Sunday, October 22, 2017

Focus on God

St. Simon’s on the Sound
October 22, 2017

Matthew 22:15-22

I want to begin with some thoughts about Benedict of Nursia, perhaps better known to us as St. Benedict, the patron saint of Europe, the founder of the Order of St. Benedict and the author of St. Benedict’s Rule of Life.

Benedict was born in Rome, where he lived the life of a well-to-do Roman citizen for many years. However, by the time he was 20, the power-hungry political turmoil and the steep decline in social and religious values that permeated Roman society in fifth-century Rome drove Benedict, a deeply religious man, into self-imposed exile in Subiaco about 10 miles from Rome. There Benedict entered a life of prayer and ascetism. He lived for several years as a hermit in small cave. However, as time went on Benedict emerged from the cave and began life in the outside world, first as a monk and then as an Abbott, in a monastery not far from his cave.

After several years of monastic life Benedict found himself deeply disillusioned by the decadence that had invaded even the monasteries of the time. He, once again, withdrew to his cave where he wrote his Rule of Life – a roadmap that provided a daily guide to a lifestyle that he believed to be foundational to a truly spiritual life.

Ultimately, Benedict moved from his cave in Subiaco to the town of Cassino, Italy. It is in Cassino that Benedict formed the Order of St. Benedict -  an alliance of twelve communities for monks. The Rule of St. Benedict became the way of life for all monks living within the Order. Perhaps, more importantly, it has become a way of life for thousands of people, both clergy and laity, and is still incredibly relevant as a guide to a spiritual life in our own world these 1500 years later.

The intent of Benedict’s Rule was, and is, to provide clear rules - ways of daily living - that support us in a life that is completely God-centered. The Rule is direct; it is clear; and, it is a relatively uncomplicated. It is a brief text that uses simple language to explain a way of life that has great meaning for us even now.

The Rule of St. Benedict is concerned with living a life that is completely God-centered: what that life is all about, what it demands of us, and how we are to live it.Benedict teaches us that if we want to live a spiritual life, a truly God-centered life, in this chaotic world of distractions, we must be deliberate in doing so. We must be aware of the distractions going on around us, allow ourselves to experience their impact on us and the world, and then understanding their impact, we must move beyond them.

Obedience to the Rule - the willingness to listen and respond to God in life - God always the center of our activities, no matter what else tugs at us - that is the way, writes Benedict - if we are to live a truly spiritual life.

In today’s Epistle, we read the opening verses of Paul’s first letter to his congregation in Thessalonica, where he had recently established a church. The letter expresses loving support to this, perhaps his most beloved community, is filled with praise for the way in which this fledgling church in Macedonia was both welcoming to visiting apostolic missionaries and proclaiming the Good News in their community, despite pressure to revert to their pagan ways.

We always give thanks to God for all of you…remembering before our God and Father your work in faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ,” says Paul.

Later in the same letter, Paul writes,

Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. Do not quench the Spirit. Do not despise the words of prophets, but test everything; hold fast to what is good; abstain from every form of evil. Thess 5:12-22

Paul preceded St. Benedict by almost 400 years, but their messages are essentially one and the same: maintain a peaceful community, love and respect each other, work to propagate the common good, and continue regularly in prayer and the reading of scripture, to refresh and re-focus your life. These intentional behaviors focused on the sacred are both central and essential to leading a God-centered life.

I begin with Benedict and Paul because I believe that their sound advice on the ways in which we can, all of us, live out our baptismal covenant to seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbors as ourselves and striving for justice and peace among all people is of critical importance in today’s world.

I can assure you that in recent days their teachings have been of critical importance to my own personal reaction to and ways of coping with events of the past several months. And, as I thought about writing today’s sermon, I was wondering if you also were struggling with similar feelings and, like me, in search of ways to refresh your spirit - your faith – in the face of daily distractions that pull at our emotions, as well as our faith.

Our political world has become a minefield of strong and unyielding opinions that seem always to focus on the negative. This side versus that side, he said – she said, polarization of the most dangerous sort. Divisiveness that leads not to unity, but to hate, violence and terrorism.

