Sunday, December 25, 2016

Michael Ramsey: "The Moral Message of Christmas"

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

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

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

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

- Arthur Michael Ramsey, 100th Archbishop of Canterbury

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

Monday, August 29, 2016

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

Proper 17, Year C

A picture says a thousand words.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Sermon after the Louisiana Flood

Proper 16, Year C

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That’s what it looks like to act justly.

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

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

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

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

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

Act justly and keep Sabbath.

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

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

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

God will show us where to go.

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

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

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

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

Friday, August 19, 2016

Faith After the Flood

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

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

Dear People of God,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Love and blessings to you all,
Fr. Bryan

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Sermon after Baton Rouge Police Shootings

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We cannot let that happen.

Fear will tear us apart.

But love will bring us together.

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

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

And what does “perfect love” look like?

It looks like Jesus.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The love of Jesus brings us together.

The love of Jesus gives us hope for the future.

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

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

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

So let us offer our fears and our anxieties.

Let us offer our prayers for peace and unity.

Let us offer our prayers for hope and healing.

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

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

Saturday, July 16, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Please pray.

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

Pray for those who feel shut out and ignored.

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

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

And pray that cool heads will prevail over hot tempers.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Go and feel compassion for those who suffer.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.