The Body of Christ

I am a creature of habit, and so, every morning, I follow the same routine.  I wake up, put in my air pods, and listen to two podcasts while I sip my coffee.  First, I listen to A Morning at the Office, a Daily Office podcast sponsored by Forward Movement.  My prayers said and Bible lessons heard, I then tune into the ESPN Daily podcast.  Every weekday, Pablo Torre spends about 30 minutes sharing a story from the world of sports.  Sometimes, it is a very timely story.  Every Monday, for example, they reflect on the NFL weekend that has passed.  Other times, they are deeper dives into the minutiae of sport. This was the case on Thursday when ESPN Daily spent 36 minutes and 23 seconds telling the story of one of the most overlooked specialists in all of football, the long snapper.

NFL rosters are made up of 53 players, no more, no less.  If you are even a casual sports fan, you probably know a lot about key positions like quarterback, running back, place kickers, and even line backers, but on any given roster there are probably two dozen players that few know anything about.  Most of those players are on special teams and play only a handful of downs each game.  Least thought about, but perhaps most important of all is the long snapper, and so Dave Fleming, Senior Writer for ESPN the Magazine, decided to tell their story.  To do so, he enlisted Morgan Cox, the All-Pro long snapper for the Tennessee Titans to share about how he became a long snapper, his time at the University of Tennessee, his 13-year career in the NFL, and the intricacies of his chosen vocation; from how the balls used for kicking are sanded down, to how he tries to repeat the same motion every time, allowing the snap to enter the hands of the holder in 0.7 seconds, at a velocity of 35 miles per hour, with the ball rotating exactly three and a quarter times.

What I found most interesting is the story of a January 12, 2013, playoff game between the Baltimore Ravens and Denver Broncos.  Morgan was the long snapper for the Baltimore Ravens and played the game with the flu.  It was 13 degrees at kick-off and the game went into double overtime.  Because he was feeling so awful, Morgan spent most of the game sitting on a heated bench, next to a jet engine of a space heater, wearing a giant puffy cape.  Combine all that with a fever, and Morgan began to sweat.  When the moment of truth came, he threw off his cape only to realize the sweat on his arms was beginning to freeze.  With ice covering his arms, he bent over to snap the ball at a perfect 35 miles per hour, rotating three and one quarter times into the hands of the holder with the laces out, allowing Justin Tucker to kick a game-winning 47-yard field goal.  The Ravens went on to win the Super Bowl that season, thanks, in part, to their frozen armed, flu-infected, long snapper, Morgan Cox.[1]

To crudely paraphrase Paul in First Corinthians, “Just as a football team is one and has many members, and all the members of the same team, though many, are one team, so it is with Christ Episcopal Church.  For in the one Spirit, we were all baptized into one body – Hilltoppers, Cardinals, or Wildcats; Republicans, Democrats, or others; students, employed, or retired – and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.”  Last Sunday, I preached on the giftedness of all of us and how those gifts are given not for individual glory, but for the building up of the Kingdom of Heaven.  This morning, as we prepare to gather for our Annual Meeting, I’m struck by the story of Morgan Cox and how every member of this community has something vital to offer.

Over the course of the last two years, being an active part of the Body of Christ has been difficult.  To overextend the football metaphor, for most of us, our time on the bench has caused our muscles to atrophy.  Once vibrant and active ministers find it hard to get back into the swing of things, and systems that picked up the slack are feeling the weight of more and more work with fewer and fewer helpers.  This isn’t to point fingers or to blame anyone, but simply to name the reality that the pandemic has fundamentally changed how we operate as the Body of Christ.  We have buried a lot of people over the last two years.  All of us are two years older, and there has been very little opportunity to integrate new members into our community.  Some have joined us, and I am beyond grateful for their presence, but in the coming months and years, a concerted effort to grow our congregation across all demographics – age, race, and family structure – must be developed.  Our evangelism, hospitality, and congregational development muscles will need some exercise to come back into shape.

Of course, not everyone is gifted in evangelism and hospitality.  Others are gifted in service, prayer, and acts of mercy.  Ministries of lay pastoral care, which have also languished in the pandemic, will require us to stretch these muscles.  Lay Eucharistic Ministers, Stephen Ministers, prayer shawls, and others will be needed to make sure those among us who are suffering remain connected to their community of faith and experience the compassionate love of God in their most difficult moments.  Outreach ministries like Room in the Inn, Churches United in Christ HELP Ministry, and Wednesday Community lunch also need gifted people in order to radiate God’s love to all.

As we look to the future of Faith Formation at Christ Church, I’m thankful to those who continue to share their gifts of teaching, wisdom, and leadership to ensure that God’s children from 3 to 103 continue to grow in faith and understanding.  We are blessed with a whole host of hungry learners and eager teachers.  There are also essential volunteers on the garden committee, working the front desk, and on the audio-visual team who use a whole host of gifts to make sure this place looks amazing, runs smoothly, and shares the Good News of God’s love far and wide.

In the story of Morgan Cox, I am reminded that no gift is insignificant.  Each of us plays an important role in the Body of Christ.  Each of us helps radiate the love of God to a world that desperately needs it.  Thank you for your willingness to share your gifts.  And get ready, because we’ll be asking you to step in all kinds of ways in 2022 and beyond.  May the Holy Spirit bless us all with gifts in abundance and the energy to share them for the common good and building up the Body of Christ.  Amen.


