Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Zeal for your house will consume me: Jesus goes to the Temple

Early in Jesus’ ministry, according to John’s Gospel, he and his disciples head to Jerusalem for the Passover celebration. Jesus encounters people in the temple selling animals for sacrifice and changing money into the “coin of the realm.”(See John 2:13-22)  Neither of these activities was inherently evil, and in fact, was necessary for worship in the Temple for people travelling long distances and from different countries with different currencies. Nonetheless, Jesus was not very happy. I suspect he saw that the commercial enterprise had overshadowed the importance of worship. Scripture tells us that Jesus was so upset that he wove a whip of cords and drove the sheep and cattle out of the temple, turned over the tables of the Money Changers and poured out their coins. The House of Prayer for all nations had become a Marketplace.

When we ask ourselves, “What would Jesus do, (WWJD)?” we must realize that the answer just might involve turning over tables and driving injustice out of the Temple. It might involve fighting injustice in the world and working for the peace and mercy of God’s Kingdom.

By placing this episode at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, John sets the theme of Jesus’ entire life and mission. Mark, Matthew and Luke place it at the end of Jesus’ life and here it leads directly to his execution.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German pastor, also faced evil in the world and like Jesus, chose to “turn over tables and fight injustice.” In the late 1930’s Bonhoeffer had a teaching fellowship at Union Seminary in New York. Instead of staying in America where he was safe, he went back to Germany to work against the evil that was raising its head in his native land. He was arrested and imprisoned for his involvement in a plot to bring down the supreme leader, Adolph Hitler, who was destroying the German Nation and the world. In 1945, a few days before the prison was liberated, Bonhoeffer was hanged. He was 39 years old.

Bonhoeffer’s words reflect the life and the words of Jesus: “Silence in the face of evil is in itself evil: God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak, not to act is to act.”

Now to another episode in Jesus’ life, recorded in Luke 4:17-21: “The scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to Jesus and he read: ‘the Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor, He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, and to let the oppressed go free—to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.’”
If Jesus had just stopped there, sat down and kept his mouth shut everything would have been fine. But no, he had to say something—“today, this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” Most of you know the story, the people take Jesus out of the village to the brow of the cliff and attempt to throw him off and kill him.

Jesus, Bonhoeffer and many others have demonstrated by their lives and their deaths that proclaiming truth to power, fighting against injustice and for peace, and proclaiming the year of the Lord’s favor do not often turn out well for those engaged in these enterprises.

We are called by God to be like Jesus, to be like Bonhoeffer: WWJD? He might just turn over some tables—he might just replace the temple with the Kingdom of God—and he might just be killed for doing it.

WWJHUSD (What Would Jesus Have Us Do)? He might just ask us to turn over a few tables—he might just ask us to replace the status quo with the Kingdom of God. And yes, we too might just be killed for doing it.

“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. Amen.”

Friday, March 2, 2018

The God who Gathers, Rebuilds and Heals

Amidst the trials and tribulations and breakdowns of our lives, our God continues to gather His people together, to restore and rebuild and heal lives and nations and peoples. Psalm 147 celebrates one such occasion in the life of Judah, the Sixth Century BCE return of the exiles from Babylon and the rebuilding of Jerusalem and the Temple. It gives us a model of hope for all of us who are God’s people. I share a portion of that psalm with you.

Praise the Lord! How good it is to sing praises to our God; for he is gracious, and a song of praise is fitting. The Lord builds up Jerusalem; he gathers the outcasts of Israel. He heals the broken-hearted, and binds up their wounds. He determines the number of the stars; he gives to all of them their names. Great is our Lord, and abundant in power; his understanding is beyond measure. The Lord lifts up the downtrodden; he casts the wicked to the ground. 

God is a restorer and Psalm 147 offers us a vision of a world restored, no matter how deep the ruptures. This is a vital message for all people in our world today. In Chapter one of Mark’s Gospel, we see the same power of God working through Jesus to heal, rebuild and restore. “That evening at sundown Jesus healed Simon Peter’s Mother-in-law, who then cared for Jesus and the disciples. The people in the village brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons.” The next morning, even though “everyone was searching for him,” he called the disciples together and explained that it was time to head out to the neighboring towns “to proclaim the message there as well, for that is what I came to do.”

