Wednesday, February 14, 2024

Telling the truth and living the truth

Once people learn that you are even the least bit intentional about following Jesus, you are done. Finito. You can’t win. You can give up trying to manage how other people see you. It is a lost cause.

When you try to do as the prophet Joel proclaims—to proclaim a fast, to get people to drop everything and turn their hearts to God—you will be seen as some kind of fanatic.

If you do the right thing today and come to church (and you’re here, aren’t you?) and choose to carry even a small sign of your mortality and penitence around with you on your forehead, then someone, somewhere will say “Ha! You have your reward!”

Even if someone at work or in the store or in your household doesn’t remind you that Jesus just told us not to do this in public, I will bet that there is inside of you a little, chiding voice that is just waiting to rub it in and make you feel small.

We want to live right, in the way God wants; and to live well, in a way that has dignity and purpose. And yet as soon as we begin to get serious about being faithful we end either feeling guilty or being misunderstood. Or both.

Even Paul reminds us that Christians are a universally and consistently misunderstood lot. Look at his list: we Christians are treated as imposters (liars!), as unknown (as ones without celebrity!). We are seen as punished—beat up by others! — and as a sorry, sorry lot. We have nothing to give and treated worse than the poor.

It should be no surprise that Christians are misunderstood. I mean, we spend so much time trying to straighten each other out, it’s no wonder than the culture at large does not know what to make of us.

So Jesus is right. Beware of practicing our piety before others — it is dangerous and uncontrollable!

When Jesus warns us not to be smug in our spiritual practices, does that mean that we should not practice them? Of course not. He is saying to be careful.

Here is the truth. We cannot help but practice our piety before others! What we do and who we are is there for all the world—and God-- to see. The challenge is for whom we show it. It is to make others think better of us? Or does what we do somehow show off the truth of who and whose we are?

A good place to start is to get the relationship between our outer world (what might be called our treasure) and our inner world (our heart) lined up. Make sure that one flows out of the other.

Our treasure and our heart are attracted to each other like iron filings are attracted to magnets. Jesus says we have a choice. We can leave our hearts in a stuck place beholden to the outside stuff; or we can put our heart where we want to come out and organize everything else around it.

Jesus’ remedy for those of us who might be addicted to some degree of public approval when we do the right thing is to make sure we start by putting our heart it belongs.

So we have a choice. On the one hand, we can stay mired in the everyday and the hum-drum, reacting to one crisis after another, we can fret and worry about how much money we wish we had; we can let all these things dictate our actions and choices.

We can live out of our scarcity and let our fear run us—but put on a good game face. That’s one choice. But that’s the kind of person Jesus is warning us not to be: the person who makes the biggest fuss over their gift, the biggest show of their prayer. Why? Because for some people, all that show is hiding something; the loud and bright presentation is meant distract us (and even themselves!) from the truth.

The other choice is to admit who and whose we are, and to put our heart where we and God wants it to be. To say out loud that right now, in this moment, I will give my heart to God and put my heart where God wants and I will let everything, my treasure, my priorities, my self go to it.

It is really simpler—and harder—than it sounds. The first step is to tell the truth. The second step is to experiment with living with that truth, even for a short time. Tell the truth and live the truth.

Say the truth: “I don’t have my act together. But I want to pray more.” Then just for a moment, live the truth: in this moment, pray as much as you are able.

Say the truth: “I don’t have my priorities straight all the time.” Then just for a moment, live the truth: right now, right here, I will do this one right thing.

Say the truth: “There are days when I live out of fear and reactivity, but I want to be present to God, my neighbor, and creation.” Then live the truth: right now, just for a moment do something as simple as a deep cleansing breath that pushes out all that old stale air you didn’t even know you had down there and breathe in as deeply as you have ever breathed. For just this moment, know what that feels like to be here, in this place, in this body, in this community.

Say the truth: “I define my life by all the stuff I have and all the stuff I wish I had.” Then, right now, in this moment, live the truth: give something out of our incomparable abundance so that someone else might have a meal, or a roof, or a book or a companion that they did not otherwise have.

Say the truth: “I am wretched and broken and I am not the person God made me to be.” And then live the truth: know that you are forgiven; that you are an adopted member of God’s family, Christ’s body, the Church and know that you are blessed. Right now. Right here.

By telling the truth and then, even just for a moment, even experimentally, even gracefully, living the truth we put our heart where it belongs—where God wants it to be—and then right now, in this moment we let everything organize itself around that.

But be careful. This is not simply an act of the will. It is a response to grace. When we tell the truth and then live the truth, we are in fact listening to the Holy Spirit who goes before us, and prepares us and makes us ready to receive God. We don’t do this to impress. We do this because it is true.

And be prepared to be misunderstood. Once we give our hearts to God; once we tell the truth and put our heart there, and once we live the truth and begin to organize our stuff, our relationships, and our priorities around where your heart actually belongs, people will not understand.

