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.

Monday, May 2, 2016

N. T. Wright: What is the Gospel?

"In and through Jesus the living God opened the great door of his new world, which he's been intending to make, and invited us all to come through it with him." - N. T. Wright

Monday, April 11, 2016

Sermon for Easter 3C 2016

Easter 3C

Back in my middle school days, during the summers I often attended a Christian camp on the Mississippi Gulf coast. It was for all ages, so there were little kids, teens, and adults in attendance. For a week we all lived together immersed in fellowship activities, Bible studies, and worship, and we had access to a beautiful beach. The week culminated with a worship service that included an opportunity to publicly recommit our lives to Christ.

The week was a powerful religious experience. The sense of God’s love and presence was so real! At the time, it felt life-changing. But after making the long drive back home, returning to the routines of daily life, and certainly by the time school started, the experience began to fade as things went back to “normal.”

I’ll bet that many of us have had similar experiences. Whether it’s going on a retreat, attending a workshop, participating in a worship service, or in any number of other ways, it can feel like God is the most real thing imaginable and that our lives will never be the same. Then after a few days or weeks, we find ourselves back where we started, and the original power of the experience becomes a memory.

Something similar has happened in today’s Gospel reading.

It’s now been perhaps a few weeks since the awful events of Good Friday and the glorious miracle of Easter Sunday. The disciples have personally encountered the risen Jesus on two occasions. It’s hard to imagine what that must have been like. They watched as the man they had followed and loved for three years was arrested, tortured, and executed as a common criminal. They knew that his dead body had been laid in a tomb. They had cowered in fear for their lives, certain that the same authorities that killed Jesus would come for them next. And in the midst of their fear and grief there was guilt and shame for having betrayed and abandoned their master. It seemed that the power of darkness had won.

And then their world was turned upside down. First, it was a strange message from some of the women who had discovered Jesus’ tomb empty. Strangers had told them that he had risen. And then Jesus appeared to them. He was not a ghost or a phantom. He was truly alive again as a whole person. God had raised Jesus from the dead. And by raising Jesus from the dead, God had begun the work of fulfilling the ancient prophecies of creating a new heaven and a new earth, a world no longer held in bondage to the tyrannies of disease, death, and decay. In a surprise move that nobody expected, the light of life had defeated the darkness of death.

By encountering the risen Jesus, the disciples had been raised from the depths of despair to the glorious heights of joy, new life, and renewed hope for the future.

But somehow, after a few weeks, that initial experience - and the feelings of euphoria and sense of purpose it brought - began to fade.

And so one day Peter said to the other disciples, “I’m going fishing. Want to come along?”

By going fishing, Peter was not taking a break for a favorite hobby. Instead, he was going back to his old way of life as a fisherman. It’s almost as though the past three years of following Jesus, and the joyful experience of meeting him alive again after his death, had never happened. For Peter was returning to the life he knew before he ever met Jesus, a life he was comfortable with, a life that wasn’t always easy and certainly required hard work, but was at least more predictable than following a rabbi who whips up controversy, creates enemies among the powerful, and then gets crucified.

But Jesus wasn’t going to let Peter slide back into the old status quo. He had other things in mind for Peter.

And so Jesus showed up again, revealing himself to be the source of abundant life with the disciples’ miraculous catch of fish. And then, in an act of humble service and hospitality, Jesus invited the disciples to share breakfast, cooking fish and breaking bread with them on the seashore.

Just as Peter denied knowing Jesus three times while warming himself at a charcoal fire, Peter now expressed his love for Jesus three times over breakfast at a charcoal fire. Jesus offered Peter forgiveness, restored fellowship with him, fed and nurtured him, and then commissioned him. Jesus transformed Peter from a lowly fisherman into a shepherd of the sheep. Jesus empowered Peter to become a leader within the household of God who would nurture, feed, lead, and guide others along the pathway of discipleship, energizing and spreading a movement for God’s kingdom that would change the world.

On any given day, we may not always feel it. It may not seem real. Or maybe it once did but that seems like so long ago. Or there may be doubts and questions about it that give us pause. Or we may suffer from a lack of self-confidence that makes us hesitant to fully own it.

But the truth is this: to encounter the risen Jesus, to share his death and resurrection in baptism, to be fed by him in the Eucharist, to receive his forgiveness and love, is to be changed from the persons we once were.

The old way of life governed by anxiety, driven by self-centered protectiveness, and fearful of being vulnerable enough to open our doors and our hearts to anyone and everyone - including especially the strangers in our midst - that way of life died with Jesus on the cross.

And with the resurrection of Jesus, a new way of life has been born - a life governed by love and trust, driven by the desire to share the Good News of Jesus, and open to touching and being touched by the lives of anyone we meet in the hopeful expectation that such encounters will tear down walls of fear and mistrust, and widen the circle of love and fellowship in God’s kingdom.

You and I may not share the same status as those first apostles whose preaching and teaching transformed the Roman Empire and ultimately changed the world. But, like Peter, we are called by God to use the gifts we’ve been given to care for and feed the flock of Christ.

What that looks like will differ from person to person. It may mean teaching a Sunday school class, or being a teacher in our Day School. Or serving as an usher, a greeter, or an acolyte. It could mean becoming a Lay Eucharistic Visitor who takes the Blessed Sacrament to the sick and the shut in. Or serving as a lector or chalice bearer. Or serving on the Altar Guild or singing in the choir.

