SERMON 11/3/13 “All Saint’s Day”- St. Boniface, Sarasota, FL

Luke 6:20-31

                  “But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.  In Luke’s gospel today, we find Jesus’ disciples gathering with him on a mountaintop, after he had been praying all night long.  From this lofty vista, Jesus chose twelve of his disciples to be his closest followers.  What a crew he chose: Peter (the bold and yet, first to run disciple), James and John, (the two who wanted seats of honor, over and above their fellow disciples), and there were others just as notorious (a tax collector and a zealot, just to name a few).  Jesus seems to call some incredible characters into a community of disciples, doesn’t he?  I guess the messiness of Christian community is what makes it so beautiful, hopeful, and reflective of God’s grace.

Jesus left the mountain with the twelve, and then entered a level locale for his discourse, which would turn upside down, the notions of human power differentials, social ladders and thus, demonstrate our need to constantly show love for one another.  There on that plateau, Jesus gave a beautiful sermon of Blessings and Woes, paradoxical sayings and ironic logic, which was counter-intuitive to our very nature.  Jesus in this sermon proclaimed that the Christian life comes with blessings and woes, and the Christian life, is a challenging life.

Jesus understood the challenge of our sociological peculiarities, and then he said something so outlandish, so out of the park, so “you’re kidding right.”  He announced that in God’s Kingdom we are to “Love our enemies.”   “Love your enemies” is not a simple suggestion or a trite saying that looks good on pewter statues, silicone bracelets, or framed artwork.  No, when Jesus told us to “Love our enemies, ” I believe without a doubt, he meant it.  “Loving enemies” does not seem to be of great value in a competitive, destroy your opponent, and push your own agenda world.  We don’t see this enacted in most political debates, especially those we have seen in the recent headlines.  Love your enemies just doesn’t sound normal does it?

                  The definition for Enemy which I found on Wikipedia is:  Enemy – a term for an entity, whether an individual or a group, that is seen as forcefully adverse or threatening. The concept of an enemy has been observed to be “basic for both individuals and communities”.  The term “enemy” serves the social function of designating a particular entity as a threat, thereby invoking an intense emotional response to that entity. 2        So, Jesus commands us to show love to those folks who are threatening; those folks who by real or merely perceived threats, invoke an intense emotional response in us.  Sometimes we are threatened when we experience change in our lives, or when our comfort zones are stretched, or when we face new fears or disappointments.  As a result, we may respond from the emotions of fear and anxiety, directed toward another person and in so doing, we wound one another deeply.

Sometimes we perceive others as enemies: folks whom we believe hate us, or we perceive curse us, or they actually abuse us; folks who strike us (physically or emotionally injure us).  We can easily recognize times in our lives that others have caused us pain.  Equally, each one of us most likely, can identify moments when we have inflicted pain on others.  Regardless of which side of the pain we find ourselves, the Christian life gets little dicey for us because Jesus teaches us, that a “like for like” reaction to hate, curse, or abuse has nothing to do with love, and honestly, it is not of God.  What is of God in the midst of each other’s pain, is that we embrace love reactions that include: “Doing good, blessing, and praying.”  That sure doesn’t sound like a good old catfight, an “I’ll get back at them” response, or a “just you wait and see” reaction, which we find so common in our everyday lives.

The reality is my friends; we are both saints and sinners.  We have a great capacity for grace, mercy, and love.  At the same time, we possess the capacity to inflict pain, create harm, and wound one another.   When faced with this paradox deeply embedded in each of us, Jesus steps on the scene, and lovingly demands, “choose love!”  In the midst of challenging community life, God calls for our “best efforts,” our best sainthood efforts, which “sums up the divine character (merciful even to the ungrateful and wicked) and the obligation on disciples to imitate this indiscriminate mercy for all. “1

