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SERMON 3/16/19 Lent 2C St. Monica’s Episcopal Church

Lent 2 Revised

Genesis 15:1-12,17-18; Psalm 27; Philippians 3:17-4:1; Luke 13:31-35

Political Cartoons

I still remember that first Sunday coffee hour in my first parish after seminary, where a distinguished gentleman came up to me and said, “Fr. Eric, I hope you will not preach politics in the church.” I thought what he really meant to say was “Fr. Eric, please do not preach any sermons that come in conflict with my own political affiliation.”  The problem for any preacher today is that political ideas of all appetites infuse our every day lives, and we are inundated with their messages 24/7.

There was a time when news organizations set aside only a small section of the paper for partisan stories.  I remember when commentators expressed alternative ideas about what was going on in the world through political cartoons that served as artistic vehicles characterized by metaphorical and satirical language.  Today satire has taken a back seat and all bets are off for and all sides engage in direct and public conflict with their opponents.

Policymaking, policymakers, and the interactions between them are no longer motivated by common values, but now focus on personal attacks and undermining their opponents’ standing.  In the aftermath, we are becoming less of “One Nation under God” and more of a loose affiliation of partisan tribes of ideology and power, led by the leadership on all sides of the civil conversation.  None of this is really anything new in the history of human civilization.

 The Politics of Jesus

In today’s gospel reading, the Pharisees (political allies of the local tetrarch King Herod) brought a targeted message to Jesus as he approached Jerusalem the seat of political power in that area of the world. Trying to instill partisan fear in their opponent, the Pharisees said, “Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.” Some scholars assert, knowing the characterizations of the Pharisees throughout the gospels that they were really not trying to warn Jesus, in order to help his cause.  Jesus probably understood their partisan motivation, and he responded with his own rebuttle, “Go and tell that fox for me ….”  The Pharisees took a policy jab at Jesus, and he in turn responded with a warning to Herod, calling him a fox, or a “sly and crafty man.”

If there was a newspaper cartoon characterization of this partisan standoff between these first century challengers, the artist may have portrayed Jesus as a He-Man, WrestleMania-like character returning the threat of Herod, for another threat in kind, but that was not what was going on in the story.  Jesus was being really clear about his mission, his purpose, and the fact that nothing would stand in the way of God’s Kingdom, not even a little policy spat with the local government official.

 God’s Kingdom vs. Worldly Kingdoms

The mortal threat for Christians in the first century Roman Empire was real and it was a life-threatening proposition.. Dan Clendenin explains, “By confessing Jesus as Lord, they rejected Caesar as king. Loyalty to Christ the king was absolute and unconditional, whereas fidelity to the Roman state was relative and conditional.”(2) Believe it or not, we are so divided in our nation today that for we 21stcentury Christians, following the Way of Jesus may come with is own set of risks; our friendships and family connections.  Some of us believe that the Way of Jesus (the way of mercy, grace, peace, reconciliation, and service) becomes secondary to our partisan ideologies, and often we try and mold the gospel message to fit our own partisan proclivities.

We all need to use caution with that approach to being a disciple. Paul reminds us “in the epistle this week that Jesus gave us a “pattern” and “example” to follow, namely, that of “our citizenship is in heaven;” our first allegiance is always to God.  Imagine how things would be today, if the Way of Jesus formed our core platforms for all the policies, programs, and initiatives for all the problems and opportunities we all face.  Following the way of Jesus for Christians today is not so much about trying to fit our faith into a political ideology that pits one side against another on particular issues. Following the Way of Jesus means we literally set differences aside so we might embrace, emulate, and carry on the way Jesus ministered, served, and became self-giving love.  Christians must Jesus to form how we live, how we love, and how we advocate for others, and yes, maybe even how we participate in civil society.

Jesus warned the Pharisees, “Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work.” Jesus was really clear about his mission, where he was headed, and what he was teaching his disciples to do. Healing and deliverance are the central aspects of Jesus’ mission and daily work, and it is the central aspect of our mission as the church and as individual disciples. We Christians must be about the ministry of reconciliation, because our baptismal promises demand that we, “seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself” and “striving for justice and peace among all people, and respecting the dignity of every human being.” I would even add that we do those things even for the ones we do not like, and the ones with whom we have political differences.

 The Fox

The parishioner from my first parish call, who wanted to keep politics out of the pulpit I believe failed to realize that even Jesus’ message came in conflict with the political powers of the world.  Clendenin asserts, “A simple but important point — there was a deep antagonism between Jesus and the political powers of his day and thus the sharp response by Jesus, “go tell that fox I will do what I do.” (2)

Further, Jesus also said, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it!” Jerusalem was the seat of power for that little section of the Empire, and it had a history of quieting (or killing) those opponents who called the city to repentance and change. Throughout the biblical narrative, God’s people have always had to decide between following God’s way, or following the way of their own human desires.

Paul wrote, “But our citizenship is in heaven, and it is from there that we are expecting a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.”  The dilemma we Christians face is whether we think our principles define what the gospel says, or does the gospel define what our principles should be. Clendenin explains, “The Jesus of the gospels proposes no political program, but instead something far more strenuous, something “scary, dark and demanding.” No state or political party can indulge in the self-sacrifice that Jesus demands when he calls us to lovingly serve the least and the lost.” (2)  The Way of the Cross proclaims to us that our relationship with God and with each other (a relationship of reconciled love) is much more important than any ideology, policy, or program that we might support and thus, the church becomes a lighthouse of hope for folks moving away from one another over differing ideas, and can do so so under One Lord, One Faith, and One baptism.

 Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.

