All posts by The Very Reverend Edward H. Ihde

Fr. Edward Ihde serves as Priest and Rector for the congregation of Saint Nicholas Anglican Church (ACA) in Buffalo, NY where he brings into perspective thoughts and anecdotes from thirty years of ordained ministry. He is also Dean of the Western New York deanery

Christ the King Sunday

christ_the_king-1

As the Church Year winds down to the end, we are increasingly being drawn in by the readings to a discussion of what our religion really means to us.  The Gospel of Christ continually begs the question . . . can your faith survive persecution?  How strong is your religion in the face of evil and imminent death?  Are you ready to die in your convictions to the faith?  These are the questions that haunt us at the end of our church year and as well as at the end of our lives. 

          It has been said, there are no atheists in foxholes on the battlefield.  When the bombs are dropping and bullets are flying . . .  that is the time when every man finds true religion.  It is when life is sweet and safe, and the outlook of the future is secure that one finds people who say  “It is vain to serve God.  What do we profit by keeping the God’s commandments or by going about as mourners before the Lord of Hosts?”  That is  . . . Why should we try to remain honest and pure when, indeed, the only ones having any success at all seem to be unbelievers and wicked people?

          I can’t think of a time when the words of the scriptures today were more appropriate to our times than now.  Within this past year, hundreds and perhaps thousands of Christians throughout the world have been murdered, tortured, raped or brutalized in some way or another for their belief.  We hear about this news usually in a round-a-bout manner because it does not seem important enough to make the newspapers or television.  It seems it cannot compete with the Kardashians or the political climate of the day or with white on black crime – so we don’t hear and because there is no outcry, it is assumed that the church simply does not care. But of course we do care, but we care in a way that is not expected by the world, because though we are in the world, we know we are not part of the world.  In effect, though it seems to the world we have lost, thru Christ our King we have already conquered in all things.

Paul writes to the Colossians in today’s lesson . . . “May you be made strong with all the strength that comes from his glorious power, and may you be prepared to endure everything with patience, while joyfully giving thanks to the Father, who has enabled you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the light. He has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.”

The world cannot understand this because the world is lost in error and a slave to the god of this world.  It is through the cross of Christ that Christians have already conquered the worse that the world can offer and so whether we live or whether we die it does not matter, for we are, in fact, the Lord’s possession.

But many who are not quite so sure in this belief may ask how do we develop within ourselves and our friends and families this certainty of faith?

John Stott, one of the foremost evangelicals of our day explains that you must learn that. . . Belief doesn’t come first.  One begins with entering in to the experience–going to church, saying the prayers, singing the hymns, meeting other believers in fellowship. If you do this, then eventually, worship will shape your believing.  We go to church first and foremost to find a relationship with God.  And out of that comes the shaping of belief.  If indeed the preaching we hear is centered on the gospel and the worship is faithful and reverent you will begin to cultivate an abiding relationship with God and with each other and true religion will grow.  . . . And as it grows you will not be able to contain it within yourself.  Others will see in you a change that can only be described as joyful expectation and an inner peace that passes all understanding.

But there is another side to the story that Jeremiah decries today in the prevalence of false religion promoted by false teachers . . . “Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture! says the LORD. Therefore thus says the LORD, the God of Israel, concerning the shepherds who shepherd my people: It is you who have scattered my flock, and have driven them away, and you have not attended to them. So I will attend to you for your evil doings, says the LORD.”  Jeremiah speaks of a religion spread by false teachers that is devoid of belief and lacking in faith . . . it is indeed an empty religion.

No book, not even by the atheist, Carl Marx and his followers, is more scathing of empty religion than the Bible.  Jeremiah and all the prophets were outspoken in their denunciation of the formalism and hypocrisy of false worship.  Jesus applied their critique to the Pharisees of his day: ‘These people [he said] … honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me’ (Is. 29:13; Mk. 7:6).  And this indictment of religion by the Old Testament prophets and by Jesus is uncomfortably applicable to many churches in our world today.  In many churches today worship has become ritual without reality, form without power, fun without fear . . . religion without God.

And you know what?  Many people sense this and leave these churches . . . sometimes never to return again.  They are scattered as Jeremiah describes, sometimes never to have a relationship with God again. And because of this, their shepherds and leaders are damned.

So where does that leave the true church in its quest to promote true religion and abiding faith in Christ – the King of Glory?  We must always be aware that in fact . . . we do not convert people . . . God does. The Church is merely a participant in God’s mission of salvation.  It is our primary task, as believers, to reflect Jesus in our individual and corporate lives . . . to worship and to proclaim Christ in word and deed. Judging by the number of cars I see parked in driveways on my way here each Sunday, there are countless numbers of people who choose not to be involved with church at all.  Through the internet we can and do communicate with those who sit home each Sunday.  Our sermon blog has become an extension of this pulpit where more than four hundred people read sermons each week.  On things like Facebook younger people are contemplating God and the meaning of life in coffee shops and at home and so we have tried to adapt in order to help reach them. But the truth of it is that Christianity is a social religion done best in community with other believers.  One cannot be a virtual Christian in a virtual world . . . you need to find others and worship and pray with them – for where there is two or three, there is Christ in their midst.

All of us need to realize that Christianity is in its very essence a rescue religion.  It does not seek to restrain you . . . or to subject you . . . or to enhance you in any way . . . Christ seeks only to save you and to enrich your life with true joy and a blessing that the world cannot give.

Some believe that they can worship God without including Jesus Christ in the mix.  They don’t trust the gospel and believe the New Testament to be a fable made up by the early church to gain followers of the new religion.  But you must know that Jesus Christ is at the center of both the Old and the New Testaments.  Without the power of the cross and the blood of the Messiah sacrificed for us, there is no help for anyone . . . for without the cross we are all lost in our sins.  Christianity without Christ then is a frame without a picture, a door without a handle, a body without breath.  In effect Christianity without Christ is completely worthless in every respect . . . in fact Paul describes Christianity as “foolishness” in the eyes of a world that denies Christ.  And so the true Church must continue to endure the hardship, insults and hatred that so many inflict on it.

          Endurance is the key word for us in the reading today from Paul.  Endurance to persevere under all circumstances.  Endurance to run the great race and win the victory and the crown at the end of our lives.  Endurance to succeed where others have fallen.  Endurance to be tested to the point of breaking.  You might think that love, kindness, patience and understanding are the key words in the description of a believer, and they are important qualities.  But, it is endurance against all odds that is the metal from which we are to be forged. 

