SERMON Proper 7 – Iona Hope Episcopal Church, Fort Myers, FL  6/22/14

Mission Impossible the second season DVDREADINGS: Genesis 21:8-21; Psalm 86:1-10, 16-17; Romans 6:1b-11; Matthew 10:24-39

“It is enough for the disciple to be like the teacher.” During this season after Pentecost, the scripture readings focus on discipleship. Many of the readings over the next few weeks will challenge us, who follow the way of Jesus, the way of life loving neighbor, praying for enemies and persecutors, turning the other cheek, losing our life in order to find it, etc. Often we hear these readings so many times over a lifetime, they may begin to sound like sentimental ideals, which if we didn’t have such busy lives, we might be able to take a crack at them.

Discipleship demands more than sentimentality and more than romantic ideals of following the master. Discipleship requires that we actively participate in a life-transforming mission of love. Some folks see this Jesus mission as maybe even impossible for we humans. Maybe so, if it had not been perfectly accomplished by one of us (Jesus himself), and then, left for us to continue. It is not impossible to follow Jesus.

When I was growing up in East Tennessee, I loved watching re-runs of the CBS television show Mission: Impossible. Do remember the show, how it “chronicled the missions of a team of secret government agents known as the Impossible Missions Force (IMF).” 2 It was great drama with the lead agent at the beginning of every show, receiving his mission briefing on a recorded message which, after the details were communicated, it would self-destruct in a little fireball.  Then, you heard that awesome theme music.

The great thing about this television show and later the movies, was that the mission these folks were assigned, always seemed to be just as the name implied, “IMPOSSIBLE.” The agents were up against insurmountable odds, overwhelming powerful foes, and they were always outnumbered, but they were able somehow to accomplish their mission.   The agents seemed like “super hero, ninja, special forces, over-the-top intelligent, techno-genius types who were always qualified and over-equipped for the tasks. If you watched the series enough, you would discover that they were just average people like you and me.

Today’s gospel reading challenges the thinking of we average people about what it means to be a disciple. The challenges Jesus outlines for following the way of love, mercy, grace, self-giving, and peace, may seem like something that can be done only by a “super hero, ninja, special forces, over-the-top intelligent, techno-genius” Christians.  Discipleship may seem like a “Mission Impossible,” but Jesus tells us that “it is enough for the disciple to be like the teacher.”

When we consider the life of our teacher, following him seems so much more likely for us. Jesus was born of peasant parents and later, he was baptized by his cousin.   When he chose his followers, he didn’t select the “first round draft” picks, he chose “second string” players like you and me. He hand picked a bunch of fishermen, a tax collector, a zealot, and some other outcasts to help him lead the movement.

Jesus then began challenging the norms of society, telling people that the Kingdom of God was very different from how life was in that culture and in that day and time. He had the audacity to tell people to “Love your neighbor, pray for your enemies, sell all you have and follow me.” Can you imagine? Then, he went around healing the outcasts and untouchables, and was often found hanging out with the “wrong kind of people.”

When his movement took on momentum, he was suddenly persecuted, but took no retaliation. Rather, he withdrew, and continued the mission. He was rejected, beaten, spat on, and crucified, but he never walked away from the mission of love. Oh, and by the way, the best part of the story is that his love, which was the essence of his mission, overcame death and he was raised from the dead. Resurrection is not a mere sentimental notion my friends, but it has been the hope of many generations that have come before us. This story of death and resurrection in Christ is our hope, a generous hope, which assures us that love will overcome all. That was Jesus Mission, which was not only to “think” of the other with compassion, but to live life for the other. “It is enough for the disciple to be like the teacher.”

Discipleship is not merely an individual endeavor because we engage in this mission as a community.  Discipleship requires that the church constantly re-align her heart with God’s, so that we might be like him. Theologian James Bailey asserts, “Most people today, if they think of the church at all, view it as a building that they can enter or an institution they might join primarily to meet their own needs and those of their family. They do not understand church more expansively as consisting of assemblies of people called and gathered by God to be part of a movement.”3

We need to recognize that we are not merely consumers of religious commodities. We are participants in a movement of God’s love, begun in Christ and it continues in an ongoing narrative enacted in and through us. Our mission is to confess God’s act in Jesus, by having and acting upon a genuine concern for mission in the world.

There is a paraphrase of Matthew 5:14 that says it a little more clearly, “You’re here to be light, bringing out the God-colors in the world. God is not a secret to be kept. We’re going public with this, as public as a city on a hill. If I make you light-bearers, you don’t think I’m going to hide you under a bucket, do you? I’m putting you on a light stand. Now that I’ve put you there on a hilltop, on a light stand—shine! Keep open house; be generous with your lives. By opening up to others, you’ll prompt people to open up with God, this generous Father in heaven.” This is our mission and our marching orders.

God’s people need to avoid the trap of trying to do this mission from within our own power, and with our own resources. We need to trust God, who is in interested in our hearts.  God desires us to love him with all that we are, and to love our neighbor. That loving neighbor part is critical because, “the church’s mission becomes credible only when the preaching of God’s mercy is accom­panied by merciful deeds.”3

God’s people need to overcome the fear of what others might think, do, or say about us, and the mission we are on. Jesus said, “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” That last phrase may seem like a veiled threat, but it is not.   Jesus was encouraging us to re-think and acknowledge that God is at the center of our very existence. I believe Jesus was saying that in the end, it is God to whom we must answer. It is really risky today to proclaim the faith, but remember, we are on a mission of love, a movement of reconciliation and restoration begun by God, the Redeemer who first loved us. This little tidbit of information should help us to not worry about what others might think, but embolden us get on with our mission.

God is the great lover. God is the faithful creator that cares for each and EVERY creature. The creator and redeemer are one in the same; God reconciling the world, inviting us to join the movement, because we all, by his love enacted in Christ, are already a part of it. “It is enough for the disciple to be like the teacher.”

Thinking back to the CBS Mission Impossible drama, there is one little detail about the show that is often overlooked. The IMF agents were never coerced or forced to engage in any of those impossible missions. Remember that part on the mission-briefing recording, “Your mission, SHOULD YOU CHOOSE to accept it.” Deciding whether we will try and be like the teacher or not, is a decision we all must make. To change, to be transformed, to take a risk, to share with others what God has done for us, to love the other with great compassion, to live without fear, these are choices we must make as the Body of Christ. The question is, do we choose to truly trust in God’s promises or do we choose to live in fear. Discipleship is not impossible. It really is pretty simple that is, when we come to place where we can accept that when it comes to following Jesus, “It is enough for the disciple to be like the teacher.”

 

2 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mission:_Impossible

 

3 Bailey, James L. “Church As Embodiment Of Jesus’ Mission (Matthew 9:36-10:39).” Currents In Theology And Mission 30.3 (2003): 189-196. ATLASerials, Religion Collection. Web. 21 June 2014.

SERMON Sixth Sunday of Easter – St. Thomas Episcopal Church, St. Petersburg FL

Acts 17:17-21; 1 Peter 3:13-22; John 14:15-21

“If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” I imagine some folks might hear those words, and somehow believe they represent some formula for gaining God’s acceptance, love, and grace. In other words, “Be good, do as I say, obey all the rules, then I will take that as evidence that you love me, and then you’ll be accepted.” Our Lord is trying to tell us something very different from, “you love first then, I will return the favor.”

