Sunday, June 29, 2014

Practical Christianity (The Rev. Rick O'Brien, June 29, 2014)

I had an interesting experience a few weeks ago.  I was visiting a church where I used to serve, and ran into a parishioner that I had not seen for quite a while.  She greeted me with the phrase “Easter changes everything”, which was the theme of my Easter Sunday sermon from three years ago.  I am here to tell you my friends, that there is no greater compliment you can pay to a preacher than to remember one of their sermons.  I am certainly no different, and I will admit that I was quite pleased to know that the words had stuck with her.

But as I reflected over the next few days, something began to gnaw at me.  While I was pleased to know that she remembered the words, I began to wonder what she had done with them.  Had she merely listened to them and remembered them, or had they actually made a difference in her life? 

The purpose of preaching is to help us understand what the scriptures are saying to each one of us.  The goal is to take the words that were written thousands of years ago and help us to interpret the message for today.  As 20th century theologian Karl Barth wrote, we are to read scripture with a bible in one hand and today’s newspaper in the other. 

Despite being flattered that this woman had remembered my words, I wondered if those words had helped her to understand how God was speaking to her in that time and in that place.  And whether she had taken them to heart and used them to examine her life, make changes, and take concrete actions in light of what the scripture was saying to her.

It occurs to me that we preachers stand here and deliver dozens of sermons each year.  If you are a long-attending Christian, you have doubtless heard hundreds, perhaps even a thousand sermons over the course of your life.  Some are good, others are not.  Some are memorable, while others are forgotten before the exchange of the peace.  We can’t always hit a home run. 

But how many times has a sermon helped you to make changes in your life?  How often have they helped you to examine scripture through a new lens and lead you to a greater understanding of your purpose on earth?  Very lofty goals indeed.

One knock that people make on preachers is that we sometimes tend to be esoteric and deal in the realms of philosophy and theology.  While these are good things, and I reserve the right to do that in the future, today I want to offer you some practical things to consider as you try to live out your faith.  I can’t guarantee that this will work, but I am willing to give it a shot if you are.

One of the themes I preach about frequently is the gifts of the spirit.  Paul tells us that we are all given gifts; some are apostles, some prophets, some speak in tongues, others are teachers.  But the list is far longer than that.  Some are musicians, some are good cooks, some are reliable friends, some are peacemakers, some have the gift of hospitality; others have a smile that lights up a room.  I am a big believer in the gifts of the spirit. 

But whenever I preach on this, I can be certain that someone will come up to me after mass and say “I enjoyed the sermon Father Rick, but I know you weren’t talking about me because I have no gifts.”  My brothers and sisters that is bunk!  Each one of us, let me say that again, EACH ONE OF US, has gifts given to us by God.  Our task then is to discern what they are and to figure out how to use them to serve God. 

Beginning in September we will be offering a 6 week class between the two services that will focus on helping you identify your unique gifts and talents.  I have taught and participated in this process many times and I assure you that people learn things about themselves that they never knew.   This will be a practical step in helping you to discover your unique gifts from God and how you can put them to use in building up God’s kingdom.  That is practical step 1.

If you have been listening to me preach for a while, you know that another of my passions is evangelism.  We have begun to do some tangible things here at Christ Church to be more welcoming to new folks and help us share the good news of Jesus Christ with others.  Today I am pleased to introduce to you our theme for the coming year, a Season of Evangelism.  Starting this fall and continuing into next spring and summer, we will be embarking on a number of programs and actions to embrace evangelism as part of our mission.  Father Barry is putting together a weekend-long seminar with Father Bill Tully who brought about a huge change in his parish in NYC.  Father Tully took over a broken parish that averaged 80 people on Sunday when he arrived, and grew to over 800 by the time he was done.  He will have a great deal to tell us and it should be an excellent way to advance our cause.  But we don’t need to wait for Father Bill to get started.  In today’s bulletin you will find an insert that talks about who and what we are here at Christ Church.  I would ask you to give this to a friend, and invite them to come to church with you.  The best way to grow our church is to share your story with friends.  Knowing Jesus has meant something to you in your life, so this will help you to share that with others.  These are steps 2 and 3.

We all have a story to tell.  A story of how Jesus resurrection and the power given to us by the Holy Spirit have changed our lives.  Let me ask you a question.  As Episcopalians, are we good at talking to people about our faith?  That’s what I thought.  This is not something that we do often, and we tend to feel uncomfortable talking about something so personal.  But my friends, the gift of the gospel is not for us alone.  We are called to preach the gospel to all nations and share this precious gift.  We do that by telling people how it has changed us.  We share our story so that others may receive the gift of Christ and have that same experience.  Our stories are too important to keep to ourselves and so we must get more comfortable in sharing them.  Beginning this month I have asked some of you to share your stories with all of us.  We will do this instead of announcements one Sunday each month.  Once we get comfortable telling our stories to each other, we may even be able to share them with the world at large.  That is step 4.

We are blessed in the lives that we have.  No matter your personal situation, God has brought about great things for you and has brought you to be part of this congregation.  Our duty as Christians is to give back in some ways.  Do you know that this parish distributed half a million pounds of food to the hungry last year?  You may never have seen it, but right behind that wall is our food bank where we give food and clothing to those in need.  We house the homeless through Family Promise and feed those who can’t feed themselves through Amazing Grace ministries.  As Jesus says in the Gospel “whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple, truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.”  Step 5 is to get involved!  These amazing ministries take involvement and we have a great opportunity to help.  Talk with John Maloney or Deacon Bonnie about how you can participate.  The rewards are beyond measure.

We tend to talk about stewardship in terms of time, talent and treasure.  I have already addressed talent and time, and now I am going to unabashedly talk about treasure.  Step 6 is to give of your money.  This is an uncomfortable conversation for some, because money tends to be a personal issue.  But my friends, I want you to consider this.  Jesus talks more about money in the gospels than any other topic.  Why would he do that?  Because even when Jesus walked the planet, we were obsessed with money and the accumulation of wealth.  It is no coincidence that Paul talks about the wages of sin.  Money holds a powerful place in in our lives, but Jesus tells us that we are more blessed to give than receive.  So today I am asking you to give up some of that money to support our mission as a church.  The ministries we practice here at Christ Church take time and talent, but they also take money.  Giving of your financial resources is a tangible way to support these missions so I ask you to increase your giving.

This morning we have discussed 6 practical ways to live out your faith.  There are many, many more, but it is my hope that these will at least get you started thinking of ways you can practice your Christianity. 

My brother and sisters it is my hope that three years from now you will remember this sermon.  Not because of what was said, but because this is the day that you did something new to more fully live out your faith.   That you found a new way to hear God’s call to you, and began a new chapter in the book of your life.