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/

SERMON Advent 3A 12/15/19 St. Monica’s Episcopal Church, Naples, FL

Isaiah 35:1-10; Psalm 146:4-9; James 5:7-10; Matthew 11:2-11

The Wish Book

Decades before Amazon Prime and the Big Box store’s same day pickup, we had the Sears Wish Book Christmas Catalog, a consumeristic teaser designed to whet our childlike appetites for expectant Christmas joy. For 60 years, starting in 1933 until 1993, America waited in anticipation for that behemoth slick page treasure trove of electronics, clothing, tools and yes, toys to arrive in the mail. When it finally came, I know that I literally looked at every single page with glee.

I have memories of one Christmas waiting for an Evel Knievel action figure, motorcycle, and tour van. The next year, it was the Mattel Vertibird helicopter toy I could not wait to see. One year, it was an authorized NFL Washington Redskins football uniform that would give me some Christmas joy. From the day I put in my order to Santa Claus, I could hardly wait until Christmas Eve. By the way, I never understood why St. Nick and Sears had their little toy distribution arrangement until I worked for the company in the 1990’s.

Christmas time has been a time, to wait and anticipate, but for many of us, we were waiting for Santa’s arrival on Christmas Eve. We were waiting for Santa at the end of the Macy’s Day parade (and all Christmas parades). We were waiting for and anticipating, with expectant joy and hopeful fulfillment, childlike desires, but is that really the “Reason for the Season?”

Maybe even today we are merely waiting for the moment we can all sit down in our living rooms or dens and begin to unwrap the gifts under the tree. Maybe we are merely waiting for a son, daughter, grandson, granddaughter to arrive, so we can overwhelm them with Christmas family cheer. So, this Advent Season, I want to ask you, “for whom are you waiting; whom are you anwaiting, and for whom do you long to see?”

Advent Anticipation

Advent is a season of anticipation and waiting. Webster defines “anticipation” as the act of looking forward, or pleasurable expectation, or a visualization of a future state.” An article in Psychology Today asserts, “Anticipatory thinking lets us recognize and prepare for a future outcome. It’s different from making predictions because we don’t necessarily expect events to play out the way we imagine — complex situations are too hard to predict. Instead, we are getting ourselves ready, bracing ourselves, preparing ourselves.” (a) The article goes on to say that Anticipatory Thinking, “must engage our ability to generate expectancies, and to draw on our mental models. (This allows) us to perform the mental simulations that transform our understanding of what is happening right now into what may happen in the future.” (a) In other words, anticipatory thinking, like what we are encouraged to do in Advent, helps us to transform “what we believe will happen,” into transformed reality of “what we truly believe will happen.” In other words, anticipation is the first steps to a new reality.

Talented singer/songwriter Carly Simon wrote a hit called, “Anticipation.” You know the chorus, “Anticipation, anticipation is making me late is keeping me waiting,” One verse in the song states, “We can never know about the days to come, but we think about them anyway.” Simon in modern prose and beautiful note reminds us what we hear the prophets proclaiming. She tells us to prepare in our heart for the impending reality to come; which in our minds has already started to become reality.

Theologian Paul Tillich once wrote, “Although waiting is not having, it is also having. The fact that we wait for something shows that in some way we already possess it.”(1) “Waiting”, says Tillich, “anticipates that which is not yet real. If we wait and hope in patience, the power of that for which we wait is already effective within us. Those who wait, in an ultimate sense, are not that far from that for which they wait.”(1) It is in the anticipation and waiting that we experience in our minds, that which we have yet to experience with our five senses.

So this time of year,sensation called to a time of anticipation and an expectant future not yet seen. We need to be intentional about living into that “not yet” reality, which is to come, but to do that, we need patience. “Be patient, therefore, beloved, until the coming of the Lord.” James the brother of Jesus, told the early church to wait patiently for the return of Jesus. Those early disciples (post resurrection) lived in an anticipation that Jesus’ return was imminent and just around the corner, so there was some tension and anxiety and fear in the system. People were a little on edge about what was to come, kind of like many of us are today, waiting for Christmas knowing all the things we have to do to get ready.

The apostles had to remind folks to slow down, to not get the cart before the horse, to be patient, but to keep watch and be ready. Advent can be that slowing down waiting and anticipating and hoping for the coming of the Lord, both as the babe in the manger, and when he returns “to judge the living and the dead.” However, this patient waiting is good and all, if we are waiting for the right one, the Savior of the world. And that takes me back to my original question, “This Advent Season, for whom are you waiting; whom do you anticipate, and for whom do you long?”

Disappointment

Think back to when you received those Sears Wish Book presents, when the wrapping paper came off and the boxes opened, sometimes the long-anticipated gift looked much different than presented. Evel Knievel’s motorcycle never jumped as high as advertised, the helicopter toy did not fly as fast as the commercials touted, and the Washington Redskin’s Football helmet was made from cheap plastic and looked more like an imitation, rather than the one Joe Theismann wore on the gridiron. Sometimes what we expect of God is not the reality of God’s Kingdom come, but what we want to come.

When John the Baptist found himself locked up in prison, it was if he had just experienced that same Sears Wish Book disappointment. Just the week before, he had been confident in Jesus and who Jesus was, boldly proclaiming, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” Now that he is in prison facing death, he is not so sure about the one he anticipated and waited for so long to see. Now that John’s reality is different, his doubts caused him to send word to Jesus and ask, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”

Jesus tells John’s disciples, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.” This is not what John expected of the one he had waited for and was waiting for now. Originally, John preached of a Savior who would topple kings and wield fire and Spirit. P.C. Enniss writes, “Jesus is turning out not at all as he (John) had expected. Truth is, Jesus rarely is what we first expect.” (2)

For whom are you waiting?

Ironically, the prophetic voice of Isaiah said, “Here is your God. He will come with vengeance, with terrible recompense.” Some of God’s followers anticipate all good things will come from God, but they expect that it will come with a price to pay; vengeance and pay back for God’s adversaries. However, that is not what God ever has in mind. Maybe we are confused about who this Jesus is that we proclaim. Maybe we like the early chosen and the early disciples, anticipate and wait for a Savior who will come on the scene, and further our own personal agendas, improve our own personal economic situations, or ensure we find the perfect gift for our beloved at Target when we go shopping for those Christmas gifts.

If we are living in anticipation of the coming of the real promised , then we need to make sure we are waiting for the actual promised one of God. P.C. Ennis tell us that “Christmas is perceived as the radical entrance of one who literally wants to change the way the world thinks, operates, perceives reality—then life in the ensuing meantime is more likely to follow that pattern.”(2)Jesus clearly points out to John and to each of us, for whom it is that we should be waiting. Jesus said, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.” You see, the one for whom we anticipate, the one that all of this is about, the one who is the “reason for the season” is not a power-wielding superhero type that will save the world through formidable might and violent vengeance.