God’s love is NOT something that can be earned, but we struggle with understanding this idea. My siblings and I were not always the perfectly behaved children, but our mother loved her kids nonetheless. Whether we did our other chores or not, whether we got into trouble in our neighborhood or not, whether we actually said, “I love you Mom” or not, my mother loved us first, regardless of how we acted.

Even when we messed up and treated each other with disdain and without mutual care and concern, our mother loved us through it. There were even a few times when she warned me, that if I didn’t get in the house and stop being a pest to my neighbors, she would tell my Dad when he got home. Honestly, the discipline I received on those occasions, although needed, did not feel like love, but in hindsight (no pun intended) it was. My parents loved us not because we DID or DIDN’T DO something. They just loved their kids, because we were their kids.

I wrestled all my life with the idea of unconditional love. I have had a hard time accepting the reality of unconditional love that is, until I had my own child. I adore my daughter. Despite her tantrums of the terrible twos, her parental disdain as an aging teen, and the sometimes forgotten Dad’s birthdays, by the busy and often overwhelmed college student, I care for my daughter unconditionally. I sort of get it now. I get God’s love for us – not fully- but I have a glimpse of its possibility. Unconditional, no-strings attached, “first on the scene” love, is God’s love for us. God draws us to Godself, and here is the really GOOD NEWS, “God ACTS first and then, we respond; not vice versa. We respond by loving God with all that we are, and “Loving neighbor as ourselves.” Those were Jesus’ commandments that he gave us to keep.

Sometimes, that second command of loving neighbor gets reduced to mere charitable giving or worse yet, it is forgotten altogether. GOOD NEWS often ends with us and the cycle of unconditional, no-strings attached, “first on the scene” love goes no further, than we who receive it with open arms, and then, we fail to share it with others.

Grace (God’s love) is a fountain of living water that must flow from the source (God), to and through each of us, and then, return to God in loving response. At our baptism, we make promises, or they were made for us, and we renew those promises as adults both at confirmation and throughout the year, on days appropriate for baptism. One of those promises is that we will commit to be messengers of God’s love in us.  We are asked, “Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ?” And each of us respond with, “I will, with God’s help.”

How do we do keep that promise you might ask. We begin listening to our neighbor, understanding our neighbor, being with our neighbor, getting to really know our neighbor, and then, inviting our neighbor to experience GOOD NEWS in and through us. We begin by loving our neighbor. That is not easy, because it means we must take a risk.

In her book, “Daring Greatly” Brene Brown writes, “Vulnerability is the birthplace of love, belonging, joy, courage, empathy, and creativity. It is the source of hope, empathy, accountability, and authenticity. If we want greater clarity in our purpose or deeper and more meaningful spiritual lives, vulnerability is the path.” That is what Jesus did, with his life, ministry, death, and resurrection, he was vulnerable to humanity. He got out there in people’s lives, the difficult, often unsettling places of human situations, and brought healing and love. So, love begins with God, flows to us, and the people of God are charged with the work of going out into the world, sharing Good News. That work is not easy, not like it was 10, 20, or 30 years ago.

Let me share some statistics with you about the religious landscape of our country today. (1) The number of people who claimed no religious affiliation in the US in 1988 was only 8%. (2) In 2012 that number rose to over 19.6% (3) Like no other time in our history, the number of young adults under 30 are increasingly less religious (33%). What does all that mean to us, you may ask. It means that the church must share GOOD NEWS differently than it has in the past. We cannot merely open our doors and expect the next generation to show up. We must engage people in ways that are honest, open, authentic, trusting, and non-threatening. We have to let go of our “get them in the pews” agendas and get out in the marketplace. This approach is not something new to the church.

In the reading from the Acts of the Apostles, we hear about Paul’s adventures in the metropolis of Athens. “Paul stood in front of the Areopagus and said, “Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way. For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, `To an unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you.” (Acts 17 NRSV)

“When Paul arrived at Athens in the province of Achaia, he came to an anomaly. Though its population was no more than ten thousand and it had been reduced to poverty and submission by its war with Rome (146 B.C.), it was granted the status of a free city in view of its illustrious past.” 1 Despite its economic/political challenges, Athens was still a great center of philosophy, architecture, art, and religion.

Scripture tells us that Paul, a devout Pharisaic Jew, and a newly converted follower of the way of Jesus, was distressed at the symbols of “idolatry” that existed in this city. I’m sure he wanted to just bust a gut to say something about Athens’ religious state and then, coerce them all to come to church on Sunday, but Paul took a different approach.

Rather than take out is handy Bible Tracts, Portable Bull Horn, and his best “Hell Fire and Brimstone” sermon filled with words that condemn, adjure, and rattle the cages of those idolatrous Athenians, he did something else. Scripture asserts, “So he (Paul) reasoned in the synagogue with both Jews and God-fearing Greeks, as well as in the marketplace day by day with those who happened to be there.” (Acts 17:17 NRSV) Paul immersed himself in the local culture, hung out in the marketplace, and met folks where they were, long before he proclaimed Good News or invited them to a worship service. Paul just hung out and got to know the folks to whom he was called to minister.

Things are not that much different today. Let’s consider your own back yard right here in St. Petersburg for a moment. The ministry field in which you are called to share GOOD NEWS is similar in many ways to the culture, in which Paul found himself in Athens. Did you know that within a 3 mile driving radius of this parish, 40,000 people live near the church. 48% consider themselves spiritual, 19% say their faith is really important to them, and 25.2% say it is important to attend religious services. Only ¼ of the people around you think it is important to gather as community of faith to worship the one who loves beyond imagine, but half are spiritual.

Folks, it is no longer enough for us to assume that people will flock to our doors. We must GO out there and develop relationships of trust. We must hang out in the marketplace, like Paul, and get to know our neighbors.

Did you know you have folks in this parish already doing this work? Mother Janet and Deacon Jon and several others from St. Thomas, gather each week “out there” engaging those religiously unaffiliated folks, those folks on the edge of church life. That is what Janet and Jon do each week through their Pub Theology community.   They get out there and meet people in their spiritual need, and they ARE GOOD NEWS to them.  Now, you do not have to be ordained as a clergy person to go into the world, you are given that ministry through your own baptism. Through small acts of love, by being Christ to others each and every day, you too can BE GOOD NEWS!

While driving back from Georgia this week, I listened to one man’s story of Good News, in one of the podcasts to which, I subscribe.4Image

A young man named Dan was driving down a busy interstate in a friend’s Jeep, when suddenly his tire blew out. He found himself on the side of the road for several hours without a tire jack. No one would stop to help him. Finally an old van pulled in front of Dan and a man came back to offer assistance, but could speak no English. He called his daughter out of the van to help translate. The two men worked together and finally got the tire changed. They both were sweaty, covered in grime, and exhausted. The man’s wife came out of the van with a jug of water and offered it to them to wash their hands and face. Wanting to thank the family and send them a gift for their help, Dan asked the young girl where they lived. Her reply was, “we live in Mexico, we are traveling to several farms for the harvesting season, and we hope to make enough money to return home and help our family.” Dan thought, “here, in my need, this family whose survival is based on the fact that ‘time is money,’ stopped and took two hours of their time to help a stranger. Dan tried to offer a $20 bill to the man and he refused, but he finally offered it to the man’s wife and she reluctantly took it. As Dan returned to his Jeep, the young girl yelled out, “have you had a chance to eat lunch?” Dan replied, “No.” The young girl offered him a tamale wrapped in aluminum foil and as he opened it, inside was the $20 bill he had given them. Dan pleaded with the man to take the money. “Por favor, por favor,” he said to the man, but he shook his head no. Then the man with a very stern, but gentle gaze looked into Dan’s eyes and said in broken English, “Today you, tomorrow me.”

