Feast of St Peter and St Paul

28 06 2015

John 21:  15-19

If there is one thing that strikes fear and trembling into more than a few Episcopalians it is the prospect of talking about “Evangelism.” This week I came across the story of a lady who was working at a bookstore, and as she was opening up, a Hasidic Jew came into the store in full attire: hat, dark suit, white shirt, full beard and ringlets coming down from his head. She asked if there was anything specific he was looking for, and he replied that he wanted to learn about Jesus. Dutifully, the lady pointed out the Spiritual and Religious section of the bookstore and rattled off a few titles she personally enjoyed. Imagine her surprise when the man said, “no, no! I want to know what you think about him. You tell me what you believe about Jesus.” Than woman later said, “My Episcopalian soul shivered” not even knowing where to begin.

Today we remember the martyrdom of who we consider to be two of the greatest apostles and evangelists in the history of the Church: St Peter and St Paul. St Peter and St Paul, as you know are also our patron saints, and it’s a special point of pride to be here among you, the first Episcopal congregation in all of Florida and the first African American congregation, and I was reflecting on how special it is to have to a chance to speak to everyone at once before I head off to seminary in 33 days…but who’s counting? I give thanks to St. Peters for all their support, their sponsorship and love over the past five years and St. Paul’s has already established a place of affection in my heart in the short amount of time I have been with you. I have to tell you it always does the heart good to see us gathered together as one Episcopal community and something that we don’t do enough. It reminds me of a song that we used to sing in Bible School which went, “The Church is not a building, the church is not a steeple, the church is not a resting place, the church is the people. I am the church, you are the church, we are the church together.” Our histories are long and noble. It is quite appropriate that St Peter and Paul are our patron saints, as St Paul carried the gospel to the ends of the Roman Empire just as St Paul’s congregation was established at the farthest reach of the country. St Peter was called to be a fisher of men and he also focused his ministry on the community in Jerusalem, just as St. Peter’s congregation has deep roots in the Bahama Village Community.

Speaking of fishing, over the years I’ve heard people joke that tourists think our lives here in Key West revolve around fishing all day and we feast on shrimp and lobster every night, and every time someone talks about giving up their lives on the mainland and joining us here, there are plenty of times when we just listen politely and smile knowingly because life is not exactly a fishing trip, is it? Human life, especially life here in paradise can be difficult and messy, full of pitfalls and stumbles, and that brings us to the scene with Peter and Jesus in the Gospel of John.

I must confess that Peter’s one of my favorite characters in the Bible. He’s headstrong, brash, not at all subtle, but he’s got passion for what he does and for all of his faults, he just absolutely without any question loves Jesus. Today’s Gospel lesson shows Peter and Jesus talking with each other after Jesus rose from the dead. Earlier in this chapter we read that Peter led the disciples on a fishing trip. When they saw Jesus on the shore and recognized him for who he was, they stopped what they were doing and joined him for a breakfast of fish and bread. And here, Peter and Jesus deal with some unfinished business. We know from the story of Jesus’ crucifixion that Peter denied knowing Jesus three times. For all his professed love of Christ, when it came down to the wire and his teacher, his friend needed him the most, Peter’s fears got the better of him and he hid in the darkness. When Jesus rose from the dead and showed himself to the disciples, up to this point Jesus makes no mention of the betrayal. Based on how Jesus acts towards the disciples after the resurrection, I believe it is safe to say that he had already forgiven Peter for what he did, and even forgave him before it happened, but doesn’t do anything to remove the shame and remorse Peter felt at betraying the one he left everything to follow.

Three times Jesus asks Peter, “Do you love me more than these?” and each time Peter responds, “Yes Lord you know I love you,” to which Jesus replies, “Feed my sheep.” This scene is shown as Peter’s restoration, or sometimes as his commissioning as chief among the apostles. Other times Jesus’ question is seen as testing Peter’s level of commitment and his conviction that he’s doing and saying what he means. The question “Do you love me” echoes back to the farewell discourses earlier in the Gospel of John where Jesus gives his disciples the commandment to love one another as he loves them, a love that meant a willingness and readiness to die for them. For Peter, that means being willing to go to places he does not want to go, a way that tradition says ended in a violent death as he, too, was crucified. Love, it seems, offers no security.

When St. Paul met Jesus on the road to Damascus and began to preach the Gospel to the Gentiles, he also had to be willing to pay a price for his commitment. Paul was the epitome of the privileged man in society. He was a Pharisee, was most likely rather well off, and he was citizen of the Empire. But when he met Jesus, he gave it all up. He found himself making tents in order to make ends meet while being constantly on the road. And at the end of all of his, he was imprisoned and later executed.

