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.  

Monday, October 19, 2015

Getting the Evangelistic Fervor Right for Church Revitalization

Lately I've started reading in the area of church revitalization.  One of the resources I picked up is Bill Henard's Can These Bones Live? A Practical Guide to Church Revitalization.  I was immediately struck by the following statistics cited by Henard:

  • 1,400 pastors in America leave the ministry monthly
  • Only 15% of churches in the United States are growing
  • 10,000 churches in America disappeared in a five-year period
  • The number of people in America that do not attend church has doubled in the past 15 years
  • The vast majority of churches have an attendance of less than 75

Elsewhere in the book, Henard notes the following:

Without new people coming into the church, the church will eventually die.  On average, churches will lose people:
  • 2% by death (older congregations obviously will have a much higher percentage)
  • 4% by transfer to other churches
  • 6% by inactivity or by dropping out
Thus, if a church is not replacing 10 to 12 percent of its membership each year, it then begins to plateau and eventually fall into decline, especially as these percentages increase due to age or demographic changes.

This data is all the more sobering when we see that The Episcopal Church's average Sunday attendance dropped by over 25% in just 12 years.  We've declined from 3.6 million members in the mid-1960s to 1.8 million today, even as the population in the United States has more than doubled (see Jeffrey Walton's "Episcopalians Continue Bleeding Members, Attendance at Alarming Rate"). 

Clearly, we're doing something wrong.

So in light of all of the data on decline, what's the next big thing on the docket for The Episcopal Church now that General Convention has officially launched the project of revising the theology of marriage?  Why, Prayer Book revision, of course!

I've already shared some curmudgeonly thoughts on why Prayer Book revision at this time and with the ideas proposed would be a disaster.  I'll simply repeat here a fact of history: every time Prayer Book revision has been undertaken, it's been divisive and people have left The Episcopal Church.  Pushing for Prayer Book revision at a time when The Episcopal Church is in free-fall decline is suicidal.  It's a strategy for accelerating ecclesial decline unto death.

Instead of driving off this cliff of destruction, we need to invest our time, talents, and money in church revitalization.  Among other things, that means taking evangelism seriously.  Here's what Bill Henard writes about this:

Evangelism is the barometer of our theology.  In other words, if a person's theology does not lead to having a passion for doing evangelism, that individual needs to get a new theology.  The same idea holds true for the church.  If the church does not have a strong theology that leads to evangelism, the pastor then knows some of the preparatory work that must be done before the church will begin to reach those outside of Christ.  This one thought may be the entire reason that the church has declined and is in need of revitalization.  Without a strong theology of evangelism, the church finds itself on the precipice of a slippery slope that affects every work and every ministry of the church.  Get the evangelistic fervor right and the church begins to head in the correct direction.

The correlation between having a "strong theology that leads to evangelism" and church vitality or revitalization strikes me as dead on.  How can any church or organization grow and thrive if the members don't passionately believe they have something unique that should be shared with anyone else who doesn't have it?  

I don't believe that progressive revisionist theologies that jettison the Nicene Creed and downplay the uniqueness of Jesus Christ, the problem of sin, and our need for salvation are going to help us "get the evangelistic fervor right."  On the contrary, such theologies tend to reinforce the norms of self-expression and self-fulfillment worshiped by our culture as self-evident truths.  And those truths are central to the creed of a Moralistic Therapeutic Deism that marks a decisive shift to a post-Christian (and at times anti-Christian) posture towards the Church.  

Instead of pushing ideological agendas that violate the Baptismal Covenant promise to "continue in the apostles' teaching and fellowship," and rather than promoting the culture's Moralistic Therapeutic Deism in the attempt to appear relevant, we need to recover a passion for the basics of the Christian faith.  We need to recover a passion for Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.  And in line with the Baptismal Covenant promise to "proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ," we need to be able and willing to share with people outside the Church why they need a relationship with Jesus Christ.  Our survival depends upon it.  

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Sermon for the Feast of St. Luke the Evangelist 2015

“Where there is no vision, the people perish” (Proverbs 29:18).

That short verse from the book of Proverbs sums up a whole world of wisdom. It reminds us of the importance in our daily lives of having purpose and direction. To have that, we need to articulate the core values that ground our identity. And we need to align our actions with those values. Otherwise we run the risk of wandering aimlessly through life and failing to utilize the gifts God has given us

We need to know who we are.

We need to know where we’re going.

We need to know what it takes to get there.

And one of the best ways for staying focused on these core values is by articulating a clear and memorable mission statement.

Even Jesus had a mission statement to keep him on track with his identity as the Christ. We see what that looks like in today’s Gospel reading.

Jesus has returned home to Nazareth where he’s attending Sabbath worship in the synagogue. Handing him a scroll of the book of Isaiah, he’s invited to read a passage of scripture. And out of all of the possible parts of that lengthy book of Isaiah, Jesus chooses the following verses to read aloud: 

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18-19).

This passage from Isaiah serves as Jesus’ mission statement. It reveals Jesus’ true identity and purpose as the Christ. So if we want to know what Jesus is all about, we have to take a closer look at his mission statement. 

