Thursday, July 7, 2016

Kingdom of Heaven Seeds

Christ Church, St. Michaels Parish
July 3, 2016

On June 15, 2016 – just a couple of weeks ago – my grandson Nathaniel Goodyear, age 13, graduated from the Brooklyn Community Montessori School. This, as all you parents and grandparents well know, was a big event.

Invitations were sent out several months in advance by my daughter Sarah. She was tireless in ensuring that everyone who should be there would, in fact, be there. On the big day my ex-husband Dick Goodyear; Carmen, his third wife; Dick’s youngest son by his second marriage, Sam and his wife Adair; Dick’s brother Sam; my daughter Sarah and her partner Laura; Nathaniel; and little old me, were front and center in the school’s auditorium for the late afternoon ceremony.

You got it a great many Goodyears and one lone Garrity.

Before going further with my story, I should let you know that the Goodyears, although Episcopalian by baptism, are not church goers. As Dick Goodyear has said many times, “I am not in favor of organized religion.” Much to my chagrin, both Sarah and Nathaniel have come to feel the same way. What their falling away from the church is all about is good food for another sermon. But for today, the important point is that I, as a firm believer and participant in what our Presiding Bishop Michael Curry calls the Jesus Movement, was alone amidst a family who are most definitely not “believers.” Otherwise known as the Nones.

After the graduation ceremony came to a close, we all trekked a fair distance to a very little restaurant for what turned out to be a very big and very long dinner. I was seated across from Dick and his son Sam who were literally the only people I could hear amidst the chatter of the other dinner guests, some very loud Brazilian music and the bustle of the wait staff.

Young Sam (whom I had never met), Dick (whom I have not seen for at least 15 years) and I started off by talking about, what else, but the upcoming presidential election. That conversation led us to the Wall Street take on Donald Trump - Sam works on Wall Street, and so has the “inside scoop” on things. I was soon being regaled with the various financial escapades of some very prominent Wall Street traders and their impact on world events. As the conversation progressed I felt that we had wandered well out of my usual conversation milieu. To put it in the context of this morning’s gospel reading from Luke I felt a little like a lamb in the midst of wolves.

But then, out of nowhere Sam, with a truly worried look on his face, leaned across the table and said, quite passionately, to me, “It’s very hard being in the Wall Street business – so much corruption and dishonestly. It’s very hard – really very hard not to get caught up in the dishonesty.” I was totally surprised by this appeal for support. I put my hand on his and said, a bit timidly, “I will pray for you.” Not sure how this interjection of spirituality would go over, I smiled at him and leaned back in my chair.

No bombs exploded. In fact, not even the slightest acknowledgement of my offer of prayer was made. The discussion revolving around Hillary and Donald and the Wall Street trading business continued, as before – and, no I will not go into who is voting for whom.

After what seemed like a very long and incredibly noisy two hours, dinner was finally over. We exited the restaurant and gathered outside the front door for goodbye hugs and kisses. As people drifted off in various directions, I found myself standing alone, still very close to the restaurant entrance. Sam, who had already started to walk off, turned and came over to me. He took both my hands in his, leaned over and said, quite passionately, “Please pray for me, I really need it.” Wow.

At that moment I thought of today’s gospel reading in which Jesus sends the seventy ahead of him as he travels the road to Jerusalem. He tells the seventy that the ‘harvest is plentiful, but the labourers are few.’ In other words, Jesus says to his followers, I want you to be my point people. Go - scout out the territory. There are only a few of you, but there are many people out there in need of salvation. Gather around you those who will listen – teach them what I have taught you - prepare the way for my presence in their hearts and minds, make ready the way for healing and salvation.

These initial seventy were Jesus’ first missionaries in the world. They were his emissaries and the embodiment of his love. They were heralds declaring God’s love for the world through their words and actions. They were the first brave souls to engage in the work of the mission of the Church – the mission of Christ.

Over the past two thousand years that mission has not changed. The seventy sent out in pairs by Jesus and the hundreds of thousands who have followed in the footsteps of the seventy have all been commissioned with the same mandate:

·        To proclaim the Good News of the Kingdom
·        To teach, nurture and baptize new believers
·        To respond to human need by loving service
·        To seek to transform unjust structures of society, 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

These five marks of mission perfectly describe Jesus’ charge for all missionaries. That was the work of the seventy then and that is our work now, to go out into the world as Jesus’ point people, preparing the way for his presence in the lives of those whom we encounter, all the while seeking to safeguard the integrity of God’s profoundly stunning creation.

But here’s the catch, this missionary work is not always easy, comfortable or without personal harm of some sort. Jesus warned the seventy, “See I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves;” and, on top of that he added “Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals.” Jesus didn’t mince words as he told the seventy that they were going to meet people who would be hostile to their message. Dangers in the form of rejection and ridicule would abound; in some cases, persecution and perhaps death would be a reality.  

