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

Sunday, July 31, 2016

We are the blessed...blessing all...

Christ Church, St. Michaels Parish
July 31, 2016
Luke 12:13-21

I have never been much of a TV watcher. In fact, over the course of the past ten years I can truthfully say that I have watched almost no TV at all. But recently, wanting to keep abreast of the presidential candidates and their various antics, I began to watch the evening news hour.

At first, I stuck with CNN, with an occasional foray over to Fox News to keep Devin happy. After several days I bravely ventured over to our local channels and out of the country networks such as BBC. I guess, at least in the old days, one would call this channel surfing – perhaps it still is called channel surfing.

At any rate, in these wanderings from channel to channel I was making a valiant effort to find a network that would provide more than three minutes of news to every five minutes of advertising. Three minutes of news, or commentaries, delivered at such an aggressively fast rate of speech that I sometimes found it hard to follow what people were saying.

My efforts to locate more informational content and less aggressive marketing met with no success. Station after station greeted me with frequent and prolonged advertisements of every size and shape. Advertisements designed to intrigue and convince; to seduce and to capture. Advertisements designed to create a culture in which the products being brokered, including medications for every ailment imaginable, were publicized as “must haves” if life was to be experienced in the fullest, most comfortable and emotionally exciting way possible.

Perhaps those of you who have watched TV on a regular basis over the course of the past few years are not so affected by this intrusion of these up-close and in-your-face sales pitches. But, for someone who has been out of the TV loop for many years, the experience of this intrusion of marketing that far surpasses program content has been a rude awakening.

So, you may not be surprised when I say to you that when I first re-read Luke’s parable of the Rich Fool in preparation for today’s sermon, I immediately thought about the plethora of TV salespeople who daily play on our greed.  

Salespeople whose entire focus is to convince us that our incredibly rich lives should be even richer than they already are. Salespeople who continually encourage us to store up more and more treasures for ourselves. Salespeople who put forth an incessant “white noise” that threatens to thwart the ability of the eyes and ears of our hearts to experience the multiple blessings that God’s presence in our lives provides.

Jesus’ teaching in the Parable of the Rich Fool directly addresses the potential impact of television’s massive ad campaigns. Quite simply, Jesus is saying, “Take care! Be on your guard against your greed; for one's life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.”

Jesus first says this to the man who asked Him to arbitrate between him and his brother.

In ancient times, the firstborn was guaranteed a double portion of the family inheritance. More than likely, the man who was addressing Jesus was not the firstborn and was asking for an equal share of the inheritance. Jesus refuses to arbitrate the brothers’ dispute and gets to the heart of the matter saying, life is so much more than the “abundance of possessions.”

Jesus then proceeds to tell the man the Parable of the Rich Fool.

This Rich Fool was materially blessed by God; his land “produced plentifully”. As God continued to bless the man, instead of using his increased wealth to further the will of God, he was interested only in accumulating and storing his abundant crops, for his own personal use, his growing wealth. So the man builds larger barns in place of the existing ones and starts planning an early retirement. Unbeknownst to him, this was his last night on planet earth.

Jesus closes the story by saying, “You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be? So, it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich towards God.”

The point of the Parable of the Rich Fool is twofold. First, we are not to devote our lives to the gathering and accumulation of wealth. If money and possessions are our master, that means that God is not. Remember Jesus’ words in Matthew 24, “No one can serve two masters…. You cannot serve God and wealth.”

The second point of the Parable of the Rich Fool is the fact that we have been blessed by God not with the expectation of hoarding our blessings, our wealth, for ourselves. We have been blessed by God to be a blessing in the lives of others. We are blessed by God in order to build the kingdom of God.

In 2 Corinthians Paul writes, “And God is able to provide you with every blessing in abundance, so that by always having enough of everything, you may share abundantly in every good work.” (2 Cor 9:8)

We are blessed by God, so that we can in turn be a blessing in the lives of others.

So, if God has blessed you with material wealth “set not your heart on it” but “be rich toward God.” That is the message of the Parable of the Rich Fool.

Incessant TV commercials are but one of the multiple distractions in our lives that encourage us to accumulate our many blessings - for ourselves. The messages sent out via various media are almost exclusively focused on “me” what is good for me? I have come across very few messages, whether on TV, FB, or other media, that focus on “the other” – how can I bless “the other”? And yet, it is “the other” that God calls us to bless – with our blessings.

What does this message that calls us to be a blessing to others mean for us here at Christ Church in a multi-layered time of transition – the upcoming presidential election; the arrival and investiture of a new bishop in the Diocese of Easton; and the initiation of a search for a new rector here at Christ Church?

It means nothing more, or nothing less, than it has always meant from the very beginning of Scripture when God made his initial covenant with Abraham saying, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing…And Abraham went, as the Lord had told him.” (Gen 12:1-4)

God tells Abraham that his blessings are meant to be shared, not hoarded. In blessing Abraham, God was intentionally seeking to bless the world – to bring the world to a place of abundance and peace for all.

Of course, our ultimate blessing from God was the gift of his son Jesus, who came not only to bring salvation, but also, and most importantly, to show us the way – the way to offer compassion, care and love – the way to share our treasures – our blessings. It is only through that sharing that we are able to share in the abundance and peace of God’s eternal kingdom.

Bestowing our blessings on others – often referred to as charity – goes deeper than merely taking out our checkbooks and donating money to a good cause. It also means more than just showing up on a Sunday to worship with friends in familiar and beautiful surroundings.

Bestowing our blessings involves investing – not only our money, but more importantly ourselves in the community of Christ – the church – our church. Investing time, talent and treasure to build the community into a land of “milk and honey;” a garden that flourishes and produces enough to feed any and all in the community far and wide.

Bestowing our blessings consists of the very same selfless, unconditional and voluntary loving kindness that we see in Jesus – it’s the way Jesus loves us and the way that Jesus commands us to love, to be a blessing, to others – all others.

So in this time of transition, we cannot lose sight of the fragile nature of God’s church in this place and at this moment in time - this fragile time when old ties are broken and new ties have yet to be established and strengthened. If we do not listen carefully to the parable of the Rich Fool, we may well hear God’s words ringing in our ears, “You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things that you have prepared, whose will they be? So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.”

In this fragile time of transition, we cannot allow the white noise of TV commercials and the pervasive messages throughout society that focus on “me,” to block out – to overshadow – our call from Jesus to put our treasures where our heart is – to invest, in every way possible, in this blessed community of Christ – this blessing that God has bestowed on us – Christ Church, St. Michaels Parish, and the Christ Church community of St. Michaels.

In Paul’s 1st Letter to Timothy he writes, “As for those who in the present age are rich, command them not to be haughty, or to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but rather on God who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. They are to do good, to be rich in good works, generous and ready to share, thus storing up for themselves the treasure of a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of the life that really is life.” (1 Tim 6:17-19)

Let us give thanks to God for the many blessings that he has bestowed upon us, and let us be a blessing to our church and to our community. AMEN

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)