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.”

SERMON 2/28/21 Lent 2B. St. James OKC, OK

Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16; Psalm 22:22-30; Romans 4:13-25; Mark 8:31-38

Discipleship is not easy!

            Discipleship is not always an easy path to follow.  In today’s story, we hear about one of Jesus’ Apostles that was torn between his own agenda and the requirements of discipleship that Jesus demands.  Mark’s gospel records that Jesus “began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.”  Then Peter, who clearly heard what the mission of Jesus was all about, “(he) took him (Jesus) aside and began to rebuke him.”  Imagine that.  Peter had the audacity to scold Jesus.  Peter the Apostle, who never seemed to get it decided that he knew best.  This is the same guy, who a few days earlier boldly proclaimed Jesus as the Messiah, the Son of God.  Now, just a few days later, Peter corrects Jesus, reprimands him, and tries to convince him to take an alternative path of Messiahship. 

            This is where it gets interesting.  In his response to Peter’s rebuke, Jesus does not mix words about what it means to be a disciple.  In fact, he openly says that following him means a life of suffering, rejection, and the threat of death.  We should not be surprised, because that was the path Jesus was on; the cross.  Our dear, troubled brother Peter got his priorities a little messed up.  Peter was thinking like James and John, who had a different idea of discipleship.  Even their mother was hoping for seats of honor for them in the coming Messianic age.  They too misunderstood the cost of discipleship, because they naively did not know, that those coveted places on the left and right of Jesus also crosses of torture.  

            Peter’s rebuke of Jesus ended with a definitive dividing line between discipleship and his own agenda.  Jesus told Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” (NRSV) Jesus called Peter the oppressor.  In other words, he was saying, get behind me Peter and stop trying to “exercise authority or power over me in a harsh and burdensome way.” Peter was trying to keep Jesus from his mission, because his own needs, desires, and interests got in the way of accepting what it truly means to follow Jesus.  Peter needed to re-align his priorities, and be willing to risk it all, in order to discover the way of life found only in following Our Lord.  Jesus said, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” Setting aside our agenda for Jesus’ agenda, means we are no longer the center of the universe in our own worlds.

We are Not Masters of Our own Universe

            Our Lord points out that the requirements of discipleship is self- denial, and the willingness to lose everything, including our very lives, all for the sake of the Gospel.  When Peter rebuked Jesus, he must have been thinking that Jesus’ self-preservation was the only path worthy of Jesus’ mission.  Peter slipped into a conventional wisdom we have that permeates our culture today.  That idea is that when our personal success is the only road we follow, we think it is the only way to happiness, joy, and fullness of life.  This wisdom seems to proclaim that we are at the center of our own existence, but that is not what following Jesus, who is the true center of our lives, looks like.

            Abundant life that God promises is not based on individualism, but on the Body of Christ, the church, living in harmony, sharing good news, and serving others.  The ground of our being, the center of life itself is found in Christ.  If that is the essence of our faith, and I believe it is, then our rightful place in the grand design of God is not at the center of life, but as a part of the amazing whole community of God.  Jesus’ call to discipleship means we are a part of the larger human family and as such, we must release our own desire, our own interests, and our own priorities for the sake of others.   Now that is not an easy thing for many of us to do.  However, if we can release the hold we have on our own life, when we risk our very self for another, then we can come to know what it means to be in the family of God.  

Discipleship: Self-Giving Love

            There once was a young couple named Carl and Lori.  They were very much in love and had everything they thought they needed: a new house, great jobs, and a bright future.  After a few years of marriage, Carl noticed that something was not right with his health, and he decided to go to the doctor for a little checkup.  A few weeks and after several tests, it was discovered that Carl was suffering from a life-threatening illness.  Life suddenly  changed as Carl began a regimen of treatments. Throughout all the procedures, throughout his recovery, throughout the physical therapy, his beloved Lori was right there with him.  

            Many times, Lori denied her own need for a respite from the long nights at the hospital.  She denied her own frustration with Carl’s slow and uncertain recovery.  She denied her own fear of the outcome.  A friend was so concerned about her she asked, “Will you not take some time to rest, you must be exhausted.”  Lori did not respond because she knew that the gift of her love and dedication to her beloved husband, emerged out of the depth of mutual giving, which she and Carl always shared. This kind of self-giving love that she demonstrated showed her resilient commitment to Carl, which went beyond her needs, her own comfort, and her own interests.  She realized that her self-interest was secondary to the relationship and love she and Carl shared. 

