The Call to Follow

Why preach?  I don’t mean this existentially, although there are some who would ask this question that way.  Why, in a world that is increasingly skeptical of “experts” do preachers think they have the right to stand before their congregations and tell them anything?  That’s not the question I want to ask.  As a preacher, you’d assume that I am fairly well convinced of the power of the homiletical craft.  Rather, as one who preaches, I have to regularly ask myself, why?  Why is this sermon worth hearing?  Why this text?  Why these words?  More often than not, the why question comes down to asking myself, “what is the goal of the sermon?”

For many these days, the goal of a sermon is to offer a practical lesson from Scripture that is applicable for our lives.  This is a good goal, by and large.  Sermons that get stuck in the past – historical lessons on what was happening in the context in which Jesus lived – can be interesting, but won’t get much traction over time.  It is helpful to bring the story forward and to help our people and ourselves understand what this particular bit of holy writ has to do with life in 21st century America.  The downside, of course, is that we tend to over emphasize ourselves in the text.  Eisegesis and vapid moralization aren’t all that far away when the goal of the sermon is to make the text offer some lesson for our congregation today.

These questions and concerns came to mind this morning as I read the short Gospel passage appointed for this week.  It is the familiar story of Jesus calling Andrew, Simon Peter, James, and John from their family fishing boats to become “fishers of people.”  My initial reaction was to think about what was happening in the hearts and minds of the four newest Disciples that would allow them to drop everything and follow Jesus.  I wondered about the reactions of their families.  I worried for their livelihoods.  I pondered what it might take for each of us to respond immediately when Jesus says, “Follow me.”  While I think these are all worthwhile questions and would make for a decent sermon on the text, I found myself wanting something more.

fishers_of_men

It can’t just be about me.  The goal of the sermon ought not just be about giving the congregation something they can hold on to or motivating them to change their lives in some way.  Rather than another sermon admonishing them to drop everything and follow Jesus (which isn’t really a thing for 21st century Christians), what if the sermon focused instead on the call to follow in and of itself?  What if, instead of focusing on the response, the sermon looked deeply into the one who does the calling?  Isn’t that what grace is all about?  Not about how I can get myself over the hump to follow Jesus, but how by God’s grace, Jesus brings me into the kingdom.

The text doesn’t give us much to work with, but I think there is something there.  The one who is preaching that the Kingdom of God has come near beckons.  The one who is called the Son of God calls us by name.  The one who is the Good News invites us to share in it.  There is more to dig into here, and time will tell if I can find a sermon that doesn’t devolve into “will you follow Jesus?” but for today, I’m adjusting the goal of my sermon; not to motivate us to follow, for that is God’s job, but rather, to focus on a deepening relationship with the one who calls.

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If Christ is King – a sermon

You can listen to this on the Christ Church website, or read it here.


In the Fall of 1925, Pope Pius the Eleventh threw a fit.  The Pope was upset about the growing power of modernity in the world.  As people believed more and more what science was coming to discover, Pius and many other religious leaders, were afraid that the Bible would have less and less power in peoples’ lives.  He was anxious that the Church might become irrelevant and he desperately wanted to make sure that didn’t happen.  On top of that, the Pope was embroiled in a nearly hundred-year-old controversy between the burgeoning Kingdom of Italy and the Papal States.  Since 1849, a newly unified Italy had been fighting with the Roman Catholic Church over who controlled the city of Rome.  The Popes were sure that the Church was in charge.  The Italian Parliament had other ideas.  By 1925, Pius, the fifth Pope to take on this fight, had had enough.[1]  On December 11, 1925, he published an encyclical entitled Quas primas which argued for the Kingship of Jesus above all others and reiterated that the Roman Catholic Church was the “kingdom of Christ on earth” with the Pope obviously serving as its temporal ruler.  Finally, to commemorate these two foundational truths, Pope Pius the Eleventh created the Feast of Christ the King.[2]

In the 1979 Book of Common Prayer, the Last Sunday after Pentecost uses, almost verbatim, the Roman Catholic Collect for Christ the King, but it stopped short of making today a Feast Day.  When we adopted the Revised Common Lectionary in 2009, Christ the King was included in the package and became a thing in the Episcopal Church.  Some would say it shouldn’t be a thing seeing as, if you look in the Prayer Books in your pews, you’ll find absolutely no reference to the Feast of Pope Pius the Eleventh’s Temper Tantrum.  I’m sure Pius is in heaven today, scratching his head and wondering how a bunch of Protestants ended up subscribing to a feast created to affirm the earthly authority of the Pope, but here we are, on the Last Sunday after Pentecost, celebrating the Feast of Christ the King.

