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SERMON St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, Tampa FL “Feast of All Saint’s” 11/1/15

raising_of_lazarus_by_logiconWisdom of Solomon 3:1-9; Psalm 24; Revelation 21:1-6a; John 11:32-44

In today’s gospel reading, we hear that Jesus raised his dear friend Lazarus from the grave. In our tradition, we often hear this particular reading from John’s gospel, at a burial service. For many of us, we find comfort in the words, “Jesus wept.” We find solace knowing that Our Lord grieved at the death of his friend, just as we are grieved when one of our loved ones dies. God mourns with us in the tragic events of our lives, and grieves at the heart-rending tragedies, those terrible atrocities, we often hear about in the news every single day. God is grieved by war, poverty, injustice, oppression, and death. God mourns, but God does not leave us in grief, despair, or in the grave. God’s work in the world is to bring about God’s kingdom, where tragedy and death will be no more, and here is the part we often forget, we have a part in that mission.

The raising of Lazarus happened at a critical moment in Jesus’ ministry. Jesus had just left Jerusalem where his antagonists had tried to stone him for his very true, but daring assertion, “I and the Father are one.” He escaped that potential commotion in the city that day, and traveled to the other side of the Jordon, which is where he received word that Lazarus had taken ill. Jesus did not rush right away to Lazarus sickbed but rather he waited two more days to go to his friend’s side. He was deliberate about that delay, for he knew that it would be through the death of his friend that he would demonstrate God’s power over life and death.

The raising of Lazarus was a decisive miracle that not only provided his closest supporters proof of his identity claim and the catalyst for their further belief, it became the evidence for prosecution by which, his opponents would justify the trial that led to the end of Jesus’ life. In substantiating his power over life and death, Jesus suffered the consequences of how the powers of the world war against God’s mission. Thus, Jesus walked through the jaws of death. I believe this moment of his ministry, seen against the backdrop of his entire ministry, clarifies something really important for the church today.

Although Jesus experienced suffering, fear, disappointment, betrayal, and misunderstanding, nothing dissuaded him from his mission. In a way, Jesus forewarned his church about the challenges of discipleship. Jesus showed his community of followers that day, and all of us today that being faithful to God’s mission and partnering with God’s mission in the world comes with a great cost.

Mission focus

Today the church copes with many challenges that she has not seen wrestled with in a very long time.   A growing number of people in this country, 22.8% to be exact, claim to have no religious affiliation at all. That number has grown by nearly 7% over the last seven years. If the statistics hold true, the church is now and will in the future, wield less and less influence on the lives of others and culture as a whole, less inspiration and relevance than it did just a few years ago. We often see the evidence of this cultural change, because in some of our communities, there are fewer people in our worship services on Sunday morning. We also are challenged by increasing threats to community sustainability, and a growing anxiety about our future.

The real threat for the church is not the latest trend of a declining religiosity, the declining attendance on Sunday, or even the sustainability issues of building and property maintenance. The real threat to the church is our tendency to forget that God’s mission is the priority. In other words, “God does not have a mission for His church; He has a church for His mission.”

God did not fashion together a community of people for the mere purpose of gathering together once a week. God set aside a community of people for a specific role, and a specific purpose, to of carry out God’s mission in the neighborhoods, into which they are planted. You see my friends, the Missio Dei, God’s mission of reconciliation, restoration, peace, mercy, joy, and grace, is the purpose to which we are called together. We are called by God to go out into the desperate places of people’s lives, and call them out of their graves and to do so, despite our own uncertainty, anxiety, and the fear of our own mortality.

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

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

When we are in despair, when we see glimpses of what some naysayers forewarn as our eventual institutional death, and that negativity is trying to slip in amongst us, we like Jesus must work through it, and not around it. We must focus on God’s mission and constantly ask ourselves, “What is our ministry to the neighborhood in which, we have been planted?” “Who is God is calling us to love, serve, and restore?” “Who is our neighbor, and how should we get back to the basics of being a lighthouse of love in the neighborhood around us?” Remember, the mission to which we are called is fraught with fear because, for us to engage in God’s mission, we may have to die a little to our current comfortable way of being, in order to experience new life.

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

To experience new life, we often must shrug off some of the trappings, the grave clothes that have the power to keep us bound up, and deter us from God’s mission in the world. It may be that we must die a little to those comfy elements of our ways of being, our contented ways of sharing grace, our narrow definitions of the community’s local mission, or our often, restrictive boundaries to entering the community’s life. We need to be unbound from that which keeps us from God’s mission.

Unbind them and let them Go

Jesus said, “Unbind him and let him go!” Jesus calls us out of the graves of despair and uncertainty in our lives, which are those heart places holding us back from God’s purposes. Jesus calls us out, and commands us to unbind one other from our grave clothes. Many of us have old memories of church gone by and thus, we have preconceived notions about how the church should be or must be today. Many of us carry some of that baggage, or worse yet, we look at our community and think we are just not enough, or believe somehow we don’t have enough to do local mission. This thinking, these old grave clothes keep us from God’s purposes for God’s church.

Dean Chandler of the Diocese of Atlanta once said in a sermon, unbind them and let them go. “Those should be the words, which are our orders every day, every new day. Unbind somebody. Where you find someone in bondage: your friend, your wife, your husband, your companion, even the stranger.”3 The church is called to be about the business of unbinding, bringing folks into a community of healing and restoration, by releasing them from the bondages of poverty, broken hearts, broken spirits, worthlessness, injustice, and oppression. This is our purpose, this is what the church has been set apart to do from its inception. “Unbind him and let him go,” was Jesus command to his followers who were standing and watching him raise his friend from the power of death. Jesus told the onlookers there that day, to “unbind him” or rather, get to work in the mission of love I have just begun. The community has a place in the restoration of those whom Jesus raises to new life. We are partners with God in the unbinding of one another from those things that want to pull us back into whatever graves from which, we have been raised.

You see that is really what it means to strive to be a saint. We are a people that have been given the assurance that death has no power over us, and we have been raised to new life in Christ. We are a people that are brought together in love as the Body of Christ, not merely for the embellishment of ourselves, but to the end and ultimate purpose of sharing God’s abundant grace with others. Being a saint is not a call to be perfect, or to become some kind of superhero Christian who does everything with precision and holiness. Being a saint is striving to everyday, in every way, to share God’s abundance with others, to unbind others.

Will we get it right every time? I doubt it, but we must try. Nelson Mandela once said, “I am not a saint, unless you think of a saint as a sinner who keeps on trying.” Most likely, we have and we will mess it up, and we will have to change occasionally. We will have to die a little in order to see new life spring about, but we must keep trying. My friends please recognize that all of us are already saints, saints with a God-given mission. We are called to love one another, and those whom God loves, those neighbors around you who are desperately seeking something of which, they do not know. We are called to love one another and those not among the gathered community. We are called to love one another just as Christ loved us and gave himself for us, an offering, and a sacrifice to God.

REFERENCES

1Taylor, Barbara Brown. “Can These Bones Live.” The Christian Century 23.9 (1996): 291. ATLASerials, Religion Collection. Web. 26 Oct. 2015.

2 Guthrie, Suzanne. “Back To Life.” The Christian Century 122.5 (2005): 22. ATLASerials, Religion Collection. Web. 26 Oct. 2015.)

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

SERMON 9/27/15 Pentecost 18B St. Boniface, Siesta Key, FL

sinTo watch the video of the full worship service and SERMON click here.

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

A priest told his parishioners,’Next week I plan to preach about the sin of lying. To help you understand my sermon, I want you all to read Mark 17.” The following Sunday, as he prepared to deliver his sermon, the priest asked for a show of hands, “Who all read Mark 17?” Every hand went up. The priest smiled and said,’ ‘my sisters and brothers, Mark has only sixteen chapters so, I will now proceed with my sermon on the sin of lying.”(*)

We heard these words from scripture this morning, “Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed. The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective.” Two months ago, I stood before you in this spot and said, “I have great hope for this congregation.” I said, “I believe God has in store for St. Boniface, a wonderful future that is unfathomable at this time.” I am more convinced of that fact today, than I was on August 1st, 2015. I believe this congregation again will do mighty works for God’s kingdom. I believe this is true, because I have seen evidence already that a time of healing has begun here, but my sisters and brothers, you cannot rest now, because there is much more work to be done.

You have before you an opportunity to discern God’s vision and dream for new and fresh approaches for mission and ministry in this community, on Siesta Key, and beyond. Please my friends do not forget that restoring broken hearts, mending broken relationships, practicing forgiveness, and entering into a time of reconciliation and rebuilding is your first priority. You will need to do some heavy lifting, as you engage in the ongoing communal cycle of sin, forgiveness, reconciliation, and grace.

 

Relational estrangement pervades congregational struggles, and if it goes un-repented and un-forgiven, it has the potential literally, to mutilate the Body of Christ.