But it’s not just about particular works of church-related ministry. Responding to Jesus’ call to watch out for each other, to care for each other, to feed and nurture each other, and to welcome everyone as He welcomes us is a full-time, comprehensive way of life. It’s about being changed into persons who think more about the needs of others than ourselves. It’s about being disciples of Jesus Christ.

Thinking this through, Christian author Thom Rainer says that we need to recover “the biblical understanding of what it means to be a part of the body of Christ.” He writes:

“We join our churches expecting others to serve us, to feed us, and to care for us. … [But] God did not give us local churches to become country clubs where membership means we have privileges and perks. He placed us in churches to serve, to care for others, to pray for leaders, to learn, to teach, to give, and, in some cases, to die for the sake of the gospel.”

Many of you are familiar with a prayer attributed to St. Francis. It beautifully summarizes the heart and soul of what it looks like to follow Jesus. As I share this prayer with you, I invite you to listen carefully to the words. Meditate on their meaning. Let the words speak to the depths of your heart and soul. And, like Peter, I invite you to be open to hearing how God is calling you to let go of old ways of life to embrace the new resurrection way of life as a disciple of Jesus Christ.

Let us pray:

Lord, make us instruments of your peace.

Where there is hatred, let us sow love.

Where there is injury, pardon.

Where there is discord, union.

Where there is doubt, faith.

Where there is despair, hope.

Where there is darkness, light.

Where there is sadness, joy.

Grant that we may not so much seek to be consoled as to console.

To be understood as to understand.

To be loved as to love.

For it is in giving that we receive.

It is in pardoning that we are pardoned.

And it is in dying that we are born to eternal life. Amen.

Thursday, March 31, 2016

N. T. Wright: "This is the Christian gospel"

The good news is that the one true God has now taken charge of the world in and through Jesus and his death and resurrection. The ancient hopes were indeed fulfilled, but in a way nobody had imagined. God's plan to put the whole world right had finally been launched. God had grasped the world in a new way to sort it out and fill it with his glory and justice as he'd always promised. But he had done so in a way beyond the wildest dreams of prophecy. The ancient sickness which had crippled the whole world and humans with it had been cured at last so that new life could rise up in its place. Life itself has come to life and is pouring out like a mighty river into the world in the form of a new power, the power of love. The good news was and is that all this has happened in and through Jesus, and that one day it will happen utterly and completely to the whole creation, and that we humans - every single one of us, whoever we are - can be caught up in that transformation here and now. This is the Christian gospel. Don't let yourself be fobbed off with anything less. 

Monday, March 28, 2016

Sermon for Easter Day 2016

It’s amazing the difference one word can make in the meaning of a sentence or phrase.

That really hit home for me many years ago when I was serving a small church in Mississippi. It was Easter Day and the church was packed. It was time for the service to begin. The choir was lined up for the procession into the church. The prelude was coming to a close and the organist was playing the first notes of the opening hymn. Reading what was printed in the bulletin, I saw that the way we were kicking off our Easter celebration, the song that would unite our voices to joyfully proclaim the triumphant heart of our faith, was by singing:

“Jesus Christ IF risen today.”

Of all the bulletin bloopers I’ve seen over the years, that’s one of my favorites.

“If risen” versus “Is risen” - one word makes all the difference in the world. One word moves us from a place of hesitation, doubt, and even despair to faith, hope, and new life.

But we have to start where the first disciples started. And that’s with an obvious fact: Jesus really and truly died on the cross. His lifeless body was laid in a tomb. The women who got up early on the first day of the week were expecting to anoint a dead body. There was no wishful thinking on their part as though some of them might have been saying, “Well, sure, Jesus was crucified and died two days ago, but he might be alive again.” Like everybody who’s ever lived, those women knew that dead people stay dead. End of story. 

And so, when they discovered an empty tomb, they didn’t respond with joy. Instead, as Luke tells us, “they were perplexed about this” (Lk 24:4). They were confused. Something was clearly wrong. They were probably wondering if somebody had stolen Jesus’ body. But before they could speculate about what had happened, Luke tells us that “two men in dazzling clothes stood beside them” (Lk 24:4). Stricken with terror, the women fell to the ground. And that’s when they heard the first Easter proclamation as the strangers said: “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen” (Lk 24:5). 

“He has risen.” 

That was a mind-blowing message that collided head-on with the facts about life and death. That a man whom everyone knew had died and been buried was alive again - it made no sense. 

No doubt, these women were more perplexed now than when they first discovered an empty tomb. With hearts filled with grief, fear, and wonder, they hurried back to the disciples to tell them what had happened. And in response, Luke tells us that “these words seemed to [the disciples] an idle tale and they did not believe them” (Lk 24:11). 

The disciples’ first response to the Easter message was unbelief. They couldn’t accept such a far-fetched story. Because everybody knows that death is a one-way street. 

But in spite of the doubts, in spite of how crazy it sounded, the message stirred something deep inside of Peter. He had to check it out. For what if it actually turned out to be true? What if Jesus really had been raised from the dead? And so Peter ran to the tomb to see for himself. But like the women, all Peter got was a confirmation that the tomb was empty. 