Dan experienced unconditional love in a small sacrificial gesture from a stranger.   This powerful moment changed Dan who now, never misses the opportunity to help change a tire, offer assistance to someone in need, or show love to others through small self-giving acts. One acted first, the next responded in kind. My dear friends, God loves us. God loves us first, stirs our own hearts and we should love God with all that we are, and we should love our neighbors as ourselves.

Go out into the world beyond these doors, beyond your comfort zones, and get out there in the marketplace and BE GOOD NEWS. Meet people where they are, listen to them, and be with them as Our Lord was with us. Jesus, the Great Lover, the God of Love who on the cross with outstretched arms offered himself, was unconditional love. Jesus, whose giving of himself, reminds us that we are to love others, unconditionally, with no-strings attached, and we should be “first on the scene.” Jesus showed us how, and reminds us with the example of his life, “Today me, tomorrow, you!”

 

1 http://www.biblegateway.com/resources/commentaries/IVP-NT/Acts/Witness-Athens

2 Bader-Saye, Scott. “To See And Not To See.” Christian Century 119.8 (2002): 17. ATLASerials, Religion Collection. Web. 16 May 2014.

3 Beasley-Murray, George Raymond. “John 13-17 : The Community Of True Life.” Review & Expositor 85.3 (1988): 473-483. ATLASerials, Religion Collection. Web. 16 May 2014.

4 http://www.splendidtable.org/episode/478

SERMON Epiphany 4A 2-2-14 Holy Trinity, Clearwater

heart-on-fire-screensaver-main-view-middleMalachi 3:1-4; Psalm 84; Hebrews 2:14-18; Luke 2:22-40

                  It is a great joy for me to be with you all at Holy Trinity Clearwater.  My name is Eric Cooter, and I am the Diocesan Missioner for the Episcopal Diocese of Southwest Florida.  I serve on the Bishop’s staff overseeing a new movement found in other parts of the church, but one in which, we in south Florida, are just now beginning.  Through this movement we are encouraging renewal in our existing congregations and at the same time, developing new forms of Christian community in an ever-changing culture.  In addition, we are beginning a new project to revitalize campus ministries throughout the diocese, by developing opportunities for spiritual formation, leadership development, and local mission work involving young adults.  As in this movement, the church finds herself in a challenging time in our history and yet, there is emerging in our midst a renewed focus on local mission.  A movement that will require us to innovate, experiment, and to take some risks.

The spirit of risk taking is subtly evident in the gospel narrative we heard today.  Simeon prophetically became a voice for the good news when he proclaimed, “Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.” We find this beautiful sonnet set in the midst of the story of Jesus’ presentation in the temple.

Now, this ancient Jewish ritual in today’s gospel pertains to two distinct Jewish traditions.  Despite the interesting nature of the rituals themselves, I want to draw our attention away from the temple ceremony, and ask you to focus on the encounter between Simeon, the child Jesus, and Anna.

Simeon on that day, held the future of salvation (Jesus the child) in his arms.  In the simple experience of holding a baby, Simeon came to know that salvation was literally in his grasp.  Simeon experienced God himself in flesh, and that encounter was so transformative that he had to proclaim it to others.  Also in the story, we hear about Anna, who never left the temple, praying and fasting there night and day, and she was so moved by the encounter with the child Jesus that she too spoke about him with everyone within whom she came in contact.  Simeon and Anna experienced grace firsthand, and it was so great, they just had to proclaim it to others.  These two prophetic characters remind us that “the good news is not a private possession to be received and hoarded; rather the good news must be shared. “3

You see, the Spirit calls us who come together as community each week to be fed, to be nourished, and to experience God present in Word, Bread, and Wine; we who have experienced grace firsthand, to go out into the world and share that experience with others.  John Stindahl in an article in Christian Century questions whether or not our mere personal experience of grace, is really the end of the salvation story.   He writes, “Are we not both ethically and spiritually called to dissatisfaction with such partiality? Should there not be more, and should not the blessing be made something present, rather than just a memory of the past or a hope of heaven?”

In other words, “should we not with enthusiasm, love, compassion, and urgency be willing to share the good news of God’s grace with others?”  To share our experience of God is, by the way, one of our baptismal promises, “Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ?” We the Body of Christ are to be witnesses to God’s transforming grace, to a world that so desperately needs good news.

Theologian Jürgen Moltmann says, “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.”  We are like Simeon and Anna, a part of the narrative salvation, a part of God’s mission.  We today hold in our arms, the future of salvation’s story, and we are being sent out into the community in which, we have been planted to be bearers of Good News.  This is our mission!

Help the Church to Grow!  Why?  Missio Dei

If you ask most church leaders today, both lay and clergy alike, what their most important challenge will be over the next few years, most will probably say, “growing the church.”  The real dilemma though is discovered when we begin to wrestle with yet, another question, “why do we need to grow the church?” We need to ask if the reason we should grow the community is so we can merely sustain the building, the programs, and the tradition?  I believe only a minor part of the answer would be “Yes,” but only if we keep focused on the church’s purpose.  The church must grow in order to partner with God furthering God’s mission, to restore all people to each other and God in Christ.

The mission of God, the Missio Dei remains as it has from time immemorial however, the reality today is, we must go into new places, and discover new ways of engaging the people around us, and to do so with a renewed passion.  The mission field of God’s church is outside these walls, and that mission field is changing dramatically.  Technology is advancing exponentially and with it, people form relationships and community in new ways.   Social media, the expansive availability of data, and the ongoing demands for people’s electronic attention, is creating a growing need for people to reconnect spiritually, and to do so not so much online, but in flesh and blood community.  We are being called back to the basics.

There is a growing need for people to once again enter into relationships of trust, and to seek transcendence- something beyond them.  Yes my friends, I believe that in the 21st century, people are seeking God once again.  However, they are going to need passionate guides, risk-taking mentors, and trusting fellow sojourners who will walk the path of spiritual searching, alongside them.  Did you know that fewer people are affiliated with the institutional church today than ever before?  That does not mean their spiritual hunger has diminished.  To reach them, we must innovate and take a risk to re-engage the changing culture.

In 1988, a national survey was taken in the U.S. asking about people’s religious preferences.  In that survey, 8% of the American population reported they had no religious affiliation at all. That same survey was taken again 20 years later in 2008.  The number of religiously unaffiliated doubled from 8% to 16%.  In 2012, Pew Research polled Americans again (4 years after the 2008 survey) and the number had jumped from 16% to nearly 20%.  The landscape of American religious engagement has, and is changing.   Another startling statistic is that 33% of young adults under the age of 33 claim no religious affiliation.  More young adults are less religious now than at any time in our history and thus, I believe we are at a crucial time in the life of the church.

As Simeon stood with babe in arms, looking into the eyes of God’s salvation story manifest in flesh, we the church find ourselves looking into a culture that is unfamiliar with the very narrative of salvation we hold so dear.  The next generation of Jesus’ followers, lack a familiarity with the story, and they desperately need guides, mentors, and spiritual sojourners.

