SERMON Palm Sunday 4/11/19 St. Peter’s Episcopal Church, Coalgate, OK

Isaiah 50:4-9a; Psalm 31:9-16; Philippians 2:5-11; Luke 22:14-23:56

Drama of the Palms

            One of my favorite parts of Holy Week has always been Palm Sunday.  I remember as a child, the Palms and how excited I was to wave them as we walked into the church.  I loved how my Mother showed me how to convert the palm into a cross.   You too may say, “I have participated in this liturgy for years, but I do not understand why we have the procession of waving palms and singing “All Glory Laud and Honor.” And why does that joyous celebration abruptly change into a dramatic reading of Our Lord’s journey to the cross.  Well, let me try and explain.

            The Palm Procession has been a liturgical action in Holy Week, and in the Roman, Anglican, and other Christian traditions for centuries, but there is more than a reenactment ritual going on here.  Many churches begin the Liturgy of the Palms with a brief sojourn, usually from the parish hall or an outdoor spot.  That little walk or procession is intended to bring into the present moment, the events of the cheering crowd at Jesus’ triumphant arrival in the city.  We actually take our place among the crowd that day that was shouting, “All Glory Laud and Honor.” 

             Then, once inside the church, we re-enact the gospel narrative by having select parishioners read certain parts of the story, thus putting all of us in the roles of the characters themselves.  We do all this, so that we might bring into the present moment, our place in the same crowd, and in the group of closest disciples.  We join the story that begins with “All Glory Laud and Honor” and leads to “Crucify Him, Crucify Him.” This liturgy makes present for us the realities of our own struggles as discipleship.  Each one of us, if we are honest wrestle with this issue, “what kind of Savior it is that we seek and what symbol of our discipleship we are willing to carry; a palm or a cross.”

Palm or Cross

            Let me share with you a few examples of the folks in today’s gospel who could not decide between palm or cross.  In each instance of the last few days of Jesus ministry, from the Last Supper, to the disciples with Jesus in the Garden praying, to Jesus’ arrest, to Peter’s act of cutting off the ear off of one of the soldiers, to his thrice denial of Jesus, his disciples struggled with what kind of Lord they wanted to follow.  Even the crowd that cheered for Jesus upon his arrival, later asked for the release of a violent insurrectionist in place of the innocent one we follow.  

            After their shouts of “Crucify Him” at his trial,  we hear Jesus on the cross say, “Father forgive them for they know not what they do.”  As the crowd taunted the tortured savior the shouting, “You saved others, save yourself Jesus,” we hear a criminal’s plea, “ Jesus remember Me when you come into your Kingdom.” Jesus last words were, “Father I commend my spirit,” and then we hear a soldier’s regret for his action,  “Surely, this man was innocent,” and then Jesus died.          

            The crowd, his disciples, and others just sitting on the sidelines debated about who Jesus was, and in their struggles, they experienced cycles of adulation, rejection, and regret.  How many of us do the same? As the baptized we journey in faith with Jesus every day, but the path of our discipleship is lined with both palms and crosses, and like the crowd, we are often unsure what kind of Savior we really want.

My King

            We are not that different from those early disciples.  When they shared that meal of memorial with Jesus, it was not an hour later that they were arguing about who was going to be greatest among them.  They seemed to forget his teachings and warnings about self-denial and self-giving love.  It was as if they forgot all that he taught them and they still had hopes of a power-wielding King, who would satisfy their own personal desires.  Most Christians struggle to choose whether we want to follow a “king of the palms,” or a “king of the cross.”

            To follow the “King of the Cross” means we choose the counter-cultural, arduous path of self-giving love, while rejecting the normative, tranquil path of self-satisfaction or self-preservation.  When life becomes uncomfortable and we must take a stand to protect the innocent, to bring justice to the oppressed, to claim peace in the midst of chaos, or to merely claim Jesus as the Lord of our lives, we have the capacity to be like Peter, and deny our affiliation. I personally wonder sometimes, if I faced the same threat of rejection, violence, or arrest over my faith, would I be like Peter?

Imagine being There

            We post-resurrection Christians hear this story each year, but we hear it from the perspective of looking back, but what if we were like those people in the crowd and we did not know the outcome of the story; what if we did not know about resurrection?  I wonder if would alternatively desire a Savior who would wield power against our enemies, rather than a Savior who shows us how to love our enemies. 

            It is a frightening thought, but maybe we might have been the one that pounded the nails into his hands, or the one who spit in his face, or the one who denied him three times.  Imagine for a moment you were in the crowd, would you have shouted “Crucify him, Crucify him.”  Despite their rejection of his radical love in action, Jesus still said, “Father, for­give them; for they do not know what they are doing.” 

            We educated, postmodern, post-resurrection Christians process with palms in hand and enact the story every year, but we need to be reminded that we too need ongoing sanctification in our lives, because each one of us must decide whether we want a humble, self-giving, serving Lord, or a Lord who serves our own desires. 

The Crowd Today

            Palm or a cross; the choice is always ours.  Will we follow Jesus all the way to Golgotha, or will we stop in the courtyard near the warm and comfortable fire, and deny him like Peter.  Honestly, none of us want to go the full distance to the disgraceful death of a cross, but thanks be to God, none of us have to do so, that is because we have God’s grace.

            God’s grace is the gift we merely accept.  We cannot work for it, do enough to gain it, or serve in enough ministries to manipulate it.  It is the free gift of love from God, and it is ours despite, how we often reject the humbled Lord, who intercedes on our behalf saying, “Father forgive them for they know not what they do.” 

            So, which will it be, a palm or a cross?  It really is an easy choice, that is if we can  trust in God’s grace, rely on God’s direction, and seek God’s will and humbly pray, “Father, I nee you every day.  Father, please, also forgive me; because when it comes to following you, I really DO NOT know what I am doing.” 

REFERENCES

(1)  King, Michael A. “Holy Hate.” The Christian Century, vol. 124, no. 23, Nov. 2007, p. 18. 

SERMON 3/21/21 Lent 5B, All Saint’s Episcopal Church, Miami, OK

Jeremiah 31:31-34; Psalm 51:1-13; Psalm 119:9-16; Hebrews 5:5-10; John 12:20-33

We wish to see Jesus

            “Sir, we wish to see JESUS!”  There is a very interesting event going on today in today’s Gospel reading.  Hungry “wanna be” converts were looking for the Bread of Life –  Jesus.  They were people outside the Jewish community, who were coming to Jesus’ followers, to get a glimpse of the preaching, healing, and life-changing Rabbi.  These Greek outsiders’ desire to join the Jesus movement was quite a shock to his disciples.  Can you imagine Phillip’s reaction to this evangelistic opportunity?  I never understood why he didn’t take them to Jesus, show them Jesus.  Rather, he forgot his mission as an apostle and became nervous about strangers coming to meet the Lord. 

