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Transfiguration

Transfiguration

In today’s gospel, we hear, once again, the story of the transfiguration of Christ.  And we wonder . . . was this a vision of in future? . . . or did it actually happen in the present, in those times when Jesus walked with his disciples?  Jesus warns the disciples not to tell anyone what they had seen until after the resurrection.  Do you suppose that, had they told, that somehow the plan of salvation would have been changed? . . . or perhaps ruined for them? . . . or for us?  We know that the future is not normally revealed by God in very great detail, but at the same time we can also assume that it is laid out clearly for those who have eyes to see it.

The transfiguration was given to the core disciples in order to build up their faith for what was about to come in the weeks ahead – that is the crucifixion.  They were given a vision of the future showing them what had become of the past and how the future was to be shaped in God’s hand.  The specific people who appeared with Jesus were Moses and Elijah.  These two are the only prophets in the Old Testament that no one knows what happened to.

Elijah, as you may recall was swept up in a chariot of fire into heaven, never to be seen again.  The scripture tells us that he will return as one of two final witnesses in the end days.  That is one of the reasons that the people who heard Jesus from the cross calling “Ali, Ali . . .” on the cross assumed he was calling out for Elijah.  And that is also, I believe why Jesus did not want anyone to know that Elijah had come in this vision.

Moses, as you may recall, was unable to enter the promised land due to a lost temper while working God’s miracle of cleaving the rock for water.  Scripture informs us that he died, but that God himself only knows where his body is.  The kabala (an ancient Jewish mystic book) relays to us a story that Moses refused to give the angel of death his soul and that God himself came from heaven to collect it.  God placed the body of Moses in a special place where it would not see corruption until the day of the resurrection of the dead.  Moses, we are told is the second witness who is to come at the time of the end.

It is not all that clear that the disciples who witnessed this event were aware of the implications of what the transfiguration meant.  But they were as startled as anyone would be if it happened to any of us.

So what does it mean for us in the present?  For me it is a significant reminder that all is, as it should be.  It is a sign from the past that links our present with the future work of God and the redemptive plan for all mankind.  The fact that Jesus called three men to witness this event is also noteworthy.  You may not believe one person who has seen a vision of eternity . . . but for three people to see the same thing and report back has to be either true . . . or . . . a conspiracy . . . but to what end?

The transfiguration is truly a lamp shining in the darkness as Peter describes.   It was given, not for the people of that age, but for you and me in this age, and all others who have followed Jesus into the future holding on to the truth and life of Christ’s Holy Church throughout its generations.  It was a sign that all is ready . . . all is right . . . and all will be carried out according to the plan of life and salvation.

 

For many, life is like a stream gently flowing to join a brook which joins other streams and other rivers and lakes until it becomes an ocean.  This group believes that everything . . . both good and evil is mysteriously being somehow brought together by God until everything that is, is cleansed and perfected as it gently flows into heaven.  They believe that as mankind continues to evolve, all the things that divide us will fall away and we will become one voice, one people, all going in one direction.  Our divisions will cease and all will be one with the Father of all things.  This is the more liberal approach to life’s plan.  It tells us that everyone will eventually join God in the end of time.

Then there is another group that believes that life is more like a tree.  As we continue to climb up the tree we are constantly faced with the struggle of a number of decisions to make as we come to a fork in the branches.  Do we turn right or do we turn left?  Do we embrace good or do we accept evil?  This philosophy states that there is only one way and that when errors in judgment or opportunity happen, we find that we need to retrace our steps and go back (or repent) in order to stay on the Pilgrims Way – which is the way of life.  This philosophy is uncompromising in its pursuit of perfection to be with God.  This philosophy is the more conservative approach to the plan of life.  It tells us that very few will join God in the end of time.

Now most of us know from experience that life is seldom a stream, but sometimes it is and we find that we can go with the flow.  And that life is not always a tree, but sometimes it is and we find we need to make a clear choice or take a stand.  Jesus tells us that he is a vine and we are the branches.  He tells us to bear the fruit of the spirit, which is love.  He tells us that he will help us to bear fruit by trimming us back when he needs to.  He tells us that he will give us living water to help us grow.  He tells us that his love is sufficient to get us through all the things that we encounter in life.  We need only to believe in the plan of salvation.

But, he also warns us that those who cannot . . . or will not . . . bear fruit will be cast aside . . . to make room for those who can.  This is, for most of us, a most terrifying statement, because all of us want to feel included in God’s plan.  I know that each time I read this warning in the Gospels, I sometimes cringe because I know there are some who are loathe to hear it.  And I wonder how can this be coming from the ‘Lord of Love’?

Back, many years ago, Barbara and I decided to plant two apple trees.  We planted one Golden Delicious and one Red Delicious tree.  They were small saplings at the time, but they grew and grew.  We never had the heart to prune them or spray them because we wanted pure apples with no chemicals.  But little did we know that this isn’t how you grow apples.  Before long the two trees were towering over our yard full of branches and thousands of leaves.

We did manage to get apples every year from them.  We got thousands of very small horribly sour little apples that fell from the trees full of worms.  Every year we cleaned up this mess and threw out  two garbage pails full of apples.  The fruit was inedible but the trees themselves were both magnificent, full of shade and promise.  We stilled loved them.  But as time went on, each year I thought about cutting them down because of the terrible mess they made, and because the fruit they produced really wasn’t any good for anything.

Conversely, in my travels throughout my career in Niagara County, I was always impressed in the fall to see wonderful red, ripe, juicy apples in the orchards dressed by professional apple growers.  These wonderful apples are hanging on some of the worst looking trees you ever saw.  They are all black and knarly and have horrible grotesque trunks.  But . . . they have wonderful apples.

The reason is, that, to grow fruit correctly, the dresser needs to prune the trees . . . a lot.  Sometimes they need to cut off whole branches to make them bear fruit.  They need to do this, not out of malevolence against the tree, but out of love to make it grow and produce the finished product . . . which is the fruit of the tree . . . and not the tree itself.

The point of all this is that love, though gentle as a lamb can be as ruthless as a lion when it comes to our own spiritual lives and the Church.  If God can be compared to Love, then Love can be compared to Living Water that rains down and gives life equally to both the just and the unjust.  But love never demands its own way, so God never prunes us unless we ask him to.  Those who are pruned bear much fruit and they bear it most abundantly.  Often, they are not people who live in gigantic houses or drive expensive cars.  Often, they are the very poorest of people with the very largest of hearts.  The plan of salvation is truly meant for them. But in the same way, if the vine is no longer useful and the tree no longer produces good fruit, it will be cast down and removed so that others can take its place.

O God, who before the passion of your only­begotten Son revealed his glory upon the holy mountain: Grant to us that we, beholding by faith the light of his countenance, may be strengthened to bear our cross, and be changed into his likeness from glory to glory; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

The Holy Name

For the past few weeks I have been thinking about the feast of the Holy Name and what it should mean to us today.  Back in the days of our youth, the 1928 Church Calendar recognized this feast as the Feast of the Circumcision of Jesus.  But in more recent times we have become a bit squeamish with the word ‘circumcision’ and this holiday has become secularly known as New Years Day, but in many churches, it is known as Feast of the Holy Name.

About once every seven years or so, the Feast of the Holy Name (or New Years Day) falls on a Sunday.  When this happens, the feast day always pre-empts Sunday, so this year there is no first Sunday after Christmas and that is why we celebrate the feast of the Holy Name today.

But, in order to understand this feast day, we really need to go back to the gospel for today and find out more about what is happening in today’s continuation in the reading of the Christmas story.

As you should know, Jesus was a Jew.  He became Jewish on the eighth day of his life when Joseph took Jesus to present him to the temple priest for circumcision and to receive a name.  Today there is a lot of controversy over the custom of circumcision, but in the days of Jesus and even to this day, all males who are born into or who are converted into the Jewish faith are required to be ritually circumcised as part of the ancient covenant between God and the children of Abraham.  It was only through a personal sacrifice, which to the Old Testament Jews meant, the literal separation of blood and flesh that the covenant could be consummated.  The covenant was a contract and was done, as I understand it, for a very mystical but also a very practical reason . . . so that a man might be permitted to hold the Torah, the Law and the Prophets, in his hands and interpret its meaning.  In this way, all Jewish males are in fact ministers of the word once they attain the age of reason called bar mitzvah or son of Israel, subject to the law.

The practice of initiation through circumcision was one of the first controversies settled by the Christian church fathers. The Jewish converts into Christianity wanted to continue this ancient practice and require that every male who adopted Christianity be circumcised in the tradition of the covenant with Abraham.  But it was Paul, himself a Jew, who argued against this because as he put it, through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ and faith in his blood, there is no longer a need for an outward sign of the covenant because we have all been reborn in the Spirit and are adopted through God’s grace into a new covenant (also born of the separation of blood and flesh but thru crucifixion) between God and all of mankind.  You can imagine that many of the men of the early church were quite relieved at this far reaching decision. 

