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SERMON 4/7/13 Easter 2C Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd, Dunedin, FL

john granville gregoryActs 5:27-32; Psalm 118:14-29; Revelation 1:4-8; John 20:19-31

I am grateful for the opportunity to be with God’s people here at Good Shepherd, and it is a joy for me to serve alongside my dear friend, mentor, and former boss, Pastor Becky.  Nearly ten years ago, my family met Becky when she was serving as Associate Pastor at another parish in our diocese.  Becky was one of the people who saw potential in me, to serve the church in a unique way, and helped set me on this journey, this path I am currently on.  Today, I serve as Diocesan Missioner, and in this new position, I am being sent out by our Bishop, to cultivate new ways of forming Christian community, in an ever-changing, rapidly evolving, post-modern/post-Christian culture.

Why is this ministry important?    A recent Pew survey reported that 20% of the American population, claim no religious affiliation at all.  In a recent NPR story, it was reported that “a third of young adults in this country say they don’t identify with any organized religion.”1   In the geographic area of our diocese, 48% of the people claim to be “spiritual,” 18% say that “faith is important to them,” and 21% say “attending religious services is important.”

When we first saw those last three statistics, it became clear to the Bishop and me, that we have a growing mission field in our own back yard.  We realized that  the society into which, we the church is sent, to proclaim the Good News of God in Christ, is changing.  It would seem that we must respond differently, we must seek out new ways and fresh ways to revitalize our communities, and we must follow the lead of other church leaders, and plant new communities in new venues, by embracing fresh ways of being.  We must look deeply at who we are as faithful Jesus followers, shrug off that which holds us back from God’s mission, and be willing to take on those things, which will continue the mission, to bring all people into unity with God and each other in Christ.

The culture of multi-faiths, the mission field into which God is sending God’s people today to proclaim God’s love, is not that different from the one into which, the first disciples proclaimed the life-altering reality of God in Christ.   Consider today’s narrative through which,  we hear a familiar story about the events related to how those early followers experienced the first sightings of Jesus; post-resurrection.   In John’s account, the disciples were locked behind closed doors, gathered together hiding with fear and trembling.  Then in the midst of their paralyzing terror, the Lord enters and simply says, “Peace be with you.”  Unable to move, filled with doubt, overcome with unbelief, and lacking trust in the promises of God, and Jesus enters the scene and offers this simple encouragement, “be at peace,” and later, “don’t doubt, believe.”

Listen closely to Jesus’ exhortatations, and you will hear in each, the need for a response; a response to believe.  Let me clear something up here.  The belief Jesus refers to, is not merely an assent to a particular dogma or doctrine, per se. He is not merely saying, you may now acknowledge that I am here, you can proclaim the fact you saw me.   Moreover, I believe Jesus was saying, because you saw me alive, because death is defeated, because the promise that you will not be abandoned, because you see these scars, this flesh, and my presence alive, you can trust in God. Faith is when we live each day trusting in the promises of God and it is through that trust, we find peace.

I met a young woman in a coffee shop a few months back, and we began to chat unexpectedly  about faith.  She said, “I have no faith per se.  I’m not sure even I believe in the existence of God, and I’m curious how can you be so sure?”  I replied, “I can’t scientifically prove without a shadow of doubt that God exists.”  “What I do know is this, I see real reflections of God’s reality in the lives of people who trust in the way of Jesus. When I see how they trust in God, I myself am convinced that the reality of their faith changes things and thus, I too choose to put my trust in God.  It would seem then, that   when we step out and risk it all on God, when we begin to rely on that beyond us, we discover faith.”   She thought for a moment and said, “I think I understand, but it all seems too simple .”  I replied, “It is simple,  but it is not easy.  There are times when we trust, and there are times when we doubt, and that is okay.”   Wait a minute Eric, did I hear you say doubt is okay?

