Tuesday, April 20, 2021

A Mighty Fortress is Our God

 

SERMON

April 18, 2021

"A Mighty fortress is our God, a bulwark never failing; our help amid the flood of mortal ills prevailing…"

Hopeful, and I believe courageous, words written by Martin Luther, the German theologian and religious reformer who was the catalyst of the 16th-century Protestant Reformation. Luther taught that salvation was not earned by good deeds but was received as the free gift of God's grace through the believer's faith in Jesus Christ as redeemer from sin. His theology challenged the authority and office of the pope by teaching that the Bible is the only source of divinely revealed knowledge, and that God alone has the power to bestow salvation.

Luther did not come to his belief that salvation was freely given through God's good grace easily. He began life as a Catholic and spent many years in a monastery where he struggled, continually, with the painful thought that his tendency to sin was far greater than any repentance he could offer God. Despite regular confession and acts of repentance, he despaired that he would never be worthy of God's heavenly Kingdom.

 It was only when Luther, after many years, read Paul's Letter to the Romans; specifically, Chapter One: verse 17, that he shifted to the belief that it was, and is, through faith, not good works, that we are recipients of God's grace; his gift of salvation.

 In this verse Paul wrote, "For I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith; as it is written, ‘The one who is righteous will live by faith."

 It was upon hearing those words that Luther's Reformation was born and the journey to our Anglican and Episcopal tradition was initiated.

 With this brief piece of history in mind, the opening phrase of this morning's gospel hymn is given a context and a link to the theology of salvation that is both ancient and now ours. A theology that offers us peace of mind, and a theology that gives us courage to go into the world as bearers of the Christian faith as a way of life. The way of life…

 "A Mighty fortress is our God, a bulwark never failing; our help amid the flood of mortal ills prevailing…"

 As we slowly emerge from a long, long struggle against the effects of a frightening and deadly disease, we are all exhausted. Many of us are numb, stuck, unable to concentrate, bewildered, traumatized. Hours, days, weeks, and months have been spent in isolation. Unremitting time during which we were afraid to touch anyone, afraid to get too close to anyone – anyone, even family members. An unending string of days, during which we were shut-ins. Prisoners in the solitary confinement in our homes.

 And now, here we are slowly, ever so slowly, crawling out of isolation and onto the banks of the "other side." Grasping at hope – the hope of an effective vaccine and a return to "normal." Grasping in faith at hope. Hope in God's grace. Exhausted but alive.

 "A Mighty fortress is our God, a bulwark never failing; our help amid the flood of mortal ills prevailing…"

 In this covid time, Fr. David and I have been focusing on the psalms as inspiration for our sermons. Today's psalm, once again, is especially relevant. The psalmist is crying out to God, "Answer me when I call, defender of my cause…have mercy on me and hear my prayer." Have we also not been crying out to God? "God, are you there? If so, hear us, please. We are asking for your mercy, your intervention in this bewildering and frightening time."

 The psalmist continues. He reassures us "…the Lord does wonders for the faithful; when I call upon the Lord, he will hear me." But the psalmist also understands that this assurance is based on God's expectation of faithfulness to his sovereignty. He says, "Tremble then, and do not sin…offer the appointed sacrifices (worship) and put your trust in the Lord."

 We are told that, "Many are saying, "Oh that we may see better times!" But despite the voice of the doubters, the psalmist trusted in the Lord. He cried out to the Lord, "You have put gladness in my heart…I lie down in peace; at once I fall asleep; for only you Lord, make me dwell in safety."

 "A Mighty fortress is our God, a bulwark never failing; our help amid the flood of mortal ills prevailing…"

My question to all of us today is are we among the doubters or are we among those who trust in the Lord. Do we lie down in peace, or are we simply too numbed by our Covid 19 trauma to recognize God at work in our midst? Are we too numbed to experience the peace that God's continual outpouring of grace in our everyday lives should bring us? In our numbness, are we, like the disciples in Luke's gospel, unable to recognize the risen Christ's presence among us? Are we too numbed to experience the power and the peace of Martin Luther's revelation, "A mighty fortress is our God, a bulwark never failing?"

 I ask these questions in light of the fact that there are dramatic changes taking place in our lives and in the world. Changes that began long before Covid 19, but changes that were amplified with an accelerated and terrifying speed during this past year. In just 12 short months, the world, including the church, has changed in ways that have yet to be understood. Changed in ways that have yet to be revealed.

 But now that God is bringing us to the other side of the Covid 19 pandemic we need to wake up. We need to emerge from our benumbed state of being. We need to live in faith, assured that the Lord has heard us and will continue to hear us – always. Hear our cry, "Answer me when I call, defender of my cause…have mercy on me and hear my prayer."  

And importantly, we must understand that the gift of God as our fortress, our bulwark is not just ours. It is a gift that belongs to all – the needy, the suffering, the imprisoned, the isolated – all of God's beloved children should experience him as their fortress, their bulwark. All should be able to say, "You have put gladness in my heart…I lie down in peace; at once I fall asleep; for only you Lord, make me dwell in safety."

At the close of Luke's gospel reading today, Jesus says to his disciples, "…repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in [my]) name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem."  To all nations.