Jesus then added a third crucial point of all mission work. He told the seventy, “greet no one on the road.” In other words, we must caution against getting distracted by the conversations and demands of life and work that take us away from the work that we have been given to do. We must not lose our missional focus.

And then, a fourth mandate - be humble, eat and drink whatever your hosts provide - don’t get caught up in looking for the best food, the most comfortable lodging, the people most like you. Stay focused on the work at hand – forget about greener pastures. Be present where God has put you. Creature comforts should be at the bottom of any packing list of items needed to heal a broken world.

Then, our gospel reading fast forwards to the seventy returning from their mission with joy, and declaring, “Lord, in your name even the demons submit to us.”

Although we are never given a laundry list of what the seventy actually accomplished on their various journeys, it would seem pretty clear from their comments, and their joy, that they had experienced some measure of success. For certain, they planted seeds – perhaps the smallest of seeds – but seeds, nevertheless.

The seventy planted “kingdom of heaven seeds.” Matthew in his gospel tells us, “Kingdom of heaven seeds are usually the smallest of seeds, but when they grow, they become the largest of garden plants and become a tree, so that the birds come and perch in its branches.” (Matthew 13:31-32)

The seeds are small, easy to carry along with us but challenging to cast – to plant. The casting, or planting as the case may be, requires courage, passion, and a commitment to be at one with the original seventy. As Jesus said in last week’s gospel reading, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”

How does all this relate to us?

At Nathaniel’s graduation party a seed was planted in young Sam’s heart. Who knows if it was cast on rock, if it will blow away in the wind, or if it was planted in fertile ground? Most probably I will never know. In fact, most of us will never know the outcome of our seed casting and seed planting. Most of us will never be lucky enough to shout out with joy to Jesus, “Lord, in your name even the demons submit to us.” But, that is not important. As one of Jesus’ missionaries in the world our call is simply to do the work that that has been given to us to do, and to love and to serve God as faithful witnesses of Christ our Lord. To remember that:

Christ has no body on earth but ours; no hands but ours; no feet but ours.
Ours are the eyes through which the compassion of Christ looks out into the world.
Ours are the feet with which he is to go about doing good.

Ours are the hands with which he is to bless others now.  (Mother Teresa)  

Sunday, May 29, 2016

God in the World...

Christ Church, St. Michaels
May 29, 2016
Many years ago when I was working in the Lower Rio Grande Valley in Texas, a very desolate and impoverished area, I was befriended by a Catholic deacon named Albert. Deacon Albert, as we all called him, was a staff member of the HIV/AIDS social service organization that I was managing.

Back then there was no treatment for HIV/AIDS. AZT therapy was on the horizon but not yet available to the mass market.  With literally no medical options, our clients and their families were desperately in need of support, both emotional and concrete, in all aspects of their lives.

Most of the people in the valley who were living with HIV/AIDS were Mexican, and those infected were not only men, but also women, infants and children. Almost all of these individuals were impoverished and living in colonias – slums really. Their housing was frequently no more that a single wide trailer, with multiple people sharing beds and other aspects of living. Lack of funds to buy food and other household products was a real issue. There was no medical support for those who were sick and dying.

Several days after my arrival in the Valley Deacon Albert barged, and I do mean barged, into my office and said, “Mrs. Garrity you can’t lead this organization if you sit behind that big, fancy desk. You need to come with me.” I was a little stunned, but I dutifully followed Albert out of my comfortable office and into an ancient and very uncomfortable – no air conditioning, springs coming up through my seat – Toyota pick-up truck which was loaded, and I do mean loaded, with bags of food and toiletry items. Albert said to me, “Now you will get to meet the people and hear their stories – that is what is important. When you know their stories, then you can really begin to know how to help them.”

Off we went on what was to become a regular ministry for me over the next four years. It was a ministry of presence and healing, and it changed my life forever. I visited many homes in the colonias, and I came to know many people and their many stories. God was everywhere we went – so visible, so compelling – the Spirit guiding us in ways that I had never imagined. We went from delivering food and household products to reconciling mothers and their gay sons, baptizing babies, and conducting funerals.

And, as Albert had predicted, the knowledge that I gained from my frequent visits to the colonias did indeed give me critically important information – information that would be the foundation for the programs that we developed and the grants that we applied for in order to fund our programs.

However, the point I want to make here is that these people and their stories would have remained invisible – invisible -to me and to our organization had not Albert barged into my office that day and insisted that I could not lead the organization without seeing the people who needed our assistance, first hand.
Albert was a true advocate for the poor, the needy and the lonely. He had the courage to barge into my office and speak out loudly for them. He had the faith to believe that God would answer his appeal in some way, or ways, that he could not at that moment in time see or understand. Deacon Albert was the channel through which I learned about the people of the Lower Rio Grande Valley and the needs of the people living with HIV/AIDS.