“Love your enemies?”  Is it an old adage that has lost its place in today’s culture?  Is it merely a trite saying we learned in Sunday school?  No, it is a reflection of the divine character so “exaggerated and provocative (in) quality.” 1   Love your enemies, “is a command in search of elaboration, dialogue, and discernment.  It provides direction, but leaves the itinerary to the travelers.”  Is there Good News in the midst of paradox, pain, and wounded-ness?  Yes there is!  We who in this life sometimes travel the journey of broken hearts, and often times sit exposed to the rawness of wounds made fresh; always have before us, the choice to follow the direction of love.  The means through which we arrive at that blessed level place of reconciliation, God always leaves to us.  We arrive there only by God’s grace enabling us to incarnate generous acts of love, which in the words of Jesus include: doing good, blessing each other, and praying for each other.  It is on that level place of reconciling love, where our mutual participation in sainthood is desperately needed in this world; today and in the days to come.

1 Carter, Warren. “Love Your Enemies.” Word & World 28.1 (2008): 13-21. ATLASerials, Religion Collection. Web. 1 Nov. 2013.

SERMON 10/3/10 Pentecost 22C – St. Mary Magdalene, Bradenton, FL

When I was a kid, I spent many afternoons and summers working in my father’s television and electronics store.  Back then, I had the opportunity to explore the latest techno gadgets as they hit the market.  In the 1970’s, I listened to music on LP records, 8-track tapes and AM radio.  In the 1980’s, I listened to music on FM radio, cassettes, and I watched my favorite videos on MTV and VH1.   In the 1990’s, I bought CD’s.  Today, I download my music on my IPhone and can listen to it on my Mac, my IPad, or listen on my Apple TV device at home.  The music we listen to, as well as how we listen to it,  sure has changed over the past 40 years, and it is so much different than even 50, 60, or 70 years ago.

For example, one day while working in my father’s store clearing out some old boxes, I found hidden in a corner a beautiful, antique Victor Victrola.  If you’re not familiar with what that is, it is record player popular in the early 20th century.  This beautiful machine was huge and it had a wind-up motor, a felt covered turntable, a large metal needle and records that were so heavy, they felt like bricks.  As I explored the device, I found an old gospel album inside the storage drawer, and I decided to try it out.  I wound up the crank on the side of the music box, placed the record on the table, the needle on the record, and suddenly I was whisked back to bygone days.

There was an unfamiliar tinny sound to the voices and instruments, but the sound was absolutely wonderful. The song on that record was one very familiar to me, and I imagine most of us here today know the words.  “Amazing Grace how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me, I once was lost, but now am found, twas blind but now I see.”            Though the old Victrola was early technology and the song it played was a good old traditional hymn, it was as dear to me that day in the 1980’s, as it was for the family who heard it fresh and clear on that machine back in the 1930’s and 40’s.  In a moment, I was whisked back to a time when a family sat together listening to that old record player, enjoying a song that spoke volumes about a faith that informed their everyday lives, a faith that was passed on by generations before them, and to generations after them, a song of faith, millions of people still sing today.

We sing a lot of songs in church but all share a glorious song of love that has remained the same for centuries; the song of faith.  Now, the song remains the same, but what has changed over those years, is the medium through which the song has played.  From the early church, to the medieval age, enlightenment, reformation, to the modern era and now postmodern culture, the church has had to respond to cultural change, so that the song of the gospel might be heard in the world.

The world is changing at a pace like never before.  We relate through social media, and technology.  Using the internet we can access information like never before.  We’ve changed in other ways too.  Religious institutions do not hold the influence in culture that they did just 30 or 40 years ago.  Over the past 20 years, the number of people who claim no religious affiliation has increased from 8% to nearly 20%.  Nearly 33% of all adults under 30 are religiously unaffiliated.  Most of them have never stepped into a church, ever and many never will.

Here is the rub.  The Church, not merely clergy, is charged with the responsibility of passing the faith onto others, others who are seeking a community with whom they might find their spiritual identity, where they might join in the ancient spiritual practices of that community of faith, and where they might come to a spiritual place of conviction.  Our mission is not as easy as it was just a few decades ago, but we are still in the business of “faith passing.”   Our legacy of “faith passing” is a part of our tradition, which stretches as far back as the early apostles.  Faith passing is at the heart of the apostolic nature of the Body of Christ.

