SERMON 9/8/19 Pentecost 13C Proper 18 St. Monica’s Naples, FL

Pokemon-Go-And-MakeDeuteronomy 30:15-20; Psalm 1; Philemon 1-21; Luke 14:25-33

Making Disciples

After the resurrection and before the ascension, Jesus told his followers to “Go and make disciples of all nations.”  In our postmodern times, we may think that means merely attending Sunday worship, going to Sunday school, confirmation prep classes, mission trips, and eventually full membership into the church, but Jesus has something else in mind.  In today’s gospel reading, some of us are shocked by the criteria Jesus has set for his followers.  He tells us that in order to follow him, we must hate our families, take up and bear a first century torture device, and then if not enough, divest ourselves of all our possessions.  Honestly, those membership requirements are more than most of us are willing to accept in order to claim the title “Jesus Follower.”

That kind of commitment does not seem real or even possible today. Jesus’ demands of his followers sound more like he was living in some kind of first century fantasy-world and of course, none of this applies to we sophisticated, educated, and savvy Christians today.  Are we confused by these discipleship standards and do we wonder, how we 21stcentury folks even follow Jesus today.  What of his demands are real and what is mere fantasy?  We all need a little clarity from Jesus about what he expects of us, especially in a world where truth and reality seem so elusive in our culture today.

Pokemon Go Discipleship

Alternative facts, incongruent news headlines, and even Smart Phone technology blurs reality and fantasy.  What is real and what is fake these days?  We even have something called Augmented Reality (AR), as if the real world we live in were not challenging enough.  AR is an interactive experience of a real-world environment.  Objects that reside in the real-world are enhanced by computer-generated perceptual information across our five sensory modalities.  For example, there is a game out there called “Pokemon Go,” a free smartphone app that combines gaming with the real world.  It uses location tracking and mapping technology to create an ‘augmented reality’ where players interact with and train imaginary Pokémon characters in real locations. Pokemon Go allows players to play in the real world, but without any real commitments, with no real life-changing experiences, no costs at all (the app is free) and all in the arena of escapism and make-believe.

When we hear Jesus’ demands of discipleship, do we think it is mere fantasy?  Most of us deep down would rather seek a commitment to Jesus that lets us dabble in his teachings, but with no risks or costs.   To really follow him though we need to seek the real life-altering, fully participative, ultimate reality way of life he offers us. We cannot merely put on ear buds, fire up our Apple phones, and play “’Pokemon Go’ be a Christian.”  To study his life, to really live like he lived, and to allow God’s spirit to transform us is hard, difficult, and demanding. Following the one who loved beyond our capabilities, healed those who also crucified him, and never once retaliated against his betrayers is not something we see as normal, amongst our friends and others we meet in our local Publix or Walgreens or local restaurant.

Many of us would rather be in an augmented reality discipleship program where we merely play the game, or intellectually dabble in his teachings, or make gentle infrequent excursions into fellowship with his followers, all the while afraid to jump into full the reality of God’s grace and mission call.   So, what does it meant to really follow Jesus, especially when he sets out the criteria he gives us today.  Which is it, this mission call we have, “Go and make disciples,” or do we merely play “Pokemon Go and make disciples.”

Criteria of Discipleship

Jesus said,“Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple. That may seem like fantasy, but most scholars say he was NOT telling us literally to hate our families. Dr. Leslie Holmes asserts, “The Aramaic word for “hate” that Jesus uses … actually means to, “love much less than.” It is a word that tells us that the love we have for our closest family members, compared to the love Jesus demands from us, looks almost like hatred.”(4) What Jesus tells us is that to be like him, we need to make sure God is at the top of our relationship list, and thus all our relationships will be transformed by that reality.  Putting God first, and allowing that new reality to change how we cultivate and care for our other relationships, makes following Jesus seem possible doesn’t it?

Next Jesus said,“Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.”  We do not really have to experience crucifixion to be a disciple, but what Jesus is telling us that to be like him, we need to be willing to go the distance with him, all the way to a life of self-giving love, in which others are above self, and the pouring out ourselves in service to others is the new reality.   Jesus said, “So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.”  Jesus is telling us  that to be like him nothing material, nor nothing of this world should get in the way of our doing as he does, loving as he loves, and being as he is. Holmes states, “‘If you are looking for a cheap ticket to glory, you are not going to find it with (Jesus). The life of disciples is a life of suffering and difficulty. If you come expecting a free trip along easy street, you will soon go away disappointed.’” (4)  We all know that nothing of value, nor anything worth doing in this life (in the reality of this life) is easy or comes without real sacrifice, nor does our journey with Christ.

Stanley Hauerwas writes, “If Jesus is the Messiah, it is surely absurd to think we can follow Jesus while clinging to the attachments of the old age. Rather, to be his disciple means that all our past … are now put in a new context.” (3) In other words, if we are really willing to travel the rough journey that leads to self-sacrifice (the cross), and are we willing to put Jesus above everyone and everything else, then following him is not as difficult as it seems.   Although Jesus’ criteria to be followers seem outrageous at first, in reality they are very easy to do, especially if we allow the Spirit to transform us, to be more like Jesus each and every day.

Imitating Christ  

“So Eric,” you may say, “let’s put the augmented reality discipleship metaphor aside, and just tell me what I need to do to follow Jesus.”   Simply, we must first decide to make the commitment to live our lives imitating Christ. Next, we must commit to learning more about Jesus and the life and ministry he led and the life he wants us to lead.  Finally, we must live that life in reality every single day, accepting that we will not get it right, and that we will fail.  We must be at peace with the fact that it is only by the grace of God that we can become and remain a disciple of Jesus, because we cannot do it alone.

James Samra explains, “Discipleship involves both becoming a dis­ciple and being a disciple. At times the focus is on the entrance into the process (evangelism), but most often the focus is on growing in the process (maturity); it includes both teaching and life transfor­mation.”(1) In other words, the title disciple that each of us claims really means we are striving to be “Christ like,” and that means we have to work at it.  Here is how we do that.

Be a Disciple!

First, simply read, mark, and inwardly digest scripture, so you might understand how Jesus lived and what he taught, and studying with others is one of the best ways possible. If you think you are going to learn enough to be a Jesus follower from hearing me ramble on for 15 minutes once per week, you are mistaken.  Join one of our small study groups, or come to my study each week.  If you were going to learn to be a pilot, you surely would need to do more than just go watch airplanes takeoff and land at the airport once a week.   You would need to read, study, and yes, get into the airplane and take the controls and practice.

Yes, to become a disciple, you need to practice what you have learned.  Through local mission service, or serving on a ministry team in the church, or gathering with other Christians to do something for God’s Kingdom, you are practicing the faith.  Gather together with other Christians, so you can experience how others follow Jesus, and you can begin (as Samra asserts) “imitating those who manifest the nature of Christ in their lives and are living out the truths of Christianity.” (1)

The truth of the matter is that following Jesus is really our acts of love in response to the abundant grace God pours out on us. When we commit to the reality of following Jesus, we do it not because “God is the cosmic bully who demands our compliance with the divine directives . . . or else. Rather, (we follow him because) he risks condition-less love in perfect freedom, knowing it might not be returned.” (2) God risks rejection from us, but loves us beyond our ability to comprehend it.

So remember, following Jesus is not something you can do alone in some augmented reality game.  There is no “Pokemon Go Make Disciples” App you can download for free. Honestly sisters and brothers, being a disciple is not something you can do with merely a once-a-week, well meaning but limited liturgical engagement.  We have to choose to follow Jesus, and if we do, we will experience joy, peace, and love that is real, love that will last our whole lifetimes, and surely a love that will last into the next.

To become a disciple takes commitment, dedication, and real sweat and determination on our part.  Today’s Old Testament reading advises, “Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him; for that means life to you and length of days, so that you may live.”  So, forget “Pokemon Go be a disciple”, go out there in the real world and live, love, study, serve.  “Go and be a disciple.”

REFERENCES

(1) Samra, James G. “A Biblical View of Discipleship.” Bibliotheca Sacra, vol. 160, no. 638, Apr. 2003, pp. 219–234.

(2) Wollenberg, Bruce. “Summoned.” The Christian Century, vol. 121, no. 17, Aug. 2004, p. 17.

