SERMON Day of Pentecost 5/24/15 St. Bede’s St. Petersburg

descent-of-the-holy-spirit5Acts 2:1-21; Psalm 104:25-35,37; Romans 8:22-27; John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15

Today is the Day of Pentecost! In the Christian tradition, Pentecost is celebrated on the seventh Sunday after Easter. Most folks understand Pentecost to be “the origin and sending out of the church into the world. “(1) Pentecost emphasizes that the church is “understood as the Body of Christ, which is drawn together and given life by the Holy Spirit.” (1)

The events of that very first Day of Pentecost were both miraculous and intriguing. Imagine for a moment those first followers of Jesus on that particular day. They knew that their Lord, teacher, rabbi was the one upon whom they had staked their lives, and he had been crucified, miraculously raised from the dead, and they saw him ascend into heaven. Those events all seemed so mysterious, unfathomable, and emotionally charged. Now, picture yourself there with them. You and your friends are locked up in a room, hiding from the world around you, afraid to go and face the future. You don’t know what to do next.

Then suddenly and out of the blue, there is a sound of rushing wind being breathed into the world, and imagine that you are there to taking it all in. You cannot believe your eyes but then, there is a vision, with fire descending upon each one of you. Then you not only see the vision, you hear it when suddenly you and your fellow “Jesus followers” begin speaking in the diverse languages of the surrounding cultures, and in languages you could not have spoken before.

After this, did you all just stand around and ask, “What do we do now?” NO! Those early disciples all rushed out of the room, from behind those locked doors, no longer afraid. They went out and proclaimed to the world “Jesus is Lord.” There was no one in that group who said, “We don’t have enough resources, we are just poor fishermen, there is only a few of us, we can barely keep food on the table.” No, they rejected any thought of scarcity, and began focusing on proclaiming resurrection and new life in Christ.

Why? Because, the same Spirit that brooded over the waters of creation, the same Spirit that breathed into the dry bones and brought new life, the same Spirit that was active in the Incarnation, that same Spirit was on that day, present and active in that new little community in Jerusalem.

The Spirit, as she always has been, nudges the people of God to the new life following in the footsteps of the Master, following his life, death, and resurrection. That same Spirit is active today, despite the signs of the times. Did you know that the Pew Research Center recently announced that 22+% of the American population, claim no religious affiliation at all? A little over two decades ago, that number was only 8%. Should we be concerned about this statistic? Yes. Should we throw up our hands and give up? No, because the same Spirit that inspired that little community in Jerusalem over 2000 years ago has not left us abandoned in the 21st century. The Holy Spirit is still active in the world through the church today.

Let me tell you another miraculous story of the Spirit at work. Back in the 1950’s, there was a cathedral church in a growing city that was inspired by the same Spirit, to plant a daughter mission church in another growing area, of the same city. This little community celebrated their first Eucharist in March of the same year the Spirit moved, and they met at an elementary school. In July of that same year, this little community received their first Vicar, and continued to meet for worship at the school, until their new parish hall was built a little later. By January of the next year, one hundred and forty-six parishioners were listed as charter members of that congregation.

Does this story sound familiar? It should, it is your story! The same Spirit that brooded over the waters of creation, the same Spirit that breathed into dry bones and brought new life, the same Spirit that was active in the Incarnation, the same Spirit present and active on Pentecost in Jerusalem 2000 years ago; that same Spirit was active in this community in the early 1950’s here in St. Petersburg, and you can bet that she is still active today. She is still breathing new breath into us, nudging and prodding us to continue the proclamation of the Gospel here today.

Your story did not end in the 1950’s, it had only begun, and it begins with each new generation in the church. Today, we must listen with fresh ears, to the Spirit who is calling you forth into this local neighborhood once again. We must not merely accept with trepidation, the issues that have the potential to stand in the way of your proclaiming Christ as Lord; those things that can overshadow the Spirit at work in you. You must remember, not even a little language barrier stopped those first disciples 2000 years ago; the Spirit provided and she provides today.

It’s not easy to go out and proclaim Good News. Jesus never promised it would be easy. We can get bogged down in old thinking that would have us believe that, “we are just not enough.” If we depend merely on ourselves to accomplish God’s mission, and fail to follow the Spirit who rushes in like a violent wind, nudging us, guiding us, and providing for us; then yes, on our own, we ARE not enough. We must remember that in Christ, all things are possible.

Jesus promises, “The Spirit helps us in our weakness.” What I hear in Our Lord’s words is, “We do nothing in the church alone.” “The witness of the Holy Spirit, and that of the community are not two distinct acts; rather, the community’s witness is the visible sign of the Holy Spirit’s work as witness.” (1) When we depend merely on ourselves, we overlook the possibilities of miracles like rushing wind, tongues of fire, and the breath of God.

Self-reliance in mission is not really in the DNA of this community of St. Bede’s. Just look at your history. You are more than enough to proclaim Good News into a local community that desperately needs it now, just as it did 60 plus years ago. You have a history of doing just that here in this place. You have followed the Spirit, and you have proclaimed the Good News.

Remember, 2000 years ago, this Jesus movement began with only a handful of people and today; there are 2.1 Billion Christians worldwide. Think about what happens when the Spirit leads us. I read this little quote on your website the other day, “At present, St. Bede’s has 75 members with an average attendance of 55. Even though we are small in size, our congregation is active and participates in ministry and mission on several levels.”

I also read, “we are in the midst of a changing population and demographics in the local area. St. Bede’s has entered a phase of exploring options for future mission, such as (who are we?) and when it comes to ministry (how are we called to engage our community and beyond?).” As you continue this journey of exploration, I want to encourage you, never forget your history of mission to your neighbors. Always keep reminding yourselves, “You we connected to, relying on, and following the Spirit of God.”

