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SERMON 1/20/19 Epiphany 2C St. Monica’s Episcopal Church, Naples, FL

Isaiah 62:1-5; Psalm 36:5-10; 1 Corinthians 12:1-11; John 2:1-11

My hour has not come

            We often hear this story of Jesus’ miraculous act at a wedding (when he turned water to wine) and we remember it as a nice little story from Sunday school days.   We might even skim over it, as if it were a child’s fairytale. I saw a meme on Facebook several months ago about the “wine conversion miracle” and I have to admit, it made me chuckle.  It was a picture of a Publix display rack, and above the top shelf where you would normally see a “Wine” sign that described the contents of the display, filled with “Yellow Tail Chardonnay” and “Barefoot Merlot,” the sign actually said, “Water.”  The caption for the picture was this, “Well, it looks like Jesus took another stroll through Publix again today.”  Yes, it was quite funny, and it reminds us how we hear about Jesus’ miracles and either think, “that was nice of him,” or dismiss them outright without knowing the depth of what was actually happening. I want to share with you some tidbits about this true to life occurrence involving Our Lord, because there is so much more to this story of the Wedding at Cana, than merely a “water and wine” grocery aisle pun.

            We hear in John’s gospel today, that Jesus was at a wedding in Cana of Galilee with his disciples and his mother and after the ceremony, there was a great feast going on.  Suddenly, the host ran out of wine, and the party was most likely going to come to an abrupt and premature end.  Of course, there was no local Publix where the steward could go and buy a few cases of Cabernet.  Then suddenly, Mary, Jesus’ mother, took an opportunity for Jesus to do more than just solve a beverage issue.  Mary said to Jesus, “They have no wine.”  

            Have you ever considered whether Mary merely let her son know, “Jesus, they have no wine,” or rather, did she give him a gentle motherly coaxing (like all of us have had)?  Did she really mean, “Jesus, they have no wine, this is your chance, fix it.” Regardless whether Mary was just stating a fact about the wedding circumstances, or if she was intentionally coaxing her son to reveal himself in a potential miracle situation, Jesus understood what his mother was alluding to at that point.  Jesus’ response to his Mother was, “My hour has not yet come.”  In other words, “this is not the right time, Mom.”

Ministry Time: Chronos vs. Kairos

            “This phrase suggests (maybe) that Jesus had hoped for a more carefully chosen setting for his first presentation of himself.” (1) Like many of us, when the call to respond to the movement of the Spirit that coaxes us to respond to our ministry call, Jesus was secretly thinking, “this is not what I had carefully planned and scheduled, nor how I wanted to control how this thing was going to happen.”  Mary’s motherly prodding of Jesus to act was not the moment he had carefully put in his ICalendar, Microsoft Outlook, or Day Planner in order to control and plan his life.  That is normally the way we plot and plan our lives today.   Mary’s prodding of Jesus to act was what is known as a kairosmoment, an event when “certain unexpected circumstances push us to divert, to take a different choice, and to use those opportune moments to understand our true calling.” 

            In a Christian Centuryarticle written by Jack Good, he comments, “Kairos time … represents discontinuity, when an unexpected barrier forces one to move off a planned course and adjust to new realities.” (1) What Jesus had planned for his ministry, in a single moment became an event that he had not expected.  Jesus’ to do list was trashed in a single moment, and everything changed, and his path was diverted, and his purpose and mission was coming to reality right then and there.  

            Like Jesus, throughout our journeys of faith, we have to understand that we have been given specific gifts from God for ministry, and there will never be a perfect or maybe even an opportune time, for which to use those gifts for God’s kingdom.  In his letter to the Church in Corinth, The Apostle Paul points out, “Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone.”   In other words, God is the one who gives us the gifts for ministry, such as:  wisdom, knowledge, faith, healing, prophecy, and discernment. Paul reminds us too. that God is the one, who gives us the ministry in which, we might use those gifts. Finally Paul tells us that it is God, who creates the kairosmoments, in which we might respond to the call to serve.  The key here is that we have a choice to respond, and we can do so with faith, knowing we can only serve “With God’s help.”   

God calls us to serve

            Throughout my ministry as a priest, both in diocesan and parish work, I have asked people to discern and pray about a ministry, for which I believed they had the gifts.  I have mentored lay people who initially were led to “on the edge/out of the box ministry,” but after months of coaching, they suddenly felt a nudge to answer the call to discern traditional ordained ministry.  I have served as Nominating Committee Chair for the diocese and over the years, I invited priests, deacons, and lay people to consider serving in leadership positions and on committees and other groups.  In the USAF Auxiliary, I have asked young chaplains to consider taking on positions of leadership to oversee, manage, and train other new, younger chaplains.

            Sometimes when I asked people to pray about responding to God’s call for lay or ordained ministry, they often had reasons to say no. Sometimes fear of change, or the fear of failure resulted in excuses like, “I am too busy,” or “I am not really good at that,” or I just don’t have time.”   My own call to ordained ministry was such a kairosmoment.  Nearly 14 years ago someone saw gifts in me that I could not see in myself.  My priest asked me, “have you ever felt called to ordained ministry?”  My response was a lot like Jesus’ answer when his mother wanted him to act.   I said, “You’re kidding right, it’s not the right time for us to go away to seminary for three years, quit my job, live on one income, leave our home, and leave all our friends.” I made excuses, and tried to get out of it, and I hoped for the perfect time.  I tried to control when I wanted to do ministry, but God would have none of it.  He knew that it was the right time for my family to set out on that new journey. Throughout my time of discerning my own ministry call, there were many kairosmoments that made it clear to me, that I needed to be obedient to God. God opened every door, and made it possible for us to serve, even when my agenda, my calendar, and my excuses would have kept me from responding to God’s call.   

Answering the Call

            How about you?  Maybe God has been nudging you to begin serving in a new ministry here at St. Monica’s. Maybe people have told you that you have the gifts for some special kind of service in the church.  Maybe you said, “I have so much on my plate,” or maybe like Jesus in an unexpected moment, when the need was presented for  you to serve, you said, “it’s just not the right time.” 

            The One who created all we perceive, the One who miraculously changed water into wine is the same One who gives us the gifts for mission, the passion to serve, and the work to do.   From our human perspective, there are no perfect times or circumstances to do ministry, but for the One who made us so perfectly, makes possible “certain unexpected circumstances to push us to divert, to take a different choice, and to use those opportune moments to understand our true calling.”  

            Later in his ministry, Jesus had many kairosmoments, in addition to the one heard in the gospel today.  One time Jesus was teaching the crowds, and then he had a moment when something happened unexpectedly.  He stopped, saw all his people living daily in poverty, sickness and in need, and with great compassion he said, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.” (Matt 9:37b-38)   

            Some things have never changed, even in the church of the 21stcentury, and still today, the work of ministry is beyond the scope of what any one of us alone can do.  Yet, the Master coaxes us to ask God to send some help.  As we move forward together on this journey of parish mission and ministry, please remember that each one of us is the help that God is sending to us. Remember, you are not being asked to change “water into wine,” but merely to use the gifts you have been given for service in God’s Kingdom.  Your ministry call will come soon, if not already. When it does come, please be open to that kairosmoment and with confidence in Our Lord Jesus to walk the journey alongside you, respond with, “I will with God’s help.”

