MAUNDY THURSDAY SERMON 04/05/12, St. Edmund’s, Arcadia FL

John 13:1-17, 31b-35

On the evening before his death on the cross, Our Lord gathered his closest followers and with them, he did something incredible. Washing the feet of another person in first century Palestine was usually the job of someone of very low social status. In that geographic region, the landscape was arid, dusty, sandy, and harsh. Transportation from home to work, from field to town, from village to village, was accomplished by walking and of course, the invention of hiking boots was several centuries away. Sandals were the fashion back then. You can imagine what their feet looked like by the end of the day. I am sure they were covered with sand, caked on with gunk, and you might imagine the odor. The cleaning of feet had both a practical and social significance in those days.

When traveling guests stopped for a respite at a friend’s home, it was not uncommon for a homeowner to instruct one of his or her servants to take fresh water to the entrance of the home, and wash each guest’s feet prior to entry. This was an act of great hospitality and not a mere a practical gesture. What is significant about Jesus’ actions was, he did not send a servant to his disciples at the Last Supper, he served them himself. This event was of great importance to that little band of followers, as it is for us today. What we sometimes see as an insignificant ritual, speaks volumes to the very nature of God’s plan of salvation in Christ. God, in the mystery of the Incarnation, sent not a mere servant to reconcile us, He did it himself in Christ. God invites us to be served by God.

Each year some of us are dead set against participating in this very important part of Holy week, but when we resist, we miss out on the great lessons of humility and community. There is great humility on both sides of the foot basin. For the one washing, you are humbling yourself to give care to someone, serving them from a very lowly state. For the one being washed you are humbling yourself to receive a free gift from someone and allowing them to enter your personal space. Personally, it is difficult for me to even have my spouse whom I love, trust, and share life to give me such a gift. However, in this ancient ritual, we allow ourselves to become vulnerable, by offering ourselves to be cleansed by another.

Isn’t this what the gift of grace all about? The reconciliation of humankind to God was not something passed on to someone else. It was not a job that was so insignificant that it was delegated to a flunky. No, God did it Godself. God took on flesh and walked among us. He offered himself not as a powerful ruler, king, sword wielder, but as the humble servant, willing to give all for all.

The wonderful thing about God’s grace, this free gift given us by the humble servant Lord, is that all we must do is receive it. Receiving grace gives us the strength to remove the masks we wear, the covering of ourselves that hides our brokenness, and we stand before God and say, “Here I am, wash me clean.” God does just that. There is humility and grace and both sides of the foot basin. The ritual of Foot washing is a practical lesson in humility, and it is a gesture of what it means to live in community. A willingness to humble ourselves and serve each other, reflects the commitment of God in Christ, to serve and reconcile us to Godself and each other.

The gesture of washing each other’s feet signifies our commitment to each other.   To allow a sister or brother to wash our feet, shows that we are a community of commitment, service, and mutual love. On the eve before he offered himself to death on the cross, as the humbled, self-giving servant, Our Lord used this very significant moment, this significant act to teach us, to encourage us, and to command us to love one another. As we gather on the eve on which Our Lord gave himself for us, I invite each of you to come forward this evening, and wash each other’s feet as a sign of humility, obedience, mutual commitment, and our love for one another.

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SERMON 3/26/17 Lent 4A St. Augustine’s St. Petersburg FL

            A young father took his daughter down to the local “second hand” store to buy her a bicycle on her tenth birthday. As much as he would have liked, dad couldn’t afford a new bike, but he wanted to give the young girl a special gift nonetheless. She found the bike she wanted. It was obviously not brand new, but it was pink, had a little horn and it had well-worn tassels on the handles. She beamed with joy because in her heart she knew that the bicycle was very special; it was from her Dad. A few days later, the young girl was riding the second-hand bike down the street. Suddenly, her friend Sue rode up beside her on a brand new Schwinn bike. It was shiny, with clean tires, colorful tassels that were not worn, and a horn that was loud and clear. With an overbearing smirk Sue asked, “Where’d you get that old thing?”

When Sue saw the young girl’s bicycle, she only saw rust, worn tires and tattered tassels. When the young girl looked at the bicycle, she saw the birthday present her Dad had given her and it was to her, as good as new. Sue saw an old hand-me-down that just didn’t measure up to her standards. The young girl saw the outpouring of love from her Dad. On one hand, a solitary reality was seen differently through the eyes of love. On the other hand, truth was seen through the eyes of self-absorption.

For some folks, life can be merely solitary threads in an unrelated, individualistic, self-absorbed cosmic reality and yet, we are here for a moment and then gone. Life is often lived as if we are called to grab all the gusto we can with little regard for others.  For some folks, life is viewed as a tapestry of individual threads woven together, which intricately bring beauty to the whole. Both views express a given perception of reality. Jesus confronts us with his reality, which is the fact that life is meant to exist in an intimately interconnected community.

God set the cosmos in motion out of love. Almighty God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit breathed the Trinitarian dance of intimate relatedness, into the very nature of creation. We are invited to be in loving relationship with each other and with God. Over the centuries, humanity has chosen the pursuit of self-fulfillment. It’s almost as if we choose to be blind to God’s plan for creation. We grope around in a darkness, fraught with an individualistic, self-focused mindset. Today’s gospel provides us with an example of this mindset, through the religious leaders who refused to see God’s love in Christ.