In today’s gospel reading from Luke 7, Jesus is approached indirectly by a centurion seeking help for a deeply cherished slave who was ill and close to death. This centurion saw something in Jesus that inspired faith. He believed that somehow, someway Jesus would be able to heal his sick slave – to prevent the slave’s death. The centurion decided to seek Jesus’ help in spite of the fact that he was a Gentile and a Roman soldier.  Figuratively speaking, the centurion decided to barge into Jesus’ room, speaking up for someone in need.

But, believing himself unworthy of speaking to Jesus personally, the centurion approached several Jewish elders and requested that they be the ones to ask Jesus to come and heal the slave. The local Jewish leaders went to Jesus and said, " [The centurion] is worthy of having you do this for him" (7:4). Hearing this, Jesus “went with them” with little or, perhaps, no hesitation. Jesus was intent on going to see - going to heal.

Keep in mind that in ancient Rome "centurion" meant “captain of 100" - or captain of over 100 foot soldiers in Rome’s powerful army. Centurions were leaders of the cruel and brutal military force that had conquered the people of Israel, and who would soon participate in the execution of Jesus.

But, although he was a man who commanded over 100 soldiers, the centurion became a servant to his own servant by calling Jesus to heal him. The centurion was serving the Lord Jesus by reaching out to those in need, in this case a slave who was lowly and looked down upon by others. The centurion was the channel through which Christ’s power flowed and healed this dying boy.

Clearly, Jesus had a number of reasons to resist helping this centurion even though he was highly praised by the local leaders. From Jesus' perspective the centurion represented everything that was dangerous and sinful about the world.
We never learn why Jesus is so eager to help this Roman soldier; we learn only that Jesus did not hesitate in the slightest to head toward his house. Jesus had been called to see and to heal. And, Jesus responded – he was called and he went – even into unknown and potentially dangerous territory.

I think Deacon Albert was a little, if not very, like the centurion. In faith, Albert barged into the office of a new boss to whom he had not yet been introduced and said, “Leave the comfort of your office and come with me. You are needed in the colonias; they are waiting for relief, healing, reconciliation.  You need to come with me.”

Albert’s courage was bold; he was willing to go out on a limb by reaching out to me on behalf of those in need. He was the channel through which I was able to understand the complexity of the problems facing the men, women and children living with HIV/AIDS in the colonias. He was also the spark of faith that opened the eyes of my heart to the presence of God in those around me and in those whom I was serving.

I think that it is important to note that Deacon Albert’s faith and commitment to and advocacy for the poor were not only a spark, but the flame that ignited my call to enter the process of ordination to the diaconate. Soon after leaving the Valley, I embarked on the discernment process at my new church in Palm Beach, Florida – and, the rest is history.

The lesson learned back then, for me – a lesson that I have never lost sight of – is that Jesus is asking us to go out into the world, to really see, hear, and know our brothers and sisters in Christ and to identify those in need.

Jesus showed us that our reaction to the complex challenges of the world needs to be brave, passionate, and filled with faith; faith that God will be with us – all the way. Albert modeled that for me. And, in my own small way, over the ensuing years, I have tried to model this way of being in my own life.

I believe with all my heart that there is no way to know God, or to understand fully his gift of Jesus – the Son of God incarnate – if we fail to go out into the world – fail to go out into the world and seek God– our Creator – in so many different people and in so many different places. For me, this is truly a thrilling but yet most humbling experience.

Knowing God – holding Jesus up as our model – allowing the Holy Spirit to guide and support us in our everyday lives – we are called to be centurions and Alberts – to have the faith, courage and passion needed if we are to be successful advocates for those in need.

Am I, are you, joyfully and fearlessly able to advocate for those in need, forever seeking new venues in which to proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ? Do I, do you,  dare to cross the invisible barriers in our communities and venture into places where we are not expected – indeed, where we are not even welcomed – to be seed throwers, fire starters, hope peddlers, risk takers and dreamers on behalf of the Good News of Jesus Christ?

If we do not know God by continually seeking him in others, in our own community and elsewhere throughout the world – if God is not an integral part of us and our everyday life how can we ever be a centurion or an Albert – how can we follow Jesus, beyond the cross and into the world as a blessing and a light to all those who live in darkness?

Let us pray. God, we turn to you in faith and in doubt, in joy and in anxiety, in hope and in fear, with boldness and with trepidation. No matter how we turn to you, we trust that your grace and love will hold us in your care, O God. Draw us together. Inspire us to preach your good news that faith and healing can be found where we least expect it. In the name of Christ, we pray. Amen.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Follow Me...your heart filled with love...

