Author Archives: The Rev. Eric S. Cooter

About The Rev. Eric S. Cooter

Episcopal priest, Certified Flight Instructor, USAF Auxiliary Chaplain.

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

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

INTRODUCTION

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

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

The Plight of Two Widows 

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

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

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

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

Righteousness vs. Right Relationships

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

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

Stewardship – Responsive Abundant Gratitude

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

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

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

What or who is your God?

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

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

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

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

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

REFERENCES

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

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

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

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

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

Superheroes or Saints

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

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

All Saints

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

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

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

Mission focus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Unbind them and let them Go

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

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

Am I a Saint?

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

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

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

REFERENCES

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

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

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

 

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

vision

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

Blind

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

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

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

Sight Restored

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

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

Blindness to A New Vision

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

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

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

Faith

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

REFERENCES

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

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

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

 

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

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

Success vs. The Cross

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

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

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

Get into the story

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

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

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

Seats in the Jesus’ Movement

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

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

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

Gratitude

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

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

Dare to be a Disciple

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

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

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

 

References

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

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

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

SERMON 10-14-18 Pentecost 21B St. Monica’s Episcopal Church, Naples FL

richyoungrulerLifestyles of the Rich and Famous

            Back in the 1980’s American culture began a dramatic change that is becoming manifested fully today.  The economy was bouncing back from a terrible recession, computers were becoming the rage, cellphones were coming on the scene, and movies like “Wall Street” and many television shows depicted an America, consumed with consumption.  Do you remember the phrase, “champagne wishes and caviar dreams?”  It was the catchphrase for the popular television show, “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous.”  The star Robin Leach revealed the lavish and grandiose homes, cars, and abundance of our superstars.  Today, we have TV shows like “MTV Cribs” and “Housewives of Beverly Hills” that also glorify wealth and success, and for some, they have become the benchmark by which, some people measure their own life’s purpose.

Do not get me wrong, I do not judge people who have worked very hard all their lives, and who have done well for themselves.  Also, I do not believe “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous,” “MTV Cribs” and other shows are the cause of American over-consumerism.  We are possessed by a desire to “keep up with the Jones’s,” which is a symptom of a spiritual ailment.   Our obsession with things has become an infection that has caused a serious infirmity in the soul.  We all seek life abundant, but we try and find that life in “things and stuff “and somehow God has taken a back seat.  We need Jesus’ healing from this ailment. 

Healing of Rich young man

“Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”   These are the words of a man who came to Jesusseeking healing, and did not realize it.  Jesus said to the man when he came to him, “Get up” or in the Greek (ΰπαγε)—Jesus uses the same words he used with so many others as he completed the process of healing them from their diseases.”(2) Today’s story in Mark’s gospel is a healing of a man possessed.  Like the demoniac Jesus healed, this man too is in slavery to, and bound up by a disease of the soul.  Theologian Stacy Simpson asserts, “The rich man (was) possessed by his possessions.  Jesus (was) offering to free him of his possessions to cure him of his excess.” (1)

“What must I do to attain eternal life,” he asked.  Jesus said to him, “You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honor your father and mother.’”  The term defraud Jesus used was actually the word covet in the original commandments. Covet and defraud stem from the same intentions of the heart; desiring what others have and then doing what is necessary to attain our desires.  We are obsessed with others’ wealth, and in American culture today, we are witnessing people trying to win at all costs in business, politics, and in every facet of life.

So Jesus was aware of the man’s disease, and yet he loved him and offered him the cure for his obsession with things, or his “possession by his possessions.”  Jesus remedy was to, “Give it away.”  That is a hard thing for us to hear, but I have to wonder was Jesus literally telling him to sell all he had?  Is Jesus telling us to do the same thing?  Maybe he (and us) are being told to clear the spiritual decks of those things or possessions that literally get in the way of having a committed relationship to Jesus Christ.  Jesus is telling us to get our priorities right, which is not an easy teaching for we 21stcentury Americans.  Like the rich man who rejected Jesus’ healing, we also grieve at the thought of re-aligning what is most important in this life, and in the next.    Jesus is offering the rich man a cure for what some people call “affluenza.”