(3) Hauerwas, Stanley. “Hating Mothers as the Way to Peace.” Journal for Preachers, vol. 11, no. 4, Pentecost 1988, pp. 17–21.

(4) http://day1.org/1059-discipleship_is_demandingDiscipleship is Demanding! The Rev. Dr. Leslie Holmes

SERMON 9/1/19 Pentecost 12C Proper 17 St. Monica’s Episcopal Church

HumilitySirach 10:12-18; Psalm 112 ; Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16’ Luke 14:1, 7-14

Downton Abbey and Table Manners

When we first moved to Naples and we lived in temporary housing, Terri and I bing-watched the entire six seasons of Downton Abbey.  This PBS drama is a tale set in a fictional Yorkshire country estate between 1912 and 1926, which depicts the lives of the aristocratic Crawley family and their domestic servants.  The character development is incredible, the drama intriguing, and the settings for the filming impeccable.  Many of the scenes of the series centered around the dining table and shared meals. Whether it was informal breakfast, cucumber sandwiches at teatime, or the major formal dining affair in the evening, meals were the central event where the characters of Downton Abbey enacted their relationships and social standing.

These meals were much different from those we share with friends, family, and at church potlucks we share today.  “Considerable thought and planning went into the seating protocol at the table to show respect to positions and titles and to promote conversation.” (3) Where one sat at the Crawley table spoke volumes about one’s place in the family, and one’s relationship to the Earl himself; the head of the household. Downton Abbey gives we modern folks a glimpse into the hierarchy of society in the early 20thcentury, and a foreshadowing of 21stcentury hierarchy today.

It was not that much different in first century Palestine and in Mediterranean culture, which we hear about in Jesus’ encounter at dinner in today’s gospel. “Greco-Roman meals often were set around a U-shaped arrangement of couches, where the closest seating to the host was reserved for those with the greatest status or honor, while those with less honor sat on the outside.” (1) Seating arrangements, dining protocols, and party guest lists have always indicated the imbalance of human social structure, the non-God’s Kingdom heirarchy, which Jesus teaches us about in today’s gospel reading.

Abundant Feast; Scarcity Mentality

Imagine for a moment you were at the dinner party Jesus attended, and you were there watching, standing beside him, as the jockeying for seating positions took place. Listen closely as he taught that table rituals practiced were a direct reflection of the social structures and relational dynamics found in society in the street.  Listen closely as Jesus contrasted the dining table hierarchy to the radical nature of God’s Kingdom hierarchy.  Listen to how Jesus turned the whole concept of human competitiveness and the “haves” and have nots” on its head.

Jesus made it simple and claimed that we create guest lists of people, to whom we invite into the experience of the perceived limited hospitality of our lives.  Jesus taught alternatively that God’s Kingdom party invitations are not just sent out to a select few, to the uber faithful alone, to the holiest ones in the bunch. God sends invitations to all people, so we might come to God’s table of grace-filled hospitality, regardless of social status or the “what have I done for God lately” crew. God’s abundant grace has no bounds, requirements, or protocols, because grace is so abundant in God’s Kingdom.

If God’s Kingdom is so abundant and there is enough for all, why then do we live with a scarcity mentality?  We still today, with animalistic “survival of the fittest” temperament, still jockeying for the best seats at God’s table of abundance.  For instance, a small percentage of the people in the world hold a disproportionate amount of wealth, and even the richest country in the world cannot provide housing for homeless people on the street, or healthcare for the most vulnerable, or a decent wage for those who physically work the hardest.

God’s earth produces 2.2 billion metric tons of grain each year, and the total population consumes much less than that in order to sustain life. We do not have a supply problem in the world; we have a dispersal problem.   In other words, in our pursuit of being first, the best, and attaining the right social status, some folks win and some lose.  However, when it comes to God’s grace and the abundance of his table (the Kingdom of God) there is no supply problem but rather, a distribution problem and here is the key my sisters and brothers; as receivers of God’s grace, we are God’s grace distributors.

“Jesus’ table stories describe a revolutionary, redemptive kingdom that confronts the norms of upwardly mobile networking and competition. He eschews the expectations of polite society for a story of revolution. This is the nature of the kingdom.” (1) There is enough grace for all, there are enough resources for all, but we still want the best seats of honor at the table, and thus there is an inequality in the world that stands in opposition to God’s Kingdom. Honestly, we all are in the same boat together in this world.

Fear of Losing Our Place

We all show up to the party of God’s grace equally. We all have backpacks filled with spiritual and emotional junk, hidden sin, and the things we don’t wish others to know about.  Even the socialite, royals of Downton Abbey, despite such sophisticated ways, show up to God’s grace-filled dinner party with their fears and uncertainties of where their place at God’s table stood.  For instance, The Earl of Grantham had an emotional affair with a house maiden, and his wife Lady Grantham, a wealthy American, also had an emotional fling with another man.  Daughter Lady Mary had a premarital tryst with a weekend visitor to the estate. Daughter Lady Edith gave birth to a child out of wedlock. Daughter Lady Sibil married a commoner Irishman Tom Branson.

Despite the outer appearances, the fine upstanding Crawley’s had their own issues, family secrets, and sin-filled lives and yet, they shared a common table where God’s grace flowed abundantly and equally upon all, despite the inequitable lives they led.  We, like the Crawleys, put on masks that hide the broken lives that we each lead, and maybe that is why we think we have to jockey for positions of honor. Could it be that we are afraid of losing our place at the table of grace? I wonder if the reason we strive for social status, economic acquisition, honorable accolades, and power-wielding influence is because somewhere in the recesses of our hearts, those areas of fear, none of us are willing to let other see, we find that we are truly afraid of loss.  We are afraid of being stripped bare of what hides the reality of our own weaknesses and vulnerabilities.

Humility: Secure in God

We live in fear and we create structures of imbalance to protect our place and yet, God promises, “I will never leave you or forsake you.” So we can say with confidence, “The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid.  What can anyone do to me?”  If we recognize that in our vulnerability and humanity that we are able to discover our true place of honor at God’s table, what then do we have to fear.

“When our security and identity rest in God, it is LESSdifficult to choose the way of humility.” (2) Our identity in the Kingdom of God is not reliant on a title:  Earl, Duke, professor, priest, doctor, business executive, wealthy entrepreneur, teacher, etc. etc.   Our identity and place at God’s table is based on the only title that matters, “Child of God.”  As written in Sirach, “The beginning of human pride is to forsake the Lord.”  We must abandon pride and choose humility, so we can find confidence in our place at God’s table.

Nothing else matters, not bank account, the car we drive, the designer clothes we wear, the brand of wine we drink, nor the status we carry in the community.  We can be secure in our place at God’s abundant table of grace, when we can accept God’s place and the place of our neighbor at the table of hospitality of our very lives.  When we find our relationship to God and each other on the right footing, we find security in our place at the table.
Our Table/Your Table/God’s Table

            When Terri and I worked with the homeless in Fort Myers years ago, we shared a life changing experience of sitting at the table and sharing a meal with people, who really were no different from us and yet, they lived each day in absolute poverty.  Somehow over that meal the walls of division fall and you discover a sister or brother there with you.  You begin to see that we all are on the same level of God’s Kingdom, and all that stands between those at the table together are mere fleshly economic, circumstantial, and social imbalances of culture.

Do not get me wrong I am not putting out there a radical economic system change where there is no reward for hard work.  What I am saying is that God’s Kingdom is so abundant, God’s creation produces so abundantly, and the grace each of us carries is so abundant, that we Christians must in our daily lives, strive to tilt the scales in favor of those who are without, who are forgotten, and who live each day in fear, destitution, and injustice.  I bet God’s Kingdom tilts the scales that way.

Jesus said, “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”  I believe Jesus is teaching us about a whole lot more than just our little social dinner parties.  He is instructing his followers to remember that every moment of our lives is an opportunity for us to show radical hospitality Jesus style.   We are called to serve the least, lost, and lonely with a grace that has been poured out to us so freely and abundantly.

