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Live as children of light

The Rev. Canon Frank Logue preached this sermon at St. John’s Episcopal Church
in Savannah, Georgia on March 19, 2017

Live as children of light
Ephesians 5:1-14 and Luke 11:14-28

In our journey through Lent, our readings move from last week considering Jesus’ power to cast out demons to land this week considering what comes next. And what must follow is that we amend our lives. For in repenting, turning toward God, and amending our lives, we close the door behind the exiting demon. Jesus said, “the last state of that man is worse than the first” when speaking of someone who once he has been delivered from a demon, finds the demon returned later with seven more and in greater strength.

While we can try to be too enlightened to talk of demons, the observable fact is plain that everywhere you go, people all around you are fighting battles you know nothing about. We are surrounded every day by people anesthetizing themselves. The anesthetic has many names—binge drinking, overeating, excessive exercise, illegal drug use, prescription drug abuse, hoarding, unhealthy relationships, workaholism, compulsive spending, gambling, the list goes on, but the dynamic is the same. It doesn’t matter if the crutch is good scotch or bad coffee, self-medication can only mask the pain. Behind the façade, the deep hurt remains.

Most people sometime between the age of 5 and 25 pick up emotional wounds that will remain festering and seeping poison into their psyches unless they can find healing. Whether the source was absent parents, physical abuse, rape, bullying, or just never matching the image in the magazines, never earning the favor of those who mattered most to you, betrayal by friends, a learning disability that caused you to always fear you couldn’t measure up. The sources are legion and layered. Without bringing true healing to the deep hurts, much pain will follow and will spread out to those we love.

Perhaps the greatest human fear is that we will get what we deserve. Everyone else is okay, but I know that I do the right things for the wrong reasons. I know the secret sins, the hidden shame, the parts no one can ever see the reason for the false front that masks the need for self-medication. The Gospel does not teach that I’m okay and you’re okay. The Good News is that even though I am far from okay and so are you, that God loves us anyway and offers us a way to turn our lives around.

While there are many sources of the shame and emotional pain that plague us, there is only one Balm in Gilead, one source of healing. The antidote to this destructive way of life is found in repenting, turning toward God, and amending our lives. And for this work, we have superabundant grace of God to make this possible.

I will ask you to trust me for just a few minutes. I need to step back to tell a story, which I witnessed here in Savannah last fall that takes us into the heart of Jesus’ teaching in our reading from the St. Luke’s Gospel. When we come back from venturing a little far afield, I hope we will be able to see not just how we as individuals might progress in this work, but how St. John’s as a church can aid this effort further.

In 2010, Bishop Benhase asked a facilitator to hold listening sessions around the Diocese of Georgia. In that first year of his episcopacy, the goals that emerged were for the Diocese to increase our capacity for congregational development, clergy and lay leadership development, and raising up young adult leaders. One of the strategies for this third goal was to create what are called intentional communities, places where young adults live together by a rule of life while working for churches and non-profits during the day. We started Columba House Savannah with this I mind, but the first year we only had one intern, Mary Meeks, who some of you will know from worshipping with her here at St. John’s on occasion.

During her internship, Mary learned approached me with the idea of holding a Christmas liturgy for homeless persons near one of the homeless camps. The idea had come from a homeless person she met while providing food to needy persons out of St. Michael and All Angels’ Church. I was intrigued, but said we could do this if homeless persons wanted the service and we would create the service with them.

Working through a Community Policing Officer, we met leaders in the homeless camps. I asked what they might want in terms of a worship service, where, and when. Then Mary and I worked with St. Michael and All Angel’s Episcopal Church and others to create the service, which brought together church members and homeless persons to worship under a bridge near a camp. I recall how the Mayor of one of the homeless camp’s under the Truman Bridge asked if we could hold the Christmas Day worship near his camp. His name was Ice. Ice asked if we could do the full deal, with robes, candles, an altar and everything. He said that we should have the service with the wall of graffiti behind us, because it would look good. We did.

Mary worked so hard to get a Christmas tree at the site with presents of warm socks, tooth brushes, and other items identified as in need. On Christmas morning, when I met the group at St. Michael’s, I got worried. There were about 40 people there. I was worried those with homes would outnumber the homeless. When we got to the site, a crowd of homeless persons awaited us under the bridge. I began to work with Deacon Sue Gahagan to setup an altar, and get the formal altar cloth and the fair linen in place. When I looked up, there was no us and them. Gathered under the bridge were happy chatting people sharing hot coffee and conversation. People who slept in warm beds in their own homes, were mingled among those who slept in icy cold tents scattered around the city. The sound of the Carols ringing out under the bridge as the congregation came forward to receive the Eucharist or a blessing made for the most memorable of Christmases. This led to a poignant Ash Wednesday service near a site where two homeless persons had just died where we felt Jesus’ presence at the site of such recent and tragic loss.

When he graduated from Yale Divinity School, the Rev. Jamie Maury took over the ministry that became the Community of St. Joseph, or as the homeless worshipers call it The Field Church as it now meets in a field near another homeless camp. Homeless persons read the readings, offer prayers, take part in playing instruments and singing in the choir, as well as serving on the advisory board.

Fr. Maury has experience with 12 step programs and working with people in recovery. This is vital in working with homeless persons who are struggling with addictions. Our readings come speak to the struggle with addiction quite clearly.

Jesus said, “When the unclean spirit is gone out of a man, he walketh through dry places, seeking rest; and finding none, he saith, I will return unto my house whence I came out. And when he cometh, he findeth it swept and garnished. Then goeth he, and taketh to him seven other spirits more wicked than himself; and they enter in, and dwell there: and the last state of that man is worse than the first” (Luke 11:24-26).