Jesus opened the eyes of a blind man who never had sight before. The man experienced directly the loving, restorative grace of God through his healing. Referring to Jesus, the religious leaders said, “This man is not from God, for he does not observe the Sabbath.” On the one hand, the blind man recognized the gift of sight as a gift from God. On the other hand, the religious leaders construed the healing as an unholy work of a sinner.

The obvious truth was that Jesus was embodying a relational dance of love in the healing of this man. Jesus was not just demonstrating but manifesting loving neighbor at the risk of scorn from the religious establishment. His outpouring of restorative love brought wholeness to someone, even though it conflicted with the religious laws regarding the Sabbath. Jesus confronted the religious leaders then, and Jesus confronts us now with the fact that the love for God and neighbor, comes before all else. The very life, death, and resurrection of Our Lord established this new reality. The cross exemplifies the reality that Jesus embodied self-giving life, not self-preserving life.

Through the light of Christ, we see clearly the truth of self-giving love.  As a community of disciples, followers of Jesus, we are brought together to be an outpouring of the abundant love poured into us. Receiving and pouring out, this is the truth of God’s love, and it is without a doubt, lived out in this community. The Mission of the Church is to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ. We are gathered, fed, empowered and sent out so that we may be reflections of “The Light of the World,” in the world. We are sent as lights to pierce the darkness of self-centeredness, isolation, pain, brokenness, all so that others may see and know Christ.

Can you even imagine what it was like the moment that the man’s eyes were opened? At first, the intensity of light may have been disturbing and difficult to receive. As the images emerged, they might have been strange and maybe even frightening. Yet the sounds, feelings, and smells of decades, accompanied now by the beauty of sight, began to make even more sense. He saw things for the first time, and he experienced life in a new and dramatic way. Imagine that moment of clear, perfect vision, when both his eyes and his heart were open to a new way of being.

The words of the chorus of a popular renewal weekend song are “Open the eyes of my heart Lord, I want to see you.” Like the blind man on the day, he saw for the first time, we must consider if we are ready for God to open fully the eyes of our hearts.

Open the eyes of my heart, I want to see clearly the life of self-giving love. Open the eyes of my heart, I want to see clearly the life of compassion. Open the eyes of my heart, I want to see clearly the God who created and redeemed. Open the eyes of my heart for I want to be blind no more.

Living in the light of Christ, we open our eyes to life lived in a new and dramatic way. The tapestry of our inner-connectedness and inter-relatedness becomes vivid and clear. We come to realize in a loving community, that others, and we ourselves experience God’s loving truth. This community is a loving community like that. Through your mission and ministry, God’s kingdom bursts forth, right here and right now in the lives of those around you. For those sick at home or in the hospital, for those struggling to pay the bills, for those walking the mourner’s path, for those recovering from addiction, and for those seeking God’s light, This community reflects the love of Christ, the “Light of the World”.

Through our lives, others do come to know the love, mercy, justice, compassion, forgiveness, love and grace lived out in the life, death, and resurrection of Our Lord Jesus Christ. We are the Body of Christ and we are on a mission to bring others to unity with God and each other. As the Body of Christ, we are called and sent to face all of life’s challenges with eyes wide open, and with hearts filled with God’s grace, all so that God’s work might be revealed in and through each one of us.

SERMON Lent 1A 3/5/17, St. Edmund’s Arcadia FL

Matthew 4:1-11

During Lent, our readings, our prayers, and our hymns all are well laden with a focus on self-examination, penitence, self-denial and alms giving. As we shift our focus over the next few weeks to a spiritual wilderness experience, we rediscover the undertones of our struggle with temptation, and the word we often don’t like to speak about; sin.   Sin is the ongoing grappling with our human desire to put ourselves in that place, which is to be occupied by God alone.

We often wrestle with a “me first” attitude that can deny the very relationships for which we were created; the love of God and the love of each other. We often miss the mark and thing that temptation has something to do with a legalistic system of do’s and don’t do’s that encourages moral behavior for the sake of piety and holiness. God doesn’t desire our personal righteousness as the means to an end alone, God desires that we remain in loving relationship both with God and with each other. Our spiritual brokenness is about relational failure and not law breaking.

While driving down US-301 in Parrish the other day, it was obvious that there was a lot of law-breaking going on. There were four people stopped on the side of the road for some obvious traffic violations. The law had been broken and some folks were going to pay the fines for their infractions. Many of us think that God’s law and the sin associated with it, is a mere legal transaction similar to the traffic stop. In other words, some folks think that when we break one of God’s laws, there’s some sort of penalty to be paid.

This notion of sin rejects a relational connection, similar to the interaction between police officer and traffic law breaker. When the citation is written for running the red light, or exceeding the speed limit, the officer is merely applying justice and that may at times seem a bit cold and non-relational. We may confuse God’s dealings with human brokenness as a cold and distant transaction as well, but God is personally invested in his creation. God’s love is never-ending, even when we fall short, even when we fail one another, even when we sin.

Consider for a moment that sin is first and foremost the choices we make the creates barriers between us resulting in broken relationships. The sins of coveting, stealing, lying, and that adultery thing is all about the brokenness in relationship among neighbors. “Having other gods before me,” “not using God’s name in vain” and all that is really about a broken relationship with God. The heart of that brokenness raises its ugly head, when we live in such a way that we value our own needs above the love we have for God, or when our own needs stand high above the love we have for others. Placing others, and ourselves above God is like making ourselves into little gods and that is sin.

Jesus was God enfleshed, and he understood this frailty of ours and yet he faced the same human temptations that we do. In today’s gospel reading, Jesus was desperately hungry, having been in the desert for 40 days, and as a result he was tempted to turn stones into bread. This is the temptation of seeing to our own needs over others.

