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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Music feeds the soul

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

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

Magnificat – Mary’s Song of Love

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

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

 Magnificat – Our Song

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

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

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

Singing the Song that challenges us

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

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

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

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

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

Jump in and Sing

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

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

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

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

whatshouldwedoJOY to the World ….

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

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

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

Repentance and the Unquenchable Fire

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

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

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

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

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

What then should we do?

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

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

Benign Association

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

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

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

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

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

 

REFERENCES

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

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

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

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

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

SERMON 12/6/18 Advent 2C St. Monica’s Episcopal Church

Malachi 3:1-4; The Song of Zechariah; Philippians 1:3-11; Luke 3:1-6

A Time for Repentance for All

“It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas” but in the church, the Advent fast comes first, long before the Christmas festivities are supposed to begin.  We are still not quite there yet.  This is a time of preparation for the coming of Christ, and the second week of Advent’s theme shifts from “Peace” to “Hope” and it is hope, which we find in today’s Gospel reading.  Today, Luke introduces us to John the Baptizer, who was the forerunner of Jesus, the one to make pathways straight, and the one “crying in the wilderness.” John through his preaching and call to repentance was preparing the people to be ready for the coming of the promised messiah.

John is preparing us too, so that we can recognize Christ when he comes, to heed his words, and to respond to his mandate for righteousness (or right relationship) with God and with one another. John proclaimed a “baptism of repentance” for the forgiveness of sins, and it was not a mere dip in the river that miraculously washed off the grubbiness of people’s sin. It was an outward sign of the contrite heart and repentant spirit that happened long before the first toe dipped into the water.

Repentance is a word that for some of us comes with unappealing memories. Maybe we have heard a preacher in a pulpit, or a street preacher with bullhorn in hand shouting and screaming with fury, “Repent and be saved.”  Maybe we have heard a preacher shout, “Turn or burn.”   That fear-based, manipulative, and often punishment avoidant call to repentance is not what John was talking about.

Repentance is not mere sorrow for the wrongs we may have done, or the sin we have committed. Repentance literally means to change one’s mind, to actually turn around.  To repent means to leave the wrong path on which, we are traveling and then, to take a new direction.  John was calling the first century Palestinian people, and we 21stcentury Christians, to turn from broken relationships, from sin, from our misdeeds, and to once again follow the way of Jesus.

Repentance – “We fall down and we get back up”

Repentance is also not merely a “once and done” proposition. Bernard of Clairvaux, a French abbot and a major leader in the reform of Benedictine monasticism, caused the formation of the Cistercian order. He once said, “The difference between the damned and the saved is that everyone, except the damned, gets up and stumbles on.” (3) Another unnamed monk once said, “We fall down and we get back up.” There is hope in these statements if you listen closely, because hope is found in accepting that our failings, our sin, and our missing the mark is not the end of the story.  That is Good News.

However, forgiveness, second chances, and new life are not what we hear about in the news or on social media, when we see people fall down.  Today, if you make the least public misstep, or you make the misguided slip of the tongue, or you write a naive Tweet or Facebook post, our culture condemns you to judgment and thus, “you are no longer good enough, you are damaged, and you are no longer capable of good.”  The problem is that we have forgotten owning one’s own mistakes; saying, “I am sorry;”  and admitting, “I was wrong.”   We sure could use a little repentant hope right now.

We all get sidetracked and the little detours we take, keep us from being in right relationship with God and with our neighbor, but the hope is that God is still working on us and there is a way home.  We find hope in the promises of God’s forgiveness and restoration through the practice of repentance, which is the path to life, not as we were, but to life a new person in Christ.  Nonetheless, this pathway of Jesus we all desire to walk is not a leisurely stroll along a well-groomed and cushy thoroughfare. Being a Christian is a rugged corridor and if you are traversing it, you will fall down and with God’s help, get back up again and again every day.

 

Promises, Repentance, and Hope

A community brought together in Christ, even one with its sinful and repentant people, is a beacon of hope to the world.  A few days ago,our own church (the Episcopal Church) more specifically, the National Cathedral in Washington hosted, supported, and proclaimed the virtues and character of a former president, whose life was a reflection of what humility, repentance, hope, and life of loving neighbor might look like.  That branch of the Jesus movement shined God’s promises brightly, and so does this local branch of the Jesus movement (St. Monica’s).

 Our mission statement here at St. Monica’s is, “Engaging, equipping and empowering one another to live our baptismal promises.”  In the shadows of John the Baptist’s cry to repent, it is a good time for a reminder of own baptismal promises to God and each other.  Those promises include: (1) continuing in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers; (2) persevering in resisting evil, and, whenever we fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord; (3) proclaiming by word and example the Good News of God in Christ; (4) seeking and serving Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself; (5) striving for justice and peace among all people, and (6) respecting the dignity of every human being.  We as a community respond to these promises with, “I will, with God’s help” because we know we cannot keep those promises without God’s grace, but that does not make it an easy journey.

