Monday, December 31, 2018

Sermon - 1st Sunday after Christmas

“The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it.” Once the sun goes down, our two-year old son John has the habit of pointing outside asking to see the moon.  So, we put our socks and shoes on and go outside to try and find the moon. 
On some nights, we see the moon but on most nights, we do not. John, however, finds “other” moons to point at. He points at the light on our neighbor’s front porch and says, “moon!” He sees a street lamp and says, “moon!” Of course, any kind of light shining in the darkness is the moon for John.

In a world that is so often filled with darkness, we are constantly looking for light to help us navigate the nighttime of our lives. And when we cannot find the True Light, we resort to looking for manufactured lights to help guide the way. Using theological lingo, these manufactured lights are called idols – they are substitutes for God.
I recently listened to the NPR program called Science Friday. The radio broadcast focused on how the growth of cities have impacted the evolution of various species. During the first part of the episode, they talked about city lights and how those lights have impacted nocturnal species such as insects.  
Normally, nocturnal insects would set their evening course by the light of the moon. However, with lights lighting up the night sky, they are now drawn to street lamps and porch lights where they go to die. I’m sure you’ve all had to clean out your porch light covers because of all the dead bugs.
We, too, live in a world that is so often governed by artificial light. Electricity and the constant emitting of blue light from phones and tablets provide a wonderful metaphor to a culture that is not only exposed to unrelenting physical light but also unrelenting spiritual substitutes for the True Light. 
The problem isn’t simply the darkness. The problem is that we don’t let ourselves experience the darkness. In this day and age, it is so easy to replace God with idols to fill our earthly wants and desires. Our culture doesn’t like to be uncomfortable. Therefore, we are over stimulated and blinded from the True Light.
Studies have shown that those of us who live in larger cities with “light pollution” are at increased risk of obesity, cancer, depression, loss of sleep, and so on. Likewise, our spiritual lives are impacted in much the same way when artificial light tries to compete with the True Light. Our spirituality becomes anemic or watered-down. We become less aware to the Truth and fall prey to half-truths and lies that draw us away from the True Light.
During my time as a parish priest, I have had many occasions to walk into a dark church at night for some reason or another. Inevitably, the first thing I notice when I walk into a dark church is the Sanctuary candle – the candle that stays lit above the Tabernacle where we keep the reserve bread and wine. This candle signals that the living Christ is present in this place.
The Sanctuary candle is impossible to miss in the dark. However, if I come into the church during the day or when the lights are on, that light does not immediately capture my attention. I am drawn to the flowers or to the windows or to the organ or cross. For the sake of a metaphor, the darker it is, the easier it is to see the light shining in the darkness. 
So, during your prayers this week, I invite you to ask, what artificial lights do I need to turn off or get away from so that I may see the True Light more clearly? What false idols do I need to ask God to shatter so that I may know and follow the True Light? 
As you ask these questions, don’t be afraid to ask a friend or one of your clergy to sit with you in the darkness to help you see the light of Christ more clearly. You don’t have to sit alone in the darkness left in the wake of death or divorce or unemployment or disease or failure. 
I am reminded of a great scene in the movie Apollo 13. Astronaut Jim Lovell, who is played by Tom Hanks, talks about an instrument malfunction on his airplane while flying over the Sea of Japan. To make matters worse, the aircraft carrier’s lights were off because of combat conditions. 
It was pitch black. He couldn’t see. His radar was jammed. He couldn’t use the radio. When he turned on the map light, everything in the cockpit shorted out – instruments, lights, he didn’t know what his altitude was. Because he was running out of fuel he thought about ditching into the ocean.
He looked out over the ocean and saw what he described as a phosphorescent green carpet. It was algae that was churned up in the wake of a ship. It was leading him home. Lovell reflected, “if my cockpit lights hadn’t shorted out, then there is no way I would have been able to see that. You never know what events are to transpire to get you home.”
Sometimes our cockpit lights have to short in order for us to find the True Light. Sure, this might cause panic and disorientation and thoughts of ditching into the ocean. I can only imagine that this John the Baptist appearing in the wilderness announcing the True Light caused panic and disorientation. John the Baptist calls us into the wilderness – into the darkness – away from the artificial light – so that our eyes can adjust to the True Light. 
One of the great misconceptions of Christianity is that following Jesus will make your life easier. I, for one, have not found that to be true. In fact, following Jesus has made my life more complicated. Following Jesus has call me to walk in darkness, but in this darkness, I have found the brightness of the True Light.
God never promised following the True Light would be easy. It requires a faith that believes not matter how dark things get – the True Light will shine one. Only in the fullness of time, as John of Patmos describes in Revelation, will we see that True Light completely. There will be no moon or stars or sun. There will be the Lamb of God – the True Light – lighting the city of God.
But until then, darkness will be all around us. Death and disease and failure and broken relationships will cast a long shadow in our lives. The good news is that we proclaim a faith that says the light shines in the darkness and the darkness will not overcome it. We do not have to spend our lives buzzing around artificial light, light that might seem more convenient, but light that will blind us to the True Light, light that will zap the life out of us, light that will eventually burn out and fail us.
Like my son John, when it gets dark outside, we want to go searching for that light shining in the darkness. Often, we become distracted by the lesser lights, by manufactured lights that blind us from the True Light. We are like insects drawn to those blue zapper lights.
But we have a God who, in the Word made flesh, comes into our world to short out the artificial lights of this world. We have a God who, through his truth and grace, comes to shatter the false idols of our lives so that we may see the True Light shining in the darkness. 
As the artificial lights of this world go out on you or fail you or zap the life out of you, may you know the light that is impossible to miss – the light that no amount of darkness can overcome. Amen.