Absolutely, and I think poor Thomas got a bad rap!  Over the centuries, Thomas’ experience of the resurrected Jesus, has been mis-used to and convince Jesus followers that, “Doubt has no place in faith.”  Consider this question, Have you ever noticed, that despite how many early artist’s depict the Apostle Thomas and the disciples standing before the Risen Jesus with Thomas touching Jesus’ wounds, scripture never records that Thomas actually did it.  The same disciple who said he would not believe unless he touched Jesus hands and side, came to trust without the proof he demanded. Paul Tillich (my favorite theologian) once wrote, “Doubt isn’t the opposite of faith; it is an element of faith.” Without both faith and doubt, how can we embrace mystery, how can we be transformed,  how can we face uncertainty, and how can we imagine the possibilities of God’s grace.  Doubt is essential to faith, but doubt alone can create paralysis.  For faith to emerge, we must take a risk and trust.

Imagine what would have happened to the early Christian community if the disciples had not left the locked room, and proclaimed boldly the Good News. Imagine what would have happened if the Apostle Paul had continued to persecute the church, rather than making all those missionary trips to Galatia, Corinth, Philippi, and Rome. Imagine if doubt had paralyzed all those saints who built churches throughout the ages.  Imagine what would have happened if, when facing challenges, uncertainties, changes, and overwhelming fears, God’s people had remained paralyzed by doubt.  I am convinced that those saints who came before us experienced periods of doubt, just read the works of Augustine, Luther, and even Mother Teresa who absolutely experienced doubt.  But they also took risks and thus, it was because of their faithful witness of God in Christ that we are here today.  The story continues.

As I read today’s gospel, I love how the assigned readings come to a conclusion.    “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book.   But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.”  Notice that the story is incomplete and not all was recorded.  Maybe, just maybe, some of it left for us?   This community of faith is facing some exciting challenges, some wonderful opportunities and growth .  You stand at the cusp of a new day, and you are stepping out in faith as a community/ taking a risk, and investing in the future of God’s mission in this place.  God is doing a new thing here and the story of salvation is ongoing through your lives of faith.  The next chapters in the book of the God’s mission through God’s church, is found through the ongoing signs, the vivid reflections of God’s reality in your lives , the people who trust in the promises of God; the promises of love, mercy, reconciliation, and grace.

As we the church, embark in God’s mission of reconciliation, encouraging the ongoing renewal of the blessed traditional, inherited forms of Christian community, such as those to which many of us belong today, and by encouraging the development of new forms of Christian community, such as those I am supporting in my new ministry, I believe we can trust that God’s mission will continue .  Through us, even through the doubt, fear, and anxiety, through the  challenges, uncertainties, and change, our faith in those times, will most certainly serve as sign for others, that they may really see how we trust in God’s promises, how that changes our lives, and they too “may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing (they) may have life in his name.”

1 On Religion, Some Young People Show Both Doubt And Respect, by NPR STAFF, January 17, 2013, http://www.npr.org/2013/01/17/169450811/on-religion-some-young-people-show-both-doubt-and-respect

SERMON 3/10/13 Lent 4C “You are Accepted!”

Lamb of God Lutheran-Episcopal Church, Fort Myers, FL Joshua 5:9-12; 2 Corinthians 5:16-21; Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32

Dear people of Lamb of God, “It is good to come back home!” It’s hard to believe, but seven years ago this community sent me and several other folks, out to take a risk and explore fresh ways to serve Christ, in folks in need of grace. Together we developed an emergent Sunday night worship gathering, we connected with people in 21st century wells like a local karaoke pub and a coffee shop, and we fed the homeless in downtown Fort Myers. We welcomed the least, lost, and lonely into authentic, emerging, Christian community. We worked together through the Spirit, to provide space for reconciliation and grace in the lives of those, who were very unlikely to enter the doors of a church.

Two years later, this community sent my family to seminary to prepare for the ministry God was calling us to do. After graduation and ordination, I served nearly three years in a traditional Episcopal community as pastor. The yearning though, to explore how the church could engage culture and make possible, safe spaces for authentic Christian community to emerge in unlikely places, led me to share a mission dream with our Episcopal bishop. So, here I am seven years later, once again, and as Diocesan Missioner for the Diocese of Southwest Florida, attempting to partner with clergy and lay folk throughout our diocese, to bring the Good News of Christ’s reconciling love, mercy, and grace to folks, who may never enter the doors of a church; whose numbers are growing exponentially.