Have you ever heard these words said around here? “We can’t do that ministry. We do not have enough, our budget is too low, we do not have enough people, the demographics in the area are foreboding, or we are located in a declining community.” If this is what some think then, what is really being said is, “We are not enough.” I want you to remember that you all are not called together to be fearful. God is not the God of the tomb. God is the God of possibilities, and we are people of amazing possibilities.

I had a very wise mentor priest tell me this one time, “You have everything you need, to do the ministry you have been called to do, right here, and right now that is, if you are willing to follow where the Spirit is leading you.” My friend’s words encouraged me and reminded me that a new story of the Church is being told over and over again. “God has graced us for ministry, for a big vision, for a wild, wooly, “tongues of fire,” violent rush of the Spirit’s movement right here and right now.

You all, like the early disciples, are empowered by the Spirit to go out and proclaim God’s mighty works of salvation, not merely for those who show up at your doors, but to everyone within whom you come in contact. You are empowered, equipped, resourced, and driven by God’s Spirit, just as you were 60 years ago, and the Spirit is calling you to a new vision, a new life, and a new focus. The Church today must not listen to the naysayers, but we must live into the new possibilities God has for us. We must shift the language we use from one of scarcity and insufficiency, to one of “tongues of fire,” “rushing wind,” and the Spirit being poured out again and again. We must never forget Jesus promises, especially when we become discouraged, or when we feel as if we are not enough. “The Spirit helps us in our weakness . . . and that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.” The Spirit is calling you; you must be ready and willing to respond.

1Armentrout, Donald S., and Robert Boak Slocum. An Episcopal Dictionary of the Church: A User-friendly Reference for Episcopalians. New York: Church Pub., 1999. 396. Print.

 

SERMON Sunday after the Ascension 5/17/15 (St. Boniface, Sarasota, FL)

Jesus Christ Praying Wallpapers
Jesus Christ Praying Wallpapers

Acts 1:15-17, 21-26; Psalm 1; 1 John 5:9-13; John 17:6-19

“I have made your name known to those whom you gave me from the world.” This scripture passage we heard this morning comes from what most scholars call, “Jesus’ high priestly prayer.” Jesus was praying on behalf of the community, his followers, to whom he would soon be leaving his mission in the world. The timing of the prayer is set near the events of the Last Supper, right before Jesus’ betrayal, arrest, trial, and crucifixion. If we can for a moment imagine ourselves in this setting. Imagine being one of the disciples overhearing this prayer. I bet during that quiet after-dinner conversation, we like them, would have felt that everything was about to change once again, and we all know what change brings: anxiety.”(1)

Facing a life-altering change (death on the cross), Jesus chose not to succumb to anxiety, but he chose to pray, and moreover to pray for us. Imagine that for a moment. In a time of great anxiety, uncertainty, fear, and potential dread, Jesus’ heart was focused on those whom he held most dear; with those whom he loved. He was troubled about their future, and the fact that he would have to leave them to continue his mission; this same mission of the church today.

I wonder, how would our mission in the world today be different, how would our life together as the church be different, if remembered in our times of anxiety that, “We are a community for whom Jesus prays.” This high priestly prayer assures us that Jesus himself will always be with us, to strengthen us and enable us, so we might remain focused on our ministry in this world, rather than withdrawing from it. (3)

Jesus said, “They do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world.” Here, Jesus is trying to draw a distinction between the ways of God, and ways of the ordering of human existence, which shapes our culture toward injustice and death. The system of the world often causes suffering and oppression, cruelty, selfish greed and conflict. Jesus’ prayer calls this world system on the carpet. Jesus’ prayer shines a light on the “world’s system” of oppression and conflict, and exposes it to God’s system of grace, which is love, mercy, justice, reconciliation, and restoration.

In his prayer, Jesus is not saying the church should withdraw from the world into a quiet, safe haven of perfect bliss. We all know for a fact that is not even possible, because the world’s ways of injustice, suffering, and oppression always finds its way into the faith community. We are still at the same time; both sinners and saints are we not? We cannot escape the world and thus, our purpose is not to be a safe haven for the saints, but to stand on a hill as a lighthouse and rescue station for the world. We are a beacon of hope pointing to another reality; God’s revelation of love in Christ Jesus.

Jesus was the one set apart to reveal God to the world. Jesus is the organizer of the ecclesia; the community universal, the church. We as the church are on a mission appointed by God, but we must be aware that we can become ineffective in our mission, when we become merely one more social organization. The Church is sent out into the world, to continue Jesus’ work of reconciliation in the world. Jesus calls his followers, not to run and hide from it all, and not to get too swept up in it all, but to live in the swirling chaos and conflict of this world, anchored in the life-giving ways of God.

Jesus said, I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them. We need God’s protection. The church is certainly not water-resistant to the deluge of conflict inherent in the world. Conflict occurs every day, and in every facet of our lives. It should surprise no one that disagreements, misunderstandings, injuries, and yes, even evil still happens in Church. We sometimes go from disagreement to intractable division, and then the Body of Christ becomes wounded deeply.

When we face conflicts, disagreements, and misunderstandings, we need to follow the example of Jesus and return to prayer and a reliance on God, rather than merely ourselves. Continuing Christ’s mission of reconciliation really begins with us. We cannot avoid conflict, we cannot deal with things as we always have in the past, especially when it did not work before.

“We need take our cue from that relationship between Jesus and Abba God, a deeply intimate knowledge and love that Jesus also shared with his disciples, and a model for our own relationships today. This relationship is one which is “mutually supportive and non-hierarchical, giving space to one another and allowing others to live into full personhood within a loving community of care.” (1)

We need to insure that we focus on the mission of reconciliation within the community, so that we can be messengers of that same reconciliation, in a world that does not pay as much attention to as it did a few years ago.

            We are on a mission that is more difficult than ever, but we are not on this mission alone. A few days ago, Pew Research Center reported “that the percentage of adults (ages 18 and older) who describe themselves as Christians has dropped by nearly eight percentage points in just seven years, from 78.4% . . . in 2007 to 70.6% in 2014.” (2) The report also stated that the percentage of Americans who are religiously unaffiliated – describing themselves as atheist, agnostic or “nothing in particular” – has jumped more than six points, from 16.1% to 22.8%”.(2) Did you know that 20 years ago, that number was only 8%?