Monday, December 24, 2018

Held with Love

“But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.” While the glory of the Lord bursts out from the heavens from angels above and while the shepherds run with haste to share the amazing news of the newborn King and while farm animals scurry and moo around the barn, Mary, holding her newborn son, sits quietly, unaffected by the outside noise, pondering the joy born on Christmas in her heart.
This year, more than most years, I identify with Mary in the reading of the Christmas story. Specifically, I am taken back to two years ago on this night when Jamie and I brought our newborn son John home from the hospital. As I treasured and pondered that moment in my heart, I realized that I was really the one who was being held. I was being held with a love that silenced all the distractions of this life.
While the world around us was gearing up for Christmas with lights and music, pageants and parties, and excited little children, we were bringing our newborn son into our quiet home. The lights were dimmed and conversations were held to a whisper as not to startle or awaken a sleeping baby. Perhaps my memory is a little idyllic because Mary Katherine was three at the time! Nonetheless, the joy of Christmas was a little quieter that year.
            Tonight, as we gather to treasure and ponder the birth of Jesus our Savior, we gather to be held in in the same love that Mary held all those years ago on a dark and silent night in Bethlehem. After a long year, one that undoubtedly brought pain and suffering due to death and disease, failure and disappointment, we gather to be held with a love that has the power to inspire new joys and new possibilities. On the heels of the darkest night of the year, we gather to be held with a love has the power to open our hearts to the dawning of a new day.
            Likewise, the people of Israel are on the heels of one of the darkest chapters in their history. It has been 400 years since the prophet announced a Messiah. The people of Israel are being held hostage by the power structure of Rome; they are being pushed further and further toward the margin except for certain religious elite who have chosen to join the power structure of Rome and betray their own people.
            But as Mary sings in her song, when she learns she will give birth to the Savior of the world, God has not forgotten his chosen people. God has remembered the promise of mercy. Even during the darkest nights of our lives, God promises to draw near and give us the quiet confidence that comes with his presence.  
While the chaos of the world rages on around us, while we are left feeling powerless to stop disease and death, failure and disappointment, God promises to draw near and bid us still so that we may know the love that carries us through the changes and chances of this life. God promises to draw near and bid us still so that we may be held in the love that melts away our sin and sadness. 
            As I made home visits in the weeks leading up to Christmas where I read the Nativity story, I was again struck by the quiet joy born in our hearts on Christmas. While the world around me was buzzing with holiday traffic and flashing lights, I found the quiet joy of Christmas beside a hospital bed and in a home unadorned with Christmas decorations because the kids have long since moved away.  
As I read the Nativity story to the home-bound or hospital-bound, I was struck at just how unadorned the birth of Christ is. I had never read the Christmas story out loud without the sights and sounds of a pageant or a choir or a sermon or a beautifully decorated church. It was remarkable to me at just how powerful this story read in a setting devoid of the usual pageantry of Christmas.
In the Christmas story, Mary and Joseph find no place at the inn and find themselves in the company of barn animals - imagine that. The birth of their firstborn son is re-routed away from the confines of their own home because the powers that be had decided that the whole world needed to be registered for tax purposes, and there are no special provisions made for pregnant women. 
There are no obligatory pink and blue blankets to swaddle the baby Jesus in. There is no name card on the side of a proper crib displaying the height and weight of baby Jesus. Joseph’s friends are not waiting outside with celebratory cigars. There is, however, a birth announcement unlike any the world has ever seen – a heavenly host of angels makes known the birth of Jesus to shepherds tending their flocks by night.
Even then, this birth announcement is made known to only to a limited number of shepherds, and shepherds aren’t exactly members of the social elite. They are the type of people whom census workers wouldn’t even bother to count. They are on the outside of the socio-economic system. Today, we might call them migrant workers.
As I read the Christmas story to the home-bound and hospital-bound, I realized that I wasn’t the one announcing the story of Jesus birth. Sure, I was reading the words to the story but the words of the story came alive in those settings. It was almost as if the angels and shepherds were in the room pointing to the manger wherein Christ lies. 
I was reminded that the story of Christmas breaks into our lives at inconvenient times when our plans are re-routed because of circumstances outside our control, circumstances that involve illness or death or tragedy, circumstances that are dictated by the powers that be. The story of Christmas breaks into our lives when we find ourselves outside of our comfort zone, when we are left completely vulnerable to what life throws our way. The story of Christmas breaks into our lives and holds us when we don’t think we can hold on any longer.
During these last few weeks and months, you have no doubt been bombarded by the message, “show them how much you really care by buying them something you can’t afford” – a message heard in shopping malls, holiday traffic, and through glitzy advertisements. You have no doubt thought, I can’t wait for Christmas to be here so I can stop, so I can let go, so I can be still. Friends, Christmas is here. Be still and know that God is here – lying in the manger – waiting to hold you in love.
 Beloved, as the sights and sounds of this season fade into the background and you are left only with your unadorned self – lacking the dignities the world tells you that you need to be something in this life – may the Babe lying in the manger come into focus and hold you with love. May the Babe lying in the manger quiet your heart and mind and silence the worries and distractions of this life.
And may you hear the words that Mary treasured and pondered in her heart as she held the Son of God on that first Christmas night. “There is nothing you need to do to prove yourself to me. I love you right where you are. Completely helpless and vulnerable and small as you may be, I love you more than you can ever know. You are my child now and forever – nothing can ever change my love for you. I will never let you go.” Amen.   

Monday, December 3, 2018

Art of Piddling

The Gospel according to Rock Legend Tom Petty tells us that “the waiting is the hardest part.” If we think about it, we spend most of our lives waiting on something. We wait in the carpool line, the Starbucks’ Drive-thru line. We wait for the test results to come back from the doctor’s office, for our spouse to finish getting ready for dinner. 
We wait for an important phone call or letter or email or text. We get put on hold and have to wait for someone else to talk to. I like it when they can tell me how long I can expect to stay on hold. Children spend December waiting for Santa Claus to slide down the chimney to drop off presents. We can’t stand to wait!
            In Pastoral Care 101, they tell you not to pray for patience because what you are really asking is for God to help you learn how to wait some more. A colleague once told me to pray for peace instead of patience. Patience is circumstantial and depends on factors outside our control. However, finding peace is about being content no matter the circumstances. So, pray for peace if you find yourself growing impatient.
            Today is the 1stSunday of Advent. The first Sunday of the church calendar. Historically, Advent is the season of waiting. Naturally, we think about waiting for Christmas to get here. We think about waiting for the birth of Jesus. Unless you weren’t paying attention to the gospel lesson, it is obvious that the lectionary writers want us to think about waiting in a more cosmic sense on the first Sunday of Advent.
            After the disciples ask Jesus to predict the destruction of the Temple, Jesus begins dialogue about interpreting the signs in the sun and the moon and the stars. He tells his followers to be alert, to be on guard so they aren’t caught off guard when the new age breaks into the present age. He also says this generation will not pass away before these calamities take place. Basically, he tells them to expect it to happen at an unexpected time.
            Waiting for Jesus isn’t like waiting on hold to speak to the next customer service representative. First of all, Jesus doesn’t exactly give us an expected waiting time (he is pretty vague). Secondly, waiting for Jesus is not idle waiting. It doesn’t look like counting how many times you can wrap the telephone cord around your finger (does anyone still have a phone with a cord?).
            Rather, waiting for Jesus is active. It means preparing our heart, body, and soul to be ready when God breaks into our lives. It looks like discernment of God’s will and purpose. In particular, it looks like being open to the unexpected. And if we aren’t paying attention to the unexpected, God breaking into our lives might startle us. God breaking into our lives might cause fear and foreboding because any change – no matter how good – is disruptive. 
            Our preacher for the Celebration of New Ministry, Henry Hudson, taught me a valuable lesson about waiting. In case you haven’t noticed, I have a hard time sitting still. I feel the need to always be doing something. It is hard for me to turn off. He told me, “you need to learn the art of piddling.”
            At first, I thought that was pretty lame advice, but the more I listened the more I understood. For Henry, the art of piddling means doing what you enjoy doing without expecting a particular result (in case you are wondering, the art of piddling is really hard to do as a golfer). Piddling means doing what you like to do and rejoicing in whatever experience is in store for that day (even if that means playing terrible golf). Or like Jane said a few weeks ago, the art of piddling is not about the destination but the journey. 
            Like the disciples, we, as individuals and institutions, like to focus on the destination as opposed to the journey. We want instant gratification. We want to see the results now. We want to check the next box off the list and move. In a results oriented world, there is no room for piddling. 
However, we are following the One who is the destination. Jesus is the beginning and the end, the Alpha and the Omega. In his presence, the wait is over. In him, we have arrived because he is arrived! But there is no denying we still live in a world ruled by impatience and anxiety and fear. Sin and death still have power over us and cause us to forget that God has drawn near in Jesus Christ. Sin and death still have the power to tell us to seek our own destination rather than God’s destination in Christ. 
As you will often hear in theological circles, we exist in the already and not yet. The time between Christ is Risen and Christ will come again. We are waiting for the hope that is and was and is to come. We live between the present age – one ruled by sin and death and the age to come – the one ruled by Jesus and his love.
So, what do we as Christians do with all this waiting? Jesus calls us to be aware, be alert. Jesus calls us to be attentive to how the not yet is breaking into the present age. Jesus calls us to piddle and expect God’s kingdom to break into our lives at unexpected times – especially during the worst of times. After all, the story of Jesus’ birth is all about God breaking into this world at an unexpected time, in an unexpected place, through unexpected people.
And we aren’t simply called to notice these breakthroughs but also tell others about them. Like Mary, we are called to carry the stories of God’s unexpected breakthroughs in our lives and sing about them – to sustain this often dark and chaotic world with a word of hope and encouragement. 
During this Annual Giving campaign, you have been sharing these stories of God's unexpected breakthrough through Church of the Ascension. You were looking for a church home and almost gave up but as you were walking out the door someone greeted you cheerfully. Now you are involved in leadership. 
You came because you wanted your kids to experience church but now you are the one who can’t wait to get back each Sunday. You heard about Ascension at a car dealership when you sold a car to Mike Sparks – talk about unexpected! 
At the Vestry Retreat and Parish Retreat, we are going to take a look at all the many ways God’s kingdom is breaking through into our life together at Church of the Ascension. Now that I think about it, I’m not sure we are going to have enough time to do this but that is good news because we can keep on doing it. 
We can keep on waiting actively, piddling, keeping our eyes open to how God is reminding us that we have arrived in Jesus. When things get difficult, we can stand together, raise our heads in hope, and expect the unexpected – the Son of Man descending from heaven to make things right again. And the more we do this the more stories we will have to tell to keep hope alive. 
I can’t help you when it comes to waiting for your spouse to get ready or for the customer service representative to take you off hold. But I do want to help you wait for God to break into your life in unexpected ways. My door is open for this ongoing conversation. 
During this Advent season, I pray your waiting on God to arrive changes your posture from the hardest part to the most joyful part, from a posture of impatience to one of peace, from a posture of worry to one of expectation. I hope the mystery of our faith – the one we proclaim every Sunday – Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again – becomes a promise that you can learn to trust and count on especially during the hard times, the impatient times, the anxious times. Friends in Christ, cling to the promises of God at all times – Christ will come again. Amen. 