          All of us, I am sure, have stories to tell of our life and times when we overcame obstacles in order to become better people.  God willing, most of us will never face the kind of persecution that others are facing in the world today.  I am sure many of us have gone from overcoming small obstacles to overcoming larger ones.  Sometimes the obstacle might be a bully in school, or a bad habit, or rocky marriage or an awful job.  Sometimes we are triumphant and sometimes we are not.  But the mark of a true disciple is that we try, and are true to the end.

But regardless of what may befall any of us we must always bear in mind that we are the Lord’s possession for

God is our refuge and strength, *

a very present help in trouble.

Therefore we will not fear, though the earth be moved, *

and though the mountains be toppled into the depths of the sea;

Though its waters rage and foam, *

and though the mountains tremble at its tumult.

The LORD of hosts is with us; *

the God of Jacob is our stronghold.

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

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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.

A Sacrificial Life

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How many of us will remember the family feud story about the Clampets and the McCoys?  In our American folklore there were two families in West Virginia who carried on a feud for over a hundred years over a stolen pig.  Both families had generations of people shot and killed and murdered because they could not tolerate each other.  In much the same way, the Arabs and the Israelites have also had a feud brewing, but theirs has been going on for three thousand years!

Many of us, I am sure do not have a clue as to why the Arabs hate the Jews, but the Bible gives some pretty revealing information about the conflict, if we care to investigate.

As you may recall scripture tells us that Abraham was chosen by God to become the father of a great race.  You may also recall, that while waiting for a child to be born, his wife, Sarah, became impatient with God and asked her husband to ‘sleep with’ her servant girl so that he might have an heir to leave his possessions to.  Abraham’s wife at the time was about 65 and didn’t think God could pull it off.  Abraham, being the kind of guy he was, objected to his wife’s demands, but finally, like most of us men, gave in to his wife and had a child named Ishmael, born of his wife’s servant.  God was not at all pleased with this because Sarah and Abraham did not wait for God to act as he had promised.  But act he did, and Sarah, who by this time was in her late seventies, bore a child named Isaac.

Isaac grew up to inherit his father’s name and land while Ishmael and his mother were paid off and banished from the country as illegitimate heirs.  Ishmael eventually became the father of the Arab world and they have hated the children of Isaac and of Israel ever since, all because of an impatient wife who wanted the best for her husband.

You would think it would have ended there, but no . . . it gets worse . . . in the story about Jacob and Esau in today’s lesson.  As you may recall Esau was the first son of Isaac (who you have to remember was the legal heir of Abraham).  Esau sold his birth right to his twin brother Jacob for a bowel of soup.  Later, Esau grew up to become the father of the nation of Edom which is today modern day Jordan, and Jacob, his brother was renamed Israel by the angel of God in today’s old testament story.  Jacob grew up to become the father of the people of Israel.  The countries of Israel and Jordan have been contentious neighbors ever since  . . .  and all over a bowel of soup.

I didn’t intend to have this sermon become a history lesson, but this is the background for the situation in which we find our world today, and we should all become more aware of the historical issues involved in the Middle East.  Over the course of the last several years, all of us I am sure, have felt some trepidation and have become extremely anxious as to what may happen in our world in general and in our country in particular as events like the Arab Spring and the Syrian Civil War take place.  We, as Americans, over the past 20 years have become embroiled into a three thousand year old family feud.  One that I hope will one day be resolved, if not by America, then by some other nation or nations.

In today’s, Gospel we are told to ‘always pray and to never lose heart’ and that is good advice in times such as these.  As bad as we feel knowing full well the importance of faith in our lives, you must know and consider the many millions throughout the world who have no faith and who are feeling tremendous anxiety building up in their lives as this story continues to unfold.

You have heard it said, that “when the going gets tough, the tough get going”.  Well that is exactly what Paul is telling Timothy in today’s Epistle.  It is time for us to start sharing our faith with our neighbor so that they might be strengthened to meet the challenges ahead.

“In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who will judge the living and the dead, and in view of his appearing and his kingdom, I give you this charge: Preach the Word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage–with great patience and careful instruction.… keep your head in all situations, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, discharge all the duties of your ministry.”

But how do we do this while still keeping our wits about us?  Be led by the good examples we see each day.  Be led by the courage of our armed forces who are showing in their action just what self-sacrifice and endurance are all about.  Be led by the courage of Christians throughout the world who are persecuted for their belief and whose churches are being destroyed almost on a daily basis.  But most of all, be led by the example of our Savior who died that all men might one day be free.  In this way you will be a success and a worthy heir of the most high.

Success in life has little to do with how the world defines it.  It is said that money and fame cannot buy happiness, so why do we all long to be rich and famous?  The Bible says that Jesus is the key to our success as Christians.  His life demonstrated for us that a life of self sacrifice and humility is deemed of far greater importance in the Kingdom of God than earthly goods and treasure.  And though it is a good thing to be rich and famous, it is a far better thing to be happy and loved and accepted for who we are.

God loves you for who you are, he is the one person able to look past your faults and value who you are as a person.  He values our courage in the face of insurmountable obstacles.  He values our unity in the face of adversity and how we will sacrifice everything, even our lives to save another.  He values our candor and our humor and our uncontrollable urge to spiritually persecute ourselves for our mistakes and failures.  He loves our creativity and our skill and our ability to love.

Our God is a sacrificial God and creation has inherited His sacrificial nature.  His need for us now, in these last days, is to take on this sacrificial nature full time.  To live a sacrificial life, worthy of his calling . . . to rejoice when things are right with our lives and to be reflective and change our course when things go awry . . . to be willing and able to lend a hand when asked . . . to give of our talents and our time to causes worthy of his call to us . . . to do our work and to live our lives as if everything depended on it.    In this way we will fulfill the gospel and live in the shelter of the Most High.

You may suggest that what God asks of us is too hard, that it just isn’t natural to be sacrificial, especially in times of uncertainty.  It is simply unnatural.   But you have to ask, is it natural that people, on their own, will run willingly into harms way to protect others they do not even know as we have witnessed in the Kenyan Mall disaster?    No, it isn’t natural.  In every case, there is the Holy Spirit, the Source of all life, providing the impetus, giving us the courage and will to continue.

