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

Making a Difference

oscars1

We begin today’s homily with a couple of questions.  Who last won the Olympic gold medal for downhill skiing?  Who, last year, won the Pullitzer prize for literature or for news reporting?  Who won the Super Bowl last February?  Who won best actor a few months ago?  I don’t remember . . . but perhaps you might.  We are today forever getting caught up in the moment . . . the great excitement of winning that builds up over the course of time culminating in a conclusion than seems to get forgotten before the next commercial or the next breaking news story.  We call the winners of these contests  . . . heros, triatheletes, geniuses, and role models and yet one or two years (or occasionally days or hours) later many are forgotten in the stream of time and their titles and prizes are conferred on others who are again forgotten . . . and the cycle continues with or without us until the next award, big game or sporting event.

It would appear that those which the world wants us to emulate are but a fleeting fancy in the winds of time brought to us by sponsors like Microsoft, Nike and Budweiser Beer.

But there are people in your life who you will have no problem in remembering.  These are those who made a difference, who helped get you through a significant turning point in your life.  They might have been a teacher or a parent or the old man down the street . . . but each provided a clue or an insight into the way the world works and added dramatically to just who it is that you are today.

In my own life, I remember a man I worked with that my father affectionately called ‘the Alligator’.  Alligator had five kids and seemed to live on the brink of bankruptcy . . . but he was about the happiest guy I ever knew.  He convinced me when I was twenty, that getting married, was the best thing he ever did and the best thing any man could do.  This was at a time in my life when I was following a path that was quite different, one that did not include a wife or family.  I also, remember a priest, Fr. Benolken, at Church of the Resurrection in Chicago, where I worked for a few years.  He had been hired by a mission church in the Diocese of Chicago and found out shortly after that he had terminal pancreatic cancer.  It was the day after he had been told this that Barbara and I began attending the church there.  For the next two years I heard some of the most informed sermons and teachings I have ever had the privilege of hearing.  God used Fr. Benolken to show his congregation how to live . . . even as he was dyeing.  And I also remember Dr. Anton Barslaag, a biology teacher, and a Christian, at Kenmore East High School who instilled in us the sanctity of life in every living thing.  To this day I have a hard time killing a bug . . . I usually pick it up and toss it out the window.

All of us have similar stories I am sure.  These are the stories that animate our own story. In a very real sense it is the way in which God interacts with us through the hands and hearts and minds of those who mean the most to us.  We keep these memories locked safely and securely within us because they are a precious gift from a creator who loves us.  When you learn something important about life from a person, or a people, or from a culture, you need to accept it as a gift . . . it should be your lifelong commitment to preserve it and build on it because it is only in this way that we will grow.

 

From the Psalm this morning we read:

 

Happy are they who have the God of Jacob for their help!*
whose hope is in the LORD their God;

Who made heaven and earth, the seas, and all that is in them; *
who keeps his promise for ever;

Who gives justice to those who are oppressed, *
and food to those who hunger.

The LORD sets the prisoners free;
the LORD opens the eyes of the blind; *
the LORD lifts up those who are bowed down;

The LORD loves the righteous;
the LORD cares for the stranger; *
he sustains the orphan and widow,
but frustrates the way of the wicked.

 

How do you suppose God does all these things?  If God did these things directly, (as in the Gospel Story today) we would most assuredly call them miracles.  But because we do not actively search for God in these things, the many miracles that God does perform tend to escape our notice.   Miracles happen when two conditions are met . . .

One is . . .  that we need to ask

Two is . . . we need to believe

One of the greatest miracles I have witnessed was when my brother John was being prepped for a biopsy of a tumor on his larynx.  He needed to be put ‘fully under’ for the procedure, so I came to the hospital with my mother and my wife to anoint him with oil and pray with him.  During the course of the prayer I felt God touch him.  Before they took him to surgery, they did a final X-Ray for the exact location . . . in those few minutes the tumor had completely disappeared!  John made what appeared to be a full remission from cancer and was given seven additional years to live in which time he completely changed his life around.  Friends and family to this day still remark how he was re-invented after this incident.  John finally died knowing full well that God loved him and that the Purpose of life is . . . a life with a Purpose.

The Bible tells us that we should live a life in joyful expectation . . . expectation in the miraculous and in appreciation and in gratitude for all that God has given us.  We often hear in church the call to ‘praise God’ and to ‘give God the glory’.  These are really terms for gratitude and appreciation for all that he has done.

When we live in gratitude and appreciation for what we have been given, it lifts us from the feeling of being ‘required’ to do something to a better place of ‘wanting’ to do something.  For instance the law states that we are required to keep the Sabbath day, but a person living in God’s grace wants to keep the Sabbath, and desires to keep it out love and appreciation.  The Bible states that the tithe is required and yet a person in Christ desires to be generous to all . . . and searches for ways to help others even beyond the limits of the tithe.  We no longer need a law to tell us so, because the law is written in our hearts and minds.  In this way we have become God’s hands and heart and mind in the world . . . seeking out the hurting and unfortunate to help relieve suffering in the world.  This is at the heart of the Gospel . . . once we were outcast, but now are made whole and being one with the Father we are able to do his will wherever we may find ourselves.   No one knew this to be true better than Paul when he proclaimed to those who would criticize him . . . responding to them “I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that the gospel that was proclaimed by me is not of human origin; for I did not receive it from a human source, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ”.

You and I, and all believers, are living miracles of Jesus Christ in the world and can do great things when we believe.  Too often though, the world interferes with our mission and our purpose and we tend to be sidetracked by much of the gross commercialism and fear in which we find ourselves.  But to those who are truly called to be God’s children there are limitless opportunities to perform miracles in the world . . . . and just perhaps, we already have.

This week, I received emails and photos from two of our friends in East Africa.  One was from Fr. Samuel Kahene who wanted to send to you his thanks and blessings for the milling machine that was purchased last week and began producing flour for his community this week.  He mentioned that the Mary Joseph widows were utterly ‘speechless’ when he showed them the gift that Saint Nicholas Church provided for their welfare.  This new cottage industry will employ two men to run the machine who were among the orphans (now grown) that we are helping in Tanzania.

