someone he loved and he answered yes. “Do they love you and do you love them,” I asked.  “I guess so,” he replied.  “Prove it, scientifically,” I prodded.  He said, “that is impossible.” I said, “You can’t prove it, yet you live your life with this other person as if the love you claim is true.”  He said, “Yes.”  “So you love them right, and you cannot prove it, and so, you trust in something you cannot prove, and you live as if it is true.”

He looked at me and smiled widely as I said, “living in love as if it is true is what faith and trust and hope in the resurrection is really all about.”  I continued, “None of we so called Christians have 100% proven scientific certainty about the empty tomb, but we all have decided to put our trust in the mystery of God’s love, and live each day, as if the promises of God are true, and that changes everything, including us.”

Although the world is skeptical about the story we stake our lives on, maybe the tiny spark of faith (trust) that we really need today is not DNA evidence, carbon dated tests of nails and wood, or even newly discovered historical recordings of an ancient community.  Maybe all we need is to trust that the truth of the acts of the God of love is beyond our mental comprehension, but the truth of it remains. Maybe all we have is just that trust, trust in the God who somehow came among us as one of us to show us love in action, and despite our rejection of that love in his death on a cross, God’s love overcame death then, overcomes death now, and will overcome our own deaths. In the resurrection of Christ, death has lost its sting.

Now, If we can merely live as if that is true, I promise you everything will change, including ourselves. So take a risk and give it a try.  The truth of the matter is this, you only need a little mustard seed size faith to be a Christian, just a little trust in that promise and live every day as if it is true., and “now you know the rest of the story” and nothing will ever be the same.    “Alleluia Christ is Risen, the Lord is Risen Indeed, Alleluia!”

REFERENCES

(1) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Post-Resurrection_appearances_of_Jesus

SERMON Easter Vigil 2019 4-20-19 St. Monica’s Episcopal Church

From the Ashes

I was driving home from the airport the other day, when I heard the news, “Paris’ Notre Dame engulfed in flames.” The tragedy of the loss of this ancient, and historic treasure, and the stories of hope we have heard even in the midst of its loss, gives us an idea of what it means to have faith in the hope of resurrection.

From its beginnings, Notre Dame was an edifice built on the ashes of other churches’ tragic demise.  Its foundation stone was laid over eight centuries ago in 1163, and ironically on the ruins of two other churches.  It is a holy place, where inside her walls, millions over the years had their lives changed, hearing and enacting the story of promise, the hope of new life in the midst of death, the story of resurrection we just heard in today’s gospel reading.

At the center of Notre Dame’s chancel before the fire engulfed her, there stood a beautiful altar adorned with a cross, and at its base was a sculpture of the Blessed Virgin Mary (Jesus’ mother) holding her beloved son, who had just died on the cross.  After the fire, in the midst of the ashes and smoke billowing from the extinguished fire, the cross itself, and the sculpture of Mary holding Jesus remained intact.  It is ironic that the temple (Jesus Christ) who died on the hard wood of the cross, who did not succumb to the tragedy of death, rose again.   Death itself can not and will not overcome the promises of God, which remind us that the stories of our lives will not end in tragedy, but in new life.

Living in Hope

Over the last several decades, if you have been watching the news at all, you have seen little glimpses of the promises of God burst forth in the midst of tragedy.  Our hope in the promises of the resurrection is not mere vain optimism, but it is the hope that death is not the end and thus, our tragedies are not the end. New life emerging in the chaos and tragedy of life is real and we see it every day, if we are looking.

On 9/11 our nation suffered an unimaginable attack where death and destruction seemed our end, but the first responders, the churches in the city, the troops at the Pentagon, and the brave people of United Airlines 93 in the midst of death, gave us glimpses of hope and new life, of love, and of unbounded love, when all around was falling in ash and dust.

In the last several years, we have seen mass shootings in our country, terrorism, and unimaginable weather events where lives and property were forever changed.  However, we also have stories of teachers and students who risked it all to save each other, of fellow victims of terror who set aside the choice of self preservation to save another, and neighbors who showed up to help neighbors in despair.  You see, even in the midst of death, we do have glimpses of hope.

I imagine in each of our own lives, we all have faced tragedies as we walk around in frail bodies, live with uncertain financial security, and witness the changes in our world. We could merely give up on hope and remain in the tragedy of death’s grip, however we have hope in Christ, and it is hope that changes everything.   

He is Risen

Mary went to the tomb of Jesus, filled with the memory of his tragic death, his frail body on that cross, and the uncertainty of the future before her and the other followers.  The story did not end there, because the tomb that held death was empty. The Lord did not remain in the hold of calamity and death, but he was alive, and spoke hope to Mary, and gave her a mission to tell that story to the others.  Jesus does the same for us.

“I don’t believe in the resurrection,” one of the parishioners in my first parish told me.  I said, “but you come to church faithfully, you serve in so many ministries, and you seem so at peace.”  He said, “I cannot get my head wrapped around the possibility that someone who died, can come back to life again.”  I said, “It is mind boggling to consider isn’t it.”  I continued, “Maybe we are not supposed to understand it, quantify it, or even prove it.”  “Maybe that is why Mark’s gospel stops with a story of the empty tomb,” I suggested. “It may be that we are not left with proof, but with little previews into possibilities of resurrection, through new life emerging all around us,” I added.  You see, the reality is this, “resurrection is, has, and will be fulfilled, whether we accept it or not, and maybe the scientific proof of it we seek removes our openness to the mystery of God’s promises, which requires us to trust God in all things.”

After sharing these thoughts with him, he thought for a moment and said, “maybe that’s all I need then is just a little hope.” I smiled and said, “If with a little hope, we can live as if God’s promises are true, then everything will change including ourselves.

For today, the beauty of Notre Dame stands no more. however Prime Minister Macron has promised, Notre Dame will rise again.   God promises new life too, and maybe if we just have a little hope, and that is all we are able to muster, then we too can proclaim On this Easter, “Alleluia Christ is Risen, the Lord is Risen Indeed, Alleluia!”

REFERENCES

(1)Goetz, Ronald G.(Ronald George). “Mary and the Body Snatchers.” The Christian Century, vol. 107, no. 11, Apr. 1990, p. 331.

(2) http://www.ncregister.com/daily-news/the-history-of-notre-dame-cathedral-in-paris