Our media is saturated with talking heads who probe mercilessly for scandal and controversy. Tweets scroll across our TV screens shouting out messages designed to polarize those who hold differing views. Character assassination is common. Fake news leads us down dangerous paths of misinformation and erroneous and negative opinions.

And then, of course, there is the onslaught of natural disasters that has befallen the world - hurricanes, floods, earthquakes, and fires. The destruction has been unfathomable: entire areas - heavily populated areas - of our world now uninhabitable, too many people have died - too many people are suffering.

And then, we come to the massacre in Las Vegas. There are no words to express the horror, the trauma, the scar on our corporate psyche that this event has inflicted upon us all. A priest that I met recently shared that the Sunday after this horrendous massacre she could not preach - instead she led her congregation in an extended period of silent prayer. The horror of it all was too great for her - she could find no words to express her grief.

What are we do to with all of this - these feelings of grief, shock, horror, and disbelief. The reality that so many things that were once sacred to us are no longer sacred – no longer valued. So many values that we all once held no longer exist.

In today’s gospel Jesus commands us to serve God, giving to Caesar only what is due a persona in authority over civil matters. We are to “Give to God the things that are God’s.” God is the supreme and eternal being. His love for us is unparalleled and unceasing. His faith in us unwavering. We are to love God as He loves us, and to love our neighbors as ourselves, always - no matter who, no matter when, no matter where.

Jesus’ command is easy to comprehend, and an easy one to give lip service to. However, living into that command is far from easy. In fact, almost impossible if we are numbed by the events of our lives and the world and distracted by other gods, Caesar type gods.

That’s where Benedict and Paul enter in. Benedict informs us of a way of life that leads to God, no matter what is going on around us. A disciplined life that pushes us into regular and prayerful readings of Scripture, well-defined love and humility based ways of interacting with those around us, and a way of life that forms beloved communities.

If Benedict gives us the Rule, it is Paul who gives us a model to consider - the church in Thessalonica. A church built and sustained by those living in a community of prayer, love, and disciplined focus on serving God, despite the pressures imposed by the Roman Empire of worshiping other gods.

That leads me to St. Simon’s and what all this means for us sitting here, oh so many years later. St. Simon’s is our beloved community. A place where we come each week to gather in prayer and the reading and study of scripture. A place where we gather each week to discern the work that God has given us to do. And, perhaps most importantly, a place from which we are sent out, out into the world to build beloved communities.

St Simon’s is an important place. It is a place that offers us the abundant life that God has in mind for us. It is a place that we treasure, a place where we are loved and where we love others, a place that draws us to it not only on Sundays, but also on many other days of the week, to seek and serve God, through prayer, education and fellowship.

St Simon’s is our oasis in the desert world of hunger, disaster, violence, terrorism, personal grief and so many other feelings that can lead to both personal and spiritual numbness.

St. Simon’s is our spiritual oasis in the midst of the multiple tragedies that we are witness to. Without St. Simon’s it would be so easy to succumb to a numbness that dulls our faith and leaves us spiritually adrift. And, once numbed to the world around us, it would be so easy to become numb to the love of God. To lose sight of God’s plan for us - not only a plan of servant hood, but also a plan of life filled with abundance and joy. Abundance and joy that, both intentionally and unintentionally, spills over in the lives of our families and all those whom we encounter.

Our Gospel begins today with the phrase, “The Pharisees went and plotted to entrap Jesus.” Of course, Jesus would have none of it. He wisely dealt with their distractions without ever losing sight of God. In the end, it is the Pharisees who are tricked into confusion and retreat. God reigns.

My prayer for us all is that we will use the gift of St. Simon’s as the abundant, joyful, and loving oasis in our lives that it truly is. I also pray, that as we go forth into the world after each Sunday’s dismissal we will use the tools offered by those such as St. Benedict to stay refreshed throughout the week, and that we allow our sense of abundance, joy and love to spill over to others as we go about our day to day business, at home and elsewhere.

