Sunday, February 15, 2015

Keeping the Bridge Open


Today, in the Episcopal Church, we celebrate World Mission Sunday and, as an Anglican Community, we also celebrate the Transfiguration of our Lord, Jesus Christ.

Today is a Sunday that we come face to face with Christ in all his glory as he sets his face to Jerusalem and the passion of the cross. It is a Sunday that reminds us that, as disciples of Christ, we are heirs to the mandate from our Savior to Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them everything that I have commanded you. (Matt. 28:19-20)

It is a Sunday that brings to life in every way the incredibly important, complex, and salvific work of mission in the world. Mission - a way of fulfilling the vows of our baptismal covenant.  Mission - a way of truly experiencing ourselves as children of God and brothers and sisters in Christ. Mission a way in which we carry out our most profound responsibility of seeking and serving Christ in all persons, and loving our neighbors as ourselves.

In our gospel reading today - Marks account of the Transfiguration of Christ - we are reminded of the divinity of Jesus, the Beloved Son of God. And, we are reminded that as brothers and sisters in Christ, we are also children of God. We are reminded that as children of God, we are part of a global family and, as such, we are mutually responsible for one another.  

We are reminded that the price of discipleship can be costly, discouraging, painful, and lonely. But, we are also reminded that to bear the cross of discipleship is to see the face of God and to experience His grace and salvation to enter into a peace that passes all understanding both now and forever more.

Today is a day when we celebrate our lives as Children of God - Disciples of Christ agents of healing, compassion, justice, and dignity for all.

What better Sunday for a deacon to be preaching!

In Christian teachings, the Transfiguration of Jesus is a pivotal moment.  The setting on the mountain is presented as the point where human nature meets God: the meeting place for the temporal and the eternal, with Jesus himself as the connecting point; Jesus acting as the bridge between heaven and earth.
Thomas Aquinas considered the Transfiguration "the greatest miracle. He wrote, By his loving foresight he allowed them to taste for a short time the contemplation of eternal joy, so that they might bear prosecution bravely. (Summa Theologiae, III, 45.1)
In other words, in seeing Jesus transfigured, the disciples had the opportunity to see the glory of God radiate from their teacher and to learn that the road to personally experiencing this glory is not necessarily a road easily traveled but, that it is a road most definitely worth traveling. It is a road that leads from the trials and tribulations of this earthly dwelling to Gods Kingdom both here and beyond.
Anointed at our baptism as Disciples of Christ, we have historically struggled with the hows of this enormous, both gift and responsibility, that we have inherited as Christians.  How do we perpetuate the existence of this bridge between the temporal and the sacred? How do we keep God present among us so that the world can know and experience the love, compassion and the salvation that God has given to us through his Son, Jesus Christ.
How do we keep Jesus among us?
In 1963, 16,000 Anglicans from around the world gathered together for an Anglican Congress to discuss issues of mutual ministry, and to live into the belief that the Anglican Communion is one family, mutually interdependent on one another.

The congress struggled with issues of interdependence in an economically unequal world. The congress discussed moving away from the idea of giving and receiving, and decided to instead focus on equality, interdependence and mutual responsibility. The congress talked about needing to examine rigorously the ways in which we use the word mission in describing something we do for someone else.

Perhaps the one of the most revealing comments in the final document published by this congress is, We do not do mission for others. Mission is not the kindness of the lucky to the unlucky, of giving a little out of our excess. Mission is about
being in a fully mutual and interdependent relationship in which we recognize that we are blood of the same blood, flesh of the same flesh.

In other words, when one person hurts, we all hurt. When one person is not able to live fully into their humanity because of a lack of human rights, then we all are in pain. We are all intimately connected to one another.

In her book, Being a Deacon Today, Rosalind Brown writes, Without rootedness in the world, life and ministry are meaningless. From the very beginnings of the biblical narrative, the story is of God who comes among us - asking the hiding Adam and Eve, Where are you? (Gen 3:9), saying, I have seen the misery of my people and have come down (Exod 3:7-8), and giving the name Emmanuel, God is with us, to the incarnate Son (Matt 1:23). And it is this incarnational self-giving of God [this involvement of God in our lives] that sets our agenda as the people of God. An agenda that calls us to be present in the lives of others.