When our security is found in God, in Jesus who is “the same yesterday and today and forever,” we can deal with the unpredictability and the risks of seeking righteousness. We can show hospitality to needy strangers, spend time with prisoners and share our resources with the poor because God has promised never to forsake us.” (2)   We must remove our Downton Abbey titles, our fear induced masks of false identity, and stop “worrying about position and recognition, which will keep us susceptible to the latest version of status-seeking and a fear of losing our place.”(2)  The place of honor set aside for each of us awaits, and at this table all gather on the same level. So come, leave behind those things that bring about fear, set aside those things you want to hide, take off those masks that you no longer want to wear.  Come and join the great feast of our Lord where the “first shall be last, and the last, shall be first.”

 

REFERENCES

(1) Conder, Tim. “Table Manners.” The Christian Century, vol. 124, no. 17, Aug. 2007, p. 18.

(2) Pohl, Christine D. “Risky Business.” The Christian Century, vol. 118, no. 23, Aug. 2001, p. 16

(3) https://www.etiquettetrainer.com/downton-abbey-dining-etiquette-for-today/

SERMON 8-25-19 Pentecost 11C Proper 16 St. Monica’s Naples, FL

bentIsaiah 58:9b-14; Psalm 103:1-8; Hebrews 12:18-29; Luke 13:10-17

Bound and Bent Over

A recent Forbes magazine article stated, “We spend as much as 12 hours a day in front of our screens.” Further, the report asserts, “Our time on social media shows measurable, causal differences in our mental health.” (6)  As we Americans make the choice to remain “stooped over” distracted by our smart phone screens for over half of a day, our relationships and connections to one another are suffering, and so is our health.

I was at Coconut Point Mall the other day, and I noticed this phenomenon in real time. Nearly everyone who was supposed to be enjoying some time of leisure and fun were either texting or reading something on the their smart phones.  There was no interaction between people, no relationships being cultivated, and no sharing of one’s life with another.  Folks are imprisoned by that electronic leash that perpetually keeps us in a stooped position unable to see others in front of us, distracted from the lives of others (and our own lives), detached from God’s grace and peace, and imprisoned in a false reality not of our making or of God’s making.  We need to silence our cell phones, the electronic prisons we inhabit, and start embracing and enjoying the movie of grace playing all around us.

Smart Phones and television screens are not the only prisons we live in today. Our culture pushes us to excel vocationally, financially, socially, and relationally, and yet there are high costs for that kind of pressure.  Long work hours, anxiety filled schedules, over extended finances, and unfulfilled relationships are some of the pressures with which, many of us contend.  It seems that life might be more joyful, we lived in a deeper spiritual peace, if we lived a little more simply, a little more balanced, and if we could shrug off the heavy burden of success drive, turn off the screens, and get back to basics.

Healed and Set Free

Jesus was teaching on the Sabbath in the synagogue. A woman comes in, all stooped over and bound up by her body’s infirmity, and Jesus stops and takes note.  It is a good thing he was not texting or playing “Pokemon Go”, or he would have overlooked the woman’s pain, and the opportunity to bring healing. This poor woman’s life perspective, bent over by pain or spinal disease, meant she could not look others in the eye.  She could not engage in relationship from the same level as everyone else.  She was permanently seeing the world from a low place in society.  She was literally spiritually, emotionally, socially and relationally dead.

Luckily, Jesus did not walk around with head down focused on himself.  He was engaged in what is going on around him, with eyes wide open.  He broke the norms of culture that day, and touched a woman in public and restored her to full health, on a day set aside for only holy rest.  In an awkward twist to the story, the leader of the synagogue accused Jesus of breaking the law and accused him of heresy.  Jesus responded with an indignant, but clear rebuttal.  He told the religious leader (and us) that we all need to set aside the distractions and the legalistic barriers we create, which keep us from holy relationships with each other.

Jesus teaches that relationships are of greater importance than the law, cultural norms, political legislation, and yes even our electronic leashes. We are so distracted today that we cannot see what is really important and sometimes, we let the law get in the way of justice.  Even back then the religious folk were blinded to the need for justice, dignity, and restoration.  For instance, the law back then, allowed on the Sabbath an animal owner to unleash their ox or mule to go and get water, thus restoring them and keeping them fully alive, but what about the woman, a child of God?  “Jesus insisted that the synagogue and the Sabbath are not the only things that are holy—so was this woman’s life.” (1) Are we like the leader of the synagogue, hell bent on following law above following the call to love our neighbor?  Failing to love your neighbor is sin, and we must remember that sin is not about breaking law, but it is about breaking relationships.  Sin is certainly rampant today.

Look at how we treat people today: the homeless, the immigrant, or the neighbor we do not like, and even the friend with whom we disagree.  We often want to bind them up and place them in the chains of our own making.   What about the children of God bound up in this world by tragedy, unjust laws, and unholy motivations that none of us really want to discuss.   These are God’s people whether they are a part of our tribe or not.  Ironically, many of us watch the Humane Society advertisements about dogs and cats suffering in cages, shivering, afraid and bound up, and these images break our hearts, and we hold our tiny pups and kittens close to our chest hoping they never experience that fate.

However, we are so distracted in this world by the frenzies of our individual lives that we forget, we imprison people both physically, economically, socially, and spiritually every day.  We are so focused on improving our own place on the economic and social food chain that we forget what is most important in this life; loving God and loving our neighbor.  There are people of God who are truly imprisoned by injustice, indignity, broken relationships, hardships, and even the simplest burdens of life, and we are so preoccupied that we do not see it.  We all need a rest ,so we can be of service in God’s Kingdom.

Sabbath, Balance, and Ready for Service

We all need a break from these distractions, so like Jesus we can see the bent over, burden carrying neighbor who needs our tender touch of grace from God. We Christians need to find some balance in our lives, so we can be refreshed for active service.  We all need to love God, so we can be filled up, strengthened, and equipped to love others. We all need a Sabbath.

Sabbath is supposed to be a “day set aside for us to rest, but it does not mean that we should take a break from bringing to the world a glimpse of the goodness of God.”(2)  Sabbath is a break from the chaos, a respite to refresh, a moment spent in creation, a time for prayer, contemplation, and rejuvenation.  Sabbath is a time for praising and worshipping God. “When Jesus touched the woman, she stood up straight and tall for the first time in 18 years, and she began to praise God. She knew the source of her healing. So on the Sabbath she praised God for this unexpected, wonderful, unbelievable gift of life.” (4)

You may say, Fr. Eric, “How in this chaotic, draining, demanding, success fueled life can I find time to pray, to sit at the beach with God, to even stop for 10 minutes and put down my cell phone?”  You have to do it.  We clergy have to do it.  “But I am so busy, how can I respond to the needs of others, when I am so focused on what is challenging, distracting, and keeping me occupied 24/7,” you may ask.  The question you need to ask is not how can I take a Sabbath, but the critical question with which you must wrestle is, “what happens to your spiritual health, if you do not?”

You cannot pour from an empty cup, you cannot run the engine of your ministry on an empty tank, and you cannot love God and others, when your spirit does not have an opportunity to refuel on grace.  If we continue at the frenzied pace on which we all race, we will miss God’s dream.  If we do not stop, put the cell phone down, and open our eyes to others around us and take some time for refreshment, we are going to miss God’s dream for us.

Rest, Freedom, and Rejoicing

Presiding Bishop Michael Curry once preached these words, “God has a dream for this world and a dream for every man, woman, and child who walks upon the face of this earth. That’s what Jesus is all about. That’s what he’s trying to get us to see. God has a dream.”(5)  God has a dream for that poor bent over woman in the synagogue.  God has a dream for the homeless man or woman on the street.  God has a dream for the refugee seeking a safer life.  God has a dream for the prisoner.  God has a dream for you!

Some of you are held in spiritual bondage right here today, but God invites you to drop your baggage and take a rest.  God invites you to experience healing, just like that experienced by the impaired woman that Sabbath day in the synagogue.  However, we are hard pressed to experience that kind of healing, because we will not stop, in order to receive it.  Jesus’ mission is “to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” As his followers, we are also called to partner with him “to bring all people into unity with God and each other in Christ.”   We are commissioned to experience healing and then, to go and be healers for others.  In order to do that, we who have been bent over and bound by the troubles of life, must purposefully set aside time to sit at the Master’s feet and let him touch our hearts and heal our souls.

