Archive for Lent

“I Need Help” (March 1, 2017: Ash Wednesday)

Posted in Sermons with tags , , , , , , on March 10, 2017 by montgomerybrandt

The following sermon was preached on March 1, 2017, being Ash Wednesday, during the 2017 Ascension Episcopal School Mardi Gras Mission Trip at the Centro Diocesano Nuestra Senora de Guadalupe in Alajuela Province, San Carlos, Costa Rica.

Collect: Almighty and everlasting God, You hate nothing You have made and forgive the sins of all who are penitent: Create and make in us new and contrite hearts, that we, worthily lamenting our sins and acknowledging our wretchedness, may obtain of You, the God of all mercy, perfect remission and forgiveness; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Reading: Matthew 6.1-6, 16-21

“Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people…”—Matthew 6.1[1]

In the Name of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost. Amen.

Ten years ago on New Year’s Day, one of my older brothers died from an unexpected heart attack in his Jackson, Mississippi apartment. He was only 37 years old. I remember it being one day coming back from the funeral home, my family and I having just privately viewed him, that I was riding back to my father and step-mother’s house with my eldest sister and a family friend when the topic of conversation turned to me. How I came to be the subject of conversation I cannot remember, but what I do remember is the conversation dealing with my father and I’s previous estrangement and how I, in my sister’s view, was still suffering emotionally because of it. “You really should be talking to somebody, Brandt,” my sister said. But I shrugged it off, thinking to myself, “She’s just overreacting. I’m fine.”

Three years later, in June, I was doing my required hospital chaplaincy for my ordination process at Baptist Hospital in Pensacola, Florida. There was one patient I remember seeing who was an elderly gentleman suffering from both PTSD and renal failure and had recently attempted to commit suicide. I spoke with the gentleman’s wife, who told me that it was not his first attempt at suicide. After hearing the gentleman tell his story, I immediately tried to set him straight. “Why do you feel that you are a burden to your wife? Your wife doesn’t feel that you are a burden to her. She wouldn’t be showing the amount of devotion to your care if she felt that way.” I thought that I had helped, until my clinical pastoral education supervisor, upon me recalling this interaction in a written verbatim, wrote, “An over/under visit. Are you open/honest in your relationships?”

The more that summer progressed, the more it was discussed that the exchange between the terminally ill gentleman and others like it went back to my need to always have the answers, to always be right. In other words, to make up for the void that I felt my father created when we were estranged for seven years. Instead of talking it out with somebody who could help me through it, I was taking out my sadness and anger on other people. My sister was right. I needed to talk to somebody; I needed help. Realizing and accepting this fact was a life-changing moment.

“I’m fine. I don’t need help” can be one of the most damaging things one can say. There are times that we think we have it all figured out, altogether, and don’t need any help from anybody whatsoever. But what about when something goes wrong? What if we can’t figure it out? What happens when we realize that everything is not as together as we thought? What then?

The season of Lent is meant to help us with two things. First, it is meant to help us realize that, contrary to what we may think, we are not perfect and in need of help. It helps us realize that everything is not about us and when we try to make it that way, we open up the possibility of our actions being received opposite from what we intended, even being harmful and hurtful to others. “Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father in Heaven.”

Thus the second purpose for Lent: it turns our focus away from ourselves, who are not perfect, to God our Father in Heaven, who is perfect. The constant theme of Sacred Scripture is the assertion that God, despite our sins and imperfections, again and again and again and again comes to us, wanting to be in relationship with us. “Perfect love casts our fear,” Saint John says.[2] In no better way has God’s perfection and love been proven absolutely true than by Jesus Christ, God Incarnate dwelling with us.

For God so love the world, that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.[3]

Jesus says

If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in His love. These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full.[4]

One more important thing about Lent: it is meant to emphasize and reinforce God’s grace. By turning our focus away from ourselves and onto God, we find Him, His ways, and the things He commands to be life-giving and refreshing. God did not send Jesus  “into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through Him.”[5] Grace, love, and everlasting life are the things that God wants us to receive from Him this Lenten season.

Let us be mindful of where our help really comes. “Our help is in the Name of the LORD, who made Heaven and Earth.”[6]

My sister was right: I needed help. Jesus has helped me and He changed my life for the better forever.

In the Name of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost. Amen.

[1] Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations contained herein are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®), Copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

[2] 1 John 4.18

[3] John 3.16

[4] John 15.10-11

[5] John 3.17

[6] Psalm 124.8

“Known and Unknown” (February 10, 2016: Ash Wednesday)

Posted in Sermons with tags , , , , , , , on February 15, 2016 by montgomerybrandt

This sermon was preached on February 10, 2016, Ash Wednesday, during the Ascension Episcopal School–Sugar Mill Pond Campus 2016 Mission Trip at the Chapel of Casa Christo Redenter in Aguas Buenos, Puerto Rico.