Despite his hunger, Jesus’ personal needs did not get in the way of his ministry to feed the world. Jesus remained faithful to the wilderness experience and it led him later to feed the crowds from a few loaves and fish, and by his cross and suffering, he offers the Bread of Heaven and the Cup of Salvation. Jesus continued on to the cross so that he might be offered to us in self-giving love. Jesus demonstrated that as brothers and sisters, we are interdependent and as such, we are invited to offer self-giving love to the each other and the world.

The next enticement came when Jesus considered the temptation of throwing himself down from that lofty height. This enticement draws out the attitude of complete and utter self-sufficiency, a “pull-oneself-up from the bootstraps” mentality, or the “I can take care of it all myself mindset.”   We forget that we are creatures and that our very lives come from God, every breath we inhale is a gift.

When we succumb to this temptation, it carries with it the misunderstanding of our place in creation, and it influences how we live and how we relate to others. We’ve all heard the old saying, “No one is an island,” and I believe sure enough that it’s true.  We struggle when we try to live alone, isolated from others because we all have an inherent need for human connection.

We are utterly dependent on God and an equally important we are dependent on each other. Jesus remained faithful to his wilderness experience and did not succumb to the tempters “throw yourself off the temple,” in order to test your “Go it alone with out God, independent, can do attitude.”

The last temptation in the desert was the idea that Jesus might consider the temptation of “All this is yours if you will bypass the cross.” Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God not because he was a mere miracle-worker, or merely a great teacher, or merely a good man, but because he was the Crucified One. When Jesus told Peter he would be crucified, Peter couldn’t stand the thought. Peter’s squeamishness about Jesus’ death was precisely the appeal of the Accuser’s temptations.

In other words, why bother with the cross when you can go straight for the glory right now? This temptation was one many of us face, “Go ahead and worship something else other than God and forget this self-giving love and obedience thing.” Many times other things get in the way of the One we are called to make the center of our lives, Our Lord Jesus Christ.

Jesus remained faithful to the wilderness experience and he did not turn away from human suffering rather; he endured it. Lent is our wilderness experience. It is a time to examine our own responses to the temptations we face in this life. Through a deeper commitment to our relationship with God and with each other, and by recognizing and living into our utter dependence on God, we can endure the temptations of life that would break the bonds of love we are called to share.

There is a very basic equalizer amongst God’s creatures.   We all come from the earth and on Ash Wednesday, we received a great reminder of that fact. The great leveler of humanity is our own mortality and thus, we are all in this together. When we recognize that we are dust and to dust we shall return, we realize that we are not little gods and taht there is one God. We are all creatures of the Almighty, and in God’s eyes, we are one family, and yet God individually knows our needs, knows our suffering, and yes God knows our transgressions.

Self-examination over next five weeks is a time for all of us to prepare ourselves to resist temptation and to be strengthened in our relationship with Christ. Through God’s grace we may begin to know our own vulnerabilities to the “me first” mentality. This Lent, we must enter a period of spiritual spring-cleaning and become aware of our own struggles with temptation. This Lent, we must be obedient to our own wilderness experience, by drawing closer to Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, by restoring and reconciling the broken relationships we have with others, and by releasing our need for power and influence. This Lent we become aware once again, of the presence abundant and unprompted grace of God, if we accept the wilderness experience of self-examination, penitence, self-denial and alms giving.

SERMON 2/18/17 Epiphany 7A, St. Bede’s, St. Petersburg, FL

Matthew 5:38-48

One of the most recognized acts of slapstick comedy is the group pie fight. We’ve all seen these on television. The Three Stooges and many other comics have entertained us with their “tit for tat” bakery battles. Usually, the battle begins when one person lobs a volley with a whipped cream filled pan. The fight is on and one pie is proceeded by a retaliatory volley, and then back and forth until all parties involved have pie on their face. We find humor in this absurdity, but this simple comedy routine is emblematic of something intrinsic in some of our relationships.

When evil is done to us, often times our natural reaction is to act in such a way that we maintain the upper hand.  We feel we must react to aggression with aggression, to hurt with hurt. “An eye for an eye” “a tooth for a tooth,” was a legal penalty common in many cultures including early Judaism. It came into being in order to limit excessive retaliation against those who brought aggression to others. When this “tit for tat” moral code emerged, it was seen as real moral progress, but it didn’t quite go far enough. Revenge and retaliation does not bring things into equilibrium, it restores one person’s position over another’s. The intent is to restore and protect the ego.  Protecting our egos is embraced as a norm in western culture however; it contradicts God’s way of radical love that we hear about in today’s gospel reading.

Love your enemies and prayer for those who persecute you. Jesus doesn’t propose a sentimental idealism here, but offers us a strategy for dealing with those with whom we come into conflict. The love strategy is not introverted aggression or passive aggressive behavior, it is a way of life that allows love to overcome differences. The Divine ideal for human relations is loving community. Jesus gives us some culturally specific examples of what that might look like.

The people of Israel were under the occupation of a foreign, armed force, namely the Roman legions. As these soldiers traveled throughout foreign lands, they carried their own personal equipment and belongings with them. As their travel distances grew greater, the individual soldiers compelled the people they ruled, to carry their gear for them. The minimum distance you would have had to carry a Roman soldier’s gear was at least one mile. It was symbol of their authority, and an act of humiliation directed toward those they occupied. Jesus teaches us that the outward act of humble self-giving love is not only to carry the one mile, that which is expected, but also to go the second mile.