The other email was from Pastor George Nsamba of the Ugandan Mehodist Church, our mission partner there, who shared photos of the water project that Saint Nicholas Church installed at Maganjo Anglican Church in east Uganda, Africa.  The church there has 600 members that support two schools (an elementary and a middle school) with a total of 800 children.  The water collected at Maganjo makes it possible for the girls of the village to attend school now, where before they were needed to collect water at home.  This one water tank basically changed the future lives of over 300 people.

These two life giving projects show the kinds of miracles that God can perform when we give up ourselves to become His hands and heart and mind in the world.

And finally – a quote from C.S.Lewis:

Miracles are a retelling in small letters of the very same story which is written across the whole world in letters too large for some of us to see.

 

Amen

The Big Lie

cranach lucas baal painting

Many years ago, when I was a young guy just starting out in the business world, I was promoted into management by a national retail chain.  The stipulation was that I was to transfer to a new Chicago Store where I would be re-located for the foreseeable future.  At the time, Barbara and I were all for this move and we left Tonawanda with high hopes and maybe a little trepidation.  Upon arrival at the store, I came to meet my assistant manager named Joe Zaborowski dressed impeccably in a starched long sleeved shirt and tie and polished shoes, who as it turned out was sixty-two years old, and had been working for the company for nearly twenty years – but never made it to a manager position.  I, on the hand, had worked for the company less than two years, and became the youngest manager ever promoted in the company at age 25.

To say that Joe seemed upset upon meeting me was an understatement and I had the distinct feeling this situation wasn’t going to work out well at all.  It is difficult enough directing others to do things but to direct someone who could be my grandfather was a little too much to bear.  But I decided I would make a go of it.

Over the course of the next year or so, Joe became increasingly cynical about the way I ran the store and became angry with me on numerous occasions over things that seemed pretty insignificant to me at the time.  It finally got so bad that I finally had to ask what the problem was.  Why was he so belligerent towards me all the time?  I was worried that I might have to have to ask him to be transferred.

When I finally asked the question, Joe looked at me with a certain frown of disgust.  He rolled up his starched white shirt sleeve to reveal a tattoo scrawled on his arm.  I was shocked to see that it wasn’t just any tattoo, but a number given to him in a Nazi concentration camp.  He had been interned with Jews at Treblinka in Poland . . . and he hated me – not because I was young – as I had thought, but because I was German.  During the war, the Germans had tortured him with hard labor, they had abused his wife and killed his children and so he hated all Germans, even those who were American descendents of German immigrants.  Well, it took a while, but Joe and I eventually became friends over a couple of years through a building of mutual trust in each other.

Joe had lived through the greatest lie ever told.  By the time Nazism arose in Germany in the 1930s, anti-Semitism was nothing new. The Jewish people had suffered a long history of prejudice and persecution.  Anti-Semitism was manifested in a sweeping national policy known as “the Final Solution,” which sought to eliminate all the Jews from the face of the Earth (sound familiar?).

To accomplish this, Adolf Hitler and his minister of propaganda, Joseph Goebbels, launched a massive campaign to convince the German people that the Jews were the real enemy of Germany.  Having taken control of the national press, they spread numerous lies blaming Jews for all of Germany’s problems, including the loss of World War I. One outrageous lie dating back to the Middle Ages claimed that Jews engaged in the ritual killings of Christian children and used their blood in the unleavened bread eaten at Passover.

Using the Jews as the scapegoat, Hitler and his cronies orchestrated what we now would call “the big lie.” This theory states that no matter how big the lie is (or more precisely, because it’s so big), people will believe it if you repeat it often enough. Everyone tells small lies, Hitler reasoned, but few have the guts to tell colossal lies.  Because a big lie is so unlikely to be untrue, people will come to accept it and believe it.  And because the Germans believed it, the Jewish people in Poland and Germany were rounded up and interned in concentration camps and many millions were killed or exterminated, all on account of the Big Lie.

Today’s Old Testament lesson describes another, even Bigger Lie, that the prophet Elijah exposes today to the people of Israel.  The cult of Baal celebrated annually his death and resurrection as a part of Canaanite fertility rituals. These ceremonies often included human sacrifice and temple prostitution.

Priests of Baal taught the people that Baal was responsible for droughts, plagues, and other calamities that directly affected them.  People were often worked up into great frenzies at the prospects of displeasing this god Baal.  In times of great turbulence human sacrifices, particularly children, were made to Baal and another god called Molech.

The religion of the god Baal was widely accepted among the ancient Jews, and although it was put down at times, it was never permanently stamped out. Kings and other royalty of the ten Biblical tribes of Israel worshiped the god. The ordinary people ardently worshipped this god because they believed that their prosperity depended on the productivity of their crops and livestock.  The god’s images were erected on many buildings. Within the religion there appeared to be numerous priests and various classes of devotees.  During the ceremonies they wore appropriate robes. The ceremonies included burning incense, and offering burnt sacrifices, and occasionally consisted of human victims. The officiating priests danced around the altars, chanting frantically and cutting themselves with knives to inspire the attention and compassion of the god.

In the Bible Baal is also called Beelzebub, one of the fallen angels of Satan of which Jesus spoke on numerous occasions.

Into this mix came Elijah, severely outnumbered by the priests of Baal and challenged them to a sacrificial duel of sorts that put their god, Baal against the God of Abraham – the Ancient of Days.  As we read in the story, upon the sacrifice to Baal, nothing happened, even after the priests cut themselves and begged Baal to come; but upon the sacrifice to God, fire came down from heaven and consumed the sacrifice and the water that surrounded it.  The lie became impotent when the truth became clear, and the people in the story gave up their belief in Baal and chose instead to follow God.