Folks, the mission field of the church, not some far off, distant mission field in another other region of the world, but the LOCAL mission field of the church is changing dramatically. For the sake of Christ’s mission of reconciliation, we must reorder our lives and rethink our priorities. We are going to have to choose between falling back into a comfortable, safe-haven, attempting to be devoid of all the world’s conflict and chaos, or we are going to have to face issues honestly, engaging them openly, so that through conversation with Christ-like vulnerability, we can begin to plant seeds of love, grace, reconciliation, mercy, and restoration within our institution.

This week’s passage tells us that there will be times when we have to choose, and when it comes to life or death, love or hate, God is always on the side of love and life.   We need to be on that side too. How then will we order our lives and examine our priorities and shape our institution, especially if we are going to reflect Christ to a world that is no longer paying as much attention to us, as it did just 20 years ago?

We can begin again by loving each other, as Jesus loves us. By the way, that kind of love is not merely a feeling; it is action when feeling it is not quite there yet. Love like that is a thoughtful loving gesture when undeserved. Jesus loves us with hands and feet and pierced side, while at the same time being rejected, taunted, and misunderstood. Jesus said, “Forgive them for they know not what they do.”

I don’t know about you, but I want to be in a community where love like this abounds, where mutual respect exudes from the walls, where burdens are hoisted and carried for each other, and where that love extends deeply to people outside the community, not just in words, but in actions.

Jesus said, “As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world.” The church’s future is God’s and not ours alone, but we have to learn to trust and allow ourselves to be sent. The high priestly prayer is at Jesus’ last hour, as he is facing death and yet, he trusts his future to God. Jesus still had to go to the cross, and he went freely. We must be at the work of reflecting Christ in everything; I mean everything we do, to show forth our intimacy with God as the community of God.

“All this sounds great,” you may say! “Eric, you are just a dreamer,” you may tout! I imagine the speculative doubters would be right, that is if we all just continue to reject the very real fact that “We are a community for whom Jesus prays.” We are not left alone to do this work Jesus left for us. We are invited to consider the possibility of life trusting God. We face a future in which God’s governance and care of us is complete, and the experience of God’s love for us is realized. This is not an impossible mission that is if we remember, “We are a community for whom Jesus prays.”

REFERENCES

(1) http://www.ucc.org/worship_samuel_sermon_seeds_may_17_2015

(2) http://www.pewforum.org/2015/05/12/americas-changing-religious-landscape/

(3) Feasting on the Word Year B, Vol. 2

SERMON 11/5/14 Diocesan Eucharist – DaySpring

Phil. 2:12-18; Psalm 62:6-14; Luke 14:25-33

“Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.” I don’t know about you, but when I hear Jesus’ words today, it seems that being a disciple is something way beyond my ability. In my current ministry with the Fresh Expressions movement and campus ministry, I get the opportunity to have great conversations with many non-Christians; people who have never even been in a church before. A young woman (a non-Christian) and I were talking about faith one day and she asked me, “What is all this Jesus follower stuff all about?” She said, “It seems like a lot of ‘to do’s’ and an equal number of “don’t do’s” in order to be a part of that religion.” She continued, ”A Christian friend told me that to be one, means you have go to church every Sunday, read the bible daily, pray without ceasing, follow all of God’s laws, and tithe.” The young woman huffed and said, “it sounds more like a lot of empty rules, than a community that claims a life of transformation in God.”

I wonder, how many of us have pondered the question, “what is all this Jesus follower stuff really all about?” When I was the rector in one of our local parishes, I spent much of my ministry there helping folks understand, that being a follower of Jesus is not so much a list of “to do’s” and “don’t do’s,” but that it is a way of life that leads to, and is a result of God’s transforming grace. Grace, God’s favor toward us, unearned and undeserved, and by it we know the forgiveness of our sins. Grace enlightens our minds, stirs our hearts, and strengthens our wills. So, how do we see grace as tangible, real, and outwardly discernable? In the community of faith, the first sacramental encounter with God’s grace happens through the waters of baptism. The inward and spiritual grace in Baptism is union with Christ in his death and resurrection, birth into God’s family the Church, forgiveness of sins, and new life in the Holy Spirit. Baptism is the beginning of the journey, the life-long journey of discipleship.

A candidate for baptism is required to answer several questions, or if too young to answer for themselves, their parent and/or sponsor responds on the candidate’s behalf. Candidates respond to three questions about the Trinitarian faith: Do you believe In God the Father, do you believe in God the Son, and do you believe in God the Holy Spirit. Belief for do many folks, means they accept something as fact. The word belief means so much more than merely an assent that God exists.

The Greek form of the word “believe” as found in John 3:16, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life” (Πιστεύων), means “having a conviction of, or to trust in, or to place confidence in something or someone.” So, if someone asks us if we believe in God, we might respond with, “yes, we place our trust in and we have so much confidence in God, that God is the first priority in our lives.”

If we believe in, trust in, and place our confidence in God, then there should be a radical difference in how our relationship with God, stands in contrast to our other closest relationships (father, mother, spouse, children, brother, sister, and life itself). “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.” I don’t think Jesus was telling us to hate these folks. I believe Jesus was pointing out, that our relationship with others, relative to our relationship with God, should be as distinct and dissimilar, as love is to hate.

After answering the believe questions, the candidate for baptism is required to take upon her/himself the baptismal promises, or if too young, their sponsor makes those promises on their behalf. These baptismal promises point us toward discipleship. The promises at baptism show us a way of life patterned after that of Our Lord, a life of taking up our cross and following him. Have you ever wondered what Jesus meant by that cross bearing thing? Was he seriously telling us that crucifixion is the only way for us to be disciples?