             “Affluenza” is a word that describes “extreme materialism and consumerism associated with the pursuit of wealth and success, and resulting in a life of chronic dissatisfaction, debt, overwork, stress, and impaired relationships.” (4) Our stuff gets in the way of our relationship with Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.  Theologian Stacey Elizabeth Simpson explains, “(Our possessions) keep us from realizing our need for God because we use it as a buffer against vulnerability. We use it to fill the emptiness in our souls. We use it to feel less susceptible to the vagaries of life. It keeps us from seeing how needy we are.” (1)  Jesus’ cure for our “affluenza” is the realignment of our priorities, by sharing our abundant gifts, to support God’s mission of grace, love, and peace.

The Kingdom of Heaven: The Eye of a Needle

Jesus asked his disciples, “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God!” He told them, “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”  In other words, it is easier to squeeze a 1000 lb camel through a tiny hole, than for us to swallow the pill that will cure the ailment that attempts to fill the spiritual holes in our hearts with stuff.

We cannot cure ourselves, we need Jesus to heal us.   Jesus knows our hearts,and he challenges us to get our priorities right, deciding which things are most important in this life and in the next.  Jesus confronts us with the reality that a life of abundant grace is not based on consumption and wealth, but on following Jesus and his mission of love and mercy for all.  We all suffer from a little “affluenza,” and  Jesus alone has the cure.

Jesus’ Prognosis and Prescription       

(1) Here is a symptom. Many of us live off of 150% of what we make and thus, our debt and obsessive spending handcuffs and binds us to the anchors of consumerism. The prescription? We must live simply and put Jesus Christ back at the center of our lives, by filling the spiritual holes in our souls, with Jesus Christ’s grace and peace.  We need to respond to God’s grace in our lives, by giving a portion for God’s mission in the world  (2) Here is another symptom. Many of us live life at Mach 3 and we have little time left to share our time and talent in service to God’s Kingdom. The prescription?   Live simply and put Jesus Christ back at the center of your life, by creating space to share God’s abundance in your life with others, by offering God your spiritual gifts.  (3) Here is a another symptom. Many of us never take time to pray and communicate with God, and so   we expect to have a relationship with him.  The prescription?  We must live simply and put Jesus Christ back at the center of your life, by deepening your love and commitment to him, by the daily practice of holy conversation, listening, and discerning.  (4) Here is another symptom.  We are have trouble giving thanks to God.  and fail to live a life of gratitude to God.  The prescription?  Begin each day or end each night naming before God those things, for which you are grateful; relationships, shelter, food, health, and security. Grateful living shifts us from seeking to fill the spiritual holes with stuff, to accepting God’s abundant grace filled by our grateful heart.

“So, who can be healed,” we too might ask.  When God (who can alone) transforms our hearts, heal us from the life-threatening ailment of our consumer-laden habits, we will come to know the grace of life abundant in Christ.  When God alone aids us to re-prioritize God’s mission of love, grace, and peace in our lives and in the lives of others, we will come to know life abundant in Christ. Then and only then can we be cured, free, and released from those terrible chains we all carry.  Then, we will no longer seek to attain the “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous,” but  we will live into the new reality of the Kingdom of God, the “Lifestyles of the Simple, Faithful, and Grateful,”  the “Lifestyle of the followers of the way of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.”

REFERENCES

(1) Simpson, Stacey Elizabeth. “Who Can Be Saved.” The Christian Century, vol. 117, no. 26, Sept. 2000, p. 951.

(2) Rossing, Barbara R. “Healing Affluenza: A Sermon on Mark 10:17-27.” Currents in Theology and Mission, vol. 33, no. 4, Aug. 2006, pp. 300–303.

(3) Thomas, Frank A. “Can Rich People Be Saved? (Mark 10:23-27).” Ex Auditu, vol. 22, 2006, pp. 217–221

(4) https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/affluenza

 

 

Sermon 10-7-18 Pentecost 20 B St Monica’s Episcopal Church

Genesis 2:18-24; Psalm 8; Hebrews 1:1-4; 2:5-12; Mark 10:2-16

Family: The Real Deal

The “Brady Bunch,” “Leave it to Beaver,” or “Modern Family” are just a few of the many family models portrayed on American television over the years.  In every episode of these comedies a crisis emerges, then it develops into a story of how the family deals with the issue, then somehow miraculously, life returns to “normal” right before the final credits roll.  In these comedies Dad was the best Dad, Mom was the best Mom, and the kids were perfect in every way.  Keep in mind that all of this drama takes place in less than 30 minutes.