[1] “Longsnappers: The NFL’s Unsung Special Teams Artists” ESPN Daily Podcast, January 20, 2022

More than enough

One of the great gifts of ordained ministry is the opportunity to engage in continuing education.  In my almost 12 years as a priest, I’ve had the privilege of traveling around the country, learning from some of the leading voices in practical theology and liturgy.  Of course, as many of you probably know from experience, continuing education opportunities can be intimidating at times, especially early in one’s career.  I still remember vividly my first continuing education event way back in November of 2008.  I had come across a conference put on by the United Methodist Church called “Worship in a Postmodern Accent” that just sounded really cool.  I booked a flight to Oklahoma City, everyone’s favorite vacation spot, for a few days at some non-descript, airport-adjacent hotel.  It really was a fantastic conference, filled with impactful alternative worship experiences, lectures by some of the most creative minds in worship planning, and good fellowship with people some whom I still have contact through social media.  For all the good that weekend had to offer, I also still vividly remember the overwhelming feeling of inadequacy that threatened to swallow me whole.

In November of 2008, I had been a priest for half a minute.  I was twenty-eight years old, and still not sure what this life of ordained ministry would really look like.  There I was, mixing it up with some of most imaginative and talented people in their field, and I began to wonder, “Do I even belong?  Not just here in Oklahoma, but in the priesthood.”  It all came to a head on the second day, in one of the lower level meeting rooms, at three o’clock in the afternoon.  Jonny Baker, then-head of the Fresh Expressions Office in the Church of England, had set up a labyrinth experience unlike anything I’ve ever seen.  A dozen or so prayer stations had transformed a room with loud carpet and foldable walls into a sanctuary.  There was a working television at one station, a sand box at another, and various light displays.  It all led to the center where Jonny had somehow created a flowing river in this hotel ballroom.  As I took in what was happening in that space, a little voice crept into my head and said, over and over again, “You’ll never be this creative.  Give it up.  Why waste your time?”  Still, I plodded through the labyrinth because I had signed up for it and I’m a One on the Enneagram.  In the middle, at the bank of the manmade river, we were supposed to write down our fears on a piece of paper, and I kid you not, fold it into an origami boat, to float down the river.  This really happened.  By that point, I knew my fear all too well.  I was afraid I wasn’t enough.  I was afraid that I would never be enough.  Not just to create some crazy alternative worship service someday, but that I’d never be enough to be a good priest.  I grabbed a pen from the bucket and began to write.  A few letters in, the pen dried up.  Of course, it did.  I couldn’t even do that right.  I looked down in exasperation at the pen in my hand and noticed that it wasn’t your typical gray Bic that you can buy a dime a dozen.  It was a promotional pen, not for Saint Swithin’s by the Sea or the United Methodist Church, but it said, “God doesn’t call the equipped.  God equips the called.”  I thanked God for the moment of reassurance, tucked that dried up pen in my pocket, and have been mostly able to trust God to sustain my ministry ever since.

That experience came to mind this week as I read the story of Jesus’ baptism by John at the Jordan River.  Last we heard, Jesus was a twelve-year-old boy who had stayed behind at the Temple in Jerusalem while his parents made their way back to Nazareth after the Passover Feast.  Last we heard, Mother Becca was inviting us to think about how, during those three long days, Mary must have struggled with her own inadequacy in the call to be the Mother of God.[1]  Today, we’ve fast-forwarded 18 years. Jesus is now about thirty and at the Jordan River asking John for baptism.  John knows he’s not adequate for the task at hand. He couldn’t even tie the thong of Jesus’ sandal.  John shouldn’t baptize Jesus, Jesus should baptize John, but Jesus is resolute.  John is more than enough for the job because this is the way to “fulfill all righteousness.”  My friend Evan Garner spent a lot of time thinking about that phrase this week.  It’s an odd turn of phrase in Greek and it is very difficult to capture the idiom in English translations.  Righteousness is one of those fifty-cent church words that gets used a lot, but I’m not sure any of us really knows what it means.  Joseph was described as righteous when he decided to dismiss Mary quietly after she was found to be pregnant out of wedlock.  He was a rule follower, but more than that, he was compassionate.  Righteousness was found in the delicate balance of doing what was allowable under God’s law, while also doing what was best for Mary; not taking it to the extreme.  Having Mary stoned to death was also allowable under the law, but it would seem that was not the righteous or just option for Joseph.  The Contemporary English Version, an authorized Biblical translation for use in the Episcopal Church translates the whole sentence as “For now this is how it should be, because we must do all that God wants us to do.”  Evan argues, and I agree, that what Jesus is saying to John isn’t that this moment of baptism is the capstone in God’s work of redemption for the world, but rather, it was, in that moment, the right next step in God’s ongoing unveiling of the Kingdom on earth.[2]  That’s what the season of Epiphany is all about, glimpses into God’s plan for salvation, spotlights on the still ongoing work of restoring creation to wholeness.

