Monday, July 17, 2017

Good Soil/Bad Soil: Hearing and Living the Word of God

Most of us are familiar with Jesus’ parable of the farmer sowing seeds, which is found in Matthew 13. A farmer scatters the seeds over his whole property and some fall on the path, some on rocky ground, some among thorns, and yes, some of the seeds fall upon good soil. The twelve Disciples who are with him don’t understand his message so when they are alone they ask him to explain.

Jesus patiently explains the meaning of what he had hoped they might understand:

When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what is sown in the heart; this is what was sown on the path. As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy; yet such a person has no root, but endures only for a while, and when trouble or persecution arises on account of the word, that person immediately falls away. As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the lure of wealth choke the word, and it yields nothing. But as for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty. (Matthew 13:18-23)

The bad soils are the temptations that lead us astray, the things that are more important to us than the word of the Kingdom, the things that suck the life out of us. These are the things that make wealth, power, principalities more important to us than the Word of God, than the Kingdom of God, that make it tempting to ignore evil. It is often easier and safer to go along to get along, to avoid rocking the boat.

In this way we avoid the pain and persecution that often come to us when we do what is right. All we have to do is look at Jesus and his life to see what can happen to one who puts God above all else. Years ago, when I was going through a conflict with some very important people in a church in another state and, feeling persecuted, I complained to my wife. In her wisdom, and trying to help, she replied, “just remember what they did to Jesus. My response to her was, “that’s not helpful.” Not helpful, but true, and we do our best to follow Jesus, no matter what.

Those who are like good soil, Jesus says, “receive the seed and it grows.” They follow Jesus, no matter what! And they often pay a high price. Dietrich Bonhoeffer was hanged in a German prison when he was 39 years old for fighting against the oppression and evil of Hitler and the Nazis; Martin Luther King, Jr. stood up the systemic racial oppression in the United States and was accused of being a communist, thrown in jail, and later assassinated when he was 39 years old. There are many others throughout the world, in cities, towns and villages who have followed the Master and paid a price in prestige, persecution and sometimes even death. And yet they did it anyway—no matter what!

If we choose to follow their example, if we choose to follow Jesus, how do we become good soil? We do as they did.  We do as Jesus teaches us: We continue in the apostles teaching and fellowship, the breaking of bread and the prayers. We seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbor as our selves, and we strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being. (Book of Common Prayer, p. 305-305)

No Matter What!

Becoming good soil also means that we strive to have friends who will be honest with us, who will tell us what we need to hear and not what we want to hear. We learn to talk with and respect people with whom we disagree and we learn not to dismiss those of different denominations, religions or political persuasions as sinners, evil, stupid or liars. It will not be easy, but being like good soil, following Jesus, never is, it’s just worth it.

We are called to be like Jesus, even if they do to us what they did to Him.

God has called us to be Good soil, to hear the Word and to understand it, to “bear fruit and yield one hundred fold, sixty fold and thirty fold.

Saturday, July 8, 2017

Change, an Invitation to Life: Abraham on Trial, a Text of Terror

Change, an Invitation to Life: Abraham on Trial, a Text of Terror: I borrowed the title for this column from a friend of mine, The Rev. Evan Garner, who shared a story on his blog about an opera by the ...

Abraham on Trial, a Text of Terror

I borrowed the title for this column from a friend of mine, The Rev. Evan Garner, who shared a story on his blog about an opera by the Title, “Abraham on Trial.” Evan tells of having seen this opera in Cambridge, England when he was a seminary student there. Apparently he was not impressed by the singing or scenery, but shared that the story influenced him profoundly. The opera compares Abraham’s call from God to sacrifice Isaac as a burnt offering to God, with a modern father who truly believes God has called him to kill his own son. Evan shared that “the only meaningful difference between the two murderous attempts was the lens through which the modern day believer judges the actions of the parents. We praise the faithfulness of Abraham and we condemn the lunacy of his contemporary analogue. Why? Because the Bible is the lens and the Bible says so.”

So, let’s look at what the Bible says in Genesis 22:1-14. “God tested Abraham and said, Abraham. And Abraham responded, ‘here I am.’ Then God tells Abraham to ‘take your son, your only son, Isaac, whom you love, and go and offer him there as a burnt offering.’”

