Sunday, June 10, 2018

Sermon; 3 Pentecost/Proper 5B; Mark 3:20-35


In last week's sermon I pointed out that Mark's ultimate focus is the cross. Mark is a Passion Narrative with an extended prologue, therefore Mark sees the life of Christ as sacrificial, as a life to be given over for the sins of humanity. Reading Mark in this way is sort of like watching Rogue One – it's a good story, but in the end you know that the good guy dies. So as we journey through Mark in this Season after Pentecost, we need to remember that the ultimate focus of the journey is the cross.

We got the first real indication of this last week during the Sabbath controversies. Remember that on the Sabbath his disciples picked and ate grain, and Jesus healed a man with a withered hand. Jesus had the audacity to challenge how the religious leaders viewed the Sabbath. He had the audacity to point out that they worshiped the thing over who created the thing. He had the audacity to make the religious leaders come face-to-face with their idolization of the Sabbath. And for that they began plotting on how they might destroy him.

We saw last week that Jesus has a different agenda than that of the religious leaders and most of the people. That difference is a focus on doing God's will, not the will of the human system in which he finds himself. That difference is perceived as a threat, and that threat must be silenced.

That difference shows up again today.

First, how did we get from there to here? Between last week's gospel and today's, Jesus goes to the Sea of Galilee with a crowd following. There are so many people that he has to get into a boat to avoid being crushed by the crowd. Eventually he goes up a mountain, appoints the twelve disciples, and then he goes home. And that brings us to today.

After what we can guess is a teaching stint from the boat, and after he appoints the twelve disciples, and after he has been home for a short time, the crowd again comes together in a crush of humanity, so much so that apparently nobody has any room to eat. I'm envisioning Jesus in his front yard surrounded by people not only blocking his entry into the house, but blocking anyone but those who are closest to reach him. I think our bulletin cover for today portrays this image nicely.

Mark doesn't tell us what he was doing, but I'm going to guess that he's healing people physically, spiritually, and mentally. Maybe he's even feeding some who are hungry. Mark tells us the crowd was so large and crushed-in that they couldn't eat. Maybe Jesus managed to get them into some orderly configuration and he's managed to feed them. Just imagine this for a moment: Jesus is healing crowds of people on his front lawn while also providing those in need of food with stuff from his own refrigerator.

Apparently some people have said that he has gone out of his mind; so when his family hears this, they go out to try to restrain him. The word choices here are interesting. A variety of translations use either restrain, get him, lay hold of him, take him home, take charge of him, or seize him. These are also the same words used of the demoniac restrained by chains, of the servants and son in being seized by the tenants in the parable of the absentee landlord, and of Jesus at his arrest.

And in talking about being out of his mind, other translations also use mad and beside himself. Also words used to describe demoniacs and people with evil spirits.

Mark is making a very clear statement that any actions deemed not normal, or controversial, or plain different, are not to be tolerated. People exhibiting those behaviors are to be seized, bound, and controlled. But Mark is also making clear that actions based in God's economy, not ours, will cause people to look at you funny, even to the point of trying to restrain you and accuse you of being mad, insane, or out of your mind.

Again, we do not know what Jesus was actually doing because Mark doesn't tell us. But we can make a good, theologically educated guess. We know that Jesus doesn't harm, he heals. We know he doesn't starve, he feeds. We know that Jesus doesn't withhold, he builds up. We know that Jesus operates from abundance, not scarcity. With this in mind, I don't think it's a stretch to imagine Jesus teaching, healing, and feeding a crushing crowd gathered in his front yard.

What might happen if we operated the same way? What might happen if we operated by God's rules of healing, feeding, building up, and general abundance instead of by society's rules of management, discouragement, and scarcity? We know what happens when we offer free food once a month; what if we were to do that weekly, or daily? What would happen if we opened up a free medical/dental clinic? What would happen if we provided portable showers, laundry services, and pedicures to the homeless of Hagerstown? What would happen if we followed one church's example and built several small shelters for homeless women to be placed in our parking lot?

Would we have a crush of people as described in Mark? Would we be seen as mad by those around us? Would people attempt to restrain us for exhibiting compassion and serving those in the greatest need? Would people call the authorities and have us seized?