 As the church, God's voice in the world, we must look outward and ask challenging questions. Questions that identify ways in which God is at work loving this troubled world. Questions that identify how we can resume our work, God's work, loving this troubled world. We must find ways in which we can put our faith to work. We must find ways in which we can be a bulwark to those in need as we emerge from the tragedy of Covid 19.

 

 

 

Monday, April 12, 2021

William Lee Funeral

 WILLIAM LEE FUNERAL

I do not believe that I ever had an encounter with William in which, in some way, he failed to present me with a challenge either to consider an interpretation of Scripture, or to examine my relationship with God, or God’s relationship with the world. Not once in the four and one-half years that I have been at St. Simons was there ever a deviation from his probing inquiry into God’s presence in the world. It was his hallmark.

I should add that I will never forget the New York Times’ clippings which he would handily whip out from his inside jacket pocket, saying as he handed them to me “You should read this.”

Yes, William was always pushing me to look at my relationship with God – from all points of view, through all lenses

So, it was no surprise to me – well, maybe a little bit of a surprise – when during my last visit with him he issued me yet another clear directive. He asked that I talk about John verses 1-2 and the Shema – when I spoke at his funeral.

Talk about a challenging assignment!!!

The first and second verses of John’s gospel, as you probably know, are, of course, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” 

The Shema, which you may not be familiar with, is found in Deuteronomy and is the centerpiece of Moses’ first speech to the Israelites as they embark on their exodus from Egypt. In it he is warning them that their allegiance to the one God, and one God only, is central to their well-being as they enter the wilderness. Within the speech is the prayer called the Shema – the Hebrew word for “Hear.”

The word “Shema” begins what is now the most important prayer in Judaism. The whole prayer is spoken daily in the Jewish tradition:

Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart.

This, of course, is God’s great commandment to all, including us Christians. The follow-up, or second great commandment was given to us by Jesus at his last supper: “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another.” 

As I began to think about writing this homily, I felt compelled to uncover the puzzle that William had given me in this last directive. What was it that he really wanted me to talk about, to say about him - this delightful person, loved so dearly by everyone gathered together today in this sacred space; and by so many others who could not be here?

Well – believe me I spent quite a bit of time pondering before putting pen to paper. So, William, here goes. I hope and pray that in some small way I have it right.

Let’s begin with the Gospel of John. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” Put simply. God has been there always, as has Christ. God is eternal and God is creator. Christ is eternal and Christ is the Word, the Way. And the Word was God. God and Christ are one, co-eternal. The Word, God’s gift to us, came into being to show us the way to God. To point us to the divine.

The Shema is our guide to what is entailed in following the Way – the Word – our guide to developing a relational commitment to God. A relational commitment that is based in faithful obedience as a response to God’s grace. A pointer to the divine.

Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart.

In Hebrew, the word “love” in the context of the Shema means to make a commitment to walk faithfully with God. The word “heart” connotes the very center of our being, our volition, our will. In the Shema we are committing our will to align with God’s will. Finally, the word “soul” is defined as the whole person – the “you.”

Basically, in praying this prayer we make a commitment to walk faithfully with God with the very center of our being, with all of who we are, and we commit our will to align with God’s will. We say, “I am all in.”

William, for sure you were, “all in.” Your assurance of God’s eternal presence, of Christ’s Word – his Way, and your commitment to walk faithfully with God; to devote the very center of your being, your “you” to God, and your vow to align your will with the will of God was unceasing.

You were a key member of the St. Simon’s community. A community that strives always, and in all ways to point to our creator, the divine. You never failed to question, to comment, to contribute to our unceasing efforts to commit ourselves with our whole being to God – to make us really think about our relationship with, our faithfulness to God.

Your faith as expressed in John, verses one and two, and your work of committing yourself to God as expressed in the Shema was evident – always.

In our last meeting you assured me of your peace. You said, “Don’t worry about me, I am one with God.”

Yes, my friend, you are, and you were, one with God. On behalf of Jennifer, your family, and your many, many friends, I say “thank you,” for your diligence in keeping us alert to God’s presence in our lives. You will be missed.

 

Tuesday, March 30, 2021

The Passion of Jesus of Nazareth

 

SERMON

Monday – Holy Week

March  29, 2021

 

Jesus has arrived in Jerusalem. Triumphantly riding on the young colt provided by his disciples, Jesus has arrived at his destination. His intentional journey from rural Galilee to the bustling city of Jerusalem; home of God's Temple; site where he will be crucified. His journey is completed.

After the triumphal entry into Jerusalem, depending on which gospel you are reading, the unfolding of events that leads to Jesus' crucifixion on Good Friday differ in both date sequence and story content. But the point that Jesus is making in all four gospels, indeed in all of his teachings is clear. The Way – capitol "W" – is to be found by following Jesus. The Way is to be found by laying down self and taking up the cross. The cross, a metaphor, that represents an absolute commitment of self to God.

It is this point of total commitment to God that Jesus makes when in Luke he rebukes the money changers saying, "It is written, my house will be a house of prayer; but you have made it a den of robbers." (Luke 19:46)

Jesus is clear - his house – God's Temple - will be a house dedicated solely to the passionate worship of God and God alone; not a house in which those who have sinned come to offer monetary bribes in exchange for forgiveness, only to return to their sinful ways again and again. Not a house that worships the empire while proclaiming that it is worshipping God.