But for Jesus and Joseph this was all quite normal and it was at this point that Jesus received his name, which in Aramaic is Yeshua and in Latin is Jesus, both meaning literally, ‘Savior’.  But the interesting part of the story is that Jesus did not receive his name from his parents or his family, like most kids.  If you remember, it was Gabriel who told Mary at the annunciation that she was to name the child ‘Jesus’ and that he would be great and be called the Son of God and that he would save his people.  And so, it was that God himself named Jesus.

Names are of great importance in Holy Scripture.  In the Old Testament God reveals himself to Moses and pronounces his name.  Now the name of God is steeped in mystery because the priests of the temple did not want the name to fall into the hands of evil men.  The closest we have come to know it is as ‘Yahweh’ which means ‘The one who causes things to happen’ or ‘the Lord’.

Think to yourself for a moment where you would be without your name.  Like the ‘bulletproof monk’ you would be like the wind.  No one could control you if they could not call on you.  You would be invisible, wouldn’t you?  Names are one of the most important things that define us.  Our names, both first and in many cases last names all have meanings, many of them hidden within our family’s history.  My name, Edward for instance is Anglo Saxon and means ‘Guardian’.  I have known this all my life and have often felt that it has defined part of who I was to become as I grew up.  Many people I know have been greatly influenced by the meaning of their names, especially among the clergy.  Three that I can think of right off the top my head are Fr. Amend, Fr. Love and Fr. Harry Grace.

Right up there with the gift of Free Will, one of the greatest gifts we have been given is the ability to name things.  If you remember from the story of Genesis, it was God who called the firmament heaven and the land earth.  It was also God who named the sun and the moon and day and night.  But then, as the story goes, God made man and named him Adam and he gave to Adam dominion over all creation as the text reads from Genesis . . . ‘And out of the ground the LORD God formed every beast of the field, and every fowl of the air; and brought them to Adam to see what he would call them: and whatever Adam called every living creature, that was the name it was given.’

One of my favorite paintings is a very famous one called ‘the Ancient of Days’ by the writer/artist William Blake.  It depicts God the Father as a weathered windswept ancient man with a giant pair of dividers in his hand hovering over the earth as an architect over his design.  As the great I AM ‘who causes things to happen’, God provides all the mathematical equations, the laws of gravity, motion and thermodynamics, a design and a platform in time and space on which his creation is based.  In all this expanse of the universe, God creates galaxies and suns and planets in their courses but gives names to only a few things that we know of . . . they are the sun, the moon, the earth, the sea, heaven, Adam, Israel, Paul, and of course, Jesus.  The rest, for some reason known only to Him, he leaves up to us to ponder, to discover and to name like a gigantic game of Pictionary.  And we’ve been trying to figure it all out ever since.

Today we celebrate the one name that God shared with all of us, a name that is on par with all of creation itself, the name of Jesus, at which all knees will bend in heaven and on earth and under the earth.  I believe that this is just how important this event of the incarnation was.  For at the naming of Jesus and the passing of the Davidic Kingdom to our Lord, time itself began afresh thanks to the forethought by the church fathers at the Year 1 and continues in every land and nearly every language two thousand and seventeen years later until this very day.

Jesus was named Savior whom we call the Christ (the anointed one) who came to earth for one reason and one reason only.  That was in fact his name’s sake . . . that he would be anointed the savior of his people. 

To understand the importance of the name ‘Jesus’ we must go forward in time from Bethlehem to about 33 years into the infant Jesus’ future.  Here we will find him at Passover with the disciples where they will break bread together, and during his last hours with the disciples before he dies Jesus will offer up broken bread and wine poured out as a perpetual memory of the coming sacrifice of his body and blood on the cross.  Because, just like the sacrifice of circumcision that required the separation of both flesh and blood, the new covenant that God had in mind also required personal sacrifice in order to consummate it.  It was Jesus who was appointed from the beginning to be that sacrifice, appointed by his Father from before he was born in order to save his people from their sins.  For in the very hour that Jesus was hung dying on the cross, what some may have not realized is that the Passover lambs in the temple were being sacrificed for the sins of the Jewish people.  This is why the Church calls Jesus the Lamb of God. . . for in so doing, by willingly going to the cross and taking onto himself the sins of the whole world, Jesus became the means of a sacrifice that would save his people.

So what should the Feast of the Holy Name mean to us in this place and at this time?  For me, it gives me peace in knowing that all is as it was destined to be, that the order of the universe which was broken by man’s sin has now been restored and that believers in Jesus the Savior live in victory over the grave.  It gives me hope that the miraculous story of the incarnation will continue to unfold through future generations as the church cycle of seasons continues and until we are all finally called home.  And it gives me a feeling of deep and abiding gratitude that God would humble himself to live among us as one of us and to offer his life so that we might live in him; and finally it gives me a feeling of resolve to live a life worthy of his call to me as a servant, as a brother and as a friend.

Eternal Father, you gave to your incarnate Son the holy name of Jesus to be the sign of our salvation: Plant in every heart, we pray, the love of him who is the Savior of the world, our Lord Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen.