Jesus came into the world to save us because he loves us.  Through thoughtful prayer and reflection, our lives can change from where they are to where we would like them to be.   And through our failures we can learn and grow into a better people.  A successful life has little to do with money or power.  If you have loved your God and have loved others as yourself, then you are a success in the Kingdom of God.  And in the end, that’s all that really matters.  Amen.

Giving Thanks

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A number of years ago Barbara and I got involved in a church project to sponsor a family of Vietnamese refugees at a church here in South Buffalo.  A refugee coordinator from Genesee Ecumenical Ministries came to our church and gave an account to a group of us about the appalling conditions that refugees faced in the camps set up in the Philippines after the fall of Saigon.  She spoke of large families with small children being the most difficult to place; whose  chances of escape were extremely limited and whose chances of dying in the camps was extremely great.  The talk moved us so much that our group decided to sign on for the largest family that could be found.  Barbara and I decided that we would be their official U.S. sponsors.  At the time, it was a giant leap of faith into something that we had no idea we could do.  But with the support of our group, we had faith that we could do it and perhaps more importantly, we believed we had to do it.

When word got out to the church proper, we had expected great support for what we were about to do.  But to our surprise the reviews were quite the opposite.  There were many veterans in the congregation who had mixed feelings about helping Asian people.  Many had fought a war in the Pacific to keep Asians from coming here – they referred to them all as ‘chinks’.  There were others who worried the newcomers would expose us to exotic oriental diseases.  There were still others who felt we should be helping those in our own neighborhood instead of importing strangers from a foreign land to an uncertain future.  There were of course the rest who said ‘we never did that before’ and refused to get involved.  But Barbara and I and our group of about five stood firm in our belief that this is what had to be done.  If it split the church then we would have to deal with it after.  For now, we were resolved to save as many of these people as we could  . . . no matter what.

From Paul’s letter to Timothy today our cause was affirmed  . . . “Share in suffering like a good soldier of Christ Jesus. No one serving in the army gets entangled in everyday affairs; . . . . Think over what I say, for the Lord will give you understanding in all things. . . . And our faith was justified  . . . “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved by him, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly explaining the word of truth.”

And so they came . . . a family of eleven men women and children  who we still have contact with some 30 years or so later.  When we visit them they often recount again for us the story of their ordeal on the high seas in the Indian Ocean as they escaped from Vietnam.  They tell us of people who fell overboard and who died on the way.  They recount for us the Thai pirates who came onto their boat and stole their food and jewelry and raped some of the women on board and assaulted some of the men.  They remind themselves again about the horrible storms and lack of water for days as they drifted with no gasoline on the ocean currents and how, miraculously, they landed on a beach in the Philippines after 14 days at sea.  They tell how they lived in a refugee camp for two years waiting for some one to sponsor their family of three adults and eight small children.  They tell of their learning English as a new language and how to flush a toilet and their plane ride to Honolulu, Chicago, and finally to Buffalo in mid-winter.  They tell how they froze in our winter climate but were grateful for the freedom and opportunity in this new land. They tell of a story of faith, of courage and of hope for a better future.  They tell the story of an exiled people who left their homes and families and put their lives and futures into the hands of the Unknown.

In Jeremiah today, the prophet tells the Hebrew exiles seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.

The Book of Ruth recounts the raw emotion of this same struggle as she also commits herself to the unknown with her mother-in-law as they begin their journey to a foreign land.  Ruth pledges her life to her friend in one of the most beautiful passages of the Bible as she begs Naomi to let her come with her and face the unknown together . . .

“Do not press me to leave you

or to turn back from following you!

Where you go, I will go;

Where you lodge, I will lodge;

your people shall be my people,

and your God my God.

Where you die, I will die–

there will I be buried.

May the LORD do thus and so to me,

and more as well,

if even death parts me from you!”

And so, for those of you who don’t know the rest of the story Ruth and Naomi travel to Bethlehem where Ruth marries Boaz and becomes the great great great grandmother of King David, Joseph, husband of Mary, and finally Jesus, the son of God.

And what of our Vietnamese friends? . . . the parents who came with nothing but high hopes owned a small store for twenty years and are now retired and living in Florida.  Their children grew up to become a medical doctor, a dental surgeon, a physical therapist, a pharmacist, a financial office, a retail manager, a nuclear medical technologist and a teacher.  Each year they get together at New Years and invite all those who helped them along the way to recount their struggles and successes and to give thanks.

Today in the gospel lesson there is another who gives thanks.  You may recall that this is the story of ten lepers who are told by Jesus to go show themselves to the priests.  He did this because of the Levitical statute that those were healed of leprosy needed to show themselves to the priests before they were cleared to go back to their friends and families.  But the one who turned back was not a Jew like the others but a foreigner in the land.  He was an unbeliever and had no priest to show himself to.  He knew only this Jesus who had changed his life forever, and so . . . “when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. He prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him. And he was a Samaritan”.  Jesus of course asks what happened to the other nine who were healed and probably continues to ask, even in our own day, why so many are missing out on the opportunity to give thanks to God.

Giving thanks, of course, is what church is all about.  Through the sacrificial Lamb of God we have been given the gift of eternal life.  Many of us don’t exactly know what this means for us, but we are satisfied to recognize that it must be a good thing.  But to those on the front lines, like the soldier serving in the army of God in the epistle today or the farmer who does the hands-on work and who receives the first fruits, or the athlete who runs the race by the rules and wins the crown . . . it is a ‘no brainer’ . . . it is a life changing experience far greater than being healed of a dreaded disease or leaving one’s family forever or crossing an ocean on little more than hope and a prayer.

Jesus said he came to give us life so that we might live more abundantly . . . even through failure, sickness and family struggle.   But how can he expect us to remain thankful in adversity and in sickness you might ask? . . . .  At times God uses very convoluted and mysterious ways in order to get his point across to us.  Sometimes he uses our greatest weakness to overcome obstacles to His grace in ourselves and in others.  Sometimes he uses preachers and evangelists  to send messages.  And sometimes, people actually listen to those preachers and are touched by them.  Sometimes God needs to give us all a little shake to bring us back in the fold.  Sometimes it seems more like a hit in the head.  Sometimes God forgives others, even if we don’t.  And just sometimes, maybe, we will admit in the end that, He was right all along.