            Phillip, rather than welcoming these people and taking them to see Jesus, he left them hanging. He went to get Andrew and then, the two of them ran to the Lord . When they arrived, Jesus reminded them what his ministry was all about, and what their ministry was about likewise.  However, he veiled response in allegory and metaphor, which they did not quite understand. He said something about a seed dying, so there might be much fruit to blossom.  They both probably looked at each other with eyes rolling in their heads, “Here we go again, another parable.”  Jesus explained, “If you who love your life lose it, and you who hate your life in this world you will keep it for eternal life.”  

            In other words, Jesus was telling them to drop their preconceived notions about the community the Greeks wanted to join, about who was welcome and who was not.  In other words, Jesus was saying, “when we die to ourselves and our own personal desires, and when our own comfort becomes less important, than allowing Christ to live in and through us for others, we will find a life that is everlasting.”  Leaving behind what we want for what God wants is how we will find the life God promises:  a life of joy, peace, transformation, mercy and grace.  The best part is this, we will have the opportunity to share that life with others.  In dying to our old selves, we find life that will last in service.  If we do that, then others will see Jesus in us. 

The small church

            “We wish to see Jesus.”  In an old part of one of the cities in my old diocese Southwest Florida, a quaint little church has been showing people Jesus for 65 years.  Early on in its history, many folks came to the doors of the church to be a part of a new, thriving community.  The people of this church always openly welcomed and embraced new folks, folks who like the Greeks in today’s gospel, “wished to see Jesus.”  With each member there came new ideas and new ways of doing things.  The whole church lived out a culture of hospitality and openness to change, and everyone seemed eager to try “out of the box” ventures, in order to bring others to know Christ.  Their mission was clear, and they wanted to help people, “who wished to see Jesus.” 

            About five (5) years ago, the lay leaders of that community noticed that attendance was dropping off, and the growth they had once experienced, seemed to be diminishing and many feared the worst – decline.  They decided not to wait until that day and so, they invited a consultant to help them do some deep soul searching.   That little wonderful community discovered an unexpected truth, which was a little difficult for them to hear.  They had fallen into a malaise happening in many churches in America.  They had forgotten their mission, their neighborhood, and the needs around them.  They had become so busy looking inward, they failed to see how much the community around them had changed.  

            Many of the families that had once lived in the little town, had fled many years ago when the jobs moved.  Plus, there was another major shift in religion throughout our nation, which has affected church life dramatically in the last 30 years.   The Church’s mission in the 21st century has changed and is changing and thus, we must change with it.

The Nones      

            In our nation today, nearly 30% of Americans have no connection to a faith community at all.  in 1988, that number was only 8% of the population.  The number of people who are not participating in church life has nearly quadrupled in about 30 years.  That little church in Florida missed this change as well, but they decided that in order to be witnesses of God’s grace in this culture, they had to do things differently. The church must realize that we can no longer depend on a charismatic leader, good music, a good sermon, and awesome liturgy, in order for our congregations to thrive.  

            We all need to once again become evangelists who tell the story of how wonderful our Lord is and how in the community with which we are a part, “helps other see Jesus … in them.” Now this all may sound ominous, but I have great hope that we can once again can become vital mission-minded communities.  Why? Because God is always making things new, and that is Good News for all of us.  It is Good News only if we are willing to release our grip on what has been, so that which we are being called to become, might emerge.  

            Now that truth may mean we have to leave behind a few things that we hold so dear, and welcome change that new people might bring.  However, we don’t have to leave our beautiful liturgy or even our favorite hymns behind.  What may be most difficult is that we have to leave behind our internal focus, and die a little, in order to experience resurrection. It is never easy to die to what we have been, so that we can live again into the blessed reality that God is calling us into.  However, our neighbors are no longer going to church the way the used to do, but I believe they still look to the church and say, “We wish to see Jesus.” So, we have to show them Jesus in us in all we do.    Jesus always welcomed the outsider, healed them, incorporated them into his band of followers, and restored them to their rightful place.  We need to do that too, which may require us to embrace our ongoing mission of love; dying to self.

Dying to Self 

            Jane Tomaine in her book, “St. Benedict’s Toolbox: The Nuts and Bolts of Everyday Benedictine Living” wrote about dying to self.  She wrote, “Over time conversions bring us to a different place.  We become a different person.”  Becoming a new person, a new community opens the door for transformation, which does not  happen when we are static, when we accept the status quo, when we are comfortable, or when we are lethargic.  

            When we experience the death of a relationship, we may emerge on the other side of that experience, a new person.  When we leave a life-long career to retire, or to go back to university to pursue another degree, we must face the pain of dying to their old career, to emerge on the other side in a new way of life.  When we leave a home that we knew and loved, a life that fed us and sustained us for years, we may have to endure a painful death of identity, to emerge in the new place and find new life.  

            The Good News Jesus brought us was not about status quo. Jesus’ radical message of self-giving love, Jesus’ ministry of healing and reconciliation stood in contrast to a static religious and social system that was exclusive, oppressive, and self-indulgent.  Jesus was a change agent, a transformer, reformer, a “turn-upside down the tables,” full revelation of God in flesh.  When Jesus loved as we are to love,  the blind saw, the lame walked, the broken-hearted rejoiced, and the mourners celebrated.  God is always infusing new life into moments of death.   For that little church I mentioned earlier, God brought new life to it as well.

New Life

            A friend of mine from that church a few years ago saw potential in that little church that no one else saw, but she did her research about the neighborhood and discovered the church was located smack-dab in the middle of a “food dessert” in the city.  No grocery stores, no farmer’s markets, and no fresh vegetables were within driving distance of the people who lived in that area of the city.  So, the neighborhood had a need.  The church had land. The congregation had a desire to help their neighbors see Jesus.

            Today, that little church provides land on their property for their neighbors to grow their own food.  That little church grows fresh, healthy food and either sells it at a reasonably affordable cost or gives it away to the hungry folks living around them.  You see, they are feeding their neighbors because their neighbors “wished to see Jesus.”  They shifted their focus outside the four walls, found out what people needed, and they showed them Jesus in gifts of food and love.

            All around us, people are testing the waters of faith and are watching what the churches are doing, hoping to get a glimpse of the Master’s face through the lives of his followers.  Are we really ready for that change that is happening?  If we are truly listening to our neighbors, we are being told every single day, “I want to see Jesus.”  We the church must accept this new reality, which is that we are the only lens, through which people will ever see Jesus on this earth.  The difficult part for many of us is that our lens must be re-focused on love, service, and taking Jesus to others. 

            In a world that is changing so quickly, we must accept Our Lord’s command and really die to our old selves, so something new might emerge.  If we are to remain a reflection of the Master’s face in the years to come, we must be willing to shrug off that which keeps us from emerging into that, to which we are being called.  We may have to die to our old selves, so the new life the Spirit is infusing, might become incarnate in and through us.    People are asking us the church, please, “we want to see Jesus.”

SERMON 2/28/21 Lent 2B. St. James OKC, OK

Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16; Psalm 22:22-30; Romans 4:13-25; Mark 8:31-38

Discipleship is not easy!

