Tag Archives: St Monica’s

SERMON Lent 5 St. Monica’s Episcopal Church, Naples 3/18/18

Jeremiah 31:31-34; Psalm 51:1-13; Hebrews 5:5-10; John 12:20-33

Dying to the old, so the new might emerge

Jesus said, “unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” If you have ever planted a garden from seed, you understand the concept of a small seed becoming a huge plant. In a way, a seed loses to its seed-like identity and is transformed by water and soil, into something more than it was before. However, if a seed is not planted, and if the water does not begin the transformation, it remains as it was, and never reaching its full potential.

Jesus is telling his first disciples and us that new life does not happen in a static environment, but rather it requires change. For change to take place, we must be willing to adapt and allow new life to emerge. We do not like change. We will hold on tightly to the things that we believe define us, which are often those things that make us feel comfortable. Jesus teaches us that we only experience the life he has in store for us, when die to our old selves. In other words, when we with faith let go, God makes things new. Have you ever made a decision, only when you were in discomfort, or you were forced to come face to face to new realities?

The little church that could

Two years ago, one of my responsibilities in my last call was to assist congregations, who were seeking to explore fresh ways and new mission approaches to revitalize their ministry. I was working with one particular church, located north of the Sunshine Bridge that had been experiencing decline for many years. In the late 1950’s this little community was a part of the post WWII boom of new neighborhoods springing up all around South Florida. Things changed though a few years ago, because neighborhood changed, and without the people of God even noticing. Many of the families that had once lived in this suburban area fled further out, when the landscape and makeup of the city began to shift.

This new reality and subsequent decline in membership came as quite a surprise to that congregation, and it brought great anxiety, as they saw their pews begin to empty on Sunday. Things around them had changed, but they had failed to adapt. What had once been a thriving, growing, risk-taking community was now a mere shadow of what God was truly calling them to be. This true story may sound a bit foreboding, but the truth of the matter is there is always great hope, even when things change. Why, because God promises to make things new. There is Good News, even in the midst of this kind of fear and anxiety that is, if we are willing to release the hold we have on our old selves, because the fear of change keeps us from that which, we are being called to become.

Greeks wanted to see Jesus

“Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” People outside the Jewish community were being drawn to the new Rabbi Jesus. The Greeks were considered outsiders to the Jewish community, but they wanted to see Jesus, which was quite shocking to his closest disciples. Imagine for just a moment being Phillip or Andrew, when all these outsiders decide they want to get in on the action. Put yourself in their shoes, when all the “Johnny-come-latelies” arrive to worship at the festival and yet, you have been with Jesus from the beginning. You become a little nervous about these strangers coming to meet the Lord, changing things, and messing with their world.

Phillip was so distraught over his fear of something new happening, which did not include the insiders, he ran and grabbed Andrew and then the two of them ran to the Lord. When they arrived, Jesus calmly and directly answered their anxiety with a parable about seeds, a story veiled in allegory and metaphor. They probably rolled their eyes, looked at each other and said, “Here we go again, another useless parable.” Jesus tried to teach them, by telling them to drop their preconceived notions about this new community of disciples, and whom they thought was welcome and who was not. Jesus said and I paraphrase, “if we die to ourselves and our own personal desires, and our own comfort becomes less important than allowing Christ to live in and through us, we will find a life that is everlasting.”

Conversion is what Jesus is talking about. Leaving behind that which we were, in order to embrace that which we are becoming is what Our Lord is talking about when he speaks of “dying to self.” Jane Tomaine in her book, “St. Benedict’s Toolbox: The Nuts and Bolts of Everyday Benedictine Living” wrote, “Over time . . . conversions bring us to a different place. We become a different person.” New possibilities, never before considered experiences, personal transformation does not happen when we are immovable, entrenched, stuck in the status quo, when we are comfortable, or when we are lethargic. We usually change through discomfort.

