SERMON 4/21/13 Easter 4C St. Edmund Episcopal Church, Arcadia, FL

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Acts 9:36-43; Psalm 23; Revelation 7:9-17; John 10:22-30

It is wonderful to be with you all, the people of God at St. Edmund’s in Arcadia.  When Fr. Jim asked me to serve today, I was thrilled to be able to share with you a little about the ministry I am doing in the Diocese, and to hear from you, how God is moving through your ministry, here in Arcadia.  As the new Diocesan Missioner, our Bishop has sent me out to collaborate with and support clergy and laypersons in our diocese, who have a passion for a mission field we may not readily recognize, but one that is definitely located in our own back yards, and for people with whom we come in contact each and every day.

The religious landscape of our culture has been, and is changing at an unprecedented pace.  In 1989, 8% of the American population claimed no religious affiliation.  In 2009, that number jumped to 16%, and as reported in a 2012 Pew survey, a startling 20% of the population, now claim no religious affiliation.  This new ministry in which I am engaged, is focused on creating safe spaces for the “religiously unaffiliated,” to have an opportunity to experience the “Way of Jesus,” through the lives of those who are willing to step out of their comfort zones, and meet folks where they are.

My missionary vocation is to identify, encourage, train, and support folks who are willing to go out, and create safe spaces for Christian community to emerge and in places, where it was unlikely before.  I believe there is a great hunger for spiritual connection in our culture.  I believe it is in community that we come to recognize who Jesus is, that Jesus is the manifestation of God’s work of love in the world, and it is by living the “Way of Jesus,” people can experience joy, peace, love, reconciliation, and grace in Christ.  Making Christ known in the world is not merely a mission of the first followers of Jesus, it is our vocation in the world today.  We share a lot in common with those first century followers, and we hear about their struggle to understand the identity of Jesus, and why that truth is so important for the story of God’s saving work in creation.

In today’s gospel, we hear about an event in which, the religious leaders challenged Jesus to come out, and reveal his true identity. This confrontation took place in the temple, on the “Feast of Dedication,” also known as Hanukkah.  This feast was observed to celebrate the re-consecration of the temple, which had been desecrated by Antiochus Epiphanes (168 B.C.), as a part of his attempt to obliterate all Jewish religious practices.  Antiochus was the king of a dynasty, created by Alexandria the Great, and his name literally means “God manifest.”  Antiochus, through his oppression and destruction of temple worship, his oppression and murder of the Israelites, undermined God’s work of love in and through the people of Israel.  It is ironic that at the “Festival of Dedication,” a feast celebrating the overthrow of a false “God manifest,” that the opponents of Jesus, pressed him to reveal his true self.

Jesus said, “The works that I do in my Father’s name testify to me.”  One of my mother’s favorite sayings was, “you can judge a book by its cover.”  She usually used this little saying, when she confronted me about my occasional bad attitude or behaviors, which were less than that of a young, Christian boy.  In other words, if I did my chores versus, just being lazy and sitting in my room watching TV, the outward signs and actions in which I engaged, reflected something about my true character.  I believe the works (miracles, teaching, and self-giving love), Jesus demonstrated and embodied, was a perfect reflection of the character, and a complete image of the very presence of God in the world.  The Father and the Son are united in the work they do, and these are indistinguishable works.  For instance, God gives life/Jesus gives life, God judges/Jesus judges.

Jesus identity makes God’s presence in the world tangible, profound, and demonstrable.  God is revealed in the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus.  In Christ, God is palpably available to the world, and it is through the lives of we who trust in Jesus, the world sees Jesus’ work in us, and thus, they see God’s work of restoration, love, mercy, and grace.  Our mission is to make Christ known in the world.

For the past several weeks, I have been spending my Friday’s in a coffee house east of Tampa, in an area called FishHawk.  Friday is one of my “mission field office” days where I like to write, reflect, update my blog, prepare a sermon, or just “be” with people.  The best part of these “mission field” days, is that I get to know people where I “hang out,” and I get to establish relationships with folks, whereas I might not otherwise.  In this little coffee place, I came to know all the baristas who work there.  They share their stories with me, and I share mine.  We have established trust with each other, and we all look forward to chatting about the news, sports, of the previous week and yes, we talk about faith.

The other day, I asked the one of the baristas, a twenty-something young woman majoring in business at a local college, whether she ever had a church experience, and what that was like for her.  She said, “Yes, I was Roman Catholic, and I really felt that the space at church was holy and sacred.”  I asked, “Do you go to church now?”  She said, “No, I really think each person should find their own way, and I’m not sure I believe you need church to do that.” “Besides,” she said, “I’m not sure folks who claim Jesus, really reflect Jesus’ teachings.”

I have to be honest; this was difficult for me to hear.  She went on to say, “I do believe we should care for others, and I want to go and take care of the homeless myself, in downtown St. Pete someday.”  I said, “If you found a group of people whose mission was to serve the least, lost, and lonely; people who in all they do, they focus on going out and serving the broken and destitute, would you consider hanging out with folks like that?” She said, “Absolutely!”  I thought, “so where is the disconnect between her early church and experience, and this model of church she seems to long for?”  My young friend wants to experience the way of reconciliation, mercy, grace, and love found in the way of Jesus, the way of serving others.  We the church must show Jesus to the world, through sharing the work of Jesus in our own lives.