We all know that sitcoms families are not the way real families operate, but maybe we want the family systems in which we live to function like this model. From our own experiences real families do not end the day with everyone smiling, sisters and brothers holding each other in loving embraces, and joyous celebrations and peace prevailing at bedtime. REAL families have moments of elation and celebration, but these joyful times are always co-mingled with opposing ideas, conflict, anger, and hurt feelings.

Church Family

Some people refer to the church as their “church family,” but that idea may be filled with false expectations.  Some hope that their “church family” is more like the sitcoms we see on television however, once things get real, people become very disappointed. Some expect we church folk to all agree, and everyone should be happy all the time.  Some expect the clergy to be forever perfect, smiling, and without concerns and worries, and able to say the right words at the right times, and without fault or mistake.  Some expect the governing board to make all the right decisions every time, and always benefiting our own individual agendas.  Some expect their sanctuary seat always to be vacant and waiting for them. Some expect all the right songs to be played and to be sung perfectly and in pitch.  Some expect the weekly bulletin to be without error and perfect every week.  My friends, If we have these expectations, we must be ready, because we are going to be very disappointed, because we seek not a church family, but Nirvana.

The Body of Christ (the Church) is a holy association of messy togetherness, fragile unity, and loosely tied commitment, because we all are in desperate need of grace, redemption, transformation and reconciliation, and we all show up to this party with our baggage. We are a wounded, broken, scarred family and yet, we live in the hope and anticipation that we are raised to a new way of life in Christ.  We are the family of God, and yet, we are human with all our warts and ways.

Modern Families

Family units today are diverse and beautiful and can be traditional nuclear families, single parent families, stepfamilies, extended families, LGBT partners, etc.  Regardless of the framework, families are often grounded in a relationship joined together “for mutual joy; for the help and comfort given one another in prosperity and adversity.”  Like a marriage, mutual joy, help, and comfort is God’s intention for the church, his Body, his ambassadors and agents of grace in the world, but disunity in the church abounds, and we too, experience conflict or disagreement.

Sometimes, rather than doing the hard work of reconciliation, we prefer to look at our sisters and brothers in Christ and say, “I no longer like this or that.”  We say, “I disagree with so and so,” or “these folks are headed in the wrong direction,” or “I don’t like the music, sermon, or how we do things.” With those words, we frivolously cast away our commitment to one another.  We all are prone to cast away relationships, in hopes the next one will be better.  That was a common practice in the culture of first century Palestine, and that is why we hear Jesus condemning that practice in today’s gospel reading.

 D I V O R C E

Many preachers will avoid Jesus’ dialogue about divorce, but I cannot. Many of us in this room have seen the threads of “mutual joy, help, and comfort” unravel before our very eyes.  Some of us have walked the journey of separation and division and the pain of that experience is lasting, but I believe Jesus gives us hope today.

In the scene, Jesus was being drawn into another conflict with the Pharisees when he was asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?”  The patriarchal system of his day allowed husbands to nonchalantly end one marital relationship, so they might enter into another.  King Herod embraced that practice.  The tragic result was that the woman was abandoned and left to live in poverty and rely on charity.  I do not believe Jesus was necessarily condemning divorce when all else fails. I believe he was condemning this practice of the flippant destruction of a committed relationship, for the mere pursuit of another relationship based on lust, greed, or inappropriate desire.

Jesus was not telling the abused spouse with abused children to stay in an abusive marriage and avoid divorce at all costs.  Jesus was not telling the victim of infidelity, who worked to bring about reconciliation but was unable repair the damage, to avoid divorce.  Jesus was pointing out that the flagrant disregard for our commitments to one another is against God’s intent.  If we merely toss away our commitments to enter another commitment, without good reason or cause, we are destroying God’s plan for unity. In all relationships, we must not avoid the hard work of reconciliation, just to throw away our relationships like old trash.

 Unions and Divisions

For centuries we humans have entered into committed relationships and associations (marriage, church, trade agreements, treaties, and employment contracts).  Many times, without regard for what God desires for these connections (mutual love, affection, and support), so when things “get tough, the tough tend to get going.”

