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SERMON 6/30/13 Pentecost 6C St. Mary Magdalene, Bradenton

mission-impossible-the-game-logo1 Kings 19:15-16,19-21; Psalm 16; Galatians 5:1,13-25; Luke 9:51-62

As the Diocesan Missioner, the ministry in which I and several others, including two of St. Mary Magdalene’s very own are currently engaged, focuses on helping the church adapt to an emerging culture, by assisting our Bishop in forming new communities of faith.   Our work includes exploring, planning, and working with diocesan partners, to set the conditions and plans that lead to such communities.  The work is absolutely critical today, because the landscape of culture is changing, and we the church, must adapt, so that the gospel can be proclaimed, and the mission of God continue.

In a national magazine recently, Gary Laderman, Chair of the Department of Religion at Emory University claimed that there are a couple of major developments that have led to a unique cultural metamorphosis in the U.S., resulting in nearly 20% of the American population, now claiming no religious affiliation at all.  Laderman wrote, “popular culture in America rules our spiritual lives and is a more important source of wisdom, morality, transcendence, and meaning, than the traditional institutions like the church that used to provide these religious elements.”1   Second, he states, “we are a nation of consumers and American desires for food and toys and clothes and healthcare and travel are finally refashioning the spiritual marketplace as well. “Have it your way,” a famous jingle once used by a popular fast food joint is the mantra of the religious moment.”1

The religious landscape of American culture is changing; period.  In 1989, just 24 years ago, only 8% of the American population claimed “no religious affiliation;” that segment of our population has more than doubled in two decades.  The statistics may be frightening, but it challenges us to re-consider whether we are ready to reconnect with our missionary heritage.   It may no longer be enough for us to merely open our doors, offer a great worship experience and develop phenomenal programs, in order to share the Good news.  It may be that we must become once again, apostolic and go out and be missionaries again (not overseas), but we must again journey to the far reaches of our own back yards, and proclaim the Good News.  Our mission work today has not changed from that of the early church some 2000 years ago when Jesus traversed through Samaritan territory, on his way to Jerusalem. As a matter of fact, in the 21st century, we are being challenged to reimagine mission in the church, and to focus our missionary efforts right here, in the communities in which we are planted.

The story we hear about in today’s gospel is the narrative of Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem, and his travels through a Samaritan village.  Jesus was on a mission.  He was sharing the Good News of God’s Kingdom with whoever would listen.  He did not stop for a respite.  He did not build a great edifice and plant himself in one spot.  No, he was moving toward his goal.  Jesus’ was on a mission that required clarity, determination, resolve, and clear principles along the way.  Jesus was clearly going to preach and teach in the capital seat of his people, where he would confront the religious system.   Jesus was determined and with resolve, that he would not be deterred despite the obstacles he would face.  Jesus principles of non-violence, of abundant love, of amazing healing, and of reconciliation would lead him and his disciples on the path to what lie ahead. Jesus was clear, determined, resolute and with clear principles.

When we begin a new ministry, when we take on a new phase of mission in the church, I wonder if we truly spend enough time prayerfully discerning the Spirit’s call on our individual and corporate lives, so that we, like our Lord, can be clear, determined, and resolute?  Do we also count the costs?  Do we understand the radical nature of what it means to be “sent out?”  The Church’s mission comes with a high cost for those participating in it.  In the story today, there were three “wanna be” disciples who come up to Jesus and proclaim their loyalty and willingness to go on mission.  The first said, “I will follow you wherever you go.”  That sounds familiar doesn’t it?  There are others who promised to follow Jesus wherever he might travel.  The same boys who wanted seats at Jesus’ right and left hands, the Sons of Thunder, didn’t quite understand Jesus’ mission themselves and yet, when facing potential rejection, they wanted to call down fire on the village that rejected them.

The risk of rejection is a natural part of this mission of God.  The radical message we carry to the world, is not one people like to receive.  It changes things. It changes them.  It changes us.  “Foxes have holes, and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head,” Jesus said.   There is a little hyperbole, a little metaphor presented in the words of Jesus here, but I believe Our Lord said these words to show the radical nature of what we as followers of Jesus must risk, when we accept the mission of God.  We risk a lot and thus, we accept the reality that the mission we are on, is not going to be comfortable, acclaimed, or readily received by the world to whom we are ministering.  My friends, when you engage in mission, expect rejection.

The second “wanna be” wanted to go, but asked for a deferment.  The “wanna be” responded to Jesus’ “follow me,” with, “Lord, let me first go bury my father.”  See, devout Jews in those days, had an obligation to bury their parents.  The question I have is this, were his parents healthy and happy, were they actively dying then, or were they already dead?  In the “wanna be’s” heart, I wonder how long did he really want to put off the call to follow Jesus.  Jesus responds to him with a little jab, “Dude get your priorities right, don’t wait, get started now.”  Jesus said, “let the dead bury the dead, but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.”  In other words, we who have life are no longer dead, and nothing should get in the way of our mission.  My friends, when you engage in mission, don’t delay, don’t let other things get in the way.

The third “wanna be” wanted to go, but like the second, was distracted by what was behind him; he wanted to say farewell to those he would leave behind.  Have you ever gone on a long trip away from home and you are standing at the door with those you love, and as you consider the journey and the lengthy time you will be away, you say to yourself, I really don’t want to go.  You walk out the door and you wave goodbye, wishing you could stay.  It is the looking back that distracts you.  Your body has left, but your heart and mind yearn to come back to the comfort of home and loved ones.  Jesus said, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”  My friends, when you engage in mission, be clear, determined, and resolute about answering God’s call, don’t look back, but only move forward.

We get tripped up in our call to follow Jesus.  We wrestle with rejection, we let other things get in the way, we look back to the “good ole’ days” and not what is ahead.  I believe we struggle sometimes because we forget one very vital fact.  We struggle with the church’s charge to go and “make disciples of all nations,” to “bring all people into unity with God and each other in Christ,” because we make the mistake of believing our work is ours alone, either as a community or as individuals.  The mission we are on is not ours, but it is God’s work of reconciliation in the world.  Now if we truly believe that fact, and if we truly rely on the source of the mission, when we follow the one who says, “Follow me,” the struggles that come are not insurmountable.

