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SERMON 6/14/20 Pentecost 2A Proper 6 6/14/20 St. Monica’s Episcopal Church

https://youtu.be/PE0w1Sszqng

Genesis 18:1-15, (21:1-7); Psalm 116:1, 10-17; Romans 5:1-8; Matthew 9:35-10:8(9-23)

Jesus sends you Out

In today’s Gospel, we hear, “These twelve Jesus sent out with the following instructions: “Go.”  Three times in these instructions, Jesus said for us to “Go!” We must never forget that Jesus sends out disciples.  We say each week in the Nicene Creed, “I believe in one Holy, Catholic, and APOSTOLIC church.”  Well, that is what Apostolic means, “to be sent out.”  In today’s gospel, Jesus sent out the twelve on a mission road trip.  He said, “As you go, proclaim the good news, ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons.”  

Even today, Jesus send us out to proclaim, cure, and restore, but he sends us out without a reliance on our own selves.  He sends us out trusting in and relying only on God.  Jesus said, “You received without payment; give without payment. [Take no gold, or silver, or copper in your belts, no bag for your journey, or two tunics, or sandals, or a staff; for laborers deserve their food.” We are called to rely on God alone.

See, we are mission people, sent out to continue Jesus’ ministry, but we need to keep working, trusting in and relying on God alone.  We sometimes think we cannot move, unless we have the right resources already in place, the right plan already completely figured ou,t or if we have the right perfect leader up front.  The truth is, “we already have the leader of our lives, leading the way; Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.”  And he calls us to take a risk, to trust him, and to move forward in mission asking, “What if?”

What if ….

Over two years ago, after Terri and I first arrived at St. Monica’s, I preached a sermon that included a question of hope, of anticipation, and of challenge.  I asked this congregation, “What if?”  I said, “The truth is “God is always making things new!” I challenged you to be “willing for God to open your hearts and eyes, to change your mindset, and to transform your default responses, to no longer believing that “you are not enough” or “you do not have the resources” or “you need more space.” 

I challenged you to “live in hopeful expectation, to dream big again and to invite God to give you all a HUGE dream! I told you that “’What if’ is a powerfully simple phrase, and it has the power to release in you, God’s renewed creativity and hope in which, you can expect the unexpected. You may even be able to expect a miracle or two.”

On that day, I believe God was placing a vision in your hearts for a renewed day and a renewed spirit of faithful service and action.  God did not abandon you then, and you faithfully lived into a new day.  You were faithful and at peace, not because of a new priest who came to you from the diocesan office, but because you all were willing to trust God, to take a chance, and to dream again.  Now is the time to begin dreaming once again, and to begin asking the most important question before you in this time of transition, “What if?”

What if becomes What we do!

You see, when you dream big and listen to God’s Spirit guiding you, “What if,” becomes “What you do,” and “How you do mission.”  In that same sermon, I asked you all a lot of “What if’s,” and over the last two years you answered the call and with God’s help, you are doing mission and ministry in new ways, with more people leading those efforts, and more people growing in a deeper love and commitment to Jesus Christ.

On that day two years ago, I asked you, “What if God is already creating an exciting welcoming program that will help our new friends become active and engaged sisters and brothers.”  You did just that.  You created a team of Greeters whose smiles and hospitality welcomed and had a part in bringing over 80 new parishioners to St. Monica’s.  You installed upgraded live stream technology in the sanctuary that expanded your reach to more people through YouTube and social media.  You hosted six quarterly “Circle of Friends” gatherings, where we had over 65 people attend and who eventually decided to make St. Monica’s their spiritual home.  At the 2019 annual Bishop’s visitation, you had four receptions, six confirmations, and one reaffirmation of Baptismal vows.  Last year we baptized four children and welcomed new young families into your family.  At St. Monica’s you are a people that can take a “What if,” and it becomes a “What you do,” and “How you do mission.”

On that day two years ago, I asked you, “What if” God is calling you to renew and expand your Christian formation programs to grow your faith together for all ages. You did just that! You developed multiple Adult Christian formation classes on Sundays, Thursday evenings, and Friday mornings.  You developed a Youth Sunday school team consisting of over 12 adult leaders.  You called an Interim Youth Minister who revitalized your Youth Program and taught you how to create a program and support a new leader, whom you will call soon.  You offered seasonal Quiet Day retreats, and challenged yourselves to learn more about the faith, our tradition, and how to be a disciple of Jesus Christ.  At St. Monica’s you are a people that can take a “What if,” and it becomes a “What you do,” and “How you do mission.”

On that day two years ago, I asked you, “’What if’ God is calling us to gather together in new ways of fellowship and fun where we can support one another.”  You did just that! Youheard the call to dream and you did have some fun!  You shared a few fun potluck dinners.  You enjoyed a minor league baseball game together.  You shared an impromptu beach outing where over twenty of you shared food and a beautiful sunset.   You had over 300 folks attend two annual Trunk or Treat events at St. Monica’s where kids and families had fun, shared your hospitality, and came to know how wonderful you are as a family.  You shared two amazing Stewardship Dinners where you had fun, ate fabulous food, and spent time fellowshipping together.  At St. Monica’s you are a people that can take a “What if,” and it becomes a “What you do,” and “How you do mission.”

On that day two years ago, I asked you, “What if” God is inviting you to even more ways of service and local mission in which, you continue to feed those in need, where your current mission expands even more to provide for the destitute, where you can continue to help families in your midst who cannot care for themselves.” You did just that! You created a new local mission team who partnered with Meals of Hope and with as many as ten ministers from the parish, you provided nutritious food for one of your local neighborhoods.  You continued to support Baby Basics and distributed diapers to economically challenged families in your neighborhood.  You sent ministers to Immokalee to support the Guadalupe Soup Kitchen and provide food for many struggling families.  You created a new mission with New Horizons and through their use of our facilities, and with your own gifts of mentorship and support, children in your local neighborhood are now able to be tutored, so they can overcome the sin of systematic racism and social injustice.  At St. Monica’s you are a people that can take a “What if,” and it becomes a “What you do,” and “How you do mission.”

A New Day and New Adventure

My sisters and brothers, you are once again in a period of leadership transition, but that should not deter you from the mission call God has given you. Jesus is telling you to “Go,” to “Go Out.” I said it two years ago, and I say it again today, “I believe God is calling St. Monica’s to a new day now, a renewed way of life now, a renewed vocation now, and God has in store for you a future you cannot fully fathom today.  Nonetheless, I can see it, because I believe God is leading you in ways in which, you should be excited, even in the midst of this change.  

I shared with you in that sermon two years ago, a beautiful poem of hope written by Erin Hansen, based on an imaginary dialogue between a Mamma bird and her baby, who was about to jump out of the nest again. It is an encouragement for all of you, as you continue on this new chapter of mission with God. Erin wrote, “There is freedom waiting for you on the breezes of the sky, and you ask, “What if I fall?” Oh, but my darling, “What if you fly?” 

St. Monica’s, God has been, is now, and will always call you to live into a new day of mission and ministry. As you answer that call, you can no longer ask, “what if we fall.” Youmust live in hope and expect miraculous new adventures, expect the unexpected, and expect Christ to burst forth on the scene with you. Your mission question from this day forward must always be, “What if, with God’s help, you fly!”