All of us have our struggles, our failures and our victories in life.  It is what life is all about.  We learn from our struggles to be resourceful, and to stay the course.  We learn from our victories, to always trust God for a happy ending.  But most of all, we learn from our failures that God is always with us and able to help us, especially in the darkest moments of our lives, if only we would look for him there.  From Paul’s letter to Timothy today we read.

If we have died with him, we will also live with him;

if we endure, we will also reign with him;

if we deny him, he will also deny us;

if we are faithless, he remains faithful–

for he cannot deny himself.   Amen

Increase Our Faith

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Today’s readings are about the relationship between faith and prayer and how God relates to each of us solely dependent on the how we relate to Him.  One of the reasons that prayers are sometimes not answered has to do with whether we are in relationship with God, or whether we are in a deeper, spiritual, and committed fellowship with him.

            A week ago here at Saint Nicholas, we had a guest pianist who came from Boston to try out our keyboard.  I had asked Anne to do this because we were intending to have her play a piano recital for us next summer.  Anne is a Masters student and piano instructor at the Boston Conservatory and a very talented pianist.  Unfortunately, our little keyboard was found to be somewhat deficient for the kind of classical music she wanted to perform for us.  So while we were downstairs we all sat with our coffee in hand and lamented that we didn’t have a real piano on which she could perform.  So I told her that she should arrange to come anyway and that we would just pray for a piano fully expecting that God would supply one by then.  In the instant I said this, Becky Littler and Jan Siebold both knew of pianos that might be available – one an upright and one a spinet.  But what we really needed was a baby grand piano that would be the right tone like an upright but not block the front of the church like a spinet.  So we prayed to God to help find a piano that would fit our needs.  Cheap would of course very good but free would be even better.

I didn’t think much more about this on Monday but then on Tuesday I had the compulsion to type into Google ‘free piano for a good home’ which returned a website of hundreds of people with hundreds of pianos free to a good home.  The problem was that almost all of them were in NY City, Long Island and Connecticut – but – there was one in Depew, NY not far from here.  It was the right type and the right color and the right price – free.  So Don and Jim and I went to go see it.  The person who owned it had moved to a smaller place leaving the piano behind and offered it to us free of charge.  All we needed to do was to arrange to move it.  And to make a short story even shorter . . . here it is – needing some tuning but a remarkable instrument built in the thirties in Germany.  I let our friend Anne know about this right away in Boston and we all believe it is a miracle because it happened so fast.

            Why do you suppose this happened?  It happened because we had enough faith to believe that God can do anything, and if it was his will, then nothing could stop him from supplying our need.  But the other part of the equation was that I truly expected him to provide it and because of this expectation – here it is.

            Now we might not all to think that prayer works this way, but the Bible tells us that the best way to get God’s attention is to be righteous in the sight of God and . . . to live in joyful expectation.  Why?  Because like any good parent, God wants to fulfill our needs – not just the important stuff like food and clothing or a job – but even extra things, like a church in which to pray or a piano on which to play music to God’s glory.  The Psalmist says that prayers of the righteous avail much, whereas the prayers of others may not be heard. 

Today we read in the Psalm . . .

Put your trust in the LORD and do good; *

dwell in the land and feed on its riches.

4

Take delight in the LORD, *

and he shall give you your heart’s desire.

5

Commit your way to the LORD and put your trust in him, *

and he will bring it to pass.

6

He will make your righteousness as clear as the light *

and your just dealing as the noonday.

7

Be still before the LORD *

and wait patiently for him.

            So how do we become righteous in the sight of God?  We become righteous by living the gospel and by confessing our sins and asking for forgiveness in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.  We become righteous when we care for the less fortunate and become willing workers in God’s Kingdom.  We become righteous when we develop a personal relationship with God by reading and believing in His Word.  And we become righteous as a community of believers when we become one mind and one spirit with one another, joyfully expecting God to act on our behalf for whatever we ask.

            Those of you who are new to Saint Nicholas may not know this, but before this building became available, the original St. Nicholas church members came here and walked around this building claiming it for Jesus to be used in the building of his kingdom (and not just this particular building – but the whole property.  After some months, this building became available for lease and we have been here ever since.  This week we had the opportunity to meet the real estate agent who has been trying to sell this property for the past 4 ½ years.  Jim Siebold commended him on doing such a fine job.  But now it seems the property will be sold  . . . to another church.  But the good news is that they don’t want this building – they will use the gym and the school and that we are welcome to stay and worship here.  Another prayer prayed long ago . . . and another answer from a God who truly does care for us and who obviously wants us to continue here in this place . . . all because the leadership here continues to cultivate a growing relationship and dependence on God to fulfill our needs.

            The easiest way to think about this is comparing it to your own relationships.  When your son or daughter is in trouble, you know you will do anything to help them as quickly as possible whereas if the stranger down the street is in trouble and you hear about it from someone else, you may or may not get involved because, though you may be acquainted with him, you have no relationship with him.  Your help is not as warranted, and you think, well . . . his own family is better able to care for him than I.

            I think I may have told you once that there is a myth held among the mafia that the prayers of a righteous woman married to a mafia member will give them a ‘get out of hell free card’ no matter what they do.  How do I know this?  I once knew the wife of a mafia member who believed that as long as his wife remained pure and that ‘he showed his face to God’ every week at church that God would accept him into heaven because of the prayers of his righteous wife.  Whenever you hear or read stories about the mafia, you may recall that they are almost always married to a faithful, believing woman who has no knowledge of the family business.  This is part of the shroud of evil that they delude themselves with.  As it happens, this woman I knew was looking to get a divorce which would totally disrupt her husband’s plan of salvation.  It was better if she be killed for the cause than divorced for obvious reasons. And so she was on the run.

Again in the Psalm appointed we read today . . .

8

Do not fret yourself over the one who prospers, *

the one who succeeds in evil schemes.

9

Refrain from anger, leave rage alone; *

do not fret yourself; it leads only to evil.

10

For evildoers shall be cut off, *

but those who wait upon the LORD shall possess the land.

The apostle James tells us that ‘the prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up; and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven. Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed.