Monday, October 2, 2017

Mission - Trial by Fire

Mission – Trial by Fire
by: The Rev. Deacon Clelia P. Garrity

A number of years ago I was charged with developing and implementing a healthcare mission in Bondeau, Haiti. I was so excited. For years I had been traveling to Haiti, a tag-along with groups involved in the post-earthquake rebuilding of the Episcopal hospital in Leogane – Hopital Ste. Croix. I had become frustrated with the politics of the project and yearned to get out into the rural communities where there was no hospital – no medical care of any sort. I wanted to “do” something.

Bondeau was indeed rural, and the inhabitants of this small rural area just outside of the port city of Miragoane had indeed received no medical care – ever. They were destitute, without sanitation or clean water, and lived in huts scattered here and there in the wooded and mountainous area.

The South Florida Haiti Project had developed a school in Bondeau – but it was very basic, with no other assistance for the children, their families and the surrounding community. Conversations with community leaders indicated that a community-based healthcare program was top on their list of needs.

Well, we took it on…and in March of 2013 a group of us, carrying lots and lots of medications, toothpaste and toothbrushes, and many other related items embarked from the Ft. Lauderdale airport to our Haiti destination – Bondeau.

Our five-day journey was an incredible experience filled with many, many challenges ranging from very questionable transportation to over 400 men women and children literally crowding us out of the rooms that we had designated as treatment areas. People were panicked at the thought of not being seen by one of our physicians. My main task became one of crowd control and putting out fires.

This was my introduction - Mission 101- on how to, and how not to, develop and implement healthcare missions in remote areas of Haiti.

We have traveled to Bondeau 18 times since March 2013, and we have learned so much – so much. Successful healthcare missions are not unlike successful ventures of any kind. They require assessment of needs, detailed planning, goals and strategies to attain those goals, and a solid partnership with those on the receiving end of the mission project. More than anything, however, they require a solid understanding of the fact that Christian mission is the activity of sending and being sent in Christ, and is grounded in the missionary nature of the triune God as revealed in scripture. It requires humility and discipline, as well as deep compassion that comes only from being present with “the other.”

Our Diocesan Mission Protocol Manual is an essential guide to preventing “trial by fire” mission experiences, and opens the door for sound and blessed collaborative relationships that help to grow God’s Kingdom wherever we are led to serve. We invite you to join one of the many diocesan mission groups – Help Us Spread the Good News – the world needs you.

Sunday, September 3, 2017

Genuine Love and our Cross

St. Simon’s on the Sound
September 3, 2017
Matthew 16:21-28

If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves
and take up their cross and follow me.

This has been a challenging week for me. As a matter of fact, I find all first weeks following my Haiti mission trips challenging. The jump from being embedded in what many have called a “fifth world” country to a fast-paced, technologically savvy, and incredibly affluent “first world” country – the USA, is jarring, and deeply troubling. I can speak only for myself when I say that my initial inclination on these first days back home is to jump on the next plane back to Haiti, to be with those whom I have come to love so very dearly as they walk their way through an unbelievably dangerous, difficult, and arduous existence.

It is during these post-trip weeks that I consider in absolute wonder how I arrived at this place of deep commitment to a culture so foreign from the one in which I grew up – so very much the antithesis of the one in which I live. These are weeks in which I shed tears. Tears of sadness for the painful images impressed upon my mind’s eye. Tears of joy and wonder for the memories of happy faces and big hugs received from the men, women and children that I, along with my team, have served.

It is most certainly during these post-trip weeks that I enter into deep prayer more than several times each day. Prayers in which I beseech God to support me in the important task of discernment and to guide me, through the presence of the Spirit in my heart, mind and soul, as I make my way through next steps in this complex mission work. A mission call that I have been given by God that attempts, in some small way, to strengthen the capabilities of those in remote rural Haitian communities as they struggle to bring healthcare to their brothers and sisters who live near and around them – to their community.

And, then, of course, this past week brought the nightmare of Hurricane Harvey. Devastating wind and rains pummeled Corpus Christi, Houston, and Louisiana. Flooding in these areas has forced the evacuation of an estimated 1.7 million people. 1.7 million people displaced, their homes and businesses destroyed.

