Thursday, June 15, 2017

Upon Reflection

Upon Reflection

Upon reflection, the global mission conference that I attended this past weekend in the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta created for me a new way to experience the concept of mission in the world. Or, perhaps I should say, the conference gave me new lenses through which to see precisely what we mean when we say – “go” – Go into the World as disciples of Jesus - Go and proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ.

How did I not see this before, I said to myself as I sat in the Atlanta airport, waiting for a flight that we all prayed would be on time? How did I miss something so very obvious?

How did I miss grasping the reality that ultimately mission in the world – domestic or global – is not about individual trips abroad, or various ministry efforts here at home. Mission in the world is not about going forth out of the pews and through the church doors with the goal of, “doing good,” and then returning to the church parish hall with its various meetings and coffee hours to proudly report on our efforts.

How did I miss the fact that mission in the world has little to do with our identity as members of this or that congregation, carrying out tasks associated with this or that outreach initiative?

How did I not previously grasp the obvious – that mission in the world is a going out into the world with no agenda except that of looking and listening. Looking and listening for those in darkness. Looking and listening and then discovering -  discovering and being with the wounded. Mission in the world is the work of discovering, being with and bandaging the wounded. Mission in the world is traveling our life’s journey with the specific goal of seeking and serving Christ in all persons.

This new way of understanding mission points to the obvious -  our church is not a building. Rather, our church is the world. And, our congregational life is not a permanent home; rather, it is simply our spiritual oasis, a stopping place to rest and refresh.

The four walls that we enter each week are no more than a place to gather and to renew ourselves through prayer and the breaking of bread. Our congregational life is an oasis, a sanctuary in which we meet Christ each week. A place where we can feast on the bread of life that will sustain us as we leave and go on our way. It is a place where we continue in the apostle’s teaching and fellowship and the breaking of the bread.

Looking, listening, discovering, being with and bandaging – all ways in which we as followers and disciples of Jesus are far more likely to meet our incredibly challenging charge of striving for justice and peace among all people, and respecting the human dignity of every human being.

“…he said to them, “Go into the world and proclaim the good news to the whole creation” (Luke 10:15)

Monday, May 8, 2017

Follow, Always Follow

St. Simon’s on the Sound
Fourth Sunday in Easter
John 10:1-10

“Whenever he brings out his own sheep, he goes before them, and the sheep follow him, for they know his voice”
Several years ago, I embarked on a two-week pilgrimage that followed the footsteps of Paul’s three journeys through Greece and Turkey. As I am sure you know, it was in the wake of these many miles traveled by Paul, that the first churches of the Christian faith were founded.

In that brief two-week period, I visited and walked through the ruins of over 15 ancient temples and churches, and I experienced Paul and his commitment to Christ in a new a very tangible way.

As the first week of the pilgrimage drew to a close, and we were just about to leave the very northern region of Greece and enter into Macedonia, we visited the Monastery of Great Meteoro, also known as the Monastery of the Transfiguration of Christ. This is the largest of the seven monasteries located in the Metéora Valley. (middle of the sky; in the heavens above)

The Great Meteoro Monastery was erected in the mid-14th century. Its purpose was to protect the Byzantine monks who were threatened by the invasion of the Turks.
Access to the monastery was deliberately difficult, requiring either long ladders lashed together or large nets. Pilgrims who wished to visit the monastery were hoisted up vertically alongside the very sheer 1,224-foot cliff where the monastery overlooks the Valley.
To say that the visit to this monastery was a breathtaking experience is putting it mildly – both literally and figuratively - especially after having climbed the many steps that have now replaced the ladders and baskets.

As we drove away from the ethereal heights of the monastery, we turned down a winding road skirted by lush green grass. Coming around one the of hairpin bends, we came upon a lone shepherd leading his sheep home to their pen for the night. The shepherd looked tired. He was leaning heavily on his crook with each step that he took.

However, the sheep did not look tried at all. They were spread out over quite a large area, and the young lambs were running back and forth, playing and perhaps checking to see if their mother was still close by.

But, no matter how spread out, the sheep continued to move in a forward direction following the shepherd. And the shepherd, no matter how tired, continually looked back to check on them, and he always stayed in the lead.
There were 27 of us on the bus that late afternoon, and to a person everyone shouted, “Look at the shepherd. Just like Jesus in the story of the Shepherd.”

And then, of course, as the bus hurried along, the shepherd and his sheep disappeared. Exhausted from our afternoon of climbing and exploring the magnificent monastery, we sank back into our comfortable bus seats, some of us dozing and others, perhaps like myself, thinking about Jesus as our Shepherd, and the struggles that the early Christians encountered as they followed their Shepherd in faith and with courage.

Knowing the little that I do about farming and farm animals, I do not believe that there is anything terribly romantic about sheep or their shepherds. Sheep are dirty and dumb and shepherds are hardworking souls who most frequently live in abject poverty, and who are constantly on the watch for wandering sheep, predatory animals and bandits who are dedicated to stealing all the sheep they can for their own profit.