Throughout the diocese, we are beginning to go deeply into our culture by encouraging people to meet folks where they find them.  Right now we have alternative communities that meet in either local eateries or in homes each week.  Young and old alike, religious and spiritual seekers, churched and de-churched, gather together to explore the deep spiritual questions and to seek Christ in their midst.  The key to this form of ministry is not that we are trying out the latest hip evangelism fad in hopes to get folks in the pews.  No, we are creating space for authentic relationships of trust to emerge, so the visible presence of God’s grace in the people gathered, shines through.

This renewed form of evangelism and community development emerged out of an intentional listening process, which took place a long time before the first gathering was scheduled.  Fresh forms of ministry emerge organically when we invite those to whom we want to minister, to join and help us lead the movement. Innovative ministry in the 21st century rejects a previous notion that we have all the answers and now, we can just package it all up and take it to those not in church.  Rather, this fresh approach to an ancient mission practice, readily admits that we may not have all the answers and thus, we must listen first and for a long time, to those to whom God is calling us to serve.  This shift in mission approach is one of the greatest challenges the church has to face in order to re-engage in local, contextual mission in the 21st century.

SAY:  “WHAT NEW PLACES IN THE COMMUNITY WILL WE GO TO MEET NEW PEOPLE?”

Fr. Randy informed me when he invited me to preach today, that this is one of the questions with which, Holy Trinity’s strategic planning group will be wrestling, as you seek to discern God’s ongoing call on this community.  I think this is a great question, and I believe it will be a part of the difficult questioning which will be required, in order for the broader church to regain its grounding once again, as we partner with God in God’s mission.

The church’s purpose is partnering in the Mission of God.  It is not an optional program, a sideline project, or a small budget line item; it is truly the spark that ignites the fire in the engine of ekklesia (the Greek word for community). We are called to partner with God in conveying the Good News of love, mercy, reconciliation, and grace to all of God’s creation both by word, and especially by action.

Holy Trinity’s heritage is deeply grounded in mission!  As I prepared for my time here with you today, I perused through your website and it was not long before I discovered that you, the people of God in this place, understand clearly your call to local mission. On your home page it says WE are on Fire for the Lord!”  Do you hear the passion in that statement?  Just like Simeon and Anna, you have experienced spiritual transformation in this community and you are on fire to share that with others in your surrounding community.  The challenge today and in the future, may be how you explore igniting that fire in others, who may never passively, show up at the door of the church, as they might have done in the past.

Your website goes on to describe Holy Trinity in this way, “We are a beacon in our community.”  The church of Jesus Christ is truly a lighthouse in the culture in which, we find ourselves.  The challenge today and in the future, may be for us to ask the people that surround our congregations, “In what ways can we better demonstrate, teach, and model the way of Christ to you, and to invite you to join us in this journey?

I also read that you are a “loving community to each other and to the world and you love your neighbors as yourselves.” The challenge today and in the future, may be for us to work on creating new ways for mission to move outside these four walls and by doing so, we may go out into the community and make Christ’s love manifest in action.

Lastly I read that you “wish to grow the Body of Christ to serve Him, and share His love with others.”  My friends there it is clear, concise, and simple.  Your mission and your desire to grow, is so that you may share Christ’s love with others.  The challenge today and in the future, may be for us to constantly evaluate how, in everything we do (from parish events and worship, to fellowship and welcoming the newcomer) are we focusing on our core mission, to “Share his love with others.”

Sisters and brothers in Christ, what a wonderful opportunity God has placed before you.  You are living into the heritage of the saints before you, folks like Simeon and Anna, who stood at the great crossroad of missional engagement.  I want to offer some things for you to consider as you go forth:

(1) Begin this journey by prayerfully asking the Holy Spirit to give you a vision for local mission renewal.

(2) Seek out the people to whom God is calling you to serve, and ask them how God’s people can serve them.

(3) Invite those with whom you will develop new relationships of trust, to join you in developing ministry, and give them leadership in the movement.

(4) Trust that this is God’s mission and thus, you can truly rely on the Spirit to lead you on.

Remember, “God has acted in Jesus in a final and decisive manner, which requires humans to be set for or against God’s salvation; neutrality is not an option, as God’s work confronts humanity. “3   In a culture that is changing faster than we can fathom, God’s mission continues.  We need only adapt to the changes around us,  and continue our partnership with the one, Jesus Christ, who calls us to share Good News with all in whom we come in contact.   

 

NOTES/RESOURCES

1 Stindahl, John K. “Holding Promise.” Christian Century 119.25 (2002): 17. ATLASerials, Religion Collection. Web. 26 Jan. 2014.

2 Strickert, Frederick M. “The Presentation Of Jesus : The Gospel Of Inclusion: Luke 2:22-40.” Currents In Theology And Mission 22.1 (1995): 33-37. ATLASerials, Religion Collection. Web. 28 Jan. 2014.

3 Soards, Marion L. “Luke 2:22-40.” Interpretation 44.4 (1990): 400-405. ATLASerials, Religion Collection. Web. 28 Jan. 2014.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Missio_Dei

Sermon 1/26/14 Christ Church, Bradenton, FL

Redskins Cowboys FootballEpiphany 3A 1-26-14 Christ Church, Bradenton FL

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

Next Sunday, we will celebrate yet another huge holiday, a feast day of sorts in American culture, a day some folks wear the colors of their favorite sports community.  It is a day to indulge in festive foods: nachos, hot wings, potato chips, and Lord only knows what else.  Next Sunday, is Super Bowl XLVIII and the Seattle Seahawks will battle the Denver Broncos for the National Title.   Football fans, we will indulge in the great winter sport, but we will do so without once picking up a ball, putting on a uniform, or stepping even one foot out on a field.

In my childhood home, Sunday afternoons (after church and Sunday dinner of course) were spent watching football.  My Dad was a die-hard Dallas Cowboys fan, and I loved the Washington Redskins.   One Christmas, I asked for a one of those Sears catalog NFL Uniforms with shoulder pads and official helmet.  My crimson and gold Washington helmet hung on my bedpost throughout most of my childhood.  I was a fan for sure.

One Christmas I even asked for one of the vibrating metal football fields where you set up all the little plastic players, turned on the switch and they all moved across the field.  This game was a football fan’s obsession long before Madden Football was available on X Box.    At one point, I owned all the players of the NFC East division, and I spent hours playing an old fashioned version of fantasy football.

As much as I loved the game, as much as dreamed of catching the winning touchdown, I never once stepped out on the field myself.  Not once did I put on the helmet and pads and practice with a team.  Not once did I in the heat of the game toss the ball, block a tackle, nor experience the glory of getting on the field.  I was merely fan, a sideline “wanna be.” As the urban dictionary describes it, I was “one who copies or imitates all or most of the aspects dealing with their idol. They may wish to have certain clothing, skills, vocabulary, etc., of their idols instead of their own. Most likely a wannabe is lacking in self-confidence and is looking for guidance.”2 I can only imagine what kind of player I could have been, had I followed a caring coach, a loving mentor, or given a chance by a risk-taking scout.  What kind of player might I have been if there had been someone to help me get past my fears, to have shown me how easy it was to try, and to have helped me get out on the field and play the game that I so loved.