It's hard to say. But I would be willing to bet that doing God's will to heal, feed, clothe, and shelter would be met with some resistance. It is that resistance by those in power and those who are “normal” that will get Jesus crucified. It is following God's will and not society's desires that will get us in trouble. If we're not careful, we just might find ourselves on the verge of being seized and restrained.

But that's the point of today's story. How is it that people in both Jesus' day and ours view helping those in need as a problem to be stopped? Why do we see assisting people, healing people, feeding people, as a crime? And why is it that those who try to help are met with resistance?

And there are those who do see these things as crimes. Churches have been told to stop feeding the homeless because they don't meet municipal health codes for kitchens, food, or occupancy restrictions. I had dinner with a friend from seminary last week and she told me about a proposed joint education project between two churches that would serve underprivileged children. A group of (white) neighbors banded together, hired a lawyer, and got the project stopped on the basis of zoning laws; never mind that there were other similar programs in the city. And why did they stop it? Because they didn't want “those people” in the neighborhood.

I obviously don't have the answers to all those questions I just spouted off, but I can keep asking the questions. When will the kingdom of God appear on earth as it is in heaven? Maybe not until we are willing to be as out of our minds as Jesus was. Until then, the cross continues to loom in our future.

Amen.

Sunday, May 27, 2018

Sermon; Trinity Sunday, Year B



When you get right down to it there are only a few things that fall under “doctrine” in the Church, those things that the Church says are required to be an orthodox Christian. Those things include: God created; Jesus was fully human and fully divine; Jesus was sinless; Christ died, risen, will come again; baptism in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; and the Trinity, 3-in-1 and 1-in-3. Almost everything else is up for debate, and can therefore fall under “discipline” as opposed to doctrine. And once again we spend this first Sunday after Pentecost exploring and honoring that aspect of the Godhead that confuses people to no end – the Holy Trinity.

On this day preachers everywhere try to articulate the concept of the Trinity to their congregations. And congregations every year try to wrap their brains around this particular concept. Either that or they sit dumbfounded as the preacher drifts further and further into heresy.

In some places the Creed of St. Athanasius will be read. In others, people will hear about water, apples, eggs, fingers, or clovers. Last year I handed out a sheet listing all the major heresies and what classifies as orthodox Trinitarian understanding. And I've often said that, when talking about the Trinity, anything more than “3-in-1 and 1-in-3” will get you in trouble.

A Facebook friend of mine, seeing my post about writing today's sermon, suggested I simply show pictures of kittens.

So here we are once again proclaiming our belief in the Trinity and trying to explain the unexplainable.

First, where did we, or how did we, come up with the doctrine of the Trinity? Because it is not self-evident in reading through Scripture. In fact, there is only one place where the Trinity is explicitly referenced and that is at the end of Matthew: “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” Additionally, the word “Trinity” does not appear anywhere in Scripture. (Mention that the next time a “biblical literalist” spouts off about why he or she hates a certain class of people.)

Trinitarian theology was first explicitly developed by Theophilus of Antioch around the year 180 c.e. Different views and expressions arose over time that were later determined to be unorthodox or outright heretical. Eventually the doctrine was defined at Nicaea and Constantinople in 325 and 381 respectively.

So where do we get this idea of the Trinity in scripture if that word never appears and there's only one outright reference to it? Well, like God is revealed in a variety of ways and over time, the doctrine of the Trinity was slowly revealed in a variety of ways and over time. Here are the most common scriptural references that Christians take as revealing the Trinity:

In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the spirit of God swept over the face of the waters. And God spoke. – Genesis 1

The Lord appeared to Abraham by the oaks of Mamre. He looked up and saw three men. – Gen. 18:1-2

Make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. – Matt. 28:19

The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you. – 2 Cor. 13:13

In these and other places Christians began to see and formulate the idea that God exists and is revealed in three persons, one substance, unified but self-differentiated. And through their study and prayer and discussion, the doctrine of the Trinity arose.

This is all well and good to help give an understanding of where and how the doctrine originated. And it probably helps to have an idea of the difference between orthodox and unorthodox understandings. But how can we understand it? How can our human minds understand something so deep and mysterious as the nature of God? Because regardless of the various examples, the Trinity is not water, apples, fingers, or clovers.

