Saturday, December 26, 2015

The Amazing Gift

Christmas Day 2015
Christ Church, St. Michaels Parish

“Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid…”

This is one of my favorite stories in all of scripture. It so vividly describes the terror of the shepherds as they witness the arrival of the angel of the Lord. In just a few words the story powerfully describes the miracle that has occurred … a child has arrived. A child who will become a savior, for all who are known to him, has been born. 

The angel commands the shepherds to, “Go…find this child wrapped in bands of cloth…cast your eyes upon this infant lying in a manger…be amazed…and then, go and tell the world - shout it out - “Glory to God in the highest…the Messiah, the Lord has been born.” He is among us…he is with us.

Luke in 20 short verses encapsulates the message that we thousands of years later are still struggling to understand. A message that we are still struggling to integrate as an essential part of our “self.” A message that we are still struggling to convey to others who are so like those lonely shepherds in the cold, dark fields of Bethlehem.

Thinking about it, it all seems so very simple doesn’t it? Jesus is there waiting for us - just like the baby in the manger awaited the shepherds. And, the Spirit, just like the angel who appeared that cold dark night in Bethlehem, is urging us to go and visit…take a look…say “hello” to Jesus… and to be amazed…to accept this incredible gift from God…to adopt Jesus as our way, our light, our life.  

And today, Christmas Day, we are once again witness to this incredible event - the birth of Jesus. Today we, once again, have the astounding opportunity to visit the child in his manger crib; to be amazed; to renew our relationship with Jesus; and, to reinvigorate our call as Disciples of Christ.

On the first Sunday in Advent, when I last preached, I spoke of the challenges that we have faced over the course of this past year. 2015 has not been an easy year for many, if not most, of us; and, we have no assurance that 2016 will be significantly different. 

The painful realities of a world besieged by gun violence and terrorism; political turmoil at home and abroad; a continuation of the humanitarian crisis posed by the ever increasing number of refugees throughout the world; and, increasing changes and challenges in our environment pose painful distractions in our lives and the lives of in the lives of our loved ones. 

These complicated realities will continue to be a part of world events in 2016 and beyond. They and a myriad of other events will continue to play a significant role in our everyday lives both nationally and locally. Distractions that pull us in many different directions will, no doubt, abound for most of us.

Our church, nationwide, faces significant challenges, as well. A continual growth of the “nones,” - those who claim that they do not believe in God, coupled with changes on the lifestyles of young people and their families, has resulted in the shrinking of both congregation size and annual pledges. 

At both the local and the national level the church is struggling to re-imagine itself. Conversations that focus on “How can we become relevant to this new world” are heard in parishes throughout the country. Hearts and minds committed to and united with Christ ponder and pray - hoping that a new way - a new energy - to make God relevant will make itself known. Despite these challenges, like the saints who have gone before, those of us who remain committed to the church continue our journey as bearers of the Good News - seeking to touch as many hearts as possible.

I would imagine that during these past four weeks of Advent many of you have taken the time to prayerfully discern your relationship with Jesus and with the Christ Church community. Perhaps you have pondered such questions as, “What does my relationship with Jesus really mean to me?” or “How can I help to strengthen the Christ Church community?” Or maybe, “How can I live a life that is less focused on the distractions of this world and more focused on further opening my heart and my mind to Jesus and his commandment to ‘Follow me…Follow me and do not be afraid. Do not be afraid, for I am with you to the end of the age.’

I know that I have given these same questions, and many others, much prayerful attention. I have struggled with the tough, and very humbling, reality that despite my commitment to the church - to Jesus - I have such limited effectiveness in spreading the Good News; such a small, indeed infinitesimal, presence as I engage in my efforts to be a partner in the work of keeping the church alive and well.

And yet, despite the turmoil of the past year, as I reflected on the approach of the Nativity, I became increasingly excited - increasingly hopeful. Just like most of the Christian world I found myself eagerly anticipating the arrival of the angel’s command to “go and see”, the trip to Bethlehem, the visit to the child in the manger, the thrill of knowing that Jesus was so very present – so very much with us, and the return to the world refreshed, renewed, reinvigorated in my faith - filled with hope and the knowledge that God’s love manifested through the incredible gift of this infant in the manger – this baby Jesus - is still so very present with us.

 In my heart I know that this Christmas gift is all that I really need to press on and to carry out, no matter how difficult, the work that I have been given to do.

This Christmas Day, I pray that you also will be thrilled by the presence of the angel of the Lord. I pray that the command to “go and see” will ring loud in your ears and that you will, with the eyes of your heart, visit Bethlehem and experience the joy and hope of gazing at the infant child – the baby Jesus. I pray that you will be re-invigorated – re-energized – in your call as a member of the Christ Church community to go into the world and to spread the Good News. 