Many years ago, a great scout of sorts, a young rabbi was out looking for prospects to join his first string team.  The mission on which, he was about to engage, required a special team of players.  He did not go out to the best colleges (synagogues) and pick the first round draft choices, nor did he visit the great centers of power/government and choose the social elite. No, he went down to the shore, down to where he could find the working class folk of the time, and sought out just regular folks, and then, he invited them to hang out with him, and to watch how he played the game. “And he said to them, ‘Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.’ Immediately they left their nets and followed him.”  (Matthew 4:12-23 NRSV)

What always intrigues me about this story in Matthew’s gospel in which Jesus calls the disciples, is that these guys who were obviously working in the family business and possibly doing it well, just dropped what they were doing, left it all behind, and followed this rabbi guy.  Talk about being risk-takers.  Can you imagine what it was about Jesus in that brief encounter that was so compelling, so persuasive, and so undeniably attractive?

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

See the great thing about discipleship, which we get wrong so often, is following Jesus is not about being perfect, doing it right, or avoiding failure. The reality about life in Christ is that we just do not get it right a lot of the time. Folks, Jesus followers drop the ball, miss the tackle, step out of bounds, and sometimes fail to show up for practice.  Even so, the fundamental requirement to be a student, apprentice, disciple of Jesus, is to take the risk and just try.  We really do not have to worry about getting it right, we begin by leaving behind the “wanna be” mentality and get out on the field and take the leap to follow Jesus, not simply on Sundays, but every day of the week.

We disciples make the mistake of thinking that Sunday is our big game day.   Sunday is really our practice time; it is when we learn how to play game.  The community gathered on Sunday is the event when we learn from one another and encourage each another.  Sunday morning is when we are fed and prepared and sent out.  The really big event, the true Christian playing field is out there in our workplaces, in our homes, with our closest friends, and with folks with whom we engage every single day.

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

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

THE FINAL step in becoming a disciple is decision. We become a life student of Jesus by deciding.1  Remember the seashore scouting trip where Jesus said, “Follow me,” and they dropped what they were doing and did just that.  Notice that they did not drift into following Jesus.  They made a conscious decision to risk it all and give it a go.  Now being a disciple does not mean you have to go off to seminary and become a professional Christian, nor does it mean that you have to move to Calcutta, or join a monastic community, nor does it mean you have to sign up for every ministry leadership position in the parish. Being a disciple begins when we simply decide to be one, and then we practice, and here’s how you might start:

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

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

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

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

Being an apprentice of Jesus really is not that difficult my friends, but it requires a decision.  We don’t do it alone.  We have a great coach who believes in us, sees great promise in us, invites us to risk failure, dream what is possible, and challenges us to face our fears.  So, the invitation is clear, the team is forming, and practice happens right here in this place every Sunday morning.  Remember to mark your calendars because the big game starts on Monday morning and does not end until the Master returns.  You see, Our Lord believes in us and declares for all to hear, “You all can do this!”  The question with which we must wrestle, “Are we ready to step on the field?”

1 http://www.urbandictionary.com/define

SERMON 11-10-13 Proper 27 St. Boniface, Sarasota

2 Thessalonians 2:1-5, 13-17; Luke 20:27-38

“The Christian life is a challenging life.  These are the words we heard in the bishop’s letter I read to you, God’s people of St. Boniface, last week.  Often, the most intriguing challenge of Christian community is how we deal with the reality of power issues. Most communities of people, who gather in common life together, eventually have some formal and informal structures that define responsibilities, accountabilities, authority, and power.  Employing and sharing power in a Christian community is something that has the potential for unimaginable good, and at the same time, if conflicted, there can be implacable destruction.

There is a power struggle in the story we hear in today’s gospel. Jesus, the young radical, “change the system,” rabbi, Our Lord, encountered a power bent on his destruction.  In this particular event, several Sadducees approached Jesus and asked him well-crafted and disarming question about the resurrection. It was a blatant attempt to trip up Jesus, and topple his influence in the community. Why?  Because Jesus threatened the perceived importance of those learned and experienced folk, and the power and influence they wielded in the community.

The basis of the Sadducees argument lie in the fact, they did not believe in the bodily resurrection, and it was this differing value, which opposed the Pharisaic sect of the community and later the Christian community.  From this disagreement tensions and hostilities were ever present between these groups. The Sadducees on that particular day were blatantly making a power grab, by thwarting the authority of the young rabbi Jesus.  They were engaging in what some call the “Gotcha game.”

THE GOTCHA GAME

Have you ever had someone ask you a loaded question, and waited for you to fail? Have you ever had someone try and catch you in a compromising position, so they can exert power over you, and knock you off your heels? Have you ever had someone intentionally expose your weaknesses in order to inch ahead in the old ladder of success?  Many of us have experienced these scenarios in our lives.  “The gotcha game” occurs when someone intentionally engenders distrust, disharmony, and downright evil intentions, so that legitimate authority might be disarmed.  It is kind of like a “spiritual filibuster” or a “community shutdown” that just seems to expand and never stop.  Recent political “gotchas” have proven that “filibusters” and “shutdowns” are ineffective when it comes to complex problem solving.

I personally have experienced the “gotcha game” in my first career as a Retail Buyer.  For multi-million dollar product lines, I was responsible for managing and negotiating assortment, pricing, terms, delivery, and support partnering with large suppliers.  There were times I engaged in heated negotiations over issues, but you can bet, I took no risks when it came to the company’s assets, or the relationships I had with my suppliers.  Some of my colleagues engaged in the “gotcha” game in business, and they played it well, but there was always a price with this approach.  My colleagues usually set out to shift the buying and negotiating power to their side, by tripping up their suppliers, in order to put them at a disadvantage.  ]

In the end, by manipulating, maneuvering, and undermining the other, trust was lost, integrity was diminished, and long-standing vendor relationships were severely damaged.   What usually worked best in the realm of retail buying was to establish relationships of trust, to seek mutual support, and to respect each other when hard decisions had to be made.  The “gotcha game” really had no place in business, and the “gotcha game” certainly has no place in the church either.

Love your Neighbor

            The problem with the “gotcha game” in the church is that it violates Our Lord’s sacred command to “love your neighbor.”  The unhealthy wielding of power in the Christian community that undermines one’s sister or brother, is what Martin Luther called “a demonic spell cast upon the soul.”2 Luther described this power wielding “gotcha” as Anfechtung, a German word, which really has no accurate English equivalent.  As nearly as possible, it means doubt, inner turmoil, and pangs of conscience, despair, pain, temptation and a lot more bad things. Remember the word blitzkrieg from World War II–a lightning-like attack? Well, that’s about what an anfechtung is: a sudden, warlike attack on the human soul or body.2

Anfechtung always has devastating results.  The aftermath of such godless power, to accuse, manipulate, and destroy another person for whom Christ died, is quite honestly, beyond our imagine.  Anytime we choose to engage in the “gotcha game,” Christ is crucified anew and his body, the church, is wounded.”1

Loving one another is the remedy for the gotcha game.  Healthy dialogue is the alternative to the “gotcha game.”  Self-examination and releasing our innate desire to destructively wield power and influence, is the process toward peace and the end to the power grab.  Releasing power diffuses and moves us from anfechtung to reconciliation.  When faced with conflict, which is a natural part of moving, growing, changing, and transitioning, we need to practice the ancient spiritual practice of discernment with patience, so that reconciliation and peace might abound.