Using the words of Isaiah, Jesus starts out by saying that the Spirit of the Lord has anointed him “to bring good news to the poor” (Luke 4:18). Luke’s gospel always refers to “the poor” in a literal sense. So these are people who simply can’t make ends meet. These are people who don’t have enough food, adequate clothing or shelter, or other basic necessities of life. In Jesus’ day, many regarded poverty as a sign of God’s wrathful judgment and wealth as a sign of God’s blessing. By bringing good news to the poor, Jesus overturns popular opinion to reveal the generous scope of God’s care. Offering the hope of God’s love and the promise of God’s deliverance to the poor lie at the heart of Jesus’ mission.

Jesus has also been anointed by the Spirit “to proclaim release to the captives” (Luke 4:18). Throughout the Gospels, Jesus transforms the physical and spiritual conditions that bind people and hold them captive. As a healer, Jesus frees persons possessed by evil spirits and held in bondage to physical ailments. “Captives” also include those who are so imprisoned by sinful habits and desires that willpower alone cannot enable them to do good and avoid evil. People held captive move our Lord’s heart with compassion. Releasing them from bondage is a top mission priority. 

Jesus also provides “recovery of sight to the blind” (Luke 4:18).  Jesus heals persons who have literally lost their sight, thereby freeing them from a desperate situation. For blindness carried a religious stigma in Jesus’ day, with many believing that blindness was a sign of God’s judgment for sin. And in a society with no safety nets, the blind often had to beg for their survival.

But the problem of blindness in the Gospels goes beyond literal sight. There’s also the problem of spiritual blindness. This happens when, through ignorance or willful rejection, persons cannot see the truth even when it’s right in front of their faces. Failing to see the truth, the spiritually blind lack purpose, meaning, and direction, and thus are easily tossed around by what St. Paul calls “every wind of doctrine” (Ephesians 4:14).

God loves those who suffer from blindness. He wants to open their eyes and their hearts to see the truth that gives meaning, purpose, and direction to life. And for those who have eyes to see, that truth is most fully revealed in the Person and Work of Jesus Christ.

Jesus rounds out his Kingdom agenda by claiming the Spirit’s anointing "to let the oppressed go free" (Luke 4:18). Oppression was rampant in Jesus’ day, including the Roman occupation of Israel, unfair taxation, and the extortion of widows and orphans by mercenary religious leaders. But the God we meet in the Bible is a God of justice. God cares about what’s right and fair. Abusing, manipulating, and taking advantage of people demeans their dignity, and that arouses God’s righteous anger and God’s desire to do justice.

Good news to the poor, release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, freedom for the oppressed: it’s a comprehensive Kingdom-of-God agenda that sends the powerful message that in Jesus Christ, God has come into this world to save, to heal, and to set things right. Through Jesus, God cares not just for our souls, but for us as whole persons. God wants abundant life for everyone right here, right now. 

Jesus shows us that no one is beyond the scope of God’s mercy and love. People who don’t fit into society, people who have suffered injustices, people who need help but cannot help themselves, and people who are looked down upon for their moral failings – these are precisely the people that move God’s heart with compassion. And they are the people Jesus actively seeks to befriend by offering them what they most deeply need but cannot give themselves: healing, hope, purpose, and freedom. 

Those are the core values and driving motives of Jesus’ ministry. And every person who has been baptized into his death and resurrection has been gifted by the Holy Spirit to share these values by joining with Jesus in the work of ministry. We do that by offering our gifts of time, talent, and treasure to promote Jesus’ Kingdom-of-God agenda. 

Just as Jesus had a mission statement to keep him on track, we who call St. Luke’s our spiritual home also have a mission statement. I believe it is consistent with the values of Jesus Christ, and that it accurately reflects who we are as a church family. It says: 

“Saint Luke’s is committed to caring for one another, to spiritual growth, and to bringing others closer to God through Jesus Christ.”

We are committed to caring for one another. 

We are committed to following our Lord’s example by befriending the friendless, reaching out to the lonely, the sick, the suffering, and to those who mourn. We do this in countless ways, with Lay Eucharistic Visitors taking the Blessed Sacrament to the sick and the shut in, Stephen Ministers befriending persons facing difficult challenges, clergy and laypersons visiting persons in the hospital, meals prepared and delivered to families who have lost loved ones, prayer shawls knit and delivered to the sick .... The list could go on and on of the acts of love and care we extend to one another and beyond our church family in the name of Jesus Christ. And your support makes it happen. 

We are committed to spiritual growth. 

As you can see in your bulletin announcements, we have a full array of Christian formation offerings for all ages on Sunday mornings. We have an active youth group that lately has been collaborating with the youth from Trinity Episcopal Church. We have several Bible studies that meet during the week, as well as a Men’s Fellowship and a recently launched Young Adult Ministry. We have special seasonal offerings, such as our Wednesday Lenten Series. We are blessed with numerous opportunities each week for spiritual growth. And your support makes it happen. 

We are committed to bringing others closer to God through Jesus Christ. 

The things I’ve already mentioned bring people into closer relationship with God. Foundational to it all is what we’re doing right now: worship. Offering praise and thanksgiving to God in this holy space, hearing God’s Word read and proclaimed in preaching, gathering at the altar to be fed by God, and joining our voices with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven as we sing in joyful response to the Good News of God’s amazing grace and love. What a wonderful thing it is to come together each Sunday to give thanks to God for all that He has done for us in Jesus Christ. And your support makes it happen. 