            Discipleship is not always an easy path to follow.  In today’s story, we hear about one of Jesus’ Apostles that was torn between his own agenda and the requirements of discipleship that Jesus demands.  Mark’s gospel records that Jesus “began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.”  Then Peter, who clearly heard what the mission of Jesus was all about, “(he) took him (Jesus) aside and began to rebuke him.”  Imagine that.  Peter had the audacity to scold Jesus.  Peter the Apostle, who never seemed to get it decided that he knew best.  This is the same guy, who a few days earlier boldly proclaimed Jesus as the Messiah, the Son of God.  Now, just a few days later, Peter corrects Jesus, reprimands him, and tries to convince him to take an alternative path of Messiahship. 

            This is where it gets interesting.  In his response to Peter’s rebuke, Jesus does not mix words about what it means to be a disciple.  In fact, he openly says that following him means a life of suffering, rejection, and the threat of death.  We should not be surprised, because that was the path Jesus was on; the cross.  Our dear, troubled brother Peter got his priorities a little messed up.  Peter was thinking like James and John, who had a different idea of discipleship.  Even their mother was hoping for seats of honor for them in the coming Messianic age.  They too misunderstood the cost of discipleship, because they naively did not know, that those coveted places on the left and right of Jesus also crosses of torture.  

            Peter’s rebuke of Jesus ended with a definitive dividing line between discipleship and his own agenda.  Jesus told Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” (NRSV) Jesus called Peter the oppressor.  In other words, he was saying, get behind me Peter and stop trying to “exercise authority or power over me in a harsh and burdensome way.” Peter was trying to keep Jesus from his mission, because his own needs, desires, and interests got in the way of accepting what it truly means to follow Jesus.  Peter needed to re-align his priorities, and be willing to risk it all, in order to discover the way of life found only in following Our Lord.  Jesus said, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” Setting aside our agenda for Jesus’ agenda, means we are no longer the center of the universe in our own worlds.

We are Not Masters of Our own Universe

            Our Lord points out that the requirements of discipleship is self- denial, and the willingness to lose everything, including our very lives, all for the sake of the Gospel.  When Peter rebuked Jesus, he must have been thinking that Jesus’ self-preservation was the only path worthy of Jesus’ mission.  Peter slipped into a conventional wisdom we have that permeates our culture today.  That idea is that when our personal success is the only road we follow, we think it is the only way to happiness, joy, and fullness of life.  This wisdom seems to proclaim that we are at the center of our own existence, but that is not what following Jesus, who is the true center of our lives, looks like.

            Abundant life that God promises is not based on individualism, but on the Body of Christ, the church, living in harmony, sharing good news, and serving others.  The ground of our being, the center of life itself is found in Christ.  If that is the essence of our faith, and I believe it is, then our rightful place in the grand design of God is not at the center of life, but as a part of the amazing whole community of God.  Jesus’ call to discipleship means we are a part of the larger human family and as such, we must release our own desire, our own interests, and our own priorities for the sake of others.   Now that is not an easy thing for many of us to do.  However, if we can release the hold we have on our own life, when we risk our very self for another, then we can come to know what it means to be in the family of God.  

Discipleship: Self-Giving Love

            There once was a young couple named Carl and Lori.  They were very much in love and had everything they thought they needed: a new house, great jobs, and a bright future.  After a few years of marriage, Carl noticed that something was not right with his health, and he decided to go to the doctor for a little checkup.  A few weeks and after several tests, it was discovered that Carl was suffering from a life-threatening illness.  Life suddenly  changed as Carl began a regimen of treatments. Throughout all the procedures, throughout his recovery, throughout the physical therapy, his beloved Lori was right there with him.  

            Many times, Lori denied her own need for a respite from the long nights at the hospital.  She denied her own frustration with Carl’s slow and uncertain recovery.  She denied her own fear of the outcome.  A friend was so concerned about her she asked, “Will you not take some time to rest, you must be exhausted.”  Lori did not respond because she knew that the gift of her love and dedication to her beloved husband, emerged out of the depth of mutual giving, which she and Carl always shared. This kind of self-giving love that she demonstrated showed her resilient commitment to Carl, which went beyond her needs, her own comfort, and her own interests.  She realized that her self-interest was secondary to the relationship and love she and Carl shared. 

            This revolutionary kind of love without strings or exclusive association is what our Lord means for we disciples.  When he said, “deny yourself and take up your cross and follow me,” it was because that kind of self-giving love led him to the cross.  The journey to Golgotha for Jesus was one that began, not in the Garden at Gethsemane, nor in the High Priest’s court.  It all started with a small baby, born in the poverty of a stable in Bethlehem. The journey to the cross began with God’s willingness to humble Godself and walk among us.  That same journey continued when Jesus showed up for the healing of the broken, blind, and lame.   

Self -Giving Love is the Path to Grace

            When Jesus challenged conventional traditions in order to heal on the Sabbath, he re-prioritized self-preservation for the sake of self-giving.  When he ate with sinners, he re-prioritized self-preservation for sake of self-giving.  When he was on the cross of torture, he proclaimed, “Father forgive them for they know not what they do.” Rather than come down from the cross in power, he re-prioritized self-preservation for sake of self-denial and self-giving.  Nonetheless, this self-giving love came with a price because it eventually meant giving up his own life for those whom he loved.  The peril of self-giving love means facing death of self, and the threat of personal rejection.

            Some Christians today, like our brother Peter, do not quite understand Jesus’ call to self-denial, taking up one’s cross, and following him.  Some believe that taking up our cross and following Jesus means we have to give up joy and peace, or assurance and love.  I do not believe Jesus’ intended his promise of life and life abundantly to be a miserable existence.  I do believe that when Jesus said that if we “lose your life we will find it,” he meant that if we re-prioritize what is important, we will discover the life of freedom, peace, and joy found only in Christ.  In today’s culture, to follow Jesus is a radical notion, which comes with a price, and one many of us may not be willing to pay. 

            If you watch television for 30 minutes on any given day, you will soon realize that self-gratification is the greatest value advocated for in our culture. With the right car, the right clothes, and the right gadgets, we are promised by society, a life of joy and happiness.  That is not what Jesus teaches us.  Jesus says, that if  we focus on loving others at the expense of our own interests, we will participate in Christ’s ministry of pouring out from ourselves, the grace that is abundantly given to us.  Pouring out grace is the church’s real mission in the world.  

            At our baptism we made promises that we will do the following: proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ,  seek and serve Christ in all persons loving your neighbor as yourself, strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being. We promise to love others just as Jesus taught us to do.  In these perilous times in which we live, all around us, the shadow of death abounds.  Because of this pandemic, people are suffering from economic devastation, depression, broken relationships, and social injustices.  A life without dignity, justice, peace, and love is not life giving, but life pilfering.  The church has a God-given mission to respond to the plight of those suffering around us. That mission means that we the Church may have to lose our own internal communal interests, desires, and priorities, in order to participate in life and life abundantly.  

