Monday, December 25, 2017

God's Gift to the World: A Christmas Sermon

O Lord, you have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you. 

+ In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. + 

Merry Christmas! It’s good to be with you all as together we celebrate the birth of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. 

Christmas for children can often be magical. It was certainly a special time for me when I was a kid. On Christmas Eve, my family would often go to Mass at the Episcopal Church. Afterwards we’d go over to a family friend’s house for a neighborhood Christmas party. And then we’d head back home, turn on the Christmas tree lights and make hot chocolate. Dad always played an album of goofy Christmas songs. If you’ve never heard Mitch Mitchell and The Gang sing “Must Be Santa,” you’ve been spared an earworm that could haunt you for the rest of your life. 

So we’d listen to the Christmas music and drink our hot chocolate. And we’d get to open just one present from under the tree. It was like an appetizer for the feast to come. 

My brother and I would help mom and dad make an early start on Christmas morning. And we’d tear into our presents, piling up mountains of wrapping paper, ribbons, and bows. It was an awesome experience. 

But you know what happened every single year? By about noon or early afternoon on Christmas Day, the buzz of the morning’s excitement wore off. It was like crashing from a sugar high. Surrounded by all my wonderful presents, I’d start feeling bored and restless. Maybe even a bit cranky. 

It’s a pattern I’ve experienced many times. I’ve seen it happen with others. And countless wise men and women down through the ages have observed it. It teaches an important lesson about the human tendency to seek happiness and fulfillment where they cannot ultimately be found. 

Something gets in the way. Something keeps distracting us. And we end up trying to fill the hole in our souls with people, places, and things that cannot deliver. 

But the longings persist. 

We long for a sense of meaning and purpose that transcends the busyness of overbooked calendars and the interruptions of smartphones. 

We long to know that in spite of the cruel injustices of this world, wrongs will be set right and the forces of darkness and destruction won’t get the last word. 

We long to be freed from bondage to our sins. 

We long to know that regardless of who we are or what we’ve ever done, and in spite of our worst failings, we are deeply and unconditionally loved. And that the past doesn’t define our future. 

We long to be healed of sorrows and losses that have wounded our hearts. 

We long for the reassurance that death is not the end, and that somehow love will prevail. 

If we put away all the distractions and just sit still in silence for a few moments, we might just feel it - the restlessness of our hearts that’s just below the surface. 

That restlessness reminds us that we are made for something bigger than ourselves. We are made for Someone who can bring order out of chaos and direction out of distraction. We are made for Someone who can heal our sin-sick souls and give us new life. 

That Someone has come among us with the birth of Jesus Christ. 

In the birth of Jesus, God assumed the fullness of our flesh-and-blood humanity. Laying aside all claims to divine status and power, humbling himself to share in our humanity, and willing to experience everything that comes with being human - including temptation and suffering - God entered the world as a naked, vulnerable baby. And God did it because he loves us so very much. 

Jesus Christ is God’s gift to the world. 

For in Jesus, God has come among us, not to condemn, but to save. In Jesus, God has lowered himself to our level to raise us up to his. God became fully human in Jesus so that we might share in God’s divine life. 

For Jesus is God with us. Jesus is God restoring the dignity of human nature. Jesus is God saving us from ourselves. Jesus is God taking away the sin and sorrow of the world. Jesus is God triumphing over death and the grave. Jesus is God giving us “the hope of eternal life” (Titus 3:7). Jesus is God calling us to live lives of faith, hope, and love. 

This Christmas, we can enjoy the parties. We can take delight in the exchange of presents. We can find comfort in the fellowship of family and friends. 

But we can also remember that only in Jesus will we find a joy that lasts for eternity. 

C. S. Lewis said it best: “Look for Christ and you will find him. And with him everything else." 

We don’t have to look far to find Christ. He’s here among us now. He gives us his very life in the bread and wine of the Eucharist. And he invites you and me to follow him. 

It’s a journey that will take us from the manger in Bethlehem to the cross on Calvary hill and through the open door of the empty tomb. It’s a journey that will transform us. And it starts right now. 

This Christmas, God offers you the gift of great joy in Jesus Christ. 

Take it. 

Open it. 

Treasure it. 

Share it. 

And live it.

Monday, November 6, 2017

Letting the Light In: Sermon for All Saints' Sunday

It was one of the highlights of the year. What could be better than dressing up as a ghost, Frankenstein, a werewolf, a vampire, or a favorite superhero, roaming around the neighborhood with your friends, knocking on strangers' doors, and filling up sacks with candy? 

Of course, I’m talking about Halloween, one of my favorite holidays as a kid. 

At the time, I had no idea that what we were doing on the night of Halloween was Christian, and wonderfully so. I didn’t know that Halloween - or All Hallows’ Eve - is a vigil for one of the great baptismal feast days of the Church year: All Saints’ Day. Or that the Church had transformed pagan festivals into a Christian celebration, creating an opportunity to lampoon and make fun of the forces of evil and death by dressing up like witches, devils, and goblins. I didn’t know that by putting on a costume and going trick-or-treating, I was celebrating Christ’s victory over evil, and proclaiming that evil has no power over us, that there’s nothing to be afraid of, because we belong to the risen Christ. 

That includes affirming the truth that all who have died in Christ are not lost, but safe in God’s loving presence awaiting the completion of God’s purposes for the world. 

Today, on All Saints’ Sunday, the Church remembers Christians who have died, including holy heroes who gave bold witness to the Christian faith, persons who made such an impact that they changed the course of history. 

We can look to the example of St. Paul. Starting out as a persecutor of the Church, he came to believe in Jesus, giving up everything he had ever known to travel all over the Roman Empire to share the good news that through his death and resurrection, Jesus is the true Lord of the world. And that God’s sin-and-death-conquering reign has begun. Along the way, he suffered hunger, shipwrecks, beatings, and imprisonment. But he never gave up. And in the end, he died as a martyr, giving his life in witness to the gospel. 

St. Mother Teresa is a more contemporary example of a holy hero. For about 50 years, she worked with other women to minister to the poorest of the poor in places like Calcutta, India. Forming the Missionaries of Charity, she responded to the needs of the hungry and the sick, the homeless, the blind, refugees, the dying, and orphans. 

We find another holy hero the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., whom we remember each year on the Episcopal Church calendar. Dr. King gave his life championing the cause of civil rights for African Americans. He worked tirelessly to realize the dream of a society in which persons will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character. And he died for the dream of a Beloved Community in which people of all nations and races may live together in harmony. 

These are just some of the towering figures of faith who changed the world. They may seem almost superhuman in comparison to our daily lives. It may be hard to relate to them. Their examples may seem unattainable. After all, it can be difficult enough just to make it through any given day or week with the challenges of work, school, and family life. 

That’s why it’s important that we balance our remembrance of the Church’s holy heroes with the New Testament’s broader understanding of sainthood. 

Take, for example, this opening line from St. Paul’s 1st letter to the Corinthians: 

“To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints, together with all those in every place who call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Corinthians 1:2).  