Our parish mission statement provides a blueprint for answering God’s call as a church family. Living the core values of our mission statement, we share in the healing work of Jesus Christ by bringing faith, hope, and love into other people’s lives. And it’s only possible because we are willing to offer our gifts for the work of ministry.

I pray that you will join me in making a financial commitment to insure that St. Luke’s has the resources needed to equip us for God’s work. As we make that commitment, may we know the joy of belonging to a loving spiritual home that touches lives with the love of God, that nurtures spiritual growth for all ages, and that brings people into deeper relationship with the One in whom alone we find our true identity and purpose.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Prayer Book Revision Disaster

Since the the last General Convention initiated the process of Prayer Book revision, the Church Divinity School of the Pacific held a symposium on "Imagining a New Prayer Book" on October 8, 2015.  The Rev. Dr. Ruth Meyers led the forum.  Here are some highlights of the forum as reported by The Living Church:

The Rev. Ruth Meyers predicted this week that a revised Book of Common Prayer will most likely reflect changes in creation, baptism, and trinitarian theology. ...

Drawing heavily on the work of Mary E. McGann, RSCJ, of Franciscan School of Theology and the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, Meyers advocated for more robust attention to ecological issues in the church’s worship. The church must move beyond the “tepid prayers” of the current book, which focus mainly on conservation of natural resources, to more “robust forms of confession and lament … giving voice to the cries of our wounded planet and its creatures.” 
She urged more extensive use of language identifying God as Creator, and for prayers that acknowledge new scientific insights, the beauty and goodness of creation, and our fellowship with all created things. A more effusive use of symbols, she noted, may also be an opportunity to restore reciprocity between the theologies of creation and redemption in the prayer book’s account of Christian belief. 
Meyers said a “baptismal consciousness” has clearly developed across the Episcopal Church since the introduction of the 1979 Prayer Book. But the baptism liturgy might be deepened to bear witness to the insights of its creators. Influenced by baptismal revisions in other Anglican churches over the last few decades, Episcopalians might consider using water and oil more extravagantly, reciting the Creed during a baptism, and developing new Baptismal Covenant petitions about environmental stewardship. 
Meyers urged continuing use of “expansive language” for God, including a return to “more concrete images of the Bible and the liturgy” in place of the arcane philosophical language of the fourth-century creeds. The texts of the 1979 book, while using a more inclusive language for humanity, are “overwhelmingly masculine in language and imagery.”  
She described the Nicene Creed as “a stumbling block for many,” and wondered if a creed is necessary during the Eucharist, given the Great Thanksgiving’s robust affirmation of God’s work in Christ. The use of modern creedal texts alongside the Nicene Creed might be a creative opportunity for engaging worshipers.

Read it all.

As an advocate of Christian orthodoxy and liturgy rooted in the catholic faith, I find this deeply troubling.  It's a reminder that with so few orthodox Episcopalians remaining in The Episcopal Church (particularly among the House of Bishops and the House of Deputies at General Convention), progressive revisionists are now free to change the content of the Christian faith in whatever ways fit their ideological agendas.  Citing new revelation, it starts with redefining the theological understanding of marriage as outlined in the Prayer Book's marriage rite and the catechism (last summer's General Convention made a decisive start on achieving that goal).  Next will be a severing of the relationship between Baptism and Eucharist.  I recently read somewhere that there are those who wish to regularly omit the confession of sin from the Eucharist, while others wish to eliminate the language of "Lordship" for Jesus as too patriarchal and oppressive.  

God only knows what other changes folks like Meyers have in mind when it comes to "creation, baptism, and trinitarian theology."

Orthodoxy and catholicity are on the chopping block.  And the smell of heresy is in the air.

In a posting on the Prayer Book at The Living Church, Fr. Jordan Hylden and Fr. Keith Voets hit the nail on the head:

We fear that a revised prayer book would not be written for the church committed to the Bible and the faith of the apostles, but for the church of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, with all particularistic and judgmental edges shorn off. It is less and less culturally necessary for young people to attend church now, and this trend will likely continue. If one can worship the god of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism from the comfort of one’s own home, and perhaps also from the shopping aisles at Whole Foods and the local yoga studio, then why bother with church? A prayer book written to suit such a god will be an exercise in futility, not to mention idolatry.

Futility and idolatry, indeed.

But back to the "Imagining a New Prayer Book" symposium.  Of particular interest to this creedal Christian is Meyers' quip that the Nicene Creed is "a stumbling block for many."  I've written before about instances of banning the creed to be "inclusive," letting go of the creed in the liturgy, dumping the creed for Easter, and dishing the creeds because they are "defective."  I won't rehash all of that here.