In his speech to Congress the other day, Pope Francis quoted Thomas Merton, a well-known Cistercian monk; whose writings have been inspirational to many. Brother Merton in his autobiography wrote, “I came into the world. Free by nature, in the image of God, I was nevertheless the prisoner of my own violence and my own selfishness, in the image of the world into which I was born. That world was the picture of Hell, full of men like myself, loving God, and yet hating him; born to love him, living instead in fear of hopeless self-contradictory hungers”. (1) Merton was talking about one of the issues of church life that we don’t like to talk much about today. Merton was talking about sin.

Sin is a spiritual ailment we progressive and intellectual 21st century Christians often feel we have outgrown. Despite evidence of the reality of sin found in our world, a world experiencing growing violence in our streets, out of control corporate greed, the ever-increasing level of broken family relationships, and the conflict that exists in our social organizations, we seem to think our struggle with sin is an old fashioned, outdated concept.

My favorite theologian Paul Tillich asserts, “Sin is separation. Separation is an aspect of the experience of everyone. To be in the state of sin, is to be in the state of separation.”(2) Over the years, some folks have defined sin as a mere legal transaction, a breaking of laws, or an act of getting caught with our hand in the spiritual cookie jar. I disagree, because I believe as Tillich asserts, sin is about relationships and not merely legal transactions. Sin is human estrangement from God and each other, and it is this separation we experience, when our actions or inactions cause injury to others lives, and the devastation of those relationships.

Unfortunately, our culture has watered down the reality that we human beings have always, and will always, battle with relational brokenness, or the struggles to be the god of our own lives and god of others lives. You may be sitting there saying, “C’mon Father Eric, are you really going to preach to us about sin?” Yes, I am, because we want sometimes to convince ourselves that this estrangement is not real. Do you want proof? The next time you are in the grocery store or the mall and you see two people arguing viciously, or you overhear two friends gossiping about a third, or you receive an email, Facebook post, or text that tears down the character of a friend or colleague, you can be assured that sin is real. We all battle with sin, because we desire influence, power, and our own agenda. But there is the Good News for all of us, “God does not abandon us, even to our sin.”

 

Missional distractions become the soil for estrangement that affects our relationships in the community.

If you listened to the Old Testament reading this morning, you heard about one of the many leadership disasters Moses’ experienced while trying to lead a large nation of people from slavery to a new way of being, a new destination, and a new future. While traversing through the harsh environment of the desert, with hunger and thirst around every corner, the people became focused not on their mission, but on their personal needs. Israel lost sight of her mission, and the direction to which, God had set out for them. Despite the hardships and grumbling though, God never abandoned them to their assumed fate.

Just like the people of Israel traveling to the Promised Land, we have to deal with our own mission distractions. Management challenges, organizational issues, capital and budget constraints, deferred maintenance matters, individualized ministry agendas, and now, there is a growing population of people who don’t go to church anymore, all of these distractions challenge all of our churches today. These disruptions to community life, shift our focus from the mission and then, become fertile soil into which, we often plant seeds of anxiety and fear. Fear and anxiety leads to conflict, misguided energy, and eventually estrangement. Like the Israelites in the desert, when our relational and communal health is dominated by our need for task efficiency and operational effectiveness, we lose sight of our true purpose and mission, which is “to bring all people into unity with God and each other in Christ.”

Moses was overwhelmed by the logistics of the trip to the promise land, but grace abounded even in the midst of the chaos. Despite the hardships and diversions, the people eventually learned that they had to rely on and trust God’s vision of a new community in a new land.  You see, God did not then, nor does God now, leave us forever to wander in the deserts of our own distractions and estrangements. God always draws us back to God’s purpose, which is unity and relational health through repentance, forgiveness, reconciliation, and grace.

Repentance is when we turn back to God’s way of being, and when we accept the forgiveness and grace God pours out on each of us.

“The Church is a hospital for sinners, not a museum for saints,” a quote often attributed to Abigail Van Buren, the newspaper columnist Dear Abby, and it offers a simple metaphor for Christian community. Martin Luther once said, “We are all mere beggars, showing other beggars where to find bread.” We are all in need of healing. We all need to be fed. We are all in need of grace. The Body of Christ is not meant to be a community that we enter dressed in our finest, and falsely claim, “I am perfect because all is well with me, and I assume all is well with you.” Each of us, we clergy included, all show up before the throne of grace with our burdens, our sins, our junk, and all of us need transformation in our lives. I know I do. The spiritual healing we all need, begins to emerge and become tangible for us, when we practice confession and repentance.

Because we often reject the reality of separation in our lives, we also reject our need for repentance. Repentance is not merely acknowledging actions that have led to broken relationships, and then we merely return to our old habits. Repentance is not saying, “God I am sorry for what I did” and then we go back to our sin. In Greek, the word from which we derive the English word “Repentance,” means to change one’s mind for better, to make a change of principle and practice, and to reform. Each week we confess, we pray, we seek forgiveness by saying, “We are truly sorry and we humbly repent.” The prayer of penitence is “confessing our sins and making restitution where possible, with the intention to amend our lives.” (BCP p. 857) Health for a community emerges when we confess our sins to one another, and seek to reconcile estranged relationships, even when the issues are very complex. In his article, “Crafting Communities of Forgiveness,” Gregory Jones writes, “There is no healthy community that is not also aware of the complex psychological dynamics of its members.” (1)

Life is complex and relationships are multifaceted. The church is like a hanging mobile, you cannot move one object on one side of the mobile, and without that movement having an affecting every other piece. There are no decisions, actions, or conversations in the church made in isolation. We are connected in the Spirit of God, but our connection is fragile at times. We must be aware that we have to strive to be unified as much as possible, and we begin to do that, when we acknowledge our need to care for one another. Even when we face complex issues, we must “move forward together, as one, in a renewed spirit of fraternity and solidarity, cooperating generously for the common good.”(1)

 

Our hope for healing and restoration in the future is in God’s hands, but we must join now in the process of healing.

We cannot do this work of healing and reconciliation alone. We have to rely on God’s grace. “Our worship of the risen Christ sets the context for us to find new ways of coping with the conflicts and tragedies that all too easily destroy us and others.” (4) “Jesus’ cross is (an) indication (that) real grace is costly, hard- earned grace.”(3) Becoming a healthy congregation is costly, and it is hard work, and it requires grace.

In the coming months, it will be of upmost importance for St. Boniface Episcopal Church to reconnect with and become very clear about God’s purpose and mission for this congregation. It will be essential to understand the complicated dynamics of community life, so that you can address conflict when it arises and my friends, conflict and misunderstandings will happen again because honestly, we are merely human. We are people who struggle with an ongoing need for emotional, intellectual, and spiritual healing. We are people who need to practice repentance and to practice forgiveness. We are a people who struggle with the idea that the gift of grace, God’s abundant love which is undeserved, unmerited, and unearned, flows unceasingly upon us and thus, we cannot manipulate grace, purchase grace, or coerce grace. We must merely accept it.

I said it before, and I will say it once again, I have great hope for this community. Your work is ahead of you, and much will be required of you all in the coming months. Health will require you to return to the basics of the faith, to release individual or group agendas for the agenda and mission of God. Health will require you to pray fervently together and often. Health will require you to love one another, I mean really love one another, forgive one another, deal with new conflict directly and compassionately with one another, and finally, in all things St. Boniface must trust God.

Please never forget this fact, this church is Christ’s church and not your own and that being said, Christ will not abandon her. I believe that if you all will seek God’s will, wisdom, and power and seek it in all you do as you move into the future, you will look back a year from now and say, “look how far God has brought us.” You are already seeing little glimpses of resurrection in this place. I am convinced that you will experience new life. Stay faithful, pray fervently, love each other, and you will re-emerge once again, the community GOD wants you to be, one that brings “all people into unity with God and each other in Christ.”

 

REFERENCES

(1) http://time.com/4048176/pope-francis-us-visit-congress-transcript/ .

(2) Tillich, Paul. “The Shaking of the Foundations.” Charles Scribners Sons, New York, 1948, p. 154.

(3) Goetz, Ronald G. (Ronald George). “The Costliness Of Grace.” The Christian Century 103.5 (1986): 111-112. ATLASerials, Religion Collection. Web. 22 Sept. 2015.

(4) Jones, L Gregory. “Crafting Communities Of Forgiveness.” Interpretation 54.2 (2000): 121-134. ATLASerials, Religion Collection. Web. 22 Sept. 2015.

(*) http://www.jokebuddha.com/Sin#ixzz3mrF92wDd

 

SERMON 9/13/15 Pentecost 16B St. Boniface, Siesta Key, FL

jesus

To Watch the Video of this sermon, Click Here

James 3:1-12; Mark 8:27-38

Jesus question about “Who do you say I am,” is as relevant for us today, as it was for those early followers in Caesarea Philippi.