Collect: Almighty and everlasting God, you hate nothing that you have made and forgive the sins of all who are penitent: Create and make in us new and contrite hearts, that we, worthily lamenting our sins and acknowledging our wretchedness, may obtain of you, the God of all mercy, perfect remission and forgiveness; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.  Amen.

Readings: II Corinthians 5.20b-6.10; Psalm 103.8-14; Matthew 6.1-6, 16-21

In the Name of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost. Amen.

Out of all the Priests that I have worked with, Father Andrew Mead, my mentor from my days in New York, has had the greatest impact. One of our most important conversations together occurred on an October evening while walking together to his Park Avenue apartment from Saint Thomas Church Fifth Avenue for a chili dinner. While we were walking, Father Mead asked, “Brandt, what do you feel God is calling you to do as a Priest?” I had it all planned out: “After graduation from seminary, I’m going to go back to Alabama, fulfill my required two years of service in [the Diocese of] Alabama, then go to graduate school, get a Ph.D. in American religious history, and teach in a seminary or college theology/religious studies department.” “That’s all well and good, Brandt,” Father Mead replied, “but what about the parish?” “I have nothing against parish ministry,” I said back, “but I fell called to be a Scholar-Priest.” “But even the great Scholar-Priests also served in parishes,” said Father Mead. “Parish ministry is important. It is important that you be on the frontlines with your fellow clergy. Don’t ever forget the frontlines.”

I mention this story because it goes right along with what Jesus is counseling us against in our readings and because for me at the time, it wasn’t about Jesus, but about me. I wanted to be one of the most well known Scholar-Priests and Anglican Church historians of my generation. I wanted notoriety and prestige. What Father Mead was telling me that October evening was that if you are going into this vocation with the mindset of becoming known, making it about yourself and not Jesus, then you have failed before you have began. Throughout that last year in New York before becoming ordained, Father Mead showed me what being a Priest of the Church really meant. It meant being with and among the people, doing the hard things, walking with the people not just during the good time but also during the hardest moments of their lives. Father Mead was a man who not only talked the talk but also walked the walk and because of his example, my priorities and perceptions of the ordained vocation changed for the better. Thanks to Father Mead, I am no longer content stationing myself solely in a lecture hall; I love parish ministry, being with all of you, and on the frontlines for Jesus.

“Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them…” Jesus is saying to us today, Ash Wednesday. In our Gospel from Saint Matthew, Jesus is literally likening those who “look gloomy like the hypocrites” and “disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others” to actors on a stage. In other words, these people are literally putting on a show, producing fiction, make-believe and it is getting them nowhere. They think that by doing good works alone, doing the things that one is “supposed to do,” all will be well. But it won’t. All won’t be well because their hearts are not in it. They are putting their hopes upon earthly treasures, things “where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal.” In the end, all of the notoriety and prestige won’t mean anything and will be worthless. Their works, all for the sake of being noticed, will not save them.

Those of the way of Jesus do not worry about whether or not people notice them for their good works, not seeking to have attention drawn to them. “But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” Those of the way of Jesus do works of mercy, say their prayers, and seek relationship with God and others out of the simple desire to be closer to Him and experience a foretaste of God’s Kingdom. Because their works come from the genuineness of their hearts, these are the ones whom Jesus says, “Lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal.” If everybody doesn’t know that you did something kind for someone else, it’s OK. If you never get recognized and rewarded for good deeds done, believe me, it’s OK. Everybody may not know, but God will know and that is all that matters. As long as God knows that your heart is in the right place, then that is all that is needed. Great will your treasure—eternal life with God—be in Heaven.

We know what Jesus says to be true because He Himself not only talked the talk but also walked the walk. “…Whoever would be first among you must be your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”[1] [Hold up crucifix in front of congregation] Because this right here was not an act; definitely not make-believe. This right here was REAL scourging, REAL pain, REAL suffering. Jesus REALLY hung on a cross for the sake of all of us. This is how much He loves you. Through the cross, Jesus loved and served us by dying and saving us from sin, death, and eternal damnation.

As we begin today the season of Lent, we are being invited by God to draw closer to Him, putting things into the right perspective. The ashes that you will momentarily receive are not meant to show off how pious you are—that is not the point. Rather, they are meant to remind each and every one of us that this side of life is short and temporary and that all of us will return to the earth. The ashes remind us of our own human frailty and the need to depend on Jesus who is able to save, redeem, and heal us. How will you live your life? For yourself, seeking personal fame and glory, which won’t mean a thing in the end? Or for God, seeking after His righteousness, regardless of whether or not notoriety comes, which will mean everything in the end? “We are ambassadors for Christ,” Saint Paul says, “God making his appeal through us.”[2] Let us not be so consumed about ourselves but about others, just as Jesus did for us, becoming reconciled to them through the love and mercy of Almighty God.

I wish you all a blessed and holy Lent.

In the Name of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost. Amen.

[1] Matthew 20.27-28 (English Standard Version)

[2] II Corinthians 5.20 (English Standard Version)