Preparation

The Rev. Jimmy Abbott
Second Sunday of Advent
December 10, 2017

Mark 1:1-8

Preparation

During my second year of seminary, I spent a month studying at the Episcopal Church’s seminary in the Dominican Republic. The seminary is in one of the rough neighborhoods of Santo Domingo – it’s next door to a sketchy bar and across the street from the Communist Party headquarters. No joke. By chance, the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church was scheduled to visit the seminary while I was there. Having a bishop visit your church or seminary is stressful enough. Having the presiding bishop visit ranks just below the Queen of England and Jesus himself. For a whole week leading up to the visit, it was a flurry of activity. Cleaning, organizing, throwing away, tidying up. Even a fresh new coat of paint over the entire seminary campus.

Anyway, the big day came, and the presiding bishop arrived for the long anticipated visit. I’ll never shake this image from my mind. It was bizarre and surreal. All these seminarians from the Dominican Republic, Haiti, El Salvador, and the United States are standing there at the seminary’s driveway, shaking hands with the big boss. This huge mural of Che Guevara is looking over us from the Communist Party across the street. You can hear the partying next door at the bar. And all you can smell, is that fresh, new, coat of paint. If we thought that we were pulling a fast one of the presiding bishop by making her think the place was always that clean, we failed miserably. We walked into the seminary dining hall, and instead of the savory aroma of rice and yuca, all you could smell was paint. The chapel, paint. The courtyard, paint. We had done everything we could do to get ready, and it was obviously noticeable.

You know what I’m talking about. Your family is coming over for Christmas, so you clean the house. You scrub the floors, you even dust on top of the refrigerator. You clean the bathrooms, but all they can smell is bleach.

My question for us this morning is this – if our life was required of us today, and we were to meet our Maker, would the Lord notice our preparations? Would God smell that fresh coat of prayers? Would God see that the corners of our souls had been dusted and that our spiritual garbage had been taken out? We had advance notice of the presiding bishop’s arrival, but our own time may not come with such notice.

And that’s how the Gospel of Mark begins. There is a sense of suddenness we heard this morning. The beginning is unexpected. This is unlike the other three gospels. In Mark, there are no shepherds, no angels, no wise men, no Mary and Joseph. There’s none of that. Mark begins like an unexpected visit from your in-laws. “John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” He just appeared. It didn’t matter if the people were ready, it didn’t matter if they had prepared. John the baptizer just showed up and the ministry of Jesus began without warning, without preparation, without prior notice. Are you ready?

Are you ready? There will come a time for us to meet our Lord, it’s going to happen. We all have advance notice. We know that we are going to die. Are we prepared?

I mean, think of what we’ve all said about Houston and Harris County and the Army Corps of Engineers and Congress and the State Legislature and developers about our drainage issues. There’s been this collective finger pointing – they weren’t ready. They knew a storm like this was coming, but they couldn’t get their act together to actually do anything about the reservoirs, about the bayous, about the developments. They weren’t ready for what was bound to happen. Well, let’s take a dose of our medicine. And start preparing our souls for what we know is bound to happen. Our death.

See, it’s far better to start preparing to meet Jesus now than it is to try and catch up later. One of my favorite authors, Jeremy Taylor, says that actually, you aren’t living until you are ready to die. It’s only when you’ve made the spiritual preparations to meet Jesus when you’re dead that you can be fully alive.

This might be unsettling, because let’s face it – we live in a society that denies death. We deny aging. It’s why we spend billions of dollars trying to look younger, trying to smooth out our wrinkles, trying to grow our hair back. But death, death is coming. Whether it comes today, tomorrow, or decades from now, that is our destination. No matter how much Rogaine you take, no matter how much Botox you inject, death is coming. So instead of living in denial of what is bound to happen – live in a way that recognizes how short your time is. That is truly life. Everything else is just a charade.

This means saying your prayers. Day by day. Going to church, every single Sunday. It might seem like a lot of time, like a burden in the middle of a busy day, like a huge time out of the weekend. But you never know if that day will be your last. Like the sudden beginning of Mark’s gospel, your end might come unexpectedly. Will you be ready?