The image of Jesus in a blazing white robe, with flowing golden locks and an angelic and clean lamb around his neck is, as I am sure you will agree, grossly romantic – a completely unrealistic depiction of Jesus as a Shepherd.
A more accurate description of Jesus as Shepherd might be that of a charismatic and loving Nazarene struggling to harness and inspire an illiterate and unrefined group of Galilean disciples as he wends his way to Jerusalem, teaching and healing as he goes from town to town.

Jesus, the rabbi, the teacher, leading his sheep through dust and dirt, intense heat and freezing cold, perhaps leaning heavily on his staff and from time to time sleeping in crowded stranger homes, other times sleeping in scruffy fields and arid desert caves, with little water and almost no food – that, I believe, would be a more accurate portrayal of Jesus as Shepherd.

But, the most important aspect of Jesus as Shepherd overrides all pictures or physical descriptors. The most important aspect of our image of Jesus as Shepherd is our understanding of Jesus as leader. Jesus who knows the names and personalities and needs of all his sheep. Jesus who lovingly leads his sheep always -  always, despite all hardships – leads them always in one direction. Leads them to the sheepfold, to Jerusalem. Opens the gate for them and leads them to the Holy Temple, leads them to the cross – leads them to God.

“Whenever he brings out his own sheep, he goes before them, and the sheep follow him, for they know his voice”

Today, the fourth Sunday of Easter, is known as Good Shepherd Sunday, with Jesus depicted as the Good Shepherd. In the brief passage from John that I just read, Jesus is both shepherd and gatekeeper. He refers to himself as a shepherd who calls his sheep by name, and leads them both into and out of their pen.
He also refers to himself as the gatekeeper who opens and closes the gate for them. He claims responsibility for the sheep’s well being, their salvation from thieves and bandits who are eager to distract them and lure them into danger, and perhaps death - Distractions and malicious ways that kill and destroy.

This passage is preceded by the story of Jesus healing the blind man when Jesus proclaims to the crowd that, “I came into the world for judgement so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.” And, it is followed by the passage in which Jesus declares, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep…”

These declarations are quite stunning. Jesus will help us cast off false ways of looking at how best to live our lives – he will teach us how to make possible the world that God envisions for his beloved children – he will help us to see.

Jesus will lead us to a place of peace and safety; a way of living a life based on love and faith. He will help us push aside the distractions and distortions of our world that lure us into situations of discord and violence – he will be our protector.
By going to the cross Jesus will lay down his life for us to ensure that those who now see and those who have now entered the safety of the sheepfold – a new way of life - will remain safe in their new way of seeing and their new way of being.
Jesus will be our savior – he will lead us to God.

“Whenever he brings out his own sheep, he goes before them, and the sheep follow him, for they know his voice”

Receiving and holding fast to the gift of our Good Shepherd is no easy task. Life is filled with distractions and temptations. It is so easy to fall away from God as we bustle through the challenges of everyday life at home, at work, and elsewhere. Our vision can be so easily blurred; we can so easily wander onto the wrong path and miss the gate that has been opened for us. We can so easily lose sight of God.

I think back to the monks who scaled a 1,224-foot mountainside in the Meteor Valley to protect their faith – the Christian faith – from the invaders from the far East. They were determined in their faith to hold fast to God and to retire to a place where they could not only worship their Lord, but could also create incredible art and literature that has depicted the glory of God to hundreds of thousands of pilgrims.

And, then I think of the shepherd ascending the hill, tired from a long day of protecting his flock. His challenges throughout the day may have been many, wandering and perhaps sick sheep, bandits, hunger and thirst, and loneliness, but he has held fast in his determination to be a good shepherd and in doing so has maintained the safety of his sheep.

Neither one of these paths are easy ones. They require incredible faith, love, courage and discipline. They require perseverance and the clear vision that allows Jesus to remain in their sight always, so that the wrong path is not taken, but the open gate – help patiently open by our Lord Jesus Christ is -attained and entered.

I believe that each one of us here at St. Simon’s and all those who are members of the body of Christ – the church -understand the incredible gift of our Good Shepherd. A gift that is beyond understanding. A gift that is more than a gift. A gift that is a way of life. A gift that brings us every day into a way of seeing the world and being in the world that leads us all into God’s kingdom, both here and for ever and ever.

Michael Curry, our presiding bishop said in his famous sermon “Crazy Christians – A Call to Follow Jesus,”

“being a Christian is not essentially about joining a church or being a nice person, but about following in the footsteps of Jesus, taking his teachings seriously, letting his Spirit take the lead in our lives, and in so doing helping to change the world from our nightmare into God’s dream.” 