REFERENCES

(1) Good, Jack. “Defining Moment.” The Christian Century, vol. 121, no. 1, Jan. 2004, p. 16.  

SERMON 1/13/19 Epiphany 1C “Feast of the Baptism of Our Lord”, St. Monica’s Naples

Isaiah 43:1-7; Psalm 29; Acts 8:14-17; Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

Baptism

         Today we commemorate the First Sunday after Epiphany, but more importantly, it is the Feast of the Baptism of Our Lord. It is one of only six baptismal feasts at which, baptisms may occur in the Episcopal Church and in many mainline churches. In Luke’s gospel account of Jesus’ own baptism (we heard today) John the baptizer told the people, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you withthe Holy Spirit and fire.”  Like at Pentecost, today we hear the use of the word fire and Spirit in conjunction with one another.  Let me clarify something here about the fire John was talking about, because some folks are a little confused by all this talk of fire and its relation to baptism. 

         Have you heard the term, “spiritual fire insurance?” It is a misconception that comes from medieval times, when people then, perceived baptism as a magical formula for saving babies from the fires of hell.  Even today, some people still believe that baptism is a ritual, done as soon as possible after the child’s birth, to insure the safety of the child’s eternal soul.  Baptism is not “spiritual fire insurance,” nor is it a private affair for the child and family, nor is it an empty rite of passage that is once and done, and the child (or adult) is all set.  Baptism is the beginning point of a person’s faith journey, and the door into the Body of Christ, which is why the baptismal font is located at the door of the church.  Baptism is the holy beginning point of a life-long journey of faith in Christ and life together in the church.  

What is Baptism

         Baptism is one of two sacraments in the Episcopal Church, the other being Holy Communion.  Sacraments are sacred moments through which, an inward grace from God is conveyed with outward symbols, prayer, and action.  Interestingly enough, in the church, a Bishop consecrates two pieces of sacred furniture, which are the baptismal font and the Altar.  Baptism and Communion are the key connecting points of Christian community, because life as a community begins in the waters of baptism and then, each week we come together for Holy Communion, where we are fed to go out into the world as witness of grace.  Baptism is the beginning point and Holy Eucharist is the sustaining point of a cycle of community in which, we experience God’s grace.

         At baptism, we are forever changed and made free from those things that keep us from God’s grace and purpose for our lives. At baptism, God promises his Spirit will guide and direct our lives. At baptism, we are brought into union with Christ, with each other and with the Church of every time and place.” (1) Community is the key to baptism and something we often overlook. Baptism is entry into the community and that truth, will turn upside down the idea that baptism is “once and done,” private affair, fire insurance, or an empty rite of passage.  Following the example of Jesus, we are a baptismal community not just baptized individuals.

Baptismal Community

         Pastor Heather Carlson writes, “at (Jesus) baptism …. (he) isn’t alone. There are others there, being baptized, and there is someone there to baptize Jesus. Jesus isn’t a religious lone ranger.” (3) There are no authentic Christian lone rangers, because it is impossible to be a growing, transforming, and missional Christian all by yourself.  Jesus formed a community of people that began with twelve unlikely characters, and now, the church today is a group of over 2.2 billion people worldwide.  

         Being a Christian has always been a communal journey of nurturing, growth, and transforming that can only occur through involvement in the life of a congregation. You may ask, “Why do we baptize babies; they are too young to make those commitments and what happens if the parents and godparents do not follow up and never come back.”  If that happens, then that is a spiritual tragedy (and sin) because at baptism, parents, Godparents and the entire church make a promise to God, to the child (or adult candidate), and to each other, to help that candidate grow in the faith.   We make those promises because as a community, we have a Christian obligation to help one another grow in Christ.  

         So, we all promise to help children and adults to grow in the faith so, at a mature age, they can stand publically in the church and take on those baptismal promises for themselves, declaring to God and the church present, that they accept Jesus as their Lord and Savior.  By the way, that is confirmation, when the Bishop lays hands on their heads as a gesture (an outward sign) confirmingthey have made that mature public affirmation.  Baptismal promises are essential elements because they help us understand, and they hold us accountable to who we are, how we live, and what our mission and purpose is as the family of God.

         Today, in place of the Nicene Creed, we will renew these promises to each other and to God.  Please listen closely to each carefully as we promise  to gather, learn, share communion, and pray, grow, transform, and follow Jesus together. We will promise to evangelize, serve others, engage in mission, and to love our neighbors together.   We will promise (with this caveat) that we can only do these things “With God’s Help,”  knowing we have the Holy Spirit to lead the way.  

A community of the baptized, the Body of Christ

         God’s Spirit got inside our lives at our baptism, and the Holy Spirit is active in our lives, even when things get a little messy in Christian community.  Through the Spirit, we are intertwined like the objects of a mobile that hangs over a baby’s crib.  Just remember, you cannot move one object on one side of the mobile, without that movement having an affect on every other piece.  There are no decisions, actions, or conversations in the church that can be made in isolation.  We are connected by the Spirit of God and so, we must care for one another, because we need one another.

         We baptized folk gather together for lots of reasons but hopefully, we gather for growth in Christ and fellowship with one another, and not for the purpose of being merely a religious self-help association.  The Church is a lighthouse and not a clubhouse. We do not gather for our own benefit, edification, and sanctification. The Body of Christ’s purpose is to be beacon of hope, for a world, struggling in the darkness of despair. The church guides, moves, and goes out to serve.  We move from Font, to Table, and then to the Mission Field, every single week.

From Font to Table to Mission Field

         Every Sunday, you may have noticed that I begin the service from the baptismal font, and some of you do the same.  My practice is to offer a prayer for God’s help,  to dip my hand in the baptismal water, and then I cross myself.  The font is where I end the service, including the same action as before, but culminating with the dismissal, “Let us go forth into the world, rejoicing in the power of the Spirit.”  These actions are not empty gestures, but serve as a reminder that we as a community live this cycle of faith from the Font, to the Holy Table (fed and filled with Jesus Christ) and then we are sent out into the world to be his ambassadors and witnesses of the Good News of Christ.  You know in the Nicene Creed we say, “I believe in one holy catholic and APOSTOLIC church.”  We are sent out, which is what apostolic means. We are a community sent out on mission, and by virtue of our baptism, we have given gifts for the Kingdom’s use.

         In last week’s sermon I said, “Get ready to discover the spiritual gifts, talents, and passions has God given you, and those gifts which are to be offered back to the King, so he might use them to spread the kingdom.”  You do know that each one of you have been given gifts for mission and ministry.  You do know that “where your spiritual gifts, given to you by the Holy Spirit at your baptism, meet the world’s greatest needs; that is your ministry.”  