See, the call to discipleship of Jesus inevitably means unconditional commitment to the redemptive work of God, for which Jesus gave his life.  When we consider the cost, when we give Jesus the highest priority in our lives, when we recognize that the mission is not ours, but God’s, and when we move ahead without looking back, the mission of God continues in and through us.

Jesus handed over the mission of reconciliation to us, and he trusted us to continue.  He left us to it, but did not leave us alone.  The Spirit leads us, guides us, teaches us, and inspires us.  Just remember, continuing the mission of God in the world does not require us to have all the answers, all the well-laid out plans, and all the latest resources.  Those things are important, but they are not the most important.

You know, I heard once that ministry is where your greatest gifts, meet the world’s greatest needs.  As I look out today at God’s people gathered here in this place, I imagine God has bestowed on each of as individuals and collectively, certain gifts by which you can partner with God, in God’s mission of love.  We are one holy, catholic, and APOSTOLIC church, which means we are to be “sent out.”  So, after today’s dismissal, let those words your Deacon proclaims at the door really sink in.  Remember what your charge is this week, “Go in peace to love and SERVE the Lord;” go then, and join God’s mission of proclaiming the Good News, and let your life witness to that charge, in all you do.

 

1 http://www.huffingtonpost.com/gary-laderman/the-rise-of-religious-non_b_2913000.html

PENTECOST 4C 6/16/13 St. Alfred’s Palm Harbor and St. Alban’s St. Pete Beach

Screen Shot 2013-06-17 at 10.36.33 AM1 Kings 21:1-10, (11-14), 15-21a; Psalm 5:1-8; Galatians 2:15-21; Luke 7:36-8:3

Several years ago, I knew two couples, both together for some time, both obviously in love, but noticeably, they had very different relationships.  The first couple was so sweet, I mean, sticky sweet. They were like school kids who giggled together, as if they had these inside funny jokes, they held hands wherever they went, and when they looked into each other’s eyes man, you knew they were in love.   The other couple was equally in love and yet, there was a tension, uncertainty, and uncomfortable anxiety between the two of them.

I asked one of the partners from the second couple (tension, anxiety) one day, how things were going for them.  I knew them well, and we all talked openly about our relationships with our spouses, so it was not an out of bounds question.  He said, “You know Eric, I am so unworthy of love from my spouse.  She is so wonderful, loving, giving, and she sacrifices so much for me.  I imagine she would die for me, and I am not worthy of that kind of love.  I feel like I must work hard, give all I can, to make her happy, so I can keep that kind of love.”

On another occasion, I asked one of the partners in the first relationship (sticky sweet) why they seemed so at ease with one another.  She said, “A long time ago, we decided to quit trying to earn each other’s love by doing, buying, and manipulating.  We decided that the love we share is a gift and we finally decided to live with arms wide open, be grateful, and just receive simple love.”

In today’s gospel reading, we hear a story of Jesus and a particular encounter he had with two people around a dinner table.  It is a story about hospitality, reconciliation, and love.   The scene is this, Jesus was the dinner guest of a Pharisee, a religious leader, a person well versed in the Law.  Eating with someone in first century Palestine was very special.  You would usually not invite a guest to come under your roof, unless you had or were establishing a relationship of trust, mutual respect, and a commitment to honor each other.  Hospitality 2000 years ago, went way beyond today where we strive merely to make our  guests feel comfortable and well fed.  Hospitality was a part of the honor system within that society, and it signified a covenant between householder and guest.  As the householder, when someone came under your roof, they came under your protection, were recipients of your respect, and that relationship extended beyond the meal.

The guest’s  role was to speak highly of your patron, and to bring honor to his house.  There were symbols and rituals that became signs of this covenant between householder and guest.  The washing of desert, sand-laden feet upon entering the home, the offering of the kiss of peace, and the anointing of a person were all outward signs of this covenant of honor.

If you notice the story, none of this happened to Jesus upon entering the Pharisee’s house.  He merely entered, and took his place at the table.  Then something scandalous happened.  A woman, a sinner as she was labeled, entered the house with an alabaster jar, which was obviously an expensive, precious gift she had brought, and then she knelt down, washed Jesus’ feet with her hair and tears, and then anointed him.  It was scandalous, but at the same time, it was a radical symbol of love, honor, and respect.  First, it was a scandal because she had her head uncovered in public, but there was another significance to this act as well.  In a reading from the Old Testament, we learn why.  Numbers 5:18 says, “And the priest shall take the barley and offer it to the woman, and shall take away from her the head-dress on her head, that she may be judged with her head bare, and deprived of the symbol of modesty, which all those women are accustomed to wear who are completely blameless.” (NRSV) She uncovered her head to wash Jesus’ feet, but the Pharisee, well versed in the law I imagine, understand the significance of this act.  Then, she touched Jesus’ feet!  That was unheard of for a woman to touch a man with whom she was not married.  Finally, she anoints his feet … more scandal.  Now all this does not go unnoticed by Simon the Pharisee who in the story exclaimed, “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him– that she is a sinner.”

The real motivation for the dinner invitation comes out.  Simon wanted not to bring honor and protection to Jesus, but to find fault in Jesus, and it is motivation and response, which is really at the heart of the story.  Simon, by his failure to see his own need for grace, and the willingness to receive it, AND give it, he misses the greatest lesson of this encounter with the Lord.  Jesus, said with a little moxie, “Simon, I have something to say to you.”   The parable of the debtors cuts to the heart of the matter, we all are sinners, we all miss the mark, we all mess up the relationship with God and with each other, and yet, when we cannot save ourselves (because we can’t) God’s grace abounds and all are reconciled to God, and all in God’s time.  Now, the story takes another turn, and I love this part.  Jesus reminds Simon, that the woman at his feet, showed him the depth of hospitality, the covenant of protection, the symbols of honor that Simon failed to show.

Hang on now, the story is getting better.  Jesus looks at her and says, “”Your sins are forgiven.”  Now, when I first heard this story many years ago, I thought, “OK, she showed Jesus’ love by doing this for him and because of that, she was forgiven.”  WRONG!  The word forgiven in Greek is ἀφέωνταί, which is in the form of perfect, passive, indicative, which in this grammatical form, it is different from what we find in the NRSV.  The words are, “Your sins, they have been forgiven you.”  