Jesus is more than, and other than, our traditional expectations of Messiah.  Jesus is more than a good teacher, a bearer of good morals.  Jesus is the very presence of God’s saving power in the world.  Jesus is the bringer of light into a world imbued with darkness.  Jesus is the purveyor of love into a world filled with disdain, detachment, and evil.  Jesus is the transmitter of life into a world that moves in the shadow of death.  Jesus is the source of grace, in a world where grace is both unmerited and undeserved.  Jesus work of reconciliation is the work of God, and Jesus’ work, is the work of each of us, who claim him as Lord.

Jesus said, “My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me.”  Are we listening?  Are we bringing light, purveying love, transmitting life, and sharing grace?  Our mission as the Church is “to bring all people into unity with God and each other in Christ.”  We, who have experienced the reality of Jesus’ work in us and are thus transformed, become the revelation of Jesus, for the entire world to see.   Our mission is to make Christ known, those who come to our doors seeking him, and those who may never darken our doors.  As our culture continues to become less and less “religiously unaffiliated,” the Master’s voice is becoming muted by the noise of other enticements.  If we are truly on a mission “to bring all people into unity with God and each other in Christ,” may in all we do, in all the ministries we engage, in all the gatherings of our community, become an opportunity to demonstrate God’s reconciling love, for the entire world to see.

SERMON 4/14/13 Easter 3C

imagesSt. Hilary’s Episcopal Church, Fort Myers, FL
Acts 9:1-6, (7-20); Psalm 30; John 21:1-19

It is a joy to be with you all, the people of God at St. Hilary’s. It seems like yesterday, but it was six years ago that my spouse Terri and I lived in the Fort Myers area. Back then; we were leading a multi-venue ministry, with the purpose of bringing people together, who were on the margins of the traditional church. This ministry’s purpose was to provide space to grow into a deeper love of Jesus, to experience the Risen Christ in each other, and to go out and share that in our daily lives. See, our culture has been and is, changing at an unprecedented pace. In 1989, 8% of the American population claimed no religious affiliation. In 2009, that number jumped to 16%, and as reported in a 2012 Pew survey, a startling 20% of the population, now claim no religious affiliation. Many people wrestle with why this trend is happening, and there is concern that we may see this trend in a growing number of churches in the United States.

Despite what may seem to be frightening statistics, I believe there is great hope. I believe that in each of us, the Spirit moves and breathes and gives us a mission, whether we know it or not. I believe God is always calling us into a deeper loving life, a life of joy, peace, and grace. I believe God is sending us out into the world to share God’s love with all of creation. The purpose of the ministry we served in six years ago, as unusual as it may seem, was to go and meet people where they were, and to create the conditions for a “safe space” for discipleship to emerge. In some cases the venues included our home, a coffee house, a local pub, and the parks of downtown Fort Myers, where we fed the homeless each week. Did it look like church, as we know it today? Probably not, but it was authentic Christian community emerging in places, it would not have emerged before.

So, after two years of this ministry, Terri and I were sent off to seminary for me to prepare for ordained ministry and then, after graduation and ordination, we served a wonderful, traditional parish for nearly three years, right here in our diocese. The need to continue Christ’s mission of love in the world, for the growing number of folks, who are on the margins of the traditional Christian community, and my passion to be engaged in that mission, did not go away. That is the work I am doing now as the Diocesan Missioner here in Southwest Florida. Our Bishop has sent me out to collaborate with and support clergy and laypersons in our diocese, who have a passion for this mission field, located in their own back yards. My current ministry involves identifying, training, supporting, and helping folks who are willing to go out, and create safe spaces for Christian community to emerge; in places where it was unlikely before. This work is really nothing new. Jesus called the first disciples to drop their nets and go fishing for people. The scene on the beach depicted in today’s gospel reading involves Our Lord reminding those early followers, that their Christian vocation was to be emissaries of Christ in the world. Jesus reminds us too, that “We are fishers of people.”

Early in the gospel narrative, Peter heard these words from our Lord, “Come follow me, and I will make you fishers of people.” Today’s reading turns that whole early experience upside down. After three years with the Lord, after all the miracles and healings, after the journey to Jerusalem, the trial, crucifixion, the sighting at the tomb, and (as we heard in last week’s gospel reading) the appearance of the Risen Christ in the locked upper room, Peter seems to have thrown up his hands, and decided, “I am going fishing.”

Peter was not going back to the kind of fishing Jesus called him to on the shore three years before. No, he was headed back to do what he felt comfortable doing, where he could be self-sufficient, and to do what he knew best. He even took some of the other followers along with him: Thomas, Nathanial, the Sons of Zebedee, and two other unnamed disciples. These were all followers who, in all probability, knew Jesus, who proclaimed him as the Lord, and despite their individual and corporate encounters with the Risen Christ, all returned to their trade and abandoned the mission. They all returned to do what they found to be comfortable, and they forgot the life-altering experience of God with them in flesh. Jesus did just not leave them to their poor choice of mission abandonment; he met them at the beach.

So, on the beach that day, the Lord called out, “caught anything yet?” “No,” they replied. “Try the other side of the boat,” Jesus responded. Notice that Jesus did not chastise the boys for going back to their old jobs. As a matter of fact, he demonstrated God’s abundance by offering some angling advice, which rendered the nets full of fish. Their eyes perceived visible and tangible evidence of God’s abundant care and concern in this little miracle. Jesus gave them what they needed in abundance with overflowing fish, unbroken nets, and then, he cooked a meal for all of them to share. Jesus loved abundantly, even in the midst of the rejection of his mission and he continues to send us out on that mission today.