The Third Sunday of Easter
April 10, 2016
Christ Church, St. Michaels Parish

Today’s gospel reading from John is incredibly rich in detail, and absolutely central to our lives as Christians.

It is so rich and so relevant that I have decided not to follow the usual formula of beginning with a personal story, or lead-in anecdote – the so-called “hook.” Instead, I am just going to drive right into the gospel narrative.

In today’s passage Jesus makes his third resurrection appearance, this time by the Sea of Tiberias, or as it is more commonly known to us, the Sea of Galilee. He appears quite suddenly and ever so silently – it is just after daybreak. His arrival is so unobtrusive that, initially, as he stands quietly on the beach looking out at their small boat, the disciples do not recognize him.

As Jesus stands silently on the shore and watches his beloved disciples in their small fishing boat he sees that their nets are empty. The disciples have been on the water all night – they have caught nothing - they are tired and discouraged.

Jesus calls out to them saying, “Children, you have caught no fish, have you?” When they respond by affirming his observation, he calls to them saying, “Cast the net to the right side of the boat and you will find some.”

Following his advice the disciples re- cast their net, this time on the right side of the boat; and, miraculously, fish appear. Very quickly their net is filled to overflowing and the disciples begin to haul the catch towards the shoreline.

As they slowly sail towards the shore, Jesus is building a charcoal fire and grilling fish. Miraculously, bread also appears.  A breakfast feast, prepared by their Lord, is ready and waiting for the disciples as they tie up their boat and hurry towards the warm fire and the waiting feast.

Jesus invites the disciples to, “Come and have breakfast.” And, as they sit down around the fire, “Jesus took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish.”

In this wonderful mélange of sights and sounds - sunrise over a shimmering sea; Jesus standing silently at the shoreline;  a fishing boat hauling a fish-filled net; the sandy seashore with its charcoal fire; the rich aroma of roasting fish; and the rush of hungry men, exhausted after a long night of fishing finding a place to sit around the fire and eagerly receiving the roast fish and the bread handed to them by their Lord – in this incredibly complex and rich array of sights and sounds the risen Lord, the Christ, is portrayed as the true shepherd, tending to, caring for and feeding his flock. Christ offering his incredible love and compassion to those whom he has left behind to carry forward his Word. Christ caring for – loving – his beloved.

And then, John’s gospel jumps quite suddenly to yet another powerful passage. - A passage that focuses on Peter, placing him very much on the hot seat.  John writes, “When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, ‘Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?’”

Peter, who seems to have forgotten that just prior to Jesus’ crucifixion, he denied knowing Jesus three consecutive times, appears hurt as he replies, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.”

But, Jesus persists in his questioning, asking Peter three times “Do you love me.” After each affirmation by Peter Jesus countered with a command. First, “Feed my lambs.” Then, “Tend my sheep.” And finally, “Feed my sheep.”

And then, after giving Peter these commands, Jesus goes on to inform Peter that by doing these things he also will be sentenced to death. Jesus says to Peter, “…you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.”

And finally, after disclosing this grim reality, and in spite of it, Jesus commands Peter to, “Follow me.”

What a powerful set of resurrection stories – Jesus standing on the shore tending and feeding his flock; Jesus drawing Peter aside and charging him to
watch over and feed his flock; Jesus looking Peter square in the eye and commanding him to, “Follow me.” Follow me and in doing so know that you will be crucified.

A whole lot going on in a very brief period of time. What are we to make of it?

I believe that this powerfully moving commissioning of Peter is very much related to the earlier narrative in which Jesus watched over his disciples as they struggled, miserable after a long and unsuccessful night of fishing, and then fed them a warm and filling meal. 

In this first segment of the gospel reading Jesus saw that his disciples after an entire night at sea had failed to catch any fish. He was troubled. His beloved – his children – his lambs - were struggling. Calling out, he directed them to a place where fish flowed plentifully into their net.  And then, still concerned for their well-being Jesus prepared a fire and began to roast fish that would feed, would nourish the disciples once they had reached shore.

The crucified Jesus, now resurrected, appeared in love – agape love; the love of God for man - to watch over, to tend to, and to feed his flock.

And then, Jesus who knows that he will soon ascend, turns from his disciples to Peter and commands him to feed the lambs, the smallest and the most
vulnerable of all the flock; then, he commands Peter to tend to, to watch over, the sheep, his entire flock, keeping them safely in the fold; and finally, he commands Peter to feed his flock, ensuring that they flourish physically and spiritually as they continue their journey into the world as Disciples of Jesus.

