Sunday, May 3, 2015

“You only love God as much as the person you love least.”

HOMILY FOR THE 5th SUNDAY OF EASTER, May 3, 2015:

NOTE: I offered this homily for our men in formation in Boston this morning

“You only love God as much as the person you love least.” As you know, Fr. Mike and I were in Washington on Friday night for the 25th anniversary gala of Franciscan Mission Service. This quote by Dorothy Day was shared by one of the young adults who received the San Damiano Award for her service to the poor. “You only love God as much as the person you love least.” Let that one sink in a little bit as we focus in on our readings today.

As much as the Easter season is about Jesus and His resurrection, this season so often is also about another central figure, Saul who becomes Paul – and, not coincidentally the effect of resurrection, or the effect of encountering the Resurrected One, in his life. We hear a lot about Paul in the Acts of the Apostles which have such a prominent place in our Easter readings, and of course, we always hear a lot from him, as his letters to the various churches he establishes are read just about every Sunday throughout the year.

As I was reflecting on today’s readings, this point about resurrection really struck me. Just think about our passage from Acts. At this moment, Paul – still known as Saul — was a fresh convert to the faith and newly arrived from Damascus. I hope your ears perked up like mine did at the beginning of the passage: “they were all afraid of him.” Isn’t that stunning? The early Christians knew who this guy was and what he did– he was a persecutor, a Christian-hunter. It’s fair to say that, among the Christians in Jerusalem Paul probably wasn’t very popular. Nobody trusted him. They even feared for their lives just because he was there. The beginning of the Chapter puts it even more dramatically. It says, before his conversion, “Saul, still breathing murderous threats against the disciples.” This was one mean guy.

“You only love God as much as the person you love least.” This very mean Saul is not who usually comes to mind when we think of the great saint. So, what happened? Well, his conversion moment, of course, his direct encounter with Jesus. But, what else? Well, there was also one person in the community of believers who saw something more. That person was Barnabas. Barnabas believed in Paul’s conversion – and believed in him. Today’s reading says he “took charge” of Paul. But Biblical scholars think it was more than that. One commentator has suggested that there would not even be a Paul if there wasn’t first a Barnabas – someone who after that tremendous moment of conversion became a mentor and guide, a friend and confidant; but also a figure who must have had great courage, and patience, and perseverance. In other words: Barnabas was someone who personified Christian love. “You only love God as much as the person you love least.”

Years later, when Paul wrote his now famous passage to the Corinthians about love, the one we usually apply only to marriage and weddings – how it bears all things, hopes all things, and never fails – I believe, he was really talking about this. Not something romantic or flowery. But something that is a gift of self, that demands sacrifice and faith. That is unafraid and steadfast. That is willing to risk. Willing, even, to see beyond someone’s past; even a horrible and violent past like Saul’s. In other words: a love willing to “believe all things” – even to believe that a lowly tentmaker from Tarsus, a man who was a sinner and persecutor, might have the potential to be a saint. “You only love God as much as the person you love least.”

Let me share one more detail with you about our good Barnabas. Barnabas is not the name he was born with. His given name was Joseph. But just as Saul became Paul, he, too, was given a new name by the Christian community to symbolize his new life in Christ. He was given the name Barnabas, a name which translated means, “Son of Encouragement.” Encouragement is what he gave to the growing community of Christians – and it surely describes what he offered to Saul and he grew into the Saint Paul we have come to revere.

To offer encouragement means to support and uplift. It is taking time to give of self – to give a hand to hold, a shoulder for support, an ear to listen, a voice to calm all doubts and erase all fears. It is to love like Christ loves. To see beyond sin into holiness. This is the effect of resurrection. It will raise us not only on the last day, but it can raise us on this day too – right out of whatever weighs us down.

“You only love God as much as the person you love least.” Barnabas, the Son of Encouragement, loved a man that “they were all afraid of”, a man who “breathed murderous threats against them” and he loved and encouraged him into a saintly life.

My brothers, let us pray today that we too might be Sons of Encouragement – for each other, for those we struggle with, for those who seem to need that love and encouragement more than anyone else. “You only love God as much as the person you love least.” Let the person we love least, be the person we love most and then we will be loving the way that God loves, and we will be encouraging as Barnabas encouraged, we too will be Sons of Encouragement and making our way to Heaven.

May the Lord give you peace.

Want millennials back in the pews? Stop trying to make church "cool" | Washington Post

NOTE: This is a great argument on being true to ourselves as a Church and the power of our worship. What moved me most is when the writer says, "What brought me back to the church was the sacraments." I would only add, that the challenge for our churches is not to make them more flashy or relevant, but they must be done well! - FT

