Telling a Story…or someone else’s story.

Every Monday morning I try to post something on my Facebook page that is really inspirational to help people start the week in a good place. I love the music of John Rutter and this week I posted a magnificent rendition of the composition “For the Beauty of the Earth” sung by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir under this comment: “This is such a magnificent work by John Rutter that it would have been enough if he just stopped after creating it…but I’m awfully glad he didn’t. I hope this helps everyone have a blessed start to their week.”

Shortly after posting it, I received this message from a woman who thanked me for the posting and said how much she loved it and how grateful she was to be able to begin the week with it echoing in her mind. I thanked her in response. A bit later I received another message from her that said:

“Robin: I told my husband about this and he encouraged me to tell you

“This morning, I was sitting in our sun blessed living room enjoying my morning coffee and checking my emails and Facebook on my phone. Up popped your post with the Rutter piece. As I sat singing along, the sun came through a side living room window and blotted out the video but not the music. Suddenly the screen showed a cross, which filled the entire screen, I was momentarily stunned and emotionally moved to tears. How had that crossappeared? I realized that it came from a reflection of a framed print on the wall behind me and as quickly as it appeared, it vanished. It must have just been a peculiar accident.”  Shirley.

So here was a woman who had responded to a posting I had made and had been inspired so much by the music and the image of a cross on her phone that it had brought her to tears. And just as quickly as her tears had dried she had rejected the event and chosen to class it as an accident.

And so I responded:

“Dear Shirley:

Nothing is an accident. Everything is a gift from God.

Thank you and Blessings”.

Robin

And about an hour later I got another message from Shirley that said:

“Robin:   I have made two attempts to repeat my experience without success and have decided to accept the gift.”

We had connected we had talked about God in the world Shirley and I had been inspired and that is a great demonstration of what evangelism can be. It is something each of us can do if we are simply aware of God’s work in our lives and are ready to share that news with others.

The Gospel lesson that we just heard read is a continuation of the 10th chapter of Matthew “the Evangelist” that we started last week but the tone of this week’s lesson is much darker. We are at a point in the life of Jesus where he has spoken the parables and demonstrated the miracles that should make it clear who he is and where this story is going but it is almost as if he feels the need to make his message much clearer, much more precise and impossible not to understand. We are at a point in this story where something is going to happen and it is likely going to be dramatic and messy and dangerous. When Matthew quotes Jesus as saying “I send you out like sheep among wolves: be wary as serpents, innocent as doves.” He is clearly trying to tell them that by following him, walking in his footsteps, professing their faith and standing up unwaveringly…the apostles are about to find out that this is a dangerous and difficult task and they could lose their lives for what they profess to believe.

When Jesus says, “A disciple is not above the teacher, nor a slave above the master, it is enough for the disciple to be like the teacher, and the slave like the master.” He is telling them bluntly that they (the disciples) will share the teacher’s lot or what ever befalls Jesus will be visited on them as well. They are likely to find themselves in a whole lot of trouble very soon. Jesus knows the punishment he is going to experience and so is warning them of what is to come to them. But the truly important part of what Jesus is telling them in this Gospel and the gift that I think we should take away from today’s lesson is that only God can protect us as he protected his son. Only God can direct us on the path that is best for us and only God can preserve and protect each of our souls. We are children of this ultimate protector and there is no other.  Surely this is the message that Jesus was in the process of demonstrating by showing that it was possible to live a life with him and to walk the paths he walked demonstrating the love of God that lead him inexorably toward the cross. And that brings me to how this message has application to our lives today in the church. Episcopalians and the Anglican tradition have never (at least in recent times) had a very positive attitude towards the concept of Evangelism. We shy away from any demonstration of our faith as if we are embarrassed about discussing it with anyone other than someone who has been sitting next to us in the same pew for the last 20 years. And yet that is exactly what the disciples truly were: Evangelists. And they had so much more to lose, their lives, than I think we do in Charleston in the year 2017.

I’m reading an interesting book about Evangelism called “Lifestyle Evangelism: Crossing Traditional Boundaries to Reach the Unbelieving World” by Dr. Joe Aldrich that has a lot of valuable information on Evangelism in our lives. It begins with this story:

“There is a legend which recounts the return of Jesus to glory after his time on earth. Even in heaven, he bore the marks of his earthly pilgrimage with its cruel cross and shameful death. The angel Gabriel approached him and said:

“Master, you must have suffered terribly for men down there”.

“I did”, he said

“And,” continued Gabriel; do they know all about how you loved them and what you did for them?

