SERMON 11/1/20 All Saint’s Day, St. Matthew’s, Enid, OK

Revelation 7:9-17; Psalm 34:1-10,22; 1 John 3:1-3; Matthew 5:1-12

All Saints 

Today, we commemorate All Saints Day; remembering our place in the Communion of Saints.  Wikipedia defines the Communion of Saints as “the spiritual union of the members of the Christian Church, living and the dead. They are all part of a single “mystical body”, with Christ as the head, in which each member contributes to the good of all and shares in the welfare of all. “Today especially, we remember, honor, and look to the examples of all of Jesus’ disciples (living and dead) who are icons of hope because we trust in God’s promises. Likewise, today we look to those saints who are sitting right here among us, gathered in communion and in fellowship with each other.  We who live in the hope of God’s promise of life everlasting, trust in God’s promise “that nothing, not even death stands between us and God’s love.”  We are all saints in God’s eyes, but being a Saint is not about heroic or having some super-human faithfulness.  Sainthood is about everyday living.

The life of sainthood is a bit messy.  In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus taught us that sainthood includes being poor in spirit, joining together with those who mourn, being meek, and being hungry and thirsty for righteousness.  Sainthood also requires us to be merciful to others, to live pure in heart, to be peacemakers, and to be ready to be persecuted for pursuing right relationships with God and each other (righteousness).  

The life of sainthood is an incredible blessing, because it is a life of peace, joy, and assurance.  Jesus, in his Sermon on the Mount taught us that sainthood includes living the way of the kingdom of heaven, trusting that we will be comforted, among those who inherit the earth.  Saints will be filled, while receiving mercy, and seeing God in all things.  Saints are children of God, living the Kingdom life now, because our reward will be great in heaven. See being a saint is like everyday life with its ups and downs.  The key to faithful saint-like living is trust.  We can be assured that in any of the cycles of life, (ups and downs) we can rely on God, which empowers us to never stray from the path of love, which is our mission as God’s people.

Mission focus

            Today, the Body of Christ (the Church) faces many challenges never seen since the early days of its commission, which is to make disciples of all nations.   We now live in a time when one-third of our nation claims no religious affiliation.  Many churches are experiencing decline in membership and attendance (including the evangelical churches), but the real threat to the church is not the latest trend of declining attendance, or even the sustainability issues of building and property maintenance.  The real threat to the church is the fact we are growing away from making God’s mission of love and reconciliation, both inside and outside our walls our highest priority. 

            God did not fashion a communion of saints for the mere purpose of gathering together once a week. God consecrated (or set aside) all faith communities for a specific purpose, which is to carry God’s Good News of abundant love into the neighborhoods where we have been planted. We are a people raised to new life, just like Jesus’ friend Lazarus whom Jesus called out of burial wrappings of self-absorption, fear, and anxiety, and sent him out and us, to go into the desperate places of people’s lives.  

      We are called out of the grave in order to call others out of their graves.  Through our hands and hearts carrying God’s grace, we raise up hope in others. The church is not in the tomb any longer, nor are we headed toward decline and death by any means.  Yet, we can easily become distracted from being raised up and unbound from our chains of inward focus. We must get back to the core mission Jesus gave us; making disciples.

God acts and calls us out of death into new life

            When religious naysayers warn us of possible institutional death, and when negativity tries to slip in amongst us, we must make God’s mission priority one, and ask ourselves, “What is our ministry to the neighborhoods in which, we have been planted?”  “Who is God is calling us to love, serve, and restore?”  “Who is our neighbor, and how should we get back to the basics of being a lighthouse of love in the neighborhoods around us?”  This mission to which we have been called is fraught with fear and uncertainty, because when we engage in God’s mission faithfully as the Saints of God, we must die to our comfortable way of being, in order to experience new life.  We must adapt and change in order that we might continue to make disciples.

            Change is a frightening concept, but dying to that which holds us back from God’s purposes is a natural part of becoming a saint.  Suzanne Guthrie writes, “In small ways we practice dying dying to sin, dying to shame, to prejudices, opinions, stagnant ideas, dying to one old life and then another, ever striving toward new life. You consciously practice rising; from whatever tomb you have holed yourself up in lately.”2 

            To experience new life, we must shrug off some old grave clothes that have the power to keep us bound up, and can easily deter us from God’s mission in the world.  We must die a little to those comfy elements of our way of being, our contented ways of sharing grace, our narrow definitions of our local mission, or our often, restrictive boundaries that keep others from finding hope in God’s grace.  When Jesus raised one of those early saints, namely Lazarus he said to the mourners, “Unbind him and let him go!” Like Lazarus, we saints need to be unbound and let go to do mission, locally and in our neighborhood.

Am I a Saint?

            You may be sitting there thinking, “I am no saint, Eric.”  Despite any possible doubts you may have, we all are saints because we have been given the assurance that death has no power over us, and our hope is that we have been raised to new life in Christ.  We are a people that are brought together in love, not merely for the edification of ourselves, but we gather for the ultimate purpose of sharing God’s abundant grace with others.  That is what being a saint is all about.  We are not called to be perfect, nor are we called to become some kind of superhero Christian like Mother Teresa or St. Francis.  We all are saints because we strive every day, in every way, to share God’s abundance with others, and to set others free from what holds them back from experiencing God’s grace.  

            Nelson Mandela once said, “I am not a saint, unless you think of a saint as a sinner who keeps on trying.” In other words, we are not going to get this saint thing right every time, but we still must try. We all fall short and mess it up every day, but we are not Saint’s because of what we do, rather it is what God does through us.  That is what God’s grace is all about.  Grace, or God’s outpouring of love to and through us, is what makes being a saint possible. Grace requires that we saints die a little each day to who we have been, so new life might spring up.  The good news is that sainthood requires no superhuman strength, but just the faith of a little mustard seed.  Sainthood needs a new poster child.

            Maybe sainthood looks like someone who advocates for the rights of at-risk children in our midst.  Maybe sainthood looks like some of you who work tirelessly to serve your neighbor in some kind of outreach ministry.  We saints are just regular people, who have been unbound from the grave clothes of despair and fear, then sent out into the world to love God, to love one another, and love our neighbors, just “as Christ loved us and gave himself for us, an offering, and a sacrifice to God.” My prayer for us today is so simple, and I encourage you to pray it as well, “Dear loving God unbind we your Saints for the mission you would have us do.”

REFERENCES

1 Taylor, Barbara Brown. “Can These Bones Live.” The Christian Century 23.9 (1996): 291. ATLASerials, Religion Collection. Web. 26 Oct. 2015.

SERMON 10/25/20 Pentecost 21A, St. Bede’s, Cleveland, OK

Leviticus 19:1-2,15-18; Psalm 1; 1 Thessalonians 2:1-8; Matthew 22:34-46

Tripping Up your Opponent

Have you noticed how today, you cannot watch television for more than thirty minutes, without seeing election ads for every elected office, each political party, and every divisive issue out there. Policy makers on both sides of the aisle are finding little nuances of disagreement or “out of context” statements, to try and trip up their opponent and undermine their adversary’s credibility. The use of these tactics, on both side of the aisle, creates confusion, undermines truth, and tears down trust. It should not surprise us that even after two millennia, some things have never changed.