I think the answer might be found in the relationship of a dance. Think about the greatest pair of dancers in our history – Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. Those two did amazing things when paired together. Or maybe you would prefer the image of ice dancers at the winter Olympics. Or maybe you can see it in Dancing with the Stars.

However you imagine it, dancers may be our best image of the Trinitarian God.

God the Father is represented by the dance itself. The dance is a series of choreographed moves designed to bring two people together. Their reason for being is the dance. And as the dancers move together, the dance can be seen as its own entity.

God the Son is represented by Fred Astaire. He was both a dancer and a choreographer. Through his influence, he brought others into dancing. Besides dancing with another person, he also danced alone. But when we watch him alone we recognize that the dance is incomplete without another. That other, that third person of the dance, or the third person of the Trinity, is Ginger Rogers.

God the Holy Spirit is represented by Ginger. She makes the dance complete. Ginger worked with Fred to enhance, tweak, and complete the choreography. Like the Holy Spirit blows where it will and we know not how, Ginger danced perfectly with Fred “backwards and in high heels,” and most of us know not how.

This image of the Trinity as a dance has been made before, so it isn't my idea. But out of all the explanations and examples we have for the Trinity, I believe this is the best one.

Two people dance in and around a relationship that has three distinct aspects – the dance itself, and each of the two partners. The dance itself is the reason for all. The dance generates the first dancer and the other partner proceeds from the dancer. None is greater than the other, none is less than the other. And like dancers often say, “The dance was in me from the beginning,” so it is that the dance didn't create the dancers, but that they were there from the beginning. The dance and dancers are united but also differentiated, just as the Godhead, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, are united but differentiated.

The dance, as with the dance of Astaire and Rogers, when it comes together perfectly is unified in the three parts, and the three parts reflect unity. The same can be said of the Godhead where Father, Son, and Holy Spirit have Unity in Trinity and Trinity in Unity.

The Trinitarian Godhead is a dance of three equal parts. When we participate in a dance, or when we participate in a loving relationship, the Trinity is manifest in us and we help reveal God's glory to the world.

As followers of Christ who worship the One God in Trinity, may we go forth from here and teach the world to dance.

Amen.

Sunday, May 20, 2018

Sermon; Pentecost 2018; Acts 2:1-21


On the day of Pentecost the Holy Spirit filled the room where the apostles had gathered together. Tongues of fire appeared and rested on them; and, like the bush that Moses saw, they burned but were not consumed. And then they began to speak in other languages so that they were understood by Parthians, Medes, Elamites, Cappadocians, Asians, Phrygians, and Pamphylians. The Word of the Lord was being spoken, transmitted, and heard in new and unfamiliar ways.

As we heard this story, we also heard an explanation for what was happening by some people who claimed, “They are filled with new wine.” In one of the more humorous quotes of the Bible, Peter says, “They aren't drunk, it's only nine o'clock in the morning!” These people protest because they are being confronted with something new and different. They protest because they've never done it that way before. And therein lies the age old problem of the Church – we've never done it/we've always done it that way.

But Pentecost challenges us to new ways of being. Pentecost challenges us to hear God in new ways. Pentecost challenges us to proclaim the Good News in new and different ways that can be heard by a variety of people. Pentecost challenges us to throw away the idea that we don't need to evangelize because all the Episcopalians already know about us.

What would this look like today? Some of us hope for another Pentecost event in our church. That is, some of us hope to hear the rush of a violent wind filling this space and see tongues of fire come down and rest on each of our heads. Some of us hope to hear each of us speak in different languages. But then again, that might be too much excitement for us and we would rather not.

So if we can't expect tongues of fire and speaking in tongues to a large and varied audience, how might we expect to communicate the Good News of God in Christ to a large and varied audience?

How about with this (showing cell phone)?

You've heard the expression, “Shout it from the mountaintop.” What if we tweeted it from our pews? I'm serious.

We post Facebook pictures and comment about family, friends, pets, and food. We post pictures of vacations and birthdays. But how many posts about church do you make? How many tweets do you send out? If we want to transmit the Good News in new and unfamiliar ways, this is it.

