SERMON Easter Vigil St. Monica’s 3/31/18

Romans 6:3-11; Psalm; Mark 16:1-8

This night is the first Eucharist of Easter and in the tradition of the church, it is the primary feast appropriate for Holy Baptism. Baptism is full initiation by water and the Holy Spirit into Christ’s Body, the Church. The first initiates into the Christian faith were prepared for baptism during the long Lenten season, and their preparation culminated in baptism at the Vigil. Within the diversity of Christian denominations today, the Rite of Baptism has changed quite a bit over the centuries, but for mainline churches like us, it has retained much of its original form.

Regardless, we all pass through the waters of baptism, as the rite through which, we enter the great community of believers. We Christians share a common tie with Our Lord and each other, and because of that tie, we share a mutual responsibility to each other. Each of us has a responsibility to help each other grow in a deeper love and commitment to Christ. Walking in newness of life in the household of God is a communal journey. We followers of Jesus gather to strengthen our bonds of affection, so that we may proclaim the Risen Lord, to shout the truth that “the tomb is empty.” Our faith proclamation to the world is “Alleluia, the Lord is Risen, The Lord is Risen indeed, Alleluia!” All of us gathered here, and Christians throughout the entire world, have made the commitment to one another, that we will do all in our power to support each other.

We promise to bring our Spiritual Gifts to the Kingdom, so that we might together serve the least, lost, and lonely among us and wherever they may be found. We are all gifted by the same Holy Spirit who sealed us in Baptism and marked as Christ’s own forever. That same Spirit equips each of us with gifts of service, leadership, wisdom, giving, and so much more.

On this night, we gathered in darkness into which a new fire, the fire and light of the Crucified one, was once again rekindled and shone brightly in our midst by the Paschal Candle. From it we lit our smaller candles to bring light into the darkness of the church. From the Paschal Candle, our baptismal candles were lit as a sign that we are “Children of Light.”

Our lives are to be illuminated by the light of Christ, and through its brightness, we will change the world. Our faith reflects hope and grace for a world fraught with pain, uncertainty, and despair. Together we are the Church, together we are one Body, and together we are the household of God. Together we are sent out to proclaim the love of God, the reconciliation of creation, the empty tomb, the resurrection of Christ. “Alleluia, Christ is risen. The Lord is risen indeed, Alleluia.”

SERMON Good Friday St. Monica’s 3/30/18

goodfridayIsaiah 52:13-53:12; Psalm 22; Hebrews 4:14-16; 5:7-9; John 18:1-19:42

“We glory in your cross, O Lord, and praise and glorify your holy resurrection; for by virtue of your cross joy has come to the whole world.” (BCP p. 281) Today is the second hearing of the Passion Gospel this week. On Palm Sunday we participated in the narrative’s shift from celebration and the cheers of the crowd with Jesus’ triumphal entry, to the rejection, scorn, trial and execution of the Messiah.   On Good Friday, our attention is drawn dramatically back to Jesus’ death on the cross.

The cross was an oppressive, violent torture device used by the Roman Empire to maximize the pain, agony, and death of criminals who threatened the security of the realm. Its purpose was to keep the population in line, to maintain dominance, to stand as a sign of power wielded over the people it ruled. If you stepped out of line, you were sent to the cross as a public spectacle. In many cases, the person crucified may have been a real criminal, but they might have been an outspoken political figure, or an advocate against Roman oppression, or even a victim of injustice.

Jesus was neither, he was an innocent victim of injustice. The loving, reconciling, healing, presence of God among us became the target of Roman and the religious establishment’s oppression. Jesus was a threat to the power systems, with his agenda of self-giving love and the presence of the Kingdom of Heaven, he posed a great risk to the power-wielders. What they failed to realize was that the humble servant was more than a mere man, Jesus was God present with us.

God was present in Christ as a willing victim, whose obedience to forgiveness and non-violence, led him to the cross of Calvary.   Jesus was faithful to his mission of love and his ministry of non-violence despite rejection and abandonment. When in the moment he needed the disciples the most, he cried, “Let them go,” as the soldiers threatened to take his followers in the Garden.

Peter resorted to violence and drew a sword to cut off the ear of the soldier, but Jesus reminded Peter that non-violent love was the way of salvation. Even on the cross, as the terrible torture was near its end, Jesus cried, “Forgive them Father, for they know not what they do.” Then, he cried, “It is finished,” or it is complete.