Sometimes, if we do not get our way, or when conflict emerges, our hope for greener pastures start to become appealing.  Just watch the political rankling on television and social media and you will see that the fragile threads of the bonds of mutual affection in the United States are being ripped apart with precision and intent.  We are no longer living with the principles of “e pluribus unum” or “Out of many, one,” we are living in an era of “Erras sum rectum” or “I am right, you are wrong.”

A wise priest once told me, “It is better to be in relationship than to be right”. Division and disunity should never be our first course of action. We are God’s family and yes we will struggle, we will disappoint, and we may hurt one another, but when conflict happens, and promises are broken, we must strive for reconciliation. Jesus, knows our frailties, and rather than offering condemnation, He offers us an invitation to peace.  

Little Children

“People were bringing little children to him in order that he might touch them; and the disciples spoke sternly to them.” Right after Jesus addressed the Pharisee’s question about divorce, he welcomed the little children to come near him.  Jesus always welcomes us (his children) to come to him, especially in times of difficulties, pain, tragedy, and disagreements.  When we have seen joy, comfort, and mutual support fade from view, when the promises we made one to another are no more, Jesus says, “Come to me.” Jesus says, “I will make all things new.”

There is a peace knowing that God will perfect all things, even if the reconciliation we seek does not happen in this lifetime.  In God’s time, all will be restored.  Divorce, political divisions, and even church strife, or in life’s broken promises to one another, we must strive for peace.  Sometimes though, for the sake of health, for the sake of joy, for the sake of love, we may have to choose a difficult roadof and accept that our circumstances must change and relationships must end.  There are times when, because we are not yet perfect, we must face our own frailty and part ways, but only after we have done the hard work of reconciliation.

Be it in church life, married life, or in all of life, we all know that there is no “Brady Bunch,” “Leave it to Beaver,” or “Modern Family,” sitcom formula for relationships.  Peace and unity is hard work, it is messy work, but that is our reality.  We all show up to this holy party with our brokenness, our heartache, our fears, and our baggage.   These are the challenges and disappointments, the joys and celebrations of “being in relationship versus being right. ” Reconciliation is the hard work of the family to which, we all belong, which is the church, the Body of Christ.  So, rather than expecting the Church of Nirvana, my hope is that we will all come to this table, ready and willing to be transformed into the blessed messiness of the family of God.

REFERENCES

1 Lundblad, Barbara K. “Let Them Come To Me.” Christian Century 108.25 (1991): 804-318. ATLASerials, Religion Collection. Web. 2 Oct. 2012.

2http://www.cnbc.com/id/46797203/As_Two_Income_Family_Model_Matures_Divorce_Rate_Falls

3 Collier, Gary D. “Rethinking Jesus On Divorce.” Restoration Quarterly 37.2 (1995): 80-96. ATLASerials, Religion Collection. Web. 4 Oct. 2012.

SERMON 9/30/18 Pentecost 19B St. Monica’s Episcopal Church

Numbers 11:4-6,10-16,24-29; Psalm 19:7-14; James 5:13-20; Mark 9:38-50

Stumbling in faith

A Benedictine monk was asked, “What do you do all day long in that monestary?” He answered, “We fall down and we get back up.” Trying to be a disciple of Jesus means we often fail and make amends and try again. We all fall, and we all get back up again. We are imperfect, and getting back up after stumbling requires us to rely on God’s grace.

So if being a disciple is not perfect, why do expect other disciples to be so? Why do we expect leaders to get it right all the time? We act surprised at others failures, but even Jesus’ first disciples stumbled. They betrayed him, ran off at his arrest, and denied him in the streets after the trial, and they failed by jockeying for power and influence.

In today’s gospel, Jesus warns to be aware of our tendency to stumble. He also warns us of the consequences of tripping up a sister or a brother, who is trying to do the best they can do. The consequences of putting stumbling blocks in front of others are far worse than having a weight around your neck and being thrown into the sea. The consequences of causing others to stumble are far worse than if we were to cut off our foot or hand. Even though we believe the community should be perfect, the early God fearers and often tried to trip one another up.

Leaders Beware

In Genesis, the Spirit came upon some of those on the outside of Moses’ leadership team, and Joshua son of Nun, the assistant of Moses, heard about it and became a little jealous. His motives were self-centered, misguided, and unloving and so, Joshua went to Moses and said, “My lord Moses, stop them!” Later, some in Jesus’ leadership team demonstrated that same self-serving attitude. John said to Jesus, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.”

