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SERMON Last Sunday after Epiphany 7A 2/23/20 St. Monica’s Naples

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Exodus 24:12-18; Psalm 99; 2 Peter 1:16-21; Matthew 17:1-9

The Holy Mountain – Sewanee 

The Lord said to Moses, “Come up to me on the mountain, and wait there.”  Thirteen years ago, Terri and I experienced an unexpected life-altering event, the call to seminary.  Sudden, unexpected changes seems to be the nature of mine and Terri’s ministry. God sets us on a particular journey and then, unexpectedly something changes and we are on another path.   In 2007, we left beautiful Southwest Florida, the low land peninsula of palm trees, warm weather, and luxurious beaches, and traded all that in for a paradoxical, Appalachian, pseudo-Oxfordian adventure on a holy mountain in East Tennessee.   For three years I studied, and later received, a Master’s of Divinity degree from Sewanee, The University of the South.  Sewanee is a nearly two centuries old, Episcopal owned seminary and liberal arts college situated on top of the Cumberland plateau, west of Chattanooga Tennessee, and in many ways, it looks and feels like the Oxford of the South.

With its isolated mountaintop locale, we experienced the weekly ritual of wearing academic gowns, the beauty of old stone Oxford-like buildings, and the holy presence of prayer in the lives of seminarians, undergrads, and professors.  On that mountaintop, Terri and I found a geographical, academic, and spiritual life changing experience.  There, we made friendships that last to this day, and the memories we had there of community and prayer, I often long to recapture and sustain.

However, we were not called to stay on the mountain of Sewanee forever, rather we had to come back to the valley, the flatlands of Florida.  God would take that experience of God’s holy presence on the mountaintop, and use it to inform us and change us, so that we might serve and tell others, about the mystery of the incarnation, the very presence of God and humanity undivided.

Today, we hear in the gospel reading an unusual and often overlooked chapter in the life of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ; the Transfiguration. I wonder why we just gloss over one of the most important moments in scripture, which clearly defines the true nature of God, “human and divine, both at the same time.”  Maybe we rush over this story and merely say that this was when God’s glory was first fully revealed, however we forget the Moses experience we hear about in Exodus.  Maybe we look at mountaintop experience as subservient to the valley work of disciples, and we wrongly judge Peter, James, and John and label them lazy, uninformed, or naive.  Maybe we like those three are in so much awe at the possibility of God’s glory and power being contained in a fleshly jar that like them, we just cannot comprehend such an event as reality.  Sisters and brothers God in flesh was, is, and will be always a factual, authentic, and true reality, and there is much for us to learn from the transfiguration event that is, if we are willing to go to the mountain with God.

Mountain Top Experiences

The Christian life is a series of mountaintop and valley experiences, highs and lows, joy and fear, and revelation and darkness.  Read the stories of Jesus ministry and you will see each of those diametric realities revealed in almost all of the events; especially the Passion and Resurrection.  However, I want to stay for a moment on the mountain with Peter, James, and John, and not be too quick to leave this scene, run down the mountain path, and get back to work.  I want us to sit in awe of the glorious light of God’s divinity fully present in fleshly clay jar.   We all need a mountaintop experience today.

Henri Nouwen once wrote of mountaintop experiences, “At some moments we experience complete unity within us and around us. This may happen when we stand on a mountaintop and are captivated by the view. It may happen when we witness the birth of a child or the death of a friend. It may happen when we have an intimate conversation or a family meal. It may happen in church during a service or in a quiet room during prayer. But whenever and however it happens we say to ourselves: “This is it … everything fits … all I ever hoped for is here.” (2)

When have you experienced that kind of mountaintop experience, that you were able to say, “This is it … everything fits … all I ever hoped for is here”?  I have to be honest with you, those times seem to be elusive and difficult to come by, especially if you think they are only made for a chosen few.  We all know those people who walk around with a perpetual smile, a “happy go lucky” outlook, and the unending joy of a life of ease.  Here is what we don’t see revealed in people whom we think are living perpetual mountaintop lives. We do not see the injuries, trauma, and the valley moments that have changed them forever.  What you may not see revealed in them is that behind the mountaintop revelation on the outside, there could be a horrific valley moment that forever changed their hearts, and somehow God’s grace brought them back to the mountain, even in the midst of the lowlands of life.  Sometimes we need to go to the mountain and be in God’s presence and then, bring a little of that back into everyday life.

Peter, James and John

Peter in glee shouted, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” These three, especially Peter have over the years gotten a bad rap for their reaction to the mountaintop transfiguration experience.  These three guys were sitting in the holy presence of God in flesh, fully revealed and they just wanted to stay. Down in the valley, these guys faced everyday rejection from the religious elite.  They lived as poor itinerant preachers following this “up and coming” rabbi and most of the time, they were confused by his teachings.   They had doubts, fears, and uncertainties about their choices to leave their families and businesses.

Now, in a moment of light and flash, it all seemed to make sense because this guy they were following was God, and yet still human, and all of it was confirmed by Moses and Elijah.  The great Exodus rescuer, and the holy prophet who was taken up into heaven were both declaring to these three disciples, “yep, this is the one.”  Even God’s voice from heaven declared it, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!”

Let me tell you, had I been there with them, I too would have wanted to stay.  I too would have wanted to forget the ministry valley below; the weekly committee meetings, the surprising personality clashes and betrayals, and the endless emails.   I bet you would have wanted to stay there too.  So, don’t be too quick to judge these guys.  We like them, need to go to the mountaintop in our lives of faith more often.  We need moments like those, to carry us through the valleys.

A Greek Orthodox theologian tells us, “The transfiguration is not only an event of memory, but one of participatory action.” (3).  We need to go to the mountain and not just sit, but we need to be like Peter, who wanted to do something (build tabernacles).  We need to go to the mountain so we can build a life of transformation, changed hearts, and the full revelation of God’s divine presence in us.

The transfiguration is not merely a moment of glory for Jesus, where he showed his disciples that he was who he claimed he was.  The transfiguration is the moment Jesus shows us clearly, that we are who he says we are; glorious children of God in fleshly containers.  Let me explain.  I found this quote on Pinterest, “Shining forth atop the mountain is the glory not only of Christ as the unrepeatable, incomparable person of the Son made man, but also the universal, approachable vision of humanity wrought fully in the image and likeness of God.” (1).

The Valley of Transformed

“So, Fr. Eric, how do I experience the mountaintop,” you may ask.  Honestly, it is easier than you think, if you are willing to go.  You can have a mountaintop experience every single day, if you are willing to go.  It is simple; find that place that completely takes you out of your routine, that focuses your heart, and provides you with time and space for introspection.  Maybe it is the beach, maybe it is your lanai, maybe it is a walking path in your community, or maybe it is the vistas from 2000’. Mountaintops can be places that bring you to a peace, where you can be open to new insights, where you can experience an open heart, and a find renewed spirit.  When you go there you simply need to pray.  When you are there, ask God to reveal Godself to you, and wait.  Ask God to show you who you really are and wait.  Finally, expect God to show up.  Now you may have to do this a few times and you may be disappointed, if you do not have that glorious mountaintop experience, but be patient and wait.

Not into that kind of thing?  So, try this as an alternative.  The next time you experience any event in your life: the missed golf shot, the troublesome co-worker, the events that seem to overwhelm your peace, the tragedy in your life you cannot bear, the family member who is angry with you, the anxiety you carry every day, well then, go to the mountaintop in the midst of those valleys.  In other words, go to prayer.  Ask God to reveal Godself to you and wait.  Ask God to show you who you really are and wait.  Finally, expect God to show up.

You see, when you go to the mountaintop, you are going to discover who you truly are, but be ready, because you will there be forever changed.  Mountaintops for many of us can be frightening and life-altering, because these moments will bring us to a decision point. When we come face to face with our true identity, we face many choices.   On the mountain, you will discover who we truly are and either choose to accept the valley paths Jesus sets out for us; or you may discover who we really are and decide to follow the valley paths of our own choosing.  You see, the beauty of the story of the Transfiguration of Christ is not a story of the divisional experience of mountain and valley, as if they were two different and separable parts of life.  Just like the truth revealed in the shining face of Jesus with Moses and Elijah on both of his sides, divinity and flesh are not separable parts of our journey of faith.