In Galatia (which is in central Turkey) the Apostle Paul came to realize that some of the people he had taught had come to believe in a lie taught by others when Paul was absent from them.  He writes to them saying “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel– not that there is another gospel, but there are some who are confusing you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ.”  The church of Paul’s day like the church of Elijah’s day fought heresy, corruption and lies told by the enemies of God.

Today Christians face many of the same challenges that were faced by the ancient Israelites, by the Galatians of Paul’s day and the Germans of not so long ago.  The Big Lie today is that somehow God has changed his mind, and that  Biblical truths are now outdated and no longer apply to anything we do in the modern world.  Christians who hold an orthodox view now considered mean and un-Christlike, homophobic and without compassion.  The Big Lie of today tells us that people should be allowed to have sex for recreation and to murder their unborn for the sake of convenience (just like the Canaanites).  They should be allowed to marry whomever they wish (male or female) as many times as they wish (and probably soon to be with as many as they wish at one time).  The Big Lie tells us that Christians should be allowed to worship God the Father along with any other god (or no god) as suits their preference . . . and the institutional church and the government have decided to go along with this because it is the ‘will of the people’ and we are a ‘democracy’ where majority rules.  And so, if you stand against abortion, against equal marriage, against redistribution of wealth, (and soon to be) against euthanasia, you are deemed un-American, unpatriotic, unchristian and possibly an enemy of the state.  These are the challenges that we face today as Orthodox Christian believers in a world that has fallen for the Biggest Lie of all time.  We, like Elijah today, are vastly outnumbered by the priests of this new religion based on a lie . . . but like Elijah, we have something the our adversaries do not have . . . we have the Truth and it is the truth that sets us free, but like Elijah shows us, the truth takes great courage to reveal it to others.

I have found that courage is quite rare in many Christian circles. This explains the surrender of so many denominations, seminaries, and churches to the current liberal agenda. But no surrender on this issue would have been possible, if the authority of Scripture had not already been undermined by leadership in the church.  And yet, even as courage is required to combat this fall, these times call for another Christian virtue as well, that of compassion.

True compassion demands speaking the truth in love . . .  and so here is the problem we face when encountering the Big Lie in the world today.  Far too often, our courage among the orthodox is more evident than our compassion. In too many cases, the options left to us seem to be reduced to these . . . liberals preaching love without truth, and conservatives preaching truth without love . . . all this with the immortal souls of men and women hanging in the balance.

I believe that we are failing the test of compassion. If the first requirement of compassion is that we tell the truth, the second requirement must surely be that we reach out to those who disagree with us with the Gospel. This means that we must develop caring ministries to make that concern concrete, and learn how to help everyone escape the powerful bonds of sin–even as we help others to escape their own bonds by grace.

If we are really a Gospel people; if we really love everyone (including homosexuals and abortionists) and other sinners; then we must be willing to reach out to them with a sincerity that makes that love tangible. We have not even approached that requirement until we are ready to say to everyone, “We want you to know the fullness of God’s plan for you, to know the forgiveness of sins and the mercy of God, to receive the salvation that comes by faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, to know the healing God works in sinners saved by grace, and to join us as fellow disciples of Jesus Christ, living out our obedience and growing in grace together.”

Because such were all of us, at one time or another, in our lives . . . but the church is not a place where sinners are welcomed to remain in their sin.  To the contrary, it is the Body of Christ, made up of sinners transformed by grace. Not one of us here deserves to be accepted within the beloved.  It is all because of God’s grace that each one of us here has come out of sin.

Indeed, I believe we err if we call homosexuality or abortion, or any number of evils something other than sin.  But we also sin if we act as if these sins cannot be forgiven – because they can.  We cannot settle for the state of ambiguity in which we find ourselves . . . that is preaching truth without love or love without truth.

This week it was reported that a former gay porn star by the name of Jake Genesis turned from his previous life in pornography and returned to his Catholic roots and accepted Jesus Christ as his Lord and Savior.  Mr. Genesis relates in his blog that he is now on a journey of “reconciliation, forgiveness and redemption” within the Church.  He knows God’s mercy is “infinite” and quite naturally, at the same time, he struggles to work out how and why he lived eight months of [his] life in absolute contradiction to who he knew he really was.

The story of our lives might be different from his, but we are all, nevertheless, on a similar journey. Jake Genesis’s story reminds us to pray for all victims, both adult and children, of a hellish world that he has managed to escape, because whether you might believe he was a priest or a victim of the Big Lie, God’s grace is sufficient and he is now truly free . . . and truly forgiven.

The genuine Body of Christ reveals itself by courageous compassion, and compassionate courage. We see this realized only when people like my friend Joe Zaborowski or a pornstar named Jake Genesis are freed by God’s grace from the bondage of sin and feel free to stand and declare their testimony–and when we are ready to welcome them as fellow disciples into our midst.   Amen

Plan Ahead

planAhead

This past Friday some acquaintances of ours happened to come by our house to ask if they could use our cabin for a few days.  Under normal circumstances this would have been fine with us, but last week we were having some problems with the electrical system so there was no power on at the cabin.  We explained to them that with no power it meant there would be no water, no shower, no heat and no toilet facilities.  This they took in stride and said, fine we we’ll go anyway.  It was my intention to go down on Friday night to fix the electrical problem for other guests, one’s that were expected to arrive on Saturday and stay through Memorial Day.  But these, unexpected guests would need to ‘make do’ with what was available to them.  About 4 hours after their arrival, one of the unexpected called to find out when we’re coming down . . . they found themselves, thirsty, cold, hungry and desperately needing to use the bathroom.  They found themselves suffering and in the cold because of two important reasons:  one, the cabin wasn’t ready for them, and two, they weren’t expected.  Had they been on the schedule we would of course have made the place ready for their arrival.

This little incident got me thinking about today’s sermon about a number of things going on today including a baptism, Memorial Day and Trinity Sunday all rolled up into one weekend.