In his letter to Timothy, Paul wrote, “I am reminded of your sincere faith, a faith that lived first in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice and now, I am sure, lives in you.”  Theologian Alcye McKenzie asserts that this faith that lived in previous generations and now lives in Timothy  . . . is made alive and powerful for the present so that it can shape the future.” (Alyce McKenzie, Perkins School of Theology, July 2006 Interpretation Journal)

Our faith is a gift from God not merely for ourselves, but a gift, which we must pass on, through the power of God’s Spirit working in and through us.  Faith becomes alive in us and by our example it becomes possible for it to become alive in those after us. Today, we are gathered here in this place today, worshipping, singing, and praising God because of the Spirit’s power working in and through the faithful lives of grandmothers, grandfathers, parents, aunts, uncles, siblings, friends and mentors bore witness to God’s amazing grace to us.  We are people of faith today, because someone before us passed faith on to us.

In a culture that is more and more irreligious, we need to go back to this simple practice of meeting others where they are, developing relationships of trust so the basic conversations of faith, might emerge organically, grow without a membership agenda, and transform the lives of others.  We must be people of faith and people able to talk about it, without seeming to merely want to fill the pews.  We need to be seed planters of faith who toil the soil of relationships, and we need to trust the Spirit will do the rest.  To do this we must recognize the signs of faith emerging in others.  Many of wrestle with the very basic question of what is faith?

Faith is a way of life, it is a way of being.  Faith empowers, strengthens, and encourages us to face each day.  Faith makes it possible to experience the joy, peace, love in moments of fear and uncertainty.  Faith is facing each day peering through the lens of God’s amazing grace. Faith simply said, is trusting in God’s promises in all things.  Trusting that the way of justice, love, mercy, reconciliation and grace, changes everything.  Trusting God makes it possible to embrace joy, to look with anticipation to a new day, to embrace the present, even in the midst of circumstances we cannot control.  Trusting God helps us to recognize that fear binds our hearts and spirits.  Fear is the greatest enemy of faith.  Faith is looking at fear in the eye and trusting that “nothing stands between us and the love of God.”. Faith is like a mustard seed.  It only takes a little faith to recognize the nearness of the Kingdom of God.

Some say the opposite of faith is doubt.  I believe the opposite of faith is certainty. When we are certain, when the facts are clear, and we know without a shadow of doubt; there is no more room for mystery.  Where there is no mystery, we begin to rely on ourselves, and what we can control and thus, there is little room for faith in God.   The disciples wanted certainty.  They cried, “INCREASE OUR FAITH.” Faith is not about certainty.  Faith is living life, putting trust not in ourselves, not in human institutions, not and in our financial portfolios.  A life of faith is putting our trust in God.

God puts a song of faith in our hearts and the Spirit whispers that tune every day. We have to be willing to allow the faith in us to grow wild, to be organic, so like the mustard seed, it will grow and flourish both in those who are gathered here today, and in those to whom we are called to pass the faith on.  Don’t let your faith sit in a corner behind some old boxes, covered in dust and silence.  You also don’t have to broadcast your faith on YouTube, ITunes, or social media.  What you can do to participate in the work of  “faith passing” begins with your closest friends, with unexpected people in those chance encounters at the store or pharmacy, with your daily work colleagues.  It really is very simple.  Let your life be a song of faith.  Let your life resonate the grace in you, so others may join the chorus, “Amazing Grace how sweet the sound.”

SERMON 8/25/13 Pentecost 15C St. Mark’s Tampa

Jeremiah 1:4-10; Psalm 71:1-6; Hebrews 12:18-29; Luke 13:10-17        Listen (mp3)

We find a glimpse of God’s mission story in today’s gospel reading.  As you read through his work, “Luke’s gospel is filled with stories that reflect Jesus’ compassion and mercy for the poor, the sick, the infirm, and the oppressed.”1  For instance, at the beginning of Jesus ministry, “(He) describes himself as the fulfillment of the following verses: ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor’.”1  This scripture shows us the heart of God’s mission at work in reconciling creation:  good news to the poor, release for captives, sight for the blind, freedom for oppressed.

