Evangelism Matters

December 4, 2016

A friend of mine, who is a bishop in this church, has done some research on church growth. He discovered that the average Episcopalian invites someone to church once every nineteen years! If that is anywhere near the case, then it is no wonder that we experience dwindling numbers in our pews and find it difficult to attract and keep new people!

I mean, we can point to all kinds of other reasons, or “excuses,” as to why we are losing members. Conflict in the church, difficulty in retaining our younger members, the increasing secularization of society which is affecting almost all the churches. But the point is, if we’re only inviting people to join us on Sunday morning once every nineteen years, it might be a good idea to start there!

My parents and I became Episcopalians because our next door neighbors, having heard that we were ‘looking around’ for a new church, offered a simple invitation: “You know, we are members of All Saints’ Church in Winter Park and we’d love to take you with us some Sunday. Or, we could meet you there and introduce you to some of the greatest people!”

After a couple of weeks we accepted that invitation, walked through the doors of that small but beautiful old, Gothic parish church…and never looked back! We fell in love with the liturgy and music, with the common sense preaching we heard from the pulpit, and with the pastoral care offered by the clergy and others when our family went through some trying times. And through those things we developed a relationship with God, through Jesus Christ and in the power of the Holy Spirit. All because someone invited us to church.

Years ago, there was a little “evangelism” or “outreach” poster which was distributed through the Episcopal Church Center in New York. When you first glanced at it, it looked like a chalice. But when you looked closer, it was one of those optical illusions and you began to see two faces in profile, looking directly at one other. The three words underneath? Go…listen…tell. I’ve always thought that was a pretty simple “evangelism” strategy for Episcopalians. Not high pressure, not guilt-producing, not very difficult.

Simply “go” back outside the doors of this church after services on Sunday morning and enter your week with an intentional mission to interact with people, to meet people. In your workplace, at school, in your neighborhoods, in the various organizations in which you participate, family members…even total strangers.

Then, don’t get too pushy or too high pressure (not that this is particularly likely for Episcopalians!) One of your goals is to invite them to church, or to give church another try, if they have fallen away. But first, you need to build a relationship. Or strengthen a relationship which is already there. The best way I know to do that is to listen! Listen to them…

Have you ever met someone that, when you were in a conversation with them, it was as though you were the only person in the room? Or the only concern or interaction they were paying attention to? That’s the kind of person we should all strive to be. Not people “tolerating” others or looking around to see who else we might talk to or engage in conversation. But really being ‘present’ to the one before us!

If you strike that kind of attitude, you will be surprised how much people will share with you, how much they will reveal, how much they will “let you in” on what’s going on in their lives! That’s not being pushy or invasive. You’re just listening! And people love to be really listened to. We live in such a fast-paced, highly technological world that I believe people are hungry for real conversations.

Conversations that last more than the 140 characters on our Twitter accounts! People are hungry for real friendships…friendships which mean more than what you “do” to people on “Facebook!” So, “go” from here back into your everyday lives…listen, really listen, to those you seek out or come in contact with. Then when it’s appropriate, when you can make the connection…tell.

Tell them about what have found here at Christ Church. Tell them about what keeps you coming here on Sunday mornings instead of having that extra cup of coffee and finishing the newspaper. Tell them (dare I say it?) about your faith! Now I know that can seem scary and so many of you feel that you don’t “know” enough to talk knowledgably about the Christian faith. Nonsense! I didn’t say deliver a theological lecture or even a well-crafted sermon to these folks. Don’t tell them about what you don’t know…tell them what you know!

Tell them how the music and the liturgy bring you closer to God on Sunday mornings (if it does). Tell them about the kind of Christ-centered community we have here. Tell them about some of the outreach our church is involved in. Tell them about a time in your life when a prayer was answered or someone here reached out to you in a time of need. Share what you do know about your life of Faith….not what you don’t.

So, go…listen…tell.  But then don’t forget to “pop” the question at the end! That’s where we often fall down as Episcopalians. Do, invite them to church. If you can, offer to give them a ride, or for sure, to meet them here so that they won’t feel alone. Go…listen…tell.