I think most of realize that if we plan something (whether it be a vacation, a weekend, or a picnic) ahead of time, things usually work out as expected.  There are of course always those things that can prop up unexpectantly, but for the most part we know that things will work out.  For those who do NO planning ahead of time there is always the fear of the unknown, the worry that the money will run out, or in the case of our friends, they’ll be holed up in the wilderness in misery with no power, no heat and no water. This is how it works in the real world.

Well by no chance coincidence, this is how it works in the spiritual world as well.  The founders of our country knew in the beginning that if they founded this country on the basis of a firm belief in God, and if they dedicated this country to God, that the providence and protection of God would see the plan through.  We read, of course, from the words of the Declaration of Independence stating . . . We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.  The founding fathers believed in a Creator and planned this country on the solid rock of a belief in God.  And so by turning toward God in this endeavor, God turned toward them and guided the nation into all truth and under the arms of his almighty protection.  But as you may be aware something has changed in the past generation . . . our country has turned away from God and belief by taking God out of the public square and replacing Him with a new religion . . . one of political correctness.  From the Book of Jeremiah we read a passage about another nation (Israel) also founded on a belief in God that turned its back on God.  It reads . . . ‘For my people have done two evil things: They have abandoned me–the fountain of living water.  And they have dug for themselves cracked cisterns that can hold no water at all!’ Jeremiah 2:13.   When Israel had done this evil, God abandoned them to their own ways . . . their country fell to invaders and the people were enslaved in captivity.

There are signs that God has not given up on us yet but it seems to me that the time is running out for us unless we do something . . . soon.

Just as we celebrate this Memorial Day how our country was founded on the blood of patriots and the rock of our salvation so to, do we celebrate when one community or one family or even one person is brought to Christ.  Today we baptize one child into the household of faith.  The Church has been founded on such as these and as long as there are believers who have accepted Jesus into their hearts there will be hope for a brighter future.   I am asked occasionally why we baptize small children who cannot know what is going on.  We baptize children as an introduction into the kingdom of God.  Is it the end of their instruction?  By no means!  Baptism is the initiation of a believer into the Kingdom of Heaven.  It is by virtue of baptism that a child’s name is written into the book of life by the Holy Spirit.  Baptism is the foundation of a child’s faith, but each child will continue to have a number of opportunities in his life to renew his acquaintance with God, with Jesus and with the Holy Spirit, but it is this one initial act, through the faith of his sponsors, that a little child is made free from the bondage of sin and becomes an inheritor of the kingdom . . . and so it seems planning is everything.

Today is also Trinity Sunday which celebrates the mystical being of God, the Almighty in the three persons, Father, Son and Holy Ghost.  Along with the virgin birth, the dogma of the Trinity are two of the most difficult Christian concepts for people to understand.  This is mainly because we all know where babies come from and if there is a God, how is it that He is three?  Where does it say that in the Bible?  Well, it doesn’t say that at all.  And that is what we need to consider today.

Biblical scholars over the years have pieced together evidence from the Holy scriptures that infers the essence of God as three personalities if you will, yet one being.  The Father was addressed by Jesus on many occasions usually prior to a miracle; and in the Lord’s Prayer which we are all familiar with.  The advocate, or Holy Ghost, or Spirit of God was also addressed by Jesus when he told the Apostles that the Spirit would come to them only if he, Jesus had left them to prepare a place for them.  Jesus, the Messiah of God, was expected by the prophets throughout the Old Testament and is specifically described in Isaiah as a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.

From these few examples of the many verses in scripture, the church has stitched together a picture of God as three in one and as one in three.  Though God is totally unknowable by any of us, we have come to the conclusion that this picture is the most accurate way of describing the essence of God’s being.

In a book I read a few months ago, called Heaven is for Real, a six year old boy travels with his father in the family car and becomes involved in a horrible accident.  The boy’s father lives through this by the grace of God, but his small son dies of a broken neck and is revived only to be in a coma for almost a year.  The story is about the boy’s arduous, but miraculous recovery and his near death experiences and how God gives him the grace to return and to tell his tale.  It is a best seller and a true story narrated by the boy’s father who is a pastor.

The little boy comes back to describe what he saw and his experiences in heaven, how Jesus has a cousin there, and a horse; that God the Father sits on a throne but there are clouds of smoke hiding his face and winged angels are flying all around him and that the Holy Ghost is blue and other angels guard the walls surrounding the throne in heaven.  He goes on to describe other children in the presence of God’s throne and how he met a little girl who had no name but who turned out to be the boy’s sister who his mother had miscarried before he was born.  Every believer ought to read this book to get a better understanding of the reality which is heaven.

If God can be compared to something other than a Trinity, I believe that he might best be compared successfully as a family . . . though many voices, one force for good in the world.

The concept of the Trinity becomes easier when we come to the realization that we need not know all the facts or all the answers but to accept it on faith through the spirit of God.  Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit.  What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit.  Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’  The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”

Jesus did not die for the sake of your religion, he died for you.  Jesus came so that those who would believe in this concept of the family of God, might choose to join Him and his Father and the Sprit in the heavenly kingdom.  Though we are separated from him in sin, the sacrifice of his blood cleanses us; enabling us to enter into the presence of God as a friend and not a stranger.  And so we stand justified in the presence of God and are welcomed as guests, soon expected, into the kingdom of heaven.

As Paul today wrote . . . Since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God.  And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.

Amen.

Pentecost . . . Birthday of the Church

pentecost

Today is the Birthday of the Church.  We who celebrate today celebrate 1,980 years of history beginning at the reading from Acts today as the tongues of fire settled on the apostles, and as the story reads:  ‘All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability’.

