Author Archives: The Rev. Eric S. Cooter

About The Rev. Eric S. Cooter

Episcopal priest, Certified Flight Instructor, USAF Auxiliary Chaplain.

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.

 

 

Leadership Quote of the Week 9/20/18

Ultimately, leadership is not about glorious crowning acts. It’s about keeping your team focused on a goal and motivated to do their best to achieve it, especially when the stakes are high and the consequences really matter. It is about laying the groundwork for others’ success, and then standing back and letting them shine.

Chris Hadfield

SERMON 9/10/18 Pentecost 17B St. Monica’s Episcopal Church

following-jesusIsaiah 50:4-9a; Psalm 116:1-8; James 3:1-12; Mark 8:27-38

“Who do you say I am?”  

            “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” I invite you to take a brief adventure of creative imagination this morning, and put yourself in today’s story from the Gospel according to Mark.  Imagine you have been a part of that band of disciples that followed the young rabbi all around the Galilean territory. You witnessed his healings and heard him preach, and you are hooked. You cannot return back to the place you were before, because you are on a new journey and you would follow him anywhere.

You and your companions now find yourselves deep in Gentile territory in Caesarea Philippi, a city, in which there is a plethora of spiritual practices, a collection of images of various deities, and a culture of pluralistic religious dogmas.  Caesarea Philippi was an ancient Roman city that had a grotto and related shrines dedicated to the Greek god Pan.

It was in this setting, Jesus posed this question to you his followers, “Who do people say that I am.”  You look around you and watch your fellow disciples as they answer.  One says, “Elijah.”  A couple of your clan retort, “John the Baptist.”  A few in the group exclaim, “A prophet.” Now, despite your colleague’s boldness to chime in, you keep silent and watch Peter, the outspoken one whom you know will have something profound to say, but interestingly, he too is silent.

Next, Jesus looks at each person in your group with great care in his eyes, pauses and asks, “Who do YOU say I am?”  Peter can hold back and proclaims boldly, “YOU ARE THE MESSIAH.”  Surprisingly, Jesus tells you all to keep quiet about what was just said.  You and your friends, being good first century Israelites, certainly understand what expectations your culture puts on the one who bears the title “Messiah.” Jesus however, knows what Messiah really means; suffering and death.   Is the self-giving suffering servant really the kind of Messiah we Jesus’ followers seek?

“My Jesus” vs. Jesus, the Messiah

            Peter the apostle proclaimed boldly to Jesus, “You are the Messiah.” However, upon hearing from Jesus what his Messiahship really meant (suffering and death), Peter could not accept it and rebuked Jesus; the same guy who later denied Jesus three times. Peter did not want a suffering servant Messiah that Jesus self-described, the one who would be rejected, beaten, and killed. Peter was seeking a Messiah of his own making, maybe one in his own image, a powerful, bold, outspoken Messiah who would overthrow the Roman establishment, and honestly many of us may be just like Peter.

I imagine if I took a poll right now here at St. Monica’s asking, “Who do you say Jesus is,” I would hear a variety of responses.  I wonder if each of our own imagined Jesus personas and the real Jesus Christ are at odds with each other.  Some of us think of Jesus as ‘Good Teacher Jesus,” a mere ancient sage who provided the world with some really good wisdom about how to live.  Some of us think of Jesus as “Politically Conservative Jesus” or alternatively, “Politically Liberal Jesus” either of which depends on your own political affiliation, because we often pick, choose, and apply which of his words move our own agenda forward.

Some of us think of Jesus as “Vending Machine Jesus,” the Lord we only connect with when we find ourselves in dire straits, or we experience life’s difficulties, or when there is something we want or need.  Maybe we think of Jesus as “Episcopalian Jesus,” the Lord who wears the most beautiful vestments, never ever breaks the liturgical rubrics, never changes anything because we have always done it that way, or the one who can chant the entire mass with grace and style.