As Jesus came up out of the water, the heavens were torn in two, the Spirit descended like a dove, and a voice from heaven spoke, maybe only to Jesus, saying, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” Here too, the Greek is hard to bring into English.  Well pleased isn’t a bad translation, but another possible rendering is “whom I have gladly chosen.”  Jesus, the human manifestation of God the Son, had been chosen from before time and forever.  We won’t hear the Temptation story for a couple of months, but in all three Synoptic Gospels, we are told that immediately following his baptism, Jesus spent forty days in the wilderness being tempted by Satan.  As a kind of pre-emptive encouragement, God affirms Jesus’ calling, names him as beloved, and reminds him that he has all he needs for what lies ahead.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t remember any voices from heaven at my baptism.  Still, whether you were baptized at 6 months or 60 years, I firmly believe that in that moment, as water ran down your brow, God named you as a gladly chosen member of Body of Christ, heir to the Kingdom of Heaven, and co-worker in the ongoing work of fulfilling all righteousness.  Through the sevenfold gifts of the Holy Spirit and the specific spiritual gifts imparted upon each of us in baptism every one of us has been equipped for ministry. With God’s help, none of us is inadequate for the task at hand, whether that task is building chairs for a new Sunday school classroom, leading a book study, packing sack lunches, or sharing the Good News of God’s work in your life.  God is still at work in the world, fulfilling all righteousness, and invites each of us to take our part in it.  When you feel overwhelmed.  When you feel like you aren’t enough.  Just remember, you, like Jesus, are loved by God, you were gladly chosen for the task at hand, and you are specifically equipped for ministry by the power of the Holy Spirit.  God doesn’t call the equipped.  God equips the called for the salvation of the whole world.  Amen.

[1] https://beccakello.wordpress.com/2020/01/05/three-days-time/

[2] https://evandgarner.blogspot.com/2020/01/fulfill-all-righteousness.html

John’s Epilogue

Watch the video on our Facebook Page.


John’s Gospel is, for all intents and purposes, over already.  Last week, we heard the author tie the whole thing up with a nice bow, “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written 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.”  We were told to look and listen for other stories.  We were told why this book was written.  We were offered the means to gain eternal life.  The End.  Or maybe not.  Our Gospel lesson this morning somehow comes after the greatest story ever told is over.  Chapter 21 serves as something of an epilogue. It is very clearly a story “added to the end of the book that serves to comment on what has [already] happened.”[1] Scholars have spilled all manner of ink trying to decide who actually wrote John 21.  They’ve argued over why it is included when it is so obviously an addition.  They’ve dug into the nuances of the original Greek to seek any number of answers to questions about why it matters that there were exactly 153 fish in the miraculous catch.

It is a puzzling story, to be sure, but if we take as our basic assumption that the purpose of this chapter is to “comment on what has already happened,” then we might begin to get a richer understanding of why it has been passed down for nearly two thousand years.  See, what has happened, at least how it gets told in John’s Gospel is that the eternal Word of God entered time and space and moved into the neighborhood of our common humanity in order to show us what eternal life looks like.  Through signs and teachings, through relationship building and intentional discipleship, Jesus developed a significant and devoted following that ultimately put enough fear in the hearts of the powers-that-be, that he was killed as a revolutionary, but in so doing, by lifting Jesus up on the cross, they lifted Jesus up upon his throne to reign as King of kings.  In God’s great victory, Jesus was resurrected from the dead, breathed new life into his disciples, and sent them out as apostles to follow in his footsteps by loving, teaching, and discipling the nations.

So, that’s what happened.  As the epilogue on that story, we find the disciples back where Jesus had initially found many of them, in a fishing boat on the Sea of Galilee.  Just like before, they’ve fished all night, and caught nothing.  Likely, this all serves as a metaphor for the early stages of their new ministry.  Jesus gave them all the tools they needed for success, but it takes time to learn new things.  There is no doubt in my mind that Peter had tried to perform some miracle and failed.  Philip had tried to preach the good news and got all tangled up in his words.  Thomas has tried to make a rational argument for the resurrection of Jesus, and got lost in his own logic web.  They had been fishing for people on their own for a little while and thus far, had caught nothing.

Back on shore, a football field away, Jesus appears and calls out to them.  “Hey y’all try the other side.”  It’s interesting that shortly after this, John tells us that Jesus already had fish cooking over a charcoal fire.  He could have called out and said, “breakfast is ready,” but having completed his work on earth, Jesus’ last mission is that of an encourager, an empowerer, a cheerleader.  Give a person a fish and they eat for a day… yada yada yada.  As the nets came up from the right side of the boat, the catch was so big they couldn’t even begin to haul it in.  This seems to again be a good metaphor for what happens when we try to do ministry on our own.  We get a good idea, we gather a group of interested people, we start to work on it, and we see no fruit because we forgot to invite God along for the ride.  Jesus had promised that he would not leave his disciples abandoned.  The Holy Spirit would come and serve as their advocate and guide.  The Spirit would help them find the mission of their ministry, but it seems as though they couldn’t wait.  Rather, they seem to have been dead set on doing it their way.  John 21 reminds us that it is only when we listen for the Spirit, look for Jesus, and follow the will of the Father that our own good works will be met with success.