Jesus invited those who turned away, to come to the table and eat, to be nourished, to be fed, so that they might go out and fish; fish for people. Sharing the Good News was their true vocation, it was their true calling and yes my friends, that is our true calling as followers of Jesus. We are messengers of Kingdom Love, and we the church, are to be about the mission of going out, and inviting all to the table. “Kingdom love” is in its action the work of inviting, giving, serving, sharing, eating, and loving together in community. It was this kind of Kingdom love through which the Lord revealed then, and reveals himself again, and again, and again.

What is this “love” like you may ask. Put yourself in Peter’s place for a moment. Picture yourself in this scene on the beach, with Jesus sitting next to you, looking you in the eye, with those loving eyes. He asks you, “Do you love me?” Maybe you answer, “I love you with all my heart,” or “I love you like a friend,” or “I like you Jesus,” or maybe, “I acknowledge your work and approve of it.” The answer may very well be different for each of us, but we all give some kind of answer. Then, Jesus pauses, looks at you again with love in his eyes (those eyes filled with a love deeper than family, than spouse, than anything we can imagine) and he says, “Then go and continue my mission of love.” “Whether you like me, love me, adore me, or worship me, it is where you are, but go and do for others what I do for you, feed them with what they need, just as I have fed you this day, welcomed you to this meal this day, cared for you this day.” The dialogue Peter had with Jesus on that seaside, fishing excursion, is reflective of the one he has with us, when he calls us to “Follow me.” “Do you love me,” Jesus asks. We answer. Jesus loving looks at us and sends us out on a mission of love into the world, a world Jesus loves so much that he died, so it might be reconciled to him. We are on a mission beyond ourselves. We are on a mission to share the abundant love shown us, in Christ.

How might we go about this mission of love? We find the answer in the promises made by us at Baptism. Let me read those, and if you agree, will you say, “I will with God’s help? (1) Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ? In other words, will you in your everyday life, remember that you may be the only Gospel people may hear? Will you let your life be a reflection of the mercy, love, grace, reconciliation, and the peace of Christ? (2) Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself? In other words, with everyone, I mean everyone you encounter, will you serve him or her with the same love Christ gives you? Will you take a risk and help the other person out of the abundance God has given you? Will you be an instrument of grace? (3) Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being? In other words, will you advocate for, work actively in, personally participate in bringing about justice and peace among the least, lost, and lonely in God’s creation? Will you look at all people, the poor, the broken, the unloved and work to bring dignity into their lives?

It sounds like a tall order doesn’t it? I look at the baptismal promises I made so long ago, and sometimes I think, man it would be so easy just to go back to the comfort of living my own life, worrying about my own needs, not making a stir in society, or just focusing on what I am comfortable with. It would be so easy just to go back to the kind of fishing I used to do. Then I realized this is not what it means to follow the one who risked it all for love. Jesus asks us with love in his eyes, “Do you love me?” We answer. “Then go and feed my sheep.”

The response to the abundant love of God is to feed each other (all of God’s creation), giving to each other (all of God’s creation) we need to create space giving the opportunity for others to experience dignity, peace, reconciliation, mercy, and grace. This feeding of others, the fishing for people is not merely the vocation of the professionally trained Christian, the lifelong churchgoer, or the paid staff. Feeding the least, lost, and lonely among us and beyond the walls of our gathering spaces, is the mission we have been given as God’s emissaries in the world. It is not an easy undertaking on which to embark. I do believe though, that by giving away the abundant joy, peace, love, reconciliation, mercy, and grace given us in Christ, we will find it even more in abundance. “Do you love me, yes Lord, I love you, then feed my sheep.”

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SERMON 4/7/13 Easter 2C Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd, Dunedin, FL

john granville gregoryActs 5:27-32; Psalm 118:14-29; Revelation 1:4-8; John 20:19-31

I am grateful for the opportunity to be with God’s people here at Good Shepherd, and it is a joy for me to serve alongside my dear friend, mentor, and former boss, Pastor Becky.  Nearly ten years ago, my family met Becky when she was serving as Associate Pastor at another parish in our diocese.  Becky was one of the people who saw potential in me, to serve the church in a unique way, and helped set me on this journey, this path I am currently on.  Today, I serve as Diocesan Missioner, and in this new position, I am being sent out by our Bishop, to cultivate new ways of forming Christian community, in an ever-changing, rapidly evolving, post-modern/post-Christian culture.

Why is this ministry important?    A recent Pew survey reported that 20% of the American population, claim no religious affiliation at all.  In a recent NPR story, it was reported that “a third of young adults in this country say they don’t identify with any organized religion.”1   In the geographic area of our diocese, 48% of the people claim to be “spiritual,” 18% say that “faith is important to them,” and 21% say “attending religious services is important.”

When we first saw those last three statistics, it became clear to the Bishop and me, that we have a growing mission field in our own back yard.  We realized that  the society into which, we the church is sent, to proclaim the Good News of God in Christ, is changing.  It would seem that we must respond differently, we must seek out new ways and fresh ways to revitalize our communities, and we must follow the lead of other church leaders, and plant new communities in new venues, by embracing fresh ways of being.  We must look deeply at who we are as faithful Jesus followers, shrug off that which holds us back from God’s mission, and be willing to take on those things, which will continue the mission, to bring all people into unity with God and each other in Christ.

The culture of multi-faiths, the mission field into which God is sending God’s people today to proclaim God’s love, is not that different from the one into which, the first disciples proclaimed the life-altering reality of God in Christ.   Consider today’s narrative through which,  we hear a familiar story about the events related to how those early followers experienced the first sightings of Jesus; post-resurrection.   In John’s account, the disciples were locked behind closed doors, gathered together hiding with fear and trembling.  Then in the midst of their paralyzing terror, the Lord enters and simply says, “Peace be with you.”  Unable to move, filled with doubt, overcome with unbelief, and lacking trust in the promises of God, and Jesus enters the scene and offers this simple encouragement, “be at peace,” and later, “don’t doubt, believe.”