If we are truly called to be sent out to meet the least, lost and lonely at their level, and to see them fully in the blessedness that Christ sees them, and then love them and lift them up to new life, we need holy Sabbaths every week.  We need opportunities for balance, rest, and refreshment.  Now we are not commanded to abandon the mission and just be on spiritual vacation all the time, because we will risk losing sight of what is going on around us.  We already have God’s blessing to be grace bearers in our lives anew every day, and I know Jesus believes we can do it.  He even showed us how, because on a day of rest, he set aside the law, and with outstretched arms of love, touched a poor stooped over woman, who could not even look him in the eye.  He raised her to new life and then she went out praising God and giving thanks.

You see, serving and resting are not opposites. You can rest and pray, and love and serve all at the same time, but you have to set aside that overwhelming desire to stay in the business of life all the time.  You have to stand up straight and see the grace opportunities happening all around you.  I encourage each of us, including me your priest, to stop and rest.  I encourage each of us, including me to spend time each week seeking joy in Christ, living a little more simply and balanced, shrugging off the heavy burden of success drive, and just get back to basics.  Oh, and when the movie of grace is playing play in front of your very eyes, please do not forget to silence your cell phones.

REFERENCES

(1) Berger, Teresa. “Off the Record.” The Christian Century, vol. 121, no. 16, Aug. 2004, p. 19

(2)Moore, Joy J. “Bearing Witness.” The Christian Century, vol. 124, no. 16, Aug. 2007, p. 17.

(3) Phelps, Stephen H. “Luke 13:10-17.” Interpretation, vol. 55, no. 1, Jan. 2001, pp. 64–66.

(4) Ruth Hamilton: Keeping the Sabbath Holy  http://day1.org/7404-keeping_the_sabbath_holy

(5) The Most Rev. Michael Curry, PB http://day1.org/5105-god_has_a_dream

(6) https://www.forbes.com/sites/nicolefisher/2019/01/24/how-much-time-americans-spend-in-front-of-screens-will-terrify-you/#192ee631c67a

 

 

 

 

SERMON 8/18/19 Pentecost 10C Proper 15 St. Monica’s Episcopal Church, Naples, FL

family feudJeremiah 23:23-29; Psalm 82; Hebrews 11:29-12:2; Luke 12:49-56

Family Feuds

“Family Feud” is a popular television game show where two families compete to name the most popular responses to survey questions in order to win cash and prizes. It began in 1976 with Richard Dawson as the host, and now the show stars comedian Steve Harvey.  Although the name of the show implies that this competition is a knock down, drag out, fight between two families, it is far from that. The host takes a competitive situation and makes it entertaining and fun, because he knows how to poke fun at family feuds.  Harvey takes the notion of divisive tribalism and familial strife, and turns into a hilarious game, senseless nonsense, and mindless comedy.

However, the world we live in today is not a game show. There are real family feuds taking place all around the globe.  We are witnessing the threads of our common humanity being ripped apart. Even we Christians fight over what we believe Jesus is calling us to do in the world.  When the world is fraught with strife, division, fear, war, and injustice, having a little faith just does not seem to be enough.

Many of us feel confused, overwhelmed, and helpless as we watch the news on television. Jesus said, “Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!”  A cursory look at today’s gospel reading does not offer us hope for unity and a better world, but I believe Our Lord had something else in mind.  Even in the midst of the ominous headlines, Jesus invites us to have faith!

Wikipedi defines faith as “confidence or trust in a person, thing, or concept.”  In other words, being a Christian means, we must have trust in God.  From the Book of Hebrews, we heard this about the power of faith.   “By faith the people passed through the Red Sea as if it were dry land.  By faith the walls of Jericho fell after they had been encircled for seven days.  Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets …  through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, quenched raging fire, escaped the edge of the sword, won strength out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight.”   Faith is powerful, faith gives us hope, and faith changes things, but in a world that is on the verge of burning it all up, we need faith yes, but we need a little Spirit fire in our lives as well.

Fire and New Life

Jesus said, “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!”  Was Jesus is warning us of our coming destruction from God’s wrath?  No, I believe Jesus was saying something else and about holy fire.  Yes, fire is destructive, but it is also creative, restorative, and it has a refining quality about it.   For instance, silica is really just sand, a useless material except when it is placed in a fire and melted down.

Fire burns away the impurities and muck leaving behind pliable, perfected glass ready to be molded into a shape, determined by the master glassmaker.  The master craftsman takes a molten blob of perfected silica on the end of a tube, and blows into it with creative breath, making and a beautiful vessel that takes shape.

The fire Jesus is talking about burns away our sin, muck, and mire, which leads to our divisions and strife, and purifies us so that we may live out the possibilities of new life.  We are like fired crystal vessels designed by the master craftsman to serve as containers from which God’s grace may be poured out for others. However, if you make the commitment to being purified by God’s fiery power, you will have to make some choices, and you will have to allow some things you once thought to be so important, to be burned away.

Fire, the Kingdom, and Unity

Most people claim to be conservative or liberal, democrat or republican, citizen or immigrant, one religion or another, tea or coffee.  Folks, there are more excuses for division and tribalism, than I can name in one sermon.  However, division gives us the sense that we must be right, whatever polarized position you take.  So, we need the fire of the gospel, the story of God’s Kingdom, to ignite those walls of divergence, and burn them down; those walls that keep us from living as sisters and brothers in Christ!  We need to work toward unity, along with respect, dignity, justice, and peace, and that is what the Good News of God in Christ is really all about.

We have to remember the gospel though!  God does not respond with indifference to the plight of the powerless, the downtrodden, the broken and those suffering in pain. Jesus stirred up the waters of indifference, turned over tables of self-fulfillment, healed the infirmities of the sick on the Sabbath, ate with tax collectors, and protected the outcasts of society.  There is no room for “politics de jure” in the Kingdom of God, because God’s heart is inclined toward the oppressed and downtrodden and those suffering.

Our allegiances as Christians go beyond the divisive political fights.  However, we cannot be silent or complacent or complicit in the midst of injustice.  We must claim what the Good News claims, so that we might participate in God’s passion for justice, restoration, reconciliation, and grace.  When we Christians live as witnesses of the Good News, and when we respond to the tragedy of broken lives, we stand purged of our indifference, our desire for self-fulfillment, and we are set out to join God in the work of restoration and justice.

Be advised though, when you take a stand for the Gospel, you may find yourself in conflict with others.  When you follow the commandment to bring about justice, healing, dignity, and reconciliation to reality, there will be differences of opinion and divisions naturally occur.  When we Christians declare the need for change in this old world, and when we respond to others in crises, those suffering from the chains of racial oppression, economic inopportunity, ethnic subjugation, well, you better believe that divisions in our allegiances, our tribes, our friends, and maybe even our families will occur.  When we allow the fire that purges the impurities that separate us from God’s grace, then new life and change will occur. So, we need to have faith, we need the fiery power of the spirit, but we must to be moved to action and bear fruit.

You Gotta Jump

The Apostle James wrote, “What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you?”  (James 2:14-26) I saw a video on YouTube of Steve, Harvey offering a brief motivational, heart-felt speech about faith with his Family Feud audience.   He compared the leap of faith to base jumping with a parachute.  He said, “You cannot just exist in this life, you are going to have to try and live.  To get to that life, you are going to have to jump.  God when he created all of us, he gave each of us a gift at birth. You have to take that gift that is packed in your chute pack, jump off the cliff, and pull the cord, if you are ever going to soar.”

St. Monica’s is soaring, but in this world of discord and division, there is much more holy work for us to do.  For instance, there are children in this church, to whom we have promised to help their parents raise them to follow Jesus. We need Sunday School teachers, and assistants to keep that promise.  Beyond our four walls, there are people suffering, living in fear, and treated with indifference and disdain.  There are families in this community that go to bed hungry every night. There are aged neighbors who need someone to sit with them and keep them company. There are people losing their lives in senseless, violent tragedies every single day and honestly I am tired of it, how about you?  So, the need is great out there and in here, and each one of us have a gift.  There is an abundance of gifts in this community, but we need to have faith, we need God’s fiery Spirit,  and we all need to jump; jump into the race of faith in action.