Life and Death and Life again …

If you have faced challenges in this life, it is very likely you have emerged on the other side of that experience a new person. If you have left a place a career to accept a new position, you may have died to your old identity, and you have emerged on the other side with a new vocation. If you have left a home that you loved, you may have endured a death of identity, only to emerge in a new place and a new life. We transform when in discomfort. Being a follower of Jesus does not mean we will have a life of comfort. We have to remember that Jesus was a change agent, a transformer, a reformer, a “turn-upside down the tables” mover and shaker, and the full revelation of God in the flesh. Jesus changed things up! He made the blind see, the lame to walk, the broken hearted to rejoice, and the mourners to celebrate.

So, following Jesus is not does not guarantee arriving at a particular state of being, only to remain there unmoved? Following Jesus means we are always changing and transforming, while facing circumstances in which, we will most likely fall down and have to get back up again. When we live life in Christ, we like Our Lord, must look into the face of failure and change, and even death, and say, “Your power is defeated,” because we believe new life is on the other side, and we will walk this faith together in community.   Transformation happens in community. I believe our world needs authentic, changing, and welcoming community just like here at St. Monica’s. Like the Greeks who came to see Jesus, there is a movement in our nation, there is bubbling movement of people who really want and need to see Jesus.

Show People Jesus

People are beginning once again to test the waters of faith, and people may be dropping into our church, hoping to get a glimpse of the Master’s face, in the faces of his followers. Are we ready for that? I believe we all have friends, especially today, who live with lives of uncertainty, despair, fear, and ambiguity. If we were to truly listen to them, I believe they may be saying to us (and without words), “I want to see Jesus. I want to see alive in you this Good News of faith, in the promises of God you claim.” You see, we the church will be the only lens through which others will see Jesus today.

If we are to remain a reflection of the Master’s face, in the years to come, we must be willing to shrug off our desire for “business as usual.” Like Jesus, we must be willing to adapt, to be nimble, and to be willing to change. That little church north of the bridge that I mentioned earlier is still alive and transforming today. They have experienced a renewed hope and a new focus serving their neighbors around them.

They have partnered with a local school, a local motorcycle club, and they are exploring new mission ventures, inviting their neighbors to do mission together. They are reaching beyond their own four walls to change the lives of their neighbors. They have died to their old selves, so the new life the Spirit is infusing in them is becoming incarnate through them. Jesus is planting seeds in his church today.

Now, like our sisters and brothers 100+ miles up the road, when newcomers come to their doors saying, “We wish to see Jesus,” all the visitors have to do is look into the eyes of those inside. They have been transformed, changed, renewed, and they are bearing much fruit. Like them, we too are being transformed. When our friends come to our community and say, “St. Monica’s, we wish to see Jesus,” we can say with confidence, “My friend, he is right here transforming and making new, each and every one of us. Please join us in this wild and wooly adventure.”

SERMON Lent 4 St. Monica’s 3/11/18

john316For God so Loved the World

John 3:16 is a very popular scripture reference for people who, with probably good intentions, yearn to share their faith with others. You often see professional athletes, like football players who put this verse on their eye black, or basketball players’ who write it on their headbands, or other professional athletes’ who come up with unique ways to display that scripture verse. One of the most well-known “scripture bearing” fans is the guy we see on television sitting in the sports stands, with the multi-colored permed hair, wearing a white t-shirt with “John 3:16” written on it.  You have to admit, he is motivated, committed, and he wears his evangelistic fervor with great pride.

If you carry a sign with a scripture verse on it hoping to evangelize, although it may seem like a good idea, it is not very effective. Using signs to convey a message is simply advertising. It is how businesses sell their products and services and usually, the consumer is somewhat familiar with the product. Sharing a biblical reference on a sign, in a culture that is much less religious and definitely unfamiliar with Christian scripture simply does not work. Besides, the meaning of John 3:16 is so much deeper than, “if you believe in this, you can avoid a terrible place, and in along with that you can enjoy eternal bliss.” The Good News of salvation is more than, “if you buy this face cream, you will look years younger” or, “if you drive a Lincoln town car, and sit in the back seat, you too can be as cool as Matthew McConaughey.” Conveying God’s plan for salvation requires more than a simple advertisement that it happens because of something we do.