The one for whom each of us is waiting is the one who through sacrificial, self-giving love has already begun the work of restoring creation to its original intent, to its original beauty, and to its original relationship to the Creator, all through love. Jesus, the one for whom we are waiting has already arrived, bringing good news of peace, joy, reconciliation, and restoration, but do not forget, he is coming again. So, with all that in mind, this Advent season, I have to ask one last time, “For whom are you waiting; whom do you anticipate, and for whom do you long to see?”

REFERENCES

(1) The Shaking of the Foundations (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1955).

(2) Enniss, P. C., Jr. “Waiting: Matthew 11: 2-6.” Journal for Preachers, vol. 29, no. 1, Advent 2005, pp. 22–25

(3) Alison, James. “Stretched Hearts.” The Christian Century, vol. 124, no. 24, Nov. 2007, p. 21.

(a) https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/seeing-what-others-dont/201702/anticipation

SERMON 12/8/19 Advent 2A St. Monica’s Episcopal Church Naples, FL

Advent 2Isaiah 11:1-10; Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19; Romans 15:4-13; Matthew 3:1-12

John the Baptist: Repentance and Righteousness

“The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’” In the Second week of Advent, we hear the prophetic voice of John the Baptist proclaiming that we need to repent.  Repentance in a season of joy, celebration, peace on earth good will towards all, seems like a strange topic, but this is the season of Advent.  When we are anticipating Christ’s coming, we are reminded of our utter dependence on God and our necessity to return to God when we stray, when we miss the mark, when we succumb to the siren call of sin.

We are never far from the reality of our own frailty, our own failures, and our own brokenness.  In today’s gospel, we are clearly told that none are free from sin; all must repent and live a changed life.  We all miss the mark, and we all share a common need for God’s grace and forgiveness. There is good news in all that, because God acts first to bring about reconciliation and restoration.  However, we have to respond to that grace, in order to actually experience the impact of a gift that we must only receive.

John the Baptist boldly tells, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near,” but what does that theologically ambiguous word really mean?  Let me try and explain. We have all said to someone we have hurt, “I am sorry” but is that repentance, and where does love come into all this?  Some would say, “Love means never having to say you’re sorry.” However, repentance is more than a kind “I am sorry.”  Rabbi Sarah Reines asserts that we must “go one step further because saying those words alone cannot atone for wrongdoing. In fact, even prayer is not enough, and neither is ritual. True repentance demands action.” (2)

Repentance means to turn, which requires us to put our bodies in motion toward a different reality or what our Jewish cousins call, Teshuva.  Rabbi Reines writes, “Teshuva expresses a process of reorientation that demands a complete change of mind, heart, and behavior. It requires: recognizing our wrongdoing, expressing our regret, doing our best to reconcile with the injured party or, at least, make appropriate restitution to those we have wronged, and (then), change our ways. (2)  We all need a time like Advent, and people like John the Baptist, to shake up the circumstances of our comfort zones.   Sometimes we need to be confronted by circumstances that changes everything, or by a person who sees things with fresh eyes, who can help us come face-to-face with our own sin, so we might repent and thus, experience reconciliation and new life.

Repentance and Forgiveness

I watched a popular movie about repentance, reconciliation, and new life the other night.  It was the story about a man named Farrokh Bulsar, an immigrant whose family came to England from India through Zanzibar. Farrokh was a talented piano player and song writer, with a strong baritone speaking voice, but sang amazingly in the tenor range.  He was a musical genius, who brought to the performance stage a new twist on a particular musical genre.  He redefined the future of music, and was a great influence, bringing courage and hope to bands and individual artists like:  Katy Perry, Lady GaGa, and Metallica.  He had an amazing stage presence, and his offbeat approach to performance, brought attention to what he was trying to accomplish; change.

If you do not know by now about whom I am speaking, Bulsar was the incredible and unmatched “Freddie Mercury,” the lead singer of the band Queen.  He was a prophetic voice, an attention-grabbing eccentric who changed the future of music. Mercury, although a successful genius was no different from many of us. He struggled with relationships with others and experienced the brokenness of relational estrangement.  Mercury struggled also with the sin of self-importance.   He lived with a deep depressive loneliness that as overwhelming and unexpected success came to the band Queen, it led Mercury to abandon his friends and bandmates in order to pursue a solo career.   His act of selfish indifference to his friends led to him cutting the ties of relational connections with his bandmates, and the death of the family nature of their association.  The great band Queen for a time was no more.

A New Future

Freddie Mercury, John the Baptist, and so many other prophetic voices have over the centuries called us to change, through their unconventionality.  Their disruptive presence in the world calls us to new futures and new ways of being.  Theodore Wardlaw says that “John (the Baptist) in fact challenges (us) to envision and grow into a different future.” (3) He adds, “A different future is on the way, he says. A time—our time— is being redeemed by the light of a holy surprise drawing near. And all of a sudden, the landscape of life changes. This is the surprising word of John, whose message is: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord!’” (3)  Advent is a time in which, we live in the hope of a different future, a new possibility, a breaking in of new life. Advent can be for us, can be a “John the Baptist” moment.

Freddy Mercury experienced a “John the Baptist” moment when the prophetic voice of a terminal disease made him realize his life was slipping away.  He did not sit still with the decisions of his past and so, he turned from his isolation, his broken loneliness, and reached out to his old bandmates.  Mercury did what John the Baptist tell us to do, “Repent, for the Kingdom of God is near.”   He put his feet in motion and went to his friends and said, “I am sorry,” but that was not where his repentance ended.    Mercury convinced his bandmates that they had to do something more than just get back together.  Their act of shared repentance beyond themselves came in their return in 1985 at the Live Aid show which aided the victims of the Ethiopian famine. This concert  was dubbed by the organizing parties as “the day music changed the world.” The healed family of Queen made the repentant choice to share the grace of reconciliation that they had experienced ,and together they took it beyond themselves.

As the light to the world, the church too is called to live in Harmony so that with one voice, together we may glorify God.  We are icons and stained glass windows where the Light of Christ shines through, but we must be proclaimers of repentance in action.  Let’s face it, we’re going to mess up, we are going to miss the mark, but God’s grace is abundant and we have to keep trying.  None of us are perfect because honestly, none of us are without sin, especially we clergy types.

The good news is that God is faithful and just to forgive our sins.  Are we faithful to forgive each other’s?  We are one Body of many members.  We are not called to this life in Christian community merely for benign membership alone.  We are called to be like clay, ready and willing for the Creator to mold and shape us, for the Spirit to burn away the chaff, for God to set us on a new path; a new path not to be traveled alone, but a journey boldly taken together.  By living in harmony, working and serving together, bearing each other’s burdens, and forgiving each other’s failures, we are truly being the Body of Christ.