But I would like to point out that this business of eliminating alleged "stumbling blocks" to be more "inclusive" could put us on a dangerous slippery slope.  I recall that no less an authority than St. Paul notes that Jesus is both "a stumbling block" and "foolishness" (1 Corinthians 1:23).  So if The Episcopal Church is now in the business of removing stumbling blocks, what are we do to with this Jesus and the scandal of particularity he forces us to face?  Perhaps this is why some are calling for abolishing the language of "Lord" to talk about Jesus.  Shall we now avoid the name of Jesus altogether lest we offend secularists, atheists, and adherents of other religions who may find Christian claims about Jesus problematic?

If the Nicene Creed is eliminated in a new Prayer Book, it becomes much easier to water Jesus down to be more palatable for an increasingly post-Christian society.  Since the Nicene Creed defines a robust orthodox Christology over against Arianism (no "tepid prayers" going on here!), omitting this creed makes it easier to downplay or deny that Jesus was both fully human and fully divine.  If he's not fully divine, Jesus was just another human being like you and me.  And as merely human, he can be invoked as the champion of our politically correct causes, conforming to our expectations and agendas.  He can be commissioned as just another liberal social justice prophet who says what our itching ears want to hear.  And we can dream up all kinds of liturgies that use this Jesus to advance the cause of our politically-correct righteousness.

Part of that cause may be to purge the last remaining orthodox Christians from The Episcopal Church.  It's a brilliant strategy.  Instead of launching a frontal assault that from a PR angle would look really bad for those who purportedly champion "inclusion," just change the Prayer Book to eliminate orthodoxy.  That puts orthodox laity and clergy in the predicament of having to decide to either participate in liturgies that affirm heresy or leave The Episcopal Church. 

But considering the fact that The Episcopal Church continues in free fall decline, such a strategy strikes me as almost comically misguided.  Consider the following statistics as reported by Jeffrey Walton in an article entitled "Episcopalians Continue Bleeding Numbers at Alarming Rate":

The church’s domestic U.S. membership dropped 2.7 percent from a reported 1,866,758 members in 2013 to 1,817,004 in 2014, a loss of 49,794 persons. Attendance took an even steeper hit, with the average number of Sunday worshipers dropping from 623,691 in 2013 to 600,411 in 2014, a decline of 23,280 persons in the pews, down 3.7 percent. 
The numbers are significantly worse than 2013, when the church reported a 1.4 percent decline in membership and 2.6 percent decline in average Sunday attendance. 
Other measures of Episcopal Church vitality also saw decline: the denomination reported the shuttering of 69 parishes and missions, down from 6,622 in 2013 to 6,553 in 2014. Children’s baptisms declined 4.8 percent from 25,822 to 24,594 and adult baptisms declined during the same time-frame from 3,675 to 3,530, a decline of nearly 4 percent. 
Overall, the church has declined from a high of 3.6 million members in the mid-1960s to 1.8 million today, even as the U.S. population has more than doubled. The church has lost more than a quarter of its attendance since 2003.

Read it all.

At a time when attendance in The Episcopal Church has declined by over 25% in just 12 years, it's foolish to seriously think about changing the liturgies that shape the most basic ways in which we relate to God and to each other.  Our efforts would be better spent on evangelism and revitalization.  

Prayer Book revision a la Ruth Meyers may be a perfect way to encourage remaining orthodox Episcopalians to leave.  But there are many moderate and moderately progressive Episcopalians who may also take offense and decide to go elsewhere if things like the Nicene Creed, the necessity of Baptism for receiving the Eucharist, a theology of sin and redemption, and the language of "Lord" for Jesus are dumped.  Liturgies grounded in utilitarian religion and self-fulfillment will run out of gas.  Pursuing this agenda, the progressive revisionists may be sawing off the limb on which they sit.  

Whether we look at it from the angle of including the witness of a Christian orthodoxy that connects us to Anglicans worldwide and to the Church throughout the ages, or from the angle of addressing the serious institutional decline afflicting The Episcopal Church at a time when many younger persons crave traditional liturgy, Prayer Book revision at this time and in this manner would be a mistake.  Put both of those concerns together and Prayer Book revision would be a disaster.  

Monday, October 5, 2015

Answering God's Call: A Stewardship Sermon

It was Sunday morning and a little boy didn’t want to go to church. He did his best to resist but in the end his parents won out. Everything seemed to be going just fine. But then, during the service, the pastor’s sermon dragged on and on. It felt like it would never end. The little boy grew more and more restless with each passing minute. Finally, he leaned over to his mother and whispered: “Mommy, if we give him money now, will he let us go?” 

Many of us may have felt like that little boy at one time or another. And perhaps especially so when it comes time for the Annual Giving Campaign, which we’re kicking off here at St. Luke’s this morning. It’s perfectly understandable. Talking about money and giving to the church can make some folks feel uncomfortable. And depending on our history, we may have been involved in churches in the past that used guilt to inspire giving. 

It’s so very sad if that happens. Because giving to the church is not about guilt; it’s about stewardship. And stewardship is really just another way of talking about discipleship. To talk about discipleship is to talk about answering the call to follow Jesus as Lord and Savior. And by following Jesus we know the way to the truth that sets us free to receive the priceless gift of abundant life. 

What could be better than that? 

I’m reminded of a hymn we sang at the 9 o’clock service last Sunday. It’s one of my all-time favorites. The words were written by the Anglican priest and poet George Herbert, and they sum up the beauty and the joy of answering the call to follow Jesus. 

