SERMON 5/23/20 Feast of Pentecost, St. Mark’s Seminole; St. Paul’s Holdenville

Acts 2:1-21; Psalm 104:25-35, 37Romans 8:22-27; John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15

Mentor, Teachers, Advocates, and Guides

            Have you ever had that teacher, coach, mentor, or friend in your life, the one who saw gifts in you that you did not see in yourself? Have you ever had that someone who looked past the rough and rugged exterior and saw the beauty and potential within?  I have had the gift of mentors like that.  My first flight instructor, my youth minister, my friend Curt, a priest friend named Becky, my former Region Chaplain, and yes, my wife Terri, and so many more have been mentors to me.  What would we do without the wisdom, encouragement, empowerment, and drive of those mentors, coaches, and friends?              

            Without advocates and mentors, many of us would be like the first disciples after the Lord had ascended, and before the first Day of Pentecost.  We may have been like them, spending our lives locked in a room, fearful, uncertain and discouraged.  Could you imagine what went through those early disciples’ minds in that room for those days?  Maybe they pondered, “Well, he’s gone, let’s go back to fishing, or return to our neat, protected, and normal lives.”  Maybe they thought, “We are just poor fishermen, and there is only a few of us, and we can barely keep food on the table, oh, woe is me.”  

            When faced with new situations, it is not unusual to speak the language of despondency, but in those times, and in all of life, we must realize that we have an incredible mentor, teacher, advocate and friend.  We Christians have been given the gift of the Holy Spirit.  

 The Holy Spirit 

            God’s Spirit reaches into the depths of our struggles and despair and lifts us up. God’s Spirit enlivens our joy and gives us hope, and God’s Spirit sets the church on the path of mission in the world then, today, and tomorrow.  The Holy Spirit, God’s active presence in the church then, and today, moved that small band of misfits from fear to action, from complacency to engagement, and from despondency to a tongues of fire, violent wind rushing new life and mission that literally changed them, and changed the world.  That same Spirit is moving in us today. 

            Today is the Feast Day of Pentecost!  In Jewish tradition, Pentecost “literally means “fiftieth” and signifies the celebration of the festival on the fiftieth day of Passover.  We Christians commemorate that day with the church decorated in red, and the vestments we clergy wear are red, and many of you today have donned your red to help us remember the vision of “tongues of fire” that came over the apostles nearly 2000 years ago on the Day of Pentecost.

             On that day and in a single moment with the sound of rushing wind and the imagery of flaming, divided tongues, the miraculous, life-changing, demonstration of God’s great work of salvation had come to a pivotal point, and while Jesus had left and the disciples were all alone, God’s Spirit rushed in on the scene.

The Spirit of God is always Moving     

            The Spirit moved and breathed as she always does, like a forcible, violent wind or breath, the Spirit filled the house in which the disciples abided.  “Pneuma” is the Greek word for spirit or breath or wind, and if you think about it, breath is the essential action of life.  That same Spirit that brooded over the waters of creation is the same Spirit that breathed life into dry bones and brought new life.  The same Spirit that was active in the Incarnation, was that same Spirit present and active in this community.  The Spirit was as she always is, pushing forward new life that emerged from the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  

            Prior to the Pentecost event, and hearkening back to the Tower of Babel, the world had been separated by languages, but in a new way, division was being restored in the power of the Spirit coming down on this little community.  The imagery of “tongues of fire” represents the divine origin of the Spirit, the divine intervention in the speaking and declaring God’s Deeds of Power.  “Wind, breath, and language; these are the works of the Spirit in that historical event, that event which, is still manifested in and through the Church today.  

Pentecost  – 20th Century

            Let me give you an example of how the Spirit works today, or at least, how she moved in two particular instances many decades ago.  Two communities of faith emerged from an idea, a spark, a risk-taking adventure of faith.  The Spirit breathed and moved calling them to mission, and the people responded, “We will with God’s help.”   

            St Paul’s and St. Mark’s began as two different communities faithfully serving as witnesses of God’s grace, and serving since the early 20th century. Those two communities have over their lifetimes received and responded to the Spirit’s call, and throughout their histories, they have grown and took on new projects.  They have lived into the story of God’s abundance, God’s amazing, outlandish, out of the box call to go and proclaim the Good News.  The Spirit breathed and moved calling them to mission, and the people responded, “We will with God’s help.”   The Spirit that inspired those young churches has not left you all abandoned, but inspires you now in fresh ways to consider how the Spirit might be moving you now into a risk-taking adventure of faith. 

            Just think about it, the same Spirit that brooded over the waters of creation, the same Spirit the prophet Joel mentioned that breathed into the dry bones and brought new life, that same Spirit that was active in the Incarnation, that same Spirit present and active in Jerusalem 2000 years ago on the Day of Pentecost, is the very same Spirit active in many decades ago with these two churches, and she is still active today however, you the people must be willing to respond.   You must regain the rushing fierce wind, tongues of fire bold spirit, so you might move from fear to action, from complacency to engagement, and from despondency to a tongues of fire, ferocious wind rushing new life and mission that literally will change you all and you. 

Skeptics and Naysayers

            Despite the events of Pentecost, there were some naysayers back in Palestine that did not believe God was acting through this group.  They negatively retorted, “They are full of wine,”  Like the cynics of old, if we are not careful, we too can get bogged down in disbelief and fear.   Trusting God and relying on God is deeply embedded in the history of these two churches, and bold proclamation is in your DNA.  We have a history here in which, God’s Spirit has guided us boldly, so we might proclaim new possibility, vision, and dreams.  Our spirit led nature is to reject scarcity, discouragement, and fear.  

            We move boldly in mission because we have a guide, mentor, coach, and advocate that sees more in us than we see in ourselves.  God is not the God of the tomb, a symbol of death, which would hinder us, stop us, or keeps us from moving forward.  God turns despondency and complacency upside down, because death is not the end.  God is the God of possibilities, and we are people of amazing possibilities.   The same Spirit who on that first Pentecost breathed new life into that first Christian community, is the same Spirit that breathed new life into a group of people with a dream for a mission in these two villages.  That same Spirit is breathing new life into you all today, because the Holy Spirit is calling us to a new vision, a new life, and a new focus.  

            For you see, the Spirit sees gifts in us that we cannot see in ourselves.  The Spirit looks beyond our former miscalculations and mistakes, and she sees in us, greater possibilities.  Nonetheless, we cannot become too self-assured, and too self-confident that we try to do this work through our own weak human effort.  We cannot carry this load of mission with only a few select individuals or one or two exclusive groups. 

            We have to rely on the fact that “the Spirit helps us in our weakness . . .  and that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.” If we trust God’s Spirit to lead us, we can we achieve that which, God has in store for us.  The Spirit may push, nudge and guide us out of the familiar and into the unknown, but never forget that we are never alone.  God is with us, guiding us, empowering us, and giving us all we need to do the work we have been called to do. 