Today, going the extra mile, going beyond, surpassing expectations is very different from humiliation; it is a way to move up the ladder and get ahead; a way to support the ego. Jesus command to go the extra mile turns the notion of ego inflation and even humiliation, into an act of loving humility. Letting go of the ego, and humbling oneself, would have been required to go that extra mile as a servant to the soldier.  Imagine the soldier’s reaction, when after a mile, he began looking for someone else on which to heap his pack, but rather he noticed that the person he had earlier oppressed was going the extra distance with him. It may be that this simple act of humble love changed the heart of a hardened oppressor.

Remember the woman caught in adultery? The crowd was chasing her down ready to stone her to death in retaliation for her so-called breaking of the purity law. The woman did not retaliate with counter-accusations; she did not throw stones at the crowd. Jesus cuts to the heart of the matter and challenged the crowd’s thinking. Paraphrasing, he said, “OK, stone her … but the one of you without sin, cast the first stone.” They all knew they were guilty of some act of sin at some point. “Do not resist the evil doer, turn the other cheek.” There is a deeper teaching being highlighted here in the words of Our Lord. The reality is that we all have been the evil doer at some level. We’ve said the wrong thing to someone, we’ve mis-judged someone, we’ve spoken vile about someone else. Maybe Jesus is saying that when we are on the receiving end of evil, we are reminded that we too have been guilty of doing evil. Maybe we are called to stand in the humility of our own brokenness, and stop the vicious cycle of “tit for tat,” by embracing a non-violent resistance to evil.

Jesus reminds us to let go of our egos, to humble ourselves, and recognize that we are one family invited to participate in a radical kind of love. The love God summons us to embrace is one in which the other’s welfare is of greater importance than our own. Like the crowd ready to stone the woman, we must realize that in God’s eyes, we are all equally broken people, but we not of our own doing, are brought into right relationship through Our Lord Jesus Christ.

The Divine notion for what human relations could be was fully revealed in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Jesus humbled himself. Jesus accepted the humility of the cross and did not resist the evil brought upon him. He died as a result. The reality is that God could have responded, but that was not in God’s divine heart. God’s passionate love for creation is grounded in self-giving love. God’s love did not end with death. Christ was raised to new life.

Humble, self-giving love overcame and stands as the model for human relations, which was God’s Divine dream from the start. Right relationships embrace letting go of our ego, and humbly loving the other as we love ourselves. This is not sentimental idealism; it is the promises of God that the fulfillment of right relationships will one day come to pass. This is the beauty of the Kingdom of God.

The church is the beacon of hope that love will win out in the end. God’s love is perfect, and we are invited to participate in that perfect love, not only for those we love, but those we find difficult to love.        As the church, we can be agents and representatives of Christ’s humble, self-giving love. When we face conflict and relational brokenness, we have a choice. We can react with humility and with a non-aggressive spirit, or we can just hurl another pie. Humility begins with letting go of the ego and embracing the humble spirit of self-giving love. It’s not easy, it’s not comfortable, in fact, it’s counter-cultural. It’s not radical love merely to love those we find easy to love. Back in the day, even immoral tax collectors loved those who loved them; Gentiles blessed those who blessed them. The life we are summoned to lead requires us to let go of our ego and love those we find unlovable. The life God demonstrated for us in Christ begins today.   Being perfectly loving, as the Heavenly Father is perfectly loving is our ultimate destination, despite our failures and our shortcomings. Jesus simply said, “Love one another.”

SERMON 2/12/17 Epiphany 6A, St. John’s Brooksville, FL

Matthew 5:21-37

What is quickly becoming the norm these days is an emerging practice of barely squeaking by when it comes to what is right/wrong, lawful/unlawful, truth/falsehoods, and ethical/unethical. The other day I was approaching an intersection in Bradenton, there was this nice sports car ahead of me going very fast, and was closing in on the intersection. The light turned yellow, and although there was plenty of time to stop, the driver sped up, nearly hit the car in front of them, and just barely made the light before it turned red. None of us have ever done that I’m sure. Was this action dangerous, wise, ethical, or legal?

Dangerous? Yes it was. Wise? I doubt it. Ethical? Likewise, I would say no. Legal? Based on the law, I would have to say yes. It would seem that the safe, wise, and ethical action for the driver would have been to obey the law and slow down to a stop as the light turned yellow. That is the law right? Green means go, Red means stop, yellow does not mean speed up before it turns red. The law exists for safety sake and it is a line in the sand by which, we would be well advised not to cross. Yes, as long as that light is yellow, legally we can blast through that intersection, but I doubt that it really is the best choice to do so.

It is human nature to dance around the law, and we have a long history of stretching the strands of ethics until they break or almost break. There seems to be an interesting narrative developing in our culture that goes something like this, “well, it’s ok if we don’t get caught.” Jesus teaches us an ethic of Christian behavior that not only follows the law, but goes beyond the mere letter of the law. Jesus raises the bar and fully expects us to respond wisely, ethically, and with Christian love as our guide.

Jesus explains throughout his ministry that the entire law is summarized by loving God more than yourself and loving neighbor as we love ourselves. In today’s gospel reading, Jesus gives us some specific practical examples of this summary of the law, which point to the definition of sin. What is sin? It is missing the mark! It is breaking relationship either with God or your neighbor. It is more than running the red light.