Come, my Way, my Truth, my Life:
such a way as gives us breath;
such a truth as ends all strife;
such a life as killeth death.  
Come, my Light, my Feast, my Strength;
such a light as shows a feast;
such a feast as mends in length;
such a strength as makes his guest. 
Come, my Joy, my Love, my Heart:
such a joy as none can move;
such a love as none can part;
such a heart as joys in love.  
(Hymnal #487) 

Can you hear it? Can you hear the depths of joy and gratitude to God in those words? Can you hear God’s call to feast, to friendship, and to life-changing communion with Him? 

Because that’s what the invitation to give our time, our talents, and our money to our church family is really all about.  It’s an invitation to new life. And the response to that invitation takes the form of ministry. 

Ministry is not reserved for a special class of “professional Christians.” It’s not just bishops, priests, and deacons who are ministers. On the contrary, every baptized Christian is a minister. Every person who has been sealed by the Holy Spirit in baptism and marked as Christ’s own forever is called to use their time, their talents, and their money to do the work of ministry. 

St. Paul unpacks all of this in his first letter to the Corinthians. He writes: “Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone” (1 Cor 12:4-6)

Paul underscores the truth that we all share the same faith. We’re all baptized into the same Lord. We all belong to that part of the Body of Christ that we call St. Luke’s. 

And yet, Paul also highlights the ways in which we are all different. In our baptisms, each of us is uniquely gifted by the Holy Spirit to make offerings that no one else can in quite the same way. Regardless of how young or old we are, regardless of whether or not we’re new to St. Luke’s or we’ve been here since this church started in the cow pasture, every single one of us possesses spiritual gifts for ministry. And God calls each of us to use those gifts for the good of St. Luke’s. 

St. Paul continues by noting that “each person is given something to do that shows who God is: Everyone gets in on it, everyone benefits” (1 Cor 12:7, The Message). For “to each is given a manifestation of the Spirit for the common good” (1 Cor 12:7, NRSV)

There’s no such thing as a “small” or “unimportant” gift. All of it matters. Everything given to support the ministries of St. Luke’s makes a difference. Each offering gives glory to God. And everything we offer bears witness to the love of God in Jesus Christ. 

It’s a basic stewardship principle that what we keep, we lose; but what we give, we have. 

What we keep, we lose. What we give, we have. 

If we hold on to our gifts, we lose the joy of working with God to touch people’s lives with His love and grace. But if we share what we’ve been given, it comes back to us and to the whole parish with countless blessings. 

Many of us have experienced this in our commitments to the ministries of St. Luke’s. How many times I’ve heard someone say, “I feel like I’ve received more than I’ve given by participating in this ministry.” Or: “I entered into this to share with others, but I feel like I was the one ministered to.” When that happens, it’s a sign that the Holy Spirit is at work - empowering, renewing, and transforming. 

God calls all of us to follow Jesus. God calls all of us to gather regularly for corporate worship. God calls all of us to work, to pray, and to give our gifts for the spread of the Kingdom. Those gifts include not only our spiritual gifts, but also our financial gifts. The money we generously give to St. Luke’s makes it possible for us to worship God in the beauty of holiness. And it makes it possible for us to fulfill our mission of caring for one another, spiritual growth, and bringing others closer to God through Jesus Christ. 

Along with a letter from me, most of you should have also received a copy of a prayer card. We have extra copies of the prayer card in the back of church and in the church office if you need one. This is the prayer on that card: 

Thank you, Lord, for giving me a loving spiritual home at St. Luke’s.  
What do you want to do through me for the good of St. Luke’s? 
Help me to hear your call to serve and to do your will with a grateful heart. 

As we enter into reflection on what it means to be stewards of God’s gifts, I invite you to use this prayer in your daily walk with Christ. I invite you to prayerfully reflect on what St. Luke’s means to you and to your family. I invite you to prayerfully listen for God’s call to serve one another and this community through the ministries of St. Luke’s. And I invite you to prayerfully listen for God’s call to support our ministries with your financial commitment. 

After taking time to pray and to listen for God’s call, all of us will have an opportunity to answer God’s call to make a financial commitment to St. Luke’s beginning on Sunday, October 18. 

As we prayerfully discern how to answer God’s call to give our spiritual and financial gifts, I pray that we will be grateful for belonging to this wonderful church family of St. Luke’s. And I pray that we will answer God’s call with the joy that comes from belonging to Jesus and to a loving spiritual home that welcomes everyone’s gifts for the work of ministry. 

My friends, every single one of you is minister of the Gospel. Every single one of you is gifted by the Holy Spirit. And God is calling you to serve and support St. Luke’s with the gifts of your time, your talents, and your money.

How will you answer God’s call?

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Taking the Gospel Cure: A Sermon for Proper 21B 2015

Proper 21B

[Listen to the sermon here.]

The great writer G. K. Chesterton was once asked by a British newspaper to write an essay in response to the question: “What is Wrong with the World?” Chesterton wrote back with just two sentences: “What is wrong with the world? Me.”

It’s always easier to point fingers at the failings of others or to blame circumstances beyond our control. But using humor, Chesterton made the important point that we need to look at ourselves - into the depths of our own hearts and souls - to discover the root cause for what’s wrong with the world. And the root cause is summed up in our Christian vocabulary by the word “sin.”