See, the cross of Jesus was more than an instrument of torture and death. The cross of Jesus shows us through flesh and blood, that God desires reconciliation with God’s creation. God enacted self-giving love, offered himself to those he loved, and risked rejection in the process. God showed us vulnerable love without strings, love focused not on self, but on the other and Jesus made real, the kind of love, we should have for one another. Our baptismal promises, if we follow them, points the way for us to try and love as Jesus loves. Cross-bearing love rejects our natural tendency toward self-interest, self-preservation, and self-fulfillment. Cross bearing love is reconciling love.

Candidates for baptism are asked these questions:

  • Will you continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers? We cannot be Christians in a vacuum. Discipleship requires frequently gathering with sisters and brothers in Christ, in all the messiness and beauty that is church life, so that we can practice together, the way of loving as Jesus loves. Some times we get it right, some times we don’t, but that is what reconciling love is really all about. It’s not easy.
  • Will you persevere in resisting evil, and, whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord? This seems to be self-explanatory however, there is an assumption found here in this question. Listen again, “whenever you fall into sin.” It is assumed that we WILL fall into sin not just once, but more than likely, many times throughout our lives. The real question is when we fall, will we return to the path of following Jesus, by loving our neighbors, which is what reconciling love is really all about. It’s not easy.
  • Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ? This is the tough one and Paul speaks about it in his letter to the Church in Philippi. We are to be “known as children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, in which you shine like stars in the world.” So, for a world struggling in darkness, “will we not only share good news with words, but will we be good news through our actions, which is what reconciling love is really all about.  It’s just not easy.
  • Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself? And then, Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being? If we begin to see others with different eyes, (through God’s grace-filled eyes) and then, if we put others above self, if we deny ourselves, then we really are following Jesus and taking up that cross of self-giving love for our neighbors. Striving for justice and peace among ALL people and respecting the dignity of EVERY human being is what reconciling love is really all about. It’s not easy.

Interestingly enough, the baptismal promises hearken back to Jesus’ commands to love God and love neighbor. These two commands, because of their brevity, may seem so simple to follow. However, Jesus reminds us that reconciling love is as radical as hating those closest to us, or taking up and carrying an instrument of torture and death. The reality is, being a disciple of Jesus is NOT easy. It takes commitment, practice, and trust. Oh, and yes, this difficult journey of discipleship we all desire to traverse would be impossible if it were not grace. Grace, God’s favor toward us, unearned and undeserved, and by which, we know the forgiveness of our sins. Grace enlightens our minds, stirs our hearts, and strengthens our wills. It is only by grace that we hope to become disciples, followers; fellow sojourners of the one we call Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

Millenials – Wrestling with Faith

I had the most amazing, humbling, and enlightening experience a few weeks ago.  I spent a few hours with a new group of Christians who gather not too far from where I live.  In a city in our diocese, a community of young adults have been gathering together for study, fellowship, and support for about a year now. This was my first visit with “First Tuesday,” an emergent community, which averages fifteen (15) or so attendees and most, if not all are twenty (plus) year olds. This community is currently led by an incredible young woman, who is a leader in one of the parishes in the diocese. This group gathers together every month to discuss faith, to bear each other’s burden’s, to share a meal, and to explore what it means to live in community with each other. A couple of the young adults attend an Episcopal Church, most go to church somewhere, some go to multiple churches, and some go to no church at all.

I asked this diverse group this simple question, “If you had the opportunity to tell church leaders something, which you would like to see changed in faith communities today, what would that be?” I had several very direct, helpful, engaging, and honest answers.

Here is what I heard this group say: (1) The teaching must be applicable and understandable for living as a Christian today, (2) A welcome at the door that is authentic and engaging, (3) Music that is familiar (4) Non-Judgemental church culture, (5) A community that actually IS good news to each other, long before it attempts to go out into the world and BE good news to others, (6) Sermons that are encouraging, which provide sustenance to get me through the difficulties of life during the week. (7) Give young adults the chance to take an active leadership role.

What are your thoughts?

Sermon – “Mission and Kingdom Fruit” 10/5/14

red grapes Ventana 9.07All Saint’s Episcopal Church, Tarpon Springs, FL

Lectionary Readings: Isaiah 5:1-7; Psalm 80: 7-14; Philippians 3:4b-14; Matthew 21:33-46

My first homiletics assignment in seminary was committing to memory today’s gospel reading, and dramatically presenting it to my classmates during class. I have to say, this task was daunting, not only because we had to memorize a fairly long passage but, we were required to present it under the watchful eyes of our peers. I was anxious about the assignment, but I successfully memorized the scripture and when the day came to present, I was ready.

Over the two weeks that I studied this parable, a particular phrase gnawed at me. “The kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom.” The more I considered it and meditated on it, the more anxious I became. There I was a novice seminarian, about to embark on a new quest to serve in God’s Kingdom, and with one assignment, I was being confronted with a warning, which was turning my spiritual world upside down. Reflecting back, I now realize that there was more to my professor’s assignment, than I ever imagined. Slyly, my wise professor used this little assignment to make me and my classmates think. When I read that phrase over and over again, I wondered, “was Jesus’ warning only the evil tenants in the parable, or was he merely warning the religious rulers of his time, or was he actually warning the church, we Christians today?” The gospel reading we hear today is truly a challenge for us, who must ask ourselves this question every day, “Are we producing Kingdom Fruit.”

“Fruits of the kingdom” is a metaphor for the outward signs, community actions, and observable, incarnated evidence of a people for whom, something much more transformative is going on inside. Kingdom Fruit, for people on the periphery of the church community, stands as evidence that we Christians are truly faithful caretakers of  God’s Kingdom. Kingdom fruit is evident when our lives mirror that of Our Lord Jesus Christ.    There are indications of Kingdom Fruit in the life of the Christian community by her actions to bring about reconciliation, peace, justice, and dignity to all of creation, just like Jesus did.  Jesus brought healing and restoration to people of all walks of life, but with intention and desire, he mostly hung out with folks on the outskirts of social acceptance. Tax collectors and sinners, lepers and the blind , and the forgotten and outcast, these were the people with whom Jesus focused his mission of reconciliation, peace, justice, dignity, and love. We who follow Jesus, who live the claim that we are going to be like Jesus, who take on the mission of Jesus, as the baptized faithful, need to understand our responsibility regarding those on the outside of social acceptance today. Loving those whom God loves is our responsibility, as the baptized in Christ.