We (just like Peter) have in our own minds who it is we want Jesus to be, but often that image is cleaned up, tidy, and non-confrontational or too demanding.  It is often based on who we are and our own agendas, desires, and priorities. Christopher Henry, in his Christian Century article wrote, “We must be ready to embrace this Messiah, the one who will question our deepest allegiances and demand absolute discipleship, the one who requires us to move from selfishness to generosity, from fear to love, from hatred to compassion, from the narrowness of self- righteousness to the wideness of mercy.” (1)

Jesus is Lord?

Is Jesus Lord of our lives?  In our culture, we are focused on pursuing self-actualization, individual gratification, and personal success and thus, we are the real lords of our lives. We cannot forget that the master of our lives is the one who “underwent great suffering, and was rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and was killed, and after three days rose again.” The chief orchestrator of our lives is the one who tells us to “Deny yourselves, take up your cross and follow me.”

Theologian Christopher Henry explains further, “If we want to follow this Messiah, it’s going to take more than acceptance and assent, more than a moment of decision. It’s going to take a change in habits, assumptions and actions.”  Jesus is pretty clear about his expectations of his followers, and every day we face the decision to follow Jesus, or not.  Jesus tells us to care for the least lost and lonely and says, “when you do this for the least of these, you do it for me.”  He tells us to love our neighbors as ourselves, and neighbor means everyone with whom, we come in contact.

So, when we encounter a member of our local community who is an outcast, whose dignity as a member of the human family is challenged, when those around us lack the basics of life, when our neighbors experience a level of loneliness and isolation that we can only fathom, when our local citizens wrestle with a dark and depressive hole of despair we have never tread, or when a growing generation of our local residents are living with a spiritual emptiness like never before, will we deny ourselves for their sakes?  How will we respond to Jesus mandate to “love our neighbor as ourselves?”

Denying ourselves, taking up our cross means we must be changed so much, that we begin to deny our own priorities, and say, “Yes” to Our Lord’s way of self-giving love.  Claiming Jesus as Lord means that we must take up our cross or rather, die to our old selves, thus denying that self who stands in the way of God’s mission of grace for all.

Losing your Life

It may be that the church has to stop looking inward for her mission statement, and start looking outside her four walls, outside the priorities of inner church life, so they she rediscover what it was God was calling her to be and do.   Matthew Skinner in his Word and Worldarticle wrote, “one who follows Jesus continually enacts self-denial through living without regard for the security and priorities that people naturally cling to and that our society actively promotes as paramount. This enactment is not a matter of private piety but of public testimony, for the refusal of a certain way of living directly impinges upon one’s identity and possibilities.” (3)

We are bearers in our lives of the promise that death does not get the last word.  “Death, the last enemy, has already been defeated by Jesus’ rising from the dead.” (2)Maybe that is what it means for us to be cross-bearers and to identify with Jesus. The church must constantly die to who it has been, so she can be raised to new life everyday.  Our willingness to die to those parts of our nature that rejects the one we call Lord, and to bring hope to the world is the way to experience the promises of new life.

Then Jesus says, “Take up your cross and follow me.” I think he is saying to the church, “Lay down your own priorities, your own sense of yourselves, and your own agendas.” “Be willing to lay down parts of the communal life you hold so dear, and let go of who you think you are, and get out there and do what I do every day through you. Go out there and change the world of the other people around you by bringing them my grace through you.

We will truly discover who we are as a community, when we get outside ourselves, yes denying ourselves, and when we begin to serve those around us just like Our Lord does. That is when we identify with who Jesus is.   So, imagine once again you are there with Jesus and he asks , “Who do you say I am?” Maybe we respond with, “You are my good teacher,” or you are my “Political Jesus,” or you are my “Vending Machine Jesus,” or your are my “Episcopalian Jesus.”  I know he hopes will all will say, “Jesus, you are the Lord of my life.”  Then, he will say to us, “I know you think you cannot leave your own agenda, desires, and comfort behind so easily and bear this mission of love , but I will show you the way, and be with you all along the way.”  Then, he reaches down, picks up his cross, and invites us to pick up ours as well.  Then he looks us in the eye with love and peace and says, “Come on now, follow me.”

REFERENCES

(1)  Henry, Christopher A. “Living By The Word: Reflections On The Lectionary [S 16, 2012].” The Christian Century129.18 (2012): 19. ATLASerials, Religion Collection. Web. 8 Sept. 2015.