When we the Body of Christ lives in reconciling love, or as the Apostle Paul writes, we choose to “live in harmony with one another, and with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ,” we take that hope into the world and everything changes.  When we can show the world that we see a different possibility than the one in which we find ourselves today, we share the hope of Advent, the joy of the Incarnation, and reconciling love of God enacted in and through each of us.  We then, like our brother John, our brother Freddy, and so many other prophets, we like them, become the voices crying out, or singing out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’”

 

REFERENCES

(1) Meyers, Ruth A. “Wheat and Chaff.” The Christian Century, vol. 118, no. 32, Nov. 2001, p. 16

(2) Reines, Sarah H. “Turning Ourselves Around.” The Living Pulpit, vol. 16, no. 2, Apr. 2007, pp. 8–9

(3) Wardlaw, Theodore J. “Preaching the Advent Texts.” Journal for Preachers, vol. 31, no. 1, Advent 2007, pp. 3–10.

 

SERMON 12/1/19 Advent 1A St Monica’s Episcopal Church, Naples, FL

AdventIsaiah 2:1-5; Psalm 122; Romans 13:11-14;  Matthew 24:36-44

Hustle and Bustle of the Season

Yesterday was “Black Friday” and the Christmas festivities in our culture have officially started.  However, we all know that the commercial Christmas hustle and bustle began back in October.  Retailers like Wal Mart, Target and most outlets already had their Christmas shops setup and ready to go before Halloween.

Now, we are off to the retail races, and there is a mad dash to buy, wrap, and feast as much as possible until December 26th when ironically, it all stops.  Exhausted, 20 lbs heavier, and credit cards maxed out, some people will enter a post-holiday depression regretting and thinking, “Boy, I sure am glad that is over for another year.”

We clergy encourage people to not fall for the ploy of pre-Christmas chaos.  However, it is so difficult for many of us is to live in both worlds.  It is not easy to follow the traditions of the church in here, and then go out there and live differently.  We Christians though, by the very nature of our vocation are sent out there to live a life of transformation, contrast, and anticipation to that of the world, and the season of Advent gives us an opportunity to do just that.

The Haven of Anticipation – Advent

When the world stops celebrating on December 26th, we Episcopalians until January 6th will still be celebrating the Nativity of Our Lord Jesus Christ for another 12 days.   When everyone else stops saying, “Merry Christmas” and starts saying “Happy New Year,” we will still sing Christmas Carols on Saturday and Sunday, enjoy a decorated Christmas Tree in the parish hall, and joyfully commemorate the gift of salvation given to us in Jesus Christ.  Our culture has already started the celebration, but the church has not quite yet.  We are still in Advent season.

Advent is kind of like a little fast before Christmas, but that is not necessarily a negative thing if you think about it.  Advent observed properly serves as a haven of anticipation of the “Coming of Christ” both as a “Babe in the Manger” and the anticipation of when Christ returns.  The church’s observance of Advent stands in absolute contrast to the chaos of world out there.

For instance, we adorn the sanctuary with purple altar hangings and vestments, and there is no red and green to be found.  We bring out the Advent candle for decoration, but there is no decorated and trimmed evergreen in the church.  We sing particular hymns and read certain readings, but there is no mention of the babe in a manger, at least it yet.  We live merely in the anticipation of the coming of Christ, both as a babe and his second coming in some future time.

While everyone else is clamoring for those Black Friday door busters, running around for those last minute gift purchases, attending just one more “over the top” festive party, the church is a haven where we can shut out the holiday noise, and live in expectancy the Feast of the Nativity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, which is yet to come.  However, maybe we are afraid of observing a Holy Advent.  We forget the Advent calendar and Advent wreath in our homes and go straight to the Christmas decorations in our homes. Maybe we think we might miss the season if we do that.  Maybe we are afraid people might think we are a Scrooge if we did not buy into the pre-Christmas chaos.

Scrooge and Christmas

Ebenezer Scrooge the main character of Charles Dicken’s “A Christmas Carol” was a mean, money-grubbing man who cared only for his wealth, and dismissed all possibility of friends in this life.  He detested peaceful and joyful people in particular, and rejected the season of Christmas with the joy, peace, and hope it brought to the world.  When someone said, “Merry Christmas” to old Scrooge, he huffed and replied, “bah humbug.”  For some reason, some folks think that to observe Advent means we are being an Old Scrooge.

During the Advent season, one of my professors in seminary wore a top hat similar to that of Ebenezer Scrooge to our weekly community dinners.  He would tell us that his top hat served as a reminder to each seminarian that we Episcopalians must observe a Holy Advent.  He told us we needed to live in the world and yet, be set apart from it.  To drive the point home, on my professor’s office door was a sign with a picture of beautifully decorated home that proclaimed, “take them down, leave them down until December 25th, says old Ebenezer.”  My professors practice may have been over the top, but even he, in the last few weeks of Advent, snuck in a little Christmas decoration or two on his office door.  I think he did that to remind us that we Christians, who although must be separate from the world, must live in both worlds all the time, even in Advent.

Maybe you are sitting there saying, “Fr. Eric, can’t we have a little eggnog, decorate our tree a little early, throw a party or two, go buy some gifts, and can’t we wear that awful Christmas sweater we love so much?”  Of course we can, because we are anticipating the “Coming of the Blessed Lord of Our lives,” and we definitely are not Ebenezer Scrooges after all.  Our tradition does not call us to live in stark rejection of the world we live in, but it merely gives us a chance to look at this time differently than we have in the past.  I wonder what would happen if we became aware of this interrupted time of Advent, would we find in it some space for a haven of anticipation and peace, in a world of utter commercial chaos?    Advent is not a season for just being “different” from everyone else, because this season reminds us that there is more to this whole story of Christmas after all.

Christ is Coming Again – Readiness

Our gospel reading today tells us what that more will be, “But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man.”  In Advent we certainly anticipate the coming of the Babe in the Manger, but we also anticipate Christ’s return, when “He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead.”  That second coming again part for some of us may seem full of trepidation, rather than hopeful and joyful.  Maybe we do not even think about it all.  Maybe it seems like a fantasy or a good, “Left Behind” book.

Is it because we are not really ready, or we have not prepared, or we do not live in that anticipated reality.  We are too busy clamoring to meet the world’s expectations of success and celebratory joy, in order to take just a moment in prayer each day to praise God.   We are too busy decorating the windows of our lives, to spend some time embellishing the dark places of our souls with God’s grace.  Maybe we are not ready because we are afraid of what Jesus will think when we stand before him and we reflect on the life we lived.

What if we looked rather at Christ’s return with hope and peace.  It is easy to do, if each day you would carve out some intentional interruptions to offer to God some of your time.  Let God’s grace fill you as you intentionally reflect on him and his love, and speak to God as you would with any friend.  Read a little scripture and meditate on it for a while.  Go out into the world and rejoice in the power of the Spirit and share some of that newfound joy with others.  Imagine interrupting the mundane cycle of life and the expectations of this world, in order to spend some time with Jesus.