            How do I know? God declares, “I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams.”    All along the way, from our earliest beginnings decades ago up until today, you all have had the help of a holy coach, a gentle mentor, a strong advocate, and an amazing friend.  We have had God’s Spirit, guiding us all along the way, and we have that same spirit with us going forward.  So, what do you say church, will you all respond, “We will with God’s help?”     

http://www.festalpulpit.com/6.html

SERMON 5/16/21 Easter 7B St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church, Enid, OK

Acts 1:15-17, 21-26; Psalm 1; 1 John 5:9-13; John 17:6-19

FLASH MOBS

            One day (pre-Pandemic) a group of friends was shopping in a local mall. It was a normal day of crowded walkways and loud noise; just another day. As the group stood at the edge of a large, open space near the food court, the PA system began playing an upbeat dance tune. Suddenly, two young women ran into the middle of the crowd and started dancing. Within five minutes, two dancers became ten, then ten became twenty and then, the whole space was filled with dancers who were working together, energized, joyful, and they were inviting others to join in with them. The group of friends out for a stroll in the mall suddenly became witnesses to what is known as a “Flash Mob!”

            “Flash Mobs” were a phenomenon that developed a few years ago.  A group of people (sometimes as large as 100+ dancers) all of a sudden would show up in the most unexpected places to dance, to perform, to create a shock factor for those witnessing the spectacle. The carefully disguised mobsters, who appeared as a part of the crowd, suddenly became unified around a common mission and together, they stepped out to bring about an outrageous feat into a mundane afternoon. For a Flash Mob to be effective, you of course, had to have dancers, but there must also have been spectators, who were regular folks enjoying a regular day, and then suddenly, they found themselves watching something happening around them.          

            In the midst of a Flash Mob, the folks in the surrounding crowd may do nothing but watch.  Alternatively, some may tap their feet and clap, and then there are some, who might even join the dance. Can you imagine the practice, collaboration, and unity necessary to bring as many as 100 people together for such a feat? So what in the world does a Flash Mob have to do with the Gospel? 

High Priestly Prayer

            Today’s gospel reading is often referred to as Jesus’ “High Priestly Prayer” and in it; unity and mission are at the heart of this prayer. Mission: “As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world.” (John 17:18 NRSV) Unity: “so that they may be one, as we are one.” (John 17:11b NRSV) Jesus’ ministry was the incarnation of God’s perfect love among us.  Jesus was sent into the world to bring the experience of God’s love to us present in himself. 

            Likewise, Christ sends we disciples out, in order to carry forth that mission of love and reconciliation to the world. In a peculiar way, Jesus sends us out to be like a “Flash Mob” of Gospel proclaimers, sharing good news in the unexpected and unlikely lives of the people whom God loves. 

             “So that they may be one, as we are one.” If you ever have the opportunity to watch on YouTube video of old “Flash Mobs,” you will notice that the dancers are all in step with each other. They have a common purpose, and they have a team-based goal. Like those dancers, the church has common purpose and a clear mission, which is to be gathered into unity, so that we might carry forth Christ’s ministry of reconciliation. However, we sometimes get distracted. 

Challenges to the Gospel Flash Mob

            Dean Lueking wrote an article in Christian Century a few years ago, that describes the problems the church distractions cause and yet, he calls us back to our mission. Lueking asserts, “The blight . . . of power games, and the obsession with always being right still throws up huge, offensive roadblocks against Jesus’ prayer. Such sin drags us back to the Upper Room . . . to the grief of our Lord over our tearing apart the seamless robe of unifying love in which he would wrap us.” (2) When we lose sight of our mission, our purpose as witnesses of the gospel in the world fails, and the world around us is unable to come to know the love of God. We must live in unity in Christ in the church, so that others will know that same unity. For us to accomplish our mission, which is “to bring all people into unity with God and each other in Christ,” (BCP p. 855) we must seek our common purpose, and a mutual ministry together. We must dance the dance of love together. 

Dancing together

            Unity in mission is a reality if we first dance the jig of love of God in community.  We must never forget that our gathering together each week and more often is not merely for our benefit. In today’s Gospel, “Christ prays ceaselessly for and through the church to the world—that they may be one, as we are one.”(2) “For God so loved the world” does not say that God so loved the church. Now, that may be hard to hear, but the mission of God requires the church to go out, so God’s mission continues.  God “seeks to reclaim and redeem a world gone astray from that love, and to draw that world back into the sphere of that love.” (1) 

            When we come together, it is not merely so we might be at peace, without strife, but so that our mutual life together becomes a visible sign that challenges the world to embrace and follow the Way of Jesus. Because “if Jesus was sent into the world as one who sanctified himself for the sake of his followers, so that they might be sanctified in truth, and if they are sent into the world as he was sent into the world, does this not raise the question of the purpose of our sanctification.” (1) 

            Sanctification is about being set aside for a holy purpose. We are sanctified, we are set apart, and our purpose is to witness to life!  In Christ, we live as witnesses to life in the midst of tragedy, life in the midst of death, and life everlasting. Our hope is in Christ, in God’s promise of love, in which we will never be abandoned. Our lives are changed by this kind of faith, and it will change the world that is, if we but recognize the gift and give it away. With that kind of good news in our lives, we must share it. 

Our Mission

            We the church are brought together to learn to live the life of reconciliation together, but not for ourselves alone. It is by this communal dance of mercy, grace, reconciliation, and love that takes place among us, that we can go out and share it with the world. We are sent out to invite others into this dance. 

            We are called to be a “Flash Mob of the Gospel” showing up in unexpected places and situations: in coffeehouses, stores, and restaurants; showing up with the sick, poor, downtrodden, and the hopeless; and we just show up everywhere God sends us. We are unified in Christ, sanctified by love, and sent out into a hurting world. With joy, exuberance, energy and the support of the Holy Spirit, we are called to dance the jig of resurrection, of new life, of everlasting life in Christ, not just here, but out there. 

            When we show up out there as agents of Our Lord, everything changes. We meet people where they are, just as Jesus did. We dance and people watch then, suddenly people on the margins of the dance begin to move, some join in and dance beside us, and maybe others just tap their feet, and yet they hear the song. The song of God’s love plays loudly as we dance together. So here we are, taught, fed, strengthened and sent out.  However, as you leave these doors today, it is time to for us to go dance. After today’s sermon, the Eucharistic meal, the dismissal, the postlude, and coffee hour, “Go out into the world together. Go everywhere and go announce the Message of God’s good news to one and all.” (Mark 16:15 The Message) show up in the unexpected places, unified in your common purpose. Go, dance, and invite others to join with us.

1 Janzen, J Gerald. “The Scope Of Jesus’ High Priestly Prayer In John 17.” Encounter 67.1 (2006): 1-26. ATLASerials, Religion Collection. Web. 14 May 2012)

2 Lueking, F Dean. “That They May Be One.” Christian Century 114.14 (1997): 407-22. ATLASerials, Religion Collection. Web. 17 May 2012.)