O God, whose Son Jesus is the good shepherd of your people: Grant that when we hear his voice we may know him who calls us each by name, and follow where he leads; who, with you and the Holy Spirit, lives and reigns, one God, for ever and ever. AMEN

Monday, April 24, 2017

Washed in the love of Jesus

Maundy Thursday – April 13, 2017
St. Paul’s Episcopal Church
John 13:1-17, 31b-35

The hour for Jesus to leave us has come. In less than 30 minutes we will exit the church in darkness and silence. The altar and the sanctuary will be bare. The candles snuffed; the crosses covered in black; the music silenced.

Our minds will be stunned; our hearts numbed. With tears welling in saddened eyes, we will exit into the darkness of night – a night in which the light and life of our Lord Jesus has been extinguished.

In less than 30 minutes Jesus will leave us.  Yet, in these all too brief, but incredibly important, few moments we, as Disciples of Christ, will have the opportunity to be with him in a most amazing way. A way that is perhaps more compelling, more fraught with emotion, more powerful than the stripping of the altar, the darkening of the church, the setting of the Altar of Repose, and our exit in grief and silence.

In just a few moments we will participate in the ritual of foot-washing, an act of humility, compassion, and love. An act of servant devotion instituted by Jesus so many years ago in that crowded upper room in Bethany – the site of his last supper with the disciples. In just a few moments we will step back in time and enter that upper room. And now, as then, as feet are washed the humility and compassion of Jesus as he prepared for his crucifixion will leave us bewildered, most certainly deeply moved.

Without a doubt, the foot-washing is a challenging ritual. After all, who wants to come forward, take off their shoes, and expose perhaps the ugliest part of their body - those funny, sometimes cracked and dirty things called feet? Who wants to expose their ugly feet – who wants to sit on a stool and wash the feet of others?

Indeed, many churches eliminate the foot-washing from their Maundy Thursday service entirely. Other churches slip it in quietly and quickly – the altar party as the only participants while the congregation sits in silence listening to beautiful music. And in churches where the foot-washing ritual is practiced in its entirety, many members of the congregation hang back, too embarrassed or conflicted to participate fully.

What in the world are we thinking by assigning this embarrassing, messy, and strange act such a prominent place in the midst of an otherwise traditional and compassionate liturgy?

Don’t feel as if you are an odd man out for having these, or similar, thoughts. These are questions that even the disciples had for Jesus. Simon Peter was incredulous. He said, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” Peter could not believe that Jesus would stoop to such a low level. Why would Jesus, their teacher, their rabbi, their Lord, perform a task not even required of most household slaves? Normally, guests were provided with water and a cloth and expected to wash their own dirty and cracked feet.

Jesus, undeterred by Peter’s question, continued about his business. He wrapped a towel around his waist and got started with the foot-washing saying, “Unless I wash you, you will have no share with me.”

When Peter heard Jesus speak these words he recognized that the simple and embarrassing act of foot-washing meant something far greater. Somehow Peter knew that Jesus’ washing of the disciples’ feet was central to the message of salvation that his Lord was teaching. All of a sudden, the act of foot-washing took on an importance for Peter – an importance way beyond the simple act itself.

And, Peter wasn’t wrong. The foot-washing was in fact an essential key to these last lessons that Jesus was imparting to his disciples.

Jesus was telling Peter that without the foot-washing one cannot "share" with him. The word “share” used here – the Greek meros – means to share with or be a part of.

The foot-washing in the context of this last meal that Jesus was sharing with his disciples represents not only a fellowship with Jesus, but also a sharing in his heritage, his kingdom. Raymond Brown in the “Gospel According to John” observes that Jesus words are not "if you don’t allow yourself to be washed," but rather: "Unless I wash you." Jesus’ salvific action is embodied in the act of the foot-washing.

Foot-washing, then, is much more than a moral example to be imitated, a guideline for better Christian living. By symbolizing the sacrifice of Jesus, it also serves as an invitation to be "washed" into love and fellowship with Jesus; into a share of his kingdom as we are cleansed of sin.

Michael Taylor in “The Different Gospel” writes, “Jesus tells Peter he will be lost if he does not accept this act. The foot-washing in its demonstration of humility and servanthood is a pre-cursor to the crucifixion-death of Jesus. The crucifixion is not a disgrace to be rejected, a scandal that proves the unworthiness of the one who dies that way. The crucifixion is God’s ultimate act of love. It is the gift of his Son for our salvation. And, unless Peter and all believers embrace it and let it embrace them, there will be no sharing in Jesus’ legacy.”

If Peter is to have a share with Jesus, then he must be washed by Jesus.  He must allow - without question, without embarrassment – he must allow Jesus, graciously and lovingly, to wash his feet.

Now Jesus has Peter’s attention. Peter swings from one end of the spectrum to the other. He wants not only his feet washed – he wants his whole body washed by Jesus. Peter wants to be assured of full inclusion in whatever Jesus is offering – he wants it all. Peter eagerly responds, “Then, Lord, . . . not just my feet but my hands and my head as well!”