In today’s gospel, the Pharisees, who were experts in the law were trying to trip up Our Lord Jesus with a legalistic question , “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” This was no casual theological inquiry over coffee with friends, the religious leaders were trying to trip up Jesus, so he might make a public mis-step over the law. Torah, or the religious laws the people of Israel followed for centuries, included over 613 commands. These scholars were asking Jesus to pick just one over all the other. They were actually trying to get Jesus to choose one as better than the others, and by so doing he would make a public statement against the legal religious system as a whole.

By using this tactic, they hoped Jesus might take a particular position that they could use to discredit him. As in all of Our Lord’s encounters with his detractors, he would not fall for it. Rather, he cut to the chase and proclaimed Good News clearly, which was so much more than a simple answer, for which the Pharisees had hoped. The bottom line is the law experts misunderstood Jesus’ mission, and were threatened by his radical teaching, because it thwarted what they valued and what they thought was the only way. Jesus taught them and teaches us another way; the way of love.

Missing the Point

Throughout the ages, followers of Jesus have interpreted Our Lord’s teaching in ways that were inconsistent with his mission of reconciling love. For example, the church has taken part in many atrocities throughout history; the Crusades and the Inquisition, Even in the last century, we have stood by while modern day systems have turned a blind eye to the suffering of others.

Because of misguided interpretations of the teachings of the faith, we have missed the point that love overshadows law. In the last few decades, followers of Jesus have in some instances turned a blind eye, or even participated in the perpetuation of violence, poverty, and war. Even the church has missed the point of what Jesus means by “the two commandments (on which) hang all the law and the prophets.”

“Love God and Love your Neighbor.” The two greatest commandments Jesus revealed, as a result of the lawyer’s inquiry may seem simple, but they are in no way a watered-down version of the law. No, Jesus makes it clear that loving God and loving neighbor is the standard, by which we should measure the fruits of our lives.

Hanging on the Law and Prophets

Following Jesus is not an easy way of life to be honest. Discipleship requires us to love and not merely live under a minimum standard of legalistic behavior. We must embrace fully the ultimate command, which reminds us that we are children of God, and sisters and brothers to ALL PEOPLE (not just the ones we like).

Obeying the 613 Torah laws became for some folks, a lifelong pursuit of legalistic proportions that resulted in failure and success and missing the point. Following the law was intended to define one’s relationship with God and with each other in community. However, people followed the law for its own sake, and that following became about the individual and their obedience and self-serving compliance. Sometimes following the law left sisters and brothers in dire circumstances, and undermined the intent of the law.

            Healing lepers whom the law did not allow one to touch, forgiving sins of an immoral woman whom the law required to be stoned, restoring a blind man on the Sabbath, which the law forbid were all ways the Jesus obeyed the intent and heart of the law.   Jesus not only preached “Love God and Love Neighbor,” he lived it in every action of his life, ministry, death, resurrection, and ascension.  He showed us that the purpose of the law was not to leave others with withered hands, blind folks with no hope, lame folks without restoration, and sinners without the grace and mercy of God.   

Loveless Law

Following the commandments, or the law itself is empty, if it does not result in a change of heart, a renewed commitment to the well-being of all people, and a life of love. Jesus redefined the practice of following the law for its own pursuit, and declared that mere acts of obedience to God’s law is insufficient. Loveless law denies our rightful place within God’s creation. Law alone attempts to convince us that we are an island unto ourselves and we have no responsibility to one another.

The greatest commandments affirms that we are individually and corporately bound together as sisters and brothers, under the fatherhood of God. The great commandments also deny our option to choose, whom it is we can call neighbor. If we love God with all our heart, soul, and mind, we must love those for whom Christ died to save. This is where we find the qualifications, for whom it is we can call neighbor.

            Just look around you right now.  Yes, there is your neighbor sitting in the pew near you but wait, do not stop there.  We have to widen our horizons and realize that our circle of neighbors, extends beyond this place, our own family, and our city, state, and nation. Loving those who are hard to love is not easy, but God’s commandments, on which hang all the law and prophets, that kind of “no holds barred/no strings attached” kind of love is what Jesus demands of us. 

How to Love as Jesus Loves

            So, you may be sitting there asking, Canon Eric how do I love like that?  Here is how you begin; pray for people you cannot consider your neighbor quite yet.  Pray for those you find hard to love. Pray for your neighbors.   Next, pray to God to give you the strength, courage, and desire to seek God’s best for the other.   The act of “Loving God and loving neighbor” begins with holy conversations through which, we seek to be transformed by God. Prayer is so much more than a one-sided conversation.  Prayer takes us out of our self, and it aligns our heart with the heart of God.   Prayer changes things, because prayer changes us. 

I hear about people all across our nation who are coming together with one mind, one heart, one spirit, joined with the heart of God, and sharing the sadness and pain of others. Although we cannot join hands now, we can join our hearts together in prayer, and we can lift up our voices together. We are one body; sisters, brothers, and neighbors all.

When we through our common intercessions and thanksgivings to God, acknowledge our sisters and brothers’ suffering, when we share their suffering with them, we are truly beginning to love them. When we join together in the unity of our common weaknesses and struggles, something amazing happens; love. When we acknowledge our utter dependence on God and each other, something amazing happens; love.

“‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” Our Lord Jesus Christ said this, and I am convinced he approves of this message.

SERMON 10/11/20 Pentecost 19 A Proper 23, St. John’s, Norman, OK

Isaiah 25:1-9; Psalm 23; Philippians 4:1-9; Matthew 22:1-14

Dressed to Party

            As a Chaplain and officer in the USAF Auxiliary, one of the things my wife Terri and I love to do is get dressed up and attend the formal banquets at training conferences.  At the culmination of these events, an awards banquet is held at which, a keynote speaker shares with the attendees their wisdom, encouragement, and insights about how we can accomplish our mission better in the coming year.  We also get to eat, and even though the meal is not five-star it is edible.  The best part of the whole event (at least for me and Terri) is that we get to dress up.  Terri dons a formal gown, and I wear my formal Mess Dress uniform with all the ribbons and accoutrements.  All the participants are invited to the event, but folks cannot attend unless they are dressed appropriately.  There are no utility uniforms, flight suits, or street clothes allowed.  If you show up in the wrong attire, you are not allowed in.  This is a formal affair and a big deal, so everyone who comes better get ready and get dressed in advance, because this is a celebration for which we all should be prepared.  