The sin of murder, adultery and swearing falsely are all found in the Big Ten. These “thou shalt nots” are red lights that serve as clearly defined benchmarks for what is and isn’t sin. There is not much argument about whether through your actions, you are loving neighbor or hating neighbor that is if you commit one of these infractions. However, Jesus makes it clear that merely breaking the law does not guarantee the kind of relationship with God and neighbor God demands. Jesus raises the bar for us.

In Field and Track, the Pole Vault Event is spectacular. Men and women take these long poles and run furiously, toward two poles set far apart with a horizontal bar across the two. Usually the bar is pretty high off the ground. Competitors attempt to use the pole they carry to vault them up and over the bar. With each successive attempt, the bar is raised again and again. In 1993, Sergey Bubka (from Russia) became the current men’s record holder with a jump of 20 ft 1 ¾ inches. It seems that in pole-vaulting, the ability to cross over the high bar, is a result of dedication, hard work and commitment. Sergey has certainly demonstrated his understanding that the higher the bar, the more difficult the attempt, and the higher standard that is set.  Jesus requires his followers to cross the high bar and that by running the red lights of relational expections means we miss the mark of God’s standard of loving. Let me explain further.

Jesus declares that anger toward a brother and sister, or calling them a fool (a senseless empty-headed person) is just as damaging, just as empty of love as the sin of taking their life; it is the same in severity as murder. With anger, judgment and reproach toward others, we take away the possibility for love. Jesus raises the bar on what it means to love our neighbor. It goes beyond the worst of the worst damage to someone. It involves recognizing that our emotion of hate, happens long before the resultant action. The yellow light for us changes, when we recognize our hearts need to be transformed. It’s as if Jesus is saying, and I believe he is saying, that the damage we do to our neighbors, as well as the love that we are to have for them, begins in the heart. Jesus calls for a heart change, a heart change so dramatic that the action that flows from it is one of radical love.

Love has a higher standard than merely failing to do damage. Love calls for a radical vulnerability. The vulnerability that Jesus requires of disciples means that our own self-preservation is at risk for the sake of love. “If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members.” I don’t believe that Our Lord was advocating self-mutilation, but rather he was showing us how radical our change should be, how radical the love we have should be.”

Loving neighbor as we love ourselves is a pretty high bar to reach, but we give thanks that there is God’s grace. No matter how hard we try, we can never fully live out perfect love. We always fail to reach that bar, but we are called to continue to strive for a radical love and keep trying. On the way to church one Sunday, a couple who had been married for years were arguing about where they would eat lunch. I want fish one said, I want steak the other demanded. As trivial as it all seemed, they huffed and puffed. With each nasty remark, the chasm between them grew on the road to church and continued throughout worship.   After the announcements, the priest offered this offertory sentence, “If you are offering your gift at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.”

The couple sheepishly looked at each other and knew what the priest implied. They joined hands, prayed together and both went to the altar rail having healed the minor gulf between them.  Loving neighbor leads to loving God. Healing each other is a reflection of God’s healing in our lives. This cycle of love, reconciliation, and restoration does not end with those closest to us. As the church we are the reconciliatory agents of God in Christ for the world today. Our work of healing chasms of brokenness goes beyond those closest to us.

Hearkening back to Isaiah, the prophet tells the people that their worship is empty without justice and righteousness. Fasting, worship and praise is empty without justice. The prophet proclaimed God’s passionate appeal, “Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?” Isaiah 58:6   The prophet appeals to the heart of the community to love, radically love our neighbor, then and only then, to come and offer our whole selves to God. Our offering of ourselves is not only to God, but we are to offer ourselves to the world. We are to offer the love poured into us, as actions of love directed to a world that seeks to be whole.

Being reconciliatory agents in the world, means that our boundaries of neighborliness are not clearly defined. Our work as God’s people must extend beyond our own doors. In fact, our neighbor is anyone with whom we come in contact each day, as well as those with whom we don’t. The prophet reminds us that God’s bar is high for us when it comes to our mission of reconciliation. Going out into the world in love means caring for the least, lost and lonely. We are to feed the hungry, visit the imprisoned, clothe the naked, and love the unlovable.

Our mission field is much farther than the length of our closest companions and family. The same couple who reconciled in church finally found a restaurant on which they both could agree. The young woman who served them was quite outgoing, very sweet and went above and beyond in her customer service. She even commented on the wife’s lovely blouse and matching ring. Her smile was unforgettable. As she brought the check to the table, she asked, “Is there anything else I can get you?” The husband said, “No, you have been so nice and helpful.” She said, “I love it here. I moved from Tampa a month ago and we are so happy.” “We,” asked the man? “My husband and I,” she said. “He lost his job some time back, and has really struggled to find work.” “It’s been tough, but we do love it here,” she shyly remarked. “What’s his name,” asked the woman. “Bill,” she said. “We will keep you and Bill in our prayers,” the man said.   The server smiled and walked away with a tear in her eye.   When the man signed the credit receipt, he gave the server a radically generous tip. His wife looked at the bill, pulled out six more singles and said, “Let’s make her night.” They both smiled and knew God’s grace was present.

In a small gesture, this couple shared the grace they had received earlier that day. My sisters and brothers, our actions and our faith are the propelling agents, which lifts us to new heights and sends us over the bar of radical love. Our abundant gift of God’s grace pours out to those who need to feel the love of God. You see, love is not expressed by merely following the rules, stopping at the red lights, but the radical love of Jesus is made real in the world when we travel the long road of life, yielding to those who desperately need a place beside us on the street of God’s reconciliation, mercy, and grace.