Get Real

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A while back my wife Barbara showed our friend Paul how to make an apple pie. Paul is a librarian and former neighbor and friend of ours and was asked to bring in a dessert for a work party at the library. Paul was looking to bring in something special, something that he had had at our house, and so he got together with Barbara to make a pie . . . an apple pie . . . being one of his favorites.
The next day after the party was over Paul relayed to us the following story about a person at his work who had a piece of his pie, and then another, and then another. Soon the pie was gone. Paul’s co-worker asked where he could buy a pie like that. Paul told him that he didn’t buy it . . . that he had made this delicious pie. He asked what kind of apples were in the pie . . . meaning what brand name? Paul told him that he put apples in the pie. But the man asked . . . yes . . . but what are they called? Where could he get a can of the same type so that he could make the same kind? Paul said there was no can . . . that they were apples, you know, the ones that grow on trees. The man was incredulous and said . . . you mean you made a pie out of apples? And Paul said yes . . . in fact that is why it tasted so different than anything he had ever had before. No cans, no frozen food, no premade crust, no margarine . . . just plain old ingredients . . . apples, flour sugar, butter and lard that you put together to make an apple pie. For some reason this just about blew this guy’s mind . . . that anyone could make something so good at home with their own two hands.
Anyway it was a very humorous story I think, because it was so pathetic. Here was a man who for once in his life ate a piece of actual apple pie and had an epiphany that he had missed out completely on something so basic to human existence.
Several weeks later I got chance to have lunch with an architect friend of mine who happened to have attended my ordination to the priesthood. He asked me how the church was going and I told him we were moving but doing fine otherwise. He mentioned that it was such an honor to come and be part of the ordination service and commented on how authentic he and his wife found the liturgy. I told him that we, as a church have been doing liturgy the same way for well over a thousand years and that not much has changed. Apparently this is what really made an impression on him. Over his lifetime he had gone to many protestant and catholic services but nothing that could compare with the liturgy he witnessed here with us at Saint Nicholas Church. This is probably because, like our friend’s apple pie, our liturgy is authentic.
Due to commercialism, our lives today are filled with things that are only shadows of what they pretend to be. We are inundated with fake food, fake jewelry, fake furniture, and fake products of every kind . . . all made in effort to make things cheaper and easier to obtain. And yet these fake things do not seem to last very long. When they break or wear out we are again out looking for replacements that may be even cheaper and easier to get.
But it seems that when we are finally shown or given something that is real, it reminds us of what we have been missing. We encounter this feeling when we go to an art gallery, or a fine restaurant, or when we drive a luxury vehicle. We know what is real when we see it, but for most of us we are content to live in a copied universe where real does not often get equal time.
In today’s gospel, we find Jesus performing his first miracle at a wedding in Cana. At the request of his mother, Jesus helps the newly married couple save face by turning water into wine. The steward, after tasting the wine, compliments the bridegroom on the wine as perhaps the best he has ever tasted.
This story tells us a number of things about Jesus and how God relates to his people. First off, at least to me, it appears Jesus is willing to help us even in the smallest of things. He didn’t really have to perform this miracle. He really didn’t. The wine could have run out and the party ended but it didn’t because he helped. But why did he help?
It’s pretty plain to see from the story that he helped because his mother, Mary, who was in attendance, asked him to help on the steward’s behalf. What can be inferred from this is that Mary had a greater influence on Jesus than the bridegroom and the bride and it was Mary’s intercession on their behalf that made Jesus choose to agree to help in this situation. This is the primary basis of the belief in the communion of saints . . . that all Christian believers are able to intercede, like Mary, on the behalf of each other. It is the very reason we pray for each other.
The communion of saints is one of the most profound doctrines in the Christian tradition. All Christians are incorporated into the mystical Body of Christ by virtue of their baptism. Through Christ we are inextricably linked to God and to each other, and together we form what could be called the post-Ascension presence of Christ on earth. It is this real and authentic presence that we call the Church (big C). Jesus heals through the touch of our hands. He feeds the hungry through our generosity. He speaks the words of forgiveness through our relationships with each other. We are not meant to be a community of disembodied spirits but rather the living Church through which God interacts with the real world and spreads the message of the Resurrection to all who will listen.
The Church is composed of two parts — the Church Militant (the faithful who are still on this earth) and the Church Triumphant (those who have undergone physical death and are now with Christ). We know that Christians who have already completed their pilgrimage on this earth are not truly dead, but are alive in Christ. The link between Christians is so strong that not even physical death can sever it. Together the Church Militant and Church Triumphant (along with the choirs of angels) are active participants in the Divine Liturgy and that is why we continue to pray for them and with them each week in the prayers for the whole state of Christ’s Church.
From the very earliest recollections of the early Church, believers felt that the martyrs and saints who had departed this world were not separated from Christians who were alive, but rather they were in greater communion with God and with earthly Christians. This led to the doctrine of the intercession of the saints which is still present in our Anglican tradition. To ask for a saint’s intercession is simply to ask them to pray for you as you would a fellow Christian who is alive on this earth.
However, this intercession is not at all analogous to praying to God – for worship is due to God alone. Since saints are truly alive it is completely orthodox to allow for this practice as long as it is done in the proper sense. It is only through God’s grace that the intercession of the saints is even possible. It is a reasonable practice that is consistent with historic teachings of the Church.
Some Christians may raise the objection that there is only one mediator between God and man and that Jesus is this sole mediator. This is certainly true, but we ask fellow Christians to pray for us all the time. Other people interceding for us in no way reduces the unique work of Jesus’ complete mediation between he and the Father as demonstrated for us in today’s Gospel message at the request of Mary.
The foundational Church of Jesus Christ is as unique today as it was in the earliest of times. Though many call themselves ‘Christians’ under many banners and many names, including Anglicans, Roman Catholics, Orthodox, Methodists, and Presbyterians, and many others, there is really only one authentic Church of Christ made up of authentic believers everywhere . . . and when you encounter the authentic church, you will never forget it, for it will fill you in a way that no other church can.
The world today is under attack by evil forces that would give you everything that you want . . . but nothing that you need. Like buying a frozen pie . . . manufactured to look like pie, feel like pie, smell like pie we are being tricked into accepting anything, any doctrine, any precept, any way of life, except that which is real and ordained by God. The way we combat this is to strive always to live authentic lives, practice authentic religion by using the authentic gifts of the Spirit described today by Paul . . .
“To one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the discernment of spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues.
When Paul says to us, ‘Be filled with the Spirit’, he uses a present imperative, implying that we are to go on being filled [forever]. For the fullness of the Spirit is not a once-for-all experience which we can never lose, but a privilege to be renewed continuously by continuous believing and obedient appropriation. We have been ‘sealed’ with the Spirit once and for all at baptism; but we need also to be filled with the Spirit and go on being filled every day and every moment of the day in order to live the lives of authenticity that Jesus Christ requires of us. Amen

“In God We Trust” . . . . . . . . . . All others – pay cash!

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This week we read Psalm 25: the first verse of which is:

To you O Lord, I lift up my soul;

My God, I put my trust in you;

Let me not be humiliated,

Nor let my enemies triumph over me

Does that sound remotely familiar?  ‘My God, I put my trust in you’.  Where have we heard these words before?  I kept thinking about it all week because it sounded so familiar.  And then, on my daily quest to Dunkin Donuts for my morning coffee, it hit me!  For on the quarter I was about to spend were the same words, but with a corporate meaning, the Words, ‘In God We Trust’.  And I really started to wonder “Do we?”   Do we as a people truly trust in God?  And if we do, what do we trust him for?

 

The history of our national motto goes back to the Civil War when certain evangelical pastors were convinced that if the Union was dissolved into oblivion, wouldn’t it be horrible if the final vestige of our existence, (our coins), said nothing about who we were as a people.  They worried that historians digging up the remnants of our country would think us a heathen nation because all we would have to show for ourselves would be the goddess liberty on some of our silver dollars.  That is how the words ‘In God We Trust’ came to be adopted on our money in 1861 and as our national motto in 1956.

 

But, do we trust God?  I can remember going to a store a few years ago and asking to use my credit card to purchase a hand tool.  The man at the counter looked at me, and then my card, and then pointed to a sign above the register.  The sign said:

 

“In God We Trust . . . All Others Pay Cash”

 

What do you suppose he meant by that?  Did he have some discomfort with human nature?  Perhaps here was a person who had been truly burned by his fellow man.  At any rate, I dug up the $15.46 and paid the man.  Both of us went away happy, me with my new hammer, and he with something he could believe in, something he could take to the bank, our nations currency.

 

Well you might be wondering, what is the point of all this?  The point is that for those who truly trust in God, there are no limits to one’s existence.  The worries of today come and go, but God is still with us.  The current conflicts in the middle-east and its fallout in Europe, and here, at home is worrisome for many, horrific for some, and yet our faith is continually strengthened because of our Trust in God to see us through it.  Unfortunately though, our nation today is not a nation of faith, (you can tell by all the dribble we put out as entertainment), but thank God for us that at least a few of our people are people of faith.  Because that is where the true strength of America lies.

 

We are a people descended from the sons of Noah, a remnant of a race gone very bad.  Who were so bad, as the story goes, that they were all swept away by a flood that was sent by God to destroy the entire earth, and everything in it.  And only a few survived; saved by the very water that destroyed all the others.  This is God’s work in the world.  This is God’s will in our lives, that Christians should be spared, as Paul proclaimed . . . ‘for whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s possession’.

 

God made a covenant with his creation that He would never do this again and he sealed it with his rainbow.  We read the story about this in today’s first reading.  Then God made another covenant with us that we would never die and he sealed it with his own blood. We read about this in the second reading.  My question to you is, do you trust God?  Do you trust God to keep his promise to you that you will be saved?  Do you trust in His Spirit to forgive you your sins?  Do you trust in His Son, Jesus, the Messiah, to be Lord of your life?  These are the very hard questions that all of us should be asking ourselves as we begin this Lent.  Just how serious is your faith?

 

It used to be that people gave up things that they liked for Lent.  I remember a friend in my youth who said he liked wine, women and song . . . so he would give up singing.  Many of us have the same silly notions of what we can do as penance in our lives.  But rather than subtracting something you like from your life, I would suggest to you that this may not be the time to take away the good things that you enjoy, but rather to add something you wouldn’t normally do.  One way that I have been thinking about, this week, is to write a letter to your family about all the things that they have meant to you but that you never had the time to say.  Address it to those you love and put it with your papers so that one day, when you are called home, your family will have a last word from you that is full of your abiding love.  Another thing you can do is to make an effort to do penance.

 

Some years ago, when my son Ethan was enrolled at 14 Holy Helpers School, I had a chance to speak with a catholic monsignor about the Sacrament of Penance and how I wanted Ethan to join with his class for their first penance.  After some discussion in which I shared with him the information that our church also has the ministry of penance and reconciliation, Monsignor agreed to let Ethan continue with his Roman Catholic schoolmates.

 

After Ethan started taking penance classes, it came to me that we Anglo-Catholics are really missing out on something by ignoring our own rite of reconciliation.  Many of us go through life with a lot of baggage that has built up over the years; things that we are sorry for, hurts we have caused, things that never really seem to go away, regardless of how many times we have confessed them and have been absolved.  It seems like they just stick like glue.  I hope you know that you are welcome and even encouraged to come to private confession if you need to.   Confession may sound a little too Roman Catholic for most of us, but there are things we can do to help ourselves.  One way is that you do not explicitly need a priest for confession.  What you need is trusted friend.  Although a friend cannot absolve you, he can declare a statement of forgiveness.  I have heard only two confessions in all my years as a clergy person.  Both were life changing experiences for those I heard it from.  The other thing you can do is to write a letter to God.  By putting into words the things that we are sorry for, the things become for us somehow more real and tangible.  When you are finished, seal the envelope and ask some one to pray with you while you burn it.  This may sound strange, but it is an uplifting experience of freedom to know that God has accepted you in your weakness and has forgiven your sin, never to return again.