Today from the book of Genesis we read again about the story of the building of a great city and of the Tower of Babel in modern day Iraq.  Do you remember this story from your Sunday School days?  The leader Nimrod was a king so drunk with his own power that he ordered a tower built as high as heaven.  When it was complete, Nimrod ascended the stairs to the very top of the tower.  Do you remember why?  It was to shoot an arrow into the eye of God.  Nimrod had decided that there should be only one God to rule the earth and by symbolically killing the God in heaven, he was about to take the place of God on earth.  But what happened?  Because God had envisioned this as only the start of mankind’s ascendancy on earth, He said, ‘Let us go down and confuse their language’ because the people had become very evil in the sight of God.  And so all the people who Nimrod had ruled began to speak and hear different languages.  And so, Nimrod’s power was diluted because he could no longer influence his followers or lead them in the way he wanted them to go.  And so, as the story goes, the people dispersed from the tower of Babel and went off to find others who spoke in the same language.  These groups left the country and settled in families, clans and nations over the face of the whole earth.  The people who were left, including Nimrod and a few of his followers named the city ‘Babylon’ because it was here, where the tongues of men were confused by God.  (It is also where we get the word to babel and also baby).

But the Day of Pentecost changed all that.  Pentecost is God’s reversal of the action he made at Babylon 4,000 years before.  By giving the followers of Jesus the gift of tongues, God gave back the ability of men to speak as one voice, to the great works and creation of God.  God, in effect, gave the power to the Church what he had taken from mankind a long time ago.  Jesus predicted this when he told the disciples that if he didn’t return to heaven, the Spirit would not come.  But if he did return, God would give his Spirit to all who asked and great power to all who confessed Jesus as the Son of God.

As I grew up in the church, it became apparent to me in the early seventies that we were missing something.  I knew we loved God and we believed in his Word, but when I read the various readings about tongues and the interpretation of tongues, I wondered how was this possible, and if it was possible in the days of the early church, why wasn’t it possible in today’s church?  And so I began to search out prayer meetings, which were the beginnings of the charismatic movement of the day.  I am not sure many of you remember the early seventies, but there was a movement brought about by the Spirit in those days that provided an avenue for Christians to seek out all nine gifts of the Holy Spirit.  As you should be aware by now there are nine gifts of the Spirit: wisdom, knowledge, faith, healing, miracles, prophecy, discernment of spirits, tongues, and the interpretation of tongues.

Most of us, no doubt, have no problem with wisdom, knowledge or faith.  But, many of us might start to get uneasy at healing, miracles, and prophesy.  And there have been some in the past who have gotten downright angry at the discussion of discernment of spirits, tongues and the interpretation of tongues.

But it is as true today as it was back in the seventies that fear breeds contempt and the institutional church at that time was very much in fear of the whole notion of discernment of spirits, tongues and the interpretation of tongues.  They looked upon it as some kind of occult or voodoo even though it is clearly part of our Christian heritage and a blessing on the body of Christ.  The Episcopal bishop at the time did his best to quell this interest in the spiritual gifts by banning charismatic meetings from diocesan churches.  People who had an interest in developing these gifts had to meet in homes and in secret.  There were many hurt feelings and harmful accusations as Christians pigeonholed each other as ‘you’re one of us’ or ‘you’re one of them’.  The Roman Catholics, the Lutherans, the Presbyterians and the Methodists all had the same problem with their clergy and hierarchy.  But there were two places where the charismatic movement was embraced.  One was the Full Gospel Businessmen’s Fellowship and the other was the Franciscan Community at Corpus Christi Church on the east side.

For about five or six years I went to weekly prayer meetings at Corpus Christi Church on Clark Street.  There, I had the privilege to witness the awesome power of God in the lives of many believers in the charismatic movement.  Here was a place where tongues were sought out and interpretations and discernment was revealed.  At first, I wasn’t exactly sure what was going on.  Many would sit quietly for what seemed like an eternity praying for the Spirit to come upon them.  Then . . . as if on cue everyone began speaking in languages that I had never heard before.  I thought at first, this is impossible!  But my interest was piqued and I decided to continue to look for proof that this was all real.  Others, many others, were in the same position as I.  We were curious, we were startled, and we were skeptical, all at the same time.  Until one night, a man stood up and spoke in a very clear voice a language that was totally incomprensible to me and yet vaguely familiar in meter.  Next to me sat an Asian women who all of a sudden started to cry.  She asked the man how he had come to learn Mandarin Chinese as he was totally fluent in it and it was a very obscure dialect.  The lady had been born in the only part of China where this language was used.  The man said he had never been outside of Buffalo and that the language he spoke was his prayer language.  The lady then began to translate what the man had said.  It was the Lord’s Prayer, complete, right down to the Amen.

 

That is when I believed that this was all very real!

 

The charismatic movement in mainline churches ended almost as quickly as it had started.  Those in the movement began to believe that God the Holy Spirit had come upon the Church to begin a new work, just as he had come upon the church in the early days that we read about this morning.  From this movement many new churches were founded and ministries established.  Churches were formed that were non-traditional and based on the outpouring of all of the gifts of the Holy Spirit.  That is what is meant by the term ‘Full Gospel’.  Today, as I mentioned, the Full Gospel Church is one of the largest churches in WNY.

So you might wonder.  What are we doing wrong?  Why aren’t we Anglicans raising our voices in tongues and being slain in the Spirit?

You have to know that not all are led to this kind of worship.  As the Bible says, there are a variety of gifts and varieties of services, but it is the same Lord who activates them all.  To each is given a manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.  The proof of ‘our’ pudding as Anglicans is in our liturgy and in our tradition.  It is the way we have worshipped for the last 1,500 years.  It is the way the Spirit came to us originally.  The charismatics are not wrong, but neither are we.  We are simply different in our approach to the presence of God in our lives.  All of you are welcome and in fact I encourage you to find out more about the charismatic movement.

Our current bishop would encourage all of us to become more empowered by the Holy Spirit in our lives.  It is one sure fire way to liven things up in our church.

Perhaps the most important lesson I learned from all this was written by Paul to his letter to the Corinthians (and I am sure you will recognize it):

1: Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not love, I am become as a sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal.

2: And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge; and though I have all faith, so that I could move mountains, and have not love, I am nothing.

3: And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, and have not love, it profits me nothing.