In today’s gospel reading, we see Jesus’ mission being manifested in acts of mercy, love, compassion, and healing.  The scene is in the synagogue where a woman of low social status, who suffered from some ailment and thus, could not stand up, appears among those gathered.  We do not know why she was there at that time.  She may have even gone unnoticed by the crowd, but she was not be overlooked by the Master.  He saw her plight, called her over to him, and with these simple words, “woman you are set free,” she was healed.  She was lifted up.  When I think of that story, I try and put myself in the woman’s place.  Have you ever carried a huge backpack or if you served in the military, a rucksack?  Under that heavy weight, you are stooped over and it is hard to move, hard to see what is in front of you, and it keeps you from being able to move forward.  The moment you drop that weight, it can be like pure freedom!  You can see people eye-to-eye, your limbs are free to move, and you feel light and ready for action.  See, the woman in the story, had not only a weight of physical affliction, she had a social affliction as well.  Because of the disorder, her community saw her unclean and defiled and thus, she was treated as an outcast from the community.  Jesus freed the woman from her physical ailment and she stood up, but he restored her to dignity and signified that healing by reminding everyone that she was restored to her community.  She was “a daughter of Abraham.”

Now the other character in the story is the leader of the synagogue who became enraged over Jesus’ flippant attitude toward tradition and rules; rules that seem to have lost their original purpose, which was to support God’s mission of reconciliation, restoration, mercy, grace, love, and healing.   You see, Jesus saw the woman’s plight, her cage of human inequity, her prison bars of social injustice, her walls of communal disgrace and he responded with love, with concern, with healing hands, and all else, including mis-applied tradition would not stand in the way of God’s mission of healing.

I want to be clear here, the leader of the synagogue was not really a bad guy, maybe a little arrogant, maybe a little obnoxious, and maybe a little over the top however, he was trying to be faithful by living out the law.  Even so, he forgot the whole reason for the law and tradition which was to set apart a community for blessing and thus, he was blind to the woman’s need for blessing and restoration to the community.  The tradition and law were the means by which grace might flow, not the end itself. The synagogue leader needed to come down off his high horse, stoop down to the woman’s eye level so that he, like Jesus, might see that she was his sister, and they shared a common need to care for one another.   In Jesus’ acts of mercy and healing, the prophet Ezekiel was fulfilled, “Take off the turban, remove the crown. It will not be as it was: The lowly will be exalted and the exalted will be brought low.” (Ezekiel 21:26 NIV)  You see, the Kingdom of God is a kingdom of human equity that includes liberation for those held in the bondage of injustice, poverty, and social division.

Many of us, like the woman in today’s gospel reading, struggle with some type of bondage.  Our culture pushes us to excel vocationally, financially, socially, and relationally and there are costs for that kind of pressure.  Long work hours, anxiety filled schedules, over extended finances, and unfulfilled relationships are some of the pressures with which, many of us contend.  It seems that life would be joyful, if we lived a little more simply, if we could shrug off the heavy burden of success drive, and get back to basics.  Maybe if we could just get outside ourselves a little, and see the plight of others, and maybe, just maybe in lifting them up, we might find the freedom of God’s peace we so crave.

Some of our sisters and brothers live with a whole other set of pressures, prison bars of another type.  Some folks near us struggle every day to put enough food on the table to sustain the lives of their children.  Some folks near us are unable to balance the choice between buying needed medications and the basics of life.  Some folks near us live in isolation, depression, and loneliness.  Some folks near us are like the woman in the gospel today and are seen as second-class residents, merely because they don’t have the right documentation in their wallet.  You see, the Kingdom of God is a kingdom where liberation and equity is for all who are held in bondage.  Freedom comes to all, when we all move closer to each other, and when we meet each other in our common story.