“Oh no” said Jesus, “Not yet. Right now only a handful of people in Palestine know.”

Gabriel was perplexed. “Then what have you done to let everyone know about your love for them?”

Jesus said “I’ve asked Peter, James, John and a few more friends to tell other people about me. Those who are told will in turn tell still other people and my story will be spread to the farthest reaches of the globe. Ultimately, all of mankind will have heard about my life and what I have done.”

Gabriel frowned and looked rather skeptical. He knew well what poor stuff men were made of. “Yes”. He said, “but what if Peter and James and John grow weary? What if the people who come after them forget? Haven’t you made any other plans?”

Jesus answered: “I have no other plans. I am counting on them”

Twenty centuries later, he still has no other plan. He is counting on us… In reality, one of the most important things we are asked to do is to be about the business of evangelizing…each and every one of us. In fact our presiding Bishop, Michael Curry, calls us all to be Evangelists. And here is how he does it…by telling a simple and heartfelt story that can do no less than touch my heart and yours. Perhaps you have heard him tell this story about his Father. If you’ve heard it before…that’s OK. It is so powerful that I think it is worth telling over and over again.

“When my parents met, my mother was an Episcopalian. My father was in seminary and a Baptist preacher. One Sunday, my father decided to go to church with my mother. He had never been inside an Episcopal church. It was an alien world to a person who came from the African-American Baptist tradition. The Book of Common Prayer, the liturgy, the written prayers, the silences, the chanting…all were new. But he later said the most striking difference for him that day was communion. He had never experienced a chalice, the common cup from which everyone drank. That morning my parents were among the few African-Americans in the congregation. This was the 1940’s. Jim Crow was alive and well. Segregation and separation of the races was still the law in much of the land. The armed forces had not yet been integrated. Brown v the Board of Education had not taken place, and it was long before the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Martin Luther King Jr. was still in seminary. Still, my father saw on the altar only one cup from which everyone was to drink. My father didn’t feel comfortable going up for communion but when my mother went up, he watched closely. Was the priest really going to give her communion from the common cup? And if he did, was the next person really going to drink from that same cup? And would others drink too, knowing that a black woman had sipped from that cup? He saw the priest offered the cup to the next person at the rail and that person drank. And then the next person, and the next, all down the rail. When my father told the story he would always say: “That’s what brought me to the Episcopal Church. Any church in which black folks and white folks drink out of the same cup knows something about a gospel that I want to be part of.”

So why is it that we find evangelism such an objectionable activity?

I read a piece recently on a blog called New Wineskins that brought this home to me. Even if we are the most introverted of introverts, one of the things we all should be finding a way to do is to bring the Good News of Christ to the world around us the way it was brought to us. (Think back a bit…who was it that went out on a limb…took a chance and brought the good news to you?) After all, the word Gospel translates to “Good News!” Each of us, like Matthew, has a responsibility to make Evangelism an important part of our lives but what stops us, I think, is an aversion to interrupting another’s personal space, of expressing our faith and being afraid of a negative reaction. Plus I think many of us have had a bad experience with someone trying to “save” us. As Dr. Aldrich says in his book: “Unhealthy evangelism models have hurt the evangelism enterprise. Often the artificial and unnatural methodology of some of these models offends us. Gimmicks, pseudo-questionnaires, buttonholing, altar calls, evangelical mugging and the outright rudeness of some witnesses can turn us off and the result is that evangelism has become a much misunderstood term – one that most people either swear by or at.”

Well here is a solution to that problem that I think could help each of us. Instead of talking about our faith…why not BE a living demonstration of it? Listen to what Paul has to say about this in 1 Corinthians:

“My message and preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with demonstrations of the Spirit’s power so that your faith might not rest on human wisdom but on God’s power!”

Evangelism is something we should BE more than something we should be doing or talking about. It is so important that we try to make the point with what we do in our daily lives that “Born into sin and blemished by infinite imperfections, we have not been excluded from Christ’s love. That God not despite what we are, but because of what he created us to be both nourishes and cherishes us. Isn’t it incredible to think that he cherishes us? That he is always with us and that as the bible says, “even the hairs on our heads are numbered.”

I think true and meaningful evangelism means to replicate and demonstrate the nature of God, his love, righteousness, his faithful and steadfast commitment to care and protect us in everything we do every day. To be joyful, in the face of despair, to be positive in the face of negativity, to be generous in the face of miserliness and to be loving in the face of bigotry and hatred.