 

Lastly, you can do penance.   Penance is not so much a punishment, but an indication that you want to turn back, and that you want to be made whole again.  We can do this in many ways, but the least painful way is in corporate worship, especially in participating in our Lenten Journey this year as we travel to various area churches each Wednesday at 7 PM and also in the service of the Way of the Cross.  I have decided that this is how I will observe lent this year and I welcome anyone who wishes to join us each Wednesday at the appropriate church at 7 PM and each Friday for Stations of the Cross here at 7:00 PM.  Amen

The Holy Way

3rd Advent

Out of the midst of our Christmas shopping and preparations, our gift lists and celebrations, our Christmas cards and our merriment, comes the sobering voice of one crying in the wilderness “Prepare the way of the Lord, make His paths straight”.  To which most of think to ourselves, “What a Downer!”

What is it about John the Baptist that evokes such hostile thoughts in the middle of our rush to buy Christmas.  Is it his camel hair clothes or his meals of locusts and wild honey?  Or could it be something a bit deeper than that, perhaps some ‘spiritual nagging’ that demands our attention to be turned away from our holiday lights and decorations?

John the Baptist appeared last week in our readings as ‘one crying in the wilderness’.  This week, he appears again, but from the confines of a prison cell.  If you will recall, it was John the Baptist who angered King Herod because he chastised the King publicly for having married his stepsister.  That is why in the story today, he sits today in prison.  And from prison, he sends his disciples to ask of Jesus, “Are you the one . . . or should we wait for another?”.

Why he did this is up for debate.  Most have surmised that he already knew Jesus was the Messiah, but he wanted his disciples to hear it for themselves.  He knew he only had a few days of life left, and he may have been concerned where his disciples would go after he had died.  Others think that perhaps he would attempt to escape if Jesus was not the one (the messiah) so that his work might continue.  Still others think that he felt betrayed, and that if Jesus was the Messiah, he might send angels to break him out of prison.

Personally, I think he needed validation, that his work was now truly finished and that he could go to his death in peace knowing that Christ had come into the world and that all was well.

John, as you know was an ascetic.  He lived a life that very few of us would choose.  But because he lived the life he did, God was very close to him.  Why do you think this would be?

Some while back, Barbara and I were invited to a company Christmas party at the Niagara Falls Country Club.  There were probably well over two hundred people there all talking, drinking, and eating, all at the same time.  You probably know the type of party, where everyone stands up the whole evening, trying to find someone to talk with, and a free chair to finally sit down on.  Well the only person I really knew in the whole crowd was the fellow I work for.  I stood near him for almost half an hour hoping that I could get his attention but unable to break into his conversation with some others that he knew.  When he finally paused to get a refill, he was completely surprised to see me standing.  He asked if I had just come in.

In a very real way, our lives are a lot like a stand up party where there is a lot of noise.  People talking, radios blaring, the television on, computer games beeping and bopping; the ever present functions of eating, and sleeping, and bathing, and dressing, paying our bills and basically worrying about everything.  And then, add to this ever-present madness, the once-a-year pursuit of the dream of Christmas and you have the maddening effect of a double expresso after a ten-hour workday.  We become so hyped and stressed and so concentrated into what we are trying to accomplish that we become disoriented and disconnected from what is really important.  Because, there, in our very reach, at every moment is God, waiting for his turn to talk with us and perhaps to give us a little break from all that is stressing us.

Ascetics, on the other hand, will have none of this.  They have forgone family, the pursuit of material possessions, the climb to financial independence and the noise of life.  Their only focus is on God . . . period.  And because of this, they are more close to God than any of us can imagine. . . and we admire them for it.  Ascetics like John the Baptist, Francis of Assisi, Saint Benedict, and many of the Church Fathers have been emulated for centuries as a way to communicate more readily with God.  Men and women alike have joined monasteries and convents in the hope that by shutting out the noise of the world, they might somehow become in more touch with God through prayer, fasting and denial of self.

This week of course there was the funeral of Nelson Mandela, a man who went to prison convicted, angry and dejected only to emerge twenty seven years later a man of conciliation and peace, completely changed in his spirit by the circumstances in which he found himself.  Nelson Mandela was changed because the world had been denied him and the only company he had those long years was God and his own thoughts.  Most of us would not have emerged from a cell as he did.  Most of us would have been beaten.

At the end of Ramadan, there is a feast called ‘the return’ where prayerful pilgrims of the Islamic religion return to their former lives, hopefully a better people for having kept the fast.  In our own order, we have the season of Lent, but much of the meaning of lent has been forgotten or lost over the years.  We also have the season of Advent, which we are in now, which like lent, has lost much of the flavor of penitence and preparation that it once had as it has been replaced with the Christmas rush of decking halls and jingle bells.

But what many of us don’t understand is that we don’t need a set season in order to get closer to God.  What we do need, is a kind of spiritual ‘time-out’; sort of a holiday from the world.  We can do this by going on a retreat, by fasting, or praying, or simply by turning off the TV and going outside for a walk, anything that is different from the normal rhythms that control our lives.  Because when we break from the rhythm of eating, or sleeping, or working, or worrying, we give God a chance to talk with us and that makes us all a better and more holy people.

And if we do this thing, then as in the lesson this morning, “The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom; like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice with joy and singing”.  For we have two lives, if you will, the physical one where we eat and sleep and have fun and make merry; where we work, and where we cry and where we are run ragged most every day of our lives.  And then we have a spiritual life, where we are inspired and where we dream; where we contemplate and meditate; where we can find rest and where we sing hosannas and write song.

The scripture verses of the Bible predicting the future of events is not limited to the physical world, but is also a predicator of the Spiritual world as well.  When Isaiah writes “then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing with joy”, he was not only talking about physical future events but also of the spiritual lives of the faithful that would follow the coming of the Messiah.  “For the waters shall break forth in the wilderness and streams in the desert; the burning shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground, springs of water . . . A highway shall be there, and it shall be called the Holy Way . . . it shall be for God’s people . . .and the redeemed shall walk there’.

The season of advent embraces the gospel of Christ that is good news not only of what Jesus ‘did’ for us in dying on the cross but also of what he now ‘offers’ to us as a result.  He promises to those who respond to him both the forgiveness of sins (to wipe out the past) and the gift of the Spirit (to make us new people).  Together these constitute the freedom for which John and his disciples were searching . . . freedom from guilt, defilement, judgment and self-centeredness. . . but most importantly the freedom to be the persons God made and meant us to be.  These two, Forgiveness and the Spirit comprise the essence of ‘Salvation’ that was promised through the prophets at the coming of the messiah.

This then is the message of Advent for us today, that though we are hindered by the enormous rush of life’s urgencies from God’s presence, we may take comfort in knowing that He is always here us, waiting patiently to put us back on the spiritual road, the Holy Way to health and well-being if only we are willing to seek him out.  Amen.

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The Rabbi’s Gift

Monk Reading

There is a story, I once heard, that concerns a monastery that had fallen upon hard times. Once a great order, but as a result of waves of anti-monastic persecution in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and the rise of secularism in the nineteenth century, all of its branch houses were lost and it had become decimated to the extent that there were only five monks left in the decaying mother house . . .  the abbot and four others, all of them, over seventy in age . . .  clearly it was a dying order.

       In the deep woods surrounding the monastery there was a little hut that a rabbi from a nearby town occasionally used for a hermitage. Through their many years of prayer and con­templation the old monks had become a bit psychic, so they could always sense when the rabbi was in his hermitage. “The rabbi is in the woods, the rabbi is in the woods again,” they would whisper to each other.

       As he agonized over the immi­nent death of his order, it occurred to the abbot at one such time to visit the hermitage and ask the rabbi if he could offer any advice that might save the monastery.  And so he set out to visit the Rabbi.  The rabbi welcomed the abbot at his hut. But when the abbot explained the purpose of his visit, the rabbi could only commiserate with him. “I know how it is,” he exclaimed. “The spirit has gone out of the people. It is the same in my town. Almost no one comes to the synagogue anymore.” So the old abbot and the old rabbi wept together. Then they read parts of the Torah and quietly spoke of deep things. The time came when the abbot had to leave. They embraced each other. “It has been a wonderful thing that we should meet after all these years,” the abbot said, “but I have still failed in my purpose for coming here. Is there nothing you can tell me. . . no piece of advice you can give me that would help me save my dying order?”

       “No, I am sorry,” the rabbi responded. “I have no advice to give. The only thing I can tell you is that God has blessed one from among you to do a great thing”.

       When the abbot returned to the monastery his fellow monks gathered around him to ask, “Well, what did the rabbi say?”