If you do that, you’ll stand in the company of one of the great biblical figures of the Advent season — John the Baptist. I’ve always thought John was the very model of an effective evangelist. He was certainly willing to Go…Listen…and Tell. He went from the safety and security of a loving home and perhaps even the Essene monastery where he was trained, and made his home in the Judean wilderness. He listened… Listen, you say? John the Baptist?

Well, our text today says that the “people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan , and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.” (Matthew 3:5-6)  As a priest of this church for forty-five years, I don’t know how you can hear peoples’ confessions without “listening” to them! John the Baptist listened…because he cared about their burdens and about their sins.

And finally, John ‘told’. He told them that “the one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” (Matthew 3:11) And that’s the final thing we can learn from John the Baptist. John didn’t convert anybody to Jesus Christ! He “prepared the way” and let Christ do the rest!

That’s our job as well, dear friends. We don’t have to convert anybody. That’s Christ’s job… and his Holy Spirit. Our job – as individual Christians and as the Church – is to “prepare the way.” To provide the conditions, the environment, the context for people to be baptized…washed…inundated with God’s Holy Spirit.

But, if you and I do not “Go…Listen…and Tell” people outside the doors of this church about Jesus, it just may be that – for some people – it will never happen! And the responsibility will be ours!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Moving Advent

December 2, 2016

It is no accident that my wife has the word “pilgrim” as part of one of her email addresses. Both Susanne and I are pilgrims by vocation and by choice. I moved four times by the time I graduated from high school (not all that much by today’s standards). Counting seminary, I moved eight times in active ordained ministry. And, so far, we have moved three times in retirement!

Pilgrims indeed, especially when you figure in that both Susanne and I traveled extensively in ministry. In the nine years I worked for the Church-wide organization, located at 815 Second Avenue in New York City, I made trips to England, France, Italy, South Africa, Tanzania, Israel/Palestine, Egypt, Russia, Armenia, the Seychelles, Malta, Brazil, Cuba, and the Philippines, and countless cities and towns across these United States. I am comfortable living the life of a pilgrim!

Recently, we had decided to continue the “downsizing” process begun in retirement and found a lovely condominium in Iowa City. This is a great university town with all the things to commend it such communities have across the country and world — lectures, concerts, athletic events, a progressive culture Susanne and I both appreciate. (It is no accident that many in Iowa refer to Iowa City as “The Peoples’ Republic of Iowa City!”).

In addition, Susanne and her first husband lived here for many years, raised their boys here, and both she and I have many friends in this community. There are two great Episcopal churches here — historic Trinity Church nestled in the downtown area and New Song Episcopal Church, the latest mission congregation of the Diocese of Iowa which was begun during my tenure as bishop and of which Susanne was a founding member.

So, even though — in this season of preparation and expectation — we have just moved, it feels sort of like coming home.

But then, maybe that’s the way it always is for pilgrims!

Getting Ready

November 19, 2016

As anticipated and feared by many of us, President-elect Donald Trump’s initial, extremely important, early selections as advisers and Cabinet members do not build confidence in a more moderate Administration. Rather, it seems to be shaping up that he will govern pretty much as he campaigned. No real surprise, I suppose. He won.

But, after the mildly encouraging appointment of former GOP National Committee Chair Reince Preibus as Chief of Staff, Trump followed up with the scary selection of Steve Bannon of the right wing Breitbart News as a kind of co-adviser. Oh well, we might say, perhaps this will be a good-cop, bad-cop team which will present the President with all the options, leaving him free to make decisions considering both extremes available.

But this morning we awaken to the news of three more selections: Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions as Attorney General; Kansas Representative Mike Pompeo as CIA chief; and retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn as national security adviser. One the one hand, this is entirely predictable as Trump values loyalty above all else (including competence) and these men were avid supporters from the get-go. They are also longtime Washington insiders. So much for “draining the swamp.”

