Thursday, March 15, 2018

Out of the Darkness

St. Simon’s on the Sound
March 11, 2014

John 3:14-21

“Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble,
and he saved them from their distress.”

In the last few years I have refrained from “giving up” something as a Lenten discipline – you know something like chocolate; chardonnay; carbohydrates, or any of those other delicious niceties of life that give us great pleasure and offer comfort in times of stress and challenge.

Rather than “give up” something during these brief 40 days I have committed myself to a discipline of identifying ways of thinking and ways of being that have led, or are leading me into darkness, away from light – away from God.

My Lenten discipline has been grounded in an intentional and continual reflective and prayerful examination of my life’s past and current events. A frequently painful journey of seeking God’s light to illuminate areas of darkness in my life. Darkness that creates a barrier between me and my God who so clearly wants to be my light – my way – my life.

Put simply, through prayer, reflection and spiritual guidance, I have asked God to shed light on ways of thinking and ways of being that either have carried or are carrying me down a road away from God. A road that leads into the pit filled with biting serpents. The pit so vividly described in today’s reading from Numbers.

In my conversations with God I have asked God to give me new lenses through which I can take a good look at myself.

This Lenten discipline of mine has always been a resounding challenge and most assuredly a transforming struggle.  I am always astounded at what I uncover – or, perhaps I should say what God helps me to uncover. It never fails, I always discover that, quite literally, I was completely in the dark about many aspects of my life.

Usually, God’s light does not immediately penetrate my darkness. I suppose that would be too simple, too easy. No, at first the light flickers on, and I most usually, turn it off – very quickly.

But that darn light is so persistent – crafty and persistent. Gradually, the light seeps through the cracks of my darkness. Soon the darkness is not so dark; there seems to be no clear boundary between the darkness and the light. And then, suddenly there is no darkness at all. The light shines continually and my new lenses are polished and working. My interactions, reactions, my ways of being are clearly illuminated in a new way – a way that is far more congruent with a true relationship with God.

Seen through new lenses my life is illuminated in a new, frightening and yet incredibly exciting way. Perhaps most important of all, my new way of being infuses me anew with the depth, the strength, the power of God’s love. My new way of being allows me to offer that love to others; allows me to bring the gift of God’s love to others – those who are still in darkness.

Then, of course, comes the struggle of staying in the light – of not returning to the darkness – the pit.

This week’s Lectionary readings are one of the few occasions in which all of the appointed passages from Scripture, including the psalm, come together to form a powerful, painful, and yet love-filled message for those of us engaged in a Lenten journey of reflection and repentance – one that leads us out of darkness and into the light.

First, we heard an Old Testament story filled with vivid and frightening imagery of poisonous serpents biting people – killing people. Punishing people for their complaining and whining – for their looking away from God to find an easier, more convenient way to live their lives. And then, unexpectedly, this terrifying account of writhing, venom spitting serpents ends by becoming not a story of pain, suffering and death, but a story filled with the hope of salvation.

In today’s passage from Numbers, God sent poisonous serpents into the Israelite camp as punishment for the people complaining against Moses and God. Through this frightening siege of venomous serpents, the Israelites recognized that they were being punished for falling away from God; the God who had promised them salvation from slavery and suffering. In haste, they went to Moses and repented saying, “We have sinned by speaking against the Lord and against you.”

As they began their cry of repentance, God commanded Moses to make a poisonous serpent out of bronze and to lift it up on a pole – high up - so that anyone bitten by one of the serpents could look up at it and live. The Israelites grateful for this life-saving serpent lifted on high said that it was not the sight of the bronze serpent that saved them, but that looking up to it, they looked up to God as the Lord who would heal them. They renewed their promise to follow God.

Psalm 107 opens with the powerful verse, “Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good, and his mercy endures forever.” A hymn extolling God’s mercy to those who, “were fools and took rebellious ways,” but who also “cried to the Lord in their trouble.” God “sent forth his word and healed them and saved them from the grave.”

Yet another version of people lost in darkness crying out to God for light, for salvation. And, as always, God there – right there. Ever present, ever loving.

Fast forwarding to today’s gospel reading from John, Jesus almost 500 years later tells his disciples and the surrounding crowd, “And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up.”

The term translated “lift up” (hypsoo) can also mean “exalt,” and John uses that double meaning to communicate the theological paradox of this story in which Jesus is both physically lifted up onto the cross as punishment, and at the same time lifted up on the cross in exaltation by God.