Our eyes and ears have been glued to various devices that continually scroll news media headlines, twitter feeds, and heart-breaking images of men, women, children and their pets stranded, sometimes chest deep in swirling, dangerous waters. An astounding number of people affected by Hurricane Harvey, waiting to be rescued, hoping for relief – images and reports that bring tears to our eyes and compel us all towards a rush to action. What can we do? How fast can we do it? How can we make it better?

And so, amid post-mission trip emotions and disbelief at the devastation of Hurricane Harvey, I sat down to write today’s sermon. I read and considered today’s Epistle and Gospel readings, saying over and over to myself, and others, “Wow – what could be a more appropriate for this week?  Not only is Jesus giving us our marching orders – ‘Take up your cross and follow me,’ but Paul is instructing us in the “how to’s” of carrying out this very clear and compelling commandment, ‘Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer.’

The critical question here, of course, is -  what is the cross that Jesus is referring to? What does it mean when Jesus says, “Take up your cross.”

In Jesus’ day, a cross was a symbol of pain and suffering; a symbol of death.  It was the structure used by Romans to execute criminals. It was the instrument used to inflict an unbelievably painful and disgraceful method of capital punishment.

The Jewish historian Josephus, who witnessed live crucifixions during Titus’ siege on Jerusalem, called it "the most wretched of deaths." Victims were usually beaten and tortured and then forced to carry their own cross to the crucifixion site. Because of the long-drawn-out suffering and horrible manner of execution, it was viewed as the supreme penalty by the Romans.

Therefore, when Jesus says, “Take up your cross and follow me,” he is not referring to a physical cross – our current symbol of Christianity, which, of course, did not exist in Jesus’ world. No, in this command Jesus means, if you want to be a true follower of mine you must be willing to suffer; willing to die – die to self.
What Jesus was telling his disciples, and us, in this passage is that we need to put to death our own plans; our own impulses and desires. We need to turn our lives over to him and do his will in every way, every day. Jesus is clear - dying to self is a call to the absolute surrender of ourselves to the will of God.

The cross that Jesus is referring to is that meeting place of where we thought we were going and the disruption, or event, that causes us to re-think and re-calculate our way. It is that place in time when we realize that our lives must change, dramatically, because of something that we have seen, or heard, or experienced.

The cross that Jesus is referring to is our answer to a call from God to move forward into a place we never dreamed of, on a journey that is driven by our response to God’s will in our lives.

A journey that quite possibly will challenge us in ways that have yet to be known and that are, most probably going to be, far from comfortable. A journey through which we will become a new self – one that is grounded in Christ.

“If anyone want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”

So, what does this mean for those of us here at St Simon’s today? What does it mean for mean in my post-mission turmoil? What does it mean for all of us who want to jump on the next plane to Houston and offer whatever talents and treasure that we possess? What does it mean for those of us who have other needs or concerns pressing on our hearts and minds?

I believe that this is where Paul’s exhortations are so very important. He begins, “Let love be genuine…”

Paul is speaking in this passage of love as agape - the highest possible form of love. The love of God for man and of man’s corresponding love for God. Agape embraces a universal, unconditional love that transcends and persists regardless of circumstance – it is not mere fellowship or a friendly passing acquaintance. Agape is complete, unconditional, and selfless love of the other – no matter where; no matter when.

What does agape have to do with our response to any desire within us – the need to rush back to Haiti; the need to rush off to Houston; or, any other impulse that befalls us.  Jesus and Paul both demand that agape form the basis for our thoughts and actions. They demand that our responses and reactions must come from true love of and for the other – agape - not from a need to quiet discomforting emotions within one’s self.

Agape demands that we carefully discern between our own needs; our own desires; our own anxieties, and the true needs and desires of the other. Our cross – the cross that Jesus is asking us to take up if we wish to follow him – this cross is always founded on agape– true love. Once true love has replaced concern for self and personal needs, desires and agendas, all else falls into place. It is only then that with zeal and ardent spirit we can take up our cross and follow Jesus; rejoicing in hope, being patient in our suffering as we journey to serve “the other,” and through serving the other, serve Christ.