Jesus is commanding Peter to be the “Rock,” the foundation upon which the church can grow; can flourish; can endure. Jesus is commanding Peter to follow him, with the full knowledge that in doing so Peter will experience death by crucifixion – “someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.” Jesus is commanding Peter to carry forward the light of God’s love, not only among the small group of disciples, but throughout all Israel and throughout all nations.

In this passage John provides both the model for loving our neighbor – Christ at the seashore - and the command to do so – the commissioning of Peter.

This powerful resurrection story presents in these two very brief scenarios Jesus’ entire message. If we knew nothing else about him, we would understand without a doubt the centrality of love in Jesus’ message to us. We watch him tend to and feed his flock; we hear him commission his disciple Peter to do the same; we watch and hear him as he appears one last time, in love, to ensure the legacy of his incarnation.

As we celebrate this, the third Sunday of Easter have you experienced your own resurrection story? Has the Risen Christ appeared silently on your shoreline?

Have you felt his watchful encouragement, his agape love, as you struggle with your individual challenges?

Have you heard his command to love an agape love that sets your course as a Disciple of Christ and shepherd of your flock for this next segment of your life? Are you prepared to be a “rock,” a foundation for those who follow you?

Have you taken the time to sit in prayer and to listen to the resurrected Jesus as he commands, “Follow me.” If so, are you following blindly, or are you taking the time to discern which of the many paths that are available to you is the path that Jesus has called you to follow? To follow in courage, your heart filled with agape love.

Friday, March 25, 2016

His Love is Our Strength

Good Friday - March 25, 2016
Christ Church, St. Michael's Parish

As baptized Christians we are accountable to an intentional way of thinking; an intentional way of behaving; an intentional way of living that is directed by Christ within us and Christ with us. Our baptismal anointing calls us to seek Christ, in ourselves and in others, continually, as we travel into the world to abolish darkness and despair.

Just a few short weeks ago, in my Christmas Day sermon, I marveled at God’s amazing gift, saying:

“This Christmas Day, I pray that you 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.”

That was a sermon filled with excitement, joy, and hope. It was a sermon that called people to be thrilled by the presence of the angel of God. It was a sermon that emphasized God’s “amazing gift.” It was a sermon that called us to experience, in every sense of the word, the very real presence of the incarnate Jesus in our lives. It was a sermon that called us to action – the action of “going and seeing” with the goal of being thrilled, amazed, joyous, re-invigorated, re-energized, and renewed in our life as disciples of Jesus.
In the ensuing weeks, as post-modern disciples, we watched and listened as Jesus was baptized, and as he began his journey from the river Jordon to Jerusalem and
the cross. We watched and listened to Jesus teach and heal. We came to know him as: 
·        The bread of life – The one who spiritually sustains us.
·        The light of the world – The one through whom we gain spiritual understanding and wisdom for living.
·        The gate – The one who has given us free and unlimited access to the Kingdom of God.
·        The good shepherd – The one who gives his life for those who follow him.
·        The resurrection and the life – The one who has guaranteed our eternal life with God.
·        The way, the truth, and the life – The one who shows us the way of life.
·        The vine – The one without whom we cannot sustain ourselves in his way of life.

Luke summarizes Jesus’ impact on the world with staggering simplicity, “The blind receive their sight, the lame walk. Lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up. The poor have good news preached to them.” (Luke 7:22)

And now, we stand at the foot of the cross, stunned by the violence of the crucifixion and sensing, no not sensing but knowing, that without Jesus with us we are lost in a dark wilderness and filled with anxiety, fear, and despair. We stand at the foot of the cross grieving – deeply grieving.

What does this intense grieving moment of Good Friday teach us about our relationship with Jesus? Why does it matter?

This brief and deeply grief-filled moment at the foot of the cross is, I believe, pivotal to our lives as Christians. It is the moment in which we watch Jesus, in his incredible love for us, give his life - turn his life over - to the Father.  It is the moment in which Jesus’ love for us brings death to him while at the same time bringing freedom to us – freedom to “Love the Lord our God with all our heart and with all our soul and with all our minds.  And, freedom to love our neighbors as ourselves.”  Freedom to love others as Jesus loved us, and continues to love us - Freedom to go out into the world in love as a light in the darkness.

To allow ourselves to experience this grief moment fully, quietly and prayerfully - to burn with the pain of its intensity- is critical. Without mourning the loss of Jesus - without this painful grieving moment - we will not have the passion, the energy, or the will to move forward into a way of life that reflects our identity as true Disciples of Christ. We must confront the deep pain of the present reality – Jesus not with us - mourn his

loss, understand the true love that led to his crucifixion if we are to find our way forward not in grief, but in love, into the world and with action that knows no fear – words and deeds that bring light into the darkness.

