All posts by Eric S. Cooter

Episcopal priest, Certified Flight Instructor, USAF Auxiliary Chaplain.

SERMON 12/8/19 Advent 2A St. Monica’s Episcopal Church Naples, FL

Advent 2Isaiah 11:1-10; Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19; Romans 15:4-13; Matthew 3:1-12

John the Baptist: Repentance and Righteousness

“The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’” In the Second week of Advent, we hear the prophetic voice of John the Baptist proclaiming that we need to repent.  Repentance in a season of joy, celebration, peace on earth good will towards all, seems like a strange topic, but this is the season of Advent.  When we are anticipating Christ’s coming, we are reminded of our utter dependence on God and our necessity to return to God when we stray, when we miss the mark, when we succumb to the siren call of sin.

We are never far from the reality of our own frailty, our own failures, and our own brokenness.  In today’s gospel, we are clearly told that none are free from sin; all must repent and live a changed life.  We all miss the mark, and we all share a common need for God’s grace and forgiveness. There is good news in all that, because God acts first to bring about reconciliation and restoration.  However, we have to respond to that grace, in order to actually experience the impact of a gift that we must only receive.

John the Baptist boldly tells, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near,” but what does that theologically ambiguous word really mean?  Let me try and explain. We have all said to someone we have hurt, “I am sorry” but is that repentance, and where does love come into all this?  Some would say, “Love means never having to say you’re sorry.” However, repentance is more than a kind “I am sorry.”  Rabbi Sarah Reines asserts that we must “go one step further because saying those words alone cannot atone for wrongdoing. In fact, even prayer is not enough, and neither is ritual. True repentance demands action.” (2)

Repentance means to turn, which requires us to put our bodies in motion toward a different reality or what our Jewish cousins call, Teshuva.  Rabbi Reines writes, “Teshuva expresses a process of reorientation that demands a complete change of mind, heart, and behavior. It requires: recognizing our wrongdoing, expressing our regret, doing our best to reconcile with the injured party or, at least, make appropriate restitution to those we have wronged, and (then), change our ways. (2)  We all need a time like Advent, and people like John the Baptist, to shake up the circumstances of our comfort zones.   Sometimes we need to be confronted by circumstances that changes everything, or by a person who sees things with fresh eyes, who can help us come face-to-face with our own sin, so we might repent and thus, experience reconciliation and new life.

Repentance and Forgiveness

I watched a popular movie about repentance, reconciliation, and new life the other night.  It was the story about a man named Farrokh Bulsar, an immigrant whose family came to England from India through Zanzibar. Farrokh was a talented piano player and song writer, with a strong baritone speaking voice, but sang amazingly in the tenor range.  He was a musical genius, who brought to the performance stage a new twist on a particular musical genre.  He redefined the future of music, and was a great influence, bringing courage and hope to bands and individual artists like:  Katy Perry, Lady GaGa, and Metallica.  He had an amazing stage presence, and his offbeat approach to performance, brought attention to what he was trying to accomplish; change.

If you do not know by now about whom I am speaking, Bulsar was the incredible and unmatched “Freddie Mercury,” the lead singer of the band Queen.  He was a prophetic voice, an attention-grabbing eccentric who changed the future of music. Mercury, although a successful genius was no different from many of us. He struggled with relationships with others and experienced the brokenness of relational estrangement.  Mercury struggled also with the sin of self-importance.   He lived with a deep depressive loneliness that as overwhelming and unexpected success came to the band Queen, it led Mercury to abandon his friends and bandmates in order to pursue a solo career.   His act of selfish indifference to his friends led to him cutting the ties of relational connections with his bandmates, and the death of the family nature of their association.  The great band Queen for a time was no more.

A New Future

Freddie Mercury, John the Baptist, and so many other prophetic voices have over the centuries called us to change, through their unconventionality.  Their disruptive presence in the world calls us to new futures and new ways of being.  Theodore Wardlaw says that “John (the Baptist) in fact challenges (us) to envision and grow into a different future.” (3) He adds, “A different future is on the way, he says. A time—our time— is being redeemed by the light of a holy surprise drawing near. And all of a sudden, the landscape of life changes. This is the surprising word of John, whose message is: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord!’” (3)  Advent is a time in which, we live in the hope of a different future, a new possibility, a breaking in of new life. Advent can be for us, can be a “John the Baptist” moment.

Freddy Mercury experienced a “John the Baptist” moment when the prophetic voice of a terminal disease made him realize his life was slipping away.  He did not sit still with the decisions of his past and so, he turned from his isolation, his broken loneliness, and reached out to his old bandmates.  Mercury did what John the Baptist tell us to do, “Repent, for the Kingdom of God is near.”   He put his feet in motion and went to his friends and said, “I am sorry,” but that was not where his repentance ended.    Mercury convinced his bandmates that they had to do something more than just get back together.  Their act of shared repentance beyond themselves came in their return in 1985 at the Live Aid show which aided the victims of the Ethiopian famine. This concert  was dubbed by the organizing parties as “the day music changed the world.” The healed family of Queen made the repentant choice to share the grace of reconciliation that they had experienced ,and together they took it beyond themselves.

As the light to the world, the church too is called to live in Harmony so that with one voice, together we may glorify God.  We are icons and stained glass windows where the Light of Christ shines through, but we must be proclaimers of repentance in action.  Let’s face it, we’re going to mess up, we are going to miss the mark, but God’s grace is abundant and we have to keep trying.  None of us are perfect because honestly, none of us are without sin, especially we clergy types.

The good news is that God is faithful and just to forgive our sins.  Are we faithful to forgive each other’s?  We are one Body of many members.  We are not called to this life in Christian community merely for benign membership alone.  We are called to be like clay, ready and willing for the Creator to mold and shape us, for the Spirit to burn away the chaff, for God to set us on a new path; a new path not to be traveled alone, but a journey boldly taken together.  By living in harmony, working and serving together, bearing each other’s burdens, and forgiving each other’s failures, we are truly being the Body of Christ.

When we the Body of Christ lives in reconciling love, or as the Apostle Paul writes, we choose to “live in harmony with one another, and with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ,” we take that hope into the world and everything changes.  When we can show the world that we see a different possibility than the one in which we find ourselves today, we share the hope of Advent, the joy of the Incarnation, and reconciling love of God enacted in and through each of us.  We then, like our brother John, our brother Freddy, and so many other prophets, we like them, become the voices crying out, or singing out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’”

 

REFERENCES

(1) Meyers, Ruth A. “Wheat and Chaff.” The Christian Century, vol. 118, no. 32, Nov. 2001, p. 16

(2) Reines, Sarah H. “Turning Ourselves Around.” The Living Pulpit, vol. 16, no. 2, Apr. 2007, pp. 8–9

(3) Wardlaw, Theodore J. “Preaching the Advent Texts.” Journal for Preachers, vol. 31, no. 1, Advent 2007, pp. 3–10.

 

SERMON 12/1/19 Advent 1A St Monica’s Episcopal Church, Naples, FL

AdventIsaiah 2:1-5; Psalm 122; Romans 13:11-14;  Matthew 24:36-44

Hustle and Bustle of the Season

Yesterday was “Black Friday” and the Christmas festivities in our culture have officially started.  However, we all know that the commercial Christmas hustle and bustle began back in October.  Retailers like Wal Mart, Target and most outlets already had their Christmas shops setup and ready to go before Halloween.

Now, we are off to the retail races, and there is a mad dash to buy, wrap, and feast as much as possible until December 26th when ironically, it all stops.  Exhausted, 20 lbs heavier, and credit cards maxed out, some people will enter a post-holiday depression regretting and thinking, “Boy, I sure am glad that is over for another year.”

We clergy encourage people to not fall for the ploy of pre-Christmas chaos.  However, it is so difficult for many of us is to live in both worlds.  It is not easy to follow the traditions of the church in here, and then go out there and live differently.  We Christians though, by the very nature of our vocation are sent out there to live a life of transformation, contrast, and anticipation to that of the world, and the season of Advent gives us an opportunity to do just that.