Scripture reminds us, “let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us.”   Living by faith is not a sprint, but a lifelong marathon, and being a disciple of Jesus Christ is not merely a spectator sport or a funny game show that we just watch once a week.  Being a follower of Jesus is an active, engaging, fire consuming, allegiance dividing life in which we work to bring God’s Kingdom to fruition right here and right now.

My sisters and brothers, you can either decide to jump into the race or you can just watch everyone else run the marathon of the holy work of grace.  Which will it be, will you sit and watch God’s Kingdom on parade, or will you take a leap of jump. Will we face strife, uncertainty, difficult situations, and uncomfortable calls to service?  Yes, but we have God’s consuming fire to purify us.  So jump and discover God’s amazing joy, peace, fulfillment, and the mission we are given to love our neighbors as ourselves. My sisters and brothers, the discord, divisions, and family feuds of this life continue, and the world desperately needs us to act.  Now is the time to jump.

SERMON 8/4/19 Pentecost 8C Proper 13 St. Monica’s Naples, FL

keeping up appearances2Ecclesiastes 1:2, 12-14; 2:18-23; Psalm 49:1-11; Colossians 3:1-11; Luke 12:13-21

Vanity

“Vanity of Vanities,” the Teacher said.  Vanity of Vanities.  All is Vanity.”  Dictionary.com defines vanity as “excessive pride in one’s appearance, qualities, abilities, or achievements.”  It seems that vanity or the focus on possessions, achievements, and even ourself has become the sole purpose of everything we do in our culture today.

Do not get me wrong, I am not opposed to having nice things.  I am a guy who drives a Mustang GT and flies airplanes, but when only those things define and motivate the person, and becomes the whole point of life, then we become idolaters and have replaced God with stuff.   When stuff becomes the point, our common humanity as sisters and brothers in Christ become merely outward appearances of the life we are called to lead following Jesus and thus, we lose site of our purpose as Christians.

Television gives us a glimpse into the sin of vanity.  “Keeping Up Appearances” is a British sitcom that was popular in the 1990’s. The main character is Hyacinth Bucket, which pronounces, “Bouquet.”  She grew up in a poor working class family in the London suburbs, but now lives as a wanna be London socialite, a pretentious stickler for details and fine living.

She maintains a flawless personal appearance and a high-handed décor in her very modest, middle class flat.   She is obsessed with hosting the perfect party or picnic, at which she offers only premium tea, elegant petit fors, and the “finest Norweigan prawns.” Hyacinth is not well liked because her behavior causes undue emotional stress on her humble, modest, middle class husband, and for everyone with whom she comes in contact, especially the local vicar.  Hyacinth’s primary concern in life, as the title of the show indicates, is living a charade of high society and fine living, or as my Father used to say, “she has a champagne taste on a beer budget.”

Hyacinth lives a misguided existence attempting to satiate the pain of her meager beginnings in a poor working class family. She “keeps up appearances” with a quest for more, to fill that spiritual hole in her heart, and in so doing she totally abandons the true purpose of life.  She misses what is important, which is the fact that we are all children of God sent out on a mission of love.    In her quest for the best, she misses what truly is the best, which is to live fully in the Kingdom of God.

Relationships vs. Stuff

In today’s gospel reading, there was a man who approached the crowd to whom Jesus was teaching and asked Him to settle a family dispute.   “Make my brother divide the family inheritance with me,” he said.  Jesus refused to become the arbitrator of the dispute but rather, offered a parable about how a rich person stored up his treasure, had so much he had to build bigger barns, and in the quest for more, forgot what was most important in life.   The rich man chose STUFF over relationships in God’s kingdom of abundance.

What does a relationship with God have to do with the stuff we gather and accumulate?  Look back at Hyacinth for a moment. Her things and not her relationships define her identity with her husband, neighbors, the vicar, and even her poverty stricken family. Now, the rich man to whom Jesus spoke of in the parable, gathered and stored up all of his STUFF, tore down the smaller barns he owned and built larger ones, so that he could experience the false security of the abundance, which he had acquired.

Accumulation to fill spiritual emptiness is a problem in American culture today.  According to a recent trade group report, “the country now possesses 1.875 billion square feet of personal storage. All this space is contained in nearly 40,000 facilities owned and operated by 2,000 entrepreneurs.  One in 11 American households, according to a recent survey, owns self-storage space—which his an increase of some 75 percent from 1995.”1

God and Things

Hyacinth, the rich man, and yes even we seek security, assurance, and acceptance not in God, but in the things of life, which we cannot even store in our own homes.  Alternatively, if we were to cultivate, fertilze, seed, and care for our relationship with God and with others in the same way, if we were to give from our abundance to others rather than storing it all up, then our sense of security and acceptance could come from a reliance on God, and not on ourselves, or the things we believe are ours.

So, do we merely live life in comfort knowing that God has our backs? Maybe we think, “Surely, if God is taking care of us, then we do not need to do anything, because God will take care of folks on the margins.” The fact is that we who have so much from God are actually called by God to share it with others. We are the hands and feet of Christ today.

When we partner with God through prayer, advocacy, and by getting our hands dirty, to bring about restoration, justice, compassion, dignity and real change in the lives of the least, lost, and lonely, you better believe, we will have to trust in God’s providence working in and through us. When we depend on God and know our place in God’s creation, and among all of God’s creatures, we will find our true calling, purpose, and ministry, which is to manifest the Kingdom of God for a hurting and self-preoccupied world.

The church must love and care for those who cannot care for themselves. In his New York Times article “Poverty is Poison,” Paul Krugman wrote, “17.4% of children in America live below the poverty line.”   He goes on to say, that many children “who grow up in very poor families with low social status experience unhealthy levels of stress hormones, which impair their neural development.’ The effect is to impair language development and memory — and hence the ability to escape poverty — for the rest of the child’s life.”

The cycle of poverty is something into which, we have an upcoming opportunity to make a difference here at St. Monica’s, through our support of the New Horizons ministry here.   In Collier County 41,000 folks 11.8% of our population live below the poverty line.  We have work to do and we must enter into these situations, not only as advocates, but workers who strive to eliminate poverty, indignity, and other injustices.

God’s Kingdom Calls us

The story of our work in God’s Kingdom testifies to how we touch so many lives.  Each month, we feed families living both in Naples and Immokalee, we provide diapers for young families, soup for the hungry, and soon we will help at-risk children to have the opportunity for a better life.  But there is so much more that we can do.  God is not finished with St. Monica’s yet, and we cannot say, “the barns are full, so let’s eat, drink, and be merry.“

Some of God’s people around us, the same folks who mow our lawns, harvest our food, and do many of the tasks we are not willing to do, each day live in fear of arrest, relocation, and separation.  God’s Kingdom calls us to act.  This heavenly environment each one of us enjoys every day, with its subtropical beauty, plush lawns, and abundant palm trees is being threatened by human destruction.  Our inland waterways are polluted, our shores are filled with unknown bacteria, and the causes, we know are our own.   God’s Kingdom calls us to act.

Even within our own walls, we have some work to do. We need to treat one another with respect and love.  Paul said, “But now you must get rid of all such things– anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive language from your mouth.”  God calls us to set aside pettiness, self-focused agendas, and our own sense of entitlement, so we might act together and serve together, for the good of the community as a whole, strengthened to go and love others, together, not as rugged individuals.  God’s Kingdom begins with us, and God’s Kingdom calls us to act.

Each of us has been given so much, not to horde in large barns, but to pour out those gifts to the least, lost, and lonely around us. We have been gifted with many talents, which if not already alive and active in mission, they can be resurrected and put to use in the Kingdom of God.

Open the Barn Doors

It is time to open the barn doors and share the abundance. Some of you have been educators and your Sunday School needs you to be about the work of the Kingdom.  Some of you are experts in science, mathematics, history and any number of subjects, and our New Horizons ministry team that is forming, will need you to tutor our new kids.  Please come to the information meeting Sunday after the 9:30 am service and be about the work of the Kingdom. Some of you have other gifts from your life’s experiences and the Kingdom of God needs you to be about the work of the Kingdom right here and right now.

Yes, St. Monica’s is a place of worship, education, preparation, and encouragement for all God’s people in this community, but it is a place of mission to everyone beyond the four walls.   We must shine the light of Christ for all, and fling open wide the barn doors, so that all God’s people can experience the love and grace of Our Lord through us.