            This morning I invite you to tap into your creative imaginations and put yourself in today’s story from the Gospel according to Mark. Imagine for a moment that you have been a part of that band of folks that followed the young rabbi Jesus, and tagged along behind him around the Galilean territory and beyond. You have witnessed his healings, heard him preach, and you have seen the miracles. You are hooked and cannot return back to the place you were before, because you are on a new journey. There is something about this guy you just cannot explain; something to which you are deeply drawn, and because of that fact, you would follow him anywhere.

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

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

Next, Jesus looks at each person in your group with great care in his eyes, pauses and asks, “Who do YOU say I am?” Peter can hold back no more, and proclaims abruptly and boldly, “YOU ARE THE MESSIAH.” Surprisingly, Jesus tells you all to keep quiet about what was just said. You and your friends, being good first century Israelites, certainly understand what expectations your culture puts on the one who bears the title “Messiah.” However, is the kind of Messiah whom Jesus’ followers seek, the same kind of Messiah that Jesus truly is?

 

We often project our own expectations and pre-conceived notions on others, and that projection has lasting implications on our relationship with the other.

            I imagine if I took a poll right now here at St. Boniface asking, “Who do say Jesus is,” I would hear a variety of responses. I imagine the Jesus who each of us identify with, and the one we hear about in the Gospels, may sometimes be at odds with each other. Peter the apostle proclaimed boldly to that little group, “You are the Messiah,” However, upon hearing from Jesus what his Messiah ship really meant, Peter could not accept it and rebuked Jesus. He later denied Jesus three times.

Peter did not want a suffering servant Messiah that Jesus self-described, the one who would be rejected, beaten, and killed. I imagine Peter may have been seeking a Messiah of his own making, maybe one in his own image, a powerful, bold, outspoken Messiah who would overthrow the Roman establishment. Many of us may be just like Peter. Some of us may label Jesus as ‘Good Teacher Jesus,” a mere ancient sage who gave us some really good direction on how to live. Some of us may label Jesus as “Politically Conservative Jesus” or “Politically Liberal Jesus” either of which, depends on your own political affiliation, because we often pick and choose, which of his words move our own agenda forward.

Some of us may label Jesus, “Vending Machine Jesus,” the Lord we only connect with when we find ourselves in dire straits, or we experience life’s difficulties, or when there is something we want or need. Maybe we label Jesus as “Episcopalian Jesus,” the Lord who never ever breaks the liturgical rubrics, handles every conflict with meekness and humility, and the one who can chant the entire mass with grace and style.

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

 

This is the same Messiah who says to us, “Take up your cross and follow me.

The earliest Christian affirmation was three simple words that meant everything to our ancestors in faith: “Jesus is Lord.” (1) In a society focused on a pursuit of self-actualization, individual gratification, and personal success we are ourselves, the Lord of our own lives. The Kingdom of God though is based on another concept of Lordship. The earliest Christian communities recognized that the master of their lives was the one who “underwent great suffering, and was rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and was killed, and after three days rose again.” The chief orchestrator of their lives was the one who calls his followers to “Deny yourselves, take up your cross and follow me.”

Theologian Christopher Henry explains further, “If we want to follow this Messiah, it’s going to take more than acceptance and assent, more than a moment of decision. It’s going to take change in habits, assumptions and actions.” Each and Every day of our lives, we are confronted by Jesus’ call to follow him, and when the choice is presented, we must either say “Yay” or “Nay” to his Lordship!

Jesus is pretty clear about his expectations of his followers. He tells us to care for the least lost and lonely and says, “when you do this for the least of these, you do it for me.” So, when we encounter a member of our local community who is an outcast, whose dignity as a member of the human family is challenged, when those around us lack the basics of life, when our neighbors experience a level of loneliness and isolation we can only fathom, when our local citizens wrestle with a darkness and depressive hole we have never tread, or when a growing generation of our local residents are living with a spiritual emptiness like never before, how will we respond to Jesus mandate to “love our neighbor as ourselves?”

Denying our selves, taking up our cross means we must be changed so much that we deny our own priorities, and say, “Yes” to Our Lord’s way of self-giving love. “The imperative to deny oneself must, therefore, speak to a corporate understanding of identity; it must have a social or public dimension with real effects on one’s relationships with others.” (3) Our proclamation of Jesus as Lord means, that we should be we willing to die to our old selves, that self that stands in contrast to Jesus’ call, so that new life, new life in Christ might emerge in us for the sake of those around us.

 

Jesus says, “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”

Over the past three years, I have conducted vestry retreats with several churches in our diocese. During these events, I focus on helping churches identify who their neighbors are around them, where the deepest community needs around them lie, and then, help these leaders explore and discern fresh ways to bring about God’s Kingdom of love, reconciliation and grace to bear on their neighbors. I like to think of this work as helping churches to stop looking inward for their mission statement, and begin to look outside their four walls, outside the priorities of inner church life, in order to rediscover what it is that God is calling them to be and do.

Matthew Skinner in his Word and World article wrote, “one who follows Jesus continually enacts self-denial through living without regard for the security and priorities that people naturally cling to and that our society actively promotes as paramount. This enactment is not a matter of private piety but of public testimony, for the refusal of a certain way of living directly impinges upon one’s identity and possibilities.” (3)

You see, self-denial is not merely a private, individualized proposition for we “Jesus followers,” it is something we must do corporately as the Body of Christ. We must get in touch once again with the fact that the church, “this community bears the message of the kingdom in its concrete participation in activities of liberation, restoration, mutuality, forgiveness, and charity—deeds that rightly judge and challenge the powers and persons aligned with this world.” (3)

The mission of the church is to “Bring all people to unity with God and each other in Christ.” (BCP p. 855) To reach the all, we must publicly participate, both individually and communally in deeds that challenge the realities of our culture, which stand in opposition to God’s Kingdom, and we have to do it out there. We must deny our own priorities and agendas of corporate life, so that we can fully participate in the mission of Christ in the world.

I believe all of us desire the experience of profound grace, or new life in Christ, but we must remember, there is a choice we must make for that participation and yes, that is the death of self-consumed community living. The church cannot get to Easter Sunday celebration, without going through Good Friday transformation. We cannot experience resurrection as the Body of Christ, without experiencing death of internal strife, turmoil, and self-focus first.

Maybe that is part of what it means for us to be cross-bearers. In this life, we are constantly dying to who we have been, and we are being raised to new life everyday. The willingness to die to those parts of our nature that conflicts, with the one we call Lord, is the way to experience new life. We experience God’s grace, so we might be raised to new life in Christ, and then we must share that with the world.  When even in the midst of the most devastating tragedies, we can be at peace trusting in Christ that even death has lost its sting. The community of faith can face inevitable changes, communal transformation, and yes, an unknown future without trepidation, but with hope, expectation, and confident anticipation.

“You see, Death, the last enemy, has already been defeated by Jesus’ rising from the dead. That is his victory, and that is how he wins the final, apocalyptic battle over the power of evil. And that event means that death will not be allowed to speak the last word over us either!” (2) Jesus says, “Take up your cross and follow me.” What he is saying to his church is, “Lay down your own priorities, your own sense of yourselves, and your own agendas.” “Be willing to lay down parts of the communal life you hold so dear, let go of who you think you are, get out there and do what I do every day through you. Go out there and change the world of the other people around you and then, you will receive an amazing, grace-filled life, which I offer you as a community each and every day. Jesus is telling us, you will find your true identity as a community, when you get outside yourselves, and you begin to serve those around you. Then, Jesus with great confidence in the community to which he left his mission reminds us that we cannot do it alone, and lovingly asks us, “Are willing to trust me?”

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REFERENCES

(1) Henry, Christopher A. “Living By The Word: Reflections On The Lectionary [S 16, 2012].” The Christian Century 129.18 (2012): 19. ATLASerials, Religion Collection. Web. 8 Sept. 2015.

(2) Marcus, Joel. “Uncommon Sense.” The Christian Century 117.24 (2000): 860. ATLASerials, Religion Collection. Web. 8 Sept. 2015.

(3) Skinner, Matthew L. “Denying Self, Bearing A Cross, And Following Jesus: Unpacking The Imperatives Of Mark 8:34.” Word & World 23.3 (2003): 321-331. ATLASerials, Religion Collection. Web. 13 Sept. 2015.

 

 

 

SERMON 9-6-15 Pentecost 15B St. Boniface, Siesta Key, FL

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Click here to watch the service and hear the sermon. (You will be directed to St. Boniface Episcopal Church website.

Proverbs 22:1-2, 8-9, 22-23; Psalm 125; James 2:1-10, [11-13],14-17; Mark 7:24-37

“Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” Since we were youngsters, my wife Terri and I have owned and loved Dachshunds, that breed of little dogs with long bodies, short legs, and a temperament that I believe to be somewhere between a Koala bear and a ferocious lion. One year ago, our sweet smooth haired red Doxie, Duchess passed away. As you can imagine, it was a very difficult time for us, but one for which, we had prepared. As signs of Duchess’ decline started to emerge two years ago, we knew for the sake of our other younger male Dachshund (Duke), we needed to introduce a new pup to our family and so, we adopted a handsome two-year-old black and tan male named “Tyson.” Inviting a new pup into your home, especially one who is very different from the others, can upset the balance of your home and create all kinds of challenges.