(2) Marcus, Joel. “Uncommon Sense.” The Christian Century117.24 (2000): 860. ATLASerials, Religion Collection. Web. 8 Sept. 2015.

(3) Skinner, Matthew L. “Denying Self, Bearing A Cross, And Following Jesus: Unpacking The Imperatives Of Mark 8:34.” Word & World23.3 (2003): 321-331. ATLASerials, Religion Collection. Web. 13 Sept. 2015.

 

SERMON 9-9-18 Pentecost 16B St. Monica Episcopal Church

doxieIsaiah 35:4-7a; Psalm 146; James 2:1-10, [11-13], 14-17; Mark 7:24-37

The Dachshunds

“Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”   Terri and I have (all our lives) have loved Dachshunds, that breed of little dogs with long bodies, short legs, and a temperament that is somewhere between a teddy bear and a ferocious lion. A few years ago, our smooth haired red Doxie, Duchess was declining and for the sake of our other younger dog (Duke), we brought a new pup into our family. “Tyson” was different from the other dogs, and in time, he really upset the balance of your home, and it creates many challenges.

Duke and Duchess resisted Tyson’s exuberance, playfulness, and energy.  They did not trust the new boy’s toys, his smell, and his actions.  The “old timers” had been with us for a long time, and they were not ready to change or accept the newcomer without a growl, chase, or nip that went on for several weeks after he arrived.   Today, through many trials and a even a scuffle or two, Tyson has taken his place in our home.  He does strut around like he’s the “big dog,” but Duke, the real old man of the house finally has accepted him as an equal.

Church Folk and “House Puppies”

Some church folk can act like these kind of “house puppies.”   When new folks enter the life of a church with new ideas about church life, when they bring with them new spiritual gifts, and radical ideas that differ greatly from the established folks in the pews, the “old timers” can become frightened, threatened, and uncertain of our own place in the kennel. As an example, I was guest preacher at one of the churches in the diocese once, and while I was vesting, Terri found a seat in one of the pews.  A sweet lady came up to her and said, “Miss, you are in my seat.”  Churches can get stuck in our old ways and we struggle to accept, welcome and let new folks to have an impact on the pack.

The story in today’s gospel is an example of how a community of folks can be resistant to newcomers.  Jesus left his familiar “own people” and traveled from the West Bank of the Sea of Galilee to Tyre, a distance of 20 miles or one day’s travel.  He then walked from there to Sidon and then back to the region of Decapolis, which was another 150 miles or seven days.   Jesus was leaving the familiar the “insiders” the “old timers” to test the possible expansion of his ministry and to test its boundaries.

 The Syrophoenician Woman

In Tyre, Jesus met a Gentile woman, whose daughter was possessed by an affliction. The woman was desperate and pleaded with the young rabbi for help.  His reply has become one of the most puzzling scenes from Our Lord’s ministry.  When the Gentile woman asked Jesus’ for help, he said, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” What?  Did he really call her a dog?   The Israelite’s understood that all Gentiles, all people outside the House of Israel were to be scorned, so much that they referred to Gentiles as “dogs,” a derogatory term popular at the time.

People on the outside of the community were cast aside and treated as “less than,” people like lepers, the lame, the blind, and the deaf.  These were the people (the outsiders) whom Jesus ironically healed through his radical hospitality, but strangely, that is not what happened in this story. Jesus called her a “dog.”  Scholars have been puzzled for centuries because this is not the Jesus we know in scripture.  Some scholars say that Jesus was not being mean, but was more gently saying, “my mission right now is this, but in due time the rest will come into the kingdom.” Other scholars soften his words and translate the word “dog” as “house puppies,“ meaning he was saying she was more like a “house puppy” that was allowed to gather food at the food of the dinner table.  When we hear Jesus’ cutting words, words we have not heard him utter in any other parts of the gospel, we are utterly shocked, and we are at best uncomfortable that Jesus would have made such an ethnic distinction.