SERMON Easter 5B 5-2-21 Celebration of New Ministry St. Luke’s Chickasha OK

Acts 8:26-40; Psalm 22:24-30; 1 John 4:7-21; John 15:1-8

Abiding

            I enjoy spending time with the love of my life Terri.  Sometimes, just being able to just sit on the sofa together, not saying anything to one another, we are able to know that our love abides in the moment. In that moment there is a gift of being together, breathing the same air, sharing the same space, enjoying the presence of each other’s company. 

            Jesus said, “Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me.”   

Abiding has nothing to do with doing.  Abiding has nothing to do about place or even a conversation.  Abiding with Christ is about being present with him in the moment, wherever we are.

            The vine metaphor Jesus uses reminds us that we must be intimately connected to Jesus and it is through that connectedness, that we are able to bear fruit in our lives.  Now as branches of the Jesus vine, our call as Christians requires more than mere connectedness. We are called to bear fruit.  We are called to convert the nutrients of God’s love into blossoms of beauty others can see.  Fruit bearing though often requires a little pruning. 

            We Episcopalians could use a little pruning.  We find it hard to bear the fruit, which Jesus requires of us.  The fruit Jesus is talking about is the fruit of our very lives, our witness to God’s love in our lives.  We should be so moved by our abiding love in Christ, that we just have to share the Good News with others.  For some of us though, talking to friends, family or co-workers about our faith can be a frightening experience, but sometimes it’s easier than we think, if we allow the Master Gardner to prune away our fears and reluctance.

Pruning for Growth

            On our patio in Edmond, Terri and I now have a nice planter with three tomato plants, basil, German Thyme, and Greek Oregano.  I especially love the Thyme we are growing.  Those tiny leaves, the fruit of that plant are a delicious herbal addition to any dish I prepare.  A few years ago, Terri and I had as similar garden at our home in Florida, but we went on vacation and had to be away for several days.  When we returned, only a small section of our garden had beautiful green tasty leaves.  The rest had almost died.  

            I watered the garden, added fertilizer, but some of it just wouldn’t spring back.  Finally, I gave up hope of bringing it back and so, I cut out all of the dead branches, and left the only a few tiny leaves of green.  Soon, in a few days I noticed something miraculous happening.  New growth emerged and in a week, I had a growing garden of tasty, herbalicious Thyme emerging once again.  

            At one point, I had so much of the herb I thought I would have to share it with some friends.  You do know that the best part of having an abundance of anything especially a garden is the joy of having so much that you can share with your neighbors. Just think though, I would not have had that abundant herb if I had not pruned away the dry and ineffective leaves.  

            Sometimes God has to prune us a little like that.  God has to clip away our fears and uncertainties that stand in the way of our growth, our mission, and our primary vocation as Christians, which is to share the Good News of God’s love with others with whom we abide.

Why Fruit is Important

            One day while serving in my last parish, I took a walk down the hall to check in with one of the preschool classrooms.  As I came close to their door, I noticed that all the little ones were readying themselves to leave the room.  The teacher stopped me and said, “Father Eric, the children were coming to see you, and they have something for the congregation.”  One little beautiful child came up to me and handed me one of our special project donation cups, which was filled to the brim with coins.  The Teacher said, “she has emptied her piggy bank and put half of it in the blue cup for the work of the parish.”  The little girl with an incredible smile handed me the cup, and as I took it, I almost cried.  She said, “I will bring the other half tomorrow Fr. Eric.” 

            What an incredible example of how her connection to the work of the church had changed that precious little girl’s life.  What an example of how that community through its sharing of Good News and abiding in love with others, brings others to know Christ’s love. Sometimes the fruit we bear emerges in ways we cannot imagine. 

            So, you might say, “But Canon Eric, that sharing Good News thing is just not for me.  I cannot do that,” you might say.  What if I told you that your ability to share Good News really has nothing to do with being a professional evangelist? Our ability to share good news is simply being willing to take a chance to offer an invitation, and we leave the rest up to God.  Here is an example.

Philip the Evangelist

            We heard the story in the Acts of the Apostles how the Spirit called Phillip out of his comfort zone and sent him on an evangelistic mission, all for the spiritual transformation of one person; a court official of Candace, queen of the Ethiopians.  Philip had no idea why he was sent to this guy, but he went.  He had no thought about bringing the man to conversion, but it happened.  He did not run up to the chariot and say, “Let me tell you about Jesus,” but eventually the Ethiopian did become a disciple.  Sometimes, the simplest of interactions are the ones that bring someone to hear the Good news of God’s grace.   Sharing Good News is our primary vocation as Christians.

            I was asked one day how the church might invite young families to worship with us. I said, “Simply ask them if they have a spiritual home or a home church.  If they say no, then merely say, “You always have a spiritual home at St. Luke’s, and you will find a caring community ready to support and love you and your family.”     Sharing God’s Good news my friends is as simple as that, and an invitation is all it takes.  Want proof?  Did you know that there are 32 million members of the Ethiopian Orthodox church alive and active today?  I have to believe that maybe that the encounter between Philip and the court official had something to do with all that.  Sometimes we bear fruit, and the results are not apparent at that time.

Trust God’s Spirit

            So what does an herb garden in Edmond Oklahoma have to do with vines, branches, bearing fruit and evangelism?  You know, just a few snips of those delicious green succulent leaves of herbs, really do add savory and herbal notes to the flavor of any dish.   Likewise, sharing a little time and abiding love with someone else, and offering an invitation to be in community, could be the simple words that changes and flavors the lives of someone else, and in ways we cannot even fathom. 

            Would you please give this a try? The next time you are with friends, and if as you chat, the topic of conversation becomes about troubles, fears, doubts, worries, joy, peace, religion, church, or faith, offer your friends an invitation to accompany you to St. Luke’s.  Ask, “would you like to check out this awesome group of people with me sometime, and then, I’ll treat you to lunch or dinner afterward.”  Then, just see what happens.  You may be surprised. 

            So, what do you think?  Is evangelism really possible in the Episcopal Church?  I think yes.  Sharing a little of your time to share the Good News of God’s love is really pretty simple, but it may take us out of our comfort zone.  Being an evangelist is not as hard as it seems, but it means we have to take a chance, share our story of transformation, and maybe, it means giving away just a little bit of something we have an abundance of – God’s grace, mercy, and love.  All of us are called to be evangelists and it really is easy, but to do so, we have to give away, just a little abiding love and maybe, just a little time. 

(1) Wilson, Stan. “On the Vine.” The Christian Century, vol. 123, no. 9, 02 May 2006, p. 19.

