Sermon, September 23, 2018 St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, Waterville Maine
Delivered by the Rev. John Balicki
“I am the greatest” Cassius Clay, 1963, later Muhammad Ali, may he rest in peace “Make America great again” Donald Trump, 2016 GOAT – greatest of all time – Tom Brady, Serena Williams, Michael Jordan, etc., etc.
We are a culture obsessed with greatness, from idolizing the richest people in the world, to our major entertainment celebrities to our sports heroes, to churches like Joel Osteen’s that pack in 52,000 people on a Sunday. Tiger Woods is back this year. He is close to winning a golf tournament for the first time in five years. When that happens, TV ratings go up 50 %, attendance soars. But why are we giving this man all this adulation? The man himself admitted to cheating with 120 different women while he was married with a couple of small children at home. A year ago he had a DUI arrest and was found slumped in his car by the side of the road with five different drugs in his system. No damage done, anyone can get their prescriptions a little mixed up and go for a drive but lucky a child didn’t get hit. And still we roar for Tiger? Forgiveness is one thing but adulation? Why?
Tom Wassell opines that we root for people like Tiger because it has to do with our tendency toward frontrunning. And why do sports fans become front-runners? Because it makes them feel better about themselves. “If I root for a winner, then I am a winner.” And God knows how much I want to be a winner in something, anything. Pretty sad when you think about it. But maybe looking at all this, puts the disciples’ behavior in today’s gospel in a little more perspective. They were arguing about who was the greatest. Perhaps they were boasting of which one of them spent the most time with Jesus, or maybe which one had seen the greatest miracle, or perhaps performed the greatest miracle. We don’t really know. They wanted to be a front-runner too. Guess that was part of their culture too because it seems so part of human nature.
There isn’t enough love to go around in the family so we compete for mommy and daddy’s attention and praise; there aren’t enough promotions or praise at the workplace so we put each other down to gain promotion. We, as a culture, are obsessed with becoming great. We work hard to build up a name for ourselves, a “legacy” for our families, a semblance of fame and notoriety. Nothing less is good enough. Nothing less is worth anything at all. At least that’s what we’re told. And so, we work hard and stay busy and we ignore relationships and we distance ourselves from our families, all in the name of productivity and work ethic. We inflate our own egos as we surround ourselves with our own accomplishments, and we start thinking that everyone should be a little more like us.
And to this over-inflated ego, Jesus doesn’t just take a pin, he takes a spear and pokes a giant hole in it today and has the disciples and us scratching our heads. It’s not about being the greatest, it’s about being the servant of all. In her memoir, The Cloister Walk, Kathleen Norris tells a beautiful story about Saint Thérèse of Lisieux. When Thérèse was four years old, she was shown a handful of colorful ribbons, and asked to choose one. Entranced, she simply responded, “I choose all.” Debie Thomas comments further that “the disciples in this week’s story, though, don’t believe that “all” is available in the kingdom of God. They don’t lean into Jesus’s generosity, sufficiency, and abundance. Believing that what’s available to them is meager and inadequate to start with, they quarrel for first place, first dibs, first prize. In response, Jesus points them to the non-striving, un-ambitious, open-hearted trust of a young child. As if to say: “Stop racing. Stop competing. Stop scrambling. There is enough. I am enough.”
Children teach us what divine power looks like. A young child is the very picture of helpless dependence, of powerlessness, of need. In some cultures, children are socially invisible. In others, they’re legally unprotected. In all cultures, children are at the mercy of those who are older, bigger, and stronger than they are. And this — this shocking portrait of dependence and vulnerability — is the portrait Jesus offers of God. In the divine economy, power and prestige accrue as we consent to be little, to be vulnerable, to be invisible, to be low. We gain greatness not by muscling others out of our way, but by serving them, empathizing with them, and sacrificing ourselves for their well-being.
Whatever human hierarchies and rankings we cling to, Jesus upends as he holds a tiny child in his arms. Do we want to see God? Do we really want to see God? Then look to the child abandoned in the alleyway. Look to the child in detention at the U.S border. Look to the child a priest is molesting. Look to the child dying of gunshot wounds in his kindergarten classroom. Look to the child a parent is trafficking. Look to the child who can’t access healthcare, an education, or even dinner. Look to the child drowning in anxiety and depression. Look to the weak, the small, the simple, the vulnerable, and the helpless. Look to the ones who are not in charge. Look at the tiniest faces, and see God.”
So who are you going to cheer for today?