Jesus never turned to vindication against the atrocities waged against him, nor did he retaliate against those who crucified him. He remained the loving, obedient servant to the last, and He became abundant love with no bounds, even a love so profound, that lasts in the face of rejection and death on the cross. Jesus revealed God’s love and forgiveness even in death, but his death was not the story’s end.  The cross has been transformed from a sign of torture, death and power wielding into a sign of the new reality of God’s grace and mercy made real. Jesus with outstretched is God declaring to creation, “I love you this much.”

In a few moments, you will be invited to express your devotion to the One who bore the cross for us, by showing our own devotion to a representation of His cross. At that invitation, please consider coming forward and praying at the cross, or You may choose to remain seated in silence, and pray at your seat. “We glory in your cross, O Lord, and praise and glorify your holy resurrection; for by virtue of your cross joy has come to the whole world.”

SERMON Maundy Thursday St. Monica’s 3/29/18

washemupExodus 12:1-4, (5-10), 11-14 ; Psalm 116:1, 10-17; 1 Corinthians 11:23-26; John 13:1-17, 31b-35

Over a decade ago, Terri and I, and several members of our young adult ministry team used to travel to downtown Fort Myers, to provide a hot meal for about 50-60 homeless folks, who spent every night living on the streets of Fort Myers. It was an incredibly humbling and leveling experience for us. We would sit across the picnic table and eat a meal with someone, who in our culture is often seen as less than, forgotten, and avoided. To be willing to have an experience like that, it will change you.

We listened to the stories of these folks, God’s people, and discovered many times that their plight was not because of laziness or a desire for a carefree lifestyle. To be willing to have an experience like that, it will change you. We served the least, lost, and lonely and to do so, the ministry team had to humble ourselves, so we might actually understand what it means to “love our neighbor as ourselves.” To be willing to have an experience like that, it will change you. That is exactly what Jesus Christ did for us, by coming among us and humbling himself to serve us.

On the evening before his death on the cross, Our Lord gathered his closest followers together and did something incredible for them; he washed their feet. In the 21st century, we may think that it was not such a big deal, but in Jesus’ time, washing the feet of another person was the job of someone of very low social status, usually a household servant. In that geographic region, the landscape was arid, dusty, sandy, and harsh. Transportation from home to work, from field to town, from village to village, was accomplished by walking. Sandals were the fashion back then, and of course, the invention of high quality walking shoes was several centuries away. You can imagine what their feet looked like by the end of the day. I am sure those feet were covered with sand, caked on with gunk, and you can only imagine the odor. The cleaning of feet had both a practical and social significance in those days.

When traveling guests stopped for a respite at a friend’s home, it was common for a homeowner to instruct one of his or her lowliest of servants to take fresh water to the entrance of the home, and wash each guest’s feet prior to entry. To offer this service, it was an sign of great hospitality and not a mere a practical gesture. The significance of Jesus’ act of washing his disciples’ feet was profound. Before the Last Supper, Jesus did not send a servant to offer that deed of humility. Jesus served them himself.

This event was of great importance to that little band of followers, and it should be, as weighty a sign of humility and service for us today. What we sometimes see as an insignificant ritual, speaks volumes to the very nature of God’s plan of salvation in Christ. God, in the mystery of the Incarnation, sent not a mere servant to reconcile us, He did it himself in Christ. So tonight’s ritual of foot washing is God’s invitation to be served by God through the hands of his followers.

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

Isn’t this what the gift of grace is all about? The reconciliation of humankind to God was not something assigned to someone else. It was not a job that was so insignificant that it was delegated to a flunky. No, God did it Godself. God took on flesh and walked among us. He offered himself not as a powerful ruler, king, sword wielder, but as the humble servant, willing to give all, for all.The wonderful thing about God’s grace, this free gift given us by the humble servant Lord, is that all we must do is receive it. Receiving grace gives us the strength to remove the masks we wear that hide our brokenness, so we may stand before God and say, “Here I am, wash me clean.” God does just that. There is humility and grace and both sides of the foot basin.

The gesture of washing each other’s feet signifies our commitment to each other.   To allow a sister or brother to wash your feet, shows that we are a community of commitment, service, and mutual love. On the eve before he offered himself to death on the cross, as the humbled, self-giving servant, Our Lord used this very significant moment, this significant act to teach us, to encourage us, and to command us to love one another. Tonight, I invite each of you to come forward, wash each other’s feet as a sign of commitment and our mutual love for God, and for one another. There is humility and grace and both sides of the foot basin, and to be willing to have an experience like that, it will change you.