       “He couldn’t help,” the abbot answered. “We just wept and read the Torah together. The only thing he did say. . . just as I was leaving—it was something cryptic—was that God has blessed one from among us to do a great thing.  I don’t know what he meant.”

       In the days and weeks and months that followed, the old monks pondered this and wondered whether there was any possible significance to the rabbi’s words. There is one of us chosen by God? Could he possibly have meant one of us monks here at the monastery?  If that’s the case . . . which one? Do you suppose he meant the abbot?  Yes, if he meant anyone, he probably meant Father Abbot. He has been our leader for more than a generation.  On the other hand, he might have meant Brother Thomas.  Certainly Brother Thomas is a holy man.  Everyone knows that Thomas is a man of light. Certainly he could not have meant Brother Eldred! Eldred gets crotchety at times.  But come to think of it, even though he is a thorn in people’s sides, when you look back on it, Eldred is virtually always right.  Often, very right!  Maybe the rabbi did mean Brother Eldred.  But surely not Brother Phillip.  Phillip is so passive, a real nobody.  But then, almost mysteriously, he has a gift for somehow always being there when you need him most. He just magically appears by your side.  Maybe Phillip is the one.  Of course the rabbi didn’t mean me.  He couldn’t possibly have meant me. I’m just an ordinary man.  Yet supposing he did?  Suppose I am the one? O God, not me. I couldn’t be chosen by You, could I?

       As they contemplated in this manner, the old monks began to treat each other with extraordinary respect on the off chance that one among them might be the one who God had chosen.  And . . . on the off chance that each monk himself might be the one, they began to treat themselves with extraordinary respect. . . .

       Because the forest in which the monastery was situated was beautiful, it so happened that people still occasionally came to visit the monastery to picnic on its tiny lawn, to wander along some of its paths, even now and then to go into the dilapidated chapel to meditate.  As they did so, without even being conscious of it, they sensed this aura of extraordinary respect that now began to surround the five old monks and seemed to radiate out from them and permeate the atmosphere of the place. There was something strangely attractive, even compelling, about it.  Hardly knowing why, they began to come back to the monas­tery more frequently to picnic, to play, and to pray.  They began to bring their friends to show them this special place.  And then . . . their friends brought their friends.

       Then it happened that some of the younger men who came to visit the monastery started to talk more and more with the old monks. After a while one asked if he could join them. Then another. And then. . . yet another.  So within a few years the mon­astery had once again become a thriving order and, thanks to the rabbi’s gift, a vibrant center of light and spirituality in the realm.

          This is a story about the relationship between one’s faith and one’s good works.   Many grow up with the thought that by good works, that is by living a good life, that they are saved by what they have done.  This of course is not a Christian belief but it is a theory prevalent today by those who do not practice any particular religion but have it in the their hearts that, if there is a God, this (i.e. good works and a good life) is what God expects.  

          Then there are those who believe that it is through an abiding faith that we are set free and welcomed into the kingdom.  After all, did not all of the healings that Jesus performed come as a result of personal faith . . . and is it not by faith that we are saved?  

          In the book of James there is written a cryptic verse that reads . . . ‘Even so faith, if it has no works, is dead, being by itself.  But someone may well say, “You have faith and I have works; show me your faith without the works, and I will show you my faith by my works.” If you believe that God is one. You do well; the demons also believe, and shudder.  But are you willing to recognize, you foolish fellow, that faith without works is useless?

          The monks in our story today had faith . . . after all they were monks . . . they believed in God, but they were dying because somewhere along the way they had lost something,  something important that once set them apart from the world.  Something that the world desires more than anything . . . even more than gold.  They had lost the primary work that is required of a believer; that of bringing hope into a darkened world.

          If faith can be compared to a brilliant sun shining on the dawn of a new day . . . then works is the radiant warmth and light that is generated by it.  Jesus tells us that no one lights a candle and then hides it under a basket . . .  no, he puts in a lampstand to give light to the entire household . . .  and so should all who have faith not hide out in our homes and churches waiting for the coming of Christ . . . but instead we should be actively working and searching the world over for places and people in which to instill hope through the gifts that God has given us.

          The monastery, in the end, began to grow because people now began to sense the faith that the Monks had once hidden within their walls.  By the simple act of being kind to each other, they infused into their environment the prophetic message of faith for all to see and experience.  This infusion of hope into a dying world is what the Universal Church of Jesus Christ is all about . . . people helping God’s people with the aid of prophetic message and the Holy Spirit.  But it is not without risk.

          The gospel story today about John the Baptist is a prophetic message that changed the lives of those who heard it.  There were many prophets in Biblical times, just as there are many prophets even in our own times.  Jesus called John the Baptist the greatest of them.            Unfortunately, most (if not all the prophets) in the Bible were killed because of what they said.  A prophet who insulted a King did not stand much of a chance for a long life and a quiet retirement.  Like John, (who was beheaded for what he said), the prophets were summarily slaughtered and executed because of their inclinations to bad tidings.  But for those who listened to their words, they found peace and understanding and God’s blessing.

       How many of us have been given the mantle of a prophet?  And how many of us, have been persecuted because of it? 

       John the Baptist came into our world to announce the coming of the Messiah.  Many listened to his words and received healing and forgiveness and new life through repentance.  His words are just as valid today and for us as they were 2000 years ago.  During this Advent Season, let’s try to be more open to God’s prophets as we go about our daily lives.  Let’s listen to what the prophets are telling us about our lives and about our culture as we await a new heaven and a new earth at the Advent of Our Lord.  And as we go about our week . . . “Let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven”.  Amen

Advent

SecondComing

Today is the first Sunday in the season of Advent.  The green of Pentecost (or ordinary time) is finally put away, and the royal purple of Advent is brought out to herald once again the coming of the Messiah.  Our church’s Advent wreath marks this time with four candles (as in the four weeks before Christmas); and we begin again the Church year by singing familiar Advent Carols like ‘Come thou long expected Jesus’.  But how many of us know just what it is we Anglicans are celebrating each year with our somber songs and purple and gold colors while the world outside rejoices in Christmas glitter and ‘Jingle Bell Rock’?

I am sorry to say that most of us who keep a holy Advent every year have only a little understanding about what we are doing.  Most of us know about Christmas of course, the three wise men and the baby Jesus.  Everyone seems to know about Easter and Good Friday and perhaps even about the ascension of Jesus into heaven.  But, what about the Season of Advent?  What do we really understand about the first and second coming and how should it influence our lives?  When I asked my Roman Catholic school educated son, Ethan, some years ago “What is Advent?” he answered “It’s about Christmas”.  Well is Advent about Christmas, or something else?

In this morning’s readings we hear a great deal about Jerusalem and the Mount of Olives.  We also hear about armor of light.  We also hear about people beating their spears into plowshares and about an everlasting peace that will come at the end of the age.  Perhaps the most important clue to all this is the passage from the gospel that states ‘For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man.’

So how were things in the Days of Noah?  The book of Genesis tells us that evil prevailed everywhere.  “The LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.  And the LORD was sorry that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart. So the LORD said, “I will blot out man whom I have created from the face of the ground, man and beast and creeping things and birds of the air, for I am sorry that I have made them.”  But Noah found favor in the eyes of the LORD. These are the generations of Noah. Noah was a righteous man, blameless in his generation; Noah walked with God. And Noah had three sons, Shem, Ham, and Japheth.  Now the earth was corrupt in God’s sight, and the earth was filled with violence. And God saw the earth, and behold, it was corrupt; for all flesh had corrupted their way upon the earth. And God said to Noah, “I have determined to make an end of all flesh; for the earth is filled with violence through them; behold, I will destroy them with the earth.

At the time of Noah, God came to destroy the creation which he hade made.  He came at a time when no one had a clue of what was about to come on the earth.  The Bible says that people were eating and drinking and marrying and living . . . and then it came, the flood, and washed them all away; all that is except Noah, his family and the animals in the ark.  Jesus tells us that the end of the world, when He will come again, will be much the same as in the days of Noah.  Evil will prevail, and unless God himself puts an end to it, no one will survive.  And that is what Advent is about today; the second coming of Christ as the King of Glory.

So you might wonder, how does Christmas, the first coming, get mixed up with the second coming?  It gets mixed up because our church year, even though we complete it in one year, is really three years long.  The Christmas that we celebrate this year, as the first coming with the wise men, doesn’t really complete itself until the first Sunday in Advent, 2016.  The holidays in our Lectionary sort of leap-frog each other which causes a lot of confusion.  If we actually followed the church year correctly, we would only celebrate Christmas and Easter every three years.

The Second Sunday in Advent looks to the First Coming of Jesus through the line of Jesse.  This is the Sunday when John the Baptist appears to “Make Straight the Pathway for our King!”