Following Jesus is not just a nice hobby, an alternative past time to daily life, or an occasional social gathering of like-minded folks.  There are plenty of clubs, fraternities, and other charitable organizations out there, which can fulfill those kinds of needs, and none of them have these high expectations.  Being the church means, that very simply we really follow Jesus.  We cannot just respond to the challenge of these promises with “we will with God’s help” and then move on to life as it was before. We have to own those promises and then, when we stray, we turn and live them anew.  We must get back up.

 

Repentance, with God’s help

We stumble and fall down when we succumb to sin.  We stumble and fall down when we fail to be Good News in our daily lives.  We stumble and fall down when we overlook the image of Christ in others. We stumble and fall down when we when we fail to love our neighbor, at least as much as we love ourselves.  We stumble and fall down when we fail to advocate for justice and peace for all people, and in all circumstances. We stumble and fall down when we weaken the dignity and worth of every human being.  If we are honest each and every one of us falls down, and each and every one of us has something for which, we must acknowledge, ask for forgiveness, and then turn away from.  We all need to repent.

Faithful discipleship comes with high expectations, and often we believe we cannot live up to them and so maybe we just quit trying. There is hopewhen we say, “I will with God’s help,” because God is with us all along the path nudging us back to the straight path of righteousness.  Theologian Richard Benke writes, “God softens hearts, removes stubbornness, overcomes rebellion and provides whatever we lack.” God makes the way for our salvation.

So, the Baptizer’s call to turn should not frighten us from seeking God’s help to change, and to be transformed by grace. Our hope and the Good News we hear on this second Sunday of Advent is that we have a promised hope that proclaims, “our failures are not the end of the story.”  God makes a way home for us.  God promises that every valley blocking our way shall be filled, every mountain and hill we face shall be made low, the crooked roads before us shall be made straight, and the rough ways we traverse will be made smooth. God promises, “ all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”

We have to take our part in the salvation God is making possible.  We have to choose to turn, choose to be changed, and choose to follow that path of hope and promise, by following Jesus and trusting because he is the one who gently lifts us up when we fall, and he will never abandon us all along the way.

REFERENCES

(1) Benke, Richard. “2D Sunday in Advent.” Concordia Journal, vol. 11, no. 6, Nov. 1985, pp. 224–225.

(2) Ochs, Peter. “Church and Sociality.” The Living Pulpit, vol. 9, no. 4, Oct. 2000, pp. 4–5

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

 

 

 

SERMON 12/2/18 Advent 1C St Monica’s Episcopal Church, Naples, FL

Screen Shot 2018-11-29 at 8.13.38 AMJeremiah 33:14-16; Psalm 25:1-9; 1 Thessalonians 3:9-13; Luke 21:25-36

Hallmark or Advent?

Over the next four weeks there will be ten Hallmark Channel Holiday movies playing on television.  Someone I love, really loves these movies, and as much as I would rather not admit it, I kind of enjoy them myself.  There is nothing like mindless, holiday themed entertainment to take your mind off of the crazy stuff of everyday life.  There are a few essentials needed for any good Hallmark Christmas movie. For instance, there must be:  “A 90’s actress you almost forgot about,” “A good looking actor you probably do not know,” “A town with a dumb name,” “A failing family business,” “a dead spouse,” “a supernatural element that changes everything,” “a family trauma,” and finally, “two unlikely people, who fall in love.”  These television movies always come to a close with a fairytale ending where hope, peace, joy, and love abounds.  Nonetheless, the storylines of these ten, made for hot chocolate and cookies movies, we will never once hear the real story of the “reason for the season.”  Somehow if we rely merely on the way the world counts down to Christmas, we will have missed the story of the Incarnation of God in Christ.

Let me explain, for most of us, right after Thanksgiving, we all want to immediately flash forward three weeks ahead, go straight to that manger scene where baby, mother, step dad, shepherds, angels, and stars bring us hope of peace on earth and good will to all the world.  We are anxious for Christ to come, and we forget that we are not quite there yet.  In many of our homes, the tree is already trimmed, the lights are on the outside of the house, we have Pandora or XM Radio in our cars tuned to the “holiday channels,” and parties, soirees, and dinners are being planned.

But we are not there quite yet.  There is more to come before the babe arrives, and before the :King Returns.” That is where Advent comes in. The church calendar includes a season of hiatus when our culture diminishes the importance of the incarnation narrative, which we will commemorate in three weeks; we have the season of Advent to remind us for whom it is, and why it is that we can truly live in hope, peace, joy, and love.  

Warning Signs

Last week at the “Feast of Christ the King,” we ended the church year exploring the motif of Christ’s return as ‘King of Kings’ in troubling times.  We begin the Church year with the First Sunday of Advent, once again hearing Jesus’ words about the world filled with future trouble, foreboding, and fear.  However, these dire warnings are not the end of the story, and there is more to come.

Jesus said, “There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken.”  We hear Jesus’ words today in the midst of our early Christmas planning, we try to forget that we too are living in troubling times.

I “Googled” foreboding headlines the other day and came up with the following:

Thousands Flee As Guatemalan Volcano Erupts Again;” “Tons Of Dead Fish Washing Ashore On Florida Beaches;” “Asteroid Makes Surprise Flyby of Earth;” “Evacuation orders, flash flood watches for areas burned by California wildfires;”“Ukraine urges NATO to deploy ships amid Russia standoff;” and“North Korea ‘tests new high-tech weapon.Jesus was right, we are living in troubled times, and all around us seems to be falling apart, the world seems on the edge of some cataclysmic occurrence.