This is a typical way that Paul begins his letters to churches. It’s a reminder that “the earliest definition of the word saint is every believer.” That’s particularly striking in the case of the church in Corinth. Because this church was plagued by every sin and disruptive behavior you can possibly imagine. Seriously, if you can think of it, they were doing it. These were Christians whose lives hardly measured up to the high standards of sanctity that we often associate with the word “saint.” 

And yet, Paul reminds the Corinthians that as sinful and imperfect as they are, they have been sanctified by God. They have been set apart as holy in the waters of baptism. They are called to be the saints they already are. They are called, not necessarily to do great things, but to do small things with great love. 

When I think of ordinary, imperfect, everyday saints who did small things with great love, I think of my great-uncle Charlie. In fact, I’m wearing his ring. My grandmother made it for him. It has his initials on it: HBC. Hobson Bryan Cargile. 

His older brother was named Charlie, so he got the nickname “Little Charlie” when he played baseball for a place way up north called the University of Alabama. Perhaps you’ve heard of it. 

I have my first and middle names from him. And my son is named directly after him. 

Uncle Charlie died on November 5, 1980. I was 11 years old. There’s a lot about him I don’t remember. But I vividly remember how he made me feel. 

Mom and I would go over to the house, and she would visit with my grandmother and great-aunt while I hung out with Uncle Charlie. He would make a cup of coffee for himself, and then pour one for me. Actually, my cup was about this much coffee and this much milk with a couple of sugar cubes added. Then we’d go watch sports or westerns on TV. I would sit with him in his favorite chair as we both sipped coffee. 

The way Uncle Charlie treated me made me feel like somebody special. It made me feel important. I didn’t have to do anything. We didn’t even have to talk. We could just be together, resting in the safety and acceptance of each other’s presence. 

Uncle Charlie radiated unconditional love. He touched me deeply in ways I couldn’t understand until many years later. I would even go so far as to say that Uncle Charlie’s love for me helped shape my understanding of God. When I wear his ring, I feel close to him. As though somehow this world and the next - heaven and earth - are brushing up against each other. 

A child was once asked: “What is a saint?” And looking up at the stained glass windows in her church depicting people from the Bible, she answered: “Saints are people who let the light in.” 

She’s right. Saints are people who let the light in. Saints are people through whom the love and grace of God shines. Saints are people who do small things with great love. 

Uncle Charlie did that for me. Who has done that in your life? 

As we remember and give thanks this day for all those we love but see no longer, may we remember that we, too, are called to be saints. We are called to let the light of Christ shine. We are called to do small things with great love. 

May God empower us to lead lives worthy of that calling.

Monday, October 30, 2017

"Be a Tree" (Sermon on Psalm 1)

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A sermon for the 21st Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 25A).

It’s a vivid childhood memory: the magnolia tree right outside my bedroom window. It must have been three stories tall. It sure seemed giant to a kid. I would often make my way through its low hanging leaves and branches that touched the ground, as though parting curtains and entering a portal into another world. 

It might have been scorching hot outside in the bright summer sun. But inside the magnolia tree it was dark and cool. Toad frogs, lizards, turtles, and snakes would take refuge in the tree’s sanctuary. A number of large branches formed steps like a ladder that you could climb, going almost all the way to the very top. My brother and I spent countless hours playing in that magnolia tree, finding refreshment in its cool shade and climbing its heights for a magnificent panoramic view of our yard. 

Trees are special parts of God’s creation. They provide oxygen, improve air quality, conserve water, preserve soil, and support wildlife. And throughout history trees have conveyed a number of qualities that command attention. Qualities like life, prosperity, strength, stability, and wisdom. 

We have many examples here in Louisiana. Like the Seven Sisters Oak in Mandeville. Estimated to be almost 1,500 years old, it’s the largest certified live oak tree with a trunk measuring 38.9 feet, a height of 68 feet, and a crown spread of 139 feet. And Cat Island near St. Francisville is home to a bald cypress tree with a girth of 17 feet. 

We discover even bigger trees when we go west. Like the General Sherman, a sequoia in California’s Sequoia National Park. It has a height of 275 feet and a diameter of 25 feet. 

And then there’s Methuselah, a Great Basin bristlecone pine in the White Mountains of California that was estimated in 2013 to be 4,845 years old. But since then researchers have discovered another bristlecone pine that’s 5,062 years old. 

These ancient trees stand like sentinels unmoved by the passage of time, their roots reaching down into the depths of the earth, their branches opening out into the heavens like arms lifted in prayer. 

Little wonder that across cultures and religious traditions, trees have symbolized different aspects of the spiritual life. And they have elicited the reverence and respect of human beings. 

So it’s no accident that trees play a prominent role in the Bible. In fact, trees quite literally bookend the story of the Bible from Genesis to Revelation. 

As you may recall, in Genesis - the first book of the Bible - Adam and Eve are tempted by a serpent to eat the forbidden fruit of a tree: the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. When they disobey God by eating from that tree, it unleashes the forces of sin and death into the world (cf. Genesis 3:1-24)

Fast forward to the very end of the Bible in the book of Revelation, where St. John the Apostle shares a vision of a new heaven and a new earth. A river of the water of life flows from the throne of God through the middle of the street in the new Jerusalem. And on either side of the river stands the tree of life. The tree of life produces twelve fruits for each month of the year. And it grows leaves for the healing of the nations (cf. Revelation 22:1-2)

There are many other example of trees throughout the Bible. We find one of the best examples in today’s Psalm. 

Psalm 1 lays out two different ways of life: a way of the righteous and a way of the wicked; a way guided by God’s instruction and a way that rejects that instruction; a way centered on self and a way centered on God. 

The Psalmist chose trees to represent the way of the righteous. According to the Psalmist, those who delight in God’s law, those who are grounded in God’s wisdom, are “like trees planted by streams of water, bearing fruit in due season, with leaves that do not wither” (Psalm 1:3). It’s an image of stability, strength, life, and fruitfulness. 

And so the Psalmist’s spiritual counsel is this: “Be a tree.” Stay connected to the source of life by developing qualities like a healthy tree whose deep roots draw out the nutrients of the soil and drink deeply of the groundwater. For if you do, your life will bear fruit that brings happiness and blessings. 

So how do we stay connected to the source of life? How do we put down roots, spread out branches, grow, thrive, and bear good fruit? How can we cultivate the ways of God’s righteousness and learn to love what God commands? 

The Psalmist’s answer is simple yet challenging to live. We do it by taking delight in God’s law and meditating on it day and night (Psalm 1:2).

We can break down what that looks like into three practices that have stood the test of time within the Jewish and Christian traditions: daily prayer, weekly worship, and regular meditation on scripture (source).

Daily Prayer 
When it comes to daily prayer, our Lord Jesus Christ sets the example for us. As we are told in Luke’s gospel, Jesus “would [regularly] withdraw to deserted places and pray” (Luke 5:16). Before major events and big decisions in his life and ministry, Jesus would take time out for prayer. 

But Jesus didn’t save prayer just for the big things. He didn’t pray just when he needed something or when he got into trouble. Regardless of what was going on, making a connection with the Father, keeping company with the Lord of life, was a daily commitment for Jesus. It was like breathing, eating, or sleeping. For without prayer, Jesus would not have been able to live a fully human life, much less navigate challenges or fulfill his calling as the Savior of the world. 