For anyone in first century Palestine, Jesus included, being nailed to a cross and then lifted up for public display was a moment of profound humiliation and defeat. But John describes Jesus’ crucifixion as collapsed into a single measure of divine action: Jesus crucified by taking on man’s sins; Jesus exalted by God as our savior.

Just as the Israelites were required to look upon the very thing that brought death in order to receive life – the bronze asp lifted on high by Moses, so we are asked to look upon Jesus lifted up on the cross in humiliating crucifixion in order to understand the concept of Jesus taking on man’s sins in order to offer salvation to those who follow him. Follow him to the cross and beyond; always looking up – always looking for the Light of Christ.

In John’s passage Jesus continues, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life.” Beautiful and comforting words. But, in this context of serpents and crucifixion crosses how are we to interpret them? How does a loving God act out of such anger and cause so much pain? If God loves us so much why should we struggle, why should we suffer?

If we listen carefully we hear Jesus say, “And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.”

God’s grace has no meaning in isolation from God’s judgment. If we believe that we have no sin, we have no need for forgiveness. If there is no judgment, we require no grace.

The question for all of us is very clear. During our Lenten journey do we have the courage, the discipline, the insight to look up and allow the light of Christ to shine on the darkness in our lives and in the world around us?

Do we dare to have a look at our own lives – our own ways of thinking and our own behaviors, so frequently less than admirable. Our own thoughts and behaviors that with regularity are in direct conflict the great commandments that we affirm each Sunday during Lent”

“Jesus said, “The first commandment is this: Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God is the only Lord. Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength. The second is this: Love your neighbor as yourself. There is no other commandment greater than these.”

Do we have the courage to change our ways of being; our behaviors. To cease thoughts and actions that trigger the arrival in our lives of venomous serpents and to look up to Christ lifted up high on the cross for a better way; a way filled with the Light of Christ? Do we have the courage to Repent and Return? Can we find the humility and bravery necessary to repair relationships gone awry and deeds left undone out of fear or apathy?

Are we daring enough to face the difficult truths of a world darkened by the astounding challenges of complex political and social justice issues” Are we brave enough to face everything from personal transgressions, however, small or large, to mass shootings and other acts of violence and hatred; and to do something about these things?

Are we courageous enough to act as Christ’s disciples and seek justice and peace in our own lives and in the lives of those who live in darkness throughout our community and the world?

Perhaps most importantly, can we stand firm in the light? Or, once we see the light do we scuttle off, creeping back into the comfortable darkness of denial? Experiencing the salvific power of the light and seeing clearly that we have fallen away from God, do we look upwards – on high – asking forgiveness and seeking ways to keep the light shining, as a guide, as an advocate, as our Savior- however painful the ensuing steps we must take might be?

Our message today is that God is indeed the God who so loved the world that he gave his Son so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life. But that, that same God is also a God who places on our shoulders the expectation of actively seeking the light, actively seeking His salvific gift – His Son, Jesus – and following that light, not the darkness of a deeply troubled world, but in the way of the cross – a way strewn with love, encompassed by grace; and based on faith.

The face of God in today’s readings is of a God who is ever present -ever ready to forgive. But, it is also a face of God to whom a turn must be made. A God of demand always ready to be a God of grace. Grace and demand, the way all serious relationships work.

Seek the Lord while he may be found,
call upon him when he is near;
let the wicked forsake their way,
and the unrighteous their thoughts;
let them return to the Lord, that he may have
mercy on them,
and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.

            Isaiah 55:6-7

Friday, January 12, 2018

Are We Ready?

St. Simon’s on the Sound
December 24, 2017

Luke 1:26-38

This is quite an incredible morning. The Fourth Sunday of Advent, Christmas Eve morning, and the day on which we will baptize baby Hawkins Hatchee Hale in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. 

In just a few minutes, amidst the joyful anticipation of glorious angels singing, shepherds standing amazed and trembling, and the arrival of the Christ child in a manger in long ago Bethlehem, we will receive baby Hawkins into the household of God – right here at St. Simon’s on the Sound. We will anoint this beautiful child with holy oil and charge him with the lifelong baptismal calling to confess the faith of Christ crucified, proclaim his resurrection, and share with the world his eternal priesthood.

This is most assuredly a WOW moment in time – sort of like a perfect storm but in the very best sense of that concept. This morning is a time in which our Advent waiting and watching for the birth of the baby Jesus coincides with the arrival not only of the Christ child in a manager in far away Bethlehem; but also, the baptism of baby Hawkins. The arrival of this the newest member of God’s kingdom in the here and now. Two blessed and joyful events that remind us of our own baptism, our own call to confess the faith of Christ crucified, proclaim his resurrection, and share with the world his eternal priesthood.