In the Gospel reading for today, the women and the male disciples didn’t actually get to see the risen Jesus for themselves. They did not get to hear his voice, see his face, or reach out to touch him to confirm that he was risen. All they had to go on was a message, a word about Easter. They were confronted with the choice of either rejecting that message as utterly absurd and ridiculous, or embracing it in faith as the most important truth ever proclaimed in the history of the world. 

Gathered here in church, you and I are in the same position as those women and men on that first Easter morning so long ago. We, too, are confronted by a message that defies logic and common sense. We are also invited to ask the same questions that moved Peter’s heart: “But what if it’s really true? What if Jesus really did rise from the dead?” And based upon the testimony of those first Christians who did eventually see Jesus alive again, we are encouraged by the Church to move from fear, doubt, and unbelief to a faith that commits our lives to Jesus as the crucified and risen Christ of God. 

For if it’s really true that Christ is risen, then everything changes. 

If Christ is risen - if God really raised the dead Jesus from the grave with a body no longer subject to disease, death, and decay - then a revolution akin to overturning the law of gravity has been unleashed into the world. Death is no longer a one-way, dead-end street, but instead a doorway into eternal life. 

If Christ is risen, then everyone baptized into Jesus’ death and resurrection shares in his victory over death. And for those who have died in the Lord, life is changed, not ended. This means that those we love but see no longer are not forever lost, but are resting safely in the loving presence of a living Lord. 

If Christ is risen, then the prophet Isaiah’s vision of God creating “new heavens and a new earth” has already started (Is 65:17). For by raising Jesus, God has given us a foretaste of what it looks like for those ancient promises to be fulfilled. It looks like a world that knows no weeping, hurting, or destruction, but instead is filled with life, security, abundance, loving communion between God and humanity, and the righting of all wrongs in eternal peace and harmony. 

If Christ is risen, then might does not make right. Instead, Jesus’ way of love, mercy, and forgiveness stands eternally vindicated as the God-approved way to abundant life for everyone. 

There’s no doubt about it: the Easter message turns the world upside down. It flies in the face of experience and common sense. It mocks the pretensions of human wisdom. It undermines our faith in the all-sufficiency of reason. It boldly announces that a Power has been unleashed into this world against which tyrants and bullies, sickness and disease, loss and grief, fear and shame, sin and evil, and death and decay are powerless. 

And it also underscores a beautiful truth: that God loves this world in all of its dazzling diversity, and that God loves each and every one of us, so very much that He will go to any lengths for our salvation, including suffering the ravages of death and hell so that we don’t have to. 

My friends, we are not gathered today to “to enshrine the dead Jesus in the tomb of memory.” On the contrary, we are gathered to celebrate the surprising victory of God over the forces of evil and death through the resurrection of his only Son. We are gathered to renew our trust in the power of God’s love, a love that death can not contain. We are gathered to celebrate our faith in a risen Lord. 

For Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and bestowing life upon those in the grave. 

There is no longer anything to fear. For the tomb is empty. The Lord is risen. Death has lost its sting. God’s plan to heal and redeem all of creation is underway. And our lives are now “hidden with Christ in God” (Colossians 3:3). 

And so we can say with the Psalmist: “On this day the LORD has acted; let us rejoice and be glad in it” (Ps 118:24).

Monday, February 22, 2016

Holy Habits of Discipleship: A Sermon for Lent 2C 2016

Lent 2C

Sometimes opposition and hardship bring out a person’s genuine character. 

That’s certainly true in the case of Jesus. 

 As we catch up with Jesus today, we encounter a man who has “set his face to go to Jerusalem,” the city that “kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it” (Lk 9:51 & Lk 13:34). Powerful people in Jerusalem are angry with Jesus. Many of them are actively opposing Jesus’ mission and seeking to enlist others to work against him. Some of them want to kill Jesus. So Jesus knows he’s heading straight into the heart of enemy territory. He knows he’s walking into a trap that will lead to his death. 

 Strikingly, Jesus’ response to the opposition, hatred, and murderous intentions is not to run and hide or to fight back. Instead, courageously stays the course, responding with love and compassion to the city that will take his life. With a grief-stricken heart, Jesus laments the tragedy that God’s people are unwilling to repent and prepare themselves for the coming Kingdom of Heaven. And so he weeps over the holy city Jerusalem. 

With so much mounting opposition, and with the shadow of the cross looming ever larger, how does Jesus find the strength to embody such courage, love and compassion? What keeps him grounded in his divine identity and mission? 

There are subtle clues in answer to that question scattered throughout the Gospel according to Luke. 

Early in Luke’s gospel, for instance, we’re told that Jesus “went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom” (Lk 4:16)

As was his custom.” 

Regular attendance at synagogue worship on the sabbath day was a habit for Jesus. Joining each week with other faithful Jews for worship of God, to hear Holy Scripture read and expounded in preaching and teaching, and to offer prayers - this was a way of life for Jesus. It shaped his heart, mind, and soul. It formed the kind of person he was. Indeed, Jesus was so immersed in worship and scripture that even when nailed to the cross he recited the words of Psalms in anguished prayer to the Father. 