SERMON 6/4/20 Trinity Sunday Pentecost 2A, St. Monica’s Episcopal Church

Genesis 1:1-2:4a; Psalm 8; 2 Corinthians 13:11-13; Matthew 28:16-20

Diversity and Unity

My sisters and brothers, I must say that I am greatly concerned, because we seem to be moving to a point in the history of our world, unlike that we have seen for many decades.  I am afraid we all should be concerned, and we can no longer sit on the sidelines and watch helplessly.  We have witnessed images on television that have been both confusing, appalling, and divisive.  We have seen violence imparted on our own people, by our own people, and often fueled by political opportunism, racism, hatred, anger, and frustration.  What began as peaceful protests by God’s people, who were speaking out against the atrocities of a hate-filled murder of an innocent man of color, have become something else.

We have seen these peaceful demonstrations becoma an opportunity for looting and destruction, but even more surprising, they have become an opportunity for political scheming.  As Episcopalians, we have had one of our own church and sacred scriptures used as a prop to manipulate and continue the message of violence and division all of which, stand in juxtaposition to Our Lord’s message of peace, reconciliation, and loving our neighbor.   What have we become?

Our nation was founded on a simple motto, “E Pluribus Unum” or out of many, one.  Think about that phrase for a moment.  Out of many diverse communities, neighborhoods, cultures, languages, races, and differences, this country has stood for the human hope that we might become one, together, unified to stand as a beacon of hope for the world.  We are not unified by a common race, language, or even a common ideology, other than the ideals that we all are created equal and have the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.  We are a nation of diversity brought together in unity, but that union is only holding on by a thread.  We need to come together and re-focus our hope on Christ and on the truth that only Our Lord can be our hope in times like these.

Our brother Paul wrote to a little church in Corinth, ” Put things in order, listen to my appeal, agree with one another, live in peace; and the God of love and peace will be with you.”  We would do well to listen to his exhortation my sisters and brothers.  We would do well to put things in order, to put aside our differences, and to seek the community of love that is found in the inner life of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

 Community of Love

Within our Trinitarian understanding of the very life of God, we find a truth that there is the possibility of diversity within unity, because we see it lived out within the God-head itself.  The diversity of mission and person (Father Creator, Son Redeemer, and Holy Spirit Sustainer) are together loving each other and loving us as one.  We would do well to see how that same community of love is possible even today in our nation, in our state, county, city, and within the church.

Even God’s creation itself is a tapestry of diverse creatures living in harmony and all for the common life we share.  We as a people should embrace the real possibility and hope that even today, when we are struggling to be one, our distinctions are our strengths, our differences are our appeal, and our differing viewpoints become our hope.  However, we must respect the diversity, we must honor the dignity of every human being, and we must seek justice for all and not just for some who wield the power of the day.  Our Lord and Savior demonstrated that real power comes not from might and fist and weapon and armor.  Real power comes from a willingness to die for a friend, to stand naked and afraid before those who would destroy you and stand up for what you believe is truth.

The True Master of Our Lives

Jesus said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.”  On the cross, Jesus did not succumb to the human desire to say, “Look at me,” or to resort to retaliation, destruction, or the call to try and quieten those, with whom his mission came in conflict.

Jesus could have left the cross, brought down destruction on the religious system that convicted him.  He could have undermined the political Roman system of injustice and established his reign, but he did not.  No, Our Lord demonstrated the real power of love by remaining faithful to his mission, and by remaining vulnerable to love, and by forgiving us for our hatred and violence.         Jesus said, “Forgive them Father for they know not what they do.”  Jesus showed us real power, by showing us what it means to follow him, his teachings, and the sacred story of reconciling love that we find in those Holy Scriptures, often used for unholy purposes. Jesus is the only true Master of Our Lives, the true leader of our efforts and the mission of the church, and if we fail to look to him as our guide, our work will be unholy, and our mission will fail, our nation will fail, and the church will lose its way.

Mission

Over the last two years, I have reminded this community that we have a mission to do, and it is a mission given to us by Our Lord Jesus Christ.  Our marching orders have been and always will be this, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.”  Making disciples is so much more than impeccable liturgy and music, wonderful programs of Christian education and Sunday School, the best parish life fellowship events, or even the most helpful Local Mission and Outreach efforts.  Making disciples means that we must be transformed by the message of holy love given to us and lived out for us by Jesus Christ.  We must be transformed by the message of love in Jesus Christ, so that even as we stand at the precipice of change in our nation, we Christians will be willing to carry that message of hope to the world. We must be so transformed by the message of love in Jesus Christ, that we will move forward believing there is always hope, there is always a light to guide us, and there is always God’s call that in the darkness of circumstances, a new day is possible.

We must believe and we must live in that hope in our daily lives.  We must work tirelessly, so that we might make it possible for all of God’s creation; all of the diversity of people, to live in unity in Christ.  So, sisters and brothers, when all around us looks bleak and all seems hopeless, I call each of you to pray for peace, pray for reconciliation, and pray for that new day, which God promises will come, and is just over the horizon.  I call each of you to pray, but please do more than just pray, I call you to actively get busy and work for justice, work for reconciliation, and work for peace. Hold our leaders responsible, call them to account, demand justice, and speak out against the atrocities being waged against not only a select group, but against all of us, because we all are God’s children; we are diversity in unity.

SERMON 5/31/20 FEAST OF PENTECOST, St. Monica’s Episcopal Church

Acts 2:1-21; Psalm 104:25-35, 37; 1 Corinthians 12:3b-13; John 20:19-23

The Mission of Advocacy and Action

The news on television is difficult to watch these days.  Our country is being ravaged by a terrible Pandemic right now, and many people are losing their lives, and their livelihood.  Yet, there is another horrid virus that permeates our world, and it has been around for centuries.  This plague threatens to destroy our democracy, our common humanity, and our identity as children of God. I am talking about the social pandemic of racial violence and hatred. This virus is often found in our hearts hidden away, and which often manifests itself in subtle ways, with symptoms we barely recognize. Other time, the infection becomes a complete outbreak and we observe epicenters of indifference, hatred, and violent destruction.

Last month, a young Black Man, Ahmaud Arbery was innocently jogging in a local neighborhood, and he lost his life to this terrible disease of hate, violence and racism blatantly enacted by two flagrant carriers of the disease.  If that were not enough, still have emblazoned in our mind are the images of the video of the tragic death of George Floyd, a young black man, who died unnecessarily, at the hands of abuse by a law enforcement officer.  When will this end?  What is the vaccine that will cure this disease of hatred?  Why do we hate God’s children, our own sisters and brothers?

This outbreak is a greater threat than any health-related tragedy we face today.  There is a treatment though, and it is called God’s love, and I believe we find the first responders for this outbreak right in the church.  Our country needs the church’s witness of love, and our country needs the church to become the advocates for all of God’s people, because yes, no one should live in the fear of walking down the street.  Church, you have a mission before you, because the world, our country, your city, and your neighborhood need to see Christs’ amazing grace in you.    Church, you have a mission that began two thousand years ago behind locked doors of fear, when the Spirit came upon us, and were sent out to love and advocate and change the world of hatred and victimization.  Today my friends in Christ, you can never forget your purpose as God’s people.

Successful Church/Small Church

Fifteen years ago, I was part of a church that forgot its purpose.  That little community had dreams of building a new sanctuary.  The initial plans were incredible, but the money needed to complete the project never came to fruition.  The church was growing, the people were faithful, the local mission efforts were expanding, and God was stirring up spiritual renewal in incredible ways.  Despite the lack of funding for the project, they built a grand edifice anyway, and took on a ton of debt.  Before long things started to fall apart.  The building became the focus of everything, and this little church forgot her mission of love completely.  She lost her identity and struggled for many years thereafter.