So tell a story like Bishop Curry’s…and if you don’t have your own story…tell his or the hundreds of others that can be found in books like his “Crazy Christians” Do this. Be this and we can truly live a life in Christ and be his shining light banishing the darkness in the world. I cannot conceive of a better definition of evangelism and Jesus is still counting on us!

Amen

 

“There You Are Again”

Chaplain Robin Bugbee at Saint Stephens Episcopal Church, in the city of Charleston SC. Saturday May 20, 2017

“If you love me you will keep my commandments.” That’s what John has to say to us in this week’s gospel. “ If you love me you will keep my commandments”. Jesus is preparing to leave his followers and is trying to prepare them for what is to come. He’s trying to get them ready for the time when he will not be among them so he talks to them about this being that he calls “another Advocate” who will be with them forever. It’s almost like a mother tucking in her young child for the night. The child is drowsy…almost asleep…and just as the mother turns off the light and slowly begins to close the door the child fearfully cries… “Mama! Don’t go!”

And the mother comes back, comforts her child and says

“Now…now, don’t be afraid. I’m not going anywhere. I will always be here for you.”

She says this with all the love in her voice that she can muster…but as she says it, she knows it is not true. That one day she will have to leave… and her child will have to walk on without her. It is a painful and a tender moment that any parent or grown child might be able to recognize. So this mother is trying to prepare the child gently for that break that hopefully won’t come for many years. She is trying to give her children all the love and care and encouragement they need to gradually become a fully formed adult who can one day stand on their own and nurture their own children. And that is exactly what Jesus is trying to do with his disciples. He knows his time is running out. He knows what is going to happen. That he will be crucified, die and then rise from the dead to be with his Father. So when Jesus speaks about this Advocate…he is talking about the Holy Spirit who will “abide with you, and he will be IN you”.   He says: “I will not leave you orphaned…because I live, you also will live. On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me and I in you.”

If you have ever lost someone you loved deeply, a parent, a sibling or a life partner you may, like I, have had the feeling that although this person is no longer in this life, they continue to live in your heart. They have, in a real way, become an essential part of you and sometimes when you least expect it…there they are. Or in the words of a beautiful song by Livingston Taylor called “There You Are Again”

“I believe in the actual

In the clear, concise and the factual

All of life has meaning

And it should be clear to see

But when the crowds all drift away

And we are apart for one more day

In the most peculiar places

You’re where you should not be

There you are again

In the rustling leaves of a summer storm

In my favorite chair all safe and warm

In a wish that a child believes.

There you are again

When light returns to the summer sky

When two lovers cannot say goodbye

When a movie makes me cry

When the perfect story ends

There you are again.

So in a real way, this is what Jesus is trying to tell his followers… “If you love me you will keep my commandments and I will be with you forever.” But unlike the promise that the Mother made to her child…we are promised that his “spirit”, this “advocate” will be in the Father and we will be in him and he will be in us. We will be fully integrated so that we are never without the Holy Spirit. This is the gift of Grace that we are given as children of God. Matthew tells us that Jesus said:

“Thou shall love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul and with all thy mind, this is the first and great commandment, and the second is like unto it. Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets”

I believe in a real sense that if we know and practice these two most important commandments we know just about everything we need to know about living a Christian life with God.

It is a deceptively simple prescription. Love God … Love yourself and love all the people God created. Of course we are talking about a special kind of love here called “Agape” Love.

Within Christianity, Agape is considered to be the love originating from God or Christ for humankind or as Wikipedia says: “In the New Testament it refers to the covenant love of God for humans, as well as the human reciprocal love for God. A simple way of thinking about it is as love for our fellow beings.”

This simple act of brotherly love is all that Christ really asks of us. But to really comply with the commandment…it means that we must learn to love ALL our neighbors…. everyone. And it doesn’t say LIKE your neighbors. It says LOVE your neighbors.

We need to find the means to find something to love in every person we meet…even if we feel there is a lot to dislike at the same time. When we do this we are actually doing more than just complying with a commandment from God (and that certainly would be enough)…we are actually making a practice of seeing God in the face of every person we see every day. Think about that for a moment…how much better a way to live a life in Christ it could be to see God in the face of every single person we see. How much more inspirational our lives could be if we didn’t wait to Sunday to praise the Lord but did it every time we met one of his creations!

These two commandments have the potential to change the world. But more importantly they have the potential to change our world, which is a concept a bit easier for us to comprehend. Imagine what our lives would be like if we were simply able to summon that brotherly or sisterly love for each person we meet.  Imagine if our first greeting was not “How are you” but “I love you” and imagine how a clear expression of love could change our conversations and interactions.