I pray that as members of this blessed community, the light of Christ will shine so brightly in our lives that we will be led to good and wise decisions in the coming year, and that we will together muster the strength and the courage to love and serve God with gladness and singleness of heart despite the challenging distractions that fill our everyday lives.

I pray that individually, and as a community, we will hear and heed Jesus’ commandment to, “Follow me…Follow me and do not be afraid. Do not be afraid, for I am with you to the end of the age.”

I pray that the refrain from the familiar Christmas carol, “O Holy Night” will ring in your ears throughout this day and in the days to follow, and that it will bring you a sense of blessed peace and fill you with the love and compassion that was Jesus’ gift to us.

Fall on your knees! O hear the angel voices!
O night divine, O night when Christ was born;
O night divine, O night, O night divine.

Saturday, November 28, 2015

Find and Follow the Light...

Christ Church, St. Michael’s Parish
Advent I – 2015

Today, I celebrate my one-year anniversary as a member of the Christ Church family. I wish that I could say that it has been a wonderful year, filled with nothing but joy and harmony. But, unfortunately that is not the case. 

That is not to say that there have not been joyful moments – there certainly have been many joyful moments, and many fascinating, spiritually uplifting and important conversations in our Bible Challenge, History of Christianity and lectio divina classes. Nor, would it be fair to say that all is in discord – that certainly is not the case. Many important ministries here at Christ Church are carried out by dedicated, fun-loving, faithful and hardworking parishioners.  

However, overall, this year has been difficult – bumpy – challenging - not just for me but for many of us.

Personal and family illnesses and deaths; congregational challenges, including the upcoming period of transition as we seek a new rector; a non-stop and heartbreaking escalation of civil and world-wide violence that has resulted in tragic and senseless murders and massacres; a refugee crisis that surpasses that of World War II, and has now been called “the emptying of Syria”; and, a series of natural disasters that have left many homeless, bereft of possessions and memories collected over a lifetime of work and play.

I cannot help but think that all of us have been touched by one or more of these events. I cannot help but think that at least one if not several of these events has prompted many of us to reconsider our way of looking at the world and our way of considering our personal theology – our way of thinking about God – our way of living out our spiritual commitment to follow Jesus by living a life that has as its focus the Kingdom of God – not the kingdom of terrorism, not the kingdom of politics, not the kingdom of power and control – but, the Kingdom of God.

In Matthew 6:33 Jesus says boldly, “Strive first for the Kingdom of God, and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” All of “these things” of course refers to the worldly needs such as money, food and clothing. Worldly things that all too frequently take possession of the lenses through which we see and live our life.

Staying on the path – keeping our eye focused on Jesus as we strive to belong to, and through belonging, bring to the world the Kingdom of God – is not easy. In fact, we would not be human if we did not question, did not falter in faith, did not have what I like to call theological crises from time to time – did not fall off the Kingdom of God path.

And, I believe that we all have a point at which we reach that says, “Enough.” A point at which we feel overwhelmed by inner turmoil and sadness that causes a profound pain. A pain that hangs on our heart and lingers there throughout the day and night. A pain that is associated with loss. A deep, inconsolable grief that takes one’s breath away and leaves you numb, tearful, confused and wondering – wondering. Just wondering…Where do I go from here? Where is God in this?

It is a times like this, times of profound pain and confusion that we are at risk of falling off the path – the path to the Kingdom of God.

For me, that penultimate event – that “enough,” was the November 13 massacre in Paris. Paris a city that I have visited many times – a city with a complex and tumultuous history – a city which is known and loved by many - and, of course, a city no more or no less important than any other city in the world. 

The massacre in Paris was, for me, one straw too many. Somehow the images beaming through the various media reports brought a penetrating sadness into my heart and soul – a sadness that has not only to do with Paris, but a sadness that comes from watching and reading about murders and massacres on a regular basis – a sadness that grows daily as I watch the pain and desolation of millions of refugees who no longer have a home – no longer  have a place to lay their head. A sadness that is ever emerging as daily our political system becomes increasingly polarized and fragmented. A sadness that for many the church has become irrelevant. That the God I love and who loves me and the rest of the world is not loved by so very many - anymore.

So, today when we read in Luke, “Jesus said: ‘There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of heaven will be shaken,’ I cannot help but wonder if we should not be listening to his words of warning closely, very closely, for they sound quite like what is happening in our world today.

But then, Jesus, always the wise and passionate teacher, followed this challenge with a powerful command, “Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” 

He commanded his disciples to pay attention. He assured them that if they did pay attention to his teachings the possibility of salvation from all of these potential disasters was very real. He stated boldly that rescue, deliverance, and salvation in the face of disaster are always a possibility -  if  - if we “stay alert” to the reality that “The kingdom of God is near.” 

The Kingdom of God is always right there for us. But, we have to seek it – open our hearts to it –commit to a life that is centered on following Jesus and traveling the road to the Kingdom of God.