Thursday, November 29, 2018

Advent Reflection: Consider the Lilies of the Field

            The gospel lesson assigned for Thanksgiving Day was taken from the sixth chapter of Matthew. In his teaching, Jesus tells his followers not to worry. To illustrate his point, Jesus says, “Consider the lilies of the field...they neither toil nor spin.” As we head into the coldest and darkest season of the year, it is hard to imagine the lilies of the field! It seems more appropriate to consider the lilies during the spring and summer – closer to Easter season. 
However, a biologist will tell you that lilies need a cold and dark winter so they can bloom in the spring and summer. During the fall, lilies are blocked from blooming, but the darkness and coldness of winter are responsible for unblocking the flowering process in preparation for spring and summer. If it does not get cold enough during the winter, the lilies are not likely to bloom. 
As we turn toward winter, when the days are short and warmth is scarce, the Church invites her people to experience the season of Advent. Advent is an opportunity for our hearts to become unblocked so that we may be ready to grow in Christ. 
During this season, we are invited to take inventory of the things we have put over our hearts to block us from the storms of this life. A therapist might call these blocks defensive mechanisms. While these defensive mechanisms are sometimes necessary and help us survive, many of them will not help us thrive or grow. 
A priest or a theologian might call these blocks sin. They are things that we put between ourselves and God. While sin does not change God’s posture of love toward us, sin does prevent us from experiencing the fullness of God’s love and grace.
The beginning of this unblocking process is announced by John the Baptist in the wilderness. “Repent for the kingdom of heaven has come near!” For most of us, the word “repentance” is cold and dark. However, like the lilies of the field, repentance is a necessary part of our spiritual growth. 
In order to grow into the full stature of Christ, we must recognize those things we have put between our hearts and God – the things that have hardened our hearts. Repentance calls us to turn away from our blocks and toward the God of mercy who is always ready to forgive. This process of repentance and forgiveness softens our hearts and helps us be available to grow through the warmth of Christ’s love and kindness.
As you consider the lilies of the field, consider your blocks, your defensive mechanisms, your sin – the things that harden your heart and prevent growth. While this might seem like a chilling thing to do, recognizing what is between you and God and neighbor is a part of your growth process as a spiritual human being. Even more, recognizing your sin is an opportunity to move closer to Christ, to move closer to the One who burns away your sin with a love that never runs cold.
In the end, God does not call us to repent because God wants to shame or punish us. God does not want us to experience an eternal winter. Rather, God calls us to repent because God wants to unblock our hearts so that we might grow and flourish in the kingdom of heaven. God wants us to bloom again and again to show forth the mystery and beauty of life.
Friends in Christ, I invite you to experience Advent so that your hearts are ready to grow in compassion and kindness when the love of Christ draws near.  

Monday, November 26, 2018

Is it the Truth?