While I find this Feast Day’s genesis to be questionable, what I appreciate about having a day set aside to honor Jesus Christ as our King is that it gives us an opportunity to imagine Jesus in an unusual way.  21st century American Christians aren’t well versed in the language of kings.  We live in a country that was founded in rebellion against the King of England.  If I’m honest, most of what I know about kings and queens is the result of whatever the American news decides to pick up from the British tabloids.  Yet this image of Jesus Christ as King is a well-established, apocalyptic, theme in the Scriptures.  Dubious feast day or not, it is worth our time to ponder what it means to call Jesus Christ our King and to live within his Kingdom.

In our Gospel lesson for this morning, we find a very clear image of what it means to live within the boundaries of the Kingdom of God.  Remember the context for this parable, and for all the apocalyptic parables we have heard over the last month. [3]  Jesus isn’t making general claims to a large audience, but rather, these are final words about final things, addressed to his closest disciples.  It is Tuesday in Holy Week, and the cross is quickly approaching.  Jesus knows that his disciples have already committed quite a bit to following Jesus.  He isn’t trying to tell them what they need to do to be included in his Kingdom, but rather, what is expected of those who claim to live under the authority of Christ the King.  As inheritors of this Apostolic Tradition, we should read these words carefully, not as a parable of judgment against those who do not know Christ, but as a stark judgment against those who claim to follow Christ the King but can’t be bothered to live in his service.  This parable is a helpful reminder that the proper response to the love of God is to reach out with compassion to those Jesus came to save.  We who are bold enough to claim a place in the Kingdom of God bring honor to the King when we feed the hungry, clothe the naked, welcome the stranger, take care of the sick, and visit the incarcerated.

What is particularly interesting in this parable is that neither the sheep nor the goats realize they had seen the king in the poor, the hungry, or the sick.  One group was motivated to action, not out of guilt, fear, or shame, but out of love.  This group saw a need, and decided to do something about it.  Living in the Kingdom of God means having your eyes open to see God’s hand at work in the world about you.  Yet it means more than just seeing.  Living in the Kingdom of God, being counted among the sheep, means seeing and being God’s hand at work in the world about us.  As Episcopalians, we affirm this Kingdom truth every time we renew our Baptismal covenant; promising that with God’s help, we will seek and serve Christ in all persons.

Over time, I have become more and more convinced that the true work of discipleship is learning how to see Christ in our neighbors.  It is only when we can see that we can then act to relieve their suffering.  In the Ephesians lesson, Paul prays a prayer that is becoming the foundation of my that understanding of discipleship.  “I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power.”

We grow in relationship with God by learning how to see the world through God’s eyes.  As we become more in tune with the heart of God, we see more clearly the injustices of this world, we see the suffering and are moved with compassion, we see the lonely, the anxious, the hungry, the naked, the poor, the outcast, the incarcerated, and the hopeless and we are compelled to act because in them, as in all our neighbors, we see the face of Christ.  Of course, this does not happen on our own.  The only way to fix our spiritual eyesight is with the help of God.  Through prayer and studying the Scriptures, God works to focus the eyes of our hearts, making us more and more able to see, so that, when the day of judgment comes, our question cannot be, or at least should not be, Lord when did we see you, because as baptized followers of Jesus Christ the King, we have already made a promise, that with God’s help, we will seek and serve Christ in every person we meet, loving our neighbors as ourselves.