Sermon, April 1, 2018
Delivered by Rev. John A. Balicki
St. Mark’s Church, Waterville Maine
“Is there still any interest in this?” these were the words of Roger Bannister in 1984 when a reporter called for an interview on the 30th anniversary of his breaking the four-minute mile in 1954. Roger passed away four weeks ago at the age of 88 and his death brought forth a number of stories and accolades. In the spring of 1954, three men in different parts of the world, the Australian John Landy, Wes Santee of Kansas and Bannister had been training hard getting ever closer to breaking the mythical barrier of running a mile in four minutes. “As it became clear that somebody was going to do it, I felt that I would prefer it to be me,” Bannister said. He was the most unlikely of heroes: gangly, overly white, not toned like today’s athletes; he was a medical student who took to the track at Oxford when he needed a break from his medical studies. After he broke the record, he ran only three more times before quitting track altogether and then went on to a distinguished career as a neurologist.
Our gospel this morning features another race, between Peter and John as they race to the empty tomb. John as author seems to take a little pride that he got there first. Why this is important is open to speculation but biblical scholars feel there was some natural male competitiveness with regard to whose community of believers was the prime Christian community of the early Church. But both Peter and John seem to gloss over that someone else really finished first. Mary had gotten to the tomb first and Mary it was to whom the risen Jesus first appeared – two gold medals. But like athletes discovered to have taken performance-enhancing drugs after the event, these gold medals were somewhat forgotten as history progressed. In a patriarchal culture that devalued the testimony of women and in the face of opponents who debunked the resurrection of Jesus, the Christian tradition was somewhat uneasy about a woman being the first witness of the resurrection and therefore muted it. Yet tradition could never write Mary out of the story completely because it was indisputable that she was there first.
Over time there were other things tradition assigned to Mary over the centuries to distract us from her real role as first witness to the resurrection: being possessed by seven demons – a possible term for a mental illness, the reputation as prostitute, paramour, wife of Jesus – all historically speculative and taking us off track from the central role Mary played in the development of the Church.
Two years ago Pope Francis elevated July 22 as the Feast of St. Mary Magdalene – a place where it has been in the Episcopal Church since 1979. Mary who was one of a few women and no men at the crucifixion; Mary who was there at the resurrection.
Cynthia Bourgeault writes this about Mary, “Whenever Mary Magdalene enters the picture it is fascinating how the energy changes, . . . with the same breath she enters, a new warmth seems to blow. With her come the cadences of gentleness and forgiveness, the sounding of that core vibration of love”.
Mary Magdalene is a fitting spiritual hero for 2018, a year with two groups of heroes already: the courageous high school students of Parkland Florida and throughout the country who have spoken out about gun violence and the women of the #metoo movement. As women have found their voice to report on years of harassment and abuse, there is a fitting comparison to Mary Magdalene from whom we may be able to learn as witnesses to the Resurrection.
How to speak about this in a culture where Easter is becoming increasingly secularized – no problem with eggs and bunnies and tulips and pastel colors in our wardrobe but what about resurrection?
To make things more confusing, April 1 has another meaning on the calendar. April Fool’s Day is believed to have begun in the 1500’s when the Gregorian calendar took over from the Julian making the new year begin on January 1 instead of April 1. Those who forgot the change and attempted to celebrate New Year’s on the wrong date were teased as “April Fools”.
Does the Resurrection of Jesus seem like one ultimate April Fools’ joke? Who could believe that anyone could be dead and buried and then come alive after three days? Is there still any interest in that?
Is that any less believable than a gangly white medical student breaking the 4-minute mile, than an obscure woman in a patriarchal culture being chosen as witness to the resurrection and memorialized still two millennia later?
One can argue about the role of Mary, whether the tomb was empty, whether he was really dead. The proof of the resurrection is the transformative power of Jesus alive in us. Alive in us. Can you come out of the shadows to share that good news? Whether the world is interested or not? And that would be no April Fools.
=======“Turning the Tables”============
A Sermon delivered by Rev. John Balicki
St. Mark’s Waterville
Third Sunday in Lent, March 3, 2018
I move that we dispense with the reading of the Ten Command . . . no I mean the minutes. No one likes to have a list read to them. May I read you my grocery list? It’s fascinating! Do you curl up at night with the Constitutions and Canons of the Episcopal Church or perhaps do you read completely all the safety warnings of operating your new electric hair dryer?
So how did you react to the reading today of the Ten Commandments? Did you say heard them before, know them and then mentally check out – what is that thing I keep forgetting to put on the grocery list?
Do the ten commandments lack the punch they used to have, if not in your own life, then certainly in the culture’s?
How can we say we take “Do Not Kill” seriously when we cut each other down at an alarming rate from parents murdering their children, to school shootings to white policemen killing black teenagers?
How can we say we take “Do Not Commit Adultery” seriously when over a third of married men will cheat on their wives; nearly a quarter of all married women will cheat on their husbands, and more than 50% of all marriages will be impacted by one of the spouses being unfaithful.