The “American Religious Identification Survey” reported that between 1989 and 2009, the number of people in the U.S. who claim no religious affiliation at all, rose from 8% to 16%. In 2012, Pew research reported that number had increased in just three years, to 20%. The landscape of religious life is changing and so, as it was 2000 years ago, the church finds herself, being called to go out and do as Our Lord did. We must go out and once again claim our vocation, as witnesses to God’s unimaginable love in world. We must reclaim our Christian vocations as ambassadors of grace and as emissaries of reconciliation in the world. We must do what Jesus did.

“And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” This is the opening phrase of today’s Gospel reading, a beautiful parable of “grace.” In church we use this word grace quite a bit, but what does it mean? My favorite theologian is Paul Tillich and he explains grace like this, “Sometimes at that moment a wave of light breaks into our darkness, and it is as though a voice were saying: “You are accepted. You are accepted, accepted by that which is greater than you, and the name of which you do not know. Do not ask for the name now; perhaps you will find it later. Do not try to do anything now; perhaps later you will do much. Do not seek for anything; do not perform anything; do not intend anything. Simply accept the fact that you are accepted!” If that happens to us, we experience grace.” The parable we heard read today is story of grace found through “reconciliation.” It is the story of a moment when light breaks into the darkness of relational estrangement, when relationships are restored, and people are drawn once again, one to another. Most of us have heard the parable of the Prodigal and his brother, and it may have become so familiar to our ears, that we miss the little nuances in the story, which offer an explanation of the depth of God’s unimaginable, reconciliatory grace.

First, consider the father in the story and his reactions to his sons. Imagine how offensive it would be for your child or a close relative to come and say to you, give me my share of your portfolio, now. “It’s my money, and I want it now!” In that culture, for a son or daughter to ask for an early inheritance, was tantamount to wishing their father dead. Now how foolish is this, the father actually gives it to him! Keep in mind, it was very complicated to just give up a significant portion of your wealth in those days. There were no corner ATM’s, no E-Trade brokers. More than likely, his father’s wealth was tied up in land and herds, and that meant actually going out and selling his land—liquidating his dearest material possessions. How foolish! The father was willing to give up what he had worked for his whole life, and merely for the sake of his son. What kind of love is like this? It is foolish love, and for many of us, we may have never experienced it and thus, we cannot seem to understand it. Things get even more foolish because, later in the story, the father does something absolutely incredible. When his son returns, the father doesn’t sit on the front porch tapping his foot saying, “when that boy gets home, just you wait.” No, the father meets his son half way down the road. As they meet, the,father does not condemn, chide, nor does he accept his son’s attempt to explain why he has returned. The father merely loves him as a son and welcomes him home. Listen closely, foolish love like this is not the logic of this world, it is the logic of God kingdom in which, even the least likely, the prodigal ones, and even those who are beyond the walls of the faith community, are reconciled, restored, loved, and given grace beyond imagine.

Now, consider the prodigal son, the repentant one, the who turned from his ways and came back home. Repentant … really? Are we so sure about that? Here he was in that pig trough (a horrid predicament for an Israelite – Kosher laws) and there, he came to his senses. I wonder though, was his coming home because he realized he had been a jerk to his Dad and brother and wanted to make amends, or was it because he was in the middle of the pig pen and out of desperation, he wanted a hot meal and roof over his head. Honestly, I don’t think it really mattered to the father whether his son was sincerely sorry for what he did, or if his son was sick of living with pigs. The fact is, the son came home, and the father was overjoyed. The foolish father (foolish in the world’s eyes) didn’t care what the son’s motivation for coming home was. I wonder how many of us have can identify with the prodigal one, or even with the father? Is it so hard to accept that God is overjoyed when our hearts are sick and tired of sojourning, no matter the motivation, no matter the intention? God welcomes us with open arms. Foolish love is something so hard for us to embrace, accept, and share, but imagine what it would be like, if we practiced foolish love like this with our sisters and brothers, and then take it one step further, and share it with those who have not even entered our fellowship?