Listen closely to Jesus’ exhortatations, and you will hear in each, the need for a response; a response to believe.  Let me clear something up here.  The belief Jesus refers to, is not merely an assent to a particular dogma or doctrine, per se. He is not merely saying, you may now acknowledge that I am here, you can proclaim the fact you saw me.   Moreover, I believe Jesus was saying, because you saw me alive, because death is defeated, because the promise that you will not be abandoned, because you see these scars, this flesh, and my presence alive, you can trust in God. Faith is when we live each day trusting in the promises of God and it is through that trust, we find peace.

I met a young woman in a coffee shop a few months back, and we began to chat unexpectedly  about faith.  She said, “I have no faith per se.  I’m not sure even I believe in the existence of God, and I’m curious how can you be so sure?”  I replied, “I can’t scientifically prove without a shadow of doubt that God exists.”  “What I do know is this, I see real reflections of God’s reality in the lives of people who trust in the way of Jesus. When I see how they trust in God, I myself am convinced that the reality of their faith changes things and thus, I too choose to put my trust in God.  It would seem then, that   when we step out and risk it all on God, when we begin to rely on that beyond us, we discover faith.”   She thought for a moment and said, “I think I understand, but it all seems too simple .”  I replied, “It is simple,  but it is not easy.  There are times when we trust, and there are times when we doubt, and that is okay.”   Wait a minute Eric, did I hear you say doubt is okay?

Absolutely, and I think poor Thomas got a bad rap!  Over the centuries, Thomas’ experience of the resurrected Jesus, has been mis-used to and convince Jesus followers that, “Doubt has no place in faith.”  Consider this question, Have you ever noticed, that despite how many early artist’s depict the Apostle Thomas and the disciples standing before the Risen Jesus with Thomas touching Jesus’ wounds, scripture never records that Thomas actually did it.  The same disciple who said he would not believe unless he touched Jesus hands and side, came to trust without the proof he demanded. Paul Tillich (my favorite theologian) once wrote, “Doubt isn’t the opposite of faith; it is an element of faith.” Without both faith and doubt, how can we embrace mystery, how can we be transformed,  how can we face uncertainty, and how can we imagine the possibilities of God’s grace.  Doubt is essential to faith, but doubt alone can create paralysis.  For faith to emerge, we must take a risk and trust.

Imagine what would have happened to the early Christian community if the disciples had not left the locked room, and proclaimed boldly the Good News. Imagine what would have happened if the Apostle Paul had continued to persecute the church, rather than making all those missionary trips to Galatia, Corinth, Philippi, and Rome. Imagine if doubt had paralyzed all those saints who built churches throughout the ages.  Imagine what would have happened if, when facing challenges, uncertainties, changes, and overwhelming fears, God’s people had remained paralyzed by doubt.  I am convinced that those saints who came before us experienced periods of doubt, just read the works of Augustine, Luther, and even Mother Teresa who absolutely experienced doubt.  But they also took risks and thus, it was because of their faithful witness of God in Christ that we are here today.  The story continues.

As I read today’s gospel, I love how the assigned readings come to a conclusion.    “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book.   But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.”  Notice that the story is incomplete and not all was recorded.  Maybe, just maybe, some of it left for us?   This community of faith is facing some exciting challenges, some wonderful opportunities and growth .  You stand at the cusp of a new day, and you are stepping out in faith as a community/ taking a risk, and investing in the future of God’s mission in this place.  God is doing a new thing here and the story of salvation is ongoing through your lives of faith.  The next chapters in the book of the God’s mission through God’s church, is found through the ongoing signs, the vivid reflections of God’s reality in your lives , the people who trust in the promises of God; the promises of love, mercy, reconciliation, and grace.

As we the church, embark in God’s mission of reconciliation, encouraging the ongoing renewal of the blessed traditional, inherited forms of Christian community, such as those to which many of us belong today, and by encouraging the development of new forms of Christian community, such as those I am supporting in my new ministry, I believe we can trust that God’s mission will continue .  Through us, even through the doubt, fear, and anxiety, through the  challenges, uncertainties, and change, our faith in those times, will most certainly serve as sign for others, that they may really see how we trust in God’s promises, how that changes our lives, and they too “may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing (they) may have life in his name.”

1 On Religion, Some Young People Show Both Doubt And Respect, by NPR STAFF, January 17, 2013, http://www.npr.org/2013/01/17/169450811/on-religion-some-young-people-show-both-doubt-and-respect

“Holy Week: From ‘Hosanna’ to the Triduum to The Feast”

by The Rev. Eric S. Cooter

“Holy Week” for Christians has been and is just that, the holiest of weeks in our liturgical calendar.  Through the liturgies of Holy Week, we experience a tradition that is centuries old.  Palm Sunday, the Triduum (Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and the Easter Vigil), all lead us to the Feast of the Resurrection of Our Lord.   The richness of these liturgies move us from “Hosanna” to the “Triduum” to the “Feast.”  It is important to understand the history and deep meaning embodied in the ancient rituals of Holy Week, which recall the Passion of Our Lord.