So, when the news is so bad, it is easy for us to want to put it all out of our minds, and “party hearty” before the actual celebration of Christmas. Advent is the season for us to reflect on what is going on around us, to recognize the reality of this time we live in now, and to wait in expectant and anticipatory hope for the coming of Christ.  While all the world is celebrating a season, which has in many ways lost its meaning, the church stands in the midst of all it, and reminds the world that we are waiting not only for the babe in the manger to arrive, but we are awaiting the return of the King, who will bring hope, peace, joy, and love in the midst of foreboding headlines and fear.   We just cannot skip over Luke 21 and jump straight to the manger, because even though ‘our “Christian’ world (has) 20 centuries behind it, is far from redeemed.” (1)

Hope and Promises

Jesus promises, “They will see the “Son of Man” coming in a cloud with power and great glory.”  These are Jesus’ “hang in there” encouragement words.  When all seems lost, when headlines seem ominous, when the fish are dying, wars are looming, and the economy is taking a dive, Jesus says simply, “Hang in there, I am on my way.”  As theologian Gracia Grindal writes, Jesus, “wants us to be able to see things for what they are and not be fooled by the powers of this world. He wants us to be able to take the long view, so that we can see the arrival of a world yet to come.”(2) Jesus said, “when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”  Jesus tells us to “Hang in there, I’m on the way”

This promise is not mere sentimentality, but words on which, we can hang our hope, peace, joy, and love.   James Kay writes, “When we least expect it, and when there is no evidence for it, God’s power comes into this godless world in ways the world itself could never predict or foresee.”

Even in the midst of gloomy headlines, we get little glimpses of God’s promises fulfilled, right here and right now.  You have to really dig into the newspaper to find them, but there is some good news out there.  Hopeful news is out there like:  “Businessman Hands Out $1,000 Checks to Every Student and Staffer of Wildfire-Affected California School,” “In Largest Ever Donation to US College, $1.8 Billion is Donated for Low-Income Students,” “Community of Tiny Homes Breaks Cycle of Addiction and Homelessness for Single Moms,” “Scientists Growing Rice With Seawater Could Feed ‘Entire Arab World’,” and “North andSouth Korea Have Begun Clearing the Mines in the DMZ.” 

These holiday headlines are not mere Hallmark themed stories of hope, peace, joy, and love.  These are stories of God’s promises becoming a present reality now, in a world filled with the frightening signs of expectant destruction.  You see, even in the midst of fear and foreboding, we can see little hints of the coming of the Son of Man bringing to the world its redemption, that is if we can stop long enough to actually look for it.

Preparation for the Coming of Christ

So, how then Eric, can I spend my time in preparation this Advent, anticipating the “babe in the manger” and the “King of Kings?”  Simply put, live in anticipation and prayer.  John Morris in a Christian Century article wrote, “As we wait and prepare for those days, we are to imagine this new age. We are invited to think with anticipation, pray with confidence, and work with commitment for that future.” (4)  Over the next four weeks, do not be too quick to hang the holly and tensile, trim the tree, and indulge in the parties and celebrations.  Do not be too ready to listen to the golden oldie Christmas music, or change your favorite Starbucks indulgence into an Egg Nog latte.  Just take some time each day for prayer, and to wait with anticipation for Christ to come, looking for the signs of it all around you, that is if you are looking for it.

Turn off the Hallmark blissful happy clappy shows, and search the headlines, search your hearts, and search in your own neighborhood for signs, glimpses, and little glints of Christ’s returning hope.  Look beyond the menacing and dreadful stories permeating our phones and televisions, and look for the hope, peace, joy, and love that is coming amongst us now and in the age to come.

This Advent my sisters and brothers, be on guard, be alert at all times, avoid heavy hearts burdened with the worries of life.  Do not turn to self-medicating television and other stimulations as an alternative for quiet, reflective, and dedicated time with God. Live in expectation hop of Christ’s return and most of all pray for strength, pray for courage, and pray for peace, joy, and love.  Live in expectation and anticipation of God’s promises, for as Our Lord says, even in these great times of trouble, “Hang in there, I am on my way.”

REFERENCES

(1) Kay, James F. “Redemption Draws Near.” The Christian Century, vol. 114, no. 32, Nov. 1997, p. 1033

(2) Adams, Joanna. “Light the Candles.” The Christian Century, vol. 123, no. 24, Nov. 2006, p. 18.

(3) Grindal, Gracia. “Promises, Promises.” Word & World, vol. 8, no. 4, Fall 1988, pp. 389–394.

