Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Embracing the E-Word

**This post comes from my sermon on the Second Sunday after the Epiphany (1/18/15) at Christ Church Cathedral, Lexington, KY**

"Nathaniel said, 'Can anything good come out of Nazareth?'  Phillip said to him, 'Come and see.'"
-John 1: 46

When I was in high school I had high hopes of being an actor. My girlfriend at the time was also a theatre kid with the same aspirations, and in the summer going into our senior year she was working with a local group called Appalachian Children’s Theatre.  Just to give you an idea where I was at the time, I didn’t really think children’s theatre would appeal to me.  I wanted to do super serious stuff, or at least stuff for a slightly more mature audience.  But that summer she told me that they were doing a musical that she thought I might be good at.  "Come and see", she told me.  "What’ve you go to lose?" So I did, and I was hooked.  I ended up doing three shows with Appalachian Children’s Theatre that year, and for the next two summers I worked as a counselor and teacher at their camp for younger kids. Looking back on it, my time with that children’s theatre had a huge impact on me as a youth minister, and in some ways it still impacts me today as a priest.  All because someone invited me to come check it out and offer what I had.  

In the gospel today, as we shift gears for a bit from Mark to John, we hear the story of Phillip and Nathaniel, a story only found here in the Fourth Gospel. As Jesus is getting ready to head into the region of Galilee, he calls to Phillip and asks him to follow him. Andnot only does Phillip follow Jesus, he goes and finds his friend Nathaniel and tells him about. Jesus. Still, Nathaniel isn't sure, "Can anything good come out of Nazareth?" he asks. His own skepticism is taking over. Yet Phillip, avoiding the easy trap of getting defensive, simply says, "Come and see."  So Nathaniel agrees to come with his friend, and he meets the living God, and his life is changed forever.

There is a word that we sometimes shy away from in the Episcopal Church, and I think y’all know what it is:  evangelism.  It's a Greek word. It comes from Evangelion, which means "good news" or "gospel." And it tends to scare us half to death.  But why?  Why do we get so scared of the e-word?Maybe because the term has too long been hijacked by fundamentalists and proselytizes, who try to convince folks that their views of God and the world are the only views.  And so, out of fear that we may be associated with the likes of those folks, we avoid the word.  But that isn't what evangelism is about. 

It's about those three simple words:  come and see. Sharing the Good News is as simple as that. And when that kind of invitation is offered, ones life gets changed for good. Just as my life was changed by an invitation to join Appalachian Children's Theatre. It just takes an invitation. Sometimes our skepticism takes over and tries to hold us back--both from accepting the invitation to something new or from issuing an invitation to someone else. And why wouldn't it?  It's a place of vulnerability, it's risky. But most things worthwhile are risky.  And when we step out in faith and take the risk, amazing things can happen. 

It just takes an invitation. But what kind of invitation are we talking about? And invitation to what exactly?  What's the difference between the invitation my high school girlfriend issued me and the one Phillip issued Nathaniel? Well, what's the the difference between inviting someone to join our favorite country club and inviting them to join our church?   Both offer programs, hospitality, and community, a sense of belonging. But only the church offers an encounter with the living God. That's the difference. That is what Phillip was inviting Nathaniel into.  Here in the church we meet the living God, we meet Jesus in the sacraments, in real objects that we can see, taste, and touch and that impart God's abundant grace to us. At this table we encounter Jesus in Holy Communion, where we reach out our hands to receive him, and take him into ourselves. Last week we experienced God's abundant grace when by the waters of baptism we welcomed three new members into the Body of Christ. What an amazing day?!  And that kind of day cannot happen anywhere else but the church!  

We don't come together to just remember things that happened long ago. We come here to encounter the living God. It is a real, tangible experience that transforms us, so that we can transform our world. We gather as the Body of Christ here, so that we may be the Body of Christ out there. That, brothers and sisters, is what we are inviting people into, what Phillip invited Nathaniel into. A real, tangible experience that transforms us and our world. 

Think about what it is that draws Nathaniel. Is it something deep that Phillip says? Nope. After all, when Phillip tells him that've found the one that Moses talked about, Nathaniel scoffs at it. Is it a promise that Nathaniel will get something he wants in return for going, a consumer-like transaction? Nope. It is the real prospect of the real encounter with the holy one, with Jesus.  Phillip's come and see is an open invitation to a real encounter that transforms Nathaniel. In the same way, it is not argumentative preaching or philosophical teaching or the promise of getting something in return that draws people to this place. It is a real encounter, a real relationship, with the living God in Christ.  That is why we are here, and it is into that relationship that we are called to invite, welcome, and connect others.

That's evangelism, folks: issuing an invitation, welcoming into a community, and connecting with the living God. For it is that same living God, it is Christ Himself, who issues the invitation, welcomes us, and makes the connection with us.  It is real. And it matters. 