And figure out what you’re going to do with your money. I’m serious about this. You know, there’s a actually a rule in our Book of Common Prayer that says, from time to time, I’m supposed to instruct you all to make sure that your money is well spent and that you have written your last wills. I know, you don’t like it when I meddle with your personal lives. But I’m just following the rules. It is our Christian duty, our obligation, to make sure that we have arranged for our money when we die. It is my duty to instruct you to get your will written. And to make sure that you leave behind what money you do have for your family, for your church, and for charity. And not to put it off. If you fail to plan, plan to fail.

Preparing for death is an act of stewardship. Of being good stewards of our two most important possessions, time and money. Because you know what? The time you have in this life, it does not belong to you. It belongs to God. And the money you have in this life, you cannot take it with you. The suddenness, the unexpected nature of Jesus’ arrival – Advent – is a wake up call so that we’re ready for our death. Then, we can finally enjoy our lives. Then, we’ll have a real life.

And I know, in the midst of everyday life, preparing for your death seems absurd. See, the real temptation to stop following Jesus typically does not come from a prowling evil presence. No, the real temptation to stop following Jesus, to stop praying, to stop caring, comes from the grind of everyday life. When you are rushing to get the kids to school, to get out of work for the day, to finish the laundry, to do the dishes – Jesus can get pushed to the margins. I know, because I live it, too. Which only makes this message all the more important. Clean out your hearts, vacuum the recesses of your minds, give your soul a fresh coat of paint, today. Because no other day is promised to you.

Eventually, the presiding bishop left the seminary in the Dominican Republic. She had to go make another visit somewhere else. All we were left with was the smell of paint and a clean seminary. And you know what? It was actually nice to have fresh clean walls. We enjoyed the place better that the floors had been scrubbed. It was really nice that everything was organized and cleaned out. We could get on with our life, and we were much happier for it.

The prophet Isaiah shouts out – “prepare the way of the Lord. Make his paths straight!” The good news of Jesus Christ is that God loves us even if we are not ready, even if our paths our crooked, even if we don’t know what it means to be loved. The whole point of preparing is not to get Jesus to love us. No, Jesus already loves us. The whole point of preparing is so that we fully understand what it means to be loved. So that we can love God and our neighbors in return. So that we enjoy our lives better with that fresh coat of paint and that clean soul.

And please, don’t take this sermon as a downer. I pray that we all have long, happy lives. But our lives will be more fruitful, and our time will be richer when we have tended to our spiritual lives, day by day, week by week. And then death will not come like an unexpected visit from your in-laws. No, death will come as an old friend. Because you will be ready.

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Right Now

The Rev. Jimmy Abbott
Installation of the Rev. Christopher Garcia – Christ Church, Port Republic, Maryland
Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Luke 10:1-2

At the end of September, my wife and I took our three year old daughter to the beach in Galveston, Texas. Have you ever taken a three year old to the beach? It is something else. A switch went off inside her the instant her toes hit the sand. We had to do everything, and we had to do it right now. We had to build a sand castle, right now. We had to jump in the waves, right now. We had to bury daddy in the sand, right now. And we had to collect seashells, right now.

And that presented a problem. Because she wanted every single seashell on that beach. Because every shell was just a little bit different. This one was smooth on the inside, this one has a cool hole in it, this was one is tiny. And as we kept picking up the shells, we ran out of hands, out of pockets, out of things to carry them in. The harvest was plentiful, the laborers were few.

My name is Jimmy Abbott, and I serve as the rector of Holy Comforter Episcopal Church in Spring, Texas. Spring is the first suburb north of Houston. Christopher and I graduated seminary together and I am honored to be here with you this evening. To pray with you and to celebrate with you. To rededicate ourselves as laborers in this abundant harvest. A harvest that is as plentiful in Spring, Texas as it is here in Maryland.

Holy Comforter in Spring, Texas is what you might call, Christ Church’s little sister. My parish is exactly three hundred years younger than this one. You started in 1672, we started in 1972. And for Houston, that’s ancient history. That means that we’ve made it through two oil booms and two oil busts. Which is how Houston measures time. Well, Houstonians also measure their time by which hurricane they remember the most. Alicia, Allison, Rita, Ike, Harvey. We’ve made it through all of them – through the flooding, through the droughts, through the ups and downs of the oil business. As Christopher and I talked about this parish, and as I was preparing to come up here, I thought of all that you have seen. How you have borne witness to the gospel through thick and thin, through revolutions, through wars, through stress, through meager years and through bumper crops.