The liturgy of Palm Sunday begins the journey of Holy Week.  On this Sunday, there are really two services (The Liturgy of the Palms and the Liturgy of the Passion).   A discontinuity in these two liturgies provides a tension between the shouts of Hosanna, as Our Lord entered the City of Jerusalem, and the Passion Gospel that provides the narrative for the Crucifixion of Our Lord.  The Liturgy of the Palms usually begins in a place apart from the church.  The procession to the sanctuary itself, helps the participants to rediscover how a procession works on the body.  The actual movement in some communities covers some distance and it helps us to experience the reality of the distance traveled when Jesus entered the city.  The moment the congregation enters the church facilitates a shift in focus and at this point, the Liturgy of the Passion narrative begins.  It is this prelude in the liturgy that sets the tone for remainder of the week, the “Triduum” which is to come, the liturgies that prepare us for the great feast of Easter.

The “Triduum” represents a complete liturgical narrative of the Passion.  The primary focus in the past in many churches, seems to rest merely on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, but the Easter Vigil, the first Eucharist of Easter is the culmination of this week of ritual and mystery.  The “Triduum,”  the three days  of  Holy Week are a complete, interconnected liturgical journey that expresses the dramatic narrative of the Lord’s Passion.  The Triduum has its roots in the fourth century when Christians made pilgrimages to the Holy Land in commemoration of the Feast of the Resurrection.  As these Christians moved about the city, special observances (Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and the Easter Vigil) developed over time, and when the pilgrims returned home, these liturgies began to take root throughout the Roman Empire, and they werethe forerunners of the liturgies we often observe  today.

Maundy Thursday (from the root word “Mandatum”) is representative of Our Lord’s command to “Love one Another.”  This command is expressed in the liturgy of the “foot washing.”  The emphasis on this night is on community, the washing of the disciple’s feet by Our Lord, and our call to serve one another.   Maundy Thursday and Good Friday are a seamless whole and is usually expressed as such, because there is no dismissal on Maundy Thursday.  We move directly from the foot washing, to the last celebration of the Eucharist until sundown Saturday, to the stripping of the altar and then to our exit in silence, to await the liturgy of Good Friday.  The church remains bare throughout Good Friday until the first Eucharist of the year at the Great Vigil of Easter.  Some parishes observe a “Gethsemane Watch” right after this service.  The reserve sacrament (the Body and Blood of Our Lord) remains in an open tabernacle overnight, and pilgrims are invited to stay and observe a “Holy Watch” of devotion Our Lord.  This can be a very moving, special time for reflection, prayer, and silence.

Good Friday recalls the death of Our Lord.  Most Christian churches do not offer the Great Thanksgiving on Good Friday however, at this service, some congregations offer the elements of the Body and Blood of Our Lord from the sacrament, which was consecrated at the Maundy Thursday service and reserved in the tabernacle.  The liturgy of Good Friday itself is subdued and solemn.  While the congregation is kneeling in silent prayer, the clergy enter the nave in silence.  There is no musical procession during this entry.  The gospel readings offered on Good Friday, remind Christians that Jesus was in charge of the events of his passion, and it sets the tone for the liturgy.  The focus is on remembering that Jesus offered himself for the rest of us.   The ritual moves from the entry into the sanctuary, to the Liturgy of the Word, and then to the Solemn Collects.  These are the oldest prayers known in the Christian tradition, and they are the ancient form for the intercessions, offered by the congregation.  The congregation stands and these prayers begin with  a ‘bidding’ said by the clergy.  Next, with all kneeling, a lengthened silence is observed.  Next, with all standing again, a collect is offered by the clergy.   In some congregations, after the Solemn Collects are said,  a large wooden cross is brought into the church and placed near the altar.  The congregation kneels in silence and is invited to express some form of veneration of the cross.  Some people come and kneel at the cross, some kiss the cross or touch it, and some remain kneeling at their seats.  This is a very powerful moment in Holy Week. The Good Friday service can continue with the Confession of Sin, the Lord’s Prayer, Communion from the reserve sacrament, and then the final prayer.  There is no blessing or dismissal, the clergy process in silence and the congregation leaves in silence.

The Great Vigil of Easter has been observed in many different ways, and with different fervor and commitment, depending on the church and its history.  Historically, this service has been one of the most important of the week, as it represented the first Eucharist of Easter.   The timing of the Eucharist of the Great Vigil of Easter has traditionally been set after civil twilight, which begins at sunset and ends when the geometric center of the sun reaches 6° below the horizon.  Because it is usually observed in darkness, the beauty and richness of this liturgy, stands in contrast to the liturgy of Christmas Eve.   In some churches, outside the doors of the church a “New Fire” is ignited and from it, the Paschal Candle is lit.  The clergy, servers, and the congregation together, behind the Paschal Candle, move into a completely darkened sanctuary.   The Paschal Candle, the “Light of Christ” is placed in its stand and from it, the congregation lights their individual candles, and the Exsultet  (an ancient chant is said or sung.  From this point, all present take their seats and patiently listen to the “History of Salvation” which includes readings from Exodus and other biblical narratives, interspersed between chants or readings of the Psalms.  If there are candidates for baptism, the Great Vigil is an appropriate day.  From this point in the liturgy, the words “Alleluia, Christ is Risen!” is shouted, all the lights in the Nave are ignited, and the joyous celebration of the first Eucharist of Easter begins.    The Great Vigil of Easter traditionally stands as the culmination of Holy Week and most appropriately, stands as the Great celebration of Resurrection of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.   If you have never attended the liturgies of Holy week, I encourage you this year, to come and experience the deep richness and celebration of these ancient and beautiful liturgies.

The Rev. Eric S. Cooter

SERMON 3/10/13 Lent 4C “You are Accepted!”