So why not give it a try this evening. If you’ve got the courage…turn to the person next to you or in front of you and just say I love you. Right now. Go on…give it a try…no one will laugh and it doesn’t hurt.

And I truly love you all.

Amen.

 

 

 

 

Overwhelming Grace

In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen

The meeting on the road to Emmaus that we just heard in today’s Gospel lesson from Luke is a pivotal point in our story of the resurrection. Of course we know the outlines of what happens: The crucifixion is over. The bible says they rested on the Sabbath and then on the first day of the week at dawn the women come to the tomb, find the rock rolled away and Jesus is gone. The women are terrified but two men in dazzling clothes (thought to be angels). Tell them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen”.

On the same day, two of Jesus disciples, Cleopas and Simon are on the road to Emmaus and while they are walking, Jesus comes and walks with them but they do not recognize him. He asks them what they are talking about and they tell him all that has happened from Jesus condemnation to his death. When they tell him that the women had gone to the tomb and found it empty and had a vision of angels, Jesus says:”Oh how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared. Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into glory?” Then he interprets to them all the things about himself in the scriptures. Still they do not recognize him as Jesus.

As they come close to the village, Jesus walks on ahead as if to leave them but they ask him to stay with them that night and he does. When Jesus was as the table with them he took bread, blessed and broke it and gave it to them. Then Luke writes: “Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him and he vanished from their sight.” Finally…they recognize Jesus.

I think this lesson has great importance for each of our lives today. It certainly does for me. How and when do we recognize Jesus in our lives? It has been many years since my baptism and despite some lapses in church attendance; I don’t think there was a time when I would have denied my faith in Christ. But there were certainly many times when I took that faith for granted. It was a part of me but one that I chose to ignore when it wasn’t convenient or when it might have caused me to be more self critical of my impulsive and selfish behavior. In recent years, I have asked myself how I could have been so willing to ignore the gift of God’s grace that I…that we all have been given. How could I have been so willing to take that gift for granted for so long? I think it is because I never really understood what the gift was and without understanding it’s nature, I couldn’t understand it’s value and it’s ability to radically change my life.

I think the story of the meeting on the road to Emmaus is the story of meeting, understanding and accepting the Grace of God. When I thought about writing this sermon, I had a concept in my head that I called “Overwhelmed by Grace”. For a very long time I think I had trouble understanding what Grace was and I remember the day that began to change

About 12 years ago, during my late wife’s terminal illness I tried every trick I could to wish God into changing what I knew were happening. I bargained with him, “if you will do this thing for me…I will do anything for you and be more faithful.” I played games: “if the faucet drips six times…not seven…we will get good news from her CT scan”… I fairly exhausted myself trying to find ways to get God to save me from myself and to make the sickness and sadness and awful fear of the loss of love just go away. And all of this did was bring me to a place of such desperation that one night I used my key to open the chapel door, laid face down on the cool tile floor and just cried until I sell asleep. I don’t remember leaving that night, or locking the church door or walking home, or what happened after that experience but I do remember that was the night that I gave it all up. As if I had ever had any control at all. I gave it all up to him. In a real way, that was the first time in my life that I truly and fully recognized God’s grace in my life. The gift had been there all the time…but I wasn’t ready to accept it. Any more than the disciples were ready to recognize Jesus on the road to Emmaus until they finally did.

The illusion that we are in control of our lives can be as addictive as a reliance on alcohol or drugs. The history of 12 step programs began with Alcoholics Anonymous (which you may or may not know was founded in the parish hall of Calvary Episcopal Church at 61 Gramercy Park North in New York City). Frequently, in order to make progress against any addiction, participants in these programs need to reach a place often referred to as “rock bottom” before they can begin rebuilding their lives. It is a place where, because we can get no lower, we give up trying to control our lives and our addiction (whatever that may be), and turn all of it over to God and ask his help. Grace lives in that intersection of hopelessness and hope. And hope is the stuff of faith.

I have thought about my life a great deal over the last 10 years and the amazing thing is the frequency of opportunities I have to be overwhelmed by Grace. It happens to me every day. Often, multiple times. I am ushered into a relationship with someone in need and conversation is transformed into a holy place where I am given the magnificent opportunity to love another child of God and to help them touch their own faith and to recognize their own gift of grace.

This past Thursday morning, I received a call asking if I would be willing to go over to see a mother and her little toddler who was in serious condition in the Emergency Room at Children’s Hospital. This was a “Grace Moment” giving me the opportunity to enter into a holy space where I would have a chance to help bring the love of Christ into a desperate situation. I call it Grace because without it, I would not have been there and in sincere humility would not have had the tools to help.