I believe that the woman offenses were forgiven long before she entered the house, and Jesus was merely acknowledging that fact.  Nothing she did earned, manipulated, or coerced Jesus to forgive her.  It was her trust that led her to Jesus in the first place, and it was by faith,  she accepted she had been forgiven.  The washing of feet and anointing was the outward response to Grace, she had so clearly received and was later acknowledged.  The point is, you cannot earn grace, it is a gift from God that is experienced with gratitude, it is a gift that we can only receive, it is a gift that moves us to respond with love, in kind.

My friend, the “sticky sweet” spouse and the woman with the Alabaster jar lived with arms wide open and their lives and acts of love and service became a response to grace, not a means to earn it.  The woman in today’s gospel was aware of the forgiveness she had received, long before she arrived at the door of the Pharisee’s house, and Jesus acknowledged it with these words, “Your sins have been forgiven.”  This is our story, and we like them, each week receive acknowledgment of God’s forgiveness in the words of absolution, then we share in the Great Thanksgiving, the meal of gratitude, Holy Communion, and then we are sent out into the world to respond with love, with all in whom we come in contact.  On one of mine and Terri’s parish visits a month or so ago, I heard a song sung by Amy Grant and James Taylor, which helps me understand, and accept, this gift of God’s grace.  The chorus of the song goes like this:

Don’t try so hard

God gives you grace and you can’t earn it

Don’t think that you’re not worth it

Because you are

He gave you His love and He’s not leaving

Gave you His Son so you’d believe it

You’re lovely even with your scars

Don’t try so hard

 

That is the life of the church, the Eucharistic Body of Christ, and despite our struggles, our brokenness, our uncertainty, I think it really can be easier to live in Christian community than it seems sometimes.  I think we try to rest in God’s promises, if we respond in grace to the grace we have received, and if we merely live with “arms wide open.”

SERMON 6/2/13 Pentecost 2C – Church of the Good Shepherd, Dunedin, FL

Iron man wallpapers tony stark 41 Kings 8:22-23 ,41-43; Galatians 1:1-12;  Luke 7:1-10

When I was growing up I, like many of my friends, loved comics, movies, and Saturday morning cartoons, all based on the adventures of superheroes.  Superman, Spiderman, Wonder Woman, and the Incredible Hulk were some of my most favorites.  The whole idea of someone possessing incredible power, as a result of some life-altering transformation, which could be used to fight crime, injustice, and to stand up to those opposed to good, is really very appealing isn’t it.  When we think of our heroes, we want to be just like them.

Now, I have to admit that there is still a little bit of a kid in me today.  I still like superhero movies, but the characters I enjoy watching today, are folks like Batman and Iron Man.  Why?  Well, for the most part these two guys are just normal human beings, who happen to possess great, but not unusual strength and yet, what makes them superheroes is the fact they have some really cool toys.  Batman has his Kevlar suit, his utility belt, and yes, that amazing car.  Iron Man?  Well, obviously he has that awesome titanium suit of armor!  C’mon, you have to dig Iron Man’s armor.  It’s full of electronics, it can fly, he has some kind of power laser thing in his hands, and most of all, he just plain looks good wearing it.  Maybe these two superheroes are a little more popular these days, because they are more like us; regular folks.  Underneath all those gadgets, they are just as vulnerable to the temptations of power, as the rest of us.  Beyond the flash of their electronics and Kevlar suites, superheroes wrestle with balancing the power they possess, with the need for humility, in the midst of that power.  It is this struggle with power and humility that encourages, and yet, sometimes threatens our ability to accomplish the mission of love, the mission of justice, mercy, love, reconciliation, and grace, which as followers of Jesus, we have undertaken.

In today’s gospel reading we hear a story about a man of power that encountered Jesus.  This man, who in the eyes of Roman society was probably very much like a superhero of sorts; not like a Superman or Spiderman, but more like Iron Man or Batman.  A Centurion was a regular guy, who possessed great, but not unusual strength, and yet had some really cool gadgets; a sword, armor, shield, and by the way, the power of the Roman government behind him.  “The Centurion was a professional officer of the Roman army that commanded 80 men. Centurions could be elected, appointed by the Senate, or promoted ‘from the ranks’ for a variety of reasons. Being held personally responsible for the training and discipline of the legionaries under their command, centurions had a well-deserved reputation for dealing out harsh punishment. Evidence suggests that centurions had important social status and held powerful positions in society.” Centurions were powerful people, who commanded authority and yes, people listened when they spoke.

This encounter between the Centurion and Jesus is rather unique because, Jesus and he never met face-to-face and yet, Jesus changed the Centurion’s life dramatically.  The Centurion, the man of power and great authority, had a servant who was evidently very ill and so, he sent two delegations to intercede with Jesus, on his behalf.  Knowing a little bit about the nature of Roman culture, you would think the Centurion might not go visit Jesus, because the Roman was of a higher social status.  However, according to the story, he actually considers himself unworthy for Jesus even to come to his house.  This must have been a shocking twist for many original hearers of this encounter.  This was a man wrestling with a tension between power and humility.  From this man’s viewpoint, it was his humility, his deep self-awareness that grace was not about worthiness or power, which won the day.

They appealed to him earnestly, saying, “He is worthy of having you do this for him, for he loves our people, and it is he who built our synagogue for us.”  The leaders of the local community came and appealed to Jesus to heal the Centurion’s servant.  They proclaimed the worthiness of their Roman hero and rightfully so, because he was unlike any other Roman officer they had known before.  Not only had he built a synagogue for the people, he showed them love.  Wait a minute, that doesn’t sound like the Centurions dealt out harsh punishment or held important social status and powerful positions in society.”  No, he set aside that power reputation for a character of humility, fully revealed in acts of love for a people, not of his own kinship.  You see, the faith to recognize God’s grace, God’s unmerited favor, God’s outrageous love, has nothing to do with our own sense of worthiness and power, but it has everything to do with accepting it, and my friends, that takes humility.

“Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; therefore I did not presume to come to you. But only speak the word, and let my servant be healed.”  The Centurion gets it doesn’t he. What he was saying was, “Lord, you are all powerful and I am a mere man and I dare not come to you asking for a favor, but I know if you say it, by your word alone my household will receive healing.”  Do you hear his humility?  The Centurion could command a cohort to come and get Jesus, bring him to his house, order him to heal the servant, but that is not what he did.  The Centurion said, “For I also am a man set under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to one, `Go,’ and he goes, and to another, `Come,’ and he comes, and to my slave, `Do this,’ and the slave does it.”  I believe the Centurion actually knew that the power and influence he had been given, was really a gift of God, and not one to be wielded but to be used for good.  Remember, he built a synagogue for the people, not so people would say he was worthy (which they did anyway), but because in humility, he loved, just as God had loved him.