In a challenge to the Anglo-Catholic Congress of 1923, Bishop Frank Weston said, You cannot claim to worship Jesus in the tabernacle of you do not pity Jesus in the slumnow go out into the highway and hedges and look for Jesus in the ragged and the naked, in the oppressed and the sweated, in those who have lost hope, and in those who are struggling to make good. Look for Jesus in them and when you have found him, gird yourself with His towel of fellowship and wash His feet in the person of his brethren.

Tough marching orders. Tough marching orders for deacons - and, tough marching orders for laity called into mission through the vows of their baptismal covenant.

This work of mission has, in one way or another, been my lifes calling - first as a social worker intent of serving and bringing dignity and justice to very marginal populations - the dying, those living with HIV/AIDS, and the sexually abused. Now as a deacon my missional work has taken a slightly different path. I am called to bring educational opportunities, food and basic healthcare to communities of Episcopal school children and their families in Haiti.

Over the years, I have learned, at times as the result of grave mistakes on my part, that there can be no doing, no helping, without first being present. Being present among and seeking Christ in those to whom I have ambitious hopes of directing my assistance and support.

This business of being present among and finding Christ in the other is very hard work - it requires prayer, discipline, courage and a servant point of view. It requires incredible humility, with a frame of mind that is comfortable with the concept of I know nothing, - I need to be silent, present, and watch, listen and learn.

I have learned, very clearly, that the act of being present assumes that you lay down your I in search of the other.

Being present allows you to see Christ in everyone you meet and to know that God sees no difference between us and them. To God, we are all one, coming together in prayer and hard work to keep that bridge - the bridge between heaven and earth, the bridge to God that Christ gave us  - to keep that bridge open to traffic 24/7.

My job as deacon is to inspire you to take up, and then to lead you in your missional journey. My task is to encourage us all to move away from the goal of giving to to the task of being with. My prayer is that together we will go into the world, joining our hearts and souls with those who suffer, becoming a light to those who are in darkness, and creating a way for us all to worship, live, and be as a community of brothers and sisters in Christ - both in our own community, throughout our nation, and in a world that is torn by terrorism, famine, and disasters to numerous to imagine.


It is in community and servanthood that the light of Christ shines and the bridge to God remains open.  AMEN.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening


“Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.” ( 1 Sam 3:9)

Today we hear three different versions of a central theme…Look - listen - pay attention, or you will miss God’s call to you. The call that will bring you into direct and right relationship with God and into loving and compassionate community with those in the world around you.

Today’s reading from 1 Samuel is, for me, the simplest, yet the most eloquent, expression of this theme as it has played out in my life - perhaps Samuel’s struggle to identify who it is that is calling to to him and what is required of him through that call rings true in your lives as well.

Samuel’s story reminds me of a time in my life that was not terribly good. A time when I was most definitely lost and lonely. A time when my little bubble of a “dream world” crumbled and I was truly alone in a wilderness that I had never before experienced.

As I strolled down the main street of the small town that I had settled in for a time of re-grouping, I passed the local Episcopal Church. It was a very large church with bright red doors and a big “Welcome” sign posted on the lawn. Let me hasten to add that although I had been born and raised in the Episcopal Church, I had not entered any red, or any other color, Episcopal doors for quite a few years.

There was really no reason in my current state of self-pity for me to even look at this particular church, or its red doors, but… but I heard a call. I heard a call that was loud and clear. I heard a call that said, “Come in.”

At first I hesitated. “Why should I go in? It’s the middle of the week, no one is around, what purpose would it serve?” I started to walk on.

“Come in,” said the voice again. I stopped mid-stride and turned back to look at the red doors. “The doors are probably locked,” I said to myself. But the voice persisted, “Come in,” it commanded.

Reluctantly, I turned back, furtively approached the doors and turned the big brass knob. The door opened. OK, now I was in real trouble. No turning back at this point, so in I went.

It was a big and very beautiful church. I looked around for a few moments and then decided to sit down. Perhaps, I thought, I should pray for help. So, down I sat and began my confused comments to God - I would hardly call these comments a prayer.