We also discover another important fact about Jesus’ spiritual life in Luke’s gospel. Before each major turning point in his life and ministry, Luke portrays Jesus at prayer. Keeping company with God through regular prayer was a priority for Jesus. One verse sums up his practice: “But [Jesus] would withdraw to deserted places and pray” (Lk 5:16)

Immersion in scripture, worship, and prayer strengthened Jesus to actively minister to the needs of the lost and the lonely, bringing healing to the sick, freedom to captives, hope to the hopeless, and forgiveness to sinners. And it also empowered him to give the greatest of gifts: his life on the cross as an atoning sacrifice for the sins of the world. 

Jesus was a man of scripture. He was a man of prayer and worship. He was man of servant ministry and giving to God’s Kingdom. 

This has profound implications for the Christian life. For we not only worship Jesus as Lord and Savior. We also revere him as “an example of godly life,” acknowledging that we are called “to follow daily in the blessed steps of his most holy life” (BCP, p. 232). If we are to share God’s love and compassion, if we seek to stay true to our mission as the church, if we seek to be faithful disciples even when it’s difficult to do so, then we must adopt the same spiritual practices that sustained Jesus. 

Following Jesus, the holy habits of Christian discipleship are: 

  1. Reading and meditating on God’s Word, 
  2. Daily prayer, 
  3. Weekly attendance at worship, 
  4. Servant ministry, and
  5. Giving for the spread of God’s Kingdom.  

During the penitential season of Lent, we do well to reflect upon these holy habits and renew our commitment to them. So let’s briefly look at each one. 

 We start with reading and meditating on God’s Word. In our baptisms, we affirm Jesus as Lord. But we can’t honor him as Lord if we don’t know him - if we don’t know what he stood for, what he taught, what he did, or what he asks of us. So to follow Jesus, we must spend time with Jesus. We must cultivate a relationship with Jesus. We must listen to Jesus and act on what he commands. And to do that, we must read and meditate on Holy Scripture, particularly the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. 

One of the saints put it like this: “Read the Holy Gospel, be penetrated by its spirit, make it the rule of your life, your handbook; in every action and question of life act according to the study of the Gospel. This is the only light of your life” (St. Nikon of Optina)

Informed by our reading of scripture, we cultivate the holy habit of daily prayer. Jesus took time out from the crowds and their incessant demands to pray, particularly before major turning points in his life and ministry. If daily prayer was such an important lifeline for Jesus that he never neglected it, then surely it must be the same for all who seek to follow him. 

But while the Christian faith is always personal, it is never private. And so, as the example of Jesus underscores, cultivating an individual prayer life is not enough. We need the support and accountability of community. We need to find our place among the faithful gathered for worship. Just as Jesus made a regular habit of attending synagogue on the sabbath day, Christian discipleship calls us to the holy habit of weekly worship in church

Sometimes people say they can pray at home, or out in the woods, or on the golf course just as well as they can in church. Of course, people can pray anywhere. But such comments miss the point and fall short of the example of Jesus who not only prayed in private, but also regularly attended worship. 

For only in church do we encounter the Word of God read and proclaimed in Holy Scripture. Only in church do we offer our presence and gifts for the greater good of the Body. Only in church do our prayers join with the prayers of the faithful who, for over 50 years, have sat in these pews and knelt at this altar rail. Only in church do we have the opportunity to reaffirm our connection to the ancient faith of the Universal Church - a Truth so much bigger than our individual beliefs and opinions. Only in church do we renew our identities as adopted sons and daughters of God and brothers and sisters in Christ. Only in church do we take the life of the risen Jesus into our bodies and souls by receiving his Body and Blood in the Eucharist. 

We can’t get that anywhere else. So keep coming back! 

We come to each Sunday to the Lord’s table to receive the Eucharist not for solace only, but also for strength. We come not for pardon only, but also for renewal (cf. The Book of Common Prayer, p. 372). We come to be transformed into the likeness of Jesus, the one who came into the world “not to be served but to serve” (Mk 10:45). And so, after feeding on Jesus’ Body and Blood, we are sent forth to love and serve the Lord by serving the church, our neighbors, and our community. We are sent to use our gifts to serve the hurting, the hungry, and the needy, that others may be touched by the healing love and grace of God. We are sent out to do the work of servant ministry in Jesus’ name. 

As disciples of Jesus, we don’t just show up for church as passive spectators. Instead, we come to be active participants in the unfolding drama of God’s plan for the world’s salvation. We come first and foremost to love and honor God. And we come to receive strength to love our neighbors as ourselves by using our gifts for the work of ministry. 

And finally, out of gratitude for the amazing gift of grace we have received in Jesus, we practice the holy habit of giving for the spread of God’s Kingdom

All that we have is a gift from God. All that we have belongs to God. All that we have is given to us to be used in service to God and neighbors in Jesus’ name. And so we give our time, our talents, and our money to the work of the church as a thank offering “for all of the blessings of this life” and for God’s “immeasurable love in the redemption of the world by our Lord Jesus Christ” (The Book of Common Prayer, p. 101). We give so that what we’ve been given may bless others that they “may know the power of [Jesus’] forgiveness and the hope of his resurrection” (The Book of Common Prayer, pp. 816-817)

Our lives in Christ are grounded in and sustained by reading scripture, prayer, worship, servant ministry, and giving to God’s Kingdom. These holy habits are the marks of faithful discipleship. They proclaim our allegiance to Jesus as Lord and Savior. And as we grow spiritually through these holy habits, our lives will increasingly bear the fruit of the Spirit: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (Galatians 5:22-23)

May we renew our commitment to these holy habits, that they may deepen our faith, build up the church in love, and bear witness to the world that there is a better way to live - the way of Jesus Christ.