            Joel Marcus wrote an article in the Christian Century, in which he stated, “Through that victory (Jesus’ work on the cross) the church believes, a strange vitality has been released into the world, a spirit of hope that still erupts in arenas of weakness, suffering and death.”(1)  “Death, the last enemy, has already been defeated by Jesus’ rising from the dead and thus, God’s love will never be squelched, it cannot be quieted, and it must not be taken for granted.”  The cross was an instrument of Roman torture and punishment, but for us, it is a symbol of self-giving love and the symbol of our mission as the church.  For each of us, we have a choice to make as disciples.  We can, like so many other “wanna be” disciples, choose to “take up our cross and follow him,” or we can choose our own path, and decide to turn around and walk our own way.  Jesus is asking us, like he did with Peter, which path will your discipleship take?

REFERENCES

(1) Marcus, Joel. “Uncommon Sense.” Christian Century 117.24 (2000): 860-22. ATLASerials, Religion Collection. Web. 28 Feb. 2012.)

SERMON 1/31/21 Epiphany 4B St. Paul’s, Claremore, OK

Deuteronomy 18:15-20; Psalm 111; 1 Corinthians 8:1-13; Mark 1:21-28

Everyday Demons

            In today’s gospel we hear Jesus exorcise the demon of affliction of a man.  “Jesus rebuked him (the demon), saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!” And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him.”  Sometimes the demons we face in this world today are not as obvious as this. Let me explain. A few years ago, while living in Florida, Terri and I were on our way home from church, and we stopped for a few things at the local grocery store.  As we entered the checkout line, I noticed a young mother with three kids in front of us, who seemed to be struggling with paying for her groceries.  With limited cash in hand and half her groceries still not yet scanned, she said  to the cashier, “I don’t have enough money, I am so sorry.”   Although she was a well-dressed woman and her kids were well groomed, she was struggling.   I could see in her eyes the despair and obvious burden that was weighing heavily on her.  

            I felt compelled to respond to her dilemma and so, without delay. I said, “Can we do something nice for you today?”  I told the cashier, “We’ll take care of the rest of the groceries for this nice lady and her children.”  She smiled and gave us a look of shock and a calming sigh of gratitude.  She confessed, “I’m usually on the other end of this kind of situation, but my family is struggling right now.”  I said, “Don’t worry, we all need help sometimes.”  I gave her one of my business cards and said, “If we can do anything to help you all, just call.”  

            In this brief exchange, we stepped into a moment of grace and freed someone the bonds of shame, despair, and fear to be broken.  In that moment, the demons of despair and poverty had been exorcised, and this woman and her three children were set free.  You see, not all the demons in this life that we must face are those, which possess our lives through the sensationalism seen on television or in the movies. Sometimes demonic circumstances threaten our peace, our joy, and our faithfulness.

Communal Restoration

            Jesus’ exorcised the demons that plagued the people of his time.  His work was not merely a contest of opposing spiritual forces, but those exorcisms were more like a declaration of the power of God, which could reverse the bonds of human despair, brokenness, and estrangement.  God breaks that which binds us and keeps us from being recipients of the gift of grace.  In Jesus’ day, those demons were sometimes disease, blindness, lameness, physical ailments, or mental incapacity.  When Jesus called a demon out, he not only restored the person to full health physically, but a spiritual healing was just as efficacious. 

            Do you remember the healing story of the woman who suffered from profuse bleeding?  She, because of her physical ailment, was considered a social outcast and a person unclean and ritually unworthy of human contact.  Jesus broke the bonds of her estrangement from the community and restored her to full humanity by giving her back her place in the community.  This ministry of spiritual communal restoration continues today in the work of Christ in us today.  Jesus breaks the bonds of our estrangement from each other and calls us into right relationship with God and with our neighbor.  

            This is truly the good news which is “in Christ, we are healed.”  In Christ, we are restored.  In Christ, we can live in the hope of a full, grace-filled future.  I imagine any one of us can look back over our lives and if honest, we can identify moments of healing that we have experienced.  Whether we struggled with addiction, we were estranged in our relationships, we suffered from depression, we wrestled with anger or you name it, we have all at one time or another, were in desperate need of God’s grace.  The healing power of Christ is good news, and it is news that we should be compelled to not only experience, but to share.  The writer of today’s Gospel said that because of Jesus’ healings, “his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.”  The message of Jesus’ love and healing was so compelling, that the Good News did not sit idly on a shelf, and the power of the message could not be contained, and I am convinced that it cannot be contained today.  

Telling the story of Our Healing

            The message we Christians must share is God’s grace and it is as relevant today as it was 2000 years ago.  However, the church will have to spread that news in this changing culture differently than ever before. It is not enough for us to just open our doors, run a few ads in the paper, have some wonderful fellowship events and then, expect the people to show up to church and be transformed by Christ.  We have new generations emerging, who have never, ever heard the Gospel, and have never, ever even been in a church.  The person who used to cut my hair was from that emerging group.  She always had a new set of interesting questions about faith for me.  I remember once she said,  “Eric, I believe Jesus was a good man and I like his teachings, but I don’t get that whole religion  thing that you are into.”  How do we Christians today, respond to something like that and how do we share Good News?  

            Trying to explain religion to someone who did not grow up in church, is like a car mechanic trying to explain a transmission to someone who has never even seen a car.  Spreading the good news in this culture of ours, which has changed so much over the last 20 years, will require us to be evangelists or messengers of grace, through the lives we lead, the actions we take, and the joy we share.   And yes, I know we Episcopalians are afraid of that word evangelism, because we think it means something else; like bullhorns, gospel tracts, or knocking on doors.  Evangelism is letting our light of Christ shine in everything we do.  Evangelism is letting the transforming healing Christ has made possible in us, be seen by others. 

            You see the forces of estrangement, poverty, isolation, division, and hatred abound in this world of ours.  People need to see that those demons can be exercised by the love of Christ and they can only realize that possibility in us, and folks will get this religion thing we are so into. When this ministry of Christ continues in the world in us, faith will spread.  When young and old alike are freed from the bonds of the injustices of poverty, racism, classism, and discrimination of all sorts and types, the story of grace continues.  When love wins, when peace prevails, then Jesus’ fame will spread throughout the region.  Jesus’ fame will spread because it will be his followers, his disciples, his gathered people that will carry the message not only with the right words, catchy marketing, or great programs, but it through our very own ministry of exorcising and breaking the afflictions that hold individuals in bondage from the grace of God and the love of each other.  

SERMON Epiphany 3B 1/24/21 St. Michael’s, Norman OK

Jonah 3:1-5, 10; Psalm 62:6-14; 1 Corinthians 7:29-31; Mark 1:14-20

The Risks of Following Jesus

            In 2005, right after a vestry meeting at my home church, where I served on vestry and as the treasurer, I was invited into the clergy’s office for a chat.  This kind of meeting with the clergy leadership was not unusual, but the tone of the request was a bit different and a little troubling.  I thought maybe I had done something wrong.  It was a bit foreboding.  One of the clergy, with a very serious and solemn look on her face smiled at me and said, “Walter and I have been talking about you, and we have something very important to ask you.” “Yes,” I said.  Becky asked, “Eric, have you ever felt called to ordained ministry?” 