            Banquets and festive occasions are found throughout scripture.  Sitting down for a meal with someone was culturally important in Jesus’ time.  If you ate with someone, if you invited someone into your home, it said a great deal about your relationship with them.  “You spread a table before me in the presence of those who trouble me.”  The words of the 23rd Psalm are familiar to all of us and the use of a meal as a metaphor should not surprise us.  I know when I am most troubled, this Psalm brings words of great comfort to me.  I have recited this Psalm many times with people in the hospital who were very ill, and with people at the end of their earthly journey.  I have read this Psalm for those who could only hear it, but could not say the words themselves.  This Psalm is comforting, reassuring, and reminds us of God’s invitation to us to dine with him at the banquet of grace, mercy, and reconciliation. Even so, what does God’s invitation to the heavenly banquet mean for us Christians?   

            Simply stated, first we the church are invited to receive God’s abundant grace.  Second, we are called to respond to the invitation and show up.  Third, we are called to be dressed for the party or rather, to be changed, transformed, and covered by the life changing life of Christ.  Lastly, we are called to invite others to the party so that they too, might be a guest like us.  Let me clarify one thing here, the banquet to which we are speaking of is not just our Sunday morning gathering of worship and sacrament. This banquet is a life-long, every day, life-transforming meal of mercy, peace, transformation, and restoration at which, we get to feast, not because of anything we do, but what God does for us and through us.

Invitation to God’s Table

            God acted and continues to act first in the story of salvation. God invites and we respond but not just for ourselves, but for all of creation.  In this story of salvation, we become co-inviters with God.  Judith Johnson in her Christian Century article Invitation writes, “Christians are invited to take very seriously the invitation to divine intimacy and community with others. In doing so, we become light that shines in the darkness. We are to be like the rising sun, highlighting what had previously been obscured by darkness with the light of God’s grace and justice.” (2)  We are invited to dine with God, but we are charged with the mission to invite others to join us at the table.   

            Following Jesus means that we are bearers of Good News.  We are the means in the world today, by which others can see Christ in and through us.  It is not merely sufficient to proclaim Good News passively, as if it was merely for me alone.  The Church is on a mission of invitation, transformation, and reconciliation, actively engaging in the common invitation.  We call this mission Evangelism, and that word surely frightens we Episcopalians.  For some reason, we think we have to stand on a street corner with a gospel tract or a bullhorn and shout, “Jesus saves” in order to be evangelists. The key to evangelism in our context is through our lives being icons of Jesus; our lives being stained glass windows of the story of grace and mercy.

            This mission we are on is not an easy one for sure, because it can be a little dangerous to say the least.  The mission of evangelism is risky, because if we forget that in all we do as a church, in all we proclaim as a community, and in all we do in mission does not at its heart include evangelism, we are lost.  As Edgar Krentz states in his Christian Century article, Risky Business, “Proclamation and baptism, which lead to life before God in the Christian community, are dangerous. In the history of the church, complacent Christians have often lost their place.” (3) 

We are sent out to Invite

            Our mission must always include our invitational partnership in God’s mission, which includes evangelism. Krentz adds, “Evangelism has serious consequences (because) proclaiming Christ issues an invitation that confronts people with a choice. (3). When we choose God’s Kingdom and we choose to invite others to make that same choice, it means we and they reject our own kingdom. 

            When we choose God’s banquet, that choice, “unmasks our idolatries, illuminates the dark corners of our hearts and lays bare our thoughts. It calls us to action and judges us when we do not respond.” (3)  To lay aside our fears of that invitation for ourselves, we can then be open to transformation, which opens us up to a new life in Christ.  It creates the opportunity to live anew.  It serves as the catalyst to enter our spiritual wardrobes, set aside our earthly garments, don the wedding banquet formal dress of grace, and wear it every day.

            We wear that garment of grace when we are “of the same mind in the Lord.”  We wear the dress of grace when we “Let your gentleness be known to everyone.” We are evangelists every day of our lives, when we show up at God’s banquet focused on “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise.”  There is great comfort in this promise, but there is a warning as well.

The Church – not wearing a wedding robe

            Matthew’s gospel today warns us, ” Then the king said to the attendants, ‘Bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ For many are called, but few are chosen.”  That sounds a bit harsh.  I mean, where is the grace in all that?  Some of us hear this phrase and for some reason we immediately think of Dante’s Inferno and eternal suffering, but  I am not sure that is what Jesus had in mind in this parable.  

            Theologian Carter Lester writes in a 2008 article that this phrase means a “mournful, painful separation from the joyful comfort of God’s kingdom.” (4). In other words, the phrase embodies the emotion of the wedding guest who showed up dressed incorrectly.  Maybe we are just like the guest ourselves.  Some of us in the church arrive at the banquet of grace, but we have never been changed by it.  Lester asserts, ” God’s invitation calls us to put on new clothes. Becoming a Christian should make a discernible difference in our lives.” (4). For some of us, we have never embodied the life-transforming grace, to which we have been called.  Thus, we must realize that as long as we do not show up ready to be changed, nor do we allow God’s grace to transform the life we lead, then we too may come to realize the painful separation from God we continue to experience.  

            Lester writes, “What is needed by the church is not simply showing up with an invitation, but showing up wearing a wedding garment, that is, obeying God’s will and living out the Christian life.” (4)   So, for we who respond to God’s invitation, we cannot be clothed by our own righteousness, for it alone falls short, misses the mark, and it can become a mere failed attempt to win God’s favor.  We must be clothed only in the righteous abundant mercy of Christ’s grace poured out on us, covering our nakedness before God.   You see this table before us today is an open invitation to be forever changed by grace.  We merely come with open hand extended and we receive, but the banquet does not end here.  As we leave this place, we are to be forever clothed in newness, the likeness and radiance of Christ.  We are to go out there into the world and shine as icons, stained glass windows that reflect love, mercy, grace, and reconciliation of God.  Remember, God invites us to the banquet and sisters and brothers.  Remember, this life of discipleship is a formal affair and a big deal, so everyone who comes better get ready and get dressed in advance, because this is a celebration for which we all should be prepared.  

REFERENCES

(1) Grindal, Gracia. “Dress Code.” The Christian Century, vol. 119, no. 20, Sept. 2002, p. 18. 

(2) Johnson-Siebold, Judith. “An Invitation.” The Christian Century, vol. 122, no. 20, Oct. 2005, p. 18.

(3) Krentz, Edgar. “Risky Business.” The Christian Century, vol. 113, no. 27, Sept. 1996, p. 889.

(4) Lester, Carter. “Matthew 22:1-14.” Interpretation, vol. 62, no. 3, July 2008, pp. 308–310

SERMON 10/4/20 Pentecost 18A Proper 21 St John’s OKC, OK.

Isaiah 5:1-7; Psalm 80:7-14; Philippians 3:4b-14; Matthew 21:33-46

Bearing Fruit

            My wife Terri and I usually plant herbs and tomato plants that we nibble on throughout the year.  A few years ago at our home in Florida, we planted a tomato vine in our tiny herb garden.  We did everything we thought possible to insure our plant would bear fruit.  We watered it obsessively for days, we staked the plant so it would have something on which to grow, we used zip ties around the vine to help anchor it.  