Sunday, January 3, 2016

Persecution, Martyrdom, and the Gospel of Peace: A Sermon for the Second Sunday after Christmas

When most of us think of Christmas, I suspect the image of the baby Jesus lying in a manger comes to mind. Surrounded by barnyard animals, Mary and Joseph gaze lovingly at the Christ child. Maybe the wise men from the east have already made their appearance, bearing gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. A large star shines in the night sky like a radiant diamond, bathing everything in soft light.

It’s a scene of deep peace and tranquility.

Compared to that, the story of the Holy Family’s flight to Egypt and the murder of innocent children in today’s Gospel reading hits us like a bucket of ice water.

It’s not a nice story. It doesn’t fit the image of Christmas as the most wonderful time of the year. But as Holy Scripture and the Church calendar remind us, there’s more to the story than what we see in Christmas cards or creche displays.

For instance, the day after Christmas Day on December 26, we remember St. Stephen, one of the first deacons in the Church who was murdered by Jewish religious authorities. And so the day after we remember the birth of Jesus, we remember the death of a Christian martyr.

And then, on December 28 - and in our Gospel reading today - we remember the slaughter of the Holy Innocents. Herod the Great was the ruler of the Jews at that time, and he had kept the peace in Palestine for 37 years by ruthless control and violent coercion. Herod was also a paranoid man who feared losing his throne. So when he heard a report that an infant King of the Jews had been born in Bethlehem, he ordered the murder of all male children age 2 and under in Bethlehem and the surrounding region. It’s hard to imagine anything more barbaric.

The Church has always honored these innocent children as the first martyrs of the Christian faith. For this reason St. Augustine described them as “buds, killed by the frost of persecution the moment they showed themselves.” Many Christians continue to believe that these young martyrs intercede in heaven on behalf of all innocent victims.

This strikes a dissonant note with recent holiday celebrations. But today’s Gospel story of tyranny and hatred, fear and hardship, violence and murder resonates very personally with Christians in other parts of the world. Because many of them live under the shadow of present-day Herods and demonic forces like ISIS that seek their destruction.

Accurate numbers are difficult to obtain. But some data suggests that there are as many as 8,000 to 9,000 Christians martyred each year.

Another report says that compared to 34,000 Christian martyrs in 1900, there were nearly 1 million Christian martyrs during the first decade of the 21st Century, with approximately 230 new Christian martyrs every 24 hours.

And it’s gotten worse. Driven by religious extremism and repressive governments, persecution of Christians is currently on the rise in many parts of the globe.

That’s true in Sudan where government authorities dampened the joy of Christmas by bulldozing church buildings and arresting as many as 200 foreign Christian pastors, giving them the choice of either leaving the country and losing all their belongings, or staying in jail to face charges.

Pope Francis recently described the global rise in persecution of Christians as “a form of genocide” that’s part of a “third world war.” Other commentators have labelled it “religio-ethnic cleansing.” Some information suggests that as many as 200 million Christians in 60 countries suffer varying degrees of discrimination, repression, and persecution because of their faith. That comes to 1 in 10 of the world’s 2.2 billion Christians. And perhaps as many as half of them are children.

All of this data on the persecution and martyrdom of Christians is quite sobering. And it doesn’t even include the hordes of innocent men, women, and children of other religious faiths and ethnic minorities who have been victims of the Herods in our world.

Reflecting on the plight of these persons, many of whom fear for their lives every day, we need to be informed about what is happening to them and to their countries. We have a moral duty to encourage our leaders to act in ways to resist and defeat evil while protecting the innocent from harm.

And as Christians, we need to be willing to do what we can to help. That’s true when it comes to any innocent person suffering persecution, regardless of creed, color, or nationality.

And it’s most definitely true when it comes to members of the Christian household of believers. For regardless of where we come from, what we look like, or what language we speak, we belong to the same Lord. We are brothers and sisters in Christ. We are citizens of a Kingdom that transcends national borders.

It’s cause for despair for persecuted Christians to think that we American Christians have forgotten them. And it’s a source of strength and hope to know that we remember them and that we care. We have a sacred obligation to remember and to pray for our persecuted brothers and sisters in Christ, and whenever possible, to offer refuge and assistance.

Today’s Gospel reading confronts us with a tragic irony. For instead of responding with awe and gratitude to the good news of great joy, we find that some people respond to the birth of the Prince of Peace with murderous hatred. When we note that story and consider the plight of the innocents in our world today, it’s understandable to ask: where is the Good News in all of this?

That question raises a host of other questions that persons of faith have struggled with for millennia. Why do bad things happen to good people? Why do the innocent suffer? Where is God in the midst of it all?

There are no pat answers to such questions. Many of us know this all too well due to the trials and tribulations of our own lives.

But even as we struggle to make sense of it all, the Christian faith gives us sure and certain grounds for hope. For, as Anglican bishop N. T. Wright puts it: “Something has happened in and through Jesus as a result of which the world is a different place, a place where heaven and earth have been joined forever. God’s future has arrived in the present.”