God’s reconciliation movement in the world, God’s grace given us to restore creation, was never about power and status and worthiness.  Take a look at the cross and remember that the God of love fully lived humility, and took on the ultimate vulnerability by risking creation’s rejection; all for love.  Yes, God could have wielded power and status and worthiness to bring about grace, but God chose humility.  We must recognize that this Jesus movement of which we are a part, means we must cast aside our desire for power, status, and worthiness, and embrace and yes, SHARE the love found in humility.  Faith requires meekness, and faith blossoms when we begin to have a clear understanding of our own self, in relation to God and all of creation.

Theologian Robert Gagnon asserts, “Faith is: the appropriate action of one who recognizes one’s humble status in the face of an encounter with the divine.”1 The one worthy of praise, the one we look to as an example, the one for whom we desire to be like, is the one who is really like us.  This person was susceptible to our weakness, wrestled with the human struggle of power and humility, and he is the one that experienced the full breadth of the human experience.  He is the one who wields ultimate power, not power based on human government, wealth, or prestige, but power that subdues and thwarts injustice, power that overturns and unbinds poverty, power that frees the prisoner, and power that declares the favor of God.   This is the power of love, and the one who wields this power is Our Lord Jesus Christ, the one whom we are called to follow, by walking in faith.

The key to walking this journey of faith seems to be less about how much power and influence we can wield in order to demonstrate our worthiness, but how much we are willing to humbly trust that God’s love is sufficient.  A friend mine who pastors an unusual Episcopal community in California, posted a quote on his Facebook wall the other day.  He wrote, “In an achievement-oriented culture, it’s difficult for us to get our minds around the reality that there’s no finish line, no diploma, no promotion, no blue ribbon for the disciple. You cannot earn an advanced degree in grace because you can’t earn it at all. Your effort is simply directed toward receiving it, which is not simple at all. Being loved so much is awkward for those of us who live in a quid pro quo relationship economy. Thank God, Jesus is at ease with awkward.”  My friend reminds us that as faithful followers of Jesus, we don’t have to worry about being worthy superhero Christians in order to receive grace, we just need to be humble enough, to stand with, open arms, open hearts, and open spirits, and receive it.

 

1 Gagnon, Robert A J. “Luke’s Motives For Redaction In The Account Of The Double Delegation In Luke 7:1-10.” Novum Testamentum 36.2 (1994): 122-145. ATLASerials, Religion Collection. Web. 28 May 2013.

SERMON 5/19/13 Day of Pentecost, Christ Episcopal Church, Bradenton

Birthday PartyActs 2:1-21; Psalm 104:25-35, 37b; Romans 8:14-17; John 14:8-17 (25-27)

Can you think of one of your very best birthday parties! I imagine there was a cake right, with your name on it, and possibly there were some really cool party favors (with possibly your name on them), and there were fabulous gifts your friends brought you and yes, they had your name on them, and then, everyone sang a song that (had your name in it).  This was a day that had your name written all over it.  It was your birthday and your friends we were honoring you.  They were showing you some amazing love.  It was all about you!

Now, imagine for a moment it’s your birthday party again, but this time the focus is not on you, but it is on everyone else who shows up at the party.  Each of your guests names are written on the cake, each person receives a personalized gift from you, and when the song is sung, everyone’s name is included and everyone is singing the same song.  The one who on this day, came into the world, is actually serving the guests, caring for them, honoring them, loving them.  This crazy party sounds pretty unconventional, somewhat counter-cultural, outlandish and unappealing doesn’t it.  That does not sound like any birthday party I have ever attended in my life, but it is that kind of celebration, of which we are reminded, when we consider the Pentecost experience those first disciples had in Jerusalem over 2000 years ago.  This was a pivotal day when the Spirit came upon them, and sent them AND US, out to serve the world.

One of my favorite preachers and authors is Barbara Brown Taylor, an Episcopal priest and lecturer, and she once wrote, “Surely somewhere in the mix there is the vague recollection that Pentecost is not as much about what God has done for us, as what God wants us to do in the world which, isn’t nearly as attractive to most of us.”3  I think Barbara is saying, the Pentecost experience may seem like its about us, but it is really about ALL of us.  Barbara is helping us wrestle with the fact that being sent out on a mission is unsettling, it takes us out of our comfort zone, it sets us on a path unlike the one which we had traveled before.  Pentecost is really less like a birthday party, and more like a call to action, a sending out into mission, and an invitation to follow Jesus.   The best part of the Pentecost experience is, we are given a gift of power, which we are asked not to hold onto for merely ourselves, but to give it away.  The gift to which I am speaking, is the gift of the Holy Spirit.

In today’s reading from the Acts of the Apostles, we learn that “The disciples, including women like Mary, were all tucked away, apart from the chaos of the streets, cloistered together so they might safely and systematically discern where God was calling them. They were not disturbing their neighbors. No one from the outside could interrupt their time of prayer and worship. The barriers were all in place, nice and neat, keeping the chaos out and the control in. No need to be vulnerable on that day.”2  Then something amazing took place.  The disciples found themselves overcome by God’s action, God’s power, God’s Spirit.  Jesus had already ascended and left the ministry, his work, God’s mission of love to a ragtag bunch of followers.  For a time, rather than go and carry on the work, they gathered behind closed doors, in relative safety, away from the challenges that beset a mission of love.

Like a mighty wind though, a rushing tumult, “the Spirit completely unsettled their planning. And, much to their surprise, and later, to their delight, all of those in the room began speaking in different languages. They simply could not help themselves. God’s Spirit caused them to burst forth into unfamiliar languages to proclaim to all the amazing things God had done in Jesus Christ.”2  From their space of quiet safety, God gave them the gift by which they could share the Good News with all the world.  The many tongues, the multiple languages they were able to speak, represented the whole world, a sort of geographic universality that this new movement would represent.   Good News of reconciling love would not be contained by closed doors or closed mouths.  The Spirit would jump start the church, God’s mission would continue, and love would prevail.  