            Despite all our efforts and despite the extraordinary height this plant attained, despite the flowers that emerged several times, the tomato vine never bore fruit; there were never any tomatoes.   The plant never, ever attained its ultimate destiny, which was to provide sweet, succulent, home-grown flavor to our salads, burgers, and sandwiches throughout the summer.  The problem was that our small garden space was being taken up by a non fruit-bearing plant, and the only solution it would seem would to have pulled it up, and put something else in its place.   As God always does, there was another plan that we had not yet seen, nor were we ready to make the changes needed. 

The Vineyard

            Today’s unusual parable about a vineyard and the tenants who occupied it, is found not as an isolated story, but as a part of a series of parables Jesus uses to confront the religious leaders.  Today’s story comes after last week’s parable in which, Jesus teaches about a father who sends the sons into the vineyard and both respond differently.  One does his father’s bidding, the other refuses.  This week, Jesus tells about a vineyard leased to tenants and the owner, after some time, sends folks to gather up his crops.  However, the tenants become deceitful, and so they beat up one, killed another and stoned a third servant.  Finally, the father sends his own son, and they kill him as well.  This parable is about God’s chosen people and their mission to be a blessing to all nations.             

            Throughout the Biblical narrative, the people of Israel strayed from their original mission, and yet God was faithful and sent prophets to call them back to the path.  The parable today speaks about when Christ, God enfleshed came to call his people back to the chosen path, and he too faced the same fate as that of the prophets.  The parable concludes with Jesus’ warning to the religious leaders that the Kingdom responsibilities they had been given, would eventually be given to another group, whose lives would bear the fruit of the Kingdom.  These two parables (last week’s and today’s) are given by Jesus in response to the leaders’ attempts to trap him, because in essence, his ministry posed a threat to their notion of what the Kingdom of God was really all about. 

Not our Vineyard but God’s

            Sometimes we have our own ideas what God’s Kingdom should be like.  The religious leaders of Jesus’ time nurtured their own ideas of  washing hands at the right time, eating with only certain people, avoiding certain foods, and worshipping in particular ways, which were all a part of a religious system that developed over time.  There were strict laws that were upheld so that one could identify who was in the community and who was out.  Holiness in some cases became less about molding a people to be a blessing (the original mission), and more about exclusion of those on the outside.  There were laws that even prevented them from helping a friend in need on a particular day because it thwarted the law.  The people forgot why they were brought together in the first place.  

            Early in the narrative of Israel, Abram (later renamed Abraham) was called out by God and he was given a mission to accomplish for the Kingdom.  God said, “I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you;   I will make your name great and you will be a blessing.” (Genesis 12)  The mission of God’s chosen people, was to be a blessing to all nations, to stand out as a presence in the world of God’s Kingdom lived out in the lives of an entire people. The mission of the chosen folk was not to be exclusive, but to be inclusive and life-transforming through their example.  God’s patience in dealing with this people set apart to be a blessing, is seen throughout their history.  Then the Son came.  

            Jesus was a threat to the religious complacency that stemmed from the people’s concept of God’s Kingdom.  Jesus and his disciples did not follow some of the hand-washing and other purity codes, he ate with sinners and tax collectors, he healed his sisters and brothers on that particular day set aside for something else.  Jesus did not merely thwart the system because he wanted to be a “change agent,”  Jesus actually reimagined Abram’s understanding of our mission.  Jesus lived it and taught it and died for it.  Jesus turned upside down the misconstrued notions of the Kingdom of God the religious leaders embraced at the time, and Jesus clarified that the Kingdom was not a worldly nation, but a people gathered whose purpose was to be an example, a city on a hill, a lighthouse for the lost soul.  Jesus brought radical change to the Kingdom, so the Kingdom represented the mission of God; transformation, reconciliation, and resurrection (new life).

Our Mission – Herbal Mission

            We embrace the sovereignty of God (the Kingdom of God) when we are a blessing to all with whom we come in contact.   This is the heart of the mission of the Church, which is “to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ.”  In other words, everything we do should be based on this mission.  We are called together to be a lighthouse, an example, a welcoming respite, a faith forming, life-transforming, community that helps all people, not just the ones we like, so they all might be restored to God and each other.  That is our mission, that is why we are brought together, and that is why we are the Body of Christ.  We are to be a blessing to all with whom we come in contact both as individuals and as a community.  Jesus warned the religious leaders about what happens when a community fails to embrace its mission, he implied that the task would be given to others who bear the Kingdom’s fruit.  

            In our mini garden a few years ago, right alongside our non-bearing tomato plant, we decided frustrated, to place in the ground a wonderful assortment of fresh basil, a lovely lemon thyme, and selection of Greek oregano.  Over several months, we enjoyed omelets, salads, main dishes and vegetables seasoned with some of the most aromatic and flavorful herbs we ever had.   The food we prepared at home was enhanced, because we added the fruit, or rather the irresistible leaves of our fresh herbs.  It was amazing how the presence of such flavor, aroma, and oils brought a change to everything into which it was placed.  

Ongoing mission requires Change

            The Church is like that, because we are planted in our neighborhoods to bring God’s grace to bear on the lives of our neighbors.  We sit here today as witnesses to the grace, the love, the reconciliation of Christ in our lives, made possible by your participation in the life of this congregation.  Your mission to the people in the surrounding neighborhoods though, may need to be different, because the neighborhood may be very different than when the church was planted many years ago.  

           The neighborhood has changed, but the mission remains necessary because the spiritually hungry need to be fed, the emotionally downtrodden need to be lifted up, and the cold and needy must to be provided warm clothes of mercy, grace, and reconciliation.  The Church is called to be a flavorful herb and spice that makes the Kingdom of God possible right here and right now.  

            However, the Church must always be ready to adapt to its situation as the vineyard changes.  Our mission and how we accomplish it must be evaluated, reconsidered and possibly reformulated sometimes.  We may need to try new things, make some radical changes, and that may mean that we will need to take a look over the next few years and realize that we are being called by God to tweak, adjust, add to, or take away from areas of ministry.  I am sure that in the past, there were ministries here that bore great fruit, but for some reason they do so no longer, but God is always making things new.  

Tomatoes and Mission

            The tomato plant in our mini garden after several months, never bore fruit.  On a weekly basis, I continued to add additional Velcro stabilizing straps, I watered it, and cared for it, and it continued to grow higher and higher.  The flowers continued to burst forth, but there was never even one tomato that emerged on those branches.  I also never just pulled it up and planted something new, because I believed, and I had hope that as long as it was green, and as long as it was growing, at some point, in God’s time the fruit might emerge.  What I realized was that the tomato plant was actually a part of the entire garden. It’s mission changed from being a fruit bear to providing shade from the scorching Florida sun.  When I added something new, I changed the nature of my herb garden with fruit bearing herbs that would grow alongside the tomato vine, and in time change it as well.

            I believed in the tomato vine, and I had hope that the day would came when a little red fruit might emerge, alongside the blend of new herbs, new thyme, new basil, and new oregano, which once was only an additive of herbs.  I believed the whole garden now could become a source of impeccable flavor that would enhance any dish.  