Very soon I noticed a priest standing next to my pew. “Can I help you,” he asked. Looking up I experienced a huge wave of relief, and after a moment I answered, “Yes.”

So began my journey back into right relationship with God. A journey in which the Spirit has sometimes gently, sometimes harshly, directed me away from my “dream bubble” world and the tantalizing temptations of prestige, power and money. A journey that has been from time to time, bumpy, scary, smooth, and peace-filled. A journey that has been sometimes incredibly bold and daring, and sometimes incredibly calm and collaborative. A journey that has taken me to places, both physical and spiritual, that I would have never dreamed possible. A journey that has landed me here at Christ Church, St. Michaels Parish.

I am quite certain that there is no one here today who has not experienced a life situation similar to mine. At some point, no matter how privileged, we all come to a time of rough waters; a time that leaves us questioning, seriously questioning, the work that we are doing and the values that we hold.

I am also quite certain that I am not unique in experiencing a call from God. Indeed, I think you would all agree that God calls each and every one of us, each and every day - every moment of every day. The call from God is always there, but not always heard. I believe rather that we, like Samuel, like Paul and like Jesus’ disciples, experience specific moments in our lives in which we hear God’s call - we hear it loudly and clearly. The question for us then is, when we hear our call from God, do we listen to it? Do we respond as Samuel responded, “Speak, Lord, your servant is listening.”

And, once we have cried out, “Speak, Lord, your servant is listening,” how do we respond to what we hear?

Our response, of course, is key, for if we do not listen with open hearts and open minds, God’s call will fade from our hearing, it will be gone as quickly as it appeared.

If, however, we respond with the eyes and the ears of our heart wide open - if we welcome God into our lives, his call will increase in volume and meaning as we embark on our Spirit-led journey away from the “dream bubble,” and into right relationship with God.

Opening our hearts and minds to God’s call allows us the opportunity to become members of the loving and compassionate communion of saints, who act as a light to the world - a light that shines brightly enough for those in darkness to come out of the darkness and into the grace-filled world of hope and salvation.

My friends this “listening” and “responding” is tough stuff - hard work. It requires courage, endurance and patience. It requires love and forgiveness in situations that are appallingly anger-provoking; patience and courage in situations that are horrifically tragic; dignity and leadership in confusing and frightening wilderness situations; and above all, it requires faith and perseverance as we go into the world carrying forward the mission of Jesus Christ - to love and to serve, in peace.

Responding to God’s call is not for the feint at heart. Throughout Scripture we witness the trials and tribulations of those chosen by God to be his servants. Beginning with Abraham in Genesis right through to the New Testament gospels, we are witness to countless calls from God and their outcome. The overarching story of God’s call to mankind culminates, of course, in the incarnation, teaching and healing, crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ, who though his life and death created a standard for us to set for ourselves in our life’s journey.

God calls us to be one with him through living a life that in word and deed reflects our baptismal vows - to live in prayerful community; to repent and return when we have gone astray; to proclaim the good news of Christ in word and deed; to seek the Christ in all whom we encounter; to love our neighbors as ourselves; to seek justice and peace for all; to respect the dignity of every human being.

To live, as Walter Brueggemann would say, “for the good of the neighborhood.”

Beautiful words - wonderful thoughts - however, a very complex and difficult job description.

As I indicated earlier, my journey since responding to God’s call to “Come in” has not been smooth sailing guided by some fancy GPS instrument that ensures getting from one point to another without, many times over, getting lost.

My journey has not always allowed me to be politically correct, to live in comfort, or to know what is just around the bend.

However, I can tell you - and I would imagine that you could tell me when discussing your own journeys - that it has been, and is, a journey from which there is no turning back - neither the desire nor the possibility. It is a journey that I share with many people - all of you included. It is a journey led by our Savior Jesus Christ - our travel companion and guide the Holy Spirit. It is a journey to which God has called us through his Son Jesus Christ who said, “Follow me.” It is a journey in which we travel beyond the cross to the world of darkness that yearns for the light of Christ and the salvation of God. AMEN

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Our Christmas Story

Sermon
Christmas Day 2014
Christ Church, St. Michaels Parish, MD
Luke 2:1-14 [15-20]

Merry Christmas!!