Marcus Borg in his book The Last Week, makes the point that the passion of Jesus is not simply about passion as taken from the Latin noun passio, meaning suffering. But it is also about the passion of Christ – his passion for the Kingdom of God. His passion to incarnate the justice of God. It was this passion for God's Kingdom that led to Jesus' passion, his passio – his suffering. It is the former passion - Jesus' passion for God's Kingdom that he is now asking us to take up. It is this passion that he is referring to when he commands, "Follow me."

As we walk with Jesus these few days of Holy Week, it is critical to see him as he was, Jesus of Nazareth, an impoverished Jew from the northern town of Galilee. A passionate young man who was the definitive definition of God in the world. God incarnate.

A passionate young man who asked, and is asking, his followers (you and me) to take up our crosses and to join him in the procession that entered Jerusalem, and to walk with him on his passionate journey to the cross. Jesus is asking that we join his procession and passionately commit to God, with no fear of the consequences.

The psalmist writes, "For with you is the well of life, and in your light we see light. Continue your loving-kindness to those who are true of heart. Let not the foot of the proud come near me, not the hand of the wicked push me aside." What beautifully poetic and passionate words that express the hopes and dreams of an ancient people who understood God to be a "Lord whose love reaches to the heavens." A people who yearned for the priceless love of God. A people who understood their well-being to be dependent on "taking refuge under the shadow of God's wings."

As we journey with Jesus of Nazareth this week, the pain and the sorrow we experience while hearing the passion week stories will sting our souls and render us deeply saddened. A sadness that, this year will be compounded by the past twelve months of suffering and pain experienced by so many of us; experienced by so many millions of people throughout the world; victims of the coronavirus, Covid 19. Many of us will mourn not only Jesus as he hangs on the cross; we will also mourn other significant losses of this past year. This is a painful time for us and for God.

But we cannot be on the journey without experiencing the pain – not if we are passionately on the journey - not if we have passionately joined the procession. But, in our pain we must also see the light. We must remember the words of the psalmist, "Your love, O Lord, reaches to the heavens…how priceless is your love, O God!...For with you is the well of life, and in your light we see light…Continue your loving-kindness to those who know you, and your favor to those who are true of heart."

Holy Week is only holy if it is a sacred journey based in our passionate commitment to God's Kingdom. Only if we enter into this sacred week passionately, with our whole heart and mind and soul, will we recognize the stark contrast of the pain and injustice inflicted by the empire on Good Friday, and the triumphal glory and power of the love offered by God's Kingdom on Easter Sunday.

"Your love, O Lord, reaches to the heavens. How priceless is your love, O God."

 

Monday, March 8, 2021

Coming together, once again

 

SERMON

March 7, 2021

 

"Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, my strength and my redeemer." (Psalm 19, v 14)

 

As I began to write this sermon, I thought it would be interesting to have a quick look back to March 7, 2020. Just a short twelve months ago. A time that, at least in my mind, is a complete blur. Back then, what were we doing? What were the headlines of the day? What pre-occupied America?

On that day in 2020, the New York Times led with an article titled, "Spiraling Virus Fears Are Causing Financial Carnage." The Washington Post reported "Coronavirus continues its rapid spread, confounding efforts by global leaders." The Posts reporters went on to write, "Efforts to contain the coronavirus outbreak showed signs of faltering during the weekend, as Washington, D. C. confirmed its first case Saturday, and Italian leaders announced a plan early Sunday to lock down an entire region including Venice and Milan after reporting 1,000 new cases in 24 hours. The virus's exact reach remains unknown."

The virus's exact reach remains unknown… That I am sure you will agree was, and still is, a vast understatement. In the twelve months since that article appeared the deadly power of the coronavirus has proved catastrophic in the United States and throughout the globe. The impact of this still very present pandemic will not be known for many years – perhaps never. But, one thing cannot be disputed, its bewildering symptoms; its propensity to cause the rapid onset of life-threatening and far too frequently deadly symptoms; and its lingering and sometimes debilitating aftereffects have caused millions of lives to take dramatic turns in every direction. Dramatic turns in order to, quite literally, stay alive.

The church, not unlike all other institutions, has been deeply affected by the coronavirus. On Palm Sunday, April 5, 2020, just four weeks after the Washington Post reporters wrote "the virus's exact reach remains unknown" St. Simon's doors were closed for worship. Throughout Holy Week St. Simon's doors were closed. On Easter Sunday St. Simon's doors were closed. In fact, St. Simon's doors remained closed until, five months later, when on Saturday, September 5th both indoor and outdoor worship resumed.

During this time, Fr. David, Jennifer, and a host of others scrambled to learn alternative ways of offering worship. Initially, Facebook was our primary platform for live streaming Morning Prayer and a modified Sunday service. Then we added YouTube as a second platform. As the weeks passed our technological skills increased.

Initially, those of us who serve at the altar were brought to you as we sat at our kitchen tables or enjoyed the comfort of our outdoor patios. Slowly, we migrated back to the church – just the clergy and altar guild at first. Then, a little music was added; and then, one lector. Finally, on September 5th St. Simon's doors were opened. Our congregation resumed worship in the pews.