(4) Morris, John C. “Anticipation.” The Christian Century, vol. 117, no. 33, Nov. 2000, p. 1214. Screen Shot 2018-11-29 at 8.13.38 AM

SERMON 11/25/18 Feast of “Christ the King” St. Monica’s Episcopal Church Naples, FL

Daniel 7:9-10, 13-14; Psalm 93 ; Revelation 1:4b-8; John 18:33-37

A Paradox:  “Christ the King”

We mainline Christians live our liturgical lives through a cycle in which, we participate in the narrative of the salvation history of God. Today’s feast (Christ the King) is observed not only in the Episcopal Church, but in the Roman, Lutheran, as well as the Russian Orthodox Churches.  In 1969, Pope Paul VI gave it a new date, the last Sunday after Pentecost, which is the last Sunday of the church year. The church year begins with Advent, which is a time of anticipation and waiting for the coming of Christ.  After Advent, we commemorate Christmas, the Incarnation of Christ the celebration of when God in flesh arrived among us, as an infant in a humble manger.  The next season of Epiphany commemorates the revelation of Christ to Gentiles through the Maggi (the Wise Men who visited him).

Lent is the next season after the Epiphany season, and is a period of preparation and repentance that mirrors Jesus’ journey in the desert after his baptism and before his ministry began.  The story reaches its peak during Holy Week and Easter, in which Jesus passion, death, resurrection, and ascension took place.  The “long green season” happens after the Day of Pentecost, the birth of the church when the Holy Spirit descended on those first followers, and the time we live in now, anticipating Christ’s return. Finally, we celebrate the “Feast of Christ the King,” which is the fulfillment of the promises of the return of Christ in power, but I believe we need to explore a little closer, what that kind of power looks like.

This particular feast is paradoxical both in observance and theological perspective. For example, it is not easy to understand how a monarch (as we know them today) can be someone who was nurtured in poverty, lived in humble service to others, and then faced betrayal, beatings, and crucifixion.  Something doesn’t add up does it?  Jesus’ kingship is not characteristic of the royal trappings of gold crowns, thrones, power, pomp and circumstance, but by the humble accoutrements of manger, destitution, servant hood, vulnerability, and an shameful death.  We commemorate the Feast of Christ the King, set against the backdrop of Jesus’ trial before Pilate.

Jesus’ Trial before PIlate

In today’s Gospel reading, Pilate was questioning the young rabbi Jesus about the accusations waged against him by his opponents.  It is interesting to note that the challenges to Jesus kingship, took place in Jerusalem in the shadows of a neighboring Roman puppet king, named Herod Antipas.  Jesus, the popular with the people, righteous, and life-giving king would, as a result of this trial, come face to face with the corrupt, power-wielding, politically astute so called, King of the Jews, Herod.

But first, Pilate asked Jesus, “Are you the King of the Jews?”  Jesus responded, ”Is this your question or did someone else tell you this?“  Pilate responded to a question with another question, ”I’m not one of your people am I, what wrong have you done?“  Then Jesus responded and listen closely, “My kingdom is not from this world.  If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews.”  And there it is, the key to the kingdom (no pun intended).

Jesus’ rule and reign is not based on the wielding of power or force, or the use of political coercion like Herod to influence the people. Jesus’ rule and reign is built on the truth of his mission, manifested in the nature of God’s love.  “Christ as King” is a new kind of pronouncement, without royal trumpets blaring, but announced by his own voice and actions, declaring God’s Kingdom is not one of force, power, and dominion, but one based on vulnerability, love, and self-sacrifice.  It now all makes sense, when we consider Jesus’ meek birth in a manger, his life of poverty and preference to the poor, his service to the outcast and down-trodden, his ultimate vulnerability to power, all of which, led to his death on the cross.

“Christ the King” is a different kind of king as we know it.  The God who created all, whom the seas obey, by whom the lame walk, the deaf hear, the blind have sight, and the ostracized find justice, is the King of vulnerability, who identifies with those whom he came to save.  You see, true love, God’s love, finds its power not in manipulation or coercion.  God’s love finds its power in vulnerability and freedom of choice, because no one can strong-arm someone to love them and still call it love.

“My Jesus is no Wimp”

Now you may think, Eric that humble Jesus all sounds well and good, but I want a powerful King Jesus, who will come in at the right time, wield a sword of power, come with clouds, horses, tanks, and jets and turn this world back to God.  Really? This Jesus we call Lord, this Jesus we claim as the ruler of our lives is not a king of worldly power, but one of humility and freedom, and his return will bring about a world order, which we may not find living up to our standard.  Are we sure this is the king we desire?

The whole notion of a king who rules over a people is an absurd notion for we Americansisle who have a democratically elected government. Even most Brits with their Constitutional Monarchy where the Queen reigns and Parliament actually rules would have a hard time with life under a sovereign, dictatorial, all-powerful ruler. So how do we deal with this idea of “Christ as King?”

Jesus’ authority is wielded over us by his authority, which comes from how he attracts, swoons, and calls us to willingly align our lives with the purposes of God: mercy, grace, justice, peace, and Self-giving love.  When we choose to accept the King Jesus, who was born in a manger, lived in poverty and offered preference to the poor, who served the outcast and down-trodden, who was ultimately vulnerable to the power of the world, and who was obedient unto death on the cross, we are choosing to live under Christ’s sovereign rule of love. Then and only then are we living in the Kingdom of God and yet, we remain exiled in a culture that resists that kind of kingdom.