Be about the Work of the Kingdom

            On a particular episode of “Keeping Up Appearances,” the young priest from the local parish came to visit Hyacinth at home.  Hyacinth went on and on about her new porcelain cups, silver spoons, and fancy doilies.  The priest only smiled and listened.  Although he said nothing at the time, I wonder if he thought, “Dear Hyacinth, you are so lost.  You need to set your heart on what is really important and not on “those teacups and sliver spoons.” Yet, she droned on about how she was striving to “Keep up appearances.”

Through our many ministries of love, service, justice, and compassion, our programs of Christian formation, our beautiful liturgy and amazing music, and in all we do, we are not just “keeping up appearances.”  We are called to fling open wide the barn doors and storage bins of grace, mercy, love and peace and let God’s abundance flow into Naples and beyond because we have been given so much.  Remember, the Kingdom of God requires so much of you, because the need for God’s love is so great around you.   Get ready my sisters and brothers, because the Kingdom of God will in the very near future, demand even more of you, it will surely demand your very lives.

SERMON 7/28/19 Pentecost 7C Proper 12 St. Monica’s Episcopal Church

Bruce Almighty (2003)Genesis 18:20-32; Psalm 138; Colossians 2:6-15, (16-19); Luke 11:1-13

A 21stCentury Lesson on Prayer

“Lord teach us to pray.”  The movie, “Bruce Almighty” is a comedy about “Bruce Nolan, a television reporter who is ungrateful and unhappy despite his TV popularity and the love of his girlfriend Grace . At the end of a bad day, Bruce angrily rages against God and then, God (played by Morgan Freeman) appears in human form and endows Bruce with divine powers, and challenges Bruce to take on the big job to see if he can do it any better.” (4)

It goes well until Bruce learns about prayer. He awakens one night to multiple voices in his head, which are the prayers of billions of people.  Overwhelmed by the many requests and the needs of so many, Bruce decided to answer all the prayers simply with either yes or no, with no thought or consideration.   Eventually, he relented and said, “Yes to all” the prayers.  It did not turn out well, because the entire balance of creation tilted.  For instance, everybody who prayed to win the lottery won all at once, so each winner only received $17. Chaos ensued and Bruce’s self-centered attempts at playing God wreaked havoc all over the globe.

The movie offers comedic insight about prayer, a subject we may have misunderstood our entire lives.  Prayer for some of us may be limited to a mere exercise in asking for what we want, and experiencing disappointment when we do not get it.  Prayer is more than a vending machine, a transaction-based interaction in which, we put coins in the slot, select the product we need, want or desire and out comes the product.              With a vending machine, the only acceptable outcome is receiving what it is we requested.  Any other outcome means we either did not put the coins in correctly, or it is the machine’s fault.  If our prayers are merely transactional entreaties to God, there is no room for relational response, for holy teaching, and for God’s loving alternative input.  It’s just, “I want … you give.” Prayer is much more than that because prayer is a holy conversation in which, we can be changed and transformed.

Abraham:  Let’s make a deal

In today’s Old Testament reading, we hear a snippet of Abraham’s prayer life, more specifically about his conversation with God, regarding God’s intent for Sodom and Gomorrah.  God said to Abraham, “I will go down and see if what they have done is as bad as the outcry that has reached me. If not, I will know.”  Nowhere in this statement does God say he will destroy the two cities, but Abraham made that assumption, and so do we.  As a matter of fact, God wanted to do what was right and just.

He confirms that when he said of Abraham, “For I have chosen him, so that he will direct his children and his household after him, to keep the way of the Lord by doing what is right and just.”   God always does what is right and just, and desires the same for the two towns. So, if destruction was not the original plan, what is God’s justice, how does that relate to prayer, and why was Sodom and Gomorrah destroyed anyway?

James Bruckner defines God’s justice as “intelligent, loving reflection, and action that restores health and well-being to communities and individuals.” (2) In other words, God’s justice is not about mandatory retribution for wrong doings, but God’s work to restore the original intent for creation in the first place, through God’s grace and mercy.  Bruckner says, that God’s justice “blesses and protects families and communities so that children and the weak may thrive.” (2)  Maybe what was happening in this prayer conversation between Abraham and God was not so much Abraham’s effort to change God’s mind about destroying the cities, but God was inviting Abraham to dialogue through his own transformation.

Abraham seemed to be negotiating with God to save the cities, if 50, 45, 30, 20, and eventually 10 righteous people were found. God played along and said he would spare the city if ten righteous ones were found.  In his holy conversation with God, it was Abraham whose mind was changed not God’s. God lovingly taught Abraham how to have his heart aligned with God’s. However, Abraham did not do anything with what he learned.  He just went home and took no action to save the two cities, and inevitably destruction befell Sodom and Gomorrah.  Yes, Abraham prayed, but that is as far as he went. Prayer is more than dialogue, it is supposed to change us, and so we might change the circumstances around us, as are result of God’s change in us.  We have a part!

Prayer Changes things

We live in a world where we are free, self-determining creatures that act and live with the consequences of our abused freedom. Our failure to accept our freedom to love God and our neighbors, and to see all creatures as sisters and brothers is why we abuse of our freedom.  Yet, God does not sit idly by and just watch the creation unravel, God invites us to take action alongside the Creator. God acts directly in our lives to bring about our sanctification, so we might thwart the consequences of abused freedom, thus foiling injustice and indignity in the world.

Prayer is not merely a spiritual act that “makes us feel better,” there is a real incarnational/physical power in prayer. Our relational conversation in prayer is a physical and spiritual action in which we ask, we seek, we knock and as a result, we join the act with God who directly, physically, and powerfully shows up in love.  Prayer is an intimate dance that draws both us, and God into conversation and mutual mission.

 

God answers Prayers

            SO we must pray daily, often, and unceasing.  Jesus commands, “Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you.” Stephanie Frey writes, “Jesus encouragesus to be annoying (in prayer). Jesus invites, even commands, us to be as shameless and irritating in our prayers as that noisy neighbor at midnight or that toddler on a hot summer afternoon.” (3) She adds, If we remain in active dialogue with our Creator, “then we will never come away empty-handed from prayer, because even if we wind up with none of the things we thought we needed, we will always wind up with God listening, attending and answering our prayers in ways we hadn’t imagined.” (3)

God answers prayers because when our prayer aligns with God’s heart and we ask, seek, and knock for our hearts to be changed, then we will begin to see others as God sees them, circumstances as God sees them, and even tragedy as God sees it.  God answers prayers because when we act with God, together we bring about God’s justice for all.  God answers prayers.

In one of the last scenes in the movie “Bruce Almighty,” Bruce and God have a conversation Bruce confesses his “missing the mark” in his life. God forgave Bruce and reminded him, “Bruce, you have the divine spark, you have the gift for bringing joy and laughter to the world. I know, I created you.”  Bruce then asks, “What do you want me to do.”  God hands him a set of small prayer beads and said, “I want you to pray son, go ahead.”

Bruce said, “Lord, feed the hungry. and bring peace to all of mankind.”  Bruce asked, “How’s that.”  God said, “That’s great if you want to be Miss America. Bruce, now what do you really care about?”  Bruce said, “Grace.”  Although he was talking about his beloved girlfriend, I think you understand the metaphor here.

Bruce then prayed, “Lord, I want (Grace) to be happy no matter what that means, that she will find someone, who will give her all the love she deserved from me, and that person will see her as I do now, through your eyes.”  In other words, Bruce’s intention in prayer was directed not merely toward himself, but toward another asking for God’s grace, abundant, undeserving, grace, to benefit others, “It’s good, now that’s a prayer.” From that point forward, Bruce was forever changed, and he lived his life differently and began acting with grace for love to abound with all whom he met.

 

How to Pray

“So Fr. Eric, how do I pray,” you may ask.  It is so easy.  Just be open, honest, and tell God what is on your heart, what you need. Share your struggles, joys, and fears. Pray with persistence, when all is going well, when all seems hopeless, and even when you have no words.   Pray when the answers come as anticipated, and when the answers you expect do not come at all.

Pray for God’s justice for families to no longer be separated because of unjust policies.  Pray for immigrants, people of color, the LGBT community, the homeless, the under-employed, and all who suffer might find relief and dignity.  Pray that we as a nation will once again shine a beacon of hope in the world, for peace among families, for reconciliation between parents and children, and for peace among nations, and for those suffering from famine and war.  In other words, pray for your own needs and for those of others.