Today I am challenging and encouraging you to pull out your cell phones and go live. Update your Facebook status by saying you are going to, have arrived at, and are worshiping at St. John's. Put out live tweets during the service. Accentuate the positive in live postings about church in general, worship in particular, and God. Use hashtags.

#HolyEucharist #SpiritualFood #BeautifulChoir #BaptismalRenewal
#HolySpace #incense #AllMeansAll #StrawberrySunday
#AwesomeSermon

Be creative. Use your imagination. This is a new way of speaking in other languages and in ways that others can begin to hear what we are saying. In fact, I'll start.

8 a.m.: Asking people to go live at church. #Pentecost, #TonguesOfFire
10:15: Amazing worship at SJP this morning. #HolyPlace, #Incense, #BaptismalRenewal

One caveat to all this – Please don't use your cell phones to have conversations, verbal or text, with others during the service, and don't play games. Pay attention to what's going on, and when the Sprit moves you to speak up, tweet or post it out. Also, keep your phones silenced. I know there was the noise of a violent rush of wind, but we don't want the church filled with many and varied ringtones.

At this past Convention I went to a workshop on digital resources and media that was presented by Carrie Graves, the new diocesan director of communications. One of the things she said was what if we made the Twitter logo (a little bird) synonymous with the Holy Spirit logo (a descending dove)? Between her presentation and the reading from Acts today, my mind started spinning around this idea of transmitting the Good News in new and unfamiliar ways. There's a lot of power in social media, but there's more power in the Good News. We can tap into both.

As with a lot of things in the Church, we often try to subdue and domestic the awesome power of God. But Pentecost reminds us that God cannot and will not be tamed. Pentecost reminds us that God will lead us in new, unfamiliar, and sometimes exciting directions. Pentecost reminds us that we need to constantly look for new ways to spread the Good News.

Last week two angels reminded us that we could not perpetually gaze up to heaven, but that we needed to look out into and minister to the world. Last week we were reminded that the message of the Good News started here, but that it must be proclaimed to an ever-widening audience.

Today is Pentecost, the day we begin proclaiming the Good News. Today is Pentecost, the day we begin speaking in other languages (and trust me when I say that Twitter is another language). Today is Pentecost. It is the day we say, “We aren't drunk, but we are doing something new.”

#PentecostProclamation

#Amen.

Sunday, May 13, 2018

Sermon; Easter 7B; Acts 1:15-17, 21-26


Sermon
Easter 7B
Acts 1:15-17, 21-26

We are now officially in a post-Jesus world; liturgically speaking, that is. The liturgical cycle spans the life of Christ on earth, from the Advent of his coming, to his birth, baptism, ministry, execution, death, resurrection, and, finally, his Ascension. Last Thursday was the Feast of the Ascension, forty days after the resurrection.

We don't have a whole lot of material on those forty days, but we know enough that those were the last days of preparation for the disciples before they were left in charge. Yes, Jesus told them that he would die and rise again, but until it actually happened they didn't, or couldn't, quite believe it. And then it happened.

During those forty days Jesus appeared multiple times. He was generally gentle with the disciples, although there are a few instances where he loses his patience. He fed them. He forgave them. And he got them to a place where they could accept what was happening. But even then . . .

Even then, after he led them out to the mountain and was taken up, the disciples still stood there looking up and wondering what was happening. But then two angels appeared and brought them back to earth, so to speak. So the eleven returned to Jerusalem and began the hard work of proclaiming the Good News of God in Christ. But they were one man down. The mission started with twelve, it apparently needed to continue with twelve. The question of who would fill the missing spot arose.

It's Peter who gets up and lays out the parameters, or the requirements, of who should be allowed to fill the vacancy. First of all, it had to be a man. Sorry, ladies, that's the way it was back then. Second, it needed to be someone who was part of the group from Jesus' baptism to his ascension.

With those two guidelines in place, there were two men who fit the bill: Joseph Barsabbas Justus, and Matthias. After they were presented to the group, everyone prayed asking for God's guidance. And then they literally rolled the dice – odds it's Justus, evens it's Matthias. So it was that Matthias filled the vacancy created by Judas. He was now one of the twelve. He was now asked to take his place among the leaders of this new movement.