Small Realms of God’s Kingdom and the Kingdom to come

The kingdom over which, Christ is king is not merely a futuristic, apocalyptic, cloud-covered returning event some time and some place out there.  God’s Kingdom is a present reality existing right now. Theologian Bruce Metzger asserts, “the Kingdom of God is not merely promised, but announced as a divine activity that demand(s) repentance (a turning from ways not of the kingdom) and that could be entered into by participating in its divine nature.”(2)  In other words, to follow this king, we must enter into that kingdom every day of our lives, and the beauty of God’s kingdom is the fact that we have the option to make the choice, to live into that reality today, right here, and right now or to reject it.

So then, who or what reigns and rules your life? In who or what do you find the ultimate truth? How or where do you find peace and promise?  For some of us, that kingdom is not a possibility, because we submit to the powers of consumerism, and we hand over the power in our lives to self-fulfillment.  For some of us, that kingdom is not a possibility, because we seek a false image of Christ the King, as the one who favors a select few and disregards those on the outskirts of so-called acceptability.  For some of us, that kingdom is not a possibility, because we seek a kingship of Christ where my particular agenda, or political leanings, or worldview includes a King that fits my desire.

I had a friend one time tell me, “Eric, that meek and mild Jesus you talk about just doesn’t seem real for a world like this one.  I mean I like that buff, powerful Jesus who turned over tables, went “toe to toe” with demons, and rebuked his disciples when they acted foolishly.”  I had to laugh a little, because although correct about those moments in Jesus’ ministry, my friend seemed to miss the whole point.  The King of Kings life, which although included moments of anger, spiritual warfare, and discipline, was an example to us of how we are to realign of our hearts with God’s heart, and to make it a real possibility right now. What is your image of Christ the King?

The “Christus Rex” found on your bulletin cover and the one displayed in many Episcopal churches, depicts the paradox of Jesus’ kingship.  Jesus is adorned in royal raiment and crown and yet, he is nailed to the cross.  When we think of the return of Christ the King, we envision him adorned in clouds with power and sword ready to bring vengeance and destruction to those who rejected him, but that is not ”Christ the King.” When Jesus said, “My kingdom is not from this world,” he meant that he rules and reigns over all of creation, not by the ways we expect, by using earthly power and force.  Jesus’ divine power comes from the vulnerability of love, manifested in his words from the cross, “ forgive them father, for they know not what they do.”

If Christ is truly King over our lives, we will, like our King, renounce self-serving power, and we will embrace grace, mercy, love, vulnerability, and justice.  Jesus said, “Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”  The Master Jesus is calling us into his court, which exists in its fullness and in reality right here and right now that is, if we are willing to live into it. So, the question is, “Are we really listening for his voice?”

1 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Monarchy

2 The Oxford Companion to the Bible, Metzger, Bruce M. (editor), Oxford University Press, 1993, Oxford, p. 408

 

SERMON 11-11-18 Pentecost 25B St. Monica’s Episcopal Church

1 Kings 17:8-16; Psalm 146; Hebrews 9:24-28; Mark 12:38-44

INTRODUCTION

Pledge Cards, Stewardship dinners, and church budgets, oh my.  It is that time of the church year again, when churches start talking about pledges, giving, and stewardship. It is nothing new. When it comes to talking about money in church, there is a stigma about it. Maybe it is because televangelists, who beg folks to give to their TV ministries, have contaminated us.  USA Today recently reported that a popular televangelists who told his virtual flock that God told him he needs a Dassault Falcon 7X a private jet, to whisk him to around to preach the gospel.  This type of religious fundraising program sounds a lot less like, the life of gratitude that Jesus teaches us about and a lot more like spiritual shakedown.

A theologian Peter Gomes wrote about our aversion to money talk and church.  He asserts that we need to “break the conspiracy of discreet silence sustained by both clergy and laity on money matters, if stewardship is to be more than a form of (sneaky) extortion.” (2) We avoid the topic of money and church, because it tends to be about a budget need, and not about the theological truth, that we all are called to live as faithful, generous stewards. Gomes writes, “Whatever the reason, November confronts us with the material necessity of the church, and hard as it may be to accept, the Bible makes clear that giving is sacrifice, not surplus generosity.” (2) Stewardship should not be a program to raise donations next year, in order to fund the operating budget. Jesus teaches us that stewardship is a matter of each of our own relationship to God, and God’s call for us to live a life of gratitude.

The Plight of Two Widows 

In today’s Gospel, Jesus told his disciples about a widow’s, who sacrificed all she had, even in the midst of her poverty.  In that first century Palestine culture, “There was no such thing as a rich widow. Women were totally dependent on their male relatives for their livelihood. Widows were forced to live off of the good graces of other male relatives and anyone in the community, who might provide a meal here, a little money there.” (1) We heard another story about a widow as well.

In the Old Testament, Elijah went to a region of Palestine and there found a widow who had only enough meal and oil to make a little food for her and her son. Elijah asked her for food, and reminded her that despite what little she had, God would provide for her. This widow was hungry but shared with someone else with gratitude, and from her poverty.  God provided, and there was enough for her, her son, and the stranger with whom she shared.  The truth in this story is this, “the widow recognized that at the center of her life was God, and she understood herself as dependent on the God who provides.  From that place of gratitude and dependence, she responded with abundant thankfulness to God.