The star of this story is the woman because despite Jesus’ disparaging remark, her faith was strong and she rebuked Jesus saying, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” She made it abundantly clear that she too, even though not in the House of Israel was in God’s house, and needed to be fed by God’s abundant grace.  This woman’s whose courage and faith changed Jesus’ mind, and I believe he realized his mistake and responded to her rebuke with, “For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.”

No Pecking Order in God’s Kingdom

Jesus was actually inspired by this woman and he confirmed that he had a new vision for his ministry, and it all began when he was led to leave Israel and take the journey to Tyre, Sidon, and the Region of the Decapolis. Jesus turned this encounter around and taught his disciples, and teaches us that there is no “pecking order” in God’s kingdom; all are welcome. Jesus is teaching us that we have to be very clear that our mission is to welcome all people and help them to fully know God’s grace.

My friend and colleague Stephanie Spellers in her book “Radical Welcome” challenges the church to invite people to encounter grace in community beyond merely being socially assimilated. Stephanie says the church is a beautiful tapestry, woven with the diverse threads of people’s lives; people of different ethnicities, orientations, political affiliations, and people with new ideas, and new visions for the church.  As these new threads are added to the cloth of the community, the practice of radical hospitality diminishes conformity and thus, enhances the diverse nature of the ever-changing Kingdom of God. 

 Adapting to Change   

We must be willing to adapt when culture changes, especially when new people arrive, because Jesus (like himself) will challenge us to change our minds. Being Christian community today will require us to do more than merely open our doors and do what we have always done before. Pew research in August reported that 29% of the American population no longer participates in Sunday morning church, which is up from 8% only 20 years ago.  12% say religion does more harm than good, and 17% hold no religious beliefs at all.  These self-proclaimed “Religious Resisters” are making up a growing sector of our American population.   If they do come to our doors, they are going to ask, “Where do I fit , in this God Kingdom you so eloquently preach about?”  “Where is my place, my voice, my participation, and my scrap of crumbs of grace from the Master’s table?”  We have to adapt like Jesus adapted, and practice the radical welcome and hospitality we heard about in the heart change of Jesus.

Theologian Stephen Fowler in a Christian Century article wrote, “The key to understanding (our response to) the story of the Syro-Phoenician woman is to recognize that in this moment of his ministry,” Jesus opened himself up to mission to the whole world, he opened his church to the world. Now we are to open ourselves to the whole world in mission.”(2)  We must be at the work of creating a new place for the new pups that are gathering around God’s table for a scrap of grace.

A few years ago, a young, energetic, feisty little dachshund entered our home.  We did not know that such a little guy would literally shake the foundations of our lives, and at first, we tried to help Tyson be like the other two dogs.  He wanted to be a part of the family, but he refused to become something he was not.  In time, we realized that Tyson was bringing to our home something we never knew we wanted or needed, and   I could not imagine life without him.

SERMON 9-9-18 Pentecost 16B St. Monica Episcopal Church

The Master of this House

I am sure there are folks here who can be uncomfortable with new the pups that join the pack and make changes to our established ways of doing things. However, I must remind you, even Jesus changed his mind.  God’s people must be transformed and welcome the inevitable make over others who join us are going bring to the pack.  Like his disciples of the time, Jesus knew his mission was not about being a clubhouse where all the members look, act, and do ministry alike, but his ministry was for all people.  The “Master of this House,” Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ is calling us to be a lighthouse, where all have a place at the table of grace, and all may bring their differences, quirkiness, and new ideas.

The “Master of this House” is the one who gave himself freely for all, and brought reconciliation and life abundant. The “Master of this House” sits at the head of this table, and all, not just some, are welcome to not only join the feast, but to participate fully in all aspects of the great banquet.  The “Master of this House” is the one who through one conversation with a courageous outsider, radically changed his mind, and changed his mission for everyone. We, like Jesus, must be willing to adapt, to let our hearts be changed.  We must welcome the new person into our midst, children, young people, people of different cultures, ethnicities, orientations, and traditions.  We must welcome everyone, so they too might have a place to receive, like us, the same crumbs of amazing grace that fall so freely from the Master’s table.

(1) http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2018/08/29/religious-typology-overview/