            As a minister here at St. Nicholas it has been an honor and a privilege for me to proclaim to you the Good News of Jesus Christ.  I have tried my best to show you what it’s like to live a life in grace.  But, as your priest, it is my added responsibility to teach you how to live a life in grace . . . and it begins each day with faith and ends each day in prayer.  We are to pray for each other unceasing and for our congregation so that God’s will for us will be revealed.  Our guest visitor confirmed to us that God is still performing miracles when they are needed and He is performing them here in our own lives if only we will expect them and accept them for what they are.

            As long as the Good News is being preached and people are coming to Jesus then all is well.  It is when the Gospel is not being preached and no one is coming to know Jesus that we are warned that that church will fail . . . and churches are failing today . . . by the thousands. 

So which churches are growing . . . current statistics show that it is only the churches that are evangelical, who preach the Good News in their pulpits and who spread the Good News to their neighbors that grow.

            Our job, in this place and at this time in history is to stand firm and continue to do as our church has been doing for the past millennia holding fast to the faith once delivered by the saints.  If we continue to do this . . . if we continue to do what is righteous in the sight of God and continue to pray and to spread the Good News as it has been revealed to us, we will grow and there will be no stopping us.  But we need to have faith and we need to pray for this congregation each and every day . . . and if we do all this, God will bless us . . . and he already has. 

Amen

Saint Michael and All Angels

Angels

A few weeks back there was a story in the news that you probably heard about of a young lady who was in a traffic accident that pinned her in her car.  The paramedics and first responders came, but were concerned that she was pinned in by the steering wheel of her car and that she was losing a lot of blood from her legs.  They were worried that she might not be able to be released in time because of the lack of the proper tool needed to get her out.  At the same moment that all this was going on, a catholic priest sort of just appeared on the scene.  The woman asked if he would pray with her – seeing as how she herself felt she might not make it out of this alive.  The priest prayed and pronounced absolution for her and then told her that everything was going to be okay.  The priest left the scene almost as quickly as he had come and was not seen again.

 At that instant the equipment that was needed arrived on the scene and the woman was extracted from her car and sent to the hospital.  She lived, thank God, and looking back at the incident everyone wondered what had become of that priest who sort of appeared and then disappeared.  The police and the fireman checked their photos and camcorders, but it seems the priest didn’t show up on any of them.

 This of course got into the news of the day and then on to the internet and went viral overnight.  People began to speculate that this priest was actually an angel sent from God.  Entire blogs started to report other strange but similar events in the lives of people writing in on how an angel or mysterious person was sent from God at the right time and at the right moment to save them from some terrible accident or event.  For days, it seems, this story kept making the rounds on Yahoo and AOL until finally, nearly a week later, the priest himself came forward to identify himself as the Good Samaritan of the story.

 What this incident shows us is that people really do believe – or at the very least- they want to believe in angels.  There are literally thousands of stories on the internet about people being helped, influenced or warned by angels or strangers who show up and then are gone again in one mysterious moment.

 In my own life, I do not have a story of this type to tell, but my wife Barbara does.  When we were living in West Chicago some years ago, it was Barbara’s habit to walk out into the fields with our dog, Brownie.  One day, Barbara took a little longer walk than usual and found herself on a steep incline of small round gravel or pebbles.  She immediately lost her footing and fell backwards actually seeing both of her feet in front of her as she fell – but all of a sudden she was standing up again . . . straight up.  Her only explanation for this was that God’s angel had caught her by the arms and kept her from landing on her back and breaking her neck.  Had she fallen, no one would have known where she was and there were no cell phones in those days.  If you ask her about it she would quote the lyrics of the song . . .

 You who dwell in the shelter of the Lord,

Who abide in His shadow for life,

Say to the Lord, “My Refuge,

My Rock in Whom I trust.”

 

And He will raise you up on eagle’s wings,

Bear you on the breath of dawn,

Make you to shine like the sun,

And hold you in the palm of His Hand.

The snare of the fowler will never capture you,

And famine will bring you no fear;

Under His Wings your refuge,

His faithfulness your shield.

 

And He will raise you up on eagle’s wings,

Bear you on the breath of dawn,

Make you to shine like the sun,

And hold you in the palm of His Hand.

You need not fear the terror of the night,

Nor the arrow that flies by day,

Though thousands fall about you,

Near you it shall not come.

 Barbara believed, and still believes to this day that it was God’s angels that bore her up and because of this her faith was made stronger because her life was saved.  That is the purpose of all God’s messengers, weather of earthly or heavenly origins . . . to assist in the building of faith in God.

 So . . . today being Saint Michael and all Angels day, we might just ask what is an angel and how do we know when we’ve experienced one and  . . . why does the church believe in angels?

 The word angel means literally, messenger, and throughout the old and new testaments, messengers called angels, or the angel of the Lord, come to men and women usually when no other way is possible . . . in fact, that is the most significant proof of angels existence because they only come when there is no other way to communicate an urgent message.  Angels are found from Genesis to Revelation.  They are the ones who drive Adam and Eve out of the Garden and guard its entrance so that no one may return.  Angels are the ones who go to Sodom and Gomorra to warn Lot and his family to flee.  Angels are keys to the mystery of the incarnation of Christ, his birth and his resurrection from the dead, for at all these instances they are present in scripture . . . and we know that they have names.  We know it was Gabriel who brought the good news to Mary at the incarnation.  We know it is Michael who fought another angel named Lucifer when there was a war in heaven.  We also know that it is Michael who is the protectorate of Israel and is now the protectorate of the entire Church of God.

 We also know there are ranks of angels.  We sing of them in our hymns of angels, archangels, choirs, virtues, powers, seraphs and thrones and others that make up the nine ranks in the angelic legion of the army of God.  We know from scripture that an angel is assigned to every church to protect it from the assault of the enemies of Jesus Christ.

 And we know from a number of eye witnesses what they look like in the physical sense.  In Daniel we read . . .

 On the twenty-fourth day of the first month, as I was standing on the bank of the great river, the Tigris, I looked up and there before me was a man dressed in linen, with a belt of fine gold from Uphaz around his waist. His body was like topaz, his face like lightning, his eyes like flaming torches, his arms and legs like the gleam of burnished bronze, and his voice like the sound of a multitude.

 I, Daniel, was the only one who saw the vision; those who were with me did not see it, but such terror overwhelmed them that they fled and hid themselves. So I was left alone, gazing at this great vision; I had no strength left, my face turned deathly pale and I was helpless. Then I heard him speaking, and as I listened to him, I fell into a deep sleep, my face to the ground.