Some churches think they are only effective because of their talents, their unique traits, their incredible assets, or their own individual history of so-called success.  Some churches have a big new building, a big Christian staff, a professional fine priest, and all the money they need.  Other churches suffer from religious covetness.  They see their big brother and sister communities down the street and say, “Wow, if we could only be like them.”  The concept of “bigger is better” is built into American culture.  We believe that our size and programs and building are all a reflection of our spiritual success, as if the church is a mere purveyors of religious goods and services.

That consumeristic approach to faith permeates the church today.  We covet others’ sanctuary, organ, parking lot, or leadership and we believe, if we had a bigger building, bigger budget, and bigglier everything, somehow we will have arrived, and now we are a REAL church.   That concept, my friends is a misguided notion of church, and it is a distortion of Christ’s mission lived out through the church.

Diversity of Gifts for mission

            In Paul’s letter to the church in Corinth, he told that startup congregation, and he is telling us, that God has uniquely brought us together as a congregation, and God has given us specific gifts for ministry.  God has gifted us for a purpose and we really need to stop trying to be something we are not.  Paul is encouraging us to accept as individuals and the church corporate, that despite what gifts others around us possess, we are gifted uniquely for a particular mission call that no one else can do.

Paul wrote, “To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.”  He said some have the gifts of wisdom, others knowledge, some faith, a group with healing, some can do miracles, a few have the discernment of spirits, and a few possess the gift of tongues or language.  Paul reminds us that “All these are activated by one and the same Spirit, who allots to each one individually just as the Spirit chooses.”  God has uniquely called St. Monica’s at this particular time and in this particular era, for a mission that you must be open to discern. You are ready and prepared for the next chapter.

In our diocese there are 77 churches.  Only a few are larger than this parish, and St. Monica’s is ranked # 15 out of 77 in giving and attendance.  Be careful about that ranking thing though, because when you evaluate your effectiveness in mission, based on a number alone, you tend to forget who you are and why you are here.  The most unique congregations and I must say, the most effective congregations in this diocese are just like St. Monica’s.  They are uniquely gifted for mission, and those gifts are needed for mission differently in each neighborhood, town, village and city.

Churches get into trouble when they try to be something God has not gifted them to be or do.  Christians get into trouble as well, when they try to be something they are not gifted and called to be and do.  When God’s people misguided, try and enact gifts that have not been given them by the Holy Spirit, they become inauthentic and find themselves unable to serve faithfully.  A life of faithful serve though, surprises us especially when our God-given calls shift and change from time-to-time.   God, when we least expect it, often calls us to do something bewildering and unforeseen, but you can be assured God always calls us to love.

Discernment of the Spirit’s leading is essential. 

            Have you heard the old adage, “If you want to make God laugh, make a plan?”  Two years ago, I thought Terri and I would be on diocesan staff for years to come, but God laughed and started nudging us to discern a return to parish ministry.  At the time, I wondered why would God take us from a perfectly good ministry that I loved, and move us back to serving in a particular parish?  However, we listened faithfully to those nudges that we heard from others being guided by the Holy Spirit, and it was only because of our openness to faithful listening that moved us to consider coming to St. Monica’s in the first place.

And here we are after two years, realizing that God called us to bring our gifts of administration, finance, organization, pastoral care, and leadership development to this parish when it needed it most.  God called us at the right time, for the right circumstances, and for the right community who needed our gifts at the right moment, for the right circumstances, even when we did not even see it clearly at that time.

If we had not been faithful to the practice of discernment and holy listening, if we had not been willing to answer a particular call on our lives at that particular time, then we would have failed to practice prayerful obedience to the Holy Spirit’s leading.  We would have not been with you for the two years when it seemed you needed us most and obviously, we needed you most.  See how God’s perfect will works?That same practice of Holy Listening and prayerful consideration of the Spirit’s nudges, although it seems strange and not at the utmost opportune time, leads Terri and I onto a new path of loving service as the Canon to the Ordinary in Oklahoma.

My sisters and brothers of St. Monica’s, you need to be open to the surprising and often unforeseen nudges and leading of the Spirit, as you enter a time of transition and discernment.  You need to practice Holy Listening and prayer as you begin the process of discerning the holy call of your next spiritual leader. Remember, you will not be hiring a priest, as if they are some spiritual purveyor of spiritual goods and services.  You will be listening to God’s call on the next man or woman who has been ordained to be with you in times of celebration, times of pain, and times of uncertainty and even death.  You may find this hard to believe, but if you believe God has a purpose for this community, then you can trust that God has already chosen your next leader, it is merely up to you to listen, pray, and discern who that person might be. Choose wisely and do so, with God leading the way.

 

God’s Spirit is the power that fuels the engine of Christian community.

            Today we heard about a little band of spiritual apprentices, you know, the first apostles, who went from being poor fishermen and the “not so elites of culture,” and became the movers and shakers of the Jesus movement, which is 2+ billion strong today.  Just remember, that they were not effective in growing the church, because they were the “best of the best” and they thought they “had this plan worked out,” nor because they were professional Christian consultants.  They effectively accomplished the mission God gave them, because they recognized the gifts of the Holy Spirit, they listened to the Spirit of God leading them, and they remained faithful in service and evangelism.

Many of you have been successful in your own careers and sometimes you have a difficult time depending on and trusting God.  It is difficult to release our hold on the idea that “I can stand on my own two feet” and trust that “God’s got this.”  Right now, I encourage you to lower the anxiety level you may feel about this transition.  Please trust God, trust your bishop, and trust the incredible vestry leadership you have in place, who are already well on their way to faithful, prayer, discernment, and holy listening, because you have a purpose, a mission, and job to do.  This neighborhood needs the unique gifts you have as a community of faith, to show others the amazing grace, God’s reconciliatory love, and the forgiveness and restoration found in Christ.  Sisters and brothers do not get distracted and do not remain in fear and anxiety like that motley crew of ragtag fishermen, zealots, and tax collectors, who gathered behind closed doors in fear and anxiety, caused by the incredible circumstances of their day.

Never forget, that when we are afraid, Our Lord Jesus shows up in the midst of tragedy and fear and says to us, like he did on that first Pentecost, “Peace be with you.”  Right now, Jesus is telling St. Monica’s, “Folks you have a job to do in this world, so relax, trust me, listen to the Spirit lead you, stay faithful and support the church’s mission.” Jesus is telling you, “Please know that I got this.” My sisters and brothers, as you enter this new exciting chapter in this parish’s long history of faithful mission, as you continue to stand in the midst of tragic times like these in broken and hurting world, as you stand up for others as a witness of Christ’s amazing grace, I remind you of Jesus’ comforting words, which are simply these, “Peace be with you.”

 

SERMON 5/24/20 Easter 7A St. Monica’s Episcopal Church, Naples, FL

Acts 1:6-14; Psalm 68:1-10, 33-36; 1 Peter 4:12-14; 5:6-11; John 17:1-11

Movie Sequels and Television Cliffhangers

As a kid, one of my favorite television re-runs to watch in the afternoons was the 1960’s version of Batman and Robin starring Adam West and Burt Ward.  In each episode, the two “Caped Crusaders” faced a new villain, who toward the end of the show, captured the two heroes and placed them in a death trap involving either a saw, a laser beam or some other outlandish weapon of torture.   The show always ended with Batman and Robin on the brink of their demise and we the viewers were left, with the anxiety of not knowing until the next week, how and if our heroes would escape.

Entertainment writers utilize a production style called the “cliffhanger,” used to keep us on the edge of our seats, keep us interested, and to heighten the desire to hear the rest of the story. The “cliffhanger” was most prominently used in the old TV drama “Dallas” in the early 1980’s, and you might have joined the millions of fans who spent an entire summer wandering, “Who shot JR.”  Many of our favorite binge-worthy television series thrive because of the weekly cliffhanger plots.