The Haven of Anticipation – Advent

When the world stops celebrating on December 26th, we Episcopalians until January 6th will still be celebrating the Nativity of Our Lord Jesus Christ for another 12 days.   When everyone else stops saying, “Merry Christmas” and starts saying “Happy New Year,” we will still sing Christmas Carols on Saturday and Sunday, enjoy a decorated Christmas Tree in the parish hall, and joyfully commemorate the gift of salvation given to us in Jesus Christ.  Our culture has already started the celebration, but the church has not quite yet.  We are still in Advent season.

Advent is kind of like a little fast before Christmas, but that is not necessarily a negative thing if you think about it.  Advent observed properly serves as a haven of anticipation of the “Coming of Christ” both as a “Babe in the Manger” and the anticipation of when Christ returns.  The church’s observance of Advent stands in absolute contrast to the chaos of world out there.

For instance, we adorn the sanctuary with purple altar hangings and vestments, and there is no red and green to be found.  We bring out the Advent candle for decoration, but there is no decorated and trimmed evergreen in the church.  We sing particular hymns and read certain readings, but there is no mention of the babe in a manger, at least it yet.  We live merely in the anticipation of the coming of Christ, both as a babe and his second coming in some future time.

While everyone else is clamoring for those Black Friday door busters, running around for those last minute gift purchases, attending just one more “over the top” festive party, the church is a haven where we can shut out the holiday noise, and live in expectancy the Feast of the Nativity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, which is yet to come.  However, maybe we are afraid of observing a Holy Advent.  We forget the Advent calendar and Advent wreath in our homes and go straight to the Christmas decorations in our homes. Maybe we think we might miss the season if we do that.  Maybe we are afraid people might think we are a Scrooge if we did not buy into the pre-Christmas chaos.

Scrooge and Christmas

Ebenezer Scrooge the main character of Charles Dicken’s “A Christmas Carol” was a mean, money-grubbing man who cared only for his wealth, and dismissed all possibility of friends in this life.  He detested peaceful and joyful people in particular, and rejected the season of Christmas with the joy, peace, and hope it brought to the world.  When someone said, “Merry Christmas” to old Scrooge, he huffed and replied, “bah humbug.”  For some reason, some folks think that to observe Advent means we are being an Old Scrooge.

During the Advent season, one of my professors in seminary wore a top hat similar to that of Ebenezer Scrooge to our weekly community dinners.  He would tell us that his top hat served as a reminder to each seminarian that we Episcopalians must observe a Holy Advent.  He told us we needed to live in the world and yet, be set apart from it.  To drive the point home, on my professor’s office door was a sign with a picture of beautifully decorated home that proclaimed, “take them down, leave them down until December 25th, says old Ebenezer.”  My professors practice may have been over the top, but even he, in the last few weeks of Advent, snuck in a little Christmas decoration or two on his office door.  I think he did that to remind us that we Christians, who although must be separate from the world, must live in both worlds all the time, even in Advent.

Maybe you are sitting there saying, “Fr. Eric, can’t we have a little eggnog, decorate our tree a little early, throw a party or two, go buy some gifts, and can’t we wear that awful Christmas sweater we love so much?”  Of course we can, because we are anticipating the “Coming of the Blessed Lord of Our lives,” and we definitely are not Ebenezer Scrooges after all.  Our tradition does not call us to live in stark rejection of the world we live in, but it merely gives us a chance to look at this time differently than we have in the past.  I wonder what would happen if we became aware of this interrupted time of Advent, would we find in it some space for a haven of anticipation and peace, in a world of utter commercial chaos?    Advent is not a season for just being “different” from everyone else, because this season reminds us that there is more to this whole story of Christmas after all.

Christ is Coming Again – Readiness

Our gospel reading today tells us what that more will be, “But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man.”  In Advent we certainly anticipate the coming of the Babe in the Manger, but we also anticipate Christ’s return, when “He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead.”  That second coming again part for some of us may seem full of trepidation, rather than hopeful and joyful.  Maybe we do not even think about it all.  Maybe it seems like a fantasy or a good, “Left Behind” book.

Is it because we are not really ready, or we have not prepared, or we do not live in that anticipated reality.  We are too busy clamoring to meet the world’s expectations of success and celebratory joy, in order to take just a moment in prayer each day to praise God.   We are too busy decorating the windows of our lives, to spend some time embellishing the dark places of our souls with God’s grace.  Maybe we are not ready because we are afraid of what Jesus will think when we stand before him and we reflect on the life we lived.

What if we looked rather at Christ’s return with hope and peace.  It is easy to do, if each day you would carve out some intentional interruptions to offer to God some of your time.  Let God’s grace fill you as you intentionally reflect on him and his love, and speak to God as you would with any friend.  Read a little scripture and meditate on it for a while.  Go out into the world and rejoice in the power of the Spirit and share some of that newfound joy with others.  Imagine interrupting the mundane cycle of life and the expectations of this world, in order to spend some time with Jesus.

That is what the seasonality of the church does.  It intentionally interrupts the worldly cycle we live in, and reminds us that we are following the life of Jesus each and every day.   Let me explain.  Advent is the age of anticipation foretold by the prophets, of the expected Messiah to come.  Christmas is the celebration of the Incarnation, the moment when God came among us as one of us.  Epiphany is the revelation of Christ to we Gentiles through the Wise visitors from afar. Lent prepares our hearts for the Good News of the cross.  Easter is the celebration of the Resurrection of our Lord. Pentecost is the day the Holy Spirit came and the church was set on its mission.  We then begin the cycle all over again.   Maybe the whole reason for Advent is so we might pause, shift time a little, and reflect on this walk we have with the King of Kings and Lord of Lords.

 

Scrooge Needed Advent

Advent is not some churchy alternative to the hustle of the world, nor is it a season where we are required to shelve our Hallmark Christmas moments until December 25th.  Advent is a time for us to become quiet, to become prayerful, and to become ready for the reality that Christ is coming among us as a Babe in a Manger, and his eventual coming again in great power and judgment. The whole point of Advent is not that we church people might act like Scrooges, but so we can pause and be transformed

When visited by the Ghost of Christmas Future, Scrooge had already spent time with the other two apparitions looking at the events of his life.  He looked back on how he had spent his life with others and how he was living life in the present.  Yes, he had some regrets, but in that reflection time, he was being transformed.  To the last apparition, Scrooge said, “Ghost of the Future, I fear you more than any spectre I have seen. But as I know your purpose is to do me good, and as I hope to live to be another man from what I was, I am prepared to bear you company, and do it with a thankful heart.”  Scrooge left his repetitive cycle of monetary focus and self-indulgent musings and was interrupted by a time of reflecting on the person he had become.  Maybe that is what Advent can be for us.  A time of awaiting the future return of Our Lord, while spending some time intentionally getting ready for that day.

Before Scrooge celebrated Christmas with his family and gifted the best Christmas ever to Tiny Tim and his family, transformed he said, “I will honor Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year. I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future. The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me.’’  Scrooge was converted and made ready for the future, through an unexpected, but intentional interruption in his life.

So, I encourage you to do the same, and take advantage of Advent, this haven of anticipation where you can reflect, pray, and rest.  Come to the Advent retreat with me next Saturday, join the Advent reflections after the 9:30 am service in the library, or merely take on some spiritual discipline of prayer and fasting over the next few weeks.  I encourage you to observe Advent season and live in anticipation of the coming of Christ.  Honor Christmas by reflecting on your past, live fully into your present, and anticipate joyfully the peace and grace you will see when Christ comes again.

