SERMON 2/7/19 Epiphany 5C St. Monica’s Episcopal Church

Isaiah 6:1-8, [9-13]; Psalm 138; 1 Corinthians 15:1-11; Luke 5:1-11

Fishing in New Waters

Fishing used to be one of my favorite hobbies. When I was a kid, we owned a beautiful boat, and we spent weekends on the lakes of East Tennessee, fishing and relaxing. On my Dad’s farm we also had a pond stocked with Bream, Catfish, and Small Mouth Bass. They were so abundant that a little corn on a hook would net hours of fun. Unfortunately, I do not fish much anymore since I moved to back to Naples, because saltwater fishing is different in some ways from how I was taught to fish back home.

I have tried fishing off a pier, and I caught a Ladyfish or a catfish or two, but I never had the fishing success that I had back in those ponds and lakes. I just gave up on my fishing avocation because it seemed too difficult and outside my comfort zone. What I really need is someone to guide me and show me the way, so I can effectively haul in the big catch. I need to be flexible and realize that I am trying to fish in a new environment than before. I need to take a risk, make an investment in time to my old avocation. Maybe I just need to get back out there and fish again.

In today’s gospel reading, we heard about Jesus’ own angling adventure down by the lake. Jesus climbed into one of Peter’s boats and asks him to push out into the shallows. Luke does not tell us the particulars of the lesson Jesus verbally taught but then, he taught us in another way. After teaching the crowds he did a little fishing with Simon Peter and his two business partners James and John. Jesus said to Simon, “Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.” Peter knew better and said, “Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing. Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets.” And, so he did.

The big haul was miraculous! There were so many fish that the boat Jesus was in, and the second boat alongside them, almost capsized. We should not be surprised, when Jesus sends us out to do something, and when he is with us in the adventure, that there will always be a big catch!

Surprise Surprise

In Luke’s rendition of the fishing story, Simon Peter became so frightened by the miracle that he said to Jesus, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!” Often when Jesus surprises us in this journey of faith with results we did not expect, we are like Peter “astounded by a death-defying Jesus, moving us from failure and scarcity to life and triumph.” (1) Sometimes even I, as a priest am astonished by how God opens doors that I never expected. Sometimes my faith is challenged and I doubt, how about you? Why are we so surprised when our mission work is so effective, but we should not be surprised because God is leading the way.

When we embark on something unfamiliar, we have to decide beforehand whether we are really willing take a risk. We all face walls of fear when we step out of our comfort zones, and let God work in our lives and transform our lives. Letting go and letting God is both a frightening experience, and a joyful and peaceful experience, both at the same time. We live in fear when we say, “Lord, I am doing ok now in my own little way of life, leave me be and don’t ask any more of me.” That is what Peter did. But when he came face-to-face with the miraculous life changing power of God in Christ in his own midst, nothing would ever be the same for him. Jesus was calling him, and us into a new kind of angling vocation.

Vocation

Simon Peter, James, John, the other nine apostles, and every disciple of Jesus throughout history, were called to a specific Christian call. Each of us here today has a call from God to take our place in the Kingdom work of Jesus. Wikipedia defines this “call, summons … an occupation to which a person is specially drawn or for which they are suited, trained, or qualified. Though now often used in non-religious contexts, the meanings of the term originated in Christianity.” (3) We are talking about our Christian vocations.

You do not have to be a cleric to have a vocation, because by virtue of your baptism you are given gifts for ministry. The question many of us wrestle with is this, “Lord, what would you have me do?” Well, for Simon Peter, James and John, who also did not know what to do, eventually “left everything and followed him.” They left their fishing nets and boats (their life’s work). They left their fear, uncertainty, and feelings of inadequacy all behind. They followed Jesus who led them to their true vocation, which was another form of fishing; Jesus style.

Our vocation begins with the individual ministries we do in service to God. Those things like serving as a ministry leader, an usher, a chalice bearer, choir member, bell ringer, Eucharistic visitor, office minister, Sunday school teacher, or any other ministry. However, our primary Christian vocation is the one that we share with Jesus, Simon Peter, James, John and all Christians throughout the ages.

We find our primary vocation in the baptismal promises, and primarily the one to which we promise to “proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ.” Yes, I am talking about evangelism and its critical connection to discipleship.

Evangelism – Fishing Jesus Style

Jon Berquist explains, “Discipleship is not an end in itself; it is a means to further the teaching of Jesus.” (2) Our vocation is to carry on the teachings of Jesus in our everyday lives and that is what evangelism is really all about. Each one of us may be the only gospel anyone will ever read. So, how we live, how we love, and how we serve for some people we encounter will be the only lens through which, others will see the light of Christ.

My dear friend and clergy colleague Stephanie Spellers wrote in her book The Episcopal Way, “If the word “evangelism” makes you anxious, think less about convincing someone to believe what you believe and more about growing a relationship. In the process of sharing your (story with a friend) and growing in understanding, you will already be doing evangelism.”

Evangelism can be a fear-provoking part of discipleship for many of us, but we must remember that we never do it alone. Like Peter, James, and John, we have the original people-angler with us in the boat guiding us and showing us the way, so that we might effectively haul in that big catch. Berquist asserts, “People-catching is not a matter of strategy or even a measurement of our faithfulness; people-catching is Jesus’ work, and we disciples are the tools he uses.” (2)

To live faithfully into our individual and corporate Christian vocation, what we really need is someone to guide us and show us the way, so we can effectively haul in the big catch. We need to be flexible and realize that we are trying to people fish in a new environment than before. We need to take a risk, and make an investment in time to our vocation. Maybe I just need to get back out there and fish again.

So, let’s go people fishing and share with our neighbors the love of Christ poured out into each one of us. Let’s go people fishing and share with our neighbors the grace we find in this gathering of community called St. Monica’s Episcopal Church. Let’s go people fishing and share with our neighbors the life-changing transformation we experience in serving others, as Christ serves us. So, what do you say? C’mon, the water is nice, the weather is beautiful, the fish are biting. C’mon, leave that fear and uncertainty behind. C’mon, pick up your nets, and “Let’s go fishing; Jesus style.”

REFERENCES

(1) Willimon, William H. “Get out of Here.” The Christian Century, vol. 121, no. 2, Jan. 2004, p. 21. 

(2) Berquist, Jon L. “Luke 5:1-11.” Interpretation, vol. 58, no. 1, Jan. 2004, pp. 62–64. 

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

(4) Spellers, Stephanie. The Episcopal Way (Church’s Teachings for a Changing World) . Church Publishing Inc.. Kindle Edition.

SERMON Epiphany 4C 2/3/19 St. Monica’s Episcopal Church

Jeremiah 1:4-10; Psalm 71:1-6; 1 Corinthians 13:1-13; Luke 4:21-30 

God’s Mission of Love

            In Presiding Bishop Michael Curry’s sermon at the Royal Wedding last year he said, “We were made by a power of love, and our lives were meant – and are meant – to be lived in that love. That’s why we are here.”  In today’s New Testament reading we heard words of love, those most often read during marriage services.  The wisdom found in those words are not mere sentimentality.  This poetic masterpiece was intended for a Christian community that was most likely planted by the Apostle Paul himself.  Back in Paul’s time, that little community was quite troubled.  There was conflict, “upsmanship,” and just plain nasty behavior happening in good ole Corinth.  Paul wrote to them to remind them that their mission and purpose was all about LOVE.  Paul said, “you can speak eloquently, you can be as smart as a PhD, you can have the faith of Job, you can be the most generous philanthropist known to the world, but if you do not have love, and you do not do these things because of love, you are just making noise and you are not following the way of Jesus.”  