Heck, we might not understand! But we will be changed. We will experience God’s transforming love and power.

The Apostle Paul says that “We are treated as impostors, and yet are true; as unknown, and yet are well known; as dying, and see-- we are alive; as punished, and yet not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing everything.”

There are only a few liturgies in our Episcopal tradition that requires us to come to the altar more than once in a single liturgy. Today is one of them. We come forward to receive ashes; and we come twice for Maundy Thursday (footwashing) and we come forward during a public service of healing. I believe this action of coming to the altar twice suggests that the action telling the truth and living the truth. That telling the truth and living the truth is necessary for real repentance, real service and real healing.

Telling the truth and living the truth is also the action of coming to the cross. There is hope in meeting the truth of Christ’s suffering. It is on the cross that all of our hard, often unpleasant truths are crucified and given back to us in the truth of new life unfolding right here, right now.

This Lent, this forty days, this tithe of our year, we are called once again to experiment in telling the truth to ourselves and to God and then, with God’s grace, living the truth.

The truth is that we can’t tell the truth alone. The truth is that we cannot live the truth alone either. But God has not left us alone. Jesus walks this path with us. We have the very breath of God, the Holy Spirit, praying in us and with us, even when we can’t find the words. We will encounter God’s truth and ours in scripture and in worship and in community.

One thing for sure: once you give your heart to God, and even for one moment organize your life around that, nothing will be the same. Once we tell the truth and live the truth, even for a little bit, we cannot go back. Today is the acceptable time. Today is the day of salvation. Today is the day to tell the truth. Today is the day to live the truth.

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Bulletin for Worship for Ash Wednesday, February 14, 2024 at St. John's, Clearwater, Florida.

Here are the Scripture Lessons for Ash WednesdayFebruary 14, 2024

Here is a video of the Sermon at St. John's, Clearwater, Florida on February 14, 2024.

Here is a video of the Liturgy at St. John's, Clearwater, Florida on February 14, 2024

Saturday, February 10, 2024

The adventure of a lifetime!

Imagine the disciples of Jesus. They’ve been following Jesus all around Palestine for about a year and a half. They’ve watched his mission grow from a miracle at a family wedding into one that lavishly feeds four or five thousand people at a sitting.

In all the miles they’ve walked with Jesus, they’ve seen sick people healed, the hungry miraculously fed, witnessed personal encounters with all kinds of people, and seem large crowds come out to hear him. They’ve also seen plenty of controversy and asked plenty of questions.

They’ve heard Jesus praised by everyone from peasants to Roman soldiers, and they’ve heard him criticized—even to the point of threats—by both the rulers of occupied Israel and the religious leaders of the day.

And yet, for all that, this small band of apostles and disciples was not yet a movement, even though people were pretty excited whenever Jesus came to town.

For those first followers of Jesus it was the adventure of a lifetime!

Well, as they say in show biz, “they ain’t seen nothin’ yet!” Because when Jesus invites three of his friends to go with him up on a mountain to pray, they are totally unprepared for what happens next!

On that mountaintop, they see Moses and Elijah talking with Jesus! And then they hear a voice from heaven saying, “This is my Son, the Beloved, listen to him!”

Astonished and afraid, they scramble to do something, anything, to mark the moment! But there is only one thing they have to do: listen to Jesus!

The Transfiguration that we celebrate today is God’s affirmation of Jesus’ humanity and his divinity. And if you want to know and follow Jesus: listen!

It’s natural to want to remember the moment. We have baby books, cherished mementos, and as a sacramental people we know that outward and visible signs points us to inward and spiritual grace… but … listen.

The end of the Epiphany season is marked by the Transfiguration because it’s the ultimate showing of who Jesus is and what he’s up to. We see all of Jesus’ humanity and all of his divinity in the very same person, undiluted, just as it was at his birth, his baptism, all the miracles, healing encounters, and teaching, and in his death and resurrection. The Reign of God has entered the world in the person of Jesus, and we are called to witness to that Good News and invite people to come along!

The Transfiguration and Resurrection both gave the disciples the will to persevere, something bestowed on all of us in our Baptisms. The same God who presides at the Transfiguration of Jesus and tells us to listen to him also promises us that one day we will be transformed into his likeness. As baptized people, that happens every day as we learn and do the work of Jesus.

In baptizing Owen, we are initiating him into the Church, into the Company of Christ’s people, and he will immediately become a full part of the whole Church … not just his family and friends but the whole household of Christ’s people in all time and in every place.

Today we are making a commitment that we… all of us, family, friends, the community of the faithful… will do everything we can to help him come to know God in Jesus so that he will take his place as a follower of Jesus and become a disciple… a friend and apprentice of Jesus Christ!

And that’s why we baptize babies like Owen because we know that Christian people are raised up in Christian households all the time!