Stories seem to be what our culture today craves.  I think that may be why Reality TV is so popular.  I came across a new reality television show on BBC America the other day that starred Gordon Ramsey (UK chef, former football player – soccer for us Americans, a rugged guy, etc.)  The premise of this new show was based on Gordon being locked up in the infamous Brixton Prison in London, where he was going to try and set up a catering company to offset the expenses of incarceration. Ramsay recruited from Brixton, some of the nation’s toughest prisoners and taught them to cook on the inside, in order to sell their product on the outside.  Everyone Ramsey encountered thought his scheme was crazy; the prison bureaucracy, his friends, the vendors to whom he wanted to sell the prisoners’ creations, and yes, even the prisoners themselves.

Ramsey’s original motivation for this project was based on his frustration with the cost of housing prisoners.  He also was frustrated with the prison systems’ ever evolving movement away from its original mission.  Despite his early entrepreneurial and sociological motivations, Ramsay soon discovered in his encounters with the prisoners, a deeper, unseen narrative of human, tragedy.  Ramsay came face-to-face with a system that had moved from its original mission (to intervene and change a cycle of criminal behavior, addiction, and brokenness), to a broken system that perpetuates lives without dignity, purpose and meaning.  Ramsay came face-to-face with the stories of real people for whom society had given up, and those people had in turn, given up on themselves.

Ramsey came up against enormous resistance from prison guards who had given up hope for the prisoners’ rehabilitation.  Ramsay experienced the political wrangling of administrators whose adherence to prison regulations was more important than innovative, risk-taking solutions.  Despite the resistance, new life emerged for people held in bondage and so, after six months of working on this project, where one man offered hope, love, and purpose to the forgotten, new life emerged for 12 of the prisoners of Brixton prison.  Most of them began to understand and embrace teamwork, most of them began to care about the work they were doing, most of them began to experience transformation from a life of anger, bitterness, and lethargy, to a new found release where they experienced joy, pride, gratitude, and hope.

Ramsey, a tough nosed, controlling, loud, obnoxious, “f-bomb” dropping, foodie star, stooped down and entered a prison system and there, met people in their tragic stories.  There he offered them hope and in so doing, he too experienced hope, purpose, and meaning in his life, in ways he never imagined.  Ramsey actually showed love, concern, confidence, grace, and mercy to people with whom, he would never come in contact in his every day life.  Ramsey as well as the prisoners were transformed.  Ramsay saw in others something no one else saw, and he became a person of love in action, helping others experienced new life.   If we but open our eyes, if we but stoop down, we too can experience stories of mercy, grace, and love, where “the lowly will be exalted and the exalted will be brought low.”  We can see in action, the hope we proclaim, the faith in God’s reconciling work in creation, and the salvation for which we give thanks.

Most of us have experienced some form of liberation in our lives.  Some of us are still held in bondage, and yet God invites us to drop our baggage, take up the cross, and follow him.  The mission of God is “to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor,” as followers, what then is our part in that mission?  In the church’s catechism it states that our mission is “to bring all people into unity with God and each other in Christ.”  It sounds like a pretty tall order, and maybe a little vague at that.

It really is a simple mission, but we may need to ask ourselves some really hard questions.  How can we, as a community, be Good News to those suffering around us?  How might we bring healing to those in our midst, stooped over by bonds of injustice, poverty, loneliness, and detachment?  How can we go into the dark places of our sisters and brothers prison walls?  These are people that may be sitting right here beside us living in bondage.  There are definitely people in bondage beyond these four walls.

The Church’s mission is simple, we must go and meet the least, lost and lonely at their level, see them fully in the blessedness that Christ sees, and then with love, with hope, with purpose, and with meaning, help lift them up to new life.  We really have a pretty uncomplicated mission, if you think about it.   The great thing is, we already have God’s blessing to begin it anew every day.  “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”  After all, I know God believes we can do it, because with outstretched arms of love, he showed us how.

1 Torgerson, Heidi. “The Healing Of The Bent Woman: A Narrative Interpretation Of Luke 13:10-17.” Currents In Theology And Mission 32.3 (2005): 176-186. ATLASerials, Religion Collection. Web. 22 Aug. 2013.