Jesus’ teaching continues, “Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day (the day of foreboding of what is coming upon the world) catch you unexpectedly, like a trap. For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth. Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.”

For me, the salient phrase here is, “Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place…”

Be Alert - What better words to snap us back from periods of fear, sadness and confusion that have the power to distract us, to deter us, to muffle our ears, blind our eyes, and seal our heart against hearing Jesus and seeking God as we face our life challenges.
Be alert, be involved in the world, experience your feelings of sadness and grief, but don’t take your eyes off the road – don’t let your emotions drive your ears, your eyes, and your heart into a place of hiding and false comfort. Don’t get bogged down in your anger and despair.
In his “Letters and Papers from Prison” “Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes, “This is what I mean by worldliness– taking life in one’s stride, with all its duties and problems…It is in such a life that we throw ourselves utterly into the arms of God and participate in his sufferings in the world…The place where worldliness and spirituality meet is the place where the Christian faces life empowered with the grace and love of God.”
The combination of Jesus’ warning us to be alert, and Bonhoeffer’s teaching that effective disciples of Christ must throw themselves into the world and all of its challenges, while at the same time opening their minds and their hearts to the presence of God within them and in the world  - that is essence of the work that must be done on this our Advent journey in 2015.
Reflecting on today’s gospel and Bonhoeffer’s wisdom, and having spent the past week in deep reflection and prayer, I am prepared to begin this year’s Advent journey and my second year at Christ Church with renewed energy. 
The pain of my sadness has eased and made way for the God within me to shine once again. Free of my several weeks of self-absorbed sadness, I am empowered to get back on the road to the Kingdom of God despite the challenges of the world around me. I am ready to experience the joyful anticipation of the birth of Jesus and the thrilling energy that this incarnation – this incredible gift from God – will bring into our hearts and into our lives. 
I am prepared to, like that shepherds of Luke’s gospel, follow the command to journey to the  manger in Bethlehem where I know that I will find Jesus, the infant, whose light and life will lead me as I travel that rocky road to the Kingdom of God.
I pray that you all will join me - “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” (Luke 2:15)

It Is Better To Give...

Christ Church, St. Michaels Parish
Sunday, November 8, 2015

Mark 12:38-44

Hearing the story of the poor widow reminds me of the stewardship campaign that we conducted at St. Paul’s, Delray Beach several years ago. The campaign was called Consecration Sunday.  The focus of the campaign was – “What is God calling me to give.”

Consecration Sunday worked a bit differently than many other stewardship campaigns. Appeal Letters and Pledge Cards were not used. Nor were charts indicating, based on income, who might consider giving what. There was no discussion of how much the church electricity or the church staff salaries, or various church programs cost. In fact, there were absolutely no Stewardship Campaign materials at all.

Instead, on each of the three Sundays that preceded Consecration Sunday, a congregation member got up and gave witness to how St. Paul’s had brought God into their lives. How their faith had been enriched by the Church. How much closer they felt to God as a result of their involvement in the St. Paul’s community. How important St. Paul’s was to their lives. 

On all three Sundays we heard eloquent testimonials - one moved us all to tears, another brought laughter, and the third quiet awe. The stories were compelling and ended in an invitation for congregation members to consider growing in faith through considering what God was calling them to contribute to the church on Consecration Sunday.

The fourth Sunday, Consecration Sunday, featured a guest speaker who delivered a sermon/personal story that, once again, gave witness to the power of God’s presence in their lives and to the essential role that church – the participation in a church community - played in making that presence come alive.  

We were reminded that the church is our way of being with God; strengthening our faith through corporate worship; and being supported by the love and fellowship of our congregation family. As Paul said in 1 Corinthians, “…so that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. And if one member suffers, all the members suffer; if one member is honored, all the members rejoice.” 

In church we are living out the very first vow of our Baptismal Covenant, “Will you continue in the apostle’s teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of the bread, and in the prayers.”

At the conclusion of the guest speaker’s presentation the rector stepped forward and asked the ushers to distribute pledge cards and pencils. He asked the congregation members to be in prayer and to discern what it was that God was calling them to contribute. He was specific in giving us the directive that we were not to think of how much money the church needed to pay its bills. No mention was made of budget numbers, or of the church’s financial needs.

The focus of giving was our acknowledgement of God’s unconditional love and our desire to make a faith commitment by giving a percentage of our income to God’s household, our Church. 

The congregation was given 10 minutes to complete their pledge cards. They were then asked to bring the cards forward and to place them in baskets on the altar. I would say that about 95% of the congregation came forward within the next ten minutes –quietly, reverently, and with very peaceful faces. Once the baskets were filled, they were blessed by the rector and remained on the altar throughout the Eucharistic meal.