            My response was immediate and unfiltered, “are you crazy?” The words flew out of my mouth faster than my hand could cover my lips.  It was too late, as my honest answer blurted out.  “Me a priest, maybe they were crazy,” I thought to myself.  As I look back to that day, I wondered if those two really know what they were asking me to do. Well, of course they did, they both had traversed this path themselves.  As a result of this brief meeting and the subsequent faithful responses, mine and my spouse’s lives would be changed forever.  

            The life journey of a clergy person is one taken in faith, resulting in obedience to one’s bishop, a commitment to life of service, and a path that is often difficult and heartbreaking.  It can also be filled with great joy and satisfaction as well.  Nonetheless, it is a risky adventure, but not one set aside for clergy alone.  The call to discipleship is offered to all Christians and if heeded and followed, it can be equally foreboding, fear-provoking, and yes, the call to “Come follow Jesus,” does come with certain risks.

Risky Business  

            Wikipedia defines risk as  the potential that a chosen action or activity (including the choice of inaction) will lead to a loss (an undesirable outcome).   Almost any human endeavor carries with its some risk, but some are more risky than others.”(1)  Todays gospel reading tells the story about two sets of brothers, (Simon and Andrew, James and John) who took a huge risk to follow Jesus. Both brothers worked in the family business, and in a culture where hard work did not always equal a well-paid lifestyle.    

            The trade was health, the fishing abundant and it was an honorable living.  Everything was fine for these two pairs of siblings, that is until a young upstart Rabbi came strolling along the shore one day.  Jesus then stopped and said to Simon and Andrew and James and John, “Come follow me.”  With three words, Jesus changed their lives and the lives of their families forever. 

            Please know though that the four men had a choice in the matter.  They could have said, “No, things are good the way they are now.  We are comfortable and we like what we’re doing now, see ya.”  However, they chose the risky path and not the easy path.  All disciples of Jesus, make a similar choice to answer God’s call on our lives and to follow Jesus, or to stay in the place of, or pursuit of comfort and the good ole days.  The question we all need to ask ourselves is, “Are we willing in this life, to drop our nets, or abandon those things and pursuits that could stand between us and Jesus?”   Those four fishermen did not give it much thought, and just dropped their nets, left behind who they were, and followed Jesus.  Have you ever considered why they would just do that?  Why would anyone leave everything to follow Jesus?  The only answer I can give, the only answer I gave when the invitation came to me was that to follow the one who loves us despite our brokenness and our failures, requires us to be willing to change.  We must want to follow the one who loves us, when love is not deserved or warranted.  We must want to learn to love, just as Jesus loves.

Love Untethered  

            Because of the life of Jesus Christ and through his death, resurrection, and ascension, we have the clearest image of God’s great love for us; a love so great that he gave himself up to death for us.  Scripture reminds us, “There is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”  (John 15:13 NLT)  Giving your life for someone is risky by the world’s standards, and it could be considered downright foolish.  However, our path of discipleship (by the world’s standards) also is considered by some to be foolishness.  

            Being a Jesus follower is both foolish and risky. It is risky to let go of who we have been, to live in faith each and every day, and to trust in Jesus’ grace in all things.  We are often risk avoidant, even when the outcome can be more than we imagine. I was watching a seasoned business analyst report on MSNBC the other day that the fluidity of the stock market, as a result of the ongoing pandemic, may not be the best place to make risky investments.  He recommended viewers put their money in low-risk securities, but continue to invest and be patient and wait it out.  

            This is not foolish investment advice, especially for some of us who are watching our portfolios go through many ups and downs these days. Patience, waiting it out, and taking a breath in investing seems smart, but maybe it is equally advisable for disciples.   Jesus calls us to follow him, and sometimes that kind of riskiness means we must trust.  We need to trust in the abundance of God, to step out in faith and walk the path of discipleship, even when we think maybe our path is the better way.  Jesus says, “Come, follow me; Come, be foolish; Come, take a risk.”

Bold Discipleship

            So, right now we are divided in our nation, we face the plague of a global pandemic, and the uncertainty of tomorrow. In these times, many of us staying home, and taking few risks with our health and our livelihoods. Now is the time to be patient, take a breath, and wait for God’s timing. Along with these challenges that we all face, St. Michael’s has experienced two unexpected and surprising changes in clergy leadership, and in less than a year.  For any church, that is the kind of upset which requires some waiting, listening, and preparation for what is next.  

            Maybe now is the time to consider another form of risky and foolish discipleship.  Maybe it is time to step out in faith and pursue a different kind of bold path.  Maybe it is time to stop and take a breath.  Maybe it is time to let the anxious desire to move forward too quickly, to be put on hold for a time. Maybe it is time to spend some time being faithful in our prayer lives, to remain faithful to one another, and to use this time of interim ministry to heal, to listen, and to prepare yourselves for what God has in store next.  If we trust in God’s faithfulness, God will faithfully provide the help we need, and the help you all need at this time.  

            So, Jesus calls each of us to, “Come, follow me.”  The Kingdom of God is near us right here and right now and that is risky stuff, but the return on investment for holy patience, faithfulness, and prayer is God’s abundant grace.  In this life of faith, we do need to take a little risk, to be a little foolish, and to step out a little, and that might require us to take a breath and be patient.  Jesus is calling all of us to leave our nets, or whatever binds us (anxiety, impatience, a return to what was), to leave it all behind and trust him.  Jesus calls us to leave behind our old selves and to live fully into becoming the risk-tolerant, Spirit-filled people. So come, take the risk together in Jesus Christ, and spend some time allowing God to prepare you for the amazing grace that is before you.  Jesus beckons us all to set aside our anxiety and fears, to trust him even in these ominous times.  Jesus beckons us to peace and to “Come follow me.”  

REFERENCES

(1) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Risk

SERMON 1/17/21 Epiphany 2B St Martin of Tours, Pryor OK

1 Samuel 3:1-10 (11-20); Psalm 139:1-5, 12-17; 1 Corinthians 6:12-20; John 1:43-51
Sharing our Passion
My late father and I loved airplanes. We loved all things aviation so much, that we shared that hobby and took flying lessons together. What started as a teenager’s past time and hobby became for me, an avocation that changed my life. Flying provided me an opportunity at a young age, to see the beauty of God’s creation, the mighty acts of God, from a vantage point I had never witnessed before. Later in life, my love of aviation became such a powerful driving force that I felt compelled to share that experience with others.
Through commitment, dedication, study, and effort, twenty-two years ago I furthered my aviation education and earned a Commercial Pilot Certificate and a Certified Flight Instructor Certificate. Soon, I began teaching others the art and passion of aviation. I loved sharing this new experience and the giving of this gift to others, was more meaningful than any flight I ever took alone.
Through this new avocation, I practiced my skills frequently, and I studied diligently. In time, I moved from being a mere spectator of the beauty from those lofty heights, to a person who brought others along on the journey, so that they too could “come and see.” Now, I share another life-changing exprince of Grace. For all Christians, helping others to see Jesus, by sharing our experience of grace is the way we Christians live out our baptismal promises to share Good news ny word and action. We invite others to come and see Jesus in us.


