We are officially in the fall season, though with recent days in the 90s it has been hard to recognize. Dawn is coming later, which is always a good sign things are turning. And Wednesday morning should see temperatures in the 60s — blessed relief in the sunbelt.
I have always enjoyed the fall. It is a time of new beginnings and is energizing in a measured way (not the frantic, wacky energy of spring). It is also a time when nature prunes herself. Leaves turn — sometimes with firey, bold beauty — then fall and fade away, often with the help of purposeful footsteps on their way to a new thing.
This is a spectacular time for me. One of action and of waiting. Of reaching out to connect and of listening to the other. Dear God, help me to know how and when to act, when to gather and when to let go, when to listen, and when to do nothing at all.
Below is a sermon from September 30, 2012. Many thanks to San Jose Episcopal Church, Jacksonville, FL, for inviting me to preach and share about new ministry as we build a “church without walls.” (www.facebook.com/churchwithoutwalls.Jacksonville.FL)
San Jose Episcopal
September 30, 2012
Esther 7:1-6, 9-10; 9:20-22; Psalm 124; Jas 5:13-20; Mark 9:38-50
May the words of my mouth
and the meditations of all our hearts
be acceptable to you, O Lord,
our strength and our redeemer.
What an honor it is to be with you today
to reflect on Holy Scripture and to share a bit about
an emerging ministry here in the Diocese of Florida.
I was baptized in this church and,
while I don’t recall the actual event,
the smell of incense and beeswax that permeates this place –
that saturates the wood, the stone and the tile –
brings me back to my earliest sense of belonging to God.
This place speaks to my earliest sense of identity.
Esther was a beautiful, smart queen.
An orphan who was encouraged by her uncle Mordecai to be shrewd,
to do the very best that she possibly good for herself
in this very secular cultural context.
We know that he loved her, that he
had her best interests at heart.
He was a good man.
Esther throws herself fully into the process of a beauty makeover
when she is selected for the king’s harem.
Her dress, her actions, her self-care are all designed so she will
align with what is most valued by the dominant culture,
and she succeeds.
She wins the favor of the King and
ultimately becomes his beloved wife and queen.
When the chips are down, though,
Esther must make a choice to either
continue denying her heritage and her faith or
to risk everything – even her life –
for the sake of her people.
Esther saves the Jews from sure annihilation
by openly acknowledging them as her family.
In this process, she not only saves her people,
she also saves herself.
She is able to own her true identity as a woman of God.
In the end, she finds that she is still the beloved of the King —
probably even more so because of her courage.
Esther’s struggle is in many ways the human story.
But it doesn’t end there.
Our lectionary reading leaves out
an important part of the story:
Esther and her people don’t get it right.
Though they receive mercy and generosity from the king,
in their brokenness, they lack compassion.
They are overcome by the seduction of revenge and
slaughter 75,000 of their enemies.
It is only after this slaughter that they celebrate
their sorrow turning to joy and send food to the poor.
Not that much has changed since Esther’s day.
We live in a culture that expects some to win at life
and many others to lose.
In last week’s Gospel, the disciples argued over who was greatest
as they struggled to find their own identity
as followers of Jesus.
This week they ask the question:
Who exactly gets to call on the name of Jesus?
They hope to differentiate between themselves
and a group of outsiders who have been
casting out demons in Jesus’ name.
Christ’s response was one of generosity and openness:
“Whoever is not against us is for us.”
The disciples are talking about mission work.
They want to know what that should look like.
They want desperately to get it right.
This obsession with pinning things down is human.
But Jesus’ instructions have always been clear.
They have been staggeringly simple –
though often not easy to live out:
“Cast out demons in my name.”
‘Whoever wants to be first among you
must be last of all and servant of all.’
“Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind and strength,
and love your neighbor as yourself.”
“Love your enemies.”
The Episcopal Church did something incredibly bold
back in the late 50’s.
We introduced highway signs that are still in use today.
“The Episcopal Church Welcomes You.”
It doesn’t sound particularly radical to us today –
But remember that this was launched at a time
when there was still much segregation and blatant racism.
Think for a moment about how brave this is:
Placing a sign out on the roadway where
all manner of people passes by,
You have no way of controlling who sees the sign.
In effect, we are issuing an invitation to
any and all takers.
and saying “Y’all come!
Whoever you are — wherever you’ve been –
wherever you find yourself on the journey of life –
you are welcome with us!”
Perhaps the best thing about those signs is that
they are out there on the highways and by-ways.
We are making our presence known in
the midst of the commotion of daily life.
That’s what Jesus does.
He may have taught on occasion in the synagogue.
He went to Temple for all the important holidays.
But he spent most of his time out there in the world,
looking for the thirsty and the hungry.
For the sick and the despised.
And when he found them,
he healed them,
he fed them,
he taught them, and
he commissioned them to go out to do the same.
Jesus called his disciples out of their comfort zone
because he loved them.
Learning to be a disciple of the living God
is not for the faint-hearted.
It takes a willingness to let go of preconceived ideas.
It takes a willingness to be vulnerable.
It takes a willingness to fail miserably.
Increasingly I have felt called to work with people
who find themselves on the edges for whatever reason:
poverty, homelessness, or addiction —
or who are otherwise afflicted by a sense of
alienation or rejection.
Many of these folks are unwilling to
darken the doors of a church.
Their reasons are not completely different from
those of the population at large.
So we must bring the Gospel to them.
Together we build a church without walls.
This ministry was influenced by a project
I participated in during seminary.
Our team interviewed a large number of
20- and 30-something folks.
We found that people are as spiritually hungry and
thirsty today as they ever were, maybe more so.
They are searching for something real.
They are searching for a sense of meaning.
Many will not enter the front door of a church
but some will find a way in through
a “church without walls.”
I am convinced that there are people in the pews
who are hungry to find a way to live out the gospel
in the world, to find new ways to connect
with our brothers and sisters and with Jesus.
I invite you to pray and discern with me how
we might develop this new ministry together.
This concept of a “church without walls” doesn’t diminish
or negate the role of our traditional parish setting.
It merely expands it and energizes it.
Already there is a network of some
100 ministries across the country that
have sprung up in unlikely places –
offering Eucharist in city parks,
bringing worship to locked mental wards,
dispensing “ashes to go” on busy street corners
a small congregation that meets in a Burger King
in Hartford and calls itself BK Chapel.
The church cannot be contained.
The kingdom is manifesting in messy and wonderful ways.
It is in venturing out of our comfort zones,
It is in interacting with those who are different,
that we will encounter Christ and find our deepest selves.
Jesus calls us to do what he did when he walked this earth.
He welcomes every traveler along the way.
He invites us to discover and embrace every part of
our identity in him,
and to trust the Holy Spirit to empower us.
We belong to Christ who is our true home.
Owning that for ourselves –
and living into that —
That is what it means to be salted with fire.
We have been sealed as Christ’s own forever.