As Abraham and Isaac are climbing the mountain, Isaac calls out to his father who answers, “here I am.” Do you notice a pattern? Isaac continues, “we have the wood and the fire, but, where is the lamb? Abraham responded, “God will provide a lamb for the burnt offering, my son.” Abraham builds the altar and lays the wood for the fire and then binds Isaac and puts him on the altar. As he raises the knife to kill him, the Angel of the Lord stops him and says, “do not lay a hand on the boy or do anything to him. Now I know you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son from me”. Most of us know the rest of the story: Abraham looks up, sees a ram caught in the brush and sacrifices him instead of Isaac.

So the story ends well, but I have to ask: how many of you gasped or had knots in your stomach or were very angry when you read that Abraham was about to kill his son, on God’s command? I have to admit that every time I hear or read this story, my stomach is tied in knots and I almost become physically ill. This truly is a Biblical Text of Terror, God’s Terror, and it brings up lots of questions to faithful people. Many of these questions have no answers or, at best, unsatisfactory answers.

Some of the questions that come to my mind are: what does it mean to believe in a God who would ask someone to murder his or her own Son; do you or can you believe in a God who would ask this of a parent; why would a loving God do this.

To become more personal, would you do this? Would I do this? I cannot answer for you but I can answer for myself, and my answer is a profound No! I do not possess the faith of Abraham.

Whatever happened on that mountain, whether it happened this way or not and whether you and I believe it happened or not, what can we learn from this powerful story? What can we learn about ourselves, about God? I believe we see in this story a pattern of faithfulness in both Abraham and Isaac that leads us to embrace a pattern for our own faithfulness. The questions it presents us are where the lessons are to be found. As my friend, Evan, asks, “where was God in each moment?”

We must ask ourselves the same question. Where is God in each moment of our lives? In those moments when our children are in pain, when our friends are ill or dying, when our burdens are heavier than we can bear, when our most important relationships are broken. I believe that like Abraham our first answer, no matter the question, should be, “here I am.” Once we establish that relationship we can, with God’s help, deal with our selves, family, friends, powers and principalities and even death. Like Abraham, we do not have all the answers. Like Abraham we may be tired, worn, burdened and afraid.

And like Abraham we will do the best we can to do what we believe God wants us to do. And finally, like Abraham, we will continue to believe, to know and to proclaim, “The Lord Himself will provide!”

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

If We Die With Christ, We Will Be Raised With Him

A Sermon preached at Christ Episcopal Church on the occasion of the Baptism
of Luke Arnold and Sloan Arnold

Those of us who are Christians know Jesus as our primary example of God’s steadfast love and faithfulness. Those of us who grew up in singing congregations have also been taught the wise words of St. Augustine, that “when we sing, we pray twice.” With that in mind I want to look at the steadfast love and faithfulness of God beginning by looking through the lens of the Psalms.

Psalm 86 is certainly one those Jewish Hymns of praise to God’s love and faithfulness.

Keep watch over my life, for I am faithful; Save your servant who puts his trust in you.

Be merciful to me, O Lord, for you are my God; Gladden the soul of your servant.

For you O Lord, are good and forgiving, And great is your love toward all who call upon you.

In the time of my trouble I will call, for you will answer.

All the nations you have made will come and worship you O Lord.
You are great; you do wondrous things; you alone are God.

Apparently, even before Jesus was born, God loved and cared for all people, all nations, whom He created. And that steadfast love continued with Jesus, and it continues forever through God, the Holy Spirit. St. Paul emphasizes this love in his letter to the church at Rome (6:1-11) when he writes, “through Christ, we have died to sin. Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into his death so that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with Christ in a death like his, we will certainly be united with Him in a resurrection like his.”

That is what is happening to Luke and Sloan today. They will be buried with Christ in his death and raised with him in his resurrection. And their death and resurrection, their baptism, will remind us of our death and resurrection, our baptism, and that we all die to sin and live for God, that we all might walk in newness of life. Wow!

This walking in newness of life will not always be easy as we often see when we reflect on our lives, and when we, in a few moments, join together and renew our own Baptismal Covenant.