REFERENCES

SERMON 11/21/19 “Christ the King” St. Monica’s Episcopal Church, Naples, FL

christ-the-king-1Jeremiah 23:1-6; Psalm 46; Colossians 1:11-20; Luke 23:33-43

The Feast Day

            “Christ the King” is a feast celebrated in the Roman Catholic Church and the Lutheran Church on the last Sunday of the liturgical year. It celebrates Christ’s messianic kingship and sovereign rule over all creation. The feast is unofficially celebrated in some Episcopal parishes, but it is not mentioned in the Episcopal calendar of the church year. The feast was originally instituted by Pope Pius XI in 1925 and celebrated on the last Sunday in Oct. It has been observed on the last Sunday before Advent since 1970.  This commemoration of Christ The King has its origins in the prophetic books and finds its origins in the lineage Jesus shares with King David.

The prophet Jeremiah wrote, “The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.”  David was the beloved King of the United Kingdom of Israel and Judah somewhere around 1000 BCE. “Early Christians interpreted the life of Jesus in light of the references to the Messiah and to David; Jesus is described as being descended from David. David is even discussed in the Quran as a major prophet and figures in Islamic oral and written tradition as well.” (1)  So, Jesus follows this royal line through his kinship.

The early followers of Jesus made this royal connection of Jesus with their most beloved King and the promises of the prophets, which foretold of the one coming from David’s line.  It established Jesus as the anticipated Messiah or “promised one,” or originally an earthly king ruling by divine appointment.   Jesus is the ultimate, expected, and promised “King overall.”

However, the reality of “Christ the King” in actuality was very different from Messiah that the people expected.  It is a reality very different from what we expect as well.  Today, I want us to consider “Christ the King” not only as a title for Jesus, or the feast day and last Sunday of the church year.  I want to challenge us to wrestle with these three questions, as they relate to our relationship with Our Lord Jesus Christ, the King.  (1) “Is Christ MY King, (2) “If Christ is my King, what does that really mean?”  and (3) “If Christ is my King, how does that change my life?”

Presidents vs. Kings

This whole concept of “Christ My King” is foreign to we Americans.  We live in a constitutional democracy where for 243 years, no monarch has held power over this land or its people.  Monarchical authority was something we fought over during the Revolutionary War.  Our forefathers struggled with the hazards of having even a strong executive branch, which could potentially undermine the balance of powers of government of the people, by the people, and for the people.

When George Washington was chosen to sit in that first seat as the head of the Executive branch, the early founders did not know what title they should give to his position in government. “Some delegates to the Constitutional Convention suggested “His Exalted Highness,” others sought a  more democratic “His Elective Highness.” Other suggestions included the formal ‘Chief Magistrate’ and the lengthy “His Highness the President of the United States of America, and Protector of Their Liberties’.”   Thankfully, Article 1, Section 9 of the Constitution states that “No Title of Nobility shall be granted by the United States.”  We refer now to the person sitting in that seat of power merely as either Mr. President or Madam President.

So, we Americans have a hard time with someone holding ultimate power over our lives, because it seems like a violation of who we are as a people.  We struggle to accept, conceptualize, and internalize the very relationship we must have with Jesus Christ, which is that of the King of my Life.  Do not fret though, scripture and tradition will give us clues to understanding who is this King of Glory and who he is supposed to be for us.

Christ the King

One the clearest images of Christ the King for me was found behind the altar of the Chapel of the Apostles at my seminary. There behind the altar stood a near life-size crucifix of our Lord, nearly naked, hands and feet pierced, and hanging on the cross.  This image is the earliest depictions of the throne of grace for the King we describe today.  However, in many Episcopal churches behind the altar you will see a more modern “Christus Rex” where Christ stands unattached in front of a cross, with arms straight out, but clothed in western eucharistic vestments and with a real royal crown on his head. This image portrays several concepts at the same time: the historic event of the crucifixion, Christ as the King in his kingdom, and Christ as the victorious sacrifice in the eucharistic feast.  We often see this image as Christ the King, but we cannot forget that the image that most clearly shows who this king really was, is now, and will be forever is the gruesome cross.

Jesus’ real throne of power is not a seat covered in gold or fine Italian leather.  His throne is a torture device for criminals.  Jesus crown is not one with diamonds, rubies, and other jewels, but circular wound thorns that pierced his flesh.  Most importantly, the power he wields as monarch is not imbued with might and manipulation, nor with military or economic power, but self-giving love manifested by the sacrifice of his own life for all.  Scripture tells that Christ the King: rescued us from the power of darkness, he is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation, in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, in him all things hold together, he is the head of the body (the church), and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things. This is no earthly head of state who has the potential to succumb to tyranny and despotism.  This is God in the flesh.

Christ the King is no mere wielder of power in a system made by human hands.  Christ the King is God among us, who shows us how to live as we were created to live.  Christ the King is the ultimate sovereign whose power is love alone.  Christ the King is the overseer of my life, even when in my naivete, I will not want to release that power to him.  Christ the King is “Christ My King,” and yet we struggle to make the commitment of being loyal subjects that his kingdom requires.

Christ My King

Despite our democracy, we Americans still are obsessed with the British Monarchy. The American viewership of two incredibly elaborate Royal Weddings in the last 30 years attests to that fixation.  Psychologists call “this obsession (with royalty) “parasocial behavior,” which can create a one-sided relationship in which someone becomes attached to a person without actually interacting with them in any meaningful way.” (2)

If we Americans love the monarchy with all its pomp and circumstance, why is it we reject the authority and oversight of that governing same system.  Maybe this paradox helps us understand our relationship to Christ the King.  We love the crown but rejection of its authority and maybe that is the nature of our relationship with Christ.  Maybe we have a mere affinity for a popular, famous, good teacher, rather than being fully engaged, living as a loyal subject of God’s Kingdom.”

The loyal subject of God’s Kingdom desires Christ’s will in all things, pursues Christ’s guidance in all decisions, studies scripture and looks to his example for the path which we must travel, and speaks to him in loving conversation (prayer) each and every day.    Alternatively, maybe our relationship is one of a parasocial nature, in which we are merely attached to him, without actually interacting with him in a meaningful way.

You see, God seeks to be with us in all things, but God wants us to be with him in all things.  Pastor Edward Markquart asserts, “God entered this world as one of us and took upon himself our joy, fear, pain, and suffering.  The nature of God is not to avoid suffering; the nature of love is not to avoid pain or the places of pain.  That’s the way love is; that’s the way God is; not to avoid pain and not to avoid the places of pain.”(3)

“Christ the King” is the sovereign of our lives because we make the choice to invite him vulnerably and humbly to walk the path of suffering and pain, joy and peace, hope and salvation with us every day of our lives.  That relationship requires no pomp and circumstance, no royal pageantry, and no fine china and silver dinner parties.  It requires us to come before the throne of grace and seek reconciliation and transformation with God and with each other every day.  So, when we come before that throne of grace, we will find no tyrannical despot, but merely the bearer of the cross of self-giving love.

So, I go back to my original question, which only you can answer for ourselves: “Is Christ MY King.”  Because if “Christ the King” really is my king, then my sisters and brothers we all need to get ready, because when we make that choice, everything will change.   I find the answers to this question in one of my favorite contemporary Christian songs:

Who is this King of glory that pursues me with His love
And haunts me with each hearing of His softly spoken words
My conscience, a reminder of forgiveness that I need
Who is this King of glory who offers it to me.

His name is Jesus, precious Jesus
The Lord Almighty, the King of my heart
The King of glory.

REFERENCES

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

(2) https://time.com/5253199/royal-obsession-psychology/

(3) http://www.sermonsfromseattle.com/series_c_save_us_from_our_crosses.htm

 

 

SERMON 11-17-19 Pentecost 23C Proper 28 St. Monica’s Naples, FL

Malachi 4:1-2a; Psalm 98; 2 Thessalonians 3:6-13 ; Luke 21:5-19

Fear, Wars, and Portents

“Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven.”  Wow, our gospel reading today is filled with pleasantries is it not?  Maybe you are sitting there thinking, “Please Fr. Eric, preach a little hope for us this week, because your sermons have made being a disciple seem a bit challenging.  I mean those Pentecost readings have been a little ominous and foreboding, and the warnings about church conflict, being a saint in a changing world, and “In Me I Trust” have been a little too much, ok?   Tell us something good today, and tell us a story of hope.