4: Love suffers long, and is kind; love does not envy; love is never puffed up,

5: Love does not behave unseemly, love is not easily provoked, love thinks no evil;

6: Love rejoices not in iniquity, but rejoices in the truth;

7: Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

8: Love never fails: but whether there be prophecies, they shall fail; whether there be tongues, they shall cease; whether there be knowledge, it shall vanish away.

9: For we know in part, and we prophesy in part.

10: But when that which is perfect comes, then that which is in part shall disappear.

11: When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.

12: For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.

13: And now abides faith, hope, love, these three; but the greatest of these is love.

 

I will end with these words, if you desire one (or more) of the gifts of the Holy Spirit, you need only ask in prayer every day.  It may take week, it may take month, or a lifetime, but God will answer you and the Spirit will come, I guarantee it.  When it happens, please come and tell me about it. Amen.

Courage . . . Faith Under Fire

    courage4

In today’s first reading Paul faces a perplexing problem.  On the one hand, it was apparently God who caused an earthquake in order to open the gates of Paul’s prison.  On the other hand, Paul knew that if he and Barnabus were to escape, his jailer would probably be killed because he failed to control his prisoners.  Paul makes his decision to stay in his open prison and help convert the jailer.  In the story, we read, that not only is the jailer converted but, through Paul, the jailor’s whole family is converted to Christ because of this one decision by Paul to be God’s disciple.

This is a story about discipleship, about what happens if you follow God.  It is the story of every disciple – every single disciple.  Basically, you’ve got to ask yourself. . . If you are a Christian, did God not call you?  Has God Himself not set you free?  Has God Himself not commissioned you?  And ultimately, as God not given you a completely new set of problems because of this?

However, these are the right kinds of problems.  Problems, like Paul has today.  But, have you ever thought there are problems that God never intended you to have?  Right now, there are probably burdens that you are bearing which God never intended you to bear.  Those problems may even be consuming your best energies.  In my own life I have occasionally faced the wrong kind of problems.  Several years back I felt that almost all the responsibility at my work place had fallen on my shoulders.  When a problem needed solving, it was Ed that solved it.  When a computer glitch happened . . . again, it was Ed that they came to fix it.  If a customer had a problem, it was to Ed that he was referred.  Over the years Ed did just about everything and made himself indispensable to everyone until one day Ed had to ask myself, ‘What the h–l are you doing to yourself?’  Actually, I don’t think it was Ed who said that.  But the voice went on, ‘you can’t sleep, you can’t escape the phone calls, faxes and e-mails, you are working day and night for people who are basically not grateful and . . . you need to quit!’  After which, I can remember, there was what is called ‘a pregnant pause’ on my part.  What do you mean . . . QUIT?  I’m fifty-five years old…where am I going to go?  To which God responded, ‘I’ll figure that out, you just get ready to leave’. And so I did.

There is quote from Paul’s letter to the Romans that states ‘And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose.’  I have always known that, but sometimes it becomes a little harder to believe when the rubber meets the road, sort of speak.  But, I was so miserable that I thought I would give it a chance, and for six months I worked as if the end was coming, all the while trusting God that He would provide a way out.  And I’m happy to report, He did not let me down.  The people at my job were in shock for a week when I told them I was leaving, but there was no turning back.  Not only did God provide the same job with fewer hours and more help, but also more pay and more time off.  The decision was set because I believed that this is what God wanted for me to do.  If I hadn’t absolutely believed it, I most certainly would never have done it.  I was unemployed for week while I waited for the new job to start.  And do you know what? . . . It felt great . . . it felt like freedom.  And I think that is what God was trying to get across to me.  And I think that is what God tries to get across to all of us . . .  that within his love you will find perfect freedom.

This week as the story about the abuse of the three kidnapped women surfaced, I have wondered about the motives behind the mind of the accused perpetrator.  You have to wonder why these acts were seemingly, not a problem for him and you really have to wonder why.  We who live in a civilized society find violence of this type completely repugnant to our way of life.  You have to wonder how this man could be so inclined to perform these acts and yet be a product of a civilized society that embraces freedom and liberty above all else.  How is it, I wonder, could he choose to do something so wrong?

You and I, like Paul, are always given difficult choices in life.  Some of the problems we get dealt are indeed difficult, but never without a choice.  We have the power always to choose life and light, although sometimes it comes at a very high cost.  It is reported that one of the men who ‘blue the whistle’ in Benghazi now hides in fear.  But, I cannot but think that he did the right thing.

The orthodox churches and dioceses in the Episcopal Church who left for moral reasons and for what they believe some years ago are today, also paying a dear price, through litigation and the loss of jobs, money, and property.  Was worth it to them?  I really have to wonder.

All of us travel down the road of our lives as free beings made in the image of God.  Personally, I really doubt God sees us as Anglicans or Episcopalians, or Roman Catholics, or Lutherans.   To God, we are either believers or unbelievers.  There is no gray area of ‘almost believer‘ or ‘nearly a believer’.

At each fork in the virtual road of life he gives each of us a choice, and at every fork he asks us to choose life.  As desciples of Christ, it is sometimes our pleasure to choose what is right, and sometimes it is in trepidation that we are obliged to choose what is right in spite of our personal thoughts and feelings.  What we need to understand is that true discipleship carries with it the burden of courage.  And courage is actually faith under fire.  Very often we need to make life changing decisions that affect everyone around us.  They are not easy to make.  They take a lot of soul searching and planning.  But, if we believe, (truly believe) that God is in our corner, there is nothing that we cannot face, there is nothing that is insurmountable.  This goes for changing a career, having a baby, getting married, getting a divorce, quitting a bad habit or simply starting one’s life over again.  Paul and Barnabus knew this to be true, and so did our Lord Jesus Christ when he willingly went to the cross to die for our sakes.