            During my time in Selma, I had the privilege of being a part of the Rotary Club. Before each meeting, we would recite what is called the “Four-Way Test.” The test includes four questions which are meant to direct the things we think, say, and do. The questions are: Is it the truth? Is it fair to all concerned? Will it build goodwill and better friendships? Will it be beneficial to all concerned?
             In my years of reciting the test, it occurred to me that one of these questions is not like the other. What I mean is: one of these questions has the potential to contradict the rest especially as we think theologically. Is it the truth?
As I think about the gospel of Jesus Christ, as I consider the nature of God’s kingdom, I can’t help but think that sometimes the truth isn’t fair to all concerned. Did the older brother in the Parable of the Prodigal Son think it was fair that his ne’er do-well brother was the one who got the big party?  
Sometimes the truth does not build goodwill and better friendships. Jesus tells his disciples that the truth of the gospel will tear families apart. Sometimes the truth isn’t beneficial to all concerned. Jesus is crucified for telling the truth about God and God’s kingdom not to mention the countless martyrs over the centuries.
 I’m not here today to discredit the “Four-Way Test.” These are good questions to consider in our daily lives. Rather, I am here to name the gravity God’s truth and the implications of that truth as we strive to follow Jesus in our daily lives. Pursing and proclaiming the truth of God turns everything in this world upside down, the truth of God so often disrupts what we thought we knew to be true. 
Today’s lesson ends with Jesus saying to Pilate, “I came into the world to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” What we don’t hear today is the response of Pilate. In response to Jesus’ statement on his vocation to testify to the truth, Pilate asks, “What is truth?”
We live in a world with countless variations of the truth leaving us asking the very same question. What is truth? There is the liberal truth, the conservative truth, the moderate truth. There is the Catholic truth, the Protestant truth, the Anglican truth. There is the Jewish truth, the Hindu truth, the Islamic truth. There is Western medicine. There is Eastern medicine. There is the AP Poll, the Coaches Poll, and the College Football Playoff Committee. How do we know who to believe?
The problem with truth claims that come from the thoughts of mortals and earthly institutions is not that they are wrong but that they are incomplete. There is a nugget of truth in almost every religious or political or social or civic ideology. Contradictions begin to occur when our little nuggets turn into boulders and blind us from someone else’s nugget of truth and ultimately from the eternal truth of God.    
The early church faced the issue of competing truth claims after Christianity was first legalized by Constantine. For the first time in over three centuries, Christians could come out of hiding for there was no longer fear of persecution. Different Christian leaders started to compare notes and not surprisingly these leaders had varying opinions on doctrine.
The most contentious debate revolved around the nature of Jesus. Is Jesus God in the flesh? Or is he simply a creation of God? Is he a just a perfect human being? Or is he more like a spirit who seems to have flesh and bones? Is Jesus half God and half human? Finally, a decision was made. Jesus is both fully human and fully divine. We Anglicans would call this the “both/and” strategy to articulating truth or the “we don’t know how but we believe” strategy.
In fact, I used the Anglican strategy on my five-year old daughter the other day. We were watching The Star– a Christmas movie told through the eyes of animals. Her inquiring mind asked, “If Jesus is God and God was the first person and Jesus was just born, then how is Jesus God?” I replied, “It is hard to explain, but we believe that Jesus is God and that God was first and that Jesus was born like you and me to a real mommy and daddy.”
In my years of study and worship, I have come to the conclusion that the truth of the gospel is never adequately explained only adequately experienced through a relationship with God. Note, for example, the Nicene Creed. The Creed does not explain how God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Rather, the Creed articulates the experiences that have called humanity into relationship with the triune God. Even though we can’t explain it, we proclaim the Creed to be true because the Creed reflects the experience of the Church in relationship to God. We, too, are invited into that experience as we say it week after week.
In the end, our experiences with God call us deeper into truth than does intellectual and rational thought. We discover truth through a relationship with God instead of ideas about God. There is a difference between knowing about God and knowing God. 
And it is for this reason that God became flesh in the person of Jesus of Nazareth – to show us the way to the truth. Instead of counting on earthly leaders and institutions to point the way, we are called to follow the One who said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” In other words, if you want to know truth, then follow Jesus, learn from him, even consume his life, his flesh and blood. 
In a world with competing truth claims, this is very good news indeed. Today is Christ the King Sunday. The designation as Christ the King Sunday is relatively new in church history. Following World War I, nationalism and secularism were on the rise around the world. Pope Pious XI noted that more attention was being paid to the nation’s flag and types of governments than to the way of the cross. Today, we are reminded that our ultimate allegiance belongs to Christ the King – even when that way contradicts the truth claims of earthly leaders and institutions (preachers and churches are not excluded from this list).
Sometimes our allegiance to Christ the King, the bearer of all truth, puts us at odds with our lesser allegiances. Sometimes our pursuit of truth puts us at odds with our social, political, civic, professional, and even religious life. Sometimes our pursuit of truth puts us at odds with friends and family members. Sometimes our pursuit of truth puts us at odds with ideas we ourselves always thought were true.
For us as Christians, there is only one big question to ask as we consider the things we think, say, and do. Is it the truth?And in my experience with God, the truth as revealed in Jesus looks like compassion and mercy and justice and peace. The truth as revealed in Jesus looks like a life of putting the needs of others before our own. 
The truth as revealed in Jesus looks like paying particular attention to the least, the last, and the lost. The truth as revealed in Jesus is a love that cannot be contained by social constructs, a love that not even sin and death can stop. In your prayers and reflections this week, I consider you to ask, “What is truth as I consider my own relationship with Jesus?” 
As you discover the truth revealed in Jesus, I pray you are further entrenched in the truth that the way of Jesus is meant to lead us all to a place where the peoples and nations of the world – with their varying nuggets of truth – find healing and dwell in unity and harmony with one another.
            And God knows this dwelling place of peace and harmony cannot be orchestrated by earthly leaders and institutions. I don’t say this because earthly leaders and institutions are all bad. Some are but most have a desire to do good. Archbishop Cranmer, the writer of the Book of Common Prayer, said there is nothing so well devised by the wit of man that isn’t corrupted in the continuance of time. 
We mortals only see the truth dimly. We only see a nugget of the truth. We too often resort to either/or instead of both/and. We let our intellectual pursuit of truth get in the way of our experience of truth. We become polarized. But as followers of Jesus, we proclaim not our own truth but the truth of Jesus and God’s kingdom. 
As we consider the enormity and gravity of God’s truth, I hope we are humbled to say, like Thomas, how can we know the way in this confusing and chaotic world? And like Thomas, I pray we find the courage to say, if this truth of God puts us at odds with the world and even gets us killed, then so be it – we are with Jesus. We are with the One whose truth is risen above the forces of evil and death. We belong to the only leader who can grant this true freedom and true peace – Christ the King. Amen. 

Monday, November 12, 2018

Investing in the Kingdom of God

           While I knew early in my college career that I wanted to go to seminary and study to be a priest, I needed a fall back career. Because my father had a successful career in the world of finance, I declared a major in Finance with a concentration in Investment Management.
Obviously, I didn’t follow up with that career path, but I like to tell people that I am concerned with a different type of investment management. Instead of helping people invest their money in an economy with finite resources, I am helping people invest their lives in God’s world of abundance. 
In this earthly world of limited resources, a good financial planner encourages their clients to diversify their portfolio – to spread their money out through different investments so they don’t lose it all in one place. However, a good priest and pastor is charged with encouraging their congregation to risk losing everything in one place – in the kingdom of God – for the sake of the gospel.
In today’s gospel lesson, we meet a widow who does just that. She gives her last two copper coins – the least of all currency – to the temple treasury. Jesus says she has given more than all the scribes because she gives out of her poverty while the scribes’ give out of their abundance. In other words, Jesus is not concerned with how much we give. Rather, he is with how much of ourselves we give.
In case you weren’t already aware, today officially kicks off the Annual Giving campaign at Ascension. If Stewardship Season were an Annual Wellness Exam, it would be the part where the doctor tells you to eat better and exercise. While we don’t really want to hear it, we know deep down inside that it is for our own spiritual health.
Jesus, after all, talks about the subject of money more than any other topic in the Bible. He does this because money is one of the most tangible spiritual diagnostic tools we have. Where we spend our money, tells us a lot about where we put our trust. How we spend our money, tells us a lot about what we value most in this world.
I am well aware that talking about money in the Episcopal Church is even worse than talking about evangelism. Talking about money is even more private than talking about our faith story. But as a wise person once told me, this means that the issue of faith and money are close to our hearts. And I would not be functioning as a faithful pastor if I did not help my congregation connect their money story with their faith story.
With that being said, I want to share with you this morning a little bit about how my faith story intersects with my money story. For most of my younger years, I grew up in a household where money was a constant source of anxiety. It wasn’t that we were poor. My father had a very successful career and did well.
However, that also meant he felt he had a lot to lose. There was always a sense that no matter how much he made it was never enough. Tragically, his worst fear came true. He developed Major Depression, lost his job, and ended up spending most of his savings. My dad never recovered.
Obviously, this made quite an impact on me as a young man. The silver lining in it all is that this life-event shifted my attention toward the church. I was set on a path where I started holding less and less trust in the things of this world and more and more trust in the truth that God will provide.
Don’t get me wrong. I still worry about not having enough, but it is like everyone said before we had kids. Don’t wait until you can afford kids or else you will never end up having any kids at all. From a worldly perspective, we will never have enough. No matter who you are there will always be something you can’t afford.
Somewhere along the way I learned that I will never be happy living for the things I can’t afford. There has got to be a better way, and I found that way in the church. It wasn’t that I heard a really good Stewardship sermon because there has never been one of those! Rather, I discovered that I had all that I really needed through a church community. 
The best experiences I have ever didn’t come after a fancy meal or vacation but have come through ordinary events with the church (it’s how I met Jamie!). These are the experiences that I will hold onto for the rest of my life.
I fully realize that not everyone has had this experience with the church (some quite the opposite), but I want this to be true for more people. And I imagine that you who can relate to my story desire the same for others. In theory, a church community is a place where people can be fully themselves and know they are fully loved for this is what God desires through Jesus Christ. While I have only been here for six-weeks, I believe Ascension is committed to this mission of God in Christ.
Sure, we aren’t perfect but no one and no church is. However, this Spirit of this place is about loving and embracing everyone who comes through those church doors. Ascension is about making a place in this part of the world where people feel loved and accepted for who they are. And this is why I feel good about talking about money and Stewardship because I believe in what we are doing; I believe many of you believe in what we are doing, and most importantly, I believe that God believes in what we are doing.
At the end of the day, we aren’t going to give ourselves – much less all of ourselves – to anything if we don’t believe in it. So, over the course of the next few weeks, we are going to do somethings to remind us why we believe in God, why we believe in the power of the Gospel of Jesus Christ to change lives, why we believe that Church of the Ascension is a place where God is making the love of Jesus known to all people. 
As you discern your monetary commitment to Ascension in 2019, I want you to know that God isn’t testing you with this decision. God will love you if you put $10,000 on that pledge card, and God will love you the same if you put $1 on that pledge card. The question for us though is how much do we know that God loves us. And I believe we learn more about God’s love and care for us when we are willing to invest more of ourselves in God, invest more of our lives in God’s mission in the world through the Church.
Unlike a financial planner, I can’t tell you what kind of return you can expect on your investment. I do, hope, however that as you invest more and more in the kingdom of God you grow to put less stock in finding happiness in the things of this world and more stock in the relationships born through the riches of God’s grace. Amen.