If Jesus had to make time for daily prayer, then we need to as well. Our lives depend on a daily connection with the source of life who is the “creator of heaven and earth” (The Book of Common Prayer, p. 96)

Weekly Worship 
We sometimes hear people say that they’re spiritual but not religious. Or that they can pray just as easily walking through the woods or out on the golf course as they can in church. Or that they love Jesus but have no interest in institutional or organized religion.

No doubt, all of that may be true. 

But for we who follow Jesus, weekly worship with other believers who strive to follow the way of righteousness must be a priority. And that’s because it was a priority for Jesus. 

The Gospel tells us that it was Jesus’ “custom” to attend “the synagogue on the sabbath” (Luke 4:16). Gathering with God’s people every sabbath to offer praise and thanksgiving and intercession, and to hear the Word of God in scripture and proclaimed in preaching - that was Jesus’ regular practice. 

As one Christian author notes, “Jesus … was not anti-institutional. Jesus said ‘Follow me,’ and then regularly led his followers into the two primary religious institutional structures of his day: the synagogue and the temple" (Eugene Peterson, The Jesus Way, p. 230)

Jesus made weekly worship a priority. To follow him, we must do likewise. 

Regular Meditation on Scripture 
Daily prayer and weekly worship are critical ways for every follower of Jesus to stand firm like a sturdy tree that withstands the storms of life. But to really draw out the deep spiritual sustenance that can help us grow into the full stature of Christ, there’s no substitute for regular meditation on Holy Scripture. 

Yet again, Jesus shows us the way. 

You may recall how Jesus dealt with the temptation in the wilderness. After each of the devil’s attempts to derail him from his mission, Jesus responded by quoting scripture (cf. Matthew 4:1-11). God’s Word helped Jesus stay on the right course. 

Even when Jesus was nailed to the cross, dying for the sins of the world, he gave expression to his pain and suffering by quoting Psalm 22 (cf. Matthew 27:46)

None of this happened by accident. It happened because Jesus had internalized the words and the wisdom of scripture. It happened because Jesus regularly read and meditated on scripture, allowing it to seep into the depths of his being. 

Daily prayer, weekly worship, and regular meditation on scripture help us put down deep spiritual roots that draw on the life-giving power of God’s wisdom. And they deepen our relationship with Jesus, the one who perfectly delighted in the law of the Lord by fulfilling that law in his sinless life and sacrificial death on the cross. 

By committing ourselves to the spiritual practices of Jesus, returning again and again to daily prayer, weekly worship, and meditation on scripture, we become like trees planted by streams of water. Our lives bear the fruit of God’s love. And we become a blessing that invites others to walk in the way of loving God and loving our neighbors as ourselves. 

So be a tree. 

Stay firmly grounded in God. 

And bless the lives of others by bearing the fruits of God’s love and grace.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Persevere in Resisting Evil: Responding to Charlottesville

Like people all around our country and the world, I was horrified by the violence, the racial hatred, and the deliberate act of terror that killed Heather Heyer last weekend in Charlottesville, Virginia. 

I was particularly disturbed to see American citizens marching with Nazi flags and other white supremacist symbols while shouting slogans like “Blood and soil!” and “Jews will not replace us!” 

This is pure evil. And even more so when we recall how Americans of all races from the “Greatest Generation” made incredible sacrifices during World War II to eradicate the scourge of Fascism and Nazism from the face of the earth. Those brave Americans fought and many of them died to insure that all people - regardless of race, color, or creed - can live in freedom. 

The protesters who advocated for white supremacy last weekend dishonor the sacrifices of Americans who fought during World War II. They dishonor the sacrifices of Americans who struggled for liberty and justice for all in the Civil Rights Movement. They dishonor true patriotism and love of our country. They dishonor basic human values of decency, civility, and kindness. 

But as Christians, we must condemn this evil in even stronger terms. 

Russell Moore, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission with the Southern Baptist Convention, hit the nail on the head when he wrote the following on Twitter

“The so-called Alt-Right white supremacist ideologies are anti-Christ and satanic to the core. We should say so.” 

And Bishop Jake Owensby of the Episcopal Diocese of Western Louisiana summed it up like this: 

“Racism is a sin. White supremacy is a racist ideology. Its presence in Charlottesville was undeniable. It is our responsibility as followers of Christ to denounce this hate and violence without resorting to hate and violence ourselves.” 

In the Baptismal Covenant, we promise to “persevere in resisting evil.” White supremacy in any form is evil. It is an assault on the dignity of persons created in the image of God. It is an assault on the teachings of Jesus, who commands us to love one another as he loves us (John 15:12). It is a form of hatred that separates us from God. For as St. John the Apostle writes: “If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen” (1 John 4:20). 

We find the way to resist evil in the love of Jesus Christ. For the love of Jesus is stronger than hatred. It transforms enemies into friends. It overcomes even death itself. 

What happened in Charlottesville reminds us that this world is shot through with sin and evil. This world needs saving. It desperately needs to see the light and know the healing power of Jesus’ love. May we be that light and that love. 

As we seek to resist the evils of racism and white supremacy by faithfully walking in love as Christ loved us, I invite you to use the following prayer from The Book of Common Prayer

O God, you made us in your own image and redeemed us through Jesus your Son: Look with compassion on the whole human family; take away the arrogance and hatred which infect our hearts; break down the walls that separate us; unite us in bonds of love; and work through our struggle and confusion to accomplish your purposes on earth; that, in your good time, all nations and races may serve you in harmony around your heavenly throne; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

God's Job, Not Ours: Sermon for Proper 11A 2017

Gospel reading for Proper 11A

One of the things I love the least is yard work. I’ve never been a big fan of mowing, edging, trimming, raking, pulling weeds, ripping out vines, or cutting back branches - particularly in the summer heat.

Maybe it goes back to my high school years when I was tasked with cutting the grass during summer breaks. Including an orchard and a field, our yard was huge. Even with a tractor mower it could take 3 hours to cut everything. Not fun!

There was, however, one outdoor job I liked. And that was spraying the poison ivy plants that seemed to pop up everywhere. Living on a cotton and soybean farm, I had access to chemicals that were like weaponized Round-Up. You could spray a poison ivy plant and within a few hours it would be burned to a crisp. It became my mission to seek out and destroy all of the poison ivy on our property. 

I did a pretty good job. But there was collateral damage. In my zeal to eradicate every single poison ivy plant, I occasionally took out a few flowers, destroyed a tomato plant in dad’s garden, and maybe even killed a small tree in the orchard. 

Sometimes the eagerness to get rid of things we perceive as bad can cause harm. 

We see that point in Jesus’ parable of the weeds in the wheat. A landowner sowed good seed in his field. But at night, when everybody was asleep, someone came and sowed weeds among the wheat. So when the wheat started growing, the weeds were right there with them. Seeing what had happened, the servants of the master asked him if they could pull out the weeds. They couldn’t stand the thought of letting the wheat and the weeds, the good and the bad, co-exist. They were impatient to set things right. And they assumed the master would say, “Yes, by all means, purify my field of those evil weeds.” 