SERMON 4/25/21 Easter 4B, Grace Episcopal Church, Muskogee, OK

  

Acts 4:5-12 ; Psalm 23; 1 John 3:16-24 ; John 10:11-18

Sheep Behavior

           The early followers of Jesus wrestled with understanding who Jesus was, who they were as an emerging community, and they struggled with WHOSE they were.  Jesus used a metaphor about the Good Shepherd and the vocation of shepherding, to explain that relationship.  Sheep and shepherding seem disconnected from our neat and tidy suburbanite lives.  You do not see many shepherds and sheep here in Oklahoma, but raising sheep was a vital occupation in 1st century Palestine.  It was hard work, and the shepherd’s life was constantly at risk from the threat of wolves and bandits.  Good shepherds knew the risk and yet, spent long months moving their herds from cool streams to lush grazing plains, and to the safety of the home pen.  Good shepherds literally laid down their lives for their sheep, even though sheep can be peculiar animals that have some interesting behavioral characteristics.

            For instance, sheep instinctively flock together, follow a leader, and socially they can be either sweet and gentle as lambs, or crabby and dangerous as rams.  Sheep will band together in large groups for protection from predators, and they crave social contact. Sheep must maintain visual contact with other sheep to prevent stress, and to avoid becoming highly agitated if separated from the rest of the flock.  Sheep follow a leader and when one sheep moves the rest will follow, even if it is not a good idea. This instinct is so strong that it caused “400 sheep in 2006 in eastern Turkey to jump off a cliff, because one of the sheep tried to cross ravine, and the rest of the flock followed.” (1)  

            Lastly, lambs (baby sheep) and rams (adults) are as different as night and day.  Lambs are very active, playful, and curious and they love to climb. Rams on the other hand, can be very aggressive and have been known to cause serious injuries to people. Never turn your back on a ram, or you may pay the price. Now, you do understand that I am describing sheep here, and I am not even trying to make a connection between sheep and good church folk.  (wink, wink).

The Good Shepherd

            Jesus used this metaphor to explain to his followers (then and now) about the kind of loving relationship he has with us and that human behavior can be like sheep behavior.  We band together for companionship and mutual support, we naturally follow a leader or leaders, and we crave social interaction.  That whole lamb vs. ram part though, I will leave that up to your own imagination.  But as for me, I know I am mostly a gentle little lamb, but if I do not get enough sleep, enough food, some aviation time, or date night each week with my wife, I can be like a Dodge Truck; Ram tough.

            The hearers of this metaphor about sheep and the Good Shepherd understood what Jesus was talking about, because sheep herding was familiar to everyone.  What we need to hear in the story is this, “we Christians need one another” and we need Jesus! We have to rely on one another, and we need to come together, to mutually care for one another and to strengthen our faith journeys.  

            We also need to hear in Jesus’ metaphor that we have to rely on the Good Shepherd to lead us each day. Otherwise we have a tendency to fall back on our natural instincts to stray and leave the flock behind, becoming either like “indifferent, playful Lambs, or like angry, self-interested rams.” If we fall into either of these extremes in Christian community, we are blocked from spiritual growth, through the shepherding care and leadership of Jesus and the love and care we need to have for one another.

Love one another

            “We ought to lay down our lives for one another.”  That statement from John in his letter stands in defiance; to the way life celebrated in our culture today.  The idea of serving the greater good, or risking one’s own safety for someone else’s may be a thing of a bygone era.  Business and politics and life in general today is all about “dog eat dog,” “negotiate the best deal at all costs,” and only “the fittest survive.” 

            Our whole economic system is based on unfettered competition.  Whatever happened to, “let’s do what is best for the world,” “let’s care for those who cannot care for themselves,” and “what you do for the least of these, you do for me.”  In other words, what happened to “love one another?” Laying down our lives for each other requires us to release positions of power, influence, and acquisition to pursue what is best for the whole community, but fear causes us to resist that call.

            Stan Wilson in a Christian Century article wrote, “I suspect that not only do we fear the future, we also fear each other. We are afraid that somebody will try to take advantage of us, afraid that we will have to expose ourselves at our most intimate, private level. ”(2)  Jesus turns that concept upside down, and explains that we need to be like sheep, who flock together, trust one another, and most importantly, trust the Good Shepherd. 

            Sheep scatter and go rogue.  Sometimes folks in the flock go astray and go their own way. We Christians cannot be Christians in isolation.  We need intimacy, connectedness, and community to thrive.  Healthy community requires that we become vulnerable to one another, letting our guard down some and yes, removing our masks of power and society status and thus, laying down our lives for one another.  “But Eric, vulnerability is weakness,” you may say.

            Brene’ Brown, PhD/LCSW author, speaker, and researcher of vulnerability and shame, writes in one of her books, “In our culture we associate vulnerability with emotions we want to avoid such as fear, shame, and uncertainty. Yet we too often lose sight of the fact that vulnerability is also the birthplace of joy, belonging, creativity, authenticity, and love.”  

            Our common life must be one in which, we trust the Good Shepherd to guide us, and we trust our sisters and brothers whom we need, and with whom we must lay down our lives, in order for real love to emerge. We need to let down the walls, get real with one another, be a little vulnerable, and allow love to emerge among us.  We need to know WHO we are and WHOSE we are.

The Breakfast Club

             In 1984, I first watched the blockbuster movie “The Breakfast Club” and it changed me.  It was a film about five very different teenagers who because of bad behavior spent a whole Saturday in high school detention.  Their discipline assignment was to write a 1000 word essay about “who they think they are.”   

            This unlikely gathering of dissimilar teens start out the day, trying to endure the next nine hours together, maintaining their distance from one another and promising not to allow the boundaries between them to crumble.  But as they day progressed, and as they allowed themselves to be open, honest, and vulnerable to one another, they began to share more of their lives with each other.  As you can imagine something amazing happened.  

            These teens became an unexpected community, a band of friends, or as the movie called them, “The Breakfast Club.”  Their bogus masks, their made up identities, and their stoic personas fell away. These five unlikely teens became friends one day in an unlikely place, when through their vulnerability and unexpected love, their lives were changed forever.  They found their common connection and community emerged.  

            When we the Body of Christ begin to understand that we are the flock of the Good Shepherd, when we understand our common connection in Our Lord Jesus Christ, community grows authentically, and nothing can get in the way of our mutual love.  We must never forget WHO we are, and WHOSE we are. 

            Jesus calls us to be more than a mere gathering of friends, or a social club, or even a “Breakfast Club.”  He gathers us into his loving arms as a community of love and transformation, a family who welcomes change and experiences new life.  From that transformed group, Jesus sends us out those doors, as a lighthouse for other sheep that are not yet a part of this flock. 