Jesus, like the Psalmist, preaches the Good News of the coming Kingdom of God, by gathering, restoring and healing. That is why he came into the world. Through the ultimate miracle of His death and resurrection, and the power of the Holy Spirit promised to us by the resurrected Christ, we continue to be healed today, so that God through us will continue to gather, rebuild, heal and restore. As God heals each of us of our broken hearts, bodies and souls, we receive the power of the Holy Spirit to bring healing to those around us, and to the whole world.

This is God’s Good News for us today!

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Wilderness Time, Jesus and Tough Decisions

Wilderness Time, Jesus and Tough Decisions

As I was preparing a sermon on Jesus in the Wilderness, a fellow priest shared with me the story of her encounter with the wilderness which took place—in her mother’s bedroom. As they were preparing for bed one evening, her mother called to her, saying “I think there might be a snake in my bedroom.” Sure enough, there was, and they locked the snake there until morning, found help to remove and return it to the wilderness.

We encounter wilderness in two ways: we enter intentionally as Jesus did after his baptism, and wilderness comes to us where we “live and move and have our being,” whether we want it to or not.

“After his baptism, the spirit drove Jesus into the wilderness for forty days to be tempted by Satan; he was with the wild beasts and the angels waited on him.” After his time in the wilderness, praying and reflecting on God’s plan for himself, Jesus was ready to face whatever temptations came his way, and to proclaim the good news that “the time is fulfilled and the Kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe." (Mark 1:12-15)

Jesus entered the wilderness intentionally to prepare for the wildernesses that would come to him throughout his life and mission. Lent is a reminder to us that we can and must do the same. We enter the wilderness, whatever and wherever that is for us, so that we too can be prepared for the wilderness that comes to us, whether we want it or not.

I spent some time in the wilderness last week, hiking along Town Creek as it flows into Lake Guntersville. I took black and white photos, sat in the peace and quiet of the forest in the light drizzle. I needed the alone time to prepare, as Jesus did, for the unexpected wildernesses in my life. I needed time to clear my head, escape social media, and people who “have all the answers.” I needed this to find my strength in God’s strength, to prepare for the wilderness that will come to me.

The wilderness that comes to us takes many forms. The latest wilderness that engulfed me was the shooting at Douglass High School in Broward County, Florida. As frustrating and sad as the shooting was, the shouting back and forth of solutions with little or no listening by anyone was worse. My friend, singer, songwriter Jess Muse posted on her Face Book Page: “I am hearing the expected answers with little discussion and less listening. Can we try talking with each other with open minds, caring more about the children than we do that our solution be the one chosen.”
 I don’t have the answers, but I believe Jess is on to something. We need to have a national conversation and put everything on the table: anger, hate, mental illness, gun regulations and money. We also need to seriously consider that teenagers whose friends and teachers were killed in this and similar disasters are, in fact, qualified and entitled, perhaps more so than some of us, to be at that table. I also believe that the time to deal with this issue is now, not “when the time is right.”

As a Christian I have three recommendations for myself, and offer them as suggestions for others: first, I will not get my information and news from posts on social media; second, I will respect the opinions and experiences of others whether I agree with them or not; and finally, I will use this Lenten time “in the Wilderness” to open my heart, soul and mind to God: to hear God’s call, and pray to receive strength and wisdom to be, not part of the problem, but, part of the solution; to hear the words of Jesus, “the time is fulfilled and the Kingdom of God is near.”

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

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Lent is a gift that Awakens our Senses

As I was sitting in church on Ash Wednesday, reflecting on and how this season enriches our faith and our lives, I had a vision of the Christian year as an hour glass and Lent as the narrow middle of the hour glass through which the sand passes one grain at a time.

