SERMON 9/27/15 Pentecost 18B St. Boniface, Siesta Key, FL
Numbers 11:4-6,10-16,24-29; James 5:13-20; Mark 9:38-50
“A priest told his parishioners,’Next week I plan to preach about the sin of lying. To help you understand my sermon, I want you all to read Mark 17.” The following Sunday, as he prepared to deliver his sermon, the priest asked for a show of hands, “Who all read Mark 17?” Every hand went up. The priest smiled and said,’ ‘my sisters and brothers, Mark has only sixteen chapters so, I will now proceed with my sermon on the sin of lying.”(*)
We heard these words from scripture this morning, “Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed. The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective.” Two months ago, I stood before you in this spot and said, “I have great hope for this congregation.” I said, “I believe God has in store for St. Boniface, a wonderful future that is unfathomable at this time.” I am more convinced of that fact today, than I was on August 1st, 2015. I believe this congregation again will do mighty works for God’s kingdom. I believe this is true, because I have seen evidence already that a time of healing has begun here, but my sisters and brothers, you cannot rest now, because there is much more work to be done.
You have before you an opportunity to discern God’s vision and dream for new and fresh approaches for mission and ministry in this community, on Siesta Key, and beyond. Please my friends do not forget that restoring broken hearts, mending broken relationships, practicing forgiveness, and entering into a time of reconciliation and rebuilding is your first priority. You will need to do some heavy lifting, as you engage in the ongoing communal cycle of sin, forgiveness, reconciliation, and grace.
Relational estrangement pervades congregational struggles, and if it goes un-repented and un-forgiven, it has the potential literally, to mutilate the Body of Christ.
In his speech to Congress the other day, Pope Francis quoted Thomas Merton, a well-known Cistercian monk; whose writings have been inspirational to many. Brother Merton in his autobiography wrote, “I came into the world. Free by nature, in the image of God, I was nevertheless the prisoner of my own violence and my own selfishness, in the image of the world into which I was born. That world was the picture of Hell, full of men like myself, loving God, and yet hating him; born to love him, living instead in fear of hopeless self-contradictory hungers”. (1) Merton was talking about one of the issues of church life that we don’t like to talk much about today. Merton was talking about sin.
Sin is a spiritual ailment we progressive and intellectual 21st century Christians often feel we have outgrown. Despite evidence of the reality of sin found in our world, a world experiencing growing violence in our streets, out of control corporate greed, the ever-increasing level of broken family relationships, and the conflict that exists in our social organizations, we seem to think our struggle with sin is an old fashioned, outdated concept.
My favorite theologian Paul Tillich asserts, “Sin is separation. Separation is an aspect of the experience of everyone. To be in the state of sin, is to be in the state of separation.”(2) Over the years, some folks have defined sin as a mere legal transaction, a breaking of laws, or an act of getting caught with our hand in the spiritual cookie jar. I disagree, because I believe as Tillich asserts, sin is about relationships and not merely legal transactions. Sin is human estrangement from God and each other, and it is this separation we experience, when our actions or inactions cause injury to others lives, and the devastation of those relationships.
Unfortunately, our culture has watered down the reality that we human beings have always, and will always, battle with relational brokenness, or the struggles to be the god of our own lives and god of others lives. You may be sitting there saying, “C’mon Father Eric, are you really going to preach to us about sin?” Yes, I am, because we want sometimes to convince ourselves that this estrangement is not real. Do you want proof? The next time you are in the grocery store or the mall and you see two people arguing viciously, or you overhear two friends gossiping about a third, or you receive an email, Facebook post, or text that tears down the character of a friend or colleague, you can be assured that sin is real. We all battle with sin, because we desire influence, power, and our own agenda. But there is the Good News for all of us, “God does not abandon us, even to our sin.”
Missional distractions become the soil for estrangement that affects our relationships in the community.
If you listened to the Old Testament reading this morning, you heard about one of the many leadership disasters Moses’ experienced while trying to lead a large nation of people from slavery to a new way of being, a new destination, and a new future. While traversing through the harsh environment of the desert, with hunger and thirst around every corner, the people became focused not on their mission, but on their personal needs. Israel lost sight of her mission, and the direction to which, God had set out for them. Despite the hardships and grumbling though, God never abandoned them to their assumed fate.
Just like the people of Israel traveling to the Promised Land, we have to deal with our own mission distractions. Management challenges, organizational issues, capital and budget constraints, deferred maintenance matters, individualized ministry agendas, and now, there is a growing population of people who don’t go to church anymore, all of these distractions challenge all of our churches today. These disruptions to community life, shift our focus from the mission and then, become fertile soil into which, we often plant seeds of anxiety and fear. Fear and anxiety leads to conflict, misguided energy, and eventually estrangement. Like the Israelites in the desert, when our relational and communal health is dominated by our need for task efficiency and operational effectiveness, we lose sight of our true purpose and mission, which is “to bring all people into unity with God and each other in Christ.”