            My sisters and brothers, we are not just poor little lambs, who have lost their way, scattered and tumbling off the cliffs of fear.  We are followers of Jesus, a community of love and grace, and we follow the one leader, the one Lord, the God in flesh who loves us and who reminds us in all circumstances of life, “I am the Good Shepherd and I lay down my life for my sheep.”  Our part is to be willing to lay aside our masks of fear and distrust, so that like Our Shepherd, we might  lay down our lives, our masks and our false personas, all for one another.

http://www.sheep101.info/201/behavior.html

2 Wilson, Stan. “Ties That Bind.” The Christian Century, vol. 123, no. 9, 02 May 2006, p. 18.

3 Long, Kimberly Bracken. “The Shepherd Jesus.” Journal for Preachers, vol. 29, no. 3, 2006, pp. 51-54

SERMON -Celebration of New Ministry Easter 3A 4/18/21 St. Paul’s, Claremore, OK

Acts 3:12-19; Psalm 4; 1 John 3:1-7; Luke 24:36b-48

Hope in the midst of troubles, disappointments, and fear  

            Over the last two Sundays, the lectionary has had us exploring Jesus’ resurrection and the events of the aftermath of that event.  We have been studying faith and hope in the midst of troubles, disappointments, and fear, and we have tried to connect it all to our world today.  I think now is the perfect time for us to spend some time focusing on faith in the midst of fear and anxiety.  Have you been watching the news lately?   Divisiveness, violence, scandal, and shootings abound around us.   

            When the news around us points to the negatives of humanity, we need some good news right now. We need some resurrection hope right now. We live in an unbelievably volatile time my friends, and fear and negativity are invading our peace and sense of security, but despite the negativity out there, hope is starting to emerge.  The fight against the pandemic is starting to turn and yet, we need more hope. Where do we find hope? In God’s promises, God’s presence, and God’s peace.

Hope in times of anxiety

            Wikipedia describes hope as “an optimistic state of mind that is based on an expectation of positive outcomes, with respect to events and circumstances in one’s life or the world at large.”  Today’s gospel is set in the context of hope reignited.  Today’s reading is a re-telling of John’s version of the story of Jesus with the disciples in the locked room post resurrection, which we heard last week.  This version of the story though, takes place after Jesus appeared to two disciples on the Road to Emmaus, where something incredible happened. 

            After an invitation to dine with these two weary travelers, Luke records, “When he was at the table with them, he took bread, gave thanks, broke it and began to give it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him, and he disappeared from their sight.” Before these two disciples had encountered the post-resurrection Savior, they were dismayed, disappointed, lost, and untethered.  Their Lord had been crucified and all hope seemed lost, but Jesus showed up and opened their eyes to hope. Then, through that hope and transformed assurance, they discovered their renewed vocational calling, which was to go and tell the story.  That is our vocation as baptized Christians and our mission in the world.

My Desire or God’s Desire

            Have you ever been a part of the perfect community?  If you have ever been a part of any human organization, you have experienced disappointment just like Jesus’ early followers.  Even in the church, we can become paralyzed to inaction and complacency, especially when unexpected things happen, when our comfortable places are tipped over, or when we become disappointed.  When things happen that we do not understand, or cannot control, or are outside our own desires, disenchantment can emerge. Like those early disciples who had great expectations of Jesus, those seemed to be dashed because of  the crucifixion. When they discovered his mission did not include the role of a mighty ruler and over thrower of the Roman regime; and when they realized he would be killed, they lost hope.    

            Negativity, fearfulness, uncertainty emerges in our disappointments. Despondency can be a syndrome in the church, and it can paralyze us from the calling God has in store for us.   For example, when we encounter change that we don’t like, or something new happens, or when God bursts in unexpectedly, we might react with, “we’ve never done that before,” or “I’m not going to budge on this one,” or “this change will not stand,” or “why can’t it be like it used to be.”   Maybe those are the times we should practice discernment and prayer and reject disappointment and despair.  Maybe we should seek God’s will for us through prayer, questioning our own motives and asking, “Is my response or are my actions now, more about me seeking God’s desire or am I seeking my own desire?  

            The truth is “God is always making things new!”  Thus, we must be willing for God to open our hearts and eyes to change our mindset, and to transform our default responses. We need to move from, “we are not enough” or “we do not have the resources” or “we need more space.”  We need to live in hopeful expectation. We need to dream big again and we need to invite God to give us a HUGE dream! Our conviction needs to move from “we are not enough” to  “What if?” “What if” is a powerfully simple phrase, and it has the power to release in us, God’s renewed creativity and hope in which, we can expect the unexpected. We may even need to expect a miracle or two.

Faith – Miracles

            Webster’s online dictionary describes “Miracles” as an extremely outstanding or unusual event, thing, or accomplishment. A few years ago, I was meeting with five teenaged men and their youth leaders, who were going to be confirmed the following Sunday.  I gave these young men an opportunity to ask me some tough faith questions and try to “stump the priest.”  There were some really tough questions like, “If you were not a Christian, what religion would you follow?”       But one young man asked me a very profound and insightful question.  He asked, “Fr. Eric, do you believe in miracles?” I first gave him the seminary non-committal answer which was “the early church’s experience of Jesus ministry included miraculous acts by Our Lord, and billions of Christians over the centuries have held these acts in high regard and considered them to be true.” 

            Then I thought about the question, searched deep in my soul, and I cut through the theological rhetoric and I offered this heartfelt answer, “In my own life, I have experienced things I cannot explain, and somehow through that mystery, I believe God was guiding and directing me and those around me.”  I have seen people experience healing, I have seen people experience incredible life change, and I have prayed with people who have experienced new life in all things.  Yes, I believe in miracles.”  I am not sure he fully understood my answer, but I planted a seed of faith in him that day.  You see, when we live in the mystery of God’s “What if,” the possibility of God bursting forth in our lives is real.  It is then that Christian community discovers our true vocation, our purpose, and our mission.

Vocational Witness

            Theologian Sarah Henrich once wrote, “Followers are made into witnesses who will have the power they need to understand and to teach, to speak of what they have seen and what they have learned, to share with others what God has been up to in Jesus: the keeping of God’s promise to be God of all people and bring God’s own reign into reality for us.”(1) In 2 Corinthians 4:7 (NRSV) we hear Paul’s encouragement to that early community, ”But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us.” I believe that when God leads us and we practice discerning listening, all things are possible, and we will find our vocation, our mission, our calling as disciples of Jesus Christ.

            Discipleship means believing that God’s desire for God’s people is to gather to be formed, spiritually fed, and prepared for service and then, to be sent out into the world as witnesses of the grace, through our local mission and through our daily lives.  However, if we merely rely on our own initiative, ideas, plans, and vision, we will be limited in our mission and we will never reach the potential God has before us.  If we rely on God’s spirit, we can accomplish anything that God calls us to do. We cannot do any of this ministry, without God’s leading and God’s support.

A New Day and New Adventure

            Today, we celebrate a new chapter in the ministry of St. Paul’s Claremore.  We celebrate not only Fr. Bill as the new Vicar, we celebrate you the people of God here.  We celebrate your mutual ministry together and my sisters and brothers, I believe God is calling St. Paul’s to a new day, a renewed way of life, a renewed vocation, and God has in store for you a future that you may not fully fathom today.  So, “What if” God is calling you to gather together in new ways of fellowship and fun where you can support one another.  “What if” God is inviting you to even more ways of service and local mission in which, you continue to feed those in need, where your current mission expands even more to provide for the destitute, where you can continue to help families in our midst who cannot care for themselves. “What if” God is calling you to renew and expand our Christian formation programs to grow our faith together for all ages.  