And we never hear about Matthias again.

There are a few conflicting traditions about him. He preached in Cappadocia and on the coasts of the Caspian Sea. He started in Judea, moved to modern day Georgia (not in the U.S.), and then was stoned and buried there. He went to Ethiopia, where he died and was buried. He was stoned and beheaded in Jerusalem. He died of old age in Jerusalem.

We don't know the whole story of Matthias, only God knows. What we do know is that Matthias was a faithful follower of Christ who proclaimed the good news in relative anonymity.

Kind of like us.

Our church calendar is full of people we commemorate throughout the year,. Some of them are even considered . . . and I need to say this slowly . . . some of them are even considered big S saints. Most of them, though, are people who did extraordinary things in extraordinary times and places. The Roman Catholic calendar has others. They also have a whole list of patron saints for everything from accountants to yachtsmen (apparently there's no patron saint for zookeepers). And I'm sure the Eastern Orthodox also have their own list of saints.

But even if you combine those remembered by the Anglicans, Roman Catholics, and Eastern Orthodox, you wouldn't even come close to all the Christians who have ever lived. And this is why I think Matthias is so important. Matthias should be the patron saint of Christians in general.

Most of us will live our lives in anonymity. Most of us will be considered “good Christians,” in that we worship, work, pray, and give for the spread of the kingdom. Most of us will be vaguely remembered 50-100 years after our death, and most of us will be forgotten after that.

It is most likely that the only one who will remember us for ever will be God alone; just as it is God alone who remembers Matthias.

As far as we know, his only claim to fame is that, on a roll of the dice, he took the spot Judas deserted. That lucky bounce got him mentioned in scripture and remembered for all time. But it's not because of that that he should be the patron saint of every Christian, it's because of what put him in position to be considered in the first place: Matthias was with Jesus from the time of his baptism until his ascension. That's a requirement that not even Peter, Andrew, James, John, or Matthew can make.

Matthias was a dedicated and loyal follower of Christ. He didn't leave when challenged or when things got . . . dicey. He learned what Jesus taught. He proclaimed the good news to others. He did what we all should be doing. He was us.

As I said, the Feast of the Ascension was this past Thursday, and I used those readings for the Wednesday Eucharist. There's a great scene in the reading from Acts where the disciples are gazing up into heaven as Jesus ascends. While they are looking up to heaven, two angels appear and bring them back into the hear and now. “Men of Galilee, why are you gazing up to heaven?”

We need to spend less time gazing up into heaven and more time looking out into the world to proclaim the presence of Christ. We need to do this as a result of our faith. We need to do this regularly and faithfully. We need to do this regardless of whether we get our name on a calendar or not.

So on this 7th Sunday of Easter, let us remember Matthias, the good and faithful servant who did his best to follow Christ in all places and in all circumstances. And let us follow in the footsteps of Matthias, proclaiming the Good News of God in Christ, living faithfully to the best of our ability.

Amen.

Sunday, May 06, 2018

Sermon; Easter 6B; Acts 10:44-48


The Episcopal Church Welcomes You . . . say the signs and bumper-stickers. When I was in Montana the tag line for our two parishes was, “You are welcome here.” Three months ago I wrote about the circus that is the Church, encouraging you to see the wonderful diversity of God's creation that lives inside our big tent. And I've often told people, “We're Episcopalians, we'll take anyone.”

That is not something that comes easily to people. We tend to attract and be attracted to our own kind. Whether it's racial, religious, socioeconomic, educational, general interest, or something else, like attracts like. And within those groups certain norms and values develop.

Let's talk about church. Why isn't there just one Christian church in Hagerstown? We all supposedly believe the same thing – 3-in-1 and 1-in-3, the virgin birth, the resurrection. So why so many? Because we don't really all believe the same things. As an example, what would happen if I wanted to disband the choir, start a praise band, and installed a movie screen over the rood screen so we could use power point presentations as worship helps? After all, it'd be a hip, new way to attract a younger crowd, right?

Even within church, a place that publicly states we welcome all, norms, values, and behavioral expectations develop. I've seen those forces be put to use both subtly and not-so-subtly to remove people from a congregation. And we use these expectations almost unconsciously as we work to hold up our expectations and maintain the status quo.