Like that bumper crop of seashells we had collected. As we were packing up the car, ready to leave the beach in Galveston that day, we had to break the news to our daughter. The harvest of seashells was plentiful, but there was no way we were taking all of them home. With much angst we selected the few shells that made the cut and could come home with us. A few went into our daughter’s room with the rest of her rock collection. A few more went into my closet next to my wallet and keys. And you know, I’ll look at those shells every so often and think back to what a great time we had that day. About that beautiful family moment when it all seemed perfect. It was just the beach, the sun, the water, the seashells, and our family.

But if I’m to be honest with myself, that’s just sentimentality. That’s just me remembering what I want to remember, and not the whole truth. I block out of my memory how swarms of seagulls kept trying to eat our pretzels. I conveniently forget what a pain it is to get sand off a three year old and then get that three year old into a car seat. I block out the memory that our sandcastle was pretty crumby. I erase the memory that the beach in Galveston isn’t actually all that nice, that you have to dodge jellyfish, and that seashells hurt when you step on them. That’s the problem with sentimentality. All memories are not created equal. We long for a past that never was.

Though three and a half centuries separate Christ Church and Holy Comforter, I would imagine we are not all that different. Whether a church has been around for forty-five years or three hundred and forty-five years, we long for the past. We are straddled by sentimentality. I see it in my ministry, and I sense it across the Episcopal Church. We have convinced ourselves that our history is better than our present, and that surely our future is even worse than that. We tell ourselves that, in the good old days, everybody went to church. We tell ourselves that, in the good old days, church was done right. We tell ourselves that, in the good old days, the church never had any problems. We long for a past, a past that never was.

And this longing is the greatest spiritual danger facing the church today. The greatest danger facing the church today is not money, or theology, or liturgy – no, the greatest danger facing the church today is sentimentality. The greatest danger facing the church today is sentimentality. A longing for some past that never actually existed.

The call of God, the call of mission, the call of Jesus, is always forward. “The harvest is plentiful,” Jesus says. The harvest is plentiful. Like a little girl with her toes in the sand who sees the endless seashells before her, Jesus sees before us the endless possibilities for the work of the gospel. But here’s the catch. We cannot get complacent with the memory of the harvest we have already brought in. As if that was enough. We celebrate the memory of the shells we collected. We talk about the glories of the past. But the harvest comes every year, doesn’t it? The work never stops. There is always more out there. I know, it’s near impossible to convince a three year old that you don’t have to take home all the shells, because when we come back next time, there will be still more shells to gather. It’s awfully hard to convince churches, priests, bishops – it’s hard to even convince myself – that there is still a harvest out there. That God is not done with us. That more people are out there, an endless stream of people, who have not yet been gathered. The harvest is plentiful, the harvest is endless.

And Christopher, you know this, the laborers are few. You now step into this moment, into the past, present, and future of this parish. And I tell you – the urge, the temptation toward sentimentality will always be whispering in your ear. You will feel it more than anybody else. On those hard days, when the harvest is all too plentiful and the laborers are woefully few, you might think that it would have been easier to serve in the past. You might look at the harvest that was collected by your predecessors with a misty-eyed sentimentality. You will be tempted to think that surely ministry and leadership would have been easier in 1672, or 1772, or 1872, or even 1972. Maybe it was, probably it wasn’t. And really, that is of no consequence to you. The Holy Spirit has called you here for this moment and for none other.

You are to hold these people, these souls, and carry them with the gentleness of a three year old collecting seashells. And then you are to do what is the hardest thing for any priest to do – to let go. When your hands and your pockets are full of seashells, you will need more hands and more pockets. Jesus sees that the harvest is plentiful but he also sees that you, Christopher, are not the only laborer. You all are the laborers. This work, this ministry, this gospel call of harvesting souls for Jesus is yours. You are the laborers. It is gospel imperative to keep gathering those shells, that harvest, day by day, year by year.

And granted, not all the seashells out there are perfect. In fact, none of them are. And those are precisely the people that God is calling this and every church to go and collect and to bring home. Even the ones with holes in them, even the ones that are half broken, even the ones with imperfect lines, because to God, they are all beautiful. The single mom burning the candle at both ends. The guy hooked on opioids. The kid whose parents don’t care about him. This, this is the harvest that God is sending you out into.