            This revolutionary kind of love without strings or exclusive association is what our Lord means for we disciples.  When he said, “deny yourself and take up your cross and follow me,” it was because that kind of self-giving love led him to the cross.  The journey to Golgotha for Jesus was one that began, not in the Garden at Gethsemane, nor in the High Priest’s court.  It all started with a small baby, born in the poverty of a stable in Bethlehem. The journey to the cross began with God’s willingness to humble Godself and walk among us.  That same journey continued when Jesus showed up for the healing of the broken, blind, and lame.   

Self -Giving Love is the Path to Grace

            When Jesus challenged conventional traditions in order to heal on the Sabbath, he re-prioritized self-preservation for the sake of self-giving.  When he ate with sinners, he re-prioritized self-preservation for sake of self-giving.  When he was on the cross of torture, he proclaimed, “Father forgive them for they know not what they do.” Rather than come down from the cross in power, he re-prioritized self-preservation for sake of self-denial and self-giving.  Nonetheless, this self-giving love came with a price because it eventually meant giving up his own life for those whom he loved.  The peril of self-giving love means facing death of self, and the threat of personal rejection.

            Some Christians today, like our brother Peter, do not quite understand Jesus’ call to self-denial, taking up one’s cross, and following him.  Some believe that taking up our cross and following Jesus means we have to give up joy and peace, or assurance and love.  I do not believe Jesus’ intended his promise of life and life abundantly to be a miserable existence.  I do believe that when Jesus said that if we “lose your life we will find it,” he meant that if we re-prioritize what is important, we will discover the life of freedom, peace, and joy found only in Christ.  In today’s culture, to follow Jesus is a radical notion, which comes with a price, and one many of us may not be willing to pay. 

            If you watch television for 30 minutes on any given day, you will soon realize that self-gratification is the greatest value advocated for in our culture. With the right car, the right clothes, and the right gadgets, we are promised by society, a life of joy and happiness.  That is not what Jesus teaches us.  Jesus says, that if  we focus on loving others at the expense of our own interests, we will participate in Christ’s ministry of pouring out from ourselves, the grace that is abundantly given to us.  Pouring out grace is the church’s real mission in the world.  

            At our baptism we made promises that we will do the following: proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ,  seek and serve Christ in all persons loving your neighbor as yourself, strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being. We promise to love others just as Jesus taught us to do.  In these perilous times in which we live, all around us, the shadow of death abounds.  Because of this pandemic, people are suffering from economic devastation, depression, broken relationships, and social injustices.  A life without dignity, justice, peace, and love is not life giving, but life pilfering.  The church has a God-given mission to respond to the plight of those suffering around us. That mission means that we the Church may have to lose our own internal communal interests, desires, and priorities, in order to participate in life and life abundantly.  

            Joel Marcus wrote an article in the Christian Century, in which he stated, “Through that victory (Jesus’ work on the cross) the church believes, a strange vitality has been released into the world, a spirit of hope that still erupts in arenas of weakness, suffering and death.”(1)  “Death, the last enemy, has already been defeated by Jesus’ rising from the dead and thus, God’s love will never be squelched, it cannot be quieted, and it must not be taken for granted.”  The cross was an instrument of Roman torture and punishment, but for us, it is a symbol of self-giving love and the symbol of our mission as the church.  For each of us, we have a choice to make as disciples.  We can, like so many other “wanna be” disciples, choose to “take up our cross and follow him,” or we can choose our own path, and decide to turn around and walk our own way.  Jesus is asking us, like he did with Peter, which path will your discipleship take?

REFERENCES

(1) Marcus, Joel. “Uncommon Sense.” Christian Century 117.24 (2000): 860-22. ATLASerials, Religion Collection. Web. 28 Feb. 2012.)

SERMON 1/31/21 Epiphany 4B St. Paul’s, Claremore, OK

Deuteronomy 18:15-20; Psalm 111; 1 Corinthians 8:1-13; Mark 1:21-28

Everyday Demons

            In today’s gospel we hear Jesus exorcise the demon of affliction of a man.  “Jesus rebuked him (the demon), saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!” And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him.”  Sometimes the demons we face in this world today are not as obvious as this. Let me explain. A few years ago, while living in Florida, Terri and I were on our way home from church, and we stopped for a few things at the local grocery store.  As we entered the checkout line, I noticed a young mother with three kids in front of us, who seemed to be struggling with paying for her groceries.  With limited cash in hand and half her groceries still not yet scanned, she said  to the cashier, “I don’t have enough money, I am so sorry.”   Although she was a well-dressed woman and her kids were well groomed, she was struggling.   I could see in her eyes the despair and obvious burden that was weighing heavily on her.  