But instead, the master told them “no.” He noted that if the weeds were pulled, the wheat would be uprooted and damaged. They would destroy the crop. So instead of trying to set everything right, the master told the servants to wait. Be patient. Let everything grow until the harvest. And then the weeds can safely be sorted out from the wheat. 

Perhaps it comes as a surprise that the biggest enemy in the parable is not the weeds or even the person who sowed the weeds. It’s the impatient servants who assume they know their master’s wishes. 

The real enemy is acting as if we mere mortals are the ultimate judges who are so good and righteous that we can identify, sort, and wipe out the bad. 

If we apply this point of the parable to religious life, it’s not hard to find examples of well-intentioned persons acting on what they believe is God’s will in ways that cause more harm than good. Their desire to purify the church of sin or purge society of evil is sincere. They mean well. And the problems they pinpoint may be real. 

But how easy it can be to make a mess of things by acting on the desire to eradicate evil! And how far removed that desire can be from the will of a God who graciously “makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous” (Mt 5:45). 

In contrast to our human, all-too-human impatience, Jesus’ parable portrays a God who is infinitely patient, gracious, and merciful. God is kind and loving to everyone, regardless of whether they are good or bad persons. God gives everybody time and opportunities to grow and change. For God takes no pleasure in the deaths of the wicked, but rather desires that they should turn from their evil ways and live (cf. Ezekiel 18:23 & 32). 

It’s easy to imagine that we can neatly classify the world into two camps: the good and the bad. And that we are among the good and have the godlike power and mandate to set all things right. But things are not so simple. For as one writer notes, “the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.” 

That’s a powerful insight. It serves as a reminder that instead of pointing a finger of judgment at anybody else, or blaming external circumstances, I need to take a hard look into the depths of my own heart. Rather than getting fixated on the sin and evil of the world around us, Jesus invites us to look with courageous honesty at ourselves. And he warns us that all too often we may see “a smudge on [our] neighbor’s face and be oblivious to the ugly sneer on [our] own” (Mt 7:3, The Message). 

For the truth is: I am just as capable of sin and evil as any other person. And I can’t change anybody else. I can’t change the world. 

But, with God’s help, I can change the world in me. I can change the world in my heart, where the decisive battle between good and evil wages every single day. 

That change comes through repentance. It comes through naming, confessing, and forsaking the wrong desires and sinful actions that draw us from the love of God. 

It comes through the humility of accepting that we are not superheroes who can single-handedly purify the world of evil and usher in the Kingdom of Heaven. 

That’s God’s job, not ours. 

Our job is to trust and obey. 

Our job is to trust that all things are in God’s hands, and that in the end, God will sort everything out and set all things right. And our job is to faithfully obey God’s commands summed up by Jesus as loving God with all of our heart, mind, soul, and strength, and loving our neighbors as ourselves. 

Regardless of outward circumstances, we can live with confident hope. Not because of what we do. But because of what God has done, is doing, and will do. 

For in Jesus Christ, God has overcome death and the grave. A new creation has begun. The kingdom has come near. We have been reborn as sons and daughters of God. God’s saving love has been poured into our hearts as a gift that cannot be earned or deserved. And knowing that in the end God will right all wrongs, we can rest secure in that love for all eternity.

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Church Buildings Matter

Church buildings matter.  Architecture speaks.  And a church building can be a factor in attracting and even converting people to the Christian faith.

Empirical research backs this up, as a recent article in The Telegraph attests.  "One in six young people are Christian as visits to church buildings inspire them to convert," reads the headline.  Here's an excerpt:

One in six young people are practising Christians, new figures show, as research suggests thousands convert after visiting church buildings.   
The figures show that more than one in five (21 per cent) people between the ages of 11 and 18 describe themselves as active followers of Jesus, and 13 per cent say they are practising Christians who attend church.   
The study, commissioned by Christian youth organisation Hope Revolution Partnership and carried out by ComRes, suggested that levels of Christianity were much higher among young people than previously thought. ... 
Around 13 per cent of teenagers said that they decided to become a Christian after a visit to a church or cathedral, according to the figures. 
The influence of a church building was more significant than attending a youth group, going to a wedding, or speaking to other Christians about their faith.

This is very hopeful and extraordinary news!

I shared this article with a friend who serves as a priest in the Church of Ireland.  He wrote back to say that this report has been getting a lot of attention in his neck of the woods, not least because it challenges the assumptions driving youth ministry and evangelism for the last decade.  

Too often the assumption seems to be that in order to reach young people and the unchurched, we have to downplay, minimize, or even jettison key aspects of the Christian faith. And so traditional doctrine, liturgy, music, church buidings, etc., come to be seen as impediments.  

This research coupled with data on church decline, suggest that this assumption is just wrong.  What if we can do a better job of evangelism by living more deeply into the traditions we have inherited, including church architecture that speaks of the transcendent in a world flattened out by suburban sprawl and smartphone screens?  

While it's true that the Church cannot be reduced to a building, this research serves as testimony to the incarnational truth that buildings (like bodies) matter.  Sacred space can speak the Word just as ceremonial, ritual, sacraments, and preaching do.  

A quote from Roman Catholic priest Romano Guardini comes to mind:

When you step through the doorway of a church you are leaving the outer world behind and entering an inner world.  The outside world is a fair place abounding in life and activity, but also a place with a mingling of the base and ugly.  It is a sort of marketplace, crossed and recrossed by all and sundry.  Perhaps "unholy" is not quite the word for it, yet there is something profane about the world.  Behind the church doors is an inner place, separated from the marketplace, a silent, consecrated and holy spot.  It is very certain that the whole world is the work of God and His gift to us, that we may meet Him anywhere, that everything we receive is from God's hand, and, when received religiously, is holy.  Nevertheless, men have always felt that certain precincts were in a special manner set apart and dedicated to God.  [quoted in Patricia S. Klein, Worship Without Words: The Signs and Symbols of Our Faith]

Fr. Guardini is right: walking into a church is like stepping into another world, a space that speaks of another reality, a world that is bigger, more mysterious, and more beautiful than much of what we experience day to day. 

There's a hunger for that "inner world," that sacred space that's set apart from the frenetic world of information and calendar overload.   And while it's certainly true that in our evangelism we need to go out and meet people where they are, we do well to not overlook or downplay the riches we have to offer inside sacred space where the mysteries of the Gospel are offered in Word and Sacrament.  

Sunday, December 25, 2016

Michael Ramsey: "The Moral Message of Christmas"

Today the joy of Christmas shines in a world that is darkened by sadness. How real are the gifts of human goodness, nonetheless: they are gifts from the God of Bethlehem who is their source; for God who took human flesh in the stable is God from whose store of love humanity’s gifts of love are drawn.

The stable is a symbol of Christ’s poverty. The characteristic that gave him the title poor was his simplicity. He did without many of the things that people crave. None did he criticise more severely than those who hankered after more and more possessions and who were preoccupied with money. The worth of a person’s life, he insisted, does not consist of possessions, for piling things up does not increase worth. People matter more than things, as people have an eternal destiny. Those who do not fuss about their standard of living and their luxuries are freer to love one another, to serve one another and to enjoy one another. Christ became poor, and he chose the way of simplicity; and if we follow him he promises us riches of his own, riches of happiness and brotherhood shared with one another and with him.