It’s definitely a learn-as-you-go process, but Christian formation is not a do-it-yourself project. Raising up a Christian kid requires Christian community in addition to a faithful household. So, just as you will trust teachers to teach, and coaches to coach, and doctors and nurses to do their thing, you will also take part in a Christian community who will accompany you, support you, guide you, and show you the practical nuts and bolts of how to be a follower of Jesus.

So, I say to Owen, what I said to his sister when it was her turn at the baptismal font… welcome to the Jesus Movement! To paraphrase our Presiding Bishop, Michael Curry, Welcome to the Episcopal branch of the Jesus Movement!

Welcome to the Movement that saw in Jesus the fullness of God and humanity in the same person and who listened and followed him and shared the Good News of Jesus with people who were far off and those who were near.

Owen, today is your first trip to the mountaintop with Jesus, the start of an amazing journey of faith that will require time, attention, and intention.

And I also say to Mom and Dad, grands and cousins, sponsors and siblings, help him along the way: take the time to pray with Owen, from grace at the table to nighttime prayers. Share the stories of faith, not only from the Bible or a book of saints, but also from your own journeys (including those pesky questions) and stories of the people you admire. Teach him to hang in there, even when things get rough, confusing, or are not going according to plan.

And as you teach Owen about respect, reliability, doing his chores, good manners, showing up for practice, doing his scales, and all the rest, don’t forget to show him also the rituals of the life of faith, and how to look for God in the everyday and in the people he will meet.

The good news is that you won’t have or need all the answers, because, by God’s grace, you’ll be learning and doing the work of Jesus right there alongside Owen. You’ll be developing with him those seven-fold gifts of the Spirit that we will soon be praying for. So don’t be afraid to show him your own inquiring and discerning heart; show him the courage to will and to persevere; take the time to share the gift of joy and wonder in all God’s works, especially as you see it unfold in this little human whom you present today for baptism.

The Transfiguration is like every mountain top experience… we might like to remain there, but our real task—Owen’s and ours! – is to continue the journey as we go learning and doing the work of Jesus every day.

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Here are the Scripture Lessons for the Last Sunday after EpiphanyFebruary 11, 2024

Here is a video of the Sermon at St. John's, Clearwater, Florida on February 11, 2024.

Here is a video of the Liturgy at St. John's, Clearwater, Florida on February 11, 2024

Saturday, February 03, 2024

Loving Service Helps Us Learn and Do the Work of Jesus

You call this “good news?” Simon Peter’s mother-in-law is ill, and then Jesus and his merry band show up, probably unannounced, but here she sick as a dog. 

So what happens? Jesus heals her. He takes her by the hand and lifted her up, the Gospel says, and the fever left her.

Terrific...! She’s all better! And.... then she serves them dinner.

One minute, she’s lying in bed with a fever, the next minute, she’s fetching drinks and dishing out food, hoping she’s got enough for all these hungry followers of Jesus who just showed up!

Where is the “good news” for Simon’s mother-in-law?

This does seem awkward to us… but look closely at the passage and we find something else going on. The word Mark’s Gospel uses for “serve” is the Greek word diakonos, which means “to wait tables.” Okay. So?

Everyone in Mark’s church and in the churches who share his Gospel who heard this story, when they heard the Greek word for “service”—diakonos – their ears would have perked up and they would have looked at each other with a knowing look. Because the word diakonos was an important word among those early Christians. Diakonos gives us the name for the Sacred Order of Deacons.

(“Hi, Kevin! How ya doin’?”)

To “deacon” for others meant much more than waiting tables, even if that was included. (Notice how Deacon Kevin sets the table for us at the offertory before Holy Communion!) Mark’s description of serving another opens up what is meant by "deacon." Way back in the first chapter of the gospel, Mark used the same word to describe the way the angels ministered to Jesus after his forty days of prayer, fasting (and temptation!) in the wilderness. And Jesus uses the word “diakonos” to describe his ministry when he says: “The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve and to give his life a ransom for many.”

Jesus described his own life and ministry on earth as service -- diakonos. Jesus told his disciples that were not going to big shots on top of the heavenly heap, but that they were to be deacons for God. Their work for God would be menial. The disciples’ service to others would be difficult. Yet, the life of service Jesus described as a life of diakonos, a life of being a servant minister, is at the heart of Jesus’ ministry, the disciple’s ministry, and ours as well.

Which puts what happened in Mark’s Gospel in a whole new light. Simon’s mother-in-law had a life-changing encounter with the Messiah. Jesus came into her house and touched her. In Jesus’ life-changing touch, Simon Peter’s mother-in-law was healed, made whole, and returned—reconciled!—with her family and community, and out of a loving response to a loving God who loved her first, she took up the life of service.

Way before her son-in-law would be handed the keys to the kingdom, she taught him what it means to learn and do the work of Jesus… through diakonia… through service.

You know, way before there were priests in the church, there were deacons. And even before the Apostles would learn how to be apostles, there were people doing diaconal service.