         What gifts at baptism were you given, when the Holy Spirit brought the grace of this sacrament in your life?   Are you a teacher gifted to share God’s word?  Then teach!  Are you a speaker gifted to read scripture to the church? Then read! Are you a singer gifted to sing and lead others to song? Then sing!  Are you a leader gifted with insight, wisdom, and vision? Then lead!  Are you (Fill in the blank) gifted to do ministry in this church and in the world? Then do it! You see all of us (clergy and Lay alike) by virtue of our baptism are ALL called by God, into ministry to take what God has given us, and to serve others, both inside, and outside the doors of the church.  

          “He will baptize you withthe Holy Spirit and fire.” We all need a little baptismal fire lit under us from time to time.  We need the fire of the Holy Spirit, to insure us each day that with God’s help, we are enabled to keep those promises each one of us have made.  We need the fire of the Holy Spirit, so when we gather together in community, we can strengthened, empowered, and equipped to continue together, Christ’s ministry of love, peace, grace, mercy, and reconciliation for the world.  My prayer for all of us is that each week, we too can catch the fire and then, “go in peace to love and SERVE the Lord!”

REFERENCES

1 “Baptism, Eucharist, and Ministry,” World Council of Churches Faith and Order Paper No. 111, Geneva, 1982, p. 2

https://processandfaith.org/lectionary-commentary/the-first-sunday-after-the-epiphany-the-baptism-of-the-lord-13-january-2018/

http://www.ekklesiaproject.org/blog/2013/01/risky-waters/

SERMON 1-6-19, The Feast of Epiphany 1C, St. Monica’s, Naples, FL

Isaiah 60:1-6;  Psalm 72:1-7,10-14; Ephesians 3:1-12; Matthew 2:1-12 

Magi: Fact or Fiction?

            Today is the Feast of the Epiphany, and in the gospel reading, we hear about the Magi, the “Three Wise Men” who visited the Nativity scene soon after Jesus’ birth.  I want to share with you some interesting tidbits about the story of the Magi, of which, you may already be aware, and maybe not: (1) This account is only found in Matthew’s gospel, (2) The Magi were from the East, so they were most likely Gentiles, (3) many of the details about the Magi are not found in scripture, but come from later tradition, (4) western tradition has the Magi’s number at three (because of the three gifts), but eastern tradition says there were twelve, (5) tradition tells us their names were Balthsar, Melchior, and Caspar, (6) the word Magi in Greek does not mean royalty or Kings, but it relates to practitioners of eastern magical art (e.g. the fascination with that star over the manger), and (7) Magi did not always have a positive connotation in other parts of scripture.

            Why is the story of the Epiphany event, and its later tradition additions, so important to provide meaning to Matthew’s depiction of the story of the Incarnation?  First, there are threads of similarity between birth of Moses and Jesus.  Moses was born at a time when Pharaoh was threatened by the idea of a great leader arising from among the Hebrew children.  Herod was afraid of the threat of the promised King revealed in the Babe Jesus. Pharaoh ordered all the male children killed, and Herod did a heinous act when (according to tradition) he slaughtered the Innocents.  There is also an Exodus connection in these two stories, whereby Moses led the people of Israel from the bondage of slavery in Egypt, to become a new people to shine God’s light into the world.  

            In Jesus Christ, God came among us to deliver us from the bondage of the slavery of our own sin, to make all the people (Jew and Gentile alike) the lights by which all might experience the grace of God. So there is a theological connection between Moses and Jesus’ birth stories, both of which are the end pieces of the thread of God’s narrative of salvation.

Herod:  a Key Character in this story

            There is another, often overlooked character in this story Herod, who challenges us to consider our Epiphany moments. Herod’s response to the Epiphany, of the light entering into the world was very different from the reaction of the Magi, but such was the character of Herod.  Herod Achelaus his full name, was the son of Herod and Malthace, and the brother of Herod Antipas (a later antagonist of Jesus).  He ruled the region of Idumea, Judea, and Samaria in 4 BCE. Herod Achelaus treated both Jews and Samaritans with brutality and tyranny, which is the backdrop of the story we hear about today.  When given control of the realm, Achelaus proceeded to kill about 3000 of the local inhabitants. After this event a prolonged revolt took place, which later led to his demise, when in 6CE Rome deposed him and exiled him to Gaul.  

            In Matthew’s Gospel we read these words, “Then Herod secretlycalled for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared.”   Herod sent them to Bethlehem to find the child, so he could “Pay him homage.”  This is so ironic, because “homage” as translated from the Greek is obeisance, which Webster defines as deferential or humble respect. Herod had no intention of offering “Deferential respect” to the Babe King in the manger, because that child threatened Herod’s power and throne.  Herod had no plan to humble himself before God Almighty in Flesh, the Babe in the manger, but rather, he wanted to eliminate the threat to his power, just as he did with the 3000 innocents he slaughtered.  

            Herod sought self-preservation not self-denial, self-importance not humility, and self worship not self-giving worship of God. That was the dilemma that Herod found himself in in that Epiphany moment, and it was the same issue he struggled with his entire life.  Herod’s pursuit of power tried to overshadow the power of God’s love coming into the world. Herod’s own agenda tried to overshadow God’s story of salvation and God’s plan.  When he learned about the King in the manger, Herod’s Epiphany moment and his later choices in response to it, led him not toward grace, but far away from God’s Kingdom.  Have you ever had an Epiphany moment in your own spiritual journey?

Herod or Magi

            Walter Brueggemann writes about Epiphany moments in his Christian Centuryarticle “Off by Nine Miles.” He reminds us that the narrative of Epiphany (primarily) is about how God’s grace broke into human history, not just for a single group of folks, but for all; (Jew and Gentile) alike.  Brueggemann shows us that the subtext stories of Herod and the Maggi are actually contrasting, and personify the real conflict that exists within each of our own spiritual journeys.  

            When we experience an Epiphany moment in this life, when the light of the world Jesus Christ shines in our hearts and highlights the recesses that we would rather remain in darkness, we face the reality of who we are at the core.  When that light shines, as Brueggemann states, “We can choose a “return to normalcy” in a triumphalist mode, a life of self-sufficiency that contains within it its own seeds of destruction, or we can choose an alternative that comes in innocence and a hope that confounds our usual pretensions. We can receive life given in vulnerability.” (1)  

            In other words, like Herod, when our Epiphany moments come, we either choose the path of self (preservation, satisfaction, absorption) or we choose the way of self giving love in Jesus Christ.  Maybe we continue to pursue our own quest for power and self-sufficiency and that will squelch the true light of hope, self-giving, humility, and vulnerability made real in Christ, who came to us as a baby, and brought hope to the poor and downtrodden, gave of himself on a cross, and then, even his love overcame death. That too was the way of the Magi.  They did “not resist God’s call, but (went) on to the village and rather than hesitate or resist, they reorganized their wealth and learning, and reoriented themselves and their lives around a baby with no credentials.” (1) The choices to follow the way of Jesus is always ours. Following the way of love, I mean real love, always demands a choice.

Epiphany moments

            I was speaking with a trusted friend and colleague a few years ago about a very difficult and tenuous ministry situation.  I opened my heart to him about how unfair the situation was, about how I was not being given the opportunity to make a change that I wanted to make, and about how the religious system was keeping us from doing God’s will.  My dear friend looked at me and said very clearly, “Eric, this is not about you.” The light of Christ shone brightly into the dark recess of my heart at that moment, and I was confronted with my own desire for personal ministry success, a desire that overshadowed the fact that God was trying to do something very different from what I wanted. 