More concerning is Jeff Sessions’ hard-line immigration views, Pompeo’s support of returning to so-called “enhanced interrogation techniques” (including water-boarding), and Flynn’s view that Islam is not really a religion at all, but solely a “political ideology.” Given the Republican takeover of Congress there is little doubt that those of this number requiring Senate confirmation will receive it (even though Jeff Sessions was turned down by the Senate in 1986 for a federal judgeship because of his history of racist comments). Wonderful!

Even before the Advent warnings of “Get ready” and “Keep awake” begin sounding from our pulpits, it is now time for those of us who yearn for a more progressive, more compassionate, more inclusive country to gear up for the battles ahead. I continue to resist the temptation for us to be obstructionist for obstruction’s sake as Mitch McConnell and the Congressional Republicans were from day one of the Obama Administration. If we can find common ground on infrastructure development, less foreign interventionism working for regime change, moving toward a balanced budget, and improving our broken health care (and health insurance) system, I’m all for it.

But we must be hyper-vigilant for assaults on individual liberty, human dignity, civil rights (including women’s rights, minority rights, LGBT rights, workers’ rights) and so many other areas. Specifically, I plan to re-up my membership in, and support of, groups like the Southern Poverty Law Center (which has been as prescient on these developments as any group of which I am aware), Citizens for Community Improvement here in Iowa (which has a long record of fighting against the erosion of environmental standards in this agricultural state).

In addition, virtually every community now has an interfaith organization of some kind which can be relied upon to stand in solidarity on the local with Muslims and others who feel the tide of fear rising in their hearts with every Trump appointee so far. Episcopal Migration Ministries will monitor carefully any efforts at mass deportation of immigrants and the Catholic Church on the ground almost everywhere will be an ally in this effort.

We can hope for more balance in the days ahead as President-elect Trump rounds out his Cabinet and senior leadership team. But we must also be prepared. We must Keep Awake.

It’s time to get ready.

 

Saint James Warns Trump and Bannon

November 15, 2016

“If we put put bits in the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we guide their whole bodies.  Or look at ships: though they are so large that it take strong winds to drive them, yet they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs.  So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great exploits.”

“How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire!  And the tongue is a fire.  The tongue is placed among our members as a world of iniquity; it stains the whole body…no one can tame the tongue — a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the image of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing.”

“My brothers, this ought not to be so.” (James 3:3-6a, 8-10 from the today’s Daily Lectionary Reading)

Let those with ears to hear, listen!

The saddest thing…

November 14, 2016

…about this election is, of course, the continuing division and vitriol being manifested — at least right now — not by the President-elect, but by “the people” of this land. On the one hand we have seen reports of hate speech and the defacing of churches and other institutions with racial slurs and the proclaiming of “Trump Country.” On the other hand we see protests (some violent, some not) which seem not to be directed at any actual actions taken by the new Administrations, but on what actions might be taken.

To his credit, Donald Trump has asked the racists and the hate-mongers to “stop it.” And, of course, the anti-Trump protesters say that they are merely putting Trump on notice that they will be vigilant should he try and enact some of this more outrageous campaign promises. I suppose this division in our ranks might have been just as evident had Hillary Clinton and the Democrats prevailed, but those on the extreme Right had become accustomed to being on the “wrong” side of the political fence over the last eight years. Now, they seem newly emboldened. Predicable, I guess.

But can we not at least seek to find common ground in these early days? Two recent experiences I have had show how difficult this is. When students from the University of Iowa staged a peaceful protest and blocked traffic for a while even on the busy east-west Interstate 80 across the middle of Iowa, I posted on Facebook a picture with the caption “The Peoples’ Republic of Iowa City Strikes Again!” This, using the affectionate handle often applied in this state to the left-leaning state university.

I was immediately accused of supporting the kind of divisive actions Trump himself might have encouraged and which I would have repudiated. I was accused of being insensitive to those inconvenienced by having to sit in blocked traffic for less than an hour. “What if someone died, trying to be taken to the hospital because they couldn’t move through the traffic jam?’ several said. Fair enough. But then, I had not stated that I supported such behavior. I merely posted that the event happened.