Fast forward back to the temple in Jerusalem, where Jesus was sitting across from the Treasury, watching and listening to all that was happening.  He observed the “big shots” putting in their offering in the treasury, while they walked around town with flashy robes, receiving accolades from everyone, and sitting in the best seats in the temple.  Jesus saw this spectacle unfolding and then, suddenly someone caught his eye.  A poor widow walked up and put in two small copper coins in the treasury. In Jesus’ times in Judea, that small copper coin was called a lepton, which was of miniscule value.  The denariuswas the coin for which, someone was paid a day’s wages, and with it, they could buy bread for themselves and family for the day.  Relatively speaking, the widow’s two copper leptons were worth only 15 minutes of a day’s wages, but she gave all she had, which was not even enough to buy food for a quarter hour.  Jesus taught his disciples about gratitude, sacrificial giving, and faithfulness, when he shared his observations of where God stood in the lives of two very different people; the scribes and the widow.

By the worlds standard the donations of the scribes and teachers made them feel like they were of great value to the temple system.  Using the same standard, the poor widow who depended on charity for survival, gave a miniscule offering and thus she was considered unimportant in the temple system.  Whom though, do you think was in right relationship with God?  The gospel reading today is not about romanticizing poverty or was it a call to live a life of destitution. This story is about being in right relationship with God, by showing us who was fully, completely, and inarguably dependent on God.  The widow was poor by culture standards, but she lived in an abundant, responsive gratitude to God, for all she had been given, and over which she was called to be a steward. The truth in this story is that our relationship with God, being in right relationship with God, depends on who is at the center of our lives and on whom do we depend; God or ourselves.

Righteousness vs. Right Relationships

The scribes in the temple were independent, “pull themselves up from their bootstraps,” folks where dependence on, and gratitude to God was an afterthought. They liked to “walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets.”  Where was God in the pecking order of their lives?  Where is God in the mere pursuit of self-satisfaction, self-embellishment, and independence?  The scribes put God way back in the back seat, and that showed where their true treasure resided.

When we talk about stewardship in church, it should not be about giving enough to keep the lights on, although (thanks be to God) through the abundant responsive generosity of God’s people, the church is able to keep the lights on, to pay staff, to seed ministries of local mission, and to provide for the ongoing formation of all of God’s people as disciples.  Our stewardship should not be an exercise in church budget planning, but it should be how we every day focus, pray, discern, and practice living in abundant, responsive gratitude, for God’s abundant grace in our lives.

Stewardship – Responsive Abundant Gratitude

“Psychology today” describes gratitude as, “an emotion expressing appreciation for what one has—as opposed to, for instance, a consumer-driven emphasis on what one wants or thinks they need. Tossing off the half-hearted “thanks” won’t cut it; deep gratitude has to come from within and in a meaningful way.” (3)

The article goes on to say, “practicing gratitude means paying attention to what we are thankful for to the degree of feeling more kind and compassionate toward the world at large.” (3) “Stewardship, rightly understood, proceeds not from what we give to God but from what God has given to us.” (2) If we are honest, none of us are really independent, self-made, “I can do it all myself” persons, because everything over which we are mere curators; we only have for a time, and all that we have comes from God.

“We are embarrassed and a little nervous at the thought that what we “have” is not ours to “keep” but only to give.” (2) The old saying, “you cannot take it with you,” seems to apply here.  We all are walking through this life with an expiration date, and one day we will leave behind all that we have held so dear, unless that is God whom we hold dear, and if so, we will never be without abundant grace, because we recognized we are dependent on God.

What or who is your God?

Theologian Mary Anderson once wrote, “As good Americans we’ve been taught to celebrate our independence, but Jesus teaches us to celebrate our great dependence on God alone.” (1) We think we know what we need and thus, we strive through our own feeble human efforts, never once thinking that we are utterly dependent on the God who provides.   So, we must ask, “Who or what is my God, what takes center stage in the great play of my life, and on what or who do I depend for security, fulfillment, peace, joy, and the feeling of being “okay?”  Maybe we depend on our investments, our secure employment, our pensions, or maybe, it is something else taking center stage.

Anderson asserts what many of us feel, “My money gives me independence and freedom from living like a poor widow, (but is it not like a widow how) … we are to be like before God—dependent on nothing but the grace of God. We are to be people without any resources except the riches of God’s mercy.” (1)  So, if God does takes center stage, and if we acknowledge that God is the source of all of which, we have been given to curate (and only for a time), then we should live a life of abundant responsive gratitude, and thus we return to the topic of our stewardship.

Why is money talk in church off limits? It is often as taboo as talking about political parties and government policies in church, but Jesus never shied away from that debate either; nor should we.   This whole stewardship dance we do this time of year should never be an exercise in “funding an operating budget” through which, we all will figure out how much will need to give in order to support it.  Clergy are guilty of this practice too by the way, but that is how businesses, non-profit charities, and other secular organizations work. You know that everything we need to accomplish God’s mission through St. Monica’s and to do it well is available in abundance.