            The church in Corinth forgot that Jesus had given them a mission of love, but they had become distracted from their purpose. When it came to caring for one another, sharing the Good News of Go’s love, it all became about “what they wanted,” and not “what God wanted.” Paul redefined love (Jesus style) for them.  He wrote, “Love is patient, kind, it bears, believes, and hopes for all things.  Love never fails.”   Paul held up a mirror for them to see themselves “face to face,” because they were having an identity crisis or better yet, a mission crisis. 

            This church universal has always been, is now, and will always be on a mission of love, which was inaugurated in the story we heard last week; when in the synagogue he read about the release for captives, sight for the blind, and Good News for the poor.  Maybe after last week’s sermon you were left with this question, “So, Jesus has proclaimed all these things, what do we do now?”  In today’s gospel, we hear the second half of that same story, and if you were listening, we will have a better understanding of the mission for this local branch of the Body of Christ.

Jesus Mission Focus

            A couple of years ago, I returned for a visit to my hometown, a quaint little village located in the foothills of the Smoky Mountains of East Tennessee.  When I arrived, my home was not the same, because I was not the same. I changed and grew up and yet, the town was still self-absorbed and missed opportunities to participate in the improvements and progress all around her.  My hometown lost its sense of itself and the people had forgotten what made it a quaint village in the first place.  The little village was not the same, because she never adapted to the change around her.

            In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus came back to his home (Nazareth) and in its synagogue, after he rolled up that scroll, his friends were utterly amazed that little Joseph’s boy could speak so eloquently and do so many miraculous things.  They were proud of their kinsman, but there pride in him had an underlying motivation.

            When our old friends do well, we may brag a little and say, “yep, that’s my friend, I’m sure she’ll not forget me.”  We hope for some of our friends’ success for ourselves.  Dennis Bratcher asserts that Jesus’ homeys wanted him “to take care of the local problems at hand before worrying about more far reaching issues.” (3)  Jesus’ friends wanted to claim him for themselves and to make things right for them first, before going off and doing things for others.  Jesus knew what was in their hearts, when he said, “Doctor, go heal yourself. Do here in your hometown what we heard that you did in Capernaum.” Jesus knew that God’s mission was not their motivation, because they wanted only what they wanted.  His friends thought, Jesus, “why didn’t you start out doing those things here first, Jesus? After all, charity begins at home!” (3)  

            We must remember that Jesus’ mission is far-reaching, expansive, worldwide, creation inclusive, and not limited to one little town, one little community, or one group’s self-interested desire.  Jesus was not and is not our own personal homeboy that brings miraculous mission success to us, or is his mission merely to benefit the home team.  Jesus had, has, and will have a much bigger mission and we have a part in it.

Distractions from the Mission

            Last week, I mentioned the story of the people of Israel who became distracted from their mission, when they built a Golden Calf and almost missed God’s purpose for them.  They had an identity crisis because they forgot who they were and whose they were.  They wanted something tangible that would define them, something they could get their hands on. They forgot that God defined who they were, and clarified what they were supposed to do in the first place.  Tanner Smith in his blog explains, “Who you think you are shapes what you think you should do. Your perceived identity—whether human or organizational—shapes the questions you ask about the community you live in, and the future you hope for.” (6)

            Simon SInek, in his book Start with Why, explains how the corporation Apple is clear about its purpose and identity because they know their mission.  Sinek explains that Apple’s mission approach is NOT, “We make great computers. They’re user friendly, beautifully designed, and easy to use. Want to buy one?”  Rather, Apple’s mission is stated as, “With everything we do, we aim to challenge the status quo. We aim to think differently. Our products are user-friendly, beautifully designed, and easy to use. We just happen to make great computers. Want to buy one?”  

            Do you see the difference?  The why of Apple (even if they are getting a little distracted lately) is that “we aim to challenge the status quo, we aim to think differently.”  Through most of her history, Apple has stood out as not merely a purveyor of good electronics, but a company focused on innovation, quality, and cutting edge marketing.  They know their purpose, and well that brings us back to exploring what defines the purpose of the church.  St. Monica’s, who are we, and whose are we, and what does God want us to do?

The Mission has a Church

            Bishop Graham Cray (Bishop in the Church of England) once said, “It is not the Church of God that has a mission in the world, but the God of mission, who has a Church in the world.” (5) Theologian Dennis Bratcher explains, “A true embrace of mission, a true vision of the future will call us out of our comfort zones, may propel us into places that we would not choose, or may call us to paths that we would not walk if we had a choice.” (3)  Like Apple, St. Monica’s once again is becoming clear about who we are, whose we are, and what on whose mission we are focused.  

            Have you noticed that God is doing something amazing in our midst these days? Honestly, it has nothing to do with having a new rector, nor does it have anything to do with the material and outward elements of our community.  God is creating a new future for this community right here and right now.  St. Monica’s is growing and expanding our reach beyond our four walls in new ways. Did you know that our Radical Welcome team’s report shows that we have approximately 70 new folks who have decided to take this journey with us, all in the last 11 months? Did you know that we have new people taking on leadership positions in the church and helping to lead us on a new path?  Did you know that folks who have been around for some time are excited and energized and dreaming of God’s possibilities?  Right now, there is energy, passion, and commitment emerging in our midst, because we are following God’s mission, and God has a church ready, willing, and able to join that mission.   However, we must not forget that we are not on a mission to merely have a great worship service, some really enlightening education classes, some delicious meals and fun activities, or to be a religious social gathering place.  We are on a mission of transformational and life-giving love, a mission that began when Jesus unrolled that scroll in that Nazarene synagogue.  

            This year we will begin the hard work of listening prayerfully for God’s renewed call on our community, and we will do so in interactive, tangible, and prayerful ways.  We will begin to discern prayerfully what Godwants us to do, what Godwants us to become, and howGodwants us to be on this mission of love he has given us.  Do not forget “that Jesus (needs) disciples who listen to him and obey him, and he (will) form them to continue the mission after him.” (1) We need to get ready my sisters and brothers, because the Missio Dei (God’s mission) does have a church to carry that mission into the world; God has us. God is calling us forth, and we have all tools, resources, and energy that we need to live by “faith, hope, and love, these three.”  With God’s help we are not going to be diverted from God’s mission for us, as long as we remember that the greatest of these virtues of mission is love.”

REFERENCES

(1) Baawobr, Richard K. “Opening a Narrative Programme: Luke 4.16-30 and the Black Bagr Narrative.” Journal for the Study of the New Testament, vol. 30, no. 1, Sept. 2007, pp. 29–53. 

(2) Lovell, Arnold B. “I Corinthians 13.” Interpretation, vol. 48, no. 2, Apr. 1994, pp. 176–180.