So, give it a shot today!  In our liturgy, at the end of the “Prayers of the People” the leader will say, “Let us pray for our own needs and those of others,”  Pray, and pray aloud.  Offer your prayers of intercession and thanksgiving and pray aloud for what you really care about.

Let me caution you though, when you begin to pray consistently and persistently about what you really care about, expect first that your heart will be changed.  Your intentions will be changed, and you will have no choice then, but to act.  When that happens, not only your, but others’ prayers will be answered and the world will be changed around us.  When we begin to see people and circumstances as God sees things, through God’s eyes, justice, dignity, and joy will abound because we will act.  So how do you pray?  Let me show you how, just as Jesus showed us.Our Father who art in heaven ….

 

 
REFERENCES

(1) https://churchleaders.com/daily-buzz/277152-10-things-bonhoeffer-taught-us-life-together.html

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

(3) Frey, Stephanie. “On God’s Case.” The Christian Century, vol. 121, no. 14, July 2004, p. 17.

(4) https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0315327/

SERMON 7/21/19 Proper 11 Pentecost 6C St. Monica’s Episcopal Church

Genesis 18:1-10a ; Psalm 15; Colossians 1:15-28; Luke 10:38-42

Maturing Christians

Terri and I were at Target the other night doing our weekly grocery shopping.  I walked down the aisle with the peanut butter in it and suddenly felt “product option overload.” There were at least 8 different brands of peanut butter, three textures (creamy, crunchy, and whipped), and at least two different sizes available.   All I needed was that sweet and savory, creamy and peanut buttery goodness, you know, the one that “Choosey Moms choose JIF.”  Sometimes, we just have too many choices in this life, sometimes we make the wrong choices, and sometimes our choices are more complex than merely buying peanut butter at Target.

Making mature choices is never easy because it takes a lifetime of making good and bad choices, to arrive at a place of wisdom and insight, where we can be open to the Spirit’s work on our growth and maturity.   One sign of Christian growth is the ability to discern God’s call on our lives to serve in ministry.   There are many mission opportunities from which to choose, which requires prayer and discern (listening to God andto others.

The Martha and Mary Dilemma

Today’s gospel reading is the tale of two sisters, who wrestled with their true ministry calling. One sister focused on the tasks of cooking, cleaning, and preparing for a “mind-blowing” banquet. The other took the unlikely place of a first century woman, and sat at the master’s feet listening, learning, and relaxing.  One chose to work hard to serve the guests, the other chose to join the guests in the parlor and relax.

Sunday school told us that one woman made the right choice and other made the wrong choice.  We learned one sister tried to be a hero superstar disciple, and the other a was a holy contemplative disciple. The Martha and Mary story is not a comparison of a good versus a bad disciple, nor is it an advertisement for one form of ministry over another.  It is a complex story of two people strugging with the WHY of how they decided to serve Jesus.

Author Simon Sinek in his book Start with Why wrote, “Working hard for something we do not care about is called stress, working hard for something we love is called passion.” What was the motivation for Mary to decide to sit at the Master’s feet, and what was the motivation for Martha to’decide to be busy in the kitchen?  I wonder which of these two women served Jesus with spiritual joy and peace, and which one with anxiety, stress, and burnout.  Let’s start with Martha.

Anxious Martha and Calm Mary

I had a church friend back in the day, who took on ministries with a tweaked up level of anxiety and coffee-enduced frenzy.  No one else could to find their part in it his ministry and trying to create a team or shared ministry was impossible.  I think that person’s motivation (or the why of their ministry) was about ego, boredom, and spiritual guilt, and not be about passion, joy, and serving God.  That person used to complain that no else is willing to help them do their work, and when they did, they were not doing it right anyway.  That person could have been me too at one time, and even today, I have to fight that demon that calls me to fall back into that trap. That is our sister Martha’s dilemma.

Martha was so wound up tight and anxious about putting out an “over that top” banquet for Jesus, that she could not find joy in her work.  She had no passion because ministry was a struggle and she was overwhelmed and burned out. Martha was not engaged in joyful Christian service, because her anxiety, related to her self motivated interests, led her to experience what we might call a religious panic attacks. When our ministry is a struggle, a burden, or just a duty, we miss the point of ministry completely; we miss the why.

Let’s look at Mary and the motivation of her choice to sit at Jesus feet. Mary’s motivation may have been that she wanted to learn and listen, so she might be prepared for the work God would call her to do.  Her decision to sit with Jesus was pure joy, passion, and purpose, which made her able to truly and authentically reflect Gods grace in our work.   With Martha, there was no passion but anxiety, and she was no longer an icon of the Good News of God’s grace, but a reflection of anxiety, fear, and a sense of duty.   She really needed to re-think her why.

Martha was overwhelmed with her own anxiety that she went to Jesus, and dragged Mary into her mess.  She said to Jesus, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.” The problem with Martha is not that she chose work over relaxation.  The problem was that she was so panic stricken and overwhelmed by the task, she tried to force Jesus to choose which sister was the better sister. Her ”why” was not about passion, but about self; self-justification, self esteem, and self, period.

Our decision to do ministry has nothing to do with tasks and “to do’s,” but it has everything to do with seeking joy, passion, and purpose. When we are motived by Jesus’ command to Love God and Love neighbor, there is no room for anxiety and stress.  Remember, mission is never about us it is about Jesus and our neighbors.

Loving God and Loving Neighbor

Theologian Joy Strome explains, “The dinner party Mary and Martha threw was not about the attendees, not about their roles and responsibilities, but about the guest of honor (Jesus).”  Jesus is always the guest of honor to whom we issue an invitation, a bidding to join in the hospitality of our lives, and the guest we are called to serve.  So, if we are doing whatever it is we are doing, because we want to honor and love Jesus, then we are making mature Christian choices and our ”why” is aligned with God’s.  However, none of us can work all the time and sometimes we need to just stop and listen.

In this life “distractions and worries abound (and so) Jesus calls us to stop.” (3) Stop trying to do things for the wrong reasons, stop trying to earn grace, stop doing ministry because you feel guilty. Just stop and make sure your ministry, the work of mission you do is because you love God and your neighbor, and that should be the first reason for the choices we make anyway.

Choosing

We all come to this party of love and service showing up with our histories, concerns, sin, anxiety, and our broken lives.  “No one is a perfectly balanced Super Disciple, nor should we criticize one another for not doing everything equally well all the time.”(4)  We all have choices in this mission focused community, sent out to carry on Jesus’ ministry of reconciliation in the world.  We are called to relax in Jesus’ presence, but we are equally called to be more than mere Jesus fans sitting in the stands watching the game take place. We are called to get out on the field.

The church’ mission choices are always more complex than simply deciding between social groups versus mission teams, bible studies versus leadership service, or any other busy work ministry versus spiritual growth ministry.  Our “WHY,” the motivation behind whatever we will do must be because in it we will find joy, passion, and purpose.  The choice is ours, and hopefully like Mary we will choose the better portion, because it will never be taken away from us.

Choosing a ministry you are called to serve in is not as easy as buying peanut butter; you know “Choosey Mom’s, choose Jif” when we are fueled by fear, anxiety, self-serving motivations, and glorifying exhaustion.   It is easy when we are fueled by the desire to love God and love our neighbor.”  So, when you stare at that board of multiple ministry and service opportunities at St. Monica’s, your choice is as easier than buying a jar of peanutty goodness.  Just remember when an opportunity to serve in God’s mission field comes your way, think of your call to serve like peanut butter, “Choosey Christians, choose mission.”

REFERENCES

(1) http://leftbehindandlovingit.blogspot.com/2013/07/marthas-anxiety-struggling-alone.html

(2) Jones, L.Gregory. “The Virtues of Hospitality.” The Christian Century, vol. 109, no. 20, June 1992, p. 609.

(3) Strome, Joy Douglas. “Kitchen Relief.” The Christian Century, vol. 124, no. 14, July 2007, p. 18

(4) Hutson, Christopher Roy. “Martha’s Choice: A Pastorally Sensitive Reading of Luke 10:38-42.”