What price are we willing to pay for the sake of the Gospel? Jesus says time and time again to consider the cost, take up your cross and to follow him. This week the General Convention of the Episcopal Church is meeting in Salt Lake City. In the forefront of everyone’s mind is how we can be the church in 21st century when old ways of doing things no longer work. A great source of anxiety is that no matter what we seem to do, our numbers continue to dwindle. We especially feel that here in the summer when the ones that line the pews are “just us” and the visitors are few and far between. We say we want the church to grow and more people to come, we say we want children in Sunday School and great music programs, but what often goes left unsaid is that we absolutely want those people, but we want more people “just like us.” We want “the right kind of people,” which is not the model that Jesus offers. Sometimes we become more like Pharisees than we want to admit, dispensing law and not grace. Too often we we hold people to a standard which is more like an entrance exam for respectability than as a goal to work towards that is only obtained through discipleship. Jeffrey Johns, Dean of the St Albans Cathedral in England says, “The Church is not a sanctuary for the perfected – or even those who imagine themselves to be perfected. It is a free hospital for the wounded and joyful sinners who are in the process of being healed.”

Where is the Good News is all this talk of costs and the price of following Jesus? Jesus is talking about offering us something that we cannot live without.  He is not only laying out the best offer in town for eternal life, joy, hope but he’s also got the only offer that will work. He has got the real deal, but … it’s going to set you back a bundle with no change given back.  After all, it cost Jesus everything and it will cost us, too.  All of that life, joy and hope he offers is free but it doesn’t come cheaply.  It is absolutely terrible, unreasonable and scandalous that in order to gain all of this we have to be willing to lose it all and give up everything we thought we might have ever wanted.

It’s very easy for me or any preacher to stand here in the pulpit and talk about counting the cost and sacrifice, but I can tell you it is a topic where I do have some experience.  I know what it’s like to uproot yourself from a comfortable living and leave friends behind, to lose a home, a job, a retirement account, a friend, and I know what it’s like to have a relationship end because I happen to take being here on Sunday morning rather seriously. I even must confess that when the opportunity arose to come to Key West five years ago I resisted, thinking the cost was too high. And as it turns out, the cost was high. But it was worth every penny. Throughout everything, I can tell you that there is absolutely no where else that this very flawed disciple of Jesus would rather be than putting one foot in front of the other and following where he might lead. When it seems like we have lost it all or have given up so much, then that is the perfect time for the Holy Spirit to step in and open up a way for us.

Earlier I mentioned the part of the story that came before today’s Gospel reading. I would be selling that story short if I didn’t mention the miracle that took place before breakfast. The disciples have just spent the night on the Sea of Galilee trying to catch fish, but in the morning they find they have nothing to show for it. The nets are empty. When Jesus calls to them and asks if they were successful during the night, their reply was a disappointed “no.” But then Jesus says, “Try it my way.  Cast your nets to the other side and see what happens.” And wonder of wonders, they have the most amazing catch of fish, enough to feed themselves several times over.

Many biblical scholars and preachers point to how miracles, especially healing miracles show how Jesus reaches out to those outside the community, those who otherwise would be left out and no one wants anything to do with. This miracle shows that the net when cast as Jesus directs is strong enough and wide enough that it catches everything and everybody. We all get caught up in the reach of God’s saving embrace when we do things God’s way. The abundance of generosity of God’s grace does not belong to the past, but to the present.  How often we lament how wonderful things used to be when we were children, when the church pews were full several times over on Sunday mornings, when we first fell in love, or even how great things were even two or three years ago; but we must never forget the blessings of the past are only foreshadows of the promises of the future.

Stories of commissioning, of repentance, of coming to faith in Christ is not a one-time event. It is something we carry with us today; it is a part of who we are as People of God; and we are reminded of that when we least expect it. It is a reminder that no matter how hard they try to make things work or to make ends meet, the disciples cannot do anything on their own without the help of Jesus. When we cast the net that God has given us in the form of these buildings, our manner of worship and our commitment to the community, we will find that our net is full to bursting of all the types of fish we can catch.