            As you look over the rich tapestry of congregational life here in this community, you have everyday asked God to give you the grace to grow in a love of Christ.  Now it is a new day and time to seek the wisdom to make right choices regarding the evolving and emerging mission you have been given.  Pray for the Spirit to bring it all to God’s abundant table of love, mercy, and grace.  Pray that you have the courage to focus on your mission, that God will give you a renewed vision of mission, so that you can continue to be a rich addition to the vineyard, the broader community where the lives of the least, lost, and lonely around you, need your presence, your love, and your service to God.

SERMON 9-27-20 Proper 21 Pentecost 17A, St. Luke’s, Bartlesville, OK

Exodus 17:1-7; Psalm 78:1-4, 12-16; Philippians 2:1-13; Matthew 21:23-32

 

Are You Saved?

In Paul’s letter to the Philippians, he writes “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.”  Some folks get this little phrase a bit mixed up.  Some folks would tell you that you have to work to attain salvation, as if Jesus’ work on the cross was insignificant.  Paul, I believe is teaching us that our relationship with God is not a passive, “one and done” baptism ritual along and we just keep living like grace has no power to change us.  Nor is our relationship with God like Pelagianism, which holds that humans have the free will to achieve human perfection without divine grace at all.  In other words, our salvation is not about what we do, but about what God does with us. Grace, or the power of our relationship with God is a participative journey, and it is one, which we never take alone, because God journeys with us.

Driving down the road to the office the other day, a car passed me with one of those old-fashioned bumper stickers that read, “Are you saved?” That certainly caught my attention especially the use of the word “save” in the past tense.  Some of us have been asked this question by overzealous folks wanting to convert us.  Even some gospel tracts include this question on them; you know the ones found stuffed under our windshield wipers at the local supermarket.

There is something really intriguing about the question, “Are you Saved?”  It implies that when it comes to salvation, the one asking you the question has somehow arrived at salvation already, and they want to know if you have too.  Over the centuries, one of the things theologians have wrestled with about salvation, is whether being in the state of God’s grace is something that happens in a particular moment without anything left to do afterward, over whether salvation is a transformative period of time that includes work and struggle.  Some have argued that it maybe even both.  I imagine, based on Paul’s intent in his letter to the Church in Philippi, his design for a bumper sticker would not ask “Are you saved.” Paul’s version would probably ask, “Are you BEING saved?”  Salvation is a past, present, and future transitory excursion, by which we grow in a deeper love and commitment to Christ, each and every day.

 

Love Growing

Have you ever experienced love at first sight?  Many of us have, and I know I did over 22 years ago.  For some of us, we might have taken one look at our first love and proclaimed on the spot, “you’re the one,” but even then, the relationship had not yet reached its completion had it?  Rather, many of us came to know our heart’s desire for the other gradually, and the love grew as we learned more about each other, as we did things together, and as we spent time together.  The growth of a deeper love for another person might begin in a solitary moment, but the relationship becomes more profound, more mysterious, and more fulfilling only with time and effort over weeks, months, and years.

Our love and commitment to Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ may begin in a moment, but it too must grow over time.  The invitation from the Spirit is an ongoing, past, present, and future work going on in us, a work to which we are called to respond.  Living in the Spirit is not a “one size fits all” proposition.  We have available to us a variety of Christian practices and disciplines that can help form us, deepen our love for and with Jesus, and draws us closer to Our Lord.

Benedictine spirituality is very attractive to many folks, and it is deeply woven into Anglican spirituality, mainly because it is unpretentious and accessible.  The Benedictine monks embrace a very simple practice in their cycle of daily prayer, work, and recreation.  They embrace a deep awareness of God’s presence in all things.  In prayer, the monks commit to intentional time with God in which they can become acutely aware of the Spirit’s presence.  In the simplest of chores like washing dishes, folding linens, or even mopping floors, they even then, become acutely aware of the Spirit’s presence in the mundane.  Awareness is central to the monk’s life as every moment is spent loving God every day, and in everything they do.

 

 

Working out Salvation

“God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.”

Imagine what the relationship with our first love would be like, if only one party put in all the effort.  What if he or she left little love letters for you? What if he or she spontaneously embraced you when you least expected it? What if he or she whispered their love in your ear?  Despite all that, what if you never responded to simple acts of devotion?  It sounds like a one-sided relationship and it is unlikely that love could blossom into a life-long commitment.

The Spirit is actively working in us, bidding us, leaving love letters of her work in the pages of scripture.  The Spirit is embracing us when we least expect it.  The Spirit is whispering grace and mercy and joy into our ears.  God is at work in you, enabling you both to will and work for his good pleasure, but we need to be aware whether we are responding?  We who are working out our salvation, we who are growing in a deeper love of Christ, do not have to be monks to embrace the practice of awareness of God’s whispers and embrace.     When we begin to recognize, to become aware of the Spirit’s tugging on us, inviting us, and bidding us, our spiritual journey is well on its way to deepening love and grace.   We are working out our salvation. So, we become aware of the Spirit, but then, what comes next?  The answer is, “we simply respond.”

 

Invited to the Kingdom

In today’s Gospel, Jesus teaches us about two sons who were invited to share the work of their father’s vineyard.  One acknowledged the invitation but did not go.  The other son refused to go, but later recanted and went and worked. This is not a parable about how sons and daughters need to obey their Father’s wishes, in order to win their father’s approval.  The point here is that both children were invited to share in the father’s work and their father’s abundance, and each responded to the invitation in different ways.

We are called to respond to God’s love, with love in return.  We are invited to respond with love, not out of fear, or out of some misguided motivation to win God’s favor.  We are invited to respond because God first loved us.  Some folks believe that if they work hard enough, pray often enough, attend church frequently enough, and do mission work without ceasing, they will win the prize of God’s grace.  Some folks may not realize that they are in essence trying to win love, rather than accepting and responding to a love that comes without strings.

“No strings attached” grace is not something that can be coerced or forced through manipulation.  God does not coerce or manipulate us, and we cannot manipulate or coerce God.  Love is a choice and we have the choice to respond to God’s abundant Grace, or we can simply ignore it.  Jesus says, “I promise you life everlasting.”  The point is, if we ignore God’s never-ending invitation, we will miss the joy, peace, mercy, and fullness of a complete life in Christ, which we have been promised.  When we respond to God’s grace, we begin to work out our own salvation and like any relationship, it is no longer a one-sided proposition.  When we become aware of the Spirit’s tug on our lives, our hearts will to align with God’s, and we respond to grace with a life fully dedicated to God.