My late father, who in the hospital several weeks ago, realized that his health was quickly declining, told me that he wanted me to accept the responsibility of being his Power of Attorney. Dad signed the paperwork and made me the steward of all of his finances, his health care, and all of the legal matters related to his property. He left things in my hands, and I was humbled to know how much my father trusted me. Honestly, I was afraid I would make some huge mistakes and in the process, misrepresent my Dad, disappoint him, or worse yet, fail to honor his wishes. My father handed me a great responsibility but , he retained also the right to re-assign that power, if I failed to do what he needed me to do. You know, I could have easily backed out of that responsibility, but my Dad trusted me, he needed me, and he knew I would remain faithful.

                  When we hear Jesus’ warning about taking away the kingdom from those who bear no fruit, we can not assume today, that Jesus is talking about some other group . Jesus is warning us that kingdom reassignment, for those who fail to be faithful emissaries and stewards of the kingdom, applies to all. In order to understand our responsibility, we need to fully comprehend our role in God’s mission. Theologian Jürgen Moltmann once wrote, “It is not the church that has a mission of salvation to fulfill in the world; it is the mission of the Son and the Spirit through the Father that includes the church.”1 This statement may sound a little unsettling for us, because we may think that our responsibility in the kingdom, ends at the doors of the church, that somehow God’s mission begins and ends with us, the church folk gathered .

Our responsibility as stewards and emissaries of the Kingdom of God, begins the moment we leave this place and enter our homes, our workplaces, and our other associations outside parish life. Unlike any other responsibility we have, being a Christian means that we cannot compartmentalize our faith, safeguard it, and minimize it, as if being a Christian were only an occasional day trip to the haven of the parish. The Church is much more than a place at which, we are fed. Church is like a gymnasium in which, we are trained for the work we are sent out to do. In his book Transforming Mission, David Bosch writes, “There is church because there is mission, not vice versa. To participate in mission is to participate in the movement of God’s love toward people, since God is a fountain of sending love.”2 The community that actively, purposefully, and intensely participates in God’s love toward people is, simply put, producing fruit.

When I consider Jesus’ warning, “The kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom,” it worries me as much today, as it did when I was a naive seminarian six years ago on that Holy Mountain; Sewanee. Today, through the work I do as Canon for Ministry Development, I meet an alarming number of young adults who have had no faith background ever. Overseeing campus ministry on three university locations across the diocese and helping alternative faith communities emerge and discover their place, I come face-to-face every day with a frightening reality.

Today, in the United States, nearly 20% of the American population (double what it was 20 years ago) claims to be religiously unaffiliated.  Statistics also show that nearly 33% of folks under 30 are religiously unaffiliated as well. In the ministry I do, and through my conversations with young students and younger working adults, their religious disconnect is much more than just statistics in a report.   I am anxious, concerned, and yes, terrified because now, more than ever, it is so important that we the church, demonstrate to the world the Kingdom of God, through our actions, our mission, our focus on social justice issues, our service to the poor, and yes, how we treat one another.

We must produce Kingdom Fruit, not so that we might merely be seen as holy, pious, moral, or kind, but so that this ever expanding population whom God loves, who may have no idea what it means to follow Jesus, might come to know reconciliation, mercy, and grace, enacted through the lives of we, the Kingdom stewards. As you are sent out from this holy space today, as you walk through the doors of the church, as you enter the mission field out there, please remember your responsibility as a steward of the kingdom. This great mission responsibility was so simply and clearly defined, through the words of  St. Francis of Assisi, whose life the church commemorated just one day ago. Francis said, “The deeds you do, may be the only sermon some persons will hear today.”

 

1 Jürgen Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit: A Contribution to Messianic Ecclesiology, London: SCM Press, 1977, 64

2 David J. Bosch, Transforming Mission, Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1991, 389–390

Sermon – Church of the Holy Spirit, Osprey FL 9/21/14

griswaldsExodus 16:2-15; Psalm 105:1-6, 37-45; Philippians 1:21-30; Matthew 20:1-16

The 1983 blockbuster movie “National Lampoon’s Vacation” portrayed the adventures of a unique American family, and their summer road trip vacation. In the film, this Midwestern, suburban family led by Frank Griswold, (played by Chevy Chase) made a cross-country journey to “Wally World,” a fictional theme park that seemed a lot like a Disney World vacation spot.

As the family prepared for the trip, tensions were on the rise, tempers were short, and anticipation of the long journey ahead, overshadowed any dream of a joy-filled, relaxing, and fun vacation for which, they hoped to experience. Throughout the film, the family faced a lot of challenges: lost credit cards, terrible hotel accommodations, a major car breakdown, and a brief visit with some strange cousins. When they finally arrived at Wally World, things were not as they expected and as a result, the leisurely family vacation transformed into an escapade of criminal proportions.

This is one of those classic movies that many folks watch no matter how many times they have seen it before. Maybe it sparks a connection to a family vacation we remember. Maybe we connect with a silly story of a journey and its related pandemonium. Maybe we identify with our own life journeys. Maybe we understand what can happen when a group of folks on a journey to reach a particular destination, find themselves reluctant to change, unable to seek assistance from someone else, and powerless to choose a different route, an alternative path, or another mode of transport.

It makes me wonder what would have happened to the Griswolds, if they had just stopped their journey when they lost their credit cards, the car broke down, or they lost their luggage, and just called a friend for help. What if they had stopped at the local airport, bought tickets on the next flight to Wally World, and left the chaos behind. I wonder, would they have still made it to their final destination? Maybe the movie would have ended differently, maybe the chaos and uncertainty would have diminished, and quite possibly the vacation they dreamed of, would have come to fruition.

