Tuesday, April 12, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, March 25, 2016

His Love is Our Strength

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

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

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

“This Christmas Day, I pray that you will be thrilled by the presence of the angel of the Lord. I pray that the command to “go and see” will ring loud in your ears and that you will, with the eyes of your heart, visit Bethlehem and experience the joy and hope of gazing at the infant child – the baby Jesus. I pray that you will be re-invigorated – re-energized – in your call as a member of the Christ Church community to go into the world and to spread the Good News.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, March 21, 2016

Getting to Know Paul...

Epiphany 2016
Christ Church, St. Michaels Parish

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Connect, Collaborate, Create...

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pause...and think of Jesus

Christ Church, St. Michael’s Parish
2nd Sunday in Lent, 2016
Luke 13:31-35

I entered this Lenten season with a very specific goal for myself – a goal reached after many weeks of discernment. It is a simple goal really, and yet it has been a somewhat difficult goal to maintain on a regular basis. Day after day I catch myself falling away from what I had vowed would be my Lenten discipline for 2016.

What is my Lenten discipline goal? To pause and think of Jesus before I speak – not only in meetings or other public events, but in each and every encounter that I have; each and every day.

How did I identify my goal? A couple of ways really.

The extensive readings covered by the History of Christianity class and the incredibly rich discussions that have filled each class meeting were certainly a key ingredient in the mix. These readings and discussions have been a vivid, and at times painful, reminder of how difficult it is to maintain a Christian way of life. They have pointed up again and again that a life committed to following the teachings of Jesus is not for the faint of heart. These readings have indicated over and over again just how easy it is to fall off the Christian way of life path and onto a path that leads not to love of neighbor and love of God, but a path that leads to that age old need to think about “me” and to be in a position of power and glory.

As we studied the history of the Christian faith from the time of Pharaoh straight on to Alexander the Great, the Roman Empire and fast forwarding to the centuries long struggles between the Western and Eastern Empires, the incredibly barbaric Crusades, the sometimes deadly struggle between the Catholics and the Protestants, the Holocaust, the insensitivity of colonists who throughout the world eliminated entire segments of indigenous culture in the name of Christianity, and the post-modern bickering among thousands of Protestant faith groups over who is right and who is wrong in their interpretation of Scripture, the class was left with many questions about the true nature of Christianity.

One puzzled and perhaps discouraged class member summed up these questions when she asked: “Weren’t they thinking about Jesus?”

Good question. Were our forefathers thinking about Jesus, or were they caught up in matters of state – both political and religious? As Christianity evolved from the time of Constantine forward until the colonization of America, was Christianity so much an arm of the state – of kings, queens, the Pope and emerging nations – that the message preached today by many, including our new Presiding Bishop, Michael Curry, - “we have embarked on a Jesus movement” – That message was not even in their line of vision? Or, if in their line of vision and pursued in an open and fervent manner, would their fervor be crushed by those whose power and authority was threatened. Just a Jesus was crushed – crucified in Jerusalem – by the Roman Empire and the Temple Jews.

An important thought to ponder – power hungry brutality waged in the name of Christianity versus the compassion of Jesus Christ offered as a foretaste of God’s saving grace.

Another key factor in my Lenten discipline decision was the ongoing conversations among my clergy colleagues that focus on the need to bring the Episcopal Church into the lives of those who remain, for a wide variety of reasons, unchurched.

These “how do we make the church more relevant” conversations can be depressing, but, more often than not, I find them to be exciting – exciting, but requiring the courage to face the unknown. We need have the imagination necessary to reach out to others in a way that is totally unknown to us - unknown because we have never done it, never been there before.

We need to toss aside the practice of dragging out old models of evangelism, dusting them off, and proudly announcing, “we have a new way of doing it” – whatever it is. And we don’t need to hold any more workshops that encourage us to “think outside the box” either. We need to get out of the box entirely and live among the unchurched – just as Jesus went out among those who did not know God. And, in doing that – in living and being among the unchurched, perhaps they will bring a new way of doing church to us. Perhaps they are already following Jesus without even knowing it – how do these unchurched folk demonstrate their love and their compassion?