The truth we find in this story is this that wherever we are on this journey, the mountains and valleys if taken following Christ, can really be indistinguishable.  In other words, if we truly see and trust the very presence of God living in us, no matter where we are the divinity and humanity of God is present with us in Christ.  So, when you experience uncertainty, trials, fears, anxiety, depression, disappointment, pain, and when a choice is before you, remember that you always have available to you, the God given grace to listen to God’s call, to leave your troubles with Jesus as be beckons, “Come up to me on the mountain, and wait there.”

REFERENCES

 

 

 

 

SERMON Ephiphany 5A St. Monica’s Naples, FL

Ephiphay 5A CoverWatch Live on Youtube

Isaiah 58:1-9a, [9b-12]; Psalm 112:1-9, [10]; 1 Corinthians 2:1-12, [13-16]; Matthew 5:13-20

 

Salty Christians

“You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything.” Jesus used everyday language to explain to us the complexities of a life of faith.  He used salt and light as symbols to describe vividly the mission as God’s people (the church) in the world.  Let’s start with salt.  Salt has many uses, but one prevalent in Jesus’ time was that of preserving and purifying food.  They used it preserve fish and meat to allow it to last for months, so it could feed many people.

Salt preserves by creating an environment repugnant to nasty microorganisms and bacteria.  Salt even in small quantities not only preserves, but it enhances the flavor of the food and it makes the dish more than it was alone.  Even when salt is combined with sweet treats like cookies, it enhances its flavor as well.  Salt enriches, it makes things better tasting, it adds life to any recipe, and it really does not take much of it to change the whole dish.

Now here is the lesson for us; salt must be poured out, and it cannot remain in its container to be effective.  I love to cook and for Christmas a few years ago, all I wanted was a nice salt crock in which, I could keep sea salt near our cooking range.  After a long search, Terri finally found the one I wanted, a nice Le Creuset crock.  Anytime I cook now, I just I open the lid, reach in, take a pinch of salt and add it to whatever dish I cook.  It’s more than merely a decorative piece in the kitchen, its contents impact all my dishes and makes my gourmet tendencies shine.  We are supposed to be like that, not mere containers sitting on a shelf.  Jesus calls us to be poured out, to be the “the salt of the earth, because we can blend with blandness and tastelessness of broken relationships, injustice, and oppression in the world and bring savory, spicy, spiritual transformation to all of life.  You are salt!

Glowing Christians

Jesus also tells us, “You are the light of the world.”  Most of us have experienced some form of the unsettling darkness.  I am sure most of us have looked for a flashlight or candle during a power outage in a storm.  Like me, you may have awakened suddenly at night, and subsequently struggled to find the light on your smart phone, so you can find your way to the bathroom.  Traversing the darkness can be frightening, and so many people today travel a spiritual and emotional darkness that often is overlooked by the church.  However, it only takes  a little light to turn darkness into a path of peace, love, and joy.

As a flight instructor, when I flew the coast of Florida at night with students, I recall how terrifying night flying can be.  On a moonless night, with very little ground references, the darkness poses a great threat to a pilot, who must rely on seeing their way, trying to distinguish starlight from streetlights.   A great comfort for most pilots is the sight of the rotating beacon of light that is located at every airport.  It can be seen for miles.  Light, even as a flashing glimmer that small, pierces the bleakness of the dark and brings hope and direction to those around it.   All unsettling darkness can be overcome by the glimmer of hope of the safety of the airport, which the beacon provides.

Jesus said, “Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.“ The faces of hopelessness and brokenness groping in darkness are all around us.  There are so much pain in the world war, hunger, and devastation.   Locally, right here in our neighborhoods, we have folks in need, folks who are searching for a lighthouse of hope to show them the way.  Folks are just struggling with life: a mother is trying to afford medication for her son, children are living on the street, marriages are on the rocks, unemployment abounds, and relationships are being torn apart.  This is darkness; emotional and spiritual darkness.  Some people traverse the shadows and obscurity of brokenness and they come to us here at St. Monica’s with outstretched arms asking for help. Two people came to us the other day, hopeless victims of the unfortunate circumstances of their lives.  They had lost their house rental because the landowner went into foreclosure and never told them.  They were living in their truck, hungry, almost out of gas, and trying to make it day to day.  We gave them some food, some gas money, and offered them a small glimmer of hope.

Now, some people who are traversing the shadows and obscurity of darkness, show up at our doors, not asking to receive from the church, but come here with something to give.  People come seeking how they might do ministry with the gifts God has given them.  They too have a light within them that is ready to glow and shine brightly, but they need the spark of hope that this community can ignite, in order to light their torch of love. We have to be ready to receive the diversity of gifts that people bring to St. Monica’s, and we must engage them in service along beside us.   Giving and receiving is the mission of love to which God calls us.   Being a place that gives from its abundance and at the same time, being a place from which we can in kind, receive from the abundance of others is truly what it means to be a light to the world, a beacon of hope, a lighthouse and not a clubhouse.

Salt Crocks and Unlit Wicks

Christians are not mere salt crocks and unlit wicks, Jesus said that we are salt and light. Well, being salt and light means (as the prophet declares) that we “Loose the bonds of injustice, undo the thongs of the yoke, let the oppressed go free, and break every yoke?”   It means, “we share bread with the hungry, bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them.”  When we do these things, we are loving our neighbor and we are loving God.  When we do these things, God promises that “your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday. The Lord will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places, and make your bones strong;  and you shall be like a watered garden.”  You see, when we take our place in God’s mission to do these kinds of love acts for others, we experience the Kingdom of God and it becomes real and present in front of our very eyes.  Then, we can proclaim that we are not mere salt crocks and unlit wicks.

Salt must be poured out and light must shine brightly.  Can you imagine the mission of the church, if we merely showed up and received and never poured out?  See the love of God must be a benevolent intrusion into the life of the world.  Salt, even in its smallest quantity invades a soup, a salad, an entrée and brings to it a saltiness that permeates the entire dish.  However, salt does not serve its purpose by trying to change the dish into more salt, its purpose is to enhance the flavor of the dish that is already there.

When light shines you cannot contain it.  Light a match in a darkened room and you see everything around you.  The church is never supposed to be an LED high beam intensity spotlight overshadowing everything in its path.  No, to do its mission, the church must let our light shine to clarify and reflect.  God’s light in us does not diminish that which is in darkness, but it clarifies it, shines upon it, and makes visible the beauty otherwise unseen.

Our mission is to move into the world with the love of God in us and enhance the beauty that is already in God’s creation.  We are preservers and sustainers of God’s dream in the world; a dream of loving God and loving neighbor.  We cannot merely hide in the shadows from the world, acting like a mere respite for our own saltiness and brightness.  We are supposed to go and serve, so that the praise of God will be increased.  The great Helen Keller, whose challenges with sight, sound, and speech once declared, “I am only one; but still I am one. I cannot do everything, but still I can do something. I will not refuse to do the something I can do.”  Light and salt, even in small seemingly insignificant measures, bring about a great transformation in the circumstances of all that it touches.  We are supposed to be change agents.

You are Salt and Light

Christians are not supposed to be bearers of tastelessness and darkness, Jesus said we are salt and light!  Our mission is not to become comfortable complacent containers and unlit wicks, people who have lost sight of God’s mission to which, we are called to live.  We are not a light hidden under a basket. We are a city on a hill that serves as a beacon of hope shining brightly.  We are not mere casks of salt sitting as a decorative piece on a shelf.  We are a diverse and flavorful spice that must be abundantly poured out into the world bringing about intense and lasting transformation.  We come here each week, and we are fed, so that we might intentionally move into our neighborhoods and invite, embrace, stand with, and support those whom God in mission, sends us out to love.

St. Monica’s shines as the beacon of hope to a world that may very well reject us and persecute us.  St. Monica’s mission is that of self-giving love, despite the potential rejecting response of those, to whom it is directed.  God has given us the gifts of ministry and yes, the spiritual needs of our neighbors are great.  Where these two things (gifts and needs) meet, well that is what we call ministry.  Your ministry is to be salty and spiritually flavorful.  Your ministry is to light your wicks and be abundantly glowing.  So go out this week and let God through you, bring a little salty brightness into someone’s life, maybe even your own.