The Third Sunday in Advent jumps 30 years ahead of Christmas to ask about Jesus’ earthly ministry.  John the Baptist asks “Is Jesus is the Christ or should we look for another?”

And finally the Fourth Sunday in Advent goes back in time 2,000 years and speaks as a witness to the birth of Jesus in the stable at Bethlehem.

But today is First Advent which represents Hope as in the Psalm . . . “My whole being will hope as I await God’s promise” . . . The promise being of course the Christ will come again.  What we ought to remember, at least for today, is that Christ will come again.  He will stand on the Mount of Olives outside Jerusalem and the mount will be split in two with a cataclysmic earthquake.  Living water will gush forth out of the mount and flow down into the neighboring waterways purifying them which in turn will purify the water of the entire earth.  An entirely new city will be built in Jerusalem that will be brought down from heaven.  Jerusalem will become the capital of a new government and Jesus himself will be the King of Kings and Lord of Lords.  All nations will go to Jerusalem for instruction and enlightenment.  And His Kingdom will rule earth with justice and equity.  And the world will for once live in peace.

But before this happens, the nations of the world will come together to fight against Jesus as he comes from the sky.  This will be the time of the anti-Christ who will deceive all the nations into believing that he alone is God and that Jesus and his angels are the real threat to the world’s peace and security.  The anti-Christ will make true Christianity illegal and will set up a false Church using the same structure that now exists to make his will for mankind known.  Evil will prevail for seven years.  And then the end will come.

As much I hate to admit it, very few of us today are prepared for the events of the second coming of Jesus.  Although we pray for it often in church, and recite the readings about it year after year, I am not at all sure we as a people are ready for this extraordinary event predicted by all the prophets and by Jesus himself in today’s gospel reading.

The season of Advent on which we embark today, is a time of preparation and looking forward to the coming of Christ our King to reign on earth.  Although we say all the nice prayers and sing all the advent songs, most of us have no idea what actually awaits us at the second coming of Christ and the cataclysmic changes that will occur when this event unfolds.

Paul writes to the Church at Rome in today’s epistle to put on the armor of light so that we might be protected from the darkness of evil.  The armor of light is the understanding of God in the light of the Gospel message.  Those who know the message and understand the meaning will be well prepared for the time at the end.  Those who do not, may be lost to the darkness as evil encompasses the earth and destroys everything in its path.

As we begin the Advent Season, let us use this time to prepare ourselves for the coming of Jesus into our hearts as King so that when he actually appears on the Mount of Olives we will know exactly what to do.  Amen

Almost Heaven

Colander

Years ago a group of agnostics came to Saint Augustine to ask him a question.  They proposed (and I’m paraphrasing) that if creation is five thousand years old, should we not be able then to imagine a time before creation, say five thousand and one years ago?  And if creation began five million years ago can’t we just as easily ask what happened five million and one years ago?  And if creation is five billion years old, can we not ask or imagine a time before creation existed?  Therefore, they surmised that creation always existed and always will . . . and therefore God must be a figment of the imagination of men.

St. Augustine it is said, pondered this a moment, turned and simply said . . . God created time at the moment he created the universe . . . because God, from that point and even to now, exists outside of time and space.  The universe as we know it is finite, St. Augustine surmised . . . meaning it had a beginning and it will have an end just as we . . . who are its subjects, have a beginning . . . and will someday meet a physical end. But what of God and of the place where God dwells?  What about heaven? Is it not out of the realm of possibility that it is infinite?

Back in the days of Jesus there were three distinct groups of believers.  There were the Pharisees, who we know a lot about . . . they were those who believed in the resurrection of the dead, the last judgment, angels, biblical interpretation and a final reward in heaven for doing just works.  There were also the Essenes, who were, even at the time of Jesus . . . awaiting the imminent arrival of the Messiah and the final battle between good and evil.  The Essenes lived in community sharing all things in common, but did not marry . . . John the Baptist is considered by some to be Essene in his actions.  The Essenes believed in the resurrection of the dead but also in a millennium reign of the ‘promised one’ on earth.

And then there were the Sadducees, who believed in God and the literal interpretation of the Bible and the exactment of punishment in judgment with “an eye for an eye and a tooth for tooth”.  But they did not believe in heaven, or in angels or in a Messiah.  My secretary told me once, jokingly that, that is why they were called Sadducees because they were “Sad you see”. . . . I think must be a Lutheran thing.

In today’s gospel story, a group of Sadducees came to ask Jesus a question.  They came to Jesus to ask him about marriage in heaven – remember, they took a very literal interpretation of the Bible, so they surmised that a woman who had had more than one husband in her earthly life would have a problem in heaven, if heaven existed.  The woman that they spoke to Jesus about would have had eight husbands on earth.  To them this would mean she would be living a sinful life in heaven because as we know, a woman cannot have more than one husband and therefore heaven, at least for her, could not exist even though she had followed the Law of Moses.  Jesus, of course gave them a straight answer, and one they probably were surprised to hear . . . that being, the rules and circumstances of the afterlife will be different in heaven.  There is no marriage because there is no need for procreation.  No one dies and all are living as God’s children.  Jesus was trying to show the Saducees that there was more than one way to look at a subject . . . that every interpretation is relative to one’s own point of view.   The Sadducees of course had a hard time with this because they were quite literal in their reading of scripture and did not believe in interpretation.

A few years back, I read a book called The New Physics and God.  Many of you may not remember the ‘old physics’ from your high school days, but if you do recall, the ‘old physics’ had to do with gravity and electromagnetism and how the strong force, within an atom in the real world, is offset inexplicably by some great mysterious force that holds everything together – today this appears to have been identified as the Higgs Bosom, but no one yet, knows for sure.

Over the past 30 years or so, it has been a primary motivation of science to explain the mystery of creation and to come up with a unifying field formula that describes the motion and inner workings of all creation.  The new physics, as it has been called, was on the verge of doing just that.  Scientists seemed to have figured out that everything you see, touch, and feel is all made out of the exactly the same ‘stuff’.  They called this stuff ‘strings’ (like the strings of a guitar).  The only difference between the strings is that they found that different elements are vibrating at different frequencies, which in turn cause them to look, act and feel differently.

What makes all this so fascinating to me, is that underlying this very simple theory is a single premise, without which the theory completely falls apart.  That is the fact that in order for the new theory to hold, the scientists needed to factor in an unknown value for a prime mover to set creation in motion (to pluck the strings, as it were).  In a way, the new physics called ‘string theory’ proved the existence of God.

Today of course this string theory has undergone much scrutiny until even now only a few years later the physicists now say they simply do not know why things are the way they are.  If you look on the internet you’ll find hundreds of scientific explanations and mathematical formulas proving the existence of God

The headline in a church newspaper I saw a few years ago read the headline ‘Church Agrees to Disagree’.  I am not sure I would have worded it that way, but it will serve us as ‘close enough’ for my purpose this morning.  The problem with biblical interpretation is that everyone reads into scripture whatever he is trying to get out of it.  The Pharisees did it, the Essenes did it and the Sadducees did it . . . and we do it.  The Bible is admittedly vague on many aspects of our modern day life including such things as food additives, cloning, drugs, smoking, abortion, video game violence and sexuality.  It often becomes a group effort with a lot of conversation among many people to come up with an interpretation that everyone can agree on.  Fortunately, or unfortunately for us, many Churches are democracies where the majority rules.  The problem with majority rule is that there always exists the possibility that one group or another will be swayed by popular opinion.  When this happens, the rulebook goes out the window and we are left with a polarizing tension that pits one group against another.  If the two groups can find no middle ground where both can agree, there will be a strong possibility of a rift or ‘schism’ in the social fabric, and that is where the church finds itself today on a number of important issues.

Now what, you might ask, does this have to do with string theory or advanced mathematics?  It has to do with personal perception and one’s own point of view.  There are many scientists living today who do not believe in God, even given recent empirical evidence as in the string theory or the Higgs Bosom, or ‘God particle’.  But then again, there are many scientists who do believe that string theory and mathematics support the conclusion that God exists.  Their opinions are a product of their own point of view.

Very often in life, we are given a mystery, and asked to judge the merits of one argument against another.  In scientific circles, the physicists involved write down their theories and then send them to all their fellow scientists for comment and correction.  In religious circles, we do much the same thing, but since religion is not mathematics, it usually ends up as an argument about who is right and who is wrong.  But in every case it usually boils down to one’s point of view.

As an example, I brought with me today a colander.  It is something your mother used to wash vegetables in.  If we pretend that one of the candles on the altar is God and place the colander in front of it like a screen.  And if I asked five different people to look through one of the holes of the colander and say the first thing they see . . . out of the five different people I am sure to get at least four different answers to what they see.  One might say they see a flame.  One might say they see light.  Another might say they see a wick and yet another might say they see the wax of a candle.