How can we learn from and about people who we do not know?

Considering the history of Christianity with its years of brutal wars waged against those who were fighting for their religious freedom – their own way of worshipping God, of following Jesus, of being moved by the Spirit to love and serve the world; and, considering that we, as faith group, who not that many years ago finally won that coveted freedom to worship without fear of persecution, but who are now experiencing an alarming lack of interest in exactly that which caused so many deaths over multiple centuries prior to the 1700s --- those were the two key elements of my decision to pause and think of Jesus before speaking or acting during this Lenten season.

And how is my thinking about Jesus before I speak or act going to help matters? Or, more importantly, what makes this practice a relevant Lenten discipline?

It seems to me that if we are to keep Christ, and Christianity, alive we must always be very clear about our own motivations and our own behavior. We must continually discern the basis of our actions as we move in and through the world, in conversations and in relationships. We must be disciplined in asking ourselves, “are our conversations and actions based on our vow to love and serve the Lord; to seek the Christ in others; to strive for peace and justice; to offer ways of reconciling the world to God?”

In other words, are we keeping alive God’s gift to us – his Son Jesus Christ – and are we making this gift available to others, both here in our own community and throughout the nation and the world?

And today, I am suggesting that this continual discernment process is far easier if we think about Jesus, always. If we are persistent in reminding ourselves that Jesus is our light, the light that guides us on our way.

Today’s gospel reading comes from a portion of Luke known as The Lament Over Jerusalem. Jesus is crying out his heartache over Jerusalem, the holy city that had been the seat of God’s presence since ancient times. Jerusalem where as a boy Jesus found his home in the temple. Jerusalem the city that would soon claim his life.

He exclaims, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it” How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!”

To me this a passage of one who knows that he has been betrayed – Jesus is passionately grief stricken -  and yet his words make it abundantly clear that he is still capable of loving completely. Jesus wants us to know that it is never too late to return to being in close relationship with him – to being a community of love and belonging.

In this brief passage, Jesus is calling his people into the security of God’s love. He is calling his people – and therefore us, into a community of love and belonging.

For me this passionate passage is a vivid image of all that has transpired over the centuries in the name of Christianity.

Jerusalem, the city that kills – the power and greed of the Roman Empire and the elite Temple Jews, a prelude to years of war and destruction waged in the name of Christianity; the power and greed that for centuries shattered lives and crumbled communities.

Jesus our savior, always there. Jesus who yearns to gather us under his protective mantle, just as a hen gathers her chicks around her, covering them with her wings to protect them from danger; Jesus who yearns for his beloved to be in close community – a community that is vital, vibrant and ever expanding – always spreading the good news of God’s love and salvation.

This is what I think of each day as I remind myself of Christ’s words and actions before I speak or act - The love and passion of Christ, whose life among us was a most incredible gift from God – The love and passion of Christ that lights the challenging path of loving others as God loves us – The love and passion of Christ that takes us on a life journey that can be thrilling, if we cast away all fear.

As Christians, we are free to worship and to evangelize without fear of persecution. As Disciples of Christ we are called to go into the world – to spread the good news – the gospel. These are incredible gifts and astounding responsibilities given to us by God.

Will we heed Jesus’ cry uttered in grief so many years ago? Will we gather together under the loving mantle of Jesus and allow ourselves to be protected by the love of and guided by the light of Christ in making our church, once again strong – once again relevant? Let us pray:

Almighty God, give us grace to cast away the works of
darkness, and put on the armor of light, now in the time of
this mortal life in which your Son Jesus Christ came to visit
us in great humility; that in the last day, when he shall come
again in his glorious majesty to judge both the living and the
dead, we may rise to the life immortal; through him who lives
and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and
for ever. Amen.