How did Christ become poor? By coming to share in the limitations, frustrations, and hard realities of our human life, our pains and sorrows, and even our death. The imagery of Christ’s riches and his poverty is a vivid picture of the Incarnation; but it is another thing to grasp its moral message and to live by it, the message of simplicity and self-sacrifice. Christ gave himself to us to enable us to give ourselves to one another: that is the message of Bethlehem to a world in trouble.

Come to Bethlehem once again: see the stable - see the child. Knowing that he is God made man, knowing that he who was rich has become poor for us, let us kneel in the darkness and cold that is the symbol of our blind and chilly hearts, and say in a new way: ‘yours in the kingdom, the power and the glory forever.’

- Arthur Michael Ramsey, 100th Archbishop of Canterbury

Quote taken from Glory Descending: Michael Ramsey and His Writings (William B. Eerdmans, 2005).

Monday, August 29, 2016

Staying the Course After the Flood: Sermon for Proper 17C 2016

Proper 17, Year C

A picture says a thousand words.

That saying hit home for me recently when I came across a picture that sums up the spirit of our people. The picture shows three men standing knee deep in flood water. In between them is a grill with meat cooking over the charcoal fire. The caption below the photograph says:

No diss to other states, but Louisiana folk are a different breed. We don’t stress over the situation, we make the situation better. So what if it floods and we have to stand in knee deep water, come on by and get yourself a plate of food. #WeGotYou!

It’s true. If anything, flood waters have increased the outpouring of love, generosity, and hospitality. It’s what folks down here do.

From the rescue work of the Cajun Navy; to the Cajun Army who organized supplies and mobilized teams of the young and old to gut out houses for people that in many cases they didn’t even know; to the Cajun Rosies who’ve cooked food, washed clothes, and set up childcare so parents could work on their homes; to volunteers in shelters; to folks from afar loading up trucks with supplies or sending money and gift cards; to church members making food and delivering meals - a spirit of generosity and hospitality has characterized the immediate aftermath of the flooding. It’s been amazing.

The trick is sustaining that generosity and hospitality. Because the recovery from this disaster is going to go on for a long time.

That’s why our faith in Jesus Christ is so important.

For we follow a Lord who came, not to be served, but to serve. We follow a Lord who got his hands dirty in the trenches of helping others.

Jesus gave his life to free people from the oppression of sin and sickness. He put the needs of others first. He fed the hungry, consoled the sorrowful, healed the sick and brokenhearted, made room for the displaced and the lost, and befriended the stranger.

That is the way of Jesus Christ. That is the way of abundant life. And that is the way of perfect love.

Our scripture lesson today from the letter to the Hebrews offers a blueprint for how we can continue practicing the generous love of Jesus Christ in witness to the good news that Jesus’ work of rescuing and renewing continues in his church through ordinary folks like you and me.

So let’s take a closer look at some of the verses in this passage from Hebrews.

“Let mutual love continue” (Hebrews 13:1).

Or, as another translation puts it: “Keep on loving one another as brothers and sisters” (Hebrews 13:1 NIV).

In our baptisms, we are adopted by God into His family. We become members of God’s household. We become brothers and sisters to one another, and members of a family that spans the ages and the globe.

Sometimes, as in our own families, we have our differences. Sometimes there’s conflict. Sometimes we squabble. And sometimes we hurt each other. It happens.

But as a family in Christ here at St. Luke’s, we are committed to sticking it out together. We are committed to caring for one another. We are committed to the long haul.

So here’s the core truth: we are going to move forward together as one family in Christ. And we are going to make it through all of this stronger and more committed to doing God’s work in this community.

Let’s listen again to the letter to the Hebrews.

“Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers” (Hebrews 13:2).

Here we are reminded that the love we have for each other in our parish family is not meant to be exclusionary. We are not meant to be a club or a clique that allows only “the right kind” of people to belong. Nor are we meant to be a place that runs away or hides from the challenges in our community.

Rather, God calls us to cultivate an outward focus that welcomes the stranger in our midst.

And by welcoming, I mean more than just a handshake and a “Good morning, how are you.” I mean being intentional and proactive in reaching out, making connections, listening, cultivating relationships, and receiving strangers into our group so that they may also become members of our family, our sisters and brothers in Christ. 

“Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them; those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured” (Hebrews 13:3).

In other words, remember those who suffer as though you were suffering. Practice radical empathy.

Many among us have suffered greatly recently. Many have lost most or all of their worldly possessions. Many had to be rescued by boat from the rising waters. Many are left feeling shell-shocked and broken.

I’ve heard some folks say, “It’s just stuff.” It’s true that we’re talking about inanimate objects. And Lord knows it’s true that we’d rather lose that than lose people. Thank God more people weren’t lost!

But it’s not true that “it’s just stuff.” Our possessions carry meanings and values that go well beyond price tags and appraisals. For that reason those possessions cannot easily be replaced. And some of them are priceless.

Just think about it. The table that belonged to grandmother. The wedding photographs. The prayer book that your great-grandfather used. The Bible your parents gave you at confirmation. The letters you received so many years ago from the girl who eventually became your wife. Then there’s your mother’s wedding dress. And the album with photographs of your children when they were babies. Or the high school yearbook signed by everybody in your graduating class.

The list of such things that were lost could go on and on. To lose them is heartbreaking.

It’s hard enough to lose one or more of those possessions. But to then also lose most or all of your home - it’s emotionally and spiritual like experiencing the death of a loved one. The suffering is all too real. We show respect for each other’s dignity, and we give ourselves permission to grieve, by not minimizing the loss.

And if we who were fortunate to stay dry have feelings of “survivor’s guilt,” rather than letting those feelings paralyze us, we do well to channel those feelings into empathy for the grieving and the suffering, and to then translate that empathy into action.

Which leads us to the next point from the letter to the Hebrews.

“Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God” (Hebrews 13:16).

Sometimes we are blessed to give to the church. Sometimes we are fortunate to receive from the church. The devastated need to receive. And those who were fortunate to avoid the floodwaters have not only an opportunity but a moral obligation to give.

Jesus gave himself for us, holding nothing back, but giving his life. Following his example, the Gospel calls us to do good and to share what we have. Every offering - no matter how small it may seem - is important. It makes a difference. May we continue in the coming weeks and months to do good and to share generously in ways that give glory to God.

And then there’s one of the great verses from all of the Bible:

“Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever” (Hebrews 13:8).

Circumstances in our lives will change. There will be good times and bad times. There will be times of joy and times of sorrow. Times of abundance and times of scarcity. And we can’t always predict or control what happens.

But regardless of circumstances, the love of Jesus Christ will never change. That love remains constant and steady. Flood waters can’t wash that away. Nothing in all of creation can ever separate us from the love of God given to us in Jesus Christ.

Regardless of what we’re going through, we can count on Jesus. He is forever faithful and reliable. He will never leave us or forsake us. For he is the Good Shepherd of our souls. He will guide us along the path that leads to new life. He will give us the courage and the perseverance to stay the course as together we rebuild our lives.