Monday, November 5, 2018

Heaven Descends

            “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” I imagine many of you have said something like this following the death of a loved one. Where were you Lord, when my mother or father or spouse or child or friend was sick and in need of healing? If you had been there, then they would not have died. I know I asked this question often following the death of my father. Where were you Lord?
            In response to Mary’s pleading, scripture tells us that Jesus is greatly disturbed and deeply moved. Jesus does not give a theological explanation as to why he wasn’t there. Rather, Jesus gives the only appropriate response in such a situation and joins Mary and the community in their grief. He weeps with those who weep. 
I remember speaking with a funeral director who was a retired pastor. He commented on how much he appreciated the Episcopal burial office because it honored the dignity of human grief. He went on to say that he didn’t learn to honor human grief at a funeral until later in his career.
            He recalled speaking to a young man who had just lost his father to a sudden heart attack. In an attempt to console the teenager, the minister said, “Well, aren’t you glad your father is in heaven?” Dumbfounded, the boy looked at the pastor and said, “No! I wish my father was with me here on earth.”
            As our Lord Jesus does, before we can proclaim resurrection life, we must weep with those who weep and mourn with those who mourn. Keeping that in mind, even though today is one of the Major Feast Days of the church – a day of celebration, it is also a somber day, a day to remember those whom we love but see no longer. But we can celebrate because we recognize that our loved ones are still present with us in the communion of saints. 
            During the Eucharistic Prayer, before singing the Sanctus, we proclaim this truth when we pray, “Therefore we praise you, joining our voices with Angels and Archangels and with all the company of heaven, who forever sing this hymn to proclaim the glory of your Name:”
            I remember the first time these words took on greater meaning. I was worshiping in the old chapel at Camp McDowell during Spring Break Conference. It was Holy Week, and I was sitting next to a good friend of mine. We had both just lost our one of our parents. 
            The priest who was leading the service stopped to tell us the significance of the Sanctus. She told us that this image comes from Revelation and attests to all the company of heaven standing around the throne of God singing God’s praises night and day. So, in a very real way, I felt like I was proclaiming God’s praise with my dad.
            Today, as we celebrate the communion of saints, we celebrate that the living and the dead are bound together in Christ – the One who binds heaven to earth. In a few minutes, at the Eucharistic table, we will acknowledge by name those who have joined the company of heaven this past year and who now stand around the throne of God singing God’s praise. And, in a very real way, we will join them in that never-ending chorus of praise.
            At the Eucharistic feast, the memory of our loved ones turn into a present reality. They are very much alive in the living Christ – even more alive than we are. Even though we no longer see our loved ones who have passed on into glory, they are still here to encourage us in our life of faith, in our witness to the Risen Lord. As the Book of Hebrews says, we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses.
            In particular, the saints in light are witnessing to a faith that knows that death does not have the final world. They know what we can barely believe – in Christ, life is not ended only changed. And this faith in everlasting life isn’t simply to make us feel better about dying. Rather, this faith is meant to encourage us to live more fully on our earthly pilgrimage, a faith that knows nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus, a faith that proclaims, “your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”
            As our lesson from Revelation says, God isn’t in the business of helping us escape to heaven from this sinful and broken world. Rather, God is in the business of renewing this world, a world that in the beginning, God called, “Very, Good.” And God does this, as one poet said, by cramming earth with heaven.
John, the writer of Revelation, says, “I saw a new heaven and a new earth…a new Jerusalem coming down out of heaven…the home of God is among mortals…and the One seated on the throne said, ‘See, I am making all things new.’”
Artist - Jo Pate - Selma, Alabama

            The late Eugene Peterson said, “Just as the actions of earth flow into heaven, so the actions of heaven descend to earth…We have access to heaven now: it is the invisibility in which we are immersed, and that is developing into visibility, and that one day will be thoroughly visible.”
            In other words, the heavenly realm is not a place of escape, the heavenly realm is not unaffected by what happens on earth. Rather, heaven descendsand takes part in the renewal of this earth. The saints in light are still with us fighting the good fight against the forces of evil and darkness.  
            The challenge for us, therefore, is not to try and imagine what heaven is like using earthly images and symbols. Rather, the challenge for us is to imagine what earth could be like using the image of the heavenly city. According to the Book of Revelation, this heavenly city is a place of healing for all the nations and at the center of that city is the throne of God and of the Lamb.
            How can the vision of that heavenly city transform and renew our earthly cities? What would this world look like if the God of love and compassion and mercy were at the center? What your world look like if the God love and compassion and mercy were at the center? What would this world, your world look like if instead of looking for more ways to condemn the other, we looked for more ways bring about healing and wholeness?
            Eugene Peterson sheds light on these questions saying, “Heaven is formed out of the dirty streets and murderous alleys, adulterous bedrooms and corrupt courts, hypocritical houses of worship and commercialized churches, thieving tax-collectors and traitorous disciples.” Heaven is meant not for escape but for renewal. Heaven is not a safe-haven for the virtuous but a place of healing for the broken.  
            As we consider the state of the country, the state of the world, we are in desperate need of heaven on earth, of healing and renewal for a broken and tired world. Remembering that our vocation is not about weathering the storm until we can finally escape, how can we, with the saints in light, witness to the truth that heaven is descending upon earth bringing about healing and renewal? 
            Just this past week the image of heaven descending to earth was made visible on Birmingham’s Southside in front of Temple Bethel where people from various creeds and races and nations gathered to stand with Pittsburg. This vigil was, of course, a response to the mass murder that took the lives of 11 Jewish people while they gathered to worship in a synagogue. With the martyrs who gather under the altar in heaven, those at the vigil joined in the martyrs’ prayer, “How long must your people suffer, O Lord?”
            I believe this prayer from the saints in light is not only directed to God but to us still on this earthly pilgrimage. How long will we continue to let evil pervade our streets and homes and schools and places of worship? How long will we be satisfied with keeping the status quo? When will we respond to Jesus’ command to roll away the stone and unbind this world from the bands of death?
            If you need a bit of encouragement and inspiration to respond, look to the lives of the saints. Maybe these saints are someone you knew personally – a friend or family member. Maybe these saints are found in the Episcopal publication entitled A Great Cloud of Witnesses– a Jonathan Daniels, a William Wilberforce, a Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a Constance Nun, or a Teresa of Avila. 
Look to someone who lived knowing that nothing – not even death – can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus, someone who risked everything – even life itself – to give witness to that heavenly city where all the peoples and nations and races of this earth gather to find healing and wholeness. Look to those who lived their earthly pilgrimage as if they were residents of that heavenly city.
And because even the saints are sinners, too, look to Jesus – the One who is present with us in our suffering and sorrow, the One who shares our death, the One who, through his resurrection, gives us a vision of that heavenly city, a place where sorrow and pain are no more, a place where healing makes all things new. Amen.  