Perhaps Paul explained best in his letter to the Romans when he wrote:

For whether we live, we live unto the Lord; and whether we die, we die unto the Lord: whether we live therefore, or die, we are the Lord’s possession.  Once we are God’s there is nothing else that matters.  Amen

City of God

treeoflife

When I was small, one of my family’s favorite vacationing and visiting spots was the City of Toronto.  I remember prior to the first time I ever went there, while we were planning the trip, I asked my father what Toronto was like.  He tried to describe it to me in every way that I could understand.  He told me of the trolley cars, and the tall buildings, and unique architecture and the ocean going ships in the harbor.  He told me about subways, and the Planetarium and the CNE and how we would see all this for ourselves when we finally got there.  This all seemed very remarkable to a five year old who had never ventured outside of Tonawanda.  As the days came and went and the excitement built and as the hour arrived to leave, I remember sitting in our car both in awe and in a little fear what this adventure would be like.  It was for me, like some mystical place, where dreams might come true.  As we traveled closer to Toronto, my dad told me to keep an eye out for the city in the distance, because even as far as we were from it, we might be able to see its tall buildings from 40 or 50 miles away.  I remember I sat in my seat, mesmerized, looking at the horizon, waiting for some clue to this magical place.  And then suddenly, as the morning fog lifted in the distance, I was able to make out gleaming skyscrapers reflecting the morning sunrise, brilliant white and marble against a clear blue sky.  And in my own little five year old mind, all I could say about the whole experience was one word  . .  . OZ!

One of the beliefs that we humans hold in common, whether Christian or Buddhist, Hindu, Moslem or Jew is a story of a great place where we will one day live in eternity.  We might call it Nervana, or Paradise or Heaven, but in reality it is the place described in the epistle reading today as the City of God.  Countless prophets have tried to describe it to us as a place of abiding peace, of everlasting light and a place of healing for both the spiritual and physical soul. It is also described as a place for the healing of nations and peoples.  One of the main themes of all religions regarding heaven is that it is a place of living water.  In the vision of Revelation to John, a river of Living Water runs down the main street and in its midst stands the Tree of Life.  You might remember the Tree of Life appears in Genesis, the first book of the Bible and then, after the fall of Adam and Eve, it mysteriously disappears until the last book of our bible when it is found in today’s vision of heaven.  It is this tree that takes its own life from God the Father that gives eternal life and healing to all creation.  It is the fruit of this Tree of Life that we lost at the fall and it is this fruit that we will re-gain in the new life of the resurrection and eternal life.

But how is it that the tree of life and the importance of living water transcend the boundaries of belief?  Is it possible that all religions have a common source?   As you may know, I work in Niagara Falls.  Over the course of my many years working there, I have noticed one group in particular who sort of ‘hang out’ there.  During certain times of the year, the local restaurants overflow with Japanese people.  They seem to be everywhere.  I mentioned this to a local one day and his explanation took me by surprise.  It seems that a particular sect of the Japanese Shinto religion believe in the healing power of certain ‘living waters’.  I thought to myself at the time (thinking about the antiquated chemical factories I often work at in the Falls), “Where are they going to find living water around here?”  But, as it turns out, Living Water to them is unsalted (fresh) water that is flowing (or falling) and that, as it turns out, is the exact definition of Living Water in the Bible.  Water that is flowing or falling, just like Niagara Falls . . . the Greek word for it can be translated as ‘quick’ or ‘lively’.  And so the Shinto believers come to Niagara Falls ‘en mass’ to experience the power of living water falling down the Niagara rapids.

As you may be aware, one of the main draws of the Hindu Religion is the River Ganges, but its second and more mystical draw is, of all things, our own Lake Ontario, because of its fresh water qualities and the fact that it is fed by the Living Water of Niagara Falls.  Each spring, Hindu pilgrims travel to a particular spot near Olcott Beach to bath and be refreshed in the living waters of Lake Ontario.

So, does moving water promote healing?  Ask anyone who has undergone whirlpool therapy and you will get a resounding ‘yes’.  During the 1800’s people came from all over the world to just stand in the presence of the water of Niagara for the feel of its roaring thunder.  Obviously, they came here to see a natural wonder, but mostly, they came for its healing properties.  We who live here probably don’t give two thoughts about the fresh water that surrounds us, but most of the world, about 3/5, do not have access to clear drinking water.  In Western New York, we have 20% of the entire world’s supply less than 5 minutes from our church. Unfortunately, in the not too distant future this water will become as important to the world as oil is now.

But there are other types of healing that are not directly water related.  In today’s lesson Paul and Barnabas heal a man with a birth defect.  To the people of the time, and even to us today, this was truly a miracle.  Today, doctors can easily heal a broken arm or a leg, but how often do you hear of some one being cured of a genetic defect?  But to God though, all things are possible, and that is why as the story today continues the people start to pay homage to Paul and Barnabas as the incarnation of their gods Zeus and Hermes in human form.  In the expanded story, Paul explains to the Greeks that he is a man like any other but is simply preaching a new way to perceive the Divine though God’s only son Jesus Christ . . . that God has been working and continues to work to get his message across to all the peoples of the earth.  How? By sending life giving rain (living water if you will) and all kinds of fruit and all types of food in its season within an ordered universe making the heart glad and his people rejoice in living.

Paul tells us that God is all around us and comes to us in the natural wonder of creation if only we have the eyes to perceive him and the ears to ear him.  The rain which falls from heaven falls not only on the just and merciful but also sustains those who are cruel and evil and gives life to all creation.  The food we eat sustains us and all those around us.  The air we breathe, the food we eat, the water we drink are the gifts of the God of Life who lives within his creation as the sustainer of all.  These are the proofs that Paul gives that God exists.

But there are other less tangible proofs.  One the best is the one we celebrate on Mother’s Day and that is a Mother’s love for her children.  Many think of God solely as a father . . . loving but stern, forgiving but just, peaceful but forceful, but in a great many ways God can be compared to a mother . . . nurturing, loving, caring and sustaining.  To me it would seem that God can be described either way without ambiguity.  Perhaps that is why the new revised translations embrace the word ‘God’ over Father.  Jesus of course called God ‘Father’ and also used the Aramaic word ‘Abba’ which means ‘Daddy’.  But in the same breath it was Jesus who described God as mother when he said, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing”.  And so we have mystery . . . but do we?