For those of us who have felt the touch of Jesus in our lives, we find ourselves alongside Simon’s mother-in-law in this story. Mark describes Jesus going to her, touching her, and healing her in the past tense. Jesus took her by the hand and lifted her up and the fever left her. These are all described as actions that are over and done with.

But Mark said that Simon’s mother-in-law served them using a different verb tense—the imperfect tense. This imperfect tense means that she began “deaconing,” has continued to deacon, and, as far as we know, is out there “deaconing” still.

The imperfect tense refers to an action that is begun but not completed. This one shift of verb tense means that she began to serve them and continued to serve them. Her service was not a one-time, over-and-done-with action, like cooking a meal. Simon’s mother-in-law began to serve Jesus and his followers. But the meaning of her actions was transformed by Jesus’ healing touch. She did not serve and minister to them because of some duty. She served out of love. Simon’s mother-in-law became as much a follower of Jesus as any of his disciples. Simon’s mother-in-law was not ordained – no one was, at this point. Yet The Gospel of Mark describes her using language that makes her the first deacon in Christianity. She was the first person to have their ordinary diakonos, or service of others, transformed into servant ministry.

Are you looking for a life-changing encounter with God? Perhaps it has been a long time since you have felt that healing touch. If so, you have come to the right place. Right now, right here, you can put your trust in Jesus to begin your own life-changing journey, as you discover the grace, mercy, and love God has for you.

And in discovering that grace, mercy, and love, you will discover the blessings of God in service.

The Early Church called persons ordained deacons to care for the physical needs of the congregation. Both men and women were ordained as deacons. This order of ministry takes the care and compassion of the church into the community and brings the needs of the community to the attention of the church. And you know, in the history of the church, there were deacons way before they invented the office of priest. And, looking at Peter’s mother-in-law, shows us that diaconal work was done way before the apostles were commissioned!

For the church to be the Body of Christ that God means it to be, we don’t just need deacons or priests and a bishop here and there—as important as our jobs might be, we aren’t the whole church. No, God needs more students, nurses, educators, engineers, scientists, plumbers, policemen, pharmacists, librarians, moms, dads, grandparents, and so on, people who are set on fire by the power of the Holy Spirit to learn and do the work of Jesus. And in God’s economy, the work of deacons and priests, and even lay ministers like the altar guild and vestry members, and sextons, administrators, and musicians, is to support and build up and encourage the ministry of all the baptized. The ministry of deacons, priests, and bishops does not let the rest of the Body of Christ sit back as passive consumers of faith. Every one of us has our own unique way to live into this call, according to the gifts the Holy Spirit has given us.

The Gospel invites us to follow the example of this early disciple, Simon Peter’s mother-in-law. After we have come to know Jesus and have experienced the forgiveness and healing he offers, we are called—motivated! -- to respond to the love God has shown us by sharing that love with those around us. And, as you share God’s love, you are living into your own vocation as a minister of the Gospel as a teacher, attorney, real estate agent, artist, musician, salesperson, mechanic, doctor, volunteer, parent, grandparent, spouse – whatever, all learning and doing the work of Jesus as baptized people of God!

And as we share the love and grace we have known in Jesus when we offer that listening ear, that kind word, and that helping hand, we experience more and more the love of God flowing through us. Far from a chore, this is diakonia, this loving service that helps us learn and do the work of Jesus every day.

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Here are the Scripture Lessons for the 5th Sunday after Epiphany, February 4, 2024

Here is a video of the Sermon at St. John's, Clearwater, Florida on February 4, 2024.

Here is a video of the Liturgy at St. John's, Clearwater, Florida on February 4, 2024

Saturday, January 27, 2024

To Fight Evil, Do the Things Evil Hates

If you could pick a super-power, any super-power, what would yours be?

I'd want mine to be able to cast out demons!

And my cool super-power would be so awesome that I wouldn’t even need to say or do anything. Demons would see me coming… and “pop…!” Out they’d come!

Wouldn’t that be cool?

That’s what happened to Jesus in today’s Gospel from Mark. Jesus is teaching in the synagogue near Capernaum. Mark says he is not just any run of the mill traveling rabbi but a person who teaches with authority. Jesus grabs your heart as well as your mind and he won’t let go!

So here he is in Capernaum, when suddenly a guy in the crowd jumps up and shouts “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God!”

Jesus engages the unclean spirit directly, silencing it and calling it out. And with convulsions and shouting, Jesus drives the unclean spirit out of the man.

And that’s what I want to do!

Imagine being able to spot something we don’t like in someone and just cast it out of them!

The problem, of course, is that we’d always be picking out the evil in the other guy, never in ourselves! We’d be the one who decides who is good and who is bad and who needs cleaning up and who doesn’t, and that’s a pretty terrible temptation, isn’t it?