Saturday, December 26, 2015

The Amazing Gift

Christmas Day 2015
Christ Church, St. Michaels Parish

“Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid…”

This is one of my favorite stories in all of scripture. It so vividly describes the terror of the shepherds as they witness the arrival of the angel of the Lord. In just a few words the story powerfully describes the miracle that has occurred … a child has arrived. A child who will become a savior, for all who are known to him, has been born. 

The angel commands the shepherds to, “Go…find this child wrapped in bands of cloth…cast your eyes upon this infant lying in a manger…be amazed…and then, go and tell the world - shout it out - “Glory to God in the highest…the Messiah, the Lord has been born.” He is among us…he is with us.

Luke in 20 short verses encapsulates the message that we thousands of years later are still struggling to understand. A message that we are still struggling to integrate as an essential part of our “self.” A message that we are still struggling to convey to others who are so like those lonely shepherds in the cold, dark fields of Bethlehem.

Thinking about it, it all seems so very simple doesn’t it? Jesus is there waiting for us - just like the baby in the manger awaited the shepherds. And, the Spirit, just like the angel who appeared that cold dark night in Bethlehem, is urging us to go and visit…take a look…say “hello” to Jesus… and to be amazed…to accept this incredible gift from God…to adopt Jesus as our way, our light, our life.  

And today, Christmas Day, we are once again witness to this incredible event - the birth of Jesus. Today we, once again, have the astounding opportunity to visit the child in his manger crib; to be amazed; to renew our relationship with Jesus; and, to reinvigorate our call as Disciples of Christ.

On the first Sunday in Advent, when I last preached, I spoke of the challenges that we have faced over the course of this past year. 2015 has not been an easy year for many, if not most, of us; and, we have no assurance that 2016 will be significantly different. 

The painful realities of a world besieged by gun violence and terrorism; political turmoil at home and abroad; a continuation of the humanitarian crisis posed by the ever increasing number of refugees throughout the world; and, increasing changes and challenges in our environment pose painful distractions in our lives and the lives of in the lives of our loved ones. 

These complicated realities will continue to be a part of world events in 2016 and beyond. They and a myriad of other events will continue to play a significant role in our everyday lives both nationally and locally. Distractions that pull us in many different directions will, no doubt, abound for most of us.

Our church, nationwide, faces significant challenges, as well. A continual growth of the “nones,” - those who claim that they do not believe in God, coupled with changes on the lifestyles of young people and their families, has resulted in the shrinking of both congregation size and annual pledges. 

At both the local and the national level the church is struggling to re-imagine itself. Conversations that focus on “How can we become relevant to this new world” are heard in parishes throughout the country. Hearts and minds committed to and united with Christ ponder and pray - hoping that a new way - a new energy - to make God relevant will make itself known. Despite these challenges, like the saints who have gone before, those of us who remain committed to the church continue our journey as bearers of the Good News - seeking to touch as many hearts as possible.

I would imagine that during these past four weeks of Advent many of you have taken the time to prayerfully discern your relationship with Jesus and with the Christ Church community. Perhaps you have pondered such questions as, “What does my relationship with Jesus really mean to me?” or “How can I help to strengthen the Christ Church community?” Or maybe, “How can I live a life that is less focused on the distractions of this world and more focused on further opening my heart and my mind to Jesus and his commandment to ‘Follow me…Follow me and do not be afraid. Do not be afraid, for I am with you to the end of the age.’

I know that I have given these same questions, and many others, much prayerful attention. I have struggled with the tough, and very humbling, reality that despite my commitment to the church - to Jesus - I have such limited effectiveness in spreading the Good News; such a small, indeed infinitesimal, presence as I engage in my efforts to be a partner in the work of keeping the church alive and well.