That is what the seasonality of the church does.  It intentionally interrupts the worldly cycle we live in, and reminds us that we are following the life of Jesus each and every day.   Let me explain.  Advent is the age of anticipation foretold by the prophets, of the expected Messiah to come.  Christmas is the celebration of the Incarnation, the moment when God came among us as one of us.  Epiphany is the revelation of Christ to we Gentiles through the Wise visitors from afar. Lent prepares our hearts for the Good News of the cross.  Easter is the celebration of the Resurrection of our Lord. Pentecost is the day the Holy Spirit came and the church was set on its mission.  We then begin the cycle all over again.   Maybe the whole reason for Advent is so we might pause, shift time a little, and reflect on this walk we have with the King of Kings and Lord of Lords.

 

Scrooge Needed Advent

Advent is not some churchy alternative to the hustle of the world, nor is it a season where we are required to shelve our Hallmark Christmas moments until December 25th.  Advent is a time for us to become quiet, to become prayerful, and to become ready for the reality that Christ is coming among us as a Babe in a Manger, and his eventual coming again in great power and judgment. The whole point of Advent is not that we church people might act like Scrooges, but so we can pause and be transformed

When visited by the Ghost of Christmas Future, Scrooge had already spent time with the other two apparitions looking at the events of his life.  He looked back on how he had spent his life with others and how he was living life in the present.  Yes, he had some regrets, but in that reflection time, he was being transformed.  To the last apparition, Scrooge said, “Ghost of the Future, I fear you more than any spectre I have seen. But as I know your purpose is to do me good, and as I hope to live to be another man from what I was, I am prepared to bear you company, and do it with a thankful heart.”  Scrooge left his repetitive cycle of monetary focus and self-indulgent musings and was interrupted by a time of reflecting on the person he had become.  Maybe that is what Advent can be for us.  A time of awaiting the future return of Our Lord, while spending some time intentionally getting ready for that day.

Before Scrooge celebrated Christmas with his family and gifted the best Christmas ever to Tiny Tim and his family, transformed he said, “I will honor Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year. I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future. The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me.’’  Scrooge was converted and made ready for the future, through an unexpected, but intentional interruption in his life.

So, I encourage you to do the same, and take advantage of Advent, this haven of anticipation where you can reflect, pray, and rest.  Come to the Advent retreat with me next Saturday, join the Advent reflections after the 9:30 am service in the library, or merely take on some spiritual discipline of prayer and fasting over the next few weeks.  I encourage you to observe Advent season and live in anticipation of the coming of Christ.  Honor Christmas by reflecting on your past, live fully into your present, and anticipate joyfully the peace and grace you will see when Christ comes again.

REFERENCES

SERMON 11/21/19 “Christ the King” St. Monica’s Episcopal Church, Naples, FL

christ-the-king-1Jeremiah 23:1-6; Psalm 46; Colossians 1:11-20; Luke 23:33-43

The Feast Day

            “Christ the King” is a feast celebrated in the Roman Catholic Church and the Lutheran Church on the last Sunday of the liturgical year. It celebrates Christ’s messianic kingship and sovereign rule over all creation. The feast is unofficially celebrated in some Episcopal parishes, but it is not mentioned in the Episcopal calendar of the church year. The feast was originally instituted by Pope Pius XI in 1925 and celebrated on the last Sunday in Oct. It has been observed on the last Sunday before Advent since 1970.  This commemoration of Christ The King has its origins in the prophetic books and finds its origins in the lineage Jesus shares with King David.

The prophet Jeremiah wrote, “The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.”  David was the beloved King of the United Kingdom of Israel and Judah somewhere around 1000 BCE. “Early Christians interpreted the life of Jesus in light of the references to the Messiah and to David; Jesus is described as being descended from David. David is even discussed in the Quran as a major prophet and figures in Islamic oral and written tradition as well.” (1)  So, Jesus follows this royal line through his kinship.

The early followers of Jesus made this royal connection of Jesus with their most beloved King and the promises of the prophets, which foretold of the one coming from David’s line.  It established Jesus as the anticipated Messiah or “promised one,” or originally an earthly king ruling by divine appointment.   Jesus is the ultimate, expected, and promised “King overall.”

However, the reality of “Christ the King” in actuality was very different from Messiah that the people expected.  It is a reality very different from what we expect as well.  Today, I want us to consider “Christ the King” not only as a title for Jesus, or the feast day and last Sunday of the church year.  I want to challenge us to wrestle with these three questions, as they relate to our relationship with Our Lord Jesus Christ, the King.  (1) “Is Christ MY King, (2) “If Christ is my King, what does that really mean?”  and (3) “If Christ is my King, how does that change my life?”

Presidents vs. Kings

This whole concept of “Christ My King” is foreign to we Americans.  We live in a constitutional democracy where for 243 years, no monarch has held power over this land or its people.  Monarchical authority was something we fought over during the Revolutionary War.  Our forefathers struggled with the hazards of having even a strong executive branch, which could potentially undermine the balance of powers of government of the people, by the people, and for the people.

When George Washington was chosen to sit in that first seat as the head of the Executive branch, the early founders did not know what title they should give to his position in government. “Some delegates to the Constitutional Convention suggested “His Exalted Highness,” others sought a  more democratic “His Elective Highness.” Other suggestions included the formal ‘Chief Magistrate’ and the lengthy “His Highness the President of the United States of America, and Protector of Their Liberties’.”   Thankfully, Article 1, Section 9 of the Constitution states that “No Title of Nobility shall be granted by the United States.”  We refer now to the person sitting in that seat of power merely as either Mr. President or Madam President.

So, we Americans have a hard time with someone holding ultimate power over our lives, because it seems like a violation of who we are as a people.  We struggle to accept, conceptualize, and internalize the very relationship we must have with Jesus Christ, which is that of the King of my Life.  Do not fret though, scripture and tradition will give us clues to understanding who is this King of Glory and who he is supposed to be for us.

Christ the King

One the clearest images of Christ the King for me was found behind the altar of the Chapel of the Apostles at my seminary. There behind the altar stood a near life-size crucifix of our Lord, nearly naked, hands and feet pierced, and hanging on the cross.  This image is the earliest depictions of the throne of grace for the King we describe today.  However, in many Episcopal churches behind the altar you will see a more modern “Christus Rex” where Christ stands unattached in front of a cross, with arms straight out, but clothed in western eucharistic vestments and with a real royal crown on his head. This image portrays several concepts at the same time: the historic event of the crucifixion, Christ as the King in his kingdom, and Christ as the victorious sacrifice in the eucharistic feast.  We often see this image as Christ the King, but we cannot forget that the image that most clearly shows who this king really was, is now, and will be forever is the gruesome cross.

Jesus’ real throne of power is not a seat covered in gold or fine Italian leather.  His throne is a torture device for criminals.  Jesus crown is not one with diamonds, rubies, and other jewels, but circular wound thorns that pierced his flesh.  Most importantly, the power he wields as monarch is not imbued with might and manipulation, nor with military or economic power, but self-giving love manifested by the sacrifice of his own life for all.  Scripture tells that Christ the King: rescued us from the power of darkness, he is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation, in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, in him all things hold together, he is the head of the body (the church), and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things. This is no earthly head of state who has the potential to succumb to tyranny and despotism.  This is God in the flesh.