SERMON 2-2-20 Epiphany 4A Feast of the Presentation St. Monica’s Episcopal Naples

GrowthWatch on our Youtube Channel

Malachi 3:1-4; Psalm 24:7-10; Hebrews 2:14-18; Luke 2:22-40

Evangelism + Growth = Change

In today’s gospel reading, we hear how Jesus’ mother and Joseph brought the 40-day old Baby Jesus to the temple. The purpose for this trip was to allow Mary after childbirth …  to go and make an offering at the temple (two turtle doves and two pigeons) for her own purification.  The secondary purpose for the trip was so that Jesus the firstborn could be “redeemed, which was done by their father paying a priest five shekels.” (1a)

Although the family went to the temple for two ritual purposes, something else notable and profound happened on their visit.  Two mature, aged, and wise people saw Jesus for the first time, and everything changed for them, and it changed for everyone with whom they came in contact thereafter.  Simeon saw Jesus and said, “for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,” and adds, “a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.”  Simeon met Jesus and offered some advice and counsel to the young family and set them on the path that would change the world.

Then there was Anna, an 84-year-old widow who sees the child, and “began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.” (1a) The interesting part of the story is not so much the purification rite or the redemption of the baby.  What should capture our attention is how all the circumstances were just right for two mature and aged people to see the salvation of God in the flesh in front of them in the Baby Jesus, and then the felt compelled to share the experience with others.

Simeon and Anna did not hesitate, nor let the fear of change, the comfort of the temple community as it was, nor the uncertainty of God’s work in their lives, keep them from being evangelists.  They rejected the fear of change, which always keeps the church from being a part of God’s mission; the work to reconcile all of creation to Godself, through the witness and growth of the community of God’s people.  We are a people on a mission.

The Mission Field

You have heard me say that the mission field the church serves today is different from decades past.  Nearly ¼ or 109 million Americans are no long going to church at all.

The Episcopal Church is changing as well.   From 2008 to 2018, the Average Sunday Attendance in the Episcopal Church fell by 25% from 747,000 to 561,00.  The number of baptized members fell by 17.5% from 2.2 million to 1.8 million.   The median Sunday attendance in the Episcopal Church fell from 60 to 53, and 74% of our parishes had less than 100 people in worship on Sunday.  So, if we are to effectively continue God’s mission, we need to adapt.  We need to take some risks, try new approaches, because we can no longer share the Good News, by merely offering hoping  great worship, exceptional music, and a charismatic clergy leader to carry the day.  To continue God’s mission, we have to be evangelists again.

We have to remember that there are always two doors in any institution.  The door through which, new people come into the community, and door through which people leave the community.  We will always lose people because of relocations, life changes, and when people who become angry, especially with changes or with the clergy, and decide to go somewhere else.  Most people leave the community because we are mortal, of the natural process of aging.  Did you know that 73% of Episcopal congregations report that half their members are 50+, and nearly 1/3 report that half of their members are 65 years old or older?  The door out of the church is always open, and each one of us will at some point walk through that portal.  So, with that door always open, we need to consider whether alternatively, the door of entry is wide open, and what are we doing to keep it wide open, and what steps are we taking intentionality to help people walk into the community.

Now, I am not merely talking about institutional sustainability here.  God calls us to grow as a church not so we can keep the organization going for the sake of keeping it going.  We are called to growth as a result of serving as faithful witnesses of the Good News of God in Christ, because we should be forever changed by that news.  As followers of Jesus, we live so others may come to know Christ.  Yes, I am talking about our Christian duty as evangelists, but before you tune me out, let’s take look at our call to this ministry in a new light; the light of Christ.

Evangelism + Growth = Change

The story of the Presentation heard in today’s gospel is an often-overlooked early evangelism moment for the first followers of Jesus, and it is a call for us to follow Anna and Simeon’s lead.  Those statistics I gave you about the Episcopal Church’s membership and attendance woes, I believe is a result of the fact that Evangelism scares we Episcopalians for some reason.  We get it confused with overt proselytizing, because we think we have to be like televangelists, or people knocking on our doors with gospel tracts, or people at rock concerts with bullhorns screaming, “Jesus saves.”  Evangelism scares us, because it is a risk-taking action when we are sharing something as intimate as our faith with someone else.  Evangelism requires us to take an often-unpopular stand in our culture, which is to acknowledge that we are a Christian and thus, evangelism opens us up to face rejection by our friends.

Evangelism also worries us because, when we do it well, it always results in change in the community.  If we evangelize, then we will grow. If we grow, then new people will come to the church.  If new people come into our community, then everything will change.  New people will bring new ideas and change the status quo do and do things differently. We may think that new people will take away your share of leadership or influence.  New people may even want to sit in your favorite seat on Saturday or Sunday.  While on the Bishop’s staff, I sometimes worked with church leaders to encourage evangelism and growth.  I often heard people say, “We do not want to grow too big now.” I was always concerned when I heard that said because, I knew people were forgetting that the future of the church is not in our hands, but in God’s.  It is God’s mission and it is God’s church after all.

So, evangelism is not fancy marketing of Jesus, it is not serving as purveyors of religious goods and services, and it is definitely not proselytizing, or a plan for corporate institutional sustainability.  So, what is it then?  Evangelism is simply sharing the Good News of the life change our faith in Christ is making in us.  This should not be a new concept for us though.  I hear people all the time tout how much they love a particular restaurant, or a movie or show, or a local hair stylist or nail salon, and how much that experience changed their week.  We are unimpaired to share the good news of an experience we have had commercially, so why then are we not equally motivated to share the most important experience of salvation that we have had spiritually.

 You are an Evangelist

Simeon said upon meeting Jesus, “For my eyes have seen your salvation,” but his experience did not end there. Simeon absolutely knew what he needed to do next.  However, we Christians say, “For my eyes have seen your salvation … Now, what must I do?”  We need to be reminded that we are on a mission.  All around us, “everyday people are presented to us, as strangers out of darkness.”(1)  Many of your friends are struggling in spiritual obscurity every day, wrestling with anxiety, depression, loneliness, and uncertainty.   Did you know that you have the light in you that will shine in their darkness?  You have the hope in you that will change their day.  You do not have to say to them, “I know you are in darkness today, now let me tell you about Jesus.”  You are Good News by just listening to them, holding their hand, telling them you care and then, you go home and pray for them.  Maybe at some point though they will ask you, “why do you have such hope,” and that will be your cue, it will be the right moment to tell them about your faith, or your church, your ministry, or maybe to offer to pray with them right there.

Real evangelism works best when the Holy Spirit brings together the right circumstances that allow a sincere conversation about faith to happen with a friend whom we trust and who trusts us.  Evangelism works best when we are willing to be vulnerable and then, something amazing happens.  In my book Misfits, Pioneers, and Mission, I wrote, “God acts in and through our openness when we are present with others, and I believe those everyday chats with the people we encounter, may be the best way we can share the Good News of God’s work in our lives.” (3)  We must let these flowers of faith bloom.

A friend told me about some Marigolds she planted in a small pot , however they never seemed to get beyond a certain size.  She constrained the growth of the plant in a pot, because she was afraid it might get too big, overtake the flower bed, and change her landscape.  In that tiny container, the growth of the flower was hindered within the confines of her predetermined limits.  My friend said one day she eliminated the barriers to the plants’ growth and put them in the flower bed beside her pool cage.  Today, the Marigolds are abundant, beyond imagine in depth and size, and they have reached their full potential.  She let go of her fears of change and now she can see the beauty of the flower garden she allowed to bloom.

If you have found Good News here in this place.  If God has made a way for you to grow here, then that change should compel you share it with others.  In my book I wrote, “I am convinced that it is only in community that we can engage in self-examination, investigate the hard questions of life, bear each other’s burdens together, and learn about God’s love.  It is in community that we experience God’s grace, mercy, and reconciling love, because human beings are created for shared existence. We are not lone wolves, but we are pack creatures, who travel better when we traverse life together.” (3)  It is only in community where the flowers of faith grow best.  My sisters and brothers, you are evangelists called to allow the flowers of your faith, the light of gold and bloom, to blossom beyond any limits we might place on them.  So, go plant some buds of faith this week.