What is the importance of our relationship with Jesus? Just that – it is a relationship. It is a relationship founded by and grounded in the most profound form of love – agape - a love that endures sacrifice, hardship, and death on the cross – a love that is passionate in the face of injustice – a love that seeks to reconcile the world to God.
Through our baptism God has anointed us for the work of Christian ministry. In our baptismal anointing we are united with Christ and enabled, entrusted, and empowered to accomplish God's will as we discern it to be.
Jesus is our vine – our lifeblood; we are his branches – his offspring; his heirs left behind at the foot of the cross. He will be with us – always. We are to abide in him – to gain our strength through him - always.
Pope Leo I in the late Fifth Century in his Good Friday Sermon preached on this relationship, saying:

“…So my dear people, as we celebrate this profound mystery of our redemption, let us acknowledge the teaching of God’s Spirit, the glory we are called to share, and the hope into which we have entered. We must not allow the activities of our life to fill us with anxiety or pride, so that we are unable to strive with our
whole being to be conformed to the pattern of our Redeemer, and to walk in his way. He has achieved and suffered everything necessary for our salvation, so that the power which was in the Head might also be found in us, his body.”

This grieving moment at the foot of the cross will soon be over and we will be distracted by the excitement and joy of the resurrection. In this distraction, let us not forget the love that has been entrusted to us by the one who loved us beyond comprehension, and the one who loves us always.  AMEN

Monday, March 21, 2016

Getting to Know Paul...

Epiphany 2016
Christ Church, St. Michaels Parish

In the early spring of 2011 I was lucky enough to be part of a pilgrimage traveling to Greece and Turkey with members of St. Paul’s, Delray Beach. We were a group of 25 led by the now Bishop of New Jersey, Chip Stokes. Our intent for this pilgrimage was to follow the footsteps of Paul through Greece and Turkey as he traveled not once, not twice, but four times from Jerusalem to sites as far-reaching as Rome 2000 years ago.

Back then I really did not know an awful lot about Paul. In fact, as I think back I can truthfully say that I knew nothing about Paul apart from the fragmented Lectionary readings that we hear each Sunday morning.

 And, I have to admit that I did not go on this pilgrimage with the intent of learning about Paul specifically.  Rather, I was intrigued by returning to Greece, a country I had not visited for quite a few years, and visiting Turkey, a country filled, in my mind at least, with intrigue and romance, for a first time.

I was also eager to experience a “Chip led” pilgrimage. Chip was a kind of celebrity in SE Florida – known for his impressive knowledge of biblical history and his passionate teaching style.

Finally, several of the other pilgrims were friends – good friends – and I was looking forward to embarking on this adventure with them.

The first couple of days were spent orienting ourselves to Athens and Corinth. They were, of course, interesting days but really, for me at least, no more than regular touristy touring. I still had no real comprehension of the significance of what I was looking at – especially in Corinth, which was absolutely vast. However, I must admit that after walking for five hours through the ruins of Corinth and periodically stopping to listen to the fascinating information imparted by our tour guide Sabrina – something happened.

We grouped around what Sabrina indicated had been the preaching site for Paul in the incredibly large Corinth agora, or marketplace. Chip said, “This is a perfect place for our daily Eucharistic meal. Chip’s wife Susan, who I believe is really a saint, whipped out bread and wine, communion vessels, prayer books and Chip’s stole- I was carrying my own stole in a tote that had just about everything I held dear in life at that moment in it – basically my passport and my cash.

It was then, at the site where the Apostle Paul preached in Corinth and our little group had its day-two Eucharistic meal with readings from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, that something began to click.

Two days later we were approaching Philippi and decided to stop at the stream where Lydia was baptized by Paul. As you will recall from Acts, Lydia was most likely an agent for a purple-dye firm in Thyatira, a city outside of Philippi. Lydia was converted during Paul’s visit and insisted on opening her home to Paul and his companions after they had been cast out of Philippi. After baptizing Lydia, Paul and his companions stayed with her until their departure for Thessalonica.

That day, we celebrated the Eucharist at the stream where Lydia was baptized. In fact Chip and I had to walk across the stream to serve the bread and the wine to our fellow pilgrims. It was a very thrilling moment, for all of us. That day the “click” was a little more substantial.

The following afternoon we arrived at our hotel in Thessalonica and were given the directive to break into small groups and to read Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians. I ended up with my roommate Patti and two other group members. We found a small table in the hotel bar area and settled in. We read the letter aloud in its entirety and then went back to re-read the letter one chapter at a time and then discuss it before going on to the next chapter.

By the end of that afternoon the something that began to click in Corinth and the something that had clicked even louder in Thyatira reached its crescendo – a crescendo that resounded throughout my entire body, mind and spirit. To put is rather mundanely, it was a complete “wow” moment.