Movie writers use this style as well, and they keep the story going through cliffhangers that lead to the next “movie sequel.”  Terri and I watched Star Wars “The Last Jedi” a few nights ago, and we could not wait to watch its sequel “The Rise of Skywalker” the next night.   If you have seen these movies, you will recall that at the end of the last movie, Rey, the orphaned Jedi warrior buried the late Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia’s lightsabers on some remote planet.  She also in an interesting twist in the same scene, mysteriously took the last name Skywalker as her own.  Hang on Star Wars fans, because a sequel will be out soon to keep the drama of the Last Jedi going and many of we fans will wait impatiently for that movie to arrive. So, you may ask, “Fr. Eric, what do cliffhangers and movie sequels have to do with the Ascension?” What if Jesus’ Ascension is a spiritual cliffhanger or a discipleship sequel of sorts?

The Ascension – Spiritual Cliffhanger and Discipleship Sequel

In today’s reading from the Acts of the Apostles, we hear, “As they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.” Sadly, the church does not spend a great deal of time teaching about the ascension, but each week this important event in the life of the church has a special place in our liturgy, especially in the Nicene Creed when we say, “he ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father.”

Theologian Gregory Shaw once wrote, the ascension reveals Christ’s “divinity, but more importantly . . . the ascension of Christ also signaled the beginning of a messianic kingdom and the empowerment of Christ’s followers, by virtue of their identification with him through the rite of baptism.” (1)

The Ascension of Christ is important for us as Christians for a couple of reasons.  First, it serves as a visible sign that humanity is by Jesus’ life, ministry, death, resurrection and his ascension, fully accepted by God.  Jesus said, “that they may be one as you and I are one.”  Through Christ’s ascension, humanity is taken into heaven and into the inner life of God.  Imagine the mystery of the resurrected body of Christ integrated with the inner life of the Trinity; humanity and divinity united.  “That they may be one as we are one.”

The Ascension of Christ also serves as a reminder that the story of salvation continues beyond this particular event.  The Ascension is the hinge point between Jesus’ resurrection, and the narrative of the ongoing ministry of Christ through the ministry of the church, and through the power of the Holy Spirit.  The Ascension is the “cliffhanger,” that dramatic moment in the story that tells us that there is a sequel in the ongoing story of salvation.  The Ascension of Christ tell us that there is much more to come, and more importantly, we the church play a major part in that ongoing drama.

 

Ascension and Mission

In the Gospel according to John, Jesus said, “But I, when I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all (men) to myself.” (John 12:32)   Jesus sends out his baptized followers into the world to continue his ministry of reconciliation, restoration, and grace, which means that Jesus also sends us out with the same commission.  He sends us out with the presence of the Holy Spirit, who empowers and strengthens us to do that which we have been called to do.

The Ascension is not the end of the story of Jesus’ ministry, but it is the beginning of the ongoing drama that challenges us, to anticipate and engage in the sequel, the next chapter of how others will come to know Christ and his reconciliation and restoration.   Jesus commissions us, the Church, and our calling is to go and create the sequel, by telling the story as we are empowered by the Holy Spirit.  The Book of Common prayer tells us that the Holy Spirit is, “God at work in the world and in the Church even now.” (2). As disciples of Jesus today, we are allowed and invited to the write the sequel, with the help of a holy comforter and director; the Holy Spirit.

Get Moving

After the Ascension, the disciples were standing looking up into the sky and two white robed men (we believe to be Angels) said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven?”   It is as if these messengers were telling the apostles, “Ok, let’s get moving here, there is work to be done, this is not the end of the story, now you all are up on stage, and it’s your turn.”  The apostle’s awe, amazement and reluctance to get on with their ministry in that moment, may be difficult for us to understand.

It would be like you just finished watching “Rise of Skywalker” and although you are intrigued by the ending of the movie you say, well the story ended here and that is that.  However, you forget that the story has not ended, because you are left wondering about the significance of the buried lightsabers.  You know that there is more to the story to come and so, you wait for the next movie.

The Ascension for Jesus followers is not merely a sign that the story has come to an end and we just sit around, doing nothing, waiting for Jesus to return.  The Ascension tells us that there is work to be done and Jesus gives us our marching orders.  Today, the church is called to move forward in the mission to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ.  We work now, to bring about the Kingdom of God, now.  Yes, we are to look forward with anticipation to the Kingdom to come, but we must work now, to bring it into the present day and age.    We wait and yet, we work.  We hope, and yet we minister.

How do we do move forward in anticipation and working in the kingdom? I found on someone’s Facebook wall the other day, these words, “Good Morning, This Is God!  I will be Handling all Your Problems Today. I Will Not Need Your Help — So Have a Good Day.  I Love You.”  Trusting that God’s got this, that God has all our problems in hand, and that God will handle it all, also reminds us that the story is not over, and the sequel of the salvation story is already showing on the movie screen of our lives.

Jesus said, “Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.” Even today, when this community stands at the “cliffhanger” of change, you can rest in the assurance that the Spirit will guide you, that the Spirit will lead you, and that the Spirit will strengthen you for the mission of love and service, in the next sequel you are writing right now.  Your mission sequel is to remain as one, working together to bring all the players into the drama, so they might come to the knowledge and love of Christ.  So, grab your popcorn and Junior Mints, the lights are darkening, the previews are over, and the sequel is playing on the big screen.  Now is the time to move your gaze from the skies and take up your part in the mission of bringing about the Kingdom of God emerging all around you. This is your mission now, and it will be your mission in the decades to come.

REFERENCES

(1) Oxford Companion to the Bible, Oxford University Press, Gregory Shaw, New York,p. 61

(2) The Book of Common Prayer p. 852

(3) ibid

SERMON Easter 6A 5-17-20 St. Monica’s Episcopal Church, Naples, FL

Acts 17:22-31; Psalm 66:7-18; 1 Peter 3:13-22; John 14:15-21

Peter Pan – Reluctant Disciple

In 1991, Robin Williams played a unique role (Peter Pan) in the blockbuster hit “Hook.”   This version of the story of Peter Pan, Wendy, Tinker Bell, and the orphaned “Lost Boys” is one of my favorites.  The movie features Peter Pan as an adult who has forgotten all about his childhood. In his new life, he is known as Peter Banning, a successful but unimaginative and workaholic lawyer with a wife (Wendy’s granddaughter) and two children. However, when Captain Hook, the enemy of his past, kidnaps his children, he returns to Neverland to save them. Along the journey, through the insights, wisdom, and gifts of a young lad named Pockets, Peter reclaims the memories of his past, he rediscovers who he really is, he helps his old friends face their challenges, and in so doing, Peter becomes the person he always had been.

Everyone in this fairy-tale that, became better people than they had been before, but more importantly, they all discovered their purpose.  Wendy came to realize that being Tinkerbell (the helper and overseer of the Lost Boys) was her life’s calling all along.  The Lost Boys discovered that they were a family that could accomplish anything together, because they had each other, and because they had the support and comfort of the Spirit of Truth.  Even Peter discovered something in this brief adventure, because he came to realize his true gifts, and he found out who he really was and in so doing, he found his life’s purpose as well.

Sometimes when we face the unexpected circumstances of life, our sense of who we are and what our purpose really is becomes clearer, especially when we encounter change and discomfort.  We all are facing changes in our lives right now, unimaginable fear that none of us expected.  This pandemic for one has changed for all of us what is important, who is important, and why life is so important.  In times like these, when we happenstance unexpected changes, the faithful way to move through the pain, anger, fear, and uncertainty is NOT to resort to blame, rumors, disillusionment, or to walk away.  The true heavenly path to facing change is to put your faith in Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ who never leaves us.  He is the true pastor of our lives.

