Monday, January 28, 2013

Significance and Security

Epiphany III
January 27, 2013
Fr. Philip Eberhart

 

Significance and Security

I’m told that the two great needs that we have as humans are the needs for significance and the need for security.  We spend whole lifetimes in search of those things – trying to conjure them up through any means possible – but always relying on ourselves to create them.

The pursuit is relentless; through jobs, through relationships, through spouses; by achievement, by success, by accumulation – of wealth, of friends, even of the needs around us.

And when things don’t go well, when we’re not so successful, not so popular, not so wealthy – when relationships falter or fail, where friends leave or few people need us, all of our significance – all of our security –  Simply evaporates, like drops of sweat on a hot sidewalk!

Our lessons this morning teach us something about the source of these things … really.  Significance and security are not actually available to us from most of the sources that we seek them from!  As the song goes, we’re “looking for love in all the wrong places.”

As I read the lesson from Nehemiah, I was caught by the response of the people to the reading of the Word of God, the Law of Moses.  They wept as it was read to them. Nehemiah was the governor of the remnant who were left after the people of Judah and Israel began to come back to Jerusalem.  They had finished rebuilding the wall under his able leadership in just 52 days, and now were gathered for worship in the city square.

If there was one thing that they did not have, even though the wall was built, it was any real measure of security.  They were still pressed-on from every side by those who opposed the work they had just finished.

But what they were experiencing was a renewal, a revival of their national life and identity – because of the influence of the Word of the Lord! 

The last line of our reading is a very familiar phrase to us:  “The Joy of the Lord is our strength!”  I looked up the specific word for ‘strength’ that is used here in the Hebrew, and it means a PLACE of safety, a refuge or stronghold! 

The Joy of the Lord is our security!
 

Now look at the Psalm…  one that is very familiar to us, because we sometimes sing it prior to the Gospel reading – its become a part of our life because its one of those songs that gets caught in here (your head.) 

[“More to be desired are they than gold, yea than much fine gold…
Sweeter also than the honey in the honeycomb.”]

The description of the Law in Psalm 19 and throughout scripture shows us its power and we know why the people of God in Jerusalem were weeping that day as it was read!

It restores the soul…  makes wise the simple or innocent;
Cause the heart to rejoice … it enlightens the eyes;
It endures forever … is righteous altogether!

[“More to be desired are they than gold, yea than much fine gold…
Sweeter also than the honey in the honeycomb.”]

Listen to the adjectives, the descriptors for this Word:

Perfect…

          Stedfast… Trustworthy …  Sure!

                   Upright… Right …

                             Pure… 

                                      Clean…

                                                True…

Worth more than Gold … sweeter than honey.

Is there anyway for us to speak more to the needs of the human heart for security than to find it in the Joy of the Lord and in the Word of God?

But let’s not stop here!

 
Paul’s description of the Body of Christ continues to speak directly to these needs in our lives, but tells us of an entirely different tack to attaining them for ourselves:

The greater portion of significance in our lives is found in our sense of “belonging.”  Here in Paul’s letter to Corinth, we see his Magnum Opus on the way in which the Body of Christ is designed, taking its hints from the actual bodies we live in.  Paul is profound here in his application of simple truth and logic to the deepest of human needs.  The organic unity of the human body itself is the lesson!  We are all not just a part of this reality, but a significant part of this reality, from the “greatest” parts to the “least” parts.  We are forbidden from competition between members and from comparison of our gifts to the gifts of others.  We are forbidden from looking at outward appearances and from diminishing others or ourselves based on some misconstrued hierarchy in the Body of Christ.  All of us are “members one of another” – we all belong, profoundly so, to the reality that is the living, moving, acting Body of Christ in the world.

 
A great follow-on from this reading is some of the verses from Ephesians 4, that we continue to be “eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”  Paul goes on to describe the Body as the Gifted People of God to which “he gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelist, pastors and teachers… [why?]

To equip the saints for the work of ministry, for the building up of the Body of Christ, (for how long?)

Until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity in Christ – to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ (and a little further on)

We are to grow up in every way into Him who is the Head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.”