When Jesus says, “Take up your cross and follow me,” there is no doubt that he is inviting us to follow him; but, he does not want as disciples a burdensome rag tag bunch of stragglers who pull at the hem of his robe. Jesus does not want those whom he has invited to be the rock of the church’s foundation to instead become stumbling blocks that cause us to lose our way.

Jesus is inviting us to be rocks that form a strong foundation; and so, he will accept as true disciples only those willing to carry an agape cross, a cross of love and compassion for the other – not always a safe and comfortable task.  But it is only an agape cross that will bring love, light, compassion and healing to those with whom we are called to work.

My agape cross is Haiti. My cross brings with it frustration, pain, anxiety, confusion, fatigue and a host of other feelings – none of them very comfortable; many of them quite complex. It is a cross that requires deep and continual prayer, ongoing discernment and tons of patience. It is a cross that binds the people of Haiti into the depths of my heart and soul. I have often said, “My heart belongs to Haiti.”

My agape cross does not allow me to jump on a plane and rush back to Haiti.
My agape cross demands that I not give in to immediate frustrations and anxieties, but that I spend prayerful time discerning and planning my next steps in Haiti. I want to serve God’s mission, not my own.

What is your agape cross? How does it tug at your heart?

Take up you cross, the Savior said, if
you would my disciple be; take up your cross with
willing heart, and humbly follow after me.

Take up your cross let not its weight fill
your weak spirit with alarm; his strength shall bear your
spirit up, and brace your heart, and nerve your arm.

Take up your cross and follow Christ, nor think
think till death to lay it down; for only those who
bear the cross may hope to wear the glorious crown.

Monday, July 24, 2017

Good Seeds...Bad Weeds

St.  Simon’s on the Sound
July 22, 2017
Matthew 13:24-30; 36-43

Good seeds and bad weeds. That is what Jesus is teaching us about today. Sow good seeds in good soil, but don't be surprised when you discover bad weeds taking advantage of the nutritious soil, the nourishing environment that has been prepared. Bad weeds are inevitable. Bad weeds are greedy and tenacious. Bad weeds can so easily engulf and wipe out our well-being and our life as a disciple of Christ.

Today, Jesus, once again, is teaching his disciples about what I like to call "the way of the cross." The way that Jesus expects his disciples – that means you and me, as well as Simon Peter and all the others -  the way that Jesus expects us to live our lives when he says, "If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me." (Matt 16:24)

In this parable, Jesus, once again, warns us of the perils that we will encounter as we take up our cross and follow him. He uses the metaphor of good seeds and bad weeds to help us understand the challenges that we face as we journey as disciples of Christ.

The concept of weeds choking out good plant growth is fairly simply. Contending with weeds is nothing new to us. We have all experienced the hot and dreary work of pulling them time and again just to get space for our flowers and vegetables to blossom and grow. But, in today’s parable Jesus advises, leave the weeds. Let them grow up beside the good crop, he says. Don’t worry, in the end the weeds will be destroyed, and the product of the good seeds – God’s children - will grow and flourish. 

Jesus closes this parable with the warning, “Let anyone with ears listen.”

We have now heard two parables about seeds – one last week and one today. Each parable framed by the distinct warning, “Let anyone with ears listen.”

What is it that we need to listen to this week – certainly not just a gardening lesson on weeds and seeds. What is today’s allegory – today’s teaching.

Our lesson today: don't be choked out by the bad weeds that will inevitably grow up around you...the distractions and the temptations placed before us every day in this chaotic world. A world filled with temptations of every sort. Don’t give into greed, overindulgence, envy, and bitterness. Don’t let the evil that surrounds us deter us from maintaining strong roots in the good soil provided by Jesus.

In other words, we must commit to focusing on God as the center of our lives despite all distractions. We must ensure that our hearts, our minds, and our souls are continually being fed by and growing in the good soil prepared for us Jesus. The good soil -  the compassion, the light and the love that is foundational to finding our way into the gift of God’s Kingdom.

The bad weeds are the world - the chaotic and negative influences that surround us each day.  The distractions and temptations that lure us and lead us astray. The distractions and temptations that have the power to weaken and perhaps kill the roots that have been so carefully planted in the good soil – the way of the cross.