 No orphans

The writer of the Acts of the Apostles recorded, “The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands.” We can be assured that God is always with us and will never abandon us.  If we put our faith in God, God will not allow us to be disillusioned, nor will God leave us to live in fear and anxiety.  Even when changes come, when the unexpected happens.  God is with us, for God is not contained in four walls, in idols, or even religious systems.  God is always with us.

Jesus said to his disciples, “I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you.” Wikipedia defines orphans as people (mainly children) who are left comfortless, bereft of parents, a teacher, guide, or guardian.  The idea that Jesus would say to us that we will never be left orphaned, clearly defines the nature of the relationship we have with him.  If we are not orphans, then we are his children.  Sisters and brothers, in all of life’s changes, we have the assurance that God will never desert or leave us.  We are not orphans, even though Jesus left his ministry to us.

Orphaned children in first century Palestine were left to live off the charity of the community, and they had no assurance of life beyond their fate.  Death was common among orphans.  Abandonment to this fate was one that many children feared, especially considering the life span of people in that era.  Jesus’ promise that we will never be abandoned, reveals an incredible truth, which is this, “Even in our darkest moments, we will never be alone. God is always faithful to us.”  God is always with us, and God will faithfully provide us with eternal providential care, even when we cannot see sense it as life unfolds in was we did hope. Now, here is some hope for all of us. God is with us, even when our emotions and our disappointments go awry, and even if and when we do not believe.

Trusting God

My sisters and brothers, I have to ask you something, “Do you really trust God right now?”  I mean can you let go of your fear and uncertainty and really believe that God is in charge of your life, God wants the best for you in all circumstances, and God will never abandon you?  Can you trust that right now?  The Apostle Peter, the trusted, broken, sometimes failing disciple who denied Jesus three times wrote, “Do not fear what they fear, and do not be intimidated, but in your hearts sanctify Christ as Lord.”  I am so glad Peter (The Rock) was a follower of Jesus, because he gives me hope that I can be faithful.  Peter often, got it wrong as he followed Jesus around Galilee.  However, at one point in Peter’s ministry, only after Jesus had left the ministry to him and the other apostles, Peter began to find his purpose.

It is almost like Peter had to finally stand on his own two feet, in order to be the leader Jesus had called him to be.  Lord knows he could not stand on his feet on that water.  However, despite Jesus’ ascension to the Father, Jesus never abandoned Peter, the apostles, the early followers, and Jesus never abandons the church.   The church is able to accomplish her mission today, because she has the Holy Spirit in us, leading us and guiding us.  You see, faith is the power of our walk with Jesus that transforms fear into confidence, reluctance into courage, and despondency into amazing grace and action.

Sisters and brothers, are you willing to put your life, your heart, your spiritual health in God’s hands?  Are you willing to be bold and believe that even when change comes, God is in charge?  Now is the time to step out in faith and trust that God will not abandon you as orphans, as if you were Lost Girls and Lost Boys with no Peter Pan to lead the day.  For in this family, the true leader of our lives, the true pastor of our hearts, and the one in which, we can always depend is Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ alone.

Living in Faith

For some of you, mine and Terri’s leaving creates feelings of great sadness.  For others, you may be feeling dismay, disappointment, and honestly, some of you are probably angry.  Maybe some are experiencing secretly, a little joy.  All of these emotions are normal, and all of them are ok.  For Terri and me, we are so brokenhearted to have to leave you.  Our hearts ache because we have come in only two years, to love this parish, this community, and we cannot tell you how difficult it is for us to leave you, our friends and fellow followers of Jesus.

It is difficult for us to leave our home Florida as well.  Other than the three years we lived in Tennessee in seminary, we have lived in Florida for 20 years, and for me, I have lived here longer than where I grew up.  Terri and I, are in the midst of change, and we live with our own fear and anxiety, because we are leaving this call at a time when we find ourselves in a difficult circumstances; a global pandemic.  However, Terri and I are hopefully and faithfully demonstrating to you, what it means to really trust God in all things. We are taking a bold leap of faith, trusting that our shepherd, Jesus Christ will never abandon us as we answer an unexpected call, and we are trusting Christ that he will never abandon you as we live in faith.

Living every day in faith means that you step out in trust and confidence in God.  Living in faith means you move when God calls, even when the circumstances are not easy, when you are moving 20 hours away, and you are selling a home, buying a home, and living in a place you have visited only once.  Living in faith means that you listen to others who have discerned with you the call that lies before you.  Living in faith means that what is comfortable, stable, and good must sometimes be left behind, because God is calling you into a new way of being.  This living in faith was how two years ago, Terri and I stepped out in faith in order to begin our journey together with you all in the first place.

What is next?

Right now, St. Monica’s is being called to live in faith.  You stand at the edge of a new chapter in your ministry, and this change is only the beginning of something new and fresh and amazing.  Trusting Jesus right now does not take away the emotions of loss, but it can fuel our hope to carry on.  At the end of the movie “Hook” after the villainous Captain Hook had been defeated and his kids were saved, Peter Pan called upon Tinkerbell to whisk his children away back home and suddenly, Peter began to fly off with them.

As he looked back at the Lost Boys, Peter stopped and returned to the them for a moment.  One of the young ones said, “Don’t leave us Peter, and don’t say goodbye.”  One of the boys said, “You’re going away and forgetting about us all over again.”  Peter said, “You all are my Lost Boys and I will never forget you.” Then, Peter stood up and asked, “So who do I leave in charge?” He took out his trusty blade, a symbol of his authority and work among them and then, he handed it to Pockets.  Pockets was that first Lost Boy who recognized who Peter truly was even as an adult.  Pockets took the blade and with glee in his face, he came also came realize what his true calling was all along; leadership.

Jesus left his ministry of reconciliation to us, and the church has continued that mission for centuries.  Jesus leaves that ministry to you all here in this place, and that mission will continue for many decades to come.  In the movie Hook, as Peter flew off to his next adventure, living faithfully into a new call of service in his life, the Lost Boys (lost no more) heard their friend say, “Thank you for believing.”  Peter thanked the boys for changing him, because in a way they all grew together joyfully and faithfully.  Peter thanked them because through their new adventure, they all came to know that the Spirit of Truth (I believe God’s Spirit of Truth) transformed them all.   My sisters and brothers, for our time together, I want to say, “Thank you for believing.” I encourage you all to remain faithful and do not despair.  I encourage you to trust in Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ to lead you into new adventures of mission, right here and right now, and in the many years to come. 

SERMON 5/10/20 Easter 5A St. Monica’s Episcopal Church, Naples, FL

Acts 7:55-60; Psalm 31:1-5, 15-16; 1 Peter 2:2-10; John 14:1-14

Stone Throwers

In today’s gospel reading we hear, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.”  These were Stephen’s dying words, which echoed those of Our Lord Jesus, “Father forgive them for they know not what they do.”  It took great courage for Stephen to face this mob on that day.  He not only endured their attack with courage and trust in Christ, but he actually blessed the crowd who stood before him with disdain on their face, stones in hand, and with the goal of killing him.

When we hear this story, we usually focus on Stephen alone, and we all of course, empathize with him.  We read the story and it affects us all in different ways. I want you today though, to imagine for a moment that we are not empathetic bystanders crying for Stephen, but we are with the crowd, ready to throw stones.  You may think it is difficult to imagine that any of us would stone someone, but stay with me for a moment, and let’s look at this story from another perspective.