            The two disciples on the Road to Emmaus with Jesus eyes were opened and they recognized him.  Jesus will not abandon you in the mission before you, he walks the journey with you, and you must travel with Jesus seeking his leading, as you walk the road God has in store for you with hope and expectation.

            Erin Hansen wrote this beautiful poem of hope based on an imaginary dialogue between a Mamma bird and her baby who was about to jump out of the nest again.  It is an encouragement for all of us, as we begin new journeys of mission with God.  Erin wrote, “There is freedom waiting for you on the breezes of the sky, and you ask, “What if I fall?”  Oh but my darling, “What if you fly?”  St. Monica’s, God is calling us to a new day, we can no longer ask, “what if we fall.”  We must have hope and expect miraculous new adventures, expect the unexpected, and expect Christ to burst forth on the scene with us.  Our question from this day forward should be, “what if, with God’s help, we fly!”

 (1) Henrich, Sarah S. “Between Text and Sermon: Luke 24:36 53.” Interpretation, vol. 68, no. 4, Oct. 2014, pp. 431-434.

SERMON Easter 2B 4/11/21 Celebration of New Ministry, St. Basil’s Tahlequah, OK

Acts 4:32-35 ; Psalm 133; 1 John 1:1-2:2; John 20:19-31

            “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.” We all have had doubts.  I am sure that at least once in our lives, most of us have proclaimed, “I’ll believe it when I see it,” or “I doubt that,” or “The proof is in the pudding.”  Thomas the Twin, the disciple in today’s gospel has been called “Doubting Thomas,” despite the fact that many theologians think that label is a misinterpretation.  Thomas was not a doubter; he was a realist.  As the narrative goes, a few days before the gathering in the locked room, Thomas had witnessed Jesus being nailed to the cross and faced the reality of his death.  When he asked for proof of Jesus’ scarred hands, Thomas was not a doubter; based on his  experience, he simply did not believe that Jesus had been raised.  

            There is a subtle, but distinct difference between unbelief and doubt.  Doubt is a status between belief and disbelief.  Doubt involves uncertainty, distrust, or a lack of sureness about something.  When in doubt, the mind remains suspended between two polar opposite conclusions, and the people who find themselves in this place, may not be able to commit to either assertion.  Thomas was not in the place of doubt, he merely did not believe.   Doubt on the other hand, is a part of life and it may very well be a part of faith.

TRUST

            In addition to Thomas’ misidentification as a doubter, some interpret the story as if Jesus chided or shamed Thomas for his unbelief.  Jesus did not shame Thomas for unbelief; he helped him come to belief.  Throughout his ministry, Jesus gave people that which they needed in order to come to faith.  He did this with countless other disciples:  Peter, Mary Magdalene, the blind man, the lame, and so many others who had doubts.  Through Thomas’ experience, John the gospel writer shows us how the process of faith emerges, grows, and transforms.  

            When Thomas came to belief in Christ, his heart was changed.   Thomas not only acquiesced to his newfound knowledge, that knowledge led him to a faith proclamation.  The seed of faith had been planted and he responded in turn, with TRUST.  This unbeliever, in a pivotal moment, was able to proclaim that Jesus was “My Lord and My God.”  When the evidence of the crucifixion became evident in Christ’s resurrection, Thomas did not jump on the fence and say, well, maybe Jesus arose and maybe he’s God.  No, Thomas jumped over the fence and he became a believer.  Thomas not only believed in the reality of the resurrection that took place in Jesus Christ, but he came to acknowledge Jesus Christ as God Incarnate.  Suddenly, Thomas’ belief reframed his whole life, and he put his trust fully in God. Thomas had faith.  

FAITH

            A biblical scholar Rex Chaplain once offered that there are several elements of faith.  He said, “Christian faith involves an assertion of the truth of what is believed (the faith), a personal experience of that truth (trust in God), a kind of loving that flows from it (faith in action), and a constancy of approach (faithfulness).” (Rex Chapman [Dictionary of Christian Spirituality, Westminster Press, Philadelphia, 1983], p. 144)

            Faith begins when we affirm our belief that Jesus is Lord of our life.  In other words, we recognize that in Christ, we are in a loving relationship with God.  That acknowledgement though, does not deny that there may be times of uncertainty and doubt.  Remember, doubt is a part of any relationship, because love comes with its moments of doubt.  Ask anyone who has forgotten an anniversary or birthday and afterward, faced the wrath of their loved one, you will know the feeling of uncertainty in a relationship.  

            Skepticism is a part of the human psyche, but on the journey of faith, doubt is not failure.  We have to remember that living in faith is a marathon, and not a 100-yard dash.  Many saints through the ages have lived a lifetime of believing and proclaiming, as well as doubting and questioning.  For us, our mere presence here today acknowledges that endurance in faith is the key.

FAITH IN ACTION

            Faith transforms us and it moves us to express that transformation.  When we proclaim Jesus as Lord, we acknowledge that we are adopting a life of love, peace, forgiveness and reconciliation.  Our faith should change how we live.   The Spirit working in us, giving us space for grace, transforms us so that we can give space for grace for others.  

            The Church’s mission is to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ.  We gather, but we are also sent out to be reconcilers and restorers in the world. As the co-missioners with Christ, we are sent out to heal, we are sent out to restore, and we are sent out to show others that Christ frees us from the hold our failures have over us.  

            Jesus said, “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”  Sin is missing the mark thus, missing the lofty goal of loving God and loving neighbor.  God restores us when we fall short. The question for us then is, do we restore others when they fall short?  That’s what we are sent out to do.  If we forgive, they are forgiven; if we retain, they are retained. 

MISSION IN TAHLEQUAH 

            You the good people of St. Basil’s Tahlequah, and priest, Fr. Rogers are embarking on a mission; a mission from God.  You are doing this together as a team. Jesus is sending you out together, to engage in his ministry of reconciliation in the world.  Your belief that Jesus is the Lord of your Lives means you embrace his ministry of love, peace, reconciliation, and restoration.  

            Through that ministry, you continue to be  instruments of God’s love in our relationships with those closest to us, in our relationships with each other in the church, and more directly, in our witness of God’s love in this community and beyond.   

            Your mission has been given to you, and its life-changing power continues to this day.  God’s mission of love is made possible because of the resurrection of Jesus Christ; God’s reconciliatory love that overcomes death.  Despite the scars of our lives, we through our baptism and by the gift of the Holy Spirit breathed into us, we can go out carrying on Christ’s mission of love in the world.  So, now that this new chapter in the life of this congregation has begun, continue loving those who are broken, those who are seeking God’s love, and by this work, we the Church universal, and the Church here in Tahlequah are revealing the grace that transforms scars into Good News for all.