Three times Jesus asks Peter if he loves him. It is a reversal and restoration of all the damage that has been done, not just in the denial of Christ, but the in how much we hurt each other, ourselves, our city.  It shows how the Grace and Forgiveness of God is so much more powerful than anything we can ever do.  Notice that Jesus doesn’t ask Peter if he was sorry for what he did, even if he felt bad for what he did or understood what he did.  Jesus asked Peter if he loved him; and at the end of all of our struggles, the end of all of our history; that is what matters. 

Our story shows that God is willing to entrust ministry and the Gospel message to a group of people whose lives are marked by impetuousness, denial, betrayal, vanity and doubt. It shows that God can call, feed and empower all sorts and conditions of people to do the work of the Kingdom. It shows that God’s word is resilient, vibrant, alive! Event though we may want our paths planned out for us, sometimes we just have to accept that we don’t know where God is going to take us. In our darkest moments, in our hunger, in our failures, in our poverty and in our desperation just to hang on, we can recall to mind that at the beginning of the story in the Gospel of John, we read that the “light shines in the darkness, and the darkness cannot overcome it.” Dear People of God, the Good News I have for you today is that if we trust God. If we live and act like we trust God and love Jesus we are absolutely get to where God is next going to call us to be.

I am the church …. you are the church … we are the church … together.


Healing and Resurrection

28 06 2015

Mark 5: 21 – 43

Jesus said, “Do not fear. Only believe.”

Earlier this week, I came across two stories. The first one had to do with a man who, along with his wife, were fairly devout Christians and solid members of their church. The man had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, which as you may be aware, causes the body to degenerate over a long period of time. Regardless of how great a doctor’s bedside manner happens to be, words cannot begin to describe the fear and anxiety that grips the heart and soul when someone receives news of having a terminal disease, and this couple was no different. Because of their faith, from the moment of his diagnosis, he and wife began praying for healing. Unfortunately, the man eventually died. However, when he was talking to a friend during the last years of his time in this life, he made a remarkable statement. “You know, I actually have been healed and delivered, but not in the way I prayed for. I have been set free from the fear and anxiety over Parkinson’s disease and from death itself.” The second one takes place in the 1980’s and is set in Romania. The Communist regime at the time set up orphanages where the children who lived there were cut off from the rest of society and lived in isolation. They received no love and in some cases no touch at all. When the iron curtain fell and the dictator’s abhorrent social policies were laid bare for all the world to see, it was discovered that in many cases, those who grew up in those conditions were physically human, but were missing part of their humanity. They could not speak, they could not relate to others and did not have the capacity to give or receive affection.

Today’s lesson gives us two accounts of healing miracles from the Gospel of Mark. Earlier in Mark, Jesus calmed a storm and delivered a man from affliction by a demon. Jesus has preached and taught in synagogues, has performed signs and wonders to herald the inbreaking of the Kingdom of God into the world. His reputation has proceeded him, so where ever he and his band of disciples go, they attracted a crowd, and this time is no different. On this occasion comes a man named Jairus, who one of the leaders of the synagogue, who was held in high regard by the community. His daughter has taken ill and is near to the point of death, and Jairus comes to Jesus and begs him to heal her. It was considered highly unusual for something like this to happen because Jairus was so well-regarded. Someone of such high regard might send a servant or family member to fetch Jesus, but Jairus publicly humbles himself and falls on his face for the sake of his daughter. He publicly confesses that he believes that Jesus has it within his power to make his daughter well, and Jesus agrees to go with him.

So the action picks up as Jairus leads Jesus, the disciples, and oh yes, the ever-present crowd on the way to his house. Along the way we are introduced to a woman who had been bleeding for a dozen years. No one, no doctor and no amount of prayer had been able to help her in all this time. What was worse, a woman during the bleeding part of the menstrual cycle was considered unclean, and would ritually defile anyone she came into contact with. But because the bleeding did not stop, she was outcast from the community. Everyone avoided her so that they would not become contaminated. The right and proper thing for her to do would be to call out to Jesus from a distance in the hopes he would pay attention, or get someone to intercede on her behalf. But in equal parts grit, determination and desperation, she sneaks up to Jesus, believing that if she just touches the hem of his garment, she will be made well. She, too, has confessed her faith in Jesus, but in a private manner. In many ways she is the opposite of Jairus as she is impure, absolutely vulnerable and certainly neither right nor proper. When she touches his clothes, the most remarkable thing happens. We are told that Jesus sensed that his power had gone out him as a result of this act, Jesus stops in his tracks and he asks, “Who touched me?” The disciples are naturally perplexed probably looked at Jesus as if he had two heads. “How can you say that?” they asked. “The entire town is pressed in around us as we go to Jairus’ house. No offense, Lord, but a better question might be, ‘who hasn’t touched you?’”