Back to what had already happened.  Holy Week started with Jesus and his disciples getting into trouble for eating with sinners and tax collectors.  As I said back then, the act of eating together was a symbol of relationship, an act of true intimacy.  Clean and unclean didn’t share the common cup.  They didn’t pass the broken bread around.  They weren’t supposed to smear it in the same bowl of hummus.  Yet, in the kingdom Jesus’ came to proclaim, those food laws weren’t as important as the community he was sent to establish.  Clean and unclean were invited to share a meal because in the Kingdom of Heaven, clean and unclean are all made whole by God’s never-failing love.  When Jesus invites Peter and the other disciples to join him for breakfast, it becomes an opportunity for reconciliation for them all.  While Peter seems to be the focus of the story, and he might have needed reconciliation the most, none of the disciples except for the one whom Jesus loved were anywhere near Jesus when he was crucified.  By sharing breakfast with them, breaking biscuits and picking from the same freshly caught fish, Jesus showed the remaining disciples that they were loved, forgiven, and restored to right relationship.  John 21 reminds us that it is in something as simple as the sharing of a meal that we can be reconciled to God and one another.

As breakfast was wrapping up, Jesus took a moment to have a special conversation with Peter.  As the spokesman of the group for three years, a member of Jesus’ inner circle, and the rock upon whom the community would be built, Jesus knew that Peter likely needed a little extra dose of forgiveness and encouragement after what had happened.  Peter’s three-fold denial of Jesus meant it would be helpful if maybe Jesus offered Peter a three-fold moment of redemption.  “Do you love me?” “Yes.” “Feed my lambs.”  “Do you love me?” “Yes.” “Tend my sheep.”  “Do you love me?” “Yes.” “Feed my sheep.”  Having been fully reconciled to Jesus over breakfast, what this becomes for Peter is something of an ordination into the next phase of his ministry.  This three-fold invitation to service seems to serve as Peter’s anointing for ministry.  As baptized followers of Jesus, we too are reconciled into the Kingdom of God.  Through water, the Holy Spirit, and in our tradition, a good smear of chrism across our foreheads, every baptized follower of Jesus has been anointed for ministry, and specially gifted to serve.  Just like Peter, all of us have fallen short from time to time, but thankfully, God is in the forgiveness business.

As an epilogue, John 21 helps us see what the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus might mean for us as modern-day followers.  We learn that faithful ministry starts with listening for the call of God.  Empowered by the Holy Spirit for the work of reconciliation, we are nourished routinely at this table and then we are sent forth, out into the world, as anointed ministers of Christ, to help bring about the restoration of all of humanity to God and to each other.  It isn’t work that we can do on our own or even as a faithful community apart from God, but with God’s help, success has already been secured for all who have come to believe and through believing, have found their way to the resurrection life.  Amen.

[1] https://www.google.com/search?q=epilogue

When giftedness fails

Sunday’s New Testament lesson from 1 Corinthians 12:1-11 is a wildly underrated text, in my opinion.  Due to a weak understanding of the Holy Spirit in the Western Church, very few denominations, outside of those myopically focused on the gift of tongues, pay enough attention to the gifts of the spirit that are bestowed upon every believer in baptism.  Clergy across the spectrum scratch their heads and wonder where a good Treasurer, Sunday School Teacher, or Buildings and Grounds Chair might come from, ignoring the Scriptural reality that every baptized disciple of Jesus has special gifts, given by God, for the upbuilding of the Church.

I have probably taken close to a dozen spiritual gifts inventories over the years.  I’ve taught classes on spiritual gifts for more than 15 years.  I’ve prayed with folks who are struggling to understand where God is calling them.  In all those years, every time I even give a sniff at the idea of spiritual gifts, at the top of my list comes the gift of administration.  It, and a solid helping of hubris, are the reason I’ve never met a board meeting that I didn’t want to chair.  It is part of the reason that I felt called to parish ministry.  It is why I gain life from a good Excel spreadsheet.  And, it is how I keep my ministry from going off the rails and deep into a rabbit hole of administrivia.  Because of my ability to organize my life, I create the space to do those things I’m not as gifted in, like pastoral care, contemplative prayer practices, and the like.

So, it was with much chagrin that yesterday I realized that, of late, I have been failing to utilize my giftedness.  Instead of a nicely organized to-do list, my desk looks more like this cartoon.

clergy-desk

This CartoonChurch.com cartoon by Dave Walker originally appeared in the Church Times.

As a result, I can see where I’ve been less than effective and efficient in my ministry as head cheerleader and encourager here at Christ Church, Bowling Green.

I know that I’m not alone in falling into the occasional period of failed giftedness.  Each of us will experience those times when something else take priority, when we feel like we are running from one smoldering fire to the next, and when the things that give us life fall by the wayside.  All of a sudden, you look around and realize that the everything else of life has been sucking you dry, and you need to, if only for a moment or two, tap back into that gift, drink from the well of the Holy Spirit, and find refreshment and renewal.  The Tempter would tell you this need to use your gifts is selfish, but the truth of the matter is that these gifts are given, as Paul writes, “for the common good.”  When we don’t use them, it isn’t only to our detriment, but it can cause the wider church to miss its calling as the agent of God’s reconciling love.

Where are you gifted?  How is God calling you to use those gifts?  What gives you life?  Occasionally, we all need to ask ourselves these questions in order to ensure that each one of us is fulfilling our God-given role in the Kingdom.