So let’s consider the other sibling. He was ticked off at his brother and father, and rightfully so. I mean, he was right about his ridiculously permissive Dad, his wasteful and reckless brother, and he was right, even about how he had been faithful and hard working. But he, like many of us, often make a choice between being right and being in relationship. So, when his brother was extravagantly restored to the family by his foolish loving father, the older brother refused to celebrate the new life being restored. He even refused to acknowledge that the prodigal was his brother. He said to his dad, “This son of yours.” The father reminded him of the relationship he had cast aside, and reminded him that the prodigal one was “this brother of yours.” What if being in relationship with God and each other, were more important than being right? What if we swung open wide the doors of community and invited all into fellowship? What if loving God, loving neighbor, feeding the hungry, (spiritual as well as physical), actually trumped right belief?

Jesus taught us that in order to follow him, we truly must do as he did, and that means, we must love as he loved: God and neighbor … even the ones we don’t like, or even those we may not know. That is the ministry we have been given by virtue of our claim that Jesus is Lord. We are God’s ambassadors of reconciliation, and God’s emissaries of grace. So, how do we live into this Christian vocation? Sarah was a young woman struggling to make it each day. Nothing seemed to work in the favor. The car she purchased to get her to work each day was a mess: a broken bearing, engine noise, and now the battery was completely dead. She had just borrowed money from a friend to pay last month’s rent, and now the cost of the battery was way out of reach. As Sarah walked into the café where she worked, the look on her face reflected the darkness of despair that followed her.

There was a man, sitting at one of her tables who noticed Sarah’s unusual emotional distress. He overheard her call several auto stores trying to find a used battery with no avail. The man at Sarah’s table asked, “What’s wrong Sarah?” She told him her tragic week, and the man asked, “What year and model car do you have?” The man returned to his seat, searched on Google for a local auto store that had the battery. He arranged for the store to accept his check for the battery, and wrote it for the full amount. As he paid for his coffee and muffin, he looked at Sarah and said, “I found a battery for you at the local auto shop, and here is the model number and price. Ask for Jim.” She said, “I can’t afford that today.” He said, “Yes you can,” and handed her a check. She broke down in tears and said thank you. Foolish love can be a frightening proposition for many of us, because it requires us to step way outside our comfort zones, it means we will have to give up our desire to be “right,” and it will surely mean we have to go into those broken places of other people’s lives, meet them where they are, and shine the light of Christ for them through our love. See, it is when we respond to the needs of others, when we love foolishly, the grace of God, which is always present, emerges in us.

“Sometimes at that moment a wave of light breaks into our darkness, and it is as though a voice were saying: “You are accepted. You are accepted, accepted by that which is greater than you, and the name of which you do not know.” God is “entrusting the message of reconciliation to us” and we must go out and make it real, active, and transformative in, and through our lives. We need to claim and reclaim our true vocation, our common ministry, our response to God’s love poured out to us! “We are ambassadors for Christ, and God is making his appeal through us.” Amen

 

SERMON 02/17/13 Lent 1C St. George’s Episcopal Church, Bradenton, FL

Deuteronomy 26:1-11; Romans 10:8b-13; Luke 4:1-13
I love the survivor shows on Discovery Channel! Man, Woman, Wild is a show about a married couple of which, one is a Special Forces operative, the other a journalist, and together they team up to face the wildernesses of jungle, tundra, and desert. Dual Survival is a similar show that pairs up a naturalist skilled in Aboriginal living skills with a veteran U.S. Special Forces operative and together, they are dropped into some very difficult, wild places and forced to survive, usually for a week. I really like these two television shows. I like how the team of two work together to survive.

My very favorite survival show though, is “Survivorman,” starring naturalist Les Stroud, who is no Special Forces operative, aboriginal expert, or specially trained survivalist. Stroud is a regular guy who on this show, is not only the star, but also cameraman and producer. Each week Stroud goes up against some of the most difficult survival wildernesses known to humans. The most interesting part of this show is that Stroud is always alone: no camera crew, no backup plan, just him, a few cameras, and the elements. I dig this show more than the others, because Stroud is a self-assured, independent, “git er done,” kind of guy.