Jesus responds – “Peter you are missing the point” - “One who has bathed does not need to wash, except for the feet.”

This is enigmatic statement that has been food for many scholarly interpretations. Alan Culpepper in “The Gospel and Letters of John” writes that Jesus’ response can be interpreted as affirming that the “one who has been washed by Jesus’ death, which is to be interpreted as the foot-washing, has no need of any further washings.

R. H. Lightfoot in “St. John’s Gospel” concluded that “the feet-washing is probably best interpreted as having the same significance and efficacy as the Lord’s death.” In other words, Peter misses the point by thinking that the frequency and extent of physical washing would increase his “share” with Jesus. Jesus was undertaking the humiliating act of foot-washing to prophesy that he was to be humiliated in death.

Peter’s questioning enables Jesus to explain the salvific nature of his death. Through his death, he will bring humanity into relationship with himself, and into a share of his kingdom. The cleansing of their sin is brought about by the blood shed at Calvary and symbolized by the cleansing waters of foot-washing.

After Jesus finished washing the disciples’ feet, he put on his robe and returned to the supper table. Once again, he spoke to his disciples saying, “Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord – and you are right, for that is what I am. So, if I, your Lord and Teacher, has washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.”

Our marching orders from Jesus – always follow his example – always do unto others as he has done to us.

This then is the challenge that we face tonight as we prepare for the foot-washing. Are we able to move beyond the superficial embarrassment of exposing cracked and dirty feet and instead create a place deep within our hearts and minds that allows us to experience the humility and compassion of our Lord as he prepared for the ultimate act of humiliation, crucifixion upon the cross.

Are we able to intentionally share in this act of foot-washing with the members of our St. Simon’s community in a way that builds community. A community that cannot be described in words. A community that is founded upon, is fed by, and grows out of humility, compassion and love – the same humility, compassion and love demonstrated by Jesus in that small upper room so many years ago.

Are we able to be washed by Jesus and to wash one another, thinking not of our feet, but of our hearts, our minds and our souls as they engage with the passion of Jesus and his death upon the cross?

Are we able to love one another as Jesus loved us?

There is indeed a great deal to pack into these precious last minutes with our Lord. Many words and actions to see and hear with the eyes and ears of our heart. Multiple complex teachings to realize if we are to truly grasp the glory­ of the resurrection and the significance of our lives as Christ’s disciples. Much to understand that is, in the end, so very mysterious – so completely incomprehensible, and yet so glorious.

As we wash each other’s feet, pray and break bread together, say our last words of thanksgiving and praise, the words from John’s gospel will linger as critically important lessons in our minds:

·        “Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.”
·        “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.”
·        “Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, not are messengers greater than the one who sent them. If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.”
·        “Where I am going, you cannot come.”
·        “Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

Monday, March 27, 2017

Blind Faith

St. Simon’s on the Sound
March 26, 2017
The Fourth Sunday in Lent
“Once you were in darkness, but now in the Lord you are light” (Eph 5:8-14)

Going from darkness into light, having blind faith in God as we travel from the wilderness of darkness into the salvation of light…that’s what we are asked to focus on this week. Having blind faith in God.

In this, the fourth week of our Lenten journey, we are reminded by each of today’s Lectionary readings that blind faith in God pays off.

This week’s readings also remind us that no matter how frightened or how lost we may be, if we are to emerge from darkness into light, we must constantly and consistently listen for God’s voice in our hearts and in our minds and in our souls - we must have blind faith that God’s hand is always there to guide us.

There is no doubt that times of darkness in our lives, lost and frightening times, can bring about a whole host of unpleasant and unnerving feelings. I am certain that you all are aware of that. Lost and frightening times are times in which we are, more often than not, faced with a difficult choice. Do we do what we “want to do” - what feels easy and comfortable, or do we enter blindly into a place of prayer, reflection, and discernment that is both challenging and uncomfortable. A place where we wait for God’s Word, God’s guiding light.

For those who choose to stop and listen for God, lost and frightening times are times in which we operate on blind faith as we journey into the unfamiliar, the unknown. They are times in which we allow ourselves to be led by God into a new way of being and a new way of seeing the world. A way of being and seeing in which the marvelous light of God’s grace and love shine brightly.

Today’s readings show us so very well just how powerful blind faith can be.

The hauntingly beautiful 23rd psalm is about nothing but faith. It is a psalm that has brought comfort to millions of people, world-wide. People of all faiths, throughout the ages.

“Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me...Surely your goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”

Faith in these beautiful words attributed to King David has brought courage, comfort, and solace to millions of people who face frightening unknowns such as grave danger in the battlefield, the agony of terminal illness, or the gut wrenching pain of losing a loved one. Peace and comfort that comes only from faith in God. Blind Faith in God’s mercy and never ending love.

Paul in today’s section from his Letter to the Ephesians asks us to live as “children of the light, and to take no part in ‘the unfruitful works of darkness.”