The church service was followed by a wonderful luncheon in the parish hall. Towards the end of the luncheon, as everyone was finding room for one last miniature French pastry the rector stepped to the center of the room, with microphone in hand, and announced that the ingathering had netted a little over $197,000. Gasps, great clapping, and whoops of joy followed. We were just $50,000 short of our annual goal.

Without question, St. Paul’s is a parish that has its fair share of families who are financially quite comfortable. However, it also a parish that has its fair share of young families, single people, and people in recovery. People who by the end of each paycheck period, very possibly do not have excess funds. It seemed clear to all of us - the St. Paul’s staff - that in order to reach the rather staggering amount of $197,000 that Consecration Sunday morning, many people had dipped deep into their pocket in order to make their faith statement and to show their commitment to and investment in the St. Paul’s church community.

In today’s gospel reading from Mark Jesus teaches his disciples a dramatic lesson in giving with love and in faith. Jesus is clear in his message - love doesn't calculate. It doesn’t concern itself with appearances. But, it does spend lavishly when it comes to ensuring that God’s Kingdom will reign! 

Jesus drives this point home to his disciples while he sits in the Temple courtyard observing all that is going on around him. Jesus dismisses as questionable the donations offered by the well to do Pharisees who have accumulated their wealth by taxing the less fortunate and placing them at risk of losing their homes and a way to feed their families. The amount of their donations may be significantly large, but are they given from the heart or from a need to give witness to their wealth and prestige?

Then, as the Pharisees pass by, they eventually give room to an old widow in tattered clothing. The widow steps forward and places two small coins in the donation basket. Mark leads us to assume that these two coins are the sum total of her wealth. Her donation may mean that she has nothing left for food or shelter. 

Watching all that is going on closely Jesus praises the poor widow who has given these small coins in contrast with the rich pharisees who gave greater sums. Jesus implies that the widow’s two small coins given in faith and in love have more value than the larger donations of the Pharisees given out of habit - a routine gift expected of someone in their position.

A gift that is given with a grudge or for display loses most of its value. But a gift given out of faith and with love, with a spirit of generosity and sacrifice, is invaluable. The amount or size of the gift doesn't matter as much as the attitude of the giver.
This coming week is a week for all of us to spend time in prayerful discernment that centers on the many ways in which our faith has been nurtured and deepened by our life in community at Christ Church. It is a week in which we are called, all of us, to remember and to savor the many ways in which Christ has tapped us on the shoulder prompting us to volunteer for various ministries, accompanied us on difficult journeys, and watched over us in both good times and bad times these many years.

It is a week to remember the many good and generous works of service that this church, and each of its parishioners, has offered and continues to offer to each other, the community, the nation and the world over these many years.

It is a week to set aside issues and conversations that lead us away from Jesus and his commandment to follow him and to love our neighbors as ourselves. It is a week to burn into our heart the word “love” and our baptismal vow to seek and serve Christ in all persons and to love our neighbors as ourselves. 

It is a week to focus on our myriad blessings and to act out of love. It is a week to be in peace as we discern the gift that we will place in the basket next week as our pledges are collected and blessed. It is a week to love God with all our heart, all of our mind, and all our soul.

What we have to offer may look to some, or many, of us very small and not worth much. But if we put all we have - our time, our talent, and our treasure - at Christ’s disposal, no matter how insignificant it may seem, then God can do with it and with us what is beyond our reckoning. 
Do you know the joy and freedom of giving liberally to God and to neighbor with gratitude and love? Let us pray…

Generous and loving God, You call us to be disciples
of your son Jesus and good stewards of all your many gifts.
Open our minds and hearts to a greater awareness
and deeper appreciation of your countless blessings.
Transform us through the power of your Spirit to nurture
a stewardship way of life marked by faith-filled prayer,
service to our neighbor and generous sharing.
Teach us to be faithful servants of your gifts. With your help, 
may we return ten-fold the gifts entrusted to us.
Bless our Parish with a deepening 
devotion to prayer, a growing commitment for service, 
and increasing levels of generosity as we work to 
advance the mission of both our parish and diocese.

We pray through Christ, our Lord.   AMEN 

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Take Up Your Cross...

Christ Church, St. Michael's Parish
14 Pentecost
Mark 8:27-38

He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”

Today marks the beginning of yet another church year. We have returned to the 8AM and 10:15AM Sunday service schedule, and the clergy have changed into “winter greens.” This coming week we will see the beginning of several new church programs, and various committees will initiate planning sessions for upcoming fall and winter events.  Volunteer recruitment for ongoing ministries will occur at today’s Ministry Fair, and Sunday school registration begins. And, of course, we are anticipating the return of our wonderful choir and the many parishioners who spent their summer months traveling or vacationing in summer homes.

Today also marks, just another day…not the beginning day… but just another day in world situations that bear our immediate and undivided attention.