Friends, there is no place of significance to be found on the planet that is better than the Body of Christ!  Especially as it lives into its calling and giftings from God – as WE live into OUR calling and OUR giftings from God!

 
And finally in our Gospel, we see the Job Description that Jesus claimed for himself, and that is passed on to us as His Body in the world: 

"The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,

because he has anointed me

to bring good news to the poor.

He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives

and recovery of sight to the blind,

to let the oppressed go free,

to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor."
 

Have you ever struggled with significance?  Ever felt like what you did or even who you were really didn’t count for much?  I think we all feel that from time to time.  It’s the reason that we seek significance so diligently in our lives.

This is where significance is found – in the mission of Jesus and in His work in the world, today through His Body – you and me.

To bring good news to the poor…

          To proclaim release to the captives…

                   Recovery of sight to the blind …

                             To let the oppressed go free…

                                      To proclaim God’s favor .

Do you have faces that come to mind when you hear those phrases?  I hope so. There are lots of folks around us who need to hear and to see what we have to offer as the Body of Christ.

Most of all, the world needs to see and hear, Jesus himself.  This is the source of true significance and true security.  Just as Jesus said to His hearers in the synagogue in Nazareth that day, he says to us:
“Today, this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing!”

Today, we have a decision before us – you have a decision before you:
Continue to look for love in all the wrong places… or
Hear and respond to Jesus, when he says to you, “Come to me.”
Are you poor?  Are you captive?  Are you blind?  Or oppressed?

Today is the time of God’s favor toward you.  Today is the day of salvation.
Our prayer is that you hear His voice …
          in the whispers of His Word …
                   in the echoes of His voice in your ear…

This is the year of My favor.  Come to me.  I will give you what you desire – meaning and significance;  safety, security, a place of stronghold.

“Today, this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing”

 

Let us pray:
[Please repeat each phrase as we pray together:]

 
Lord Jesus Christ…
I am one of those you were sent to:
Poor, captive, blind and oppressed.
Open my ears that I may hear your good news…
Let me hear the news of my release,
Lay your hands on my eyes that I might see You, Lord,
And set me free from my oppression.

 Lord, I accept your favor and love for me.
Lord, I am willing and available to be used in your Body.
Send your Spirit into my life and direct me,
Speak to me and through me. 
I will obey your voice.

                             [and join me once again in the collect for the day]

 Give us grace, O Lord, to answer readily the call of our Savior Jesus Christ and proclaim to all people the Good News of his salvation, that we and the whole world may perceive the glory of his marvelous works; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Sanctity of Life - In the Grip of Grace


Sanctity of Life Sunday
Epiphany 3
Jan 20, 2013
Fr. Philip Eberhart
 

In the Grip of Grace
(Audio Sermon click here)
 

This morning is the national observance of Sanctity of Life and this weekend is the 40th anniversary of the Roe V. Wade Supreme Court decision that opened the way for this national destruction of innocent life.  I only want to quote one statistic this morning and to think on it a bit.  Since 1973, it is estimated that upwards of 55 million babies have been killed in this national holocaust.

The reason that I use the word ‘holocaust’ is that the number of abortions in 40 years is almost 10 times the number of deaths in Hitler’s camps.  And this is perpetrated against our own children and grandchildren.  How can God NOT judge us as a nation? 

This morning I want to tell another “right to life” story.  Some of you have heard it in various forms, because its my own story.

 

I’ve titled this sermon, “In the Grip of Grace.”

I was born to a 16 year old mom and a 17 year old dad in mid-1954.  In those days instead of abortion clinics run by Planned Parenthood, there were Unwed Mother’s Homes run by the church.  Interestingly the one I was born out of was here in Denver and it was run by the Episcopal Church.  It was called the Florence Crittendon home.  It still is in existence today here in Denver, as a High school for teen moms. Their mission statement is “educating, preparing, and empowering teen mothers.”