Jesus said, “How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!”  This caricature of Jesus ‘mission as a mother hen caring for her chicks, stands in juxtaposition to the cartoon image of the WWE wrestler political opponent who came to thwart the power of a local king bent on killing him. David Lose writes, “Jesus employs a feminine image for himself and, to the degree that we confess Jesus reveals his essential character and disposition.” (5)  Jesus was not a political antagonist to Herod who wanted to upend the political system of the day.  Jesus longs to bring us (all of us) lovingly and gently into his arms of reconciling love, regardless of where we stand on the issues of the day. Despite those loving arms calling us all together, it is harder to follow Jesus today, because choosing the naturalization journey to Divine Kingdom citizenship comes with a great cost.

Lent gives some space in the year to intentionally focus on growing in Christ. Lent can be a time to break down walls and come together through Christ, and with Christ, and in Christ.   We should try a new Lenten discipline this year, and seek out, with an open and compassionate ear, those family members, friends, and colleagues with whom we have differing ideas and create some space for conversation.  It would be a challenge, but it could be a blessing to gather with our own opinionated friends and intentionally read some scripture and study together, and to explore together, where Jesus stood on all the issues of this life, and on the many struggles we all face every single day.

Could you imagine if we tried just that one little practice for a few weeks what might happen. I wonder, if we could all be changed, and would we together, agree to choose the way of justice, peace, love, mercy, reconciliation, respect, self-giving love, and mutual service. In a time when dividing political commentary seems to be the norm, a good stump speech (or sermon) on a mountain or plain on the subject of reconciling love, sure sounds like what Jesus might preach if he were seeking our partisan allegiance, but wait, he is.

REFERENCES

(1) http://leftbehindandlovingit.blogspot.com/2013/02/from-threat-to-lament.html

(2) https://www.journeywithjesus.net/essays/833-herod-wants-to-kill-you

(3) https://politicaltheology.com/the-politics-of-the-dangerous-city-luke-1331-35/

(4) http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2770

(5) http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=2460

SERMON 2-24-19 Epiphany 7C St Monica’s Naples, FL

Genesis 45:3-11, 15; Psalm 37:1-12, 41-42; 1 Corinthians 15:35-38,42-50; Luke 6:27-38

Enemies

Many of us grew up on Saturday mornings watching awesome cartoons like the “Bugs Bunny Roadrunner Hour” and “Tom and Jerry.” I loved how Elmer, Sylvester, Wile E Coyote and Tom the Cat tried endlessly to get one over on Bugs, Tweety Bird, the Roadrunner and Jerry the mouse. It was entertaining to see these characters interact with one another, sometimes teaching us about “good and evil,” “right and wrong,” or maybe we just needed to see something different displayed in living color. Maybe what really entertained us were some misguided lessons about how we treat people with whom, we are in conflict, or how we interact with people we sometimes call our adversaries.

Behavior between adversaries often looks like when someone does you wrong, and you retaliate. That would be like when Wile E Coyote dropped an anvil on that poor Roadrunner, and the whole thing backfired and the Coyote suffered a flattening experience. That would be like when Sylvester climbed up on a stool to snatch the little Tweety Bird from his cage, but the Cat stumbled and fell and suffered the consequences of his ill-gotten gains.

People can often behave this way, out of our own animalistic natures. Charles Darwin called this self-preservation, the “Survival of the Fittest.” We are inclined to improve our own individual standing, to get what we need/want/desire, all at the expense of the well being of the other.

In today’s gospel reading, Jesus describes how we can revert to our natural tendencies through violent acts, hatred, and emotional/mental abuse (curses) inflicted upon others. We are more than mere cartoon characters, and are we more than mere animals trying to get to the top of the food chain.

Christians believe that we are beloved creatures of God created out of love, for the purpose of love. Jesus says that we should be defined, not by how we love in response to those who reciprocate love to us, but how we love, even those who might do us harm. That is a very difficult kind of love for most of us. It rubs up against what our culture tells us about being on top,and living the “dog eat dog” world of competition and success.

Cartoons Redux

Jesus said, “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same.” “Expect nothing in return.” Could you imagine what lessons we might have learned as children, if Bugs, Tweety Bird, Roadrunner, and Jerry the Mouse, turned the other cheek, and loved their enemies Elmer Fudd, Sylvester the Cat, Wile E Coyote, and Tom the Cat the way they wanted to be loved; or did they?

To love one’s enemies is as counter-cultural today as it was in the violent and oppressive times of the first century Roman Empire, but Jesus teaches us a new way of loving one another. He says to pray for others, return violence with non-violence, and give more, when people desire to take away what little we have. How many of us really want to do these things? But if we were to really follow Jesus’ teachings about loving enemies, we could literally shift power away from the oppressor, and toward the oppressed.

We can literally thwart the evil imposed by oppressors without resorting to retaliation, but that change does not begin with changing the mind of the oppressor, it begins with changing the oppressed. When we change ourselves and refuse to retaliate, then the bully’s power is spoiled.

Gary Simpson wrote about Martin Luther King, Jr.’s non-violent protest against racism in the U.S. in the 1960’s. He wrote, “Loving one’s enemies begins by confronting the hate response in the soul of the one oppressed.”(2) Simpson elaborates, “Nonviolent direct action seeks reconciliation, not the defeat of an adversary.” (2) He adds, “Nonviolent direct action is directed at removing evil forces, not at destroying persons who perpetrate evil deeds.” (2)

We can bring the unquenchable power of love through peaceful resolve, holy strength in responsive love, and spiritual life change in the midst of the actions of misguided cartoon behavior, and we do so when we name the behavior and call others to account, in love.

In other words, when we “bless those who curse, pray for those who hurt, give to those who take, and do unto others as we would have them do unto to us,” we change the circumstances, or rather God changes them.