I imagine in the temple that day, had the “religious experienced” listened with patience, rather than the well planned “gotcha game” strategy, the story would have been much different.  Maybe the religious leaders could have approached Jesus with love and respect. Maybe they could have acknowledged his wisdom and respect the burden he was carrying.  Maybe together they could have dialogued, listened, and supported.  What if the religious leaders had taken a chance to be vulnerable and had spoken truth?              “Teacher, we don’t believe in resurrection,” maybe those words alone, and possibly, Jesus response, “let’s talk about that for awhile,” could have been all that the Gospel reported for that event.  Maybe if the story followed an alternative path, the ensuing well-lain trap to undermine Jesus’ authority, thwart his approach, and circumvent his mission would never have happened, especially if the dialogue had begun in mutual respect, integrity, and love.   How tragic!

Later in Jesus ministry, he faced the “gotcha game” once again.  While Jesus body hung almost lifeless on that hard cross, bleeding, broken, and near death, the religious stood pointing fingers, taunting, and possibly thinking, “we gotcha now.”  But Jesus did not succumb to the game, he like he always does, turns death in to life, despair into hope, brokenness into restoration.  In beautiful words that cut to our core, Jesus fully reveals the depth of God’s love.  At Golgotha, we are shown the vulnerability of the God of love, which is the kind of love, God demands we have for one another.

Jesus hung there with outstretched arms and said, “Forgive them Father, for they know not what they do.”  With these brief words from the lips of our dying Lord, Jesus overturned the power game.   Through the cross, the “gotcha game,” anfechtung, inner turmoil, pangs of conscience, despair, pain, temptation and a lot more bad things, lost their power.

God’s power comes not from manipulation, undermining, and maneuvering over and against the other, but from a love that finds its power in ultimate vulnerability.  It is in the work of God reconciling the world to Godself, that we are given hope of reconciliation with each other.   The icon of reconciliation is that beautiful Christian symbol we lift high as we enter this place of grace, and leave it to go out into the world to love and serve the Lord.   Redemption means that in order to experience love, mercy, grace, peace, and reconciliation, we must actually take up the cross of relational vulnerability, and die to the “gotcha games,” self-importance, and communal power struggles.  We die to the old self, so that we might be raised to new life in loving community where in our relationships, we reflect the grace of the “God, not of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of are alive.”

 

1Lueking, F Dean. “The Gotcha Game.” Christian Century 115.29 (1998): 993. ATLASerials, Religion Collection. Web. 4 Nov. 2013.

2 http://www.wels.net/news-events/forward-in-christ/march-1984/have-you-had-anfechtung-today

 

SERMON 11/3/13 “All Saint’s Day”- St. Boniface, Sarasota, FL

Luke 6:20-31

                  “But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.  In Luke’s gospel today, we find Jesus’ disciples gathering with him on a mountaintop, after he had been praying all night long.  From this lofty vista, Jesus chose twelve of his disciples to be his closest followers.  What a crew he chose: Peter (the bold and yet, first to run disciple), James and John, (the two who wanted seats of honor, over and above their fellow disciples), and there were others just as notorious (a tax collector and a zealot, just to name a few).  Jesus seems to call some incredible characters into a community of disciples, doesn’t he?  I guess the messiness of Christian community is what makes it so beautiful, hopeful, and reflective of God’s grace.

Jesus left the mountain with the twelve, and then entered a level locale for his discourse, which would turn upside down, the notions of human power differentials, social ladders and thus, demonstrate our need to constantly show love for one another.  There on that plateau, Jesus gave a beautiful sermon of Blessings and Woes, paradoxical sayings and ironic logic, which was counter-intuitive to our very nature.  Jesus in this sermon proclaimed that the Christian life comes with blessings and woes, and the Christian life, is a challenging life.

Jesus understood the challenge of our sociological peculiarities, and then he said something so outlandish, so out of the park, so “you’re kidding right.”  He announced that in God’s Kingdom we are to “Love our enemies.”   “Love your enemies” is not a simple suggestion or a trite saying that looks good on pewter statues, silicone bracelets, or framed artwork.  No, when Jesus told us to “Love our enemies, ” I believe without a doubt, he meant it.  “Loving enemies” does not seem to be of great value in a competitive, destroy your opponent, and push your own agenda world.  We don’t see this enacted in most political debates, especially those we have seen in the recent headlines.  Love your enemies just doesn’t sound normal does it?

                  The definition for Enemy which I found on Wikipedia is:  Enemy – a term for an entity, whether an individual or a group, that is seen as forcefully adverse or threatening. The concept of an enemy has been observed to be “basic for both individuals and communities”.  The term “enemy” serves the social function of designating a particular entity as a threat, thereby invoking an intense emotional response to that entity. 2        So, Jesus commands us to show love to those folks who are threatening; those folks who by real or merely perceived threats, invoke an intense emotional response in us.  Sometimes we are threatened when we experience change in our lives, or when our comfort zones are stretched, or when we face new fears or disappointments.  As a result, we may respond from the emotions of fear and anxiety, directed toward another person and in so doing, we wound one another deeply.

Sometimes we perceive others as enemies: folks whom we believe hate us, or we perceive curse us, or they actually abuse us; folks who strike us (physically or emotionally injure us).  We can easily recognize times in our lives that others have caused us pain.  Equally, each one of us most likely, can identify moments when we have inflicted pain on others.  Regardless of which side of the pain we find ourselves, the Christian life gets little dicey for us because Jesus teaches us, that a “like for like” reaction to hate, curse, or abuse has nothing to do with love, and honestly, it is not of God.  What is of God in the midst of each other’s pain, is that we embrace love reactions that include: “Doing good, blessing, and praying.”  That sure doesn’t sound like a good old catfight, an “I’ll get back at them” response, or a “just you wait and see” reaction, which we find so common in our everyday lives.

The reality is my friends; we are both saints and sinners.  We have a great capacity for grace, mercy, and love.  At the same time, we possess the capacity to inflict pain, create harm, and wound one another.   When faced with this paradox deeply embedded in each of us, Jesus steps on the scene, and lovingly demands, “choose love!”  In the midst of challenging community life, God calls for our “best efforts,” our best sainthood efforts, which “sums up the divine character (merciful even to the ungrateful and wicked) and the obligation on disciples to imitate this indiscriminate mercy for all. “1

“Love your enemies?”  Is it an old adage that has lost its place in today’s culture?  Is it merely a trite saying we learned in Sunday school?  No, it is a reflection of the divine character so “exaggerated and provocative (in) quality.” 1   Love your enemies, “is a command in search of elaboration, dialogue, and discernment.  It provides direction, but leaves the itinerary to the travelers.”  Is there Good News in the midst of paradox, pain, and wounded-ness?  Yes there is!  We who in this life sometimes travel the journey of broken hearts, and often times sit exposed to the rawness of wounds made fresh; always have before us, the choice to follow the direction of love.  The means through which we arrive at that blessed level place of reconciliation, God always leaves to us.  We arrive there only by God’s grace enabling us to incarnate generous acts of love, which in the words of Jesus include: doing good, blessing each other, and praying for each other.  It is on that level place of reconciling love, where our mutual participation in sainthood is desperately needed in this world; today and in the days to come.

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

SERMON 10/3/10 Pentecost 22C – St. Mary Magdalene, Bradenton, FL

When I was a kid, I spent many afternoons and summers working in my father’s television and electronics store.  Back then, I had the opportunity to explore the latest techno gadgets as they hit the market.  In the 1970’s, I listened to music on LP records, 8-track tapes and AM radio.  In the 1980’s, I listened to music on FM radio, cassettes, and I watched my favorite videos on MTV and VH1.   In the 1990’s, I bought CD’s.  Today, I download my music on my IPhone and can listen to it on my Mac, my IPad, or listen on my Apple TV device at home.  The music we listen to, as well as how we listen to it,  sure has changed over the past 40 years, and it is so much different than even 50, 60, or 70 years ago.