Lamb of God Lutheran-Episcopal Church, Fort Myers, FL Joshua 5:9-12; 2 Corinthians 5:16-21; Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32

Dear people of Lamb of God, “It is good to come back home!” It’s hard to believe, but seven years ago this community sent me and several other folks, out to take a risk and explore fresh ways to serve Christ, in folks in need of grace. Together we developed an emergent Sunday night worship gathering, we connected with people in 21st century wells like a local karaoke pub and a coffee shop, and we fed the homeless in downtown Fort Myers. We welcomed the least, lost, and lonely into authentic, emerging, Christian community. We worked together through the Spirit, to provide space for reconciliation and grace in the lives of those, who were very unlikely to enter the doors of a church.

Two years later, this community sent my family to seminary to prepare for the ministry God was calling us to do. After graduation and ordination, I served nearly three years in a traditional Episcopal community as pastor. The yearning though, to explore how the church could engage culture and make possible, safe spaces for authentic Christian community to emerge in unlikely places, led me to share a mission dream with our Episcopal bishop. So, here I am seven years later, once again, and as Diocesan Missioner for the Diocese of Southwest Florida, attempting to partner with clergy and lay folk throughout our diocese, to bring the Good News of Christ’s reconciling love, mercy, and grace to folks, who may never enter the doors of a church; whose numbers are growing exponentially.

The “American Religious Identification Survey” reported that between 1989 and 2009, the number of people in the U.S. who claim no religious affiliation at all, rose from 8% to 16%. In 2012, Pew research reported that number had increased in just three years, to 20%. The landscape of religious life is changing and so, as it was 2000 years ago, the church finds herself, being called to go out and do as Our Lord did. We must go out and once again claim our vocation, as witnesses to God’s unimaginable love in world. We must reclaim our Christian vocations as ambassadors of grace and as emissaries of reconciliation in the world. We must do what Jesus did.

“And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” This is the opening phrase of today’s Gospel reading, a beautiful parable of “grace.” In church we use this word grace quite a bit, but what does it mean? My favorite theologian is Paul Tillich and he explains grace like this, “Sometimes at that moment a wave of light breaks into our darkness, and it is as though a voice were saying: “You are accepted. You are accepted, accepted by that which is greater than you, and the name of which you do not know. Do not ask for the name now; perhaps you will find it later. Do not try to do anything now; perhaps later you will do much. Do not seek for anything; do not perform anything; do not intend anything. Simply accept the fact that you are accepted!” If that happens to us, we experience grace.” The parable we heard read today is story of grace found through “reconciliation.” It is the story of a moment when light breaks into the darkness of relational estrangement, when relationships are restored, and people are drawn once again, one to another. Most of us have heard the parable of the Prodigal and his brother, and it may have become so familiar to our ears, that we miss the little nuances in the story, which offer an explanation of the depth of God’s unimaginable, reconciliatory grace.

First, consider the father in the story and his reactions to his sons. Imagine how offensive it would be for your child or a close relative to come and say to you, give me my share of your portfolio, now. “It’s my money, and I want it now!” In that culture, for a son or daughter to ask for an early inheritance, was tantamount to wishing their father dead. Now how foolish is this, the father actually gives it to him! Keep in mind, it was very complicated to just give up a significant portion of your wealth in those days. There were no corner ATM’s, no E-Trade brokers. More than likely, his father’s wealth was tied up in land and herds, and that meant actually going out and selling his land—liquidating his dearest material possessions. How foolish! The father was willing to give up what he had worked for his whole life, and merely for the sake of his son. What kind of love is like this? It is foolish love, and for many of us, we may have never experienced it and thus, we cannot seem to understand it. Things get even more foolish because, later in the story, the father does something absolutely incredible. When his son returns, the father doesn’t sit on the front porch tapping his foot saying, “when that boy gets home, just you wait.” No, the father meets his son half way down the road. As they meet, the,father does not condemn, chide, nor does he accept his son’s attempt to explain why he has returned. The father merely loves him as a son and welcomes him home. Listen closely, foolish love like this is not the logic of this world, it is the logic of God kingdom in which, even the least likely, the prodigal ones, and even those who are beyond the walls of the faith community, are reconciled, restored, loved, and given grace beyond imagine.

Now, consider the prodigal son, the repentant one, the who turned from his ways and came back home. Repentant … really? Are we so sure about that? Here he was in that pig trough (a horrid predicament for an Israelite – Kosher laws) and there, he came to his senses. I wonder though, was his coming home because he realized he had been a jerk to his Dad and brother and wanted to make amends, or was it because he was in the middle of the pig pen and out of desperation, he wanted a hot meal and roof over his head. Honestly, I don’t think it really mattered to the father whether his son was sincerely sorry for what he did, or if his son was sick of living with pigs. The fact is, the son came home, and the father was overjoyed. The foolish father (foolish in the world’s eyes) didn’t care what the son’s motivation for coming home was. I wonder how many of us have can identify with the prodigal one, or even with the father? Is it so hard to accept that God is overjoyed when our hearts are sick and tired of sojourning, no matter the motivation, no matter the intention? God welcomes us with open arms. Foolish love is something so hard for us to embrace, accept, and share, but imagine what it would be like, if we practiced foolish love like this with our sisters and brothers, and then take it one step further, and share it with those who have not even entered our fellowship?