Last year’s harvest belongs to last year. We must never confuse our past with our future. We cannot put our seashells on a table, or in a shrine, or on a plaque, or on a monument, and remember the good old days with a false misty-eyed sentiment. No. The harvest is still out there, waiting, just waiting to be gathered. They are still waiting to hear from somebody, anybody, about the love and the grace and the mercy of Jesus.

And tonight, as we gather for celebration, for dedication, for commitment, we also gather for prayer. Of all things, Christopher, I pray that the Lord of the harvest sends out laborers from this place. I pray for you, Christopher, and for the people you serve, that though you are few, you see God’s bountiful harvest stretched before you.

And with the wild expectation and of a three year old on the beach, I pray that we feel the urgency of it all. That we feel this call, right now. That tonight, this very night, in this very county, a man, a woman, a child is desperately crying out for someone to love them and to know them like Jesus already loves and knows them. You, you all will be the answer to their prayer. Do not be concerned with how few laborers you have. Rather, give thanks to God for the plentiful harvest set before you.

PTSD

The Rev. Jimmy Abbott
First Sunday of Advent
December 3, 2017

Mark 13:24-37

Pre-Traumatic Stress

Sophocles the Greek called it, “the divine madness.” During the Civil War, when a veteran would lose his mind after combat, they would call it, “soldier’s heart.” In World War I it was, “shell shock.” In World War II it was, “combat fatigue.” After Vietnam, and Iraq and Afghanistan, we have a new term for it – PTSD. Post-traumatic stress disorder. When a soldier, or actually anybody who undergoes a traumatic and stressful event, has continuous mental trauma triggered by that event. (Loosely paraphrased from Ken Burns’ and Lynn Novick’s “The Vietnam War)

I had a teacher in high school who was a Vietnam veteran who suffered from PTSD. He told us that one day he was walking by the band hall when, suddenly, a snare drum starting playing. Tap, tap, tap, tap, tap. His ears heard a snare drum. His mind heard a machine gun. Immediately, he was back in Vietnam. It wasn’t the band hall, it was the jungle. He jumped behind a wall to take cover, his heart was racing. He said it took a moment for him to get his mind straight. To refocus on where and when he was. He was not back in Vietnam, he was at school. That wasn’t a machine gun, it was a drum. That’s PTSD.

Stress, anxiety, the fallout from trauma – these are all very real. We act and react on account of the stresses, the anxieties, the traumas that we had yesterday and have today. Like my high school teacher our hearts start pounding, our minds start racing, and our imaginations run wild with stress, with anxiety, with all our past trauma.

I wish, I wish we could get over it. I wish I could get over it. Like how we used to tell soldiers just to get over it. But that will not do, because what gets our hearts pounding and minds racing is our fear. Our gut level fear.

Instead, I can stand here and tell you that you are not alone. You are not alone. This should not come as a surprise to anyone.

You are not alone because our Christian ancestors have been there before, too. They too had anxiety, stress, and fears. Remember, the ancient world of the first century was a traumatic place. Their news cycle was easily as absurd and traumatic as ours. Put yourself for a moment in the place of one of those first Christians. Jesus is crucified and is raised again around 33 A.D. A traumatic experience to be sure. Then one of their first deacons, Stephen, is stoned to death. Soon after that, there are widespread persecutions of Christians. They are killed, tortured, because they worship Jesus as Lord instead of the emperor. Speaking of emperors, there is trauma and confusion there, too. Emperor Caligula wants to invade Britain but instead just takes seashells as prisoners, because he’s absolutely out of his mind. Emperor Nero burns the city of Rome to the ground so that he can build himself a bigger palace. But, conveniently, and like all too many dictators, he blames the Jews for starting the fire and persecutes them. This uproar sets off a new round of civil wars in the Roman Empire, and in one year of backstabbing and conniving, Rome has four separate emperors.  The Jews living in Jerusalem also start a war against the Roman Empire. They are crushed by General Titus, who marches into Jerusalem with his Roman legion, and burns the Jewish Temple to the ground in 70 A.D. Just as Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place.”