In his letter to the Ephesians Paul wrote, “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God– not the result of works, so that no one may boast.” What if John 3:16 is not a marketing proposition to do something in order to become a Christian. What if the Good News is an announcement about the grace through which, Christ has completed the work of salvation, and all we have to do receive it and trust God’s promises.

Belief vs. TRUST

The Greek word for “believe” is πιστεύων (pis too’ own). It means “to commit one’s trust, or to put one’s trust in something or someone.” Thus, trusting in God’s grace is the key. Faith is more than a mental assent to the truth of Jesus Christ. Faith is when we put everything, every decision, every action, every thought, every desire, and every circumstance into the hands of a grace-filled God.

It is not easy for some of us to do that “trusting someone else” thing. Sometimes we “pick ourselves up from our bootstrap Americans, believe we can only trust in ourselves.” There was a time when I thought, “I built this whole life of mine all by my own doing and my own hard work.” Today, I realize that only be the grace of God and my constant reliance on Christ, have I been able to endure the difficult times that have led me to today. Theologian David Bartlett asserts, “In this Gospel, faith is above all the faith which decides for Jesus. When we believe in Christ, we choose to trust Christ, and we choose to live in the light of Christ and not the darkness. Faith chooses light.”(1)

Faith in the Light vs. Darkness: Nicodemus

The first few verses of the third chapter of John’s gospel, which we did not hear today, but are essential to understand its context.   John 3:1-15 recalls the story of a Pharisee named Nicodemus, who desired to meet Jesus. “Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews.  He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” Nicodemus believed in Jesus as teacher, and he believed Jesus performed signs, and that God’s presence was with him, but that’s as far as his beliefs could take him.

“Nicodemus’s initial profession of faith (“Rabbi, you are a teacher come from God”), (was) not as profound perhaps as Andrew’s (“We have found the Messiah”) or Nathanael’s (“You are the Son of God. “(3) I am not sure Nicodemus really ever came to trust Jesus, but he was pretty curious about this young rabbi. I do not even think Nicodemus was like the committed, dedicated sports fan in the stands who holds the sign with John 3:16 on it.

Maybe some of us are like Nicodemus. We believe in the truth of Jesus, but do we really trust him? Many of us have not fully come to the place in our journey of faith, where we can fully trust our very lives to Jesus’ care, but hopefully we all are on the path, trying to trust Jesus. God promises us joy, peace, and grace even in the worst of times, but even if we struggle to put our trust in that truth, we have grace because faith comes from God. Paul shared this idea with church in Ephesus, “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God.”

Life Everlasting

Today’s Psalm states, “Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good, and his mercy endures for ever.” That all sounds great doesn’t it, but what about giving thanks when we face tough times in life. If it all starts to fall apart in life, and if an unexpected disease invades our stability, or if a tragic accident changes everything, or if the safety net of financial security suddenly breaks, do we lose our trust in God and the truth he is with us in all things?

I know in my own life, I have cried out to God when real tragedy struck unexpectedly, and in those moments, my faith was challenged and my trust shaken. Theologian Thomas Long says, “To see (the promises of God) as applicable to us, to swallow even one ounce of this claim, we must admit … that we are captive to cultural and spiritual forces over which we have no control, that they have drained the life out of us, that we are unable to think or feel or crawl our way free, (and thus, we) are in urgent need of a God who comes to rescue.” (2) Trusting in Christ means we acknowledge and rely on the God who comes to the rescue, when all around us points to the absurdity of faith.