Pope Pius the Eleventh might not have had it 100% correct, but he did get some things right.  Jesus Christ is the King of kings.  It is under his authority that all of humanity lives.  One day he will come with power and glory to sit in judgment upon his throne, and all of us who claim to be followers of Jesus, members of his Kingdom and subject to his authority, will need to be ready to have an answer to the question: Did we see our neighbors in need and respond with love or with apathy?  Everyday, we see dozens, if not hundreds, of our neighbors.  All of them need God’s love.  This morning, our lessons invite us to see Christ in each of them, to reach out in compassion, and to offer the love of God, not out of fear of judgment or guilt or shame, but as a loving response to the love which our King has shown to us.  Who knows, one day, with God’s help, we might just find ourselves counted among the sheep and pleased to hear these words, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.”  Amen.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Feast_of_Christ_the_King

[2] http://w2.vatican.va/content/pius-xi/en/encyclicals/documents/hf_p-xi_enc_11121925_quas-primas.html

[3] https://evandgarner.blogspot.com/2017/11/one-sunday-two-voices.html

Go, have no fear, take risks, and share the Good News – a sermon

You can hear this sermon on the Christ Church website, or read it here.


It was pointed out to me after last Sunday that thanks to a couple of baptisms and Vacation Bible School, I had escaped a pretty difficult Gospel passage for another three years.  Without thinking, I laughingly agreed, and gave the old “phew” sign.  Monday morning, I realized that I had breathed a sigh of relief just a little too soon.  Unfortunately for me, the Lectionary has split Jesus’ warning into three sections, the toughest of which we hear this morning.  If you’ll recall from last week, Jesus’ ministry has become increasingly successful.  He toured many of the cities and villages of Israel, proclaiming that the Kingdom of God has come near, and the crowds continued to grow.  As Jesus looked at the throngs of hurting and helpless people who were following him, his heart was broken.  They were like sheep without a shepherd, and Jesus knew that for every one that had heard his message, there were hundreds of others who had yet to hear the Good News.

So, Jesus called together the twelve and commissioned them to go: cast out demons, cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, and proclaim that the Kingdom of heaven has come near.  Before they departed on their evangelistic expedition, Jesus offered a word of caution.  Well, actually, it’s more like eight hundred words of caution.  The task will not be easy.  There are plenty of people who do not want the Jesus Movement to take off, and many of them are in positions of power.  “You will be brought before councils, flogged in the synagogue, and dragged before governors and kings,” Jesus told them in last week’s Gospel, “but don’t worry, the Spirit will give you the words you need.”  “You will be hated by friends and family alike,” Jesus goes on to warn them, “but with God’s help, you will endure.”  His rhetoric heats up in this week’s passage.  Jesus reminds the disciples that “out there” they are calling him Beelzebul, the prince of demons, that is, Satan himself.  “What do you think it will be like for you,” Jesus asks, “as you take my message and help it to spread.”

Consistently throughout these dire warnings about the struggle that is to come, Jesus pauses to offer the word that God always offers in moments of anxiety and struggle, “Have no fear.”  The work will not be easy.  There will be pain.  There will be broken relationships.  There will be rumors and innuendo.  There might even be a call to die, but despite all that, Jesus says, “have no fear, for even if they kill your body, they cannot touch your soul… Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”

When Jesus talked about giving up one’s life and that “one’s foes will be members of one’s own household,” he was dead serious.  To give up one’s faith in the Jewish tradition and follow Jesus was akin to walking away from one’s family.  The same was true of Pagan Gentiles who converted.  In a world where men followed in the family business and sons took care of their aging parents, this was a significant issue.  To disrupt the religious, political, and economic status quo was the threaten the stability of the whole region, and governments are not fond of instability.  It was not safe to be a disciple of Jesus.  In fact, for the first three hundred or so years of Christianity, there was an almost constant, real threat of death, and so these words of comfort were of crucial importance.

Hearing a similar chunk of Matthew 10, this Thursday, the Church remembered Saint Alban, the first British Christian for whom we have a name.  Alban lived just outside of modern day London during the third century.  He was a pagan when he met a priest who was fleeing the most recent wave of Roman persecution.  For reasons that will forever be unknown, Alban decided to hide the priest in his home.  For several days, they had nothing to do but talk with each other.  Over time, Alban was so impressed by the faith of the priest, that he became a Christian.  When soldiers got word that the priest was hiding at Alban’s home, they came to arrest him, but Alban quickly donned the priest’s cloak and gave himself up instead.  Alban was tortured in hopes that he would renounce his faith, but when he withstood the flogging with patience and joy, the judge ordered him beheaded.