REFERENCES

(1a) https://www.ncregister.com/blog/jimmy-akin/what039s-happening-at-the-presentation-of-the-lord

(1) https://preachingtip.com/archives-year-a/epiphany/presentation-of-jesus-in-the-temple-year-a/

(2) https://extranet.generalconvention.org/staff/files/download/26462

(3) https://www.amazon.com/Misfits-Pioneers-Mission-Renewal-Margins-ebook/dp/B076XQYT1J/ref=sr_1_1?keywords=misfits+pioneers+and+mission+cooter&qid=1580391027&s=digital-text&sr=1-1

SERMON 1/26/20 Epiphany 3A St Monica’s Naples FL


Click to watch Sunday’s Sermon

Isaiah 9:1-4; Psalm 27:1, 5-13; 1 Corinthians 1:10-18; Matthew 4:12-23

Football Wanna Be’s

Next Sunday, we will celebrate yet another huge holiday, a feast day of sorts in American culture, a day some folks wear the colors of their favorite sports team. It is a day to indulge in festive foods: nachos, hot wings, potato chips, and Lord only knows what else. Next Sunday, is Super Bowl XLIV (54) and the San Francisco 49ers will battle the Kansas City Chiefs for the National Title. As football fans, we will indulge in this great winter sport, but we have to remember that we are mere fans and football wanna be’s. We will not once pick up a ball, put on a uniform, or step even one foot out on a football field. We will watch the spectacular event from the sidelines.

I was a football wannabe as a kid and on Sunday afternoons (after church and Sunday dinner of course) I spent time watching football. One Christmas I asked for one of the vibrating metal football fields where you set up all the little plastic players, turned on the switch and they all moved across the field. This game was a football fan’s obsession long before Madden Football was available on X Box.

As much as I loved the game, as much as I dreamed of catching the winning touchdown, I never once stepped out on the field, put on ahelmet and pads nor practiced with a team. Not once did I in the heat of the game toss the ball, block a tackle, nor experience the glory of getting on the field. I was merely fan, a sideline “wanna be.” I was a wannabe lacking in self-confidence and looking for guidance.”2

I can only imagine what kind of player I could have been, had I followed a caring coach, a loving mentor, or if I had been given a chance by a risk-taking scout. What if there had been someone to help me get past my fears, to show me how easy it was to try, and to help me get out on the field and play the game that I loved.

Jesus, Discipleship Scout

Many years ago, a great scout of sorts, a young rabbi was out looking for prospects to join his first-string team. The mission on which, he engaged required a special team of players. He did not go out to the best colleges (synagogues) and pick the first-round draft choices, nor did he visit the great centers of power/government and choose the social elite.

No, he went down to the shore, down to where he could find the working-class folk of the time, and sought out just regular people, and then, he invited them to hang out with him, and to watch how he played the game. “And he said to them, ‘Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.’ Immediately they left their nets and followed him.” (Matthew 4:12-23 NRSV)

What has always intrigued me about this story in Matthew’s gospel in which ,Jesus calls the disciples is that these guys who were obviously working in the family business and possibly doing it well, but they just dropped what they were doing, left it all behind, and followed this rabbi guy. Talk about being risk-takers. Can you imagine what it was about Jesus, in that brief encounter that was so compelling, so persuasive so, undeniably attractive? I mean it would be like us walking off a job site or an office meeting, or a project and saying, “See ya, I’m following Jesus.”

I wonder if it had something to do with the fact that for these overlooked fishermen, someone finally believed in them, saw something promising in them and thus, invited them to get out on the field of mission. I wonder if it was because someone finally asked them to risk failure, to dream about what might be possible, challenged them to face their fears, and invited them to follow the one, who calls each one of us to a new way of life. Maybe they dropped what they were doing and followed, because Jesus confidently declared, “You can do this!” Jesus calls us to Gridiron Discipleship.

Jesus believes in us

See the great thing about “Gridiron Discipleship” is that Jesus is not looking for us to be perfect, to do it right all the time, or to avoid failure. The fact is, “Gridiron Discipleship”, this Life in Christ we strive for means, we do not get it right a lot of the time. Folks, Jesus followers drop the ball, miss the tackle, step out of bounds, and sometimes we fail to show up for practice. Even so, the fundamental requirement to be a student, apprentice, disciple of Jesus, is that we must be willing to take the risk and try. We really do not have to worry about getting it right, because we first have to get over our “wanna be” mentality and just get out on the field, take the leap to follow Jesus, and do it not simply on Sundays, but every day of the week.

Furthermore, “Gridiron Disciples” do not believe that Sunday is our only big game day. Sunday is merely our practice time and it is when we learn how to play game, when we learn from one another and encourage each another. Sunday morning is where we are fed and prepared and sent out. The real, big event, the true “Gridiron Disciple” playing field is out there in our workplaces, in our homes, with our closest friends, and with folks with whom we engage every single day.

“Consider the work you do to make a living. This is one of the clearest ways possible of focusing upon apprenticeship to Jesus.”1 How you interact and treat co-workers, how you make decisions about difficult issues, how you serve customers and clients are all opportunities “to be learning from Jesus how to do your job as Jesus himself would do it.” A young woman worked in a very competitive, high-energy office where cut-throat tactics abounded. Sometimes her faith seemed to come in conflict with the corporate culture in which she found herself. She resolved at one point that she would begin her day with this prayer, which she said each day sitting in the parking garage, “Lord, when I am confused guide me. When I am burned out infuse me with the light of the Holy Spirit. May the work that I do and the way I do it bring faith, joy, and a smile to all that I come in contact with today.”

This simple prayer focused this “Gridiron Disciple” and reminded her that she had been given the opportunity to bring joy and grace into a place of darkness and stress. She learned that by simply changing her mindset, looking at things differently, she was able to step out on the field, take a risk, and get into the game playing on Jesus’ team. When we are at work, at home, or at any place we find ourselves engaging with others, we should pray, “put me in coach,” and then, the Master does just that and by the way, the Spirit gives us the power to take the ball and run with it.

“Gridiron Discipleship”

“THE FINAL step in becoming a “Gridiron Disciple” is to make a decision to play the game and become a life student of Jesus. Remember the seashore scouting trip where Jesus said, to his prospects, “Follow me,” and they dropped what they were doing and did just that. Notice that they did not drift into following Jesus, like “well maybe I could do this on Thursdays at 4:00 pm or Saturday mornings early before golf. “ No, they made a conscious decision to risk it all and give it a go. Now being a disciple does not mean you have to go off to seminary and become a professional Christian, nor does it mean that you have to move to Calcutta, or join a monastic community, nor does it mean you have to sign up for every ministry leadership position in this parish. Being a disciple begins when we simply decide to be one, and then we practice, and play the game. Here is how to start practicing:

(1) Spend some time studying the stories of how Jesus played the game. Scripture gives us the playbook of how Jesus engaged people in everyday life and how he brought peace, joy, love, grace, and restoration to all with whom he encountered.

(2) Spend a little time with Jesus each day. Prayer gives us the opportunity to receive Jesus’ coaching, mentoring, and strength, and power.

(3) Spend a little time with other Christians sharing each other’s journeys and struggles. Fellowship with others provides the opportunity to learn from each other, to share each other’s burdens, and to encourage each other along the way.

(4) Spend a little time each week serving someone who needs God’s grace, which has been poured into you. Serving others was at the center of Jesus’ ministry and so, there is no better way to play as Jesus played, but to love as Jesus loved.

Being a “Gridiron Disciple” of Jesus really is not that difficult my friends, but it requires us to do it and know we do not do it alone. We have a great coach who believes in us, sees great promise in us, invites us to risk failure, dream what is possible, and challenges us to face our fears. So, the invitation is there, “Follow me and I will make you fishers of men.” The team is forming, and practice happens right here in this place every Saturday night and Sunday morning. However, remember to mark your calendars because the real big game starts on Monday morning and does not end until the Master returns. Our Lord believes in us and declares for all to hear, “You all can do this!” The question for us is this, “Are we ready to step on the field?”

1 http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=wanna%20be

SERMON 1-19-20 Epiphany 2A St. Monica’s Naples

where are you stayingWhat are you looking for?

In today’s Gospel reading, after John declared Jesus the Son of God, Lamb of God, baptizer with the Holy Spirit, two of John’s disciples abandoned their leader, and decided to follow Jesus.  Jesus notices the surprising allegiance change or may, it was mere persona curiosity and then, asks the two, “What are you looking for?”  I wonder what was going through their minds when they decided to abandon the camel hair clothed, wild honey eating, locust devouring wilderness prophet, for some “just washed” Rabbi that was recently been proclaimed the Son of God.  Did they think maybe Jesus was a little more “normal” than John?  Maybe they could be a little more “down to earth” with Jesus, not have people look at them as being odd, and not being so challenged to live a life of radical faith?  Maybe this Rabbi would be a teacher who would not demand so much repentance and transformation every day from them.  Maybe they wanted another teacher.