(3) http://www.crivoice.org/lectionary/YearC/Cepiphany4nt.html

(4) https://www.episcopalnewsservice.org/2018/07/06/79th-general-convention-july-5-sermon-by-presiding-bishop-michael-curry/

(5) https://thewearypilgrim.typepad.com/files/mission_shaped_church-1.pdf

(6) https://inallthings.org/gods-mission-has-a-church/

SERMON Epiphany 3C 1/27/19 St. Monica’s Episcopal Church

Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10; Psalm 19; 1 Corinthians 12:12-31a; Luke 4:14-21

INTRODUCTION

I read an interesting article the other day about body image, advertising, and the resultant effects on our spiritual, mental, and physical health. The article stated, “Although advertising aims to convince us to buy things, ads seldom portray people that look like us.” The article also stated, “The constant barrage of unrealistically skinny images can stir up feelings of inadequacy, anxiety and depression.”(1) Having a healthy self-image is essential to spiritual health, but in a world where we are bombarded with unrealistic expectations, it is difficult for us to embrace our beauty within. This distortion of “God in us” negatively impacts how we engage in the mission God has in store for us as community.

Some faith communities fall prey to self-image distortion. They compare themselves to mega churches or larger neighboring churches, which with grand ministries, enormous buildings and grounds, and expanding programs seem to be so successful. Those growing or revitalizing little communities begin to compare themselves to others and they feel inadequate, insufficient, and not enough. So, they become impatient and begin to focus on external indicators of mission success, and eventually became distracted from what God has in store for them as a community.

Throughout the history of salvation, communities that tried to discern God’s desire for them also struggled with mission distractions. When Moses led the people of Israel out of bondage in Egypt to the promise land, they were on a long journey that required trust, patience, and perseverance. However, while Moses was on the mountain listening for God’s direction to move forward, the people became impatient, built a Golden Calf (an image of worship of their own making), and through this disobedience, God’s plan for them was totally distorted.

Trusting in God’s perfect guidance for God’s people requires patience, discernment, and a self-image of the community that focuses on the beauty, gifts, and mission of the people within, not the mere external shell that contains that beauty. A healthy self-image and the resultant healthy spiritual journey have much more to do with what is inside, than what is on the outside.

The Human Body

“The Vitruvian Man … is a drawing by … Leonardo da Vinci, which was accompanied by notes based on the work of the architect Vitruvius. The drawing itself is often used as an implied symbol of the essential symmetry of the human body, and by extension, the symmetry of the universe as a whole.” (2) Consider the beauty and perfection of the human body, and you see a glimpse of the wisdom of The Creator.

The eyes, ears, nose, hands, feet, heart, and brain all function together like a well-engineered machine, and each member has its own function. This body in which we inhabit is so perfect, but it still has flaws and imperfections that make each one of us unique and amazing.

That same kind of diversity, both in mission and spiritual gifts is what makes each individual church so unique as well. Like the human body, the church, the Body of Christ gathers together in unity and purpose, but by God’s unique bringing together of that people, we find God’s purpose so we might continue Christ’s mission in the world. Maybe that is a different understanding of church than that with we have known.

Eternal in the heavens

When I was a child my mother taught me a nursery rhyme, to try and help me understand what church was all about. It went like this, “Here’s the church, here’s the steeple, open the doors and see all the people.” The problem with this rhyme is that it implies that the Body of Christ is merely a building filled with people. If we perceive the church as merely a place or edifice, we distort the concept of Christian community that Jesus had in mind.

In the New Testament, Ekklesia is the Greek word often translated as “church”. It means: a gathering of citizens called out from their homes into some public place, an assembly; or those who anywhere, in a city, village, constitute such a company and are united as one body. In other words, the Church is not the building, but the people.

The Apostle Paul, in his letter to the Corinthians, clarifies that fact. He said, “We have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.” The church is the people gathered together in unity, and not merely the edifice in which, the church gathers. We are the church, and when we gather together for worship, study, encouragement, we can be sent out there in the world in every day mission.

In my book, Pioneers, Misfits and Mission, I wrote, “to effectively be the church in the 21st century, we cannot just expect a growing segment of our population (irreligious folks) to step into a church building unaided.” (3) To “bring all people into unity with God and each other in Christ,” which is the mission of the church; we must become clear and focused on God’s purpose, mission, and desire for this particular branch of the Body of Christ. That may mean that the former models of being church in which we all grew up, may not work in this culture today. We will have to do church differently from what we remember from our childhood.

The poetic description of church that we will need to teach the next generations of Jesus followers will sound more like this, “Here’s the church, because here’s the people, look at how they serve others, love others, and are transformed together in Christ. I wonder, do we really need that nice new steeple?” Our mission today is more difficult than ever. We live in a culture where 25-30% of the people among us have no connection to traditional models of religious community.

Today, to be effective in mission, we must begin everything we do, every goal we set, and in every action we take, focused on God’s mission first. Only then will we be able to discern God’s call for how we are to move forward, to discern what the resources, tools, staffing, or maybe even a grander edifice that we will need, to support God’s mission being accomplished through us. You may be thinking, “So, what is our mission again Eric?”

Christ’s Mission

After his sojourn in the desert for 40 days, Jesus entered one of the synagogues, unrolled the scroll of Isaiah and read, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.  He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

Throughout Jesus’ ministry, the miracles, teachings, self-giving love on the cross, resurrection, and ascension, Jesus fulfilled this prophecy we heard today. He did it not dot it in the synagogues and Temple, but out there in everyday life and then, he gave that mission to us. After the resurrection, Jesus appeared to he disciples and told them, “go and make disciples of all nations.” That task, my friends is our mission … to make disciples, to expand the Body of Christ, and to help others to do what Jesus does.

Jesus gave us the work to bring good news to the poor (poor in spirit, emotion, and situation); release to the captives and to let the oppressed go free (those in bondage to injustice, indignity, and division); to bring sight to the blind (who cannot see the love of God and the call to love one another). This is the purpose of the church, but we cannot do it effectively following God’s desire and plan, if we get distracted and forget the mission itself, or if we fail to care for the body’s health and welfare. You may ask, “So, why do we gather then Eric?”

Foundational Building Blocks

Our bodies need food, exercise, rest, water, oxygen, and yes, healthy relationships in order to thrive. We call these things the basics of life. Without them the body collapses, the body succumbs to the inevitability of decline and a lack of purpose. The church likewise needs communion, the Body and Blood of Christ to nourish, sustain, and make us unified. We need to exercise in the messiness of what it means to love one another as Jesus loved us. We need to rest in the prayers of mutual support, God’s grace, and in seeking God’s desire for us. We need to breath in the life sustaining grace of the Holy Spirit who inspires, encourages, and guides us all along the way. Most importantly, we need the interactions, connections, and mentoring or our mutual relationships in community.

These things are the foundational basics of Christian community, and without a solid foundation and purpose on which to build the Body (of Christ) it can collapse, and succumb to the inevitability of potential and inevitable decline. Without these basic foundations, we will be unable effectively, to accomplish the work God has given us to do.

Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man reminds us that we are an incredible, diverse, and complex system of members woven together in beauty and precision. However, we can succumb to a false self-image, believing we are not enough or we need to “keep up with the Jones’s.” So, we must be patient, listen, discern, and seek God’s desire for our common life together. We must care for the Body of Christ and build it up for healthy mission and ministry. We must invite others to join us in this journey of discovery, growth, and discipleship and bring more gifts, beauty, and diversity to the mission.