I think this temptation motivates a lot of super-religious people. You know, like the ones who stand outside military funerals or gay pride events waving signs and shouting hateful, untrue, and disgusting things in God’s name to and about gay and lesbian people. I think this is also the temptation for people who join terror groups, both foreign and domestic, and kill people in the name of God. These folks think they are confronting evil…but in a way where they become evil themselves.

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King said in 1963, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”

The lesson we are learning again by watching films like Selma and recalling the long non-violent struggle against state-sponsored racism is that minds—and hearts—were changed when people refused to be goaded into violence by violence but instead did exactly the things that evil cannot stand.

And the message of the film, A Case for Love, which many of us saw last week, was that the love of Jesus shows itself through unselfish love can overcome the political and social divides that we face today. 

So my wish to have a spiritual super-power to cast out demons may sound cool, but I think in the end it would not work. Because whenever we decide to fight evil with evil, evil always wins!

When Jesus encounters the unclean spirit he not on some spiritual search-and-destroy mission. And he is not a Gary Cooper-like lone sheriff who’s come to clean up this town. No. Instead he taught. It was his authority as a teacher that evil could not stand to be with. Jesus was doing the thing that evil hates. And that is the key.

So, if you want to cast out demons, do the thing that evil hates!

Doing the thing that evil hates is taught in Christian community. Just look at Paul’s teaching to the Christians in Corinth. In today’s epistle, Paul addresses a question sent to him about food sacrificed to idols. Corinth was a Greek city and this congregation had within it both Jews and Greeks. There were people raised in the synagogue and people raised in the religious supermarket that was Greek and Roman religion. The popular religions of the area were an array of different gods with a little deity for every possible need, and each cult had its own ritual. The meat that was sacrificed in these temples was not destroyed (as in Jewish temple practice) but turned around and sold in the marketplace.

We read in Acts (15:29) that one of the requirements placed on Gentiles who became Christians (without first becoming Jews) was that they were not to buy, serve or eat meat from animals that had been sacrificed to idols.  Some Christians in Corinth defy this rule and it was creating division. Other Corinthian Christians were unhappy about that, so they went to the apostle Paul to help straighten out this mess.

Now, the Christians who ate idol-meat had a good case. They knew that the little fake deities were nothing compared to the One God made known in Jesus Christ. These Christians knew that because of Christ’s death and resurrection we are freed from all these little godlets. They said that if Jews who follow Christ are freed from their law, so are Gentiles freed from theirs. Paul says that they are right. But being right is not the point. Caring for one another is.

He urges people to refrain from eating if it would be a scandal for others. But he also tells those who stay away from idol-meat to go ahead and eat an idol-burger if they are served one by a Christian who thinks it’s just a burger. Paul says the most important thing is that everyone is to look out for the other person’s conscience.

C.S. Lewis wrote in his little book about demons and their ways called The Screwtape Letters, that if the Church of England (and we) were to follow this rule then the Church would become a “hotbed of charity” that would be make a demon’s work nearly impossible. 

I had to learn the hard way about casting out demons. It meant learning Jesus’ new teaching and authority as well as Paul’s model of liberty tempered by charity. It all started when I was a brand-new priest. From time to time I’d end up at a Roman Catholic Mass…maybe for a friend’s wedding or a funeral or something. And I’d insist on receiving Communion. After all, I know my Episcopal orders were every bit as valid as Roman Catholic ordination. I knew we that believe the same thing about baptism and Eucharist. So I’d step up to receive communion telling myself that I was being a “prophetic witness.”

A wise spiritual director, on hearing me talk about my “courageous witness….” reminded me that the line between being prophetic and being a jerk is pretty fine. And I was being a jerk… because I was putting my brother priests in a terrible spot and causing scandal to my fellow Christians of another tradition who happened to not share my “knowledge.”

This is what Paul meant when he says knowledge puffs up but charity builds up. Maybe I’m right, but evil just loves it when my knowledge becomes another Christian’s scandal. The fact that we Episcopalians welcome all the baptized to receive communion, no matter what flavor Christian they may be, does not mean I get to dictate how other communities do things. It’s sad and painful to be denied communion in churches where we share so much. But there are times when I sit because charity demands it. I sit because it is not about me, it is about we.

So, do you want to cast out demons? Here’s how. Do the thing that evil hates!

Evil hates justice and thrives on division. Seek reconciliation.

Evil drives us to be selfish and care only for ourselves. Cast out evil with compassion.

Evil wants us to be alone and cut off. Drive evil crazy with your prayer, your trust in God, and your life in Christian community.

Evil flourishes when we hate in God’s name. If you really want to cast out demons, love.

Evil feeds on our resentment and our list of wrongs. Cast out evil: forgive.

Evil wants us to focus on scarcity. Fight evil: be generous.

Evil grows when we get caught up in anxiety. Cast out a demon: let go of needing to control every outcome.

Evil needs violence—in every form, physical and emotional—so fight evil and live peaceably.