martyrdom

As Alban and his executioners made their way to the hill where he was to be killed, they came upon a fast-flowing river.  The bridge was so clogged with onlookers that the execution party couldn’t cross the river, but the excited new convert was so ready to lose his life for the sake of the Gospel that he “raised his eyes to heaven and the river dried up.”  The first executioner, amazed by the miracle, put down his sword and offered to be killed in Alban’s place.  Ultimately, both men were beheaded atop a hill that now bears his name.  Legend has it that as he made the fatal blow, the second executioner’s eyes popped out and dropped to the ground along with Alban’s head, which then rolled down the hill and a spring of fresh water burst forth from the ground at its final resting place.  Martyrdom stories tend to get embellished over time, but even if all the details aren’t exactly true, the reality is that for Alban and thousands of others like him, following Jesus in those early days of Christianity was a life-threatening endeavor that they willingly took on buoyed by the assurance of Jesus in passages like this one.

From the comfort of our mortgage free building that sits in the heart of the Bible Belt, and is filled with relatively comfortable, middle class, “mainline” American Christians, this message doesn’t have the same impact.  In fact, it can be downright difficult to begin to make sense of it.  When I hear these warnings about persecution, I can’t help but wonder if I can even consider myself a disciple.  Life as a 21st century American Christian just seems too easy.  What are we to do with a text like this?   I think the answer is two-fold.  First, these words from Jesus should call to mind the millions of Christians outside of our safe little American bubble who face the threat of death every day.  These words from Jesus remind us to pray with fervor for the Coptic Christians in Egypt and Iraq, for Anglicans in Sudan, and for Christians around the globe who are under the real threat of violence for their faith in Jesus.

Secondly, I think these words of warning should inspire us to evangelistic action.  In a country where there is no actual threat to our faith, but where the face of Christianity is often closed-minded, abusive, or worse yet, a self-seeking get-rich-quick scheme, to not speak God’s word of love for the world God created is to fail to live up to the expectations Jesus has for us.  Instead of choosing to love father and mother more than Jesus, many Episcopalians have decided to love polite society or our own comfort more than him.  When we choose the easy route, we fail to take up our cross and follow him.  When we ignore the call to proclaim the Kingdom of God in word and deed, we deny Christ before others, and, tough as it might be to hear, Jesus promises that he will deny us in the same way.

If it weren’t for the faithfulness of those early disciples, who withstood persecution and proclaimed Jesus Christ as Lord, we wouldn’t be here today.  It is our responsibility, then, as committed, albeit comfortable, disciples of Jesus, to continue to share the Good News that the kingdom of heaven has come near, to share a message of God’s love and grace in a world that hears mostly of God’s anger and vengeance, and to show that following Jesus doesn’t mean condemning those who are different from us, but rather, embracing the reality that God loves everyone, no exceptions.  In a world full of vitriol and strife, the message of hope, grace, and love that we have to offer is too important not to share.  So, go, have no fear, take a risk, and tell out the Good News that the kingdom of heaven has come near.  Amen.

Believing is Seeing

Audio of today’s sermon can be heard on the Christ Church website, or you can read the text here.


Lost in the busyness of Holy Week was a publication by the Gallup pollsters that once again reminded the Church of the importance of good preaching.  In a survey that asked people what factored into their decisions about church attendance, 76% of respondents said that “sermons or talks that teach you more about scripture” were a major factor in where they went to church.  75% also listed “sermons or lectures that help you connect religion to your own life” as a major factor.  With no offense intended to my colleague Ken Stein, only 38% suggested “a good choir, praise band, cantors or other spiritual music” as a major factor.[1]  These statistics are nothing new.  I’ve been hearing about the need for quality preaching since before I went to seminary.  Seminaries, to their credit, do the best they can within the confines of a three-year curriculum to help would-be preachers begin to hone their craft.  At VTS, we were required to take a semester and a half of homiletics during our Middler year.  Much to my benefit as a preacher, I had the Rev. Dr. Judith McDaniel for a full semester.  Judith’s teaching style matched me to a “T”: she is exceedingly Type-A and loves rules.  She worked hard to mold us into good preachers.  Her goal was to teach us how to “proclaim the gospel in such a way it can be heard by the head and the heart.”  Even though I violate most of them on a regular basis, including at least two in that last clause, I still have Judith McDaniel’s patented “12 Homiletical Norms” saved in my files.  I will never forget her number one rule in preaching: “Settle for one point, well made.”  She was so serious about the need for one clear point that without an obvious thesis statement in the body of the first paragraph, your sermon could not be graded as an A.