The Global Refugee Crisis

 In the Balkans tens of thousands of migrants and refugees are working their way north. In Syria about 12 million people have been displaced since 2011. In Southeast Asia over 137,000  Bangladeshis and Rohingya, an ethnic minority from Myanmar, have fled from poverty and persecution. In Eastern Europe 1.3 million people have been displaced within the Ukraine; 867,000 have moved to Russia. Since 2013 brutal conflict in South Sudan has claimed thousands of innocent lives and driven well over a million of people from their homes.  And, here at home according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection 68,541 unaccompanied children were apprehended at the southwest border between October 1, 2013, and September 30, 2014. These children were fleeing from the violence of the drug cartels in Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador—a region of Central America known as the “Northern Triangle.”


The number of people living in extreme poverty globally remains unacceptably high. According to the most recent estimates, in 2011, just over one billion people lived on less than $1.25 a day.

In a survey conducted by the United Nations in 2005 – an estimated 100 million people were homeless worldwide and as many as 1 billion people lacked adequate housing. In January 2014, there were 578,424 people experiencing homelessness on any given night in the United States.


The target set at the 1996 World Food Summit was to halve the number of undernourished people by 2015. Since then, the number of hungry people in developing regions has fallen by over 200 million, from 991 million to 790.7 million. Clearly, the 1996 the target will not be reached.

There are other big challenges, as well – The Global Economy, Gun Violence, Racism, Prison Reform, The Israeli-Palestinian situation, and more…many more.

Many, if not most of these world situations, are present in one way or another right here – right on our front door. They are right here in Maryland and they are right here on the Eastern Shore. Wherever they occur, all of these world situations – all of them – have resulted in the discrimination against, and disenfranchisement, oppression and all too frequently death of millions of God’s children. People. People whose place of birth may be different than ours; people whose skin color and language may be different than ours – but, people who are all created in God’s image, all created equal in God’s eyes and who are all loved without question by God – always and forever, no matter what their life situation.

As we launch into our fall and winter programs here at Christ Church, we say that we are looking forward, setting forth as it were on a new and lively course of activities and events designed to enhance opportunities for spiritual growth and formation - activities and events that will bring us closer to God.  With that goal as a given, my question, to all of us, is this – in these newly energized plans have we left adequate time and space to examine these many challenging world events through the eyes of Jesus. In our various spiritual formation journeys do we hear today’s gospel words, ‘He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me,” ’ and do we consider how these “follow me” words define the “now what” for those of us who are moving forward in our spiritual journey – for those of us who are experiencing a new and thrilling closeness to God.

What exactly is Jesus talking about when he addresses his disciples today?

In today’s passage from Mark, Jesus, for the first time discloses that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering…and be killed. Jesus is rebuked by Peter who does not want to believe that the messiah will be subject to such an ignominious fate. But Jesus reprimands Peter and commands not only the disciples but the whole crowd to come and listen to his teaching.
In this, and subsequent passages, Jesus discloses more and more about his identity and fate. He also describes, without mincing words, what it means to participate with him when he says, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”
Jesus instructs those who would call themselves his followers to journey with him. Not behind him, not following in his shadow – but with him – alongside him – embracing him as the one to follow.  Following Jesus is not a wandering voyage, each man on his own. Following Jesus is a “oneness” with Jesus. It is a journey in solidarity that points in a particular direction, ending up at death and re-birth.
Jesus’ instruction to deny oneself and to take up one’s cross reveals a thoroughly forward-looking orientation— one that points ahead to the future and calls its hearers to assess their lives, securities, and ambitions in accordance with their association with Jesus and their participation in God’s kingdom. The forward moving orientation described in Mark is absolute, summoning Jesus’ followers away from inclinations to personal aggrandizement and away from loyalty to the world of status, power, and achievement.

In this gospel passage, self-denial and cross-bearing clearly appear as key elements of a person’s identity if they are truly to be a follower of Jesus. The cross that followers are to bear according to Mark is not Jesus’ cross. Mark’s language makes clear that everyone is to take up his or her own cross, each declaring the forfeiture of one’s life and turning one’s back on self-preservation. Cross-bearers bravely embrace a way of life that threatens the existence of world ideologies that perpetuate the oppression of human souls.

Tomorrow evening at the event celebrating the inauguration of our membership in the Bondeau Partnership you will meet some amazing people who have responded to the incredible needs of Bondeau, a fragile Haitian community, by coming together in a collaborative effort to build sustainable capacity in a desolate and impoverished area that has frequently been called, not a Third World Country, but a Fifth World Country.

Over the past eight years, partnership members have donated time and treasure beyond imagination to build programs that provide education, food, healthcare, clean water, solar power, and an incredibly beautiful place to worship. The way has never been without conflict, concern, and great hardship when in Haiti. The way has been fraught with danger of all sorts. However, the way has been always focused on the needs and concerns of the Bondeau residents, not the needs and concerns of the partnership members. The Bondeau partners have each taken up their cross as they embraced, and continue to embrace, Jesus as their model for compassion, love, and justice. The goal is to be one among the people of Bondeau, as work to build their community progresses.