The established dogs (Duchess and Duke) were very resistant to the newcomer’s exuberance, playfulness, and energy. The old timers (Duke and Duchess) were untrusting of the new boy’s toys, his bed, his smell, his sound, and his actions. The dogs that had been with us for so long, who felt they had some claim of primacy and superiority were not ready to change or accept this newcomer (Tyson) without a fight, nip, pick, growl, chase, screech, and yelp, which seemed to go on for several weeks after he arrived.  Today, through many trials, misunderstandings, and yes, a fight or two, Tyson has taken his place in our home, and although he still likes to strut around like he’s the “big dog,” Duke our old man of the house, has accepted him as an equal.

We humans in an odd kind of way are similar to house puppies that is, if and when we encounter new folks entering our community. Often new people, who may be very different from us, enter the life of a church with new ideas about church life. They often bring with them new talents, new spiritual gifts, and radical ideas that differ greatly from the established folks in the pews. Churches sometimes struggle with accepting, inviting, embracing, loving, and allowing an outsider to integrate into, and have an impact on the pack, on the community. When new folks enter our circle we sometimes become frightened, threatened, and uncertain of our own place in the system. When the new pup joins the pack, we may to try to put them in their place, so we can feel better about our place in the community. The fear of change brought on by a so-called outsider, can cause us to forget one of the key foundations of the Christian community; radical hospitality.

The gospel narrative we hear today gives us an example of how throughout the centuries, people have created barriers between each other, barriers that stand in opposition to God’s Kingdom, that kingdom where all have a place at God’s table. The story is about an encounter Jesus had with a woman whose daughter was possessed by an affliction. The woman was desperate for relief and her plea to the young rabbi for help and his subsequent reply, has become one of the puzzling encounters of Our Lord’s ministry. We need some background information in order to understand fully what is going on in this story.

The woman in the story was most likely both Gentile and also Hellenistic. She probably spoke Greek and most likely, she was of a different socio-economic class than Jesus and his disciples. So in this encounter two very different cultures collided. For example, many of the folks living in first century Palestine cultivated and harvested the food consumed by the aristocratic, Hellenistic class to which this woman perhaps belonged. Most of the people who actually grew the food and worked the land, not unlike today, lived with great scarcity and hardship. There was a distinction, a socio-economic rift, a class division that existed between God’s children, and it resulted in an “us versus them” attitude, which pervaded the interactions between these two groups.

Now, the social elites were not the only ones who espoused an ethos of superiority. The Israelite’s equally held all Gentiles, all people outside the House of Israel, with great disdain, so much that they referred to Gentiles as “dogs,” a disparaging metaphor, and a derogatory term popular at the time. (2) In this culture, people who were considered “less than” were cast aside, people such as lepers, the lame, the blind, and the deaf, all of whom, Jesus reached out to with radical hospitality, and healed them of their affliction. This particular encounter Jesus had with the woman found in Mark’s gospel could easily give us the impression that Jesus was no better than other folks of this time who ostracized the Gentiles. Today’s story seems to conflict with the person we know Jesus to be.

When this woman asked for Jesus’ help, he gave a response, which I imagine, would have been very much like the one his disciples would have used. Jesus said, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” Some scholars offer a palatable meaning for Jesus’ words such was, “my mission right now is this, but in due time the rest will come into the kingdom,” attempting soften the punch of the word “dog.” Some scholars translate the word “dog” as “house puppies,” or household pets who were allowed in the house and gathered at the foot of the table and received scraps.

Either way, when we hear Jesus’ cutting words, words we have not heard him utter in any other parts of the gospel, we are utterly shocked, and we are at best uncomfortable that Jesus would have made such an ethnic distinction. Theologian William Loader asserts, “When God’s election of Israel becomes the basis for Jesus’ initial refusal to heal this girl, we cannot avoid feeling indignant.” (4)

“Dog” was a common term of abuse for outcasts in that society. We have those unspoken terms used in our culture today do we not?   When I lived in the deep, rural south, I remember hearing abusive labels hurled at folks, labels fueled by hatred and racism. In other contexts and situations, I have also heard terrible words used with vicious intent, with an evil so hurtful that a cutting blade or bashing stick could have done no more injury to the person. Such abuse is an evil perpetuation of injustice, and dignity-robbery. So, when we here Jesus use “dog” to label the woman in this story, we are for a moment, rocked off our pristine Christian heels, but that of course, is not the end of the story. Soon we hear a courageous response that literally reframed the Lord of the Universe’s mission statement.

“Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” The woman rebuked Jesus and his preoccupation with his ministry to the chosen, and she made it abundantly clear that she too, even though not in the House of Israel was in God’s house, needed to be fed by God’s abundant grace. She was proclaiming that now, “the gentiles are no longer outside in the streets; they are now in the house.” And in the blink of an eye—thanks to this loving mother’s theological proclamation—the dogs “will be at the table,” the place of true fellowship.” (2)

This woman rocked Jesus’ world and just as suddenly as her words were spoken, Jesus’ mission expanded and the focus was no longer just on the insiders. Jesus’ path was widened, and he realized he must invite ALL, not some, to the banquet. This unusual story depicts a pivotal moment in Jesus’ ministry through which, it became clear to him, that his saving power was going to be inclusive.

The gospel writer in this story, is not diving into the psychology of Jesus, he is being very clear that at the heart of Jesus’ ministry was this ongoing crossing the boundary of human divide, and bringing the Kingdom to all … even those considered to be “dogs.” Jesus did not merely wax eloquently about radical hospitality; he acted and made it discernible. “Mark’s focus is on what (Jesus) did. Jesus agreed to the woman’s request; Jesus crossed the boundary; Jesus exemplified and legitimized what by Mark’s time had become the reality, which he celebrated: the community of faith was inclusive of all.” (5)

Jesus, I believe was not testing this woman’s faith to see if she would stand up to the oppressors. I believe he was actually inspired by her. I believe Jesus actually experienced a change of heart, and a new vision of his ministry. I believe Jesus became clear about who he was, and what he was called to do. I believe Jesus was helping us to become very clear about who we are as the church, and what our mission is to become.

If you were to turn to page 855 of the Book of Common Prayer, you will find in the catechism a definition of the mission of the church, “To bring all people to unity with God and each other in Christ.” That statement my friends is our marching orders. Everything we do as a community of faith should be centered on unity with God and each other in Christ, and that begins by embracing, a culture of radical hospitality.

Stephanie Spellers, in her book “Radical Welcome” invites the church to once again embrace a far-reaching form of hospitality that goes well beyond the mere community integration of new people. Stephanie tells us that the community of faith is like a beautiful tapestry, woven with the diverse threads of people’s lives; people of different ethnicities, orientations, political affiliations, and people with new ideas, and new visions of the church. As these new threads are added to the cloth of the community, the practice of radical hospitality will not diminish that diversity by creating some structured conformity.

The church must not be a monochromatic wall hanging that looks the same always, and by which we merely weave folks into classic Episcopalians. The idea that a one-hue version of church that “was good enough for my grandmother and it will be good enough for those so-called ‘spiritual but not religious’ types,” may be an unbreakable barrier to some. The church needs to adapt and as new people arrive, we must recognize that there are more and more people out there, who may have never ever once stepped into a church. We must not only invite them to bring their unique hues to the fabric of our communal life together, we must be willing to allow them to transform us.

WE must adapt to a culture today where nearly 22.8% of our citizens claim no religious affiliation at all. That number was 8% in 1988, 16% in 2008, and 19% just three years ago. It is important now more than ever, for the church to realize, it is not enough to merely offer wonderful liturgy, exquisite music, and intellectual sermons. It is not enough to merely open our doors, in order to effectively share the Good News in the 21st century. The “spiritual but not religious” could become the same folks who may show up at our door and ask, “Where do I fit in, in this God Kingdom you so eloquently preach about?” Maybe they will arrive seeking the mysteries of God and ask, “Can I get a scrap of grace from you?” Maybe they come to our doors, and have some really radical ideas about how following Jesus as Lord, might take the Church into new and innovative ministries in the local community.

The question with which we must wrestle is this, “Can we be as adaptable and willing to change as Our Lord?” Theologian Stephen Fowler in a Christian Century article wrote, “The key to understanding the story of the Syro-Phoenician woman is to recognize that in this moment of his ministry,” Jesus opened himself up to mission to the whole world, he opened his church to the world. Now we are to open ourselves to the whole world in mission.”(2)  We the Church must recognize that when Jesus said, “Love your neighbor,” it was not merely a casual suggestion, a passing thought of “love ‘em if you have time or if you have nothing better to do on your calendar this month.” I believe Jesus meant it.