And our entire advertising industry, if not our whole economy, depends on coveting. How can we tell anyone not to covet anything?
We live in a time when individual decision is the source of right morality, any choice is valid if it works for me. Don’t judge me!
To appreciate the commandments, we need to step back and take the wider view. In each of our lessons from the Hebrew Scriptures this Lent, we have had examples of covenant.
In the days of Noah, God placed a rainbow in the sky as the sign of a covenant of God’s love for all the earth.
In the days of Abraham and Sarah, they received new names as a sign of God’s everlasting pledge to them.
In the tablets of stone, we see the sign of God’s hope for each to live in peace with God and neighbor.
These commandments helped people know how to live, that they were in right relationship with God. And as we talked about last week, this relationship was a covenant, everlasting. But as St. Paul wrote so well, we will always fall short of the rules and when people broke the rules they felt disconnected from God. So Jesus came to bring a new covenant. Jesus felt he had to find a better way to communicate God’s abiding unconditional love for us and so he went into the Jerusalem and made a mess of the place. Hmmmm.
Jesus became enraged because what he saw was a system designed to make access to God difficult. Forget any assumption that Jesus is objecting to commerce in the temple. This was essential for two reasons. First, the law demanded the sacrifice of unblemished animals. Having animals available for sale ‘on the spot’ made a good deal of sense. How irritating would it be to drag a basket with a couple of doves in it all the way from Galilee to discover when you arrived in Jerusalem that they weren’t up to scratch? Like the animal sellers, the moneychangers provided an essential service, turning Roman money (with its image of the emperor) into something which could be taken into the temple without breaking the Law of God. So these weren’t corrupt practices, but essential to the running of the temple.
So this story is misnamed. Jesus wasn’t trying to cleanse the temple, he was trying to end it. Because it made it difficult for people to get to God, to navigate this complicated system by having the right money and animals to sacrifice. Jesus is doing a symbolic act in the tradition of many of the Hebrew prophets who were also suspicious of the temple and its hierarchy. This act of anger was meant to show God’s love.
And ultimately this covenant of love is shown in the Last Supper and his death on the cross. I give you a new covenant in my blood. And that was the only wisdom needed – the only sacrifice needed – Jesus himself. Jesus taught that we have to bring God into our hearts – an inner attitude. The commandments are observed by inner integrity and not by mere compliance to a rule. The entire Jewish Law can be summed up in the command to love God and love neighbor, because that is a religious observance that originates in the heart.
The other gospels describe this act in the temple as occurring on the Monday of Holy Week. It was the last straw which led the high priests to go to Pilate to have Jesus arrested and crucified. To do an act like this was pure foolishness. It was bound to get you in trouble. You can hear the common wisdom now, “Don’t rock the boat”. “Don’t make waves” “you could lose your head for doing this”.
But Jesus was foolish . It led to the Cross which brought salvation to all and is the very wisdom of God the world refuses to accept, even more so than the 10 Commandments. The foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom.
We are surrounded by signs of foolishness: Outdated laws written on stone, a rainbow thought to have spiritual significance, tables turned over in the Temple, a cross – a symbol of brutal execution. Symbols of foolishness or symbols of love? Or both?
==========“Who Are These?”========
A Sermon delivered by Rev. John Balicki
All Saints’ Sunday, November 5, 2017
Today is All Saints Day – Sinners get the other 364 Days of the year.
So which are you? Saint or sinner? The answer of course is both but are you comfortable admitting either? Would you have the nerve at a social gathering to introduce yourself as “Hi, I’m John Balicki, wanton sinner” or “I’m John Balicki, beloved saint of God”. That would be great strategy if you want to be left alone in front of the Hors d’oeuvre table. But which would make you more uncomfortable? To admit to being a saint or to admit to being a sinner? Perhaps a great topic of conversation with a trusted friend over tea or coffee this afternoon?
Robert Louis Stevenson said, “The saints are the sinners who keep going.”
The problem with saints is that we’ve tended to put them on pedestals and make their lives seem unattainable to the ordinary person. Portray in a statue or a painting or a holy card with that halo around their head and they don’t seem like anyone you’d come across in the check-out line at Hannaford. That’s what I like about today’s litany of the saints. It widens the scope and maybe includes some people you don’t even think belong there. Which is great – make your own list – let me mention three that caught my eye:
Meister Eckhart – German philosopher and mystic -his most well-known quote “ If the only prayer you would say in your lifetime is thank you, it would suffice” Never canonized because of accusations of heresy
Johnny Appleseed – real name John Chapman, 19th century wandered the Midwestern US as a missionary for the Swedenborgian Church, planting apple trees wherever he went. What the Disney movies never told you is that the apples he planted were small and tart – terrible for eating but great for making hard cider which was a more profitable crop. Much of Johnny’s legacy of thousands of apple trees were destroyed in the Prohibition era by FBI agents who were trying to keep people from making homemade hooch.