Both Joshua and John were insiders who became frightened when their plans for influence were turned upside down, when others threatened their so-called “special places” in the kingdom. Unknowingly, these leaders tried to stop God’s mission as it was bursting through in unexpected ways and through unexpected people. God’s kingdom always emerges through those we least expect; kind of like a poor carpenter’s son born in a stable.

Theologian Kenneth Carder explains how fear of change and loss makes us act in often, unhealthy ways. He wrote, “When threatened with loss, when feeling insecure, we circle the wagons. Gathering the clan and resisting the outsiders is a popular reaction against insecurity and fear.” (1) Like Joshua and John, those early biblical leaders, we church people today can become threatened by change or people we just do not like, and we begin circling the wagons, pointing fingers, and becoming exclusionary.

These are the kinds of stumbling blocks Jesus speaks of in Mark’s gospel today. Carder explains, “Jesus, the very incarnation of God’s power and presence … challenged the practice of confining God’s redemptive and transforming action to one’s own race, one’s own religious institution, one’s own political party.” (1) I would add that Jesus does not deny grace to the people we do not like, or those that do not meet our expectations. Jesus tells us rather, to “have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.”

Saltiness – Leadership in God’s mission

By virtue of your baptism, every single one of us in the church is a leader. No you may say, “Eric, I am no leader, I follow the crowd.”. However, we are leaders, and we all must strive to be leaders with “salt in ourselves.” Let me explain this metaphor of saltiness Jesus used. Salt was a preservative placed on fish and meats to draw out moisture and keep it from rotting. Salt enhanced the flavor of food. “Salty leaders” by their actions and influence, both preserve the movement of God’s Spirit, and they enhance the movement of God’s Spirit in the life of the church.

We all are leaders and some of us have titles and formal roles, and others are not formally designated. Some leaders do not even recognize their own leadership identity, but because of their influence, they serve in leadership positions outside the formal organizational structure. Whether your are a formal or informal leader, you have the choice to act as salt in the community, enhancing and preserving God’s mission, or you can put out stumbling blocks for God’s people and God’s mission.

“Salty leaders” are coaches, mentors, and supporters of those struggling to walk the path of Jesus. “Salty Leaders” can make decisions that sometimes cause unanticipated, unexpected, and unintentional injury or stress, because no one is perfect. Hopefully, “Salty Leaders” do not intentionally try to put out stumbling blocks for others. Rather, they help others recognize that spiritual growth depends on flexible, open, willingness to respond to God’s call to transformation, to traverse the fires and trials of discipleship.

Theologian Christine Bartholomew said, and I quote, “God is constantly refining us with fire, whether that fire be conflict, persecution or sacrifice. These events can change us and draw us closer to God. This is a work of sanctification, not salvation.”(2) We often have to walk through the fires of difficult circumstances, in order to be led into the grace God has in store for us.

In my eight years as a priest, good leaders with authority over me have made decisions regarding my ministries that in the moment caused me stress and pain. Their tough love though, often opened a door for God’s call on my life to become clear, and allow me to see the journey God had in store all along. Over the years, I have had to release my Burger King mentality of ministry (have it your way) in order to allow God to direct me; all along trusting that he knew better than I. A ministry of constant change, difficult challenges, joyful moments, and faithful obedience has been the path that led me back to parish ministry again, and for that I give glory to God. Each one of us traverses a discipleship path of fiery circumstances and unexpected challenges, and choosing to be salt or a stumbling block is the dilemma of being a Christian leader.

Daring Leadership

“Salty Leaders also must leave the safe and secure sidelines of church life, and get into the middle of the arena of ministry. It is easy to disengage from active ministry and just poke the bears when they stumble and fall. It is easy to criticize those who are trying to do their best, being faithful and obedient. It is easy undermine God’s progress, because it does not fit our own idea of church. “Salty leaders” reject the safe seats of inactive criticism and finger pointing, and choose the risky arena of hard work in mission and ministry, while all along remaining open to God’s life-altering and transformative grace.