Two and half years ago, a young, energetic, pup entered mine and Terri’s home. Little did we know how this little “house puppy” would literally shake the foundations of our lives. At first, we tried and tried to help Tyson be like the other two dogs, gentle, unassuming, and docile, but he would have none of it. He demanded our attention, he wanted to be heard, and he wanted to be a part of the family, but just could not be something he was not. The other two dogs and Tyson scrapped and fought, jockeying for the best position on the sofa close to mama’s side. Finally, we realized that Tyson was brining to our house something we never knew we wanted or needed. That little pup brought energy, excitement, and a new way of being into our home, and his presence changed us all.   I could not imagine life now without him.

Friends, the church must be transformed, by welcoming the inevitable makeover others who join us, will bring to the pack. God is at work in this place and is calling us to embrace the change others will inevitably bring and have already brought to this church. Please remember, Jesus is not calling St. Boniface to be a clubhouse where all the members look, act, and do ministry alike. Jesus is calling us to be a lighthouse, which calls ALL to the table, to bring all their differences, quirks, and new ideas where they will find a safety and security of expression in this haven of love. In this day and age, we must adapt in order to thrive, and that means we must love our neighbor with all the quirky differences and new ideas they bring.

I am sure there are folks who are very uncomfortable with new the pups who will join the pack and make changes to the status quo, but I must remind you, even Jesus changed his mind. For you see the “Master of this House” is the one who, as a result of one conversation with a courageous outsider, radically changed his mission.   The “Master of this House” is the one who gave of himself freely, and brought reconciliation, grace, love, mercy, life (and life abundant) to the world and all who are in it. The “Master of this House” sits at the head of this table, and all, not just some, are welcome to not only join the feast, but to participate fully in all aspects of the great banquet. We, like Jesus, should be willing to change if necessary, change for the sake of all those who need to experience the same grace, grace that was so freely poured out for each of us.

 

REFERENCES

(1) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Phoenicia

(2) Husted, Heidi A. “When The Gospel Goes To The Dogs.” Christian Century 117.23 (2000): 829-22. ATLASerials, Religion Collection. Web. 2 Sept. 2012.

(3) Perkinson, James W. “A Canaanitic Word In The Logos Of Christ; Or The Difference The Syro-Phoenician Woman Makes To Jesus.” Semeia 75 (1996): 61-85. ATLASerials, Religion Collection. Web. 2 Sept. 2012.

(4)Fowl, Stephen E. “God’s Choice.” Christian Century 123.18 (2006): 20-22. ATLASerials, Religion Collection. Web. 6 Sept. 2012.

(5)Loader, William R G. “Challenged At The Boundaries : A Conservative Jesus In Mark’s Tradition.” Journal For The Study Of The New Testament 63 (1996): 45-61. ATLASerials, Religion Collection. Web. 6 Sept. 2012.

SERMON 8/23/15 Proper 16 “Fan …. or Follower?”

Athens, GA - Fans during the game between the University of Tennessee Volunteers and the Georgia Bulldogs. Photo By Wade Rackley/Tennessee Athletics
Athens, GA – Fans during the game between the University of Tennessee Volunteers and the Georgia Bulldogs. Photo By Wade Rackley/Tennessee Athletics

Click here to watch the service and hear the sermon. (You will be directed to St. Boniface Episcopal Church website.

Joshua 24:1-2a,14-18; Psalm 34:15-22; Ephesians 6:10-20; John 6:56-69

While I was in my home state of Tennessee a few weeks ago, I happened to notice in a local mini-mart, a large display filled with ball caps, t-shirts, koozies, car flags, and other novelty accessories. On each item there was embellished a large white letter T, and on the background was the most interesting shade of orange. Some of you may not know it, but that white “T” on orange background is the glorious icon of the beloved University of Tennessee. You also may not be aware that in certain parts of our country, there are followers of a Saturday religious movement known as SEC football of which Tennessee, and I must say reluctantly, Florida are rival constituent members.

Both of my siblings have graduate degrees from UT, and my daughter completed her undergraduate degree there, and will complete her masters in December. All three of them have walked the beloved halls of the many buildings on that campus, they have put in hours of sweat and tears there. My daughter even donned the uniform of the “Pride of the Southland Marching band” during all four of her undergraduate years, and marched on the gridiron of Neyland Stadium. All three of them have beautifully framed diplomas that clearly testify that they have not only earned a degree, but they possess a great commitment, connection, and dedication to this particular community of higher education.

My siblings and daughter are members of a group with roots only at UT Knoxville, but for me (a graduate of ETSU and Sewanee) and many other folks who live in my home state, we do not have the same connection, commitment, and experiences of that school, as does its alumni. For many of us, we are merely fans of the team. We fans like to purchase ball caps, T-shirts, and other accouterments, don them every Saturday when our team is playing on the field, and cheer them on. We fans may have visited the campus, walked its halls, and may have occupied a seat in the stadium during one of the games, but our connection to the school is only a peripheral one at best.

There is a difference between being a fan on the sidelines, and having an intimate, committed, experience-filled connection to something beyond ourselves, a connection that transforms us, and institutes in us, a passion to share our experience. We Christians need to be more than mere fans of Jesus. We need to get out on the gridiron ourselves, and partner with God, and join the Jesus Movement.

The Right Reverend Michael Curry, Presiding Bishop-Elect of the Episcopal Church, during his sermon right after the election, said this about the so-called Jesus movement, “I am more and more convinced that God came among us in the Person of Jesus of Nazareth to show us the way to be reconciled with the God who deeply and passionately loves each and every one of us, to be reconciled and right with that God and to be reconciled and right with each other as the children of that one God who created us all. He came to show us how to get right and how to get reconciled. He came to show us therefore how to become more than simply the human race – that’s not good enough – came to show us how to be more than a collection of individualized self-interests, came to show us how to become more than a human race.”(1)

A recent commentator on the Bishop’s address wrote, “I like Bishop Curry’s use of the term ‘the Jesus Movement.’ It strikes me that he is edging away from a vision of church as primarily institutional. He seems to be aiming to reclaim the awareness of the church as a living organism, a Body of faith in which the Spirit of Jesus dwells. A “movement” is flexible, open and adaptable. It cannot be static and fixed.” (2)

Now the question for us is this, if we claim Jesus as Lord, then should we not be flexible, open, and adaptable? Should we not move from the sidelines and onto the playing field? Should we not don our spiritual pads and helmets and begin the hard work of becoming people reconciled with God, reconciled with each other in the Christian community, and reconciled with each and every person regardless of their religion, ethnicity, creed, orientation, or political affiliation.” We Christians need to be more than mere fans of Jesus, we need to partner up with him and join his movement, to engage in the struggle against human indifference, violence, hatred, exclusion, human tragedy, and injustice, all of which stands against and thwarts God’s Kingdom.

There is a cosmic struggle with evil that exists in the world, just look at the headlines in the news this past week. An 82 year-old antiquities chief of Syria’s ancient Roman city Palmyra was brutally executed by beheading last week. Last week in Suwanee, GA, five people were shot in a domestic incident where two children under the age of ten were killed. Last month we heard of the brutal murder of five marines/sailors, which took place in my own home state. People are dying and suffering daily, as a result of evil embodied through human acts of violence, hate, and death.

You do not have to go far though to experience evil incarnate. It happens within relationships, families, associations, businesses, political parties, and yes, sometimes even churches. Evil exists and we experience the results of evil later in some of the events of human tragedy. For instance, in 2013 one out of 30 children or 2.5 million were homeless in America. (3) There were an estimated 57,849 homeless veterans in the United States just two years ago. That is 12 percent of all homeless adults. (3) Addiction is growing, with nearly 20 million Americans using illicit drugs. In addition, there is 10% of the American population struggling with some form of depression. Oppression of all sorts and kinds is rife today.

Christian tradition teaches us that we Jesus followers have been, over the centuries, sent out into a struggle with the forces of the human heart, which war against everything Jesus stood for: love, grace, mercy, reconciliation, and restoration. In our world, in our nation, and in our local community we are blind, if believe that all is well, and that our local venues are without injustice, addiction, war, murder, violence, and oppression. As disciples of Jesus Christ, we are constantly in a spiritual clash against the opposition that is fueled by a desire for power, which thwarts the way of God’s Kingdom.

We need more folks to move from the stands, to shift from being mere fans, and to move to the field, joining the Jesus movement, partnering with God to bring about God’s kingdom, and it all begins with each of us as individuals. No effective team member just rushes out onto the field though, without first doing the hard work of training, practice, and preparation. No effective team member moves out on the gridiron, without first suiting up with the proper equipment necessary to insure protection.

We must prepare our hearts as the Epistle writer asserts, by taking “up the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to withstand on that evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm. The writer uses a metaphor of the equipment used by a Roman soldier to show how we must be equipped, in order to be protected in the struggle against evil.