Viola Liuzzo – housewife and mother of five, heeded the call of Martin Luther King Jr and traveled from Detroit, Michigan, to Selma, Alabama, in the wake of the Bloody Sunday attempt at marching across the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Liuzzo participated in the successful Selma to Montgomery marches and helped with coordination and logistics. Driving back from a trip shuttling fellow activists to the Montgomery airport, she was shot dead by members of the Ku Klux Klan. At 39, she was a civil rights martyr. But it got worse for her family. The FBI assassinated her character, spreading rumors she was unfaithful and an unfit mother. Crosses were burned at her family’s home and her five children, ages 6 to 18, were taunted.
Those are my three – pick three of your own – learn something about them and share our great tradition.
Robert Louis Stevenson said, “The saints are the sinners who keep going.”
And because we have sometimes put our saints on pedestals, we developed All Souls Day to remember those of our immediate sphere. Those more ordinary folk who touched our lives. But even in remembering them publicly we often only acknowledge the saint and not the sinner. Did you ever read an obituary that said,
“Harold never picked up his underwear or socks off the bedroom floor for 50 years”
“Mildred rarely did her dishes and often plates and cups piled up in the kitchen sink for weeks until you had to do an archaeological dig to find the drain”
We are all mixes of saint and sinner but as Robert Louis Stevenson said, “The saints are the sinners who keep going.”
My favorite quote of the week from blogger Courtney Martin,
“Adults do not have their shit together. Even the really successful ones. … The organizations and institutions you admire from afar are riddled with problems — and still worth admiring.”
That quote is a paradox, like being a mixture of saint and sinner but as Robert Louis Stephenson said, “The saints are the sinners who keep going”.
So to paraphrase our first lesson from the Book of Revelation as John of Patmos is in the midst of his great vision of the heavenly multitude, “Who are these robed in white and where have they come from?” The answer is that they have come from all times and places, all faiths and beliefs, all colors and all walks of life. As we just sang before the gospel,
“for the saints of God are just folk like me,and I mean to be one too.”
The central question for all of us today is “ Do we mean to be one too?”
Robert Louis Stevenson said, “The saints are the sinners who keep going.” May we have the grace to keep going.
=======“Thoughts and Prayers”=========
A Sermon delivered by Rev. John Balicki
Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost, October 22, 2017
“To my colleagues: Your cowardice to act cannot be whitewashed by thoughts and prayers. None of this ends unless we do something to stop it.” Ct. Sen. Chris Murphy
Others similarly joined in, Sen Elizabeth Warren, talk show host Bill Maher
Tired of thoughts and prayers in light of Las Vegas – you’re certainly not alone
But how do we respond? We who are ostensibly in the prayer business? As well as occasionally thinking as well – it is one leg of our three-legged stool
It’s easy to say we pray. When tragedies strike our common life some turn to prayer – those who do Prayers of the people try to include these big events in our common prayers. I suspect we all have personal storms, private turbulence that weighs on our hearts, minds and spirits. We know those struggles in the lives of people we love. As we’ve heard people express their concern, offering thoughts and prayers, the question has been raised: Is that enough? Is that too easy? Is it a dodge? A bromide? A dismissal?
All of this points to the connection of prayer and action. How do we pray not only with our lips but with our lives?
Our scriptures this morning have something to say about this. Our epistle this morning comes from the first book of the New Testament. No it’s not the first book listed, nor even the first of Paul’s letter in order. But scholars believe that this was the first letter Paul wrote that got printed and it is earlier than the gospels and other writings. And what does Paul say,
We always give thanks to God for all of you and mention you in our prayers, constantly remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.
Paul wrote his letters to communities of believers that he helped to start. He began relationships with these people and then moved on. So he sends them more than his thoughts he sends his heart. And he reminds the Thessalonians that they are truly called. Eugene Peterson in the biblical paraphrase the message puts it this way.
When the Message preached came to you, it wasn’t just words. Something happened in you. The Holy Spirit put steel in your convictions . .. The news of your faith in God is out. We don’t even have to say anything anymore – you’re the message!