Long journeys are not always fun, because we are so focused on the destination, that we often ignore the reality of what is going on around us.   Long journeys can be frustrating, because we are not in the comfortable space of where we were, and we are not yet where we would really rather be; we are somewhere in-between. Those in-betweens are the “liminal” places of life.

The desert journey of the people of Israel was one of those liminal places of life. Moses led the Israelites out of their bondage of slavery, and into a newfound freedom, and a new way of being. The liminal place, the long desert journey, as uncomfortable and often life-threatening as it appeared, was absolutely necessary, in order for them to be ready for what was to come later on.  In the desert, the people had to wrestle with their identity as a community, they had to grapple with what they really needed to change in themselves, in order to become a new nation. Finally, they had to struggle with what they themselves had to do, not merely wait for God to intervene, but what they had to accomplish, in order for God’s will for them to be realized.

The story of the Israelite’s sojourn in the desert was not only about God’s demonstration of God’s benevolent power in action, it was a story of how a community of people had to take responsibility for the circumstances around them, and take action, so that God’s will for them would become a reality. In the Exodus story, God was moving an entire nation from slavery to the Promised Land, and it included a long journey that was difficult, awkward, and unsettling. It is in these liminal places of difficulty and unsettling reality that we grow, change, transform, and become better able to move forward; that is, if we accept reality, and partner with God in the changes, which God is making manifest in our midst.

God’s creation is not a static system that we can enter into and not expect change. Consider all the cycles in the universe; seasons come and seasons go. Science confirms that organic things evolve and adapt, weather systems are fluid and dynamic. The basic concept of the cosmos is that things move from one state, through a period of transition, and then into a new state.  Change happens in this life, and the test of our faithfulness to God’s working in our lives is found in how we respond to those changes. Imagine when we find ourselves in these liminal situations and circumstances of life, what it would be like if we actually responded with a renewed commitment to pray for patience, encouragement, and the strength to seek a new way, which comes with the “in-between” places.

There was a small, rural town in Kentucky a few years ago that hired a city manager, fresh out of graduate school. The young woman came to her new position with lots of new ideas, endless energy, and sometimes imposing excitement. Like most of us doing something new for the first time, she made a few mistakes her first year. The new city manager, after several attempts to make changes, soon realized that there was going to be many difficult problems with which, she and the city council would be have to wrestle.

Homes were being sold left and right because families, frustrated with the lack of city identity and sense of mission, were moving further out into the suburbs and thus, revenues were declining. The spirit of service to the local residents beyond the urban area, which had been a core value of the city for years, had all but disappeared. The city, rather than shining as a lighthouse of possibilities and hope, became an island focused only on self-sufficiency, resulting in further isolation and decline. In the midst of all this change, the city council members were spiraling into hopelessness, putting their heads in the sand to the problems all around, and just waiting for a sign that God would intervene soon.

For this community, it was a time of uncertainty, doubt, stress, and yes, there were tensions. The young city manager at one of the council meetings decided it was time to cast a new vision, a new spirit of hope that would affect the community for years to come. She said, “We find ourselves in a desert place, where our city seems isolated, stuck in our own circumstances, and we have abandoned the people around us to whom we are called to serve.” She continued, “We can continue on this journey, self-absorbed, and without hope, or we can take action, seek outside assistance, reconnect with our suburban diaspora, and redefine our mission as a city.” An epiphany happened on that day, and the council realized that they had to do something, and take an active part in developing the future of the community. They realized that this change required the community to literally, prayerfully, and faithfully work toward a new way of being.

In a few years, the small town began to experience renewed life, simply because they agreed that God was doing a new thing there and they had to partner with God and respond. Others in the town began to catch the spirit of new ideas, energy and excitement and the earlier discomfort, doubt, stress, and tension became peace, hope, joy, and a sense of renewed cooperation. Together that little town has a new reality of revitalized life and peace and harmony and growth they had not seen in years.

Every day, we all live in the midst of the changes going on around us, and as fearful, uncertain, and tense as they may be, we must be reminded that the in-between times are a call for renewed energy, generous grace, expectant hope, and renewed celebration. Today, many of our churches find themselves in a state of liminality where communities endure feelings of powerlessness, fear, doubt, stress, and tension.

For many of us as individuals, and for all of us as communities of faith in times of transition, we must find a greater tolerance for discomfort, a renewed desire to explore fresh possibilities, a willingness to seek help from folks beyond our community, and a commitment to serve those folks outside our four walls. We can only do these things by remaining faithful to God and to each other. We must pray for patience, forbearance and grace as we live into this new thing the Spirit is doing right here and right now. There is a modified prayer found in our prayer book that is comforting and encouraging as we traverse these liminal places of life:

     O God, you made us in your own image and redeemed us through Jesus your Son: Look with compassion on the whole human family; take away the pride and impatience that infects our hearts; break down the walls that separate us; unite us in bonds of love; and work through our struggles so we may accomplish your purposes on earth; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. (BCP p. 815)

When we consider the desert sojourn of the Israelites, I wonder what would have happened if they merely decided to sit in the desert and wait for God to move them. They did not do that did they? They got up and walked, they moved, they traversed. The Israelites, under their own foot power, moved into the land promised by God. We can be assured that as we embark on these long arduous, challenging, and yes frightening journeys as communities of faith, we will face overwhelming obstacles. Through prayerful discernment, through visionary and prophetic planning, and through apostolic action with God, we can move from the desert places, the liminial places, the in-between places, and grow into the communities that God is calling us to become.

The local church, these wonderful faith communities serving the local community in which they are planted, are incarnational partnerships with God through which, we respond to the Spirit’s nudges to pray, hope, and yes, to act through word and deed, bringing about the Kingdom of God, right in the midst of the place we have been planted to serve.