The “belt of truth” is a metaphor for the God-given courage we need to take a stand against the circumstances of oppression, injustice, and violence. The “breastplate of righteousness” is the God-given means for the existence of right-relationships, which is both being in a right relationship with God, and being in right relationships with one another. The “shoes to proclaim the gospel” is a metaphor for the God-given spirit of peace and love to move toward someone, someone who is different from you, different in culture, ethnicity, orientation, social or economic circumstance, or someone who may be an antagonist and not so easy to love. The “shield of faith” is one like the shields of the Roman army that covered not only the soldier who carried it, but his cohort beside him. The shield of faith is a metaphor for the God-given gift to the church, the Body of Christ, to join together trusting that our future is truly in God’s abiding grace.

The “helmet of salvation” is a metaphor for the God-given gift that reminds us that we can trust in the promises that God will never forsake us. God is with us in all aspects of our lives. The “sword of Spirit” is a metaphor for God’s active presence in the world today, which convicts, enlightens, inspires, and leads us into grace. It is not an offensive weapon to use to attack those different from us, but it is God working in us to show us something new. Finally, we have prayer. This is the most important piece of equipment, for if we are not in an ongoing close dialogue with the Holy, then we are not connected to the source of grace, which equips us for the work we are called to do.

The armor to which the writer of the letter to the Ephesians is referring is not something we can muster up and create ourselves. We are utterly dependent upon God, and the struggle we face as followers of Jesus, is one over which, in our power alone, we have no defense. This Jesus movement to which we are called to join is not easy for the faint of heart.

Jesus tells us, “Be on your guard; you will be handed over to the local councils and be flogged in the synagogues. On my account you will be brought before governors and kings as witnesses to them and to the Gentiles.” Following Jesus, standing up to the power of injustice and oppression is a life-long struggle, but hear me out. Being a mere fan of Jesus is at least a start, but you must know that God never leaves us where we are comfortable.

After Jesus challenged the crowds about the cost of following him, and many abandoned the team and left, Jesus asked the twelve remaining disciples, “Do you also wish to go away?” Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.” So, when things get tough on this faith journey, we must stick with it, put on our armor and stand firm, and resist the desire to just leave, hoping to find greener pastures.

Yes, we will struggle in this world when we make the commitment to follow the way of Jesus. You have to remember that Jesus disrupted the powers of the world and proclaimed a new world where the ways of justice, mercy, love, peace, reconciliation and grace would be the norm. Jesus did this through self-giving, self-sacrificing love. He did not succumb to thwarting power, by the means of power. He did not hit back in the time of trial, nor did he come down from the cross in a Rambo-like move. That is what most of us would have done. No, Jesus challenged power through love, by saying to his accusers and executioners, “Father forgive them for they know not what they do.” Each of us is challenged to take up our cross and follow Jesus and this movement is not one readily begun by the faint of heart.

Fan or Follower? Do you merely put on your ball cap and sit on the sidelines, or do you support the team with your spiritual gifts by being on the field, or maybe you are right in the middle of the action blocking, tackling, carrying the ball, and all the rest. No matter where you are on this journey of faith, no matter where you are as a part of the Jesus Movement, there will be a time in which, you will need to suit up, put on the whole armor of God, and live the faith to which you claim. Are you ready?

 

REFERENCES

(1) http://www.episcopalchurch.org/posts/publicaffairs/78th-general-convention-episcopal-church-july-3-sermon-rt-rev-michael-curry

(2) https://inaspaciousplace.wordpress.com/2015/07/01/michael-currys-jesus-movement/

(3) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Homelessness_in_the_United_States

(4) Schaper, Gary G, et al. “Homiletical Helps On LW Series B — Epistles.” Concordia Journal 32.3 (2006): 315-334. ATLASerials, Religion Collection. Web. 17 Aug. 2015.

SERMON 8/16/15 Proper 15 – St. Boniface Episcopal Church, Siesta Key, FL

memories_of_another_day_low_jpg

Click this link to be forwarded to St. Boniface website to view the sermon:  Watch Here

Proverbs 9:1-6; Psalm 34:9-14; Ephesians 5:15-20; John 6:51-58

            “Be careful then how you live, not as unwise people but as wise, making the most of the time, because the days are evil.” (Eph. 5:15) Last week, my older brother and I spent several days working to prepare my Mother’s home for sale. Her home has been vacant, and for the most part untouched, since Dad passed away a year ago. My mother lives now in Phoenix, in an Assisted Living Facility near my brother. I am sure you can imagine what last week’s task was like for us.

After a few days of sifting through old memories, I began to experience a rush of emotions, which included both joy and sadness. The task of sorting through my parent’s lifetime of memories left a profound spiritual impression on me. Because of this experience, the lens through which I now view life has focused my attention more acutely and now, I am more than ever aware, of what in life is fleeting, and what is life giving.

If you have had to face a similar task, and I imagine many of you have, you may have asked questions like, “What do I have sitting on shelves or in boxes that are never even seen: old papers, trinkets, clothes I no longer wear, or books I never read.” Are those things merely taking up space, or are they truly symbols a life filled with joy, sometimes heartache, wonderful family times, leisure, and hard work? Maybe some of those things have served as distractions that were carried throughout life, and now have lost their usefulness.

Maybe the stuff we accumulate just keeps us from the life God intends for us. Maybe our stuff numbs our self-focused lifestyle, which distances us from God and each other. Maybe our stuff serves as a sedative from joy-stealing memories that cloud our thoughts and sense of self, or provides a tranquilizer from old hurts that hinder our ability to forgive and experience peace. As the community of faith, the Body of Christ, the gathered followers of Jesus Christ, living as wise people and making the most of our time, means we must every day, examine what is important, what gives us life, and what truly feeds our soul.

            In American culture, consumption serves as a temporary prescription for a spiritual ailment that has the capacity to steal joy, shatter peace, and undermine grace.   A 2012 article in Scientific American reported, “With less than 5 percent of world population, the U.S. uses one-third of the world’s paper, a quarter of the world’s oil, 23 percent of the coal, 27 percent of the aluminum, and 19 percent of the copper.” (1) Consumption is so much more than the American dream revealed; it is a distraction to spiritual health.

We acquire, and we try to fill our lives. We consume in order to satiate an eternal appetite, which cannot be quenched except by an intimate abiding with and in Christ. Neal Emerald in his PhD dissertation for Virginia Polytechnic Institute asserts, “Consumerism affects the psychological health of the individual through erosion of the true self and replacing it with a false self, and the spiritual health of the individual by eroding our spiritual connections with nature and replacing it with consumption of goods and services.” (2)

The spiritual life in Christ, life in community with others is the only antidote for that divine chasm we all possess, and being in community is the only way to feed the soul and satiate the appetite we have for a relationship with Christ and each other. Nonetheless, we often avoid the banquet to which God invites us, and we settle for the light snack, the manna of goods and services.   “Your ancestors ate manna and died, but whoever feeds on this bread will live forever.” Manna takes on many forms. Manna can be more than mere goods and services, and it can be more than mere retail therapy.

“Think of manna as the aspects of the church life that are suitable and grace-full but fleeting. Manna (could be) the preaching style of a certain pastor, but what do you do when a new pastor comes along with a different style? Manna (could be) the program ministry of the congregation, or the church’s music, both wonderful and beneficial, but it can be sometimes a source of disagreement. Manna (could be) the small group to which you’re attached but people move away and the group magic just disappears. Manna (could be) the congregation you love – that you would rather NEVER change. Our walk with Christ can be hampered, even ruined, when we allow impermanent aspects of church to define our spiritual journey. (3)

Congregations often feast hungrily on wonderful liturgy, exquisite vestments, expansive and awesome architecture, theologically entertaining sermons, and glorious and beautiful music, but if we are not feasting on the Bread of Life, if we do not host within the community, a banquet of spiritual depth, growing faith, divine trust, and personal commitment to our Lord Jesus Christ, then we are literally, spiritually, starving to death. The community of faith can only be sustained by the Bread of Life, and that bread is found through our intimate connection to Jesus Christ.

            The Bread of life is the Life of Christ lived in us. Christ feeds us anywhere, anytime, in ways, we can barely fathom. Jesus said, “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”

Theologian Paul Stroble, captures the meaning of “Living Bread” in his Christian Century article titled, Whose Casserole? He wrote, “The word bread can also stand for sustenance; in the Lord’s Prayer, our daily bread generally means “what we need for life.” Flesh and blood can also mean a vital, actual life. So Jesus’ bread of life is his own life, his own vitality. He gives us his life freely. He gives us grace for living. He gives us access to God, forgiveness of our sins, eternal life and much more. We share life with him more deeply than we share our lives with our relatives and friends.(3) Our focus must be on Christ, the life of Christ, the life-giving connection to God who walked among us, lived, died, and rose again.

If the church is not focused on feasting on the Bread of Life sacramentally in the Eucharist, functionally in how we care for one another and the least, lost, and lonely in the village around us, and spiritually through our personal and corporate practices, those things which provides a trellis upon which to grow, then we are settling for mere appetizers, little tasty tidbits, and the sugar buzz of spiritual hard candies and the sweet treats of ecclesiastical Twinkies.