We all could use a story of hope these days, especially when we see government flashing portents of strife and division.  We all could use a story of hope, especially when we see yet one more school shooting in Santa Clarita last week.   We all could use a story of hope, especially when the world we live in, sometimes seems like a powder keg ready to explode, just waiting for the spark to ignite.  We all could use a story of hope today As we fear what we believe to be ominous times.

Being afraid of the end the world is nothing new for us.  This nation has faced many challenges, tragedies, and transitions.   We survived a revolution, civil war, two World Wars, the September 11th Attacks, and the subprime mortgage collapse a few years ago.  We have been afraid of the “End of the World” as we know it, the unknown, the inevitable, and the probable, it all looms out there. We could choose to live in fear, but Jesus says that there is great hope for us, if we just embrace it, and allow the hope of the Gospel, to be woven in the stories of our lives.

Faith

We humans need hope and so, movies, books, and television have given us stories of hope.  One of my favorites is “The Lord of the Rings, an epic high-fantasy novel written by English author J. R. R. Tolkien, the son of an Anglican, and a dear friend of C.S. Lewis. The title of the novel refers to the story’s main antagonist, the Dark Lord Sauron, who had in an earlier age created the One Ring … as the ultimate weapon … to conquer and rule all of Middle-earth.” (1)  The Lord of the Rings is a story about how diverse ethnic peoples lived on the edge of destruction every day in a battle against Sauron and his humanoid creatures.

The good guys are thehobbits, dwarves, elves, and men of Middle Earth, who chose not to live in fear and hiding but in hope, and so, they worked together to thwart the evils that plague the world.   The bad guys are the orcs, goblins, and an evil lord hell bent on turning hope to despair, beauty into darkness, and life into pain.  The Lord of the Rings is an epic tale, and I believe Tolkien took his cue when writing this tale, from the Christian story of hope and salvation.  Our hope story is the one where we Christians through faith, endurance, and hope, rely and as trust in Jesus Christ who ultimately overcame the greatest obstacles of this life, including death.

So, with divisive government, new foreign threats, school shootings, health problems, family strife, and other troubles, we experience fear and trepidation every day in this life, but what if we had faith to live in hope.  What if we saw difficulties and trials as opportunities to die in some way to our fears, so that in God’s time, we might be transformed into the people God is moving us to become.

Life today is full of changes:  new jobs, relocations, loss of relationships, financial woes, a detour from a career dream, or the death of loved ones; these are the natural occurrences of life that may feel, while in the midst of them, like the “end of the world.”  We all know, if we have lived at all, tragic circumstances will happen, changes will come, and life is not always, nor has it ever intended to be easy.

Jesus confirms that reality and in today’s gospel we hear Jesus say, “But before all this occurs, they will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name.”  Being a follower of Jesus sounds difficult doesn’t it?

“There is a religious fantasy among some Christians, who believe a gospel where financial blessing and physical well-being are always the will of God , and that with positive speech alone … God will increase one’s material wealth.” (2) Some even believe that if we pray unceasingly the right words with the right mindset well, that perfect parking spot at Wal Mart or Target will magically appear and we will be in God’s graces.   That is not faith, but a misguided belief that being a disciple of Jesus is easy, or being a Christian is a “trouble-free” life. It is however, a life of peace in the grace of hope is what discipleship is really all about.

Endurance

Jesus said that when we face rejection of our commitment to follow him, “This will give you an opportunity to testify.”  When we make the decision to live the radical principles of self-giving love, it will come with some rejection in this “dog eat dog” world.  Regardless where Christianity is professed, if we proclaim Jesus as Lord, we potentially face opposition even from our friends. Try this next week, if you are bold enough.  When you are in a conversation with a secular friend over lunch or dinner, and they ask you about a recent decision you made in your life, tell them it was because of your Christian faith.  You will have just opened yourself to the persecution Jesus is talking about, but that simple statement claiming your faith is really evangelism in action.

You hear me talk all the time about evangelism all the time, telling you that we Episcopalians are supposed to do it, because it is something Jesus expects us to do.  Now, Jesus does not command us to go door to door next week, ring the doorbell, hand the person a gospel tract, and say to them, “I’d like to talk to you about Jesus.” Evangelism is not overt proselytizing trying to get someone to make a decision to join St. Monica’s on the spot.  Evangelism is an ongoing willingness, readiness, while having the endurance to boldly, and every day to claim your identity as a follower of Jesus, and when the opportunity presents itself, to do so without reservation or fear.

You see, in a culture, in which we are growing to nearly 1/3 of us claiming no connection to a faith community, we Episcopalians are going to have to become evangelists once again.  We are going to have to rely on more than merely fine liturgy and impeccable music, nonthreatening sermons, and proper coffee hours in order to be proclaimers of hope.  Remember, we are a church on a mission to be icons of Good News of hope, endurance and faith for others.

In this fear-filled world, we offer a way of following Jesus that offers grace filled hope in the midst of warnings, despair, and fear. So, being a Christian was never meant to be easy, but God never abandons us, God gives us the means, God provides and thus, we have hope in a peace that passes all understanding; Jesus Christ.

Hope

Jesus said, “When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; for these things must take place first, but the end will not follow immediately.”  Jesus assures us that when we face trouble, transitions, challenges, and yes, even when we face wars, insurrections, and maybe even the end of the world, we can be at peace.  We are at peace because even death itself has no power over the hope we have in the Good News of Jesus Christ.  God’s love has already overcome death, and that is where we find our story of hope.

In the Lord of the Rings, the best scene of the whole trilogy happens at the gates of Minis Tirith, the heavily fortified capital of one of the last vestiges of humanity.  At this place, the epic battle of the evil of the world and all its forces, converge to overtake humanity.  Destruction was at the gates and a courageous hobbit named Pippin sees the end in sight.  He looked at the wise wizard Gandalf, his faithful battle partner and said, “I didn’t think it would end this way.”  Gandalf replied, “End? No, the journey doesn’t end here. Death is just another path, one that we all must take. The grey rain-curtain of this world rolls back, and all turns to silver glass, and then you see it.”  Pippin confused, replied, “What? Gandalf? See what?”  Gandalf with hope in his eyes, as if he had seen glimpses of it before (which he had, said, “White shores, and beyond, a far green country under a swift sunrise.”  With hope staring at him, and with a smile, Pippin responded, “Well, that isn’t so bad.”  Gandalf smiled and said, “No. No, it isn’t.”  The wizard had seen glimpses of the blessed hope that he gave little Pippen that day.  Like him, we Christians have hope in us, the hope of Christ, and it is a hope for the world that is facing the fears of its own destruction.  We must share it with others.

The truth of the matter is this, if we who have this hope are afraid to share our hope in Jesus Christ, we lose our mission call as disciples.  As our brother the Apostle Paul reminded that early church in Thessalonica, he reminds us today, “Brothers and sisters, do not be weary in doing what is right.”  Jesus promises us that even at the end, “not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your souls.”  So, next week, be bold and take a risk, and be good news for someone you meet this week.  The promise of faith, hope, and endurance in Jesus Christ is the story all us need to hear today, and not just today, but every day.

REFERENCES

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Lord_of_the_Rings

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prosperity_theology

SERMON Proper 27 Pentecost 22C St. Monica’s Episcopal Church

GOTCHAJob 19:23-27a; Psalm 17:1-9; 2 Thessalonians 2:1-5, 13-17; Luke 20:27-38

The “Gotcha Game”

Back in the 1990’s, I was an Associate Buyer at Sears Corporate outside Chicago, and I worked later a Buyer with a major regional retailer.  I was responsible for the assortment planning of multiple product lines for over 800 retail stores.  I negotiated with vendors to create assortments, set pricing, and determine delivery and terms.  It was all a negotiation game of give and take and economic power wielding.  The best buyers were the ones who listened to their vendors’ advice, partnered with them to achieve common goals, and admitted when they were wrong or when they had made mistakes.