Allow me to explain. In the Christian year the two seasons immediately prior to Lent are Christmas and Epiphany, seasons through which we see the glory of God in our worship and in the Scriptures: Isaiah’s prophecy which proclaims Jesus as “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace (Isaiah 9:6);” the birth of Jesus in the stable; the coming of the wise men; the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan River; Jesus’ first miracle at a wedding in Cana of Galilee; his recognition as Messiah by the Samaritan woman at the well; and finally his Transfiguration on the mount with Peter, James and John.

We also read about his proclamation of the Gospel in his Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5): blessed are the poor in spirit, blessed are the peace makers, blessed are they who hunger and thirst after righteousness for they will be filled. And finally, Jesus ends the beatitudes with some of his most difficult teachings, challenging us and showing us his glory at the same time:

You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven. . . For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. (Matthew 5:43-48)

This is all the top of the Hour Glass, filled with God’s Glory as we see it in Jesus Christ. Then all this falls through the narrow center of the Hour Glass, one grain at a time. As the sand slowly moves through the narrow opening, we are allowed, or perhaps forced, to slow down and see our life and our faith, one grain, one piece, at a time. When we narrow our focus, all our senses seem to become sharper and we see and experience things we missed when we were bombarded with the full glory of God all at once.

I am a kayaker and I have spent many beautiful days paddling on lakes, creeks and rivers in Alabama, Georgia and Tennessee. When I am floating down a lazy river my mind can wander and I can daydream, looking at the birds, clouds and sky and the vegetation along the banks. But when the stream begins to narrow and the same volume of water is forced through a smaller and smaller space, all my senses come alive and I am aware of all that is going on around me: the speed of the river, the rocks and other obstructions in front of me and the path and passages the river is showing me. This is what I believe Lent is like for Christians. Our senses come alive, become more focused. We become aware of all God is doing in our lives and of how we are hearing and living the Gospel.

As the sands pass through the narrow opening in the Hour Glass, failing into the larger bottom section, we again see the Glory of God, this time more visible because our senses have been awakened. As Lent draws to a close, we walk with Jesus through Holy Week: from Palm Sunday through the Last Supper and Christ’s New Commandment on Maundy Thursday to “love one another as He has loved us;” through all the sorrow of Good Friday; and finally to the fullness of God in the Glorious Resurrection of Jesus Christ on Easter Day.

Lent is not a time of punishment or pain or agony. No, it is a gift from God through the Church which offers us time and space, and opens our hearts and minds and souls to God’s love for all creation. It opens us up to our place in that love, both as those who receive the love from God, and those who, because we have received this love, want to share it with the whole world.

Our eyes are opened and we see that truly, “God sent his son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the whole World might be saved!”

Saturday, February 3, 2018

Build My Church: Christ Episcopal Church, Albertville: Forty Years and Counting!

Build My Church: Christ Episcopal Church, Albertville: Forty Years and Counting!
(Based on a Sermon Preached at Christ Episcopal Church on Sunday, January 28, 2018)

Around the year 1208, a young man in Italy by the name of Giovanni di Pietro di Bernardone, better known as Francis, was praying in the Chapel of San Damiano near the town of Aissisi when he had a vision that the Icon of the Crucified Christ above the altar said to him, “go, repair my church which, as you can see, has fallen into ruins.” Francis logically believed that Jesus was asking him to rebuild the forsaken and rundown church building. Only later did he understand that Christ was calling him to repair, to build, the Body of Christ, not the building.

In 1977, a group of 15 families (Bains, Bender, Griffin, Laser, Rogers, Terrell, Appleton, Battles, Treadway, Wester, Cotton, Lackey, Narvison, Swart and Wooten), members of the Episcopal Church of the Epiphany in Guntersville, Alabama heard the same call. All were from the Albertville area and along with their first priest, The Rev. Hugh Agricola, believed God was calling them to “Build God’s Church” on Sand Mountain. The difference between this group of people and St. Francis was that they understood from the beginning that God was calling them to build the “Body of Christ.” Yes, the wanted a building and believed that they would one day have a building to house the church, but they knew in their hearts that God had called them to proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ to the people of Sand Mountain.