You have probably seen this as I have that when someone breaks a cycle of addiction, whether they are abusing prescription drugs, alcohol, or illegal drugs. Once the addict gets clear of the disease, the temptation is mighty. Like the strong man Jesus refers to in the reading. We know that this is all but impossible to break without changing ones patterns completely. How can you still keep to the pattern of life that fit the addictive behavior? What about the friends who what you did together was drink or do drugs? And we know through painful experience, that when an addict sinks back into old patterns, they are worse than before. A drink won’t do and neither will the amount that used to suffice. The last state of the addict is worse than the first.

This is why I wanted to share the backstory on the Community of St. Joseph. For when we started Columba House, we hoped that someone like Mary would stretch their skills in leadership and that worked out beautifully that Christmas under the bridge as Mary’s work was directly responsible for the Eucharist under the Truman Parkway. Later Columba House interns helped Fr. Maury launch his first liturgies in the yard of the Christ Church Parish House where Emmaus House, the multi-church effort feeds homeless members of our community. We could not have imagined that this would lead to a real community coming together. And yet, a real community has developed with the church created for homeless persons. Those who are homeless are often quite close and supportive of one another, but this is a Christian community that helps those who take part come to know Jesus in power. They are challenged to amend their lives, making difficult changes with the support of the community.

Last fall, I preached at the Community of St. Joseph’s regular Sunday morning worship in a field. A woman came to the liturgy that Sunday because she wanted to meet the people who supported her son, David. He had told her about his church. He told her about his pastor, Jamie, and how he helped David get sober and stay sober.

David had gotten a job and had to move away, but he stayed sober and he stayed in touch with his pastor. When Fr. Maury and I would touch talk about his ministry, he mentioned David and I knew the story. I also learned that David finally got to a doctor and the symptoms to which he could not afford to pay attention proved to be cancer that had already metastasized. David did not survive long. But he died sober and known by a community that cared for him and in close connection to his Lord Jesus, who forgave him and strengthened him for the fight of his life against addiction.

That morning David’s Mom came to meet her son’s church. Homeless persons told of how caring David had been and the kindnesses he had shown them. One person told her how David had carried the cross and led the Diocese of Georgia’s group in Savannah’s Martin Luther King Day Parade. She looked incredulous and said, “No, I am talking about David. My David.” She couldn’t picture her son leading a group of Episcopalians in a parade. “Yes, your David,” I said. As the liturgy had ended when we were talking, I used my iPhone to go to the Diocese of Georgia’s Facebook page to load a photo of her son carrying the cross in front of the group.

As tears filled her eyes she talked about hard years when she never knew what would come of him. She ever dreamed he would find the Lord and would finally find peace and would stay sober for months and months before he died. She could not have imagined that he would have a community around him that would care for him, love him, and ask him to lead.

This story is not accidental. God intended the Body of Christ, the Church, to offer mutual support and accountability. The life of faith in Jesus Christ is meant to be a team sport, rather than a solo endeavor, lest any of us should think we could save ourselves.

The Church in its wisdom teaches us not merely to repent of our sins, but to repent, turn, and amend. Amendment of life is as essential as repenting of our sin and turning back toward God. And it is the turning toward God and amending our lives that not only makes our repentance true and sure. Turning toward God and amending our lives is also what prevents the demon we have so purged from finding seven other spirits more wicked than himself; entering in, and dwelling there: so that in Jesus words, “the last state of that man is worse than the first.”

The very human tendency that when we stumble and fall, we are tempted to stay away from the church, and in so doing stay away from the very source of healing we most need. The grace in David’s story is that he stayed with the church and found the healing he needed.

St. Paul writes in our reading from the Epistle, “For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Live as children of light” (Ephesians 5:8). We need community to support us as we move out of darkness into the light. I know in recent years, St. John’s has provided that community of support. While the AA group you host is admirable, I mean something closer to home. I watched with interest and admiration when a priest faced issues with alcoholism, you the congregation of St. John’s faced that issue together, providing essential support as well as accountability. Many churches would be tempted to either hide the issue or cast out the priest. But St. John’s chose the more excellent way. How much easier it is to repent, turn, and amend our lives when we don’t have to got it alone.

This journey through the forty days of Lent continues. I know I need to stay close to the church in this time if I am going to arrive at Easter having freshly examined my life and found where I need to repent, turn toward God, and amend my life. The challenge I find in the stories I have retold this morning, is that I can’t feel satisfied with this work as a solo effort, nor can we be satisfied if this Good News reaches only those already in the ark of the Church.

No, the work of the church is to continually look beyond the Body of Christ to see a lost and hurting world and to seek to discover what we can do to hold out the forgiveness we have found to others. For if we are content that those who already file into the church on a Sunday morning are enough, then we haven’t let the Gospel shake us to our core. For God’s desire is for all humans to share in this ability to repent, believing in Jesus, amend our lives, and so find forgiveness. So I preach this sermon as my means of repenting of the ways in which I have been too content to tend to those already inside the church. Having turned to the Lord, I intend to amend my life by looking for new ways to cast the net farther. For everywhere I go today, I will be surrounded by people who need this life-giving message. Those of us who are know longer in darkness, are obliged to not only live as children of the light, but to share that light with others.

Amen.

Note: St. John’s Episcopal Church worships with the 1928 Book of Common Prayer, using the Sunday lectionary from that book.

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