This Jesus version of stewardship starts not with budget, but with a focused, prayerful, discerning practice of living in abundant responsive gratitude for God’s abundant grace in our lives.  Stewardship is a “heart and hands” matter, and it is a relationship to God matter.  When we talk about church and money, we are really talking about what Jesus taught his disciples, when by a widow’s sacrificial giving he showed us how to love God and love our neighbors.  Jesus teaches us that we are utterly dependent on him and not ourselves, our jobs, or our assets (all of which are not ours to keep).

When God takes center stage in our lives, then this whole stewardship matter will stop being merely an October/ November church program, and it will become a year round way of life.   As I was looking on Google for pictures of the widow’s pennies, I ran across a site that showed pictures of every U.S. currency denomination and minted coin.  I find it ironic that on each monetary legal tender are these words, “In God We Trust.”  For some reason, I had forgotten that little fact.  I wonder if in the wisdom of the designers of our currency, that those words were put there to remind us, that not this bill in our hand, but God is the one with whom we should put our trust.  Maybe the designer was a good Episcopalian who during one Stewardship Sunday reflected back on what that young, radical Jewish rabbi preached in one of his best stewardship sermons, “where your treasure is that is where your heart will be also.”

REFERENCES

(1) Anderson, Mary W. “Widow’s Walk.” The Christian Century, vol. 120, no. 22, Nov. 2003, p. 18.

(2) Gomes, Peter J.(Peter John). “Veterans and Stewards.” The Christian Century, vol. 114, no. 30, Oct. 1997, p. 971.

(3)  https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/basics/gratitude

All Saint’s Day, St. Monica’s Episcopal Church 11/4/18

Isaiah 25:6-9; Psalm 24; Revelation 21:1-6a; John 11:32-44

Superheroes or Saints

I am a huge fan of superheroes.  I grew up watching Batman and Spiderman cartoons on Saturday mornings, but even today as an adult, I still love to watch the Avengers movies on the big screen. Superheroes are mythical people who combat the forces of injustice, evil, and oppression, and they give us hope of the better angels of our nature.  My favorite superheroes are not the ones imbued with superhuman strength or powers.  I look up to the superheroes like Batman, Iron Man, and Black Widow who are just regular people that rely on their intellects, and their high tech suits and gadgets.  These heroes’ strengths come from their tenacity and commitment to their call, while overcoming their own human frailties.  Legendary superheroes give society examples for whom they can model our lives. The church throughout the year commemorates the lives of certain people (saints), who by their faith and commitment to Christ have given us, an example by which we can model our faith journeys.

Like so called cultural superheroes, we often envision saints to be superhero Christians like Peter, Paul, Mary Magdalene, Mother Teresa, or St. Francis of Assisi.  The truth is these folks were far less like Superman and Wonder Woman with super Christian powers, and more like Batman and Iron Man, who were just regular folk that remained faithful, committed, and prayerful in their quest to follow Jesus. Being a saint is not about carrying around superhuman faith, but being a saint means we are just regular people who rely on a faith as small as a mustard seed.

All Saints

Today, we commemorate All Saints; the Communion of Saints.  Wikipedia defines the Communion of Saints as “the spiritual union of the members of the Christian Church, living and the dead. They are all part of a single “mystical body”, with Christ as the head, in which each member contributes to the good of all and shares in the welfare of all. “ Today especially, we remember, honor, and look to the examples of all Jesus’ disciples (living and dead) as icons of hope, who trusted God’s promises. Likewise today, we look to those saints who are sitting around us, gathered here in communion and in fellowship, who live in the hope of God’s promise of life everlasting, the promise “that nothing, not even death stands between us and God’s love.”

In today’s gospel reading, we hear the story of Jesus raising his dear friend Lazarus from the grave.  In our tradition, we often hear this reading at a burial service.  It offers the grieving comfort in the fact that, “Jesus wept,” and that reminds us that Our Lord understood and empathizes with the grief we experience, when the ones we love pass on to the communion of saints.

The raising of Lazarus is a symbol of the hope we have in the resurrection, it happened at a critical moment in Jesus’ ministry, and it was a decisive miracle that demonstrated his power over life and death.  I believe this moment of his ministry gives us hope to live the life of a saint.  Although Jesus experienced suffering, betrayal, and death, nothing dissuaded him from his mission.  Through his own experience, Jesus forewarned his church that being faithful to God’s mission and partnering with God’s mission in the world comes with a great cost.

Mission focus

Today, the church is facing many challenges unseen since the early days of its inception and growth.   We now live in a time when one-third of our nation claims no religious affiliation at all.  Many churches are experiencing decline in membership and attendance (including the evangelical churches), but the real threat to the church is not the latest trend of a declining religiosity, declining attendance on Sunday, or even the sustainability issues of building and property maintenance.  The real threat to the church is our growing shift away from making God’s mission of love and reconciliation both inside and outside our walls, our highest priority.

God did not fashion a communion of saints for the mere purpose of gathering together once a week. God consecrated (or set aside) faith communities for a specific purpose, which is to of carry God’s Good News of abundant love into the neighborhoods where we have been planted. Like Lazarus, Jesus calls us out of our burial wrappings of self-absorption, fear, and anxiety, to go out into the desperate places of people’s lives.