 April 30 | Washington Post
Rachel Held Evans is a blogger and the author of “Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving, and Finding the Church.”
Bass reverberates through the auditorium floor as a heavily bearded worship leader pauses to invite the congregation, bathed in the light of two giant screens, to tweet using #JesusLives. The scent of freshly brewed coffee wafts in from the lobby, where you can order macchiatos and purchase mugs boasting a sleek church logo. The chairs are comfortable, and the music sounds like something from the top of the charts. At the end of the service, someone will win an iPad.
This, in the view of many churches, is what millennials like me want. And no wonder pastors think so. Church attendance has plummeted among young adults. In the United States, 59 percent of people ages 18 to 29 with a Christian background have, at some point, dropped out. According to the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, among those of us who came of age around the year 2000, a solid quarter claim no religious affiliation at all, making my generation significantly more disconnected from faith than members of Generation X were at a comparable point in their lives and twice as detached as baby boomers were as young adults.
In response, many churches have sought to lure millennials back by focusing on style points: cooler bands, hipper worship, edgier programming, impressive technology. Yet while these aren’t inherently bad ideas and might in some cases be effective, they are not the key to drawing millennials back to God in a lasting and meaningful way. Young people don’t simply want a better show. And trying to be cool might be making things worse.
You’re just as likely to hear the words “market share” and “branding” in church staff meetings these days as you are in any corporate office. Megachurches such as Saddleback in Lake Forest, Calif., and Lakewood in Houston have entire marketing departments devoted to enticing new members. Kent Shaffer of ChurchRelevance.com routinely ranks the bestlogos and Web sites and offers strategic counsel to organizations like Saddleback and LifeChurch.tv.
Increasingly, churches offer sermon series on iTunes and concert-style worship services with names like “Vine” or “Gather.” The young-adult group at Ed Young’s Dallas-based Fellowship Church is called Prime, and one of the singles groups at his father’s congregation in Houston is calledVertical. Churches have made news in recent years for giving away tablet computers , TVs and even cars at Easter. Still, attendance among young people remains flat.
My friend and blogger Amy Peterson put it this way: “I want a service that is not sensational, flashy, or particularly ‘relevant.’ I can be entertained anywhere. At church, I do not want to be entertained. I do not want to be the target of anyone’s marketing. I want to be asked to participate in the life of an ancient-future community.”
Millennial blogger Ben Irwin wrote: “When a church tells me how I should feel (‘Clap if you’re excited about Jesus!’), it smacks of inauthenticity. Sometimes I don’t feel like clapping. Sometimes I need to worship in the midst of my brokenness and confusion — not in spite of it and certainly not in denial of it.”
When I left church at age 29, full of doubt and disillusionment, I wasn’t looking for a better-produced Christianity. I was looking for a truer Christianity, a more authentic Christianity: I didn’t like how gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people were being treated by my evangelical faith community. I had questions about science and faith, biblical interpretation and theology. I felt lonely in my doubts. And, contrary to popular belief, the fog machines and light shows at those slick evangelical conferences didn’t make things better for me. They made the whole endeavor feel shallow, forced and fake.
While no two faith stories are exactly the same, I’m not the only millennial whose faith couldn’t be saved by lacquering on a hipper veneer. Accordingto Barna Group, among young people who don’t go to church, 87 percent say they see Christians as judgmental, and 85 percent see them as hypocritical. A similar study found that “only 8% say they don’t attend because church is ‘out of date,’ undercutting the notion that all churches need to do for Millennials is to make worship ‘cooler.’ ”
In other words, a church can have a sleek logo and Web site, but if it’s judgmental and exclusive, if it fails to show the love of Jesus to all, millennials will sniff it out. Our reasons for leaving have less to do with style and image and more to do with substantive questions about life, faith and community. We’re not as shallow as you might think.
If young people are looking for congregations that authentically practice the teachings of Jesus in an open and inclusive way, then the good news is the church already knows how to do that. The trick isn’t to make church cool; it’s to keep worship weird.
You can get a cup of coffee with your friends anywhere, but church is the only place you can get ashes smudged on your forehead as a reminder of your mortality. You can be dazzled by a light show at a concert on any given weekend, but church is the only place that fills a sanctuary with candlelight and hymns on Christmas Eve. You can snag all sorts of free swag for brand loyalty online, but church is the only place where you are named a beloved child of God with a cold plunge into the water. You can share food with the hungry at any homeless shelter, but only the church teaches that a shared meal brings us into the very presence of God.
What finally brought me back, after years of running away, wasn’t lattes or skinny jeans; it was the sacraments. Baptism, confession, Communion, preaching the Word, anointing the sick — you know, those strange rituals and traditions Christians have been practicing for the past 2,000 years. The sacraments are what make the church relevant, no matter the culture or era. They don’t need to be repackaged or rebranded; they just need to be practiced, offered and explained in the context of a loving, authentic and inclusive community.
My search has led me to the Episcopal Church, where every week I find myself, at age 33, kneeling next to a gray-haired lady to my left and a gay couple to my right as I confess my sins and recite the Lord’s Prayer. No one’s trying to sell me anything. No one’s desperately trying to make the Gospel hip or relevant or cool. They’re just joining me in proclaiming the great mystery of the faith — that Christ has died, Christ has risen, and Christ will come again — which, in spite of my persistent doubts and knee-jerk cynicism, I still believe most days.
One need not be an Episcopalian to practice sacramental Christianity. Even in Christian communities that don’t use sacramental language to describe their activities, you see people baptizing sinners, sharing meals, confessing sins and helping one another through difficult times. Those services with big screens and professional bands can offer the sacraments, too.
But I believe that the sacraments are most powerful when they are extended not simply to the religious and the privileged, but to the poor, the marginalized, the lonely and the left out. This is the inclusivity so many millennials long for in their churches, and it’s the inclusivity that eventually drew me to the Episcopal Church, whose big red doors are open to all — conservatives, liberals, rich, poor, gay, straight and even perpetual doubters like me.
Church attendance may be dipping, but God can survive the Internet age. After all, He knows a thing or two about resurrection.