First of all I want to thank all of you for the warmest welcome that I have ever received - anywhere. Devin and I are deeply grateful for your love and support.

I also want to thank Mark and the Vestry for their faith in my ministry and the opportunity to serve alongside them here at Christ Church. My hope is that I will be with you all for a long time, and that together we will continue to carry out our mission as Christ’s disciples, lighting this, sometimes, very dark world, and inspiring hearts and lives with the love and compassion of Christ.

As I began to plan my sermon for today, I thought about stories and how stories shape our identity and our lives. I don’t know about you, but the older I get the more stories I have to tell – and, for the most part, my stories reflect who I am - who I have become over these many years – they form my identity.

I am quite proud of some of my stories. But, truth be told, I am not very proud of many of my stories. When I look back at all the stories that remain in my memory – the good and the bad – I see how impossible it is to live a life that is comprised of only “good” stories, and how easy it is to accumulate stories that lack any saving grace. Indeed, my good stories are few and far between, and, for the most part, came at a price. Perhaps you would all agree, good stories – stories that we are proud of – are rare and achieved only through hard work, sacrifice, persistence and courage.

This Christmas Day we hear a story that is, in every sense of the word, a good story. It is a story that far outdistances our various and meager life stories. It is the story of the birth of the Christ child- the baby Jesus –the overarching and ultimate story of all time. The Nativity story is the story that defines what all of our stories should look like. It is the story that provides the norms by which we should all live our lives. It is the story that encourages us all to regulate our way of life, according to the model provided by Jesus, as we proceed in our work as Christ’s disciples in our personal lives, in this community and in the larger world.

It is a story that both guides us and walks beside us, lovingly and compassionately, as we struggle with the challenges of a darkened world, personal difficulties, desolate grief, and the anxieties generated in the chaos of this post-modern world.

It is a story told year after year. It is a story that never changes. It is a story for each and every one of us. It is a story that we read and listen to with joy and great hope as, each year, we celebrate the birth of Jesus.

We have no way of knowing the historical accuracy of facts reported in Luke’s birth story. However, we do know that about 4 BCE Jesus was born somewhere in the Galilee area, and we do know that his parents were poor. These are salient historical facts, but more important than historical accuracy are the elements of the story.

Jesus is born to Mary, a virgin who had found favor with God and in whose womb a baby was conceived. A baby who God commanded would be named Jesus. This Son of God arrived not in a mansion; not in a comfortable place fit for a king. Jesus arrived in a cold and dirty manger, attended only by his mother Mary and his father Joseph. The first to learn of the birth were shepherds, the lowliest of the low. Asleep at night they were awakened by a terrifying light and an Angel who spoke to them. The angel informed these cold, dirty, and bedraggled shepherds that their Saviour had just been born. “Hurry along to pay him a visit,” commanded the angel. Off they went, in faith I might add, to see this miracle with their own eyes. Astounded by the power of their visit, they rushed back to their meadows, excitedly telling all whom they encountered of what they had seen and heard.

The Nativity story is indeed much more that a story based on historical fact. It is Luke’s way of alerting us to the fact that God is with us. The God who created the world and who has spent the rest of historical time wanting to heal and restore a broken creation, that it may become an organism of true reconciliation and peace, is with us in a very real and urgent way. For God so loved the world, that he sent his Son to be with us, to be among us, to experience the full range of human emotions and to be in dialogue with us – to show us the way, the light, the gate that will open our hearts and minds to the Kingdom of God.

Luke is telling us that the God of Creation has sent his Son, Jesus to be a player in the massive effort to restore creation. Jesus who will restore sight to the blind, who will heal the lame so that they may once again walk, who will heal the sick and restore hearing to the deaf, raise the dead and bring good news to the poor is among us. Jesus whose compassion will rock the world, refocusing attention and worship away from the empire ruled by Rome and return it to the Kingdom of God is here to show us the way, the truth and the light.

The story of the Nativity, or God’s involvement with the world, is a story that never changes. The gift of the baby born to a virgin somewhere in a cold, dark Galilee over two thousand years ago, is the same gift that we – you and I - have received, and will receive, from God each year. Each year the gift of Christ our Saviour remains the same, and the fact that this gift was meant for all remains the same. Our gift from God in the person of his Son Jesus, is our reminder that we are now and always will be in relationship with God.