Jesus prays, “Father. Let anyone with ears listen!” Listen to my warning, he says. Do not let the bad weeds overtake you. In the end, they will be destroyed – collected and burned with fire - and those who have resisted their temptations “will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father.” Jesus’ warning to us, and his promise of the glory that we will discover in God’s kingdom – if we heed his warning.

I don’t know about you, but I have encountered plenty of bad weeds in my life journey. Some of those weeds got the best of me. They stifled me. They grew rampant around me. I found myself disoriented and unable to find enough light to see my way up and out of their tangle. It was, I suppose, what we might call hell on earth.

Then one day, as I was walking down Main Street in Portland, Maine the red doors of the Episcopal cathedral shouted out to me, “Come in.” I was totally startled. I stopped walking. I looked at the doors. I started toward the doors. I stopped and said to myself, “This is silly. The church is probably locked, why would I even try the doors.” I started walking down the block – two steps, and then I stopped again. I turned back. I went up to the doors and timidly tried them. They opened.

The church was dark and totally empty, and yet I felt compelled to take a seat. I made an attempt at a prayer. Tears started. I stopped praying and just stared at the altar. A priest sat down beside me. “What brings you here, he asked.”

And so, the weeds of my life began to loose their power and my good seed roots took firm hold in the good soil that I had been given years before when I was baptized as a child of God. I had ears and I listened.

I would imagine that many, if not most of you, have similar stories of weeds overtaking your growth as a disciple of Christ. And that, like me, somewhere along the way your ears heard God’s voice and you listened.

In today’s world, we are the few – the few who still keep our ears tuned for God’s voice. The few who are keenly aware that there even are weeds that must be contended with every step of the way.

However, as disciples of Christ simply clearing away the weeds for ourselves is not enough. We also have the responsibility of helping others to understand the effect of weeds in their lives. We, as disciples of Christ, are appointed to be the bad weed parable bearers to those who have either lost their way, or who have never been blessed with hearing the good news – the gospel of Jesus Christ.

St. John of the Cross said, “In the dark night of the soul, bright flows the river of God.” I pray that we, who are so blessed and whose good seeds have overcome the bad weed challenges of this life, are now able as disciples of Christ to go forth into our world as companions to those still lost in the weeds.

Our world needs us. It is our mission in Christ to help those in darkness understand that, “In the dark night of the soul, bright flows the river of God.”

Sunday, July 2, 2017

Being Church in the World

St. Simon’s on the Sound - July 2, 2017
Matthew 10:40-42

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 obvious? How did I not fully understand the intent of Jesus’ words when he proclaimed, “Go into all the world and preach the Gospel to the whole creation?” (MK 16:15) How did I not fully grasp the intent of our baptismal vow to proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ?

Sitting there in the Atlanta airport, attempting to block out the commotion of noisy travelers and confusing PA announcements, and praying continually that my flight would arrive on time, and then take off without delay, I had what I believe we would call an epiphany. Or, perhaps since I really have no words to describe the experience, only a burning in my mind and in my heart, I had what might better be described and a “mystic moment.”

I experienced in a fleeting moment an insight into the meaning of being in the world that touched my heart, my mind and my soul. In this fleeting moment, I experienced so clearly the significance of “giving a cup of cold water to these little ones”. I understood what being in the world, our mission – the charge given us by Jesus – I understood what our being in the world means through very, very, new lenses. Lenses that have affected my way of seeing and being ever since.

The event that precipitated this “mystic moment” was a conference on Global Mission that I attended a couple of weeks ago in the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta. The conference agenda was focused on the concept of the church’s identity being formed in the world, as opposed to the church’s identity being established within the four walls of any given building.

The Rt. Rev. Rob Wright, bishop of the Diocese of Atlanta, was the main presenter. In his words, “If we continue doing church in the way we have been doing it, we will remain perfectly prepared for the 1950s. We must bring an end to doing church inside out four walls and begin being church – being church in the world.”