             “Eric, this is not about you, but it is about the ministry that is being led down a path, you wish it not to go,” my friend added.  I would call that an Epiphany moment.  I would say that was an instant, when what I wanted and where God was leading me to go were in polar- opposite places.  Like Herod, I could have eliminated the obstacle standing in MY way, or I could have remained humble, paid homage (deferent respect) to God, and patiently wait to see where things ended up.  By the grace of God, I chose the latter, and grace overcame.  Throughout this rough and rugged path of life, I am sure you have had a moment, as Webster defines, that were instances of “illuminating discovery, realization, or disclosure” that confronted you. Which path did you take in that moment; that of Herod or that of the Magi?  

            There is an interesting part of the Magi story, whereas in paying homage to Jesus, the wise men brought gifts of tribute to him. Wikipedia states that “all three gifts were ordinary offerings and gifts given to a king: Myrrh used as an anointing oil as a symbol of death, frankincense as a perfume as a symbol of deity, and gold as a valuable a symbol of kingship on earth. The key to the gifts is this, “the Magi’s gave from their abundance given them by God, and their gifts were outward signs of the faith and trust in God they received.” The Magi offered to God, from what God had given them, so it might have been used to further God’s Kingdom. 

            For the next eight weeks, after the Feast of the Baptism of Our Lord next Sunday, and until Lent begins on Ash Wednesday March 6, we have yet another long liturgical season, but this one will be focused on Epiphany moments.  During this season, I pray you will challenged to make the choices to follow the path of the Kingdom of God. I pray each you will take the Magi path and allow the light of God’s grace and truth to shine and lead you to your true selves; children of God. I pray God will show us how to be witness of God’s grace in the world every day. I pray we have the courage to take the path of those wise Eastern mystics, who chose to offer God the spiritual gifts they had been given to used by the King, in order to spread his kingdom far and wide.  So, over the next eight weeks, get ready my sisters and brothers.  Get ready to discover the spiritual gifts, talents, and passions has God given you, and those gifts which are are to offered back to the King, so he might use them to spread the kingdom far and wide, not just for some, but for all people, in all situations, and in all places.    

REFERENCES

(1) Brueggemann, Walter. “Off by Nine Miles.” The Christian Century, vol. 118, no. 35, Dec. 2001, p. 15.

(2) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Biblical_Magi

SERMON 12/30/18 First Sunday after Christmas Year C, St. Monica’s Naples, FL

Isaiah 61:10-62:3; Psalm 147 or 147:13-21; Galatians 3:23-25; 4:4-7;John 1:1-18

We are still celebrating!

Driving down our street the other day, I saw something so horrid and blasphemous. It was only 3rd day of Christmas and someone had already stripped the ornaments, removed the lights and tensile, and placed a poor lifeless evergreen Christmas Tree on the side of the road for pickup and disposal.  It was just the third day of Christmas, and I guess we are finished with caroling, decking the halls, opening the gifts, and now the world is ready for the Christmas celebrations to end.  It’s time to get back to the daily grind, competitive spirit, and dog eat dog world. It’s as if we just cannot bear “Peace on Earth, Goodwill to All” for too long.  For many of our friends, New Year’s Eve is the next big celebration, and we have to get those Christmas decorations down before 12/31/18.

But in the church, we will keep singing Christmas Carols, and we will keep the Advent wreath lit, and we will continue to don the church with white vestments and hangings, because there is more of Jesus’ story to be told.  The Feast of the Nativity continues on, and the liturgical season of Christmas does not end until next Sunday at the Feast of the Epiphany, and even then, there is another turn and twist in the story. 

There is much more to explore, and many more particulars about this miraculous reality that we need to stay with for a while.  This is not just some sentimental Hallmark story, that like a special little ornament we pull off the shelf in December, and on December 26thwe put it back in some dust covered storage tote for another 12 months. God Incarnate, born in a manger, living among us, restoring us to Godself, is the beginning of the story of grace, adoption, and salvation we Christians tell all year long.

Logos 

            On the first Sunday after Christmas, the lectionary designers jumped over to John’s gospel and left behind Luke’s historical account of the birth of the “Babe in Manger.”  John’s rendition of the Nativity is more philosophical in style and content. John’s version is like that of an eyewitness reporter on the scene, who offers a scholarly recording of events, and he provides depth of meaning and higher thought.  John wrote, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”  The “Word” used by John was not referring to holy scripture as some might believe, he was describing philosophically the concepts of God the Father’s thought, reason, and the act of speaking creation with, in, and through the Son in the unity of the Holy Spirit.  

Platonic philosophical allusions exist in John’s use of Logos or “word.”  Allister McGrath writes, “Plato ascribed particular importance … to the notion of the logos through which the rationality (or wisdom) of the world is communicated and conceptualized.”(1) John does not begin the story in Nazareth or Bethlehem or even with the visitation of Mary, he begins at the very beginning.  John connects the Incarnation event to the presence of logos, the Son, at the very beginning of life (creation). John tells us that in the beginning was the (logos) the divine spark, the concept, and the design of creation. John was referring to the Son, the second person of the Trinity, who in union with the Father and Spirit was in the beginning and acted in creation, and later in that manger and through that cross was active in the redemption and sanctification of all.           

God come now please!   

            In Genesis 1 where we read, “In the beginning” again.  We read in Genesis (ten times) that “God said” and creation came into being.  God said, “Let there be light,” “let there be a dome,” “let the waters under the sky,” “let there be lights,” and “let the waters bring forth,” etc.  God spoke and creation happened. Webster defines speaking as “to express thoughts, opinions, or feelings.” Through God’s action and outward expression of love , God’s plan became reality.  The Apostle John clarifies that the logos (or word, reason, thought of God) was present at that beginning, and through that beginning all life came to be and later, that same Creator came to redeem us and make the relationship whole.  

Intellectually it is rather difficult to grasp the concept of God incarnate in a small baby 2000 years ago, but that is where faith comes in.  In my seminary classes we spent months exploring Trinitarian and Christological heresies and church doctrine, all trying to understand these concepts.  I dare not bore you with the intricacies of the many unorthodoxies that have undermined church teaching.  Suffice it to say, the church teaches that God was fully present in Jesus Christ and that mystery frames the salvation story.  

You may ask, “Eric, why is this all this theological stuff so important?” Our faith in the paschal mystery of Christ is incomplete and flawed if we remove the fact that God was fully Incarnate in Jesus of Nazareth. God himself came to us to restore us to God’s original intent and plan, which is love, the same love experienced and manifested in the relationship between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, was fully present in Christ.  The mystery and basis of our faith is that God humbled Godself and acted in the only way to show love that we might understand.  He became one of us and did so to restore the relationship originated in creation.  Unfortunately, this Good News that we celebrate each and every day is the same Good News the world rejects.  We are too busy trying to make our own way, trying to pull ourselves up by the bootstraps, and too busy trying to do it all.