What then does this mean for us and our personal stories? A great deal I believe. I believe that the Nativity gift of Jesus calls us to be terrified shepherds in the cold and dark field; to, in faith, follow the commands of the angels to visit the newborn child; to travel a difficult journey in order to see and to experience – to know - the Son of God; and then, to return to our communities and spread the good news of great joy to all.

In other words, our stories, if they are to be good stories, should reflect intentional efforts to receive the gift of Jesus in a way that allows us to know him, know him deep within our hearts and our souls. Our stories should be developed out of a dialogue with God, making every attempt to understand his will and not ours. Our stories should be uninhibited in their proclaiming the good news of great joy – news that informs the world of the need to reconcile and to heal. Our stories should make history and make faith possible for future generations.

Throughout Scripture we read, and experience, in one way or another, that we are all created in the image of God; that God dwells within us all – at the very center of our beings; that we are all holy, because God, the God within us, is holy; that we are all sacred beings called to servant hood – servant hood to God and to all God’s creation; that our ultimate duty is to do right and trust in God.

In this challenging time of violence, terrorism, political unrest, and economic uncertainly, let us, more fervently and prayerfully than ever, seek the holy within us; put on the armor of God; and go forth in faith in seeking ways to bring God’s creation back into right relationship with him. This is the dialogic response that God is seeking as acknowledgement of the gift of Jesus in the manger this Christmas morning. This is the template from which our stories should be formed.

It does not matter that Christ was born long ago in Bethlehem unless he is born in you today.  (Meister Eckhart) AMEN.



Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Speak to God...He Will Listen


Sermon

St. Paul’s Episcopal Church

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Exodus 33:12-23; I Thessalonians 1:1-10; Matthew 22: 15-22

 

These days it’s not uncommon to overhear or participate in conversations that include comments such as “I really don’t know what is happening in the world today – ISIS and the Mideast situation, Ebola, all these hurricanes, tornados and earthquakes – it’s really frightening. Maybe the world really is coming to an end.”

 

Another common theme that literally screams out at us, not only in face to face conversations but in Facebook posts, Twitter tweets, and other media sources is the apparent decline of Christianity.  Ethnic cleansing of Christians in many areas of the world, strife at General and other theological Seminaries, and blogs that state boldly “Even your new pastor won’t be able to save the church” all underscore a deep and real concern about the state of Christianity, especially in America.

 

And, right here in our own backyard – right here in Delray Beach – we are faced daily with the grim issues of poverty, hunger, homelessness, and a sea of people lost and searching, victims of abuse and addiction.

 

Without a doubt, after a quick glance at the daily newspaper, or listening to a few CNN or Fox News talking heads discuss the latest spin on who’s who and what’s what, there is a great deal of anxiety and uncertainty to shoulder through as we head out into our individual worlds of work and responsibility.

 

Yes, indeed – at times it really does seem pretty grim. What to do – who to turn to in these challenging times.

 

In fact, after reading today’s passage in Exodus, I wonder if we aren’t all feeling a bit like Moses did way back in the “good old days” when he stood on the mountain shaking in his sandals after having been instructed by God to lead a rebellious group of people into the unknown, barren and certainly dangerous wilderness, through the Red Sea and into the land of Canaan.

 

However scared Moses might have been though, he was not afraid to speak up about it. He was not afraid to challenge God. His message to God was crystal clear. Standing  there on the mountain top, he said, “Look if you want me to carry on with this task of leading your people out of the mess that they are in I need your help and I need you here – right here, by my side. Without your presence it just is not going to be possible.”

 

God listened to Moses, and God responded. God said, “My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest…I will do the very thing that you have asked; for you have found favor in my sight, and I know you by name.”

 

Moses spoke directly to God. God listened to Moses. God responded. And Moses carried on. He led his people through the wilderness, all the way – right up to the plains of Mount Nebo, where he died.

 

The very last passage of Deuteronomy eulogizes Moses, proclaiming, “Never since has there arisen a prophet in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face. He was unequaled for all the signs and wonders that the Lord sent him to perform in the land of Egypt, against Pharaoh and all his servants and his entire land, and for all the mighty deeds and all the terrifying displays of power that Moses performed in the sight of all Israel.” (Deut. 34:10-12)

 

Moses spoke to God. God listened. God responded. Moses acted and performed displays of power in full sight of all Israel.