Out of all these viewpoints, who is right?  Aren’t all of them right (at least to some degree) or are all of them wrong?

Paul said that we see through a darkened glass with only a hint of what is real, but he adds, at the end of time, we will see clearly when we see God face to face.  Then, and only then, will all the questions of the ages will be answered.

You and I are faced with dilemmas many times in our lives.  We are faced with uncertainties about the subjects of abortion, sexuality, drug and alcohol use, euthanasia, stem cell research, and divorce.  None of these subjects have easy answers because all of them are ethical dilemmas.  Thinking Christians turn to the Bible for direction in these types of things, but often the Bible doesn’t give us a teaching on which to base an opinion.  When this happens, we are forced to discuss these subjects with each other; but ultimately, we are forced to make our own decision based on our own (and very personal) perspective, kind of like looking through one of the holes in a colander.

Ann Landers used to have a saying in her column that ‘if it isn’t illegal, fattening or immoral’, it is probably good for you.  But just as we have the basic concern to be careful of anything that might be harmful to us in our physical life, so also we need to develop a spiritual concern to watch out for anything that might harm our spiritual life and the work of faith and salvation. We should always therefore, carefully and attentively assess our inner impulses and ask ourselves: are they from God or from the spirit of evil?

For me there is no doubt where supreme authority resides, for God has given it to the risen and exalted Lord Jesus. ‘All authority has been given to me’, Jesus said, ‘in heaven and on earth’ (Mt. 28:18)

. . . So how does Jesus Christ exercise his authority and rule his church today?  It is here where Christians and churches part company.  Put simply, there are three main views. The Roman Catholic Church believes that Christ rules through the teaching authority of the Pope with the College of Cardinals. Liberals believe that Christ teaches through an individual’s reason and conscience, and through the contemporary climate of educated opinion.  The reformed and evangelical and I might add here . . . orthodox . . . conviction is that Christ exercises his authority by his Spirit through his Word.  Although both tradition and reason are important, Scripture remains for us, as Traditional Anglicans, the scepter by which Christ rules his Church.

The orthodox sometimes need to be reminded that as we tuck our Bibles under our arms and wave our fists at our liberal counterparts, that many things written in the bible for the people of Israel so long ago, as an attempt to keep their population holy in their world are not always justified in ours.  For instance, the Bible condones the enslavement of our enemies, but we don’t.  The Bible, in places, prohibits people from eating pork or rare meat, but we don’t.  The Bible marginalizes left handed people, but we don’t (at least not anymore . . . thank God).   The Bible prohibits anyone from making a graven image in the likeness of God, but we obviously do not follow this either.  And finally, last week in our psalm for All Saints Day, we sang a wonderfully composed anthem graciously asking God to execute vengeance on the heathen, to bind their kings in chains and their noblemen in irons.  Personally, I have nothing against the heathen and don’t understand why we sing this psalm every year if none of us wants this to happen.

The point of all this is that, we as Christians are called to have faith in Christ, our Messiah, who came to earth to destroy the works of the devil and to make us children of God and heirs of eternal life and eventually, to live forever in an eternal home.  We need to understand that we are only seeing one view of God . . . one that is absolutely true . . . but, like looking through one hole of a colander, remains only a glimpse of what is the total reality.  We need to understand that God is far greater than the sum of His parts . . . far greater than we can ever imagine.

It is hard to believe that science is now finding this to be the case as they explore the inner and outer reaches of the universe.   As the world’s religions go about squabbling among themselves as to who is right and who is wrong about the essence of God, it is the mathematicians and the physicists who are just now beginning to see the Light . . . the true that has come into the world.

I believe that Jesus came to earth to show us the Way to the Father . . .  the REAL Father in Heaven who is not bound by any earthly definition of time or space or earthly construct, but who simply is.  Our job, both here on earth and one day in heaven, as His children, is first and foremost to live peaceably with all people and to share the good news of our salvation through acts of kindness and charity with all God’s people . . . and to promote the mind of Christ in our lives and in our families so that people may experience the love of God through the workings of the Holy Spirit, both in our own individual lives and in the life of our community at large.    Jesus led the individuals he encountered to convict themselves through the power of the Spirit.  His message was not one of inclusion, the new theology of our day, but one of conversion, i.e. conversion of the individual into the mind and spirit and family of God.

Now may our Lord Jesus Christ himself and God our Father, who loved us and through grace gave us eternal comfort and good hope, comfort your hearts and strengthen them in every good work and word.  Amen.

Blessed are the Poor in Spirit

All saints2

We begin today by recalling the prophet, Daniel’s vision of heaven . . .

“As I looked, thrones were placed and one that was ancient of days took his seat; his raiment was white as snow, `and the hair of his head like pure wool; his throne was fiery flames,    its wheels were burning fire.   A stream of fire issued   and came forth from before him; a thousand thousands served him, and ten thousand times ten thousand stood before him;the court sat in judgment, and the books were opened] . . . [and behold, with the clouds of heaven there came one like a son of man, and he came to the Ancient of Days and was presented before him.  And to him was given dominion and glory and kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him; his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom one that shall not be destroyed.”

This lesson from the Book of Daniel, and as I have read many like it in my life, reminds me of at least two things . . . one is that, through the mercies of God and of his Son, Jesus Christ, most of us will actually make it into heaven . . . and two, it shows that the brightest crowns that are worn in heaven are ones that have been tried, and smelted, and polished, and glorified through the furnace of tribulation.

And isn’t that what Jesus came to affirm to us . . . that one . . . we are loved by God, redeemed by God and saved by God . . . and two . . . that those who are one with God will be hated in this world, persecuted for their belief and rejected by men.

Today of course is a day set aside for the Celebration of All Saints . . . Christians . . . believers in the messiah, the Christ . . . like you and like me and like the many millions who have come before us.  We, who are the universal church militant (those living) share this particular day with the church expectant (those who have died) in joyful anticipation of the final glory that awaits us at the end of all things.

And why do you suppose we do this?  What purpose does it serve for the living to remember the dead?  Its purpose is to strengthen our resolve to fight on in the midst of great adversity.  To give us the strength of our convictions in order to live out the gospel message in our own lives.  To recall those who have died reminds us of their great sacrifice in a just cause, to keep true faith alive so that people yet to be born might one day inherit the truth od the gospel of Christ and gain everlasting life.

I for one have always been interested in the lives of the saints since I was a kid.  I occasionally stop at the Fatima Shrine in Niagara Falls for a walk among the saints depicted there in sculpture.  I have favorite saints as I presume you do also.  Mine are St. Francis and St. Augustine. In our church newsletter we provide a synopsis of a saint that we celebrate each month.  Since doing this, I have found that the saints of yesterday were fighting the same spiritual battles that we continue to fight in today’s world.  Injustice and hatred towards believers is nothing new and spans the church’s two thousand year history.

I believe Jesus knew this too and gave us a glimpse of what the future would hold for those saints who truly sought God.  The beatitudes are probably the most recognized group of verses there is . . . but there is one that for me has always been an enigma . . . that is the first one that reads “Blessed are the poor in Spirit for theirs is the Kingdom of God”

To my mind this has never made sense how one with little or no spirit could also be first in line to inherit the kingdom.  I always thought that by only being spirit filled . . . that is . . . up to the brim . . . that one could please God.  But here is Jesus saying that no . . . it is by being poor in spirit that we inherit the kingdom of God.

And so I have been pondering this most of my life.  And this is what I think Jesus meant. To be poor in spirit means a deep and abiding sense of the absolute need we are in of a Savior, a messiah, because of our utter helplessness, hopelessness, wickedness and condemnation. To be poor in spirit, our minds must perceive and feel guilt in such a sense as to be sure that salvation on our own merits is simply out of the question. To be poor in spirit provides in us a sense of our own vileness and that except through the sacrifice of Christ we are completely doomed in our sins.

It is easy to say we are helpless and that Christ is our only hope and dependence; it is easy to recite this in our confessional prayer each week  . . . We acknowledge and bewail our manifold sins and wickedness, Which we, from time to time, most grievously have committed, By thought, word, and deed, Against thy Divine Majesty, Provoking most justly thy wrath and indignation against us.  But how hard is it to see our vileness and guilt . . . our abominable filthiness for what it really is.

And so such a one who is ‘poor in spirit is given the kingdom of heaven’.  Why? . . . Because in a sense, such a person has already learned what the remedy for sin is.  He has learned to reject himself, and that his dependence must be utterly and forever placed on someone other than himself. He has learned how blessed it is to be nothing, to know and do nothing of himself, to be universally dependent upon Christ for everything  . . . for his breath, for his grace, for his faith, for everything; to have Christ be the fount of all blessings in this world and the next.