 

 

Holy Tuesday 3/27/18 St. Monica’s Episcopal Church, Naples. FL

sym-sal-inIsaiah 49:1-7; Psalm 71:1-14; 1 Corinthians 1:18-31;John 12:20-36

A fool for Christ … the call of discipleship

Paul wrote to the Church in Corinth, “The message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” Stephen Colbert’s “The Colbert Report,” before his move to “The Late Show” was at one time, one of my favorite television shows. In an interview with Thomas Rosica, “Colbert describes his persona on the Colbert Report as a “pundit” – someone who is blissfully unaware of important facts, but confident in the rightness of his feelings.”(1) The interviewer asked him later, what it means to be a “fool for Christ.” Colbert responded, “the willingness “to be wrong in society, or wrong according to our time, but right according to our conscience, as guided by the Holy Spirit.”

Being a fool for Christ though, according to Colbert cannot be a way of life lived only in our own conscience, because we are imperfect and we show up to God’s party with our own baskets of life junk. Our worldview is framed by our experiences good and bad. Colbert said this about faith, “Logic itself will not lead me to God, but my love of the world and my gratitude for it will.” (1) Thus, to be a “fool for Christ,” we must allow ourselves to be guided by the Holy Spirit, and that my friends, happens in community.

 

Discerning Fools for Christ … listening for God’s guidance together

The Christian community is the gathering of God’s people for fellowship, teaching, the breaking of bread, the prayers, and for service to others, but we must also be equipped and empowered for mission. My mother used to say, “You are the company you keep.” Being with other people, sharing our common stories, learning from one another frames our understanding of life.  Being guided by the Holy Spirit requires us to be a discerning community that together wrestles with the difficult, and what society would call, foolish notions of faith.

The Book of Common Prayer says this about the Holy Spirit, “The Church is holy, because the Holy Spirit dwells in it, consecrates its members, and guides them to do God’s work.” The Holy Spirit is present, and guides, and directs the church in prayer, in baptism, in the Eucharist, in our work, and in our gathering together. So to be “Fools for Christ” we must together discern God’s leading in our mission, our fellowship, our study, and our faith. If we are to share the Good News in the world, we must be “Fools for Christ” and by so-doing, we become “Children of Light” and thus, we become a lighthouse to our community.

 

Illumined by God as Icons of Christ

Jesus said, “believe in the light, so that you may become children of light.” The world may say we who believe in the sacred are fools, but if we live as lights in the darkness of this world, others will be drawn to the light. It may be illogical for some to see Christians serving our neighbors, feeding the poor, providing needed supplies for children, sitting with the elderly, or visiting the sick or destitute. We do this ministry not because we want to merely do good, but because we follow Our Lord who hung on a tree, and was executed because of his self-giving love for all. As Stephen Colbert said in the interview with Roscia, “Logic itself will not lead me to God, but my love of the world and my gratitude for it will.”

Are you a “Fool for Christ?” The question itself sounds offensive, but I must admit I am a “Fool for Christ.” Logic tells me that throughout my life, responding in faith and to leave behind career, home, and friends to be of service to God’s people and the cause of justice, reconciliation, and peace in Christ may be seen as just plain foolishness. So yes, I am a Fool for Christ, but I also hope that in so doing, I am becoming a “Child of the Light” but not alone, and only with God’s people.

Together we gather in the power of God’s Spirit active in this community, so that we might go out into the darkness of the world and bring joy, peace, and solace. So, as a community of light, our “affirmation of faith … (cannot) become like Stephen Colbert’s idiotic alter ego, (but) instead … (our witness must exude) … an irresistible joy,” even while facing ridicule for being so “wrong” according to society. We must be fools and lighthouses in this world, a world that needs God’s grace so desperately. We can do tha work, if we trust, rely on, and are guided by the Holy Spirit, “who leads us into all truth and enables us to grow in the likeness of Christ.” (2)

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REFERENCES

(1) https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/trevin-wax/stephen-colbert-on-being-a-fool-for-christ/

 