And, in another Facebook thread when I in fact questioned the appropriateness and the wisdom of signs like “Not My President” and of mounting protests, not against specific transgressions, but about the fear of same, I was vilified by a former colleague for being “coy” about the danger of a Trump administration and of not being faithful in my Christian witness because I seemed to be calling for a “wait and see” attitude at least in the initial days and weeks of the new Administration.

This kind of intolerance and failure to listen deeply and carefully to “the other side” does not bode well for these next four years. I am as concerned and vigilant as anyone I know about the dangers of a Donald Trump in the White House. But, given the fact that the GOP — because of Donald Trump — heard a voice out there in rural, and not so rural, America and therefore controls (or will soon control) all three branches of the federal government and a vast majority of the state houses, we had better be as “wise and serpents and innocent as doves” as we, on the progressive side of US politics, begin to move forward.

Let’s take a deep breath, dear friends. And be strategic in our response…

 

Faith After The Election

November 11, 2016

Let me add a few thoughts to those of many of my colleagues on the role of our faith following the volatile presidential election cycle through which we have just lived. Like most Americans, Christians were and are deeply divided in the way we voted and in our reaction to the outcome.

Many liberal Catholics and Protestants supported the more progressive policies of the Democratic Party and its standard bearer, lifelong Methodist Hillary Clinton. Many conservative Catholics and Protestants supported the “change candidate,” Donald Trump perhaps especially because of his promise to appoint strict constructionists like Justice Scalia to the Supreme Court, assuring a halt to the perceived leftward drift of the Court in recent years.

There has never been only one way for committed Christians to vote. It is possible to “agree to disagree” precisely because the issues are so complex and much depends on how one prioritizes the most important ones we face. Is it more important to reverse Roe v. Wade or assure universal health care for all people? Is it more important to combat global warming and the negative effects of climate change or grow the economy to provide jobs for everyone who wants to work? We will have to “agree to disagree.”

One thing we can agree on is this: while it is important, as Christians, to work for a better world which more closely resembles the Kingdom of God, governments — no matter how dedicated and effective — will never usher in that Kingdom, that Commonwealth, that Reign of God. Only God can do that. (While I am sensitive to the patriarchal ring of the phrase Kingdom of God and often use the alternative ways of referring to it, I can’t get away from the deeply biblical use of “Kingdom” and am helped by biblical scholars from John Dominic Crossan to N.T. Wright who continue to remind us that — for Jesus — God is King…and Caesar is not!)

In my tradition, the way we are to live has not changed because of an election. The vows we took at our Baptism and/or Confirmation have not changed. And they are these:

  1. We are to continue to put our trust in the one God we have experienced in Jesus as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
  2. We are to be obedient to the teaching of the apostolic church as we have received it in our tradition, particularly by our commitment to the community, to its sacramental life, and to prayer.
  3. We are to (non-violently) fight against evil as we perceive it and, when we fall short of the mark ourselves, ask for forgiveness.
  4. We are to be bold in sharing with others our experience of the loving God we see revealed in Jesus.
  5. We are to look for the image of God in every person, no matter how different they may be from us in background or ideology, and to love that image.
  6. We are to treat other people as we believe God would treat them and strive for the peace which will prevail if we respect one another’s inherent dignity, if we do unto them as we would have them do unto us. (See the Baptismal Covenant, Book of Common Prayer, pages 304-305)

As an example, we will have to be as critical of the Trump Administration’s likely punitive policies on undocumented immigrants as many of us were of the Obama Administration’s immoral use of drone strikes to kill suspected terrorists who had never been convicted in a court of law. You will be able to think of many more examples. A guiding prayer for us all might be this one for “The Human Family:”

O God, you have made us in your image and redeemed us through Jesus your Son: Look with compassion on the whole human family; take away the arrogance and hatred which infect our hearts; break down the walls that separate us; unite us in bonds of love; and work through our struggle and confusion to accomplish your purposes on earth; that, in your good time, all nations and races may serve you in harmony around your heavenly throne; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen (BCP, page 815)

 

What Do We Do Now?