There is a similarity in today’s gospel. On the surface it seems to be about a dispute over coins and taxes. Giving back to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s is something most of us do. But to give back to God the things that are God’s! Jesus listeners knew the beginning of the Hebrew Scriptures, the Book of Genesis that said “ in the divine image he created them, male and female he created them” So each of us is like God’s coinage, stamped with the likeness of God – a living visual reminder that God had a claim on every aspect of life. To give back to God that which by right of creation itself belongs to God means to return all that we are and all that we have. All of our gifts and abilities point to the one who made us for the ongoing service to God , to whom we owe total allegiance of heart ,mind, and soul.
But that’s hard and our basic nature doesn’t want to do that. So that’s why we pray.
When we first pray, we may ask mostly for things we want. It is easy to say then “Well that prayer didn’t work” if in a day, a week, we don’t get what we want. But for those who make a lifetime of prayer, the monastics, the contemplatives have learned that the deepest prayer, especially when the problems of the world or our lives offer no easy solution, is “Lord what is it you want of me?” Prayer then is less asking for we think we want and instead asking to be changed in ways we can’t imagine: to be made more grateful, more able to see the good in what we have been given instead of always grieving for what might have been.
So yes today our thoughts and prayers are with victims of a mad shooter, victims of nature’s fury, victims of abuse by people in power, victims of indifference. The thoughts and prayers, contemplative acts are the beginning of a response. They lead us as baptized persons to strive for justice and peace and respect the dignity of every human being. What specifically can we do towards that end?
If you’re not sure, pray not only for those who suffer. Can we all join in prayer asking God how do we respond, how to help, how to heal, what to do.
=========“What Me Worry?”===========
A Sermon delivered by Rev. John Balicki
St. Mark’s Church, Waterville, Maine
February 19, 2017; Seventh Sunday after the Epiphany
He just turned 60; He has been a write-in candidate for President in every election since then. His trademark line, “What Me Worry”; He first graced the cover of an offbeat magazine called “Mad” in December, 1956. His name – Alfred E. Neuman. His appeal? “He was a kid that didn’t have a care in the world, except mischief,” Wouldn’t we like that? What if you could leave all your troubles behind for just a day – go out and make mischief with no consequences? Would you do it? Because boy oh boy I sure have troubles, worries, worries let me tell you about my worries”
If I asked you to tick off in your head or jot on a scrap of paper your top five worries how long it would take you? A health issue for you or a loved one? And how can we afford that healthcare? Maybe more than one health issue? A relationship issue for you or a loved one? Economic challenges? Social Security? Politics!! Hey nothing to worry about there, everything is running like a well-oiled machine! Race relations? Immigration issues? Terrorism attacks? Let me stop there, I probably have you really worried now and raised your anxiety. Someone may be reaching for a Librium or Xanax at this very moment.
And that Jesus, did you hear what he said today? He said not to worry, “don’t worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear”. The nerve of him! How could he say that? He tells us to be poor and hungry and sad, to turn the other cheek, to love our enemies! And now he tells us not to worry? Let me tell you if I’m hungry, and I’ve just given my coat away I have a lot to worry about. And maybe that’s why he said it. Because we have a lot to do as a disciple and we have to live in the present. And worry is always about something in the past or more likely in the future. And when we worry we have the illusion of control.
Anne Lamott wrote in her book, “Operating Instructions”,
“I heard an old man speak once, someone who had been sober for fifty years, a very prominent doctor. He said that he’d finally figured out a few years ago that his profound sense of control, in the world and over his life, is another addiction and a total illusion. He said that when he sees little kids sitting in the back seat of cars, in those car seats that have steering wheels, with grim expressions of concentration on their faces, clearly convinced that their efforts are causing the car to do whatever it is doing, he thinks of himself and his relationship with God: God who drives along silently, gently amused, in the real driver’s seat.”
So what should we do? Our first lesson from the Old Testament Book of Leviticus is pretty direct. We don’t normally read from Leviticus – it can be quite ponderous with a lot of obscure do’s and don’ts ; in fact, I’ve talked to a few people who set on the project of reading the Bible from front cover to back cover and Leviticus is usually where the train comes off the tracks. While Jesus tells us not to worry, we do get one instruction, “You shall be holy for I the Lord your God am holy”. Now this isn’t the kind of holy where you have a halo and a harp and sit on a cloud. The chapter speaks of different tasks to be fulfilled, as if holiness is something to be worked out in and through our lives. This implies listening and doing, learning to allow God’s word to permeate the varied aspects of our existence. It is about letting God’s presence, his holiness, shine into the ordinariness of our life so as to transform this life from within. The list of commands given in the chapter is long and varied. Some of them sound peculiar to our ears today, but there are those which suddenly speak straight to the heart of our lives. They take us from the sacred realm (idols and sacrifices) to the world of work (harvest and wages) and interpersonal relationships (the deaf and blind, the poor) to the inner world of thoughts and feelings (hatred and vengeance). At regular intervals, they are punctuated with the words, “I am the Lord.” As we read, a profound unity begins to emerge, as if holiness consists in great part of seeing our lives as a unified whole before God. It is about living a life transformed by God’s presence in this world.