What was a home for pregnant teens in the 50’s and long before, has morphed into a program of education for teen moms and dads.  The services find their roots back before Colorado statehood in Family and Children’s services with the establishment of the Home in 1893, 120 years ago.  58 years ago, I was born out of that home.

My mom gave me to the state for adoption and I was adopted by a farm family from Burlington, Colorado, on the eastern plains.  In September of 1954 I was the “birthday present” for my mom.  I lived in one house and went to one set of schools until the year that Roe V. Wade happened, 1973.

For a lot of adoptees, the story kind of ends like that.  Adoptees grow up to live normal, productive lives in our society and are virtually indistinguishable from those who grew up in their families of origin.  And that is probably what would have happened with me, except I got a call one night in 1987. 

My parents in Burlington had been told that I was adopted because my parents had been killed in an accident, or that is what I remember being told.  It virtually closed the door on any curiosity I had around any of that in my life and it just became a non issue.  Until the call.

Val and I had been married for 10 years, pushing through undergrad and graduate school, I had served in churches for a few years, and had worked outside the church for a few years.  Now we were here in Colorado and waiting on God to point the way for a new pathway into ministry.  We felt directed here, back to a place that we loved, and where, I was to discover, I had deep roots. 

In that waiting period, I got the call.  Just a few months after moving to Denver and a few months before doors opened up for ministry, I got a call.  One night later than usual, about 10:30 the phone rang.   I was already in bed, but Val was up – duh!  She answered the phone and a lady’s voice on the other end asked for me.  She explained that I was in bed and with some insistence the lady pressed, so she got me up and I took the call in my home office. 

This is Phil.
Philip … Eberhart?
Yes.
And you were born May xx, 1954?
um… yes.
She paused. 
“Are you sitting down?”
(you know its rarely good when someone asks that question)
“You might want to sit down.”
Ma’am, what’s this about?
“I’m your birth mother.”
(I sat down.)  long pause

I really don’t remember much of the conversation past that point.  She did most of the talking, introducing herself, and beginning the almost year long process of moving toward establishing a relationship with a son she had given up for adoption 33 years before.

I met Sharron, my birth mom in August of 1988 and Val and I then were invited and went to Albuquerque, to her home for Labor Day at the end of that same month.  There I met my 4 half sisters and my birth father, as well.  I was a momentous time.

As we drove back to Denver the words of a Hebrew poem rang through my head that has become my closely held, heart-felt statement of who I am and whose I am.

Psalm 139
For the choir director: A psalm of David.

O LORD, you have examined my heart and know everything about me.  You know when I sit down or stand up. You know my thoughts even when I'm far away. You see me when I travel and when I rest at home. You know everything I do. You know what I am going to say even before I say it, LORD. You go before me and follow me. You place your hand of blessing on my head.  Such knowledge is too wonderful for me, too great for me to understand!
 
You made all the delicate, inner parts of my body and knit me together in my mother's womb. Thank you for making me so wonderfully complex! Your workmanship is marvelous--how well I know it. You watched me as I was being formed in utter seclusion, as I was woven together in the dark of the womb. You saw me before I was born. Every day of my life was recorded in your book. Every moment was laid out before a single day had passed. How precious are your thoughts about me, O God. They cannot be numbered!

These lines capture for me a truth that God has riveted down into the depths of my soul, because of the experience of that time and subsequent times as we have now been a part of a new family for 25 years!

I struggled early on with whose I was now that I had this knowledge and this new family.  My adoptive family in Burlington saw that struggle and struggled with me.  I’ll never forget my father sitting on the couch across from me, a rugged eastern Colorado farmer, looking at me with tears in his eyes and calling me his “little poopsie.”

I was 34 at the time!

After we had the girls, we struggled with how to refer to these “families.”  Until I presided at my birth-grandmother’s funeral and the family was gathered.  The girls were about three, so we had been in this relationship for about 5 years or so.

One of my half-sisters introduced herself to my girls as their aunt.  We had always called my birth mom, Aunt Sharron, with the girls up to that point, to avoid grandma-confusion.  So Valerie took the girls downstairs and told them the story of the adoption in kid terms.  After she finished, Aly’s face brightened with the light of knowledge and she said, “Sooo, Sharon is daddy’s mommy, but Grandma is daddy’s forever-mommy.”

