God’s Good Gifts – a sermon

This sermon can be heard on the Christ Church website, or you can read it here.

I don’t know about you, but there are some weeks when it feels like hope is really hard to come by.  Weeks when the money runs out before the month does.  Weeks when the treatment doesn’t seem worth the side effects.  Weeks when it feels like you’ve been pecked to death by ducks.  Thankfully, for me, this is not one of those weeks.  Sure, it has been a loooooong week.  Vacation Bible School weeks are always loooooooooooong weeks, but they are also always weeks that are filled with hope.  Close to seventy volunteers and sixty children spent four evenings this week singing praises to God, having fun, making crafts, meeting exotic animals, and learning about the good gifts that God gives us.   It is impossible to be hopeless when you see a community come together to welcome children into the Kingdom of God.


Today, we have another opportunity to gather as a community of disciples and welcome children into the Kingdom.  This morning, we once again celebrate baptism at our 10am service.  Sophia and Dominic have been a part of this community for a while now, but today, we welcome them fully as members of the Body of Christ, baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, anointing them with oil as a symbol of the Spirit’s presence in their lives, and giving thanks to God for the gifts of inquiry, discernment, courage, perseverance, joy, and wonder.  In Baptism, we find the sort of hope that doesn’t disappoint that we heard about in our lesson from Romans this morning.

There is no promise in baptism that life will forever be easy.  What is true, is that no matter what comes our way, no matter what might try to zap our hope, no matter what challenges might cause us to suffer, being sealed by the Holy Spirit in baptism and marked as Christ’s own forever means that our hope will never disappoint us.  With the Spirit’s help, the Father’s love, and the grace that comes through the Son, the promise of hope will always endure, even in the most challenging situations.  In Baptismal sermons past, I’ve talked about some of the gifts that God gives us through the Holy Spirit, but since some of y’all weren’t here for VBS, I thought I might share with you the four gifts we learned about this week.  These gifts are available to each and every one of us who are baptized into the Body of Christ.

The first gift we learned about this week is that God gives us comfort. We studied Psalm 23 through the eyes of its author, King David, who before he was a mighty king, was just a lowly shepherd.  We talked about all the different things that the Lord our Shepherd does to offer us comfort: like leading us along the right pathways to green pastures and still waters, offering a feast right in the presence of those who make life difficult for us, and overflowing our cup with blessings.  We talked about how sheep don’t always listen to their shepherds, and sometimes they end up lost and afraid, but that the Good Shepherd is always with us, helping us to make good choices.  We got anointed with oil, just like Sophia and Dominic will in a little bit, to remind us that God loves us, no exceptions.  In baptism, we receive the gift of God’s comfort.

The second gift we talked about is that God gives us patience.  That night we heard the story of Simeon and Anna who, like the rest of the Jewish people, had been waiting for the Messiah for what seemed like forever.  God had promised Simeon that he wouldn’t die before he met the Messiah, and so every day, he went to the Temple to watch and wait.  He had watched hundreds, if not thousands of babies pass through the Temple to be blessed by the priests when one day Mary and Joseph arrived with their baby named Jesus.  Simeon took the baby into his arms and immediately knew that this child was the one God had sent to save the world.  As Simeon took the child, Anna, an elderly widow who lived in the Temple caught a glimpse of the baby, and immediately she knew that the Messiah had finally come into the world.  We learned something of what it is like to have the patience of Simeon and Anna as we waited patiently for Smarties, which got everybody nice and sugared up to head off to the recreation station.  We learned that life doesn’t always happen on our timeline, but that in baptism, we receive the gift of patience that allows us to maintain hope.

The third gift we looked at this week was that God gives us peace.  We joined Jesus on a boat ride across the Sea of Galilee, which we learned is two-and-a-half times the size of Barren River Lake.  It was late and Jesus had taught a large crowd all day.  Jesus fell asleep, as preachers often do after a long day of preaching, and slept through a pretty raucous storm.  There was wind and lightning and thunder and even a chilly rain that made us scream really loudly in a mixture of joy and fear.  While it seemed like Jesus wasn’t with us in the storm, we learned that even when it feels like God is far away, he is always nearby.  In baptism, we receive the promise that when storms come up in our lives, God is not far away and will always be ready to give us peace.

Finally, on our final night together, we learned that the best gift of all is that God gives us love.  We heard the story of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter Day and learned that even though Jesus could have stopped the terrible things that were happening to him, he chose to walk to the Cross and take all of our bad stuff with him.  From one of our first and second grade group members, we discovered that sin means “not being loving,” which might be the best definition of sin I’ve ever heard.  We thought about the times in our lives when we weren’t as loving as maybe God wanted us to be.  Then, we heard how God’s love is bigger than anything we can do wrong, and that because Jesus came back to life, we can experience the gift of God’s love every day.  In baptism, we are washed clean from all our sin and receive the gift of God’s love.