So, with the Blessing of Bishop Stough and the Episcopal Diocese of Alabama, the Rev. John Groff and the Church of the Epiphany, Sand Mountain Episcopal Ministries was formed. For a year they worshiped in “the Upper Room,” above Bains Furniture and Appliance downtown. During the first year as these intrepid pioneer families worked, worshiped and prayed, members of the Church lead by Ellen Bains (Perryman) found an abandoned Episcopal Church building in Piedmont and arranged to have it moved to a lot they had secured on East Main Street, and they began to build a home for the church they and God were building.

As I think about and offer prayers of thanksgiving for our spiritual ancestors, two verses of a hymn come to mind.

                        Christ is made the sure foundation, Christ the head and cornerstone,
                        Chosen of the Lord and precious, binding all the church in one.
                        Holy Zion’s help forever, and her confidence alone.

                        To this temple, where we call you, come, O Lord of Hosts, today.
                        With accustomed loving kindness, hear your servants as they pray;
                        And your fullest Benediction shed within its walls always.

The ministries begun by these founders and those of us who have followed them over the past forty years, have shown the face of Jesus to and improved the lives of many people in our area. Over the years, these ministries have provided affordable clothes and household goods to people, helped children learn through tutors and helped others learn English to live better lives here.

Christ Church has made food available to people through our Beans and Rice Program, and Blessings in a Backpack for our school children. We have also helped with job training by supporting Christian Women’s Job Corps and worked with Keep Albertville Beautiful to improve the look of our city.

On Sunday, January 28, 2018 we welcomed back several of our founding members as well as many of the over 500 people who for a time called Christ Episcopal Church their spiritual home. This blessed company of faithful people, this great cloud of witnesses, have, with Christ, built foundations, literal and spiritual, upon which we who are Christ Church today continue to build the body of Christ and serve our community in Jesus’ name.

As we head into the next forty years we look again at the foundation of our faith and prepare to write the next chapter of our life together in Christ.

            The eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus directed them.
            When they saw him, the worshiped him but some doubted. And Jesus said to them. Go
and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son
and the Holy Spirit, and teach them  to obey everything I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age. (Matthew 28:16-21)

With this command and this promise, we who are Christ Church, follow Jesus into the next forty years, as we

            Continue in the apostles teaching and fellowship, the breaking of bread and the prayers.
Seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbor as ourselves. Proclaim by
word and example the Good News of God in Christ, and respect the dignity of every
human being. (Book of Common Prayer, page 304-305)


Thursday, December 28, 2017

Here I am the Servant of the Lord! And the World turned Upside Down!

Here I am the Servant of the Lord! And the World turned Upside Down!

Earlier this week, on the morning of December 24, as some were already into Christmas Eve, we Episcopalians were jumping into the fourth Sunday of Advent with both feet as we read the Gospel from Luke 1 that stopped the world in its tracks, and then, through Mary’s proclamation, turned the world upside down!

            The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most
            High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called
 Son of God. . .  Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me
according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her. (from Luke 1:26-38)

After saying yes to the Lord, which she did not have to do, Mary states God’s dream for the world in some of the clearest words recorded in the Bible, while at the same time laying out Jesus’ mission and plan for all of us.

        My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, my spirit rejoices in God my Savior; *
for he has looked with favor on his lowly servant. From this day all generations will call me blessed: *the Almighty has done great things for me, and holy is his Name.
He has mercy on those who fear him *in every generation. He has shown the strength of his arm, *he has scattered the proud in their conceit. He has cast down the mighty from their thrones, *and has lifted up the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things, *and the rich he has sent away empty. He has come to the help of his servant Israel, *for he has remembered his promise of mercy, the promise he made to our fathers, *to Abraham and his children for ever.

Truly the angel’s proclamation to Mary and Mary’s response turns the world upside down. Even though we proclaim “love your neighbor as yourself,” and “do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” the world teaches us, ‘I’ve got mine, you get yours,’ if you are poor you are just lazy,’ if you work hard you will have what I have.’