PENTECOST 4C 6/16/13 St. Alfred’s Palm Harbor and St. Alban’s St. Pete Beach

Screen Shot 2013-06-17 at 10.36.33 AM1 Kings 21:1-10, (11-14), 15-21a; Psalm 5:1-8; Galatians 2:15-21; Luke 7:36-8:3

Several years ago, I knew two couples, both together for some time, both obviously in love, but noticeably, they had very different relationships.  The first couple was so sweet, I mean, sticky sweet. They were like school kids who giggled together, as if they had these inside funny jokes, they held hands wherever they went, and when they looked into each other’s eyes man, you knew they were in love.   The other couple was equally in love and yet, there was a tension, uncertainty, and uncomfortable anxiety between the two of them.

I asked one of the partners from the second couple (tension, anxiety) one day, how things were going for them.  I knew them well, and we all talked openly about our relationships with our spouses, so it was not an out of bounds question.  He said, “You know Eric, I am so unworthy of love from my spouse.  She is so wonderful, loving, giving, and she sacrifices so much for me.  I imagine she would die for me, and I am not worthy of that kind of love.  I feel like I must work hard, give all I can, to make her happy, so I can keep that kind of love.”

On another occasion, I asked one of the partners in the first relationship (sticky sweet) why they seemed so at ease with one another.  She said, “A long time ago, we decided to quit trying to earn each other’s love by doing, buying, and manipulating.  We decided that the love we share is a gift and we finally decided to live with arms wide open, be grateful, and just receive simple love.”

In today’s gospel reading, we hear a story of Jesus and a particular encounter he had with two people around a dinner table.  It is a story about hospitality, reconciliation, and love.   The scene is this, Jesus was the dinner guest of a Pharisee, a religious leader, a person well versed in the Law.  Eating with someone in first century Palestine was very special.  You would usually not invite a guest to come under your roof, unless you had or were establishing a relationship of trust, mutual respect, and a commitment to honor each other.  Hospitality 2000 years ago, went way beyond today where we strive merely to make our  guests feel comfortable and well fed.  Hospitality was a part of the honor system within that society, and it signified a covenant between householder and guest.  As the householder, when someone came under your roof, they came under your protection, were recipients of your respect, and that relationship extended beyond the meal.

The guest’s  role was to speak highly of your patron, and to bring honor to his house.  There were symbols and rituals that became signs of this covenant between householder and guest.  The washing of desert, sand-laden feet upon entering the home, the offering of the kiss of peace, and the anointing of a person were all outward signs of this covenant of honor.

If you notice the story, none of this happened to Jesus upon entering the Pharisee’s house.  He merely entered, and took his place at the table.  Then something scandalous happened.  A woman, a sinner as she was labeled, entered the house with an alabaster jar, which was obviously an expensive, precious gift she had brought, and then she knelt down, washed Jesus’ feet with her hair and tears, and then anointed him.  It was scandalous, but at the same time, it was a radical symbol of love, honor, and respect.  First, it was a scandal because she had her head uncovered in public, but there was another significance to this act as well.  In a reading from the Old Testament, we learn why.  Numbers 5:18 says, “And the priest shall take the barley and offer it to the woman, and shall take away from her the head-dress on her head, that she may be judged with her head bare, and deprived of the symbol of modesty, which all those women are accustomed to wear who are completely blameless.” (NRSV) She uncovered her head to wash Jesus’ feet, but the Pharisee, well versed in the law I imagine, understand the significance of this act.  Then, she touched Jesus’ feet!  That was unheard of for a woman to touch a man with whom she was not married.  Finally, she anoints his feet … more scandal.  Now all this does not go unnoticed by Simon the Pharisee who in the story exclaimed, “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him– that she is a sinner.”

The real motivation for the dinner invitation comes out.  Simon wanted not to bring honor and protection to Jesus, but to find fault in Jesus, and it is motivation and response, which is really at the heart of the story.  Simon, by his failure to see his own need for grace, and the willingness to receive it, AND give it, he misses the greatest lesson of this encounter with the Lord.  Jesus, said with a little moxie, “Simon, I have something to say to you.”   The parable of the debtors cuts to the heart of the matter, we all are sinners, we all miss the mark, we all mess up the relationship with God and with each other, and yet, when we cannot save ourselves (because we can’t) God’s grace abounds and all are reconciled to God, and all in God’s time.  Now, the story takes another turn, and I love this part.  Jesus reminds Simon, that the woman at his feet, showed him the depth of hospitality, the covenant of protection, the symbols of honor that Simon failed to show.