Scripture tells us that in baptism, with the help of the Holy Spirit, we receive all kinds of gifts, and this week, I became convinced that chief among them are the gifts of comfort, patience, peace, and love.  Like any story of gift giving, however, it can’t end there.  Instead, through our baptism and with a good-sized helping of the Holy Spirit, we are called to share those gifts with the world around us.  Sophia will make these promises on her own, and Dominc’s sponsors will do the same for him, but in every baptism that we celebrate here at Christ Church, all of us are invited to renew our promises to live hope-filled lives as disciples of Jesus.  To develop as disciples by continuing in the Apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers.  To rely on God’s never-failing love in persevering in resisting ever, but when we do fall into sin, repenting and returning to the Lord.  To take our place as evangelists for the Kingdom by proclaiming by word and example the Good News of God in Christ.  To become models of God’s love by seeking and serving Christ in all persons and loving our neighbor as ourselves.  And to work to bring the Kingdom of God to earth as it is in heaven by striving for justice and peace among all people, and respecting the dignity of every human being.

There are weeks when all of this seems really hard.  These are the weeks when suffering tries to take the place of hope, but in baptism, we are assured that through the Father’s love, poured into our hearts in his Son’s life, death, and resurrection, and sustained by the Holy Spirit’s gifts, hope will never disappoint us.  As fellow members of the Body of Christ, I pray that you will experience God’s gifts of comfort, patience, peace, and most especially love, today and every day.  Amen.

A bad weekend for Acts 7

This weekend, at Christ Episcopal Church in Bowling Green, the Bishop will make his annual visitation.  Not to brag too much, but it is exciting to have 1 adult baptism/confirmation, 1 confirmation, 1 reception, and 1 reaffirmation at 8 am and 7 confirmations and 3 receptions at 10 am.  What is really exciting, however, is that I won’t have to preach this week.  Of particular note will be how the Bishop will handle the story of stoning of Stephen with this good group of wide-eyed new Episcopalians.


Some things just don’t translate to a coloring sheet

Being a person of faith in 21st century America is a whole lot easier than President Trump would have us believe.  While an increasing number of people might look at us and wonder why we would believe that Jesus rose from the grave, and more people every day shake their heads at what is presented as the sacrificial love of God, we are free to exercise our faith on a day to day basis.  No one is telling us what we can and can’t believe.  No one is telling us that we can’t raise funds for charitable uses.  No one is telling us that we can’t gather to read scripture, sing praise, and offer prayers.  In fact, it is increasingly difficult to distinguish the life of the average Christian American from that of the average None.

How then do we read this story of the Church’s first martyr?  What does it mean for those who are “singing up” on the day in which Stephen’s testimony leads him to be dragged into the street and stoned?  What should the life of the average 21st century American look like?  Is there anything we can really learn from the story of Stephen?

The answer is most certainly a yes, but maybe not from the 6 verses appointed for Easter 5, Year A.  If we look at the entirety of the story of Stephen, beginning with the despite between the Hellenists and the Hebrews at the beginning of chapter 6 and running through the end of chapter 7, there is plenty to learn from the story of Stephen.  It is a story about how the Church cares for those on the margins – especially those who are likely to fall through the cracks within the Church.  It is a story about discernment and how the Church calls people to ministry.  It is a story in which the apostles aren’t afraid to name gifts and talents that are required for the fulfillment of an office, which is a lesson the modern Episcopal Church could probably stand to have reiterated.

Most importantly for a service of Confirmation, Reception, and Reaffirmation: The story of Stephen is a story about how expansive ministry can become when we invite the Holy Spirit to be the source of our work.  The Bishop will lay hands on and pray over each of our candidates, inviting the Holy Spirit who has already begun a good work in them to renew their ministry, to grow their faith, and to propel them out in service.  It is a story that we all could stand hear with some regularity, reminding us that each member of Christ’s Body has a ministry, and that the Spirit equips all of us for service.

The Measure of Christ’s Gift

Paul is careful, very careful, to make sure the Ephesian Christians know from whence their help has come.  As he lays out before them the various gifts of the Spirit, he is sure to mention that these are not merited or earned, but are given through grace by the measure of Christ’s gift.  It is a somewhat archaic turn of phrase, which the New Living Translation tries to make more understandable by rendering it, “he has given each one of us a special gift according to the generosity of Christ.”

The Church, to her credit, has continued to try to remind Christians, especially those who are called to leadership, that the gifts they will utilize in their ministries are precisely that: gifts.  In the Examination of a soon-to-be-ordained Priest, the Bishop, finishes the prologue with these words, “In all that you do, you are to nourish Christ’s people from the riches of his grace…” (BCP, 531)  One of the questions asked of a soon-to-be-ordained Bishop echos those words, “As a chief priest and pastor, will you encourage and support all baptized people in their gifts and ministries, nourish them from the riches of God’s grace, pray for them without ceasing, and celebrate with them the sacraments of our redemption?” (BCP, 518)

As Evan Garner helpfully reminds us in his post for today, it is easy to forget that grace is a gift.  Rather than stand on the mountain top with our Savior, we tend to slip down one side or the other: either forgetting all about God in our successes or feeling totally unlovable in our failures, but grace is given out of God’s generosity to those who think they don’t deserve it as well as those who think they don’t need it.

Paul’s message to the Church in Ephesus is the same message Jesus tried to give the crowd in Capernaum: it isn’t about the work you do. Instead, salvation is about the work God is doing, constantly pouring out his gift of grace and the gifts of the Spirit for the up-building of the kingdom and the restoration of creation.  There is great freedom in accepting the reality that grace is simply a gift, but it also comes with real responsibility.  We are to use the gifts of God wisely, not for ourselves, but for the whole world.  We are to share the grace given to us, to use the gifts of preaching, healing, administrating, teaching, etc., to grow the kingdom and to bring honor and glory to the Father from whom every good gift comes.