As always, Paul is bossy and demanding. “Wake up,” he commands. “Rise, from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.” At the very least Paul is asking his followers to give up one way of life for another -Paul’s way of life - Christianity A way of life that was frowned on by many, including those scary and brutal Roman Centurions, who were no friend of the early Christians. No matter the threat, Paul continually, on every front - preaching, letter-writing, talking to acquaintances on the road - demands that his followers operate on faith in God. Blind Faith in God.

And then, of course, we have the poster child for blind faith, the blind man Jesus encountered as he walked along, nearing the end of his journey to Jerusalem and the cross.

As was the custom back then, people born with afflictions such as blindness and people who developed frightening diseases such a leprosy were thought to be sinners. Why else would God have burdened them with such gruesome disabilities.

So, it is no surprise that Jesus’ disciples cannot believe that he is talking to this man who was clearly a sinner. They ask Jesus, “who sinned, this man or his parents?” The disciples were stunned when he said, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.”

Someone who was viewed by their society to be a freak and a sinner, was a child of God. A soul chosen to shed the light of God’s love and grace on those who in their smugness and self-satisfaction live in darkness.

And then, the blind man, in total faith, let Jesus, a total stranger, someone completely unknown to him, make mud with saliva and spread it on his eyes. More than that, without even questioning Jesus, the blind man follows Jesus’ command to “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam.”

The blind man had blind faith in the stranger. Somehow his heart and his mind and his soul were open to feeling and hearing the stranger’s compassionate works and words, and miraculously, when he came back from the pool, he was no longer blind.

The Pharisees mock the formerly blind man. They demand an explanation of who this man Jesus is and how could this healing possibly happen to a sinner, an outcast?  The blind man is undaunted, fearless in the midst of this angry crowd as they heckle him and prepare to drive him out of the community. For a moment before leaving, he stands his ground and says to them, “Here is the astonishing thing! You do not know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes. We know that God does not listen to sinners, but he does listen to one who worships him and obeys his will.”

The blind man is beginning to see God’s light…to see a light that for the Pharisees is completely obscured by their rigid way if thinking.

The Pharisees, angry, and no doubt threatened by Jesus, drive the formerly blind man out of town. Jesus hears of this and seeks the man out. The man, not forlorn at his rejection, but eager to engage with Jesus expresses his yearning to learn Jesus’ identity – a yearning to learn who this incredibly compassionate and loving person truly is. Jesus asks, “Do you believe in the Son of Man…the one who is speaking with you is he.” And, the formerly blind man exclaims, “Lord, I believe.”

The blind man has exchanged his blindness for blind faith, and through that blind faith he has found the light of Christ that now shines on and in him.

Life cannot have been easy for the blind man, and it must have been terrifying for him to submit to this stranger’s healing techniques that involved mud and saliva and a stumbling journey to the pool of Siloam. Yet, he took the chance - in darkness he journeyed a difficult and challenging journey, emerging into a world of light. And, he did it in faith. Blind Faith in God.

What about you? Do you have a Lenten journey story of moving in blind faith from darkness to light?

Our Ash Wednesday liturgy invites us to the observance of a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance; prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word. We are urged to make a right beginning of repentance. We are asked to operate in blind faith as we lay aside our egos and put on the mantle of humility and repentance.

I can certainly share with you that my Lenten promise to God was to cease operating on pre-conceived ideas and thoughts about people, places and things. Of course, this has been an easy promise to keep in many situations, where there are no challenges to my pre-conceived ideas and thoughts.

But in several other situations, it has not been so easy at all. I won’t bore you with the mundane details of my darkness journeys, but I will let in you on the results. I have been blessed enough to see a few people and one major life situation through completely new lenses.

My old lenses weren’t working so very well. People and places were distorted causing me anxiety, discomfort, anger, and a sense of isolation. For Lent, I took off my glasses and for a while I was, figuratively speaking, blind. For a while I was, once again figuratively speaking, bumping into walls and groping for door handles. Then one day, God handed me my new glasses. People and places looked completely different, and I experienced a sense of peace that I had not known before. Gone was the anxiety, discomfort, anger, and sense of isolation.

Will my new glasses continue to be a good fit? No – not unless I face and engage in the ongoing challenge of listening for God’s Word. God’s Word that can so easily be drowned out by my own pre-conceived and all too comfortable way of thinking and being.  Not unless I continue to listen for God’s Word in my heart, and in my mind, and in my soul. Not unless I continue to have blind faith in God.

O gracious and holy Father,
Give me wisdom to perceive you,
Intelligence to understand you,
Diligence to seek you,
Patience to wait for you,
A heart to meditate on you,
And a life to proclaim you. AMEN

--Adapted from a Prayer of Saint Benedict

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

You Shall be Holy

St. Simon’s on the Sound – February 19, 2016

The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: “Speak to all the congregation of Israel and say to them: You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy. " (Lev 19:1-2)

In the face of the anger, anxiety and divisiveness that has permeated the culture of our nation and our world these days, some of my colleagues are experiencing a real challenge in preaching their weekly sermon. Not any old sermon, but a Good News sermon, a sermon that unequivocally asserts our faith in a loving and just god.

