Monday, June 28, 2010

Focused Martyrs

Sermon from June 27, 2010
(Pentecost 5 – St. Alban’s Day – Year C)
Luke 9:51-62
St. Alban’s Episcopal Church, Waco, Texas

Some of you might know that about 18 months ago, my youngest son, John, and I took golf lessons.
Ever since we have taken golf lessons, we have been trying to play golf every so often at one of our local golf courses.
Of course, the golf swing and stance are essential to being successful at golf.
When you put a golf club into your hands, there are so many different things to remember and to focus on.

You have to focus on your grip and you have to focus on your stance and you have to focus on your swing and you have to focus on the ball.
I have gotten where I can tell, mentally, when I begin my swing, if it is going to be a decent drive or if I am going to shank the ball into the woods.

Lately, one of my mistakes is that I lift my head up during my swing instead of keeping my eyes focused on the ball.
When I do this, my 15-year old son, John, is very quick to point out my mistakes.
John will say:
“Dad, you did it again.
You popped your head up.
How many times do I have to tell you?
Keep your eyes focused on the ball.”

Jesus is a man who knows about keeping his eyes focused on the ball.
The writer of the Gospel of Luke, in chapter 9, tells us this about Jesus:

“When the days drew near for Jesus to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem.”
Then Jesus goes into a village of non-Jews, in Samaria.
Yet Jesus keeps his focus, as Luke once again tells us that:
“Jesus set his face toward Jerusalem.”

Jesus not only set his face toward Jerusalem,
Some translators say the Jesus resolutely set his face toward Jerusalem.
In fact, some translators even say that Jesus stiffened his face to go to Jerusalem.
However we translate Jesus’ phrase, we know that Jesus’ mission, Jesus’ purpose, was to keep his eyes focused, firmly and resolutely, on the ball.
And Jesus keeps his focus, all the way to Jerusalem, to the place where Jesus would willingly submit to death on the cross, to show us how much God loves us.
Jesus keeps his focus on God.
And he keeps his focus on his love for you and for me.

Today in our church, we celebrate St. Alban’s Day.
In the Episcopal Church, we do not worship saints and we do not pray to them.
However, we do recognize that saints are real people who lived real lives - and their real stories are examples that we can learn from.

St. Alban was a real man who lived a real life and who made a real choice.
Alban made a choice based upon his focus.

Alban lived in the 3rd century in what is now England.
The city where Alban lived was ruled by the Romans and Alban worshiped Roman gods.

One day, Alban was visited by a Christian priest, a priest who was fleeing persecution.
This priest began to teach Alban about the Christian faith.
Alban was then converted and was baptized by the priest as a Christian.
When the Roman authorities came after this priest, Alban hid the priest in his house.

Eventually the Roman authorities discovered that a Christian priest was hiding out at Alban’s house.
So Alban exchanged clothes with the priest.
The real priest escaped.
And Alban, dressed in priest’s clothing, was captured by the Romans and put on trial before a Roman judge.

When he arrived at his trial, the judge asked Alban a question:
“What is your family and race?”
Alban replied:
“How does my family concern you?
If you wish to know the truth about my religion, know that I am a Christian and am ready to do a Christian’s duty.”
Yet the judge insisted:
“I demand to know your name - tell me at once.”

Alban kept his focus, he kept his eye on the ball, he set his face firmly and resolutely toward Jerusalem and the Cross,
And he answered the judge, saying:
“My parents named me Alban.
And I worship and adore the true and living God, who created all things.”

Because of his witness and his focus on the Christian God, Alban was then tortured.
And, in the year 304 AD, on June 22nd, which is now his feast day, Alban was killed, by having his head cut off.

Because Alban died for his new Christian faith, we say that Alban was a martyr.
A martyr is someone sheds their blood and dies for their faith.
Because the color of blood is red, whenever we remember the focus and the faith of Christian martyrs, those are days that we use the color red in our worship.
It is for this reason that many in this church today are wearing red.
And it is why I am wearing a red stole, because today we are celebrating St. Alban’s Day.
Today is the day that we are remembering that Alban was a martyr, who kept his eyes focused on the love of the Cross.

The word “martyr” is actually derived from a Greek word that means: a first-hand witness.
Originally, the word “martyr” did not mean someone who was killed for their faith.
A martyr originally meant a witness for their faith.

Alban was a witness to the sacrificial love he had for his new Christian brother, the priest whom he exchanged clothes with.
And Alban gave his very own life as a witness, as an example, of God’s sacrificial love on the Cross.

My brothers and sisters of St. Alban’s, we, also, are called to be witnesses to the true and living God who created all things.
We, also, are to keep our eyes focused on God’s sacrificial love.

You probably aren’t called to exchange clothes with your priest and get your head chopped off.
But we are all called to be a witness of our faith.

So, keep your eye on the ball and be a witness.
Love people whom no one wants to love: the grouchy, the annoying and those who are difficult to live with.
Keep your eye on the ball and be a witness.
And tell everyone you meet: at the dentist’s office, at HEB, at the gym - that you are part of an incredible community of love that is called St. Alban’s Episcopal Church.