November 9, 2016

Our worst nightmare has come true. Not everyone’s worst nightmare, of course, but my family’s and so many of my friends’ and colleagues’. A man who by almost any standards has proved himself to be a racist, misogynist, drastically uninformed bully is now President-elect of the United States. How did this happen?

According to the pundits (who have been wrong on almost every count since day one), Trump tapped into the anger and angst of white working-class men and women who fall “below the line.” That is, those who have been largely bypassed by the slow but steady economic recovery and who blame the “elite” from Washington to Wall Street who are more concerned about political correctness than they are about “making America great again.”

There is some truth to that analysis and I can even understand (if not sympathize with) those sentiments. But I have been amazed at the cowardice of those same pundits and mainstream media commentators who have failed, so far, to name an even more troubling reality. Twin driving forces behind the surging Donald Trump campaign have been racism and sexism. Apparently, a majority of people in this country were horrified to find themselves led by our first African-American President and unprepared to secure his legacy by electing our first woman as President.

Promising from day one to oppose anything Barack Obama proposed and perpetrating lies about the honesty and integrity of a future Hillary Clinton presidency, the opposition frightened enough people to give Donald Trump a decisive victory across much of the country. The  same nativism and fear which led to Brexit, the new British Prime Minister, and potentially new leaders in France and across Europe is, we have discovered, hugely present in this country as well. We have elected Donald Trump.

So, what do we do now? First of all, we need to reassure ourselves and our loved ones that we will get through this. We survived Nixon, Reagan, George W. Bush and worse. We will survive Donald Trump. Many will be hurt, I fear, and some of the most vulnerable among us will suffer most. So, secondly, we need to redouble our efforts to stand in solidarity with the poor and marginalized and to be a voice for those this new administration will undoubtedly try to silence.

But our opposition needs to be a loyal opposition. Not loyal to policies and perspective we find, dare I say it, deplorable. But loyal to our country and to the political processes which have stood the test of time and produced one of the greatest nations on earth and a democracy which, while far from perfect, is to be preferred over many of the alternatives. We need to trust in the fact that the same checks-and-balances-system which can be so maddeningly slow when we seek progressive change can also protect us from the folly of people like Donald Trump and the possibly-frightening advisers with which he will likely surround himself.

We do not want to be obstructionist for the sake of being obstructionist (like the GOP has been over the last eight years) but we need to work to restrain foolhardy goals like walls between countries and mass deportation of immigrants and children of immigrants. And, we should be prepared to find common ground when possible on, perhaps, saving Social Security, balancing the budget, and finding ways to fix our broken health care system.

For many of us, our worst nightmare has come true. But, it is morning. And nightmares lose some of their horror in the light of day.

For Our Country

November 8, 2016

As voting starts on this Election Day, I pray that “…we may always prove ourselves a people mindful of your favor and glad to do your will. Bless our land with honorable industry, sound learning, and pure manners. Save us from violence, discord, and confusion; from pride, arrogance, and from every evil way.

Defend our liberties, and fashion into one united people the multitudes brought here out of many kindreds and tongues. Endue with the spirit of wisdom those to whom in your Name we entrust the authority of government, that there may be justice and peace at home, and that, through obedience to your law, we may show forth your praise among the nations of the earth.

In the time of our prosperity, fill our hearts with thankfulness, and in the day of trouble, suffer not our trust in you to fail; all which we ask through Jesus Christ our Lord.” 

Amen!

(Book of Common Prayer, page 820, “For Our Country”)

The Illogical Logic of the Kingdom of God

November 6, 2016

Today is All Saints’ Sunday. That’s the Sunday following All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day; the first, celebrating the great Saints of the Church on Nov. 1 and the second on Nov. 2 celebrating those lesser saints like you and me who are saints in the N.T. sense…saints, because we are baptized members of the Church of Jesus Christ! And the Gospel reading for this day is always the Beatitudes  (Luke 6:20-31), those beautiful “blesseds.” Blessed are the poor, blessed are those who are hungry, blessed are those who weep,” and all the rest.