Dr. Brene Brown in her book, “Daring Greatly” describes the kind of bold, focused, and committed “Salty Leadership” each of us must strive to embrace. She quoted President Theodore Roosevelt who once said; “It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

“Salty Leaders” focus on the mission and not the detractors. “Salty Leaders” put away their fears of failure, change, and the desire to maintain the status quo. “Salty Leaders” get out in the arena of mission just like Jesus, who took a risk for us, who let his face get marred by dust and sweat and blood for us. Jesus let his hands and feet be pierced for us. Jesus gave his life for us, and clears away the stumbling blocks all along the path for us. Despite our constant falling and getting back up, despite our failures and imperfections; if Jesus did all that for us, should we as “Salty Leaders” in the Kingdom do the same for one another; we who boldly claim him as Lord?

REFERENCES

(1) Carder, Kenneth L.Bp. “Unexclusive Gospel.” The Christian Century, vol. 114, no. 25, Sept. 1997, p. 787.

(2) Bartholomew, Christine R. “‘For Everything Will Be Salted with Fire.’” Touchstone, vol. 28, no. 1, Jan. 2010, pp. 5–7.

SERMON 9-23-18 Pentecost 18B St. Monica’s Episcopal Church

tony_the_tiger2Wisdom of Solomon 1:16-2:1, 12-22; Psalm 54; James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a; Mark 9:30-37

Let’s make Church great again

Do you remember when Saturday morning television cartoons were interrupted by cereal commercials?  One of my favorites was Tony the Tiger and his Kellogg’s Frosted Flakes.  Of course, we all know Frosted Flakes were are nothing more than bland Kellogg’s Corn Flakes with a sugary frosted coating.  Frosted Flakes, despite Tony the Tiger’s exuberant support, really were not that GRReeeat!

I am afraid like overrated breakfast cereals today, we are all a little obsessed with greatness.  There is a lot of talk about greatness on social media, just look at all the wonderful lives we all lead through our Facebook timelines. Just turn on any national news channel or political commentary television show, and you will hear a lot about “Making things Great!”

The problem with our pursuit of greatness is this, “who actually defines what it means to be great.” How do you even measure greatness and by what standard do we use?  If not careful, in our pursuit for greatness in the church and in our Christian journey, we can lose sight of our purpose, our mission, our core values, and even our faith.  When greatness alone becomes our motivation, we shift from the pursuit of God’s mission and we settle for a pursuit of power, wealth, grandeur, and influence, we are mixed up about greatness “Jesus style.” Jesus’ first disciples fell into the trap of misguided greatness, because their hearts were seeking personal grandeur, power, influence, and the accolades of their peers.

Greatness among the apostles

Jesus had his face turned toward Jerusalem and that was where his little band of followers were headed.  He knew what awaited him there, not a throne and royal court, but betrayal, trial, a cross, and death.  Then, despite Jesus telling them of his future, the A-Team disciples accompanying him were arguing with each other about who was the greatest. It must have sounded like a school yard scuffle with each one saying, “Dude I walked on water.” One might have responded, “Yeah, you sank too, but I get to carry the money.”  Another said, “Yeah, well I had 25 people in my Sunday school class in the Decapolis, when he sent us out two by two.”  Like kids jockeying for position, the search for greatness for them was like a bad episode of “Survivor.”

Jesus overheard their maneuvering and rather than wacking them on the heads,  he did something absolutely incredible.  He picked up a child and gently taught the disciples saying, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”  At first, we may think, “well isn’t that just sweet,” he wanted them and us to have childlike faith, but that is not what Jesus was teaching them and us.  You must understand the context of that event in Jesus’ culture, and then you will understand why that act was so profound.

Today, we honor our children, protect our children, and hold them in the highest regard, but that was not the case back then. “According to the institution oí patria potestas (a common and accepted practice in that culture) children had no legal rights. A father had the right brutally to punish, sell, pawn, expose, and even kill his own child. Newborns could be exposed—abandoned in a public place—where they would generally either die or be picked up by strangers and raised for profit as slaves, prostitutes, or beggars.”(4)

Jesus picked up a meaningless and worthless child (in his day) and taught his disciples two critical lessons about greatness. First, he told the disciples that greatness was found in identifying with and becoming just like the lowest of the low of society and in this case, children.  Next, he did what only women would have done in first century Palestine; care for children.  Jesus demonstrated Kingdom greatness when he picked up the child up, held her close to himself, and nurtured her gently and lovingly.  In other words, Jesus taught them and us that we are only great when are humbled and not puffed up, when are values and motivations are focused on others, and we are great only when we care for those, for whom society would most likely abandon.  Churches should always heed Jesus teaching, and assess their greatness, not by a measuring stick of worldly success, but by greatness, Jesus style.