If we do these things first, we will accomplish what God has in store for us now, and in the expectant, exciting possibilities and dreams that God is already stirring in each of us. In time, God will lead us where he desires us to go that is, if we patiently listen for the Spirit’s voice, follow the Spirit’s lead, and trust that already we are the beautiful, gifted, and energized Body of Christ right here and right now, and always will be in the decades to come.

REFERENCES

(1) https://www.mirror-mirror.org/the-media-and-body-image.htm

(2) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vitruvian_Man

(3) Misfits, Pioneers, and Mission, Cooter, Eric, Create Space Publishing (Amazon), 2017, p. 6

SERMON 1/20/19 Epiphany 2C St. Monica’s Episcopal Church, Naples, FL

Isaiah 62:1-5; Psalm 36:5-10; 1 Corinthians 12:1-11; John 2:1-11

My hour has not come

            We often hear this story of Jesus’ miraculous act at a wedding (when he turned water to wine) and we remember it as a nice little story from Sunday school days.   We might even skim over it, as if it were a child’s fairytale. I saw a meme on Facebook several months ago about the “wine conversion miracle” and I have to admit, it made me chuckle.  It was a picture of a Publix display rack, and above the top shelf where you would normally see a “Wine” sign that described the contents of the display, filled with “Yellow Tail Chardonnay” and “Barefoot Merlot,” the sign actually said, “Water.”  The caption for the picture was this, “Well, it looks like Jesus took another stroll through Publix again today.”  Yes, it was quite funny, and it reminds us how we hear about Jesus’ miracles and either think, “that was nice of him,” or dismiss them outright without knowing the depth of what was actually happening. I want to share with you some tidbits about this true to life occurrence involving Our Lord, because there is so much more to this story of the Wedding at Cana, than merely a “water and wine” grocery aisle pun.

            We hear in John’s gospel today, that Jesus was at a wedding in Cana of Galilee with his disciples and his mother and after the ceremony, there was a great feast going on.  Suddenly, the host ran out of wine, and the party was most likely going to come to an abrupt and premature end.  Of course, there was no local Publix where the steward could go and buy a few cases of Cabernet.  Then suddenly, Mary, Jesus’ mother, took an opportunity for Jesus to do more than just solve a beverage issue.  Mary said to Jesus, “They have no wine.”  

            Have you ever considered whether Mary merely let her son know, “Jesus, they have no wine,” or rather, did she give him a gentle motherly coaxing (like all of us have had)?  Did she really mean, “Jesus, they have no wine, this is your chance, fix it.” Regardless whether Mary was just stating a fact about the wedding circumstances, or if she was intentionally coaxing her son to reveal himself in a potential miracle situation, Jesus understood what his mother was alluding to at that point.  Jesus’ response to his Mother was, “My hour has not yet come.”  In other words, “this is not the right time, Mom.”

Ministry Time: Chronos vs. Kairos

            “This phrase suggests (maybe) that Jesus had hoped for a more carefully chosen setting for his first presentation of himself.” (1) Like many of us, when the call to respond to the movement of the Spirit that coaxes us to respond to our ministry call, Jesus was secretly thinking, “this is not what I had carefully planned and scheduled, nor how I wanted to control how this thing was going to happen.”  Mary’s motherly prodding of Jesus to act was not the moment he had carefully put in his ICalendar, Microsoft Outlook, or Day Planner in order to control and plan his life.  That is normally the way we plot and plan our lives today.   Mary’s prodding of Jesus to act was what is known as a kairosmoment, an event when “certain unexpected circumstances push us to divert, to take a different choice, and to use those opportune moments to understand our true calling.” 

            In a Christian Centuryarticle written by Jack Good, he comments, “Kairos time … represents discontinuity, when an unexpected barrier forces one to move off a planned course and adjust to new realities.” (1) What Jesus had planned for his ministry, in a single moment became an event that he had not expected.  Jesus’ to do list was trashed in a single moment, and everything changed, and his path was diverted, and his purpose and mission was coming to reality right then and there.  

            Like Jesus, throughout our journeys of faith, we have to understand that we have been given specific gifts from God for ministry, and there will never be a perfect or maybe even an opportune time, for which to use those gifts for God’s kingdom.  In his letter to the Church in Corinth, The Apostle Paul points out, “Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone.”   In other words, God is the one who gives us the gifts for ministry, such as:  wisdom, knowledge, faith, healing, prophecy, and discernment. Paul reminds us too. that God is the one, who gives us the ministry in which, we might use those gifts. Finally Paul tells us that it is God, who creates the kairosmoments, in which we might respond to the call to serve.  The key here is that we have a choice to respond, and we can do so with faith, knowing we can only serve “With God’s help.”   

God calls us to serve

            Throughout my ministry as a priest, both in diocesan and parish work, I have asked people to discern and pray about a ministry, for which I believed they had the gifts.  I have mentored lay people who initially were led to “on the edge/out of the box ministry,” but after months of coaching, they suddenly felt a nudge to answer the call to discern traditional ordained ministry.  I have served as Nominating Committee Chair for the diocese and over the years, I invited priests, deacons, and lay people to consider serving in leadership positions and on committees and other groups.  In the USAF Auxiliary, I have asked young chaplains to consider taking on positions of leadership to oversee, manage, and train other new, younger chaplains.

            Sometimes when I asked people to pray about responding to God’s call for lay or ordained ministry, they often had reasons to say no. Sometimes fear of change, or the fear of failure resulted in excuses like, “I am too busy,” or “I am not really good at that,” or I just don’t have time.”   My own call to ordained ministry was such a kairosmoment.  Nearly 14 years ago someone saw gifts in me that I could not see in myself.  My priest asked me, “have you ever felt called to ordained ministry?”  My response was a lot like Jesus’ answer when his mother wanted him to act.   I said, “You’re kidding right, it’s not the right time for us to go away to seminary for three years, quit my job, live on one income, leave our home, and leave all our friends.” I made excuses, and tried to get out of it, and I hoped for the perfect time.  I tried to control when I wanted to do ministry, but God would have none of it.  He knew that it was the right time for my family to set out on that new journey. Throughout my time of discerning my own ministry call, there were many kairosmoments that made it clear to me, that I needed to be obedient to God. God opened every door, and made it possible for us to serve, even when my agenda, my calendar, and my excuses would have kept me from responding to God’s call.   

Answering the Call

            How about you?  Maybe God has been nudging you to begin serving in a new ministry here at St. Monica’s. Maybe people have told you that you have the gifts for some special kind of service in the church.  Maybe you said, “I have so much on my plate,” or maybe like Jesus in an unexpected moment, when the need was presented for  you to serve, you said, “it’s just not the right time.” 

            The One who created all we perceive, the One who miraculously changed water into wine is the same One who gives us the gifts for mission, the passion to serve, and the work to do.   From our human perspective, there are no perfect times or circumstances to do ministry, but for the One who made us so perfectly, makes possible “certain unexpected circumstances to push us to divert, to take a different choice, and to use those opportune moments to understand our true calling.”  