The evening news and our experience teach us that ‘the rich will be filled with good things and the hungry will be sent away empty.’ But, Mary and God teach us:

             “He has cast down the mighty from their thrones, and has lifted up the lowly; He
             has filled the hungry with good things and the rich he has sent away empty.”

As the angel’s message convinced and convicted Mary of who she was, this season that lead us up to Christmas convinces and convicts us of who we are and of what is expected of us.

Mary’s song of praise will make most of us very uncomfortable. It will make us long for the birth of the Baby Jesus. A birth that is fun and exciting to celebrate and will not demand much of us. Yet!

But before we can get to that birth, we have to talk about turning the world upside down! We have to talk about the poor being feed and the rich sent away empty. We have to talk about what we see on the evening news, and about what is the world’s reality, and then we need to walk into God’s dream, which turns the world upside down. We, like Mary, are invited to respond, “behold, the servant of the Lord, let it be to me according to your word.”

Mary understood that her son was not sent into the world just to get us into heaven, but that he was sent to change the story of life on Earth; that he came into the world to ask the questions, sometimes through us: who deserves to eat? Who deserves to have health insurance? Who deserves safe housing and a good education? We may not find simple answers, but with God’s help we may well find intelligent solutions.

Being a child of God is not easy. Life gets complicated, but we all have our dreams. If our dreams can be merged with God’s dream, if with Mary, we can proclaim, ‘here I am the servant of the Lord,’ then we might just be like Mary, we might just bring Jesus into our world, we might just do what Jesus did.

God has a dream and we are part of that dream!

Prophetic Imagination

Over the past few weeks, we prepared for the coming of our Lord in many ways. One of the most important to our faith in God and our understanding of Jesus’ mission to bring about the Kingdom of God on Earth as well as in Heaven is the work of the prophets. Remember that Biblical Prophets were not so much about predicting the future as they were about proclaiming God’s opposition to oppression and desire for justice for all people. The fifth century B.C. prophet we call Second Isaiah describes God’s passion quite well.

        The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year
of the Lord's favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn; (from Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11)

Remember, this was the text for Jesus’ first sermon, so let’s pay attention!

Some six hundred years after Isaiah, St. John the Evangelist records the words of another prophet, a man who became one of the first to testify to Jesus as “the light,” John the Baptizer.

            There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a
witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He
himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. . . He said,
“I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way
 of the Lord,’” as the prophet Isaiah said. (from John 1:6-8,19-28)

As we prepare for and live into Christmas, the Nativity of our Lord, I see us as John the Baptist and Isaiah all rolled into one. “The Lord has anointed us, God has sent us to testify to the light, and sometimes as we do this we are truly voices crying in the wilderness. And yet, cry we must: “prepare the way of the Lord, bring good news to the oppressed, bind up the brokenhearted, proclaim liberty to the captives, release to the prisoners and proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor and the day of vengeance (to the oppressors) of our God.”

As we do this, we often learn one other truth about prophets: they are not usually the most loved people in the community. And yet, because of our baptism, and our covenant with God through that baptism, we do it anyway. “We proclaim by word and example the good news of God in Christ. We seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbors as ourselves. We strive for justice and peace among all people and respect the dignity of every human being. (Baptismal Covenant, Book of Common Prayer, pages 305-305)

We proclaim this in all that we say and do, both as individuals and as a faith community. We proclaim it through our faith, our politics and our personal actions. We remind our elected representatives of God’s call to strive for justice and peace among all people. We remind those with whom we come into contact to “render unto Caesar the things that are Caesars, and to God the things that are God’s.” (Matthew 22:21)  And then we remind them that it all belongs to God!

The Season of Advent calls us to talk the talk, to speak truth to power. Advent calls us to walk the walk, to be prophecy in action. As God’s people we are called in our preaching, teaching, music and protesting to bring about the year of the Lord’s favor.

This is the work to which we have all been commissioned: to name God and to voice God’s enduring concern about human suffering and despair and to proclaim what God has done through Jesus Christ. To prepare the way of the Lord!