I believe that the Bondeau Partnership is an excellent model for how we might collaborate in this diocese and throughout the church to address the many challenges that face our world today. I believe that if we lay self aside and utilize our refreshed sense of spirituality as fuel that sparks the courage needed to take up our various crosses – if we embrace Christ - together we can and we will successfully seek and find ways to bring justice, love and compassion to the world.

The way is not easy. Sometimes the way appears defeating. Some days we will want to give up. Indeed some will give up. But as one young woman involved in rescuing Syrians in the Aegean Sea said last Sunday, “How can you not save someone who is drowning. How can you turn away?”

And remember, it is only we who falter. Jesus is always the same – the same yesterday, as today, and as he will be tomorrow. And he is with us always, to the end of time.  AMEN

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Is the Teaching Too Difficult?

13 Pentecost – August 23, 2015
John 6:56-69

Last Saturday in the courtyard of the Griffin Park apartments, the first St. Michaels Unity Day Picnic kicked off promptly at 11AM as scheduled. The mouthwatering aroma of barbecuing hamburgers and hot dogs and squeals of childish delight were evident for at least a two-block radius. I arrived at five past 11. The bounce house was already filled to capacity, and Rev. William Wallace, pastor of Union United Methodist Church, was getting the drip hose positioned for maximum water flow in the water slide. Children of all ages waited impatiently in line. It was hot and they wanted to get into that cool water as quickly as possible.

Under the picnic tent and scattered around the central lawn area were people from throughout the St. Michaels community – getting to know you conversations abounded. The Town Manager and two County Commissioners mingled with guests, and the Director of the Housing Authority was on hand to discuss the challenges of affordable housing in Talbot County.  DJ Randy had set up his audio system under a small tent and Christian Rock blasted through the air proclaiming the greatness of Jesus. At the very fringes of all of this activity a few residents sat in chairs just outside their doorways observing the festivities with wide grins on their faces. When I asked one lady what she thought of all that was going on, she said, “it is fine…most fine.”

At the center of the day’s activities was St. Michaels Police Chief Anthony Smith. Unity Day was Chief Smith’s idea, and it was Chief Smith who was the glue that held the day together…Truly, we could not have done it without Chief Smith.

The “Chief” is one of the forerunners in national law enforcement efforts to build and reinforce trust between communities and their police departments. Chief Smith’s key goal is the building of trust and mutual respect between all of the various community groups in St Michaels.

Community policing is a philosophy that promotes organized strategies to support the systematic use of partnerships and problem-solving techniques. Techniques that proactively address the immediate conditions that give rise to public safety issues such as crime, social disorder, and disention among community groups. Community policing has three key components: Community partnerships; organizational transformation; and problem solving. The intelligent and resourceful use of all of these assets culminates in a process of proactively identifying and prioritizing problems; researching what is known about the problem; developing solutions to bring about lasting reductions in the number and extent of the problems; and evaluating the success of the responses.

In essence community policing strives to integrate the police department into the community in a partnership that, at all levels, is dedicated to furthering the “good of the neighborhood” – or, the common good.

I sat in Griffin Park last Saturday and observed Chief Smith as he orchestrated all of the activities of the day, and I was truly humbled. He knew everyone and everyone knew him. He respected everyone and everyone respected him. He had time for everyone and everyone wanted time with him.

The Chief was hot, mopping his brow continually without ever pausing in his unceasing activity of orchestrating the days’ events. He was probably tired, and most certainly he must have had lots of other situations on his mind. Maybe he even had some aches and pains like most of us. Whatever was going on in the private world of Chief Smith, he never let it show. There was no doubt that without the Chief Unity Day would not have been just that – a glorious day when members of so many different community groups came together to have fun, to eat hotdogs and hamburgers, and to learn a little about each other. A day in which there was unity in the community.

Soon after Reverend Wallace started up the water slide and children were plunging through screaming with joy and excitement, Chief Smith called the crowd to silence and asked us all to have a seat. In a brief introductory ceremony the Chief asked all of the local clergy and the Director of the Community Center to stand beside him and to affirm their commitment to an interdependent partnership. A partnership in which we are all bound together as key community resources for safety, compassion, healing, and love. He asked us all to be his partners in community building, and we all said, “yes.” We all made the commitment to follow his lead in the task of furthering the good of the neighborhood – the common good.

“When many of his disciples heard it, they said, “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it? (John 6:60)

In today’s Gospel reading Jesus’ disciples continue to scratch their heads, still confused about the significance of the bread of life and mystified by what eating the flesh and drinking the blood of Jesus means. Over the past five weeks, Jesus’ focus on bread has moved from the feeding of the 5,000 with five loaves of barley bread and two fishes to a long discourse in which Jesus defines himself as the Bread of Life without which one cannot attain eternal life.