 

By the time Paul comes around, many years later, God, through the presence of his Son, and the gift of the Holy Spirit, has been made manifest, not to all, but to many.  The exclusivity of God speaking only to Moses has been radically altered. No more mountaintops. Jesus has been with and among the people. God, through the gift of his Son made man, Jesus, has come down from the mountaintop to walk alongside us as we journey through troubled waters and the challenges of life.

 

Jesus through his teaching, healing, death, resurrection and gift of the Holy Spirit has proclaimed the good news message that God is there for us – all we have to do is open our hearts to his presence. If we acknowledge God as our Creator, the one who loves us, and if we speak directly to Him for guidance and support, God will listen; and, God will respond.

 

In his Letter to the Thessalonians, Paul’s encouragement and support to the struggling new believers in Thessaloniki, remains a relevant message for us even today.  Paul says, “For we know, brothers and sisters beloved by God, he has chosen you, because our message of the gospel came to you not in word only, but also in the power of the Holy Spirit and with full conviction…in spite of persecution you received the word with joy inspired by the Holy Spirit, so that you became an example for all…For the word of the Lord has sounded forth from you not only in Macedonia and Achaia, but in every place your faith in God has become known.”

 

Paul praises the Thessalonians for their receptivity both to the gospel and to the gift of the Holy Spirit – a receptivity that Paul’s characterizes as having “full conviction.” He commends the converts’ commitment to their difficult and oftentimes dangerous existence as they model the love, compassion, peace and glory of God’s Kingdom through both their words and actions.

 

Paul reminds these new believers that in receiving the gift of the Holy Spirit they have chosen, despite threats of persecution, to be led by the Spirit as they carry out their Christian mission. They have become a model for others, so that “the Church throughout the world may persevere with steadfast faith in the confession of God’s name.”

 

The Thessalonians led by the Spirit modeled the courage and faith needed to weather the persecution of the early Church. As they weathered these grim challenges, they, like Moses among the Israelites, were seen and heard by thousands of Roman citizens, and Christianity as we know it today emerged.

 

Jesus is, of course, the ultimate model for us. We encounter him in today’s gospel reading, standing face to face with the Pharisees. Pharisees who are yet again plotting to catch him in words and actions that will be seen as treasonous by the Roman authorities.

 

“Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” they question him.

 

Jesus does not mince words – “Give to the emperor what is the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s,” he replies, knowing full well that everything we have belongs to God – whatever small pittance of money is due the emperor has no relation to the commitment we have to God. It is to God whom we turn. It is to God that we listen. It is from God that we seek a response that will carry us forward in facing the challenges of life. It is from God that we will receive our salvation.

 

“When the Pharisees heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away.”

 

Amazed at what? Jesus’ courage? Jesus’ passion? Jesus’ defiance?

 

I would imagine that the Pharisees were amazed by it all – the courage, the passion, the defiance, and the authority of Jesus as he perseveres in his mission to re-establish God’s Kingdom in Jerusalem and beyond.

 

Jesus’ courage in leading God’s people out of a wilderness of power and money established by the Roman Empire, the priests, the Sadducees and the Pharisees.

 

Jesus’ passion as he barrels forward at a breathless non-stop pace to spread the gospel – the good news of God – the Kingdom of God that has come near.

 

Jesus’ defiance as he flies in the face of authority – an authority that desecrates God’s Kingdom here on earth.

 

Jesus’ authority that leaves people amazed.

 

Moses stood alone on a mountaintop and confronted God, asking for his presence as protection and help. Paul encourages us to speak directly to God asking for his presence in our lives and his protection as we fight the perils that face us. Jesus demanded that we acknowledge the sovereignty and authority of God’s Kingdom in the here and now, and forever and ever.

 

Moses on the mountain. The Thessalonians in Macedonia. Jesus in the Temple. All in direct communication with God. God listening to them all. God responding with the gift of his Son and the Holy Spirit. God with us and in us – always.