Listen closely, Jesus is not suggesting we roll over and be a good victim if someone is abusing us, and he is not calling us to some perfect utopian society where we all walk around with fake smiles and happy clappy attitudes, and just let others continue their evil ways.

Kingdom come

Let me give you an example. Have you ever met folks in church who just put on a fake Christian face on Sunday mornings, then act differently throughout the week? Honestly, I have been a little guilty of that cartoon behavior myself. You do know that we all don’t always get along perfectly in church, and if we did, I would be very concerned, and wonder about the authenticity of our community.

Webster defines conflict as, “the opposition of persons or forces that gives rise to dramatic action.” Church conflict is not unusual and it is not really a bad thing. Most of us arrived at church this morning because of the conflicting forces between the rubber on our car tires, and the heat and rigidity of the asphalt pavement we drove on.

Conflict is a natural, necessary occurrence because it makes change happen and it moves us forward. Conflict elicits new ideas, initiatives, growth, and change. However, conflict can be destructive depending on how we Christians deal with it. Unhealthy conflict results in anvils being dropped on heads, the making of an emotional meal of the innocent (like Tweety Bird), or going on a character assault hunting expedition (like Elmer Fudd) chasing a wabbit who is just trying to enjoy a good carrot. . The healthy way of dealing with conflict, disagreements, little spats, and our own personal wants and desires can be found in the teachings of our Lord, and the example of loving others (even enemies) found in the narratives of the lives of his many sainted followers through the centuries.

Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, “Our goal is to create a beloved community and this will require a qualitative change in our souls as well as a quantitative change in our lives.” We the church must show the world the possibility of “Beloved Community.” We Jesus followers must work in partnership with God, to make God’s Kingdom present now, and we can do that by how we love one another.

Cartoons or Church

So, “How are we doing?” When we do not like a sister or brother in church, do we avoid them or refuse to talk to them? Do we gossip and undermine a sister or brother behind their backs? Do we refuse to reconcile with a sister or brother who may have slighted us, or spoke badly of us, or hurt us in some way? Do we have an unhealthy self-serving agenda, and do we use tactics and strategies to get our own way regardless of who gets hurt? We must always ask if we are really following Jesus, who teaches a way of being beloved community that stands in direct conflict with our very human nature.

Jesus calls us to a mutual vulnerability that can only be actuated and manifested by love as Jesus demonstrated during his trial and beatings, and later on that cross on Calvary. Jesus suffered at the hands of his enemies. They spat on him, beat him, slapped him, and then nailed him to a tree and he died, but love overcame even death. Jesus did not return violence for violence, nor did he direct vile name calling at those who rejected him and called him a Blasphemer. Jesus said to those who killed him, “Forgive them Father, for they know not what they do.”

Life in this beloved community must be different from how we may have and may often still do live,out there in our every day worlds. Church is not a Tom and Jerry, Roadrunner/Bugs Bunny, Tweety and Sylvester cartoon hour on Sundays, or any other day of the week. Church is community in which we struggle every day to do the hard work of trying to love as Jesus loves.

How do we do it? We follow the one who commanded us to “Love, do good, bless, and pray” for those, whom we may call our enemies, but with God’s help maybe in time, we will be able to call them our sisters and brothers in Christ. So, give up that old “tit for tat,” “competition,” and “survival of the fittest,” way of life. Rather, in the words of one of my favorite cartoon characters Bugs Bunny, just simply love one another and “that’s All Folks.”

REFERENCES

(1) Carter, Warren. “Love Your Enemies.” Word & World, vol. 28, no. 1, Wint 2008, pp. 13–21

(2) Simpson, Gary M. “‘Changing the Face of the Enemy’: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Beloved Community.” Word & World, vol. 28, no. 1, Wint 2008, pp. 57–65. 

(3)https://www.episcopalchurch.org/files/becoming_beloved_community_summary_0.pdf

SERMON 2/17/19 Epiphany 6C St. Monica’s Episcopal Church

blessedBecause I’m Happy   

On my IPhone, I have a special playlist, which I listen to mainly when I need a lift, when I need to feel good, or when I am a little blue.  The first tune on that playlist is Pharell William’s song, “Happy.”  It is the theme song from one of my favorite cartoon movies, “Despicable Me,” you know the one with those cute little yellow Minions with goggles for eyes. “Happy” is a simple, bubbly tune, and the chorus goes like this, “Because I’m happy, clap along if you feel like a room without a roof. Because I’m happy, clap along if you feel like happiness is the truth.  Clap along if you know what happiness is to you. Because I’m happy, clap along if you feel like that’s what you wanna do.” I love this song because Williams describes happiness as not merely as a fleeting emotion. He describes happiness as an attitude, which is the kind of happiness we hear about today in John’s gospel.

Jesus is with a crowd of followers on the plain and he preaches a sermon in which he says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven,” “Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled,” and “Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.”  The Greek word for“ Blessed” is most often translated as “happy.”  Jesus is preaching about happiness, but he is not talking about the personal happiness that seems to be the prime motivator for advertisers today. We are bombarded with offers and ads that guarantee happiness through material acquisition.

For example, I saw a Facebook ad the other day from Lens Crafters that guaranteed me that their eyeglasses will make me happy, or I could get my money back. Coca Cola claims that if you drink their product, happiness is surely yours.  You know, “have a Coke and a smile.”  Happiness is more than having the right house, the bossy sports car, hip new clothes, and the perfect Pantene hair products.  This kind happiness is not what Jesus is teaching the crowd about in today’s gospel, for these things offer only a temporary satisfaction, they do not bring about lasting joy, found only in the reality of the present and future hope we find only in Christ.