SERMON 1/30/17 Epiphany 4A Holy Innocents, Valrico

img_5422“Happy are the poor in spirit …”

In today’s gospel reading we hear these words, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” What happens to the meaning of these words, if we were to replace the word” Blessed” with “Happy?” “Happy are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of God.” That sounds rather odd doesn’t it, but the English word “happy,” is a more accurate translation of the Greek word, often translated into “Blessed” and found throughout today’s gospel.   Being happy and poor in spirit seem to be a contradiction, especially when we consider what culture says about being happy.

We are constantly bombarded with offers for so-called happiness by television, radio, magazines, and most frequently through social media. I was searching for something on Amazon the other day, an ad appeared that tried to convince me that the perfect eyeglasses, could make me popular, handsome, and yes, very happy. LensCrafters guarantees that their eyeglasses will make me happy or I can get my money back. I guess when it comes to the happiness that consumerism offers, seeing is believing.

Here are a couple of other examples. Coca Cola a few years ago claimed that if you drink their signature soda, happiness is surely to be yours. Do you remember, “have a Coke and a smile?” How about IHOP and their slogan, “Come hungry, leave happy.”   Culture tells us that if you have the right house, the bossy sports car, the hip new clothes, or if you have the perfect Pantene hair products, you too can experience happiness.

This happiness is not what Jesus is talking about in today’s gospel, for the allures of our culture offer only a temporary satisfaction, they do not bring about the blessed happiness and joy found in a reality of the present and future hope we find only in God.

Jesus had a habit of turning around our notions of what is important, what brings happiness to life. Jesus tells us that the life of a disciple is not about satisfaction and feeling good, but following Jesus is about living in the reality of and trust in God’s promises. The Christian journey really is life out-of-sync with the normative understanding of joy and happiness in the messages we hear around us.  In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus turns cultural norm on its head and teaches us that our joy and our happiness are found only in God. Jesus completely re-frames how we disciples should not only experience joy, but happiness is found when we identify with, advocate for and care for the least, lost, and lonely, who too are citizens of God’s Kingdom.

The Beatitudes are not merely practical advice for successful living, but they reveal the objective reality of loving divine action and our response with often fragile, flawed, but faithful human action. Happiness “Jesus style” is a spirit and flesh orientation toward the possibility of God’s Kingdom. The Beatitudes may not describe the present, but this teaching acknowledges a reality, which is declared to be imminent, possible, and forthcoming.   Let me explain.

Jesus taught, “Happy are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.” The poor referred to here are not only those who are literally living in poverty. We all experience some form of poverty. Accepting our poverty puts us in touch with a sense of our own need and the needs of all God’s creatures. We all must realize that we are in our very nature dependent on the grace of God. Nothing we have, nothing we are happens but by God’s grace. Jesus is teaching us that as the true people of God, despite being convinced our life is in our own control, it really is not. The people of God know that through our own efforts, we are poor (spiritually, materially, emotionally, relationally) that is when we are outside of God’s grace. That fact should lead us to accept our utter dependence on God. Whether in material or spiritual or emotional poverty, we are blessed and we might experience happiness, when we disciples advocate and care for the least, lost, and lonely who are citizens of God’s Kingdom.

Jesus also taught, “Happy are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” Jesus is not talking about circumstantial grief, but teaching us that God’s people should be inclined to lament the present condition of God’s creation.   We should long for the time that justice and righteousness reigns, because we have a promise from God that it will come. We should mourn about the present condition of God’s creation when violence, oppression, and injustice abounds, but we should not be resigned to that present condition.

While hoping for a better day, our actions with hands and feet, heart and gifts, must work to bring about God’s dream in a broken and hurting world. Even while mourning the condition of creation, we are blessed and might experience happiness, when we disciples advocate and care for all those whom God loves.

Jesus proclaimed, Happy are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. Meekness is not passivity or a victim mentality.   Meekness is the people of God living in humble patience and gentleness. Meekness is not an attitude of complacency, but a spiritual inclination, whereby we denounce violence and seek humility. We know happiness through the present reality of God’s dream where neighbor loves neighbor and relationships are based rightly on the love that comes from God. Even in our meekness, we are blessed and might experience happiness, when we disciples advocate and care for the least, lost, and lonely who are citizens of God’s Kingdom.

Jesus said, “Happy are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.” Righteousness is not the people of God simply being pious “do-gooders.” Righteousness is God’s people hungry and thirsty for right relationships, working as our baptismal promises require, for assurance of the dignity of all people. Jesus said, “Happy are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.” This is not merely having merciful attitudes or good intentions but being merciful is the people of God exhibiting concrete acts of care and love towards others.

Jesus said, “Happy are the “peacemakers for they will be called children of God.” Peacemaking is not a life of non-participatory discipleship, but peacemaking is when we participate everyday, in Jesus’ ministry of reconciliation in all situations, in which we see division and strife. Jesus said, “Happy are the “pure in heart for they will see God.” Purity of heart is not merely striving to be sinless and spiritually unblemished, a pure heart is one devoted to be one with God’s heart, inclined to the plight of the poor, the helpless, and those unable to care for themselves. Righteousness, mercy, peacemaking and pure devotion to God are not only a future promise, but they can be a reality now, and that my sisters and brothers is the real source of our joy, our contentment and our happiness.

We must not leave the beatitudes without exploring Jesus’ last few sentences about persecution. If you have ever been on the receiving end of persecution or false accusations, the notion of happiness has been the farthest thing from your mind. Jesus makes it clear that when we stand in opposition to power, when we advocate for outcasts, when we strive for right relationships, and when we act as peacemakers, we must expect persecution. Remember though, joy as disciples is not found in the absence of persecution, but because of it.