Sin is the problem for which the Gospel is the solution. Or, to put it another way, sin is the sickness for which the Gospel is the cure. And viewed through the lens of Holy Scripture, we discover that we are all infected by this sickness of sin and we are all in need of Gospel medicine.

Over the past several weeks, our Epistle readings from James have directly addressed ways that sin surfaces in our lives and the deadly consequences it can have.

For example, James has warned us that showing partiality to the wealthy at the expense of the poor is a sin that drives a stake into the very heart of our unity in Christ (cf. James 2:1-9).

James reminds us of the dangers of intemperate speech, noting that with the same mouth we both bless God and curse those made in God’s image (cf. James 3:1-12).

James has also cautioned us against nursing bitter envy and selfish ambition in our hearts (cf. James 3:13-18).

Such things create disorder and wickedness of every kind. And if left to fester in our hearts, they serve as the root causes for hatred, bigotry, and even murder. That’s some pretty serious stuff!

We could go beyond the letter of James to look at the letters of Paul and John. We could peruse the four Gospels and the rest of the New Testament. We could go back and read through the entirety of the Old Testament. And all along the way we would find numerous examples of how sin wrecks lives and compromises the life and witness of God’s people.

So the theme of sin as a serious and pervasive problem permeates the pages of the Bible. If we seek to be faithful disciples of the crucified and risen Lord, we cannot minimize or ignore this topic.

So, what exactly is sin? The Catechism in our Prayer Book provides a very succinct and helpful definition. It says: “Sin is the seeking of our own will instead of the will of God, thus distorting our relationship with God, with other people, and with all creation” (The Book of Common Prayer, p. 848).

That’s important enough to repeat.

“Sin is the seeking of our own will instead of the will of God, thus distorting our relationship with God, with other people, and with all creation.”

In keeping with Holy Scripture, our Prayer Book confronts us with the difficult truth that we are sinners. Our wills are out of whack. We have a predisposition to serve ourselves at the expense of other people and in defiance of right relationship with God. We have a tendency to think more highly of ourselves than we ought, excusing our own moral lapses while sometimes judging others harshly for theirs. And even when we know what’s right, we are often inclined to give in to the temptation to do what’s wrong.

This predisposition manifests itself in so many ways: addictions, obsession with money or power, harsh judgment of others, uncharitable thoughts toward our neighbors, intemperate love of worldly goods and comforts, jealousy, resentment, divisiveness, racism, arrogance, insubordination, negligence in prayer and worship, the rejection of revealed truth in favor of personal opinion – the list could go on and on.

Living in a fallen world, many of these behaviors can feel natural and right, as though they are just a part of who we are. But in reality, they contradict who God created us to be as persons who bear His image for the sake of loving and caring for the world.

Because we are fallen creatures, sin is not something that can be dealt with by deciding to do things better, as though we can just make up our minds to exercise more willpower and that solves the problem. Sin is not just a matter of doing bad things, in which case the solution is simple: stop doing bad things and start doing good things!

Doing things that contradict God’s will is merely a symptom. Because the deeper problem is that the same will that tries to do better is also the same will that is predisposed to serving self at the expense of God and neighbor.

We’re caught in a Catch-22. And we can’t think or will our way out of it.

St. Paul sums it up in his letter to the Romans:

“For if I know [God’s] law but still can’t keep it, and if the power of sin within me keeps sabotaging my best intentions, I obviously need help! I realize that I don’t have what it takes. I can will it, but I can’t do it. I decide to do good, but I don’t really do it; I decide not to do bad, but then I do it anyway. My decisions, such as they are, don’t result in actions. Something has gone wrong deep within me and gets the better of me every time” (Romans 7:17-20, The Message).

Paul’s diagnosis is dead on. Over and over again, we fail to do the good we know we should by falling right back into the very patterns of thinking and behaving we know we should reject. And we cannot cure ourselves.

That is the problem for which the Gospel is the solution. That is the disease for which the Gospel is the cure.

In our Gospel reading today, we have a prescription for this disease straight from the lips of our Lord himself. And that prescription can be described as nothing less than radical surgery.

“If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and to be thrown into hell. And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into hell …” (Mark 9:43-47).

The shocking language of Jesus’ words reminds us that we’re dealing with a very serious problem that calls for a surgical strike against the root causes of our predisposition to seek self-will rather than God’s will. It’s the spiritual equivalent of open heart surgery.

Biblically understood, the heart is the center of a person’s inner life, character, and intentions. And it is within our hearts that sin has taken root and grows, spreading its deadly tentacles into our thoughts, words, and deeds. For, as our Lord notes earlier in Mark’s Gospel, it is “from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come,” and “they defile a person” (Mark 7:21, 23).

And so we need surgery. Some things have to be “cut out” of our lives – removed from the depths of our hearts – to make room for God’s healing and restoring grace.

We aren’t qualified to perform that kind of surgery on ourselves. Only Jesus the Divine Physician can do that.

This is why it is so important that we regularly receive God’s healing grace in both Word and Sacrament.