So what is this mission on which God sends us into the world?  What does that look like Eric?   Do you recall the story of Jesus in the synagogue, the inauguration day of his ministry in the world?  He sat amongst the people, picked up the scroll and read, “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

See the mission of Jesus was Spirit empowered, so he did not go it alone.  The mission of Jesus is for the poor, and we must know that poverty takes on many forms (economic, emotional, spiritual, relational).  The mission of Jesus proclaims freedom for all prisoners, and we must know that there are all kinds of prisons in this life (economic, spiritual, relational).   The mission of Jesus brings sight to those who cannot seem to see the plight of their sisters and brothers, who cannot seem to see, that the way of reconciliation, is the way of peace.  The mission of Jesus brings freedom to those oppressed with guilt, doubt, uncertainty, and fear.  This is God’s mission in the world, this is Jesus’ mission, and my friends, this is the mission of the church, a Pentecost church; a church that traces its roots to that group of ragtag Jesus followers over 2000 years ago.

“A Pentecost church is one that is willing to take risks and engage people who may look or sound different or act differently from the usual person sitting next to us in the pew. A Pentecost church is one that does not expect that unity in Christ must equal uniformity, or that diversity must bring division.  On the contrary, a Pentecost church manages to hold enough trust in God’s wild Spirit to believe that God is at work in the unfamiliar, in the chaos, outside the boundaries we impose, bringing new life and new hope to a world that sorely needs it. A Pentecost church believes God knows how to be God and rejoices that we get to be God’s partner in spreading the word of grace and embrace and reconciliation that we know in Jesus Christ into all the world.”2

We are a counter-cultural lot, the Church. “Love your enemies,” “pray for those who persecute you,” “feed the hungry,” “give drink to the thirsty,” “welcome the stranger,” “clothe the naked,” “care for the sick,” “be with those in bondage.”  The church is sent out on this mission, to be as vulnerable in the world, as her Lord was on the Cross, as vulnerable as her Lord was as he met the least likely social characters on his journey, as vulnerable as her Lord was when he risked persecution to dine with outcasts.  This mission of love and reconciliation requires a vulnerability to be irrational in the eyes of the world.  The mission of God, the church’s mission, for our culture, seems outlandish, beyond imagine, illogical, unreasonable, foolish, ridiculous and out of bounds.  This is difficult work because at times, the world may be amazed and perplexed just like those early witnesses to Pentecost, and at other times, the world may sneer at what we do.

We are the bearers of Good News and by the power of God’s Spirit, we declare Irrational Love into the dark places of creation. The mission we are on is difficult, but we do not do it alone.  The Holy Spirit is God at work in the world and the church today. “ God gives us the strength and power to bear witness, to love irrationally, to do for others what God has done for us and to continue Christ’s work today.  This mission we are on, is not for us alone, it is God’s mission for the world.

Barbara Brown Taylor once preached a sermon in which, she referred to those folks trying to understand the work of the Holy Spirit today.  Taylor remarked, “they may not know where the wind comes from or where it is going, they do know whom to thank, which is why God gave the church to the world: not to possess the Spirit but to serve the Spirit, wherever in the world the Spirit may be found.”3   This outrageous mission of radical love we are on began that Day of Pentecost, 2000 + years ago, the so-called “birthday of the Church.”  That event should stand as a reminder to us, that we are more than just guests at our own party, we are more than gatherers for our own benefit, we are Apostolic, we are ambassadors and emissaries of God’s mission.  On this day, the anniversary of the inauguration of the community of God’s people, maybe our birthday wish should be this, “Lord, send us out, to proclaim good news to the poor,  to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor?”

SOURCES

1 Brinkman, J A. “Literary Background Of The “Catalogue Of The Nations” (Acts 2:9-11).” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 25.4 (1963): 418-427. ATLASerials, Religion Collection. Web. 12 May 2013.

2 Kershner, Shannon Johnson. “Outside The Walls.” Journal For Preachers 29.4 (2006): 53-55. ATLASerials, Religion Collection. Web. 12 May 2013.

3 Taylor, Barbara Brown. “God’s Breath.” Journal For Preachers 26.4 (2003): 37-40. ATLASerials, Religion Collection. Web. 12 May 2013.

SERMON 5/5/13 – Easter 6C St. George’s Episcopal Church, Bradenton, FL

O_Come_Holy_Spirit_by_LordShadowblade1Acts 16:9-15; Psalm 67;  Revelation 21:10, 22-22:5; John 14:23-29

But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you.   Although, in two weeks we will celebrate the feast of Pentecost, the birthday of the church, the day the Holy Spirit descended upon the apostles, we get a little foretaste in today’s gospel, of the significance of that event.  Jesus promises that the Holy Spirit will come to them, teach them, and advocate for them.  We Episcopalians get a little uneasy when there is talk about the Holy Spirit.  I honestly think it is because mystery is something we 21st century Christians, cannot seem to get our heads wrapped around.  I also think we may have some misunderstandings about the Holy Spirit, the Third Person of the Trinity.  Despite the fact that we don’t often talk much about the Spirit in Christian Formation classes, coffee hour discussions, and in some churches, not even in sermons.

Even so, our liturgy, our catechism, and our hymns provide us with a framework of rich, theological teachings about the Holy Spirit.  Our Creed for instance, asserts that the Holy Spirit is the “Lord and Giver of Life,” the “one who spoke through the prophets.”  It goes on to outline the mystery of the very act of the Holy Spirit, God’s own act, of his divine Son receiving our human nature from the Virgin Mary, his mother.  If you notice something in those words, this is all about God acting: giver of life, inspiring prophets, and incarnating flesh.  I believe we sometimes make all this mystery too complicated, too heady, and maybe, just maybe it’s much simpler.  The Holy Spirit is “God at work in the world, and in the Church even now.”  God is actively working in our lives and through the Church and her work; God is continuing his mission of salvation in the world.

The church is a visible sign of God’s work, not merely as the gathered body of believers, but as people who are transformed so much by the experience of God, that we are moved to action; moved to make present God’s reconciling love in the world.  When we respond to love, we are able to recognize the Holy Spirit, present in our lives.  There was a lovely woman in the church I served, prior to my beginning this current ministry, that despite any hardship or doubt she encountered, or even in times of joy and celebration, it was abundantly clear to all who knew her, that Christ was at the center of her life.  She did not wear a big cross on her neck, she did not put a bumper sticker on her car to proclaim it, she did not wear a T-shirt with the words emblazoned on it, but it was the mere fact of how she loved others, how she served the least, lost, and lonely with whom she encountered, loving as Jesus loves all creation, that she clearly claimed Jesus as Lord, as ‘Adonai,’ ‘Yaweh,’ ‘God.’