Most of us have been Nathaniel at some point in our lives; invited into something new and frightened to take that risky first step. We've been Nathaniel, but we are also called to be Phillip, to be evangelists, to share the good news with a simple invitation. Into what kind of relationship will you invite someone?  Into what kind of relationship are you being invited?  I pray that it is a real one. So, come and see, brothers and sisters. Come and see the goodness of the Lord.  Amen.

Monday, January 12, 2015

What Does God Deserve?

St. Athanasius Church, Nicholasville, KY

Just after Christmas I had the pleasure of worshipping at this beautiful little church, St. Athanasius Russian Orthodox Church in Nicholasville, KY.  When a plan to sub for one of my Episcopal colleagues fell through, I decided to attend this beautiful church; one of my students at the University of Kentucky is Orthodox and had invited me to attend anytime I wanted.  (That’s called evangelism, folks!)

As I stood for the Divine Liturgy—there is no sitting during Orthodox worship—I was moved, both by the chants of the priest and choir, as well as the devotion and care that went into this celebration of the oldest and holiest of Christian services.  I found a sense of peace and comfort in this service that my tradition calls Holy Eucharist, Mass, or simply Communion. 

I took in all of the incense, watched parishioners venerate their icons.  It was all for the glory of God.  Did God need it all?  Of course not.  But God deserved it.  God deserves everything we can possibly give God, in our worship and our day-to-day lives. Go big or go home, right?  I wonder sometimes if we Christians have forgotten that.  I wonder if we have become complacent, even lazy, in expressing our faith.

The Divine Liturgy that day lasted two hours—at least one hour longer than almost every Episcopalian would say a Eucharistic service should last.  The people in that space took great care with every cross and every genuflection.  Even after the service was over and the priest had made the announcements, the people lined up single file to venerate an icon in the center of the worship space.  Nobody was in a hurry.  Everyone there knew that he or she was in the midst of the holy.  Everyone had taken a step out of time into a sacred space that did not seem the least bit concerned with the outside world around them.  This was devotion in its purest, most beautiful form.

As folks filed downstairs to a hearty lunch, I spent time with the priest.  During the liturgy he had been decked out in an assortment of vestments (cassock, pectoral cross, sticharion, epimanikia, epitrachelion, zone, and phelonion), and as I had watched him celebrate I wondered about my own tradition.  How many of my colleagues have I witnessed who have complained about doing so much as wearing a clerical collar?  How many would look at this and say that it was overkill? 

After lunch we sat and talked, he in his cassock, collar, and pectoral cross, and me in my civilian clothes.  As I walked to the car to head home a thought hit me:  we’ve become lazy.  We have forgotten that being a Christian takes intentionality, it takes work.    It begins with something as simple as priests deciding that all of those aforementioned vestments are just too uncomfortable, too hot, and so they get simplified.  But where does it stop?  I have been in churches where leadership has talked about not wanting to keep people too long for worship.  Really?!  We’re actually willing to shorten our worship, which is supposed to be about God and not ourselves?  Before we realize it our very lives become lip service, and we lose sight of who we really are.  We lose our identity.

I went to a bar a few days later.  The bar that stands across the road from a huge megachurch, and as I sat there, again in civilian clothes, the bartender was having a conversation with a couple sitting near me.  They were talking about how hypocritical churches and their pastors are, how all they care about is money and maintaining their image.  The bartender pined, “I wonder if any pastors actually believe in God.”  I sat there in silence as he launched into a litany of things Christians have neglected—the care of the poor, the respect of those with whom they disagree, the message of love that Jesus gave.  He concluded his homily by telling us that he had actually pondered becoming a pastor, but when he saw how Christians were not living up to the very standards they had set, he knew he couldn’t do it. 

Standards.  What kind have we set for ourselves and our communities?  We talk about church as though it were a glorified country club that sometimes mentions Jesus.  We worry about butts in the pews and bucks in the plate, rather than making disciples and cultivating relationships with the living God.  We worry about being comfortable, in the manners in which we both dress and preach.  Are we really being authentic when we neglect the standards upon which our faith was grounded?
I greatly admire our Orthodox brothers and sisters.  They know who they are.  They live into it each and every day.  They realize that being a Christian is not meant to be easy; it takes work, dedication, and a willingness to get uncomfortable.  While I may not be wearing a pectoral cross or phelonian the next time I celebrate Mass, I do pray that I may be authentic.  I pray we all may be authentic.  Don’t stray from what our faith asks of us just because it makes us a little uncomfortable.  It is a slippery slope that leads to making cynics like that bartender, rather than authentic followers of the Lord Jesus. 

Let’s take our faith seriously.  No, God doesn’t NEED it.  But God certainly DESERVES it.