Episcopal clergy normally don’t title their sermons like our Protestant brothers and sisters, but if I had to title this one it would be “The Illogical Logic of the Kingdom of God.” The Illogical Logic of the Kingdom of God! Because, when you first look at them, the Beatitudes are downright illogical! How are the poor blessed? How are the hungry blessed? How are those who are weeping blessed? How are those who are hated and excluded blessed? That’s illogical!

At least it would be illogical if Jesus was talking about the present. Today the poor and the hungry and the grieving are not blessed at all. But Jesus is not talking about the present. He’s talking about the future. He’s talking about a Day when God will finally intervene and set things right again – once and for all. ON THAT DAY, Jesus is saying, the poor will be blessed. On that day, the hungry will be blessed, and on that day, the weeping will be blessed.

(And, by the way, on that day, he says, the rich will be poor, the fat cats will be hungry, and those who are laughing at the rest of us now, will “mourn and weep!”) Now, that may sound illogical, dear friends, but I submit to you that the Gospel today tells us that it is the illogical Logic of the Kingdom of God! When the Kingdom of God finally comes in its fullness, what seems illogical now will be the logic that saves us all!

So that’s our hope for the future. But what are we to do until then? What are we to do right now? Well, according to Jesus, we are to live our lives as though that Kingdom has already dawned. Because it has. It’s not here in its fullness yet, but because of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, the Kingdom of God is within us and we are to begin to live the ethics of the Kingdom:

“Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat, do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again.” The illogical logic of the Kingdom of God!

Well, that’s just impossible, you might say! How are we to live like this in today’s world? Jesus answers us in one sentence. “Do to others as you would have them do to you!” That is, of course, The Golden Rule and it appears in one form or another in every major religion in the world. Because that is so, the great Roman Catholic theologian Hans Kung has called it “A Global Ethic.”

In Judaism it reads: “What is hateful to you, do not to your fellow man.” (Talmud).  In Christianity, “Do to others as you would have them do to you (Luke). In Islam, “None of you truly believes until he wishes for his brother what he wishes for himself.” (#13 of 40 Hadiths). In Buddhism, “Hurt not others in ways that you yourself would find hurtful.” (Varga 5:18). And in Hinduism “This is the sum of duty: do not do to others what would cause pain if done to you.” (Mahabharata 5:1517).

It’s almost as if God has written this Golden Rule deep in the human heart, across cultures and religions and across the centuries! If we just lived like this, the Kingdom of God really would be evident. The poor would be blessed and so would the hungry and the mourners! We would begin to love our enemies and do good to those who hate us. We would be able to bless those who once cursed us, and pray for those who were formerly our abusers!

So, on this All Saints’ Sunday, there’s a sense in which we have to wait for the promises of the Beatitudes to come true. Wait for that Day when things will be set right again.

But there’s another sense in which we can begin to live those Beatitudes right here and right now. We can love our enemies. We can do good to those who hate us. We can bless those who curse us. And pray for those who abuse us.

We can begin all this by “doing unto others as we would have them do unto us!”

 

I Will Pour Out My Spirit On All Flesh

October 23, 2016

It’s great to be back with you all today! Susanne and I hope you’ve had some time to be thinking and praying about some of the things we talked about last time and to begin dreaming about what the next steps at St. Alban’s might be in the months and years to come. Today we’re going to be focusing a bit on spiritual gifts which are present in each one of you and in this congregation.

One of those gifts is “discernment” which is really about prayerful listening to God and prayerfully listening to one another. And we want to think a little bit about “imagination,” about what it might mean to dream about a future free from what Susanne called last time “the de-fault mode,” specifically about the “one priest, one parish” mode of thinking we’ve become accustomed to. To dream about doing things differently than we’ve always done them before!