In my many years of retail buying, I experienced a similar phenomenon.  When it comes to people’s purchase patterns and personal preferences, allegiance to a particular brand is less about clothes themselves, and more about being affiliated with something that defines who they are and what they value. Remember all those clothing brands in the 1990’s (some are still around today), like Ralph Lauren, Tommy Hilfiger, or Calvin Klein.  These brands are about personal identity and personal style.  What you wear seems to say to others, who you are as a person.  Ralph Lauren shows your classic style and love of luxurious materials.  Tommy Hilfiger screams American cool with a modern twist on tradition. Calvin Klein epitomizes the persona of city dweller, or urban “wanna be.”  When people look for clothing, they want more than just a cover up, they seek an affiliation with people just like them and the outer garments help that statement become clear.  We have to remember though, being a Christian is not a brand we wear merely as a banner of affiliation.  So, maybe those two disciples’ brand of rabbi that they had been following was not what they were seeking after all, and maybe the one they hoped Jesus would be, would more likely fit their tastes and preference.  So, they left John and followed Jesus.

Churches are like that too.  When new people come to a new church community, they hope to find something for which they were looking.  Some arrive and stay in a community for a variety of reasons.  Some are new in town, having just retired and recently moved to the area.  Some are “church shopping” trying to see what style of worship and music, social activities, mission work, or entertaining and uplifting sermons the church offers, and teachings ones that fit their style and desires.  Others come to a new community, because they were disenchanted or disappointed in their last church.  It could have been because their agenda was not allowed to become manifest, or maybe they did not like the priest’s haircut or accent, or maybe they were actually hurt or injured there.  Some maybe come to a new community really trying to find Jesus there and because they need a spiritual respite.

My point is this, church and teachers are not like brand name jeans.  People come to a community or group because they hope to find something for which they are looking; namely Jesus Christ. “What are you looking for,” Jesus asks John’s disciples.  I am afraid though, those two did not really know what they were seeking.  So, rather than answer Jesus, they asked him another question, “Where are you staying?”   At what place are you hanging out Jesus? Where is that location and destination, because we want to go there.  See, Jesus was not inviting them (or us) to a place, a social calendar, a good preacher, or some local mission work but rather, a new way of life, a transformation so radical that they did not (and often we do not) know what was (is) in store for them (us).  Jesus is not inviting us to a place, but to a new way of life.

 

 

Rabbi, Where are you staying (abiding)

When you think of church do you think building? You know this little nursery rhyme, “Here’s the church, here’s the people, open the doors and see all the people.”  People in this scenario are secondary, and the building is primary.  I like my version much better.  “ Here are the people, we are the church, because we are not a building, and we need no steeple to show people how to find us.” The Body of Christ is not a place, a destination, or a building.  It is not where we stay for an hour each week, hoping to be identified merely as Jesus’ followers.  John’s disciples asked Jesus, “Where are YOU staying” but maybe that is the question that Jesus is asking us?  Christians, where are you staying.   “It seems a curious request until we notice that the verb for “staying” is translated elsewhere as “abiding.” (2)

In other words, in whom do you abide? Merriam Webster defines abiding as: to bear patiently, to endure without yielding, to wait, or to accept.  In Christ do you abide patiently, waiting, when you are seeking Jesus’ call on your life?  In Christ do you endure everyday struggles without yielding, trusting Jesus to abide with you.  In Christ, do you accept that you are following the one who will change your life and bring you peace, joy, and fulfillment that no material things will every give you.  Jesus said, “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me.” “Jesus urges his disciples to ‘abide in me as I abide in you,’ Jesus offers himself to John’s disciples as the place for them to abide. (2)

If we choose to abide in Christ, then Christ becomes the grounding of our being, his core values become ours, and we follow the way he shows us to live  life abundantly.  Where or better yet, with whom do you abide?  What grounds you, what are your core values, and where does God fit in all that for you? Christ abides in you as you abide in Christ.

 

Seeing is Believing

After John’s disciples’ question about where Jesus was abiding, Jesus tells them, “Come and see.”  It is a curious invitation and grammatically, if we were to add one little bit of punctuation, it becomes even more intriguing.  “Come and see,” may simply mean, if you want to see where I am lying my head and getting meals, “c’mon and I’ll show you.”  However, add a comma after the word come, and you get a whole different invitation, “Come, and you will see.”  Jesus announces he has come “so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.”  Jesus invites to come and see or rather, to come to spiritual transformation, to become enlightened, to have their eyes opened, and to know the truth.  Jesus invited them to come, and see what you seek.   Jesus invites us to the same life change.

To experience that change, we need to not only know who Jesus is intellectually, we have to know him personally, and that means being open to having your eyes opened to the truth.  So who us is this Jesus to us, and once we know the answer to that question, then we must ask, “how does that knowledge change my life, when my eyes are opened, and when I actually see the truth?  “Anything can happen if you have the eyes to see it. “Come and see” beckons us to an alternative world, a place we have never been.” (2)

            In the original version of the movie Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, children from all over the world and their parents/chaperones were offered an opportunity to find a golden ticket in their chocolate bars.  The winners of the contest were invited to experience the mystery of the famous and secretive Wonka Chocolate factory.  Each child who won, came to the place with different agendas, personal challenges, and character flaws.  Violet was obsessed with chewing gum, Augustus indulged too much in sweet treats, Veruca was a conceited princess, and Mike spent too much time in front of the television screen.  Despite their struggles, these little issues and spiritual maladies kept each one of them, from experiencing the joy, peace, and gift that the chocolate factory had to offer.

There was this one little boy though named Charlie, who came to the factory and at the end of the story, won it all.  He lived poorly, without much food, clothing, or luxuries the other kids possessed, but he came to the factory open to all its wonders and all it had to offer.  He did not seek anything for himself, other than the love and joy Wonka and his workshop had to offer.  He came seeking not a place that identified with him or aligned with his wishes, but he came so that he might find his true identity in that place, and his eyes were opened to the pure imagination it offered.

At one point in the movie, Wonka invited the kids and parents into his chocolate room. A fantasy room where everything was edible: leaves on the chocolate trees, flower petals that were like teacups and saucers, and a river filled with liquid milk chocolate.  As the door opened and the children saw what was inside, everything changed.  Gene Wilder, who played Wonka sang a song, and the lyrics have a deeper spiritual meaning, than I imagine he knew when he recorded it.  I think of it often, especially when I enter the doors of the church.  Wonka sang: Come with me, and you’ll be, in a world of pure imagination. Take a look and you’ll see, into your imagination.  There is no life I know, to compare with pure imagination. Living there you’ll be free, if you truly wish to be.   If you want to view paradise, simply look around and view it. Anything you want to do it, wanna change the world. There’s nothing to it. 

Now, imagine the next time you enter the doors of the sanctuary, you hear echoing Jesus’ invitation to imagine who you are and whose you are.  We are the blessed children of God, who come together and answer Jesus’ invitation to “Come, and to truly see.”  If you come innocently like Charlie, seeking to be transformed by the love of Christ, you will be transformed, and in Christ, “you will know there is no life I know, to compare to life in God’s family.  Living there you’ll be free, if you truly, truly wish to be.”

 

 

REFERENCES

(1) Norris, Kathleen. “Living by the Word: Reflections on the Lectionary [Ja 20, 2008].” The Christian Century, vol. 125, no. 1, Jan. 2008, p. 22.

 

(2) Willson, Patrick J. “Come and See.” The Christian Century, vol. 110, no. 37, Dec. 1993, p. 1297.

 

 

SERMON 1/12/19 Feast of the Baptism of Our Lord, St. Monica’s

Archie Bunker BaptistIsaiah 42:1-9; Psalm 29; Acts 10:34-43; Matthew 3:13-17

Archie Bunker and Little Joey

When I was a kid, my fathers’ favorite television show was “All in the Family.” Sometimes I think my dad actually saw some of himself in Archie Bunker (the main character) and that’s why he religiously watched it every week.  There was one episode in which Archie, against the wishes of his daughter and son-in-law, took his grandson Little Joey to the local church to get him baptized.  At the church office, Archie met with the pastor, and asked him to baptize Joey that day.  The pastor asked, “Are the parents here?”  Archie explained that the parents couldn’t make it, so if possible, let’s get it done today.  Archie reminded the pastor, let’s get it done, because “A soul has to be saved.”