That may strike some of us as an odd thing to say. After all, evil stills runs amuck. Christians and others are suffering persecution and even martyrdom. Injustice continues to rock our world. How can we say that the world is really a different place because of Jesus? How can we dare to claim that God’s future has arrived in the present?

We dare to do so only because we believe that God became human in Jesus Christ, and that after dying on a cross for the sins of the world, this Jesus rose from the dead.

If that's not true, then all bets are off!

But if it's true - if it really happened - then it changes everything.

Many years ago I came across a military analogy from World War II that helps puts all of this into perspective.

It was June 6, 1944, the day when Allied forces invaded Normandy in the largest amphibious invasion in history. It proved to be the decisive battle against Nazis Germany. And because the Allied forces prevailed, Germany’s defeat was certain.

However, between D-Day (the day of the invasion) and V-Day (the day declaring the Allies’ victory), there were many fall-back battles across Europe. Many lives were lost in those battles and much carnage inflicted before the Nazis surrendered. So while D-Day insured that the war was won, it was not yet fully over.

In the Incarnation, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, God launched an invasion against the forces of evil in our world. But the fulfillment of God’s victory will occur only when Christ comes again in glorious majesty to judge the world.

Living between the first and the second coming of Christ, the battle between God and evil continues. We have the scars to prove it. But Christ’s ultimate victory is guaranteed. For Christ has already won the decisive battle against evil and death by rising victorious from the grave.

In the meantime, as we strive to keep our Baptismal Covenant promise to “persevere in resisting evil,” we do well to act as if everything depends on us and to pray as if everything depends on God (The Book of Common Prayer, p. 305). And we can do so confident that whatever things may look like today, the ultimate outcome has already been won in and through Jesus Christ.

For the birth of Jesus Christ means the coming of light into a dark world. This light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. And it never will.

So no matter how many Herods try to snuff out the gospel of peace, the light of the Prince of Peace will forever shine. God will continue to dwell among us. The love of Christ will continue to be born in the hearts of faithful people everywhere. And our prayers that God’s great might will frustrate the designs of evil tyrants and establish His rule of justice, love, and peace will be answered. For in the end, Christ will “break brokenness, kill death, destroy destruction, and swallow every sorrow.” And God’s kingdom shall prevail.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

The Glorious Impossible: A Sermon for Christmas 2015

Have yourself a humid little Christmas, with mosquitoes …

It’s hard to believe that this is my third Christmas here at St. Luke’s. It’s been a joyful time with you all. But I’m still getting used to the idea of Santa making his rounds in south Louisiana wearing shorts and a t-shirt.

We’re not going to get a white Christmas. But the really important thing is why we are here in church in the first place. For tonight we join with Christians around the world to celebrate a message first proclaimed by angels over 2,000 years ago. It’s a message of “good news of great joy for all people” (Luke 2:10). For God has come into the world to defeat evil and rescue his people from sin and death.

And it’s how God did it that blows the mind. For Christmas says that the Lord of all creation, the One who made all that is, seen and unseen, has become one of us – a flesh-and-blood human being like you and me. And this Lord of all creation came among us, not in majesty and power, but as a helpless, vulnerable baby born in poverty to parents of no worldly consequence.

The God who created heaven and earth; the God who called Abraham and gave a child to Sarah; the God who delivered the Israelites from slavery in Egypt; the God who chose David as King of Israel; the God who pierced hearts, troubled consciences, and brought the powers-that-be to their knees through the words of prophets like Amos, Jeremiah, and Isaiah; the God who called a young girl named Mary to conceive and give birth to the Savior of the world - here He is, a crying, naked baby, completely dependent for the basic necessities of life on the providence of two merely human parents.

Heaven has come to earth in the person of a baby named Jesus.

The Infinite and Almighty God has become a finite, frail human being.

The Lord of all creation was created by a mother whom He created, and held by hands that He formed.

It makes no logical sense.

But that’s precisely the mystery of the Incarnation we celebrate at Christmas.

God born into our world as a baby boy: that’s what author Madeleine L’Engle calls “The Glorious Impossible.” It’s glorious because it says that God loves us beyond all reason. God loves us so much that He stoops to embrace our condition, voluntarily giving up the advantages of divine power and privilege, assuming our humanity in its fullness in order to redeem it for eternity.

Impossible though it may seem, this is the Good News we proclaim at Christmas: that God came among us as one of us, not in wrath, but in vulnerable, tender love. God came, not to condemn, but to save. God became fully human to show us the path of humble service. God became fully human in Jesus so that we might share in God’s divine life.

We can’t explain it. We can’t fully understand it. And we can’t do anything to deserve it. It’s all a gift of God’s grace. It’s proof of just how much God loves us and that God is our Father and our friend. The only appropriate response is to rejoice, glorifying and praising God in the music and prayers of worship.

Since God has shared the fullness of our humanity in Jesus, all of our longings for wholeness and new life find their fulfillment in Him.

God knows that we long for a sense of meaning and purpose that transcends the busyness of our overbooked calendars and the seductive screens of our smartphones.

We long to be connected with a sense of wonder, awe, and mystery in the presence of the Holy.

We long to know that we are loved by Someone so much greater than the ups and downs of our daily lives.

We long for the reassurance that there is a Power at work in this world that can defeat the forces of darkness and destruction that so often make breaking news headlines.

We long to be set free from bondage to our sins and to be healed of the sorrows and losses that have wounded our hearts.