When we look at our lives, we sometimes focus on our sins, mistakes and failings rather than focusing on God’s forgiveness, presence and love. We become discouraged because we are looking at ourselves and the world backwards. We are called, instead, to turn around, to repent. After all, to repent means to turn around 180 degrees, refocus and begin again in newness of life.

As we respond to God’s call on our lives by joining in the Baptismal Covenant, listen to your answers. “I will.” But can I, am I strong enough? Ugh, it’s impossible. But then the answer continues, “with God’s help.” Ok, that’s better, just maybe I can do this. Just maybe with the support of this Christian community and the Holy Spirit, I can move into this newness of life promised to me in my dying and rising with Christ.

So yes! We are dead to sin and alive to God. Yes, we died with Christ once and for all and we are raised with him in his resurrection. Daily! We walk everyday in newness of life.

As I pray for Luke and Sloan, I pray for all of us:

Heavenly Father, we thank you that by water and the Holy Spirit you have bestowed upon these your servants the forgiveness of sin, and have raised them to the new life of grace. Sustain them, O Lord, in your Holy Spirit. Give them an inquiring and discerning heart, the courage to will and to persevere, a spirit to know and to love you, and the gift of joy and wonder in all your works. Amen. (Book of Common Prayer, page 308)

And the only response I can think of is: “Thanks be to God!”

Monday, June 12, 2017

Christ Church: Forty Years of Serving God and the Community

When we consider the 2000 year story of the Christian Church as the Body of Christ in the World, Christ Episcopal Church, at forty years of age is just a baby. As a relative newcomer to the Episcopal part of the Jesus Movement, however, we have spent those forty years proclaiming the good news of Jesus Christ to Albertville, Marshall County and the surrounding area, “seeking and serving Christ in all persons, loving our neighbors as ourselves.” (Book of Common Prayer, page 305)

We began in late 1977 as a small group of people meeting upstairs over what was then Baines Furniture and Appliance store, now Weathers, on North Broad Street in downtown Albertville. The second floor room where the church worshiped was lovingly referred to as “the Upper Room.” As 1977 turned into 1978, the church acquired property on East Main Street, as well as an abandoned Episcopal Church building in Piedmont, Alabama.  The building was moved to Albertville and lovingly placed on the East Main Street property.

Over the years, Christ Church has been involved in ministries in and for the community, including a clothing bank, Blessings in a Back Pack at Albertville Primary School, Keep Albertville Beautiful, and a monthly Beans and Rice Ministry through which we continue to help feed those in need.

In 2010 our historic building was destroyed in the Albertville tornado. Despite the loss, Christ Church continued to worship and serve God and our community. In 2012 our beautiful new church building, designed as a larger version of our original building was completed, and consecrated by the Right Reverend Kee Sloan, Episcopal Bishop of Alabama.

Over the next nine months, we will host several events for the entire community, including a Home Coming Frolic in June, an Organ Concert by Albertville native, Christopher Joel Carter IV on October 1, and a Community Worship Celebration and Luncheon in January of 2018. We hope many of you will join us for any and all of these Celebration.

The first of these community events is our Homecoming Frolic on Saturday, June 17 at 5:00 p.m. We are inviting former members, family, friends, and you the members of our beloved community to join us for a picnic supper, games for children and adults, jumpy house, Face Painting, Smores and much, much more. This will also be an opportunity to visit our Little Free Library and walk our meditation Labyrinth. Come! Bring an appetite, friends and a chair and help us celebrate our first forty years, and kick off the next forty years of loving and serving the Lord.

Blessings and Peace from Christ Episcopal Church.

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Knowing God and Being Known by God

In every time and every place humans have worshiped God, questioned God, doubted God and tried to explain or describe God. We have also judged others because they arrived at conclusions different from ours. We want to be certain about areas of our lives in which certainty can be elusive. In these cases, human beings often hedge our bets by providing alternative answers or multiple possibilities. This is often the case with our God questions.

The post Jesus Athenians were no exception. The Apostle Paul proclaimed to them: “Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way, for as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, ‘To an unknown god.’” Then Paul continues, “The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things.” (Acts 17:22-31)

“. . . he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him—though indeed he is not far from each one of us. For ‘In him we live and move and have our being’.” (Acts 17:22-31)

“In him we live and move and have our being.” Wow. What a gift, what an opportunity to know God and continue to grow in that relationship. The Gospel of John records the reminder that “Jesus is in the Father and we are in him and he is in us” (John 14:1-14), or as Catherine of Siena said, “the soul is in God and God is in the soul, as the fish is in the sea and the sea is in the fish.” We know God by being in God and God being in us. God is over, under, around and through us, and we are over, under, around and through God.