The pastor recognized that the parents did not consent to the baptism and so he refused.  Not ready to acknowledge defeat, Archie snuck into the church’s nave near the baptismal font and confessed to God, “Lord I don’t want my little grandson Joey to be born without religion.”  Archie was a little misguided about baptism, but he went ahead and baptized Little Joey. Archie then prayed, “Lord, I hope that took, because when I get home, they are going to kill me.”

Yes, little Joey’s baptism was valid and it did take, but something was missing. Without the committed support of a faith community, and more importantly the active training by the parents who refused to have little Joey baptized, then the boy would miss what Archie intended, religion; or the opportunity to grow up in the faith with instruction and support. .  Moreover, Joey missed being welcomed into the community of faith.

The Body of Christ did not participate in welcoming the child into the community and did not make promises to the parents and God to help raise the child in the faith.  The parents made no promises to God on Joey’s behalf, to raise him in the faith.  Something essential, critical, and necessary was missing, even though Joey was baptized that day.  Archie took it upon himself to go through the ritual of water bath, out of some misguided idea that if the child was baptized, he would grow into the faith in community (by osmosis I guess), simply because of the water bath.  Archie missed the whole point of baptism, initiation into the community, the church, the Body of Christ.

Baptism – what it is not.

In today’s gospel reading, regarding Jesus’ desire to be baptized, he says to John, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.”  Even though Jesus was without sin, some find it strange that he wanted to be baptized.  We have to understand though, that Jesus’ baptism was the underpinnings of what the church has come to understand about the sacrament, this sacred moment of baptism.  The baptismal waters are the door through which we enter the Body of Christ, the church, the way we continue the trail of fulfilling right relationships.  That is why the baptismal font is located at the entrance to the sanctuary.  The font reminds us, as we enter the church, of our first entry into the church at baptism.

Now this understanding has not always been prominent in the church.  Like Archie Bunker, we used to think baptism was “holy fire insurance” or the child’s “holy immunization.”  The idea was that baptism somehow kept the child or adult from eternal damnation.  It was a misguided idea in the middle ages, because when mortality rates of infants increased, fear led parents to baptize their children as soon as possible, because they felt baptism would keep the infant from eternal damnation.  Unfortunately, that concept still finds its way into  the church today, and many of us grew up during a time in the church, where that archaic understanding of baptism seemed to linger on.

Another misconception of baptism is that is merely some empty and non-efficacious “rite of passage.”  Wikipedia defines “rite of passage” as, “a ceremony or ritual of the passage, which occurs when an individual leaves one group to enter another. It involves a significant change of status in society.” We mark certain life stage events with ritual however, it often feels like the event itself is the end all.  For instance, through ritual we celebrate school, kindergarten, high school and college graduations. Through ritual we mark the event of retirement and weddings.  Sometimes the meaning behind why we do what we do is lost, and the ritual itself is the only purpose of the gathering.  We miss the fact that the purpose of school graduations is to move the person from one educational stage, from one tribe of fellow learners to another.  We miss the fact that retirement moves us from one tribe of fellow workers to another tribe of fellow retirees; a new life of common activities.  We miss the fact that weddings move us from our family tribe, a micro-community, into the union of two people who begin the process of forming an extended micro-community.  We miss the fact that baptism moves us from being a member of that micro-community of family, into the family of God.  Baptism is much more than a religious rite of passage.

So, What is Baptism? 

Pastor Andrew Conners writes in a recent article that I read, “Jesus does not need this baptism, but chooses it in order to lead others to its waters.” (1)  Jesus leads us to the baptismal font, so we might join the family of God, in obedience to his example.  Our Lord gave us an example of the depth of God’s love for humanity through this act of living in communion with humanity.  It was Christ’s act of righteousness that opened the way, by which we might identify with Christ.  His baptism was a sign of Jesus’ solidarity with sinners and thus, by our baptism, we participate in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.   We begin to live the life of righteousness.

Righteousness means being in right relationship with God and with each other.  Thus, fulfilling righteousness in baptism, means we take the first steps to being righteous following the example of Jesus.  16th Century reformer Martin Luther once preached, “The heavens, previously closed, are now opened, becoming a clear gateway and window for us to see into heaven itself. There is no longer a dividing line between God and us, for he has descended into the [baptismal] water.” (2)  It is through the waters of baptism, that we enter the blessed community, admitted to participate in the holy meal, and then sent out on mission into the world, depending only on God to guide us, direct us, and sustain us.

Conner also writes, “It is almost as if Jesus wants us to see—right from the beginning—that we have no idea what we are doing when we come to the font or bring our children to its plain old waters. We have no idea what it will mean for our futures, no idea of how it will affect our lives.” (1)  Baptism washes away our dependence on self, and baptism makes a way for us to don the holy outer garments of grace, which allow us to follow God’s leading every single day.

Now you’re in, now what

So you may say, “Father Eric, I was baptized as a baby and I do not remember it, but I know I am a Christian, initiated, sprinkled, and anointed with holy oil, now what?”  Jesus tells us to move from font to table to mission.  “It’s time to follow Jesus,” He tells us.  Martin Luther once said, “So, we are commanded to look to the Son, for God did not shrink from saying to all of us: “Listen, all of you people: This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” What that means is this: “If you want me as a gracious Father, that is quite easy: Hold fast to my Son. Hear and do what he tells you.” We should follow this voice through thick and thin.” (2)

Being baptized means you can with confidence know that you are definitely in the holy club of faith, but that does not mean the members can be comfortable and relax now that they have eternal membership privileges.  We are members of the Body of Christ and we are recipients of grace, and we have the promises of everlasting life.  However, being in holy club card carriers means so much more than membership.  It means we have certain responsibilities.

Our Baptismal promises, which we will reaffirm today in place of the Nicene Creed, helps us know our responsibilities to both our sisters and brothers in church, and our responsibilities to all of creation, of which we are a part.   We promise to continue to participate in the life of word and sacrament and prayer. We promise to resist evil by which we acknowledge our sinful nature and our need for repentance and reconciliation.  We promise to be witnesses to the Good News of God in Christ, through our lives.  We promise to “seek and serve Christ in all persons, “loving your neighbor as ourselves,” “striving for justice and peace among all people,” and respecting the dignity of every human being.”   We acknowledge our responsibility to both those within the Body of Christ in terms of serving Christ in all persons, and to a broader sense as a community and as individuals who strive for justice and peace for all people. The Baptismal Covenant helps us to understand how we identity with Christ, and it show us how we can truly follow him.

You see, baptism is not fire insurance, nor is it some kind of holy immunization that we have to accomplish to avoid our eternal demise, nor is it just one more cultural rite of passage.  Baptism is entering the body of followers he calls, then doing what Jesus does, following Jesus, even when we do not know why.  Baptism most importantly I believe, reminds us that we cannot do this Christian life thing all alone, because we need each other, we need a community to help us be like Jesus.  Through the waters of baptism, we identify with Our Lord Jesus Christ, we are initiated into mystery of the Body of Christ, the church, and through these waters, we take our share of the ministry of Christ in the world, by bringing all to the knowledge and love of Christ.  My sisters and brothers, you are a child of God.  You are a member of the Body of Christ, and you never have to wonder if your baptism, as Archie Bunker prayed, “took.”  You are a follower of Jesus Christ Our Lord and Savior.  You, like Jesus Our Lord are the ones to whom God has proclaimed, “This is my Son, This is my daughter, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased.”

 

REFERENCES

  • Connors, Andrew Foster. “Matthew 3:13-17.” Interpretation, vol. 64, no. 4, Oct. 2010, pp. 402–404.
  • Luther, Martin. “‘This Is My Son, the Beloved’: Sermon on the Baptism of Jesus, The Epiphany of Our Lord (January 6, 1534).” Word & World, vol. 16, no. 1, Wint 1996, pp. 7–10.

 

 

SERMON 1-5-20 Christmas 2A St. Monica’s Episcopal Church

Jesus CallingJeremiah 31:7-14; Psalm 84 or 84:1-8; Ephesians 1:3-6,15-19a; Luke 2:41-52

Scam Calls vs Jesus’ Call

            Have you received one of those new scam calls?  You know the ones where the person on the line says, “I am with the IRS and you owe $4,000, to avoid charges being pressed upon you, please go purchase a gift card at Walgreen’s and you can pay it off today.”  How about the one where you can save interest on your credit cards.  There is another one out there claiming to be the Social Security Administration telling you that your social security number has been compromised.  These are people call relentlessly, trying to scam you, trying get you to do something you do not want to do.