Having now violated that norm as well, I can say that I am in good company.  It isn’t until his Gospel is almost over (and some scholars think maybe it was over) that John finally gives us a clear statement of his purpose for putting the story of Jesus to parchment.  “These are written,” John writes, “so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.”  All the poetry, the signs, the discourses; all the time spent on the high priestly prayer and the Passion; all the details and the care with which he wrote them, were included so that we might come to believe.  It might feel like this thesis statement is simply an appendix, tacked on after the story has been told, but I think John decided to include it here on purpose.  This thesis for belief comes right at the tail end of a story that shows us what belief requires.

This story takes place while it is still Sunday, the first Easter Day, the first day of the week and the first day of new life.  That whole scene at the tomb that we heard about last week had just happened that morning.  John and Peter had seen the empty tomb and gone home when Mary came barging in, breathlessly declaring, “I have seen the Lord.”  And what did the disciples do with that news?  There was no Alleluia Party, I can tell you that.  No shrimp cocktail.  No champagne punch.  No cake.  Only fear, disbelief, and locked doors.  This pattern of testimony and skepticism wasn’t new.  Back at the very beginning of John’s Gospel is the story of Andrew who, after he had encountered Jesus, went to tell his brother Peter.  Peter needed his own encounter, and so off they went to meet Jesus.  The pattern repeated the very next day when Philip ran off to find Nathaniel who is famous for responding to Philip’s testimony with, “Can anything good come from Nazareth?”  Belief based on the testimony of someone else proves challenging in John’s Gospel.  John knows that belief in Jesus is easiest with a personal encounter. [2]  But after the Ascension, John also understands that coming to faith based on the testimony of someone else is the norm, and so he wrote his story, that we might come to believe having never seen.

Back in that locked house on Easter evening, other than Mary Magdalene, we have no idea if any of the disciples gathered there actually believed that Jesus was really risen from the dead.  If anyone did believe, they were likely the most afraid.  When Jesus brought Lazarus back from the dead, it sealed the deal on his execution.  Imagine what havoc Rome and the Temple would wreak upon Jesus’ friends if he really had the power to come back from the dead!  Those who were still unbelieving likely had similar fears with the added thought of how awful it would be to get yourself killed for following some guy whose tragic death was made more pathetic when he wasn’t resurrected like he said he would be, but his body was stolen to perpetuate some ridiculous hoax.  The disciples had heard Mary’s testimony, but they couldn’t come to believe, when suddenly, Jesus appeared in their midst.

That morning, Mary’s encounter with the risen Lord was simply her name.  Now, the disciples were offered peace and his wounds, and like Mary, they rejoiced at the sight of their risen Lord.  Well, not all of them.  For whatever reason, Thomas wasn’t there.  Like Andrew going to find Peter and Philip running off to find Nathaniel, the disciples went in search of Thomas with the Easter proclamation of Mary Magdalene on their lips.  “We have seen the Lord!”  Here is where most preachers will go off on a tangent about Doubting Thomas, but I refuse.  Partially because Judith McDaniel’s voice is reminding me that I’ve already failed pretty miserably at settling on one well-made point.  But mostly, I refuse to beat the dead horse of Doubting Thomas because I think calling Thomas “doubting” is a bad reading of the Scripture.  Thomas didn’t have any less faith than the rest of the disciples had shown the week before.  All he asked for was what Mary and the rest all received on Easter.  He wanted to see and touch Jesus.  Like everyone else in John’s Gospel, before Thomas could believe, he needed to encounter the risen Lord.

It took eight days, but Thomas got his chance, when back in that same locked house, Jesus once again appeared in their midst.  Again, he offered peace.  He invited Thomas to touch his wounds and asked him to give up his unbelieving ways just as the rest of them had a week earlier.  Jesus invited Thomas into a relationship, which is what belief is all about.  Believing in Jesus means that we trust that he is who is says he is and will do what he has promised to do.  It means that through his resurrection, we can enter into an ongoing relationship with him by following where he leads.