And yet, despite the turmoil of the past year, as I reflected on the approach of the Nativity, I became increasingly excited - increasingly hopeful. Just like most of the Christian world I found myself eagerly anticipating the arrival of the angel’s command to “go and see”, the trip to Bethlehem, the visit to the child in the manger, the thrill of knowing that Jesus was so very present – so very much with us, and the return to the world refreshed, renewed, reinvigorated in my faith - filled with hope and the knowledge that God’s love manifested through the incredible gift of this infant in the manger – this baby Jesus - is still so very present with us.

 In my heart I know that this Christmas gift is all that I really need to press on and to carry out, no matter how difficult, the work that I have been given to do.

This Christmas Day, I pray that you also will be thrilled by the presence of the angel of the Lord. I pray that the command to “go and see” will ring loud in your ears and that you will, with the eyes of your heart, visit Bethlehem and experience the joy and hope of gazing at the infant child – the baby Jesus. I pray that you will be re-invigorated – re-energized – in your call as a member of the Christ Church community to go into the world and to spread the Good News. 

I pray that as members of this blessed community, the light of Christ will shine so brightly in our lives that we will be led to good and wise decisions in the coming year, and that we will together muster the strength and the courage to love and serve God with gladness and singleness of heart despite the challenging distractions that fill our everyday lives.

I pray that individually, and as a community, we will hear and heed Jesus’ commandment to, “Follow me…Follow me and do not be afraid. Do not be afraid, for I am with you to the end of the age.”

I pray that the refrain from the familiar Christmas carol, “O Holy Night” will ring in your ears throughout this day and in the days to follow, and that it will bring you a sense of blessed peace and fill you with the love and compassion that was Jesus’ gift to us.

Fall on your knees! O hear the angel voices!
O night divine, O night when Christ was born;
O night divine, O night, O night divine.

Saturday, November 28, 2015

Find and Follow the Light...

Christ Church, St. Michael’s Parish
Advent I – 2015

Today, I celebrate my one-year anniversary as a member of the Christ Church family. I wish that I could say that it has been a wonderful year, filled with nothing but joy and harmony. But, unfortunately that is not the case. 

That is not to say that there have not been joyful moments – there certainly have been many joyful moments, and many fascinating, spiritually uplifting and important conversations in our Bible Challenge, History of Christianity and lectio divina classes. Nor, would it be fair to say that all is in discord – that certainly is not the case. Many important ministries here at Christ Church are carried out by dedicated, fun-loving, faithful and hardworking parishioners.  

However, overall, this year has been difficult – bumpy – challenging - not just for me but for many of us.

Personal and family illnesses and deaths; congregational challenges, including the upcoming period of transition as we seek a new rector; a non-stop and heartbreaking escalation of civil and world-wide violence that has resulted in tragic and senseless murders and massacres; a refugee crisis that surpasses that of World War II, and has now been called “the emptying of Syria”; and, a series of natural disasters that have left many homeless, bereft of possessions and memories collected over a lifetime of work and play.

I cannot help but think that all of us have been touched by one or more of these events. I cannot help but think that at least one if not several of these events has prompted many of us to reconsider our way of looking at the world and our way of considering our personal theology – our way of thinking about God – our way of living out our spiritual commitment to follow Jesus by living a life that has as its focus the Kingdom of God – not the kingdom of terrorism, not the kingdom of politics, not the kingdom of power and control – but, the Kingdom of God.

In Matthew 6:33 Jesus says boldly, “Strive first for the Kingdom of God, and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” All of “these things” of course refers to the worldly needs such as money, food and clothing. Worldly things that all too frequently take possession of the lenses through which we see and live our life.

Staying on the path – keeping our eye focused on Jesus as we strive to belong to, and through belonging, bring to the world the Kingdom of God – is not easy. In fact, we would not be human if we did not question, did not falter in faith, did not have what I like to call theological crises from time to time – did not fall off the Kingdom of God path.

And, I believe that we all have a point at which we reach that says, “Enough.” A point at which we feel overwhelmed by inner turmoil and sadness that causes a profound pain. A pain that hangs on our heart and lingers there throughout the day and night. A pain that is associated with loss. A deep, inconsolable grief that takes one’s breath away and leaves you numb, tearful, confused and wondering – wondering. Just wondering…Where do I go from here? Where is God in this?