The disciples are puzzled by this. After all, Jesus is a carpenter’s son, a common man, and yet he performs miracles and implies that he is God’s spokesperson – the one through whom they must pass if they are to enter God’s Kingdom. How can this be – who is this man?

The disciples want answers that they can understand. They want answers that will tell them who Jesus really is. They want straightforward answers and easy solutions to entering God’s Eternal Kingdom – they want the whole story and in plain language.

But Jesus tells them that there are no easy answers. In fact, he challenges them even further when he says, “It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life. But among you there are some who do not believe…For this reason I have told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted by the father.”

Jesus challenges the disciples and confronts them with the hard truth, “this teaching is difficult.” There are no easy answers – there is no quick fix. It takes faith – faith in what cannot be seen – faith in what cannot be explained in everyday terms – faith in the act of giving oneself up to be one with Jesus – to follow him both literally and figuratively. Giving oneself over to being with and in Jesus, in every way, is the only way – the only way to freedom; the only way to peace; the only way to eternal life.

In this passage from John, the gauntlet has been thrown down – the message is a hard one to hear -  and because of this, “many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him.” Simon Peter and a few others elected to stay, but even they encountered severe misgivings and challenges as they followed their lord on the remainder of his journey to the cross.

The gauntlet has been thrown down…who will meet the challenge? I believe that this is how Chief Smith experiences his work in establishing a community policing program. I believe that the Chief has picked up that gauntlet, and I believe that he is going forward, just like Simon Peter and the others, in faith, knowing that if he follows in the footsteps of Jesus – if he keeps going forward despite challenges and hardships – despite the setbacks – if he follows in the footsteps of Jesus, he, in concert with those who choose to partner with him, will make a difference. The neighborhood will be more peaceful, more loving. The common good will be served and we will all be closer to living in a world that pleases God and is therefore pleasing to us.

A gauntlet has also been thrown down for us here at Christ Church.

Just about this time last year, under the leadership of the Renewal Works Committee, Christ Church committed to focusing on spiritual growth and spiritual vitality. Christ Church committed to rediscovering who Jesus is, and what it means to follow him. Christ Church intentionally picked up the gauntlet and embarked on a journey of spiritual growth and identifying ways that God is calling us to grow.

The journey is in progress. Classes, conversations, forums, and sermons have helped in focusing our hearts and minds on spiritual issues – our relationship with Jesus. Talk is bubbling up around potential social justice conversations and mission activities. Involvement with community service organizations has increased. We are sitting - just as the disciples sat listening carefully to their Lord - we are sitting – listening to words in the classes, conversations, forums, and sermons – the words - that bring us as close as possible to the Jesus of 2000 years ago. Sitting and listening, scratching our heads about what does it mean for us to follow Jesus.

As we listen – if we listen with open hearts and with open minds – or, as Paul would say, with the eyes of our hearts – as we listen to Jesus, as we grow spiritually, and draw ever so close to him – what do we hear him say to us? What is the gauntlet that he has thrown down for us, both personally and as members of Christ Church?

Will the teaching be too difficult to accept? Or, like Simon Peter, will we say, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.” Will we, like Chief Smith, pick up our gauntlet and meet the challenge?

As we follow Jesus, weathering the hardships and the challenges – the setbacks, will the neighborhood of our personal, parish and community lives grow to be a more peaceful, more loving place? Will the common good be served? Will we be closer to living in a world that pleases God and is therefore pleasing to us?

Will we “…be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power?” Will we “put on the whole armor of God” and follow Jesus – all the way, down that long road that the challenge takes us and into God’s Eternal Kingdom. AMEN

Monday, August 10, 2015

The Bread of Life...

Christ Church, St. Michaels Parish
10 Pentecost
John 6:35, 41-51

It seems difficult to believe, but I have now been with you here at Christ church for nine months….and what a nine months!

Arriving the day before Thanksgiving in 32 degree freezing rain fresh from our poolside condo in 90 degree Delray Beach….

Jumping into a new church family during the busiest seasons of the year…Advent and then Christmas…

Launching one of my favorite projects, the Bible Challenge….

Journeying to Cleveland with my husband for what turned out to be an incredibly complex surgical procedure requiring four months of recuperation and one additional surgical procedure….

And, three mission trips to Haiti – one in late January; one in May; and one just a few weeks ago in mid-July….

As of this moment, I think my head has stopped spinning, but I am not quite sure that my life will slow down all that much. There is a great deal going on here at Christ Church and in Bondeau, Haiti. New  fall and winter Christian education and formation classes; an incredibly rich Adult Forum program; Outreach Sundays, a new 2nd Sunday of the month program to be launched just after Labor Day; new partnerships in the Bay 100 community intended to bring Christ Church into closer communion and collaboration with multiple organizations in our neighborhood, and an ever proliferating set of partners and projects in our newly adopted mission site Bondeau, Haiti.