All of a sudden it dawned on me that I was not traveling through Greece and Turkey to view ruins and the wonders of the modern archeological resurrection of buildings that had collapsed in earthquakes thousands of years earlier – not at all. I was on this journey to get to know Paul – to see and to hear him as so many years ago he traveled more than 10,000 incredibly difficult miles in his ministry to spread the Good News – the Gospel of Jesus. In that final “wow” moment I was re-directed from a journey of visiting ruins to a journey of being one  with Paul as he taught and preached the Good News of Jesus.

At that moment, sitting in the hotel bar in Thessalonica, I realized that our work as pilgrims on a journey to follow Paul’s footsteps through Greece and Turkey called us to experience the burning passion that must have coursed through every vein in Paul’s body as he bravely trekked through miles and miles of wilderness, crossed and re-crossed multiple bodies of water, entered cities that were ruthlessly ruled by the Roman Empire, and stood before crowds of non-believers who went to all lengths to dispel him from their communities. Wow…that was all I could say.

My “Wow” moment was, of course, an epiphany. Suddenly Paul was “revealed” to me. The incredible journey of this brave evangelist became so real to me that I could see it, feel it, and taste it. It was as if Paul was there with me – and, as if I was there with him – both of us very present to each other. And, somehow I knew in a way that words cannot describe, that Jesus was there as well.

Of course, Paul had experienced his own epiphany on the road to Damascus. In Acts 9 there a third person report of this epiphany:
As he neared Damascus on his journey, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice say to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”
“Who are you, Lord?” Saul asked.
"I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,” he replied. “Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do.”
The men traveling with Saul stood there speechless; they heard the sound but did not see anyone.
Acts 9:3–9, NIV

Apparently, there was a moment in Paul’s life – there on the road to Damascus - when he experienced Jesus as present in the most powerful way imaginable. And, that incredibly powerful presence shed a blinding light into the heart, mind and soul of Paul. This epiphany – this revealing of Jesus - redirected Paul – and sent him on a most astounding journey of evangelism through the known world – a journey that would in large part be the foundation of the Christian religion as we know it today.

And, in today’s gospel reading from Matthew we learn of yet another epiphany – the epiphany, or revealing of Jesus – to the three Wise Men who have somehow learned that a Messiah, a Savior has been born. They set off to find him, and on their journey they visited King Herod to ask if he knew where the child might be. Herod, threatened by the possibility of being overthrown by this messiah, directed the kings to find the child and to then return and inform him of the child’s exact location.

The three kings continued on their journey, and when they eventually found Jesus they were stunned. They were overwhelmed with joy. They fell on their knees. They knelt down and paid him homage and offered him gifts. During that moment of joy, awe and homage, Jesus was revealed to them. The reality of Jesus – the presence of Jesus and the promise of light shining out of a darkened and troubled world filled their hearts and their minds and their souls. And, rather than returning to report his whereabouts to Herod, for they knew that his intent was to murder this holy child, they were re-directed - they left for their own country by another road, presumably to spread the good news with great joy.

I believe that we all have “wow” moments – epiphanies - when the light of Christ somehow and very mysteriously shines so very brightly in our hearts and minds. A moment when the presence of Jesus, with us now and always, is so very real. These are mystical moments. They come upon us without warning, there are no words to describe them, and they leave us – most often – very quickly. They come and they go. We cannot describe them. But they have the power to re-direct our lives. They are moments of light shining out of the darkness – Jesus with us – moments that point us in new directions of faith and hope.

Today we are celebrating Epiphany, the Christian feast day that celebrates the revelation of God the Son as a human being in Jesus Christ. Today, we each begin anew our journey with Jesus as he goes from the manger to the cross.

At some point in your 2016 journey in the footsteps of Jesus will you have a “wow” moment – an Epiphany? Will you experience the presence of Jesus in your heart, your mind and your soul in a way that re-directs your life? With the eyes and ears of your heart will you know the hope to which Jesus has called you? Will you experience the immeasurable greatness of his power that shines a guiding light on the way to love, the way to transform this world from the nightmare it often is into the dream that God intends for us all?

The words of our Collect of the Day so aptly describe our desires to love and to serve the world by following in the footsteps of Jesus.

O God, who so wonderfully created, and yet more wonderfully restored, the dignity of human nature: Grant that we may share the divine life with him who humbled himself to share our humanity, your Son Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. AMEN

Connect, Collaborate, Create...

Christ Church, St. Michael’s Parish
3rd Sunday in Lent, 2016

Yesterday at 1PM the 148th Annual Meeting of the Diocese of Easton concluded with a prayer and blessing issued by Bishop Parsley. The Annual Meeting, or Convention as it is better known, was an incredibly rich two days centered on the theme, “Connect, Collaborate, Create.” A theme designed to educate clergy and convention delegates about the newly rejuvenated diocesan Department of Missions and the Mission Cluster initiative. Both the Department of Missions and the Mission Clusters are a direct response to the 10 Recommendations developed through the work of the Discernment Committee. These recommendations as you will recall were presented and adopted at the Special Convention held this past year on June 6, 2015. The recommendations were then passed on to the Diocesan Council for implementation.