This does not solve the ultimate mystery of who God is or what God is or where God is, but, it allows us to experience God. The Church then becomes a community in which and through which the Spirit is given and shared, and in which we can share our experience of God and hear others share their experiences, thus learning more about God as we learn more about others and more about ourselves.

The Church as the Body of Christ makes it possible for us to serve the world in the name of God, whether we have all the answers to all of our questions about God or not, whether the “unknown” God suddenly becomes known to us or not, or whether our doubts or confusion about who God is and how we know God magically disappear or not. It assures us that we will not be alone in our journey to find and know God and to be found and known by God. It means that our faith will not give us easy answers or be a simple faith. It also assures us that our faith will be exciting, bold and filled with as many questions as it is answers.

As Jimmy Buffett would say, “Where’s the Church, who took the steeple. . .The God’s honest truth is it’s not that simple.” But! It’s exciting, challenging, life-giving and fun. And it will change the world!

Thanks be to God!

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Pentecost, the Holy Spirit and the Power of God: A Promise Fulfilled

Pentecost, the Holy Spirit and the Power of God: A Promise Fulfilled

Before his ascension, Jesus promised the disciples that he would be with them always and that he would ask God the Father to send a comforter to be with them forever. Though I do not believe they understood it at the time, these two promises were one and the same. The promised Comforter is the Holy Spirit, the third person of the Trinity sent to the world and to God’s people by God the Father. Jesus, as God, is present with us and in the world through that same Holy Spirit.

The fulfillment of Jesus’ promises is described in powerful language in the second chapter of the Acts of the Apostles (2:1-21)

When the day of Pentecost had come, the disciples were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability. Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered and amazed, because each one heard them speaking in their native languages about God's deeds of power.

This Holy Spirit provided the strength and courage and power necessary for the followers of Jesus to spread the message of Jesus throughout the world and to begin a movement we know today as “The Church.” St. Paul in his first letter to the Church in Corinth (12:3b-13) describes how the Spirit of God empowered the Church and changed the world.

No one can say “Jesus is Lord” except by the Holy Spirit. Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. To one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the discernment of spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. All these are activated by one and the same Spirit, who allots to each one individually just as the Spirit chooses.
For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body-- Jews or Greeks, slaves or free--and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.
Humans make distinctions, God does not. God recognizes all of us as God’s children. The Holy Spirit gives gifts to all of us, different gifts to each of us as the Spirit itself chooses. The point of Pentecost is that we all have gifts from God through the Holy Spirit and that different gifts are given to each of us. So whether you are a teacher or a preacher or scientist or business person or have other talents and skills, we all have gifts to use in church, society and community for the common good.
Friend and church organist Ralph Strawn shared with me some of his reflections on the Holy Spirit and Pentecost which helped me see more clearly the presence of God in our lives. Acts talks about the Spirit as sounding like a rushing wind and appearing as tongues of fire on the heads of the disciples, changing their lives and the church forever. Ralph sees the feather that lights on the shoe of Forrest Gump in the beginning of the movie by the same name, and appearing throughout the movie, as a symbol of the Holy Spirit.

According to Strawn, Forrest never uses God’s name in the stories he tells with those who share the bench with him, but the love of God is clearly revealed in them. His stories of war, death and despair reveal the courage God gives us to rescue each other from all sorts of danger. In the past two weeks with terror attacks and shootings around the world in Manchester, Portland, London, Afghanistan and Chicago, just to name a few, this Spirit of God helps us comfort and encourage one another as we seek to bring peace and justice to our world and to overcome the fear and anger that draw us away from God and from one another.

My friend suggests that the Gospel message, the healing message of the Holy Spirit, is spoken loudest, not through a rushing wind or a roaring fire, but through the quiet voices of people sharing stories from their lives.

Come Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful and kindle in us the fire of your love. Send forth your spirit and we shall be created, and so you shall renew the face of the Earth.