Christ the King is no mere wielder of power in a system made by human hands.  Christ the King is God among us, who shows us how to live as we were created to live.  Christ the King is the ultimate sovereign whose power is love alone.  Christ the King is the overseer of my life, even when in my naivete, I will not want to release that power to him.  Christ the King is “Christ My King,” and yet we struggle to make the commitment of being loyal subjects that his kingdom requires.

Christ My King

Despite our democracy, we Americans still are obsessed with the British Monarchy. The American viewership of two incredibly elaborate Royal Weddings in the last 30 years attests to that fixation.  Psychologists call “this obsession (with royalty) “parasocial behavior,” which can create a one-sided relationship in which someone becomes attached to a person without actually interacting with them in any meaningful way.” (2)

If we Americans love the monarchy with all its pomp and circumstance, why is it we reject the authority and oversight of that governing same system.  Maybe this paradox helps us understand our relationship to Christ the King.  We love the crown but rejection of its authority and maybe that is the nature of our relationship with Christ.  Maybe we have a mere affinity for a popular, famous, good teacher, rather than being fully engaged, living as a loyal subject of God’s Kingdom.”

The loyal subject of God’s Kingdom desires Christ’s will in all things, pursues Christ’s guidance in all decisions, studies scripture and looks to his example for the path which we must travel, and speaks to him in loving conversation (prayer) each and every day.    Alternatively, maybe our relationship is one of a parasocial nature, in which we are merely attached to him, without actually interacting with him in a meaningful way.

You see, God seeks to be with us in all things, but God wants us to be with him in all things.  Pastor Edward Markquart asserts, “God entered this world as one of us and took upon himself our joy, fear, pain, and suffering.  The nature of God is not to avoid suffering; the nature of love is not to avoid pain or the places of pain.  That’s the way love is; that’s the way God is; not to avoid pain and not to avoid the places of pain.”(3)

“Christ the King” is the sovereign of our lives because we make the choice to invite him vulnerably and humbly to walk the path of suffering and pain, joy and peace, hope and salvation with us every day of our lives.  That relationship requires no pomp and circumstance, no royal pageantry, and no fine china and silver dinner parties.  It requires us to come before the throne of grace and seek reconciliation and transformation with God and with each other every day.  So, when we come before that throne of grace, we will find no tyrannical despot, but merely the bearer of the cross of self-giving love.

So, I go back to my original question, which only you can answer for ourselves: “Is Christ MY King.”  Because if “Christ the King” really is my king, then my sisters and brothers we all need to get ready, because when we make that choice, everything will change.   I find the answers to this question in one of my favorite contemporary Christian songs:

Who is this King of glory that pursues me with His love
And haunts me with each hearing of His softly spoken words
My conscience, a reminder of forgiveness that I need
Who is this King of glory who offers it to me.

His name is Jesus, precious Jesus
The Lord Almighty, the King of my heart
The King of glory.

REFERENCES

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

(2) https://time.com/5253199/royal-obsession-psychology/

(3) http://www.sermonsfromseattle.com/series_c_save_us_from_our_crosses.htm

 

 

SERMON 11-17-19 Pentecost 23C Proper 28 St. Monica’s Naples, FL

Malachi 4:1-2a; Psalm 98; 2 Thessalonians 3:6-13 ; Luke 21:5-19

Fear, Wars, and Portents

“Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven.”  Wow, our gospel reading today is filled with pleasantries is it not?  Maybe you are sitting there thinking, “Please Fr. Eric, preach a little hope for us this week, because your sermons have made being a disciple seem a bit challenging.  I mean those Pentecost readings have been a little ominous and foreboding, and the warnings about church conflict, being a saint in a changing world, and “In Me I Trust” have been a little too much, ok?   Tell us something good today, and tell us a story of hope.

We all could use a story of hope these days, especially when we see government flashing portents of strife and division.  We all could use a story of hope, especially when we see yet one more school shooting in Santa Clarita last week.   We all could use a story of hope, especially when the world we live in, sometimes seems like a powder keg ready to explode, just waiting for the spark to ignite.  We all could use a story of hope today As we fear what we believe to be ominous times.

Being afraid of the end the world is nothing new for us.  This nation has faced many challenges, tragedies, and transitions.   We survived a revolution, civil war, two World Wars, the September 11th Attacks, and the subprime mortgage collapse a few years ago.  We have been afraid of the “End of the World” as we know it, the unknown, the inevitable, and the probable, it all looms out there. We could choose to live in fear, but Jesus says that there is great hope for us, if we just embrace it, and allow the hope of the Gospel, to be woven in the stories of our lives.

Faith

We humans need hope and so, movies, books, and television have given us stories of hope.  One of my favorites is “The Lord of the Rings, an epic high-fantasy novel written by English author J. R. R. Tolkien, the son of an Anglican, and a dear friend of C.S. Lewis. The title of the novel refers to the story’s main antagonist, the Dark Lord Sauron, who had in an earlier age created the One Ring … as the ultimate weapon … to conquer and rule all of Middle-earth.” (1)  The Lord of the Rings is a story about how diverse ethnic peoples lived on the edge of destruction every day in a battle against Sauron and his humanoid creatures.

The good guys are thehobbits, dwarves, elves, and men of Middle Earth, who chose not to live in fear and hiding but in hope, and so, they worked together to thwart the evils that plague the world.   The bad guys are the orcs, goblins, and an evil lord hell bent on turning hope to despair, beauty into darkness, and life into pain.  The Lord of the Rings is an epic tale, and I believe Tolkien took his cue when writing this tale, from the Christian story of hope and salvation.  Our hope story is the one where we Christians through faith, endurance, and hope, rely and as trust in Jesus Christ who ultimately overcame the greatest obstacles of this life, including death.

So, with divisive government, new foreign threats, school shootings, health problems, family strife, and other troubles, we experience fear and trepidation every day in this life, but what if we had faith to live in hope.  What if we saw difficulties and trials as opportunities to die in some way to our fears, so that in God’s time, we might be transformed into the people God is moving us to become.

Life today is full of changes:  new jobs, relocations, loss of relationships, financial woes, a detour from a career dream, or the death of loved ones; these are the natural occurrences of life that may feel, while in the midst of them, like the “end of the world.”  We all know, if we have lived at all, tragic circumstances will happen, changes will come, and life is not always, nor has it ever intended to be easy.

Jesus confirms that reality and in today’s gospel we hear Jesus say, “But before all this occurs, they will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name.”  Being a follower of Jesus sounds difficult doesn’t it?

“There is a religious fantasy among some Christians, who believe a gospel where financial blessing and physical well-being are always the will of God , and that with positive speech alone … God will increase one’s material wealth.” (2) Some even believe that if we pray unceasingly the right words with the right mindset well, that perfect parking spot at Wal Mart or Target will magically appear and we will be in God’s graces.   That is not faith, but a misguided belief that being a disciple of Jesus is easy, or being a Christian is a “trouble-free” life. It is however, a life of peace in the grace of hope is what discipleship is really all about.