So let us not grow weary of doing the good work of loving each other as brothers and sisters in Christ.

Let us not grow weary in welcoming the stranger into the fold.

Let us not grow weary in showing empathy for the suffering, generously sharing our time, talent, and treasure for the spread of God’s kingdom, and trusting in the love of Christ for each one of us.

For by doing so, we will reap a harvest of blessings (cf. Galatians 6:9). We will fulfill our Lord’s command to love one another as he loves us. And we will strengthen the bonds of affection that unite us to one another and inspire us to live more deeply into our mission of caring for one another, spiritual growth, and bringing others closer to God through Jesus Christ.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Sermon after the Louisiana Flood

Proper 16, Year C

Save me, O God, 
 for the waters have risen up to my neck.

I am sinking in deep mire,
 and there is no firm ground for my feet.

I have come into deep waters,
 and the torrent washes over me. …

Save me from the mire, do not let me sink;
 let me be rescued … out of the deep waters.

Answer me, O LORD, for your love is kind;
 in your great compassion, turn to me. (Psalm 69:1-3, 16, 18)

Since last weekend’s devastating flood, these words from Psalm 69 have been echoing in my mind and heart. They capture the feelings of fear, desperation, and helplessness that so many have felt as rising waters damaged homes and businesses and vehicles, even entire communities, rendering thousands of people homeless and countless others destitute. The sheer magnitude of what has happened and the pressing needs of so many are staggering.

We’ve seen some of the worst that Mother Nature can unleash. And in response, we’ve seen some of the best that people filled with compassion can do.

Until this flood, I’d never heard of the Cajun Navy. It was incredibly moving to see footage of ordinary citizens in our communities hitching boats to their trucks and driving to the flood waters to launch out on search and rescue missions, sometimes for hours at a time, all day and all night. They rescued hundreds - perhaps even thousands - of people and hundreds of pets. And they risked their own lives to do it. They are heroes.

We also give thanks for the Louisiana National Guard. I read that they rescued 19,000 people in flood-affected areas.

Then there are the many individuals and Red Cross workers who have opened up shelters for flood victims. They’ve housed and fed thousands of people, many of whom have lost everything. Everyone who has volunteered in these shelters has saved lives and has brought hope to the hopeless.

There are folks like you who have answered the call to serve by cleaning out flooded houses, making and delivering food, offering shelter in your homes, giving money and gift cards and supplies, referring people to community resources that can help, keeping all persons affected in your prayers, and making it clear that you will be there for those in need for the long haul.

And then there was the outpouring of people from our church, our school, and the larger community who yesterday unloaded supplies from Rome, Georgia for police officer and other families in the community whose homes flooded. People of all ages were down in Witter Hall working hard to unload and sort. It was a truly amazing sight.

I cannot begin to say how proud I am of the many ways that members of St. Luke’s have put their faith into action by loving God and loving our neighbors. You are doing the work of Jesus Christ. You are living sermons that proclaim the Good News that God has come among us in Jesus to rescue and renew.

Many of us have been concerned that the national news media has largely ignored this disaster. But via social media, the word has spread far and wide. I was even contacted by a priest in the Church of Ireland with whom I’ve corresponded over the years. He recently offered Mass for St. Luke’s in Belfast Cathedral. We are remembered by people all over the world who care and who are holding us in their prayers.

A few days after the flooding started, I met an elderly African American lady who had lost everything. And yet, she was filled with faith and hope for the future. Knowing all of the unrest we’ve experienced this summer in Baton Rouge, she looked me in the eyes and said: “I think God wants to use this to bring us all together.”

She’s right. God does want to use this tragedy to bring us all together.

Just as flood waters don’t discriminate on the basis of income, wealth, race, gender, politics, or creed, our call is to care for others regardless of who they are. Just as God reached out to all persons through his Son Jesus, God wants us to reach out in love to everybody who’s hurting and needy.

To do that, we have to rely on our faith and the hope that it gives us for the future. Our ultimate hope is in God. We need to remember how to act on that hope so that it bears the fruits of righteousness in lives restored to fullness of life.

Our scripture reading today from the prophet Isaiah points us in the right direction. It’s a passage that addresses issues God’s people faced when they returned from exile and had to rebuild their lives.

You may recall that in the 6th Century B.C., the Babylonians laid siege to Jerusalem. They demolished the Temple. They destroyed the Davidic monarchy. They hauled the Israelites out of their homes, carrying them off to a place whose language, customs, and religious practices were alien. Losing the land, the monarchy, the Temple, and their homes, the Babylonian Exile destroyed the outward and visible signs of God’s presence and favor. The feelings of abandonment and desolation for the Israelites must have been overwhelming. They lost everything but their lives.

But now, after nearly 60 years of exile, the people have returned to the ruins of their homeland. Now they must begin the long, hard work of rebuilding.

Precisely because the work of beginning again can be so hard, people can get discouraged. Sometimes, in the face of so many needs, people can be tempted to take shortcuts that leave the destitute and the vulnerable behind.

And so, speaking through the prophet Isaiah, God offers this counsel to His people:

“If you get rid of unfair practices,
 quit blaming victims,
 quit gossiping about other people’s sins, 
If you are generous with the hungry
 and start giving yourselves to the down-and-out, 
Your lives will begin to glow in the darkness,
 your shadowed lives will be bathed in sunlight. 
I will always show you where to go. 
 I’ll give you a full life in the emptiest of places -
 firm muscles, strong bones. 
You’ll be like a well-watered garden,
 a gurgling spring that never runs dry. 
You’ll use the old rubble of past lives to build anew,
 rebuild the foundations from out of your past. 
You’ll be known as those who can fix anything,
 restore old ruins, rebuild and renovate,
 [and] make the community livable again.” 
    (Isaiah 58: 9-12, The Message)

There’s a lot to unpack here. But it can all be summarized by saying: Act justly.

Resist temptations to take moral shortcuts. Don’t take advantage of the vulnerable. Don’t focus on other people’s shortcomings by pointing fingers of blame.

Instead, God calls us in the weeks and months to come to be as generous in responding to needs as we were during and in the immediate aftermath of the flooding.

Feed the hungry. Rescue the oppressed. Befriend the lost and the lonely. Make friends with strangers. And when things get difficult and people make mistakes, resist the temptation to assign blame. Instead of asking who’s right and who’s wrong, ask: Who is hurting? Who is hungry? Who needs a safe place? Who needs help? Reach out with open hands and open hearts.

That’s what it looks like to act justly.

But there’s a second part of God’s counsel to His people who must rebuild their lives and begin again. And that can be summarized by saying: keep Sabbath.

Speaking through the prophet Isaiah, here’s how God puts it:

“If you watch your step on the Sabbath
 and don’t use my holy day for personal advantage, 
If you treat the Sabbath as a day for joy,
 God’s holy day as a celebration, 
If you honor it by refusing ‘business as usual,’
 making money, running here and there - 
Then you’ll be free to enjoy God!
 Oh, and I’ll make you ride high and soar above it all.” 
   (Isaiah 58:13-14, The Message)

There’s an important reminder here that in the aftermath of disaster and in the midst of rebuilding, it is imperative that we honor God by making time for worship on our Sabbath: Sunday, the Lord’s Day, the day on which we remember and give thanks for the resurrection of Jesus, the One in whom all of our hopes find their fulfillment. For by coming together to worship God, we will find our strength renewed and our hopes for the future restored. We need that if we’re going to move forward together.