For example, one day while working in my father’s store clearing out some old boxes, I found hidden in a corner a beautiful, antique Victor Victrola.  If you’re not familiar with what that is, it is record player popular in the early 20th century.  This beautiful machine was huge and it had a wind-up motor, a felt covered turntable, a large metal needle and records that were so heavy, they felt like bricks.  As I explored the device, I found an old gospel album inside the storage drawer, and I decided to try it out.  I wound up the crank on the side of the music box, placed the record on the table, the needle on the record, and suddenly I was whisked back to bygone days.

There was an unfamiliar tinny sound to the voices and instruments, but the sound was absolutely wonderful. The song on that record was one very familiar to me, and I imagine most of us here today know the words.  “Amazing Grace how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me, I once was lost, but now am found, twas blind but now I see.”            Though the old Victrola was early technology and the song it played was a good old traditional hymn, it was as dear to me that day in the 1980’s, as it was for the family who heard it fresh and clear on that machine back in the 1930’s and 40’s.  In a moment, I was whisked back to a time when a family sat together listening to that old record player, enjoying a song that spoke volumes about a faith that informed their everyday lives, a faith that was passed on by generations before them, and to generations after them, a song of faith, millions of people still sing today.

We sing a lot of songs in church but all share a glorious song of love that has remained the same for centuries; the song of faith.  Now, the song remains the same, but what has changed over those years, is the medium through which the song has played.  From the early church, to the medieval age, enlightenment, reformation, to the modern era and now postmodern culture, the church has had to respond to cultural change, so that the song of the gospel might be heard in the world.

The world is changing at a pace like never before.  We relate through social media, and technology.  Using the internet we can access information like never before.  We’ve changed in other ways too.  Religious institutions do not hold the influence in culture that they did just 30 or 40 years ago.  Over the past 20 years, the number of people who claim no religious affiliation has increased from 8% to nearly 20%.  Nearly 33% of all adults under 30 are religiously unaffiliated.  Most of them have never stepped into a church, ever and many never will.

Here is the rub.  The Church, not merely clergy, is charged with the responsibility of passing the faith onto others, others who are seeking a community with whom they might find their spiritual identity, where they might join in the ancient spiritual practices of that community of faith, and where they might come to a spiritual place of conviction.  Our mission is not as easy as it was just a few decades ago, but we are still in the business of “faith passing.”   Our legacy of “faith passing” is a part of our tradition, which stretches as far back as the early apostles.  Faith passing is at the heart of the apostolic nature of the Body of Christ.

In his letter to Timothy, Paul wrote, “I am reminded of your sincere faith, a faith that lived first in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice and now, I am sure, lives in you.”  Theologian Alcye McKenzie asserts that this faith that lived in previous generations and now lives in Timothy  . . . is made alive and powerful for the present so that it can shape the future.” (Alyce McKenzie, Perkins School of Theology, July 2006 Interpretation Journal)

Our faith is a gift from God not merely for ourselves, but a gift, which we must pass on, through the power of God’s Spirit working in and through us.  Faith becomes alive in us and by our example it becomes possible for it to become alive in those after us. Today, we are gathered here in this place today, worshipping, singing, and praising God because of the Spirit’s power working in and through the faithful lives of grandmothers, grandfathers, parents, aunts, uncles, siblings, friends and mentors bore witness to God’s amazing grace to us.  We are people of faith today, because someone before us passed faith on to us.

In a culture that is more and more irreligious, we need to go back to this simple practice of meeting others where they are, developing relationships of trust so the basic conversations of faith, might emerge organically, grow without a membership agenda, and transform the lives of others.  We must be people of faith and people able to talk about it, without seeming to merely want to fill the pews.  We need to be seed planters of faith who toil the soil of relationships, and we need to trust the Spirit will do the rest.  To do this we must recognize the signs of faith emerging in others.  Many of wrestle with the very basic question of what is faith?

Faith is a way of life, it is a way of being.  Faith empowers, strengthens, and encourages us to face each day.  Faith makes it possible to experience the joy, peace, love in moments of fear and uncertainty.  Faith is facing each day peering through the lens of God’s amazing grace. Faith simply said, is trusting in God’s promises in all things.  Trusting that the way of justice, love, mercy, reconciliation and grace, changes everything.  Trusting God makes it possible to embrace joy, to look with anticipation to a new day, to embrace the present, even in the midst of circumstances we cannot control.  Trusting God helps us to recognize that fear binds our hearts and spirits.  Fear is the greatest enemy of faith.  Faith is looking at fear in the eye and trusting that “nothing stands between us and the love of God.”. Faith is like a mustard seed.  It only takes a little faith to recognize the nearness of the Kingdom of God.

Some say the opposite of faith is doubt.  I believe the opposite of faith is certainty. When we are certain, when the facts are clear, and we know without a shadow of doubt; there is no more room for mystery.  Where there is no mystery, we begin to rely on ourselves, and what we can control and thus, there is little room for faith in God.   The disciples wanted certainty.  They cried, “INCREASE OUR FAITH.” Faith is not about certainty.  Faith is living life, putting trust not in ourselves, not in human institutions, not and in our financial portfolios.  A life of faith is putting our trust in God.

God puts a song of faith in our hearts and the Spirit whispers that tune every day. We have to be willing to allow the faith in us to grow wild, to be organic, so like the mustard seed, it will grow and flourish both in those who are gathered here today, and in those to whom we are called to pass the faith on.  Don’t let your faith sit in a corner behind some old boxes, covered in dust and silence.  You also don’t have to broadcast your faith on YouTube, ITunes, or social media.  What you can do to participate in the work of  “faith passing” begins with your closest friends, with unexpected people in those chance encounters at the store or pharmacy, with your daily work colleagues.  It really is very simple.  Let your life be a song of faith.  Let your life resonate the grace in you, so others may join the chorus, “Amazing Grace how sweet the sound.”

SERMON 8/25/13 Pentecost 15C St. Mark’s Tampa

Jeremiah 1:4-10; Psalm 71:1-6; Hebrews 12:18-29; Luke 13:10-17        Listen (mp3)

We find a glimpse of God’s mission story in today’s gospel reading.  As you read through his work, “Luke’s gospel is filled with stories that reflect Jesus’ compassion and mercy for the poor, the sick, the infirm, and the oppressed.”1  For instance, at the beginning of Jesus ministry, “(He) describes himself as the fulfillment of the following verses: ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor’.”1  This scripture shows us the heart of God’s mission at work in reconciling creation:  good news to the poor, release for captives, sight for the blind, freedom for oppressed.