The good news is that God has responded to those longings by giving us the most precious of gifts - the gift of His only Son, the gift of His life and love made flesh in Jesus Christ.

This is a life lived in complete obedience to the Father. It’s a life given as a full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice on the cross for the sins of the world. It’s a life that has overcome death through resurrection. This is a life we receive every time we come to the altar and we hold out our hands, forming a cradle to receive anew this Body that was born and broken for us that we may live.

In the Incarnation and on the Cross, Jesus gave himself for us that we may give ourselves to one another. So when we take this gift of God’s life given to us in Jesus’ Body and Blood in the Eucharist, we are empowered to become little Christs. And we are commissioned to carry on the work of the Incarnation as the Church, the Body of Christ that worships, prays, and strives to restore all people to unity with God and each other.

And so Christmas is not just a celebration of something that happened 2,000 years ago when the Son of God “was made perfect Man of the flesh of the Virgin Mary his mother” (The Book of Common Prayer, p. 378). Christmas is also about all of us right here, right now. Christmas is a call from God to minister to the world in Jesus’ Name, taking the gift of God’s life and the salvation we have received in Jesus and sharing it with a world that is starving for the Good News.

That is the work of Christmas that begins with the birth of Jesus and continues every day of the year. And that work happens through people like you and me.

A friend shared a poem by Howard Thurman that puts it all together:

When the song of the angels is stilled, 
When the star in the sky is gone,  
When the kings and princes are home,  
When the shepherds are back with their flock, 
The work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost,  
To heal the broken,  
To feed the hungry, 
To release the prisoner,  
To rebuild the nations,  
To bring peace among people,  
To make music from the heart.

My friends, may each of us respond to God’s call to do the work of Christmas by sharing God’s love and our blessings with the needy, the poor, and the hurting that they, too, may know the good news of great joy.

And may the joy and peace of this holy season strengthen and equip you for the holy work of Christmas throughout the coming New Year.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Waiting for the Light: A Sermon for Advent 2C 2015

Advent 2C

It’s a remarkable time of the year. And I’m not talking about the 70 degree weather for December or the aggressive mosquitoes that simply won’t take the winter off. I’m talking about where we are in the church calendar.

Today is the second Sunday of Advent. And Advent is rich and complex. Like the shifting colors and patterns in a kaleidoscope, there are so many themes woven into this short season, like:


















The list could go on and on.

In the midst of that tapestry of Advent themes, we prepare for the coming of the Christ. We prepare for the Christ who comes as a baby lying in a manger, the Christ who comes through the Word and Sacraments of the Church, the Christ who comes among us in sometimes surprising persons (particularly the poor and the needy), and the Christ who will come again to fulfill God’s will for all of creation.

But the fulfillment hasn’t happened. And we haven’t arrived at Christmas. The child hasn’t been born. It’s not time to celebrate. And the healing, restorative judgment of Jesus Christ has yet to set all things right. We still live in a broken world filled with pain and suffering.

Advent doesn’t try to make it all better or pretend that everything is ok just as it is. Instead, Advent leaves us right there in the midst of it all, living as we do between the first and the second coming of Christ.

Little wonder that even before Thanksgiving Day our culture starts putting the petal to the metal in full pursuit of festivity. It’s so much easier to gear into holiday party mode than it is to sit still in the darkness of uncertainty, filled with the longings and the unfulfilled hopes of Advent. Many of us find it hard to sit still like that, or to take time for quiet reflection and self-examination. It can be hard to wait patiently in the darkness for the light of the celebration to come in God’s appointed time.

That may be the deepest challenge of Advent. For it reminds us that we are not in control. We don’t call the shots. The party doesn’t begin when we want it to. God’s plan unfolds in God’s way and in God’s time, not ours.

When many of us would rather move on to the baby Jesus, Advent insists that we must first deal with the wild and fiery John the Baptist. We meet him in today’s Gospel lesson “proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” to the Israelites who have strayed from God’s ways (Luke 3:3). And by putting John the Baptist front and center during the season of Advent, the Church insists that we, too, must do the work of repentance, We, too, must “forsake our sins” if we are to “greet with joy the coming of Jesus Christ our Redeemer,” the one who comes to judge, to heal, and to make all things new (The Book of Common Prayer, p. 211).

Repentance may not be the word that comes most readily to our minds during the holiday season. But it is the word that best captures what the gospel says our Advent time of preparation should be all about.

The verb “to repent” literally means to return or turn back. In the Old Testament, repentance means "both a personal turning away from sin and Israel’s corporate turning away from idolatry" [Tom Wright, Luke for Everyone (Westminster John Knox Press 2004), p. 314]. Repentance often has connotations of return from exile, which echoes the powerful story of the Israelites’ liberation from slavery in Egypt.

So from a biblical perspective, repentance carries positive connotations. It’s all about forsaking idolatry and embracing liberation, freedom, and homecoming.

Repentance is a three-fold action.

First, we honestly face the reality of our lives, acknowledging where and how we’ve missed the mark of God’s holiness by falling into sin.

We then confess our sins. We acknowledge that our sins separate us from the path of life and cast us into a state of spiritual exile. And we admit that we are powerless to change ourselves.

And finally, we return to God, acknowledging that only God can free us from whatever binds us. And we accept his forgiveness and his grace to amend our lives.