Throughout all of this, Fr. David, and I, along with clergy throughout the country spent many hours wondering how best to keep people engaged. How best to keep them in touch with God. How best to bring the Holy Spirit and the comfort of community into the midst of this tragic, terrifying, and isolating time.

As the blanket of fog imposed by the trauma of Covid 19 lifts and we slowly emerge into the world once again, many, if not all, of us are experiencing our lives and the world in ways never imagined. These new ways are the seeds of our future together. Seeds that require acknowledgement and attention.

In some cases, these seeds are new and amazing ways of experiencing God in the world and in our lives. These particular seeds I believe, if given the proper attention and care, can grow into what our Presiding Bishop, the Rt. Rev. Michael Curry, calls a true Jesus Movement. They can flourish and develop into refreshingly new and energized ways of discipleship - of bringing the light of Christ into the world.

So, what are these seeds you may ask. What are these new ways that people are experiencing God in the world? Well, here are a few direct quotes from folk at St. Simon’s:

“I now see so clearly that church is not about a building. It’s about being out in the world and bringing love to those who are alone and isolated.”

“I never understood the importance of our community, it’s about more than coffee hour gathering – it’s about worshipping together. In community. Praying together as a community is so important.”

I never heard the words of Scripture – not like I do now. Scripture has taken on a whole new meaning for me.”

These are but a few of the comments that I have heard, time and again, from so many of you. And each time I hear you express such a thought - express it with passion, with conviction - my heart takes a little leap of joy. “Yes,” I say to myself. “Yes,” the church is still alive and like a branch in the springtime, it is growing new buds and shoots. Buds and shoots that with attention and care will grow into healthy and most thrilling ways of being Christians in the world.

Today’s psalm reflects my thoughts on our coronavirus journey so beautifully. It is a celebratory psalm that is written in three distinctive sections. It begins by celebrating the universe that God has created. “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the firmament shows its handiwork…In the deep he has set a pavilion for the sun; it come forth like a bridegroom out of his chamber; it rejoices like a champion to run its course.”

So many of us, in this coronavirus isolation time have developed new ways of connecting with the magnificence of God’s creation. Walks in wooded areas and leisurely strolls on the beach; evenings spent on the porch or patio gazing at the sunset, the rising of the moon, the glimmering of the stars; participating in the St. Simon’s outdoor service along with the wildlife that comes and goes over the calm bay waters. In one way or another we have seen God reflected in the work of his glorious creation in new and life-giving ways. Through his Creation God has remained with us in our time of isolation.

The second portion of the psalm celebrates God’s law. “The statutes of the Lord are just and rejoice the heart; the commandment of the Lord is clear and gives light to the eyes.”

Many, if not most, of us are now listening to Scripture and prayers through ears newly attuned to hearing God’s love for the world and his desire for us to love the world as he loves us. God’s law – his commandments – heard anew, give light to the path that he has set for us. A path that leads to coming together in new ways not only in the building, but perhaps more importantly in the world. Through his Word God has remained with us in our time of isolation.

In the final section, the psalm moves its focus from God to us. It prompts us to enter into inward reflection and the admission that we are far from achieving the perfection that God has envisioned for us. We are far from having the strength or the courage to remain steadfast in our commitment to God and his way. “Above all, keep your servant from presumptuous sins; let them not get dominion over me; then shall I be whole and sound, and innocent of a great offense.”

This final section is an important reminder that our work at rebuilding a church community now and in the coming months will not be easy. The challenges are not for the feint at heart. The future, as has always been the case, is unknown; and, because we are human, we will make errors in judgement and action as we imagine and plan.

It is our very humanness that makes it so important to listen carefully to the last section of this psalm. “Above all keep your servant from presumptuous sins; let them not get dominion over me…,” says the psalmist. He warns us that without a self-reflective honesty that acknowledges and explores our vulnerability– our tendency to fall away from God’s path - without this honesty with self, we are at peril of failing to stay on God’s path.

Finally, the closing verse of our psalm says it all. It is an expression of our intent. It is our commitment to God to do our best as we go into the world following the light of his way and tending to the seeds that he has cast upon us to grow and to harvest.

"Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, my strength and my redeemer." (Psalm 19, v 14)

Wednesday, February 10, 2021

I Love To Tell The Story

 

SERMON

Feb. 07, 2021 – Mark 1:29-39

 

“Come and hear, all ye that fear God, and I will declare what he hath done for my soul.” (psalm 66; v. 16)

 I love music. I was born into and brought up in a musical household; my late husband Devin played music – all sorts of music - continually. I believe at one point he had over 1500 songs stored on his computer’s hard drive. And for many years it has been my habit to default to musical offerings on YouTube and other media outlets whenever possible. So yes, I have a long-standing and extremely broad-based love affair with music.

Pre-Covid19 whenever I listened to music that had lyrics, I tended to listen carefully to the music but pay little attention to the lyrics. In fact, I was often hard pressed to discuss what a song had offered in the way of words; but I could discuss the musical accompaniment in detail.

Interestingly, now in Covid19 real time, I hear primarily the lyrics, not the music. This is especially true of gospel and country western music. And, more than that, as I listen to the songs I love most, my mind, and my soul, go directly from the song’s lyrics to thinking about Jesus and passages in Scripture that parallel what the song’s lyricist has been writing about. Music and Scripture have come alive for me in a completely new way.