 

 

SERMON 8/20/14 St. George’s Bradenton, FL

Romans 12:9-21; Matthew 16:21-28

Our idea of discipleship is dependent on our idea of Messiah ship.

When Jesus revealed that he would face great suffering, be killed, and on the third day be raised, I wonder what was going on in his disciples’ heads at that moment. I bet after hearing what was soon to come, many of them were experiencing disappointment, uncertainty, and fear. I bet some were secretly considered hitting the road and returning to their boats, tax collector booths, or whatever else they were doing before they encountered God in flesh.   Peter had something in mind. He had the audacity to rebuke Jesus saying, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.” There he went again! Stubborn, bull headed, and self-focused Peter, who once again wanted Jesus to be the kind of Messiah, Peter wanted him to be. You have to wonder what Peter hoped all along the journey with Jesus, as he experienced the healings, miracles, and teachings. I wonder did he hope Jesus would be a triumphant military leader who would oust the Romans? Maybe he hoped Jesus would be the righteous, vengeful King who would strike down the powerful and replace them with the downtrodden; maybe even he and the other eleven, who were traveling along with Jesus. Peter wanted nothing to do with the cross, but possibly had his eye on a seat of power in the triumph to come. The very idea that his Lord would suffer the fate of a common criminal was beyond anything Peter could imagine. When we consider our own discipleship, maybe we find ourselves in a quandary like Peter’s; a Catch 22 in which, we want to follow Jesus, but the true cost of doing so, seems so difficult to imagine.

Discipleship means to follow Jesus, and that means the cross.

“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” If I had been there that day, I probably would have been like Peter, saying, “He’s kidding right.” I would have said, “Oh that Jesus, he’s just giving us a “metaphorical example” of the cost of discipleship. Surely he was not telling us we have to literally endure the kind of suffering of the cross.” You may be asking, “So with few, if any crucifixions going on today how do we even fathom what Jesus was talking about, when he commands us to take up our cross.” The kind of suffering Jesus speaks of happens in the real stuff of life, when things are tough, when life happens unexpectedly, when others abandon us, or when relationships fall apart. That is what Jesus is talking about. Stuff happens, suffering occurs, and our response in the midst of all that is indicative of our faith; in the taking up of our crosses. The hard truth about suffering is that Christian “cross bearing” devoid of suffering is merely a futile attempt at religious sentimentality. The idea that Christian’s can somehow be about the work of “cross bearing” without suffering is an empty, false ideal. Like Peter’s, ““God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you,” it is propaganda of the adversary.

The suffering of “cross bearing” is not a path to alleviating our suffering, but by enduring it faithfully, we live into the hope that God will triumph.      

When we speak of enduring suffering, I don’t believe Jesus suggests we avoid seeking treatment when we are in pain, or we should with some kind of false sense of martyrdom, fail to take those medical steps necessary and available, to reduce pain. I do believe that Jesus is telling us that suffering in this life is absolutely inevitable. Discipleship is when we face all of life faithfully, living in the great hope that God will never abandon us. John Clark, in his essay on Luther’s theology of the cross states, “Instead of endeavoring to exclude themselves from suffering, Christians must prepare for the occasions of suffering with which, they will inevitably be confronted.” 3 We endure, but we endure by faith and hope. The great reformer Martin Luther once wrote, “It would be neither good nor useful for man to know what great blessings lie hidden under such trials.”3 He added, “We should willingly endure the hand of God in this and in all suffering. Do not be worried; indeed, such a trial is the very best sign of God’s grace and love for man.”3 Sometimes, in the midst of suffering, great blessings emerge unexpectedly, and rather than avoid suffering, we are called to endure in hope.

It may be at the deathbed of a loved one, an unexpected reconciliation among two or more family members might occur, even after a lifetime of strife and brokenness. It may be that in the midst an unexpected disease, an amazing spiritual healing occurs, and through that event, God’s presence in our lives may become clear to someone else, and they are forever changed. It may be that somehow through the financial upheaval, a realignment of life’s priorities becomes overwhelming obvious, and those things which are most important (God, love, togetherness, simplicity, and family) becomes the cornerstone of life, long after the event. Somehow in the mystery of grace, God reveals God-self in the midst of suffering. It was 2000 years ago in which, God definitively acted and by the cross of Christ and his being raised, revelation and salvation came into the world. Our hope is in God revealed in Christ, which leads to a life of discipleship, oriented in this hope.

Get behind me is not “get out of the way,” but a call to follow behind!

Just before Peter rebuked Jesus and Jesus said, “Get behind me, Satan,” Jesus declared Peter as the rock on which, he would build his church. I bet Peter’s ego skyrocketed into outer orbit at being the ROCK! I bet he thought, “Yeah, I am the man.” When that self-inflated ego revealed itself later on though, when facing the real cost of following Jesus, Peter who was the “Rock,” was re-named Satan, the adversary or one who opposes another in purpose or act. Peter, the foundation of a new community, seemed now to be getting in the way of Jesus’ mission.  Jesus told Peter, “Get behind me Satan!” That may sound like “get out my way,” a reprimand, a “how dare you ask me to run away from my mission.” I think in reality, Jesus is offering Peter an invitation. Jesus was literally inviting Peter to “fall in line, get behind me, and let’s go; let’s go to the cross.”

We all face those times in life where we would like to run away from life’s circumstances. When the pain and hurt is so deep, we would do almost anything to avoid it. It could be when we have to visit in the ICU a child of ours who is facing surgery, or when we find ourselves at the bedside of a parent who is declining and facing the end of their life, or when our beloved pet is lying in pain taking her/his last breath. We want to run away and hide and deny these moments are our reality. You see, we Christians must remember, we cannot celebrate Easter Sunday, without first enduring Good Friday. It is only through faithful endurance and hope, that we can ever imagine the possibilities of new life on the other side of suffering, pain, loss, and despair. Our hope is that in all things, God is with us; even in our anguish, grief, and sorrow. When we face those moments, when we want to run and hide, when denial of reality just is not possible, Jesus loving, knowingly, having traveled this road before, reminds us to carry on in hope and faithful endurance. Jesus says to us, “You can do this, just get behind me, and I will lead the way.”