The narrative of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, and what it meant in her own healing was so compelling for her, that the Spirit’s work in her life, changed her.  She recognized God’s presence working in her, not because of something she did, or some special gift she was given that no one else had.  She had become aware of the Spirit’s presence already working in and through her, simply because she was seduced by love.  God was teaching her to love.  As promised by Jesus, the Holy Spirit will actively teach us everything, everything about loving God and loving neighbor, and empower us to love likewise.

I believe my friend, and each of us who become aware of the Spirit’s presence in our lives, experience that mindfulness in many ways.  We can become aware through our wrestling with scripture, through our participation in the sacraments (Holy Baptism/Holy Communion), and some through engaging in a committed life of prayer.  The church teaches us that scripture is the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, and it shows God at work in nature and history, to set forth the life and teachings of Jesus, and to show Good News of the Kingdom for all people.  We come to understand scripture by the help of the Holy Spirit, who guides the church in its interpretation.  We do not stand alone as individual interpreters of scripture, but we do so in community, listening for the Spirit’s teaching of truth, together as the assembled body of believers.  We test truth through scripture, not as a means to proof-text our own agendas and theological ideals, but through engaging the narrative of salvation as a whole, which points to Good News for all creation.  It is in community, community strengthened and led by the Holy Spirit, that we are able to hear the teachings of God.  The Spirit still speaks to the church!  I used to teach my Lectors that their ministry was of upmost importance on Sunday morning.  I reminded them that the Holy Spirit who inspired the original writers of the text, was actively engaged in the hearts of those to whom they were reading, and was actively working in them, as they proclaimed the Word that day.  In that area of liturgical service, the reader is holding a special ministry as the power the Spirit, actively works through each of us.

We can become aware of the Spirit’s presence in us the church, through the sacraments of Holy Baptism, and Holy Communion.  Baptism is more than a rite of passage for infants.  It is more than “fire insurance,” and it is more than a mere family ritual.  Baptism is the sacrament by which God adopts us and makes us members of Christ’s body, the Church, and inheritors of the Kingdom of God.  We are baptized in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit and thus, brought into new life in the Holy Spirit.  We become a part of that discerning body, who together with others, recognize in each other, the presence of the Holy Spirit working in and through our lives.  All of our ministries, our community, our worship, our prayer, and our study, have its origins in our common life found in Baptism, following the example of Our Lord Jesus Christ. It is this body gathered together, that participates in the Great Thanksgiving, the Feast, the Eucharist, and the Holy Communion.

This new community in the Spirit is gathered to offer a sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving, united in the breaking of bread and sharing of the cup, in the receiving of the Body and Blood of Our Lord Jesus Christ, that we are made one Body with him, that he might live in us, and we in him.  It is by the power of the Holy Spirit, that bread and wine become the real presence of Body and Blood.  It is in this sharing of this meal that we find forgiveness, are strengthened in our union with Christ and each other, and we look forward to the banquet, which is to come.  In the Eucharist, the Holy Spirit is present and actively working in and through our lives.  From this table, we are fed, nourished, strengthened, and empowered to go out into the world, to share the Good News of grace, mercy, and reconciliation in the world.

So, here the conversation about the Holy Spirit may get a little uncomfortable. The Church is on a mission, not our own individual mission, not our private projects, nor a corporate journey of mere self-preservation.  The Church is sent out on the mission of God, and that undertaking is God reconciling the world to God-self and yes, we have a big part to play!  We are called to open our eyes and our hearts, look around us wherever we are planted, and widen the circle of love beyond our four walls.  We are planted as a community of reconciliation in our neighborhoods, not merely as a spot for the faithful to gather, but as place of training, preparation, strengthening, and discerning, with the help of the Holy Spirit, so our gifts may be ignited and so we may become ambassadors of grace in the world.  That is a pretty tall order!  Yep, you’re right, but my sisters and brothers that is what it means to follow Jesus.  Here is the best part; we don’t have to do this alone.  God is with us … even now.  In all that we undertake, God is at work.  In all we do, God is at work.  In any endeavor of reconciliation, God is with us.  God is bringing about reconciliation in the world and despite how overwhelming it seems; this work we are called to do, Jesus said, “Don’t let your hearts be troubled, don’t be afraid.” After all, it’s not our mission, it’s God’s and with God leading the way, what are we afraid of?

 

O_Come_Holy_Spirit_by_LordShadowblade1

SERMON 4/21/13 Easter 4C St. Edmund Episcopal Church, Arcadia, FL

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Acts 9:36-43; Psalm 23; Revelation 7:9-17; John 10:22-30

It is wonderful to be with you all, the people of God at St. Edmund’s in Arcadia.  When Fr. Jim asked me to serve today, I was thrilled to be able to share with you a little about the ministry I am doing in the Diocese, and to hear from you, how God is moving through your ministry, here in Arcadia.  As the new Diocesan Missioner, our Bishop has sent me out to collaborate with and support clergy and laypersons in our diocese, who have a passion for a mission field we may not readily recognize, but one that is definitely located in our own back yards, and for people with whom we come in contact each and every day.

The religious landscape of our culture has been, and is changing at an unprecedented pace.  In 1989, 8% of the American population claimed no religious affiliation.  In 2009, that number jumped to 16%, and as reported in a 2012 Pew survey, a startling 20% of the population, now claim no religious affiliation.  This new ministry in which I am engaged, is focused on creating safe spaces for the “religiously unaffiliated,” to have an opportunity to experience the “Way of Jesus,” through the lives of those who are willing to step out of their comfort zones, and meet folks where they are.

My missionary vocation is to identify, encourage, train, and support folks who are willing to go out, and create safe spaces for Christian community to emerge and in places, where it was unlikely before.  I believe there is a great hunger for spiritual connection in our culture.  I believe it is in community that we come to recognize who Jesus is, that Jesus is the manifestation of God’s work of love in the world, and it is by living the “Way of Jesus,” people can experience joy, peace, love, reconciliation, and grace in Christ.  Making Christ known in the world is not merely a mission of the first followers of Jesus, it is our vocation in the world today.  We share a lot in common with those first century followers, and we hear about their struggle to understand the identity of Jesus, and why that truth is so important for the story of God’s saving work in creation.