Happy are the Suburbanites???

In his “Sermon on the Plain,” Jesus taught, “Happy are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven,”  “happy are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled,” and “happy are you who weep now, for you will laugh.”  Jesus reframes our ideas about what is important in life, and redefines the situation and attitude we need, in order to discover real and lasting joy. The Christian journey is life lived out-of-sync with the world, and Jesus’ sermon affirms that and contradicts our consumerism-based pursuit of happiness.

Our culture would have us believe, “Happy are the poor and hungry when they can get a good job and buy a house in the suburbs, lease a new car, and build up a 401K.”  We all know that even when we attain those material symbols of happiness, we may find ourselves depressed, empty, and discontented.   Some folks have everything and still ask, “when is enough, enough?”  “Things” will not fill the spiritual destitution with which, many Americans struggle, but Jesus gives us the hope we can have joy found in him alone.

Theologian William Burghardt once wrote, “I discover (Christ) in my own insufficiency, when, dissatisfied with myself, I find the power to go beyond myself, and I know that the Power is Another.”(3)  In other words, our real joy is found in the grace, love, and peace we have in Christ, and not in something else or even our own selves.  Christian joy (happiness) manifests itself in the constant discovery of the grace of Christ poured out for us, and in all of life’s circumstances.

Joy, Happiness, Peace in the Storms

We can have joy right now, because Christian joy is not just some future reversal of all that is wrong in the world. It is a present reality. In my nine years of ordained ministry, I have witnessed the tangible evidence of real Christian joy in the lives of others.  In my first parish, I sat at the bedside of one of my parishioners who was facing her own imminent death.   I asked her the question, “Why are you so joyful?”  She proceeded to tell me about the life she lived, the peace she shared, the struggles she endured, and the hope she had in God’s promises.  Even when facing the end of her earthly journey, joy and peace abounded in her eyes. My dear friend and parishioner’s joy came not from the material things that surrounded her, but from a life she lived in faith, in steadfastness, and in peace in Christ.

Theologian George Thomas asserts,  “Joy brings with it a feeling of contentment and confidence, which can take us through a storm in our life-journey. Happiness is not present when we are in the midst of a storm; it just vanishes.” (5)  I believe that is why those who are poor in spirit, hungry, and weeping know real joy, because we all travel the journey of laughter and tears, with its ups and downs, but in all those moments, we find real joy in Christ, and the promises of Kingdom come.

The promise of the joy of God’s Kingdom comes when we discover the things of true value, those things sometimes lost but with God’s help found.  Do you remember Jesus’ parables of the woman who lost a solitary coin and the shepherd who lost a solitary sheep, and then both found their lost items, and then rejoiced with her friends?  The real joy of these folks in the parables is not when they reacquired their lost stuff. The recovery is a metaphor of the moment when they discovered their path back into relationship with Christ. Jesus explained, “there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.” Real joy (or happiness or blessedness) is found in our lives lived “Through Christ, and With Christ and In Christ”, and that my friends is Good News; good news we must share.

Happy are those who share happiness

Joy is something we do not hold onto, but something we share. However, we cannot just walk around as happy clappy Christians saying, “ I got my Jesus this week and all is well.” We cannot just sing, “Because I’m happy clap along if you feel like a room without a roof,” and who cares about anyone else.  Jesus warns us, “Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry.  “Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep.  “Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.” Jesus warns us about just being content with self-consumed happiness, which has no purpose or mission beyond ourselves.

The church is not called merely to have an attitude of mercy, but we are called to exhibit concrete acts of mercy towards others.  The church is not called to remain merely spiritually pure, but we must devote our lives to join in Christ’s mission to relieve the circumstances of the poor, downtrodden, and lonely. The church is not called to merely be at peace with each other within our four walls, but we must devote ourselves to the work of reconciliation, both within the walls, and in the world around us.

Moreover, Jesus is not calling us merely to some future utopia, where the rich are poor and poor are rich, where the hungry are fed and the fed are hungry, or even where those who weep will laugh and those who laugh will weep.  Jesus calls his church to turn upside down the spiritual poverty, hunger, and sorrow of our sisters and brothers found right here beside us, and then do the same for our neighbors out there around us.

God declares his people to be blessed, to be joyful, to be happy.  The community that hears itself so called, so pronounced as blessed, can thus act in accord with God’s coming Kingdom because for us, it is God’s Kingdom come right now. The community that hears itself so-called will be able to answer with no hesitation, a very important question if ever we are ever asked, “Why are you so joyful?”  If we are truly blessed, then with God’s help, we will always and every day sing, “Because we’re joyful, (won’t you) clap along if you feel like a room without a roof. Because we’re joyful, (won’t you) clap along if you feel like God’s grace is the truth. Because we’re joyful, (won’t you) clap along if you know what joyfulness is to you. Because we’re joyful, (won’t you) clap along if you feel like joy, peace, love, mercy, and reconciliation is really what we wanna do.”

REFERENCES

(1) Willimon, William H. “Damn Preacher.” The Christian Century, vol. 121, no. 3, Feb. 2004, p. 18

(2) Ellenwood, Lee K. “Face to Face with the Living God: Reflections on the Lectionary Readings for February.” The Living Pulpit, vol. 16, no. 1, Jan. 2007, pp. 34–36.

(3) Burghardt, William, S.J., “Gospel Joy, Christian Joy,” The Living Pulpit, 1996. (see Joy issue focus of The Living Pulpit 5.4, 1996.)