Stephen was the first martyr in the church, and we commemorate his example because he stood firm, when he faced the ultimate fear of death and rejection of his peers.  Stephen was a faithful disciple of Jesus Christ.  None of us have ever had to face Stephen’s fate, however there are Christians today, who have.  Today, some sisters and brothers suffer at the hand of the mob, but just in what some would see as benign ways.

The Local Stoning Club

Two women from a local church, were sitting in the assembly hall one Sunday morning after services, and one of them, with hand cautiously covering her mouth whispered to the other, “I guess you heard the latest, haven’t you?”  “No, what,” the other replied.  The first slyly shared with the other, the latest gossip about the long-term church member, who had been caught in some notorious failure, and the rumors began flying wildly throughout the membership.

In that moment, it was as if the crowds were forming again, a so-called sin was being brought forth for all to see, and the recipient of the accusations was living helplessly at the mercy of the rumor mill.  The only thing that was missing in this story was the stones.  It is in our human nature sometimes, to succumb to want to eliminate things and people that threaten us.  These threats and fear are often brought forth because of our disdain for someone else and then, we react to that threat with violence towards another.

Like Stephen, we all may be able to recall a time, when we have been on our knees suffering as the target of some unfounded or untrue attack by people who we thought were our friends.   It is so easy for us to identify with Stephen the Martyr.  However, we rather dismiss the possibility that we can just as easily, be a member of the gossip crowd with stones in hand.

The Threat – Heart Change

The crowd that stoned Stephen saw themselves as righteous and they assumed their actions were justified, because they also assumed, they had to defend their faith against someone who threatened it.  The interesting twist to the story and the beautiful irony of it is this, the crowd’s power came violence, but the real power being exerted was the peace and joy found only in trusting Jesus Christ.  Stephen was merely a humble servant, who challenged the crowd to accept the life that Christ was calling them to live, and he remained faithful to the end.

The threat for the crowd was not even Stephen to be honest but rather, it was the fear and uncertainty associated with, a radical heart change they needed to make, and the transformation of life called for by Stephen’s witness of Jesus.  The crowd’s fear of that change put them in a defensive mode, and their troubled heart succumbed to violence in order to squelch the threat.  We see the demonizing of people today and quite honestly, we need no more martyrs.

We live in troubled times right now, and our fear is causing us to seek out an enemy to squelch, a threat to quieten in order to falsely bring our troubled hearts to peace.  Violence and division are erupting in our society in ways we cannot imagine.  Young men out on a run for their health are being shot dead by deranged people who are fraught with fear and troubled hearts.  People are in the streets with guns in hand, and out of fear and troubled hearts, they are protesting the very laws intended to protect them.  People are huddled in their homes and out of fear and uncertainty, they too are looking for someone to blame.  We all have the capacity to stand against our sisters and brothers with stones in hand.  Maybe it is time we stop looking to stone one another and begin looking at how we can find our common path together.  It is time for us to put aside our fear, which leads to violence and stone throwing, and begin to work together for the peace of God, which passes all understanding.

Fear and Anxiety

Jesus said, “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me.”  When our hearts are troubled, God promises us peace, a place of rest, and a place of grace.  God promises that even when we are fearful, we have the assurance of God’s grace.  God calls us out of our fear-laden defense and attack modes into the calm empathy for the other, the kind of holy empathy that Stephen showed his attackers.  We all need in these times, to find a space in our hearts and in our homes, where we can be quiet, listen to the Spirit, and experience the calm given us by God, and that demonstrated to us by our brother Stephen.

I have a sacred space at home that always provides me with a place to experience God’s grace.    In my study at home I have a desk, a sofa, and shelves filled with theology, history, and ethics books, which I cherished throughout my years of seminary education.  This space is sacred to me, because the furniture in it is deeply drenched with hours and hours of reading, with the hours of late nights pouring over vestry reports, budgets, parish plans and projects.  On that sofa there are memories of what seemed like days of re-writes and corrections to sermons that I eventually preached.

For me, sitting among those theology books and relaxing in that well-worn sofa reminds me that God’s presence was very evident to me in some very difficult times.  In this sanctuary space, Terri, Ron, Laura and I occupy today, many of you have found it to be a powerful space filled with grace.  When we were here together, and we could see at the altar, the beautiful flowers, the cross, and other decorations, we felt that this was our sacred space.  However, we are not quite able to gather in this space, but I remind you today and give you hope that the grace of God cannot be contained in four walls and a ceiling.

Peace Abounds/Grace Abounds

Sacred spaces are moments of the heart where we encounter God’s peace.  Sacred spaces are respites from the chaos and uncertainties of life. Sacred spaces are havens of rest from our fears.  Stephen said, “Look, I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!” Stephen found a sacred space in his own heart, in the midst of the death and pain which was forthcoming.  Stephen was on the receiving end of public humiliation and a painfully excruciating death.  Yet, even as he was about to succumb to the crowd’s wrath, he experienced God’s grace in the midst of his circumstance.

Stephen, like Our Lord Jesus Christ on the cross, did not retaliate against the crowd; he forgave them.   From death to life, from persecution to peace, it was on that day Stephen recognized the sacred space of God’s presence found only in trusting Christ in the difficulties and tragedies of life. Whether our sacred space is a special spot in our home, a sandy patch on a  beach, a comfortable chair on your lanai, a leather chair in a study, your favorite chair in church, or merely the spiritual acknowledgement that wherever you are, there is an ongoing presence of God in our lives, there you can find space for grace.

We all are experiencing fear and uncertainty today, but we are being called out of anxiety and into peace.  We are being called out of places of divisions and tribalism, political battles and disunion, and beckoned into heart spaces of grace, mercy, forgiveness, reconciliation, and peace.  Jesus gives us that peace and grace and we are assurance of that truth.  Jesus said, “Do not let your hearts be troubled.”   That peace that we can possess is available not just in physical places, but it is ever present anywhere we find ourselves, especially in those times of unexpected transition, when uncertainty, change, and fear emerge.   We have right now in these unprecedented times, an abundant fountain of peace.  Remember, Jesus said, “Do not let your hearts be troubled.”

SERMON Easter 4A St. Monica’s Episcopal Church, Naples, FL

Acts 2:42-47; Psalm 23; 1 Peter 2:19-25; John 10:1-10

Sheep: Metaphorical Disciples

In today’s gospel reading Jesus speaks of our relationship to him as the Good Shepherd, “He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out.” This is not the only place in scripture we hear Jesus refer to himself as the Good Shepherd, and we his disciples as his flock.  In Mark’s gospel, as Jesus came ashore in a boat, he showed compassion and said, “they were like sheep without a shepherd.” For many of us who never grew up on a farm, this metaphor may seem somewhat confusing. I am sure many of you have wondered why Jesus refers to us as his sheep and he as our shepherd. Maybe you wonder what that relationship means for we 21st century Christians.

First, we must understand that the church is a community of people gathered for a purpose.  The word church, comes from the Greek word, Ekklesia, which translated is a compound of two segments: “ek”, a preposition meaning “out of”, and a verb, “kaleo”, meaning “to call” – together, it means literally, “to call out.”  We are a community yes gathered together but called into fellowship not for our benefit alone.  We are called out for a purpose, and as icons and stained-glass windows of the image of the Good Shepherd that we follow, we have a job to do.

We are Jesus Hands and Feet of service and love in the world, and bearers of God’s grace in our daily lives.  So, in order to get this sheep and shepherd metaphor, we need to first understand the holy and often imperfect relationship that we share in the community of the gathered faithful.  Now if you believe that sheep behavior has nothing to do with being a disciple, and nothing to do with how we act as God’s people together, then listen to some of these interesting Wikipedia facts about sheep, then consider, maybe we disciples really act like that.