It is into this relationship that John hopes all of us will enter.  Both he and Jesus know how difficult that will be for those of us who would come later.  Unlike Andrew and Peter, Philip and Nathaniel, Mary, the Ten, and eventually Thomas, we don’t have the opportunity to encounter Jesus face-to-face.  Much as we would like him to, Jesus isn’t likely to miraculously appear in our midst, offer us peace, and invite us to touch his wounds.  We who believe without seeing are blessed, Jesus assures us, because ours is a faith much more challenging to maintain.  The disciples came to believe through seeing.  We will have to come to see through believing.  Eventually, if we stick around long enough; if we can hang on to belief through its infancy; if we are open to the Spirit, we will have our own opportunities to see Jesus, to receive his peace, to feel his wounds, and to know the power of his resurrection.  Through belief, Jesus enters our lives, despite whatever doors we may have locked in fear, and we are blessed.  He enters offering peace, and invites us to abundant life in his name.  God knows, it isn’t easy to maintain an Easter faith without seeing Jesus face-to-face, but when we can, we are assuredly blessed in believing.  Amen.

[1] http://www.gallup.com/poll/208529/sermon-content-appeals-churchgoers.aspx

[2] http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3222

Learning to see – a sermon

You can listen to my sermon on the Christ Church website, or read it below


After four months of being in transition, this week I decided to get back into the routine of life.  No more sleeping in until just before the kids wake up and rushing through the morning, the alarm now goes off at 5am, and thanks to our recent return to Daylight Saving Time, it is still very dark.  In those first moments of the morning, I struggle to stay awake.  It is so dark, the bed is so comfortable, and I really would prefer to just roll over, but at least for this week, I was able to stave off the snooze button.  The hardest part, however, isn’t the waking up, it is those first few seconds while my eyes adjust to whatever light source I introduce.  Usually, it is my iPhone.  After the alarm goes off, I check for overnight messages and then open up the Forward Movement website to read Morning Prayer.  Slowly my eyes adjust to the brightness of the screen.  At first, it is almost painful as my dilated pupils rapidly shrink.  Usually, by the time I have finished reading the Psalm, my eyes are fully adjusted, but it really does take a while.

I can only imagine what it must have been like for the man born blind when he first opened his eyes.  After decades of darkness, never knowing the light of day, suddenly it all came flooding in.  How intense must that first moment of sight been for him?  How excruciating was it as his eyes adjusted to the light for the first time?  How long did it take before he could actually comprehend what he was seeing?  As much as this story is about the miracle of a man born blind being given the ability to see, it also serves as a metaphor for John.  This story is meant to teach us what it means to really see Jesus even as it assures us that it might take some time for the eyes of our heart to adjust.  For John, this story serves as an illustration of what it means to call Jesus the light of the world.  It took the man’s eyes some time to adjust to the newness of the light, and it would take his soul a while to come to see clearly in the light of Christ.  While he is learning to see, everyone around this man were found to be perfectly happy staying blind.

After the man is healed, the questions start, beginning with his neighbors, those who had passed him by for years, but never really saw him.  They had seen his cloak, spread out to receive loose change.  They had seen his rags, barely stitched together.  Some had seen his face and the vastness behind his eyes, but their reactions betray the fact that though they were perfectly capable of sight, they had never really seen him.  The man, on the other hand, continues his journey toward sight.  “Who did this to you?” They asked him.  The man responds, “The man called Jesus made mud, spread it on my eyes… and I received my sight.”  In the initial stages of his spiritual seeing, the man only knows the name of the one who healed him, but as the story unfolds, his soul’s vision will increase.

His neighbors don’t buy his answer, and so they drag him off to the Synagogue where the Pharisees essentially put him on trial for heresy.  Again, he gives the details of his healing.  When pressed about the man called Jesus, the once blind man’s understanding deepens.  No longer able call Jesus simply a man, the eyes of his heart continued to open and he tells them, “He is a prophet.”  Not content to leave it alone, the Pharisees push things further.  They call his parents to testify that he was, in fact, the man born blind.  Afraid of what the Pharisees might do to them, and unwilling to comment on who this Jesus character might actually be, his parents make themselves blind to their own son’s healing.  “Ask him,” they say, “he is of age.”