SERMON Palm Sunday 4/11/19 St. Peter’s Episcopal Church, Coalgate, OK

Isaiah 50:4-9a; Psalm 31:9-16; Philippians 2:5-11; Luke 22:14-23:56

Drama of the Palms

            One of my favorite parts of Holy Week has always been Palm Sunday.  I remember as a child, the Palms and how excited I was to wave them as we walked into the church.  I loved how my Mother showed me how to convert the palm into a cross.   You too may say, “I have participated in this liturgy for years, but I do not understand why we have the procession of waving palms and singing “All Glory Laud and Honor.” And why does that joyous celebration abruptly change into a dramatic reading of Our Lord’s journey to the cross.  Well, let me try and explain.

            The Palm Procession has been a liturgical action in Holy Week, and in the Roman, Anglican, and other Christian traditions for centuries, but there is more than a reenactment ritual going on here.  Many churches begin the Liturgy of the Palms with a brief sojourn, usually from the parish hall or an outdoor spot.  That little walk or procession is intended to bring into the present moment, the events of the cheering crowd at Jesus’ triumphant arrival in the city.  We actually take our place among the crowd that day that was shouting, “All Glory Laud and Honor.” 

             Then, once inside the church, we re-enact the gospel narrative by having select parishioners read certain parts of the story, thus putting all of us in the roles of the characters themselves.  We do all this, so that we might bring into the present moment, our place in the same crowd, and in the group of closest disciples.  We join the story that begins with “All Glory Laud and Honor” and leads to “Crucify Him, Crucify Him.” This liturgy makes present for us the realities of our own struggles as discipleship.  Each one of us, if we are honest wrestle with this issue, “what kind of Savior it is that we seek and what symbol of our discipleship we are willing to carry; a palm or a cross.”

Palm or Cross

            Let me share with you a few examples of the folks in today’s gospel who could not decide between palm or cross.  In each instance of the last few days of Jesus ministry, from the Last Supper, to the disciples with Jesus in the Garden praying, to Jesus’ arrest, to Peter’s act of cutting off the ear off of one of the soldiers, to his thrice denial of Jesus, his disciples struggled with what kind of Lord they wanted to follow.  Even the crowd that cheered for Jesus upon his arrival, later asked for the release of a violent insurrectionist in place of the innocent one we follow.  

            After their shouts of “Crucify Him” at his trial,  we hear Jesus on the cross say, “Father forgive them for they know not what they do.”  As the crowd taunted the tortured savior the shouting, “You saved others, save yourself Jesus,” we hear a criminal’s plea, “ Jesus remember Me when you come into your Kingdom.” Jesus last words were, “Father I commend my spirit,” and then we hear a soldier’s regret for his action,  “Surely, this man was innocent,” and then Jesus died.          

            The crowd, his disciples, and others just sitting on the sidelines debated about who Jesus was, and in their struggles, they experienced cycles of adulation, rejection, and regret.  How many of us do the same? As the baptized we journey in faith with Jesus every day, but the path of our discipleship is lined with both palms and crosses, and like the crowd, we are often unsure what kind of Savior we really want.

My King

            We are not that different from those early disciples.  When they shared that meal of memorial with Jesus, it was not an hour later that they were arguing about who was going to be greatest among them.  They seemed to forget his teachings and warnings about self-denial and self-giving love.  It was as if they forgot all that he taught them and they still had hopes of a power-wielding King, who would satisfy their own personal desires.  Most Christians struggle to choose whether we want to follow a “king of the palms,” or a “king of the cross.”

            To follow the “King of the Cross” means we choose the counter-cultural, arduous path of self-giving love, while rejecting the normative, tranquil path of self-satisfaction or self-preservation.  When life becomes uncomfortable and we must take a stand to protect the innocent, to bring justice to the oppressed, to claim peace in the midst of chaos, or to merely claim Jesus as the Lord of our lives, we have the capacity to be like Peter, and deny our affiliation. I personally wonder sometimes, if I faced the same threat of rejection, violence, or arrest over my faith, would I be like Peter?

Imagine being There

            We post-resurrection Christians hear this story each year, but we hear it from the perspective of looking back, but what if we were like those people in the crowd and we did not know the outcome of the story; what if we did not know about resurrection?  I wonder if would alternatively desire a Savior who would wield power against our enemies, rather than a Savior who shows us how to love our enemies. 

            It is a frightening thought, but maybe we might have been the one that pounded the nails into his hands, or the one who spit in his face, or the one who denied him three times.  Imagine for a moment you were in the crowd, would you have shouted “Crucify him, Crucify him.”  Despite their rejection of his radical love in action, Jesus still said, “Father, for­give them; for they do not know what they are doing.” 

            We educated, postmodern, post-resurrection Christians process with palms in hand and enact the story every year, but we need to be reminded that we too need ongoing sanctification in our lives, because each one of us must decide whether we want a humble, self-giving, serving Lord, or a Lord who serves our own desires. 

The Crowd Today

            Palm or a cross; the choice is always ours.  Will we follow Jesus all the way to Golgotha, or will we stop in the courtyard near the warm and comfortable fire, and deny him like Peter.  Honestly, none of us want to go the full distance to the disgraceful death of a cross, but thanks be to God, none of us have to do so, that is because we have God’s grace.

            God’s grace is the gift we merely accept.  We cannot work for it, do enough to gain it, or serve in enough ministries to manipulate it.  It is the free gift of love from God, and it is ours despite, how we often reject the humbled Lord, who intercedes on our behalf saying, “Father forgive them for they know not what they do.” 

            So, which will it be, a palm or a cross?  It really is an easy choice, that is if we can  trust in God’s grace, rely on God’s direction, and seek God’s will and humbly pray, “Father, I nee you every day.  Father, please, also forgive me; because when it comes to following you, I really DO NOT know what I am doing.” 

REFERENCES

(1)  King, Michael A. “Holy Hate.” The Christian Century, vol. 124, no. 23, Nov. 2007, p. 18. 

SERMON 3/21/21 Lent 5B, All Saint’s Episcopal Church, Miami, OK

Jeremiah 31:31-34; Psalm 51:1-13; Psalm 119:9-16; Hebrews 5:5-10; John 12:20-33

We wish to see Jesus

            “Sir, we wish to see JESUS!”  There is a very interesting event going on today in today’s Gospel reading.  Hungry “wanna be” converts were looking for the Bread of Life –  Jesus.  They were people outside the Jewish community, who were coming to Jesus’ followers, to get a glimpse of the preaching, healing, and life-changing Rabbi.  These Greek outsiders’ desire to join the Jesus movement was quite a shock to his disciples.  Can you imagine Phillip’s reaction to this evangelistic opportunity?  I never understood why he didn’t take them to Jesus, show them Jesus.  Rather, he forgot his mission as an apostle and became nervous about strangers coming to meet the Lord. 