Clearly, the coming year is an incredibly important time in the life of Christ Church as well as in the majority of churches in the United States. Nationwide congregations are shrinking, pledges diminishing accordingly, Sunday schools are being disbanded for alternative mid-week programs that bring families together into conversation about basic Christian beliefs and behaviors, and those committed to bringing the Gospel into the world are scratching their heads – struggling with the challenges of bringing church to the un-churched, or the “nones” as they are so often called.

The Task Force for Reimagining the Episcopal Church is a committee that spent two years in discussions with thousands of Episcopalians about their hopes, dreams, ideas and concerns for the church and about the Church’s collective mission to serve Christ. They also studied how other churches and non-religious organizations have developed innovative approaches to pursuing their missions in a changing world.

At this year’s General Convention the Task Force presented their recommendations for changes in the Church’s structures, governance and administration to advance our Five Marks of Mission:

·        To Proclaim the Good News of the Kingdom
·        To teach, baptize and nurture new believers
·        To respond to human needs by loving service
·        To transform unjust structures, to challenge violence of every kind, and to pursue peace and reconciliation
·        To strive to safeguard the integrity of creation and sustain and renew the life of the earth

This excellent and extensive report – far too lengthy to discuss in detail –concludes, “Jesus sends us together into the places where ordinary life unfolds. We are sent to testify to God’s reign as we form and restore community by sharing in God’s peacemaking and healing. This begins with deep listening to neighbors, relying upon their hospitality rather than expecting them to find us on their terms. In today’s increasingly diverse world, we must learn how to “bear witness” to, and receive from those of different cultures, faiths and beliefs, “eating what is set before us.” For many churches now disconnected from neighbors, this will mean attempting small experiments in sharing God’s peace as we learn how to form Christian community and witness with those neighbors.” (TREC Report)

The Task Force endorses the overall goal of “renewing ways not only of speaking to the world, but also of being together, driven by the commitment to collaborate across structures that may have no connectivity today,” and with three specific objectives designed to meet that goal: 1) Restructuring the spiritual encounter; 2) Reimagining dioceses, Bishops, and General Convention; and 3) Restructuring assets in service of God’s mission in the future.

Challenging goals… very challenging.

So, yes, I believe with all my heart – that this is an incredibly important year – an incredibly important year for Christ Church and for the Church as a whole - a year in which we must continually renew our commitment to our Baptismal vows -  A year in which we must, with renewed courage, creativity, discipline and faith, engage in our role as Disciples of Christ – A year in which we must, in partnership with our community, reach out, go beyond our doors if we are to achieve our dream of bringing the compassion and love made manifest to us in Christ, to our neighbors here in the Bay Hundred area and any other places in the nation and the world to which we may be called.

If we are to be a vibrant and lively church we must work at it – work hard with energy and with discipline and in community - in partnership - with good will and with hearts that are filled with courage, compassion, forgiveness and love.

As the Apostle Paul said in his Letter to the Ephesians,  “…be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power. Put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil…Stand therefore, and fasten the belt of truth around your waist, and put on the breastplate of righteousness. As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace. With all of these take the shield of faith, with which you will be able to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one.  Take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.” (Eph. 6:10, 14-17)

Yes, it is a lot of hard and courageous work that we are called to do– especially with Paul’s exhortations ringing in our ears and egging us on.

Some people ask me, “How do you do it – how do you do so much and always seem so calm?”

My response is always the same, “I don’t even think about what is happening. Jesus is always in me and with me. I know that I will be fine.”

And this, of course, brings me to today’s Good News.  “Jesus said to them, ‘I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.’ ” (John 6:35)

A powerful statement made by Jesus to his followers so many years ago. A statement that transcends time and is as relevant today as it was then. A statement that provides us with the food - the peace, the love, the compassion, the strength and the faith - that we need to support us in our  work of re-imagining the Church, both here in St. Michaels and throughout the world. A fortifying statement as we put on the armor of God and go about the task of “renewing ways not only of speaking to the world, but also of being together, driven by the commitment to collaborate across structures that may have no connectivity today.”

Jesus is indeed the bread of life. He is our definitive disclosure of God in the world. He is the definitive model for our behavior. He is the definitive guidepost for our emotions. The sustenance, the nourishment, needed to keep us alive, spiritually and emotionally, as we traverse these challenging times of keeping our church alive and well – these challenging times of forming and restoring community by sharing in God’s peacemaking and healing.

Although I speak for myself only, in faith, I know that if we allow ourselves to feed on the bread that comes down from heaven, the true bread of life, we will be fed eternally – now and forever. We will be filled with faith and courage and love and we will be peaceful, effective and passionate disciples of Christ, who bring the Good News, the Gospel, to our community and to the world. 

We will become the bread of life for others - for the world. AMEN