You might say to yourself, “Wow, that is wonderful. How exciting.” Well, I suppose it is wonderful and exciting, but, frankly, it is also annoying and exhausting.

 My mind is continually abuzz with the question, “How can I use the way in which music now inspires me to communicate the urgent need to proclaim the gospel throughout not only our congregation, but also our community?” At this moment in time when the Christianity we know is so precariously positioned, how can I, how can we, be instrumental in keeping what Presiding Bishop Michael Curry so aptly calls the Jesus Movement alive? How can we work together to revive and strengthen Christianity’s presence in both our community and our nation?

With Jesus as the center of our lives; with Jesus as our guide; with Jesus as the one who lights the way for us – with all of these gifts that have been so freely given to us – how can we demonstrate in an urgent and powerful way Jesus’ command to not only, “Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another” (John 13:34), but also to “Render to Caesar only the things that are Caesar's, and to God all of the things that are God’s." (Mark 12:17) How do we make clear that for us Christians it is Jesus who directs our hearts, our minds, and our souls; Jesus who drives our decisions and our actions.

It is in the midst of these questions that I find myself with a newly discovered sensitivity to the lyrics of songs that relate to these challenging issues. And it is from the inspiration of the music and the lyrics that I begin my search through Scripture for parallel messages, in one of the four gospels, or one of Paul’s Letters.

It may sound tedious, but as I indicated earlier, the isolation and the tragedy of Covid19 has brought Christ into my life in ways that I never imagined. And that most certainly is not tedious.

Keeping all of this in mind, the moment I read today’s passage from 1 Corinthians I thought of the song I Love to Tell the Story – the Gospel Processional that we just heard. What better accompaniment to Paul’s words in this urgent message to his Corinthian church currently beset by doubt, strife, and temptation.

If you recall, Paul writes, “If I proclaim the gospel, this gives me no ground for boasting, for an obligation is laid upon me and woe to me if I do not proclaim the gospel.”

“An obligation is laid upon me and woe to me if I do not proclaim the gospel.” The key word here is “obligation.” Paul does not mince words. He is direct and fearless as he spells out the consequences of failing to meet his obligation. An obligation that stems from his earlier statement in the Letter – one that you heard last week. “There is no God but one…even though there are many gods and many lords – yet for us there is One God…and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.”

Paul is quite clear – there is but one God and we are obliged to proclaim that one God to the world.  Jesus did not give us a choice. He was most direct in his commandment to “Go and make disciples of all nations.” The directive is abundantly clear, we are obliged to bring Christ to the world and to keep him there. If we forsake our obligation the consequences will be bleak.

“Woe to me”, says Paul. Woe to those who fail in the obligation laid upon them by Jesus. The obligation to proclaim the gospel.

Paul goes on to say, “I am entrusted with a commission. What then is my reward? Just this: that in my proclamation I may make the gospel free of charge, so as not to make full use of my rights in the gospel.”

A commission. Paul is commissioned to deliver the gospel free of charge – free of charge to all. Everyone – everyone should have the benefit of hearing the gospel, the good news. Everyone should have the opportunity to share in the love and saving grace of God. No one should be excluded – no one.

All should have the opportunity to be witness to the psalmist's words, “Come and hear, all ye that fear God, and I will declare what he hath done for my soul.”

Katherine Hankey, an English missionary and nurse who died in 1911 took most seriously her commission to proclaim the gospel. She gave her life to the task of nursing in a remote area of South Africa in the late 1800s. While there she became seriously ill. From her hospital bed, she wrote the poem The Old, Old, Story. The original poem which had approximately 100 verses quickly became legendary and was used in evangelical activities throughout England and America. Today we are, unfortunately, familiar with only the first two or three verses. Alan Jackson, the country western singer who seems to have the most popular rendition, chooses to sing only two verses. 

1.      I love to tell the story of unseen things above,
Of Jesus and His glory, of Jesus and His love;
I love to tell the story, because I know ’tis true,
It satisfies my longings as nothing else would do.

o   Refrain:
I love to tell the story,
’Twill be my theme in glory,
To tell the old, old story
Of Jesus and His love.
 

2.      I love to tell the story, for those who know it best
Seem hungering and thirsting to hear it like the rest;
And when in scenes of glory I sing the new, new song,
’Twill be the old, old story that I have loved so long.

Not only is it our mandate to proclaim the gospel; it is to do so with gratitude and with joy. Our proclamation must be as Hankey wrote our theme of glory. A theme of glory that stems from the knowledge that we are loved by a forgiving God who, if we can only, stick with it, with him, will pull us through to glory – to salvation – and for the here and now, to a more peaceful world.

Now comes the point at which I say, "What does all of this mean for St. Simon's?" Before you moan and say, "Oh no, not another sermon telling us what we should be doing", and then tune out altogether, please give me just a minute. You might be surprised.

First of all, Both Fr. David and I want to say, "thank you – thank you everyone." From the first moment of this Covid19 surreal experience right up to and including today, you have all been doing nothing but proclaiming the gospel. You have worked together in new ways to make uninterrupted worship possible – to make it possible for your worship leaders to proclaim the gospel.