Medical ethics and Federal law prevent me from talking with you about this family and their sweet and almost angelic little child, but I can tell you that the experiences of being with them and sharing their faith during a really terrible and heartbreaking time stopped me cold…and changed my life. I can also tell that this brush with mortality changed this young mother’s life too and brought her to a new awareness of the enormous well-spring of goodness and love that surrounds us and is with us every minute of every day but which most of us take for granted…until be can’t any longer.

That’s what I want to talk with you about tonight. The tendency we all have to look at magnificent things as if they are nothing important…when they are in reality direct messages from God: concrete manifestations of how much he loves and cares for us.   They are opportunities for Grace that we need to learn to recognize and to embrace. Their awareness…like the apostles finally recognizing Jesus on the road to Emmaus is what is so important.

I live in God’s grace and it is an invaluable gift, which inspires me minute by minute by minute. Every day. Sure I have bad days. Like you I am a broken person prone to sin. (I often wish we could start out each service by encouraging each of us to turn to the person next to then and say something (in their own words of course) like this:

“I know that outside of these walls the world expects me to be perfect …but I also know that inside these walls I am protected by God’s love and encouraged to be honest about my failings and my fears and that I will be loved because of them…not in spite of them”.

I must tell you I find God’s grace enters my life over and over again and presents me with wonderful opportunities to reach out with the love of Christ each time. But the important part of this is not who I am but who you are…who we all are. Each of us has the opportunity to truly live a life in faith. Do I find all these ‘grace notes” in my life because I am special, unique, on the path to ordination as a Deacon. Certainly not. They are in every life…your life…right now. If you begin to consciously look for them…they will find you. The very act of searching for God’s Grace will bring it to you but you will not have far to look. Grace is a thing of the heart and you will find it within you if you will only look for it instead of looking away. Once you are open to Grace…God’s heart will join with yours in a harmony of inspirational love. He is waiting only for us to recognize him working in our lives.

What is he doing in yours…right now!

Amen

We Went to See Lucinda Williams Last Night

I love live music and try to see as much of it as I can. (I also play guitar and sing so I try to play as much of it as I can too!). Several weeks ago Spoleto Festival USA (which takes place in Charleston SC every year in May/June) announced that Lucinda Williams would be performing on June 4th. That was great news because I had never seen her live and we immediately bought tickets.  The concert was last night. The TD Arena at the College of Charleston was just about full and I was ready for a great show. Unfortunately, that’s really not what we got. Williams’s unique voice is still there but maybe she’s just been on the road too long. At close to 60 it’s been a lot of years.  She has little if any rapport with her audience and although she spoke between songs, a look on-line indicated that much of what she had to say she has said before in exactly the same words. She speaks in a kind of monotone without much enthusiasm or interest.  But the biggest problem for me was her song selection which for the first hour was an unremitting series of songs about death, wasted lives, suicide and people who have “died too young”. It was a real downer with very little to soften the blow.  When she made a comment that she was going to sing another song about someone who had died and “that ‘s what happens when you get older”, there was an uneasy wave of unintended laughter from the audience that she quieted by saying something like, “I didn’t intend that to be funny”. But since the first six or seven songs had already been about death, sadness and loss, I could understand the audience thinking that she meant this as a joke. And she didn’t. And that, for me was the real problem.  Yes, she is right. As we get older, we lose a lot of people who we care about, respect and love. (For many of us we lost another this week with the death of Dr. Angelou). It is a real and unfortunate part of growing older. We lose our parents, some us lose our spouse or partner and we all lose people we love and respect that we may not even know. It is hard and it is terribly sad but if we only concentrate on the loss, I think we miss so much of who the person was. Concentrating on the loss is a natural and understandable part of the grieving process (and believe me I know what I am talking about here, my wife of 34 years died eight years ago) but to continue to concentrate on the loss is a kind of psychological illness. Everyone has to handle these things in the way that works for them. What works for me is to be truly grateful for the place these wonderful people have played in my life and the knowledge and love I have gotten from them that has changed me and made me the person I am today. When my wife was dying, she said to me one day when I was overcome with what I would do when she was gone, “but Robin, I am never really going to be gone from you. I will always live in your heart (and she reached out and touched my chest) and when you don’t know what to do, just ask me and you will hear me tell you.” And she was right. And since then, as I have lost many I loved, I have always thought of them as remaining in my heart and with me just as they changed me in their lives. I remember thinking one time, “I don’t know if I have enough room for all of these people”. But that’s where God comes in. He makes room by making your heart large enough to hold the whole world if necessary.