More clearly, they hope you will fall for the scam and give up your time, your talent, or your treasure for their ill-gotten gains.  We all receive calls we do not want to answer.  They are annoying, illegal, and they can be destructive.  Some of us have a spam filter app installed on our phone and we can ignore the call.  Some of us, when we see the “Unknown Caller” identifier on our phone, we just hit the red “Decline” call button.  Scam calls are an incredible annoyance.

There is another kind of call many of us receive each day, but we either allow our spiritual spam filter to catch it, or we ignore it totally.  What do you do when Jesus calls?  Do you answer the call, listen to the request and then respond, or is it just as easy to hit the little red “decline” button.  Maybe you say, “Eric, Jesus is not calling me.”  Well, you better check your spiritual cell phone more often, because this is not a scam, Jesus is calling you.

Today’s gospel reading gives us a glimpse into the earliest stirrings in Jesus, when he like all of us, started to get a sense of God’s call on his life.  “The writer of Luke’s gospel takes us from Jesus’ miraculous birth in Bethlehem, to his dedication and naming in the temple soon after, and then 12 years later, he is back in the temple again as a young adult, ready to embark on his newfound identity.  Now we hear this story in its pristine form, and like the birth narrative, it is all “cleaned up.”  I cannot imagine if we were in Mary and Joseph’s shoes it would have gone down line Luke depicts the situation.

Imagine you were to take your 12-year old daughter to New York City to explore her sense of vocational call to work on Wall Street.  On the way back to the airport, you discover your daughter is no longer with you in the security line.  You frantically call the police, go searching back at the hotel, and then you remember that you last saw her at the Morgan Stanley building tour at 1 New York Plaza.  You rush there in an Uber, angry and saying, “wait until I see her.  She will be grounded for life.”  You rush in and the receptionist says, “your daughter is in the boardroom with the partners discussing the downfall of the subprime mortgage crisis.”  I do not think you would have calmly walked in like Mary did now would you?   No, you would have grounded her, forbid her to ever travel alone, and then you would have felt guilty for allowing your child to experience a “Home Alone” moment in New York City.  Even so, this moment of vocational exploration was pivotal for your daughter, and she needed that moment to formulate who she was to become.  The experience will change her, and it will help her to understand what her vocational call will be in the future.

Divine and Human

The problem is we listen to this gospel story of Jesus coming of age, through our 21st century ears and it all sounds so surreal.  Mary and Joseph happened to notice after a day’s journey the boy was missing?  They go back to Jerusalem and after three days finally find him in the temple.   They do not go completely ballistic on the boy when the find him?   It is a little cleaned up don’t you think, but the story is told to us, not because it is a nice little story about Jesus.  This story was a pivotal moment in the life of Jesus, who was not your typical 12-year old in the first century, nor today in the 21st century.  This is the only recorded history of Jesus’ childhood anywhere in scripture.  Luke “records this event along with the birth narrative to tell us that the Jesus whose story he is telling is not only the son of earthly parents, but the Son of God.” (c)

Jesus at age twelve was now a ‘son of the law’ and expected to attend. A routine trip in fulfillment of the Law: His active obedience also was a shadow of things to come.” (c)  This story has two purposes.  First, the story records Jesus in his indisputable humanity coming to know that he is more than human, because he realizes his Father is God and he is about his father’s work.  Second, the story records Jesus’ coming to know that he has a special call on his life that will be very different from any other 12-year old his own age.

The story serves as the bridge between Jesus’ miraculous childhood and his miraculous adulthood *the ministry, life, death, resurrection, and ascension) which was yet to come.  Peter Storey writes, “We do not know when the first intimations and stirrings of divinity within his humanness made themselves felt, but given who Jesus was, and what he would have to give his life to, it is inevitable that such moments would come.”  (a)  The temple story is the first time the holy vocational call from his heavenly Father manifested itself, and it happened in the time and place where Jesus was able to find his voice and answer the call.  He not only answered, but he risked good graces with his earthly parents, and stayed on the line, listening for further instructions.  Jesus was modeling how we discern our calls as well. “After three days they found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions.” Jesus was sitting at the theological elder’s feet, listening and learning and preparing for the call that would become even more clearer in about 20 years.

Jesus’ Vocation

When confronted by his anxious, frightened, and possibly angry parents, Jesus, said to them, “Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?”  Jesus suddenly speaks, and his words of self-identity are made clear.  Shirley Guthrie writes, “Jesus does what no pious Jew of his time would ever dream of doing: He calls Yahweh, the God of Israel and Master of the universe, ‘my Father.’ Not only that, he claims to have such an intimate relationship and unquestionable obligation to this heavenly Father that he seems simply to deny his relationship and obligation to his earthly parents.” (c)  Jesus realizes who he is and his unique call.

Later though, Jesus realizes he is still a human 12-year old young man and he leaves his Father’s house, and returns to his mother and earthly father’s house, and as Guthrie asserts, “Now he is a normal boy who grows up and matures with willing respect for the guidance and authority of his parents.” (c)  Human and divine Jesus discovers who he is and who it is he will become.  Divinity stirring in him makes him realize that his business will not be carpentry like Joseph, but the work of divine presence in a temple made not with hands, but in flesh.  Jesus understood even at 12- years old, he had a holy vocation.

What about us?  Do you believe you have a holy vocation?  Do you believe that you are the bearer of the Holy Spirit and there is a call on your life as well?   Peter Storey asserts that “The most important discovery we can make is to find that our identity is bound up with the one whom Jesus called “Father.” (a)   We followers of Jesus must follow Jesus and that means we have to be willing to seek out what God has uniquely gifted us to do.  Well, you better check your spiritual cell phone more often, because this is not a scam, Jesus is calling you.

Your Vocation and Answering the Call

Guthrie confirms that you have a call on your life.  He writes, “the same Jesus who had the unique right to call God my Father invited his followers to call God our Father.” (c)  Now if you call God Father, then you have to know that God is calling you son or daughter.  We Christians have a unique summons on our lives.  First, we are through our daily actions, living icons and stained-glass window whose are reflections of the gospel in our very existence.  The way we live each day represents the gospel in words and in actions.   That is a big responsibility because “God is not just the God and Father of me and my family, but the God and Father of all other families too, a God who loves and cares for all those people outside our little family circle as much as for us, who wills their welfare and happiness just as much as ours.” (c)

Second, we are co-missioners of God’s love in the world and that means we act through more than mere words, it means we get up and move our feet, and our hands.  For example, most of us here are gifted to teach, to lead, to discern, to care for others, to read, to sing, to bear holy gifts, or any other number of ministries.  You may say, “Well, I don’t know what my ministry is Fr. Eric”  If you are unsure what your ministry call might be, go to our website under “Ministries” and download the Spiritual Gift Assessment, and just complete it, then call me and we can discern your ministry call together.

The question is not whether you are summoned to ministry in God’s church and in God’s world.  The question is to what are you being called to?   We Christians cannot for long remain mere fans of the Babe in the manger or the little 12-year old boy theological genius in the temple.  Karen Chakoian writes, “It is easier to keep him (Jesus) in the cradle. But this story (we hear today) forces us to move with Jesus out of the cradle, out of the loving, sheltering arms of his parents, into the world, a world that will be filled with sin and death and great need, with powerful people who oppose Jesus and with desperate people who turn to him for life.” (d)

It is easy and comfortable for us to remain in our seats in the loving, sheltering familiarity of the pew chairs, but we are called into a world filled with sin and death and great need, with powerful people who oppose the church, and with desperate people who turn to us for life.  We find our calling when Jesus’ “sacrifice of love claims us and calls us to follow him, out into the world, into demands and needs and confrontations; out into the world, away from this safe and gentle place, to the call that claims our own lives.” (d)  So, if we truly follow the one who said at only 12-years old, “I must be about my Father’s business,” then we need to take heed, because Jesus’ business is our business too.  Do you hear it?   Please check your spiritual cell phone because this is not a scam, Jesus is calling you.