I wish we had been bright enough to develop a journal that depicted the stories and the pictures of St. Simon's in Covid19 time. The scramble to make a digital Holy Week and Easter Sunday. The hours of figuring out how our sound system works. By the way, I don't think anyone really yet knows – just ask Fr. David and Jennifer. The many intricacies of greeting and ushering in a masked, socially distanced world, including those wicked six-foot red sticks. The hours and hours spent developing and delivering Flock Notes to the entire congregation and Healing Touch cards, food, and flowers to those who are isolated or recovering from surgery or illness. The growing ministry of sound engineering for our outdoor services. Early rising to provide inspirational Morning Prayer services, and flower and altar preparations more beautiful than ever. Music that has never been more exquisite. If only we had all of these wonderful moments somehow recorded and put into a time capsule – they would tell a wonderful, a blessed story of St. Simon's proclaiming the gospel in Covid19 times.

I hope that my point has been taken. If it takes a village, you the village of St. Simon's have kept God alive both in our midst and over the Facebook and YouTube Internet airwaves. Over the course of the past eleven months – eleven months think of it – you have taken most seriously your obligation to make it possible to proclaim the gospel. No one need worry about saying, "Woe is me."

On Thursday, February 17 we begin our 2021 Lenten Journey. During this period Morning Prayer will resume. I will offer a book study group that examines in detail Jesus' last week. Fr. David's class will continue, and we will embark on a 40-day journey of intentionally saying "thank you" to the many people who make our lives possible – the people of our community – all of them – all who have and are uniting to pull us through this time of Covid19.

How will we do this – Well, the Lenten Flock Notes are here – right here in this little bag that contains several items for your Lenten journey. Right now, I want to highlight this excellent list of ways in which throughout the 40 days of Lent you can say "thank you" to all whom you encounter. It's a great list. Saying "thank you" – expressing gratitude - proclaiming the gospel through demonstrating love of neighbor - could not be easier. Please join us in doing so.

o   I love to tell the story,
’Twill be my theme in glory,
To tell the old, old story
Of Jesus and His love.

 

 

 

Saturday, January 2, 2021

Peace on Earth, Good Will to Men

 SERMON – 01/03/2020

Throughout the world and certainly in America, the year 2020 was memorable for all the wrong reasons. Worldwide, as of December 2020, the Covid-19 pandemic had killed over 1.5 million people. In the U.S., during the same time period, there were over 315,000 deaths, with over 17 million people experiencing difficult and sometimes fatal symptoms as they recovered from this virulent disease.

The number of people affected by Covid-19 is staggering. The number of loved ones left behind – left behind in a morass of emotional and financial hardship – is mind-numbing. The emotional and physical effects of total isolation from family and friends imposed on thousands of the elderly housed in permanent care facilities, or simply living alone in in their own home, is heartbreaking - tragic.

 The economic impact of Covid-19 has yet to be calculated. However, just walking down the street of any town or city, or entering any mall, the number of darkened stores and restaurants speak for themselves. Jobs have been lost and careers that once seemed so promising are now irrelevant.

While the Covid-19 pandemic has ravaged the health and well-being of the American people, our governmental institutions have descended into a chaotic battle for power that threatens the very underpinnings of all that we as citizens of the U.S. know and love – a fair and just way of life.

As we make efforts to act with discipline in order to remain Covid-19 infection free, wearing masks, social distancing, and handwashing, we listen to endless broadcasts, filled with anxiety producing and anger provoking reports of political infighting and undisciplined and irresponsible comments designed to incite anger, hate, rebellion and rioting.

Without doubt, globally, and in the United States of America, the year 2020 was filled with challenges - anxiety, anger, and deep sadness. We yearned to put it all behind us. We yearned to go back to our normal way of life. Continually, we mouthed the hope – "certainly 2021 will be better."

Of course, "going back" is never possible, whatever the circumstances. And, of course, knowing what the future holds is equally impossible. Deep down we all know that. And yet, the fantasy of going back to better days in 2021 remains with us, despite the reality of the world around us – a world that most assuredly has forever changed. A world that has forever changed in ways that we cannot yet imagine.

However, despite all of this chaos and sadness, there is one constant. One steady presence that has not changed, that will never change. One constant that will be with us – be the same with us - always.

God the Father, who created us and who in a love that knows no bounds gave us the gift of his Son Jesus Christ.  The gift of a light that shines in the darkness. A light that darkness does not overcome. A light that points us to the way of peace – a peace not only between nations, but a peace that passes all understanding and that dwells deep within us and among us – all of us. A peace that, when experienced allows us to face life under any circumstances – any circumstances - with courage, creativity, commitment, and most importantly with love.

In Paul's letter to the Ephesians he writes to his converts, "I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe."

"I pray that with the eyes of your heart you may know the hope to which he has called you."

 "… the riches of his glorious inheritance,"

 "… the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe."

Stunningly powerful words. Have we listened to them carefully? Have we listened to them very carefully – with wisdom – with the eyes of our heart?

With faith in the Light of Christ deeply embedded in our hearts and souls, we have the ability – the power - to imagine ways to move beyond the chaos that so distracts us – so disrupts our world. The power to move forward in new ways, and to heal through word and deed. The power to lay aside egos, agendas, anger, and hatred, and in fellowship and unity heal through acts based in compassion and love.