Seeing Jesus
Wikipedia defines “Seeing,” or visual perception as, ” the ability to interpret the surrounding environment using light in the visible spectrum reflected by the objects in the environment.”(1) Alternatively, blindness is the inability to perceive or interpret what may be plainly present in front of us. Physical blindness was a condition of many people who met Jesus. Jesus often healed those who suffered from an inability to see. However, that healing was often more than physical. Many people Jesus encountered were really spiritually blind. They refused to open their eyes to the grace, restoration and soul healing Jesus offered them.
To have one’s sight restored, to really see the beauty of the life into which, God invites us to participate, stands at the heart of what it means to follow Jesus. Jesus invites us to “come and see” the mighty works of God, the grace of God, the mercy, joy, reconciliation, and wholeness of life in Christ. We just need to open our eyes and see.
Following Jesus
In today’s gospel reading, we hear about Nathaniel and Philip’s encounter with Jesus as Jesus was returning to Galilee. Now Nathaniel was a skeptic and when presented with an opportunity to “come and see” Jesus, he said, “Can anything good come from Nazareth,” a statement of cynicism and disbelief. However, here is the important part of the story, Philip saw Jesus initially, and was so moved by him, that he had to go and tell someone else about it. Philip was an evangelist, a bearer of Good News.
Philip went beyond mere participation, and he actually went to find his friend Nathaniel, and he invited him to “come and see” Jesus. Each one of us are given that same invitation, “come and see Jesus.” Sometimes when faced with that to respond to the high calling of discipleship we can be like old Nathaniel. We want to follow Jesus, but we do so with preconceived notions of what that really means. Sometimes we proclaim Jesus as Lord, but we fail to commit to the hard work of really coming to know him.
In a parish I served twelve years ago, I had a parishioner who faithfully attended church every Sunday. She sat in the same pew, gave generously, worked in various ministries, and showed up at every event, but something in her life was missing. Emma’s spiritual practices of prayer and study had fallen by the wayside. She was missing the experience of seeing Jesus everyday, of coming to Jesus for strength, for guidance, for support, and for the life she was called to lead. Emma needed to practice her faith. She needed to know Jesus intimately. She needed to practice discipleship.

Practicing Discipleship
God invites us to “come and see” what it is like to be the people of God, but it is not enough just to see and that’s all there is. Like a pilot flying their nimble craft, we need to commit to practicing our faith, in order truly to become followers of Jesus. This journey of faith requires us to be willing to be transformed and become a new people, set aside as lighthouses of God’s grace, in a world of darkness, fear, and pain.
We are called to be people forever changed, so that we might live into God’s vision for us, both as individuals and as a community. The Most Rev. Rowan Williams, former Archbishop of Canterbury once wrote, “And Jesus’ bold proposal was that living in a world, and a community in which God was king was something very simple. To live in this world was what happened when you said ‘yes’ to what Jesus himself was saying and offering; to live under the kingship of God was deciding to live in the company of Jesus and trusting what he said about God and about you.” (2) We come and see Jesus, we are forever changed, and then we are sent out to share that vision of love with others.

So, we must practice our faith by having conversations with Jesus, studying the stories of his life, ministry, death, and resurrection, and we need to serve others as Christ served us. We need to pray, we need to study, and we need to serve. When we say yes to the invitation to “come and see” the bold proposal of the Kingdom of God, we must move from mere spectators who see. We need to once again become practitioners of faith, so that our lives are so filled with God, that we are compelled to invite others to “Come and See.”

REFERENCES
(1) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Visual_perception
(2) http://experimentaltheology.blogspot.com/2010/07/to-live-in-jesus-company-is-to-become.html

SERMON 1/10/21 Epiphany 1B St. Basil’s Episcopal Church, Talehquah, OK

Genesis 1:1-5; Psalm 29; Acts 19:1-7; Mark 1:4-11

Baptism – Our Common Journey

            2020 is behind us, or at least the numerical marker on the calendar indicates that this difficult year is past us.  However, the ongoing pandemic, the events of the past year, and the news of the first few weeks of the new year has left an indelible mark on all of us.  We all had anticipated just a few days ago, that the new year would bring hope of a new start and a new day, but that new day of 2021 has been stained in our own capital.  There is a rift emerging in our common life as a people, filled with emotion, frustration, and a divide.  Even so, we can find healing, we can find a common life together, if we but return to the path of love, the life in Christ made possible through the sacrament of our baptism. 

            Today is the Feast of the Baptism of Our Lord and this is not just another Sunday. It is a day of commemoration through which all the church is reminded to renew our promises made on one of the major transitions in the life of Our Lord’s ministry, and the same major transition in our own lives. Baptism is much more than a mere rite of passage for infants or spiritual fire insurance.  Baptism is not just a sweet church ritual where baby in baptismal gown is dedicated by parents and grandparents. Baptism is a once-in-a-lifetime holy event.  

            I think sometimes we have lost the meaning of baptism, and I believe we need to renew the church’s teaching of baptism, and what it means for all of God’s children.  I had a parishioner once who had a grandchild, they wanted baptism.  They asked me when we could “get it done” and began to talk about preparing the parents for their responsibilities.  The parishioner said, “Father, come now, we are just talking about a little water, a few words, and then the baby is on Jesus’ team, right?”   Well, I took the opportunity to teach them about baptism.  I shared with grandma that this is no water bath, but a pivotal moment of transformation that Jesus has left for us.  I explained how this particular moment of our lives is a change, a new start, a life moment the whole community of God participates in, and it is one Jesus left for us to follow.  I explained that Baptism is the moment we enter into the family of God.  It is the door to the church.  It is how we become sisters and brothers of the one who left this sacrament for us to follow.

Baptism Changes Us, Baptism Changes Our Relationships

            Some people have a hard time understanding why Jesus participated in baptism in the first place.  Even John the Baptist initially misunderstood why Jesus showed up at the waters of the Jordan for that holy water bath.  John stated, “the one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”  John really didn’t understand, but later realized that Jesus was leaving us an example of the life we are to lead, and the example we are to follow.  Jesus invites us to identify with him, and for him to identify with us.

            In the Book of Common Prayer, in the Thanksgiving over the Water found in the baptism rite we read what the church teaches about the waters of baptism.  It states, “In it we are buried with Christ in his death. By it we share in his resurrection. Through it we are reborn by the Holy Spirit.” The Apostle Paul in his letter to the Galatians spoke about dying in a death like his and sharing in a resurrection like his.  Paul asserts that “the person who has been baptized is ‘in Christ,’ is no longer subject to the divisions of human society and is part of a unified body.”[1]  

            In other words, because of our baptism, we find our identity in Christ and we find our identity in community in Christ.  Our identity as the baptized supersedes our identity in any other group, association, or even our citizenship.  Through baptism, we die to our old self and live into a new reality.  That new reality is the church, the Body of Christ, the family of God.  We are now called to live a life of peace, joy, service, love, and reconciliation.  We need to understand that as a baptized Christian our loyalties are now to Christ and the Kingdom of God.