In a few weeks we will gather on Palm Sunday to move from the “Hallelujahs of Palm Sunday,” to the tragic scandal of the cross, to the glorious resurrection of Christ on Easter Sunday. Please remember that as we walk this journey with Jesus, we Christians must trust the One, who never strayed from the path of trusting his very life to the grace of the Father, even at the point of death.  (John 3:16) For God loved the world so much, that he literally gave himself to us, to show us the way, and to save us from the fear of tragedy and the sting of death. God promises God’s people life everlasting, grace, peace, and joy both at this moment, and on this day, and on every day, for the rest of our earthly lives. God promises us life everlasting now, and when we join the blessed company of all the saints in the life to come. The resurrection of Jesus Christ is the living and eternal sign of that truth, and that is one sign in which, you can without a doubt put your TRUST!







(1) Bartlett, David L. “Inclusive or Exclusive Grace.” The Christian Century, vol. 108, no. 7, 27 Feb. 1991, p. 227


(2) Long, Thomas G. “Just as I Am.” The Christian Century, vol. 123, no. 6, 21 Mar. 2006, p. 18.



SERMON Lent 3 3-4-18 St. Monica’s Naples, FL

spring-cleaning            Terri and I purchased our first home back in the Chicago suburbs in 1998 (20 years ago). With our pending move to Naples, we will have bought, lived in, and sold seven homes, but we are done moving.  With each move we had to do the difficult work of “spring cleaning.” It was not always easy to let go of the things that often weighed down the moving truck or required us to pack more boxes. It was critical though that we toss out a few things, in order to make room for the new things, experiences, and treasures God had in store for us.

Have you ever noticed that when we became a little too complacent as a follower of Jesus that we accumulate spiritual junk?  Maybe we kind of get into a soul funk, because we no longer take time to listen for God in silence, or we fail to pray, or we just muddle through our discipleship like it is a secondary to job, family, of recreation.   Maybe that is a sign that it is time to do some self-examination and allow God to enter into the hidden, broken, frightening places of our lives, and let God do a little spiritual “spring cleaning?”

Jesus’ “Spring Cleaning” in the Temple

The scene in today’s gospel reading is the well-known story of Jesus’ “Clearing the Temple” of Jerusalem.  The temple was the place where the people of Israel believed God dwelt and where their communal identity was centered. Over time the temple changed from a place of prayer and worship, to become a mere marketplace of monetary exchange and social interaction. “Part of the festival worship (of the temple) involved the sacrifice of an unblemished animal, (and) the availability of animals for people travelling from a distance was important.  (Likewise) one could only pay the annual “temple tax” in Tyrian coinage, so money-changers provided an essential service.” (1) So, the central icon of a people built as a place of prayer and worship, became a location of social and economic activities, for which it was never intended.

Jesus was appalled at the scene of animals being sold, and moneychangers doing their work in God’s Temple. Jesus said, with whip in hand, “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” Many of us have heard this story, and we are dismayed that Jesus, the meek and mild obedient Savior, would actually display public anger and frustration. This story has been used as an excuse for what some call “righteous anger,” but it has been used as an excuse for unimaginable human violence. Some have said, even Jesus got mad and beat the people and animals in the temple. Many scholars assert, and I agree, there was something more than mere Godly anger happening, when Jesus cleared out the Temple. 

Violence in the Temple or Something Else?

I believe that the “Clearing of the Temple” was an act of love. “But Eric,” you may say, “He beat the people and the animals.” I disagree because that is not what scripture says. Additionally, I grew up on my Dad’s farm, and I know first hand that the only way to get cattle out of the barn, in order to clean it and make it a better shelter is to firmly prod the cattle with a stick and coax them out. My dad and I often moved stubborn Angus cows and bulls out of the barn, so by cleaning it up, their lives were better.

John’s gospel “narrative does not depict Jesus beating the animals; but instead he (actually) saves their lives from sacrificial slaughter in a monetary and religious system.” (2) Jesus’ “spring cleaning” in the temple was not an act of Godly violence or godly anger, it was an act of love, which required the firm hand of grace, in order to save the lives of the animals and in a spiritual sense, the lives of the people who were defiling the temple.