In today’s gospel, we hear about an event in which, the religious leaders challenged Jesus to come out, and reveal his true identity. This confrontation took place in the temple, on the “Feast of Dedication,” also known as Hanukkah.  This feast was observed to celebrate the re-consecration of the temple, which had been desecrated by Antiochus Epiphanes (168 B.C.), as a part of his attempt to obliterate all Jewish religious practices.  Antiochus was the king of a dynasty, created by Alexandria the Great, and his name literally means “God manifest.”  Antiochus, through his oppression and destruction of temple worship, his oppression and murder of the Israelites, undermined God’s work of love in and through the people of Israel.  It is ironic that at the “Festival of Dedication,” a feast celebrating the overthrow of a false “God manifest,” that the opponents of Jesus, pressed him to reveal his true self.

Jesus said, “The works that I do in my Father’s name testify to me.”  One of my mother’s favorite sayings was, “you can judge a book by its cover.”  She usually used this little saying, when she confronted me about my occasional bad attitude or behaviors, which were less than that of a young, Christian boy.  In other words, if I did my chores versus, just being lazy and sitting in my room watching TV, the outward signs and actions in which I engaged, reflected something about my true character.  I believe the works (miracles, teaching, and self-giving love), Jesus demonstrated and embodied, was a perfect reflection of the character, and a complete image of the very presence of God in the world.  The Father and the Son are united in the work they do, and these are indistinguishable works.  For instance, God gives life/Jesus gives life, God judges/Jesus judges.

Jesus identity makes God’s presence in the world tangible, profound, and demonstrable.  God is revealed in the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus.  In Christ, God is palpably available to the world, and it is through the lives of we who trust in Jesus, the world sees Jesus’ work in us, and thus, they see God’s work of restoration, love, mercy, and grace.  Our mission is to make Christ known in the world.

For the past several weeks, I have been spending my Friday’s in a coffee house east of Tampa, in an area called FishHawk.  Friday is one of my “mission field office” days where I like to write, reflect, update my blog, prepare a sermon, or just “be” with people.  The best part of these “mission field” days, is that I get to know people where I “hang out,” and I get to establish relationships with folks, whereas I might not otherwise.  In this little coffee place, I came to know all the baristas who work there.  They share their stories with me, and I share mine.  We have established trust with each other, and we all look forward to chatting about the news, sports, of the previous week and yes, we talk about faith.

The other day, I asked the one of the baristas, a twenty-something young woman majoring in business at a local college, whether she ever had a church experience, and what that was like for her.  She said, “Yes, I was Roman Catholic, and I really felt that the space at church was holy and sacred.”  I asked, “Do you go to church now?”  She said, “No, I really think each person should find their own way, and I’m not sure I believe you need church to do that.” “Besides,” she said, “I’m not sure folks who claim Jesus, really reflect Jesus’ teachings.”

I have to be honest; this was difficult for me to hear.  She went on to say, “I do believe we should care for others, and I want to go and take care of the homeless myself, in downtown St. Pete someday.”  I said, “If you found a group of people whose mission was to serve the least, lost, and lonely; people who in all they do, they focus on going out and serving the broken and destitute, would you consider hanging out with folks like that?” She said, “Absolutely!”  I thought, “so where is the disconnect between her early church and experience, and this model of church she seems to long for?”  My young friend wants to experience the way of reconciliation, mercy, grace, and love found in the way of Jesus, the way of serving others.  We the church must show Jesus to the world, through sharing the work of Jesus in our own lives.

Jesus is more than, and other than, our traditional expectations of Messiah.  Jesus is more than a good teacher, a bearer of good morals.  Jesus is the very presence of God’s saving power in the world.  Jesus is the bringer of light into a world imbued with darkness.  Jesus is the purveyor of love into a world filled with disdain, detachment, and evil.  Jesus is the transmitter of life into a world that moves in the shadow of death.  Jesus is the source of grace, in a world where grace is both unmerited and undeserved.  Jesus work of reconciliation is the work of God, and Jesus’ work, is the work of each of us, who claim him as Lord.

Jesus said, “My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me.”  Are we listening?  Are we bringing light, purveying love, transmitting life, and sharing grace?  Our mission as the Church is “to bring all people into unity with God and each other in Christ.”  We, who have experienced the reality of Jesus’ work in us and are thus transformed, become the revelation of Jesus, for the entire world to see.   Our mission is to make Christ known, those who come to our doors seeking him, and those who may never darken our doors.  As our culture continues to become less and less “religiously unaffiliated,” the Master’s voice is becoming muted by the noise of other enticements.  If we are truly on a mission “to bring all people into unity with God and each other in Christ,” may in all we do, in all the ministries we engage, in all the gatherings of our community, become an opportunity to demonstrate God’s reconciling love, for the entire world to see.

SERMON 4/14/13 Easter 3C

imagesSt. Hilary’s Episcopal Church, Fort Myers, FL
Acts 9:1-6, (7-20); Psalm 30; John 21:1-19

It is a joy to be with you all, the people of God at St. Hilary’s. It seems like yesterday, but it was six years ago that my spouse Terri and I lived in the Fort Myers area. Back then; we were leading a multi-venue ministry, with the purpose of bringing people together, who were on the margins of the traditional church. This ministry’s purpose was to provide space to grow into a deeper love of Jesus, to experience the Risen Christ in each other, and to go out and share that in our daily lives. See, our culture has been and is, changing at an unprecedented pace. In 1989, 8% of the American population claimed no religious affiliation. In 2009, that number jumped to 16%, and as reported in a 2012 Pew survey, a startling 20% of the population, now claim no religious affiliation. Many people wrestle with why this trend is happening, and there is concern that we may see this trend in a growing number of churches in the United States.

Despite what may seem to be frightening statistics, I believe there is great hope. I believe that in each of us, the Spirit moves and breathes and gives us a mission, whether we know it or not. I believe God is always calling us into a deeper loving life, a life of joy, peace, and grace. I believe God is sending us out into the world to share God’s love with all of creation. The purpose of the ministry we served in six years ago, as unusual as it may seem, was to go and meet people where they were, and to create the conditions for a “safe space” for discipleship to emerge. In some cases the venues included our home, a coffee house, a local pub, and the parks of downtown Fort Myers, where we fed the homeless each week. Did it look like church, as we know it today? Probably not, but it was authentic Christian community emerging in places, it would not have emerged before.