(4)  http://wwwstaff.murdoch.edu.au/~loader/LkEpiphany6.htm

(5) http://www.tvaerkulturelt-center.dk/index.php/docman-dokumenter/information/298-the-theology-of-joy-george-thomas/file

 

SERMON 2/7/19 Epiphany 5C St. Monica’s Episcopal Church

Isaiah 6:1-8, [9-13]; Psalm 138; 1 Corinthians 15:1-11; Luke 5:1-11

Fishing in New Waters

Fishing used to be one of my favorite hobbies. When I was a kid, we owned a beautiful boat, and we spent weekends on the lakes of East Tennessee, fishing and relaxing. On my Dad’s farm we also had a pond stocked with Bream, Catfish, and Small Mouth Bass. They were so abundant that a little corn on a hook would net hours of fun. Unfortunately, I do not fish much anymore since I moved to back to Naples, because saltwater fishing is different in some ways from how I was taught to fish back home.

I have tried fishing off a pier, and I caught a Ladyfish or a catfish or two, but I never had the fishing success that I had back in those ponds and lakes. I just gave up on my fishing avocation because it seemed too difficult and outside my comfort zone. What I really need is someone to guide me and show me the way, so I can effectively haul in the big catch. I need to be flexible and realize that I am trying to fish in a new environment than before. I need to take a risk, make an investment in time to my old avocation. Maybe I just need to get back out there and fish again.

In today’s gospel reading, we heard about Jesus’ own angling adventure down by the lake. Jesus climbed into one of Peter’s boats and asks him to push out into the shallows. Luke does not tell us the particulars of the lesson Jesus verbally taught but then, he taught us in another way. After teaching the crowds he did a little fishing with Simon Peter and his two business partners James and John. Jesus said to Simon, “Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.” Peter knew better and said, “Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing. Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets.” And, so he did.

The big haul was miraculous! There were so many fish that the boat Jesus was in, and the second boat alongside them, almost capsized. We should not be surprised, when Jesus sends us out to do something, and when he is with us in the adventure, that there will always be a big catch!

Surprise Surprise

In Luke’s rendition of the fishing story, Simon Peter became so frightened by the miracle that he said to Jesus, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!” Often when Jesus surprises us in this journey of faith with results we did not expect, we are like Peter “astounded by a death-defying Jesus, moving us from failure and scarcity to life and triumph.” (1) Sometimes even I, as a priest am astonished by how God opens doors that I never expected. Sometimes my faith is challenged and I doubt, how about you? Why are we so surprised when our mission work is so effective, but we should not be surprised because God is leading the way.

When we embark on something unfamiliar, we have to decide beforehand whether we are really willing take a risk. We all face walls of fear when we step out of our comfort zones, and let God work in our lives and transform our lives. Letting go and letting God is both a frightening experience, and a joyful and peaceful experience, both at the same time. We live in fear when we say, “Lord, I am doing ok now in my own little way of life, leave me be and don’t ask any more of me.” That is what Peter did. But when he came face-to-face with the miraculous life changing power of God in Christ in his own midst, nothing would ever be the same for him. Jesus was calling him, and us into a new kind of angling vocation.

Vocation

Simon Peter, James, John, the other nine apostles, and every disciple of Jesus throughout history, were called to a specific Christian call. Each of us here today has a call from God to take our place in the Kingdom work of Jesus. Wikipedia defines this “call, summons … an occupation to which a person is specially drawn or for which they are suited, trained, or qualified. Though now often used in non-religious contexts, the meanings of the term originated in Christianity.” (3) We are talking about our Christian vocations.

You do not have to be a cleric to have a vocation, because by virtue of your baptism you are given gifts for ministry. The question many of us wrestle with is this, “Lord, what would you have me do?” Well, for Simon Peter, James and John, who also did not know what to do, eventually “left everything and followed him.” They left their fishing nets and boats (their life’s work). They left their fear, uncertainty, and feelings of inadequacy all behind. They followed Jesus who led them to their true vocation, which was another form of fishing; Jesus style.

Our vocation begins with the individual ministries we do in service to God. Those things like serving as a ministry leader, an usher, a chalice bearer, choir member, bell ringer, Eucharistic visitor, office minister, Sunday school teacher, or any other ministry. However, our primary Christian vocation is the one that we share with Jesus, Simon Peter, James, John and all Christians throughout the ages.

We find our primary vocation in the baptismal promises, and primarily the one to which we promise to “proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ.” Yes, I am talking about evangelism and its critical connection to discipleship.

Evangelism – Fishing Jesus Style

Jon Berquist explains, “Discipleship is not an end in itself; it is a means to further the teaching of Jesus.” (2) Our vocation is to carry on the teachings of Jesus in our everyday lives and that is what evangelism is really all about. Each one of us may be the only gospel anyone will ever read. So, how we live, how we love, and how we serve for some people we encounter will be the only lens through which, others will see the light of Christ.

My dear friend and clergy colleague Stephanie Spellers wrote in her book The Episcopal Way, “If the word “evangelism” makes you anxious, think less about convincing someone to believe what you believe and more about growing a relationship. In the process of sharing your (story with a friend) and growing in understanding, you will already be doing evangelism.”

Evangelism can be a fear-provoking part of discipleship for many of us, but we must remember that we never do it alone. Like Peter, James, and John, we have the original people-angler with us in the boat guiding us and showing us the way, so that we might effectively haul in that big catch. Berquist asserts, “People-catching is not a matter of strategy or even a measurement of our faithfulness; people-catching is Jesus’ work, and we disciples are the tools he uses.” (2)

To live faithfully into our individual and corporate Christian vocation, what we really need is someone to guide us and show us the way, so we can effectively haul in the big catch. We need to be flexible and realize that we are trying to people fish in a new environment than before. We need to take a risk, and make an investment in time to our vocation. Maybe I just need to get back out there and fish again.