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1 Langle, Deanna. “Defining Moment.” Christian Century 122.17 (2005): 16. ATLASerials, Religion Collection. Web. 27 Aug. 2014.

 

2 Krentz, Edgar. “Living Faithfully–Nevertheless.” Christian Century 113.24 (1996): 779. ATLASerials, Religion Collection. Web. 27 Aug. 2014.

 

3 Clark, John C. “Martin Luther’s View Of Cross-Bearing.” Bibliotheca Sacra 163.651 (2006): 335-347. ATLASerials, Religion Collection. Web. 30 Aug. 2014.

 

SERMON 8/24/14 Church of the Nativity Sarasota, FL

PeterRomans 12:1-8; Matthew 16:13-20

Jesus asked his disciples, “but who do you say that I am?” What an interesting question Our Lord asked. Here are the folks that followed Jesus around, witnessed the miracles, heard the sermons, and listened in on his sparring with Pharisees and scribes. Now, in a city filled with Greco-Roman idols, with images of other gods all around, these fishermen are being asked to proclaim who their rabbi, their travel companion, their whomever, really is to them. Peter did not hesitate, and with over zealous glee, chimed in immediately, like he did on several other occasions, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”

Sometimes I wish I could have been there to whisper in Peter’s ear, “Don’t speak too quickly Peter, you know that your exuberance will get you in trouble a little later in the story.” When it became difficult for Peter to follow Jesus, when the waves started to toss around him on the sea, when the soldiers were carrying the Master away to his trial and crucifixion, when three times asked if he was a disciple and denied it, Peter really was not ready to back up his exuberant words with actions.

Good old Peter; because of him I too believe that I can be a faithful Jesus follower. He was always the first to proclaim, but first to hesitate and first to fail. That was Peter’s story, and that is probably the story of discipleship for a lot of us. Quick words and clumsy actions; great intentions and run-of-the-mill responses, that all seems to be the plight of the discipleship challenge for many of us; falling short/missing the mark.

Do you every fall short/miss the mark? For me, I can honestly admit that I fail as a disciple more times than I like, but I am so glad that God’s grace is abundant and overflowing. I am so glad that when we fall down along this walk of discipleship, God is quick to forgive, and ready to receive. So, how do we respond to that kind of grace? Well, in loving response to that unmerited, amazing grace, we are called to offer to God a sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving. Unfortunately sometimes , our response, like our brother Peter, can be mere words or alternatively, we might offer up divinely purposeful adoration, or as Paul calls it, “our spiritual worship.”

Paul wrote to the church in Rome, “I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.” Ask most folks what the word worship means and they may say, “Well that’s what we do down at old St. Swithins on Sunday mornings.”   We say the prayers, we sing, we stand, we sit, we kneel; that is worship, or some may call it liturgical calethstenics right?

Webster’s dictionary defines worship as, “extravagant respect or admiration for or devotion to an object of esteem.” Let me ask you something, “in your everyday life, what or who is number one; to whom do you offer respect, admiration, or devotion?” Is it a family member, or maybe a hobby, your portfolio, or could it be an addiction, or alternatively, is it truly God?

I wrestle with this Spiritual reflection quite often, “If someone peered into my heart, what does my life of worship show about who Jesus is to me?” “Who do you say that I am,” Jesus asked. Peter responded, “your are the Son of God.” Listen closely to the words. The answer Peter gives sounds a little scientific , somewhat non-committal, and slightly impersonal. What if Peter’s response would have been different? What if his words were more like Thomas’ post-resurrection proclamation, in which Thomas called Jesus, “My Lord and My God,” but that was not Peter. Thomas, on the other hand, with clarity and purpose, declared his intimate connection to the Master, and did not just identify Jesus’ persona.

Let me give you an example. A woman was asked by a friend, “who is that man standing over there near your car?” She responded, ”that is the man with whom I share domicile.” If you listen closely, all you hear is a legalistic statement of fact. There is no emotional connection or relational references made between the woman and the man. Let’s try again. Another friend was asked the same question and her response was a bit different, “That is my dear beloved husband, whom I love and for whom, I would risk my life!” Can you see the difference? The second response is personal, committed, and you know there is deep intimacy shared between these two people.

I wonder if each of us were asked, “Who do you say that Jesus is,” how would our responses compare with Peter’s and Thomas’s? Think about this statistic for a moment , in our culture today, nearly 20% of the American population is irreligious. One fifth of Americans have no affiliation with a religious group at all. When this growing group looks at we Christians, I wonder if they ask, “Who do they say this Jesus they follow, really is in their lives?” Maybe they ask, “How does Jesus’ life, ministry, death, and resurrection have any impact on their lives at all ?” Maybe these folks question whether our actions, our witness, and our lives, show that we are committed followers, or we are mere sideline fans of the Master. Maybe by our ministry, our work in the local community, our love for the outcast and downtrodden, or our stand on social justice issues, the religiously unaffiliated will understand that we have a deep, intimate, loving, connection to the Master of our lives, Jesus Christ.

Every day, every moment, and every nuance of our life is an expression of worship to God.   More than our liturgical rituals on Sunday, our lives of worship, extends to how we treat the other, and how we show our esteem to God. Worship is not an act of persuasion by which, we try to sway God’s favor towards us.   Remember, God’s grace flows abundantly, and not because we deserve it or we have earned it, but because grace is a free gift. Worship is a response to grace. Our lives are a response to grace.

Consider your loving response to God. Try this little exercise sometime in a quiet moment this afternoon. Imagine Jesus walking beside you, and as he is pointing out to you, folks around you for whom, you are the only gospel they will ever see, he stops for a moment, places his arm around you and with loving kindness and mercy asks, “Who is it, that you will say, that I am today?”

A Blog by Eric Cooter

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