“Are you saved?” or “Are you being saved?”  Past tense, or present reality, or both and, which is it?  The wonderful mystery of growing in a deeper love and commitment to Christ can only be cultivated when we respond by spending time with God.   If we study of scripture, we embrace the narratives of others who have followed Christ before us and there, we find reflections of our life story in the narratives of those who have gone before, and we can become aware of how God was present in their lives.  If we engage our talents and time, we allow God’s use of our spiritual gifts in the service of others, we are responding to the call to go into the vineyard and work for the Kingdom of God.   If we tell the world the Good News, the transforming grace of God’s love in our lives, and we share in the ministry of love, mercy, reconciliation and grace, we are responding to God’s love.  Sisters and brothers, the invitation to a life of discipleship is always before us, and the most important question we should ask ourselves every day is this, “Am I growing in a deeper love and commitment to Our Lord Jesus Christ?”  Rather, maybe this is the more accurate and simpler question, “Are you BEING saved?”

SERMON 9-20-20 Pentecost 16A, Proper 20, St. Paul’s Clinton, OK

Liminal Places

The 1983 blockbuster movie “National Lampoon’s Vacation” portrayed the adventures of a unique American family and their summer road trip vacation.  In the film, this Midwestern, suburban family led by Frank Griswold, (played by Chevy Chase) made a cross-country journey to “Wally World,” a fictional theme park that seemed a lot like a Disney World vacation spot.

As the family prepared for the trip, tensions were on the rise, tempers were short, and anticipation of the long journey ahead, overshadowed any dream of a joy-filled, relaxing, and fun vacation for which, they hoped to experience. Throughout the film, the family faced a lot of challenges: lost credit cards, terrible hotel accommodations, a major car breakdown, and a brief visit with some strange cousins.  When they finally arrived at Wally World, things were not as they expected and as a result, the leisurely family vacation transformed into an escapade of criminal proportions.

Maybe the movie Vacation sparks a connection to a family vacation we remember.  Maybe we connect with a silly story of a journey and its related pandemonium.  Maybe we identify with it because it reflects our own life journey. Maybe we understand what can happen when a group of folks on a journey to reach a particular destination, find themselves reluctant to change, unable to seek assistance from someone else, and possesses a perception of powerlessness to choose a different route, an alternative path, or another mode of transport.

All this makes me wonder what would have happened to the Griswolds, if they had just stopped their journey when they lost their credit cards, the car broke down, or they lost their luggage, and just called a friend for help.  Imagine the story if they had just stop thinking they could do it all themselves, and reached out to a neighbor, a friend, or a relative.    Would they have made it to their final destination?  I bet the movie would have ended differently because the chaos and uncertainty would have diminished, and quite possibly the vacation they dreamed of would have come to fruition.  I wonder how our journeys in life might be different if we considered alternatives, opportunities, and truly sought God’s will.

Tough Journeys with God

Toilsome journeys are difficult sometimes because we become so focused on the destination and our desire to control the outcome that we ignore the reality of what is going on around us.   Life can be frustrating because we are not in the comfortable space of where we were, and we are not yet where we would really rather be; we are somewhere in-between.  These in-between places are the “liminal” spaces of life.  These places are where we have to realize we need help, because we are really not in control and thus, we need to seek God’s will.

In today’s Old Testament lesson we hear, “If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.”  The desert journey of the people of Israel was one of those liminal places.  Moses led the Israelites out of their bondage of slavery, and into a newfound freedom, and a new way of being.  The liminal place was the long desert hike, which at best was uncomfortable and at worse, life-threatening.  However, this trip was absolutely necessary, in order for the Israelites to be ready for what was to come later on, the 40-year trip served as a time of preparation in action.  In the desert, the people had to wrestle with their identity as a community, they had to grapple with what they really needed to change in themselves in order to become a new nation.  Finally, they had to struggle with what they themselves had to do, which was to not merely wait for God to intervene, but to take action themselves in order for God’s will for them to be realized.

The story of the Israelite’s sojourn in the desert was not only about God’s demonstration of God’s benevolent power in action, it was a story of how a community of people had to take responsibility for the circumstances around them and then, take action, so that God’s will for them would become a reality.  It is in these liminal places of difficulty and unsettling reality that we grow, change, transform, and become better able to move forward; that is, if we accept the new reality and then, partner with God in the midst of the changes, God is making apparent in our midst.

Change is Not Easy

God’s creation is not a static system that we can enter into and not expect change.  Consider all the cycles in the universe, because seasons come and seasons go.  Science confirms that organic things evolve and adapt, weather systems are fluid and dynamic. The basic concept of the cosmos is that things move from one state, through a period of transition, and then into a new state.  Changes like these test our faithfulness to God who is working in our lives. Let me share an example. There was a small, rural town in Florida, who a few years ago hired a new city manager fresh out of graduate school.  The young woman came to her new position with lots of new ideas, energy, and imposing excitement.   The new city manager, after several attempts to make changes, soon realized that there was going to be many difficult problems with which, she and the city council would have to wrestle.

Homes were being sold left and right because families, frustrated with the lack of city identity and sense of mission, were moving further out into the suburbs and thus, revenues were declining. The spirit of service to the local residents beyond the urban area, which had been a core value of the city for years, had all but disappeared.  The city, rather than shining as a lighthouse of possibilities and hope, became an island focused only on self-sufficiency, resulting in further isolation and decline.  In the midst of all this change, the city council members were spiraling into hopelessness, putting their heads in the sand to the problems all around, and just waiting for a sign that God would intervene soon.

This was a liminal time of uncertainty, doubt, stress, and yes, there were tensions.  The young city manager cast a new vision, a new spirit of hope that would affect the community for years to come.  She said, “We find ourselves in a desert place, where our city seems isolated, stuck in our own circumstances, and we have abandoned the people around us to whom we are called to serve.”  She continued, “We can continue on this journey, self-absorbed, and without hope, or we can take action, seek outside assistance, reconnect with our suburban diaspora, and redefine our mission as a city.”  An epiphany happened on that day, and the council realized that they had to do something and take an active part in developing the future of the community.  They realized that this change required the community to literally, prayerfully, and faithfully work toward a new way of being.

Soon that small town began to experience renewed life, simply because they agreed that God was doing a new thing there and they had to partner with God and respond.  Others in the town began to catch the spirit of new ideas, energy and excitement and the earlier discomfort, doubt, stress, and tension became peace, hope, joy, and a sense of renewed cooperation.  Together that little town has a new reality of revitalized life and peace and harmony and growth they had not seen in years.  They realized that the vineyard in which they had been planted was not their own, but God’s.  They realized that they as faithful stewards of the vineyard owner, who had work to do in God’s Kingdom.

Vineyard Workers

The Gospel Reading today is a metaphor for God’s vineyard.  God called workers to work the vineyard and yet, some came to work at different hours of the day.  Each of them though were promised and agreed to the daily wage, regardless of when they started.  In other words, the bargain was that God would feed the workers, if they agreed to show up and work.  The point of the story is that God is generous to all and yet, sometimes we become uncomfortable in the liminal places of this work, where God is teaching us a new way of life.  The in-between time of showing up and getting fed is the liminal place where God is transforming us.