What is Baptism

            In the Episcopal Church’s catechism it states, “Baptism is full initiation by water and the Holy Spirit into Christ’s Body, the church.”  Thus, we are by virtue of our baptism, a full-fledged part of “Team Jesus.”  We are on the team, we are unified, we are a group, a gaggle, a community, and we are a family.  The church is much more than a secondary association, or a community of folks brought together for weekly worship alone.  We are a new people.

            We humans are social folk, and we need to gather with others in order to feel complete and whole.  There are all kinds of groups and communities out there these days and in each one, folks come together for different reasons and purposes.  There are civic groups that gather for service to the community, there are golf groups who gather for golf; there are social groups who gather for fun.   The Church however is a community with a purpose, a mission, and life-changing path.   The Church, the Body of Christ, “Team Jesus” is brought together for the purposes of love, and our association is formal, well-defined, and permanent because of an indissoluble bond made possible by following the example of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ through the waters baptism. 

            Baptism is Christian initiation, an entry, a turning point, a new phase of life made possible by water and Spirit.  In baptism, we pass through water yes, but we also take promises upon ourselves or in the case of infants, they are taken for us and on our behalf.   Baptism is ritual, promise, and it is covenant.  It is a promise made by each of us as individuals and corporately as the church, and it is a promise made between us and God.   In baptism, God promises that we will are God’s people and we will share in God’s kingdom.  In baptism, our promises to God and each other, define how we will live into God’s promise to us, and how we will be God’s people.   This way of life we promise to undertake in baptism is of God, because it is the life, death, and resurrection of God in Christ which we promise to follow.  

Baptismal Promise – Gathering

            On page 304 of the Book of Common Prayer, we find the promises of our baptism, which all of us say together when someone new enters the family of God.  These promises are often renewed again and again throughout the Christian year, especially today, when in some congregations we replace the Nicene Creed for the Baptismal Covenant. Let me summarize those promises of baptism, which define what it means to be a member of “Team Jesus.” First, we are asked to promise, “Will you continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers?”  Some of God’s people have dedicated their entire life to studying the teaching of the apostles and so should we.  I dare say that a 10-15 minute sermon once a week is just not enough to learn to live the path of love.  

            We all need to study the scriptures daily, and we should take advantage of the any Adult Christian Education opportunities that are out there.   We are invited by virtue of our baptism into a deeper love and commitment to Jesus Christ, and that itself takes effort.   The fellowship of the body through the sacrament of the breaking of bread is essential.  We gather each week to receive the sacrament, but this meal is not just about you and me as individuals.  When we share a meal with someone, we just don’t eat and run; we interact.  We make ourselves vulnerable, and we enter into relationship.  Communal living in Christ is not a drive-thru, fast food endeavor, but a multi-course meal in which, we gather, share, reveal our brokenness, and learn what it really means to love one another (not just the ones we like or those who are like us).  That “and in the prayers” part seems easy enough, but many folks struggle with having a conversation with God.  That’s pretty much what prayer is by the way, listening for God’s Spirit to speak to us.  Sometimes in prayer, we may say too much.  Maybe the key to prayer is merely taking the time for a few minutes to listen, to quiet our spirit and wait on God.  

Baptismal Promise – Doing

            The next baptismal promise is “Will you persevere in resisting evil, and, whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?”  We all stray and fall off the path.  We all will fail, but it’s in the returning to “Team Jesus,” that we embrace this promise and find the arms of God awaiting our return.  As a community of reconciliation and restoration, we become an example of God’s forgiveness and grace to the world.

            The next promise is as follows, “Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ?”  This promise frightens Episcopalians because it sounds too much like Evangelism.  It is by the way, but evangelism does not include the use of bullhorns and Gospel tracts and street preaching on the local main drag.  No, sharing the Gospel means that we live knowing our lives may be the only lens through which others can see Christ.  We need to realize that “our lives draw others to Jesus,” and “this community’s life reflects the life of Christ to others.”  The next few promises are difficult ones to keep, especially in times like we live in today, “Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?” and “Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?”  

            Loving neighbor, striving for justice, and respecting dignity is tough these days.  However, caring for the poor, afflicted, and broken is NOT just a clichéd litany of teachings that Jesus offered us, but ones he really did not really expect us to follow.  We, the Body of Christ are a missional community commissioned to bring others to unity with God and each other in Christ.  The others God claims always extends well beyond just those gathered together on Sunday, but includes those for whom our earthly associations might not include.  The others are all of God’s creatures, especially those for whom we might hold differing opinions.   

Baptism and Unity

            Now in these times, when the divisions of our common national life seems to be growing, it is time for we Christians to remember our baptismal promises. we need to realize when things are feeling like they are being ripped apart, we are brought together by our promises made to God and each other.  Right now, when we wrestle with how we as Christians might live in these times, we can go to the higher authority of God’s word, and live differently than the world.  

            The events of the past week have left an indelible mark on our society, and our nation may never be the same.  But we Christians have been left with an indelible mark on us long ago.  At our baptism, the priest takes oil and makes the sign of the cross on our forehead. and reminds us that we are marked by Holy Spirit and we are ” Christ’s own forever.” that mark may be the hope, the life transformation that can heal our nation.  Our baptism serves as a call for all of us to live a life of service, a life of peace, a life of reconciliation, and a life of love.  As we go out today to “love and serve the Lord,” as the candles are extinguished please never forget your baptismal promises. 

            In the days to come, when all seems hopeless, let the mark of Baptism remind you that we find our common life, our hope, and our purpose following the one who loved all, accepted all, and unifies us all in God’s grace.  Let us pray, “Heavenly Father, we thank you that by water and the Holy Spirit you have bestowed upon these your servants the forgiveness of sin, and have raised them to the new life of grace. Sustain them, O Lord, in your Holy Spirit. Give them an inquiring and discerning heart, the courage to will and to persevere, a spirit to know and to love you, and the gift of joy and wonder in all your works. Amen.”

REFERENCES

1 Schowalter, Daniel N. The Oxford Companion to the Bible. Edited by Bruce M. Metzger and Michael D. Coogan. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993.


Christmas Eve 12/24/20 St. Augustine’s Episcopal Church, Oklahoma City, OK

Isaiah 62:6-12; Psalm 97; Titus 3:4-7; Luke 2:1-14(15-20)

Christmas Traditions

Christmas includes so many wonderful traditions : decorating the tree, drinking eggnog, hanging stockings, unwrapping gifts, children waiting for Santa Claus, and all those awesome Christmas stories on television and the movies. This year’s (2020) Christmas celebrations and festivities will not be traditional to say the least. A global pandemic plagues all of us, and in the midst of these days, we live in troubling and painful times. Life is different and we all long for something that looks normal. Many of us this week will try and get lost in a movie or television drama. Hopefully we will watch a story that will portray Christmas from prior years. Televised entertaining stories can, in the midst of all that has changed, allow us to experience those wonderful holidays of old.