“Grace upon Grace” 

            Theologian David McCleod asserts, “There is only one thing certain about the world: It is not what it was meant to be. Something has gone wrong, and that something is sin.”(4) There is sin and separation in the world today.  There are still broken relationships, indifference, and self absorption.  In the shadow of “Peace on Earth, Goodwill to all,” immigrant children are still in custody and some have needlessly died, children are being shot in our schools, police officers are being hunted and killed, social media friends are posting divisive and horrible rhetoric, and even after so many years of progress, racism is on the rise in the U.S.”  Sin is alive today in the world, just as it was over 2000 years ago, but we do have hope in the light that came to us, to show us the way of love.

            The Apostle John wrote, “The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.”  So if that is true, where is God in all this brokenness and sin?  Why does God let this happen?  “People regularly complain of God’s indifference to human suffering and pain. They say that if God would appear, take some responsibility, and offer some help, then they would see Him, recognize Him, and follow Him.”(4)  We forget God did appear and John’s gospel makes clear that “God does care.”  He came as one of us, as the Incognito God in Christ, and through him God was made known to us.  The way of true life and love was made known to us in Jesus, and by his life, ministry, death and resurrection, we have grace upon grace.

            We live our lives as if grace is scarce and our experience of grace has been rationed, like gasoline during World War II.  The abundance of God’s grace upon grace is is real, if we but realize that the most beautiful and most valuable in life are those experiences not earned or deserved.   Yet, we seek to fill the holes in our lives with things and thus, we are left still wanting. “Always wanting more makes it very likely that we will overlook the gifts we have received. And perpetual dissatisfaction makes gratitude a very awkward and unfamiliar practice.” (3) We need conversion, a transformation of life toward gratitude, where we can begin to experience new life in Christ.

Children of God

            “A Bible teacher Harry Ironside was speeding across Colorado in a train and encountered a woman who wanted to speak to him about faith. As they sat and debated and discussed scripture and theology, Ironside asked the woman, “May I ask if you have been converted yourself?” Her face expressed the surprise she felt at such an abrupt question. “Why, I’ve always been interested in these things. My father was a class leader, and I have an uncle and two brothers who are all clergymen.” 

            Mr. Ironside answered. “And have you been converted yourself?” “You do not seem to understand,” was the woman’s grieved reply. ‘Yes, ma’am, I understood all that; but I mean, have you been truly converted to God yourself?” (4)  Some folks believe this conversion thing happens in a single moment when you have made a specific commitment to God. Conversion can happen in such a way for some, but for many of us, conversion is something that happens over a lifetime, and many of us are still not yet finished.  Conversion happens through grace by faith and as such, we become children of God.

            In Paul’s letter to the Galatians he writes, “so that we might receive adoption as children. And because you are children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” So you are no longer a slave but a child, and if a child then also an heir, through God.”  Becoming a Child of God is beyond our means to control or manipulate, because it begins by faith in Christ alone.   So, the Good News of Christmas Day continues even beyond the 12 days afterward, in which we continue to celebrate that God who spoke through the Word in creation, and entered time and space, joined with us in flesh, walked among us, and through faith in him, we are made God’s children.  This is Good News for all year long, so do not be to quick to move to the next season so quickly.  Keep the Christmas tree up and decorated just a few more days, share a few more gifts from God’s grace with those you love, sing a few more carols, and remember that because of God’s love and grace upon grace, through the Word (logos) spoken into our hearts, we are all children of God.

REFERENCES

(1) McGrath, Alister E. Christian Theology: An Introduction. , 2011., p. 176

 (2) MIDDLER PROGRAM-2008-2009  SYSTEMATIC THEOLOGY INTRODUCTION TO CHRISTIAN DOCTRINE HANDOUT # 6 DOCTRINE OF THE PERSON OF CHRIST

(3) Pohl, Christine D. “Homeward Bound.” The Christian Century, vol. 122, no. 26, Dec. 2005, p. 19.

(4) MacLeod, David J. “The Reaction of the World to the Word: John 1:10-13.” Bibliotheca Sacra, vol. 160, no. 640, Oct. 2003, pp. 398–413.

SERMON Christmas Day 12/25/18 Year C, St. Monica’s Naples, FL

ChristmasIsaiah 62:6-12; Psalm 97; Titus 3:4-7; Luke 2:(1-7) 8-20

Beginnings

Most stories we hear have a beginning, a middle, and an end.  The story of salvation began through the people of Israel who walked with God, sometimes closely following God’s call to right relationships.  Often times though this people chose their own way and through those choices, they found themselves in dire straits. Nonetheless, God continued to call them back home.  Through this chosen people, God revealed God’s love and presence acting in the world. Through them God chose to show all creation his humble, self-giving, and life-giving grace.  Through them God chose to enter into time and space with us, as one of us, making that love real and tangible for us through Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

God entered that story not through a seat of power, but through the lives of a young couple gripped in a controversial circumstance of life.  We all have heard the story of Mary and Joseph and their unexpected joyous surprise family addition.  We also know the story of the great Emperor, who demanded a census of his kingdom, and how in the backdrop of that power play, the Baby Jesus was born in a manger.  We know about the shepherds, the star, the animals, and the visitation of the Maggi. However, do we know in our hearts, can we wrap our heads around the fact that the story we tell today stands as the pivot point in time where everything changed?

Everything Changed

Everything changed in the middle of the story.  With the birth, ministry, life, death, resurrection, and ascension of God in Christ Jesus, love’s dominion overcame pain, suffering, injustice, indignity, and even death.  Love’s sovereignty came not through manipulation and coercion, but through humility, self-giving, and loving of neighbor.  In the truth of God in Christ, we are transformed and the Kingdom of God begins to emerge in the world.  When love undermines power, everything changes, and yes, everything has changed through God’s act of love toward us.

The Apostle Paul wrote these words to the church in Ephesus, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast.”  My sisters and brothers, we cannot do anything to earn, coerce, assert power, or manipulate, in order to attain this gift of grace.”  We must humbly, with open arms receive it.  Paul reminded Titus of this, when he wrote, “He saved us, not because of any works of righteousness that we had done, but according to his mercy, through the water of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit.” In the middle of the story of salvation, God changed everything and yet, there is so much more of the tale to be written. 

Good News

So, what might the end of the narrative of salvation look like?  We know it took an incredible turn in Bethlehem when the angels decried, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”  Everything changed with the promise, “Do not be afraid; for see– I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people.”  That same story will continue every single day of our lives, and the Good News to come will be told by us.  Like that humble child sleeping in the feed trough, we can humbly and with grace, strive to be Good News for others.

So, the end of the story is yet to come and yet, we have the promises of God that we have a part in that story.  Just remember, through us, God reveals God’s love and presence acting in the world.  Through us God shows all creation his humble, self-giving, and life-giving grace. Through us God chooses to make God’s love real and tangible for all the world.  We are still a part of the story and as a matter of fact, the Joy to the World we find in the Christmas story, will be found in our own stories and how we choose to share with others, the promises that God’s love never ends.  We through our actions of loving neighbor and loving God, through our work to end poverty, injustice, indignity, and human tragedy, and through our lives giving glory to God, we become the storytellers of Good News, in the latter chapters of God’s story of salvation.  So, for that hope, for that joy, for that peace, for that love, and for that renewed mission, on this day we give “Glory to God in the highest.”