The power of love – of healing - is ours for the asking. Christ has arrived. The Light is here. The Light of Christ, a light that the darkness cannot overcome, is with us. With us now and always.

On Christmas day in 1863 the great American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote a poem called “Christmas Bells.” The Civil War had brought a backdrop of national despair. Longfellow himself had suffered the tragic death of his beloved wife just two years earlier. She had accidently set her dress on fire when sealing a letter with a ball of wax that she was softening with the flame of a candle. Longfellow’s son Charlie had suffered serious wounds in the Mine Run Campaign in Virginia. His recovery was painful and difficult.

Against the backdrop of the painful loss of his beloved wife, constant worry over the precarious recovery of his son, and in the midst of a great war that ultimately claimed more than 600,00 American lives, Longfellow wrote his poem. A poem that was ultimately set to music and is now a beloved hymn – “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.” 

I heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old, familiar carols play,
and wild and sweet
The words repeat
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And thought how, as the day had come,
The belfries of all Christendom
Had rolled along
The unbroken song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Till ringing, singing on its way,
The world revolved from night to day,
A voice, a chime,
A chant sublime
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Then from each black, accursed mouth
The cannon thundered in the South,
And with the sound
The carols drowned
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

It was as if an earthquake rent
The hearth-stones of a continent,
And made forlorn
The households born
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And in despair I bowed my head;
"There is no peace on earth," I said;
"For hate is strong,
And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!"

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
"God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The Wrong shall fail,
The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men."

Longfellow’s poem does not ignore the pain and suffering of his time, but in the end, it is filled with hope – the hope of “peace on earth, good-will to men.”

We cannot - indeed, we must not - ignore the suffering and pain that millions of people, worldwide, have experienced this past year. The pain and suffering that continues still, even in 2021, our hoped for “better year.”

But like Longfellow, we are called to look beyond this pain and suffering and with the eyes of our heart to know “the hope to which [Christ} has called [us]. The riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and the immeasurable greatness for us who believe.”

Jesus came to us to know us; to walk beside us; to share in our suffering and our pain; and, ultimately through his death on the cross to provide the light that will allow us to hear the bells on Christmas Day, and on every other day of the year.

The Wrong shall fail, the Right prevail,

With peace on earth, good-will to men.”

            

Thursday, November 12, 2020

Practicing our Theology

 

SERMON

St. Simon's on the Sound - Nov. 15, 2020

Well, you may be happy to know that I have completed my first course in General Theological Seminary's Doctor of Ministry program – completed and passed.

 In a manner of speaking, I am on my way. I might add that the "way" is indeed a long way, with many challenges to be faced.

My first class was one of a series of four progressive courses designed to focus on the foundations of practical theology. All fancy words aside, I have been reading and writing a great deal about theology over the course of the past seven weeks – a great deal.

Now before you groan too loudly, or sigh despondently, saying "theology, ugh", let me explain a few things.

There are really two distinct areas of theology – academic theology and practical theology. Academic theology, or the work of the universities and seminaries, is a field devoted to scholarly research that seeks to define God through an examination and systematic investigation of religious beliefs, behaviors, and institutions.

Names of academic theologians that you might recognize are Thomas Aquinas, St. Augustine, and Martin Luther.

Practical theology, on the other hand, is an investigation of the ways in which we apply our Christian values, beliefs, and ways of being. It is an investigation of our personal theologies as they impact our daily lives.

The study of practical theology is devoted to the task of promoting, supporting, and sustaining lived discipleship rooted firmly in the Christian tradition. It does this by studying and describing lived theologies – the church’s practice of Christianity. It's a bit like anthropology. It is the study of how Christianity is actually lived out in the myriad cultures throughout our world.

The purpose of practical theology is to facilitate and improve organizational leadership within the Christian church as it prepares congregations to go out into the world and better practice Christianity.

This brief explication of practical theology is, obviously, a vast oversimplification of the pages and pages that have been written about it, and the myriad discourses that have, and still, take place in universities, seminaries, and churches throughout the world. However, I hope that my much oversimplified and brief definition is sufficient in pointing out the difference between academic theology and practical theology – or how we practice theology in the world.

Now that we are all crystal clear about the definition of practical theology, a key question for us today is: What is the practical theology that we as St. Simonites have developed?

How do we St. Simonites who worship, study, and interact as members of St. Simon's on the Sound develop a personal theology based on Scripture, teaching, and prayer; and then, how do we practice that theology among ourselves and in the world? How do we define that personal theology? How do we live it? What happens when it experiences jarring moments?

Of course, you have heard Father David and I preach about this concept – practical theology - hundreds of times. Just last week at our Annual Meeting Fr. David spoke of the importance of taking our St. Simon’s lived theologies – our Christian values, beliefs, and ways of being developed through our life together, here at St. Simon’s -  out into the community in ways that will encourage healing from divisiveness and anger. Ways that will bring Christ's love to a hurting world.

In his Annual Meeting charge to the congregation, Father David was asking us to “practice” our faith-based theologies – to engage in what is known as practical theology. To love our neighbors as ourselves – all of them. To live our theology.