Pre-pandemic fantasies of Christmas can be enjoyed watching stories such as: Home Alone I, II, and III, Elf, Christmas with the Cranks and Polar Express. We can be whisked away to a better time and watch A Charlie Brown Christmas, Rudolph, Frosty the Snowman and of course, the never-ending Hallmark Channel Christmas Romance Novels made for Television. These Christmas stories can help us forget just how different life is this year such as, Christmas shopping is mostly online, holiday celebrations are cancelled, and family gatherings are minimized or non-existent. Televised Christmas fantasy can give us a respite from social distancing and mask wearing, as we watch better times being played out on the screen.

Stories of Christmas

It is interesting to note that all of these Christmas stories I mentioned, follow a similar story line and all have similar beginnings, middles, and endings. Most begin with some controversy or challenge involving a close-knit family. Next, the tension of the story is somehow miraculously resolved, and finally everyone experiences unexpected joy, peace, and goodwill. Each story presents a different central character, who in the story eventually wins the day and a new era of life emerges after the Christmas Joy. One thing I find interesting about this stories is that they do not even mention the central character of the true Christmas story we Christians tell. Hallmark never mentions the real “reason for the season;” Jesus Christ. The Christmas story of the Nativity of Jesus Christ, God in flesh seems to compete with, and is often the secondary narrative of the season we celebrate today. Now, when the story of the Nativity of Christ is depicted on the big screen, it is often presented to us as a picture-perfect Hallmark moment. Nonetheless, that night in Bethlehem was far from perfect. The real story of Christmas and the events of that fateful night, seem less like the perfect, fairy tale scene. That fateful night seems much more like the unimaginably difficult times in which, we find ourselves today.

There were no twinkling lights except the stars in the sky and of course, that special star that shown above the manger. There were no red paper wrapped toys, except the ones the Maggi brought from the Eastern parts of the empire. There were no elves, reindeer, or snowmen characters, but there were shepherds, sheep, donkeys, and other animals finding shelter where the Baby Jesus was laid. There were no Christmas Carols being sung in the background, save the angels who proclaimed, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!” Jesus’ birth took place in a shabby, untidy barn with difficult circumstances for a poor family that night. This story gives us a peek into the difficulties of everyday normal life of the world’s people, in the midst of unexpected challenges and a global plague of poverty, oppression, and an oppressive empire. You see, we 21st century folks tidy Christmas up and make it almost seem surreal, as if it were a mere fairy tale or just another story on television.

The Christmas Story

Joseph, Mary, the Infant Jesus and the scene in that little town of Bethlehem is the ironic story of how God, the Creator of all we perceive, the Redeemer of our lives, and the Sustainer of all creation came among us as one of us.  God came to us to close the chasm between, to bring us back to him.  This act by God, humbled, and vulnerable is the good news of this story.  God acted first in love, which is what God always does to reconcile and restore us.

God came to us not in power but in humility. Under the oppression of a governmentally mandated census, through which all the known world would be required to travel to their birthplace to be counted. The egotistical and narcissistic Roman Emperor Cesar, sought to place a numeric value on what and who he ruled, all as a symbol of his earthly imposing power. Now, part of the irony of the Christmas drama is that the real ruler of the world Jesus Christ, came to us as a poor little helpless baby and not a power-wielding Emperor that needed to feed his ego. The real Christmas story from its humble poverty-stricken beginnings, overturned the idea the earthly power leads to redemption. The real story of Christmas tells us that true power comes from humble, self-giving love, shared by a young family, and manifested in a baby, whose purpose and eventual mission would be to change the whole world through love.

The Humble God

There was no pomp and circumstance in this story, no social insiders, no big parties, and no consumer-influenced gifts.  The first visitors to see this King of Kings were not celebrities, pop culture stars, or even political figures.  There were no Kardashians, or Taylor Swift, Kanye West, or even political all-stars showing up to this event for an endorsement.  At this critical world-changing event, only shepherds who herded unsavory sheep out in the fields came to sing praises to the God who came to us in the flesh.  There were no bands or choirs, and definitely, no small-town Hallmark movie celebrations or parades.  

The birth of Christ was like the real deal life we all live each day, and the God who brought it all into being, showed up as one of us in the middle of our muck and mire.  God humbled Godself, to heal the chasm of the relationship, from which we often walk away.  We often reject the pain, poverty, and difficulties of story of humble love in a manger, for the comfortable, satisfying, and safe stories for which we all long.   The irony of God’s mission to bring us to love and joy is found in the path of trust and faith, even in the midst of pain and troubles.

You see, you cannot get to the joy of the Easter story without the unsavoriness of the Christmas story.  You cannot get to resurrection and salvation, without  the event of incarnation and the Babe in the Manger.  You cannot really receive the Good News of God’s love, unless you listen to the angel, who proclaimed that night in the midst of fear, cold, and the plague of poverty and uncertainty, “Do not be afraid; for see– I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.”  That same promise of God is being shared with all of us in the midst of the plague, in which we must make sacrifices, offer humble love, and face challenges like never before, so that we all can live and ” not be afraid.”

Reason for the Season

            So, this story of humble love presented in the birth of a child is the reason we celebrate Christmas and it is the Good News that “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”  The God who made all of us, loves us.  God loves us so much that he transcended time and space and entered into the mire and muck of life as one of us, so he could show us what the love he has for us looks like, and it looks like Jesus.   Jesus is the Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, and Prince of Peace.”  Jesus is the rabbi, teacher, healer, and lover of all with whom he came in contact.  Jesus is God in flesh, who restored the broken, set prisoners free, and showed us the kind of self-giving love that we as his followers should strive for.  

Now maybe you are thinking, “that all sounds so wonderful Canon Eric, but I am not sure I believe all of it.”  “Ok,” that’s fair and thank you for being honest.  So, may I suggest you take a little leap of faith in the coming year and make the story of Christ’s humble love your story.  Try and live your life filled with love, forgiveness, restoration, and reconciliation.  Live as if the story is true, because if it is true (which I believe it is), then everything in your life is going to change.  However, even if it is not true (which I believe it is true), and if you live as if it is true, then everything in your life is still going to change.  If each of us were to live the Christmas story in the coming year, then the world will change as well.

So, my hope for you this Christmas Eve is that you might hear this story with renewed hearing.  When you leave this service for the safe distanced celebrations that you plan, I pray you go forward each day trusting your life to God.  I pray you will live in humble love and listen to those holy messengers who promised so long ago, “Do not be afraid; for see– I am bringing you good news of great joy for ALL the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.”  Now that my sisters and brothers that is the real Christmas story that changed everything in history, it changes everything this day, and if you let it, it will change everything in your life, from this day forward! Merry Christmas.