Endurance

Jesus said that when we face rejection of our commitment to follow him, “This will give you an opportunity to testify.”  When we make the decision to live the radical principles of self-giving love, it will come with some rejection in this “dog eat dog” world.  Regardless where Christianity is professed, if we proclaim Jesus as Lord, we potentially face opposition even from our friends. Try this next week, if you are bold enough.  When you are in a conversation with a secular friend over lunch or dinner, and they ask you about a recent decision you made in your life, tell them it was because of your Christian faith.  You will have just opened yourself to the persecution Jesus is talking about, but that simple statement claiming your faith is really evangelism in action.

You hear me talk all the time about evangelism all the time, telling you that we Episcopalians are supposed to do it, because it is something Jesus expects us to do.  Now, Jesus does not command us to go door to door next week, ring the doorbell, hand the person a gospel tract, and say to them, “I’d like to talk to you about Jesus.” Evangelism is not overt proselytizing trying to get someone to make a decision to join St. Monica’s on the spot.  Evangelism is an ongoing willingness, readiness, while having the endurance to boldly, and every day to claim your identity as a follower of Jesus, and when the opportunity presents itself, to do so without reservation or fear.

You see, in a culture, in which we are growing to nearly 1/3 of us claiming no connection to a faith community, we Episcopalians are going to have to become evangelists once again.  We are going to have to rely on more than merely fine liturgy and impeccable music, nonthreatening sermons, and proper coffee hours in order to be proclaimers of hope.  Remember, we are a church on a mission to be icons of Good News of hope, endurance and faith for others.

In this fear-filled world, we offer a way of following Jesus that offers grace filled hope in the midst of warnings, despair, and fear. So, being a Christian was never meant to be easy, but God never abandons us, God gives us the means, God provides and thus, we have hope in a peace that passes all understanding; Jesus Christ.

Hope

Jesus said, “When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; for these things must take place first, but the end will not follow immediately.”  Jesus assures us that when we face trouble, transitions, challenges, and yes, even when we face wars, insurrections, and maybe even the end of the world, we can be at peace.  We are at peace because even death itself has no power over the hope we have in the Good News of Jesus Christ.  God’s love has already overcome death, and that is where we find our story of hope.

In the Lord of the Rings, the best scene of the whole trilogy happens at the gates of Minis Tirith, the heavily fortified capital of one of the last vestiges of humanity.  At this place, the epic battle of the evil of the world and all its forces, converge to overtake humanity.  Destruction was at the gates and a courageous hobbit named Pippin sees the end in sight.  He looked at the wise wizard Gandalf, his faithful battle partner and said, “I didn’t think it would end this way.”  Gandalf replied, “End? No, the journey doesn’t end here. Death is just another path, one that we all must take. The grey rain-curtain of this world rolls back, and all turns to silver glass, and then you see it.”  Pippin confused, replied, “What? Gandalf? See what?”  Gandalf with hope in his eyes, as if he had seen glimpses of it before (which he had, said, “White shores, and beyond, a far green country under a swift sunrise.”  With hope staring at him, and with a smile, Pippin responded, “Well, that isn’t so bad.”  Gandalf smiled and said, “No. No, it isn’t.”  The wizard had seen glimpses of the blessed hope that he gave little Pippen that day.  Like him, we Christians have hope in us, the hope of Christ, and it is a hope for the world that is facing the fears of its own destruction.  We must share it with others.

The truth of the matter is this, if we who have this hope are afraid to share our hope in Jesus Christ, we lose our mission call as disciples.  As our brother the Apostle Paul reminded that early church in Thessalonica, he reminds us today, “Brothers and sisters, do not be weary in doing what is right.”  Jesus promises us that even at the end, “not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your souls.”  So, next week, be bold and take a risk, and be good news for someone you meet this week.  The promise of faith, hope, and endurance in Jesus Christ is the story all us need to hear today, and not just today, but every day.

REFERENCES

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Lord_of_the_Rings

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prosperity_theology

SERMON Proper 27 Pentecost 22C St. Monica’s Episcopal Church

GOTCHAJob 19:23-27a; Psalm 17:1-9; 2 Thessalonians 2:1-5, 13-17; Luke 20:27-38

The “Gotcha Game”

Back in the 1990’s, I was an Associate Buyer at Sears Corporate outside Chicago, and I worked later a Buyer with a major regional retailer.  I was responsible for the assortment planning of multiple product lines for over 800 retail stores.  I negotiated with vendors to create assortments, set pricing, and determine delivery and terms.  It was all a negotiation game of give and take and economic power wielding.  The best buyers were the ones who listened to their vendors’ advice, partnered with them to achieve common goals, and admitted when they were wrong or when they had made mistakes.

The worst buyers were the ones who tried to trip up their vendors, reduce orders when something did not go their way, demand unexpected concessions in order to secure market position, or wield their economic buying power in ways that put their partnerships at risk.  These retail executives failed because their core values were based in the “Gotcha game.” The Gotcha Game is one where one player trips up another through inappropriate power wielding, and that game is similar to the one we hear about in today’s gospel reading.

There was an encounter between a group of Sadducees and Jesus in which the Sadducees asked Jesus a well-crafted and disarming question, about the post resurrection marital status of a woman.  She wound up married to seven brothers, after each one of them had died.  According to Jewish tradition, “if a man’s brother dies, leaving a wife but no children, the man shall marry the widow and raise up children for his brother.”

The question was a part of the Sadducees “Gotcha Game” against Jesus.  Like a parking lot conversation after a controversial church meeting or good Sunday sermon, these religious leaders have huddled together for days, cooking up a little scheme to try trip Jesus up and undermine not only Jesus’ teaching about resurrection, but they really wanted to embarrass and defame Jesus, in order to lift themselves up to a level of power and influence in the community.

The Sadducees were blatantly going for a power grab, by thwarting the authority of the young rabbi Jesus.  The heart of today’s gospel is not a theological discourse on marriage in the afterlife but rather, the whole encounter is an example of the potential evil of inappropriate power wielding in community.  The gospel through this encounter, teaches us about out the evils of engaging in the “Gotcha Game.”

Power Grabs

“Why did they want to undermine Jesus,” you may ask.  Because Jesus threatened the perceived importance of that little power-wielding group in the community, those learned and experienced folk who felt threatened by this young upstart teacher.  Rather than engage in relationship building, the Sadducees went after a “power grab” to sustain their long-standing or yet, to better their ongoing influence in the community.

Now some of us may look at this event and say, “Well that just does not happen in churches or in the world today Fr. Eric. We all are beyond that kind of pettiness.”  Really?  Do you watch political news stories these days?  The “Gotcha Game” is happening on both sides of the partisan aisle, and within the aisles themselves.  It also happens every day in our professional lives and yes, it does happen in the church.  Trust me, I have stories about this topic from my days working on diocesan staff, and I can tell you about some incredible “Gotcha Game” situations in churches that ended up in unhealthy conflict.