I am as guilty of this as anyone else – especially when it comes to issues of liturgics. I have been asked many times about a particular practice or making some change to which I've politely referred back to the rubrics of the BCP, or canon law, or tradition. It's not that I'm against innovation or change, but it's more that I'm against willy nilly change simply to see what it looks like or to meet some desire to feel good. Taking a line from Paul, I want to make sure we do all things decently and in order.

Which brings me to today's reading from Acts.

This passage comes from the end of Chapter 10. In this chapter we hear about a Roman centurion, Cornelius, who is faithful to God. He is instructed to bring Peter to his house to hear what he might say about God. Peter, in the meantime, is in Joppa having visions about a sheet from heaven that lowers all sorts of unclean animals down with instructions for Peter to “kill and eat.” But Peter declines citing Jewish law and that he has never eaten any unclean thing. At which point a voice from heaven tells Peter that everything God has made has been made clean. As Peter is pondering this vision, the centurion's servants show up and escort him to Cornelius' home.

When Peter gets to the home he interprets his vision saying, “I truly understand now that God shows no partiality, but that in all places those who fear God and do what is right are acceptable to him.” This is really the first instance of, “All are welcome.” This is the first instance of what former Presiding Bishop Browning once declared, “There will be no outcasts in this church.” This is the first instance of that big tent I wrote about earlier in the year.

It's after all this that we get today's lesson. It's after all this when the gathered Gentiles received the gift of the Holy Spirit. It's after all this that Peter says, “Can anyone withhold water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit?” And he ordered them baptized.

There was no catechism. There was no instruction. There was only a group of believers, water, and a willingness to be baptized. So much for all things done decently and in order.

Chapter 10 of Acts, and the first half of Chapter 11, are chapters of radical welcome. They are chapters that tell the story of the church taking in all manner of people. They are chapters that challenge us to think about our own rules, regulations, norms, and values.

We say we welcome all. We say there are no outcasts in this church. And, for the most part, I think we do a good job of living into that ethos. But this is an area that needs constant vigilance. We can't simply say, “Everybody is welcome,” and then do nothing. We need to actively welcome people through invitation and hospitality. And we need to constantly evaluate our own expectations about the people who come through our doors.

What are our expectations about dress, education level, gender identity, income level . . . bathing routines? What about reading level and comprehension and our expectation that people navigate the Hymnal and BCP? How about our expectation of even a rudimentary knowledge of TEC or Christianity in general? What is our self-expectation to teach those things? Are we willing . . . am I willing . . . to baptize just anyone who walks in our doors and asks to be baptized?

This is where it gets tricky – trying to determine the difference between open and inclusive and holding to norms and expectations. The trick, I think, is to pay attention to how they are used.

If we say we are open to all who are like us, we're not doing it right. If we use our norms and expectations as barriers to keep people out, we're not doing it right. But if we truly welcome all without regard to difference, we're on the right path. If we use our norms and expectations to help define us, and allow others to determine for themselves if this is the right place, then I think we're on the right path.

Part of the mission of St. John's is to Welcome. We welcome people to worship with us. We welcome them into the faith. We welcome them into ministry opportunities. We welcome people to eat with us, both physically and spiritually.

In today's reading from Acts, Peter welcomed people into the faith through baptism. Later on he will be questioned by the guardians of the faith as to why he associated with and baptized Gentiles. His response was basically, “Because God welcomes everyone.”

Part of our mission here at St. John's is to welcome people into our midst. Let's not be surprised or offended when people actually take us up on that offer.

Amen.

Sunday, April 29, 2018

Sermon; Easter 5B; 1 John 4:7-21, John 15:1-8


I am the true vine. Abide in me. As the branch must abide in the vine to be fruitful, so you must abide in Christ to be fruitful.

Okay, I'll admit it, I have a hard time with this one, and for at least a couple of reasons. First there seems to be a number of interpretations as to what it means to abide in Christ. People from all sides – from the most conservative and constrictive groups to the most liberal and permissive groups – claim to abide in Christ and faithfully follow in his path. Which one is doing it right? And how do we know?