            Later in his ministry, Jesus had many kairosmoments, in addition to the one heard in the gospel today.  One time Jesus was teaching the crowds, and then he had a moment when something happened unexpectedly.  He stopped, saw all his people living daily in poverty, sickness and in need, and with great compassion he said, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.” (Matt 9:37b-38)   

            Some things have never changed, even in the church of the 21stcentury, and still today, the work of ministry is beyond the scope of what any one of us alone can do.  Yet, the Master coaxes us to ask God to send some help.  As we move forward together on this journey of parish mission and ministry, please remember that each one of us is the help that God is sending to us. Remember, you are not being asked to change “water into wine,” but merely to use the gifts you have been given for service in God’s Kingdom.  Your ministry call will come soon, if not already. When it does come, please be open to that kairosmoment and with confidence in Our Lord Jesus to walk the journey alongside you, respond with, “I will with God’s help.”

REFERENCES

(1) Good, Jack. “Defining Moment.” The Christian Century, vol. 121, no. 1, Jan. 2004, p. 16.  

SERMON 1/13/19 Epiphany 1C “Feast of the Baptism of Our Lord”, St. Monica’s Naples

Isaiah 43:1-7; Psalm 29; Acts 8:14-17; Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

Baptism

         Today we commemorate the First Sunday after Epiphany, but more importantly, it is the Feast of the Baptism of Our Lord. It is one of only six baptismal feasts at which, baptisms may occur in the Episcopal Church and in many mainline churches. In Luke’s gospel account of Jesus’ own baptism (we heard today) John the baptizer told the people, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you withthe Holy Spirit and fire.”  Like at Pentecost, today we hear the use of the word fire and Spirit in conjunction with one another.  Let me clarify something here about the fire John was talking about, because some folks are a little confused by all this talk of fire and its relation to baptism. 

         Have you heard the term, “spiritual fire insurance?” It is a misconception that comes from medieval times, when people then, perceived baptism as a magical formula for saving babies from the fires of hell.  Even today, some people still believe that baptism is a ritual, done as soon as possible after the child’s birth, to insure the safety of the child’s eternal soul.  Baptism is not “spiritual fire insurance,” nor is it a private affair for the child and family, nor is it an empty rite of passage that is once and done, and the child (or adult) is all set.  Baptism is the beginning point of a person’s faith journey, and the door into the Body of Christ, which is why the baptismal font is located at the door of the church.  Baptism is the holy beginning point of a life-long journey of faith in Christ and life together in the church.  

What is Baptism

         Baptism is one of two sacraments in the Episcopal Church, the other being Holy Communion.  Sacraments are sacred moments through which, an inward grace from God is conveyed with outward symbols, prayer, and action.  Interestingly enough, in the church, a Bishop consecrates two pieces of sacred furniture, which are the baptismal font and the Altar.  Baptism and Communion are the key connecting points of Christian community, because life as a community begins in the waters of baptism and then, each week we come together for Holy Communion, where we are fed to go out into the world as witness of grace.  Baptism is the beginning point and Holy Eucharist is the sustaining point of a cycle of community in which, we experience God’s grace.

         At baptism, we are forever changed and made free from those things that keep us from God’s grace and purpose for our lives. At baptism, God promises his Spirit will guide and direct our lives. At baptism, we are brought into union with Christ, with each other and with the Church of every time and place.” (1) Community is the key to baptism and something we often overlook. Baptism is entry into the community and that truth, will turn upside down the idea that baptism is “once and done,” private affair, fire insurance, or an empty rite of passage.  Following the example of Jesus, we are a baptismal community not just baptized individuals.

Baptismal Community

         Pastor Heather Carlson writes, “at (Jesus) baptism …. (he) isn’t alone. There are others there, being baptized, and there is someone there to baptize Jesus. Jesus isn’t a religious lone ranger.” (3) There are no authentic Christian lone rangers, because it is impossible to be a growing, transforming, and missional Christian all by yourself.  Jesus formed a community of people that began with twelve unlikely characters, and now, the church today is a group of over 2.2 billion people worldwide.  

         Being a Christian has always been a communal journey of nurturing, growth, and transforming that can only occur through involvement in the life of a congregation. You may ask, “Why do we baptize babies; they are too young to make those commitments and what happens if the parents and godparents do not follow up and never come back.”  If that happens, then that is a spiritual tragedy (and sin) because at baptism, parents, Godparents and the entire church make a promise to God, to the child (or adult candidate), and to each other, to help that candidate grow in the faith.   We make those promises because as a community, we have a Christian obligation to help one another grow in Christ.  

         So, we all promise to help children and adults to grow in the faith so, at a mature age, they can stand publically in the church and take on those baptismal promises for themselves, declaring to God and the church present, that they accept Jesus as their Lord and Savior.  By the way, that is confirmation, when the Bishop lays hands on their heads as a gesture (an outward sign) confirmingthey have made that mature public affirmation.  Baptismal promises are essential elements because they help us understand, and they hold us accountable to who we are, how we live, and what our mission and purpose is as the family of God.

         Today, in place of the Nicene Creed, we will renew these promises to each other and to God.  Please listen closely to each carefully as we promise  to gather, learn, share communion, and pray, grow, transform, and follow Jesus together. We will promise to evangelize, serve others, engage in mission, and to love our neighbors together.   We will promise (with this caveat) that we can only do these things “With God’s Help,”  knowing we have the Holy Spirit to lead the way.  

A community of the baptized, the Body of Christ

         God’s Spirit got inside our lives at our baptism, and the Holy Spirit is active in our lives, even when things get a little messy in Christian community.  Through the Spirit, we are intertwined like the objects of a mobile that hangs over a baby’s crib.  Just remember, you cannot move one object on one side of the mobile, without that movement having an affect on every other piece.  There are no decisions, actions, or conversations in the church that can be made in isolation.  We are connected by the Spirit of God and so, we must care for one another, because we need one another.

         We baptized folk gather together for lots of reasons but hopefully, we gather for growth in Christ and fellowship with one another, and not for the purpose of being merely a religious self-help association.  The Church is a lighthouse and not a clubhouse. We do not gather for our own benefit, edification, and sanctification. The Body of Christ’s purpose is to be beacon of hope, for a world, struggling in the darkness of despair. The church guides, moves, and goes out to serve.  We move from Font, to Table, and then to the Mission Field, every single week.

From Font to Table to Mission Field

         Every Sunday, you may have noticed that I begin the service from the baptismal font, and some of you do the same.  My practice is to offer a prayer for God’s help,  to dip my hand in the baptismal water, and then I cross myself.  The font is where I end the service, including the same action as before, but culminating with the dismissal, “Let us go forth into the world, rejoicing in the power of the Spirit.”  These actions are not empty gestures, but serve as a reminder that we as a community live this cycle of faith from the Font, to the Holy Table (fed and filled with Jesus Christ) and then we are sent out into the world to be his ambassadors and witnesses of the Good News of Christ.  You know in the Nicene Creed we say, “I believe in one holy catholic and APOSTOLIC church.”  We are sent out, which is what apostolic means. We are a community sent out on mission, and by virtue of our baptism, we have given gifts for the Kingdom’s use.

         In last week’s sermon I said, “Get ready to discover the spiritual gifts, talents, and passions has God given you, and those gifts which are to be offered back to the King, so he might use them to spread the kingdom.”  You do know that each one of you have been given gifts for mission and ministry.  You do know that “where your spiritual gifts, given to you by the Holy Spirit at your baptism, meet the world’s greatest needs; that is your ministry.”  