Jesus shows us, starting with his encounter in the synagogue and ending in his journey to the cross, that he had power and authority. But he always met evil on God’s terms. By simply living and doing what he was called to do; by teaching, healing, and being a companion to the outcast, he did all the things that evil hates…he drove evil crazy! When Jesus was crucified, it looked as if evil won. But, in fact, the resurrection shows us that Christ defeated evil on that very cross. Forever.

We have that power and that authority right now. Through our baptisms, the Eucharist, and the power of the Holy Spirit in this community, everyone in this room has the power to cast out evil in wonderful, loving, and surprisingly practical ways of compassion, holiness, and calm.

It turns out that we all have a super-power that casts out demons!  We defeat evil every time we do the things that evil hates.

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Bulletin for Worship for 4th Sunday after Epiphany, January 28, 2024 at St. John's, Clearwater, Florida.

Here are the Scripture Lessons for the 4th Sunday after Epiphany, January 28, 2024

Here is a video of the Sermon at St. John's, Clearwater, Florida on January 28, 2024.

Here is a video of the Liturgy at St. John's, Clearwater, Florida on January 28, 2024

Saturday, January 13, 2024

A funny thing happened on the way with Jesus

Sometimes you just have to have to laugh. Or maybe hiss. 

I don’t know about you, but I think that we need more hissing in church.

In some Jewish congregations, when Purim is celebrated, they read the story of Esther, who saves the Jewish people from destruction from King Ahasuerus of Persia during the exile. The king loved Esther, but his advisor, the evil Haman, wants to kick out all the Jews. Esther outwits Haman at every turn. And, as the story is read during Purim, whenever Haman’s is mentioned, the congregation is supposed to “hiss” and “boo” as if they’ve seen the villain in a silent movie Western.

Would that we get so worked up, but we take the Bible so seriously! Of course, it’s easy to see why. The Bible is filled with rules and all those “thou shalt nots” There’s fire and brimstone.

And it is filled with jokes. Jokes? Well, okay, not so much jokes as comedy. It’s just that most of the time we don’t get the joke!

That’s understandable because when the set up for the punchline comes from first century Palestine or even earlier, twenty-first century ears just don’t hear it!

I guess you just had to be there.

But, mostly, we are so darned serious! Afterall, we are in Church and if it is in Church, then it must be serious, right?

I mean look at us. We hear Jesus say “those Pharisees! They try to remove the speck in your eye but can’t see around the plank in their own!” (ta-da-dum-crash!) and yet we all just nod solemnly, when we ought to be hissing!

Or when Jesus compares the Kingdom of God to a woman who loses a gold coin and who turns her house upside down until she finds it. That’s one crazy scene! Imagine if the part were played by Lucille Ball or Kaley Cuoco!

But we hardly even grin.

Face it, we Christians are one tough crowd!

Take today’s Bible lessons. Please.

First, we hear about Samuel being called to be God’s special prophet. He is a young boy apprenticed to Eli. One night he is sleeping in the special tent where The Ark of Covenant, considered to be presence of God’s own self, is kept. You know how in some theaters they keep a bare bulb lit on the empty stage when the house is empty between shows? Well, Samuels’ job was to keep lit the light that indicates God’s presence. But he is sleeping on the job. In between snores, he hears a voice call his name. He assumes it is his mentor, Eli, so Samuel goes and wakes up Eli to find out what he wants. Eli tells him to go away and goes back to sleep. Samuel does this three times before a groggy and sleep deprived Eli realizes that something is up.

And imagine how grouchy and frustrated young Samuel is feeling being awakened three times! Now Eli instructs Samuel to answer God the next time he is called.

God calls Samuel and sets in motion a divine encounter. And it all starts with situation comedy.

Next, we hear about Philip, Nathaniel and Jesus. Philip’s encounter with Jesus was also dramatic and life changing.

Jesus was direct. He sees Philip and invites him—no, commands him—to join Jesus’ small band of followers. Philip is very excited! And in his joy, he ran to find his brother, Nathaniel.

But Nathanael thinks Philip is crazy. For one thing, false Messiahs were a dime a dozen and how could Philip be so gullible? Second, no way that the Messiah is a country bumpkin from Nazareth! So Nathaniel snorts, “Ha! Can any good come out of Nazareth?”

I love this detail. People in the Bible were not made of stained or etched glass. They were real people! Nathaniel is disdainful, sarcastic, and droll. And I love that because it shows us that Jesus chose people who had the same quirks and qualities that we do. This is why Jesus also chooses us!

Philip risked rejection when he approached Nathanael. He risked being embarrassed even laughed at. But what overcame Philip’s fear was his joy. It was his joy and his excitement that propelled him forward!

So Philip drags a reluctant Nathaniel to meet Jesus. And Jesus shows he can trash-talk with the best of them! “Look!” Jesus says, “an Israelite in whom is no guile!” In short, Jesus’ first words to Nathaniel is… sarcasm!