By the way, happiness is not found in taking pleasure through a martyr complex, but by accepting our badge of belonging to the centuries of the people of God, who have been on the receiving end of persecution, because they too were out-of-sync with what has been conventionally considered normative by culture’s standards. In Isaiah, the prophet declares that God’s ways are not our ways, God’s thoughts not our thoughts.

Jesus taught that happiness is found through the declared reality of the Kingdom here and now. Justice, righteousness, and mercy are the complementary essences of the heart of God, and the Kingdom of God is what Jesus proclaimed to be a present reality that is when we disciples advocate and care for all those whom God loves.

The world declares that peace, contentment, joy, and yes happiness is intimately connected to our prosperous circumstances through possessions or experiences. As the people of God, we are called to incline our hearts toward God’s and thus, we often come into conflict with the conventional wisdom. Our joy is found not in what the world calls success, but in the present reality of the Kingdom of God, when we disciples advocate for and care for those whom God loves.

In Jesus’ words, “Happy are those who …..”   The community hears itself pronounced as blessed, and so she must act in accord with God’s coming Kingdom because for us, blessedness (happiness and joy) is already our reality. In the face of poverty, grief, or any of life’s circumstances, even in the face of persecution or even death, Christian peace abounds.

We know God’s peace, we know God’s joy because we know Our Lord declares, “Blessed are you my people.” Scripture tells us to, “Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven.” We Christians must shine, because for the world to see God’s joy, peace, love, and mercy, it must see it present in us. We must shine because when it comes to the factual reality of God’s Kin

SERMON 12/18/16 Advent 4 – Holy Innocents Episcopal Church, Valrico

scharfsIsaiah 7:10-16; Psalm 80:1-7, 16-18; Romans 1:1-7; Matthew 1:18-25

“Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” God always shows up in circumstances and in ways, which are unexpected, in times that are life-changing, and often in ways that are counter-cultural, discomforting, but always as a part of God’s plan for salvation. The story in today’s gospel is a familiar one right? Joseph and Mary were engaged and awaiting their actual nuptial, but Joseph gets some devastating news; his bride-to-be is pregnant and he knows he is not the father.

In today’s world of reality TV, and out of control social media, could you imagine having discovered this scandalous news on the doorstep of your wedding day? I wonder if today, Joseph would have just thrown up his hands and midnight tweeted, #OMGWHATNOW, but we know that is not what he did. Joseph was a follower of the law, and “decided accordingly, (that he) was going to divorce her “quietly” — not in the sense that no one would know of it, but in the sense that there would be no formal inquiry into Mary’s behavior. (3)

Joseph, despite the incredibly devastating news he received, the news that would change his life forever, he decided to follow as the law dictated and divorce Mary, and rather than subject her to public scandal, trial, and possible death, he decided to follow the protective nature of the law. His decision to treat Mary with compassion says a great deal about Joseph’s character, his resiliency, and his faith in God, all even in extremely troubling times.

Now we all know that divorce was not in God’s plan because we have heard this story many times. God intervened and sent an Angel to Joseph and told him not to divorce her, but to take her as his wife and name the child Jesus. Now here is something we might just roll past if we are not careful. Listen to these words, “and name the child Jesus.” Joseph was commanded to name him Jesus. This is important because, “to establish paternity, it is not sufficient to ask the wife in that culture, in those days … rather the husband should give testimony since most men are reluctant to acknowledge a child unless it is their own.” (3) Joseph was commanded to not only keep Mary as his wife, but to acknowledge publically Jesus as his own. Thus, the lineage of David is preserved as prophecy dictated, through the obedience of Joseph. God’s plan is preserved. “The identity of Jesus as Son of David is in God’s plan, but Joseph must give to that plan, a cooperative obedience that befits a righteous man.” (3)

You see in our lives as disciples of Jesus Christ, God’s plan at times may seem outlandish, scandalous, uncomfortable, grievous and downright irrational, but for that plan to become enacted, God requires cooperative obedience from righteous people, just as God did, when it came to the Incarnation, the plan of how God came into the world in the flesh.

Likewise, I know that this church, Holy Innocents has had a long history of cooperative obedience in her ministry that stretches back nearly 60 years. I know this because, when Terri and I visit one of our 77 churches, I often preview the church’s website to get a better picture of the community. Guess what, I looked over your awesome website and I discovered that you DO have a long history of cooperative obedience to God in good times, difficult times, times of change, and times of celebration.

Just take a look at your history. January 1, 1957, a congregation of 30 people gathered for the first time, calling themselves “Holy Innocents’ Episcopal Church” and meeting several blocks from the current location. October 30, 1960, a new church was built on the corner of Front Street and Valrico Road. The congregation quickly outgrows the first building built at the new location. January 5, 1964, services were held for the first time in the new Parish Hall. 1973, the current Sunday school annex was completed. Worship was also held here until the current sanctuary was built. Late 1986, worship happened for the first time in your current sanctuary, and it is consecrated in February 1987. Late 2005, the Rev. Steve Rudacille retired, after having served the parish for 30 years. Late 2007, The Rev. Douglas Scharf is called as the current rector. June 2014, renovations were completed on our newly expanded Parish Hall and newly redesigned Kiser Hall, which houses children & adult Christian education classes, as well as office space for the staff. Late 2016, The Rev Doug Scharf announced that he will be leaving a long, joyful, and fruitful ministry at Holy Innocents Valrico and will accept a call to Good Shepherd Episcopal Church, Tequesta, FL. These are significant events in the life of Holy Innocents Episcopal Church.