Repentance is a life-affirming practice and a lifelong process. It’s about transformation. It’s about coming home. It’s about returning again and again to where we truly belong, to where we are known and loved and cared for by God.

As we practice repentance, we see that just as John the Baptist and the Old Testament prophets confronted the Israelites, Advent confronts us to forsake the sin of idolatry.

An idol is anything that takes the place of God in our lives, anything other than God that we rely upon for happiness and security. An idol can be a material object, like a house or money. It can be a person, like a spouse, a teacher, or a leader. It can be a career. Anything that takes the place of God in our lives by promising a happiness and security it simply cannot deliver - that’s an idol.

Just as we clear out space in our homes to put up decorations, we have to clear out space in our hearts to make room for Christ, space often occupied by the idols we substitute for God. And yet, we long for freedom from our sin. We long to know the life that only the Lord of life can give us.

Tapping into our longing for freedom and new life, Advent proclaims the twilight of all idols. The sun is setting on everything we substitute for God’s love and justice. During Advent, darkness envelops everything we thought we knew about ourselves and about God. For something new and unexpected, and something so wonderful mere words cannot describe it, beckons on the horizon of the future.

It’s the promise that the dawn from on high shall break upon us, shining on everyone who dwells in darkness and the shadow of death, filling the world with the life-giving warmth of God’s forgiveness and love, and guiding our feet into the way of peace. It’s the promise that God will dwell among us and that we shall be his people. It’s the promise that “the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea” (Habakkuk 2:14).

But in the meantime, as the days grow shorter and the nights grow longer, we wait. We wait for the final liberation of all things from bondage to death and decay and the inauguration of a new creation. We wait for the light of Christ to come and fill the world with glorious splendor. And we prepare to joyfully receive that light by repenting of the sins that bind us to the darkness so that we may live as children of light.

It’s this waiting for the fulfillment that only God can give that makes observing Advent so challenging. We long for God’s light and new life, and we want it now. It’s so tempting to jump the gun by substituting our own fabricated festivals for the true Nativity of our Lord.

We need patience. We need restraint. We need to trust God.

Christ is coming. But Christ won’t come when we tell him to. The celebration won’t start just because we’re ready to get on with it.

But if we do the work of repentance, if we forsake our sins and the idols that displace God from the center of our lives, and if we ask for God’s help to exercise patience and restraint, then when the light finally shines in the darkness it will truly be the birth of new life and the dawning of new hope. For Christ will be born anew in our hearts, dispelling the darkness of our fears, healing the wounds inflicted by loss and grief, reassuring us that God lives in and among us as our Father and our friend, and casting aside any shadow of doubt that we are destined for the joys of eternal life in a new creation with those we love but see no longer.

And that is worth waiting for.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Episcopal Church Decline and Evangelism Opportunities

In a blog posting entitled "New Data Says Millennials Are Less Religious Than Anyone Else ... So What?," Chris Martin analyzes data released by the Pew Research Center as it pertains to Millennials' attitudes toward religion, worship participation, and spiritual longings.  There's much interesting food for thought in Martin's analysis.  But I was particularly struck by his summary of the implications of this research for evangelism:

Pastors and church people, remember this as you seek to reach unbelieving Millennials in your communities.  There is basically a 50-50 chance the Millennials you speak to do not feel at peace with where they are spiritually, and a 50-50 chance they feel "wonder" about the universe.  This is not a generation closed off to the supernatural and wondrous - it's a generation weary of institutional hypocrisy.  Reach out to the young people in your community as a family, not as an "organization" or  a "club."  Engage Millennials' sense of wonder.  Speak to their spiritual unrest.  Point them to Jesus.

It's interesting to read this analysis and the opportunities it suggests for evangelism in light of an article by Neal Michell entitled, "New TEC Statistics: What Do These Numbers Say?"  Michell provides an overview of Episcopal Church statistics gleaned by Dr. Kirk Hadaway from Parochial Report data. Like the article on Millennials, there's a lot of information in Michell's piece that makes it worth reading in its entirety.  But the following quote summarizes the heart of the matter:

... we must admit that our church is broken, terribly broken.  We have been consumed - and continue to be consumed by the unholy trinity of Lawsuits, Legislation, and Liturgies.  We need to admit that this trio is not the solution to our decline and may, in fact, be one of the reasons for it.  We claim to be healing agents in the world when we can't even be healing agents in our own Communion or our own Province.  We must quit making excuses for our decline, citing the decline of the mainline denominations (our decline is worse), blaming the falling birth rate and increasing death rates of our members.  Instead, we must look to our own complacency, our own conflicts, and our own self-focus as sins of which to repent.

In an earlier posting, I noted the need for the Episcopal Church to get the evangelistic fervor right for church revitalization.  The mission field is ripe for harvest.  But if we Episcopalians stay too inward-focused and fail to address the core reasons for free-fall institutional decline, there may be little to nothing left of the Episcopal Church in which to include new persons within the next 30 years.  

I believe our Anglican tradition equips us with the resources we need for engaging the sense of wonder and speaking to the spiritual unrest of Millennials.  Instead of further distancing ourselves from core tenets of Christian orthodoxy by pursuing potentially diastrous Prayer Book revision and other ideological agendas, we do well to reconnect with those resources in ways that bring others into deeper relationship with Jesus Christ.