Not only that, Jesus describes seeing Nathaniel asleep under a fig tree. I am guessing that he really was asleep because—after Nathaniel confesses that Jesus really is the Messiah—Jesus talks about himself as being just like Jacob’s ladder. Jacob fell asleep and dreamed of angels going up and down a ladder to heaven. Nathaniel may have been sleeping on the job when Jesus saw him, but Nathaniel is not dreaming now! He will see earth and heaven joined in Christ, just like Jacob and his ladder.

In our baptisms, we have encountered the living God. In our Christian community, we are introduced to Christ. In many small ways, we find that God sees us through and through and, at the very same time, we are called by name to enter into God’s presence.

I’ve heard stories like this over and over again. And sometimes it just cracks me up, and other times it moves me to tears… or both!

In my life, I first self-consciously and deliberately decided to follow Jesus because a handful of friends invited me to a prayer meeting before school when I was fourteen.

Over and over again, there are stories of people meeting Christ in this church or in communities just like it, where people just came together to worship, work and learn. One story I heard took place on a battlefield, other stories I’ve heard happened in a hospital, either in a lonely waiting room or someplace else, like the maternity ward or an ICU. Another story I heard took place on a hiking trail and another when two friends just decided to go to church on a whim. Sometimes, people have seen Jesus despite the rigidities or contradictions of their former churches and having met the Christ, they have had to leave that old place and come to this new one.

Sometimes we had an “Eli” to teach us how to approach God. Sometimes, we’ve had a “Philip” who cared enough about us to bring us to the place where God is, the thin place which was there was a font or basin filled with water, our Bethel. Perhaps our Bethel is the church where we worship today. In our baptism, Jesus, Emmanuel, or “God with us,” looked into our souls and invited us in. Like Nathanael, Christ sees are just the sort of person Jesus needs to be one of his intimate followers.

God’s encounter with Samuel reminds us of something else. The ark was a holy thing, filled with God’s presence, but it was not the ark that changed Samuel. It was not the complex ritual nor high ideas; it was an encounter with God, mediated through Eli—in a kind of comical, unexpected way-- that changed Samuel.

It was the same with Nathaniel. John’s Gospel begins with the beautiful poem and hymn “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God….” But it is not high theology nor the grand poetry that changed Nathaniel. It was an encounter with Jesus, who knew him through and through, mediated by a joy-filled and excited Philip that made all the difference.  

Once, Bishop Mary Glasspool, the assistant bishop of New York, was travelling from Los Angeles to New York, which of course meant going through security. After a thorough body scan by the Transportation Security Agent, the agent picked up a thick leather bound book that was her combined Prayer book and Bible, shook it slightly at her, and asked: "Is there anything in this that could set off an alarm?" The bishop looked the TSA agent straight in the eyes and replied, "Plenty!”

What brings people to Christ is our joy. “A good laugh is a sign of love,” Karl Rahner writes. “It may be said to give us a glimpse of, or a first lesson in, the love that God bears for every one of us.”

You just have to laugh!

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Here are the Scripture Lessons for the 2nd Sunday after Epiphany, January 14, 2024

Here is a video of the Sermon at St. John's, Clearwater, Florida on January 14, 2024.

Here is a video of the Liturgy at St. John's, Clearwater, Florida on January 14, 2024

Saturday, December 30, 2023

God pitches a tent among us

The most amazing thing is tucked away inside the Gospel of John. Did you catch it?

Most of us have heard this majestic and abstract poem from John’s Gospel, filled with mystical and evocative images like, “The Word became flesh and lived among us.”

Okay. So?

The image of God dwelling among us is beautiful and a bit abstract, but what does it mean? What kind of dwelling? A castle? A Frank Lloyd Wright house like Falling Waters? An ante-bellum mansion?

We can imagine all kinds of dwelling places for God —but what about a tent? That might have been the preferred residence of a semi-nomadic people in the ancient near east. What kind of dwelling do you think God would prefer?

A small-town paper in another city recently reported on the growing population of homeless people in their community. The paper reported how the word got out about a local storefront ministry that serves hot breakfasts and lunches seven days a week, and a 90-day transitional housing program they run. The trouble is that people came from miles around pitching tents on vacant lots, and hanging out all day waiting for their next meal. Predictably, many local residents and small business owners were unhappy. Either they were concerned that there wouldn’t be enough food to go around, or, more often, they were afraid that this wave of homeless folks might send the wrong signal and hurt business, especially right before Christmas. So the idea of anyone pitching a tent in that town—except for scouts in the backyard—was viewed with suspicion and the police were called.

In Matthew and Luke, we heard how Jesus was born. John’s Gospel says that the Word became flesh. The idea of God Almighty pitching a tent among us may seem strange to us. Because this isn’t a Good Sam camping center and Jesus isn’t driving an RV. No, in Jesus the Eternal Word became flesh, and that means that the perfect expression of God’s whole self was also fully human—and the idea that God, the creator and sustainer of the universe, would need to have a diaper changed, or go hungry, or need a bath is, frankly, shocking.  