 A hand touched me and set me trembling on my hands and knees. He said, “Daniel, you who are highly esteemed, consider carefully the words I am about to speak to you, and stand up, for I have now been sent to you.” And when he said this to me, I stood up trembling. Then he continued, “Do not be afraid, Daniel.

 ‘Do not be afraid’ is nearly always the first words that you will hear from an angel, because coming across one, we humans should be afraid because these beings are in  many cases completely alien to everything that we know.  By all accounts they are much larger than us and stronger and extremely fierce warriors in battle.

 So why do we see them depicted as cherubs on our Christmas cards and as pleasant guardians hovering above our children?  Why do we see them described most often as beautiful women like on Touched by an Angel and hardly ever as fierce Vorlons like on Babylon 5?

 The answer is in part represented in today’s epistle reading . . .

 War broke out in heaven; Michael and his angels fought against the dragon. The dragon and his angels fought back, but they were defeated, and there was no longer any place for them in heaven. The great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, who is called the Devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world– he was thrown down to the earth, and his angels were thrown down with him. 

 The war described was won in heaven but a battle continues on a new front.  It is a spiritual battle between the forces of good and the forces of evil.  But the important thing to realize about this battle is that the battlefield on earth is for the souls of men and so anything the enemy can do to seduce men into his camp, he will do . . . through false religions, false prophets, false depictions of God and his angels, false gospels, and addictions of every kind . . . anything that he can use to turn us from God is at his disposal because Lucifer, along with his legions of fallen angels, is the god of this world . . . and people, being both spiritually blind and deaf and stupid, will willingly follow him and believe everything that he says.

 So what is our role in this great battle?  What is our mission as servants of Christ?  John Stott would tell us that the main point of reason for being in this mission is not so much something we can train or prepare for (like a soldier) as it is something we are swept up into–almost involuntarily–in response to an authentic encounter with the grace of God in Jesus.  And as a people “on a mission,” we are always a people in transit, expelled into the desert in baptism, living on daily manna as we trek through a spiritual wilderness, always mindful that we have not yet reached the Promised Land.  Our mission then, if we choose to accept it, is to debunk the lies of the enemy and bring souls back into the household of God – at no matter what the cost.  Because we know through Christ that whether we live or die in this fight we are the Lord’s possession and that we will be raised to life eternal when it’s all over.  Satan is already defeated because Christ rose from the dead.  He knows this, but he carries on, none the less, to take with him to hell as many of us as he can.  Not because he wants us or even likes us, no, he merely wants to keep us from God’s embrace.  That’s how much Satan and his angels stand against God.

 And so the angels continue to fight for us against the dark forces in an unending battle to protect us from the onslaughts of the enemy’s forces and to deliver messages and aid when most needed and when there is no other way.

 If this sermon is an eye opener for you, God has much more to share with you than a legion of angels.  When we open the scriptures, we often may pray ‘Please, Lord, I want to see some “wonderful thing” in your word.’   But someday he may reply, ‘What makes you think I have only “wonderful things” to show you?  As a matter of fact, I have some rather “disturbing things” to show you today.  As soldiers in this fight, we need to be prepared to be challenged and disturbed by the scripture and by what goes on in the world.  When we can learn to see with the help of the Holy Spirit, things like the war in Egypt and the reasons behind the Kenyan mall massacre that happened last week, things that happen in the world today will make more sense.

 Pray on this this week and may God’s holy angels guide you into all truth.  Amen

Paradox of Humanity

paradox

The gospel reading today, about the dishonest manager is perhaps one of the most perplexing readings in our lectionary because although the manager is found to be corrupt and is on the docket to be fired, our Lord, by the end of the story, seems to be almost proud of the way in which the dishonest manager works the problem out to his advantage.  And we ask, how can one be both condemned as a thief  and at the same time win the praise of God?  How do we explain this seeming paradox?

There are sometimes problems that arise as we read the Bible, about how to interpret things that are difficult to understand; especially when we take a scripture like this out of context as in today’s reading.  If you remember the reading preceding it, in the gospel last week, there was a parable of the lost sheep and the lost coin.  These two parables were told to the people that Jesus was trying to reach at the time.  They were also heard by the Pharisees who were standing by, waiting to trip Jesus up and thereby accusing him of some error.

But unlike the reading last week, todays reading was told to the disciples as they were walking away from the crowd, but still in earshot of the Pharisees, who continued to shadow Jesus and his followers every move.  You see, although Jesus was telling the story to his disciples, he was intending for the Pharisees to overhear it, which they did.  Because in the final verse, the verse that is missing from the story today reads . . . “The Pharisees, who loved money, heard all this and were sneering at Jesus.   Jesus said to them, “You are the ones who justify yourselves in the eyes of others, but God knows your hearts.  What people value highly is detestable in God’s sight.” 

You see, in the story, the rich man is God and the manager he is about to let go are the temple priests who were charged with the temple’s treasury and also in charge of the people’s faith.

As a manager myself for nearly forty years, I have had some occasion to fire people under my direction.  Firing someone from their job is not an easy task, and I have always tried to give people the benefit of the doubt.  But there are times, when there is simply no other way, both from management’s point of view and also from the point of view of the person who is about to be let go.  One such person was a manager assistant I once had who was not only a coworker but also a very good friend.  She was going to school part time while working for me and was studying interior design at night.  On many occasions, she and her husband came to our house for dinner, and Barbara and I had gone to her house.  That is how close we were.  She happened to be so brilliantly clever about her deception that I had not a clue what she was doing for several months.  In a short time of about six months she had stolen thousands of dollars from the company I was working for and I had no idea about what she was up to until one day she got a toothache and had to leave work to go to the dentist.  It just so happened that on that day one of her customers came in that accidently exposed her theft.