A Good News sermon proclaims the Gospel – the good news of love, compassion, and healing so powerfully demonstrated by Jesus as he journeyed from Galilee to Jerusalem.

Preaching a Good News sermon should engage the listener with a "hook," and then move quickly on to a brief interpretation of the reading. Finally, preaching a Good News sermon should send congregation members forth with a message that is compelling and energizing. One that keeps them connected to and working for God throughout the week.

Walter Brueggemann, an Old Testament scholar – one of my favorites, by the way, says: “Preaching makes possible for something that has been closed, or hidden, to be powerfully disclosed…preaching should assault our imagination and push away the presumed world in which many of us live…The church on Sunday morning may be the last place left in our society for imaginative speech that permits people to enter into new worlds of faith and to participate in joyous, obedient life.” (Brueggemann: Finally Comes the Poet- Introduction)

Walter Brueggemann’s words have, and continue to, inspire many of us. Inspire us in the task of encouraging our congregations to imagine - imagine new ways in which to move our world towards God’s dream for us – a world filled with love and justice for all.

So it is, that in a world filled with anger, filled with anxiety and divisive arguments, filled with daily challenges of all sorts, and, I believe, filled with grief over the loss of a far more loving and peaceful nation and world – it is into the bewilderment of today’s world that as preachers we put on our clergy thinking caps each week, imagining and putting to paper words that will convey the message of God's grace, God's love, and God’s cry for justice.

“Speak to all the congregation of Israel and say to them: You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy. " (Lev 19:1-2)

One could not ask for a more powerful hook for today’s message.

You shall be holy, for I, the Lord your God, am holy.” These words from the book of Leviticus are as powerful an invitation to a way of life as we can find anywhere in the Bible. They are words intended to echo far and wide. God commands Moses to proclaim these words not to a select few but to all – to the entire congregation – to the entire Israelite community.

Holiness is no longer associated only with the priests. Holiness is ascribed to the laity, as well. Holiness pertains not only to some of us – but, to all of us. The Leviticus 19 command makes clear that the gifts of all the people are to be used for ministry – for maintaining the well-being of the community – for continually striving to work for the good of the neighborhood; the common good.

The command also implies that Holiness is much more than simple piety and keeping religious observances. Holiness is a way of life – an acknowledgement that as God’s people we need to be continually working, in partnership with God, to refresh and maintain our Holiness.

Leviticus chapter 19 is lengthy and difficult to read, no doubt about that.  However, it is crucial that we understand its relevance to our lives today. Today’s lectionary passage proclaims loudly and clearly our call to Holiness. It sets forth a Holiness Code; God’s expected parameters for our holiness behavior – the foundation of our holiness lives: devout worship, honesty, integrity, justice, charity and love. These are the essential attributes that must drive our lives if we are to be a holy community.

In the Hebrew Scriptures, holiness has at least two meanings. In some passages the people of God are considered holy simply because God has chosen them. Holiness in this sense suggests a change in direction or orientation. It consists of allowing oneself to be led by God, and to be taken by him on a new and, as yet, unknown way.

But, in Leviticus 19, holiness takes on a very different meaning. Leviticus 19 speaks of how the various interactions of our lives are to be carried out. Holiness is something to be reflected in the character of our everyday lives. We are charged with the work of ensuring that God’s commandments permeate the varied aspects of our existence.

Leviticus 19 is about letting God’s presence, his holiness, shine into the ordinariness of our lives, transforming our innate holiness into an everyday holiness reality – into our everyday living.

God gives the task of healing the world, to us. Powered by our holiness we are commanded to go forth into the world and to make it holy. We should not expect to be led; we are commanded to lead.

As we consider this passage from Leviticus 19, a profound unity begins to emerge, as if holiness consists in great part of seeing ourselves and our lives as a unified whole with God – as seeing ourselves continually in relationship with God – listening and doing; doing and listening.

Holiness is about living a life transformed by God’s continual divine presence in our lives. Holiness is that condition of human nature wherein the love of God rules – our lives, and through us, the lives of others.

You shall be holy” is both a command and a promise. And to trust in that promise is to begin to be formed into the people God calls us to be, a people living our day-to-day lives in genuine love for God and for our neighbors.

So, what does this Holiness Code, written most probably in the early 7th century BC, mean for us today?  Well, let’s fast forward from the 7th century BC to today and the hopes, dreams, and compelling words of our Presiding Bishop Michael Curry whose mantra has become; “We are the Jesus Movement. We are the Episcopal branch of the Jesus Movement.”

Bishop Curry preaches continually about our role, as followers of Jesus, in bringing love, liberation and life to those who are oppressed – to those who are suffering – to a world that is in the throes of divisive conflicts – to a world that is deeply in need of a way of life based on our holiness lived out and through the Holiness Code.