So, after two years of this ministry, Terri and I were sent off to seminary for me to prepare for ordained ministry and then, after graduation and ordination, we served a wonderful, traditional parish for nearly three years, right here in our diocese. The need to continue Christ’s mission of love in the world, for the growing number of folks, who are on the margins of the traditional Christian community, and my passion to be engaged in that mission, did not go away. That is the work I am doing now as the Diocesan Missioner here in Southwest Florida. Our Bishop has sent me out to collaborate with and support clergy and laypersons in our diocese, who have a passion for this mission field, located in their own back yards. My current ministry involves identifying, training, supporting, and helping folks who are willing to go out, and create safe spaces for Christian community to emerge; in places where it was unlikely before. This work is really nothing new. Jesus called the first disciples to drop their nets and go fishing for people. The scene on the beach depicted in today’s gospel reading involves Our Lord reminding those early followers, that their Christian vocation was to be emissaries of Christ in the world. Jesus reminds us too, that “We are fishers of people.”

Early in the gospel narrative, Peter heard these words from our Lord, “Come follow me, and I will make you fishers of people.” Today’s reading turns that whole early experience upside down. After three years with the Lord, after all the miracles and healings, after the journey to Jerusalem, the trial, crucifixion, the sighting at the tomb, and (as we heard in last week’s gospel reading) the appearance of the Risen Christ in the locked upper room, Peter seems to have thrown up his hands, and decided, “I am going fishing.”

Peter was not going back to the kind of fishing Jesus called him to on the shore three years before. No, he was headed back to do what he felt comfortable doing, where he could be self-sufficient, and to do what he knew best. He even took some of the other followers along with him: Thomas, Nathanial, the Sons of Zebedee, and two other unnamed disciples. These were all followers who, in all probability, knew Jesus, who proclaimed him as the Lord, and despite their individual and corporate encounters with the Risen Christ, all returned to their trade and abandoned the mission. They all returned to do what they found to be comfortable, and they forgot the life-altering experience of God with them in flesh. Jesus did just not leave them to their poor choice of mission abandonment; he met them at the beach.

So, on the beach that day, the Lord called out, “caught anything yet?” “No,” they replied. “Try the other side of the boat,” Jesus responded. Notice that Jesus did not chastise the boys for going back to their old jobs. As a matter of fact, he demonstrated God’s abundance by offering some angling advice, which rendered the nets full of fish. Their eyes perceived visible and tangible evidence of God’s abundant care and concern in this little miracle. Jesus gave them what they needed in abundance with overflowing fish, unbroken nets, and then, he cooked a meal for all of them to share. Jesus loved abundantly, even in the midst of the rejection of his mission and he continues to send us out on that mission today.

Jesus invited those who turned away, to come to the table and eat, to be nourished, to be fed, so that they might go out and fish; fish for people. Sharing the Good News was their true vocation, it was their true calling and yes my friends, that is our true calling as followers of Jesus. We are messengers of Kingdom Love, and we the church, are to be about the mission of going out, and inviting all to the table. “Kingdom love” is in its action the work of inviting, giving, serving, sharing, eating, and loving together in community. It was this kind of Kingdom love through which the Lord revealed then, and reveals himself again, and again, and again.

What is this “love” like you may ask. Put yourself in Peter’s place for a moment. Picture yourself in this scene on the beach, with Jesus sitting next to you, looking you in the eye, with those loving eyes. He asks you, “Do you love me?” Maybe you answer, “I love you with all my heart,” or “I love you like a friend,” or “I like you Jesus,” or maybe, “I acknowledge your work and approve of it.” The answer may very well be different for each of us, but we all give some kind of answer. Then, Jesus pauses, looks at you again with love in his eyes (those eyes filled with a love deeper than family, than spouse, than anything we can imagine) and he says, “Then go and continue my mission of love.” “Whether you like me, love me, adore me, or worship me, it is where you are, but go and do for others what I do for you, feed them with what they need, just as I have fed you this day, welcomed you to this meal this day, cared for you this day.” The dialogue Peter had with Jesus on that seaside, fishing excursion, is reflective of the one he has with us, when he calls us to “Follow me.” “Do you love me,” Jesus asks. We answer. Jesus loving looks at us and sends us out on a mission of love into the world, a world Jesus loves so much that he died, so it might be reconciled to him. We are on a mission beyond ourselves. We are on a mission to share the abundant love shown us, in Christ.

How might we go about this mission of love? We find the answer in the promises made by us at Baptism. Let me read those, and if you agree, will you say, “I will with God’s help? (1) Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ? In other words, will you in your everyday life, remember that you may be the only Gospel people may hear? Will you let your life be a reflection of the mercy, love, grace, reconciliation, and the peace of Christ? (2) Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself? In other words, with everyone, I mean everyone you encounter, will you serve him or her with the same love Christ gives you? Will you take a risk and help the other person out of the abundance God has given you? Will you be an instrument of grace? (3) Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being? In other words, will you advocate for, work actively in, personally participate in bringing about justice and peace among the least, lost, and lonely in God’s creation? Will you look at all people, the poor, the broken, the unloved and work to bring dignity into their lives?

It sounds like a tall order doesn’t it? I look at the baptismal promises I made so long ago, and sometimes I think, man it would be so easy just to go back to the comfort of living my own life, worrying about my own needs, not making a stir in society, or just focusing on what I am comfortable with. It would be so easy just to go back to the kind of fishing I used to do. Then I realized this is not what it means to follow the one who risked it all for love. Jesus asks us with love in his eyes, “Do you love me?” We answer. “Then go and feed my sheep.”

The response to the abundant love of God is to feed each other (all of God’s creation), giving to each other (all of God’s creation) we need to create space giving the opportunity for others to experience dignity, peace, reconciliation, mercy, and grace. This feeding of others, the fishing for people is not merely the vocation of the professionally trained Christian, the lifelong churchgoer, or the paid staff. Feeding the least, lost, and lonely among us and beyond the walls of our gathering spaces, is the mission we have been given as God’s emissaries in the world. It is not an easy undertaking on which to embark. I do believe though, that by giving away the abundant joy, peace, love, reconciliation, mercy, and grace given us in Christ, we will find it even more in abundance. “Do you love me, yes Lord, I love you, then feed my sheep.”

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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