Sheep Behavior

Wikipedia states, ” Sheep are flock animals and strongly gregarious, sheep have a tendency to congregate close to other members of a flock, and sheep can become stressed when separated from their flock members.”  It adds, ” During flocking, sheep have a strong tendency to follow a leader (in the group who) may simply be the first individual to move.”  Further it explains that sheep can, and do, get a little agitated, and when “cornered sheep may charge and butt, or threaten by hoof stamping and adopting an aggressive posture.” (1).        So, although sheep gather to support one another, not everything in the flock is always sweet “Bahs,” gentle “Nays” and “aren’t we cute little “Lambsy Divie.” Wikipedia tells us that “Sheep (often) establish a dominance hierarchy through fighting, threats and competitiveness. Dominant animals are inclined to be more aggressive with other sheep, and usually feed first at troughs.” (1) Wait, Fr. Eric are you telling me that there are spats in church?  I would say, “Have you ever made a sister or brother in Christ angry or have you ever seen a dispute over changing anything in church?”  It does happen, and I have seen a lot of hoof stamping and aggressive postures in my ministry as a priest, and so yes, I would say we can and do sometimes act like sheep in need of a shepherd.

Here is the key point I want to make about sheep, “Being a prey species, the primary defense mechanism of sheep is to flee from danger when their flight zone is entered.”  As followers of Jesus, the one who suffered at the hands of those who rejected his teachings, we face the same fate.  When we stand against injustice, when we take a counter-cultural stand for the oppressed, when we defy the norms of consumeristic culture, well, you can bet that we will face the ravenous jaws of groups and individuals, who would rather silence God’s Kingdom call to love our neighbor as ourselves.  So, like sheep we need the shepherd to keep us together as a flock, and to protect us from those things that would separate us from the flock, and would keep us from the mission God has given us. We need our Good Shepherd Jesus Christ to guide us, even when we must flock together today, in new, distanced, and safe ways.

Jesus is the Shepherd

So, you have learned a little more than you ever wanted to know about sheep, but let’s turn our attention to the Good Shepherd Jesus for a moment.  In the most well-known Psalm, read at every funeral, spoken in times of great despair, and memorized by Sunday school children worldwide, we hear these words:

The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not be in want. He makes me lie down in green pastures and leads me beside still waters. He revives my soul and guides me along right pathways for his Name’s sake. Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me. You spread a table before me in the presence of those who trouble me; you have anointed my head with oil, and my cup is running over. Surely your goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, *
and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.

In the 23rd Psalm we find the very nature of the Good Shepherd, Jesus.  If we follow him and his ways, we learn that he provides for us with abundant pastures of grace to eat and vast cool waters of opportunities for growth, which puts us on the best paths of life to traverse.  If we follow him and his ways, even in times of peril or death we can live without fear.

Even his discipline when we stray, when that rod and staff, usually used to fend off wolves appears, he uses them to gently nudge us back together and thus, we are reassured.  Even when we are placed in precarious situations with others, Jesus provides for us.  The Good Shepherd assures us that goodness and mercy is with us, as we dwell in the Lord’s presence every single day. Jesus is the Good Shepherd who cares for the flock that is, if we remain with the flock and receive that guidance of his loving, caring, guiding hand.  Jesus is Our only Good Shepherd.

Clergy are Helpers, not the Shepherd

Over my ten years of ordained ministry, I have more than once, had people mistakenly call me the shepherd of the flock of the parish I served.  I believe people often confuse the vocation of the clergy and believe for some reason that the priest or pastor is the shepherd.  Jesus Christ is the shepherd of the flock, and we clergy are merely his helpers.  We are mere sheep like you, who just so happen to be ordained (or set apart) for a specific purpose, which is to serve as a helper to the Good Shepherd.  We are called to assist Jesus, and often we are called to that work for only a time.  Once we all understand that Jesus is the Good Shepherd, then we will realize truly what it means to be his flock.

Jesus is permanent, transcendent, Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end, the Lord, the Savior, the Teacher, the Redeemer, and God Incarnate. Jesus is the one who leads us, guides us, and if we follow Him, we are well on our way to fulfilling his mission and our purpose.  Jesus keeps the flock together, protecting, feeding, and sustaining us.  We must keep our eyes on Jesus, and not anyone or anything else, otherwise we will become distracted, scattered, lost, and we will spiritually starve to death.  We need to listen to Jesus’ teachings alone, that life of love lived out incarnate in his ministry.  We need to walk the path of following the self-giving loving Lord, and not some misguided idea of Jesus, filtered through of our own personal, political, or idealistic concepts of who he is.

If you want to hear the Master Shepherd’s voice calling you to the green pastures of grace, right relationships, and perfect discipleship, you really need to read the story, of how he lived, how he taught, and how he treated others, then let those stories become your story.        Once we understand from scripture the ways of Jesus, then we like sheep must stay close together and close to him.  Being a disciple has nothing to do with our so-called rugged individualism, our personal agendas, or even our own individual journey.  Being a disciple, a sheep of Jesus’ flock, requires us to do this life of perils and fear together in community.  We are brought together to help support one another, care for one another, and in so doing, together, we face all that is out there that threatens the flock’s survival.

Be Sheep – Live Life abundantly

One last thing about the flock concept is this, Jesus’ flock is not just this parish, this diocese, this deanery, this tradition, this communion, or the church universal.  The truth that we need to understand is that under God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, God’s flock is all of creation, and we all need one another as we endure the perils, which we all undergo today; a new normal not yet to be fully revealed.

In this time of uncertainty, fear, and a rising, hasty yearning to “return to what was before,” this flock needs to do something that is counter-intuitive to everything we are taught about our natural flocking tendencies.  We need to NOT be close to another quite yet, at least not physically close.  We need to face the enemy that threatens our very existence, and find ways to still fellowship and worship, but to do so in a way that protects each other.  At the same time, we must do what we are called to do as sheep, which is to support, love, care for, and protect one another.  We need our Good Shepherd now more than ever to guide us into this new era of being the sheep of Jesus’ flock.

Right now, we can still be the flock led to green pastures, even if we are not all sitting in the same room together week in and week out.  Being the church is not about a room or a building, but it is about being faithful to the Good Shepherd in prayer, in worship, and in service.  We can still flock together, but we can do so through virtual Bible studies online, our Centering Prayer gatherings and Virtual Fellowships on Zoom.  We can be together in worship on Sundays through YouTube.  We can still care for on another by just calling your fellow sheep next week and check in on them and see how they are doing.  We are not suffering under an unjust system, we are still God’s people called to adapt, connect, and serve in difficult times.

One of my favorite television shows from the 1970’s was Black Sheep Squadron, a modern depiction of a WWII Marine Corps Aviation Squadron that constantly got into trouble with the higher ups, acted like rebels, and nearly always faced court martial.  The theme song for the show was, “We are poor little lambs, who have lost their way, Bahh, Bahh, Bahh.”  Right now, we all may feel like poor little lambs, but the reality is, our Good Shepherd has never left us and never will.  Jesus is with us right now and every single day, calling us together, even when it is still unsafe to be together in this room, or in any room, beach, restaurant, or other public space.

So, when you feel anxious, when the walls feel like they are closing in, when you feel the urge to try and return to what was before when it was safe, I implore you to listen to the admonition and heed the advice of our brother the Apostle Paul who assures us, “For you were going astray like sheep, but now you have returned to the shepherd and guardian of your souls.”