         What gifts at baptism were you given, when the Holy Spirit brought the grace of this sacrament in your life?   Are you a teacher gifted to share God’s word?  Then teach!  Are you a speaker gifted to read scripture to the church? Then read! Are you a singer gifted to sing and lead others to song? Then sing!  Are you a leader gifted with insight, wisdom, and vision? Then lead!  Are you (Fill in the blank) gifted to do ministry in this church and in the world? Then do it! You see all of us (clergy and Lay alike) by virtue of our baptism are ALL called by God, into ministry to take what God has given us, and to serve others, both inside, and outside the doors of the church.  

          “He will baptize you withthe Holy Spirit and fire.” We all need a little baptismal fire lit under us from time to time.  We need the fire of the Holy Spirit, to insure us each day that with God’s help, we are enabled to keep those promises each one of us have made.  We need the fire of the Holy Spirit, so when we gather together in community, we can strengthened, empowered, and equipped to continue together, Christ’s ministry of love, peace, grace, mercy, and reconciliation for the world.  My prayer for all of us is that each week, we too can catch the fire and then, “go in peace to love and SERVE the Lord!”

REFERENCES

1 “Baptism, Eucharist, and Ministry,” World Council of Churches Faith and Order Paper No. 111, Geneva, 1982, p. 2

https://processandfaith.org/lectionary-commentary/the-first-sunday-after-the-epiphany-the-baptism-of-the-lord-13-january-2018/

http://www.ekklesiaproject.org/blog/2013/01/risky-waters/

SERMON 1-6-19, The Feast of Epiphany 1C, St. Monica’s, Naples, FL

Isaiah 60:1-6;  Psalm 72:1-7,10-14; Ephesians 3:1-12; Matthew 2:1-12 

Magi: Fact or Fiction?

            Today is the Feast of the Epiphany, and in the gospel reading, we hear about the Magi, the “Three Wise Men” who visited the Nativity scene soon after Jesus’ birth.  I want to share with you some interesting tidbits about the story of the Magi, of which, you may already be aware, and maybe not: (1) This account is only found in Matthew’s gospel, (2) The Magi were from the East, so they were most likely Gentiles, (3) many of the details about the Magi are not found in scripture, but come from later tradition, (4) western tradition has the Magi’s number at three (because of the three gifts), but eastern tradition says there were twelve, (5) tradition tells us their names were Balthsar, Melchior, and Caspar, (6) the word Magi in Greek does not mean royalty or Kings, but it relates to practitioners of eastern magical art (e.g. the fascination with that star over the manger), and (7) Magi did not always have a positive connotation in other parts of scripture.

            Why is the story of the Epiphany event, and its later tradition additions, so important to provide meaning to Matthew’s depiction of the story of the Incarnation?  First, there are threads of similarity between birth of Moses and Jesus.  Moses was born at a time when Pharaoh was threatened by the idea of a great leader arising from among the Hebrew children.  Herod was afraid of the threat of the promised King revealed in the Babe Jesus. Pharaoh ordered all the male children killed, and Herod did a heinous act when (according to tradition) he slaughtered the Innocents.  There is also an Exodus connection in these two stories, whereby Moses led the people of Israel from the bondage of slavery in Egypt, to become a new people to shine God’s light into the world.  

            In Jesus Christ, God came among us to deliver us from the bondage of the slavery of our own sin, to make all the people (Jew and Gentile alike) the lights by which all might experience the grace of God. So there is a theological connection between Moses and Jesus’ birth stories, both of which are the end pieces of the thread of God’s narrative of salvation.

Herod:  a Key Character in this story

            There is another, often overlooked character in this story Herod, who challenges us to consider our Epiphany moments. Herod’s response to the Epiphany, of the light entering into the world was very different from the reaction of the Magi, but such was the character of Herod.  Herod Achelaus his full name, was the son of Herod and Malthace, and the brother of Herod Antipas (a later antagonist of Jesus).  He ruled the region of Idumea, Judea, and Samaria in 4 BCE. Herod Achelaus treated both Jews and Samaritans with brutality and tyranny, which is the backdrop of the story we hear about today.  When given control of the realm, Achelaus proceeded to kill about 3000 of the local inhabitants. After this event a prolonged revolt took place, which later led to his demise, when in 6CE Rome deposed him and exiled him to Gaul.  

            In Matthew’s Gospel we read these words, “Then Herod secretlycalled for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared.”   Herod sent them to Bethlehem to find the child, so he could “Pay him homage.”  This is so ironic, because “homage” as translated from the Greek is obeisance, which Webster defines as deferential or humble respect. Herod had no intention of offering “Deferential respect” to the Babe King in the manger, because that child threatened Herod’s power and throne.  Herod had no plan to humble himself before God Almighty in Flesh, the Babe in the manger, but rather, he wanted to eliminate the threat to his power, just as he did with the 3000 innocents he slaughtered.  

            Herod sought self-preservation not self-denial, self-importance not humility, and self worship not self-giving worship of God. That was the dilemma that Herod found himself in in that Epiphany moment, and it was the same issue he struggled with his entire life.  Herod’s pursuit of power tried to overshadow the power of God’s love coming into the world. Herod’s own agenda tried to overshadow God’s story of salvation and God’s plan.  When he learned about the King in the manger, Herod’s Epiphany moment and his later choices in response to it, led him not toward grace, but far away from God’s Kingdom.  Have you ever had an Epiphany moment in your own spiritual journey?

Herod or Magi

            Walter Brueggemann writes about Epiphany moments in his Christian Centuryarticle “Off by Nine Miles.” He reminds us that the narrative of Epiphany (primarily) is about how God’s grace broke into human history, not just for a single group of folks, but for all; (Jew and Gentile) alike.  Brueggemann shows us that the subtext stories of Herod and the Maggi are actually contrasting, and personify the real conflict that exists within each of our own spiritual journeys.  

            When we experience an Epiphany moment in this life, when the light of the world Jesus Christ shines in our hearts and highlights the recesses that we would rather remain in darkness, we face the reality of who we are at the core.  When that light shines, as Brueggemann states, “We can choose a “return to normalcy” in a triumphalist mode, a life of self-sufficiency that contains within it its own seeds of destruction, or we can choose an alternative that comes in innocence and a hope that confounds our usual pretensions. We can receive life given in vulnerability.” (1)  

            In other words, like Herod, when our Epiphany moments come, we either choose the path of self (preservation, satisfaction, absorption) or we choose the way of self giving love in Jesus Christ.  Maybe we continue to pursue our own quest for power and self-sufficiency and that will squelch the true light of hope, self-giving, humility, and vulnerability made real in Christ, who came to us as a baby, and brought hope to the poor and downtrodden, gave of himself on a cross, and then, even his love overcame death. That too was the way of the Magi.  They did “not resist God’s call, but (went) on to the village and rather than hesitate or resist, they reorganized their wealth and learning, and reoriented themselves and their lives around a baby with no credentials.” (1) The choices to follow the way of Jesus is always ours. Following the way of love, I mean real love, always demands a choice.