Monday, October 22, 2018

Ask Not...

            Earlier this week, I asked Mary Katherine, “What did you do at school today?” She said, “I got the boringest job at school today.” I asked, “What job was that?” She said, “I was the caboose (the back of the train). That isn’t a very important job, is it?” The preacher in me said, “You know what Jesus said about being last. He said, ‘the last will be first.’” She went on to say, “that doesn’t make any sense, Dad.” (note to self: I am not my daughter’s preacher).
            Today, the disciples hear, for the seventh time in Mark’s gospel, the concept that the first will be last and the last will be first in the kingdom of God. And apparently, that doesn’t make any sense to the disciples either. This time, it is James and John, the so-called Sons of Thunder, who stick their foot in their mouth.
            Today’s lesson begins on the heels of Jesus’ third passion prediction. He has set his face toward Jerusalem and is more convinced than ever that the victory of God is found through suffering and death on a cross in Calvary. 
Jesus knows there is no way around this suffering and death – the powers and principalities of this world will do everything in their power to make sure that the light of God doesn’t expose the lies and corruption of kingdoms that are built by taking advantage of the poor and powerless – the last. The disciples, however, misinterpret Jesus’ confidence.
            They believe Jesus is poised to take the earthly throne in Jerusalem like his ancestor David. They still think political and military victory is the answer to the lies and corruption of the empire, and they sense victory is at hand.  And like someone on a political campaign staff, the Sons of Thunder ask their candidate for the best jobs when he comes into power.
In essence, James and John want to know, “What’s in it for me?” They have been on the campaign trail for nearly three years. They have sacrificed their livelihood for this dark horse candidate. Their candidate is a terrible fundraiser, he keeps telling people to give their money to the poor and powerless, so they never had the luxury of even staying in a Motel 6.   
And now that they sense Jesus is on the cusp of victory, they see an opportunity. They see an ivory tower ahead. They want to secure the best seats in the house before the other disciples wise up and ask. Jesus goes on to explain that they do not know what they are asking. So, Jesus asks a question of his own, “Are you able to drink the cup that I am to drink and be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” 
In other words, are you able to suffer the same fate as me? Are you able to accept that God’s victory is found in the way of suffering and death, a way that makes the last first?” The Sons of Thunder naively respond, “We can accept that.” Even then, Jesus says, “to sit at my right and my left is not mine to grant but it is for those whom it has been prepared.” (Oddly enough, two criminals find themselves on Jesus’ left and right as he hangs on the cross in Calvary – I’ll let you draw your own conclusions.)
            The other disciples are not too pleased with James and John – not because they think the question is inappropriate but because they wish they had thought of the question first. Sensing an internal fracture looming, Jesus calls them together and says for the seventh time, whoever wants to be great must become last…for the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve. 
            Keeping with the political campaign theme, I can’t help but be reminded of the words of President John F. Kennedy. “Ask not what your country can do for you but what you can do for your country.” Likewise, the motto in the kingdom of God asks, Ask not what God’s kingdom can do for you but what you can do for God’s kingdom.” And for those sitting in the pews today, Ask not what your church can do for you but what you can do for your church.
            While these words are familiar, the statement is radical especially as we live in what many call a consumer culture. The culture we live in trains us to ask, “What’s in it for me?” Whether we are conscious of it or not, so many of our decisions in life – at work, at home, at church – are based on the attitude – what am I going to get out of it? We are led to conclusions that say, “If it doesn’t impact my little sphere of being, then why is it my problem?” Even the best of us are hamstringed by this way of thinking. It’s called self-preservation.
            While a self-preservation attitude might help us hold onto our earthy goods and securities, it severely hinders our ability to pursue things heavenly, the things eternal. This kind of attitude turns us inward, it makes us self-absorbed, it hardens our hearts and blinds us to the needs of others, to the needs of the community, to the needs of God.
            God knows that self-preservation is the thorn in the side of the human heart and as God promised long ago, God will not abandon us to the self-serving and self-destructive agenda of the human heart. God will not leave us for dead. God is in the business of turning our hearts again and again toward God’s agenda of self-sacrificial love which is the way to abundant life. 
Ultimately, God turns our hearts toward this self-sacrificial love through the One who loved us even when it caused him public shame, unimaginable suffering, and a humiliating death on the cross between two criminals. Surely, no earthly leader would do this for his constituency.
            On the cross on Calvary, where our hearts are turned forever, we see the self-sacrificial love of Christ put the pursuit of power and control to shame, we see the self-sacrificial love of God in Christ expose the pursuit of power and control as totally destructive. We see the self-sacrificial love of God in Christ level the playing field and make room for everyone to have a place at the table in the kingdom of God – a table that puts the least, the last, and the lost first. On the cross, we see how God makes the first last and the last first. We see the victory of our God.
            And it is here, at the foot of the cross, where the kingdom of God comes into focus. It is here at the foot of the cross, the place where our Lord died because of us and for us, where we are given the grace to stop being so selfish, to stop asking, “What’s in it for me?” and start asking, “How can I help, how can I serve for the sake of the community, for the sake of the church, for the sake of the kingdom of God, for the sake of Jesus – our crucified Lord?” It is here where we are given the grace to finally stop pointing at ourselves and toward the One who died so the world would wake up to the way of eternal life.
            From a worldly, consumer-based culture perspective, Mary Katherine and the disciples are right, the way of the cross makes no sense at all. But as St. Paul famously wrote, “For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” 
Ultimately, it is God’s hope that as we follow the way of the cross, we discover what our heart has been longing to know all along – the desire to be connected to something bigger than ourselves, the desire to be a part of a vision greater than our own, the desire to find a joy that cannot be bought or possessed or earned – only given by following the One who came not to be served but to serve. Amen.

