Monday, November 6, 2017

Letting the Light In: Sermon for All Saints' Sunday

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, October 30, 2017

"Be a Tree" (Sermon on Psalm 1)


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No doubt, all of that may be true. 

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

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

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

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

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

Yet again, Jesus shows us the way. 

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

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

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

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

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

So be a tree. 

Stay firmly grounded in God. 

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

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Persevere in Resisting Evil: Responding to Charlottesville

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, July 23, 2017

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

Gospel reading for Proper 11A

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That’s God’s job, not ours. 

Our job is to trust and obey. 

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

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

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

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Church Buildings Matter

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

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

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

This is very hopeful and extraordinary news!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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