The worst buyers were the ones who tried to trip up their vendors, reduce orders when something did not go their way, demand unexpected concessions in order to secure market position, or wield their economic buying power in ways that put their partnerships at risk.  These retail executives failed because their core values were based in the “Gotcha game.” The Gotcha Game is one where one player trips up another through inappropriate power wielding, and that game is similar to the one we hear about in today’s gospel reading.

There was an encounter between a group of Sadducees and Jesus in which the Sadducees asked Jesus a well-crafted and disarming question, about the post resurrection marital status of a woman.  She wound up married to seven brothers, after each one of them had died.  According to Jewish tradition, “if a man’s brother dies, leaving a wife but no children, the man shall marry the widow and raise up children for his brother.”

The question was a part of the Sadducees “Gotcha Game” against Jesus.  Like a parking lot conversation after a controversial church meeting or good Sunday sermon, these religious leaders have huddled together for days, cooking up a little scheme to try trip Jesus up and undermine not only Jesus’ teaching about resurrection, but they really wanted to embarrass and defame Jesus, in order to lift themselves up to a level of power and influence in the community.

The Sadducees were blatantly going for a power grab, by thwarting the authority of the young rabbi Jesus.  The heart of today’s gospel is not a theological discourse on marriage in the afterlife but rather, the whole encounter is an example of the potential evil of inappropriate power wielding in community.  The gospel through this encounter, teaches us about out the evils of engaging in the “Gotcha Game.”

Power Grabs

“Why did they want to undermine Jesus,” you may ask.  Because Jesus threatened the perceived importance of that little power-wielding group in the community, those learned and experienced folk who felt threatened by this young upstart teacher.  Rather than engage in relationship building, the Sadducees went after a “power grab” to sustain their long-standing or yet, to better their ongoing influence in the community.

Now some of us may look at this event and say, “Well that just does not happen in churches or in the world today Fr. Eric. We all are beyond that kind of pettiness.”  Really?  Do you watch political news stories these days?  The “Gotcha Game” is happening on both sides of the partisan aisle, and within the aisles themselves.  It also happens every day in our professional lives and yes, it does happen in the church.  Trust me, I have stories about this topic from my days working on diocesan staff, and I can tell you about some incredible “Gotcha Game” situations in churches that ended up in unhealthy conflict.

Now, conflict does happen, and healthy conflict is necessary for us to move forward. Conflict in church is a natural part of growing, changing, and transitioning, but unhealthy conflict is destructive.  When we have differing viewpoints, we often fail to engage in the ancient spiritual practice of discernment with patience, so that reconciliation and peace might abound. There is a communal destructive power in the “Gotcha Game”.  The manipulating, maneuvering, and undermining of the others through the “Gotcha Game” destroys trust, diminishes integrity, and damages Christian relationships.   The “gotcha game” has no place in politics, business, and it definitely has no place in church.

Often, the most intriguing challenge to Christian community today is not buildings and committees.  Our greatest threat is how we deal with the reality of power issues. Most communities of people, who gather in common life together have some formal and informal organizational structures that clearly define responsibilities, outline accountabilities, and sets healthy boundaries around authority and power.  Employing and sharing power in a Christian community is something that has the potential for unimaginable good, but at the same time, if unhealthy “Gotcha Game” power wielding emerges, then there can be cruel destruction to the community.

The problem with the “gotcha game” in the church is that it violates Our Lord’s sacred command to “love your neighbor.”  The unhealthy wielding of power in the Christian community that undermines one’s sister or brother, is what Martin Luther called “a demonic spell cast upon the soul.”(2) Luther described this power wielding as Anfechtung, a German word that as nearly as possible, means doubt, inner turmoil, and pangs of conscience, despair, pain, temptation and many more evil things.  Anfechtung is like blitzkrieg, a sudden, warlike attack on the human soul or body. (2)  Unhealthy conflict in church, the wielding of power to destroy the other always has devastating results.  The aftermath of such godless power, to accuse, manipulate, and destroy another person for whom Christ died, is quite honestly, the work of Satan and it is evil.  Anytime we choose to engage in the “gotcha game,” Christ is crucified anew and his body, the church, is wounded.”(1)  Thanks be to God, we are not left to our own demise.  Jesus commands us that by loving our neighbor, we discover the remedy for the “Gotcha Game.”

Loving Neighbor

The best way to love our neighbor is to listen to each other, be vulnerable to one another, and learn from one another.  I imagine in the temple that day, had the “religious group” listened with patience, rather than engage in the well planned “gotcha game” strategy, the story we heard would have been much different.  Maybe the religious leaders would have approached Jesus with love and respect. Maybe they would have acknowledged his wisdom and respect the burden he was carrying.  Maybe together they would have dialogued, listened, and supported one another, and taken a chance to be vulnerable speaking truth to one another.

Maybe it would have gone something like this, “Teacher, we just don’t believe in resurrection and your teaching is challenging to us.” Maybe Jesus would have said, “Well, let’s just talk about that for awhile.” Maybe if the story followed this alternative path, the ensuing well-lain trap to undermine Jesus’ authority, thwart his approach, and circumvent his mission would never have happened, especially if the dialogue had begun with mutual respect, integrity, and love.

You see, when we experience conflict, differing ideas, and divergent approaches, it is through healthy vulnerable dialogue that we find the alternative to the “gotcha game.”  Self-examination and a release of our innate desire to destructively wield power and influence, can become the process towards peace, and the end to the power grab. Releasing our own desire for power diffuses and moves us from “Gotcha Game” to a holy practice of reconciliation.

Reconciliation

When disagreements arise among us, we need to abandon power grabs and do some holy listening, asking questions, especially when we experience conflict with a sister or brother.  We need to sit down and talk and ask questions of ourselves like:  (1) “Can I learn something new, (2) “How is this situation calling me to be transformed, (3) “Can I adapt to these changes.”  Here is the best one yet, “Could I be wrong.”  In order for Christian community to shine its light in the world, we must really follow Jesus and learn to be vulnerable to one another.

Jesus faced the “gotcha game” once again in his ministry.  While his body hung near lifeless on that hard cross, bleeding, and broken, the religious ones once again stood pointing fingers, taunting, and possibly thinking, “we gotcha now.”  But Jesus did not succumb to the game.   Like he always does, he turned death in to life, despair into hope, brokenness into restoration.  In beautiful words that still cut to our core today, Jesus fully revealed the depth of God’s love.  We see the vulnerability of God’s love, which is the kind of love God demands we have for one another.  Jesus said, “Forgive them Father, for they know not what they do.”  With these brief words from the lips of our dying Lord, Jesus overturned the power game.   Through the cross, the “gotcha game,” inner turmoil, temptation and a lot more bad things, simply lose their power.

The power of Christ and his body the Church, comes not from “tripping each other up,” or trying to wield unhealthy power in the church, which many of us were able to do in our former or current professional lives.  The power of Christian community comes from our ultimate vulnerability to God and each other.  It is in the work of God reconciling the world to Godself, that we are given the hope of reconciliation with each other.   The icon of reconciliation is that beautiful Christian symbol we lift high as we enter this place of grace, and the same one we follow out into the world, knowing we are redeemed, and sent out to love and serve the Lord.

Redemption simply means that in order to experience love, mercy, grace, peace, and reconciliation, we must actually take up the cross of relational vulnerability, and die to the “gotcha games,” our need for self-importance, and the pursuit of communal power struggles that threaten our witness of grace.  It is only when we die to our old self that we have the hope of being are raised to new life in loving community.  Then and only then will our relationships reflect the grace of the “the God not of the dead, but of the living; for to him all are alive.”