Monday, October 8, 2018

I Was Wrong. I'm Sorry. I Love You

Some Pharisees came, and to test Jesus they asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” Even the Gospel writer knows this question isn’t really about divorce. Rather, the Pharisees want to see what political camp Jesus falls into and so they pick a hot button issue to test his temperature. Is Jesus a Republican or a Democrat? Is he a conservative or a liberal? Maybe even a Libertarian?!
Despite bumper stickers that say otherwise, Jesus is not a Democrat or a Republican. While Jesus’ earthly ministry certainly confronts the political realm, and while some of the things he does might fall in line with a particular sect’s agenda, Jesus himself is bound by a higher platform – God’s platform – a platform that even the most noble of human institutions fail to live up to.
As we read along, we see that Jesus will not be baited into a question that seeks to divide rather than unite. Jesus knows the motives of the Pharisees are impure. Therefore, Jesus gets the Pharisees to answer the question for themselves which they were glad to do. But then Jesus reminds them that the law about divorce isn’t from God but was written because of humanity’s hardness of heart. 
Very subtly, Jesus changes the trajectory of the conversation from the legal grounds for divorce to God’s intention for humanity through marriage. Jesus recalls the passage that we read from Genesis today, a passage which begins by saying, “It is not good that man should be alone.” The purpose of marriage, and even more broadly, the purpose of God with usis to communicate – you are not alone – no matter what.
Finally, Jesus makes the point the Pharisees fail to comprehend. “Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.” While humanity has spent much of its existence looking for ways to divide and separate, God has spent God’s life among us looking for ways to unite us and bring us back together. As Christians, we proclaim a God who reconciles us all through Christ crucified – the one who died for Republicans and Democrats and even Libertarians alike.
While the immediate context of today’s gospel lesson is marriage between two people, the bigger picture is the marriage between God and humanity. As Christians, we believe that through Jesus Christ, God has established a bond with humanity that can never be broken – not even the power of sin and the finality of death can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.
 It has been God’s intention from the very beginning that we live together in a common life that looks a lot like the vows we make in marriage, that we depend on each other for strength and encouragement and mutual joy, that we love each other in good times and in bad, that we raise our children to know the goodness and mercy of our all loving God.
Like with any marriage, our communal commitment to these promises begin strong but along the way our hearts are hardened, a scorecard gets kept, suspicions grow, indifference and apathy run rampant. We forget that we are meant for each other. We forget that we can’t do this without each other.
Suddenly, the conversation is reduced to why one party is guiltier than the other party. The conversation is reduced to finger pointing and blame shifting. In the process, we absolve ourselves from any wrong doing by pointing to laws that are not from the heart of God but laws that have grown out of our hardness of heart.
As a society, we would do well to remember some of the first things we learn in pre-marital counseling – at least I hope you learned this in premarital counseling. In case you didn’t or if you aren’t married, there are three critical phrases needed for a successful marriage, and they work best when they are said in this order: I was wrong; I am sorry; I love you.
Can you imagine the healing and reconciliation that would take place if we said these things to each other more often? Not just on a personal level but on a macro level? I was wrong. I am sorry. I love you.
Unfortunately, we live in a world where saying these kinds of things is a sign of weakness. We live in a society where are told to never admit fault or apologize when we get into a car accident. We live in a society where saying, “I was wrong. I am sorry. I love you” can cost us a lot of money, a job, and even a reputation.
But as a preacher of God’s Word, I can tell you that saying these things will not cost you the kingdom of God. In fact, saying these three phrases will enlarge your vision of the kingdom of God. As the famous hymn proclaims, “Let goods and kindred go, this mortal life also: The body they might kill, but God’s truth abideth still, His kingdom is forever.”
At the end of the day, saying, “I’m wrong. I’m sorry. I love you” is the essence of God’s law for humanity. While God does not expect perfection, God calls us back to perfection through the law fulfilled alone in Christ Jesus – the One who, on a cross constructed by hardness of heart, begs us to say, “I was wrong. I am sorry. I love you.” 
On the cross, Jesus changes the trajectory of the conversation. At the foot of the cross, none of us can say that we are justified according to the law. And if you can, then you must be Jesus. 
At the foot of the cross, how can we not say, “How long will we continue to destroy the image of God in the other? Aren’t we already broken enough? When will we realize that we need each other – that we need the goodness and mercy of God – and if not for our sakes, for the sake of the children? For the sake of the children, can we, as married couples and members of society alike, find the grace to say, “I was wrong. I am sorry. I love you.” 
Today’s lesson ends with Jesus becoming indignant toward the disciples for stopping the little children from coming forward. He says, “Whoever does not enter the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” In just a few minutes, our children will come into church during The Peace. They might cause a little disruption to the flow of things, but I invite you to see this disruption be an outward and visible sign that Jesus himself is disrupting the flow of things in our world.
Jesus is disrupting our pattern of self-righteous legalism. Jesus is disrupting our desire to keep the status quo, to maintain a philosophy that says – if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Jesus is disrupting our desire to separate and divide in the name of self-justification and preservation.
Jesus is turning our attention toward the things that really matter, toward the kingdom of God – a place where the most vulnerable and powerless among us are lifted, a place where the giving of ourselves to God and to others is where true power is found – the power of God’s love.
No, Jesus was not a Democrat or a Republican or even a Libertarian. Jesus is Lord and Savior of all. And that Jesus calls us to live not according to the ideals of any earthly institution, rather according to the way of Jesus – a way that brings the kingdom of God into focus, a way that discovered and re-discovered when we find the grace to say, “I was wrong. I am sorry. I love you.” 
Following the way of Jesus, may all of us – Democrat, Republican, and Libertarian alike –find ourselves gathered in God’s kingdom, in God’s heavenly institution so that God can get on with God’s work of healing, reconciliation, and restoration of community. And, at the end of the day, may we all have reason to say, “therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.” Amen.  

Monday, October 1, 2018

Why Are You Here?

October 2018 Newsletter Article for Ascension on the Mountain

A question that I am frequently asked says, “Why did you want to become a priest?” While I wasn’t struck blind on the Road to Damascus like the Apostle Paul, I usually begin answering this question by sharing my first conversion story. I say first conversion story because I believe God is in the business of converting us toward the love Jesus again and again.

When I was ten years old my parents got a divorce. In addition to the divorce, both my parents were battling their own demons. Needless to say, I spent most of my adolescent years feeling lost. Thankfully, I found a place in the church through youth group.

When I was fifteen, my youth minister invited me to attend a summer mission trip called Towel Ministry which took place in Valle Crucis, North Carolina. At the halfway point of the trip, the Deacon in charge of the ministry held a healing service.

I had never attended a healing service before and was a little ambivalent about coming forward to receive prayers for healing. After what I can only describe as a nudge from the Holy Spirit, I found myself at the altar rail.

Deacon Chris Greer asked, “How can I pray for you tonight?” I responded, “My parents are struggling. I would like to ask prayers of healing for them.” He looked at me again, “I’m afraid you didn’t hear me. How can I pray for YOU?” No one had ever asked me that question. Tears rushed down my face, and I didn’t say anything because I was afraid to sound like a blubbering mess.

Chris anointed my forehead with healing oil, laid his hands upon my head, and began he prayer saying something like, “Gracious God, I ask prayers of healing for your beloved son Jack…” When the prayer was over, I stood up and felt lifted to life in a way I hadn’t experienced before. Suddenly, my life had a direction and a purpose rooted in the healing power of God’s love.

While I couldn’t articulate it at the time, I know now this was my call to discipleship. In the same way Peter’s mother-in-law began to serve after she was healed, I felt called to serve after I was healed. Over the years, this story has become a frame of reference for my ministry in the church. Simply put, I knew I wanted to be a part of the ministry of healing and it just so happens that God called me to be a priest to fulfill that ministry.