Epiphany moments

            I was speaking with a trusted friend and colleague a few years ago about a very difficult and tenuous ministry situation.  I opened my heart to him about how unfair the situation was, about how I was not being given the opportunity to make a change that I wanted to make, and about how the religious system was keeping us from doing God’s will.  My dear friend looked at me and said very clearly, “Eric, this is not about you.” The light of Christ shone brightly into the dark recess of my heart at that moment, and I was confronted with my own desire for personal ministry success, a desire that overshadowed the fact that God was trying to do something very different from what I wanted. 

             “Eric, this is not about you, but it is about the ministry that is being led down a path, you wish it not to go,” my friend added.  I would call that an Epiphany moment.  I would say that was an instant, when what I wanted and where God was leading me to go were in polar- opposite places.  Like Herod, I could have eliminated the obstacle standing in MY way, or I could have remained humble, paid homage (deferent respect) to God, and patiently wait to see where things ended up.  By the grace of God, I chose the latter, and grace overcame.  Throughout this rough and rugged path of life, I am sure you have had a moment, as Webster defines, that were instances of “illuminating discovery, realization, or disclosure” that confronted you. Which path did you take in that moment; that of Herod or that of the Magi?  

            There is an interesting part of the Magi story, whereas in paying homage to Jesus, the wise men brought gifts of tribute to him. Wikipedia states that “all three gifts were ordinary offerings and gifts given to a king: Myrrh used as an anointing oil as a symbol of death, frankincense as a perfume as a symbol of deity, and gold as a valuable a symbol of kingship on earth. The key to the gifts is this, “the Magi’s gave from their abundance given them by God, and their gifts were outward signs of the faith and trust in God they received.” The Magi offered to God, from what God had given them, so it might have been used to further God’s Kingdom. 

            For the next eight weeks, after the Feast of the Baptism of Our Lord next Sunday, and until Lent begins on Ash Wednesday March 6, we have yet another long liturgical season, but this one will be focused on Epiphany moments.  During this season, I pray you will challenged to make the choices to follow the path of the Kingdom of God. I pray each you will take the Magi path and allow the light of God’s grace and truth to shine and lead you to your true selves; children of God. I pray God will show us how to be witness of God’s grace in the world every day. I pray we have the courage to take the path of those wise Eastern mystics, who chose to offer God the spiritual gifts they had been given to used by the King, in order to spread his kingdom far and wide.  So, over the next eight weeks, get ready my sisters and brothers.  Get ready to discover the spiritual gifts, talents, and passions has God given you, and those gifts which are are to offered back to the King, so he might use them to spread the kingdom far and wide, not just for some, but for all people, in all situations, and in all places.    

REFERENCES

(1) Brueggemann, Walter. “Off by Nine Miles.” The Christian Century, vol. 118, no. 35, Dec. 2001, p. 15.

(2) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Biblical_Magi

SERMON 12/30/18 First Sunday after Christmas Year C, St. Monica’s Naples, FL

Isaiah 61:10-62:3; Psalm 147 or 147:13-21; Galatians 3:23-25; 4:4-7;John 1:1-18

We are still celebrating!

Driving down our street the other day, I saw something so horrid and blasphemous. It was only 3rd day of Christmas and someone had already stripped the ornaments, removed the lights and tensile, and placed a poor lifeless evergreen Christmas Tree on the side of the road for pickup and disposal.  It was just the third day of Christmas, and I guess we are finished with caroling, decking the halls, opening the gifts, and now the world is ready for the Christmas celebrations to end.  It’s time to get back to the daily grind, competitive spirit, and dog eat dog world. It’s as if we just cannot bear “Peace on Earth, Goodwill to All” for too long.  For many of our friends, New Year’s Eve is the next big celebration, and we have to get those Christmas decorations down before 12/31/18.

But in the church, we will keep singing Christmas Carols, and we will keep the Advent wreath lit, and we will continue to don the church with white vestments and hangings, because there is more of Jesus’ story to be told.  The Feast of the Nativity continues on, and the liturgical season of Christmas does not end until next Sunday at the Feast of the Epiphany, and even then, there is another turn and twist in the story. 

There is much more to explore, and many more particulars about this miraculous reality that we need to stay with for a while.  This is not just some sentimental Hallmark story, that like a special little ornament we pull off the shelf in December, and on December 26thwe put it back in some dust covered storage tote for another 12 months. God Incarnate, born in a manger, living among us, restoring us to Godself, is the beginning of the story of grace, adoption, and salvation we Christians tell all year long.

Logos 

            On the first Sunday after Christmas, the lectionary designers jumped over to John’s gospel and left behind Luke’s historical account of the birth of the “Babe in Manger.”  John’s rendition of the Nativity is more philosophical in style and content. John’s version is like that of an eyewitness reporter on the scene, who offers a scholarly recording of events, and he provides depth of meaning and higher thought.  John wrote, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”  The “Word” used by John was not referring to holy scripture as some might believe, he was describing philosophically the concepts of God the Father’s thought, reason, and the act of speaking creation with, in, and through the Son in the unity of the Holy Spirit.  

Platonic philosophical allusions exist in John’s use of Logos or “word.”  Allister McGrath writes, “Plato ascribed particular importance … to the notion of the logos through which the rationality (or wisdom) of the world is communicated and conceptualized.”(1) John does not begin the story in Nazareth or Bethlehem or even with the visitation of Mary, he begins at the very beginning.  John connects the Incarnation event to the presence of logos, the Son, at the very beginning of life (creation). John tells us that in the beginning was the (logos) the divine spark, the concept, and the design of creation. John was referring to the Son, the second person of the Trinity, who in union with the Father and Spirit was in the beginning and acted in creation, and later in that manger and through that cross was active in the redemption and sanctification of all.           

God come now please!   

            In Genesis 1 where we read, “In the beginning” again.  We read in Genesis (ten times) that “God said” and creation came into being.  God said, “Let there be light,” “let there be a dome,” “let the waters under the sky,” “let there be lights,” and “let the waters bring forth,” etc.  God spoke and creation happened. Webster defines speaking as “to express thoughts, opinions, or feelings.” Through God’s action and outward expression of love , God’s plan became reality.  The Apostle John clarifies that the logos (or word, reason, thought of God) was present at that beginning, and through that beginning all life came to be and later, that same Creator came to redeem us and make the relationship whole.  

Intellectually it is rather difficult to grasp the concept of God incarnate in a small baby 2000 years ago, but that is where faith comes in.  In my seminary classes we spent months exploring Trinitarian and Christological heresies and church doctrine, all trying to understand these concepts.  I dare not bore you with the intricacies of the many unorthodoxies that have undermined church teaching.  Suffice it to say, the church teaches that God was fully present in Jesus Christ and that mystery frames the salvation story.  

You may ask, “Eric, why is this all this theological stuff so important?” Our faith in the paschal mystery of Christ is incomplete and flawed if we remove the fact that God was fully Incarnate in Jesus of Nazareth. God himself came to us to restore us to God’s original intent and plan, which is love, the same love experienced and manifested in the relationship between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, was fully present in Christ.  The mystery and basis of our faith is that God humbled Godself and acted in the only way to show love that we might understand.  He became one of us and did so to restore the relationship originated in creation.  Unfortunately, this Good News that we celebrate each and every day is the same Good News the world rejects.  We are too busy trying to make our own way, trying to pull ourselves up by the bootstraps, and too busy trying to do it all.