In Christ’s eyes, the poor in spirit are emptied of dependence upon themselves, and because of this they have become rich in faith.  To be poor in spirit then means to be rich in faith.  And isn’t that the point of the whole gospel.

 

When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:

 

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.

“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.

“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.

“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

“Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

Finally, Jesus teaches us that in order to be a saint there are two basic truths that each person has to admit in this life before proceeding into the next.  These two truths are perhaps the most important things you ever need to know and remember:

1. There is a God.   2. It isn’t me.

Amen

Cheap Grace

cheap grace (2)

Tolstoy in his novel, War and Peace, included a paragraph that many of us had to memorize in high school.  It read . . . “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of grace, it was the epoch of law, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of our despair, we had accomplished nothing, we had accomplished everything, we were going directly to Heaven, but we deserved Hell”–in short, the period was so much like our present world, that the story could have been told of us today.  The two prayers . . . that of the Pharisee and that of the tax collector described in today’s gospel should speak directly to our hearts today because the times today are so similar with the times of Jesus that it is almost spooky.

This week we saw in Kenya a great coming together of God’s people in the Worldwide Anglican Church.  Archbishops, bishops, clergy and people from all over the world met to praise God and to plan the future of the Anglican Church in Nairobi.  They came to bear witness to the power of Jesus Christ and his gospel of truth and to also bear witness to the fact that far too many have fallen from the way of life and have embraced a false gospel – one of perversion and of sin- thereby tearing the fabric of our communion with each other.

Perhaps the keynote of this conference, at least for me, was a speech given by Dr. Michael Ovey of the United Kingdom who said . . . “My first encounter with worldwide Anglicanism came at theological college in 1990,” when a visitor from Africa asked, “What Gospel do you expect us to believe, the one you came to us with or the one you now believe?” Dr. Ovey at once was made aware by this question that England had embraced a very different version of the Gospel than the one it once believed, with much of the fault due to a belief in what Dietrich Bonhoffer calls “cheap grace.”

Ovey describes this grace as ‘cheap’ because it is self-bestowed at no cost to the individual, cancelling out the need for repentance, amendment of life and the subsequent, uniquely Christian blessing of forgiveness. This not only guts the Gospel of its central message, that “repentance and remission of sins should be preached in his name among all nations, beginning at Jerusalem,” (Luke 24: 47, Acts 2) but actually impoverishes our understanding of God. With cheap grace in place, there is no need for the forgiveness of an all-merciful Creator because repentance isn’t necessary in the first place, but something we give ourselves.  And isn’t that what we’ve been hearing from our own Christian leaders in America for years now.

If you didn’t know it by now, you ought to know that the universe is at complete odds with itself.  There is a tension that exists that forces us to choose sides every day.  Each day we must choose between light and darkness, between good and evil, between right and wrong, between our own well-being and the well being of others, between giving gifts and withholding gifts, between helping others and helping ourselves.

We are forced all the time to choose on issues about war and peace, about our sexuality, about the extent and worth of our religion, about prayer in schools and about abortion and euthanasia . . . and this is only part of the tension that we live with day after day.

But, this tension is not the way it is supposed to be.  In fact, if there were no one on earth, if man had never been created, this tension would not exist because the fall of man would never have happened.  That is why Jesus came; that was his mission; to change the hearts of men to be more in line with the Father in heaven.  Jesus tried to show us a new way of being one with the universe . . . and not at odds with it.  He tried to teach us what we teach our children when they first start out in school . . . share your toys, help each other out and be kind to one another.  Some of us listened, but the majority did not.  The teachings of Jesus do not always fit easily into the world as we know it; a world that, for the most part honors self over sacrifice.  The two prayers in today’s gospel show the dramatic difference between what man thinks and what God thinks.

Today, Jesus tells us the story of two prayers.  The people from whom the prayers come in the first sentence are those whose confidence is in their own righteousness and who look down upon all others. Perhaps you know the type. 

The first character in the story is a Pharisee.

Who were the Pharisees?  Today, we have a prejudice against the Pharisees. We’ve heard so many stories about them that we immediately cast them as the bad guy. But that’s not the way they were seen by most people when Jesus spoke about them.  Pharisees were well respected and honored members of their community. They were lay people and priests. They were dedicated to studying and diligently following the law. And that was no small law. As you may know, much of the Jewish law was known only by oral tradition, therefore this Pharisee probably had memorized most of the law of the Torah. 

Our Pharisee knew and followed all of this law very carefully. He wanted to make sure God knew of his righteousness. Of course, he didn’t sin like others did – robbers, evildoers, adulterers. He was so righteous that he even went beyond the requirements of the law. The law only required one fast a year. He fasted twice a week. The law only required a tithe on certain parts of one’s income. He tithed on all he received. He was the best of the best . . . certainly a credit to God and deserving of a place in the kingdom, or at least in his own eyes. 

Our other character in the story is the tax collector. There was little doubt in the minds of those listening to Jesus that this was the bad guy in the story. A tax collector who worked for Rome – the empire that had taken control of the promised land. Yet most were Jews themselves. So others saw tax collectors as traitors. A tax collector was assigned a certain amount that he was to raise from the territory assigned to him. He was free to collect whatever he could. If he could get more than the amount required by Rome, he could keep the excess. So he would also be seen by the people as an extortionist.

So what are the prayers spoken by our two characters?

First, the assumed hero of our tale, the Pharisee. 

The Pharisee stands while praying. This was a typical posture for prayer. Standing, with head looking up to heaven and arms outstretched. Then Jesus says he prays about himself or, (and in some translations, to himself). That’s the first indication of trouble. Prayers are offered to one greater than yourself. But this Pharisee thought so highly of himself that he could pray to himself.  

He addresses God, but is speaking to himself, building himself up by putting others down. “Thank you that I am not like [these] others – robbers and evildoers and adulterers – and especially that I am not like that tax collector standing over there. I fast more than everyone else and I give you more money than everyone else. I’m a great guy – look at me”. 

The fault with this prayer is in caricature. It’s blown out of proportion by Jesus to make it easy to see and to make it a little funny. Listen to the prayer again . . .”Thank you that I am not like the others – robbers and evildoers and adulterers – and especially that I am NOT like that tax collector standing over there. I fast more than everyone else and I give more money than everyone else.”. . . . It’s a funny prayer. No one would really pray like that, would they?  

But unfortunately, some do pray like that, and all too often. Listen carefully to prayers – especially the “thanks” part of prayers. How many times do we thank God for things that we have done and not for what He has done. How often are we thanking God for who WE are rather than for who He is?  It’s an easy trap to fall into, and it has a first name – idolatry and a last name – Pride. When we start making this mistake, we’re worshipping ourselves rather than God.  When we put our own efforts above God’s, we become idolaters – just like this Pharisee. 

So, how then should we pray?

Look at the tax collector’s prayer. He stood at a distance, in the shadows, out of the limelight. He wasn’t there for everyone else to see him. He didn’t raise his hands up or look up toward heaven so that others would know he was praying. He was there to pour his heart out to God. He came with a burden of sin that he could no longer bear. 

The tax collector’s prayer isn’t long and eloquent. It isn’t heaped up with fancy words and beautiful phrases. It is seven short words – only two of them with more than one syllable. It’s short, simple, and sincere. “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” No trips to a dictionary needed to figure out what he is saying. No expert training in theology needed to discern subtleties . . . just the simple request of a man who has been convicted in his own guilt. “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” Seven powerful words that move heaven more than years of hot air from the Pharisee ever will. 

What’s the end of our story? How do things turn out? This isn’t exactly a mystery novel, or a tale of suspense. You can already see what’s going to happen. Jesus tells us the tax collector went home justified before God, not the Pharisee. The bad guy, in spite of all he had done, was reconciled with God. The good guy, despite all of his good works, leaves without ever making contact with God.  

The lesson, like so many in the Bible, is that God treats us backwards from how the world does. In the world, he who humbles himself is left in the dust. He’s passed over for promotions, ignored, forgotten and discarded. In the world, he who exalts himself is noticed by others. He’s praised, remembered and elected to office. But God is different. God exalts the humble and humbles the proud. God raises up those the world has forgotten and gives them a place of honor. He adds no glory to those who are proud of their own accomplishments.

The rule of life that we, as Americans, have all come to believe and accept in this world is that we are self-made through our own desire to get ahead; but the rule that Jesus tells his followers . . . ‘be it not so with you. Rather, let the greatest among you become as the youngest, and the leader as one who serves.’  In these rules lies the difference between God and man. Amen.