 

All this tells me there should be no “shaking in our sandals” as we face the challenges of today’s world. There is, indeed, reason for deep concern. There is, without a doubt, a pressing need for us as Christians to actively seek God’s response as we pray for guidance from the Spirit. There is a legitimate need for us to ask God to be at our side as we journey through a wilderness of terrorism, ethnic cleansing, and ravaging illnesses.

 

However, there is also an urgent need for us to be models – examples – to all believers throughout the world. There is an urgent need for us, through our words and deeds, to preserve the works of God’s mercy, that the Church throughout the world may persevere with steadfast faith in the confession of his Name. Perhaps this is the greatest need of all.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

We are all God carriers...

Sermon
St. Paul’s Episcopal Church 
September 21, 2014
Philippians 1:21-30; Matthew 20:1-16

“Live your life in a manner worthy of the Gospel of Christ…”

At just about this time last year a group of us were winding down our first Best Practices for Haiti Medical Missions Symposium. Our goal at this symposium had been to bring together Haitian and American medical personnel and administrators to discuss how we might improve our healthcare mission efforts in Haiti. 

We believed that it was time to identify ways in which we could better support each other through the pooling of information and resources. We also believed that it was critical to stress the concept of sustainability and to identify ways to ensure that our mission work would remain alive and well in Haiti, standing on its own two feet, without our support, once we had departed.

In other words – we agreed that to continue to do healthcare mission business as usual would not be terribly effective. We wanted to spearhead an initiative that would get us out of our box and into a more effective place.

You might ask, how did we come to this point? Why did we need yet again another meeting – a meeting, some people said, that would take up a great deal of precious time, and would probably, like so many other meetings, lead nowhere? What was wrong with the way that we had always done the business of mission work? Look at all the time and money we had spent over the years sending in teams to distribute medications and provide two to three day clinics. Wasn’t that enough? Wouldn’t it be enough in the future?

I would be less than honest if I did not tell you that I experienced no small degree of fear and trepidation as I stood at the podium and delivered my opening remarks. What if my colleagues and I were exaggerating the need for a re-examination of how we as missioners do business? What if our thoughts regarding the ineffectiveness and oftentimes destructive effects of “parachute” clinics were met with open hostility? 

With over 45 participants registered to attend, the thought of going out on a limb and suggesting that we identify a different way of delivering healthcare in Haiti felt risky – but, it also felt necessary.  Too many projects were languishing; too many people were operating in the dark with no knowledge of who was doing what; too many men, women and children in Haiti were dying of malnutrition and other diseases that are so easily prevented and so quickly cured. Too many people went for months before seeing a doctor for a painful illness or injury. A new way for US healthcare missioners had to be found - A way that would bring healthcare to Haitians 24/7, not just a few days each year.

As I prepared for the symposium I spoke with many people, read many articles on mission work, and I prayed a lot! 

Support from the Presiding Bishop’s office buoyed my spirits. Bishop Katharine said in a brief conference call that we had early on in the planning process, “Go for it. We are in full support of this effort.” Well, that was good news!

Dwight Zscheile’s Book, People of the Way, also inspired me. Zscheile writes, “…Christian mission involves something more than the mere giving of resources. It is an invitation to a deeper, more transformational engagement…Jesus gives of his whole self, relinquishing his higher status, in order to empower his followers, to the point that where, at the end of his ministry with them, they move from being servants to being friends. This is a much more profound reordering of relationships than being a mere benefactor. A far more mutual, reciprocal sharing is at the heart of Jesus’ community and its mission in the world.” (p.26)  

A transformational healthcare engagement – that’s what we wanted, needed.

Throughout his book, Zscheile emphasizes that mission must not be our mission, but rather it must be God’s mission. When we go out into the world we are doing God’s will, not our will. 

We are not benefactors offering charity; we are disciples spreading the good news and empowering others. 

No one states this more clearly than Archbishop Desmond Tutu who says of mission, “We are God carriers.” And, “UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon who summed it all up perfectly when he said, “Our goal is simple but daunting -- prosperity and dignity for all in a world where humankind lives in harmony with nature.”  

God’s mission – not our misson. What was God’s mission for the medical teams as they embarked on their annual and semi-annual trips to Haiti? Did we make a practice of discerning that before each trip? Did we see ourselves as God carriers or medical benefactors?