Hang on now, the story is getting better.  Jesus looks at her and says, “”Your sins are forgiven.”  Now, when I first heard this story many years ago, I thought, “OK, she showed Jesus’ love by doing this for him and because of that, she was forgiven.”  WRONG!  The word forgiven in Greek is ἀφέωνταί, which is in the form of perfect, passive, indicative, which in this grammatical form, it is different from what we find in the NRSV.  The words are, “Your sins, they have been forgiven you.”  

I believe that the woman offenses were forgiven long before she entered the house, and Jesus was merely acknowledging that fact.  Nothing she did earned, manipulated, or coerced Jesus to forgive her.  It was her trust that led her to Jesus in the first place, and it was by faith,  she accepted she had been forgiven.  The washing of feet and anointing was the outward response to Grace, she had so clearly received and was later acknowledged.  The point is, you cannot earn grace, it is a gift from God that is experienced with gratitude, it is a gift that we can only receive, it is a gift that moves us to respond with love, in kind.

My friend, the “sticky sweet” spouse and the woman with the Alabaster jar lived with arms wide open and their lives and acts of love and service became a response to grace, not a means to earn it.  The woman in today’s gospel was aware of the forgiveness she had received, long before she arrived at the door of the Pharisee’s house, and Jesus acknowledged it with these words, “Your sins have been forgiven.”  This is our story, and we like them, each week receive acknowledgment of God’s forgiveness in the words of absolution, then we share in the Great Thanksgiving, the meal of gratitude, Holy Communion, and then we are sent out into the world to respond with love, with all in whom we come in contact.  On one of mine and Terri’s parish visits a month or so ago, I heard a song sung by Amy Grant and James Taylor, which helps me understand, and accept, this gift of God’s grace.  The chorus of the song goes like this:

Don’t try so hard

God gives you grace and you can’t earn it

Don’t think that you’re not worth it

Because you are

He gave you His love and He’s not leaving

Gave you His Son so you’d believe it

You’re lovely even with your scars

Don’t try so hard

 

That is the life of the church, the Eucharistic Body of Christ, and despite our struggles, our brokenness, our uncertainty, I think it really can be easier to live in Christian community than it seems sometimes.  I think we try to rest in God’s promises, if we respond in grace to the grace we have received, and if we merely live with “arms wide open.”

SERMON 02/17/13 Lent 1C St. George’s Episcopal Church, Bradenton, FL

Deuteronomy 26:1-11; Romans 10:8b-13; Luke 4:1-13
I love the survivor shows on Discovery Channel! Man, Woman, Wild is a show about a married couple of which, one is a Special Forces operative, the other a journalist, and together they team up to face the wildernesses of jungle, tundra, and desert. Dual Survival is a similar show that pairs up a naturalist skilled in Aboriginal living skills with a veteran U.S. Special Forces operative and together, they are dropped into some very difficult, wild places and forced to survive, usually for a week. I really like these two television shows. I like how the team of two work together to survive.

My very favorite survival show though, is “Survivorman,” starring naturalist Les Stroud, who is no Special Forces operative, aboriginal expert, or specially trained survivalist. Stroud is a regular guy who on this show, is not only the star, but also cameraman and producer. Each week Stroud goes up against some of the most difficult survival wildernesses known to humans. The most interesting part of this show is that Stroud is always alone: no camera crew, no backup plan, just him, a few cameras, and the elements. I dig this show more than the others, because Stroud is a self-assured, independent, “git er done,” kind of guy.