Maybe it is about money

Life in the Diocese of the Central Gulf Coast was fairly bare bones.  I don’t say this as a negative thing, but just stating the reality of the situation.  When the Dioceses of Alabama and Florida carved out the CGC in the late 1970s, they were very careful not to give away too much of their extra oil, to borrow an image from last week’s Gospel lesson.  Alabama kept Montgomery and all of its endowed funds.  Florida kept Tallahassee and all of its endowed funds.  Life in the CGC was pretty much lived congregational pledge payment to congregational pledge payment.  The same was true in Foley, a congregation barely 100 years old, built in a community that for the better part of 75 of those years was mostly small and agricultural.  In that context, the parable of the talents that we will hear on Sunday doesn’t make a whole lot of sense in terms of money.  If you don’t have silver talents to invest, you have to hear this story another way.

Over the past decade, I have read this story to be about other types of talents, be they art, numbers, music, wood-working, electrical, computer, or the rare-as-a-unicorn ability to work with middle school youth.  I stand by this reading valid.  I follow Paul’s teaching that we are each called to invest our gifts and talents for the building up of the Church, and to squander those gifts by hiding them in a hole, is to succumb to the sin of laziness.  Where I have been wrong in the past, however, is in suggesting that this parable might only be about these talents.

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Maybe it because the Finance Ministry Team will be ironing out the 2018 budget this afternoon, and I’ve been knee deep in endowment fund reports for the first time in my ministry, but now that I’m serving a congregation with some named funds that exists in a Diocese with the same, I’m beginning to realize that the parable of the talents might also actually be about the money entrusted to our care. and how we make wise investments of it for the up building of the Kingdom of God.  Just as we are called to be wise stewards of Creation, so too are we to make smart choices when it comes to the hard earned money that others leave, either through gift or bequest, to the Church for its long-term sustainability.  Part of those smart choices are ensuring the money is placed in sound investments with good long-term strategy.  The other part is making us of that income.  Nobody gives money to the Church so it can sit in a bank account and make interest for ever.  People give money to the Church for mission, for ministry, and for the in-breaking of the Kingdom.  As much as I don’t really like this parable being about real money, and as much as I know that it is not only about real money, I can no longer deny that yes, perhaps Jesus did have actual money in mind as he told his disciples this parable.

Our Call Story – a sermon

“Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.”  Wouldn’t it be great if every call from God was so very clear?  My own call story ends up with one of those “aha!” moments, but the reality is that it took quite a while for me to get there.  As I mentioned last week, thanks to Jeanne Ritter’s evangelistic efforts, I grew up in the church.  In middle school, I joined the youth group, but when I was in eighth grade, the youth leader ran off with the proceeds of our fundraisers for the year, so began to I look elsewhere.  Throughout high school I was active in Young Life and the youth group at the local Christian Missionary Alliance church.  I can’t find it anymore, but there was a day when I pulled over on the side of Manheim Pike after a Friday morning Bible Study and wrote in my Bible the moment I decided to make Jesus my Lord and Savior, as if he hadn’t already been for years.  The best part about having that moment marked for posterity was that I never had to think about it again.  So, without so much as a thought about asking God what he might want me to do with the rest of my life, I applied to only one school, the University of Pittsburgh, and set off to become a civil engineer.

God has a funny way of using our plans and various bad ideas for good.  Even though I hated almost every moment of the two semesters I spent I Pitt, the friends I made there were the reason I met Cassie.  We’re not there yet, though.  I transferred to Millersville University after my freshman year, and upon realizing they didn’t actually offer an engineering degree, I changed my major to meteorology for three weeks before settling on business administration.  For three years, I worked hard to graduate on time so that I could get money and buy stuff.  I had even planned how to spend my first million: a Benz with a personalized license plate that read “MIL TKT.”   Yet again, God had different plans.  Once back in Lancaster, the rector of my childhood church invited me to serve as a part-time youth minister.  I found myself leading Bible studies, prayer meetings, See You at the Pole events, and giving all sorts of talks and homilies.  I didn’t know it at the time, but God was preparing me for a different sort of future.

For Spring Break my sophomore year, I initially planned to go to Germany to visit a friend studying abroad, but when that didn’t pan out, I went to Pittsburgh to visit old friends and attend the Jubilee Conference for Christian college students.  It was there that Cassie and I first met.  A year later, I returned to Jubilee ready to propose.  I barely remember the big day. I couldn’t pay any attention as the speakers made their presentations; I was too afraid of the diamond ring in my jacket pocket.  The afternoon was spent in small groups based on your major.  I went through the motions, so as not be suspicious, and attended the one for business students.  As the first half ended before a short break, the leader asked a question that changed my life forever.  “Are you studying business to further God’s Kingdom in some way, or just to get money and buy stuff?”

After years of trying to get my attention, God finally resorted to a “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people” type moment.  I was quite content to “get money and buy stuff” until that very second.  Despite what God had been doing through the youth ministry at Saint Thomas, I had successfully ignored any sense of call in the name of crushing fingers on the corporate ladder.  Suddenly the comfortable façade I had created came crashing down.  Get money and buy stuff was no longer an acceptable answer, and now, hours before I asked Cassie to be my wife, I had to figure out what God was inviting me to do with my life.

The two-by-four across the back of the head is often the last option God uses to get our attention, but some of us are thicker than others.  For Simon Peter, Andrew, James, and John, the call was much easier.  With no more than a few words, they are ready to drop everything and leave family and career, in order to follow Jesus.  It is always dangerous to compare one Gospel story with another, but because Matthew is careful to tell us that Simon was called Peter, one gets the sense that this might not be the first time Jesus has met these men.  As we heard last week, Andrew and Simon Peter met Jesus down by the Jordan River, and some think that John the Baptist’s unnamed disciple was John.  No matter how you parse it, unlike my three years working for Saint Thomas, these men were paying attention when God came calling.  They were ready to follow Jesus no matter where he was headed.