That’s a lot of trauma in just forty years. Imagine if you were one of those first Christians. Imagine the PTSD. Every time a soldier walks by, your heart starts racing with the memory of friends you have seen executed. Every time you see a crowd gathering a pile of stones, you would have flashbacks of your beloved brother Stephen. Every time you hear about a new Roman emperor, you start worrying about what that crazy dude might just do. Trauma. Stress. Anxiety.

But if you’re one of those disciples, you might also think back to the words of Jesus. You would take a moment, gather yourself, let your heart start beating a slower. Take a little bit deeper breath. And hear again what our Lord Jesus said: “in those days, after that suffering, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.”

Some people think these words from Jesus are about the end of the world. These words are often used by charlatans to calculate the “end times.” A cosmic, cataclysmic end of the world – sun darkened, stars falling, powers shaken. I do not think that Jesus is talking about the end of the world. Jesus is not talking about the cataclysmic end of the space-time universe. No, Jesus is using cosmic imagery to describe the trauma, the stress, the anxiety that the Christians will soon experience in this world. This is not about the end of the world in a cosmic sense, this is about the end of the world as the disciples knew it. We say, “I’m so hungry I could eat a horse.” Well, you couldn’t, and I hope you wouldn’t. It’s colorful, expansive language to describe the reality of the stress you are going through. Jesus talks about the powers being shaken and the sun going dark because it will seem to those first Christians that no power is stable, that the light of their homeland has gone out, that everything is falling apart. Jesus wants his disciples to be ready for the trauma, and then for the post-traumatic stress that is surely to follow.

In other words, what Jesus is giving to his disciples here is pre-traumatic stress training. Jesus is saying to them that the whole world is going to come apart within a generation. In the next forty years, everything will be torn down. Your loved ones will die. Your rulers will be crazy. They are going to destroy you and take everything you have. He wants them to know that the whole world is going to be ripped apart. In the midst of all that, Jesus tells them, keep awake. Stay alert. Stay close to Jesus. Jesus is preparing his disciples, getting them ready.

Getting us ready. To prepare us for the days of suffering ahead. The sun went dark when you got that phone call with that diagnosis. The moon stopped giving its light after you couldn’t pay that bill. The stars were falling from heaven when, no matter how hard you work, there is always more work to do and there is never enough time to do it. The powers in the heavens were shaken when the rulers of this world took you for everything you had.

What Jesus said to those first disciples, he says to us. Keep awake. Keep awake. Do not allow the stress and the trauma and the anxiety of this life rule your life. Take the lesson of that first generation of Christians to heart. Rulers will come go. Generations will rise and fall. It will even seem that heaven and earth will pass away. But the words of Jesus will not fail. What will sustain us is the love that we have for each other, the love that God has for us. That love will not pass away. Trauma and anxiety and stress are sure to come. The sun will be darkened, the stars will fall from heaven, the powers will be shaken – but your faith, your faith in the Lord Jesus will not be shaken. You will take a deep breath, your heart will stop pounding, and you will remember that Jesus is with you. Like soldiers suffering PTSD, a condition that will never go away, our trauma, and stress, and anxiety will never go away. But we can cope with it by staying awake, by keeping alert, by staying close to Jesus.

And this bring us to Advent. In Advent, we hear again the urgent call of Jesus – stay awake. As the days grow shorter and the nights grow longer, the temptation to sleep sets in. As it seems that nothing is changing, that rulers are only out for themselves, when it seems that the world is coming undone, that God is far off – Jesus calls us to stay awake. And no matter how stressful, how anxious, how traumatic the world is to us, our purpose remains the same – to keep alert, and stay faithful to Jesus.

Mirror

The Rev. Jimmy Abbott
All Saints’ Sunday
November 5, 2017
Revelation 7:9-17

Alright, this morning we are going to start with a neurological physiological experiment. Turn to the person next to you and yawn. That’s right, a big, gaping, open mouth yawn. I’m yawning, you’re yawning, we’re all yawning. We all look like a bunch of fools.

So this is called the mirroring reflex. When we see somebody else yawn, we also yawn. I mean, I’ve even yawned after seeing my dog yawn. How weird is that? Or, this is why when you watch a funny movie at home you don’t laugh nearly as much as when you watch a funny movie in the theater. It’s the mirroring reflex. We do what the other humans around us are doing.