Moses was overwhelmed by the logistics of the trip to the promise land, but grace abounded even in the midst of the chaos. Despite the hardships and diversions, the people eventually learned that they had to rely on and trust God’s vision of a new community in a new land. You see, God did not then, nor does God now, leave us forever to wander in the deserts of our own distractions and estrangements. God always draws us back to God’s purpose, which is unity and relational health through repentance, forgiveness, reconciliation, and grace.
Repentance is when we turn back to God’s way of being, and when we accept the forgiveness and grace God pours out on each of us.
“The Church is a hospital for sinners, not a museum for saints,” a quote often attributed to Abigail Van Buren, the newspaper columnist Dear Abby, and it offers a simple metaphor for Christian community. Martin Luther once said, “We are all mere beggars, showing other beggars where to find bread.” We are all in need of healing. We all need to be fed. We are all in need of grace. The Body of Christ is not meant to be a community that we enter dressed in our finest, and falsely claim, “I am perfect because all is well with me, and I assume all is well with you.” Each of us, we clergy included, all show up before the throne of grace with our burdens, our sins, our junk, and all of us need transformation in our lives. I know I do. The spiritual healing we all need, begins to emerge and become tangible for us, when we practice confession and repentance.
Because we often reject the reality of separation in our lives, we also reject our need for repentance. Repentance is not merely acknowledging actions that have led to broken relationships, and then we merely return to our old habits. Repentance is not saying, “God I am sorry for what I did” and then we go back to our sin. In Greek, the word from which we derive the English word “Repentance,” means to change one’s mind for better, to make a change of principle and practice, and to reform. Each week we confess, we pray, we seek forgiveness by saying, “We are truly sorry and we humbly repent.” The prayer of penitence is “confessing our sins and making restitution where possible, with the intention to amend our lives.” (BCP p. 857) Health for a community emerges when we confess our sins to one another, and seek to reconcile estranged relationships, even when the issues are very complex. In his article, “Crafting Communities of Forgiveness,” Gregory Jones writes, “There is no healthy community that is not also aware of the complex psychological dynamics of its members.” (1)
Life is complex and relationships are multifaceted. The church is like a hanging mobile, you cannot move one object on one side of the mobile, and without that movement having an affecting every other piece. There are no decisions, actions, or conversations in the church made in isolation. We are connected in the Spirit of God, but our connection is fragile at times. We must be aware that we have to strive to be unified as much as possible, and we begin to do that, when we acknowledge our need to care for one another. Even when we face complex issues, we must “move forward together, as one, in a renewed spirit of fraternity and solidarity, cooperating generously for the common good.”(1)
Our hope for healing and restoration in the future is in God’s hands, but we must join now in the process of healing.
We cannot do this work of healing and reconciliation alone. We have to rely on God’s grace. “Our worship of the risen Christ sets the context for us to find new ways of coping with the conflicts and tragedies that all too easily destroy us and others.” (4) “Jesus’ cross is (an) indication (that) real grace is costly, hard- earned grace.”(3) Becoming a healthy congregation is costly, and it is hard work, and it requires grace.
In the coming months, it will be of upmost importance for St. Boniface Episcopal Church to reconnect with and become very clear about God’s purpose and mission for this congregation. It will be essential to understand the complicated dynamics of community life, so that you can address conflict when it arises and my friends, conflict and misunderstandings will happen again because honestly, we are merely human. We are people who struggle with an ongoing need for emotional, intellectual, and spiritual healing. We are people who need to practice repentance and to practice forgiveness. We are a people who struggle with the idea that the gift of grace, God’s abundant love which is undeserved, unmerited, and unearned, flows unceasingly upon us and thus, we cannot manipulate grace, purchase grace, or coerce grace. We must merely accept it.
I said it before, and I will say it once again, I have great hope for this community. Your work is ahead of you, and much will be required of you all in the coming months. Health will require you to return to the basics of the faith, to release individual or group agendas for the agenda and mission of God. Health will require you to pray fervently together and often. Health will require you to love one another, I mean really love one another, forgive one another, deal with new conflict directly and compassionately with one another, and finally, in all things St. Boniface must trust God.
Please never forget this fact, this church is Christ’s church and not your own and that being said, Christ will not abandon her. I believe that if you all will seek God’s will, wisdom, and power and seek it in all you do as you move into the future, you will look back a year from now and say, “look how far God has brought us.” You are already seeing little glimpses of resurrection in this place. I am convinced that you will experience new life. Stay faithful, pray fervently, love each other, and you will re-emerge once again, the community GOD wants you to be, one that brings “all people into unity with God and each other in Christ.”
(1) http://time.com/4048176/pope-francis-us-visit-congress-transcript/ .
(2) Tillich, Paul. “The Shaking of the Foundations.” Charles Scribners Sons, New York, 1948, p. 154.
(3) Goetz, Ronald G. (Ronald George). “The Costliness Of Grace.” The Christian Century 103.5 (1986): 111-112. ATLASerials, Religion Collection. Web. 22 Sept. 2015.
(4) Jones, L Gregory. “Crafting Communities Of Forgiveness.” Interpretation 54.2 (2000): 121-134. ATLASerials, Religion Collection. Web. 22 Sept. 2015.