 

SERMON Christmas Eve 12/24/18 Year C St. Monica’s Naples, FL

ChristmasIsaiah 9:2-7; Psalm 96; Titus 2:11-14; Luke 2:1-14(15-20)

Video Available click here

Imagine after going home tonight, you turn on the television, and suddenly a national news “Special Report” appears on the screen, and the newscaster says, “You are hereby ordered to drop everything you are doing, get on the road now, and travel to your hometown.  You are hereby ordered to participate in a nationwide census.” Whether you have other things to do or not, whether you are busy with your work, or have other family obligations you must, I mean must, travel and comply.  That sounds a little ridiculous does it not, but that is exactly what the Emperor Augustus ordered the world to do, I mean the entire world, over 2000 years ago. Rome literally ruled the world, and Emperor Augustus wielded a power that allowed him take account of every person, animal, land, and treasure that he alone controlled.

Now in the midst of this declaration of universal power something amazing, something of even greater proportion was happening, and it came about without the trappings of earth shattering, universe-altering, worldwide events like the one Augustus ordered; it happened through the miraculous story of a carpenter, his betrothed bride, and the unexpected child.  The carpenter Joseph was a handyman of sorts in those days, and he was engaged to Mary, a rustic girl from a local village. Their relationship and the circumstances of their engagement was something that could rival any tabloid cover story and yet, the young mother to be was carrying in her womb, a baby, which the world did not expect.

In the backdrop of the Emporer’s census, the real ruler of the Universe, God, the promised one, Emmanuel was entering history in a very unique, unexpected, unimaginable way.  God in Christ came to us not as a wealthy power-wielding ruler, but as a poor helpless baby.   His parents, Mary and Joseph responded to Ceasar’s decree and traveled from Nazareth (where they both lived) to Bethlehem (the old home place of Joseph); a distance of about 80 miles.  For us, we can make that journey today in less than an hour and a half.  For them, with Mary riding on a donkey and pregnant, this journey took several days, and had its toll on them both.

Obeying the law of the land they arrived in Bethlehem, registered for the census, and it was there that Mary gave birth to her child. There was no local walk-in clinic, no emergency room, and definitely no local Marriott or even a Motel 6.  Everyone was on the road at the same time for the census, so Mary and Joseph had to stay in a place where the animals sought refuge from the cold.  Ironically, the babe’s resting place was not a fancy, gold clad Tempurpedic mattress equipped crib, but a nasty, unkept animal’s feed trough, which we call a manger.

It is difficult to get our minds around this mystery we celebrate tonight. Imagine the source, the intelligence, the spark, the essence of the Universe (The Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer of all) really walked among us, as one of us. What is even more difficult to fathom is that he began that journey as an infant, born in a barn, and humbly laid his head in a trough from which animals ate.  In our world of scientific, technological, expanding human wisdom, we struggle to get our minds around this story, but honestly, it is this beginning of the narrative of grace on which, we Christians hang our eternal hope. The Christian faith is a mystery we trust in that somehow, God love is so powerful and yet so humble, that God’s action of restoration toward us, actually restores us, redeems us, and reconciles us.  In Christ, we are healed, made whole, and returned to the source of love itself.

Scripture says, “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness– on them light has shined.” The irony in this story of earthly ruler Caesar and the humble baby is palpable.  God humbled Godself as one of us, identified as one of us, the lowliest of us and now, we are restored to right relationship through God’s humble act. The great chasm through which, we have chosen our own way is no more.   The babe in the manger was God in flesh, not wielding power like Augustus who declared, “drop what you’re doing so I can control you.” The real ruler of creation, God, entered time and space humbly, and declared peace as a powerless and dependent child.

The hope of the world is not found in the powerful ruler, the governing authority, nor human greatness in any of its forms.  The hope of the world is found in the promise that the God who created all, whether in seven days or 13.8 billion years, loves us, all of us so much that He somehow mysteriously, became one with us, and despite our desire for power, control, and dominance, God continues to bring hope of peace into the world today.

The promise of peace has begun already with that babe in the manger, but we are not quite fully at that place where peace, justice, and human dignity is the way of life. The news headlines give us clear evidence that God’s Kingdom is not yet fulfilled.  Broken relationships, war, atrocities, and injustices still abound in the world, because maybe in some way, we still want to be the little Caesars of our own lives.  However, for those who put their trust in Jesus Christ, those who embrace the power of love found in the babe in the manger, we can trust that the Kingdom of God has started to emerge, and continues to break through.  Through power of God’s love in our transformed lives, filled with hope and promise, we can be a part of bringing about peace on earth.

Even when injustice and evil still abounds, there are clear indications of God’s peace present in the world.  Through our outpouring of responsive love, and the never-failing giving of self following Jesus Christ’s lead, we can begin to restore peace to those who suffer, those who are distraught, those who struggle, and those who like the babe in the manger live in poverty, destitution, and indignity.  The Kingdom is already here, but not quite yet.  We still live in a world fraught with power struggles and despair, but on this night, the Eve of the Nativity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, we have hope, and we can trust in the God whose love declares, “Be not afraid, for see– I am bringing you good news of great joy for ALL the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.”

SERMON 12/23/18 Advent 4C St Monica’s Naples FL

Screen Shot 2018-12-19 at 7.14.34 AMMicah 5:2-5a; Canticle 15 Page 91, BCP; Hebrews 10:5-10; Luke 1:39-45(46-55)

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Music feeds the soul

I love music and I think it is because my mother sang all the time when I was young. She taught me old hymns and Christmas carols and imbued me with an appreciation for the holy beauty of melody and song.  When I’m low, when things are not working out as I expected, or when I am joyful, anticipatory, and in a good mood, I usually turn to music for solace and encouragement.  I enjoy so many genres of music and my playlists are very diverse.  I enjoy James Taylor and Modern Bluegrass, AC/DC and John Bon Jovi, Darius Rucker and Sheryl Crow, and I love the classics and even Gregorian Chant.  More often than not, I turn to my Pandora Radio app for a variety of music, all depending on my mood.  Pandora’s app is free, and with it you can choose any category, artist, and era of songs your heart desires. With Pandora radio, if a song comes up on your screen that you do not like, just skip to the next.

For many of us, it is important to have music readily available, because music inspires us, it stirs emotions in us, it helps provide meaning in different situations, and music gives us hope.  As I was listening to my favorite Pandora “Spa Music Paradise” station the other day, Mary’s song, the “Magnificat,” came on. I thought, “How appropriate for this hymn to play.  We are coming to the close of the season of Advent, and The Magnificat is the hymn embeded in today’s gospel reading.  When this ancient hymn emerged in my rotation of music, without hesitation I clicked the “thumbs up” button on the app, because this song is really our song.