            Phillip, rather than welcoming these people and taking them to see Jesus, he left them hanging. He went to get Andrew and then, the two of them ran to the Lord . When they arrived, Jesus reminded them what his ministry was all about, and what their ministry was about likewise.  However, he veiled response in allegory and metaphor, which they did not quite understand. He said something about a seed dying, so there might be much fruit to blossom.  They both probably looked at each other with eyes rolling in their heads, “Here we go again, another parable.”  Jesus explained, “If you who love your life lose it, and you who hate your life in this world you will keep it for eternal life.”  

            In other words, Jesus was telling them to drop their preconceived notions about the community the Greeks wanted to join, about who was welcome and who was not.  In other words, Jesus was saying, “when we die to ourselves and our own personal desires, and when our own comfort becomes less important, than allowing Christ to live in and through us for others, we will find a life that is everlasting.”  Leaving behind what we want for what God wants is how we will find the life God promises:  a life of joy, peace, transformation, mercy and grace.  The best part is this, we will have the opportunity to share that life with others.  In dying to our old selves, we find life that will last in service.  If we do that, then others will see Jesus in us. 

The small church

            “We wish to see Jesus.”  In an old part of one of the cities in my old diocese Southwest Florida, a quaint little church has been showing people Jesus for 65 years.  Early on in its history, many folks came to the doors of the church to be a part of a new, thriving community.  The people of this church always openly welcomed and embraced new folks, folks who like the Greeks in today’s gospel, “wished to see Jesus.”  With each member there came new ideas and new ways of doing things.  The whole church lived out a culture of hospitality and openness to change, and everyone seemed eager to try “out of the box” ventures, in order to bring others to know Christ.  Their mission was clear, and they wanted to help people, “who wished to see Jesus.” 

            About five (5) years ago, the lay leaders of that community noticed that attendance was dropping off, and the growth they had once experienced, seemed to be diminishing and many feared the worst – decline.  They decided not to wait until that day and so, they invited a consultant to help them do some deep soul searching.   That little wonderful community discovered an unexpected truth, which was a little difficult for them to hear.  They had fallen into a malaise happening in many churches in America.  They had forgotten their mission, their neighborhood, and the needs around them.  They had become so busy looking inward, they failed to see how much the community around them had changed.  

            Many of the families that had once lived in the little town, had fled many years ago when the jobs moved.  Plus, there was another major shift in religion throughout our nation, which has affected church life dramatically in the last 30 years.   The Church’s mission in the 21st century has changed and is changing and thus, we must change with it.

The Nones      

            In our nation today, nearly 30% of Americans have no connection to a faith community at all.  in 1988, that number was only 8% of the population.  The number of people who are not participating in church life has nearly quadrupled in about 30 years.  That little church in Florida missed this change as well, but they decided that in order to be witnesses of God’s grace in this culture, they had to do things differently. The church must realize that we can no longer depend on a charismatic leader, good music, a good sermon, and awesome liturgy, in order for our congregations to thrive.  

            We all need to once again become evangelists who tell the story of how wonderful our Lord is and how in the community with which we are a part, “helps other see Jesus … in them.” Now this all may sound ominous, but I have great hope that we can once again can become vital mission-minded communities.  Why? Because God is always making things new, and that is Good News for all of us.  It is Good News only if we are willing to release our grip on what has been, so that which we are being called to become, might emerge.  

            Now that truth may mean we have to leave behind a few things that we hold so dear, and welcome change that new people might bring.  However, we don’t have to leave our beautiful liturgy or even our favorite hymns behind.  What may be most difficult is that we have to leave behind our internal focus, and die a little, in order to experience resurrection. It is never easy to die to what we have been, so that we can live again into the blessed reality that God is calling us into.  However, our neighbors are no longer going to church the way the used to do, but I believe they still look to the church and say, “We wish to see Jesus.” So, we have to show them Jesus in us in all we do.    Jesus always welcomed the outsider, healed them, incorporated them into his band of followers, and restored them to their rightful place.  We need to do that too, which may require us to embrace our ongoing mission of love; dying to self.

Dying to Self 

            Jane Tomaine in her book, “St. Benedict’s Toolbox: The Nuts and Bolts of Everyday Benedictine Living” wrote about dying to self.  She wrote, “Over time conversions bring us to a different place.  We become a different person.”  Becoming a new person, a new community opens the door for transformation, which does not  happen when we are static, when we accept the status quo, when we are comfortable, or when we are lethargic.  

            When we experience the death of a relationship, we may emerge on the other side of that experience, a new person.  When we leave a life-long career to retire, or to go back to university to pursue another degree, we must face the pain of dying to their old career, to emerge on the other side in a new way of life.  When we leave a home that we knew and loved, a life that fed us and sustained us for years, we may have to endure a painful death of identity, to emerge in the new place and find new life.  

            The Good News Jesus brought us was not about status quo. Jesus’ radical message of self-giving love, Jesus’ ministry of healing and reconciliation stood in contrast to a static religious and social system that was exclusive, oppressive, and self-indulgent.  Jesus was a change agent, a transformer, reformer, a “turn-upside down the tables,” full revelation of God in flesh.  When Jesus loved as we are to love,  the blind saw, the lame walked, the broken-hearted rejoiced, and the mourners celebrated.  God is always infusing new life into moments of death.   For that little church I mentioned earlier, God brought new life to it as well.

New Life

            A friend of mine from that church a few years ago saw potential in that little church that no one else saw, but she did her research about the neighborhood and discovered the church was located smack-dab in the middle of a “food dessert” in the city.  No grocery stores, no farmer’s markets, and no fresh vegetables were within driving distance of the people who lived in that area of the city.  So, the neighborhood had a need.  The church had land. The congregation had a desire to help their neighbors see Jesus.

            Today, that little church provides land on their property for their neighbors to grow their own food.  That little church grows fresh, healthy food and either sells it at a reasonably affordable cost or gives it away to the hungry folks living around them.  You see, they are feeding their neighbors because their neighbors “wished to see Jesus.”  They shifted their focus outside the four walls, found out what people needed, and they showed them Jesus in gifts of food and love.

            All around us, people are testing the waters of faith and are watching what the churches are doing, hoping to get a glimpse of the Master’s face through the lives of his followers.  Are we really ready for that change that is happening?  If we are truly listening to our neighbors, we are being told every single day, “I want to see Jesus.”  We the church must accept this new reality, which is that we are the only lens, through which people will ever see Jesus on this earth.  The difficult part for many of us is that our lens must be re-focused on love, service, and taking Jesus to others. 

            In a world that is changing so quickly, we must accept Our Lord’s command and really die to our old selves, so something new might emerge.  If we are to remain a reflection of the Master’s face in the years to come, we must be willing to shrug off that which keeps us from emerging into that, to which we are being called.  We may have to die to our old selves, so the new life the Spirit is infusing, might become incarnate in and through us.    People are asking us the church, please, “we want to see Jesus.”