I think about today’s gospel reading, and I picture Jesus’ 40 days in the desert sort of like “Survivorman,” with Jesus all alone, in the wilderness, no disciples around, no camera crew catching his every word, no knapsack filled with energy bars and no magnesium flint fire starter. It was just Jesus, the elements, and the temptations that come with hunger, fear, and being left to the nature of our own character. Scripture tells us, “Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness.” From baptism in the Jordon, from the voice from heaven declaring, “You are my Son, with you I am well pleased,” Jesus is driven into the wilderness, a place deserted by others, a place where he was deprived of the aid and protection of others. Jesus was alone facing all that the “oppressor” had to offer. Jesus came face-to-face with the challenges of our human freedom, choice, self worth, desires/physical needs, and the ultimate fear; death. Jesus’ character, faith, and virtue were challenged in the wilderness. The Spirit led him there, and it was there he came to know what it was like for us to face the temptations of the human condition, and come to realize we are dependent on God alone.

Some folks believe the Christian journey is a survival showdown in which, we are tested and tried by God, to see if we are faithful enough or worthy enough. Even in the Lord’s Prayer it says, “And lead us not into temptation.” But I wonder, are we asking God, “please don’t tempt us?” I don’t think so. I believe, as Franciscan priest Fr. Richard Rohr asserts, “… that this phrase in the Lord’s Prayer, is best translated as ‘Lead us away from any illusions about ourselves.” 2
The temptation into which, we seem to be led always, is the illusion that we can in this life, rely on our own spiritual survival skills—that somehow, we are capable alone of wrestling with the temptations of our own freedom. The reality is that we traverse a wilderness in this Christian Journey—a wilderness of temptations driven by our own freedom to choose our own way and that is what distracts us from God. We are constantly deceived into a belief that we can survive without God. Surviving those caverns of self-assurance, those thick jungles of rugged independence, or those frozen tundra of a “git-er-done” attitude, means we must embrace a reliance not on ourselves and what we bring to the journey, but a complete and utter reliance on God. Lent is a season that reminds us that we cannot really go it alone, that we need to spend time focusing on our walk with God.

Lent, is a forty-day wilderness journey, in which we like Jesus, come face-to-face with our own human weakness. It reminds us, “what it is like to live by the grace of God alone and not by what we can supply for ourselves.”1 Lent can be a time of focusing on spiritual disciplines by which we “give up something” or “take on a special spiritual practice.” “Giving up” and “taking on” are quite virtuous, and I commend them to you during this Lenten season however, they alone do not a wilderness journey of self-denial make. This difficult journey begins with a heart change, a transformation of mind and spirit, in which we go deeper into the valleys of our need for God’s grace. In the next few weeks, I encourage you to enter deeply into those unexplored caverns, thick jungles, and frozen tundra of your very soul. Explore the depths of those never seen crevices, those illusions of your character, those places where the fear of vulnerability lies.

There are many ways to step into the wilderness: pray and listen, and then share that journey with others, in community. Commit to a practice of daily scripture reading: poke around in the psalms or Old Testament, take a hike in one of the gospels, or wander around in one of Paul’s letters. Take a leisurely stroll with God in prayer by committing to a few minutes a day to quiet your spirit with God. Invite God’s Spirit into your present moment, and listen for God’s work in your life. Then, bring that experience back to others, and share it with your sisters and brothers right here, when you gather for fellowship.

When we are intentional about entering the wilderness with God as our not merely our guide, but as our strength, sustenance, and very breath, when we walk that journey together with others, it is there that we find out who truly we are, and the illusions of self-reliance, fall away. Here is a little warning though as you embark on this sojourn in the wilderness of the soul, it will be tempting as the days of Lent wonder on, to cast it all aside for an easier path, but please, stay in the wilderness awhile. It may not be easy, it may become uncomfortable, it may even be treacherous, but if you truly rely on God to lead you, and if you let go of the illusion you can do it all alone, then I promise you this, you will not only survive Lent, but you will be forever transformed.

1 Taylor, Barbara Brown. “Settling For Less.” Christian Century 115.5 (1998): 169-318. ATLASerials, Religion Collection. Web. 14 Feb. 2013.
2 http://richardrohr.wordpress.com/2012/06/17/lead-us-not-into-temptation/