Those things are wonderful and honestly, life would not be the same without the occasional indulgence of fine Godiva chocolate, sumptuous Starbucks hazelnut lattes, and yes, an occasional decadent slice of Key Lime Pie. These are the things that make life sweet, but we all know that if we feed on merely these things, we cannot sustain our lives. We need a substantial feast in order to live fully!

Programs, preaching, small groups, and all the rest are absolutely necessary and essential in the faith community. They are the sweet things that help us to see little glimpses of God’s grace, but they alone do not have the staying power to fuel a community of people committed to a life, truly following the one who said of himself, “Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”

Jesus promises life abundant, life everlasting, both in some time to come, but most definitely life right here, right now, today. We must feast on the right spiritual diet in order to feed our souls. What feeds your soul now will feed the souls of those who come after us. Going through the memories and personal effects of a parent who has passed on, reveals so much about their life, about what was important to them, about who they were, and about the legacy of formation they passed on.

My friends, in ten, fifteen, and even twenty years from now, when the next generation of Christians gather together as St. Boniface Episcopal Church, I wonder what will they have to sort through, examine, reminisce about, and I wonder, what will they decide to keep, to give away to others, or just throw away? What legacy will we leave? What trinkets, memories, practices, institutions, groups, or other markers will we give the next cohort of Christians, which will help them understand what it means to be a disciple in this place.

Will there be precious snapshots of spiritual practices that mirror a community who walked close with Jesus? Will there likewise be traditions, memories, or other small reminders that may have to thrown away, because they are no longer useful in that context down the road?

The writer of the Letter to the Ephesians reminds us of what truly is important, useful, and essential for a community of disciples; those lasting markers we should pass on. “Be filled with the Spirit, as you sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, singing and making melody to the Lord in your hearts, giving thanks to God the Father at all times and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Be filled, sing, give thanks, and do everything in the name of Jesus.

Maybe you’re thinking that the epistle writer’s advice is just a little naive, maybe the exhortation is a bit too simplistic, or maybe it lacks theological panache, glam, and flash, but isn’t it in the simplest of ways that God chose to reveal Godself? God came among us not as a representative of human power and influence, but as a poor day laborer, a common man who hung out with fisherman, tax collectors, prostitutes, and other folks on the very fringe of so-called good society. Jesus invites ALL to the table my friends.

The banquet to which Our Lord invites us is the only sustenance, which will fill the spiritual hunger within each of us. Therefore, if the community of faith is going to be a faithful witness to the grace of God in Christ, a witness to the different way of living in this world to which Jesus calls us, that is as witnesses to God’s abundant love for all, then we better fuel up, fill our plates, take a “to go” box if we must, and indulge on the Bread of Life, which will feed us and make ready us for the work ahead. The banquet of the Lord awaits my friends. Eat up, take your fill, there is plenty Jesus for all, for the journey ahead is long and treacherous, and we must be ready for what is to come; life everlasting.

 

REFERENCES

(1) http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/american-consumption-habits/

(2) Consumerism, Nature, and the Human Spirit, By Neal D. Emerald http://scholar.lib.vt.edu/theses/available/etd-12272004-133514/unrestricted/capstonefinal11-29-04.pdf

(3) Stroble, Paul. “Whose Casserole?” The Christian Century 123.16 (2006): 17. ATLASerials, Religion Collection. Web. 5 Aug. 2015.

 

SERMON St. Boniface, Siesta Key 8/2/15

v312Click this link to be forwarded to St. Boniface website to view the sermon:  Watch Here

Exodus 16:2-4,9-15; Psalm 78:23-29; Ephesians 4:1-16; John 6:24-35

I was driving to Sarasota the other day and I was distracted by the many “to do’s” associated with the ministry as a member of diocesan staff. On this particular morning, it was not campus ministry, church transitions, or diocesan convention, that I was considering as I drove. My heart was focused deeply on you God’s family at St. Boniface. Then, as I was pulling out on the highway, I looked up into the sky and saw the most beautiful rainbow. When I saw that image in the sky, the first word that came to mind was “Hope.”

I have great hope for this congregation. I believe God has in store for St. Boniface, a future that is unfathomable at this time. That future is right now outside our current imagination, and beyond our own plans or personal desires. God has established already, a great mission future for this congregation.   In God’s time, some time in the near future, you all will be ready to begin discerning what tomorrow will look like. That time is not now. Right now, the mission that is before you today, and in the next two months to come, is to focus on Christ’s ministry of reconciliation and healing in this place.

We all have experienced in our lives some form of physical injury. The memory of some physical injuries can be most traumatic, especially if the damage was to one of our limbs, especially the legs, those parts of us that hold us upright, and help us to travel forward in life. If you have you ever had your feet knocked out from under you, you know what I mean.

Usually when you go to the doctor for treatment after such an injury, she or he will tell you to take a rest for several days, stay off that leg, and give it time to heal. Now, if you are like me, sitting still for any length of time is uncomfortable, it is restricting, and I plain, just do not want to do it. I like to keep moving, keep on going, and get to where I want to go. Do you know what happens to an injury though, if you do not take a rest and let it heal? Yes, it gets worse.

Sometimes, a few days of rest as recommended by the physician helps in ways we cannot ascertain right away. Often, even after we follow the doctor’s orders, the pain continues beyond that brief respite, but miraculously, those few days of sitting still, will set in motion in our bodies, the foundation of healing that will continue throughout the months to come.

What happens often though, is we become impatient and we want to see if we can stand on our own prematurely, or we remove the bandages, and begin to pick at the wound. Sometimes, we just need to allow healing to take place so at some point, we can get back on our own two feet, and get back to work. When this type of situation happens in a faith community, and it is not unusual, God’s people need a time of respite before, they begin to return to the mission for which, they have been called.

In the reading from letter to Ephesians, the writer is offering an exhortation to one of the early church communities, outlining for them what it looks like to be a community of disciples of Jesus. I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. (Ephesians 4:1-3). These are the marching orders for God’s people and this is the basis of our mission in the world; unity.

Theologian Isam Ballenger writes, “The peace of God is for the peace of the church and the peace of the church is for the peace of the world … and the unity of God is for the unity of the church and the unity of the church is for the unity of the whole creation. Unity of the church results in mission and the goal of the mission is unity of all things.” (1) The mission of God’s church is not merely to be a gathering place of like-minded religious folk. The purpose of God’s church is to be a witness to the world, of the very Trinitarian life of unity within diversity. This is the very life of God to which, God’s family is invited to take part. We show the world what unity looks like, but the unity God desires for God’s family can and is always subverted by division.

My favorite theologian Paul Tillich in his work Dynamics of Faith describes the purpose of faith and unity as it relates to the mission of God’s family as “the desire and urge toward the reunion of the separated.” We show the world we are people that reunites with those separated by division.

Our culture is more rapidly than ever, at odds one with another and often, over the smallest things, as well as larger issues. Just turn on the news and you will hear about political divisions, socio-economic divisions, and ethnic, religious, and racial divisions. As silly as it may sound, you will also hear about strife, concerning underinflated footballs an old, but re-occurring scandal all the news channels keep bringing up. It seems today the conflict among groups is taking on a vicious and destructive tone. Division subverts the unity God desires for God’s creation. However, the church’s mission remains, to stand firm in the midst of all of that division in the world, as a witness to the unity that is possible in Christ alone.

Our witness to unity in Christ, our real mission in the world is difficult and nearly impossible to say the least, when the community of faith is in the midst of healing and reconciliation after a major trauma. You my sisters and brothers, if you are not already aware, have by the mere experience of conflict, passed through an injury in the life of this community. However, God never leaves God’s people abandoned.

In our bishop’s sermon last week, he informed you all that the next two months (August and September) is going to be a time for this congregation to breathe. That may be difficult for some folks. For some there may be a desire to restore things to a way they were two or three years ago. Likewise, for others, there may a desire to set out on a path to put all of this drama behind, and begin making plans for the future, or to put in place new things and new programs.

Neither of these paths have anything to do with stopping for a set period of time, reflecting prayerfully on what has happened, and beginning the process of discerning where God is in all this change. Neither going backward or moving forward at this time is the response to the exhortation our bishop gave you last week, “St. Boniface needs to take a breath.”

Take a deep breath now and hold it. Now slowly let it out. That is what August and September needs to feel like here at St. Boniface. We need to continue our ministries here just as they are today, and we need NOT make any changes if at all possible, during this time. We need to simply worship, pray, minister, heal, love one another, and rest, so we will be ready for the incredible future God has in store.

You know we cannot do this alone. We must turn to the Great Healer, Jesus Christ who reminds us, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” Friends, we have been given a divine prescription for healing, a balm we must apply at every opportunity over the next two months and beyond. Now is the time to come to the Lord’s Table often, to pray, to love one another, and to shift again, our focus on Christ’s ministry of reconciliation and healing. Now is a time to just breathe.