Yep --- case closed!  That was the end of my ambiguity, at the hands of a three-year-old.



Just one more story, and then I’ll close.

After that initial call of introduction, Sharron sent us a card for Christmas, I think it was.  She sent us, not a picture of herself, but a picture of my father when he was in his late twenties or early thirties.  Val opened the card and took out the picture, held it up beside me and said, “Well I don’t know who Sharron is but this guy is definitely related to you.”

In another phone conversation, after several such conversations that winter, Val said, “I can see references and hear them, that lead me to believe you might be a Christian.”  Sharon acknowledged that she was.  “Well it might be interesting to you to know that we are as well, and in fact, that your son is a preacher.”  Long silence and tears followed.  “I’ve been praying for him for 33 years.”

The weekend that we met this “birth family” we ended our time on Sunday with a church service at my birth-mom’s church.  Val and I took our instruments and played “On Eagle’s Wings” as a special for that evening service.  I’ve since officiated at weddings and funerals for the family and have visited many times in their homes.

 

But I want to come back to Ps 139 for a moment with just one more story.

Some of you were present when I was ordained as a Priest in 1994 in December at Good
Shepherd, just up the road here, on Dry Creek.

My birth father was not a religious man.  But that weekend in 1988 set he and I in a relationship that is unlike anything I’ve ever known and the same for him.  It’s not buddy-buddy or even father-son, really,  but there is a quiet and deep connection that I cannot explain.

When it came time for my ordination, as we were planning it, I got another call.  This time from Corky, my birth father.  “So, do you think I might be able to drive up and come to this?”  I was stunned!  The question rocked me.  I thought of my parents, my “folks” as I now call them, from Burlington … what would they think?
 
How would this effect them on one of the biggest days of my life?

So I called and asked.  I put the priority on that forever relationship, but wanted to honor Corky’s request, because of this connection that had developed over now 6 years.  And my parents gave their consent.  Just Corky came, no other members of my birth-family.

So the day, I became “Father Phil” – Dec 17, 1994 – in the pew behind me sat my wife, my mom and dad, and my birth father, invited to sit with the family and be a part, fully, of this blessing and beginning.

How precious are your thoughts about me, O God. They cannot be numbered!

I can't even count them; they outnumber the grains of sand! And when I wake up, you are still with me! Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. Point out anything in me that offends you, and lead me along the path of everlasting life.
 
On this Sanctity of Life Sunday, I want you to know how much God knows, understands and cares about you.  It’s total.

God knows you totally.  Every thought, motive, movement and meaning.

God understands you totally.  Not ambiguity for him.  It’s all crystal clear.

God cares for you totally.  He loves you with an everlasting love.  The OT calls it                     Unfailing Love.  The NT calls it AGAPE – unconditional love.

Paul tells us in Romans 5 that while we were still strangers and enemies, God loved us.  While we were weak and powerless, God loved us.  And not only that, it was then that He gave Himself to the cross for us – before we did anything.

This is the core of my being.  Sanctity of Life isn’t just a Sunday, it is the settled knowledge of whose we all are as His creation.  The whole world, born and unborn is in His view.  And as we come to faith, we become His children again – as He gives us the right to become, as we’ve talked about in the weeks prior to this. 

I thank God and my birth-mom that she did not seek abortion.  Granted it wasn’t as easy then, and perhaps that’s the point of this day of remembrance. 

We must take up the call that Ps 139 presents as a mandate from God to do all we can to end the tide of abortion in our land.  It is not a political thing for me.  It is a personal thing for me.  And I believe it needs to be a personal thing for all of us.

God makes every life, no matter the circumstances of their birth, good, bad or indifferent!  And God wants us to honor life, from our everyday choices to the choices of our politics and our policies.  So let us set our faces together, again today, to stand for God’s love and for the individual dignity and rights guaranteed by our constitution and the God of our republic, in whom we say we trust:  The rights to life, to liberty and to the pursuit of happiness, in that trust.  May God help us and have mercy upon us in this nation.