I think the call to keep Sabbath also includes the need we all will have in the coming weeks and months to take time out from the busyness and the stress of rebuilding. We must not push ourselves too hard. We must be gentle with ourselves. We must take time for rest. We must make it a priority to take time apart to keep company with God in prayer and meditation on a daily basis, lest we burn ourselves out.

Act justly and keep Sabbath.

That’s God’s counsel to us as we work to begin again.

We are now rebuilding and raising up the foundations for future generations.

We are repairers of the breach and restorers of streets to live in. And just as God was with His people who had to rebuild in the past, God is with us today.

God will show us where to go.

He will give us fullness of life in even the emptiest of places.

And out of the darkness and destruction, God will bring the beauty and joy of new life for us all.

Stay strong. Keep the faith. Persevere in prayer. Hold on to one another. Act justly. Keep sabbath

And remember that bidden or unbidden, God is among us to comfort and sustain, to guide and protect, and to bring to fulfillment His perfect will for the renewal of all things.

Friday, August 19, 2016

Faith After the Flood

Below are my initial thoughts after the recent devastating flooding in south Louisiana.

“Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. … Because you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you” (Isaiah 43:1-2, 4).

Dear People of God,

The recent devastating flooding that has affected all of our lives has left us shaken, heartbroken, and grieving. So many have suffered damage to homes and the loss of vehicles and treasured possessions. The sheer magnitude of what has happened, and the pressing needs of thousands of people, is staggering. It will take months and perhaps years to fully recover.

It sometimes feels like it’s too much to bear. But we will make it through this. We will do it together as a St. Luke’s church and school family. We will do it as fellow citizens of the great state of Louisiana. And we will do it by relying on our faith in a God who knows us each by name, who loves us, who cherishes us as precious, and who promises that the waters of affliction and the fires of adversity will not take us down.

God will see us through this. He’s already doing it through people who are reaching out in love and concern to all who have been affected. And He will continue to do so by giving us the strength and the perseverance we need to move forward.

As a church, St. Luke’s will continue to find ways to be a part of this important work of living our faith by bringing hope and healing to those needing help to rebuild their lives. So many of you have already participated in those efforts by cleaning out flood-damaged homes, making food, giving money to the clergy discretionary funds, and contributing supplies for needy police officer families. Thank you!

Please continue to be on the lookout for other opportunities to live our faith by reaching out in love to the needy in our church and our community. We will communicate that information via the church website and church emails.

I feel blessed to be a part of the St. Luke’s community. When the call goes out to St. Luke’s to help, you can be counted on to respond. It’s a moving example of putting our faith into action. I am proud of the many ways we are living out our mission of caring for one another as God in Christ cares for us.

As we work our way into the recovery and rebuilding phase of this disaster, I invite you to add the following prayer to your daily prayers:

Dear Lord, we pray for those whose lives have been devastated by rain and flood. Protect the vulnerable. Strengthen the weak. Give comfort to the grieving. Bring relief to the suffering. And may our response to all in need be generous and such as would bring you praise. Amen.

Love and blessings to you all,
Fr. Bryan

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Sermon after Baton Rouge Police Shootings

Many thanks to you all for joining us for today’s Healing Service. We offer this service every Wednesday at this time. It allows us to come together as Christians to bring into God’s presence those things in our lives that are painful and difficult to cope with, and to remember those people in our lives that are in need of healing in body, mind, or spirit.

On this day in particular, we bring into God’s presence our broken hearts, our wounded spirits, and our grieving city.

Everyone who knows what has happened over the last several weeks, culminating in the horrific events of this past Sunday morning, is shaken to the core. For all of us, and perhaps especially those who live in the vicinity of where the shootings occurred, and for all the families of law enforcement officers, it’s felt at times like a war zone. And that’s traumatizing.

Frankly, it’s still hard to believe that all of this has really happened. I sometimes catch myself shaking my head in disbelief. This is not the way things are supposed to be. This is not what God wants for our city, for our state, and for our nation.

People are hurting. People are angry. People are confused. People are scared.

But in the midst of the tragedy and violence that have rocked Baton Rouge, we have also seen great courage and profound love.

Jesus said: “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:13). We saw that love in action this past Sunday morning as police officers ran towards danger, straight into harm’s way, to protect us. Three of those officers made the ultimate sacrifice, giving their lives out of love for this community. No one has greater love than that. While we are heartbroken by their deaths, we are grateful for their service. We will never forget Deputy Brad Garafola, Officer Matthew Gerald, and Corporal Montrell Jackson.

On behalf of St. Luke’s, let me say to all who serve in law enforcement that we love you, we respect you, we support you. We are thankful for your willingness to risk your lives every day to serve and protect us. And we shall continue to hold in our prayers those who have died, those who were injured, their families, the police and sheriff departments, and this city of Baton Rouge.

What has happened has filled us with anxiety and fear. And there’s fear about could happen next. Considering what we’ve been through, that’s completely understandable. To feel fear is a natural response to such cold and calculating evil.

But my friends, we cannot give in to fear. We cannot let fear define how we respond and how we move forward.

Fear is one of the potent weapons of the Enemy. Because left unchecked, fear will divide us. Left unchecked, fear will pit us against each other. Left unchecked, fear will deepen the arrogance and hatred which infect our hearts, and strengthen the walls that separate us.

We cannot let that happen.

Fear will tear us apart.

But love will bring us together.

“There is no fear in love,” John tells us, “but perfect love casts out fear” (1 John 4:18).

“There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear.”

And what does “perfect love” look like?

It looks like Jesus.

Perfect love looks like Jesus, who came to seek and to save the lost, the lonely, and the hurting.

Perfect love looks like Jesus, who came to break down the barriers that divide us.

Perfect love looks like Jesus, who reached out to strangers to draw them into the family of God.

Perfect love looks like Jesus, who reached out to enemies to make them friends.

Perfect love looks like Jesus, who was willing to sacrifice his life so that we may live.

Perfect love looks like Jesus, who turned an instrument of shameful torture and death into a throne of glory.

Jesus casts out fear. Because Jesus is the incarnation of God. And God is love.

The love of Jesus dispels the darkness with light and casts the fear from our hearts.

The love of Jesus brings us together.

The love of Jesus gives us hope for the future.

The love of Jesus will carry us through this, making us stronger and more determined than ever before to uniting as one family of God throughout this city of Baton Rouge.

“I appointed you to go and bear fruit,” Jesus said, “fruit that will last” (John 15:16).

Jesus has appointed you and me to go and bear the fruit of living his love. It’s a love that casts out fear and brings people together. It’s a love that gives us a foretaste of what it will be like when God’s kingdom has come on earth as it is in heaven. It’s a love that foreshadows the creation of a Beloved Community of all races and nations that gather in harmony around God’s throne.

So let us offer our fears and our anxieties.