People of St. Alban’s:
Set your face resolutely toward Jerusalem.
Keep your eye focused on the love of Jesus on the Cross.
And be a witness,
A witness to God’s amazing love.


Wednesday, June 23, 2010

I Believe I Am So Called

I believe I am so called.

These words are the first words that are uttered by someone who is being ordained as a deacon or as a priest when they are being examined by the bishop. The bishop asks the person who is entering ordained ministry: “My sister/brother, do you believe that you are truly called by God and his Church?” And the answer, firmly and resolutely, is: “I believe I am so called.”

Last week, 32 people from St. Alban’s traveled to Christ Church Cathedral in Houston to witness the Ordination of Deacons. We gathered in that historic and beautiful church, with its dark wood and stained glass windows, to see 12 men and women kneel before the Bishop of Texas to be ordained. The bishop asked them: “My brothers and sisters, do you believe that you are truly called by God and his Church?” And the answer rang out through that cathedral: “I believe I am so called.”

In The Book of Common Prayer that the Episcopal Church uses, the question is asked (on page 855, a rarely viewed page): “Who are the ministers of the Church?” And the answer is: “The ministers of the Church are lay persons, bishops, priests and deacons.” The first category listed is the people who are the most numerous: lay persons. Sometimes I think that our focus on the ordained ministers of the Church diverts our attention away from the largest number of those who believe they are so called, the lay persons.

I wish that we had a service of Ordination for lay persons. But wait; we do. We call it: Baptism. Yet I wish that at Baptisms, and at several other times in our spiritual journey, that we had an opportunity to hear:

Do you believe that you are truly called by God and his Church to take the food basket to Caritas? I believe I am so called. Do you believe that you are truly called by God and his Church to work with the Youth Group? I believe I am so called. Do you believe that you are truly called by God and his Church to go visit the homebound/at-home parishioners on Sunday afternoon? I believe I am so called. Do you believe that you are truly called by God and his Church to wash the windows in the Parish Hall? I believe I am so called.

The lay people of St. Alban’s (which is everyone minus two people, me and Jimmy) have been truly called by God and his Church through Baptism to do the work of mission and ministry. Pray about what that ministry looks like, so that you may answer:

I believe I am so called.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Don't Sit This One Out

Sermon from June 13, 2010
(Pentecost 3 – Year C)
Luke 7:36-8:3
St. Alban’s Episcopal Church, Waco, Texas

Many years ago, long before I was ordained as a priest, our family of four were members of St. John the Divine Episcopal Church in Houston.
We went to church most every Sunday, bringing our two little boys with us.
We followed the liturgy, like any good Episcopalian, standing when you are supposed to stand, sitting when you are supposed to sit and kneeling when you are supposed to kneel.
It was the custom in that parish that the congregation would stand for the Prayers of the People, but then kneel down for the Confession.
The cue for us to kneel down for the Confession was when the priest said:
“Let us confess our sins against God and our neighbor.”
Then the whole congregation would put their kneelers down and get on their knees.

But, a few times a year, when the priest would say:
“Let us confess our sins against God and our neighbor”
My wife, Susan, who many of you know to have a very independent mind, would not drop to her knees, but instead would just sit down in her pew.
I would glace over at her with a puzzled look and Susan, with a gleam in her eye, would whisper:
“I think I’ll just sit this one out.”

Usually, Susan would play this little joke with me on occasions when she and I both knew that we had a lot that we needed to confess.
So, with my index finger, I would point down to the kneeler,
And with a feigned reluctance, she would get down on the kneeler as well, as our family would say together:
“Most merciful God, we confess that we have sinned against you, in thought, word and deed.”

In the reading that we hear today from Luke’s Gospel, a woman is identified as a “sinner,” most likely a prostitute.
This sinful woman interrupts a fancy dinner party that Jesus is attending at the home of Simon, the Pharisee.
This woman, this sinner, brings a jar of ointment with her and starts to rub on Jesus’ feet.
Of course, this woman’s actions cause quite a stir.

And Jesus says to Simon, the self-righteous Pharisee:
“I tell you, [Simon, this woman’s] sins, which were many, have been forgiven;
Hence, she has shown great love.”
Then Jesus turns to the woman and says:
“Your sins are forgiven.”

You see, the self-righteous Pharisees, who were offended by the actions of the sinful woman, were not aware of their own sins.
Therefore, they experienced very little forgiveness and love.
Yet on the other hand, the sinful woman was very aware of her sins,
Therefore, she experienced a lot of forgiveness and love.

When we are more aware of our sins and shortcomings,
Then we are even more aware of the amazing ways that we have been loved and forgiven.
Our awareness of our own sins and of our own forgiveness is correlated to the amount of love and grace that we experience.