Too often, call stories are reserved for the professional minsters among us.  It is probably because we had to tell the story approximately three million times during the discernment process, but the reality is that God calls every disciple to ministry: through the church, through other volunteer efforts, and even through whatever job you might have at any given moment.  As the Christian Vocation Project puts it, “The call to be a priest, monk, or nun, however sacred, is, in and of itself, not superior to the call of an architect designing a house, a mechanic repairing a car, or a nurse caring for the sick.  It is our faithfulness to God and not our station in life that honors a call.”[1]  Take, for example, the call of Andrew and Simon Peter.  Read at face value, this story can be used to suggest that being commercial fishermen was not their true calling, and only after Jesus comes and calls them to be “fishers of people” do they really have a vocation.  Instead, I believe that the many years they spent working hard as fishermen were preparing them to become successful apostles.

Think about their work for a minute.  In the first century, as it is today, the life of on commercial fishing boat was difficult.  Fishermen studied the water, learning its ebbs and flows; the right time to fish, and those days when it would just be a waste of time.  Even when the waters were favorable, they often worked long hours, sometimes overnight, to bring in enough fish to make a decent wage.  There were days when the conditions were perfect, when the fish should be biting and the nets should be full, but after hours and hours, their best efforts were frustrated.  Other times, when the day seemed questionable, or when a stranger invited them to push out a little further or throw on the other side of the boat, and the haul was unimaginably large.

If that doesn’t sound like the life of ministry, I don’t know what does.  The qualities that made Simon Peter and Andrew good fishermen made them excellent fishers of men.  The same is true of almost every vocation.  If we are paying attention, there are parts of every job that teach us how to be a better disciple and a better witness to the Good News.  It when we begin to see how God is continually calling each of us as individuals to a life of ministry that we can then begin to then discern how God is calling us as a community to service.

Over the course of the next year, we will spend some time doing both of those things.  It’ll be important to do some work of individual discernment, looking at our own spiritual gifts and seeing how they fit into the call God has for each of us.  At the same time, we will be engaging in a process of communal strategic discernment, asking God how we can best use the many gifts we bring to build the Kingdom here in Bowling Green.  Some of this work will feel like a review.  “Didn’t we do this during the search process?” someone will invariably ask.  I’m sure you did, but this isn’t the same church it was when Holy Cow was here; it isn’t even the same church it was at Christmas.  Together, we will do the work of listening for God’s call so that unlike my call story, God won’t have to use a two-by-four to get our attention.  I look forward to the work ahead as we listen for Jesus’ call to follow him wherever he might lead.  Amen.

[1] Listening Hearts, p. 8.

A Parable About Talents?

In Year C’s Parable Season, we don’t have the chance to hear the Parable of the Talents from Luke 19.  It is Matthew’s version that instead gets airtime in Year A.  Perhaps you recall the story of a master who gives three of his slaves portions of his wealth to watch over while his is on an extended trip.  To the first, he gives five talents – roughly 100 years worth of wages.  To the second, he gives two talents, and to the third slave, he gave one talent.  Upon his return, the first slaves returns ten talents; the second, four; while the third simply gives back the one talent to his master.  The Parable of the Talents isn’t really about money.  In fact, it is pretty convenient that the monetary unity is called a talent because that seems to be what it’s really about.  How are you using the gifts God has given you to the glory of God?

I’m beginning to think the Parable of the Unjust Steward is similarly about talents.  The story begins with Jesus introducing us to a rich man and his manager.  The manager is known to be squandering the rich man’s property.  Squander is an interesting word.  The only other time I hear that word used is in relation to the Parable of the Prodigal Son, who squandered his inheritance on dissolute living.  It means to scatter, to throw to the wind, or to winnow.  It is the opposite of “to gather together.”  It wasn’t that his man was simply a bad manager, but he was wasteful with his master’s wealth.  His defining characteristic was that of a squanderer.

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Squanderer put this song in my head

When the manager finds out that he is going to be fired, he doesn’t panic, but instead he does what he does best.  He uses his skills at squandering his master’s goods to put himself in the best possible position once he is no longer employed.  He uses his talent, icky as it may be, to the best of his ability to further his own best interests.  When the rich man praises him for his shrewdness, we are shocked.  When Jesus suggests his followers should do likewise, we get squirmy and look for another text to preach, but what if this story is a parable about talents?  What if Jesus is encouraging us to use the gifts we have, to the best of our abilities, to further God’s best interests?  Preachers should preach for the up-building of the Kingdom.  Bankers should manage funds for the up-building of the Kingdom.  Lawyers should practice law for the up-building of the Kingdom.  Cashiers should engage customers for the up-building of the Kingdom.  No matter what gifts and talents we have, they should be put to use with shrewdness, for the up-building of the Kingdom.

Spiritual Gifts for Evangalism – a sermon

This sermon’s audio is now on the Saint Paul’s website, or you read it here.