So maybe Jesus and Alfred were right, “So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today”. And today’s trouble, to be holy, w-h-o-l-ly, to wholeheartedly love God and our neighbor and if we can do that, who needs to worry?
Rev. John Balicki: SERMON SERIES FOR EASTER 2016
For the seven Sundays of Easter, John Balicki embarked on a sermon series that focuses each Sunday on one of the baptismal promises from the Rite of Baptism and describes what that promise might mean for our lives today. The sermons also incorporate themes from the scriptures of the Easter season: the Acts of the Apostles, the Book of Revelation and St. John’s Gospel. Finally at the end of the series, the gospels where Jesus bids farewell to his disciples serve as a means for John to say good-bye to everyone before his sabbatical.
April 3, 2016 The 2nd Sunday of Easter: Gathered in Prayer
April 10: The 3rd Sunday of Easter: “You Know That I Love You”
April 17: 4th Sunday of Easter “Finding our Neighbors; Finding Ourselves”
April 24: Patronal Feast of St. Mark “Wiping Every Tear”
May 1: 6th Sunday of Easter “Not as the World Gives Peace”
May 8: 7th Sunday of Easter “That Love May Be in Them”
May 15: Pentecost Sunday “The Spirit of Adoption”
The sermon full series will be available on line later in the spring.
#1: “Gathered in Prayer”: A Sermon delivered by Rev. John Balicki
The first in a seven-part sermon series on the Baptismal Promises St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, Waterville, Maine
Second Sunday of Easter, April 3, 2016
“Going to church doesn’t make you a Christian any more than standing in a garage makes you a car” A rather well-known quote attributed to, among others, G.K. Chesterton, Billy Sunday, Billie Holliday and Laurence Peter. Did they all play bridge together or something?
“If you can get a spiritual connection without going to church, why go to church?” Brian Kenny
“It is better to sit in a boat and think about God than to sit in a church and think about fishing” Anonymous
Today we begin a seven-part sermon series through the season of Easter on the baptismal promises, the Easter season being a traditional time to reflect on what it means to live our lives as a baptized person. The promises start with reaffirming our renunciation of evil and renewing our commitment to Jesus Christ. Then we are asked to recite the Apostles’ Creed in three parts and then we get to a series of five questions which will serve as the basis for our sermons each of the next five Sundays. Our first promise, and I think the order is important, states:
“Will you continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers?
At one time I remember Bishop Lane boiling this promise down to “will you go to church?” That certainly gets at the heart of it though I’d like to unpack each of the key words. Now it would seem that of all the promises, it might be most easy to say this is the one that is least followed as we all know many baptized people who never go to
church. Rather than give a rip-snorting, fire-and-brimstone sermon about those who don’t go to church to all of you, who of course are in church today and many Sundays, it seems more fruitful to explore what the value of church is and what the promise actually says. Notice that it takes us back to the time of the apostles, those earliest followers of Jesus and relates to their teaching and fellowship. Now you can certainly read the early writings of the apostles and saints in your fishing boat, and you may be your own best company, your most favorite person to hang out with, but that’s not fellowship. Fellowship is defined as a group of people who share common beliefs or interests. Note from our scriptures this morning how one of the most basic things early Christians did was to gather. In the gospel, on the Sunday night of the resurrection, they were all gathered together partly out of fear and partly out of the desire to process what they had been hearing with each other.
They were gathered again together the next Sunday, Thomas included. As we move to the Acts of the Apostles, we find (8 AM – Peter and the apostles brought as a group before the council of the high priest – there was definitely strength and solidarity in being together in that experience) “the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul” and they owned everything in common. Now common ownership and living did not last into the 2nd century as it is one of the greatest human challenges but the fellowship did. Note that in the beginning of the second reading from the Book of Revelation that the book is not addressed to individuals but to seven different churches in Asia. The importance and desire to gather together as believers goes back to that first Easter day and has continued ever since. This does beg the question of whether you can identify as a Christian if you never gather with other believers. I’ll leave that to coffee hour and breakfast conversations to explore. Certainly you can read the Bible and other spiritual books on your own but there is something about our adult education classes where we can process our thoughts and beliefs together which adds great value; yes you can pray on your own and you should – but there is also a value to pray together as a body, there is something about the focus, common purpose and spirit. And finally we come to the last element of our first promise which is to break bread together. You cannot really observe the breaking of bread, which we call Eucharist, on your own – “where two or three are gathered”. This is also why the Episcopal Church shifted in the last Prayer Book revision to the norm of Eucharist every Sunday – because it is at the root of both our fellowship and prayers – our apostolic tradition, note next Sundays gospel where the resurrected Jesus feeds the disciples on the beach.