In proclaiming this moment in time the Jesus Movement, Bishop Curry is continually, in all that he does and all that he preaches, drawing our focus of attention to the commandments of God. – He is calling us to live a life based on and in honesty, integrity, justice, charity and love. A life that lives out the Holiness Code given to the Israelites over 2500 years ago. A life that focuses on the great commandment given to us by Jesus; “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the first a greatest commandment. And a second is like it, you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Matthew 22:37–40).

A life based on God’s holiness command to us…a life that is loving, liberating and life-giving.

As Bishop Curry says in almost every sermon; “If it isn’t about love, it isn’t about Jesus.”

This then is our Good News sermon for today. Indeed, this is our good news – period, end of story. And, it is good news – it is great news! God always with us; God always calling us to be in continual and holy relationship with him.

God calling us to use ourselves and our church as an interruption to the anger, divisiveness and anxiety that surrounds us – a divine interruption that rises above anger, divisiveness and anxiety; a divine interruption that is loving, life-giving, and liberating.

Our good news is that we have the power to astonish our world at what happens when people are unafraid to act out of love, seeking justice for all.

When I sit quietly and ponder the words of Leviticus 19 – really think about them – I know in my mind, and I feel in my heart and soul, the reality, the challenge, and the power of my holy relationship with God. I experience a stunning realization that with prayer, discernment, diligence, and bravery I can make a difference – I can be a loving, liberating and life-giving force in my community.

I am unafraid to act out of love, seeking justice for all.

And, I certainly have no difficulty with the concept of a Good News sermon.

What about you? How do you hear and experience this holiness good news?

Are you prepared to astonish the world with love?

Let us pray:

Almighty and eternal God, so draw our hearts to you, so guide our minds, so fill our imaginations, so control our wills, that we may be wholly yours, utterly dedicated to you; and then use us, we pray, as you will, and always to your glory and the welfare of your people. AMEN

Monday, November 14, 2016

Are We "All in?"

November 13, 2016
St. Simon’s on the Sound

Luke 21:5-19

Several years ago, I was lucky enough to be included in a two-week pilgrimage to Greece and Turkey. The theme of the pilgrimage was the Apostle Paul and his journey through these two countries. A journey that was, at least in my mind, the epitome of evangelism. A journey on which Paul, in the face of every hardship imaginable, over the course of 15 years and four major journeys brought the good news of Jesus Christ to communities throughout Arabia, Damascus, Syria, Lebanon, Malta, Greece, Italy and modern-day Turkey.

Amazingly, in those 15 years Paul traveled a total of approximately 9,150 miles by foot, by ship, and on the backs of donkeys to bring the good news to all nations. During this time, he was beaten, stoned, imprisoned and suffered from several long-term and disabling illnesses. Seemingly, nothing stopped him. He just kept on going.

Our little pilgrim band of 25 Episcopalians from various churches throughout the US began our journey in Athens, Greece. From there we traveled through Corinth and up into the very northern parts of Greece, ending up in Thessaloniki in Central Macedonia. After an astounding experience in Thyatira where Paul met and converted Lydia, we crossed by ferry into Turkey. Our first stop was Troy – Wow that horse was big… Then on through Turkey until we reached Ephesus.

It was in Ephesus, as I stood at the top of the long marble-paved boulevard that stretches almost as far as the eye could see, and ends at the incredibly beautiful Celsus Library, that I finally realized the enormity of Paul’s missionary work.

Little Paul, with his various and frequently disabling afflictions – passionate Paul who has been described as "A man of small stature, with a bald head and crooked legs,” – walked into this bustling community of perhaps 56,000 Roman citizens determined to spread the gospel of Jesus. Imperial Roman Centurions were policing the streets at every turn; Jews eager to run Paul out of town stoned and then imprisoned him. Yet, Paul stood firm in the face of all these challenges.

Paul’s courage, determination and faith prevailed. He remained in Ephesus for three years. It was here that he preached frequently at the open marketplace, established a church, wrote his First Letter to the Corinthians, and was imprisoned for several months.

I cannot tell you how physically present Paul was for me that afternoon in Ephesus. I was both electrified and deeply humbled by my new understanding of the incredible courage and determination that drove Paul’s good news journey. It was there on that marble-paved boulevard surrounded by the amazing history and architecture of Ephesus, that being a missionary for Jesus – being an evangelist committed to spreading the good news and the light and love of Jesus Christ became very real for me.

Earlier this summer Luke’s gospel informed us that “When the days drew near for Jesus to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem.” In this passage, we learned that Jesus sent messengers ahead of him and encouraged others to join him on his journey to God’s temple where he would confront those who were using the temple for the benefit of the Roman Empire – where he would attempt to reclaim the Temple as God’s House, a sacred place – a place of worship to the God of the Jews.