When you hear a parent lament that their kid got into the wrong crowd of friends, this is what they mean. It’s why gangs are so powerful. It’s the mirroring reflex. If we surround ourselves with bad behavior, chances are we will start behaving badly. Think of the power of this idea. It’s why support groups are so powerful; if you surround yourself with people going through a similar struggle, they will all pull you through. in order to help pull you through. You do what the other people around you are doing.

This is the power of Church. Church, not as the building, but Church as the gathered people of God. We mirror each others’ behavior. If we surround ourselves with godly and virtuous people, the hope is that we too become godly and virtuous people. One person yawns, we all start yawning. One person leads a holy life, we all start leading holy lives.

That’s how St. John the Divine puts it in his Revelation. John sees, “a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages.” And notice what they are all doing there in the heavenly throne room. It’s the mirroring reflex. They are all crying out in a loud voice, worshipping the Lamb on the throne. They are all falling down on their faces singing praises to God. One glorifies God, they all glorify God.

It’s an image of All Saints’ Day. We remember and celebrate those Christians who have gone before us because they were the ones who taught us how to be Christians. We mirror their faith.

So often I hear people say that they are Christians, but that they don’t go to Church. I do not think that their faith is insincere, but I think they’re missing out. Because Christians need community. We need to see each other leading holy lives so that we too are inspired to lead holy lives.

This morning we are going to baptize Ceceilia King. Cecilia is not going to learn how to follow Jesus from reading a book about how to follow Jesus. She’s probably not going to learn how to be a saint from any sermon preached from this pulpit. No, she’s going to learn how to follow Jesus by watching you. By doing what you do. Cecelia will learn how to be a disciple of Jesus by mirroring other disciples of Jesus. So, are you ready for that? Are you ready to be that example of compassion, of love, of mercy, of generosity? Are you ready to be that community that shows children how to follow Jesus? If we are worried about kids these days and how they don’t go to church – well, here is your opportunity. To live a holy life so that she can see what it means to live a holy life.

From the very beginning, following Jesus has meant being part of a community. When Jesus called his first disciples, he called brothers. When Jesus sent out the first missionaries, they went two by two. Or think of our own church community, Holy Comforter. This church wasn’t the idea of one person. No, it was thirteen Episcopalians gathering together for prayer and worship. There is no such thing as a Lone Ranger Christian. In St. John’s vision of the heavenly throne room, it’s not like there are a bunch of individuals, in their own little rooms, worshipping Jesus. No, there is one throne and one throne room. And everybody, the vast multitude, the angels, the elders, everybody, is in it together. We’re in this thing together. We yawn together, we laugh together, we cry together, we pray together, we follow Jesus together.

And yes, it would be easier if we could do it alone. It would be. Imagine if you could sleep in on Sunday morning. If you didn’t have to sit behind that person in church that really, really annoys you. If you didn’t have to worry about being a good example to the other Christians in your church. If you didn’t have to make a promise to show Cecelia how to follow Jesus.

And let’s admit it, it would be easier if you didn’t have to make a pledge. It would be easier. But I stand here to tell you that the Christian life is not meant to be easy.

I hate to break it to you, but following Jesus is hard. That’s the other thing we can mirror from the saints. Think of it: Saint Bartholomew was skinned alive because of his faith in Jesus. Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Becket was murdered in his own cathedral because he was more faithful to Jesus than he was to the king. Samuel Isaac Joseph Schereschewsky was an Episcopalian stricken with paralysis while he was translating the Bible into Chinese. But rather than giving up, he typed some two thousand pages of Bible translation using only one finger of his partially crippled hand. Constance and her companions were Episcopal nuns and priests who died while caring for people stricken with Yellow Fever in Memphis, Tennessee. Being a saint of God was never, never going to be easy. Being a saint of God means self-sacrifice, and constant labor, and hardship, and heartache, and more often than not, death. That is what we are supposed to mirror.

In the modern Church, we get a little uncomfortable when we start talking about martyrdom and death and persecution. If we get our feelings hurt by what the cashier at Wal-Mart says, then how in the world can we live up to the example of Perpetua and her companions, Christians who were killed in a Roman coliseum because they refused to worship the emperor? We have made the Christian life look fun and hip and cool as a way to attract fun and hip and cool people to church. But do not be mistaken. Following Jesus, being a saint, will demand everything we are and everything we have. And that includes the two most prized American possessions, time and money.