REFERENCES

 

 

SERMON 11/3/19 All Saint’s Day, St. Monica’s Episcopal Church

allsaintsDaniel 7:1-3,15-18; Psalm 149; Ephesians 1:11-23; Luke 6:20-31

Saints: A Motley Crew

If you look closely at the bulletin cover today, you will see an ancient icon for All Saint’s however, I have modified it to include the faces of some modern-day saints.  Those faces are just normal everyday people just like you because, we all are saints believe it or not.  We sometimes think saints as merely those special people we see depicted in ancient icons. However, consider the crew Jesus chose as his first followers.  There was old Peter (the bold and yet, “first to run” disciple), James and John, (the two who wanted seats of honor, over and above their fellow disciples), and Matthew the Tax Collector.  There were many other disreputable followers of Jesus over the centuries, and yes, I am one too.

Jesus seems to call some incredible characters into the Communion of Saints, doesn’t he, just look around you.  His first group of followers, and we the generations who have come on the scene much later, have not been nor are we saints of perfection.  We are both sinners and saints.  Even Mother Theresa, the well-known nun who helped lepers in Calcutta, stated in her memoirs that she had moments of doubt, and failure all along the way.   Saints are scruffy, motley, and imperfect people, who are just trying to get it right, and often short.   Christian community can be pretty messy but in it, find the beautiful and hopeful nature of God’s grace in action.

My favorite bible verse is from the second Letter of Paul to the Corinthians which states, “But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us.”  Think about grace in those words because it is through the frailty and brokenness of our imperfect “fleshly containers” that God’s abundant grace flows through us and into all the world.

Also, we Christians are like stained glass windows of sainthood, through which the world sees, experiences, and receives God’s bright shining love.  Now, you may hear that as cliché, and think that it sounds like, all we have to do is just let the light shine in us, and our mission is complete.  However, being a saint is a little more difficult than merely sitting still trying to be all holy.  Disciples have to move and do and be like Christ.

All Saint’s Day

Today is the Feast Day of All Saint’s, a principal feast of the Church, and the feast where the Episcopal church remembers the saints, known and unknown.  Today is also one of the holy days denoted as especially appropriate for baptisms.  Today, you will notice some changes in our worship.  In contrast to the Pentecost season, the service music is somewhat more uplifting and celebratory, we will chant portions of the liturgy, and we replace the Nicene Creed with the Renewal of Baptismal Vows.

In addition to liturgical changes, this feast typically is the day Episcopalians make an annual commitment of treasure (as well as our time and talent), and through this commitment, we make our claim as saints, apledge to continue the mission of Christ’s reconciling love, through the ministry of our local branch of the Body of Christ, St. Monica’s Episcopal Church.  Today’s feast day also serves as the renewal of our own stewardship.

This past year, I have encouraged us to recognize God’s generous grace poured out abundantly on us.  Today and in the weeks to come, we are called to tangibly respond in gratitude to God for God’s gifts, by returning a portion of those gifts back to God.  Because we saints follow a heritage of saints that span for over two centuries, those billions of faithful, committed Jesus followers who have shown us the path of discipleship, and now it is our turn to pass on Jesus’ Way of love on to others.  That is not an easy task, but we do have grace.

Saints and Enemies

Jesus commands us saints today to, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.”   That sure is uncomfortable, challenging, and some pretty high expectations. What?  Wait a minute, you want me to do what?  Jesus is not merely offer us a corny saying that looks impeccable engraved on pewter statues, silicone bracelets, or framed artwork.  Jesus was serious; love your enemies.

Webster defines enemy as, “an individual or a group that is seen as forcefully adverse or threatening.”(2)   In other words, any person that is seen as a threat to our well being is an enemy. You may say, “Fr. Eric, I have no enemies.”  Well, I am sure we all have people who we would rather not spend time with, or folks with whom we disagree, or people who just plain irritate us.  So, our natural response when threatened by folks like this is either to run away or to put up our dukes and fight.  Jesus says that we should resist our natural response of “fight or flight,” to react in opposition to our sinful nature, and choose to respond in love.

“Loving enemies” does not seem possible in this competitive, destroy your opponent, and push your own agenda kind of world we live in today.  Imagine what the political advertisements would be like next year, if the politicians really followed Jesus command to love your enemy.  Maybe they would say, “My opponent is really an honest, committed servant, we just differ on our policies and approaches to government.  I think I want to sit down with her/him and learn more about them.”

Imagine how we might react to folks we might treat our adversaries on social media if we really followed Jesus command to love your enemy.   We see one of our Facebook friend’s posts or we receive a well lubricated email late at night.  In it our opponent has written something negative about us.  On Facebook, we might ignore the post, like it, or post a nasty comment.  We might fire off a fire filled email response, BCC’g all in our inside clan.  However, what if alternatively, we called them on the phone and reminded our acquaintance how much friendship matters to you, regardless of our differences.

Imagine how we might react to people heaping injustices on certain folks in our nation.  What if we really followed Jesus’ command to love our enemy, and rather than publicly making condemning personal attacks on the oppressors for their actions, we would go and stand alongside in solidarity with the oppressed of the world, and show the oppressors that God’s love and grace flows through us

Imagine how we might react when someone in the congregation hurts us, speaks wrongly about us, or simply ignores us.  What if we really followed Jesus’ command to love our enemy, and maybe we we would reach out to that person who is hurting us, and show them a better way, through an outpouring of kindness, compassion, and patience.  In all these modern day examples of “loving our enemy,”  Jesus would tell us that our mission as Christians is to show others the Good News and by so doing, we through God’s grace help convert enemies into friends. We certainly live in a world today that really needs us to be saints every day, even when the truth is that we all both saints and sinners.

Saints in a Changing World

So, being a saint is risky these days, especially in these volatile times in our country.  Now more than ever, we saints need to follow the command of our Lord and love our neighbors. We saints must not participate in our nation’s emerging “like for like,” “eye for an eye,” “destroy the other guy” mentality, because that has nothing to do with love, and honestly, it is not of God.

We saints must enact love with responses that include as the scriptures say, “Doing good, blessing others, and praying for others.”  We must show up in our society, in our neighborhood, and in our church and respond to injustice, racism, and the other plagues that pit one group of God’s people against another.  We saints must bring incredible resilience and commitment to this world by loving one another, addressing our internal conflicts honestly, and working toward reconciling, healing, and restoring from within, so that we can go out into the world, and do the same thing with integrity and love out there.

The truth is this my friends; we are both saints and sinners.  We know in our hearts that we have a great capacity for grace, mercy, and love.  At the same time, we possess the capacity to inflict pain, create harm, and wound one another through our misguided need for power and control.   If can accept this paradox that is within each of us, we will know that we saints and sinners have only hope in Christ. Jesus reminds and lovingly demands that we must resist fear, hate, and division, and just let God transform us so we might “choose love!”  Theologian Warren Carter asserts that in the midst of the challenges of community life, God calls for our best efforts, our “best sainthood efforts, which sums up the divine character (merciful even to the ungrateful and wicked) and the obligation on disciples to imitate this indiscriminate mercy for all.” (1)

Good News for Saints and Sinners

So, what is the Good News for saints and sinners on this All Saint’s Day, in this life comingled with division, pain, uncertainty, and wounded ness?  We saints always have the choice to follow the path of Jesus Christ or not.   We can choose to live each day in self-giving love, returning hatred for grace, war for peace, and division for unity, or we can just let our animal nature take charge and resort to “fight or flight” with those we just do not like.

To the first apostles, those saints of old, Jesus’ left his mission of reconciliation, mercy, grace, and love, and he left it to we 21st century disciples.  We can take up the mantle of the high calling of God if simply, “do good, bless each other, and pray for each other, and live into those baptismal promises each of us will take upon ourselves again in a few minutes.

Sisters and brothers, our example of Christian love is needed in this old world now, more than ever.  We saints and sinners, followers of the Jesus Christ, the choice is ours.  We can choose to have our portrait included in that beautiful icon of sainthood.   With God’s grace, we can take our place among All the Saints who are illuminated by the light of God’s abundant, radical, and overwhelming love.   We all have a job to do we saints and sinners.  We are the only light of God’s grace, the only example of God’s love, and the only gospel the world will be able to hear today and tomorrow. So,  Saints and Sinners, go out today and  Shine your Light, the light of Christ, shine for all the world to see.