As Jesus set his face for Jerusalem, he encouraged the villagers to become members of his entourage. Some expressed interest, but most indicated that they could not leave quite yet – Jesus would have to wait - they had family and other business to take care of. They had things to do before taking up their cross and following Jesus. Jesus replied to these would-be disciples, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”

Tough rules to play by – but, that’s what Jesus was asking of those who claimed that they wanted to join his followers. They are the rules that Jesus set if one wanted to be part of the Jesus Movement. You’re either in, or you’re not.

In today’s gospel reading, many weeks have passed since that determined journey to Jerusalem began. Many encounters along the road traveled provided Jesus and his disciples with the opportunity to proclaim the gospel. With each teaching that same mandate was conveyed – God expects us to commit to him totally and with complete faith. The difficult challenges that will most certainly face us as we travel our life’s journey must be met with courage and steadfastness. We’re either in, or we’re not.

Now, Jesus has arrived in Jerusalem He has been teaching in one of the temple courtyards for several days. Each day crowds surge into his small space, the din of their voices making it difficult to hear this much talked about teacher who has finally arrived.

Intense and, at times, overpowering smells from the ongoing slaughter and burning sacrifice of animals fill the air. On the sidelines and in corners, bitter and sour-faced Pharisees and Sadducees who want to see Jesus “gone” loiter, grumble, and plot. Menacing Roman Centurions patrol the temple parapets, eager to bring punishment to any who cause a disruption.

It is in this context that we hear today’s gospel reading.

We hear Jesus’s “what comes next” message and it is not so pretty. In fact, it is downright grim and scary. Jesus warns of wars and revolutions; earthquakes, famines and plagues; dreadful portents and great signs from heaven; persecution and being handed over to synagogues and prisons where trials before highly placed judges will end in grim sentences; and, finally Jesus forewarns of the destruction of the Temple itself – the destruction of God’s house.

After naming these daunting events, Jesus once again tells his followers that he expects them to meet all challenges “head on” and to be “all in.” He says, “They will arrest you and persecute you. They will hand you over to synagogues and prisons. This will give you an opportunity to testify…. You will be betrayed even by your parents and brothers, by relatives and friends…. You will be hated by all because of my name. But not a hair on your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your souls.”

I don’t know about you, but at that point I might have decided to go home to the comfort of the known, the safe “same old, same old.” I might have completely failed the “either you’re in, or you’re not” test. I might have turned right around and rushed home to Galilee, or Jericho, or wherever home had been before I met up with Jesus.

But, Paul didn’t. And, so many others who have come after Paul have not. They have not turned and run back to the comfort of home. They have faced challenges head on, taking every opportunity to testify – to evangelize – to spread the gospel of Jesus – to be “all in.”

What does this message of courage and endurance, of total commitment to Jesus mean for us today – here at St. Simon’s, throughout our diocese and in the world in general? What is Jesus calling us to do – how are we being called to “follow Jesus;” to be part of the Jesus Movement in today’s troubled, confusing, complex and at times frightening world?

Indeed, do we even have the eyes of our hearts open to hearing Jesus. Are we like that eager temple crowd that strained to hear Jesus as he proclaimed the good news, or have the noise and distractions of the world left us dazed, numb, closed off? Are we ready to be “All in?” Or, are we “All out?”

When I feel that my mind and my heart are getting to that numb, closed off place, I think of Jesus facing Pilate, unwavering in the face of certain death. Jesus, certain in his relationship with God. And then, I think of Paul, and his seemingly endless journeys in the face of every hardship imaginable. Paul, certain in his relationship with Jesus; with God.

And then, I remember how electrified I felt as I stood on the marble-paved boulevard in Ephesus, my heart filled with the joy of knowing, in my mind, my body and my soul, the power of evangelism – the power of proclaiming the good news of Jesus. The power of bringing God’s love to the world. The power of going into the world loving and through that love liberating and giving life to those who are in darkness.

The power of being certain in my relationship with Jesus; with God.

How do we stay in that place of certainty – certain of our relationship with Jesus; with God? Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in a letter written while he was imprisoned in Nazi Germany during the 2nd World War wrote. “This is what I mean by worldliness – taking one’s life in stride, with all its duties and problems…It is such a life that we throw ourselves utterly into the arms of God and participate in his sufferings in the world.”

What a powerful image... “…We throw ourselves into the arms of God and participate – participate – in his sufferings in the world.” Perhaps this is what Jesus meant in today’s gospel reading when he said, “This will give you an opportunity to testify…. You will be betrayed…. You will be hated by all because of my name. But not a hair on your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your souls.”

Can we as members of St. Simon’s “throw ourselves into the arms of God?” Can we be the voice, the hands and the feet of Jesus?  Can we seize the opportunity to testify? Can we participate in God’s sufferings in the world? Can we be the Light of Christ in our community and wherever else we may go – the light that sheds love and liberation?  I know that we can. I know that we can be “all in.” AMEN