 REFERENCES

  • Storey, Peter. “Stirrings of Divinity.” The Christian Century, vol. 117, no. 35, Dec. 2000, p. 1299.
  • Klotz, John W.(John William). “1St Sunday after Christmas.” Concordia Journal, vol. 11, no. 6, Nov. 1985, pp. 229–230.
  • Guthrie, Shirley C.(Shirley Caperton). “Jesus’ Family and Ours.” Journal for Preachers, vol. 11, no. 1, Advent 1987, pp. 24–28.
  • Chakoian, Karen. “Luke 2:41-52.” Interpretation, vol. 52, no. 2, Apr. 1998, pp. 185–190.

 

 

 

 

SERMON 12/22/19 Advent 4A St. Monica’s Episcopal Church, Naples, FL

Blessed MaryGod Bearers

Today’s gospel speaks of Joseph’s role in the birth of Jesus, but today, I want to divert for a moment and talk about others who answered God’s Call.  Pearl Bales was a kind, gentle, loving woman from my childhood.  When my parent’s store became so busy that the work hours extended into the early evenings, Pearl stayed with us until Mom and Dad got home.  I called Pearl “Mamaw Bales,” because she was like an adopted grandmother to me.  I loved her so much.  She taught me the alphabet, how to count, and even how to read a little, all before I went to first grade.  Mamaw Bales was more than a babysitter to me.  She introduced me to faith in ways I cannot begin to explain.  She taught me what love incarnate looked like, and she instilled in me, at a young age, the desire to be Christ for others.

There have been other special people, who came into my life, just like Mamaw Bales did.  There was Brother Greg Howell, my first youth minister, whose calm loving demeanor and that of his spouse Mary, showed me an example of a loving marriage that I did not always see in my own home.   There was Evelyn Bryan Johnson, my first flight instructor, whose mention of the beauty of God’s creation as we flew over Morristown, TN, provided me with glimpses of God’s presence in our lives in nature.

Fred Craddock, professor of Preaching and New Testament Emeritus in the Candler School of Theology at Emory University offers us a theological perspective on how people like these represent God bursting into the world. Fred writes, “Advent assures us God will continue to come to us, and in surprising ways; sometimes in cosmic convulsions, sometimes in a child (in his mother’s womb).” (4)  God always comes to us through ordinary people, whose faithful response to God’s call, results in God being with us, in ways we cannot imagine.   Mary, the Virgin Mother of Jesus of Nazareth was one among us, who first bore Christ to others.

Mary:  the Mother of God

In the sanctuary of the Episcopal Church in my hometown, there is on the East wall, an icon of the Blessed Virgin and in her arms, the infant Jesus.  I have to admit, I was surprised when I saw the icon on my first visit, because the practice of honoring Blessed Mary in that way was far from my non-Episcopal faith upbringing.  However, over time, I came to realize the significance of Mary in the whole plan of salvation.  Her special place became clearer to me in seminary when  in my New Testament class, I first heard the term Theotokos, a title for Blessed Mary.  Theotokos means mother of Jesus, used especially in Eastern Christianity, which translates as “Mother of God” or “God-bearer” or “Mother of God Incarnate.” (1)

This was all new to me because in the tradition I grew up in as a child, they only ever casually mentioned Mary.  She often seemed to be a mere fleshly container for the Babe in the Manger or the mere caretaker of the God child.  Then, I realized that if I were going to believe that Jesus was God incarnate, God in flesh, and Mary bore God in her womb as a baby, I needed to spend some time thinking about Mary as the Mother of God; the Theotokos.

Mary bore God Incarnate into the world, however, my postmodern, scientific, educated self has over time, struggled with this whole idea of virgin birth.  I mean what does that facet of Jesus‘ nativity mean to salvation, and for Mary’s special place in salvation history? Maybe some of you have had that same struggle.

From “An Episcopal Dictionary of the Church,” it states that “there is some indication in Christian writings that the term “Virgin Birth” can be understood as a way of helping to understand Jesus’ humanity and divinity. Belief in the Virgin Birth was not completely accepted by all early Christians. Some Christians today question it as a historical fact.” (2)

So, if you struggle with accepting the virgin birth as fact or truth, maybe it is because honestly, it might be disproven by the science of DNA or it may be rejected by mere logical scholarly research. Nonetheless, we are not talking about science here, we are talking about the mystery of God and thus, maybe this virgin birth concept requires some consideration.

Virgin Birth

Anglican scholar and Bishop N.T. Wright wrote this about a belief in the Virgin Birth, “Matthew has taken care to draw our attention to the peculiarities of Tamar, Rahab, Ruth and Batlisheba … to warn us that something even stranger is coming; or perhaps to enable us, when the news is announced, to connect it with God’s strange way of operating in the past. He is hardly likely on this occasion, however, to have made up the story of Mary’s being with child by the Holy Spirit in order to “fulfill'” this theme.” (5)

In other words, historically, God has in miraculous ways and through normal, faithful people, revealed God’s presence working in and through creation.  N.T. Wright asserts that God’s miraculous work often stands in contrast to what we require to be scientifically provable in order to trust it.  Wright states, “Miracle,” in the sense of divine intervention “from outside,” is not in question.

What matters is that the powerful, mysterious presence of the God of Israel, the creator God, brings Israel’s story to its climax by doing a new thing, bringing the story of creation to its height by a new creation from the womb of the old. Whether or not it happened, this is what it would mean if it did.” (5)  God’s presence becomes known  miraculously in simple earthen fleshly vessels, and in us, God transcends time and space.  God calls we normal people to make him known, to be prophets of Good News, just like Mary.

Mary the Prophet; Mary the Evangelist

Like Moses and other prophets of old, the Blessed Virgin Mary received a prophetic call from God, and in scripture, these prophetic calls follow a specific pattern.  First, the setting of the call is a brief statement of what is happening in the moment.  Mary’s call began with, “In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David.”

Next, there is a theophany, or appearance of or representative of God present.  The angel said to Mary, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” Next, there is the announcement of a specific task the prophet is to do.  The angel said, “And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David.”  He added, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God.”

Next, there is usually a “not me” objection by the prophet who rejects the call.  However, this is where Mary’s call diverts from prophets like Moses, Elijah, Elisha, and others.  Mary’s response to the prophetical call defines her special place in the narrative of salvation because she did not object at all.   Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”  Mary was the faithful servant of God who accepted the task without objection, and thus showed each one of us, how we are to respond to God’s call on our lives.  The truth is my sisters and brothers, we all have a prophetic call for ministry, a call from God to be the bearers of God to the world, but we often struggle to answer the call.

We are God Bearers

Mary, a poor peasant girl from first century Palestine carried the Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer of Life as we know it.  Think about that for a moment.  Think about the miraculous new way God burst onto the scene 2000 years ago and made all things new.  Imagine how Mary felt when that truth of her life’s mission was revealed to her.  She was chosen as the one to bring to all creation the Savior, the Messiah, the Son of God.  She walked with him from day one, and through her ministry, others have come to know God in the flesh; God in her flesh.

Now, what if you, like Mary are called to bear God for someone else, because the truth of the matter is you are so called.  Like Pearl Bales, Greg Howell, Evelyn Johnson and those God bearers in my life, and the God bearers I am sure you can name in your life, we may be the only Gospel many people will ever hear.  You have a great high calling of God, by virtue of your baptism by water, and the anointing of the Holy Spirit given you in the sacrament of baptism.  The Holy Spirit is in you and thus, you bear God in you each and every day.

Your prophetic call is before you.  The setting of your call is your everyday normal life  The Theophany of presence of God happens in the sacrament of communion, in prayer,  in the beauty of creation, and in the people you encounter.  God has given you a task.  “Proclaim by word and deed the Good News of God in Christ.”  Now, it’s your turn, and what comes next is your response.

Do you trust God who says to you, “Do not be afraid” and do you believe that  “Nothing will be impossible with God.”  If so, you know the response you must give.  So, go live each day knowing you are a God bearer.   Accept the high calling by simply, and through how you live each day, respond like our sister did, the Blessed Virgin Mary, who answered God’s call not with a “ but not me,” but by saying, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord: let it be with me according to your word.”

REFERENCES

(1) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Theotokos

(2) https://episcopalchurch.org/library/glossary/virgin-birth

(3) https://episcopalchurch.org/library/glossary/mary-virgin-mother-our-lord-jesus-christ-saint

(4) Craddock, Fred B. “The Surprise and Joy of Advent.” The Living Pulpit, vol. 6, no. 4, Oct. 1997, p. 6.

(5) https://www.religion-online.org/article/gods-way-of-acting/