1 Carter, Warren. “Love Your Enemies.” Word & World 28.1 (2008): 13-21. ATLASerials, Religion Collection. Web. 1 Nov. 2013.

SERMON 10-27-19 Pentecost 20C Proper 25 St. Monica’s Naples, FL

dollarSirach 35:12-17; Psalm 84:1-6 ; 2 Timothy 4:6-8,16-18; Luke 18:9-14

In God we Trust: The Dollar Bill

Talking about money in church seems to be troublesome for some folks, for some reason, and it may be a little uncomfortable for some.  In the Episcopal Church we are in the middle of the annual giving or stewardship season, and parishes are once again talking about how the gifts God gives us is directly related to the gifts we return to God through our time, talent, and treasure.

Next weekend at St. Monica’s, we will celebrate All Saint’s Day, a Feast Day when we remember or commemorate all saints known and unknown.  It is also, for many parishes like ours, the weekend we will make a commitment, pledging our financial support to continue God’s mission of reconciliation through the ministry of St. Monica’s.  Next weekend is “Pledge Turn In” Saturday and Sunday and we will pledge to God, to offer a generous portion of what God has given us, more specifically,  our Time, Talent, and yes, Our Treasure.  It is a day that reminds us that it is still “In God we Trust.”

We find “In God we Trust”  printed on every denomination of currency we have in America, and the history of its origin is quite interesting.  “During the Cold War era, the … United States sought to distinguish itself from the Soviet Union, which promoted state atheism, and the 84th Congress passed a joint resolution ‘declaring IN GOD WE TRUST the national motto of the United States.’ The same day, President Eisenhower signed into law a requirement that “In God We Trust” be printed on all U.S. currency and coins.” (Wiki)

We have come a long way as a nation since Ike signed that bill into law a few decades ago.   I wonder though, do we Americans still hold in esteem, that motto we find on our treasure today?   Do we trust in God or ourselves?  In less than 30 years, the United States has transformed into a nation where one-quarter (26%) of the populous claims to be religiously unaffiliated, and that was only 8% thirty years ago.  Our commitment to trusting God has diminished in only three decades, and the mission of the church is being challenged by this shift in religiosity.  To remain effective witnesses of grace, we Christians need to ask, do we still believe “In God We Trust,” or has our culture changed us so much, that we believe our national motto to be “In Me I Trust.”

Pride and Humility

The culture of “In Me I Trust” was present in Jesus’ time.  In today’s Gospel reading we hear these words, “Jesus told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt.”  He said, “Two men who went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.” These men came to synagogue regularly and participated in the rites of the religious system.  Both men prayed, but both men were wrestling in different ways with their own faith journey, kind of like many of us do today.

Could we be like the Pharisee, who looked at the Tax Collector with condescension?  Maybe we look at the person sitting beside us in church and think, “I sure am glad I am not like old Clara Belle over there who carouses around and lives a life of depravity, she hardly ever comes to church, and she talks about people behind their backs all the time.”  In other words, could we be like the Pharisee who in his prayer to God said, “I am faithful God.  Look at me, look what I do, what I give, and you surely know that I am special to Lord.”

Alternatively, could we be like the Tax Collector, who really does carouse around and lives a life of depravity, hardly ever coming to church, and talking about people behind their backs, but maybe we like him, acknowledges our failures, our need for grace, and we come before God humbled and willing to accept God’s transformation, asking for mercy.

These two men may represent each of us at different stages in our discipleship.  I know I’ve been there myself where like the Pharisee who judged the Tax Collector, I compared myself to others.  Likewise, I have been the Tax Collector a sinner, who really needed God’s grace.  They, like us, are both saint and sinner all at the same time and thus we like them, all need to be transformed and seek right relationships (righteousness).  We need to strive to follow Christ, not because it makes us look good, as if we are posting a “Look at me and what I do” post on Social Media.  Righteousness does not come from us, but only from God.  As David Lores states, “righteousness … is never enough. Why? Because it’s based on our abilities and accomplishments. And we will eventually fall short. Even more, it’s based on comparisons.” (1)

In whom do We Trust?

In his prayer the Pharisee bragged, “I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.” The Pharisee followed the motto, “In Me I Trust” because the justification he sought before God was based on what he did.  From his pride of accomplishment, his idea of righteousness was all about him and his efforts, not about God’s abundant grace.

The Tax Collector realized he could do nothing to bring about God’s justification to him. The Tax Collector believed in the motto, “In God We Trust. ”  He knew he fell short and missed the mark.  It was only by his admission of his utter dependence he had on God, his own inability to save himself, that he came to know that we “called or counted righteous no matter what we have done simply because God says so.” (1)   The difference between these two people was the fact that they both knew in whom it was they put their trust, but one was in God, and one was in himself.

“IN GOD WE TRUST” is not the arrogant proud religiosity of a nation that believes, “God is on our side,” but a claim that we as a nation, and we as individuals are utterly and humbly dependent upon God’s abundant grace.   C.S. Lewis wrote, “Humility is not thinking less of yourself, it’s thinking of yourself less.”   Humility is the opposite of pride.  Karl Barth identifies pride as “the chief sin of the religious person, because it is fundamentally idolatrous it confuses Creator and creation, Giver and gift.”  (3)

Jesus said this about our humility and God’s grace, “For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”   It is when we acknowledge that all we have, all we are, and all we do are gifts from God, then the answer of in whom do we trust becomes clear.  Then in our utter dependence on God, we respond to that kind of abundant love, returning to God, a portion of those Gifts God gives us.  We become faithful stewards of our Time, Our Talent, and Our Treasure, as a reflection of whom it is we put our trust.

Stewardship

Today’s reading from Syrach reminds us, “Give to the Most High as he has given to you, and as generously as you can afford.”   If it is “In God We Trust,” then we know the very breath we breathe is a gift from God.  Our 401K, our home, and even the body we inhabit are all gifts from God over all of which, we are mere stewards, and only for a brief time.

Stewardship is not an annual church fundraising drive through which, we pledge to fund an operating budget each year.  The vestry does make decisions about what ministries we will fund based on several factors, one being the amount of gifts given by God’s people.  However, stewardship is a way of life.  A way through which, we respond to God grace through a returning of the gifts of Time, Talent, and Treasure God has given us.

When we consider our stewardship are we like the Pharisee whose generosity was persuaded by a belief that everything over which he was a steward was stamped with, “In Me I Trust.”  Alternatively, when we consider our stewardship are we like the Tax Collector, whose generosity was persuaded by a belief that everything over which he was a steward was stamped with, “In God We Trust.

Our Stewardship is simply a faithful response to God’s abundant love, through which we offer time for worship and service in ministry, we offer talents to do those things only you have been uniquely gifted to do, and we offer treasure, the tangible symbols of the work we do in the world each and every day.  When we offer these things back to God generously, then we are clearly claiming that in all things, it is always “In God We Trust.”

REFERENCES

SERMON 10-20-19 Pentecost 19C Proper 24 St. Monica’s Naples, FL

justiceGenesis 32:22-31; Psalm 121; 2 Timothy 3:14-4:5; Luke 18:1-8

The Parable: Justice and Persistence

I used to travel quite a bit when I served on the Bishop’s staff.  In five years, I put nearly 130,000 miles on my old Toyota Prius.  Driving that much can be difficult, but it was a great opportunity for some prayer time along the way.  However, I was usually distracted from prayer as I drove, because I knew exactly where every Starbucks was between North Tampa and Marco Island, and I often stopped.  I was distracted from conversations with God, while I listened to a plethora of Audible books, and watched the roadside billboards pass every mile or so.  I used to think, “Roadside signs will one day be completely replaced by social media ads, infomercials, blog posts, or cerebral implants.”  Even so, those signs were for me, both entertaining and informative and often, they were helpful.