Again, the man is brought back before the council, and again they ask him for the details of his healing.  How can the details of this story be true, they wonder, for Jesus healed the man on the Sabbath, clearly he is a sinner and God doesn’t work through sinners.  So, who healed you, God or this sinner?  The man can clearly see that they are missing the point.  He wonders if maybe they secretly want to be disciples of Jesus.  He assures them that he has no idea how it all happened, but that this Jesus who healed him has to be of God.  As he considers the truth that never before had anyone ever heard of someone blind from birth being healed, his spiritual vision continues to come into focus.

Finally, the Pharisees have had enough.  Their eyes are scrunched closed so tightly that they may never see anything the right way again, and they throw this man out of the Synagogue.  Jesus, having heard about it, tracked him down, and the man born blind was able to see Jesus for the first time.  Here, with physical eyes wide open and spiritual eyes ready to see, he comes to see and to understand fully that Jesus is the Son of Man, one of John’s favorite names for the Messiah, and he becomes the only person in John’s Gospel to worship Jesus.[1]  It was difficult work, coming to see Jesus fully, but the man born blind was blessed in the experience.  His eyes were made open by Jesus, but more than that, his heart became open to God.

I am more and more convinced that learning to see with the eyes of our hearts is the basic work of discipleship.  In Baptism, we are given the gift of the Holy Spirit and with it, the spiritual eyes needed to see God’s hand at work in the world.  Over time, by the grace of God, the pupils of our hearts slowly adjust to the light of Christ.  As our spiritual vision comes into focus, we see the hurting and the lost and we care for them.  We see the joyful and the blessed and we rejoice with them.  We see blessings poured out and we give thanks for them.  We see the work of the Kingdom and we join in it.  The process of learning to see the world through the eyes of our hearts is never ending, but with God’s help, every day, our spiritual eyesight can get a little bit better.  As our eyes adjust to the light of Christ, the progress might be slow, even painful at times, but in the end, our eyes will be open and we will be ready to worship Jesus, the light of the world, the Son of God.  Amen.

[1] http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=906

The E-Word – a sermon

​I’m not sure I could have scripted a more amazing first Sunday. A baptism at 8 o’clock, nearly a full house at 10 am and children running here, there, and everywhere made my heart sing. The day was capped off by a wonderful reception and we were sufficiently pounded. Thank you all for a truly delightful day. I’ve thought long and hard about how to make week two just as memorable as week one and I’ve decided not to try. Instead, I’m going to go the opposite direction, taking my cue from this morning’s Gospel lesson, and talking about a part of our common life that is uncomfortable for many. That’s right; today we are going to talk about the dreaded E-word: evangelism.
​Now, before you turn off your ears and pull out the announcement insert from your bulletin, let me assure you, I am not talking about the kind of evangelism you are probably thinking about. There will be no handing out tracts at the entrance to Wal*Mart; no standing at the round-about holding signs that say “repent or perish;” not even knocking on doors and asking people if they have found Jesus. It is only because Episcopalians, like other mainline churches, have by and large failed to do the work of evangelism that these are the images we have of the E-word. We have, for too long, allowed a different kind of Christianity to hold sway. We have abandoned our responsibility to share the Good News of Jesus Christ. As a result, the picture that people have of the God that we love and worship each Sunday is that of a judgmental, angry God who survives on the guilt and shame of his followers. I don’t know about you, but that is not the God I know.

​There is a change afoot, however. With the election of Michael Curry as Presiding Bishop, there has been a renewed interest in the E-Word. In his biography for the Presiding Bishop search committee, Bishop Curry called for the PB to be a different sort of CEO for the Church; not merely a Chief Executive Officer but the Chief Evangelism Officer. He is working diligently to live up to that title. Throughout 2017, the PB will tour the country preaching at a series of “Episcopal Revivals,” not only to highlight his own ability to share the Good News, but offering practical evangelism resources for Episcopalians who might be scared of the E-Word. He has hired a Canon for Evangelism and Racial Reconciliation, who works with various groups throughout the Church to develop practical evangelism training guides. More than 400 Episcopal leaders gathered in Dallas late last year at an Evangelism Matters conference. Even your Rector is a part of the new-found interest in Evangelism. I am honored to serve on the General Convention Task Force on Leveraging Social Media for Evangelism. Our task is to create training materials for people who are interested in using their presence on social media to share the love of God.