“Being in the world” is, of course, our mission. The mission given us by Jesus when he said, “… “Go into the world and proclaim the good news to the whole creation.” (Luke 10:15)

Of course, intellectually, I was very familiar with this concept of being church in the world. We, in various clergy groups and congregational training programs, have been discussing emerging from the isolation of our four walls and moving into our community and beyond to spread the good news for more than several years. But, it was the Atlanta conference that provided me with the spiritual awakening to precisely what it is that we promise when we vow in our baptismal covenant to go into the World as disciples of Jesus -  to go and proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ.

How did I miss grasping the reality that being 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 report on our efforts?

How did I miss grasping the reality that ultimately being in the world – domestic or global –is, ultimately, not about individual trips abroad, or various ministry efforts here at home?

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

How did I not previously grasp the obvious – that being 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.

Being in the world is the work of discovering, being with and working together to heal those who are in some way wounded. Being in the world is traveling our life’s journey with the specific goal of fulfilling our baptismal vow to seek and serve Christ in all persons.

This new way of understanding being in the world points, at least for me, to the obvious -  our church is not a building – these four walls. 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 along the way to rest and to be refreshed.

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. A place where we have our “cup of cold water.”

Our congregational life is an oasis, a sanctuary in which we come together with 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 back into the world. It is a place where we fulfill our baptismal vow of continuing in the apostle’s teaching and fellowship and the breaking of the bread.

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

The week following the conference my emotions were running high. I was struggling with what to do with my new way of seeing our life as God’s missionaries in the world. Disturbing questions filled my thoughts. Questions such as, “Is my work in the church really fulfilling my baptismal covenant, or am I just another cog in a wheel that goes around and around within the church’s four walls, never actually rolling out into the world?”

In other words, I had an uncomfortable coming face to face with God and my tendency – just like all of us – to see my attempts to “do good” through my own rose-colored lenses. I remembered a quote by Thomas Merton, “Humility sets us free to do what is really good, by showing us our illusions and withdrawing our will from what was only an apparent good.” And, I prayed fiercely.

And then, miraculously, last weekend a stunning example of being in the world occurred right before our eyes – and it was powerful, so very powerful.

The hard work, courage and persistence of St. Simon’s congregation members in collaboration with a planning team of over 25 individuals from all walks of life, all religions, and all ethnicities came to fruition in the Feed the Need event last Saturday morning. Approximately 800 volunteers worked joyfully and in unity to pack food for those who are experiencing food insecurity.

In other words, they were giving “a cup of old water to these little ones.” Through their work at the food packing, they were bringing God into the world of those who are suffering.

Jesus’ message to us over the past few weeks has been so very clear. As he went about proclaiming the good news and healing the sick, he saw that the “harvest was plentiful, but the laborers were few;” so, he summoned his twelve disciples and gave them authority to cast out demons and to cure every disease and every sickness. He advised them that they would be like sheep among wolves. He warned them that they would experience hardship and persecution. He commanded them to persevere. Their goal was to remain clear – bring God into the world of those who are living in darkness.

In today’s gospel Jesus continues his sending message to the disciples. He reminds them that whoever welcomes them will be welcoming Jesus, and in welcoming Jesus they will be welcoming the one who sent him – they will be welcoming God. In welcoming the disciples and accepting their offered cup of cold water, they accept God into their lives.

The recent gospel readings from Matthew are so very relevant to our congregational journey as we emerge from habitual ways of doing church to new and exciting ways of being church. In this post-food packing week, I have heard comments from so many people that reflect their excitement in being church in the community.

Excitement in experiencing the spiritual fulfillment of bringing a cup of water to those in need, and through the power of the offered cup – in this instance the food packing - sensing God’s presence among us in a new and thrilling way.

We are a people sent by Jesus, and at times it does feel as if we are sheep among wolves – emissaries of God in great peril. But, we have vowed to proclaim by word and deed the Good News of God in Christ. And each week after our Eucharistic meal we pray, “…Send us now into the world in peace, and grant us strength and courage to love and serve you with gladness and singleness of heart…” We pray for the strength and the courage to proclaim by word and deed the Good News of God in Christ. And then, we go forth, out of the church, into the world – being church in the world.

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