For many of us as individuals, and for all of us as communities of faith we must find a greater tolerance for discomfort, a renewed desire to explore fresh possibilities, a willingness to seek help from folks beyond our community, and a commitment to serve those folks outside our four walls.  We can only do these things by remaining faithful to God and to each other in the in-between times.  We must pray for patience, forbearance and grace as we live into this new thing the Spirit is doing right here and right now.  There is a prayer found in our prayer book that is comforting and encouraging as we traverse these liminal places of life:  O God, you made us in your own image and redeemed us through Jesus your Son: Look with compassion on the whole human family; take away the pride and impatience that infects our hearts; break down the walls that separate us; unite us in bonds of love; and work through our struggles so we may accomplish your purposes on earth; through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen. (BCP p. 815)

Planted for Service

When we consider the desert sojourn of the Israelites, I wonder what would have happened if they merely decided to sit in the desert and wait for God to move them.  They did not do that did they?  They got up and walked, they moved, they traversed the liminal challenges of the desert.  The Israelites, under their own foot power, moved into the land promised by God.

We can be assured that as we embark on these long arduous, challenging, and yes uncertain journeys as communities of faith, we will face overwhelming obstacles.

Through prayerful discernment, through visionary and prophetic planning, and through apostolic action with God, we too can move from the desert places, the liminal places, the in-between places, and grow into the communities that God is calling us to become.   The local church, wonderful faith communities are called and planted to become incarnational partners with God.  When we join the work of the Kingdom, we are to the Spirit’s nudges to pray, hope, and yes, to act through word and deed, bringing about the Kingdom of God, right in the midst of the place we have been planted to serve.

You see, the Griswold’s forgot one key point to the whole trip to Wally World.  The fun and family time they were really seeking was not to be found on the rollercoasters and rides at their destination.  The real joy, peace, and purpose of the trip was to be found on the road.  Imagine, if they had spent time enjoying the journey, being open to the challenges they faced, helping each other through those difficulties, and maybe, just maybe, helping others on the same road and path all along the way.

SERMON 9/6/20 Labor Day Service – Diocese of Oklahoma

Ezekiel 33:7-11; Psalm 119:33-40; Romans 13:8-14; Matthew 18:15-20

            “If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one.”  Have you noticed how maybe this scripture should be a part of the user agreement for all social media accounts?  It seems like today our divisions seem to fueled by this mindset instead. “If another person sins against you, tell everyone except that person, post it on your Facebook page, and never sit down and talk to them about it.”   Matthew 18 is the earliest and best model for the church to use, when we are dealing with any type of conflict, unfortunate misunderstandings, or little squabbles.  If you think that conflict does not happen in church, just wait around a little bit and it please know, it will happen.  

            However, healthy and helpful conflict is not a bad thing.  Opposing ideas presented in a loving way can move people and organizations forward is a fact of life.  As a matter of fact, it is the conflict between your tires and road that helped you travel down the road today.  However, no matter our age or situation, we all at some time, have in the past, or maybe are right now, or will in the future, enabled unhealthy conflict to hurt someone, or you have been hurt by someone else.  Even the best of friends disagrees and we mishandle disagreements.  Our own saintly superheroes the Apostle Paul and Barnabas had a little tiff and “they had such a sharp disagreement (so heated) that they parted company. Barnabas took Mark and sailed for Cyprus, but Paul chose Silas and left.”

            We are human and fragile, because we are fallible creatures and like our favorite saints or superheroes, we succumb to the sin of strife and unhealthy conflict.   Many of us have experienced the community life of church in many different places.  I am sure you or someone you know has been on the receiving end of a conversation like this, “Hey, I have to tell you what so and so is saying about you.”  Maybe the conversation was more like this one, “Can you believe that Bill would do something like that to me,” or “have you heard the latest rumor about so and so?”  Conflict, strife, and dissension is normal, but the problem we have is unhealthy conflict devolves into undermining our Lord’s command to “love our neighbor.” When that happens, people get hurt and we risk losing our grace-filled witness in the world. 

Gospel Witnesses

            Our holy mission as the church is to proclaim to the world our loving bond with God, and by our shared baptismal identity in Christ, we proclaim our mutual love, peace and support for each other.  The way of the Body of Christ is different from the way of the world, because we are called to invite and restore folks back to the flock; we are set apart so we can be about the business of reconciliation.  

            Do you remember the story of the young man who took his inheritance and left his family behind. He squandered it all and found himself broken, alone, and living in a feed trough with the pigs.  He decided to come home, hoping for a job as a hired hand, but upon his arrival he was surprised at the welcome her received. He expected a trial and judgment for his failures, but that was not to be on that day.  His father received the young man, not with condemnation, but with open arms and a party thrown in his honor.  This story is our story of God’s reconciling love in action. This story is what Jesus means when he commands us to find the lost sheep and bring them home.  

Steps to Biblical Conflict Resolution

            Forgiving, making amends, and restoring is complex, but Jesus gives us some sound and simple advice on how to go about it.  First, he recommends when we hurt one another that we take the initiative to talk about it one on one.  This step avoids the unhealthy human drama associated with spreading rumors, backbiting, and the behind-the-back sin of tearing each other down.  Now, if that move does not work, Jesus suggests we go return to the person who caused the hurt, but this time bring a friend along. Partnering with another brother or is sister to deal with a third party sometimes can become unhealthy triangulation, by which we might go to a third person and say, “do you know what so and so did to me?” No, this model is a move to bring a sister or brother along with you, and one who lovingly works with both parties to try to heal the broken relationship. It is kind of like spiritual mediation, but without all the attorney’s fees.  

            Now, if that does not work, Jesus offers us third option, which is to bring this before the church.  In other words, Jesus suggests that we bring someone in authority into the conversation. Notice that is not the first thing Our Lord recommends when we have disagreements, but only after we have tried to work it out together, and only then should we consider going to this step.  

Gentiles and Tax Collectors

            Then, when all else fails and we have exhausted all other options, we are admonished to “treat the offender like Gentiles and Tax Collectors.”  Some folks hear this and might say, “Oh I like that one, let’s start there and post this on the Gentiles and Tax Collector’s Group page.”  In other words, people think Jesus is telling us to say,  “I did my best, I tried everything, and I just couldn’t get them to see my side of the story, so I’m writing them off my list.”  

            Hang on there a minute and listen closely to what Our Lord is really saying.  Ask yourself, how did Jesus treat those old Gentiles and Tax Collectors?  Let’s see, He showed favor to a Centurion soldier, he healed a Gentile woman whose daughter was possessed, and he healed a Gentile demonic in Gennesaret.  That doesn’t sound like “writing someone off” to me.   

            What about those old crooked tax collectors?  Let’s see Matthew was at his tax booth and Jesus invited himself to go to his Matthew’s house for dinner.  Now that was a scandal fit for social media!  That doesn’t sound like he “wrote Matthew off.”   By the way, today’s Gospel we heard today was the one recorded according to a faithful, forgiven, and restored Tax Collector; Matthew. 