(2) The Book of Common Prayer, p. 852

SERMON Palm Sunday St. Monica’s 3/25/18

palm-sunday-hosanna-king-jesus-cross-hd-wallpaperIsaiah 50:4-9a; Psalm 31:9-16; Philippians 2:5-11; Mark 14:1-15:47

Do you enjoy an intriguing story filled with irony, where the storyline begins one way, and then suddenly the tables are turned and something surprising happens that you did not expect, and you are left thinking, what is my part in this story? Today’s gospel, quickly takes us from a scene of triumphant celebration, ecstatic crowds, and hope, to betrayal, dissatisfaction, plots, torture, and death. The Liturgy of the Palms allows us to enact the great drama, by joining with those who welcomed Jesus into the Jerusalem 2000 years ago. Like that crowd, as we entered the doors of the church our voices sang, “All Glory, Laud, and Honor.” We all took our seats, and as we hear the Gospel narrated, the tone of the service abruptly changed, and with great somberness, the drama shifted. Through the narrative reading of the gospel, we moved from joining the crowd shouting “All Glory, Laud and Honor,” to suddenly we joined the crowd shouting, “Crucify him!” The irony is palpable.

The people of Jerusalem had big hopes for their anticipated King, but those hopes were misguided. That city’s residents expected Jesus to bring about social and political liberation from the Roman oppressors. The people’s hopes hung on a desire to restore the former power and glory and independence of their nation Israel. The crowds sought a powerful leader, a political redeemer, a charismatic king, but what they got was just the opposite. God in flesh came to be self-giving love, and that mission led him to be lain on the hard wood of the cross, which ironically became instrument for the true redemption of humanity. They wanted things their way, but God’s plan was different, and the crowd’s disappointment led to scandal. From jubilation to accusation, the story took us to the trial before Pilate.

I wonder what we would have done that day had we been in the crowd at Jesus’ trial. It is a difficult thing to imagine what our reactions would have been, because now we live on the other side of crucifixion and resurrection. Imagine that scene though, and consider honestly, what would you have said? My fear is that I would have joined the voices of the bloodthirsty, disappointed, resentful crowd. The people chose to reject Jesus and in their hearts said, “we wanted a king, we are not happy, let’s kill this man.” The rejection of Jesus, at some level, seems to be a part of the Christian journey.

Peter denied him three times, Judas betrayed him; all of the disciples abandoned him at his arrest, and all of them hid in locked rooms after the crucifixion.   Nonetheless, despite rejection by his closest followers, Jesus overcame the greatest possible abandonment, which is death. Despite the risk of our human rejection, God’s love continues to flow to us freely and we call that grace. God always shows up and claims us as his own.   But wait, I have jumped the story, and like many of us I want to move past the scandal of the cross and go straight to the joy of resurrection. We are just not there yet. We are here today awaiting Jesus’ journey to the cross. The palms have been waved, the cheering has ceased, the betrayal is looming, the arrest is around the corner, the trial is planned, and we know what this coming on this Friday. No, we cannot jump to resurrection Sunday just yet, because we must wrestle with the question, “what is my part in God’s rejection?”

Today, we heard the Gospel narrative, and hopefully we considered our choices, when it comes to making a decision to follow Christ. We reflect on the internal struggle about whether to cheer for and follow the young rabbi, the King, the Messiah, the Son of God, or to follow our own way and rebuff grace. Jesus invites us to follow him wherever that might lead; into the dark places of our own lives, into the pain of others, and into the joy of God’s grace. The alternative to this following Jesus way of life can be either fearful hesitancy or outright denial.  “But wait,” you may say, “I would never say that to my Lord, I would not join the crowd.” Sometimes life’s disappointments can bring us to an emotional place, where choosing to be a disciple puts us at odds with the world’s expectations, or even our own desires. The irony of choosing the way of the cross versus our own yearnings is reenacted in the irony of the narrative we just heard on this Palm Sunday.

Earlier in his ministry Jesus said, do not store up for you treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. (Matthew 6:19-21 NRSV)  Choosing trusting in treasures in heaven, or to follow the way of the cross is our struggle as followers of Jesus, and it is a choice we will make over and over again each day, for the rest of our lives. So, on this Palm Sunday, with Maundy Thursday and Good Friday looming in the distance, consider your response to the challenge of discipleship. Will we shout, “All Glory, Laud, and Honor” or “Crucify Him.”? The choice is all ours.

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!

 

 

 

 

REFERENCES

 

(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.

REFERENCES

(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.