It is a times like this, times of profound pain and confusion that we are at risk of falling off the path – the path to the Kingdom of God.

For me, that penultimate event – that “enough,” was the November 13 massacre in Paris. Paris a city that I have visited many times – a city with a complex and tumultuous history – a city which is known and loved by many - and, of course, a city no more or no less important than any other city in the world. 

The massacre in Paris was, for me, one straw too many. Somehow the images beaming through the various media reports brought a penetrating sadness into my heart and soul – a sadness that has not only to do with Paris, but a sadness that comes from watching and reading about murders and massacres on a regular basis – a sadness that grows daily as I watch the pain and desolation of millions of refugees who no longer have a home – no longer  have a place to lay their head. A sadness that is ever emerging as daily our political system becomes increasingly polarized and fragmented. A sadness that for many the church has become irrelevant. That the God I love and who loves me and the rest of the world is not loved by so very many - anymore.

So, today when we read in Luke, “Jesus said: ‘There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of heaven will be shaken,’ I cannot help but wonder if we should not be listening to his words of warning closely, very closely, for they sound quite like what is happening in our world today.

But then, Jesus, always the wise and passionate teacher, followed this challenge with a powerful command, “Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” 

He commanded his disciples to pay attention. He assured them that if they did pay attention to his teachings the possibility of salvation from all of these potential disasters was very real. He stated boldly that rescue, deliverance, and salvation in the face of disaster are always a possibility -  if  - if we “stay alert” to the reality that “The kingdom of God is near.” 

The Kingdom of God is always right there for us. But, we have to seek it – open our hearts to it –commit to a life that is centered on following Jesus and traveling the road to the Kingdom of God.

Jesus’ teaching continues, “Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day (the day of foreboding of what is coming upon the world) catch you unexpectedly, like a trap. For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth. Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.”

For me, the salient phrase here is, “Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place…”

Be Alert - What better words to snap us back from periods of fear, sadness and confusion that have the power to distract us, to deter us, to muffle our ears, blind our eyes, and seal our heart against hearing Jesus and seeking God as we face our life challenges.
Be alert, be involved in the world, experience your feelings of sadness and grief, but don’t take your eyes off the road – don’t let your emotions drive your ears, your eyes, and your heart into a place of hiding and false comfort. Don’t get bogged down in your anger and despair.
In his “Letters and Papers from Prison” “Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes, “This is what I mean by worldliness– taking life in one’s stride, with all its duties and problems…It is in such a life that we throw ourselves utterly into the arms of God and participate in his sufferings in the world…The place where worldliness and spirituality meet is the place where the Christian faces life empowered with the grace and love of God.”
The combination of Jesus’ warning us to be alert, and Bonhoeffer’s teaching that effective disciples of Christ must throw themselves into the world and all of its challenges, while at the same time opening their minds and their hearts to the presence of God within them and in the world  - that is essence of the work that must be done on this our Advent journey in 2015.
Reflecting on today’s gospel and Bonhoeffer’s wisdom, and having spent the past week in deep reflection and prayer, I am prepared to begin this year’s Advent journey and my second year at Christ Church with renewed energy. 
The pain of my sadness has eased and made way for the God within me to shine once again. Free of my several weeks of self-absorbed sadness, I am empowered to get back on the road to the Kingdom of God despite the challenges of the world around me. I am ready to experience the joyful anticipation of the birth of Jesus and the thrilling energy that this incarnation – this incredible gift from God – will bring into our hearts and into our lives. 
I am prepared to, like that shepherds of Luke’s gospel, follow the command to journey to the  manger in Bethlehem where I know that I will find Jesus, the infant, whose light and life will lead me as I travel that rocky road to the Kingdom of God.
I pray that you all will join me - “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” (Luke 2:15)