It has been an historic week in the Anglican Communion. As you may have heard, the 38 Primates, a fancy word for the head bishop in each Province, gathered at Canterbury Cathedral this week to talk about a variety of issues. If you’ve been paying attention at all, then somewhere between Adele doing Carpool Karaoke and requiem posts for David Bowie and Alan Rickman, you’ve certainly seen the headlines about The Episcopal Church getting “suspended” on CNN, FoxNews, Huffington Post, the New York Times, and all over Facebook. There are more opinions on what happened at Canterbury than there are Episcopalians, but to be honest, I’m not too worked about it. Roger Godell is not in charge of the Anglican Communion, and The Episcopal Church has been disinvited from serving on those committees for almost six years now. If anything, this week’s meeting seems to be the beginning of a way forward toward the end of the recent unpleasantness. The Primates have made a commitment to working together for the sake of the Gospel, which is why I’m much more interested in the second statement that they put out this week, “A Statement on Evangelism.” 
We, as Anglican Primates, affirm together that the Church of Jesus Christ lives to bear witness to the transforming love of God in the power of the Spirit throughout the world.

It is clear God’s world has never been in greater need of this resurrection love and we long to make it known.

We commit ourselves through evangelism to proclaim the person and work of Jesus Christ, unceasingly and authentically, inviting all to embrace the beauty and joy of the Gospel.

We rely entirely on the power of the Holy Spirit who gives us speech, brings new birth, leads us into the truth revealed in Christ Jesus thus building the church.

All disciples of Jesus Christ, by virtue of our baptism, are witnesses to and of Jesus in faith, hope and love.

We pledge ourselves together to pray, listen, love, suffer and sacrifice that the world may know that Jesus Christ is Lord.

Come Holy Spirit.

Here, the 38 leaders of Anglicanism spell out for us the basic identity of the Church. We live to bear witness to the transforming love of God in the power of the Spirit. Witness, that’s an epiphany type word, the Greek of Jesus’ time would have called it martyrdom. As disciples of Jesus, our job is to help others come to see Jesus no matter the cost. We are to help others have their own epiphany, or as Keith put it last week, that “aha moment” as they come to know the love of God at work in the world around them. Sign me up for a Church that is committed to sharing the Good News of Jesus instead of fighting over sex, money, and power!

Unfortunately, these bitter fights over things indifferent have been around since the very beginning. If it weren’t for Christians behaving badly, we wouldn’t have most of Paul’s letters. Take today’s lesson from First Corinthians as an example. The Corinthian Church was fighting about everything. They fought about whose baptism was better. Was it better to have come to know Jesus through Paul, Apollos or Peter? Paul says, “It doesn’t matter as long as you’re following the Way of Jesus.” They fought so much that they took each other to court. Paul says, “Aren’t we better than this? Can’t we work out our differences in love?” They fought about who belonged at the Communion table as the rich got drunk on communion wine while the poor were left out of receiving the sacrament. Paul says, “Why do you come to church? Are you hoping to see and be seen? Or do you really hope to find a deeper relationship with God through the body and blood of Christ?”

In today’s lesson, the Corinthians are fighting over whose spiritual gift is better. Scholars tend to think that those who had the gift of tongues started the fight by thinking that they were better disciples than the rest. Paul says, “Forget all that. The single most important gift that the Spirit has given you is the ability to proclaim with boldness that Jesus Christ is Lord.” It is a gift of grace that allows us even to have that first aha moment, to see and know that Jesus Christ is Lord and Savior. After that, Paul says, everything else is gravy, and like my Thanksgiving plate, oh boy is there an overabundance of gravy. “There is an overabundance of varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit. There is an overabundance of varieties of works of service, but the same Lord. There is an overabundance of things to do, but the same God that gives us the energy to do them.”

Every spiritual gift, whether it is prophecy or tongues; healing or faith; preaching or singing or website design; every gift is given by God “as a manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.” Manifestation, that’s another epiphany type word. It comes from the same Greek root as epiphany and it means “to bring to light or to disclose.” The light of Christ is most clearly displayed in the world when the members of His Church use the gifts of the Holy Spirit to work together for the common good of all of God’s creation. That’s the kind of congregation I want to be a part of. That’s the kind of diocese I want to be a part of. That’s the kind of denomination I want to be a part of. A Church that is willing to say that because Jesus Christ is Lord, we will join with him in building up the Kingdom of God in our corner of the world and around the globe.

Yesterday morning, your vestry gathered together to take their part in the ongoing process of listening for God’s direction in how we might be that kind of Church. We lived into this year’s theme by praying together, worshipping the risen Lord, serving one another, and sharing our stories. As we baked communion bread, sat around a makeshift boardroom table, and even over Subway sandwiches, we heard powerful and beautiful testimonies of God’s work in our lives. As we listened, we tried to help each other come to know the gifts of the Spirit that were already at work. In the coming weeks and months, I hope you’ll each have the opportunity to do the same; to find out where God is calling you to take your place in the life of this parish and his dream for the wider world. I pray that Saint Paul’s will be known as a place that through the power of the Holy Spirit, helps others to see Jesus at work.

There has been a lot of hand wringing about The Episcopal Church’s place in the Anglican Communion this week, but the reality is that it is only by the Spirit of God that every Christian is able to stand up and confess Jesus Christ as Lord. Let’s move beyond petty arguments and strive after the kingdom. Let’s get about the business of being witnesses of God’s love in the world. Let’s help our neighbors have that aha moment as they come to know the saving power of Jesus in their lives. Let’s manifest the Spirit by working for the common good in this church, in this neighborhood, in this state, in this country, and in the whole wide world. To paraphrase the Primates, let’s pledge this day to pray, worship, serve, and share that the world might know that Jesus Christ is Lord.