I think about today’s gospel reading, and I picture Jesus’ 40 days in the desert sort of like “Survivorman,” with Jesus all alone, in the wilderness, no disciples around, no camera crew catching his every word, no knapsack filled with energy bars and no magnesium flint fire starter. It was just Jesus, the elements, and the temptations that come with hunger, fear, and being left to the nature of our own character. Scripture tells us, “Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness.” From baptism in the Jordon, from the voice from heaven declaring, “You are my Son, with you I am well pleased,” Jesus is driven into the wilderness, a place deserted by others, a place where he was deprived of the aid and protection of others. Jesus was alone facing all that the “oppressor” had to offer. Jesus came face-to-face with the challenges of our human freedom, choice, self worth, desires/physical needs, and the ultimate fear; death. Jesus’ character, faith, and virtue were challenged in the wilderness. The Spirit led him there, and it was there he came to know what it was like for us to face the temptations of the human condition, and come to realize we are dependent on God alone.

Some folks believe the Christian journey is a survival showdown in which, we are tested and tried by God, to see if we are faithful enough or worthy enough. Even in the Lord’s Prayer it says, “And lead us not into temptation.” But I wonder, are we asking God, “please don’t tempt us?” I don’t think so. I believe, as Franciscan priest Fr. Richard Rohr asserts, “… that this phrase in the Lord’s Prayer, is best translated as ‘Lead us away from any illusions about ourselves.” 2
The temptation into which, we seem to be led always, is the illusion that we can in this life, rely on our own spiritual survival skills—that somehow, we are capable alone of wrestling with the temptations of our own freedom. The reality is that we traverse a wilderness in this Christian Journey—a wilderness of temptations driven by our own freedom to choose our own way and that is what distracts us from God. We are constantly deceived into a belief that we can survive without God. Surviving those caverns of self-assurance, those thick jungles of rugged independence, or those frozen tundra of a “git-er-done” attitude, means we must embrace a reliance not on ourselves and what we bring to the journey, but a complete and utter reliance on God. Lent is a season that reminds us that we cannot really go it alone, that we need to spend time focusing on our walk with God.

Lent, is a forty-day wilderness journey, in which we like Jesus, come face-to-face with our own human weakness. It reminds us, “what it is like to live by the grace of God alone and not by what we can supply for ourselves.”1 Lent can be a time of focusing on spiritual disciplines by which we “give up something” or “take on a special spiritual practice.” “Giving up” and “taking on” are quite virtuous, and I commend them to you during this Lenten season however, they alone do not a wilderness journey of self-denial make. This difficult journey begins with a heart change, a transformation of mind and spirit, in which we go deeper into the valleys of our need for God’s grace. In the next few weeks, I encourage you to enter deeply into those unexplored caverns, thick jungles, and frozen tundra of your very soul. Explore the depths of those never seen crevices, those illusions of your character, those places where the fear of vulnerability lies.

There are many ways to step into the wilderness: pray and listen, and then share that journey with others, in community. Commit to a practice of daily scripture reading: poke around in the psalms or Old Testament, take a hike in one of the gospels, or wander around in one of Paul’s letters. Take a leisurely stroll with God in prayer by committing to a few minutes a day to quiet your spirit with God. Invite God’s Spirit into your present moment, and listen for God’s work in your life. Then, bring that experience back to others, and share it with your sisters and brothers right here, when you gather for fellowship.

When we are intentional about entering the wilderness with God as our not merely our guide, but as our strength, sustenance, and very breath, when we walk that journey together with others, it is there that we find out who truly we are, and the illusions of self-reliance, fall away. Here is a little warning though as you embark on this sojourn in the wilderness of the soul, it will be tempting as the days of Lent wonder on, to cast it all aside for an easier path, but please, stay in the wilderness awhile. It may not be easy, it may become uncomfortable, it may even be treacherous, but if you truly rely on God to lead you, and if you let go of the illusion you can do it all alone, then I promise you this, you will not only survive Lent, but you will be forever transformed.

1 Taylor, Barbara Brown. “Settling For Less.” Christian Century 115.5 (1998): 169-318. ATLASerials, Religion Collection. Web. 14 Feb. 2013.
2 http://richardrohr.wordpress.com/2012/06/17/lead-us-not-into-temptation/