John’s Gospel tells us that the Word, the Logos, was in the Beginning before Creation dwelt among us— and that the logos dwelt—lived, camped out, worked with and interacted with ordinary people every day.

How would you feel about the Christ showing up in our backyard and asking us to pitch his tent right next to our house. I don’t know about you, but that makes me feel a bit… vulnerable.

I remember a long time ago going on a camping trip as a teenager with my Baptist youth group. I shared tent with three other boys in the group and soon, instead of sleeping, we were having a frank conversation about life in our high school and the questions we faced, the uncertainties we felt… the girls we liked. The next morning at breakfast, the youth pastor said to me quietly as he was flipping pancakes “You know, I could hear you four talking last night.” I suppose I ought to have been embarrassed; but if I was, I don’t remember feeling that way for very long. Because that conversation cemented friendships that has survived geography and the decades.

Another thing about tents: they are always a bit dirty, no matter how careful you are about keeping your shoes outside. After a few days of wrapping up the same tent and hiking or biking to the next place, it can get a little well… ripe.

Dirtiness and exposure. We might want to put on our Sunday best to come to church, but when God comes to dwell among us, he is okay with a little dirt and some vulnerability. Jesus would not do well on social media because has a lot to learn about managing his reputation!

The problem for us though is just that--- vulnerability and with it how to be interconnected and appropriately intimate. A recent cover story for The Atlantic explored the steady delay and decline in intimate relationships (not just marriage) among younger people. We live in an age and culture where self-sufficiency and independence are upheld as attainable goals. If you lack a cup of sugar, don’t bother your neighbors, just run to the super store. Don’t know how to fix something? Pull up a YouTube video on your smartphone. Need a ride to the airport? Don’t ask a friend Uber  instead, all you need is your credit card. Small-talk optional.

Genuine intimacy is risky. It means that we’ll be exposed, with all our anxiety, imperfections, short-tempers, and quick assumptions for all to see. Nope, in our culture, we will either say “No, thank you. I’ll take care of myself” or else pay a professional to provide for our physical needs.

Contrast this to what God does in Christ. Later in the same verse, when St. John tells us that the Word, the logos, the Christ, Jesus, has come to pitch his tent among us, he says that we have seen Jesus’ glory—and it is full of grace and truth. Grace and truth. Imagine: the majesty of God in street clothes.

Which leads to our second discomfort: It’s hard enough to entertain the idea of Jesus pitching a tent in our backyards, it is even harder to let his Spirit take up residence in our hearts,

But, as Paul says in Galatians, we need the assurance of Christ’s grace—the loving confidence and relief that comes from knowing that God sees us exactly as who we are—but through the divine lens of mercy, loving-kindness, and unconditional love.

And that assurance of God’s grace, of God’s desire to be with us—no matter how much we fear being exposed, being caught with metaphorical dirt under our nails, no matter how much we want to hide because of our shame, our guilt, or just the fact that we are imperfect, never measuring up to the person we’d like to be—that assurance is the greatest gift we can receive. It is the gift of the Incarnation, the gift of Emmanuel – God-with-us. That is the gift of Christmas. That is why God is born a fully human person.

The invitation of the Christmas season is to accept the gift. To enter into, as we did at Baptism, a lifelong process of growing more comfortable with God, ourselves, our living, and our relationships, “Just as I am,” as the old hymn says.

Once upon a time, I was a church that had a small Saturday night service. One  cold rainy night a person showed up at church looking for food and help. He was drenched and scruffy looking. He lived in a tent that he pitched on the Delaware River, but his tent was washed away in the rain. I was at a loss as to how to help. So, while I was thinking about phone numbers, and whom to contact, and how to access this or that agency, three of  our Saturday night worship regulars got to work. They invited him to a restaurant for food, one of the group went into her trunk and gave him a tarp to rebuilt his tent. Others found him dry clothes from our donations pile to the local clothing bank. Maybe it wasn’t the best casework on the planet, but I will never forget their spontaneous and pragmatic compassion. It was as if Jesus showed up unannounced and dwelt amongst us… and these folks passed the test.

The Feast of the Incarnation, Christmas, show us that Jesus pitched his tent in the middle of the messiness of the human condition, and here he lives our struggle, our uncertainty, our finitude, our sin, our truth. And through his incarnation, death, and resurrection he shows us—welcomes us—as Jesus’ brother, or sister, as adopted children of God.

God in Jesus pitches his tent among us and dwells with us, so that we may dwell with him, become homes for the Holy Spirit, and welcome all kinds of people from every possible place and situation into God’s kingdom.

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Here are the Scripture Lessons for the 1st Sunday after Christmas, December 31, 2023.

Here is a video of the Sermon at St. John's, Clearwater, Florida on December 31, 2023.

Here is a video of the Liturgy at St. John's, Clearwater, Florida on December 31, 2023.