 

 

 

SERMON 7/10/19 Proper 10 Pentecost 5C St Monica’s Episcopal Church

Deuteronomy 30:9-14; Psalm 25:1-9; Colossians 1:1-14; Luke 10:25-37

Neighbors

Who is MY neighbor? You do remember when neighbors used to be more than just the people whose house happened to be next to ours. I grew up in a small neighborhood of 1960’s suburbia homes, and in my neighborhood, within walking distance of my house there were four young families with two, three, six, and another two children in each. We lived life, played football, rode skateboards and bicycles, and played games all summer long together. My neighbors would do anything for me and I for them. We cared for one another, helped one another, shared snacks and dinner with one another, but that kind of neighborliness has changed in 2019.

Today, we Americans seem to struggle with the virtue of neighborly connection. There is so much strife in the world, so much internal focus, and the call to be true friends, allies, and neighbors seems to be a fleeting concept. For instance, many of us live in gated communities that supposedly keep us safe behind walls. There are no more front porches on which, we sit in the evening and visit with one another. We usually pull our cars into the garage, close the door, go into the house, and never even know the names of those living beside us. So for we 21st century Christians, who now find ourselves in isolated, private, and non-engaging ways of life, how do we come to practice Jesus’ teaching about who is MY neighbor?

The Greek word in scripture for neighbor is πλησίον. It means “any other person irrespective of nation or religion with whom we live or whom we chance to meet.” (3) Jesus takes this definition And embodies it in the hero of the parable we heard in the gospel. Jesus’s idea of neighbor was pretty radical, then and now. For most of his audience that day, his neighborliness was a foreign concept for them. Neighbor was described in Lev 19:18, which states, “You shall not take vengeance or bear any grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.”  In other words, neighbor was limited to their own insiders.

Today for us, maybe neighbor means folks who meet certain legal criteria, economic criteria, or social status criteria. Jesus redefined neighbor as folks outside the criteria of exculsion we may often set. Imagine hearing Jesus’ parable about an outsider, a Samaritan as the hero , the true neighbor who disregarded legal, economic, and social norms to show compassion, love, and care for someone, not of his own people, and in so doing, the Samaritan discovered his own life’s purpose.

The Test

Listen again to a synopsis of the drama of the Good Samaritan. A lawyer stood up to test Jesus and asked, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Theologian Mark Davis writes in his blog, “I do not hear this as a question about ensuring that one gets to heaven and not hell, but a question about the whole matter and purpose of life itself. This is a “what is the meaning of life?” or “what is the chief end of humanity?” sort of question. (2) In other words, the lawyer is asking Jesus, as a disciple, what is my purpose? Jesus answers the question with a question about scripture’s guidance about our purpose; our mission. The lawyer stated, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” Out of his own mouth he had the answer, and Jesus told him that if he will but do these two commands, he woukd discover the life God intended for him.

That was not quite enough for the lawyer though. A generalized command to love all with whom we come in contact seemed too demanding, too difficult, and it thwarted the criteria he wanted to use to classify “who is in” and “who is out.” So, he asked Jesus, “who is MY neighbor.” It seems like a simple question and not a bad thing to ask, but what he really meant was “who can I exclude from the list of people I must love, Jesus,” or rather, “If you can help me define who is MY neighbor, I can keep a list of the unworthy, unlikeable, and “less than” who are not my neighbor.”

Jesus use the unlikely neighbor to define the true neighbor. Let me know explain. Jews and Samaritans were not friendly to one another. Ancestrally, Samaritans are descendants of the Jewish tribe of Ephraim and tribe of Manasseh (two sons of Joseph) as well as from the Levites. In other words, they were more than neighbors, they were family, but religious practice and doctrinal differences made them and their Israelite siblings bitter enemies. It is ironic that Jesus chose a Samaritan as the hero of the story. Remember last week’s Gospel, “Jesus had just been denied entry into a Samaritan village. James and John, in fact, wanted to call down fire and invoke a Sodom-like punishment on that village.” (2)

So it was a Samaritan, and not a holy and devout insider priest and Levite that showed compassion, care, and love for the man who had been robbed and left half dead. If this irony was not enough, notice the extent of compassion, care, and love he showed the poor man. First, he bandaged his wounds and poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal (he walked while the hurt man rode). He brought him to an inn and took care of him; he even stayed with him overnight and nursed him back to health. He shared from his abundance and gave two denarii (two day’s pay) to the innkeeper, and said, `Take care of him, and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.”

The Samaritan did not merely show pity, he shared the suffering of the man and helped him in his circumstances. How did he become a neighbor? He offered immediate triage for the man’s plight, he transported him, gave him shelter, offered ministry of presence, invested in his healing, and made possible ongoing care. That sounds like a model for us to become a neighbor because sometimes, the opportunity to become a neighbor is surprisingly unexpected.

Go and do likewise

In my second grade class in school, I learned “Who is MY neighbor.” He wore dirty jeans, holey high top sneakers, and a plaid shirt that had not been washed in a week. The condition of his clothes said a lot about the life he must have lived at home. His name was John Wayne. This was no cowboy with a particularly distinctive swagger and well-known voice. No, this John Wayne was a quiet, shy second grader, who due to no fault of his own found himself every day in a particularly difficult situation.

It was obvious that he suffered an impoverished existence. It was obvious to me at eight years old, that he was hurting when one day while everyone else was eating lunch, I watched him pick up the scraps of potato chips the other kids dropped from their brown bag lunches. On the playground, the other kids made fun of John Wayne, they ostracized him from the group, and he suffered. Oh yes, he suffered.

I remember telling my mother about John Wayne that night, and then watching her cry because of what I had witnessed. Soon after that, every day for the rest of the school year, I came to class with two brown bags. One had my name on it and the other had John Wayne’s name written at the top. In both bags, my mother put sandwiches, chips, cookies, and money for milk and ice cream. My mom made it clear that I was not to just give him the bag and then join my friends for lunch, but I was to sit with him and share lunch together. Through a simple brown paper bag, I learned that suffering with others is not merely solving the problems of their plight, but it is sharing their suffering with them.

“How do we become a neighbor?”

Suffering is the reality in which, all of us find ourselves. Suffering is not fair, life is not always fair, and death is certainly not fair. It is not fair that young children in our own neighborhood go to school every day with nothing to eat. It is not fair that hearts are broken when a spouse says goodbye to their soul mate at the time of their death. It is not fair that disease, famine, weather-related devastations, and war cause such pain and anguish in the world.

Suffering is not fair; it is simply our condition, and none of us are immune to its effects. The higher calling for us Christians though, is to suffer in love with one another. So, how do we become a neighbor? When we see someone suffering, neighboring includes providing triage (or maybe helping them sustain life in the moment), it included transporting (if it safe for you us we may offer a way to get more help), it included sheltering (helping them find protection from what afflicts them). It included ministry of presence (being with them in their suffering as long as you are able). It includes investing (be willing to give from the abundance God has given us for others). Finally, it includes providing ongoing care (remaining connected to the afflicted until they are able to stand on their own).

Becoming a neighbor is how we Christians pass on to others, the abundant grace, compassion, and love God has shown and does show us every day. We are not called merely to show pity and write a check (although that generosity does help in some cases), but more than that, we are called to bear one another’s burdens. Maybe becoming a neighbor is not as difficult as we think, if we can drop the criteria of “who is MY neighbor. Becoming a neighbor may mean just bearing the burdens of the other. It could be as simple as sharing a brown bag lunch with someone less fortunate, like two little boys did so long ago.

As you leave today, as you are driving home and you possibly see a homeless man or woman, as you shop in Publix and see the distraught cashier at the register, as you go to work this week and see your colleague struggling, or as you meet the person living next to you whom you never met, maybe the question we need to ask is not, “who is MY neighbor,” but how can I become a neighbor to them? The answer is simple though. Just eemember what Jesneighed, the neighbor is “The one who shows mercy, so go and do likewise.”

REFERENCES

(1) https://www.lyricsondemand.com/tvthemes/mrrogersneighborhoodlyrics.html

(2) http://leftbehindandlovingit.blogspot.com/2013/07/a-neighbor-is-one-who-nurtures-wounded.html

(3) http://www.biblewebapp.com/reader/