REFERENCES

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

 

 

SERMON Easter 3A 4/26/20 St Monica’s Episcopal Church, Naples, FL

Acts 2:14a,36-41; Psalm 116:1-3, 10-17; 1 Peter 1:17-23; Luke 24:13-35

Belief/Unbelief

Last week, we were reminded by our brother Thomas about the challenges of unbelief.  This week, we hear about two other disciples who experienced the Risen Christ along the road, but also were challenged by unbelief.  Once again, we are reminded that this journey of faith includes disappointment and unbelief comingled with trust and faithfulness.  We are like Cleopus and his companion who walked with Jesus, and we too, traverse the road that leads to doubt and uncertainty found in the difficulties of life, and trust and assurance found in the paschal mystery.

Cleopus and his companion were obviously early disciples of Jesus, a part of the larger band of followers, but after the crucifixion, they left the group locked behind doors, and disappointed, went back home.  So, along the road, they meet a stranger, the not yet recognized Jesus, and said to him, “But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.”  Can you hear their disappointment? Theologian Amy Hunter explains, “With Jesus’ death they have lost their faith and their hope. They are not looking for him; in fact, they don’t even recognize him when he joins them.” (1) Cleopas and companion represent us when we are disappointed, become angry, or just plain lose faith; we pack it all up and go home, or maybe to another parish.

Let me give you some examples of this phenomena.  I have heard people lately say things like, “where is God in the midst of the over 50,000 US and nearly 200,000 worldwide deaths from this coronavirus Fr. Eric?”  “Where is God in the grief of loved ones, the job losses of the working poor, and the devastation of lives forever changed, Fr. Eric?”    “Where is God in all this, and why should I suffer now having my life changed, when all this just seems like any other annual flu?”  We have to remember that even in our disappointment and fear, Jesus is on the road traveling with us.

Christ is in the midst of this struggle and Christ is calling us to be in it together.  You see this story is not about us alone, but about all of us.  Hunter writes, “The story (of the Emmaus Road) is not about them and their disappointment. It is about life, the universe and everything in it.”  (1) This current story we are living every day is a story of Christians wrestling with belief and unbelief, loss and devastation, sacrifice and fear.  It is a story not about we individuals and our individual disappointment.  “It is about life, the universe and everything in it.”

Walking with and Seeing Christ

Cleopus and companion saw Jesus along the road on their way home to safety and comfort, but they left Jerusalem empty handed.   They did not get what they sought, and so disappointment led to unbelief. Our daily road trip with Jesus is a journey like theirs, a trip of opening eyes, burning hearts, and inviting Jesus into a situation where unbelief is transformed into belief.  Later in the story the two disciples finally got it, experienced the Risen Christ ,and believed and left us a legacy of how the church experiences Christ’s presence even today.  We experience God’s presence in word and sacrament.

Cleopus and companion commented, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?”   They found their story of belief clearly repeated by Jesus, in the stories of the prophets and people of God before them in the sacred scriptures.  We also find our story of faith clearly repeated in the stories of those same saints of old, and the saints of today, who are out there turning tragedy into hope.

Think a moment about those nurses, doctors, hospital staff, first responders, military personnel, grocery clerks and stockers, truck drivers, police officers, pharmacists, and so many others who could have just as easily as Cleopus and companion made a decision to just be disappointed and stay home.  These heroes could have said, “I’m just going to go home and be safe because I am giving up hope.”  I am grateful for their witnesses of hope, faith, and sacrifice, and their stories should give us hope to trust God, especially in these times.   So, we also have a mission to accomplish in this fight for our common life as a species.  We who have experienced the Risen Christ in word and sacrament, have a job to do as well.

Word and Sacrament

We experience the Risen Christ in the Holy Scriptures showing and pointing the way to the hope, we have in the promises of new life emerging right now in front of us.  In the story today, Cleopus and companion proclaimed they saw the Risen Christ in the sacrament.   “At supper when Jesus takes, blesses, breaks and gives them the bread, they recognize him, then almost immediately lose him again as he vanishes.” (1) Taking, blessing, breaking, and giving are the actions of Eucharist they experienced on that day, which hearken back to the Last Supper Jesus had with the disciples, the one we commemorated on Maundy Thursday, and the one we commemorate every Sunday.

In today’s Eucharistic prayer you will hear these words, and I encourage you to listen closely, “On the night he was betrayed he took bread, said the
blessing, broke the bread, and gave it to his friends, and said, “Take, eat: This is my Body, which is given for you. Do this for the remembrance of me.”  Most of you have not received the blessed sacrament in a long time and you may ponder, how can I receive the benefits of holy communion, when I cannot receive?    In times of extreme circumstance, there is a tradition in the Christian Church called Spiritual Communion, which assures the faithful of the grace abundant, even when we are unable to receive.

On page 457 of the Book of Common Prayer we find this rubric, If a person desires to receive the Sacrament, but, by reason of extreme sickness or physical disability, is unable to eat and drink the Bread and Wine, the Celebrant is to assure that person that all the benefits of Communion are received, even though the Sacrament is not received with the mouth. So, in times like these I encourage you to consider saying this prayer today which is excerpted from Saint Augustine’s Prayer Book.  You know St Augustine the son of our patron saint Monica.  The prayer can be found in the description of our YouTube video today and it states, Dear Lord, I believe that you are truly present in the Holy Sacrament, and, since I cannot at this time receive communion, I pray you to come into my heart. I unite myself with you and embrace you with all my heart, my soul, and my mind. Let nothing separate me from you; let me serve you in this life until, by your grace, I come to your glorious kingdom and unending peace. Amen.

Now, I am not saying that you will not ever, nor do you need to never receive the Body and Blood again in person.  Not at all, what I am saying is that when we are unable to be present here together and receive, our tradition reminds us that  we are assured that we receive the grace of communion, even in times in which we are unable to receive the blessed bread and wine, Body and Blood of Our Lord physically.

So then, just like Cleopus and his companion we experience the Risen Christ each time we participate in this Holy Meal and thus, it is there that we find the mystery of the story today.  The key teaching for us is that you do not have to be an apostle, a clergy person, or a so-called saint to experience the Risen Christ.  Hunter explains, “Cleopas and his companion are nobodies who have no idea what God might be doing. They could be any one of us. Their road to Emmaus is an ordinary road, the road each of us is on every day.” (1)  Reception and presence alone is the beginning of the journey, the call to discipleship, and just like the two disciples on the road, that leads us to begin doing the job we haveto do; we must to go back and tell others.

Showing Christ

            Like all those heroes sacrificing their lives for us that allows us to stay safely home, like all those who are showing us hope in these times of unprecedented abnormal and disabling sacrifices, we must too be icons of hope and grace.  The church must show others the hope and grace that sustains us every single day.

Hunter writes, “(The Emmaus story’s) image is of God and a church that walk alongside human confusion, human pain and a human loss of faith and hope. Emmaus invites us to expect God to find us. Emmaus challenges us to see that it isn’t our unshakable faith and deep spirituality that connect us with the risen Christ, but our smallest gestures of hospitality and friendship.” (1)

My hope is that when we are so anxious for things to return to “normal,” that we might recognize that we still have a job to do as disciples of Jesus.  We must realize that we are not in this struggle alone, and we struggle not only for ourselves but for all of us.  We must realize that our temporary sacrifices of remaining safe at home, practicing social distancing, remaining aware of our mutual vulnerability, and doing so with hope and trust in Christ, stands as a faithful witness to others that we truly trust the Risen Christ.  Our faith in times of struggle tells others that we truly believe that Jesus is with us, Jesus stands by us, and Jesus is walking this road of uncertainty and fear, right here with us, every step of the way.

REFERENCES

(1)  Hunter, Amy B. “Road Trip.” The Christian Century, vol. 119, no. 7, Mar. 2002, p. 18.