​As we seek to re-learn what it means to be Episcopal Evangelists, one obvious place to turn would be the scriptures, and today’s Gospel lesson is a gift in that it has within it not one or even two, but three different evangelistic encounters. It all starts with John pointing out Jesus to his disciples. “Here is the lamb of God!” he proclaims. He can do because he has first-hand experience with Jesus. That’s the first lesson we can learn: evangelism is, quite simply, telling the story of our experience with Jesus. This is, at least to me, a lot less scary than feeling like I have to know all the answers before I talk to somebody about God. We don’t need to know how many angels fit on the head of a pin; or whether we prefer Penal Substitionary Atonement over Christus Victor; or even where in the Bible it says that God loves us in order to share the Good News of Jesus Christ. All we need is an active, ongoing relationship with him. How has following Jesus changed your life? How has attending your church been transformative? When have you seen God at work in the world about you? In order to be an evangelist requires nothing more than being willing to tell your story.    

​The second evangelistic encounter comes from Jesus himself. He can feel Andrew and the unnamed disciple just sort of lurking around and so he invites them to “come and see.” Many of us in the church are used to people sniffing around at our faith. When we live lives worthy of the Gospel, others can become curious, hungry even, to know what it is that makes us different. Why is it that we can have joy and hope in dire circumstances? What causes you to have such compassion for those in need? Who in their right mind gives up a Sunday morning of sleeping in and the Times crossword puzzle to teach three year-olds gospel stories on felt boards? Here, the challenge isn’t so much to be willing to tell our story; they’ve already seen it in our lives, but instead the evangelistic opportunity is to have our eyes open to their interest. They might hover nearby or ask tangential questions; unsure of how to get at the meat of what they are looking for. One of the ways God’s hand is at work is bringing people into our lives who are hungry for God’s love. Pray that your eyes might be open.

​Finally, there is the story of Andrew and Simon Peter. Here we have the classic model of evangelism where one person, often a convert, excited about what God is doing in their life finds someone with whom they already have a relationship and shares the Good News. “We have found the Messiah!” This is the form of evangelism to which every disciple is called. This is the easiest form of evangelism, and often the most effective, as one person who loves and cares for another shares what is important in their life, but again, notice that Andrew’s word to Simon Peter isn’t a long theological discourse. He isn’t engaging his brother in a debate. He is simply sharing the excitement has welled up within him after an evening with Jesus.

​Way back in 1983, I was a chunky three-year old growing up in the suburbs of Chicago. My dad was employed by RR Donnelly and Sons, and was informed that he would be transferred to either Los Angeles, California or a new plant they were building in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Thanks be to God, my parents chose Lancaster. While on one of those whirlwind weekends where you fly in, buy a house, and leave, they met Jeanne Ritter. Jeanne was their realtor. She showed them all around town. They settled on 52 Blossom Hill Drive. It was in the best school district; close enough to dad’s work, and had a great sled-riding hill in the back yard. It also happened to be near where Jeanne Ritter lived and went to church. “You’ll have to give my church a try,” she told my parents late that weekend. There was no Bible thumping or fear or shame, just a woman who loved God and her community of faith and was willing to invite someone else to come and see. Because of Jeanne Ritter, my parents sat in the fourth pew from the front on the Gospel side of Saint Thomas Episcopal Church for almost three decades. I was raised in that church, confirmed in that church, worked as a youth minister in that church, and ordained a priest in that church. I am standing before you today as the result of one woman who had a deep and abiding relationship with Jesus and wasn’t afraid of the E-Word.

​I know this is only our second week together, and I shouldn’t talk about such sensitive topics so early on, but I think we have a unique opportunity. As I mentioned earlier, it is often converts who are the most effective evangelists. I think it is because they have the most enthusiasm. There is something exciting about a new thing happening, and that is precisely what we have going on here. Studies still suggest that more than two-thirds of Americans would we willing to attend church if a friend or family member invited them. So, why not ask? Invite someone to come see this new and exciting thing we have going on. Invite someone back who maybe hasn’t been here in a while. Be willing to take that step of faith. It doesn’t have to be complicated or scary, evangelism is simply an extension of your joy that invites someone else to come and see. Amen.