Magnificat – Mary’s Song of Love

“Mary’s Magnificat” is found only in Luke’s Gospel, and it is one of four hymns extracted from a collection of early Jewish-Christian canticles that complement the promise/fulfillment theme of Luke’s Incarnation narrative.” Some scholars debate whether the historical Mary herself actually composed this canticle and yet, Luke portrays her as the singer of this song and the interpreter of the events taking place.”  Whether Mary wrote the tune or not, our tradition teaches us that the Magnificat is the song of the young peasant girl Mary, who remained faithful to God in a circumstance that was not expected, and where distress, uncertainty, abandonment, and even death could have been the outcome.  For a girl so young, a girl betrothed to her husband, and a girl who discovered she was pregnant out of wedlock, she was in a bad place, and a song was the solace she needed.

In the midst of her prenatal, supernatural circumstances, this young woman knew in her heart, in her magnifying soul and rejoicing spirit, that she would be bringing into the world through her very self, the author of love and peace.  Young Mary would bare the creator of all, the Redeemer of the World, the promised one of old, the Lord Jesus Christ.  The Magnificat was the song, to which Mary turned in this moment, in order to find comfort, reassurance, and hope.

 Magnificat – Our Song

Mary’s song is not merely hers alone, but it is our song as well, because like Mary, who faithfully responded to God’s call and stayed true to her mission, we must realize and respond likewise.  Because it is in people and not things that God wishes to dwell.  God desires to be made manifest, to be incarnated, to live in and through each of our lives.  Like Mary, we are to make Christ present in the world, by baring the savior in us, and to do so with peace, hope, joy and LOVE, for all the world to see.

We are the voices and instruments, by which the glorious hymnody of the Good News of God’s kingdom is played.  In order for us to faithfully accept that awesome responsibility, we must not just study the narrative of salvation, but we have to internalize it, believe it, and be changed by it.  We must not just intellectualize God’s grace through Jesus Christ, although that may be where the seed of grace is planted, but we must embrace it in our hearts as well, and we must strive to make God’s Kingdom a reality today, right here and right now.

The song of grace, mercy, love, hope, and promise in Christ is the song that we must chant in our soul.  It must inform our daily lives, it must become the beat by which we pace our relationships, and it must inspire us to acts of love.  This song of grace is the theme, the anthem, and hymn of the Kingdom of God.

Singing the Song that challenges us

God’s kingdom is the leveling reality of life, where the powerful and the lowely meet, where the rich and hungry share God’s abundance, where the hopeless and hopeful bring mutual joy and support to one another. Mary through her life song demonstrated that possibility so well.  She sang, “he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.  He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”

Listen to that melody.  You can recognize the words.  Be aware of the nuances of pitch and timbre (tambor).  Feel the base line of the hymn found in the notes of humility, love, and grace, where pride is not important in God’s kingdom.  A crescendo emerges at those moments where God’s Kingdom thwarts human indignity and injustice.  The song’s beat quickens where the low of spirit and defeated find dignity and justice in God’s kingdom.  The song becomes melodic joy where hunger (literal, spiritual, emotional, intellectual hunger) is filled in God’s kingdom. The song moves us to change, where the opulent, well-to-do, discover that being emptied of things and filled by God’s grace, brings us closer to the experience of sanctification and forgiveness.

This is the one song we can all sing, but sometimes, like an unpopular Pandora radio song selection, we would rather hit the skip button, than stay with the current tune.  We need to listen carefully to the Magnificat, because Mary’s song is really our song.

Mary’s song prods us to ask ourselves, “how have I responded to God’s call today?” That same song forces us to ask, “Have I ignored God’s call on my life again?”

The truth of the matter is this, we are fickle and easily distracted.  In the noise of our busy lives, we give God a deaf ear, because listening to God requires more of us than we are willing to give.  The burden of God dwelling in us is too great for us to carry, maybe because we think that when God calls us and we respond, we expect that everything will be fine.  Following Jesus does not mean all will fall into place perfectly, because faithful discipleship comes with ups and downs, difficulties and pain, joy and elation, and all of these together are the reflections and signs of the Kingdom of God bursting through in our lives.  So, before you click next on the radio dial, try listening for God’s loving, drawing, and wooing in every song you hear.

Jump in and Sing

Another song came across my playlist the other day, which was written by my favorite female artist Sheryl Crowe.    The words of her song are, “Jump in, let’s go, lay back, enjoy the show.  Everybody gets high, everybody gets low, these are the days when anything goes.  Everyday is a winding road, I get a little bit closer, everyday is a faded sign, I get a little bit closer to feeling fine.”  Although maybe not Crowe’s intent when she wrote this ballad, I hear the faint words of grace and encouragement.  I catch the nudge of God, to jump into this Christian life with both feet, to accept its ups and downs, and to trust God all along the way, and in doing so, I get a little bit closer to feeling fine, to realizing grace is real. You will not find this more modern melody in any hymnal, but like all music, if you listen close enough, God might just speak to you through the many voices we encounter in life.

Like Mary, our lives are a conduit for the grace of God’s love that is born in and through us , and it will always be born through the transformation of our lives that is, when we begin to sing the song.  This Christian life can be one filled with expectation, waiting, joy, celebration, and elation if we trust God and yes, if we sing!  When discouraged, uncertain, anxious, and afraid, God’s love and grace is delivered in and through us, so sing!  Maybe your song is like Mary’s, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.”   So sing!  Maybe your journey of faith has just begun, or reignited, or maybe the faith journey you are on is filled with uncertainty, and your song sounds more like, “Jump in, let’s go, lay back, enjoy the show, remember that everybody has highs, everybody has lows; in God’s Kingdom, where we all meet on the level of God’s grace, these are the days when anything goes.” So, my sisters and brothers, the song of promise and grace in Christ is playing, so sing it and sing it loud, and sing it from the heart!

SERMON 12-16-18 Advent 3C St. Monica’s Episcopal Church, Naples, FL

Zephaniah 3:14-20; Canticle 9; Philippians 4:4-7; Luke 3:7-18

whatshouldwedoJOY to the World ….

“Rejoicein the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.” We are still a few days away from the Feast of the Nativity of Our Lord.   I will keep encouraging us all to try on this Advent spiritual fast, but I know, most of our friends are having parties and enjoying the Christmas hustle.  After all, who really wants to light Advent candles, pray fervently, anticipate and expect?  We would rather just drink Eggnog, eat holiday cookies, and watch all those Hallmark Christmas movies. You may say, “Eric, just give in, hang the tree, turn on the Dean Martin and Charlie Brown Christmas specials, and Deck the Halls.” “After all, it is week three of Advent (Gaudete Sunday), which is traditionally a relaxation of the fast so, let a little Christmas Spirit into the sermon please.”  OK, I will relent.  Let’s talk about Christmas joy, rejoicing in the Lord, and Joy to the World.