So “Will you continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers?” Notice that the answer to all five of the last promises is “I will, with God’s help”. We are not individual strivers but it is through the grace of God that we are here and able to do anything. We shouldn’t answer lightly. Being church isn’t easy. We are different individuals with different beliefs, values and backgrounds who all live in a very individualistic society. This goes against much of our American grain to gather, to be part of a common body. We are bound to bump into each other in many different ways in our life together. Some of those bumps may have caused you to leave another church or tradition or others have left this one. It ain’t easy.
So spend some time with this promise this week. Think of the value that gathering to continue in the apostles teaching and fellowship has for you, the value the Eucharist has for you, the value of prayer in your life, whether on your own or corporately. Know that there is a reason that this promise comes first before the other five. It is a foundation that the others will build from. And thankfully know that it is the risen Christ who comes to us in the sacraments of baptism and eucharist that binds us together.
“Will you continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers?
#2 “Did You Know That I Love You”
A Sermon delivered by Rev. John Balicki
The second in a seven-part sermon series on the Baptismal Promises St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, Waterville, Maine Third Sunday of Easter, April 10, 2016
Did you hear about the old farmer and his wife? Having marital trouble, they went to see the young minister who had no experience in marriage counseling at all. He listened to the couple for an hour or so; her main complaint was that he didn’t express his love for her enough; his response was “I told you I loved you when we got married … If I ever change my mind I’ll let you know.” The minster couldn’t think of any profound or powerful solution to this stalemate. So, he decided to use a dramatic approach. He said to the old farmer: “Brother, in order for your marriage to improve – here’s what needs to happen.” The young minister got up – walked around the desk and gave the farmer’s wife a long hug and rather passionate kiss and said, “I love you.” The minister sat down and said, “Now that needs to happen at least three times a week.” The farmer said, “Fine. You want me to bring her in on Monday, Wed. and Friday, or Tues., Thurs. and Saturday??” It was like that a little bit with Peter and Jesus today. Jesus asking Peter three times if he loved him. Peter’s response was, “Sheesh, isn’t once enough”.
But before we explore this dynamic between Peter and Jesus, I would like to situate it in the context of our baptismal promise of the day. Today is the second a seven-part sermon series through the season of Easter on the baptismal promises, the Easter season being a traditional time to reflect on what it means to live our lives as a baptized person. Our question of the morning states: “Will you persevere in resisting evil, and, whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord? This promise has three parts to it.
The first part asks that we persevere in resisting evil. It implies that isn’t easy, we have to persevere. Perhaps you feel that evil isn’t constantly assaulting you. But we all know where our weak points are: alcohol, food, drugs, dishonesty, infidelity, gossip. The promise implies we ask for help when our weak points get too big a grip on us and we try to avoid situations where they will best us. Note that the second part says “whenever” we fall into sin, not “if” we ever would. It implies that part of the human condition is that we will sin against God and each other. That’s inescapable and unavoidable but the key part is next that says when that happens we have to repent and return to the Lord. Some people get stuck before the “repent and return” part. Do you know anyone who says, “The church would fall down if I ever walked in it”, or “I’m too big a sinner to go to church”. Those are direct contradictions of our baptismal promise that no matter what, we repent and return. When we get stuck we either turn bitter or apathetic. “I can’t change; he won’t change, she won’t change; the world is going to hell”. Whenever we give up on our spouse, our child, our career or vocation, or life in general, whenever we think repentance and change are impossible, we have been unfaithful to this baptismal promise. To help us realize that big conversions are possible, we have two of the best conversion stories in the Bible as part of our readings this morning. The first from the Acts of the Apostles is often called, “The Conversion of St. Paul”. But conversion is a bit of a misnomer as Paul already was a believer in the living God, a learned and God-fearing Jew. What Paul experienced was a transformation – Paul was invited to open his heart to God’s spirit who offered him a new look at what it meant to be faithful; to reveal more of who God is; to bring the commandment to love God and neighbor to all God’s people – dramatic transformation. And then there was Peter. If he was one of your associates or employees would you have picked him to be a leader, President, CEO? Three times he denied Jesus in the garden. He cut and ran and was nowhere to be seen at the crucifixion. And so here they meet again over a meal of bread and fish that Jesus himself cooks, and then three times Jesus asks Peter if he loves him, and Peter, a bit hurt at the second and third question, affirms his love for Jesus three times. The repeated questions weren’t because Jesus doubted Peter, but to emphasize his love for the Lord and to move him to a deeper level with each answer. This wasn’t the superficial “love you” but the much more intimate look-in-the-eye “do you love me?”. So our baptismal promise of the day is not one to take lightly. Like a profession of love in a long-term relationship, it is one we need to renew regularly. An openness to change and transformation, both in ourselves and others, is fundamental to our baptisms. Paul and Peter were giving hard and challenging tasks, ultimately becoming the first leaders of this early church, as a result of their transformations.