Author Roy T. Bennett asserts, “You learn something valuable from all of the significant events and people, but you never touch your true potential until you challenge yourself to go beyond imposed limitations.” (4) Throughout those 60 years of life in this community, I imagine each of those benchmark moments have come with some grief, anxiety, uncertainty, fear, joy, and celebration. All of these snapshots in the life of Holy Innocents came with mixed emotional responses to incredible change, but look at who you are today. Holy Innocents rejoices with multiple worship services, fellowship groups, a full calendar with Scouts, AA groups, Daisy troops, Outreach ministries, Bible studies, and so much more. God has been faithful and you all have been faithful.

I imagine there have been times over the past 60 years, when things were not easy, when like Joseph you received some devastating and life-altering news. Despite that truth, this community stands a witness to resurrection, today as a joyful, growing, excited, and incredibly spiritually rich congregation. You have responded to God “bursting in” in new ways, with cooperative obedience, faithfulness, and hope.   God has been with Holy Innocents throughout her history, and God will be with her in the years to come.

Like Joseph, cooperative obedience is required of all of us. Four years ago, the Spirit nudged me constantly to leave a parish I loved, a people I cared for, and a church I served to go with boldness into something new. I imagine your loving priest Fr. Doug and his family had that same experience. The Spirit I imagine was calling, nudging, and drawing them into a new plan for their ministry in God’s Kingdom. It would have been easy for Doug and Shannon to dismiss the call to discern something new, and remain in place with this loving family of God, but they are witnesses to us of God’s unending work in the church and in God’s people.

Like Joseph, cooperative obedience has been hallmarks of the Scharf’s ministry here, and we send them on to God’s next vineyard, the next mission field with our love, respect, peace, and best wishes knowing that God’s plan will continue for them. They have a long future serving God’s people that will lead to something new for them every single day. Faithfulness and cooperative obedience have been the hallmarks of your shared ministry here, as the people of God at Holy Innocents, and God’s plan will continue for you. You have a long future serving the community in which, you have been planted, and that ministry will lead to something new for you every single day to come.

Even so, the Scharf’s and the people of Holy Innocents stand on the edge of a transition. Now, I imagine when Joseph received the word from the angel about his transition, he was frightened not knowing what his future would be, but he was faithful and trusted the promises of “Emmanuel: God with us.” My sisters and brothers, transitions can be frightening times for a congregation. Anxiety can be high, responsibilities begin to shift to lay leadership, grief emerges at the loss of a beloved leader, and yes, things with which we have become comfortable will change. We do not like change do we, but change is inevitable.

When anxiety, uncertainty, grief, and fear enter onto the scene, we are called like Joseph, to a deeper faithfulness. We are called to cry out in prayer to God. The Psalmist writes, “Restore us, O God of hosts; let your face shine, that we may be saved.” God’s faithfulness can be found manifested in the history of this community. God’s faithfulness will be with you in the future that God has in store for you.

In today’s Gospel, Joseph learned quickly that despite the change in his plans, that God had a greater plan in place. “When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took (Mary) as his wife.” Joseph relied not in himself but in God, and yes his faith prevailed. My sisters and brothers, in this time of change, I encourage you to remain steadfast, prayerful, and expectant of God’s grace. The next few months will come with times of joy, celebration, sadness, and trepidation, all in this time of transition. “Emmanuel: God with us,” is the promise God has in store for the people of God, even in times of change. God is with us. God is with Doug and his family, and God is with the people of Holy Innocents Episcopal Church. You my friends can confidently rely on God’s promise that God is present with you in all times and God is faithful. Amen.

 

(1) Wright, N T. (Nicholas Thomas) Bp. “God’s Way Of Acting.” The Christian Century 115.35 (1998): 1215-1217. ATLASerials, Religion Collection. Web. 13 Dec. 2016.

(2) Craddock, Fred B. “The Surprise And Joy Of Advent.” The Living Pulpit 6.4 (1997): 6. ATLASerials, Religion Collection. Web. 13 Dec. 2016.

(3) Brown, Raymond Edward. “The Annunciation Of Joseph (Matt 1:18-25).” Worship 61.6 (1987): 482-492. ATLASerials, Religion Collection. Web. 14 Dec. 2016.

(4) http://www.goodreads.com/quotes/tag/challenge

“Take Courage” – An Advent Reflection

mary_jesusMatthew 14:27
But Jesus spoke to them at once. “Don’t be afraid,” he said. “Take courage. I am here!”
A wise spiritual director once told me, “Tension and discomfort are usually signs that change in your life is imminent.” I think she was right. The end of the year always seems to bring “change” into the forefront of our lives. As a new year emerges, companies re-align their strategies, countries install new leaders, and organizations re-think how they will operate, how they will allocate resources, and how they will function in the new year. All of those decisions impact the lives of people outside the strategic plans of large organizations.
Throughout my business career, I saw year-end changes in companies that affected so many people. In my own life, change came when it was least expected. I am sure some of you are feeling the discomfort of imminent change, whether it is the impending nationwide changes that will occur with this new White House administration, or maybe you are contemplating a new employment situation or possibly there is a change coming in your life of which, you are not even aware.
I encourage you as we enter this time of expectant waiting, to listen to the words of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, “Don’t be afraid, take courage, I am here.” God never abandons us. God is with us. God is waiting with open arms to receive the anxiety and uncertainties of our lives. Take courage.