So, let’s go people fishing and share with our neighbors the love of Christ poured out into each one of us. Let’s go people fishing and share with our neighbors the grace we find in this gathering of community called St. Monica’s Episcopal Church. Let’s go people fishing and share with our neighbors the life-changing transformation we experience in serving others, as Christ serves us. So, what do you say? C’mon, the water is nice, the weather is beautiful, the fish are biting. C’mon, leave that fear and uncertainty behind. C’mon, pick up your nets, and “Let’s go fishing; Jesus style.”

REFERENCES

(1) Willimon, William H. “Get out of Here.” The Christian Century, vol. 121, no. 2, Jan. 2004, p. 21. 

(2) Berquist, Jon L. “Luke 5:1-11.” Interpretation, vol. 58, no. 1, Jan. 2004, pp. 62–64. 

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

(4) Spellers, Stephanie. The Episcopal Way (Church’s Teachings for a Changing World) . Church Publishing Inc.. Kindle Edition.

SERMON Epiphany 4C 2/3/19 St. Monica’s Episcopal Church

Jeremiah 1:4-10; Psalm 71:1-6; 1 Corinthians 13:1-13; Luke 4:21-30 

God’s Mission of Love

            In Presiding Bishop Michael Curry’s sermon at the Royal Wedding last year he said, “We were made by a power of love, and our lives were meant – and are meant – to be lived in that love. That’s why we are here.”  In today’s New Testament reading we heard words of love, those most often read during marriage services.  The wisdom found in those words are not mere sentimentality.  This poetic masterpiece was intended for a Christian community that was most likely planted by the Apostle Paul himself.  Back in Paul’s time, that little community was quite troubled.  There was conflict, “upsmanship,” and just plain nasty behavior happening in good ole Corinth.  Paul wrote to them to remind them that their mission and purpose was all about LOVE.  Paul said, “you can speak eloquently, you can be as smart as a PhD, you can have the faith of Job, you can be the most generous philanthropist known to the world, but if you do not have love, and you do not do these things because of love, you are just making noise and you are not following the way of Jesus.”  

            The church in Corinth forgot that Jesus had given them a mission of love, but they had become distracted from their purpose. When it came to caring for one another, sharing the Good News of Go’s love, it all became about “what they wanted,” and not “what God wanted.” Paul redefined love (Jesus style) for them.  He wrote, “Love is patient, kind, it bears, believes, and hopes for all things.  Love never fails.”   Paul held up a mirror for them to see themselves “face to face,” because they were having an identity crisis or better yet, a mission crisis. 

            This church universal has always been, is now, and will always be on a mission of love, which was inaugurated in the story we heard last week; when in the synagogue he read about the release for captives, sight for the blind, and Good News for the poor.  Maybe after last week’s sermon you were left with this question, “So, Jesus has proclaimed all these things, what do we do now?”  In today’s gospel, we hear the second half of that same story, and if you were listening, we will have a better understanding of the mission for this local branch of the Body of Christ.

Jesus Mission Focus

            A couple of years ago, I returned for a visit to my hometown, a quaint little village located in the foothills of the Smoky Mountains of East Tennessee.  When I arrived, my home was not the same, because I was not the same. I changed and grew up and yet, the town was still self-absorbed and missed opportunities to participate in the improvements and progress all around her.  My hometown lost its sense of itself and the people had forgotten what made it a quaint village in the first place.  The little village was not the same, because she never adapted to the change around her.

            In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus came back to his home (Nazareth) and in its synagogue, after he rolled up that scroll, his friends were utterly amazed that little Joseph’s boy could speak so eloquently and do so many miraculous things.  They were proud of their kinsman, but there pride in him had an underlying motivation.

            When our old friends do well, we may brag a little and say, “yep, that’s my friend, I’m sure she’ll not forget me.”  We hope for some of our friends’ success for ourselves.  Dennis Bratcher asserts that Jesus’ homeys wanted him “to take care of the local problems at hand before worrying about more far reaching issues.” (3)  Jesus’ friends wanted to claim him for themselves and to make things right for them first, before going off and doing things for others.  Jesus knew what was in their hearts, when he said, “Doctor, go heal yourself. Do here in your hometown what we heard that you did in Capernaum.” Jesus knew that God’s mission was not their motivation, because they wanted only what they wanted.  His friends thought, Jesus, “why didn’t you start out doing those things here first, Jesus? After all, charity begins at home!” (3)  

            We must remember that Jesus’ mission is far-reaching, expansive, worldwide, creation inclusive, and not limited to one little town, one little community, or one group’s self-interested desire.  Jesus was not and is not our own personal homeboy that brings miraculous mission success to us, or is his mission merely to benefit the home team.  Jesus had, has, and will have a much bigger mission and we have a part in it.

Distractions from the Mission

            Last week, I mentioned the story of the people of Israel who became distracted from their mission, when they built a Golden Calf and almost missed God’s purpose for them.  They had an identity crisis because they forgot who they were and whose they were.  They wanted something tangible that would define them, something they could get their hands on. They forgot that God defined who they were, and clarified what they were supposed to do in the first place.  Tanner Smith in his blog explains, “Who you think you are shapes what you think you should do. Your perceived identity—whether human or organizational—shapes the questions you ask about the community you live in, and the future you hope for.” (6)

            Simon SInek, in his book Start with Why, explains how the corporation Apple is clear about its purpose and identity because they know their mission.  Sinek explains that Apple’s mission approach is NOT, “We make great computers. They’re user friendly, beautifully designed, and easy to use. Want to buy one?”  Rather, Apple’s mission is stated as, “With everything we do, we aim to challenge the status quo. We aim to think differently. Our products are user-friendly, beautifully designed, and easy to use. We just happen to make great computers. Want to buy one?”  