Holy Baptism is just that. It is Holy. It is a sacred moment - the act of full initiation into Christ’s Body, the Church, by water and the Holy Spirit. In this Holy moment, the sacred bond which God establishes with each one of us in Baptism becomes indissoluble.

In the words of the Catechism, "Holy Baptism is the sacrament by which God adopts us as his children and makes us members of Christ's Body, the Church, and inheritors of the kingdom of God." 

Through the rite of Holy Baptism, we are reminded that God was made man in Christ so that he could be among us – be one of us. We become profoundly aware that God reconciled himself to us through the gift of his Son Jesus Christ - God made man - God among us; and, through Christ and our baptism by water and the Holy Spirit, we are reconciled to God. We are reconciled to God through his love for us in the gift of his incarnation - the gift of his Son, Jesus, and the gift of baptism into God’s church.

Once baptized, we are members of God’s family – heirs of God’s eternal kingdom. Once baptized, we are anointed as God’s priests, called to go forth into the world living the life that Christ modeled for us, so many years ago.

Once baptized we are bound to our baptismal vows to continue in the apostles’ teaching, and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers. To persevere in resisting evil, and whenever we fall into sin - fall away from God - to repent and return to the Lord. To proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ. To seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbor as ourselves. To strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being.

There is still more in this powerful initiation that we call baptism. That more is our presence. Through our presence, we are an integral part of this sacred ceremony. We participate by making a promise. A promise that is filled to the brim with responsibility and accountability. As we witness the baptism of baby Hawkins, and affirm, “we will,” when questioned by Fr. David, we commit to do all in our power to support him in his life in Christ. With our support, Baby Hawkins joins the baptized of all who walk together in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

Baby Hawkins, and we - all of us - by our vows are now bound irrevocably and  inextricably, to Christ, to God. God is now with us, in us, behind us, and before us with every breath that we breath; with every step that we take. And, we are in Him, with every breath that we breath; with every step that we take.

Several years ago, in Haiti, I had the honor to baptize a little girl. An infant really, perhaps  4-5 months of age. I was serving at the temporary altar of a church that had been completely destroyed in the 2010 earthquake. The priest was Pere Kerwin Delicat, now the dean of the cathedral in Port au Prince. There were two babies to be baptized - one girl and one boy. Pere Kerwin began the baptismal ceremony with the boy, completing the entire liturgy before asking the family of the infant girl to come forward. Once they had gathered around the baptismal font, Pere Kerwin directed the mother to give the child to me, and he said: “You do the girl.”

I was completely taken aback. In a kind of daze, I reached forward to take this tiny child who was encompassed by a massive crinoline filled baptismal dress. Panic set in - I could not feel the baby through the dress - would I drop her once the mother took her hands away?

Somehow, I managed to gather most of the dress and the head of the child in my right arm - I had to go on faith about the child’s body because I really could not feel it through all the fabric. Pere Kerwin held the prayer book for me. It seemed that I was ready to get on with the baptism.

However, I want to mention that it was August. The temperature was about 101 degrees and the humidity about 98 percent; and, we were outside under a tarp. Pere Kerwin and I had been in our vestments for over 45 minutes. I had also preached. We were both perspiring quite heavily.

As you can imagine this was not what one would call a great moment in time for me to be performing a baptism. Sweating heavily, speaking in a foreign language, holding a great mass of crinoline in which was swathed a beautiful baby girl, my glasses sliding down my nose - well, I will let you come to your own conclusions about how I was feeling.

And then, something incredible happened. I can only call it the arrival of the Holy Spirit. As we progressed through the baptismal liturgy, all discomfort fell away. And, when I poured water on the child, baptizing her in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit - au nom du Pere, et du Fils, et du Saint-Esprit - I experienced a mystical moment. A moment that really cannot be described. A moment in which I could feel God with us - God blessing us - God’s light and love surrounding us. The Holy Spirit descended upon us.

I have never felt that way before - and never after.

I believe that what I experienced in Haiti, is what we should all experience not only at our own baptism, which we probably cannot remember, but at every baptism in which we find ourselves a participant - both as we witness a child, or an adult, baptized; or, as we, through the baptismal liturgy, renew our own baptismal vows. It is an experience that, I pray, we will all share in just a few moments when we baptize baby Hawkins. And, it is an experience that we should all share later today as we come together to witness the arrival of the baby Jesus, in the manger. The birth of Jesus, God’s gift to us.