I close with a prayer found in the section on page 460 of the Prayer Book titled, “A Thanksgiving for the beginning of Recovery.” I encourage you all to pray this prayer everyday, as you breathe. Let us pray, O Lord, your compassions never fail and your mercies are new every morning: We give you thanks for giving St. Boniface a time for both relief from pain and hope of health renewed.  Continue in this community, we pray, the good work you have begun; that we, daily increasing in strength, and rejoicing in your goodness, may so order our lives and conduct that we may always think and do those things that please you; through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen

SERMON 7/12/15 Church of the Good Shepherd, Punta Gorda, FL Proper 10

Ephesians 1:3-14; Mark 6:14-29

Sending out the Twelve|Herod and John the Baptist|Feeding the 5,000

In today’s Gospel reading, we hear about King Herod, also known as Herod Antipas. Herod Antipas was the Tetrarch (ruler) of Galilee in the time of John the Baptist and his cousin Jesus of Nazareth. King Herod’s father was “Herod the Great” who was the earlier ruler of Judea, and the one whom scripture tells us was responsible for the “massacre of the innocents” after the birth of Jesus. Herod Antipas was the Judean ruler we hear about today, who divorced his first wife Phasaelis, so that he could marry Herodias, the wife of his brother Herod Philip I. This is the same Herod whom Pontius Pilate sent Jesus for trial. This is the same Herod who prodded Jesus to do a miracle for him, mocked him and then, sent him back to Pilate for final trial and crucifixion. Herod was the one who had John the Baptist beheaded, because John pointed out the immorality of his marriage to Herodias.

Herod Antipas was a mess of a man who was carrying around the guilt of his father’s murderous crime against so many innocent children, the guilt of a murder he himself orchestrated, and the guilt of a divorce and remarriage based on deceit. Herod was someone who desperately needed some of these demons exercised, who needed healing for his misuse of power and influence, and Herod needed to experience reconciliation with his family, his brother, and his spouse. Herod needed to experience GOOD NEWS found only in Jesus!

The story of the Death of John the Baptist we heard about this morning is wedged between the story of Jesus sending out the twelve (two by two) to go out and “proclaim that all should repent,” and the story of the “feeding of the Five Thousand” in which, Jesus told the disciples, “You give them something to eat.” In the first story Jesus sends out his disciples to proclaim Good News, and in the second story, he commanded them to feed those who were hungry, to serve those in need. The story of John’s death embedded in the story of the ruler Herod Antipas is intriguing. It is a narrative about power, influence, and culture, and the story of a man who desperately needed to experience Jesus’ healing.  Those stories are right there between Jesus sending his disciples out to heal, and Jesus teaching his disciples to care for those in need. Jesus always sends us out into the world to proclaim Good News and to BE Good News.

We must share the Good News we have experienced

For some reason, we 21st century Christians have a hard time being witnesses of the Good News of God in Christ. We tend to shy away from our mission call to be “Evangelists.” You may be sitting there right now with arms crossed saying to yourself, “Fr. Eric, I am NOT, nor will I ever be an evangelist.” My Friends, if you follow Jesus, then you are by virtue of your baptism, an evangelist.   In the Baptismal Covenant (p. 305 BCP), one of the promises we make at our baptism, at confirmation, and when we renew those promises at every feast day appropriate for baptism, we Episcopalians proclaim our ministry as Evangelists.

In the Baptismal covenant, the Officiant asks the congregation, “Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ?” In response, we all say, “I will with God’s help.”   At baptism, we are sent to go out into the world as bearers of Good News. We also see glimpses of that same mission call in other parts of our liturgy. Check out the post communion prayer found in the Book of Common Prayer on page 366, “And now, Father, send us out
to do the work you have given us to do, 
to love and serve you
as faithful witnesses of Christ our Lord. Finally, listen to how we the Deacon sends us out into the world at the very end of each and every service, “Let us go forth into the world, rejoicing in the power of the Spirit.” It is subtle, but if you really listen to the dismissal, you can clearly hear that we are being sent out into the world with a purpose.  Listen, if we are going to take up the banner of calling ourselves followers of the one who brought the Good News of reconciliation, love, mercy, and grace into this world (Jesus Christ), then we need to go out there and be that Good News, both by word and through the example of our lives.

New Leadership is challenging us to be Evangelists

The Right Rev. Michael Curry, Presiding Bishop-Elect of the Episcopal Church is stirring us up to get back to basics, to go out into the world and share the Good News and as he puts it, to join the “Jesus Movement.” In his sermon at the closing Eucharist at General Convention, Bishop Curry said, “I talk of the Jesus movement, of evangelism, of making disciples and our witness through public service and public advocacy. That can sound like rhetoric that has no actual consequence, but let me assure you … we are talking about the church moving forth, taking evangelism seriously – in the Episcopal way but taking them for real because there is good news to share. There really is. Personal service and public witness and advocacy is what we do; that’s the Jesus movement.”2

Bishop Curry goes on to challenge us, and he gives us some specifics about how we can join the movement. He says, “Put Jesus up front. Put sharing that good news in front. Put forming our people as followers of Jesus – as disciples for real – at the front of it. And then put inspiring and enabling them to serve in their personal lives, and for us to witness in the public square in the front. That’s the church; that’s the movement. I know full well that movements can float off into the air if they are not incarnated in reality.”2

We must incarnate the grace we have received, and live it out so that others can look to us and say, “There is something going on in those Episcopalian’s lives, and I want to be a part of that!” Bishop Curry shared why now, more than ever, we have to recapture the evangelistic spirit again in our church. He said, “The gospel hasn’t changed. Jesus is still the same. We need to learn and discover new ways of carrying out and sharing that good news of Jesus. In this day, in this time, the church can no longer wait for its congregation to come to it. That change of directionality on the part of the church, church-wide, will have impact for reaching people who are not automatically coming to our doors.”3

Folks, the world has changed and people are NOT flocking to churches like they used to do. Pew Research recently reported that the number of people in the United States unaffiliated with any church group has increased from 8% in 1998 to 22.8% in 2015, and just three years ago it was only 19.6%. Folks, we can no longer just wait and expect people to show up at our doors. We must once again, with intention, share the Good News of God in Christ in a world that desperately needs to hear Good News and moreover, to SEE it in action.

Evangelism is easier than you might think.

EVANGELISM IS NOT overt proselytizing. If you think evangelism requires you to grab some gospel tracts, a bullhorn, and stand on the local street corner, then you have the wrong idea about evangelism. Madeleine L’Engle, a well-known American writer and strong Episcopalian once stated, “We do not draw people to Christ by loudly discrediting what they believe, by telling them how wrong they are and how right we are, but by showing them a light that is so lovely that they want with all their hearts to know the source of it.”

When I has a very young child, a wonderful woman name Pearl, whom I called Mamaw Bales, helped care for me and my siblings, while my parents worked in our family business. She taught us how to recite the alphabet even before we started school. She read to us. She bandaged on our scraped knees when we fell. She disciplined us gently when we made mistakes. She was the first person who shared stories to us about Jesus, but the most important thing she did, was she showed us Jesus by how she loved us.  She showed me a light so lovely that I wanted with all my heart to know the source.

So, let me ask you a question with which, you might ponder, “How did you arrive in that seat you are sitting in today?” Initially, who shared that compelling light with you? Was it your parents, who long ago brought you to church and instilled a sense of connection to God? Is it now, your spouse who shows you Jesus through her/his love for you? Maybe you received a little glint of that light, through something you saw a friend do that looked a lot like something Jesus would do. Maybe it is that friend’s incredible faith, or maybe it is this community of Good Shepherd that drew you, to search a little deeper for the source; Jesus. The fact is that someone showed you the way, long before you started following the Way of Jesus, and we have a responsibility to do the same for others.

“Being an evangelist is really simple, but we have to be intentional about doing it.” As a matter of fact, we can look to our liturgy once again for some really simple guidance about going out into the world and proclaiming by word and example the Good News of God in Christ, into a world that knows less about Jesus Christ than it did just 20 years ago. Right before we all gather around the Lord’s Table to receive Christ in bread and wine, right before we are fed with heavenly food and sent out into the world to take Christ in us, to the world, the priest often quotes Jesus’ words from the Gospel according to Matthew. She or he invites us to the Lord’s table with these words, “Let your light so shine before others, that they may see your good works, and give glory to your Father in heaven.”

My sisters and brothers, we are the only evangelists our Lord has, and we are the only icons of Good News through which, people can see Jesus. Friends, we can do this Jesus movement thing. We can do this evangelism thing by simply, being an example of Christ to our friends, to our family, and to everyone with whom we come in contact. Its simple, Go out into the world and let your light shine. Go out and BE bearers of God’s Good News today.

REFERENCES

2 https://inaspaciousplace.wordpress.com/2015/07/01/michael-currys-jesus-movement/

3 http://episcopaldigitalnetwork.com/ens/2015/06/27/thankful-honored-and-blessed-presiding-bishop-elect-curry-addresses-the-media/