            This little phrase, “treat them like Gentiles and tax collectors sounds more like a little twist on words. Jesus was not advocating for mistreatment; he was promoting an attitude of “don’t give up on them.”  Treating those hardheaded folks like Gentiles and tax Collectors (those who refuse to reconcile), is not a permission slip to write someone off, nor is it a mandate to remain in an abusive situation either.  

Keys to Reconciliation

            Some broken relationships may never be reconciled, at least not in our lifetime.  However, writing folks is just not something we do  s followers of the one who never abandoned any of the sheep.  Jesus never gave up hope of the possibility of reconciliation with those on the outskirts of the community nor should we.  To restore our sisters and brothers who have fallen away, requires God’s grace of course, but it requires our obedience to “love our neighbor as ourselves.”  This reconciliation work is thorny and complex.  It is not a ministry of sentimental words of temporary forgiveness, and then go right back to the rumor mill.  It is difficult work, but its work we must do, and it is work that requires honesty, humility, courage, and gentleness.  

            Open and direct loving honesty is vital to reconciliation because it requires us to set our egos aside when we hurt one another.  We must be willing to take a risk and be authentic and vulnerable in order to participate in God’s desire to restore relationships when broken.   Humility is crucial because it requires putting away our desire for power over one another, in order to participate in God’s desire to restore relationships when broken.  

            Courage is needed as well, because it may require us to go to someone who has hurt us, and reveal our painful emotions.  If an abusive or unhealthy relationship is the case, we may just have “let go and let God,” in order to participate in God’s desire to restore relationships when broken. Gentleness is fundamental because it may require us to put on Christ’s meekness even in the face of persecution, so that we might love those who may not love us. 

            The ministry of reconciliation is essentially the mission of God, and it is essential for the church and our common life together.  If we are to remain a lighthouse of love and restoration in the world, if we are to fulfill this mission of grace given to us by God, we must love and restore each other when we fall.  We must recognize that we all are broken and we all will fail each other at some time.  All of us.  No one was perfect except Our Lord Jesus Christ.  So, the drama of common life is messy, it is complex, but it is also joyful, enriching, Spirit-filled, and it is the life to which have been given.  It is the life we live together as one family.  In these uncertain and complex days, I believe our prayer should be that God will give each of us a new opportunity, to be strengthened by the Spirit, so that we can have open our arms of love.  Maybe we too can offer the same kind of welcome that the Prodigal one received, who just like us had to admit the he was a lost sheep of the flock.

SERMON 8-23-20 Pentecost 12A St. Luke’s Chickasha, OK

Isaiah 51:1-6; Psalm 138; Romans 12:1-8; Matthew 16:13-20

In today’s Gospel reading, we hear about some of the folks who followed Jesus around, you know the ones who witnessed the miracles, who heard the sermons, and listened in on his sparring with Pharisees and scribes. Today they are asked a very importantquestion from their Master. Jesus asks, “who do you say that I am?” Now, Peter did not hesitate to answer, and with over-zealous glee, immediately shouts, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”

Sometimes when Peter sounds off so quickly, have you ever just wished you could have been there, and whispered in his ear, “Now brother, don’t speak too quickly, because you know that your exuberance is going to get you in trouble a little later in the story.”  Peter, the disciple who claimed he trusted Jesus, when things got tough, or when he faced a new challenge,seems to always lose heart and lose faith. Peter had a hard time following through.   When he walked on the water with Jesus and the waves started to toss around him on the sea, or when the soldiers were carrying the Master away to his trial and crucifixion, or when three times accused of being a disciple, Peter turned coat and ran.  Peter really was not ready to back up his exuberant words with actions. 

Good old Peter; I am so glad he was an apostle, because with a follower like him, I too believe that I can be a faithful Jesus follower.  He was always the first to proclaim, but likewise, the first to hesitate and the first to fail.  Peter’s story is probably the story of most of us disciples.  Quick words and clumsy actions; great intentions and run-of-the-mill responses, may be the nature of following Jesus.  

Worship

For me, I have to admit that I fail as a disciple more times than I like, but I am so glad that God’s grace is abundant and overflowing. I am so glad that when we fall down along this walk of discipleship, God is quick to forgive, and ready to receive us back. So, how do we respond to that kind of grace? Our response is to offer to God a sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving. Unfortunately, sometimes, our responseto God’s love (like our brother Peter) is just mere words. Another later Apostle, one who like his counterpart, failed in his attempts to follow Jesus too. Today though he tells us how we are to respond to God’s grace.

Paul wrote to the church in Rome, “I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.”  Worship can be confused with a worship service.  What makes worship different from merely saying the prayers, singing the hymns, and receiving the sacrament, is our hearts.  Worship is not mere liturgical calisthenics, but it is an ourpouring of our heart to God. 

Webster’s defines worship as, “extravagant respect or admiration for, or devotion to, an object ofdivine affection.” Our worship to God is our way of answering the question posed to Peter today, “Who do you say that I am?” If you were asked whether “in your everyday life, Jesus is number one and the one to whom you offer respect, admiration, or devotion, then the answer is right there in front of you, and your heart will make it clear.

Trusting Jesus; Lord of my Life

“Who do you say that I am,” Jesus asked. Peter responded, “you are the Son of God.”  Listen closely to his words.  The answer Peter gave may sound a little non-committal and slightly impersonal.  What if Peter’s response would have been different?  What if his words were more like Thomas’ post-resurrection proclamation, in which Thomas called Jesus, “My Lord and My God,” a statement that is based on trust and reliance and intimacy?  Thomas, with clarity and purpose, declared his intimate connection to the Master, and did not just identify Jesus’ public persona.

Let me give you an example of what I mean. A woman in the Wal Mart parking lot was asked by a friend, “who is that man standing over there near your car?” She responded, “that is my male civil partner with whom I share a common domicile.” That sounds like a legalistic statement of fact. There is no emotional connection or relational references made between the woman and the man. Let’s try that again. A woman is asked, “who is that man standing over there near your car?” She responds, “That is my dearly beloved husband, whom I love with all my heart, and for whom, I would risk my life!” Do you see the difference? The second response is personal, committed, and from the words, you sense that there is deep intimacy shared between these two people. Trust, reliance, and love shared between two people.

Moments of Change

My sisters and brothers, life’s circumstances are ever-changing.  We know that now in 2020 that life today is just not what it was a few months ago. Nonetheless, we can trust Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, even in times of uncertainty and grief.  In just a few weeks, your beloved priest Mother Lin will be moving on to a new chapter in her life, and St. Luke’s will be moving on to a new chapter in your lives. Even now, when things are uncertain and the future is not quite clear, I encourage you to trust God’s assurance of his presence, grace, and peace.   

In this time of change, you my sisters and brothers can live in the trust and peace knowing that God will not abandon you, nor will God forsake you. Imagine today that Jesus is walking beside you in the days to come. When you feel like you are in despair, he notices, stops for a moment, places his arm around you and asks, “Do you trust me, because you know I am with you.” Then he smiles and just like he did with theearly apostles, asks you to consider, “My child, who do you say that I am.”