This story is my invitation to ask you, “Why are you here?” “Why are you a member of Ascension?” “Why are you a follower of Jesus?” Your answer is not only important to me but also to other members of the congregation. The Christian fellowship is strengthened when we share with one another our life with God. We gain a sense of direction and purpose when we understand our collective story.

As a way to encourage this conversation, I will be organizing small group sessions to create space for these questions to be answered. I will be working with the Vestry and the staff to make sure everyone has the opportunity to be a part of these small group gatherings. While some of these conversations will take place at the church, I’d love the opportunity to meet in your homes. If you are willing to host a session, please let me know!

As you contemplate your answer, please don’t feel like it needs to be perfectly scripted. Just start talking and let the Holy Spirit move you to share your story with others who are hungry to share their story. For in the end, we are a people who are shaped by stories. In particular, we are shaped by the story of how God’s love invites us to know healing and wholeness through our Savior Jesus Christ. May God bless us and heal us as we discover how we are all a part of God’s story of love and redemption.

Love of People Before Ideas

During my seminary years, a couple of classmates of mine and I would often poke fun at the number of Episcopal priests who quoted Dietrich Bonhoeffer in their sermons. (Bonhoeffer was a pastor in the Confessing Church in Germany who opposed the Nazi Regime. Bonhoeffer was also involved in a plot to kill Hitler. He was found out and put in a concentration camp where he was later murdered by Nazi Germany.) We’d joke, “We’d be rich if we got a dollar for every time we heard the name Bonhoeffer used in a sermon.” And as newly ordained priests, we were quite proud of the fact we never quoted Bonhoeffer.
            At some point along the way, we actually started reading Bonhoeffer. Slowly we began talking to each other about his work. We all came to the same conclusions, “He’s really good.” So, now that I have given you my full disclosure statement, a quote from Dietrich Bonhoeffer. 
            In his book Life Together, Bonhoeffer writes, “Those who love their dream of a Christian community more than the Christian community itself become destroyers of that Christian community even though their personal intentions may be ever so honest, earnest, and sacrificial.” In case you were wondering, we would be up to $8 by now if we were in my seminary preaching pool.
            This quotation from Bonhoeffer describes perfectly the difficulty the disciples find themselves in today’s passage from Mark. Our lesson from Mark begins with the disciples reporting a copy-cat exorcist to Jesus. Using church lingo, Jesus’ disciples think they are the liturgical police, and they’ve caught someone breaking the rubrics in the prayer book.  I can see the disciples patting themselves on the back for catching this renegade exorcist red handed. 
The last shall be first teaching still hasn’t sunk in. While their intentions might have been honest, earnest, and sacrificial, the disciples miss the mark. They fail to understand that Jesus is more concerned with loving relationships than he is with religious traditions. And Jesus lets the disciples know it.
At first, Jesus is rather mild. He tells the disciples to give a cup of water, which is a gesture of encouragement, to those doing the Lord’s work. Jesus tells the disciples to support others in the work of ministry even if they do that work differently. 
Perceiving the disciples still don’t get what he is saying, Jesus hurls a few provocative images their way to help get their attention. He says it would be better to hang a 1,000-point weight around your neck and jump in a ditch than it would be to put a stumbling block in front of a new follower. Then Jesus gets on with the whole business of looping off limbs and throwing them to the place where the worm never dies.
            Once Jesus sufficiently makes his point, he concludes his teaching, “For everyone will be salted with fire. … Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.” Our formation in the kingdom of heaven doesn’t depend on the advancement of our great ideas or dreams, our formation in the kingdom of heaven doesn’t need on our rigid attention to religious customs. 
            Rather, our formation in the kingdom of heaven relies on our willingness to be salted with fire, on our willingness to be transformed by the power of the Holy Spirit who takes us beyond our petty differences. For us today, in this Christian community, are we willing to let go of our short-sighted dreams and let the purifying love of Jesus open our eyes to God’s dream for community. Are we willing to let go of our way of doing things and let the love of Jesus add flavor to our life together? 
The formation of authentic Christian community begins and ends with love – the details of how that community is formed is worked out somewhere in between. Bonhoeffer said (that’s $10), “The person who loves their dream of community will destroy the community, but the person who loves those around them will create community.” 
While I am still in full disclosure mode, I have another confession. I am a seven on the Enneagram. I am an Enthusiast and according to the Enneagram, a seven is prone to love ideas more than people. Therefore, today’s sermon is intended for me just as much as it is intended for you. 
Through this scripture, Jesus is reminding you and me that loving relationships build authentic community, loving relationships give rise to ideas that we didn’t know we could even dream. Even more, our all loving God already has a dream in mind for his beloved community – a dream God spoke into being through Creation, a dream fulfilled in Jesus. 
God’s dream looks like all the people of the earth living in peace with one another. And in a world that is severely torn and broken by sin and death and tribalism, that dream of peace is realized through a love that is concerned not with surrounding itself with the people who think and act alike but a love that is concerned with finding healing, reconciliation, and restoration among those who differ from us the most. 
When we pursue healing, reconciliation, and restoration, we put love of people before love of ideas and agendas. When we pursue the peace that God intends, our eyes our opened to just how dangerous love of ideas before people is.  
Because when we love our short-sighted version of the way the world should be before we love the people around us, we shut down the possibility of dialogue with those who think and do things differently than we do, we shut down the possibility of relationships that extend beyond likeminded people, we shut down the possibility of being able to listen without a predetermined agenda.
Ultimately, when we put ideas before people, we shut down the possibility of healing, reconciliation, and restoration. We close ourselves off to peace, to the dream of God – a dream that gathers a diverse group of people with a love that is meant for us all in the way of Jesus.  And this way of Jesus calls us to trust that love covers a multitude of sins. This way that Jesus calls us to trusts that love of God and love of people is where authentic community is born and nurtured. 
During the search process, I was asked, “What would be the first thing you would want to do if you became Rector at Ascension?” Being a seven on the Enneagram, a flood of ideas rushed to my head. However, I recalled my first days as Rector of St. Paul’s. A list of about twenty things floated around my desk for about the first year.
The more I got to know the people at St. Paul’s, the more I listened to their stories, the more I learned about the parish, the more I got involved in the community, the more irrelevant my list of ideas became. Finally, I tossed the list in the trash can.  If I remember correctly, only one of those twenty ideas ever gained any legs. Instead, by the grace of God, my list of ideas became our list of ideas, ideas born out of relationships, ideas that revealed God’s dream in our time and place.
With that being said, the first thing I want to do as your Rector is to get to know you, get to know this parish, get to know the needs of the larger community. Like I wrote in the newsletter, I want to know why you are here. What about Ascension excites you about participating in the dream of God? What about this place makes you feel like you belong to the community of God? 
It is my conviction that through this process of getting to know each other and our stories, God will reveal his dream for this community in this particular time and place. Like anything else we do in community, this process will take time. This process will require us to be intentional and mindful and discerning – a lot of listening. This process will require personal and communal prayer. Above all, this process will require us to love each other despite our differences of opinion.
For at the end of the day, our individual opinions, my opinions included, do not shape Christian community. In fact, individual opinions often destroy community. Rather, the truth of Christ in God, which is discerned by the entire community in worship, gives shape to authentic Christian community. 
            Friends, as we discern God’s dream for this community, may we never lose sight of the most important part of living in community, that is may we never lose sight of the truth that it is through God’s love alone, through God’s unwavering commitment to be in relationship with us that any of us find ourselves here today. Amen.