At the time, I was so shocked and had no idea what to do.  Should I call the main office?  Should I call the police?  I decided to do a complete inventory just to be sure of my suspicion and compare the inventory to what was supposed to be in stock.  I did this on a Sunday so that neither she nor any of the other employees would know that I was on to it.  I was hoping it was only a onetime thing – maybe forgivable- with restitution, but to my dismay it turned out to be a devastating loss that I needed to report as soon as possible.  When I saw her next, I got all the employees together and told them that someone had stolen a lot of money and that that someone ought to quit before the report went into the main office.  My thinking was that I would give her a way out . . . but she didn’t take it.  Even after presenting her with the evidence in her own handwriting she did not admit to it until the day the district manager and I walked her out to her car to say that she was fired.  It was then that she confessed that she had stolen the money to pay for a lawyer and that she was looking to divorce her husband who was controlling and abusive towards her.  I never saw Kathy again, but somehow I admired her cunning in the theft because, had it not been for a toothache, she might still be working at that place.  Her method was wrong but her cause was just . . . and so like the manager in the story today, who gave away his lord’s money to his creditors to help himself when he was let go, this lady had both my ire and my admiration because she was found out to be “human” and as fallible as I.

In today’s lesson, Jesus was, not so subtly, telling the Pharisees that they ought to maybe start looking for another line of work because they were about to lose their jobs . . . in fact it was Jesus who several weeks later tells the Sanhedrin, the temple priests of the day that soon the temple itself would be destroyed and that not a stone would be left on stone.  This of course, happened 40 years later when a Roman general named Titus ransacked Jerusalem and completely obliterated the Temple, the City of Jerusalem and all of its inhabitants . . . a horrible thing . . . but also a blessing . . . for in the dispersion of all the inhabitants of Israel throughout the Roman world, Christianity spread to the far reaches of the Roman empire and beyond.  And like the salt that Jesus describes in several places as his true followers, these believers seasoned the entire world for the further spreading of His Kingdom.

And so here is the paradox of our humanity . . . God can use an evil person to generate an outcome of goodness and charity, even though we might not see it on the outset.  That is why in his first letter to Timothy today, Paul tells us to pray continually for everyone, both good and bad, both rich and poor . . . and especially our leaders, who may be prone to evil due to the attraction of money that isn’t theirs, but whose evil and greed may be used by God for the purpose of good, in the long run, and in God’s own time.

The paradoxical nature of our humanness is that we are at the same time both the breath of God and the dust of the earth.  We are all at the same time godlike and beastlike, created and fallen, noble and not so noble.  This seems to be why we both seek God one day and run away from him the next. We practice righteousness when it suits us and then suppress the truth in our unrighteousness when it doesn’t.  We tend to recognize the claims of the moral law upon us and then refuse to submit to it when it becomes a burden . . . indeed all of us have fallen short of the glory of the Lord and there is no health in us. But thou, O Lord, have mercy upon us, miserable offenders.

So just who are you?  Who am I?  John Stott, a favorite author of mine, reveals the defining answer . . .” The answer is that I am a Jekyll and Hyde, a mixed-up kid, having both dignity, because I was created and have been re-created in the image of God, and depravity, because I still have a fallen and rebellious nature.  I am both noble and ignoble, beautiful and ugly, good and bad, upright and twisted, image and child of God, and yet sometimes yielding [reverent] homage to the devil from whose clutches Christ has rescued me. 

My true self is what I am by creation, which Christ came to redeem, and by calling. 

My false self is what I am by the fall, which Christ came to destroy.”

So how can we who are fallen, live with ourselves?  Jesus tells us that thru him we can do all things if only we believe.  Part of that belief is in doing His will and not our own.  Jesus loves us so we must love others.  Jesus is giving in all abundance and so we also must give   generously without holding back.  Jesus is compassionate so we also must show compassion.  Jesus is merciful and we also must be merciful.

And if we do these things, they will transform us because we are no longer looking for what’s in it for me . . . but rather we are in it for the good of all . . . but most importantly we will become profoundly happy which in turn infects those around us. In a word, it is called empathy.

Giving of ourselves nurtures empathy.  And in empathy, our lives are redefined to include a new feeling of well-being, of wisdom, an ability to wonder and in being truly happy — all of which are boosted when we give our time and effort to something other than ourselves.

Within Christianity and practically every religious tradition and practice in the world, giving of oneself is a key step on the path to spiritual fulfillment. As Einstein put it, “only a life lived for others is a life worthwhile.”  Einstein was looking for a theory of everything in the physical universe, but in a study of our emotional world, there’s no analogous theory of everything, but if there were, Jesus would tell us that empathy and giving would be at the heart of it.  

Science and theology have both overwhelmingly confirmed that empathy, compassion . . . and giving are the building blocks of our spiritual wellbeing. With them we flourish; without them we perish. It really is as simple as that.  Amen

A Life’s Work

help-yourself-help-others

There is a story that some of you may have heard before, but it bears repeating every now and then, about a chicken and a pig who visit a small town.  The chicken remarks how in every restaurant window there hangs a sign that reads ‘Ham and Eggs’.  The chicken remarks on how awesome it is that their two species have had such an outstanding influence on the world of men and tells the pig that they should double . . . even triple . . . their efforts in helping to feed the human race.  The pig, after some reflection about the idea, responds to the chicken that “it is easy for you hens to double your efforts, because for you it is only a contribution . . . but for us pigs, it requires a total commitment”.

Today’s gospel today is particularly relevant to me as a general contractor who has over the years estimated the cost of hundreds, perhaps thousands of projects, both great and small.  There is no doubt that (the carpenter) Jesus knew exactly from whence he came in speaking about the possible pitfalls in the estimation, financing and building of a tower.     

A few years back my company completed the building of the Niagara Falls International Airport Terminal, a thirty million dollar structure that took two years to build.   The building of this project required the expertise of hundreds of others who worked tirelessly to accomplish this highly complex building design.  Nearly all of the subcontractor firms and project managers were hand selected by me because I was aware from past experience exactly who would be capable of keeping us on track and had the resources and wherewithal to solve problems on the fly.  They were those who, like me, were willing to totally commit themselves to a project that, at the very outset was, fraught with problems. 

Then there were also with us others who contributed to the project.  These were people who I did not know and who I did not choose and who had no real vested interest in the project; but yet because they held the purse strings . . . the gold . . . they were the one’s who made the project possible since it was their idea.  They were in fact the ‘hens’ of the project who always wanted us to double our efforts through no sweat of their own.  These two groups, those who contribute, and those who commit are an integral part of every project and there isn’t a construction project out there that would be completed without both the drive and the means.  But how much better things would be if both groups shared a common commitment and a common vision to arrive at the final goal?