Wikipedia defines joy “as a feeling of great pleasure and happiness.” C. S. Lewis, that great Anglican writer made clear distinctions between joy, pleasure, and happiness.  He wrote,  “I sometimes wonder whether all pleasures are not substitutes for Joy.  Joy has indeed one characteristic, and one only, in common with them; the fact that anyone who has experienced it will want it again… I doubt whether anyone who has tasted it (joy) would ever, if both were in his power, exchange it for all the pleasures in the world. But then Joy is never in our power and pleasure often is.” (4)

Lewis was saying that joy is lasting and is outside our control, and pleasure is fleeting and something we work to achieve.  My fear is that Christmas for us has become more about pleasure, when the Feast of the Nativity of Our Lord is the moment in history when God came among us in our poverty, despair, and grief and brought a joy that lasts throughout eternity, a joy that will change us.

Repentance and the Unquenchable Fire

In today’s gospel, John the Baptizer is preaching repentance again saying, “You brood of vipers bear fruits worthy of repentance.”   You may ask, Eric, if we our theme is Joy on Gaudete Sunday, “what does repentance have to do with it?”  The notion of repentant joy was confusing for the crowds, the tax collectors, and even the soldiers that John confronted with these prickly words. That first century crowd understood as we do, that repentance has something to do with being sorry for sin, but they did not understand fully, that turning, a change, and a new life, requires some kind of follow up after the “I am sorry.”  Real repentance requires a life change, a turning, a heart conversion, and a new way of being.  The crowds, the tax collectors, and the soldiers naively asked John, “if I repent, then how will I know that the change God is doing in me will be real and what does that change look like?” Literally they asked him, “What then should we do?”

John told the crowd, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” He told the tax collectors, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.”  Finally he told the soldiers, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.”  In other words, John told this crowd that the results of repentance will change the heart and change how you have been living each day of your lives.  Through the change God that begins in us, we will find real joy, not fleeting pleasure per se, but real lasting joy.

John then gave them this ominous warning, “His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”  “He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” John was talking about how God works in us, to nudge us toward new life in Christ.  In those ancient days, a bread baker had to literally separate the wheat heads from the stalks (chaff) in order to grind the heads to make bread. In that process, the chaff was not discarded as unusable garbage, but it became the fuel source for the fire in the oven.  Even though the baker sorted the good and bad parts of the stalk, she used all of it in the process, and the family was able to make the food that sustained their lives. The fire was fueled by the chaff, and at the same time, it burned away the garbage that was inedible.

God works like that in us, with unquenchable fiery grace, God sorts out the hidden junk and illuminates the dark places of our hearts, burning away the chaff of our misguided pursuits of self-indulgence, self-absorption, relational deceit, inequitable power and the character flaws that keep us from being in right relationship with God and with our neighbor.  God does not throw us out like garbage when we stumble and fall, but by grace, he burns away the “chaffy” parts of our lives, and transforms us into life-sustaining, life-changing, and life-giving members of the Body of Christ.

As members of that Body, we are ambassadors of Our Lord Jesus Christ, the Bread of Heaven and the only food that can feed the souls of the world.  God begins a work in us, preparing us for the turning or change of repentance, and through that new life we are led to say, “alright, I am being made new, so, ‘what then should I do now’.”

What then should we do?

John provided the answer, “Bear fruits worthy of repentance.” In other words, when God’s work of purifying fire ignites change in use, we should live differently. When the church is repentant, we must do what we do best, which is to open our doors for prayer, offer solace where pain abounds, and do so by serving people and offering them the hope of God’s love “not only with our lips, but in our lives.”   We will know when God is working in us to change and transform us, when our repentance changes us to leave our four walls and bring Good News to our neighbors, and this church is doing that right here and right now.

Monday afternoon from 3:30 to 6:00 pm, a team of 10-15 St. Monica’s ministers, through the work of their hands and out of the love of their hearts, made it possible for 93 of our neighbors to have enough nutritious food to sustain them for another week.  Also, each month, on the Second Thursday 9:45 am to 1:30 pm, a ministry team of 10-15 St. Monicans go to Immokalee and feed anywhere from 70-80 women, children, and men at the Guadalupe Soup Kitchen.  Also, a team of 5-7 of us on the second Wednesday of the month from 4-6pm, distribute diapers to 35 economically challenged families in our own neighborhood, which helps them free up precious funds to pay for rent, food, and utilities. When God’s unquenchable fire burns away the chaff of our lives, and when we are led to turn, repent and change, we are drawn to respond to that change with action.  We literally become spiritual and engaging bread for the hungry, hope for the lost, peace for the anxious, and joy for the despondent, and we all have a mission to do.

Benign Association

Change and new life has less to do with membership, and more to do with repentance (or turning).  The crowds said, “We have Abraham as our Ancestor,” but John told the people that benign association was insufficient for salvation.  Our mission is not to merely to show up, get our bread fix, and then go home as if nothing else has changed.  God’s unquenchable fire will not allow us to go unscathed by fiery grace.

We follow the One whose “mission is to ‘bring good news to the poor, proclaim release to captives, recovery of sight to the blind, and send the downtrodden away relieved.”  As repentant disciples, we ask, “Teacher, what then should we do?”  I think our joy will be found when we recapture a missionary spirit in the church.  Our joy will be found when we not only gather, but when we go and share God’s love with our neighbors.  The church’s real mission in the first place begins when God’s unquenchable fire ignites a spark of change in us that leads our hearts to be turned away from ourselves and toward others.  Real and lasting joy happens when our passion for mission is to feed, restore, and love our neighbors.

Simon Sinek, an author and reluctant Christian, wrote in his book “Start with Why” these words, “Working hard for something we don’t care about is called stress: Working hard for something we love is called passion.” (3) If you want real “Joy to the World,” I mean real joy, not only in the next few weeks but in the years to come, then find the ministry passion God has in store for you and work hard at it.  Spend some deliberate time in the remaining days of Advent and prayerfully ask God, “Lord show me where my spiritual gifts abound, and where they will meet the world’s needs.”

God seeks his ambassadors to be the change the world needs.  Sinek wrote, “The world we live in is not yet the world I want to live in.  But I am an optimist and I can still clearly imagine that world.  We must stop at nothing to find those who will help us turn the tide. We must not shout at those with whom we disagree.  We must not point fingers and cast blame. We must not throw stones.  Instead, we must become what we imagine.  We must work together to inspire each other and inspire those around us.” (5)

As the faint tones of “Joy to the World” begin to slowly ring in the distance, while the fast relaxes on Gaudete Sunday, and yet repentance and fiery grace nips at the fleeting passions of our holiday celebrations, God is working to transform our hearts toward those around us are left in despair, poverty, isolation, and pain.  As Advent fades and Christmas hope comes into view we are left with this question, “Teacher, what then should we do?”

 

REFERENCES

1 Burghardt, Walter J. “Just A Church Or A Just Church?.” Living Pulpit 9.4 (2000): 10-11. ATLASerials, Religion Collection. Web. 12 Dec. 2012

2 Willimon, William H. “What Then Shall We Do.” Christian Century 99.39 (1982): 1246-1247. ATLASerials, Religion Collection. Web. 13 Dec. 2012.

3 https://www.goodreads.com/author/quotes/3158574.Simon_Sinek

4 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joy

5 https://blog.startwithwhy.com/refocus/2010/05/i-lost-my-faith.html