While driving down I-75 a few years ago, I saw a bright red and black roadside sign that featured an ad for a local law firm.  It stated, “GET ME JUSTICE!”  When I got home, I was curious about the advertisement, so I checked out the firm’s website, which featured a well-dressed man in a suit, and the caption under his picture that stated, “Justice is not easily granted, it is earned through hard work.” The law firms’ take on how justice works, seems to be similar to the concept of justice we hear about in Jesus’ parable today.

Luke, through Jesus’ teaching, tells us that we are not merely recipients of God’s justice, or mere grace bearers because of some perceived or entitled special status we have in God’s Kingdom, but God’s justice becomes real through our active hard work in persistent prayer. We are justice partners with God, and when hearts align with the heart of God, we join with God as co-conspirators in God’s abundant acts of mercy, healing, restoration, reconciliation, and justice.

“Grant me justice against my opponent,” was the widow’s cry from today’s gospel reading.  She was a widow woman who persistently pleaded for help from a unscrupulous judge and like the billboard on the interstate, she cried, “GET ME JUSTICE!”  Jesus chose a widow as the focus of the parable for a reason.  In ancient eastern cultures, women and children came under the authority and protection of their male patriarch.  If the patriarch died then the widow and orphans were left with no economic support, were most likely homeless and thus, dependent on the charity of the community.  If anyone needed God’s justice, it was this widow.  We do not know exactly what happened that caused her terrible circumstance, but we do know that her persistence was so sharp, that it was as if she literally beat up the unjust judge until he finally answered her plea.  She definitely needed God’s justice, but what does that mean?

Justice: God’s vs. Human

Webster defines justice as “the maintenance or administration of what is just, especially by the impartial adjustment of conflicting claims or the assignment of merited rewards or punishments.”  This definition of justice is transactional, and it is acts or decision meted out without preference to the individual, but focused on balanced circumstances of fairness and “what is right.”  Theologian James Bruckner asserts, “God’s justice is not simply equilibrium, but restoration. To that end, it involves repentance. God’s transforming grace, mercy, and blessing are intended to flow from this kind of justice.” (1)  He adds, God’s justice “goes beyond strict justice, implying kindness and generosity as justice is done. It means intelligent, loving reflection, and action that restores health and well-being to communities and individuals.” (1) God’s justice is restorative, reconciling, and compassionate and not merely punishment or retribution for crimes or sins committed.

In the parable, Jesus tells us of a system of injustice that was widespread in first century culture, and one personified in a judge who really did not care about others, because he did not fear God, nor did he have respect for people.  The judge was not capable of real compassion, reconciliation, or justice, and the only reason he responded to the widow’s persistent request, was so she would leave him alone.  Jesus used the negative metaphor of the unjust judge as a contrast to the compassionate, reconciliatory, restorative justice of God, a justice that may seem distant or even unfathomable for us especially in the midst of the trying circumstances we often face.

Have you ever felt in your prayer life that you are like the widow?  Have you pleaded with God for help, support, a change of situation, or maybe you sought justice in those times and yet, it seemed like it all fell on deaf ears? I for one have prayed for situational realignments, clarity of discernment, retribution for wrongdoings, all through my incessant pleas to God.  In some cases, the answers did not come, at least the answers I thought I wanted to hear.

Maybe we all have misconstrued this whole intercessory prayer thing a little.  Maybe when we pray incessantly and we do not get the answers we seek, then we decide God is unjust and that God turns a deaf ear to our pleas.  Theologian Dorothy Weaver writes, “Jesus’ message, and that of Luke behind him, is unmistakable: God is a God of justice. And God will not fail to bring that justice into being for God’s chosen ones. Injustice is not the final word.” (3)

What is really going on in this whole intercessor prayer thing we do.  The truth is our pleas to God, and in God’s hearing of our cries in response to our pleas has nothing to do with the idea that when unanswered, God does not want to hear from you nor is “God just too busy for me.”  I believe that when we experience unanswered prayers, God may be waiting for our hearts to align with his, and God is waiting for our prayers to become pleas for God’s justice to abound.  I believe God is often waiting for us to take justice action as a result of our prayers, because we have a part in answered prayers.  We ask, “why does God allow children to go hungry, war atrocities to happen, mass shootings to occur, and all the other atrocities around us?”  The answer may be that through prayer, our hearts may be changed so much that we begin as a common humanity to take action to bring God’s desire for justice to a reality. We have a part in prayer beyond the words.

Praying for Justice

Prayer is a conversation with God, and not a one-sided dialogue in which, we ask and a God responds.  Prayer requires us to listen and to act as well.  Prayer is not petitioning to change God’s mind per se, but it is a dialogue in which we are changed.  Maggi Dawn writes, “Constant prayer shapes the person who prays. Repeated, habitual prayer gradually tests and sifts what you believe is really important, and what is of (fleeting) value.” (2)  Let me explain.

The Latin phrase Lex orandilex credendi  “ is a motto in Christian tradition, which means that prayer and belief are integral to each other and that liturgy is not distinct from theology.”  In other words, the phrase means “Prayer Shapes Believing,” but it also means what we believe shapes how we pray.  We are called to not only pray for God’s justice for ourselves and for others, but by our prayers, we are to be changed so much, that we begin to take action to bring that justice we seek to fruition.  The widow did just that.  She went to the unjust judge and persistently pleaded with him for help.  She took action.

Dawn writes, “We aren’t called to pray passively, hoping that God will change the world on our behalf. Prayer may be the wind at our backs, but sometimes we need to track down the answer in person. As the African proverb says, ‘When you pray, move your feet.’” (2)  Dorothy Weaver adds, “Prayer is no sedentary, cerebral, or even safe activity in the eyes of Jesus or the mind of Luke. Rather prayer is those sturdy audacious perhaps even outrageous acts that go by the name of faith.” (3) God answers prayers, and if we believe that to be true, then through faith we must rely on God to keep God’s promises, hear our cries, and respond.

The “GIVE ME JUSTICE” road sign I saw on I-75 a few years ago is a reminder that people need God to respond, and God needs us to respond ourselves to the cries of those who suffer in this life.  Those who need the mission of the church are people, who are striving to find peace, joy, reconciliation, mercy, and justice, and they are both inside and outside the four walls of St. Monica’s.  Yes, we need to pray for them each day, but God’s mission for justice for all, cannot end with our Godly petitions alone.

Jesus asked, “When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”   Jesus asks, “does the faith you claim, lead you to trust God, and in your pleas for God to act, will you seek God’s peace, mercy, reconciliation and justice through your own ministry?”  Jesus seems to be posting for us, a big roadside sign along our road of faith.  I think that sign clearly states that for we people of justice who seek God’s justice, “Persistent Prayer in Action is Required.”  So, if we have faith enough to pray persistently about what is really important, and then we act in mission for change from out of those prayers, then our hearts will align with God’s, and it is only then that circumstances will be changed.

So, when the least, lost, and lonely, the outcasts of society knock on our doors relentlessly demanding from us, “Get me Justice,” we followers of Jesus must answer those cries both in prayer and in action.  There are people in our mission field around this church who definitely need our prayers, but they need so much more.   We have children coming to this church every day of the week who need mentors.  We have people in our neighborhood who are hungry and need us to help bring nutritious food to them.  We have multiple ministries going on in this church now, that need ministers in which to serve.

The ministry of this church requires us to cry out to God in prayer, but our witness of God’s grace, demands we make sure that our supplications lead us to act, lead us to serve, and lead us to bring about the Kingdom of God in our very midst.  Now that my friends is something we all can pray about.

 

REFERENCES

(1) Bruckner, James K. “Justice in Scripture.” Ex Auditu, vol. 22, 2006, pp. 1–9.

(2) Dawn, Maggi. “Prayer Acts.” The Christian Century, vol. 124, no. 20, Oct. 2007, p. 19.

(3) Weaver, Dorothy Jean. “Luke 18:1-8.” Interpretation, vol. 56, no. 3, July 2002, pp. 317–319