            Do you see the difference?  The why of Apple (even if they are getting a little distracted lately) is that “we aim to challenge the status quo, we aim to think differently.”  Through most of her history, Apple has stood out as not merely a purveyor of good electronics, but a company focused on innovation, quality, and cutting edge marketing.  They know their purpose, and well that brings us back to exploring what defines the purpose of the church.  St. Monica’s, who are we, and whose are we, and what does God want us to do?

The Mission has a Church

            Bishop Graham Cray (Bishop in the Church of England) once said, “It is not the Church of God that has a mission in the world, but the God of mission, who has a Church in the world.” (5) Theologian Dennis Bratcher explains, “A true embrace of mission, a true vision of the future will call us out of our comfort zones, may propel us into places that we would not choose, or may call us to paths that we would not walk if we had a choice.” (3)  Like Apple, St. Monica’s once again is becoming clear about who we are, whose we are, and what on whose mission we are focused.  

            Have you noticed that God is doing something amazing in our midst these days? Honestly, it has nothing to do with having a new rector, nor does it have anything to do with the material and outward elements of our community.  God is creating a new future for this community right here and right now.  St. Monica’s is growing and expanding our reach beyond our four walls in new ways. Did you know that our Radical Welcome team’s report shows that we have approximately 70 new folks who have decided to take this journey with us, all in the last 11 months? Did you know that we have new people taking on leadership positions in the church and helping to lead us on a new path?  Did you know that folks who have been around for some time are excited and energized and dreaming of God’s possibilities?  Right now, there is energy, passion, and commitment emerging in our midst, because we are following God’s mission, and God has a church ready, willing, and able to join that mission.   However, we must not forget that we are not on a mission to merely have a great worship service, some really enlightening education classes, some delicious meals and fun activities, or to be a religious social gathering place.  We are on a mission of transformational and life-giving love, a mission that began when Jesus unrolled that scroll in that Nazarene synagogue.  

            This year we will begin the hard work of listening prayerfully for God’s renewed call on our community, and we will do so in interactive, tangible, and prayerful ways.  We will begin to discern prayerfully what Godwants us to do, what Godwants us to become, and howGodwants us to be on this mission of love he has given us.  Do not forget “that Jesus (needs) disciples who listen to him and obey him, and he (will) form them to continue the mission after him.” (1) We need to get ready my sisters and brothers, because the Missio Dei (God’s mission) does have a church to carry that mission into the world; God has us. God is calling us forth, and we have all tools, resources, and energy that we need to live by “faith, hope, and love, these three.”  With God’s help we are not going to be diverted from God’s mission for us, as long as we remember that the greatest of these virtues of mission is love.”

REFERENCES

(1) Baawobr, Richard K. “Opening a Narrative Programme: Luke 4.16-30 and the Black Bagr Narrative.” Journal for the Study of the New Testament, vol. 30, no. 1, Sept. 2007, pp. 29–53. 

(2) Lovell, Arnold B. “I Corinthians 13.” Interpretation, vol. 48, no. 2, Apr. 1994, pp. 176–180.

(3) http://www.crivoice.org/lectionary/YearC/Cepiphany4nt.html

(4) https://www.episcopalnewsservice.org/2018/07/06/79th-general-convention-july-5-sermon-by-presiding-bishop-michael-curry/

(5) https://thewearypilgrim.typepad.com/files/mission_shaped_church-1.pdf

(6) https://inallthings.org/gods-mission-has-a-church/

SERMON Epiphany 3C 1/27/19 St. Monica’s Episcopal Church

Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10; Psalm 19; 1 Corinthians 12:12-31a; Luke 4:14-21

INTRODUCTION

I read an interesting article the other day about body image, advertising, and the resultant effects on our spiritual, mental, and physical health. The article stated, “Although advertising aims to convince us to buy things, ads seldom portray people that look like us.” The article also stated, “The constant barrage of unrealistically skinny images can stir up feelings of inadequacy, anxiety and depression.”(1) Having a healthy self-image is essential to spiritual health, but in a world where we are bombarded with unrealistic expectations, it is difficult for us to embrace our beauty within. This distortion of “God in us” negatively impacts how we engage in the mission God has in store for us as community.

Some faith communities fall prey to self-image distortion. They compare themselves to mega churches or larger neighboring churches, which with grand ministries, enormous buildings and grounds, and expanding programs seem to be so successful. Those growing or revitalizing little communities begin to compare themselves to others and they feel inadequate, insufficient, and not enough. So, they become impatient and begin to focus on external indicators of mission success, and eventually became distracted from what God has in store for them as a community.

Throughout the history of salvation, communities that tried to discern God’s desire for them also struggled with mission distractions. When Moses led the people of Israel out of bondage in Egypt to the promise land, they were on a long journey that required trust, patience, and perseverance. However, while Moses was on the mountain listening for God’s direction to move forward, the people became impatient, built a Golden Calf (an image of worship of their own making), and through this disobedience, God’s plan for them was totally distorted.

Trusting in God’s perfect guidance for God’s people requires patience, discernment, and a self-image of the community that focuses on the beauty, gifts, and mission of the people within, not the mere external shell that contains that beauty. A healthy self-image and the resultant healthy spiritual journey have much more to do with what is inside, than what is on the outside.

The Human Body

“The Vitruvian Man … is a drawing by … Leonardo da Vinci, which was accompanied by notes based on the work of the architect Vitruvius. The drawing itself is often used as an implied symbol of the essential symmetry of the human body, and by extension, the symmetry of the universe as a whole.” (2) Consider the beauty and perfection of the human body, and you see a glimpse of the wisdom of The Creator.