            I felt compelled to respond to her dilemma and so, without delay. I said, “Can we do something nice for you today?”  I told the cashier, “We’ll take care of the rest of the groceries for this nice lady and her children.”  She smiled and gave us a look of shock and a calming sigh of gratitude.  She confessed, “I’m usually on the other end of this kind of situation, but my family is struggling right now.”  I said, “Don’t worry, we all need help sometimes.”  I gave her one of my business cards and said, “If we can do anything to help you all, just call.”  

            In this brief exchange, we stepped into a moment of grace and freed someone the bonds of shame, despair, and fear to be broken.  In that moment, the demons of despair and poverty had been exorcised, and this woman and her three children were set free.  You see, not all the demons in this life that we must face are those, which possess our lives through the sensationalism seen on television or in the movies. Sometimes demonic circumstances threaten our peace, our joy, and our faithfulness.

Communal Restoration

            Jesus’ exorcised the demons that plagued the people of his time.  His work was not merely a contest of opposing spiritual forces, but those exorcisms were more like a declaration of the power of God, which could reverse the bonds of human despair, brokenness, and estrangement.  God breaks that which binds us and keeps us from being recipients of the gift of grace.  In Jesus’ day, those demons were sometimes disease, blindness, lameness, physical ailments, or mental incapacity.  When Jesus called a demon out, he not only restored the person to full health physically, but a spiritual healing was just as efficacious. 

            Do you remember the healing story of the woman who suffered from profuse bleeding?  She, because of her physical ailment, was considered a social outcast and a person unclean and ritually unworthy of human contact.  Jesus broke the bonds of her estrangement from the community and restored her to full humanity by giving her back her place in the community.  This ministry of spiritual communal restoration continues today in the work of Christ in us today.  Jesus breaks the bonds of our estrangement from each other and calls us into right relationship with God and with our neighbor.  

            This is truly the good news which is “in Christ, we are healed.”  In Christ, we are restored.  In Christ, we can live in the hope of a full, grace-filled future.  I imagine any one of us can look back over our lives and if honest, we can identify moments of healing that we have experienced.  Whether we struggled with addiction, we were estranged in our relationships, we suffered from depression, we wrestled with anger or you name it, we have all at one time or another, were in desperate need of God’s grace.  The healing power of Christ is good news, and it is news that we should be compelled to not only experience, but to share.  The writer of today’s Gospel said that because of Jesus’ healings, “his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.”  The message of Jesus’ love and healing was so compelling, that the Good News did not sit idly on a shelf, and the power of the message could not be contained, and I am convinced that it cannot be contained today.  

Telling the story of Our Healing

            The message we Christians must share is God’s grace and it is as relevant today as it was 2000 years ago.  However, the church will have to spread that news in this changing culture differently than ever before. It is not enough for us to just open our doors, run a few ads in the paper, have some wonderful fellowship events and then, expect the people to show up to church and be transformed by Christ.  We have new generations emerging, who have never, ever heard the Gospel, and have never, ever even been in a church.  The person who used to cut my hair was from that emerging group.  She always had a new set of interesting questions about faith for me.  I remember once she said,  “Eric, I believe Jesus was a good man and I like his teachings, but I don’t get that whole religion  thing that you are into.”  How do we Christians today, respond to something like that and how do we share Good News?  

            Trying to explain religion to someone who did not grow up in church, is like a car mechanic trying to explain a transmission to someone who has never even seen a car.  Spreading the good news in this culture of ours, which has changed so much over the last 20 years, will require us to be evangelists or messengers of grace, through the lives we lead, the actions we take, and the joy we share.   And yes, I know we Episcopalians are afraid of that word evangelism, because we think it means something else; like bullhorns, gospel tracts, or knocking on doors.  Evangelism is letting our light of Christ shine in everything we do.  Evangelism is letting the transforming healing Christ has made possible in us, be seen by others. 

            You see the forces of estrangement, poverty, isolation, division, and hatred abound in this world of ours.  People need to see that those demons can be exercised by the love of Christ and they can only realize that possibility in us, and folks will get this religion thing we are so into. When this ministry of Christ continues in the world in us, faith will spread.  When young and old alike are freed from the bonds of the injustices of poverty, racism, classism, and discrimination of all sorts and types, the story of grace continues.  When love wins, when peace prevails, then Jesus’ fame will spread throughout the region.  Jesus’ fame will spread because it will be his followers, his disciples, his gathered people that will carry the message not only with the right words, catchy marketing, or great programs, but it through our very own ministry of exorcising and breaking the afflictions that hold individuals in bondage from the grace of God and the love of each other.