Amen.

 

Let us pray,

O God, the author of life and giver of mercy and grace;  Assist us with your Spirit to set a course in our lives and in our land to honor the value of every human life, from conception to natural death, as coming from your hand.  Lead us to actions that restore to our communities the values of family, faith and freedom.  And give us, we pray, an awareness of your great love for each one of us and all who we meet, that we might be your ambassadors, extending your kingdom of love and peace to all; by the power of your loving sacrifice, Lord Jesus, who, with the Father and the Holy Spirit, reigns in glory, One God, now and forever.

Amen.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

The Mark of Identification


The Baptism of Christ
Epiphany 2
January 13, 2013
Fr. Philip Eberhart

 

The Mark of Identification
 

Have you ever noticed that people who divorce or who are being unfaithful often take their wedding rings off?  Why is that?  What is it about a wedding ring that is so special?  I mean it’s not like the ring of Bilbo Baggins – “one ring, to rule them all” – a ring really doesn’t have magical powers for evil or for good, for that matter.  So what is it about the ring that is so special?

Obviously I’m fascinated with rings these days, as is my daughter and her new fiancĂ©.  But today is the Sunday when we commemorate and remember The Baptism of Jesus Christ. 

Those words themselves ought to make you sit up and take notice.  Baptism was, in Jesus’ day, a sign of repentance.  His cousin, John the Baptizer, made it abundantly clear that what he was doing was bringing masses to repentance as a forerunner to the Messiah, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.  Baptism was that cleansing bath from sin – a kind of first-fruit of real repentance and a transition point into a new life.

So why was Jesus baptized?  He had nothing to repent of.  John even points this fact out to him as he is coming down into the water!!  “I should be baptized by you!!” John whispered to Jesus.  In Matthew’s account we hear the conversation between Jesus and John:   Jesus answer, “it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.”


Sacramental Power

In our theology as Anglicans – our Sacramental Theology – we use a phrase in the Prayer Book that these things that we do are “means of grace.”  We acknowledge that they have actual power, not just attributed power.  But not a power that is like what we see in the fantasy world – say in the Lord of the Rings or The Hobbit, recently released – this is a different kind of power.

In Sacramental Theology there is a differentiation between the sign of the sacrament and the grace of the sacrament, if you will.  The grace of God is the effectual working of God’s power in our lives, that we access through the means that He has appointed.

In our theology there are two primary “means” by which grace is communicated to us:  through the water of baptism for salvation and through the elements of bread and wine for “our daily bread.”  As Sacramental Christians we seek to have an understanding of these realities, as points of contact between heaven and earth.

We access the power and presence of God by faith.  And when faith meets one of these points of contact, grace is released.  Now I have to add the caveat that I don’t think God the Omnipotent is limited to giving us His powerful grace in only these ways, but they are commanded by Him and we need to pay more close attention to why!!

Jesus himself, as I indicated earlier, was baptized.  Was he accessing grace as we do through baptism?  Probably not.  He WAS grace.  John knew that and said it to him, but Jesus pressed him to “fulfill all righteousness.”

Jesus was under orders!  As the baptism of Jesus unfolded an extraordinary thing happened – The Whole Trinity became visible and audible and John witnessed this fact in his testimony.  It was in fact, the “sign” he had been told to wait for and it was after that that he pointed to Jesus on the shore, in the hearing of his disciples and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!”  John was sure of it.  He was there and saw the dove of the Spirit and heard the voice of the Almighty Father affirm his love and blessing of His one and only Son.

Jesus was baptized as his willful entry into the obedience of full identification with us in our humanity.  He had been born of a virgin mother, a baby in Bethlehem;  he had grown up in a carpenter’s home and shop, learning the trade of his earthly father, Joseph;  he had learned the scriptures in the synagogue in Nazareth at the knee of the local rabbi; he engaged the teachers in the temple in Jerusalem, His Father’s House, when he was 12, the age of accountability.  But here Jesus comes to his purpose, out and away from that of his earthly family, and owns his own destiny and ministry as the Lamb.