As I read, reflected and conferred with colleagues, I came to see more clearly what Best Practices for us in the healthcare mission field means. Of course, it means delivering the highest standard of medical care possible, but perhaps more importantly, it means advocating for prosperity, well-being and dignity for all. It means the transformation of a health starved world into a world in which all people have access to the basic care needed to maintain their dignity as children of God. It means a world in which we as missioners are God carriers as we seek to empower the people of Haiti, and other health starved countries, through our work as missioners whose hearts and minds are, without fail, always focused on the Five Marks of Mission:

To proclaim the good news of the kingdom of God – that vision of a healed world, bigger than all of us, that needs each of us in creating it.

To teach, baptize, and nurture believers – the work of encouragement and formation; living on the road, always looking for new believers.

To respond to human need with loving service – caring for people who need comfort in the midst of grief, liberation from prisons, and hope in the face of loss and darkness.

To transform unjust systems of society – the courage to challenge all kinds of violence, pursue peace and reconciliation and counter the hate, exclusion, and evil of this world with love.

To care for the earth – the garden in which we are set, filled with resources to be stewarded for the good of every creature.

As missioners for Christ we are called to go into the world proclaiming God and living out God’s mission, not our mission. That is indeed our “best practice.” And in order to achieve that best practice we need to work in harmony and in unity, all moving in the same direction with the same agenda -God’s agenda, for us and for the world.

Jesus’ parable of the laborers in the vineyard underscores the reality that God’s Kingdom’s is filled with bounty and grace for all. Being on the receiving end of God’s gifts is not dependent on ethnicity, geographical location, social or economic status, or any of the many other variables we have come to use as discriminating factors. God’s gifts are for all, all who enter the Kingdom through his Son, Jesus Christ. All followers, all believers are eligible for an equal share of dignity, harmony and love.

Paul’s letter to the Philippians written from his jail cell in Philippi addresses the challenges that these fledgling Christian’s are experiencing.  He urges them to stand united in the face of adversity, to come together as one in remaining committed advocates of their newfound faith in Jesus.  

Paul warned his followers that the work is hard, but that the outcome is fruitful – “And this is God’s doing. For he has graciously granted you the privilege not only of believing in Christ, but of suffering for him as well…”  
If we stand together in one spirit in the face of disbelief, scorn and hardship, we will be drawn closer and closer to God. Our unity in the spirit and our courage in being God carriers will allow us to build and to strengthen God’s Kingdom here on earth – to make it sustainable. These are our best practices.

In two weeks the Second Annual Best Practices for Haiti Medical Missions will be held in Atlanta, Georgia. Once again we have over 45 participants from Haiti and America registered. Once again we will address the challenges we face in delivering best practices medicine that reflect best practices Christianity. Once again we will struggle with language, culture, racism, and the grim reality of poverty and politics as we continue our work of coming together in unity of spirit to find a way to bring sustainable healthcare to Haiti. 

Once again, we will pray, as we did last year, that this will not just be another meeting – all words and no action. 

I can assure you that last year’s prayers were most definitely heard. The past twelve months have been action-packed - rocky, scary, and exciting. The challenges we have faced and will continue to face are monumental; the work never-ending. In the end, however, we are no different than any other disciple.  Indeed, we are journeying alongside the thousands of other God carriers who seek to widen and strengthen God’s world in myriad missional activities. We are in good company as we strive for best practices Christianity and sustainable prosperity and dignity in a world where all humankind lives in harmony.

As it happens so frequently, our best practices marching orders come from Paul when he writes to the Philippians, “…live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that whether I come to see you or am absent and hear about you, I will know that you are standing firm in one spirit, striving side by side with one mind for the faith of the gospel, and are in no way intimidated by your opponent.”

We are a missional church. That means our work is hard and that it is never-ending. We are a light to those who wander in darkness, and a comfort to those in pain. We are an advocate for those who suffer from injustice and a protector of God’s heavenly kingdom. As we proceed on our missional path, let us pray that Paul’s exhortation continues to ring in our ears and enter into the words of our prayers and the seeds of our work.

“Live your life in a manner worthy of the Gospel of Christ…”