As part of a lifestyle of repentance we need daily immersion in God’s Word. For God’s Word is “sharp as a surgeon’s scalpel, cutting through everything, laying us open to listen and obey” (Hebrews 4:12, The Message). Through prayerfully engaging God’s Word in Holy Scripture, we open ourselves to the ministrations of the Holy Spirit who convicts our consciences and guides us to the One who offers mercy, forgiveness, and newness of life.

As part of our ongoing therapy, we also need to attend weekly worship where we not only hear God’s Word read and proclaimed, but in which we also receive what St. Ignatius of Antioch called “the medicine of immortality” – the grace given to us in the bread and wine of Holy Eucharist, the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ. By receiving the Eucharist, we stay connected to Jesus the Physician of Souls, letting his healing love and grace permeate the depths of our being, grounding us in that source of life apart from which we cannot bear the fruits of love and obedience.

The Church is not a museum of saints, but a hospital for sinners. And so it is through the Church that we sinners receive the treatment we need for the sickness of our hearts.

Receiving God’s grace in Word and Sacrament opens our hearts to the Divine Physician, allowing Him to gently but firmly cut out the sickness that warps our wills. And then God administers the healing balm of the Real Presence of the Crucified and Risen Christ. Through the Word and Sacraments of the Church, we receive forgiveness of our sins, the healing of our hearts and wills, and the power to amend our lives. We become more fully united with Christ. And the more united we are with Christ, the more we become like Christ, letting His will shape and guide our wills so that we desire what God desires for us.

In Jesus Christ, God reaches out in compassion and mercy to a fallen and sin-sick humanity. For Jesus came, not to condemn, but to save sinners just like you and me. Regardless of what we have done or failed to do, Jesus never stops loving us. For Jesus is God with us and for us. He's always ready to heal us and to free us from bondage to our sins so we may know the joy of abundant life.  And that is, indeed, good news!

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Come, My Way, My Truth, My Life

Come, my Way, my Truth, my Life
Such a way as gives us breath
Such a truth as ends all strife
Such a life as killeth death

Come, my Light, my Feast, my Strength
Such a light as shows a feast
Such a feast as mends in length
Such a strength as makes his guest

Come, my Joy, my Love, my Heart
Such a joy as none can move
Such a love as none can part
Such a heart as joys in love

Words: George Herbert (1593-1633)
Music: The Call, Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958)

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Obituary for Someone Else

Surfing around the Internet, I came across the following satirical obituary.  For anyone who's worked in parish ministry for very long (lay or ordained), it strikes a chord.  And it offers a particularly appropriate reflection at this time of the year as many churches are preparing to highlight stewardship issues with annual giving campaigns.

Our church was saddened to learn this week of the death of one of our most valued members: Someone Else. 

Someone's passing creates a vacancy that will be difficult to fill. Else has been with us for many years and for every one of those years, Someone did far more than a normal person's share of work. Whenever there was a job to do, a class to teach, or meeting to attend, one name was on everyone's list. "Let Someone Else do it." Whenever leadership was mentioned, this wonderful person was looked to for inspiration as well as results. "Someone Else can work with that group." 

It was common knowledge that Someone Else was among the most liberal givers in the church. Whenever there was a financial need, everyone just assumed Someone Else would make up the difference.

Someone Else was a wonderful person, sometimes appearing superhuman. Were the truth known, everybody expected too much of Someone Else. Now Someone Else is gone. We wonder what we are going to do.

Someone Else left a wonderful example to follow. But who is going to follow it? Who is going to do the things Someone Else did?

When you are asked to help this year, remember: we can't depend on Someone Else anymore.

Sunday, September 6, 2015

Sermon for Proper 18B 2015

Proper 18B

[Listen to the sermon here.]

I’ve never experienced anything quite like it. Over the course of the past month, it seems like we’ve had a funeral every week. And the persons we’ve lost range from those who have lived long, full lives to those who are too soon gone. The pain of loss and grief has cast a long shadow over St. Luke’s during these past weeks. Not only family and friends of the deceased, but all of us as one family in Christ have been affected.

At the same time, I’ve seen this church family live out our mission of caring for one another and bringing others closer to God through Jesus Christ in simple but very powerful ways. From sending food or flowers, to serving as ushers and lay ministers, to hosting visitations, to offering hugs and words of comfort and condolence, members of St. Luke’s have been the hands and feet and loving heart of Jesus Christ to those who mourn. I can’t begin to tell you how profoundly grateful I am to all of you who selflessly step up to the plate of loving service to our hurting brothers and sisters.

Those little acts of love and kindness are effective reminders that in the midst of death, loss, and grief, we who belong to Jesus Christ have reason to hope. It’s true that we live in a Good Friday world. The forces of death and decay seem to get the last word. But as baptized sons and daughters of God, we are Easter people who know that when those who belong to Jesus die, life has changed, not ended. And we know that God has a vision of transformation, not just for individual persons who depart this life, but for the whole of creation.