Jesus is always saving our lives by clearing out the spiritual junk in our souls, the temple of God that is, if we allow it. Jesus will upend the worldly idols, self-focused altars, and un-reconciled relationship tables of our lives, which blind us from the way of grace. In a strange way, we are like the precious animals that were readied for slaughter, and by grace Jesus’ firmly “saves our lives.” 

We are the Body of Christ.

I know you heard that the church is the Body of Christ. Theologian Joel Wohlgemut says, “(the Temple of God is) the community, which draws its identity from the death and resurrection of Jesus.”(1) He says that the church today is like “the (early) community (that) . . . sees itself as the dwelling-place of God in the present context.” (1) The church is the Temple of God, the dwelling place of Christ, in us. At our baptism, we were marked with chrism oil, and “sealed by the Holy Spirit in Baptism and marked as Christ’s own for ever,” but baptism is much more than a water bath and a rite of passage.

At baptism, and at occasions throughout the liturgical year appropriate for baptism, we make specific promises to God and each other. We promise “to proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ,” “to seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself,” and “o strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being.” Lent is a season for us to take pause, to reflect, and to take stock of how are we doing with those baptismal promises and in a way, that practice is a part of our spiritual spring cleaning.

Spring Cleaning for Mission

When Terri and I sold the home we lived in while in seminary, we spent weeks getting ready to move to our first parish in Englewood, Florida. We owned a huge storage building that was filled with boxes of “stuff” that we had carried with us from Chicago to Birmingham, AL, to Florida and back to Tennessee. In boxes long forgotten, hidden in darkness from the light of the sun, we found things we had not seen in years. There were items covered with muck and dust that no longer represented the value they had in the past. There were cards, letters, trinkets, and memories that we needed to toss out and never see again. As a result of this process of cleaning out the old stuff, our moving truck was lighter, our burdens were less, and we traveled to our new home with much less stuff, junk, and clutter.

Each one of us needs to allow Christ to clear out the temple of our lives, the old storage buildings of our souls, the place where we hide things we would rather not have light shine upon. We need to allow Christ to enter into those dark places, and sweep out those bad memories, regretful actions, and broken relationships, which need to be examined and sorted out. We need to constantly evaluate how we treat others, (yes, even in the church) and on the golf course, or in our homes, or in our workplaces. All of that must come under the light of the Christ that dwells in us. As the Temple of the Living and Resurrected Christ, Lent is a time to clean out the caverns of our souls, so grace may become visible and discernable again.

As we move through remaining weeks of Lent, I encourage us all to pray, meditate, read scripture, and practice a daily evaluation of asking this question, “how am I living up to the promises I made at baptism?” If you take on a discipline of daily examination, God will make a way to clear out the spiritual junk. When we come to God with an open, repentant, contrite heart, new life will emerge in our souls. Be advised though, this spiritual “spring cleaning” may be hard to bear, because it will include some overturned tables of worldly idols, and it may include a whip of God’s prodding and coaxing of some unruly animals of sin and broken relationships.

Ready your heart these next few weeks of Lent. Intentionally invite Our Lord to clear out the boxes of hurts and pains, to remove the containers of broken relationships, and to toss out the baskets of forgotten things done and left undone. It is a good time to clear out the junk that weighs us down and holds us back, from accepting the truth that we are joyful, abundantly grace-filled, forgiven, redeemed, and reconciled disciples, God assures us that we are already so named because of his grace, mercy, and love.


(1) Wohlgemut, Joel R. “Where Does God Dwell? A Commentary on John 2:13-22.” Direction, vol. 22, no. 2, Sept. 1993, pp. 87-93.

(2) Alexis-Baker, Andy. “Violence, Nonviolence and the Temple Incident in John 2:13-15.” Biblical Interpretation, vol. 20, no. 1-2, 2012, pp. 73-96.