We are called out of the grave in order to call others out of their graves.  Through our hands and hearts carrying God’s grace, we raise up hope in others. The church is not in the grave, or even headed toward it by any means and yet, we can become distracted from being raised up and unbound from our chains of inward focus.

God acts and calls us out of death into new life.

Episcopal priest and writer Barbara Brown Taylor wrote, We have a “God who resurrects us from the dead, putting an end to it by … creating life in the midst of grief, creating love in the midst of loss, creating faith in the midst of despair—resurrecting us from our big and little deaths, showing us by his own example that the only road to Easter morning runs smack through Good Friday.”1  “Lazarus, come out!”  Jesus calls us out of uncertainty and the fear of death into new life!

When religious naysayers warn us of possible institutional death, and when negativity tries to slip in amongst us, we must make God’s mission priority one, and ask ourselves, “What is our ministry to the neighborhoods in which, we have been planted?”  “Who is God is calling us to love, serve, and restore?”  “Who is our neighbor, and how should we get back to the basics of being a lighthouse of love in the neighborhoods around us?”  This mission to which we have been called is fraught with fear and uncertainty, because when we engage in God’s mission faithfully as the Saints of God, we must die to our comfortable way of being, in order to experience new life.

Change is a frightening concept, but dying to that which holds us back from God’s purposes is a natural part of becoming a saint. Suzanne Guthrie writes, “In small ways we practice dying: dying to sin, dying to shame, to prejudices, opinions, stagnant ideas, dying to one old life and then another, ever striving toward new life. You consciously practice rising, from whatever tomb you have holed yourself up in lately.”2

To experience new life, we must shrug off some of grave clothes that have the power to keep us bound up, and to deter us from God’s mission in the world.  We must die a little to those comfy elements of our way of being, our contented ways of sharing grace, our narrow definitions of our local mission, or our often, restrictive boundaries that keep others from finding hope in God’s grace. Jesus said, “Unbind him and let him go!” Like Lazarus, the saints need to be unbound.

Unbind them and let them Go

Now, many of us have fond memories of church gone by and so, we believe that is how church should be today.  Some may look at our community, and think well, it used to be like this or that, or we may e some think we are no longer enough, or we don’t have enough resources and people to do local mission.  This kind of thinking is just old grave clothes that will keep us from God’s purposes for God’s church.

Dean Chandler of the Diocese of Atlanta once said in a sermon,  “Unbind somebody. Where you find someone in bondage: your friend, your wife, your husband, your companion, even the stranger.”3 “Jesus commanded his followers who were standing and watching him raise his friend from the power of death, “Unbind him,” or rather, he commanded them and us, “Saints, take a part in what I am already doing, and get back to work in the mission of love I have just begun, go and unbind each other and all around you.”   Jesus calls us to unbounded sainthood.

Am I a Saint?

You may be sitting there saying, “Fr. Eric, I am no saint.”  Well, we are all saints, because we have been given the assurance that death has no power over us, and through hope we have been raised to new life in Christ.  We are a people that are brought together in love, not merely for the edification of ourselves, but we gather for the ultimate purpose of sharing God’s abundant grace with others.  That is what being a saint is all about.  We are not called to be perfect, nor are we called to become some kind of superhero Christian (like Iron Man, Black Widow, or Wonder Woman) or even a culturally popular saint like Mother Teresa or St. Francis.  We all are saints who strive everyday, in every way, to share God’s abundance with others, and to set others free from what holds them back from experiencing God’s grace.

Nelson Mandela once said, “I am not a saint, unless you think of a saint as a sinner who keeps on trying.” In other words, we are not going to get this saint thing right every time, but we still must try. I mess it up every day, and I know you do too, but that is what grace is all about. Being a saint is not easy, because we saints have to die a little, so new life might spring up.  The good news is that sainthood requires no superhuman strength, but just the faith of a little mustard seed, which looks like our contributing “to the good of all and sharing in the welfare of all.”

Maybe sainthood looks like Sir Nicholas Winton who saved 669 Jewish children from the Holocaust, or Lee Gelernt a vocal and active advocate for the rights of at risk children in our midst.  Maybe sainthood looks like some of you who work tirelessly to insure local working moms have diapers for their babies, freeing up funds for food and rent. Maybe sainthood looks like some of you, who go each week to the Immokalee Soup kitchen to bring hope and love to folks who need a hot meal and an encouraging smile.  We saints are just regular people, who have been unbound from the grave clothes of despair and fear, then sent out into the world to love God, to love one another, and love our neighbors, just “as Christ loved us and gave himself for us, an offering, and a sacrifice to God.” Dear loving God, unbind your Saints.

REFERENCES

1Taylor, Barbara Brown. “Can These Bones Live.” The Christian Century23.9 (1996): 291. ATLASerials, Religion Collection. Web. 26 Oct. 2015.

2 Guthrie, Suzanne. “Back To Life.”The Christian Century122.5 (2005): 22. ATLASerials, Religion Collection. Web. 26 Oct. 2015.)

3Very Rev. Samuel G. Candler Dean of the Cathedral of St. Philip in the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta, GA. http://day1.org/1086-unbind_him_and_let_him_go