Let us offer our prayers for peace and unity.

Let us offer our prayers for hope and healing.

Let us ask for the courage and humility to reach out and form relationships with people in this community who differ from us, trusting that they’re just friends we haven’t yet met.

And let us trust that God will take all that we offer, bless it, and then give us in return the strength and the grace we need to be lights that shine in the darkness with his love and healing grace.

Saturday, July 16, 2016

"Go and Do Likewise": Being Good Samaritans in a Time of Social Strife

Below is the text of my sermon for Sunday, July 10. I preached this sermon in the wake of the shootings in Baton Rouge, St. Paul, and Dallas, and the protests that began occurring across the nation (including here in Baton Rouge just up the street from St. Luke’s at the intersection of Goodwood Boulevard and Airline Highway). Of course, much more can and perhaps should be said. But this sermon is an initial attempt to offer a biblically faithful pastoral response. I share it in the hope that all of us will continue to pray and work for the peace, healing, reconciliation, and justice that God wills.

This past week I wrote what I thought was a really nice sermon for today. It had an attention-getting introduction, a body that developed themes from the scripture readings with practical application for daily life, and a conclusion that tied it all together. It was a nice package. I was looking forward to sharing it with you all.

But by Friday afternoon, after the heart-breaking and tragic events of days earlier, as helicopters circled over St. Luke’s and our neighborhood, and protesters gathered at the intersection of Goodwood and Airline, I realized that I just could not deliver it.

I’m sure we’re all aware of the recent shootings in Baton Rouge and in a suburb of St. Paul, Minnesota involving police officers. And then there was the horrific incident in Dallas in which 5 police officers were murdered and 7 others wounded. Many are calling it the most deadly attack on police since 9/11.

People are angry. People are anxious. People are scared.

There’s a depth of pain and anguish in our communities that only God can fully understand.

Please pray.

Pray for those who died. Pray for those who were injured. Pray for all who mourn.

Pray for those who feel shut out and ignored.

Pray for the fearful, the lost, and the lonely.

Pray for everyone serving in law enforcement, and especially our neighbors at the Police Department. They put their lives on the line every day to serve and protect us. It’s been a particularly anxious and difficult time lately for them and for their families. Pray for their safety.

And pray that cool heads will prevail over hot tempers.

I really don’t know how to adequately respond to everything that’s happened. I certainly don’t have all the answers. And I’m definitely not interested in political spin.

As a priest and as a pastor, my concern is for the wounded hearts and souls of people who need the comfort and hope that only Jesus Christ can give. My concern is that we find ways to connect the hope we have in Christ with the realities of daily life, including the awful things that have recently happened in our community and our nation.

I believe that as persons of faith, it’s important to address painful matters. And that we do so with humility and with the willingness to work together for the common good. Authentic Christian faith must be willing to face the realities of this world - the good, the bad, and the ugly - with honesty and with a message of hope that brings people together in loving service to God and neighbor.

Christianity calls us not to escape from the world but to engage the world. The world is fallen. The world is broken. The world is enslaved to powers that corrupt and destroy God’s creatures. The world needs saving.

The truth of the Gospel revealed in Jesus Christ shows a better way. It’s a way of hope, healing, love, justice, and peace. It’s a way of salvation that God has initiated and that God will bring to fulfillment. And we are invited to be a part of God’s great work of salvation.

We can be confident that this is true because we believe in a God who faced the horrors of Good Friday and rose victorious over the grave on Easter Sunday.

As Easter people living in a Good Friday world, we believe in a God who dispels darkness with light. We believe in a God who trumps hate with love. We believe in God who brings peace out of strife. We believe in a God who transforms enemies into friends. We believe in a God who triumphs over death with eternal life.

Today’s Gospel reading speaks to us about what it means to live as Easter people in a Good Friday world. It’s one of Jesus’ most famous stories. And it begins with an act of brutal violence.

A man was traveling to Jericho from Jerusalem when he got waylaid by robbers. They beat him up, stole everything he had, and then left him on the side of the road half dead.

Some time later, a priest came down the road. But when he saw the injured man on the roadside, he passed by on the other side. The same thing happened when a Levite came down the road. Both turned a blind eye and walked away, leaving the man to die.

But then a Samaritan showed up. When he saw the injured man, “he was moved with pity” (Luke 10:33). And so he went to the man’s aid, tended his wounds, took him to the safety of an inn, and paid for any further expenses.

We may have heard this story so many times that we’ve forgotten how shocking and offensive it would have been to Jesus’ Jewish audience. And that’s because hatred between Jews and Samaritans had been heated and long-standing. Jews didn’t have any dealings with Samaritans. They detested Samaritans for their mixed marriages and heretical religious practices. They regarded them as racially, ethnically, and religiously inferior. And Samaritans felt just as much bitterness and hatred towards Jews.

The walls of bitterness, suspicion, fear, and hatred between Jews and Samaritans had been in place by Jesus’ day for over 500 years. So Jesus’ story of a Samaritan’s act of reaching out to help an injured Jew flew in the face of long-standing prejudices and social conventions.

In Jesus’ parable, the Samaritan saw - not a label or a category, not an enemy, not someone to fear or hate - no, the Samaritan simply saw a human being who was suffering. A human being in pain. A human being in need of help. And what he saw moved the Samaritan with compassion to reach out with love and kindness across the barriers dividing his people from the Jewish people.

Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan teaches us that all people are our neighbors. And just as Jesus’ hearers were surprised by the Samaritan’s act of kindness, we who call Jesus Lord and Savior are called to surprise the world by reaching out in love when everybody else expects us to hate.

There have been many voices clamoring for our attention over the past several days. And those voices will continue to speak in the days to come. Whether on television, social media, or in the depths of our anxious hearts - those voices come from many people and places. It can be confusing.

But as disciples of Jesus Christ, we have clarity. For we know that any voice that calls for hatred contradicts the Gospel. Any voice that dehumanizes people contradicts the Gospel. Any voice that whips up fear and seeks to pit people against each other contradicts the Gospel. Any voice that encourages violence to persons or property contradicts the Gospel.

We do well to shut those voices out and listen instead to the voice of the One who points to the good Samaritan and says, “Go and do likewise” (Luke 10:37).

“Go and feel compassion for those who suffer.”

“Go and treat all persons, particularly those who are in need, as your neighbors, and do what you can to assist them.”

“Go and look beyond labels and stereotypes to see others as human beings.”

“Go and treat everybody with love, dignity, and respect.”

Putting Jesus’ teaching into practice by doing what the Samaritan did is not easy. It requires courageous faith. We have to be willing to trust that the power of God’s love is stronger than hatred, stronger than fear, stronger than prejudice, and stronger than violence. And we have to muster up the courage to act on that trust.

We can be confident that God’s love really is that strong. For through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, God’s love has forever triumphed over sin, evil, and death. And in the end, God’s love will wipe away every tear, calm every fear, and make all things right.

May God grant us the courage to share His love with others so that the world may see and know the truth that the way of Jesus Christ brings salvation, everlasting life, and peace.

May we be agents of healing and reconciliation in this community.

And may God pour out his saving grace in our city, in our nation, and in the world.