And us? “Will you persevere in resisting evil, and, whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?
# 6: “That Love May Be In Them”: A sermon by Rev. John Balicki
Seventh Sunday of Easter, May 8, 2016
“Why must people kneel down to pray? If I really wanted to pray I’ll tell you what I’d do. I’d go out into a great big field all alone or in the deep, deep woods and I’d look up into the sky—up—up—up—into that lovely blue sky that looks as if there was no end to its blueness. And then I’d just feel a prayer.” Lucy Maud Montgomery, “Anne of Green Gables”
“To gather with God’s people in united adoration of the Father is as necessary to the Christian life as prayer”. Martin Luther
Two views on prayer: alone or with others? Perhaps the answer is both. After Jesus’ Ascension the disciples are praying. In today’s Gospel we see Jesus at prayer. Often we have observed Jesus praying — on a mountain, at night, or when his disciples are rowing against the wind. Jesus prays in private, as he taught his followers to pray. For the most part, the Gospels tell us that he is praying—but never what he is praying. Now the question of unity and its necessity among disciples arises. Our Gospel this morning is from the High Priestly Prayer of John 17, the longest example of prayer (does a prayer fill an entire chapter anywhere else in the Bible?), we overhear a lot. And what Jesus does is to draw us into the Triune Community. The word to describe God, Trinity, while familiar, doesn’t always go to the heart of God. The reality of three persons in one God bespeaks a life of community and relationship. And as his parting words, Jesus draws us right into that life:
“As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.”
This is Jesus’ parting gift to his friends. St. John has these as the last words of Jesus at the Last Supper. When he finishes this last sentence he heads out to the Garden of Gethsemane and a chain of events start that will lead to his crucifixion in the next 15 hours. His friends can sense the finality of this speech and they must be filled with sadness and fear. Jesus sensing this sadness and fear gives them the biggest gift he can – incorporation into the divine life. Our service and witness in the world, like that of the first disciples, depends on the intimate indwelling of Christ: he is in us and we in him. Through this mystical union, our bond to Christ IS the bond to one another in the community of the faithful. Out of this unity that transcends time and generations, the glory of the Father shines forth. As members of the Lord’s family today, we can claim solidarity with these disciples, for as Jesus prays for them he intercedes for us as well.
Without being overly dramatic, it is time for me to leave for a while, though hopefully I’m not heading out to the Garden of Gethsemane and crucifixion in 15 hours – only time will tell. How will you continue on? In the same way and tradition that has been happening for centuries. You gather for prayer and worship, you are dismissed to live the gospel in the world. Our time together this Easter season has hopefully reinforced that. As you are sprinkled with the blessed water each Sunday, it’s a reminder that you have put on Christ, that God has touched your life, and as we have reflected on five baptismal promises in the past five weeks, we are all hopefully clearer on what it means to live as a baptized person in the world. St. Marks’ continues as you continue to live out your baptismal promises.
Which finally gets us to the baptismal promise of the day:
“Do you reaffirm your renunciation of evil
and renew your commitment to Jesus Christ?
This is the first we say when we renew our baptismal promises. It comes quick – it may seem easy to say yes. Today on the 43rd day of the Easter Season we’ve had more time to reflect. By renewing our commitment to Jesus Christ, it means acknowledging that we share in the life of the Triune Community and the mission of the Church. By reaffirming our renunciation of evil, we agree to not lingering in any place physical or mental where the Triune Community would not be at home: an unhealthy or abusive relationship, a workplace or organization that engages in unethical practices, a place or path that would lead towards addiction, anything that goes against the baptismal promises we have made.
Our mission then: nothing short of the reconciliation of the world. It’s a big job description but we don’t do it alone – we do it with the life of God in us and in community with one another. Only the God who is one can bring us together. Only the God who dwells among us can make us one. Only God in all of God’s fullness, power, and love can mold us into a unified community. And, spoiler alert, there is a Holy Spirit who will enliven us and embolden us to make this happen. Coming May 15 – Pentecost Sunday – be here. Perhaps it will only be with the Spirit’s grace and power that we can truthfully answer the question of the day:
“Do you reaffirm your renunciation of evil
and renew your commitment to Jesus Christ?