Come Holy Spirit. Amen.

Our Epiphany of the Spirit

Continuing on the Pray, Worship, Serve, Share theme from a few weeks ago, our vestry will gather this Saturday for a half-day retreat.  We will try to use these four gifts to God to model our time together while also looking to see how the elected leadership might help lift up these four practices in the congregation.  One of the ways we can get about this, in a healthy and effective way, is to find out which of these four areas has the strongest pull on our lives.  It is true that every Christian should be engaging in each of these four practices: praying daily, worshiping weekly, serving regularly, and sharing for the up-building of the Kingdom, each of us is also better suited for one over the rest.  Some find it easy to sit for an hour in contemplative prayer, while others find it easy to share the Good News with

In Sunday’s New Testament lesson, Paul calls these various skills and abilities, spiritual gifts.  Many are familiar with the idea of spiritual gifts, especially the miraculous ones that seem to cause fear, trepidation, and the occasional fit of envy like healing and speaking in tongues.  Paul’s list, at least the version found in 1 Corinthians, is fairly innocuous: wisdom, knowledge, faith, healing, miracles, prophecy, discernment of spirits, and tongues and their interpretation; however it seems clear that there has been some struggle in the community regarding these gifts.  Paul seems to need to tell the Christians in Corinth that no gift is better than another and that nobody has all the gifts.  He is very clear in saying, “To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.”  Let’s break that down a bit.

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To each – that means everyone. Every. Single. Person. Has received gifts from the spirit.  No one should be excluded for what seems like a lack of spiritual gifts.

The manifestation of the Spirit – this one is interesting. Thanks to the Sermon Brainwave crew at WorkingPreacher.org, I know that the word translated as “manifestation” is from the same root as Epiphany.  It literally means that the Spirit discloses herself by way of the gifts.  Our using the gifts given to us in baptism is the means by which the epiphany of the Spirit happens in the world.  The flip side of that is that when we refuse our gifts, when we sit on our hands and don’t exercise our God given talents, then we are holding back the work of the Spirit in the world, which sounds awfully close to the unforgivable sin to me.

For the common good – These gifts aren’t given to make us famous (contra Benny Hinn, Joel Osteen, etc.).  These gifts aren’t given to make us seem like better Christians (contra some Pentecostal teachings on tongues).  These gifts aren’t given to make us jealous, what seems to be a part of the struggle in Corinth.  No, these gifts are given for the common good to build the Kingdom of God.  When each of us is exercising our gifts, the Spirit is made manifest in the world, and the Kingdom of God comes one step closer to being on earth as it is in heaven.

Giftedness

It is an ancient tradition to lift up the Seven-fold Gifts of the Holy Spirit.  In fact, we claim those seven gifts at every ordination through the rubric that requires either Veni Creator Spiritus or Veni Sancte Spiritus be sung prior to the Consecration.  Both ancient hymns make reference to the Seven-fold Gifts which come not from the usual gifts lists cited from Romans, 1 Corinthians, or Ephesians, but instead from the Prophet Isaiah.  In a prophecy about the savior who will grow the Peacable Kingdom from the root of the Tree of Jesse, Isaiah lists the gifts the Anointed One will possess: “The spirit of the LORD shall rest on him, the spirit of

  1. wisdom and
  2. understanding, the spirit of
  3. counsel
  4. and might, the spirit of
  5. knowledge
  6. and the fear of the LORD.
  7. He will delight in obeying the LORD.”

It took some digging to figure out how repeating the “Fear of the LORD” made for two separate gifts, but thanks to the theological resource to end all theological resources, Wikipedia, I figured out that the list comes form the Latin Vulgate, which is a notoriously bad translation.  In the Latin, number six reads not “fear of the Lord” as it does in Hebrew for both 6 and 7, but “pietatis,” a helpful word for a Church trying to overcome an empire built on a sacrificial system of moral corruption. This gives us a list of seven unique gifts: wisdom, understanding, counsel, might, knowledge, piety, and fear of the LORD.

Which is a really long way of introducing the list that shows up in Sunday’s lesson from Romans.  Paul, continuing to call upon the Church in Rome to discipleship and unity, reminds them that the only person who possessed all of the Gifts of the Spirit is the head to which the Body is united, Jesus the Christ.  Without mentioning the Isaiah list, he certainly brings to mind, at least for the Jewish Christians in the Roman Church, the promise of giftedness that comes with Isaiah’s vision of the Peaceable Kingdom.  Paul goes on to list some, not all, of the gifts that are needed in the Church, gifts that will ensure the health of the whole body: prophecy, ministry, teaching, exhortation, giving, leading, and compassion.

None of us possesses all of the gifts of the Spirit, those listed here or the expanded lists elsewhere in Paul’s letters.  None of us has none of them.  But the Spirit, according that good and perfect will of God, divvies them out by grace, through baptism, so that each member of the Church might have a job to do that builds up the Kingdom and strengthens the body.  It is through the exercise of those gifts that we are able to join with God in the re-creation of earth, in fulfilling his dream, in creating the Kingdom of God.  

Do you know your gifts?  Do you have a means to exercise them?  If not, ask your local clergy person for advice, surely they can help you stretch your spiritual muscle.