Here Jesus is, as we are, filled to the fullness of God with the presence of the Holy Spirit – “without measure” one writer exclaims.  Jesus entered into the life that we have available to us, by the Power of the Spirit!  Jesus in fact, is now the baptizer, as John foretold just before His baptism!  “One is coming who is mightier than I, and I am not fit to untie the thong of His sandals;  He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.” 

Jesus baptism was one of IDENTIFICATION.  And this is a piece of the puzzle that I want to explore in my remaining minutes.

In the book of Revelation we are told of the Mark on those who believe.  Likewise we are told of the mark of the beast – and we love to speculate about its meaning, especially as we encounter various new technologies for numbering things and people in our culture.  But this mark is not one that is visible to the naked eye, not a tattoo or a chip.  Both marks are sacramental marks -  outward and visible signs of inward and spiritual grace.

So when do we receive this mark and what does it mean?

How many here have been baptized or confirmed in the Anglican / Episcopal church?

Do you remember what happens right after the baptism?

The Bishop or priest, standing for the Bishop, takes a bit of holy oil, called Chrism, and marks it on the head of the newly baptized.  Each of you, who raised your hand a moment ago, had that happen.  And with that action, the celebrant says these words:  “N, you are sealed by the Holy Spirit in baptism and marked as Christ’s own for ever.  Amen”

Chrism is specially consecrated oil, by a Bishop, for this act.  It is not the usual anointing oil, and there is a specific prayer of consecration that goes with this oil:
Eternal Father, whose blessed Son was anointed by the Holy Spirit to be the Savior and servant of all, we pray you to consecrate this oil, that those who are sealed with it may share in the royal priesthood of Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, for ever and ever.  Amen.

“That those who are sealed, may share in the royal priesthood of Jesus Christ.”

Here is the power and the purpose of the sacramental sign.  In Baptism, we come to share – to identify with and take our place in – the actual position and ministry of Jesus in the world and in the heavens.  Paul tells us we are “seated with Him in heavenly places.”  John tells us that we have been given only one power or right as Christians who believe in Jesus:  the power to become!  Paul talks of the great exchange in 2 Cor 5:21:   For God made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that in Him we might become the righteousness of God.”

Baptism, Eucharist and to a lesser degree the other sacraments identified by the church:  Marriage, Reconciliation, Anointing of the sick or Holy Unction, and finally Confirmation and Ordination – all of these carry with them a part of this power of identification and they all transfer the power through simple signs of identification.  No magic involved, but the power of God, granted to be both with us and in us, as partners with Him now, just as He partnered with us at His baptism by John.

So what’s so special about a wedding ring, a dob of oil on a forehead, a piece of bread and a drink of wine?

God is so special!  God is willing to communicate Himself to us humans in such human terms and in such simple, every day ways!  If nothing else we see in the sacraments the extent and simplicity of the love of God our Father!  We see how God is willing to be “made available and accessible” to us.  At the death of Jesus the curtain was torn from top to bottom, because His obedience unto death had finished the work of redemption and opened a way for us to come back to His Father from our own far country!

Sacraments remind us of that truth, in every day ways, and invite us to come in. Come into relationship with the Living and powerful, all knowing and all loving God – the true God, not made with hands;  very God of very God!  Sacraments are for our sake, not His!  Because we are weak and we need these earthly, earthy signs to remind us of who we are and of whose we are:

So remember:   You are sealed by the Holy Spirit in baptism and marked as Christ’s own forever.  Amen.

 

Let us pray:

I want to pray the prayer that each of us had prayed over us at our baptism:

Heavenly Father, we thank you that by water and the Holy Spirit you have bestowed upon these your servants the forgiveness of sins, and have raised them to the new life of grace.  Sustain them, O Lord, in your Holy Spirit.  Give them an inquiring and discerning heart, the courage to will and to persevere, a spirit to know and to love you, and the gift of joy and wonder in all your works.

Amen.

 
Also the prayer for those who are “confirmed:”

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, now and for ever.

Amen.