So let’s consider the other sibling. He was ticked off at his brother and father, and rightfully so. I mean, he was right about his ridiculously permissive Dad, his wasteful and reckless brother, and he was right, even about how he had been faithful and hard working. But he, like many of us, often make a choice between being right and being in relationship. So, when his brother was extravagantly restored to the family by his foolish loving father, the older brother refused to celebrate the new life being restored. He even refused to acknowledge that the prodigal was his brother. He said to his dad, “This son of yours.” The father reminded him of the relationship he had cast aside, and reminded him that the prodigal one was “this brother of yours.” What if being in relationship with God and each other, were more important than being right? What if we swung open wide the doors of community and invited all into fellowship? What if loving God, loving neighbor, feeding the hungry, (spiritual as well as physical), actually trumped right belief?

Jesus taught us that in order to follow him, we truly must do as he did, and that means, we must love as he loved: God and neighbor … even the ones we don’t like, or even those we may not know. That is the ministry we have been given by virtue of our claim that Jesus is Lord. We are God’s ambassadors of reconciliation, and God’s emissaries of grace. So, how do we live into this Christian vocation? Sarah was a young woman struggling to make it each day. Nothing seemed to work in the favor. The car she purchased to get her to work each day was a mess: a broken bearing, engine noise, and now the battery was completely dead. She had just borrowed money from a friend to pay last month’s rent, and now the cost of the battery was way out of reach. As Sarah walked into the café where she worked, the look on her face reflected the darkness of despair that followed her.

There was a man, sitting at one of her tables who noticed Sarah’s unusual emotional distress. He overheard her call several auto stores trying to find a used battery with no avail. The man at Sarah’s table asked, “What’s wrong Sarah?” She told him her tragic week, and the man asked, “What year and model car do you have?” The man returned to his seat, searched on Google for a local auto store that had the battery. He arranged for the store to accept his check for the battery, and wrote it for the full amount. As he paid for his coffee and muffin, he looked at Sarah and said, “I found a battery for you at the local auto shop, and here is the model number and price. Ask for Jim.” She said, “I can’t afford that today.” He said, “Yes you can,” and handed her a check. She broke down in tears and said thank you. Foolish love can be a frightening proposition for many of us, because it requires us to step way outside our comfort zones, it means we will have to give up our desire to be “right,” and it will surely mean we have to go into those broken places of other people’s lives, meet them where they are, and shine the light of Christ for them through our love. See, it is when we respond to the needs of others, when we love foolishly, the grace of God, which is always present, emerges in us.

“Sometimes at that moment a wave of light breaks into our darkness, and it is as though a voice were saying: “You are accepted. You are accepted, accepted by that which is greater than you, and the name of which you do not know.” God is “entrusting the message of reconciliation to us” and we must go out and make it real, active, and transformative in, and through our lives. We need to claim and reclaim our true vocation, our common ministry, our response to God’s love poured out to us! “We are ambassadors for Christ, and God is making his appeal through us.” Amen

 

SERMON 02/17/13 Lent 1C St. George’s Episcopal Church, Bradenton, FL

Deuteronomy 26:1-11; Romans 10:8b-13; Luke 4:1-13
I love the survivor shows on Discovery Channel! Man, Woman, Wild is a show about a married couple of which, one is a Special Forces operative, the other a journalist, and together they team up to face the wildernesses of jungle, tundra, and desert. Dual Survival is a similar show that pairs up a naturalist skilled in Aboriginal living skills with a veteran U.S. Special Forces operative and together, they are dropped into some very difficult, wild places and forced to survive, usually for a week. I really like these two television shows. I like how the team of two work together to survive.

My very favorite survival show though, is “Survivorman,” starring naturalist Les Stroud, who is no Special Forces operative, aboriginal expert, or specially trained survivalist. Stroud is a regular guy who on this show, is not only the star, but also cameraman and producer. Each week Stroud goes up against some of the most difficult survival wildernesses known to humans. The most interesting part of this show is that Stroud is always alone: no camera crew, no backup plan, just him, a few cameras, and the elements. I dig this show more than the others, because Stroud is a self-assured, independent, “git er done,” kind of guy.

I think about today’s gospel reading, and I picture Jesus’ 40 days in the desert sort of like “Survivorman,” with Jesus all alone, in the wilderness, no disciples around, no camera crew catching his every word, no knapsack filled with energy bars and no magnesium flint fire starter. It was just Jesus, the elements, and the temptations that come with hunger, fear, and being left to the nature of our own character. Scripture tells us, “Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness.” From baptism in the Jordon, from the voice from heaven declaring, “You are my Son, with you I am well pleased,” Jesus is driven into the wilderness, a place deserted by others, a place where he was deprived of the aid and protection of others. Jesus was alone facing all that the “oppressor” had to offer. Jesus came face-to-face with the challenges of our human freedom, choice, self worth, desires/physical needs, and the ultimate fear; death. Jesus’ character, faith, and virtue were challenged in the wilderness. The Spirit led him there, and it was there he came to know what it was like for us to face the temptations of the human condition, and come to realize we are dependent on God alone.

Some folks believe the Christian journey is a survival showdown in which, we are tested and tried by God, to see if we are faithful enough or worthy enough. Even in the Lord’s Prayer it says, “And lead us not into temptation.” But I wonder, are we asking God, “please don’t tempt us?” I don’t think so. I believe, as Franciscan priest Fr. Richard Rohr asserts, “… that this phrase in the Lord’s Prayer, is best translated as ‘Lead us away from any illusions about ourselves.” 2
The temptation into which, we seem to be led always, is the illusion that we can in this life, rely on our own spiritual survival skills—that somehow, we are capable alone of wrestling with the temptations of our own freedom. The reality is that we traverse a wilderness in this Christian Journey—a wilderness of temptations driven by our own freedom to choose our own way and that is what distracts us from God. We are constantly deceived into a belief that we can survive without God. Surviving those caverns of self-assurance, those thick jungles of rugged independence, or those frozen tundra of a “git-er-done” attitude, means we must embrace a reliance not on ourselves and what we bring to the journey, but a complete and utter reliance on God. Lent is a season that reminds us that we cannot really go it alone, that we need to spend time focusing on our walk with God.