Jesus stopped and asked, “Who touched me?”

It is important to note that the woman was healed because she dared to approach Jesus and have the faith to reach out and touch him. Her body had been made whole, but the miracle of healing does not stop there. In reaction to this act of faith, Jesus does not just continue on but he seeks her out. The entire story STOPS just as Jesus himself STOPS when he knows that some divine power flowed out of him. The story will not move forward … until Jesus finds the one who was looking for him and he gets to know her.

Before Jesus’ attends to Jairus’ daughter, he attends to one outcast from society. Here we see that the needs of the vulnerable and the marginalized are addressed before before the needs of the respected and the powerful. Here we see that those who are on the fringes of society also have a rightful place in direct relationship with Jesus. Jesus is not bound by the law which forbids him from touching the woman, but he responds to her faith just as he responds to Jairus’ faith. But only does he accept the woman, he embraces her by calling her “daughter.” He calls her a child of God and breaks through her isolation from the community. The power that Jesus offers is not only that which cures physical ailments, but it brings wholeness and peace. It is a flash of intimacy which gives to her something that is very precious … a healing of the entire person: body and spirit.

The rest of the story resumes at its former pace as Jesus is led to Jairus’ house only to find that his daughter has died. Once again, Jesus ignores social convention and asks to be shown the body. Bringing with him only Peter, James and John, and the parents, Jesus touches the girl, takes her by the hand and tells her to get up. And she does. Stories of resurrection in the Bible are not new. A similar scene is found in the Old Testament where Elijah prays to God to bring back to life the son of the Widow of Zarephath. Here Jesus’ demonstrates his authority over death itself and instead of praying, directly tells her to get up.

Both of these stories have happy endings, but we all know too well that life is not like that at all. We are sad-fully, painfully aware that some of our most earnest prayers are not answered the way in which they are asked. It is very easy for me to stand up here and talk to you about miracles of healing and resurrection, but the reality is death and illness visits our community every day. Our cries and prayers are no less desperate than those of the woman and of Jairus. In this past week, one member of the community lost his father. And just one week ago, a mother and her two children died in a fire on Ramrod Key and the surviving sibling was taken to Miami for treatment.

The loss of a loved one is always tragic. In our grief and despair it is far too easy to isolate ourselves from those we love and who love us to the point where that same grief and despair begins to consume us. Cut off from our community, we may begin a cycle of self-destructive behaviour and we give in to our own despair, anxiety, and fear. We lose part of what makes us human, just like the children in Romania.

The Scottish Philosopher John McMurray once said, “I need you in order to be myself.” Someone who is enthralled to an addiction finds that they cannot even begin to get better and to recover until they are willing to step outside of themselves and accept the welcoming touch and the relationship of others. While their bodies have been changed to the point that they can no longer ingest those substances without quickly returning to a living death, they experience healing through a spiritual program and constant contact with each other so that they are no longer enthralled to cravings and hunger for what was killing them.

Life happens to us all, and it is only a matter of time before life comes knocking on our door. None of us go through this life without the experience of loss, and for myself, I know what it is like to lose almost everything: a job, retirement account, financial security, and even close friends. Sometimes, we may like awake at 3 in the morning not knowing what the next day will bring or how we can even begin to face it. We may say, “I can’t pay my mortgage, I can’t make my rent, I feel so alone and cold and afraid and sometimes I just feel as dead as a corpse.” But to this Jesus says, “Do not be afraid. Only believe.”

I am reminded of the a man who came to Jesus asking for his boy to be healed and all he could do was to cry out, “Lord I believe … help my unbelief!” which I have to think is the greatest declaration of genuine faith in all of Scripture. Faith … even a flawed, imperfect faith … is an integral part to healing and wholeness. When we cry out to Jesus and we reach out for him, even if our faith in him is imperfect, he stops, he comes looking for us and never ceases to search until he finds us and breaks through our isolation, our disease, our insanity and our uncertainty. We receive healing in the form of an awareness of the continuing and comforting presence of God … even when it seems all is lost. When we cling to the One who restores us and cast our every care upon him, he meets us right where we are in our sickness, our doubts, our despair and we are transformed by his love and grace and mercy from brokenness into wholeness.

The Good News I have for you today is that because of Jesus, while Disease and Death will remain with us, they are no longer the final answer. The Good News I have for you today is that if you read your Bible, you will find that every time Jesus meets someone who is dead, that dead person gets up and walks.