Baby Hawkins has brought us a great gift on this the Fourth Sunday of Advent. He has brought us the gift of experiencing in the here and now the powerful impact of what it means to be a member of God’s kingdom. His baptism is an outward manifestation of our Advent prayers and reflections - “Purify our conscience, Almighty God by your daily visitation, that your Son Jesus Christ, at his coming may find in us a mansion prepared for himself.”

Are we ready? Have we prepared ourselves for this great gift, and this great commitment to a way of life that is based on our baptismal vows? Have we emptied ourselves of distractions, pettiness, and anger? Have we prepared a mansion for Christ within our hearts and our minds and our souls. A mansion where he can flourish and from which he can go forth through us and our way of being in every day, and with every breath?

In this glorious moment of baptism that we are about to witness let us pray that we experience that mystery of the Holy Spirit descending upon us, filling us with the glory of God. Let us pray that this mysterious and most powerful moment leads us in amazement to the manger in Bethlehem later this evening when we witness the Christ child born anew. Let us pray that our hearts and minds, so filled with the Holy Spirit and the gift of God among us, will lead us, renewed in our own  baptismal vows to be faithful witnesses continuing forever in the risen life of Jesus Christ our Savior.

Let us pray that these glorious moments stay with us throughout the coming year, continually guiding us - continually lighting our path and filling our hearts and minds with God’s love for us and for the world.

When the song of the angels is stilled,
when the star in the sky is gone,
when the kings and princes are home,
when the shepherds are back with their flocks,
the work of Christmas begins:
to find the lost,
to heal the broken,
to feed the hungry,
to release the prisoner,
to rebuild the nations,
to bring peace among the people,
to make music in the heart.

Howard Thurman

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Sheep or Goat - Which Are YOU?

St. Simon’s on the Sound
November 26, 2017

Matthew 25: 31-46

Today’s gospel reading about the sheep and the goats is yet another parable that sets us straight with regard to those who are fulfilling their baptismal covenant, truly engaging in compassionate living, and those who are not. The question for us in today’s gospel is - who is a sheep and who is a goat? Can you tell? It’s not always so easy – and yet, to not understand the difference and, therefore, the importance of this message from Jesus, can lead to sharp disappointment and potential damage to those who are the target of our “compassion.”

As an example, let me tell you a story about some good folks who believed that there were sheep, but who really turned out to be goats – or, did they?

A small group went on a mission trip to Haiti. Their work was focused on providing a three-day Vacation Bible School experience for children situated in a small orphanage located in the capitol city of Port au Prince. Each day the mission team would be shuttled from the guest house, where they were staying, to the orphanage. After several hours at the orphanage, they returned to the guesthouse for an afternoon of prayer and studying.

Their shuttle bus took them through Cité Soleil (Sun City in English) a shanty town located in the center of Port-au-Prince. Most of Cite Soleil’s 300,000 residents live in extreme poverty. Children and single mothers predominate in the population. Social and living conditions in the slum do not allow residents to fulfill even the basic human needs. Homes are simply shacks made from rusty metal sheets. Infectious diseases are wide-spread. Garbage collection, clean water, and basic sanitation does not exist in Cité Soleil. The average life expectancy of Cite Soleil residents is between 45-50 years of age. 

The mission team members were naturally troubled as they drove through this section of Port au Prince. They were especially troubled by the fact that mothers were carrying small infants wrapped in newspaper to keep them warm. One evening at supper, they agreed to purchase baby blankets and hand them out to the mothers as they drove down the boulevard that transverses Cite Soleil. That decided, they quickly finished dinner and rushed out to the street vendors selling baby products, and bought up as many blankets as they could find.

The following morning, as their bus drove down the Cite Soleil boulevard, the mission team members handed the blankets to women and their babies through the open bus windows. The women grabbed at the blankets and waved at the team, with big smiles on their faces.

The team felt great. They had done a wonderful thing. They had demonstrated compassion for the cold and impoverished babies. Now the babies would be nice and warm, the mothers would heave a sigh of relief; all that dirty old newspaper could be tossed away. In those moments they felt themselves to be truly be good shepherds, compassionate people caring for God’s flock.

On the way back to their guesthouse, just a few short hours later, the team members looked out of the bus windows and were aghast as they saw the very same blankets that they had given to the mothers hanging in vendor’s stalls for sale, once again. And, even worse, the very same babies were still wrapped in the offensively dirty newspaper.

They were angry. These mothers were callous, they only cared about money, not their babies – how could they???

The mission team leader suggested that the driver stop the bus so that one or two of the mothers could be interviewed. Since no one on the team spoke Creole, the bus driver was asked to question the mothers about the blankets and the newspaper. After several moments of conversation, the bus driver turned around to the team and said, “They say, thank you for the blankets so they could sell them and get the money they need to buy food for their babies.”