St. Paul was of course the champion of practical theology. Paul spent the better part of his life trekking miles and miles throughout the Roman Empire, experiencing one hardship after another, all with the passionate intent of establishing Christian communities. Communities eager to hear his message about a Jew named Jesus who spoke of a God who offered salvation – freedom from sin and eternal life in his heavenly kingdom.

And he was wildly successful. As a “one-man show” preaching the good news – the gospel of Jesus Christ – Paul established Christian churches throughout the Empire. Christian communities that lived a Christ-centered theology of hospitality to all – welcoming the stranger and showing though word and deed the love and compassion of Christ. Love and compassion for all – regardless of social status or place of birth.

Paul's work was unceasing. He did not rest once a community had been established. Rather he left identified leaders behind and continued on to the next community to be converted to this new and exciting information brought by Jesus.

Wherever he traveled, Paul never lost touch with his beloved communities. Through his network of followers, he received ongoing news – kind of a constant contact weekly newsletter sent via communication systems of the times. Importantly, Paul didn’t just receive news, he sent letters responding to what he had learned about conditions of the churches he had left behind. He never stopped loving; he never stopped teaching. His commitment to Jesus Christ was unceasing.

Paul’s Letter to the Thessalonians was written during his lengthy stay in Corinth. This letter must have been a joy for Paul to write for the church in Thessalonica was doing well. Paul writes to them, “But you, beloved, are not in darkness…for you are all children of the light and children of the day.” This church has held onto Paul’s teachings about God and Christ as the way to God’s eternal kingdom. Christ’s pathway to salvation. They have held on – firmly – to their newfound faith.

Paul continues, “But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, and put on the breastplate of faith and love, and a helmet for the hope of salvation. For God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us, so that whether we are awake or asleep we may live with him.”

Paul warns that although things may be going along smoothly at the moment, this will not always be the case. There will be difficult moments. Moments that are jarring to their faith – their newly minted Christian theologies. The going can and probably will be tough even for those who believe. Strong armor is needed if faith is to remain steady and solid.

And finally, Paul says, “Therefore encourage one another and build up each other, as indeed you are doing.”

Encourage one another and build up each other…Paul knew those two thousand years ago the strength of distractions that lead us away from Christ in this world. He understood this so clearly. He told us to clothe ourselves with protective armor. And, most importantly and realistically he insisted on the importance of a strong community. One in which members were continually supporting each other in their faith.

Paul knew that communal encouragement and support was, and of course continues to be, absolutely necessary to holding on to faith as one journeys through the world each day; and as one practices their personal theologies and relays to their home communities through word and deed the good news of Jesus Christ.

Today’s take away point is this: Paul understood that in order to practice the theology of the Good News, one must have ongoing and strong support from their church community. Personal theologies and the way in which we practice them once we leave church are highly dependent on the teachings and love that we receive from our life together here at St. Simon’s. This particular House of God is our foundation and our stronghold. As such it is more valuable than we can imagine.

It is here at St. Simon’s that we develop a personal theology founded upon the cornerstone of our Christian commitment to loving our neighbor as ourselves. A personal theology that never loses sight of compassion and love. A personal theology that encourages us and supports us in our role as disciples – our life as the hands, feet, and voice of Christ in the world.

In this time of Covid 19, a time in which we are separated in so many ways, including our ability to be together as a community here at St. Simon's, holding on to our faith, our hope, our love of neighbor can be challenging.

Our role as lonely warriors for Christ cast into the angry swirl of life that currently surrounds us can be unspeakably difficult. Overcoming the fear, anxiety, anger, depression, and the long-term effects of social isolation and social distancing – overcoming these dangerous, dangerous side-effects of this Covid time does indeed require heavy armor. I am quite certain that Paul would agree most wholeheartedly.

But God is with us – always and forever. We must hang onto to that knowledge.

And I believe we must take every opportunity to be together, safely, here at St. Simon’s – and, of course on Zoom when necessary – to worship, to study, to reflect, and to discuss. To keep Christ vibrantly alive in our lives – alive in the practice of our personal theologies - we must seek and receive support from our St. Simon’s community members. We must use the blessing of our church community to give us the strength to keep love, justice, and peace alive in the communities in which we live.

As I write this sermon, the nation continues to suffer from ways of being so antithetical to Christ’s teachings. It is, for me at least, hard to focus, hard to cling to hope for healing.

To divert from distressing thoughts, I imagine Paul sitting with his friend and scribe Timothy. Paul rises and walking back and forth begins to dictate a letter. Timothy writes, furiously trying to keep pace with Paul's quickly spoken thoughts.

Paul's letter reads:

“To my beloved at St. Simon’s on the Sound in Ft. Walton Beach, Florida, I write to you in this troubled time to give thanks for your steadfast love of each other. And I pray that you will continue to have the strength and the courage to show that love to each other and to your neighbors. Do not be distracted by worldly matters that cause you to fail in your commitment to our Lord, Jesus Christ. Your life as his disciple is your salvation. May you be blessed with a strong heart filled with love, and a deep desire to bring the peace of God – a peace that passes all understanding – to all whom you encounter. Your faithful servant, Paul.”

Shall we write back, and say, “Beloved Paul, we will practice this theology diligently. Peace to you.”