Today’s reading from the 35th chapter of the book of the prophet Isaiah gives us a brief glimpse of this vision of transformation. But to really get the full impact of what we’ve heard our lector read today, it helps to know that the 35th chapter of Isaiah is directly connected to the 34th chapter of Isaiah. And the 34th chapter of Isaiah makes for disturbing reading. As one commentator notes, Isaiah chapter 34 “paints a verbal portrait of despair” “in which the heavens disappear, the land is ruined, streams and soil are poisoned, and only liminal animals and fruitless plants abound.” It’s a vision of utter desolation. It’s a vision of judgment and death that casts a long shadow of fear. It’s a vision of a world without hope.

But then we come to Isaiah chapter 35 and all of a sudden the desert blossoms with new growth and breaks out in joyful song. We’ve moved from judgment, suffering, and death to rejoicing, singing, and healing. It’s a dramatic reversal. And it all hits home with these powerful words:

“Say to those who are of a fearful heart, 
‘Be strong, do not fear! 
Here is your God.’” (Is 35:4)

Say to those whose hearts have been troubled by death, loss, and grief: Be strong. Don’t give up. Don’t be afraid. For God is coming to save His people. God is coming to claim His authority as the world’s true Lord. God is coming to bring exiles back home. God is coming to heal the sick and the brokenhearted. God is coming to free those held in bondage. God is coming to bring light into darkness and new life out of death.

Isaiah presents us with a beautiful vision of salvation that is far bigger than saving individual souls. For this is a cosmic vision of redemption. It embraces the entirety of creation.

In the beginning, God created the world and said, “Behold, it is very good.” But then Adam and Eve’s disobedience brought death into the world. God’s good creation was held in bondage to death and subject to decay. God’s people were alienated from the source of life and from one another. But in Isaiah’s vision of transformation, God promises to do something decisive. God promises to set the world right by bringing justice, healing, and peace. God promises to redeem a sin-sick creation by ushering in a new creation.

The promise is there. But it hasn’t fully happened yet. As we know only too well from all the funerals we’ve had lately, we still live in a fallen world subject to the forces of death and decay. We still live in a world in which loss and grief weigh on our hearts and souls.

When we shift gears from the book of Isaiah to the Gospel according to Mark, we see what a fallen world looks like. For in Mark’s gospel the world is a dark place. People are held in bondage to forces beyond their control, including demonic powers that make them hurt themselves and those they love. Sickness ravages and lays waste to people’s bodies. Physical deformities and disabilities kick people to the sidelines of society, marginalizing them and forcing them to live hand to mouth off of the pity of those who might throw them a coin or a piece of bread. Religious authorities categorize people as either religiously pure or unclean, with the clear message to those deemed unclean that they are beyond the scope of God’s love and care.

This is a world in which hope is a luxury for those who are fortunate enough to be healthy, prosperous, and part of the religious in-group. But in the end, even they must go the way of all flesh.

So much has changed since Mark wrote his gospel. We have iPhones and the Internet. We have instantaneous communication with people all over the world. We have medical advances that prolong our lives.

But almost 2,000 years later so much remains the same. We still live in a broken and fallen world.

And yet, our faith as Christians has the power to calm fearful hearts and banish weakness by giving us the strength to face whatever life throws our way. We can live without fear because God has come near to us in Jesus Christ to heal and to save.

We see it happening in today’s Gospel reading. Impressed by the wit and tenacity of a mother pleading for her daughter, Jesus frees the girl from demonic possession. Once there was no hope. But now there is freedom, new life, and a future to look forward to. And moved by compassion, Jesus heals a deaf mute, giving him the gift of fullness of life and the capacity to be a contributing member of society.

Such exorcisms and healings occur throughout Mark’s Gospel. They serve as signs that in and through Jesus, God’s kingdom is breaking into this world. For Jesus comes to heal us, opening our ears to hear the words of life, opening our eyes to see the beautiful truth of God’s love and mercy, and opening our lips to proclaim praise and thanksgiving for all that God has done for us.

Every time we gather for the Eucharist, we say together the following words that sum up the great mystery of our faith:

Christ has died. 
Christ is risen.

Christ will come again.

These three short sentences sum up the reasons why we can live with confidence and newness of life even in the midst of the most trying circumstances.

For Christ has died. On the cross, he has shared in our sufferings to the point of losing everything, including life itself. He knows what that’s like because it happened to him. And he did it because he loves us.

Christ is risen. Emerging from the tomb, he has triumphed over all the forces of evil over which you and I have no control. And because God raised Jesus from the dead, he has transformed death into a doorway to eternal life. And he did it because he loves us.

Christ will come again. He will never abandon us. He will make sure that all things are put right and made whole. He will take us to be with him and all those we love but see no longer. And he will do that because he loves us.

Even if the whole world feels like it’s falling apart, God is with us. Even in the face of things we cannot understand and that threaten to overwhelm, God is with us. Even when we’re at the end of our rope and we cannot see the way forward, God is with us. For in Jesus Christ, the love of God holds us secure and guarantees that we have a future of abundant life.

God’s love in Jesus Christ is eternal. Nothing we can ever do or fail to do can take that love away from us. Nothing in all creation can separate us from that love. Ultimately, the love of God in Jesus Christ is the only thing that really matters. It’s the one constant in the midst of the changes and chances of this life. And it’s that love that enables us to boldly say with the prophet Isaiah:

“Be strong, do not fear!

“Here is your God.”