Now, conflict does happen, and healthy conflict is necessary for us to move forward. Conflict in church is a natural part of growing, changing, and transitioning, but unhealthy conflict is destructive.  When we have differing viewpoints, we often fail to engage in the ancient spiritual practice of discernment with patience, so that reconciliation and peace might abound. There is a communal destructive power in the “Gotcha Game”.  The manipulating, maneuvering, and undermining of the others through the “Gotcha Game” destroys trust, diminishes integrity, and damages Christian relationships.   The “gotcha game” has no place in politics, business, and it definitely has no place in church.

Often, the most intriguing challenge to Christian community today is not buildings and committees.  Our greatest threat is how we deal with the reality of power issues. Most communities of people, who gather in common life together have some formal and informal organizational structures that clearly define responsibilities, outline accountabilities, and sets healthy boundaries around authority and power.  Employing and sharing power in a Christian community is something that has the potential for unimaginable good, but at the same time, if unhealthy “Gotcha Game” power wielding emerges, then there can be cruel destruction to the community.

The problem with the “gotcha game” in the church is that it violates Our Lord’s sacred command to “love your neighbor.”  The unhealthy wielding of power in the Christian community that undermines one’s sister or brother, is what Martin Luther called “a demonic spell cast upon the soul.”(2) Luther described this power wielding as Anfechtung, a German word that as nearly as possible, means doubt, inner turmoil, and pangs of conscience, despair, pain, temptation and many more evil things.  Anfechtung is like blitzkrieg, a sudden, warlike attack on the human soul or body. (2)  Unhealthy conflict in church, the wielding of power to destroy the other always has devastating results.  The aftermath of such godless power, to accuse, manipulate, and destroy another person for whom Christ died, is quite honestly, the work of Satan and it is evil.  Anytime we choose to engage in the “gotcha game,” Christ is crucified anew and his body, the church, is wounded.”(1)  Thanks be to God, we are not left to our own demise.  Jesus commands us that by loving our neighbor, we discover the remedy for the “Gotcha Game.”

Loving Neighbor

The best way to love our neighbor is to listen to each other, be vulnerable to one another, and learn from one another.  I imagine in the temple that day, had the “religious group” listened with patience, rather than engage in the well planned “gotcha game” strategy, the story we heard would have been much different.  Maybe the religious leaders would have approached Jesus with love and respect. Maybe they would have acknowledged his wisdom and respect the burden he was carrying.  Maybe together they would have dialogued, listened, and supported one another, and taken a chance to be vulnerable speaking truth to one another.

Maybe it would have gone something like this, “Teacher, we just don’t believe in resurrection and your teaching is challenging to us.” Maybe Jesus would have said, “Well, let’s just talk about that for awhile.” Maybe if the story followed this alternative path, the ensuing well-lain trap to undermine Jesus’ authority, thwart his approach, and circumvent his mission would never have happened, especially if the dialogue had begun with mutual respect, integrity, and love.

You see, when we experience conflict, differing ideas, and divergent approaches, it is through healthy vulnerable dialogue that we find the alternative to the “gotcha game.”  Self-examination and a release of our innate desire to destructively wield power and influence, can become the process towards peace, and the end to the power grab. Releasing our own desire for power diffuses and moves us from “Gotcha Game” to a holy practice of reconciliation.

Reconciliation

When disagreements arise among us, we need to abandon power grabs and do some holy listening, asking questions, especially when we experience conflict with a sister or brother.  We need to sit down and talk and ask questions of ourselves like:  (1) “Can I learn something new, (2) “How is this situation calling me to be transformed, (3) “Can I adapt to these changes.”  Here is the best one yet, “Could I be wrong.”  In order for Christian community to shine its light in the world, we must really follow Jesus and learn to be vulnerable to one another.

Jesus faced the “gotcha game” once again in his ministry.  While his body hung near lifeless on that hard cross, bleeding, and broken, the religious ones once again stood pointing fingers, taunting, and possibly thinking, “we gotcha now.”  But Jesus did not succumb to the game.   Like he always does, he turned death in to life, despair into hope, brokenness into restoration.  In beautiful words that still cut to our core today, Jesus fully revealed the depth of God’s love.  We see the vulnerability of God’s love, which is the kind of love God demands we have for one another.  Jesus said, “Forgive them Father, for they know not what they do.”  With these brief words from the lips of our dying Lord, Jesus overturned the power game.   Through the cross, the “gotcha game,” inner turmoil, temptation and a lot more bad things, simply lose their power.

The power of Christ and his body the Church, comes not from “tripping each other up,” or trying to wield unhealthy power in the church, which many of us were able to do in our former or current professional lives.  The power of Christian community comes from our ultimate vulnerability to God and each other.  It is in the work of God reconciling the world to Godself, that we are given the hope of reconciliation with each other.   The icon of reconciliation is that beautiful Christian symbol we lift high as we enter this place of grace, and the same one we follow out into the world, knowing we are redeemed, and sent out to love and serve the Lord.

Redemption simply means that in order to experience love, mercy, grace, peace, and reconciliation, we must actually take up the cross of relational vulnerability, and die to the “gotcha games,” our need for self-importance, and the pursuit of communal power struggles that threaten our witness of grace.  It is only when we die to our old self that we have the hope of being are raised to new life in loving community.  Then and only then will our relationships reflect the grace of the “the God not of the dead, but of the living; for to him all are alive.”

REFERENCES

 

 

SERMON 11/3/19 All Saint’s Day, St. Monica’s Episcopal Church

allsaintsDaniel 7:1-3,15-18; Psalm 149; Ephesians 1:11-23; Luke 6:20-31

Saints: A Motley Crew

If you look closely at the bulletin cover today, you will see an ancient icon for All Saint’s however, I have modified it to include the faces of some modern-day saints.  Those faces are just normal everyday people just like you because, we all are saints believe it or not.  We sometimes think saints as merely those special people we see depicted in ancient icons. However, consider the crew Jesus chose as his first followers.  There was old Peter (the bold and yet, “first to run” disciple), James and John, (the two who wanted seats of honor, over and above their fellow disciples), and Matthew the Tax Collector.  There were many other disreputable followers of Jesus over the centuries, and yes, I am one too.

Jesus seems to call some incredible characters into the Communion of Saints, doesn’t he, just look around you.  His first group of followers, and we the generations who have come on the scene much later, have not been nor are we saints of perfection.  We are both sinners and saints.  Even Mother Theresa, the well-known nun who helped lepers in Calcutta, stated in her memoirs that she had moments of doubt, and failure all along the way.   Saints are scruffy, motley, and imperfect people, who are just trying to get it right, and often short.   Christian community can be pretty messy but in it, find the beautiful and hopeful nature of God’s grace in action.

My favorite bible verse is from the second Letter of Paul to the Corinthians which states, “But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us.”  Think about grace in those words because it is through the frailty and brokenness of our imperfect “fleshly containers” that God’s abundant grace flows through us and into all the world.