Second, we don't have Jesus with us to physically guide us anymore. We do our best in following him through prayer, discernment, the guiding of the Holy Spirit, and church teachings. But again, those get kind of fuzzy. Especially when we consider all the atrocities committed in the name of God. Bearing fruit seems to be based in so much subjectivity.

So the question remains: How do we best abide in Jesus?

In John's letter that question is excellently answered when he says that those who abide in love abide in God. It's all about love. If we hate others, the love of God is not in us. As he says, we can't love a God whom we haven't seen while not loving brothers or sisters whom we have seen.

Saying we love God while denigrating, abusing, marginalizing, or terrorizing others makes us liars and hypocrites. Creating segregated systems of housing, education, medical coverage, financial compensation, and the like that are based simply on religion, gender, skin color, or other differences, is based in nothing more than fear. And John correctly points out that there is no fear in love. Those attitudes and actions have no place in Christianity.

Let me be clear here – there's a difference between fear and caution. Caution is being aware of your surroundings and acting appropriately. Caution is locking your car doors. Fear is buying into the rhetoric that says your very existence is threatened by granting equal rights. Fear is shooting those who scare you, or are different from you, first. But love casts out fear.

God is love. If we abide in love, we abide in God. If we live with love as our primary motive, we abide in Christ. And when we abide in Christ we will bear much fruit. Love, then, is the root of who we are in God.

This is all well and good, but what does it actually look like? Because, while love is certainly the basis, or should be the basis, for all we do, it's a little . . . amoeba-like. It can be somewhat hard to grasp, especially with “love” having so many different definitions. For instance, I love this parish. I love my wife. I love officiating. I love ding dongs and Bismarck doughnuts. We need a little clarity here.

The big question, then, is how do we behave as Christians, and what does that look like?

This was the topic of discussion at the Vestry retreat. And if you read the latest Soundings, you'll know what's coming.

At that retreat I asked those gathered: What do we do at St. John's?

People responded with all kinds of answers: pray, Community Cafe, Micah's backpack, learning parties, fellowship, Communion, proclaim, formation, maintain the building, rites of life, and a whole slew of other things. As we went down the list we discovered that we could group the list of what we do into a few specific categories.

What do we do at St. John's? We Worship. As a church, this is our primary objective – to worship God with all our hearts, with all our minds, with all our bodies, and with all our souls. We worship every Sunday, yes, but we also worship at other times. We offer Evening Prayer every Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday. We worship as a vestry when we pray Evening Prayer before every meeting, and when we close with Compline afterward. When we pray, either corporately or individually, we perform a type of worship. Worship is what we do, and we have a particular form of worship that helps shape who we are.

What do we do at St. John's? We Welcome. We welcome people into our midst. We welcome people to worship with us. We welcome people into educational opportunities. We welcome people to a meal once a month. We welcome people to explore their relationship with God. We Welcome people in a variety of ways.

What do we do at St. Johns? We Serve. We serve a spiritual meal of Holy Communion. We serve a physical meal at the Community Cafe. We serve children through Micah's Backpack and the Bester Community of Hope. We serve in various callings and roles. We serve this community of faith through our stewardship – financial and otherwise. We are a church that Serves.

What do we do at St. John's? We Encourage. We encourage people to learn and participate. We encourage active prayer lives. We encourage people to connect with others,. We encourage people in hard times. We encourage people to grow. We encourage people to explore.

Everything we do can be summed up in these four words: Worship, Welcome, Serve, Encourage.
Everything we might want to do in the future can be summed up in these four words: Worship, Welcome, Serve, Encourage.

These words are at the root of who we are and what we do. These words are based in love and the life of Christ. These are at the root of Christ the vine which produces the branches that are us. If we hold to our roots, based in love, growing from the vine, this branch of St. John's, and these branches that are us, will bear much fruit.

Amen.

Sunday, April 22, 2018

Sermon; Easter 4B; John 10:11-18


The 4th Sunday after Easter is referred to as Good Shepherd Sunday. Every year on this day we have the 23rd Psalm, and every year on this day we hear from John 10, that chapter dedicated to portraying Jesus as the Good Shepherd and the people as the sheep, his sheep, of the flock.