Although Jesus today speaks about a construction project in the gospel lesson, he is not specifically speaking about actually estimating and building a tower project or of a king being defeated because he did not plan well enough.  He is speaking about another thing . . . he is speaking about the project of our life’s work and how it is helped and shaped by God and / or influenced by others (perhaps some who may not be so pure) and how it may or may not be completed in the end without  total commitment on the part of ourselves.

He tells us something hard to take in all at once . . . “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.”  And we wonder what does he mean by this?  What is he really saying?  For most all of us, the people closest to us are the most important things in our lives.  I, like you would do anything to keep our families safe from harm because we love and cherish them more than life itself.  How many stories have you heard where a father or a mother risked their own lives to save the life of a child.  And yet Jesus is telling us we must be willing to give them all up and take up our cross in order to follow him.

In order to understand this saying we need to come to the realization that one saved soul in the eyes of God is a priceless thing gained at the greatest of cost.  The gospels infer that its worth is known only to God and we will never really be able to comprehend its value.  You and I came into the world quite alone (with nothing) and in the end we will leave this place in basically the same way.   It is God who has given us a life and a purpose . . . and it is God who will one day take it away.

LORD, you have searched me out and known me; *

you know my sitting down and my rising up;

you discern my thoughts from afar.

You trace my journeys and my resting-places *

and are acquainted with all my ways.

Indeed, there is not a word on my lips, *

but you, O LORD, know it altogether

           

From the Psalm this morning you can see that this relationship God desires is a highly personal one that transcends our thoughts and our dreams and perhaps everything else we know to be familiar . . . even the family that we hold most dear.  The words from the Psalm to me suggest a melding of our spirits into one perhaps like a lover’s dream but with even greater intimacy and familiarity.  It is this fusing of the spirits that Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther and countless sages wrote about regarding their relationship with God in their lives.  And it is our life’s work to strengthen this relationship by striving to be at one with God even as we walk a path separate from Him in this world.  Today Jesus meant that this means putting aside mother and father and sister and brother and all the things the world offers as our heart’s desire in our lives  . . . and instead striving to put God and our relationship with Him first in everything we do.  Only in this way can we truly be called as his disciples.

But you may ask how do we do it?  How do we continually strengthen or renew a relationship of spirit with someone who is so incomprehensible?  Think of your own life and its relationships with others. Those that are strongest are those where honest communication is a hallmark.  The ones that are weakest are the ones where there is ambivalence.  Wise families strive to fight ambivalence and find strength in eating and playing and talking together.  Groups find strength in working together.  Lovers find strength in living and sleeping together.  Communities find strength in building together  . . . and so it is with us and God. 

Each week as we come together as a church, we are endeavoring to build on the relationship we have as community of believers and as individuals in communion with God.  Each day as we set about our work, we offer prayer and praise to God as a way of keeping the lines of communication open, in order to perceive his will for us in our daily lives.  In this way, when the time comes for us to go, we will be welcomed into a familiar presence as a grateful friend and not as a stranger.  This is a Christian’s life’s work.  This is what Christianity is all about, a relationship with Christ.

This life’s work that Jesus is speaking about is not something we can retire from.  It is not only the work we have done (or will do) over our lifetime . . . to keep bread on the table and a roof over our head.  It may include these things but it is not these things.  The work Jesus refers to is the project of your life, the one He bought back for you at Calvary and the one you may either merely contribute toward the maintenance of in a physical sense . . . or . . . commit yourself totally to its continual growth in the spiritual sense.  In short, the life he speaks of is not what you do in this life but who you will be in the next.

There is a famous book (still in print), written in 1678 by John Bunyan entitled The Pilgrim’s Progress.  It is among my favorites (I’ve read it at least 5 or 6 times) and I recommend it to any of you.  It is an allegory of what Jesus was trying to explain in today’s lesson.  John Bunyan wrote Pilgrim’s Progress while sitting in an English prison.  His crime was that he held a church service that was not sanctioned by the Church of England, the Anglican Church . . .  our church, if the truth be known.

Pilgrim’s Progress catalogs the journey of Christian, a man who is seeking his salvation on a pilgrimage to Heaven. Along the way, Christian encounters many obstacles that test his faith as well as many characters that are useful in showing him the difference between right and wrong, from the perspective of Christian religious faith. After Christian attains his heavenly reward, his family completes a pilgrimage to join him. The story is told as a dream, this seventeenth century religious classic uses Bible verses mixed with allegorical characters to preach a very unusual evangelist message.

Christian sets out on a journey to save his soul. He leaves behind his friends and family in the City of Destruction and follows the advice of his spiritual guide, a man named Evangelist, in order to reach the Celestial City. His first obstacle is the Slough of Despair, which he manages to overcome with the help of a kind stranger but with the loss of all his possessions. Christian is admitted into the Wicket Gate, the official starting point of his journey to the Celestial City. Only those who are invited through this gate are eligible for entrance into the Celestial City.  This book is a powerful representation of our Life’s Work that Jesus describes for us.

Like the character Christian, each of us is on a journey.  God helps us along by sending friends and family members and strangers to help us overcome the world and its trials.  Through constant perseverance and personal responsibility and with the help of our faith we strive to overcome addictions and dependencies as we fight our way through life.  However, winning can only happen if we are truly committed to keeping our eye on the prize which is the Kingdom of God.

However, as Christian learns firsthand, there are stumbling blocks that some will face along the way.  They sometimes come in the form of people who claim to be our friends . . . but who really are not.  They come as temptations to veer us off the correct, but stony, path onto a smooth and well traveled road that leads to utter destruction and despair. And then of course there are those who ‘help’ us by contributing to the complexity of our life by loading upon us more and more responsibility until we cannot bear to stand any longer.  But worse by far, are those who stand by ridiculing our moves as wrong even while they are suffering in their own afflictions.

The choice God gives us is clear, though almost no one understands it.  Our goal is to work out the project of our life as best and expedient for us as individuals all the while helping all those around us attain success in their life’s work as well.  Through living a pious life of thanksgiving and loving without reservation, and having empathy and good-will towards our neighbor we will fulfill the law which has been written in our hearts, thus making us true and worthy disciples of our Lord Jesus Christ.  Because in the end of life, it is not what we have gathered together or have built that will count in our favor . . . but only what we have given freely away. 

Amen