And our awareness of our own sins does not just stop with an awareness of our individual sins.
We also need to be aware of the corporate sins that we commit, the sins and offenses that we commit as a society and as a community.

Last Monday, I was in the airport in Newark, New Jersey, waiting for my flight back to DFW.
As I waited in the airport, CNN News was on the TV in the waiting area.
The CNN news crew was covering the British Petroleum oil spill off the coast of Louisiana.
While people hustled and bustled through the corridors of the airport, I noticed that some people had stopped in their tracks to look at the TV screens that showed coastal birds with oil coating and sticking to their wings.
I noticed that some people had tears in their eyes as they stared at marshes and wetlands that are covered in floating brown gunk.
As I watched the masses of people in the airport who were visibly moved by the images of environmental destruction, I believe that we were silently confessing our own corporate sin.
Through the tears in our eyes and through our corporate sorrow, we were aware that our own dependence on oil pollutes and destroys the creation that God made and called good.

It would be easy for me to look at the videos on CNN coming out of Louisiana and to blame British Petroleum or lax government regulations.
It would be easy for me to be like Simon the Pharisee and to blame “those people” as sinners.
It would be easy for me to hear the call for confession and to say:
“I think I’ll just sit this one out.”

But the thing about corporate sin is that it implicates all of us as sinners.
Because as I watched CNN in the Newark Airport and I tried to blame “those people,” I suddenly realized that I was sipping bottled water out of a plastic water bottle, made from petroleum products.
I realized that I was waiting to get on an airplane that was filled with jet fuel that would release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, continuing to harm God’s fragile earth, our island home.
While I was trying to blame British Petroleum or Barack Obama or “those people,” I realized that I am a sinner, too.

For when we hear:
“Let us confess our sins against God and our neighbor.”
We must not say:
“I think I’ll just sit this one out.”
But we must put down the kneelers and get on our knees.

Because when we do drop to our knees,
When we do come to Jesus in tears and with a bottle of ointment to anoint his feet,
When we are aware of our own sinfulness, as individuals and as a society,
Then we hear the voice of Jesus, boldly saying to us:
“Your sins are forgiven.”

For it has been my experience of the good news of Jesus Christ –
That those who are most aware of their own sins and shortcomings are the same ones who most powerfully experience the forgiveness of God.

For when we are aware that the sinners are not “those people,”
When we are aware that the beaches of the Gulf Coast are being ruined because of our own thirst for cheap gasoline,
When we are aware that the Big 12 Conference is breaking up over our own greed and lust for money,
When we are aware that a prostitute who rubs Jesus’ feet with ointment is a treasured member of God’s family,
When we are aware that we have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God,
Then we powerfully experience that God forgives us – forgives us for our self-righteousness, for our greed, our stupidity, our shortcomings, our humanness.
And when I realize the height and breadth and depth of that forgiveness, then I am driven to my knees, in thanks for God’s amazing grace and love.

In a few minutes, at the end of the Prayers of the People, we will all have an opportunity to confess our sins.
Do not sit this one out.
But drop to your knees and hear these words of amazing grace:
“Your sins are forgiven.”


Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Remember the Sabbath

Once our hot, dry, Waco summers gear up for the long-haul into October, one of my favorite things to do on a summer Sunday is to come home from church and ‘veg-out’ by our swimming pool. While our family spends hot, summer Sunday afternoons in and around the pool, we listen to music and we talk and we browse through magazines and we drink Bush’s iced tea. We like to do basically nothing; summer Sundays afternoons by the pool are “Fisher family Sabbath-time.”

In the Ten Commandments, we tend to remember the more salacious commandments such as “do not kill” and “do not commit adultery.” But there is also the fourth commandment:

Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy.

God commands us to take some time out, to carve out some time that is holy (the word ‘holy’ actually means ‘set apart’). God commands us to set apart some time to say ‘no’ to the computer and the iPhone and the soccer schedules and the calendars that rule our lives. God commands us set apart a day, an hour, a minute – and to keep it holy, wholly set apart.

The rector who was my mentor, the Rev. Beth Fain, is a huge proponent of taking Sabbath-time. She trained me that clergy need one day a week to set apart. Most clergy call this their “day off.” For me, my day off is usually on Thursdays; for Jimmy, it will be Fridays. Many times, I think: “How can I take Thursday off? I have too much to do!” Yet, after my Sabbath day-off, I come back on Fridays with a whole new perspective and outlook on life. God knew what God was doing when even he rested on the seventh day.

This summer, I invite us to re-examine how we set apart time in our lives for Sabbath-time. When do you release yourself from the bondage of the clock? When do you set apart time for God, even if it is only for an hour on Sundays? When do you say ‘no’ instead of ‘yes’?

Whether you spend your Sabbath on the beach this summer or playing tennis or taking painting lessons or watching old movies on cable TV or in prayer in a rocking chair or in a swimming pool with Bush’s iced tea - remember that you are obeying God’s fourth commandment, a commandment to say ‘no.’

This summer, remember the Sabbath - and keep it holy.