As a member of the Diocesan Council committee that focused on the “how” of how are we to implement these 10 Recommendations throughout the diocese, I began my final report to the Council with these words:

Mark Twain once said, “Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did. So throw the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.”

I went on to say:
Mark Twain would have been an excellent motivational coach for the Diocesan Council and the Diocese of Easton as we go about the business of developing and implementing a strategic plan for the Ten Recommendations adopted by the Diocese at the Special Convention held on June 6, 2015.

The central thrust of these recommendations calls us to throw off our bowlines and sail away from the safe harbor of our four lovely church walls. It calls us to catch brisk trade winds that will carry us in a new direction - a new way of bringing the Good News of Jesus to our communities. A brisk trade wind that will blow away the dusty past and fill our sails with the love, compassion, patience, humility, and energy needed to come together – to work in unison - as we share ideas, develop collaborative ventures, and journey side by side out into the community - out into the world - exploring, dreaming and discovering a vibrant new way of being in community as disciples of Christ.

This year’s Diocesan Convention theme, imagined and so very skillfully developed by Bishop Henry Parsley, was a direct outgrowth of the work conducted by the Diocesan Council around the “how to” of the 10 Recommendations. The convention logo, “Connect, Collaborate, Create,” and the convention agenda was designed to inspire and to encourage congregations to throw off their bowlines and to work together in connecting and collaborating in new ways – new ways called Mission Clusters – new ways of listening to each other; new ways of hearing each other; new ways of seeing each other; new ways of inspiring each other to imagine a future for the church – new ways of being on God’s mission in the world.

Our guest speaker the Rt. Rev. Martin Wharton, retired Bishop of Newcastle, offered both a sermon and educational lecture that suggested the way for success as we embark on our Mission Cluster initiative is based on generous, engaged and open dialogue among all clusters – all parishes. He encouraged us to consider the church as the body of Christ in which the laity plays a critical role in creating and maintaining congregations and communities that are focused on God’s Kingdom and God’s mission in the world.

Bishop Wharton reminded us all that as we go about this work of re-imagining ourselves for the future good of the church, our Advocate, the Holy Spirit is with us always. He also reminded us that in John 14, Jesus issues a mandate to his Disciples who have grown concerned over Jesus’ statements that he will only be with them for a short time longer.  Jesus said, “I have said these things to you while I am still with you. But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything and remind you of all that I have said to you.”  (John 14:25-27)

God fully expects that we will continue to carry out Jesus’ work in the world.

Now as Disciples of Christ caught in a most challenging time for our church we must discipline ourselves to remember these words that reassure us – We must remember that the Spirit, the love and the passion and the wisdom of Jesus, dwells within us. We must discipline ourselves to open our hearts to the Spirit, and allow it to build a fire in us as it nudges us gently, or perhaps not so gently, onto the path illuminated by the Light of Christ: A path that leads to the glory of Kingdom of God.

But, the discipline of living in a way that allows us to hear and to experience the Spirit in all aspects of our life, and that allows Jesus to light our way each and every day involves courage. The courage to throw the bowlines. The courage to sail away from the safe harbor. The courage to catch the trade winds in our sails. The courage to Explore. Dream. Discover.”

I think Paul hit the nail on the head when he wrote to the Corinthians saying, “So if you think you are standing, watch out that you do not fall. No testing has overtaken you that is not common to everyone. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing he will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it.”

Could it be that we will fail to understand that we are being tested - that God is testing us, perhaps as never before – that our diocese is in jeopardy if we do not Connect, Collaborate and Create within our Mission Clusters to feel the power of the Spirit; use the Light of Christ to light the way as we throw off our bowlines; to join together in a collaborative spirit never before experienced in this diocese as we create a new and gloriously inclusive path to God’s Kingdom.

I believe that the Spirit is very much with us here in the Diocese of Easton. I believe that over the past two years God has showered the diocese with gifts beyond imagination. The gifts of discernment, the gifts of loving leadership, the gifts of so many hearts and minds already working together to find a new way.
I also believe that we are being tested – not only here on the Eastern Shore, but throughout our nation and the world. Perhaps we are like the fig tree that bears no fruit. We are in severe jeopardy of losing our way. Our opportunity to Connect, Collaborate and Create is our one more year to dig around ourselves, feed ourselves and to know that with God’s help, we can do it.

Let us remember that, “God is faithful, and he will not let us be tested beyond our strength, but with the testing he will also provide the way out so that we may be able to endure it.”

“So throw the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.”