Lent, is a forty-day wilderness journey, in which we like Jesus, come face-to-face with our own human weakness. It reminds us, “what it is like to live by the grace of God alone and not by what we can supply for ourselves.”1 Lent can be a time of focusing on spiritual disciplines by which we “give up something” or “take on a special spiritual practice.” “Giving up” and “taking on” are quite virtuous, and I commend them to you during this Lenten season however, they alone do not a wilderness journey of self-denial make. This difficult journey begins with a heart change, a transformation of mind and spirit, in which we go deeper into the valleys of our need for God’s grace. In the next few weeks, I encourage you to enter deeply into those unexplored caverns, thick jungles, and frozen tundra of your very soul. Explore the depths of those never seen crevices, those illusions of your character, those places where the fear of vulnerability lies.

There are many ways to step into the wilderness: pray and listen, and then share that journey with others, in community. Commit to a practice of daily scripture reading: poke around in the psalms or Old Testament, take a hike in one of the gospels, or wander around in one of Paul’s letters. Take a leisurely stroll with God in prayer by committing to a few minutes a day to quiet your spirit with God. Invite God’s Spirit into your present moment, and listen for God’s work in your life. Then, bring that experience back to others, and share it with your sisters and brothers right here, when you gather for fellowship.

When we are intentional about entering the wilderness with God as our not merely our guide, but as our strength, sustenance, and very breath, when we walk that journey together with others, it is there that we find out who truly we are, and the illusions of self-reliance, fall away. Here is a little warning though as you embark on this sojourn in the wilderness of the soul, it will be tempting as the days of Lent wonder on, to cast it all aside for an easier path, but please, stay in the wilderness awhile. It may not be easy, it may become uncomfortable, it may even be treacherous, but if you truly rely on God to lead you, and if you let go of the illusion you can do it all alone, then I promise you this, you will not only survive Lent, but you will be forever transformed.

1 Taylor, Barbara Brown. “Settling For Less.” Christian Century 115.5 (1998): 169-318. ATLASerials, Religion Collection. Web. 14 Feb. 2013.
2 http://richardrohr.wordpress.com/2012/06/17/lead-us-not-into-temptation/

Reflection 4: “Emergence Christianity – A National Gathering with Phyllis Tickle” 01/28/13

Antioch and Jerusalem

I think a pivotal moment for me at the “Great Emergence” Conference occurred during the session where Phyllis Tickle compared the relationship between the first century Christian communities of “Antioch” and “Jerusalem,” to the potential relationship between “Emergent” and “Inherited” Christian communities.  To help articulate this correlation, Tickle referred to the early writings of Ray S. Anderson, a theologian and professor at Fuller Theological Seminary.  Anderson seems to imply that the mission of many Emergent communities are similar to that of Paul and Barnabas, who were sent “to establish churches outside Jerusalem–among Gentiles, who had to be reached in their own cultures.1”  On the other hand, the Jerusalem church was the established community that was steeped in the Temple culture.  Despite their common mission, which was to be a visible witness to the grace of God poured out in the world, their relationship was at times, fraught with some ecclesiological misunderstandings, and even some theological struggles.  Even so, Antioch and Jerusalem remained in dialogue with each other, they cared for each other, and they accepted that they had to minister differently, because of the very unique cultures within which, their missions existed.  The key point to the analogy  is that Antioch and Jerusalem need each other, and that need goes well beyond financial support.

Tickle in her presentations, alluded to an ongoing and yet, visible complexity which will exist in the ongoing relationship between Emergent Communities and the Inherited tradition.  For one, Tickle and Anderson both seem to assert that our relationship will go beyond structural perpetuation of the other.  Scripture reminds us that except for a small offering of support sent to Jerusalem, the Antioch community was not a contributor of merit, to the mission of the Jerusalem Church and yet, the “Missio Dei” continued in and through both communities.

As we continue to engage the “Great Emergence” movement, as we faithfully live in the dynamic cultural, political, social, technological, and religious changes happening every single day, we must strive to understand our unique contexts, and we must engage culture with the Good News of God in Christ.  “Jerusalem and Antioch” as a model for doing church in the 21st century, seems to embrace a core value found in our Anglican heritage.  “Jerusalem and Antioch” is a “both/and” proposition, not an “either/or” way of being church.  The Church of England who has been engaging in Fresh Expressions of Christian Community for some time, calls this way of the Spirit, a “mixed economy model.”  In other words, we do both and one way of being, does not necessarily replace the other.  On the one hand, we continue to celebrate and continue the beautiful tradition of the “Inherited” community.  On the other, we make room for, support, and remain in dialogue with the “Emergent” communities.  The “Jerusalem/Antioch” relationship of understanding, listening, and encouraging, may be the future we must embrace.  Maybe, if we do both with grace, respect, and openness, we will recognize and participate in the ongoing beckoning of the Spirit, to “come along side” the mission of God, in all its forms, so that we continue to be faithful proclaimers of the Good News, to the least, the lost, and the lonely, wherever they may be found.

1http://www.amazon.com/Emergent-Theology-Emerging-Churches/dp/0830833919

A Blog by Eric Cooter

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