And if we were going to choose a passage from the Bible about spiritual gifts and discernment and imagination, we probably couldn’t find one much more appropriate than the 1st Lesson appointed for today from the Prophet Joel. Listen again to these words: “Then afterwards,” (says the LORD), “I will pour out my spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions. Even on the male and female slaves, in those days I will pour out my spirit.” (Joel 2:28-29). Those words are familiar to us because they had become so famous that the Book of Acts has Peter citing them in his first sermon on the day of Pentecost.

The early Christians believed that, in Jesus, and because of his life, death, and resurrection, those words from the prophet Joel had come true. God had poured out the Holy Spirit afresh and the evidence of that was that men and women were prophesying (speaking forth with God’s Word again), old men were dreaming dreams of a new future, and the younger ones were seeing visions of what might actually come to be!

Because of what God had done for them in Christ, these earliest Christians were beginning to experience God’s spirit in some new ways. No longer was God seen as far off and largely unapproachable except through the ministrations of the priests and the Temple sacrifices. Now they were beginning to understand that God’s spirit was as close to them as life and breath itself. God’s spirit was within them, in their midst – as individuals and as the church!

And they were able to recognize that spirit because of the gifts and abilities God was bringing forth. Paul lists some of them in I Corinthians and Romans – wisdom, knowledge, faith, healing, miraculous accomplishments, prophecy, discernment (there’s that word again!), tongues, interpretation, ministry, teaching, exhorting, giving, leadership, compassion, pastoral care. Well, I could go on and on…

But these women and men were learning that the church was indeed the Body of Christ and that each of them was a limb or a member of that body. If they each played their part, if each of them was willing to use the gifts they had been given for the common good, then their little communities, their churches, could actually BE the Body of Christ for the world just as Jesus had once been that Body in the world. They could Be The Body of Christ!

They were beginning to learn what St. Teresa said centuries later: “Christ has no body now on earth, but yours; no hands, no feet on earth, but yours; yours are the eyes through which he looks compassion on the world; yours are the feet with which he (still) walks about doing good.”

St. Alban’s Episcopal Church is just such a body!  Your hands have collected and distributed clean clothing to those who need it. Your eyes have looked compassion on those who suffer from alcohol addiction and other kinds of substance abuse and you have opened your doors to give them a space for healing. Your feet have walked out of this beautiful little sanctuary into the world and have taken the love of Christ into the jails and into the lives of women and children trafficked as modern day slaves right here in eastern Iowa. You are the Body of Christ!

One of the first spiritual gifts mentioned by St. Paul in his First Letter to the Corinthians is the gift of faith. Faith, in the biblical sense, means “radical trust,” radical trust in God. One of the articles of faith for what we sometimes call the “total ministry” movement is that all the gifts necessary to be the Body of Christ are present in that local community. Everything you need to be the church, to be the Body of Christ in this place, is already present…by God’s grace!

All that is needed are for those gifts to be identified and lifted up, unwrapped and put to use. Oh, it takes a little while to discover, or re-discover, those gifts. It takes a little while for them to be shaped and formed by some training and education. It takes a little while for everyone to learn how to use their gifts for the common good. But know this: it can happen!

Because God has already poured out the Holy Spirit in this place! Some of your sons and daughters are already prophesying! Some of your old men are dreaming dreams! And some of your young people are seeing visions! And on each one of you – whether you feel quite ready for it or not – God is prepared to pour out the spirit all over again.

This morning we are Confirming the gift of the Holy Spirit in Kelsey’s life. And Susanne and I are here to help confirm that same gift in the lives of each and every one of you. Perhaps this prayer in the Confirmation service says it best: Almighty God, we thank you that by the death and resurrection of your Son Jesus Christ you have overcome sin and brought us to yourself, and that by the sealing of your Holy Spirit you have bound us to your service.  Renew in these your servants the covenant you made with them at their Baptism. Send them forth in the power of that Spirit to perform the service you set before them; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.