I began writing this sermon in the food court at the Outlet Mall. Cece was working the morning shift and she had a PT appointment later that day. I dropped her off in the morning and was back to pick her up after lunch to get her to that appointment. Since driving all around town playing chauffeur is sort of a waste of time, it was easier to eat in the food court where I could begin processing the sermon.

It just so happened that on that day there was a bus group of teenagers and their chaperons there. I didn't know that when I sat down, but it soon became obvious. It became obvious when I heard the unmistakable sounds of a round up call – “Okay, time to go!”

And with that the gaggle of teens got up from their tables, some faster than others, took their trays to the garbage cans, and headed out for the bus. A few of them needed some special encouragement as a they lagged behind, but eventually they were all on the bus. After the obligatory head count, the chaperons boarded and they left for their next destination. It was a lot like today's gospel.

Have you ever watched one of those documentaries on the penguins in Antarctica? Invariably there's a shot of the colony with their just-hatched chicklets. Thousands of black and white birds standing next to their babies, all of them squawking at each other, and the narrator says something like, “In all of this noise, the baby penguins can tell their parents apart from other adults.” I'm sure it's meant to sound like an amazing feat of nature, but is it?

The brain, any brain of any species, is an amazing thing. It has a way of identifying to whom it belongs and who it doesn't. When I was a boy I would play in the neighborhood street on summer nights with the other children until dark, or some time close to it. At some point a mother would call out, “Time to come in!” and the child associated with that voice would head home. It was easy to tell my mom from the others because she always called first. But regardless, we all knew the voice we belonged to.

We know the voices of parents and other family members. We know the voices of friends. We even know the voices of those we don't see on a regular basis. We know the voices of actors, even if we can't recognize their face – such as the time I knew the voice of the new doctor on Andy Griffith but couldn't visually identify who he actually was. We have an amazing capacity to identify those to whom we belong. We also have the capacity to identify those whom we know generally, either actually or through other means. And we know, or should know, to be cautious when we don't or can't recognize a voice – such as a phone call from your grandson needing money for medical bills or bail.

All of that to say that we know to whom we belong and who belongs to us through the simple act of speaking and listening. We know to whom we belong by hearing their voice.

This is shown most poignantly in John's resurrection story. Mary goes to the tomb early on the morning of the first day of the week. She finds it empty, runs to tell Peter and John, and follows them back to the tomb. After they leave she sees the resurrected Christ but thinks he's the gardener. She turns her back to him and, while looking away, she hears his voice . . . “Mary.” And in that voice she knows. She knows Christ has been resurrected. She knows he is calling to her. She knows she belongs to him.

We get a glimpse of what that will look like at the end of days when Jesus says the sheep will listen to his voice. “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them and they will listen to my voice.”

This listening to the voice of Christ has two points to it, I think. The first point is that, following up on the past few weeks where we learned we are apostles (“As the Father has sent the Son, so I send you”), we are the hands and feet, ears and mouth of Christ. For right now, in this time and in this place, we are the voice of Christ. For right now it is our job to call others into relationship with Christ so that they can become part of the flock. And if we do it right, they will listen to the voice of Christ spoken through us.

The second point is that, at the proper time, Christ will call and a vast multitude will hear that voice and join his flock. These will be people we don't know, or maybe even people we've given up on. But Christ knows them and Christ hasn't given up on them. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.

We cannot sit and do nothing, for Christ speaks through us. We cannot wait for Christ to do all the work, for we have been sent. All of us are part of the process of restoring all people to unity with God and each other in Christ.

This “all” means just that . . . All. It doesn't mean just the people we like. It's not just Episcopalians. It's all. As I've said before, “All means all, y'all.”

Neither is this just a feel-good church thing. This is a Jesus thing. “I have others that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice.”

As those kids answered the call of their chaperons, people will listen to the call of Jesus. As a penguin chick can answer the call of their parents among the thousand of other birds, so will people listen to the call of Jesus. As I answered the call of my mother at the end of a summer night, people will listen to the call of Jesus. As people we don't know hear the call of Jesus, they too will become part of the one, holy, catholic flock of Christ. But in order to hear the call, the words must be spoken.

Alleluia, alleluia! Let us go forth speaking the words of the risen Christ.

Amen.