The eyes, ears, nose, hands, feet, heart, and brain all function together like a well-engineered machine, and each member has its own function. This body in which we inhabit is so perfect, but it still has flaws and imperfections that make each one of us unique and amazing.

That same kind of diversity, both in mission and spiritual gifts is what makes each individual church so unique as well. Like the human body, the church, the Body of Christ gathers together in unity and purpose, but by God’s unique bringing together of that people, we find God’s purpose so we might continue Christ’s mission in the world. Maybe that is a different understanding of church than that with we have known.

Eternal in the heavens

When I was a child my mother taught me a nursery rhyme, to try and help me understand what church was all about. It went like this, “Here’s the church, here’s the steeple, open the doors and see all the people.” The problem with this rhyme is that it implies that the Body of Christ is merely a building filled with people. If we perceive the church as merely a place or edifice, we distort the concept of Christian community that Jesus had in mind.

In the New Testament, Ekklesia is the Greek word often translated as “church”. It means: a gathering of citizens called out from their homes into some public place, an assembly; or those who anywhere, in a city, village, constitute such a company and are united as one body. In other words, the Church is not the building, but the people.

The Apostle Paul, in his letter to the Corinthians, clarifies that fact. He said, “We have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.” The church is the people gathered together in unity, and not merely the edifice in which, the church gathers. We are the church, and when we gather together for worship, study, encouragement, we can be sent out there in the world in every day mission.

In my book, Pioneers, Misfits and Mission, I wrote, “to effectively be the church in the 21st century, we cannot just expect a growing segment of our population (irreligious folks) to step into a church building unaided.” (3) To “bring all people into unity with God and each other in Christ,” which is the mission of the church; we must become clear and focused on God’s purpose, mission, and desire for this particular branch of the Body of Christ. That may mean that the former models of being church in which we all grew up, may not work in this culture today. We will have to do church differently from what we remember from our childhood.

The poetic description of church that we will need to teach the next generations of Jesus followers will sound more like this, “Here’s the church, because here’s the people, look at how they serve others, love others, and are transformed together in Christ. I wonder, do we really need that nice new steeple?” Our mission today is more difficult than ever. We live in a culture where 25-30% of the people among us have no connection to traditional models of religious community.

Today, to be effective in mission, we must begin everything we do, every goal we set, and in every action we take, focused on God’s mission first. Only then will we be able to discern God’s call for how we are to move forward, to discern what the resources, tools, staffing, or maybe even a grander edifice that we will need, to support God’s mission being accomplished through us. You may be thinking, “So, what is our mission again Eric?”

Christ’s Mission

After his sojourn in the desert for 40 days, Jesus entered one of the synagogues, unrolled the scroll of Isaiah and read, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.  He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

Throughout Jesus’ ministry, the miracles, teachings, self-giving love on the cross, resurrection, and ascension, Jesus fulfilled this prophecy we heard today. He did it not dot it in the synagogues and Temple, but out there in everyday life and then, he gave that mission to us. After the resurrection, Jesus appeared to he disciples and told them, “go and make disciples of all nations.” That task, my friends is our mission … to make disciples, to expand the Body of Christ, and to help others to do what Jesus does.

Jesus gave us the work to bring good news to the poor (poor in spirit, emotion, and situation); release to the captives and to let the oppressed go free (those in bondage to injustice, indignity, and division); to bring sight to the blind (who cannot see the love of God and the call to love one another). This is the purpose of the church, but we cannot do it effectively following God’s desire and plan, if we get distracted and forget the mission itself, or if we fail to care for the body’s health and welfare. You may ask, “So, why do we gather then Eric?”

Foundational Building Blocks

Our bodies need food, exercise, rest, water, oxygen, and yes, healthy relationships in order to thrive. We call these things the basics of life. Without them the body collapses, the body succumbs to the inevitability of decline and a lack of purpose. The church likewise needs communion, the Body and Blood of Christ to nourish, sustain, and make us unified. We need to exercise in the messiness of what it means to love one another as Jesus loved us. We need to rest in the prayers of mutual support, God’s grace, and in seeking God’s desire for us. We need to breath in the life sustaining grace of the Holy Spirit who inspires, encourages, and guides us all along the way. Most importantly, we need the interactions, connections, and mentoring or our mutual relationships in community.

These things are the foundational basics of Christian community, and without a solid foundation and purpose on which to build the Body (of Christ) it can collapse, and succumb to the inevitability of potential and inevitable decline. Without these basic foundations, we will be unable effectively, to accomplish the work God has given us to do.

Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man reminds us that we are an incredible, diverse, and complex system of members woven together in beauty and precision. However, we can succumb to a false self-image, believing we are not enough or we need to “keep up with the Jones’s.” So, we must be patient, listen, discern, and seek God’s desire for our common life together. We must care for the Body of Christ and build it up for healthy mission and ministry. We must invite others to join us in this journey of discovery, growth, and discipleship and bring more gifts, beauty, and diversity to the mission.

If we do these things first, we will accomplish what God has in store for us now, and in the expectant, exciting possibilities and dreams that God is already stirring in each of us. In time, God will lead us where he desires us to go that is, if we patiently listen for the Spirit’s voice, follow the Spirit’s lead, and trust that already we are the beautiful, gifted, and energized Body of Christ right here and right now, and always will be in the decades to come.

REFERENCES

(1) https://www.mirror-mirror.org/the-media-and-body-image.htm

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

(3) Misfits, Pioneers, and Mission, Cooter, Eric, Create Space Publishing (Amazon), 2017, p. 6

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/