Maybe these team members weren’t sheep. Maybe they were really goats.

In today’s parable of the sheep and the goats, we learn that the coming Son of Man has actually been present among the most vulnerable members of society all along.  He is already here – the kingdom has been a home for the sheep since the “foundation of the world.” 

The Son of Man of this parable upends paradigms of time and power and privilege. We discover that he makes, and has made, his dwelling place not in castles and elegant homes, but in mangers and fields. He makes, and has made, since the foundation of the world, his dwelling place among the least. 

The Son of Man of this parable is crowned with king-like attributes of universal and everlasting dominion, but does not act like a typical king, or ruler, or judge. When Jesus remarks, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me,” we learn that He is one of them, one of the least. The least are his family.

And, who exactly are the least ones – needy members of the Christian community, the wandering Christian missionaries of Matthew’s day – or, perhaps anyone in need. Why didn’t Jesus give his disciples a clearer identification of the least ones? Perhaps because doing so would make us all goats. Should we have to ask?

Today’s parable implies quite clearly that we should not have to ask. 

In this parable, the king speaks first to the sheep, affirming that they are blessed by the father; they will inherit the kingdom that has been prepared for them from the foundation of the world – from the beginning of time. Selflessly and without having to wonder “should I, or shouldn’t I,” they have given him food, drink, hospitality, clothing, care and visited him when he was in need. 

The king’s address to the goats runs through the same list of acts of compassion, but is expressed in the negative – the goats are “accursed.” The goats voice surprise at the king’s comments: “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry…?” 

Although the sheep and the goats voice identical questions - “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry…,” their questions carry very different implications.

The sheep acted out of genuine compassion, without any awareness that the king might be present among the least ones, and without any thought of potential reward. The goats, on the other hand, are trapped within the social code that orders relationships and values giving to those at the top of the pyramid, not those at the bottom – those who have nothing to give back.

On the lips of the goats, the same question that the sheep have asked implies something quite different. For them, the goats, “When did we see you hungry…?” implies that, had they only known of the king’s presence among the least ones, they would have been right there, attempting to serve his needs.

What does this parable – this teaching of Jesus about the sheep and the goats have to do with the missionaries and the baby blankets in Haiti; and, perhaps, more importantly, us here at St. Simon’s, so many years later?

Everything really. This parable must be central to our consideration as we prepare to engage ourselves and our church in the world. It is a parable that forces us to carefully consider and discern, our intentions, our decisions, and our actions as we go forth each Sunday morning in peace, to love and serve the Lord. 

Are we, without concern of acknowledgement or reward, embedding ourselves among the least of those who live around and among us – those whom we serve? Are we developing a loving companionship with them; giving them, when it is truly needed, food, drink, welcoming, visitation, and healing?  Or, are we standing outside these communities of the least, sitting in parish halls and other church meeting rooms developing projects and programs that are intended to give to them – the least – what we deem they need? 

There is a big difference. The former is based on our becoming one - one body with the least – the body of Christ. The latter is based on a class system of “haves” and “have nots.”

Put another way, do we dare to live among the least of these? Do we dare to descend from the bus in Cite Soleil, one of the poorest and most dangerous neighborhoods in the world, and become one with the mothers and babies? Really be present with them and experience the pain that they experience in not being able to feed the infants in their arms. Serving them as brothers and sisters in Christ.

Or, do we find it more comfortable to sit in the moving bus, gazing out of the window and imagining that baby blankets will solve the problems of mothers who wander the streets of Cite Soleil. Do we even imagine that in their wandering they will stop at the next garbage heap to seek some small morsel of food for themselves and their family? Or, that when in next rains they will live in a sea of mud and water for days on end?

Do we develop a mission project, wherever it may be, that allows us to live with the community that we intend to join with for several hours over a period of two or three days - entering into companionships that will allow healing of mind, body and spirit on both sides? Or, do we sit at home and engage in a series of committee meetings to decide upon what gifts we can take them on our next visit?

This may seem an extreme example; but, really, it isn’t. The sheep are those who seek and serve Christ in all persons and strive for justice and peace among all people – loving and respecting each other, just as Christ loves us. This is the case for all sheep. Sheep in engaged in world mission, sheep engaged in local mission; sheep engaged in congregational mission.

Being present with; being among; walking beside; listening; loving others in the power of the Spirit. That is the job description for a sheep. That is the job description for all of us – all of us baptized in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. AMEN

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.