If you want to take an assessment of your Christian life, of your life with Jesus, you can look at two things. First, it’s your bank statement. Jesus says, where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. Is your heart with Jesus and the Church, is your heart with charities and good works? Or is your heart, your treasure, somewhere else? If you pay more for your monthly cable bill or your car payment or season tickets than you give to good causes, then I can tell you what you worship, and you might not like the answer. I know what this is like. I know what it means to look at our own pledge card, and consider all that money could do for us. Starbucks more often. Some nice dinners out. I mean, who wouldn’t want Astros season tickets now? But no, my heart and my treasure is with Jesus. If we wish to worship Jesus with our hearts, we must prove it with our wallets.

And second, look at your calendar. What are your priorities? If you set aside time everyday to watch TV, do you also set aside time to pray? Look at your daily list of activities, and you’ll see what you worship. And I don’t buy the excuse that you’re too busy. You are too busy not to pray.

What the Church, what God calls us to do is to die for Jesus. To let our old lives die so that we can live for God. I mean, we do not bat an eye at the idea that our country might ask us to die for it. So why should we be so shocked if the same was required of us for God’s Kingdom?

This takes us back to St. John’s vision of the heavenly throne room. “Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from?” The angel answers, “these are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.” The great ordeal. A life of sacrifice for the Kingdom of God. A life of living for others and not for yourselves. Like the saints of old, a life of living for Jesus.

I know you might be thinking, “Jimmy, this runs against the theme of your last few sermons. You just said last week that God loves us no matter what.” True, I did say that. And I meant it. But the clearest example of God’s love for us is the cross. The love which we are to have for our neighbors and for God, should look like the cross. I mean, if our Lord and Savior died on the cross, we would be deluded to think that our Christian lives will be easy. No, they will be hard. We will look at the cross and mirror all that Jesus did there. We will mirror this life for Cecelia, who is starting this life today.

God loves us so much, that God will meet us wherever we are. But God also loves us so much, that God will not let us stay there. That means going through the great ordeal. Going to cross with Jesus. Then will we understand the great promise God gives to the saints: “they will hunger no more, and thirst no more; the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat; for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away ever tear from their eyes.”

Lovable

The Rev. Jimmy Abbott
Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost
October 29, 2017

Matthew 22:34-46

Over the past few weeks, my bedtime has been getting later and later as I have been glued, absolutely glued to the Astros. Oh buddy it’s been fun. We had that epic game on Wednesday. Last night’s gut-wrenching loss. As baseball fans, we’ve had it all. Lights out pitching. Home runs galore. And, so many commercials. As I’ve been climbing into bed near midnight, I’ve been asking myself – how could a baseball game last over four hours?

So I did a little research. In the average baseball game that lasts three hours, there are only eighteen minutes of actual baseball action. That’s right – eighteen minutes out of three hours. And forty-two minutes of commercials. That’s why you’re so tired of that, “Dilly! Dilly!” Bud Light commercial. It’s not just baseball. During the average NFL game, there are only eleven minutes of actual football played but one hundred separate commercials.

Think of all those messages we are getting. Whether we watch baseball or not. They’re on our TVs, the radio, your Facebook feed. See, the point of commercials is to convince you that your life, as it is now, isn’t complete. That you’re missing something, you’re missing out on something. There is a hole in your life. All those hundreds of commercials we watch, they’re not trying to sell cars, or Bud Light, or a retirement plan, or whatever. No, they’re trying to sell you an idea – the idea that you’re not good enough as you are. That you’re missing something. That you’re missing out on something. From there, if they convince you of that idea, then the advertiser has won. Then it’s just a matter of finding a way to get that thing into your hands at the right price. That Bud Light commercial set in the castle, it’s not trying to sell you beer. That Bud Light commercial is trying to convince you that the only way you can have a good time with friends, is by drinking Bud Light. Ford is not trying to sell you a truck. No, they’re trying to convince you that your truck now is a piece of junk. But that their truck, that new F-150, will make everybody else think you have your life together. The commercials with the couple in their mid 60s trying to figure out their retirement plan. They’re not selling a retirement. They’re trying to convince you of the idea that you’re not happy now, and the only way to be happy is to cash in with their plan.