Also, we Christians are like stained glass windows of sainthood, through which the world sees, experiences, and receives God’s bright shining love.  Now, you may hear that as cliché, and think that it sounds like, all we have to do is just let the light shine in us, and our mission is complete.  However, being a saint is a little more difficult than merely sitting still trying to be all holy.  Disciples have to move and do and be like Christ.

All Saint’s Day

Today is the Feast Day of All Saint’s, a principal feast of the Church, and the feast where the Episcopal church remembers the saints, known and unknown.  Today is also one of the holy days denoted as especially appropriate for baptisms.  Today, you will notice some changes in our worship.  In contrast to the Pentecost season, the service music is somewhat more uplifting and celebratory, we will chant portions of the liturgy, and we replace the Nicene Creed with the Renewal of Baptismal Vows.

In addition to liturgical changes, this feast typically is the day Episcopalians make an annual commitment of treasure (as well as our time and talent), and through this commitment, we make our claim as saints, apledge to continue the mission of Christ’s reconciling love, through the ministry of our local branch of the Body of Christ, St. Monica’s Episcopal Church.  Today’s feast day also serves as the renewal of our own stewardship.

This past year, I have encouraged us to recognize God’s generous grace poured out abundantly on us.  Today and in the weeks to come, we are called to tangibly respond in gratitude to God for God’s gifts, by returning a portion of those gifts back to God.  Because we saints follow a heritage of saints that span for over two centuries, those billions of faithful, committed Jesus followers who have shown us the path of discipleship, and now it is our turn to pass on Jesus’ Way of love on to others.  That is not an easy task, but we do have grace.

Saints and Enemies

Jesus commands us saints today to, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.”   That sure is uncomfortable, challenging, and some pretty high expectations. What?  Wait a minute, you want me to do what?  Jesus is not merely offer us a corny saying that looks impeccable engraved on pewter statues, silicone bracelets, or framed artwork.  Jesus was serious; love your enemies.

Webster defines enemy as, “an individual or a group that is seen as forcefully adverse or threatening.”(2)   In other words, any person that is seen as a threat to our well being is an enemy. You may say, “Fr. Eric, I have no enemies.”  Well, I am sure we all have people who we would rather not spend time with, or folks with whom we disagree, or people who just plain irritate us.  So, our natural response when threatened by folks like this is either to run away or to put up our dukes and fight.  Jesus says that we should resist our natural response of “fight or flight,” to react in opposition to our sinful nature, and choose to respond in love.

“Loving enemies” does not seem possible in this competitive, destroy your opponent, and push your own agenda kind of world we live in today.  Imagine what the political advertisements would be like next year, if the politicians really followed Jesus command to love your enemy.  Maybe they would say, “My opponent is really an honest, committed servant, we just differ on our policies and approaches to government.  I think I want to sit down with her/him and learn more about them.”

Imagine how we might react to folks we might treat our adversaries on social media if we really followed Jesus command to love your enemy.   We see one of our Facebook friend’s posts or we receive a well lubricated email late at night.  In it our opponent has written something negative about us.  On Facebook, we might ignore the post, like it, or post a nasty comment.  We might fire off a fire filled email response, BCC’g all in our inside clan.  However, what if alternatively, we called them on the phone and reminded our acquaintance how much friendship matters to you, regardless of our differences.

Imagine how we might react to people heaping injustices on certain folks in our nation.  What if we really followed Jesus’ command to love our enemy, and rather than publicly making condemning personal attacks on the oppressors for their actions, we would go and stand alongside in solidarity with the oppressed of the world, and show the oppressors that God’s love and grace flows through us

Imagine how we might react when someone in the congregation hurts us, speaks wrongly about us, or simply ignores us.  What if we really followed Jesus’ command to love our enemy, and maybe we we would reach out to that person who is hurting us, and show them a better way, through an outpouring of kindness, compassion, and patience.  In all these modern day examples of “loving our enemy,”  Jesus would tell us that our mission as Christians is to show others the Good News and by so doing, we through God’s grace help convert enemies into friends. We certainly live in a world today that really needs us to be saints every day, even when the truth is that we all both saints and sinners.

Saints in a Changing World

So, being a saint is risky these days, especially in these volatile times in our country.  Now more than ever, we saints need to follow the command of our Lord and love our neighbors. We saints must not participate in our nation’s emerging “like for like,” “eye for an eye,” “destroy the other guy” mentality, because that has nothing to do with love, and honestly, it is not of God.

We saints must enact love with responses that include as the scriptures say, “Doing good, blessing others, and praying for others.”  We must show up in our society, in our neighborhood, and in our church and respond to injustice, racism, and the other plagues that pit one group of God’s people against another.  We saints must bring incredible resilience and commitment to this world by loving one another, addressing our internal conflicts honestly, and working toward reconciling, healing, and restoring from within, so that we can go out into the world, and do the same thing with integrity and love out there.

The truth is this my friends; we are both saints and sinners.  We know in our hearts that we have a great capacity for grace, mercy, and love.  At the same time, we possess the capacity to inflict pain, create harm, and wound one another through our misguided need for power and control.   If can accept this paradox that is within each of us, we will know that we saints and sinners have only hope in Christ. Jesus reminds and lovingly demands that we must resist fear, hate, and division, and just let God transform us so we might “choose love!”  Theologian Warren Carter asserts that in the midst of the challenges of community life, God calls for our best efforts, our “best sainthood efforts, which sums up the divine character (merciful even to the ungrateful and wicked) and the obligation on disciples to imitate this indiscriminate mercy for all.” (1)

Good News for Saints and Sinners

So, what is the Good News for saints and sinners on this All Saint’s Day, in this life comingled with division, pain, uncertainty, and wounded ness?  We saints always have the choice to follow the path of Jesus Christ or not.   We can choose to live each day in self-giving love, returning hatred for grace, war for peace, and division for unity, or we can just let our animal nature take charge and resort to “fight or flight” with those we just do not like.

To the first apostles, those saints of old, Jesus’ left his mission of reconciliation, mercy, grace, and love, and he left it to we 21st century disciples.  We can take up the mantle of the high calling of God if simply, “do good, bless each other, and pray for each other, and live into those baptismal promises each of us will take upon ourselves again in a few minutes.

Sisters and brothers, our example of Christian love is needed in this old world now, more than ever.  We saints and sinners, followers of the Jesus Christ, the choice is ours.  We can choose to have our portrait included in that beautiful icon of sainthood.   With God’s grace, we can take our place among All the Saints who are illuminated by the light of God’s abundant, radical, and overwhelming love.   We all have a job to do we saints and sinners.  We are the only light of God’s grace, the only example of God’s love, and the only gospel the world will be able to hear today and tomorrow. So,  Saints and Sinners, go out today and  Shine your Light, the light of Christ, shine for all the world to see.

1 Carter, Warren. “Love Your Enemies.” Word & World 28.1 (2008): 13-21. ATLASerials, Religion Collection. Web. 1 Nov. 2013.

A Blog by Eric Cooter

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