In today’s gospel reading, we see Jesus’ mission being manifested in acts of mercy, love, compassion, and healing.  The scene is in the synagogue where a woman of low social status, who suffered from some ailment and thus, could not stand up, appears among those gathered.  We do not know why she was there at that time.  She may have even gone unnoticed by the crowd, but she was not be overlooked by the Master.  He saw her plight, called her over to him, and with these simple words, “woman you are set free,” she was healed.  She was lifted up.  When I think of that story, I try and put myself in the woman’s place.  Have you ever carried a huge backpack or if you served in the military, a rucksack?  Under that heavy weight, you are stooped over and it is hard to move, hard to see what is in front of you, and it keeps you from being able to move forward.  The moment you drop that weight, it can be like pure freedom!  You can see people eye-to-eye, your limbs are free to move, and you feel light and ready for action.  See, the woman in the story, had not only a weight of physical affliction, she had a social affliction as well.  Because of the disorder, her community saw her unclean and defiled and thus, she was treated as an outcast from the community.  Jesus freed the woman from her physical ailment and she stood up, but he restored her to dignity and signified that healing by reminding everyone that she was restored to her community.  She was “a daughter of Abraham.”

Now the other character in the story is the leader of the synagogue who became enraged over Jesus’ flippant attitude toward tradition and rules; rules that seem to have lost their original purpose, which was to support God’s mission of reconciliation, restoration, mercy, grace, love, and healing.   You see, Jesus saw the woman’s plight, her cage of human inequity, her prison bars of social injustice, her walls of communal disgrace and he responded with love, with concern, with healing hands, and all else, including mis-applied tradition would not stand in the way of God’s mission of healing.

I want to be clear here, the leader of the synagogue was not really a bad guy, maybe a little arrogant, maybe a little obnoxious, and maybe a little over the top however, he was trying to be faithful by living out the law.  Even so, he forgot the whole reason for the law and tradition which was to set apart a community for blessing and thus, he was blind to the woman’s need for blessing and restoration to the community.  The tradition and law were the means by which grace might flow, not the end itself. The synagogue leader needed to come down off his high horse, stoop down to the woman’s eye level so that he, like Jesus, might see that she was his sister, and they shared a common need to care for one another.   In Jesus’ acts of mercy and healing, the prophet Ezekiel was fulfilled, “Take off the turban, remove the crown. It will not be as it was: The lowly will be exalted and the exalted will be brought low.” (Ezekiel 21:26 NIV)  You see, the Kingdom of God is a kingdom of human equity that includes liberation for those held in the bondage of injustice, poverty, and social division.

Many of us, like the woman in today’s gospel reading, struggle with some type of bondage.  Our culture pushes us to excel vocationally, financially, socially, and relationally and there are costs for that kind of pressure.  Long work hours, anxiety filled schedules, over extended finances, and unfulfilled relationships are some of the pressures with which, many of us contend.  It seems that life would be joyful, if we lived a little more simply, if we could shrug off the heavy burden of success drive, and get back to basics.  Maybe if we could just get outside ourselves a little, and see the plight of others, and maybe, just maybe in lifting them up, we might find the freedom of God’s peace we so crave.

Some of our sisters and brothers live with a whole other set of pressures, prison bars of another type.  Some folks near us struggle every day to put enough food on the table to sustain the lives of their children.  Some folks near us are unable to balance the choice between buying needed medications and the basics of life.  Some folks near us live in isolation, depression, and loneliness.  Some folks near us are like the woman in the gospel today and are seen as second-class residents, merely because they don’t have the right documentation in their wallet.  You see, the Kingdom of God is a kingdom where liberation and equity is for all who are held in bondage.  Freedom comes to all, when we all move closer to each other, and when we meet each other in our common story.

Stories seem to be what our culture today craves.  I think that may be why Reality TV is so popular.  I came across a new reality television show on BBC America the other day that starred Gordon Ramsey (UK chef, former football player – soccer for us Americans, a rugged guy, etc.)  The premise of this new show was based on Gordon being locked up in the infamous Brixton Prison in London, where he was going to try and set up a catering company to offset the expenses of incarceration. Ramsay recruited from Brixton, some of the nation’s toughest prisoners and taught them to cook on the inside, in order to sell their product on the outside.  Everyone Ramsey encountered thought his scheme was crazy; the prison bureaucracy, his friends, the vendors to whom he wanted to sell the prisoners’ creations, and yes, even the prisoners themselves.

Ramsey’s original motivation for this project was based on his frustration with the cost of housing prisoners.  He also was frustrated with the prison systems’ ever evolving movement away from its original mission.  Despite his early entrepreneurial and sociological motivations, Ramsay soon discovered in his encounters with the prisoners, a deeper, unseen narrative of human, tragedy.  Ramsay came face-to-face with a system that had moved from its original mission (to intervene and change a cycle of criminal behavior, addiction, and brokenness), to a broken system that perpetuates lives without dignity, purpose and meaning.  Ramsay came face-to-face with the stories of real people for whom society had given up, and those people had in turn, given up on themselves.

Ramsey came up against enormous resistance from prison guards who had given up hope for the prisoners’ rehabilitation.  Ramsay experienced the political wrangling of administrators whose adherence to prison regulations was more important than innovative, risk-taking solutions.  Despite the resistance, new life emerged for people held in bondage and so, after six months of working on this project, where one man offered hope, love, and purpose to the forgotten, new life emerged for 12 of the prisoners of Brixton prison.  Most of them began to understand and embrace teamwork, most of them began to care about the work they were doing, most of them began to experience transformation from a life of anger, bitterness, and lethargy, to a new found release where they experienced joy, pride, gratitude, and hope.

Ramsey, a tough nosed, controlling, loud, obnoxious, “f-bomb” dropping, foodie star, stooped down and entered a prison system and there, met people in their tragic stories.  There he offered them hope and in so doing, he too experienced hope, purpose, and meaning in his life, in ways he never imagined.  Ramsey actually showed love, concern, confidence, grace, and mercy to people with whom, he would never come in contact in his every day life.  Ramsey as well as the prisoners were transformed.  Ramsay saw in others something no one else saw, and he became a person of love in action, helping others experienced new life.   If we but open our eyes, if we but stoop down, we too can experience stories of mercy, grace, and love, where “the lowly will be exalted and the exalted will be brought low.”  We can see in action, the hope we proclaim, the faith in God’s reconciling work in creation, and the salvation for which we give thanks.

Most of us have experienced some form of liberation in our lives.  Some of us are still held in bondage, and yet God invites us to drop our baggage, take up the cross, and follow him.  The mission of God is “to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor,” as followers, what then is our part in that mission?  In the church’s catechism it states that our mission is “to bring all people into unity with God and each other in Christ.”  It sounds like a pretty tall order, and maybe a little vague at that.

It really is a simple mission, but we may need to ask ourselves some really hard questions.  How can we, as a community, be Good News to those suffering around us?  How might we bring healing to those in our midst, stooped over by bonds of injustice, poverty, loneliness, and detachment?  How can we go into the dark places of our sisters and brothers prison walls?  These are people that may be sitting right here beside us living in bondage.  There are definitely people in bondage beyond these four walls.

The Church’s mission is simple, we must go and meet the least, lost and lonely at their level, see them fully in the blessedness that Christ sees, and then with love, with hope, with purpose, and with meaning, help lift them up to new life.  We really have a pretty uncomplicated mission, if you think about it.   The great thing is, we already have God’s blessing to begin it anew every day.  “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”  After all, I know God believes we can do it, because with outstretched arms of love, he showed us how.

1 Torgerson, Heidi. “The Healing Of The Bent Woman: A Narrative Interpretation Of Luke 13:10-17.” Currents In Theology And Mission 32.3 (2005): 176-186. ATLASerials, Religion Collection. Web. 22 Aug. 2013.

A Blog by Eric Cooter

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