This is the soul crushing reality of it. The primary message we hear on a daily basis is that we’re not good enough, that we’re missing out. And let me be as clear as I can – that message is a lie. Don’t believe it. Because once you do believe it, you are one a long, hard, downward spiral. You try to to make yourself feel better by buying that F-150, by drinking that Bud Light. But it doesn’t help. So you try again. This time I’ll get the leather seats and the extended cab F-150. This time I’ll buy a whole case of Bud Light. And before you know it, you are numb to it all. And you just keep buying and spending not even knowing why you are buying and spending. And then you have a house full of stuff that the youth sold yesterday at the garage sale. By the way, thank you for that. But what we have really bought is the lie that we’re not loved as we are.

The truth of the gospel, the truth that we profess, is that God loves us no matter what. That’s it. God made us, God knows us, God loves us. Whether we drive a Cadillac or a Kia or we can’t afford a car, it doesn’t matter. We are loved by God.

Jesus takes this one step further by quoting from the Old Testament. Not only does God love you infinitely and completely, but you can love yourself infinitely and completely. “Love your neighbor as yourself.” I’ve always thought that the hardest part to this commandment is that we have to love ourselves. We can only love others insofar as we already love ourselves. And if the message we hear every single day is that we are not lovable as we are, then how in the world are supposed to love our neighbors?

This is also why we have such a problem with bullies in our society. In my experience, people who are bullies usually don’t love themselves. Bullies, in my experience, are insecure about themselves. They don’t feel loved. Bullies put other people down, so that even if the bully doesn’t feel loved, the bully feels like they’re better than the person they’re picking on. I suppose that if someone can love their neighbor as themselves, they can also hate their neighbor as they already hate themselves.

This is where the Church steps. We have a monumental task in front of us. To show the world that it is possible to love your neighbor as yourself. It is possible to love each other as God already loves us.

In other words, the church has some selling it needs to do. And, when you think about it, we are are in the sales business. Whenever somebody asks me to pray for good weather, I remind them that I’m in sales, not management. But here’s the difference in what we’re selling, in what the Church is selling. We are selling the idea, the radical idea, that you, yes you, even you, are loved by God as you are. And that because you are loved, because God loves you, then you can love your neighbor also.

Perhaps this is actually why it seems that fewer people go to church now in our society. Because we’ve believed the lie that we are not loved. The world has done a fantastic job of getting us to think that we are not lovable. And they have better marketing departments than the Church does. The Church is counter-cultural insofar as it says that God loves us while the rest of the world says that we’re not lovable. The Church is counter-cultural because we don’t believe that you can buy anything to fill that God-shaped hole in your heart. The Church says that you can’t buy anything to make you happy.

Perhaps this is why there are so many ideas out there about why we give money to the church. Because usually when we pay for something, it’s because we want that thing to fill a hole in our heart. It’s a transaction. We hope it gives us happiness. But we don’t do transactions in the Church. God is not into transactions. Jesus doesn’t work that way. God’s love for us is a gift. God fills the hole in our heart. And our money back to the God is a gift. It’s not like the offering plate is the cash register for spiritual growth. No. It’s all gift. That is how we do things in the church.

Or, think of our people who visit the elderly in all these surrounding nursing homes. They don’t take time out of their busy schedules, they don’t sacrifice their weekends because they hope to get something out of it. It’s not a transaction, it’s a gift. Just as God loves them they pour out their love to a neighbor. We don’t do transactions in the Church. We make gifts. Unearned, undeserved, simple gifts out of love. Because we know God loves us, we can love ourselves, and we can love our neighbors.

As we ask you to think about your own financial pledge for next year, remember, it’s all gift. This is not a transaction. Our money to the church will not fill the hole in our heart. God has already done that. And the Church asks you to give, not because we think you should feel bad about yourself. Instead, we ask you to give because we have heard this incredible message that God already loves us.

And tonight, when you’re at home watching the Astros play in this all important game 5, don’t believe the lies they will be selling you. You can be happy and have deep, abiding friendships without Bud Light. You are already good enough, even without that new F-150. You can be happy without that retirement package. Yes, it would be a great victory tonight if the Astros win. But the greatest victory would be if you and I believed, truly believed, that God already loves us. And that God’s love is enough.