Greatness gone awry

Have you ever been to a church that touts their incredible and enormous campuses and other edifices?  They sometimes measure the success of their mission by how many people are in the pews, or how professional their programs are presented, or by using any number of worldly criteria.  The problem is that when the church is only interested in measurable worldly success, she begins seeking the world’s greatness and not God’s.  The Apostle James touched on this when he spoke of being double-minded.  In other words, double-mindedness is when we become “literally, of two souls, one following the wisdom of the world and the other following the wisdom of God.“ (1) The Body of Christ’s purpose and actions must be measured against the wisdom of God and not the wisdom of the world.

Just like Jesus’ disciples two thousand years ago, the church can become confused about greatness. “Greatness, we assume, implies power, accomplishment, fame, wealth, and all the other things that allow you to do things, to influence people, to make things go your way.” (3) According to Jesus’ mandate, greatness is found in caring for the least of these, and greatness is not found in power, accomplishment, fame, or wealth.  If the Church’s mission is to “bring all people into unity with God and each other in Christ,” then seeking worldly greatness may mean that our measuring sticks of success are being held up against the wrong criteria.

“What if we measured our greatness (as God does) by how much we share with others, how much we take care of others, how much we love others, how much we serve others. What kind of world would we live in?”(3) Greatness in mission would look very different and our focus would be very different, if our purpose and motivations were evaluated against God’s criteria, in everything we do.

We must evaluate our corporate and individual lives against the criteria of “are we loving God and loving our neighbor?” Maybe the greatness we seek is already present, already a part of who we are, because greatness is found in the DNA of the community itself, in what brought her into being in the first place; which is to change the world and bring grace into the community around her.

Greatness Jesus style

Greatness Jesus style has nothing to do with huge Sunday attendance, nor the number of filled seats, nor the grandeur of our programs, nor the size of our campus.   Don’t get me wrong, all of those things often are the results of laser focus on the core mission, which is to bring others to know Christ and to be in Christian community. However, if we pursue greatness in wordly things first, over God’s mission, if that  is our starting point and our motivation and our primary goal, and if we lose sight of why the church exists in the first place, then we are no better than those confused disciples of Jesus, back in the day, when they were arguing like school kids over who is the greatest.

Greatness Jesus style happens when God’s people measure their mission effectiveness by the number of lives being changed by the work they do for God.  Greatness Jesus style happens, when we bring Christ to others outside the four walls, by sharing the good news of Jesus Christ with them not merely by our advocacy, but by our love and care, both through word and deed, and that’s what we do now!

My sisters and brothers, St. Monica’s is already great!  We are a church whose greatness manifests from our relationships and works of service.  We are so much more than just bland, soggy flakes of self-absorption, coated with a sugary false persona of mission.  St. Monica’s has not lost sight of her mission, because we work to serve the least, lost, and lonely around us, and those already within our midst; but there is much more work to do.

So, as long as we remain laser focused on our primary purpose, as long as we measure the effectiveness of our mission against the criteria of transformed lives for Christ, then this church will continue in greatness Jesus style. What do you think others will say about St. Monica’s in 5, 10, 15, and 20 years from now?  Well, I believe as long as we remain faithful to God’s mission, as long as we care for the least, lost, and lonely of the neighborhoods around us, and as long as lives are transformed into disciples of Jesus Christ, then others will say, as Tony the Tiger says, “They’re GRReeeat!”

REFERENCES

(1) https://processandfaith.org/lectionary-commentary/the-eighteenth-sunday-after-pentecost-proper-20-23-september-2018/  by Jeanyne Slettom

(2) http://www.lectionarystudies.com/sunday25bee.html

(3) http://www.davidlose.net/2018/09/pentecost-18-b-a-different-kind-of-greatness/  by David Lose

(4) Gundry-Volf, Judith M. “Mark 9:33-37.” Interpretation, vol. 53, no. 1, Jan. 1999, pp. 57-61.