“Grace upon Grace” 

            Theologian David McCleod asserts, “There is only one thing certain about the world: It is not what it was meant to be. Something has gone wrong, and that something is sin.”(4) There is sin and separation in the world today.  There are still broken relationships, indifference, and self absorption.  In the shadow of “Peace on Earth, Goodwill to all,” immigrant children are still in custody and some have needlessly died, children are being shot in our schools, police officers are being hunted and killed, social media friends are posting divisive and horrible rhetoric, and even after so many years of progress, racism is on the rise in the U.S.”  Sin is alive today in the world, just as it was over 2000 years ago, but we do have hope in the light that came to us, to show us the way of love.

            The Apostle John wrote, “The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.”  So if that is true, where is God in all this brokenness and sin?  Why does God let this happen?  “People regularly complain of God’s indifference to human suffering and pain. They say that if God would appear, take some responsibility, and offer some help, then they would see Him, recognize Him, and follow Him.”(4)  We forget God did appear and John’s gospel makes clear that “God does care.”  He came as one of us, as the Incognito God in Christ, and through him God was made known to us.  The way of true life and love was made known to us in Jesus, and by his life, ministry, death and resurrection, we have grace upon grace.

            We live our lives as if grace is scarce and our experience of grace has been rationed, like gasoline during World War II.  The abundance of God’s grace upon grace is is real, if we but realize that the most beautiful and most valuable in life are those experiences not earned or deserved.   Yet, we seek to fill the holes in our lives with things and thus, we are left still wanting. “Always wanting more makes it very likely that we will overlook the gifts we have received. And perpetual dissatisfaction makes gratitude a very awkward and unfamiliar practice.” (3) We need conversion, a transformation of life toward gratitude, where we can begin to experience new life in Christ.

Children of God

            “A Bible teacher Harry Ironside was speeding across Colorado in a train and encountered a woman who wanted to speak to him about faith. As they sat and debated and discussed scripture and theology, Ironside asked the woman, “May I ask if you have been converted yourself?” Her face expressed the surprise she felt at such an abrupt question. “Why, I’ve always been interested in these things. My father was a class leader, and I have an uncle and two brothers who are all clergymen.” 

            Mr. Ironside answered. “And have you been converted yourself?” “You do not seem to understand,” was the woman’s grieved reply. ‘Yes, ma’am, I understood all that; but I mean, have you been truly converted to God yourself?” (4)  Some folks believe this conversion thing happens in a single moment when you have made a specific commitment to God. Conversion can happen in such a way for some, but for many of us, conversion is something that happens over a lifetime, and many of us are still not yet finished.  Conversion happens through grace by faith and as such, we become children of God.

            In Paul’s letter to the Galatians he writes, “so that we might receive adoption as children. And because you are children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” So you are no longer a slave but a child, and if a child then also an heir, through God.”  Becoming a Child of God is beyond our means to control or manipulate, because it begins by faith in Christ alone.   So, the Good News of Christmas Day continues even beyond the 12 days afterward, in which we continue to celebrate that God who spoke through the Word in creation, and entered time and space, joined with us in flesh, walked among us, and through faith in him, we are made God’s children.  This is Good News for all year long, so do not be to quick to move to the next season so quickly.  Keep the Christmas tree up and decorated just a few more days, share a few more gifts from God’s grace with those you love, sing a few more carols, and remember that because of God’s love and grace upon grace, through the Word (logos) spoken into our hearts, we are all children of God.

REFERENCES

(1) McGrath, Alister E. Christian Theology: An Introduction. , 2011., p. 176

 (2) MIDDLER PROGRAM-2008-2009  SYSTEMATIC THEOLOGY INTRODUCTION TO CHRISTIAN DOCTRINE HANDOUT # 6 DOCTRINE OF THE PERSON OF CHRIST

(3) Pohl, Christine D. “Homeward Bound.” The Christian Century, vol. 122, no. 26, Dec. 2005, p. 19.

(4) MacLeod, David J. “The Reaction of the World to the Word: John 1:10-13.” Bibliotheca Sacra, vol. 160, no. 640, Oct. 2003, pp. 398–413.

SERMON Christmas Day 12/25/18 Year C, St. Monica’s Naples, FL

ChristmasIsaiah 62:6-12; Psalm 97; Titus 3:4-7; Luke 2:(1-7) 8-20

Beginnings

Most stories we hear have a beginning, a middle, and an end.  The story of salvation began through the people of Israel who walked with God, sometimes closely following God’s call to right relationships.  Often times though this people chose their own way and through those choices, they found themselves in dire straits. Nonetheless, God continued to call them back home.  Through this chosen people, God revealed God’s love and presence acting in the world. Through them God chose to show all creation his humble, self-giving, and life-giving grace.  Through them God chose to enter into time and space with us, as one of us, making that love real and tangible for us through Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

God entered that story not through a seat of power, but through the lives of a young couple gripped in a controversial circumstance of life.  We all have heard the story of Mary and Joseph and their unexpected joyous surprise family addition.  We also know the story of the great Emperor, who demanded a census of his kingdom, and how in the backdrop of that power play, the Baby Jesus was born in a manger.  We know about the shepherds, the star, the animals, and the visitation of the Maggi. However, do we know in our hearts, can we wrap our heads around the fact that the story we tell today stands as the pivot point in time where everything changed?

Everything Changed

Everything changed in the middle of the story.  With the birth, ministry, life, death, resurrection, and ascension of God in Christ Jesus, love’s dominion overcame pain, suffering, injustice, indignity, and even death.  Love’s sovereignty came not through manipulation and coercion, but through humility, self-giving, and loving of neighbor.  In the truth of God in Christ, we are transformed and the Kingdom of God begins to emerge in the world.  When love undermines power, everything changes, and yes, everything has changed through God’s act of love toward us.

The Apostle Paul wrote these words to the church in Ephesus, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast.”  My sisters and brothers, we cannot do anything to earn, coerce, assert power, or manipulate, in order to attain this gift of grace.”  We must humbly, with open arms receive it.  Paul reminded Titus of this, when he wrote, “He saved us, not because of any works of righteousness that we had done, but according to his mercy, through the water of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit.” In the middle of the story of salvation, God changed everything and yet, there is so much more of the tale to be written. 

Good News

So, what might the end of the narrative of salvation look like?  We know it took an incredible turn in Bethlehem when the angels decried, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”  Everything changed with the promise, “Do not be afraid; for see– I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people.”  That same story will continue every single day of our lives, and the Good News to come will be told by us.  Like that humble child sleeping in the feed trough, we can humbly and with grace, strive to be Good News for others.

So, the end of the story is yet to come and yet, we have the promises of God that we have a part in that story.  Just remember, through us, God reveals God’s love and presence acting in the world.  Through us God shows all creation his humble, self-giving, and life-giving grace. Through us God chooses to make God’s love real and tangible for all the world.  We are still a part of the story and as a matter of fact, the Joy to the World we find in the Christmas story, will be found in our own stories and how we choose to share with others, the promises that God’s love never ends.  We through our actions of loving neighbor and loving God, through our work to end poverty, injustice, indignity, and human tragedy, and through our lives giving glory to God, we become the storytellers of Good News, in the latter chapters of God’s story of salvation.  So, for that hope, for that joy, for that peace, for that love, and for that renewed mission, on this day we give “Glory to God in the highest.”