Child Trends, a center-left child welfare organization reported recently:

“Research clearly demonstrates that family structure matters for children, and the family structure that helps the most is a family headed by two-biological parents in a low-conflict marriage. Children in single-parent families, children born to unmarried mothers, and children in stepfamilies or cohabiting relationships face higher risks of poor outcomes. . . There is thus value for children in promoting strong, stable marriages between biological parents.”

What does this mean?  It means that it was no accident in how God ordained and ordered marriage as making the most sense to bring children into the natural world.  The union of a man and a woman, a mother and a father brings to a relationship a balance of proportions that mirrors the essence of the Divine.  And it is only out of these two opposites that new life can be created.  But how life is brought forth through both the ecstasy of sexual expression and the pain of birth gives us an even clearer vision of the way God thinks.

Jesus answered and said unto him, If a man love me, he will keep my words: and my Father will love him, and we will come unto him, and make our abode with him.  Jesus goes on to explain just who this ‘we’ is.  The Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost, the Comforter and Guide, a God of three in one and one in three offering himself to be with us, to live in us, and to give us counsel, direction, spirituality and peace . . . but only if we ask him to . . . this belief in the Trinity being a basis of orthodox Christianity.

As you may be aware, today, orthodox Christianity is under attack from every side, more so than any other religion, simply because it is the only one that is based on the truth.  The enemies of Christ could care less about Islam or any other false religion.  Satan doesn’t need to destroy them because they ARE false and thereby help his cause by luring others away from a saving faith in Jesus Christ.  You have to consider the fact that if Christianity were a lark, no one would waste their time trying to tear it down.  Atheists would be just that – neutral, non-God believing people, shaking their heads at the simple-mindedness of others who believe in silly gods.  But instead many of them see themselves as anti-Christian crusaders (and rarely anti-RELIGION crusaders).  Why?  Because Christianity is true.  It is exactly as Jesus himself foretold in the Gospels: “Before all these things take place, however, you will be arrested and persecuted; you will be handed over to be tried in synagogues and be put in prison; you will be brought before kings and rulers for my sake… You will be handed over by your parents, your brothers, your relatives, and your friends; and some of you will be put to death. Everyone will hate you because of me.” (Luke 21:12, 16-17, GNB) Personally speaking, these single-minded attacks on my faith actually emphasize the fact that Christianity IS the one, true faith, and are a comfort to me in my belief and should be in yours as well.

We have heard much in the news lately about abortion and homosexual marriage.  The mainstream media has done a great job in trying to convince all of us that these subjects are about fairness and justice, but in fact they are neither just nor fair.  Abortion is about the death of a human soul, it is about Satan’s continuing attempt to legitimize the wholesale disposal of God’s people in these end times.   And, if you examine it closely, gay marriage is not really about marriage at all . . . since the great majority of Gay people do not want to marry . . . but it is a desire that society legitimize a lifestyle that is not intended for the purpose of family or pro creation.  It is about making the sacrament of marriage irrelevant to the masses and replacing it with a lie.  Both are about taking something that God ordered as a way of life and twisting it into something quite unintended by the Holy Spirit.  I am aware that we may each hold differing opinions on these two subjects.  Your opinion may be quite different than mine, but, in the end, it is left to the Church to safeguard the faith once delivered from the saints.  As we have witnessed for ourselves, when a church upholds what is heretical and evil, it risks much and will wither and die.  When it upholds the truth, it will flourish and grow.  These are biblical truths that cannot be denied and so this church will continue to stand for the truth for as long as we are able with Christ being our guide.

God has over the ages been present with us through the natural world.  He has made himself known to us through his creation and in the parameters and order of married family life.  He comes to us daily  . . . in living water . . . . as rain, as waterfalls and even in our personal daily shower.  He provides living water to refresh us, food to nourish us and love to sustain us.  He has done all this to make himself known and has revealed himself in all religions and in all beliefs throughout the whole world and across all of time.  But it was through the willing sacrifice of God’s only son, Jesus Christ that we have been given proof positive of God’s existence and his abiding love for us.  It is through Jesus Christ that we are truly made free and inheritors of the City of God that awaits those who truly call upon his name . . .

And he showed me a pure river of water of life, clear as crystal, proceeding out of the throne of God and of the Lamb.  In the midst of the street of it, and on either side of the river, was there the tree of life, which bare twelve manner of fruits, and yielded her fruit every month: and the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations.  And there shall be no more curse: but the throne of God and of the Lamb shall be in it; and his servants shall serve him:   And they shall see his face; and his name shall be in their foreheads.     Amen

The Road to Damascus

Pauls Conversion

Some time ago, on television, there was a program about Saint Paul. The announcer was taping from the Vatican in Rome and was interviewing a number of people to answer the question “Who was Paul?” The funny thing about their answers was that not one person knew who Paul was. Some said, “one of the disciples”, while others just shrugged their shoulders not knowing what to say . . . all the while standing outside St. Paul’s Cathedral in the heart of the Vatican.
Today’s first lesson describes what happens to Saul of Tarsus (later named Paul) on his way to the Jewish temple at Damascus. Do you remember what his mission was? He was a prosecutor of believers of ‘the Way’ (the original name of people who followed the teachings of Jesus – today we call them Christians) and he was hunting them down, one by one, both men and women, to bring them back to the temple at Jerusalem to stand trial for blasphemy. He believed at the time that the Jewish religion needed to be cleansed of the belief that Jesus of Nazareth was the Messiah. But, of Course, Jesus had another idea.
In order to get Saul’s attention, Jesus struck him blind for three days! I don’t know about you, but that would sure get my attention. And after a series of supernatural type events of healing, conversion and baptism, Saul went on to be Paul, one of the first apostles chosen outside of the inner circle of disciples. It was Paul who nearly single handedly converted the entire Roman Empire to Christianity. It is largely because of Paul, that we, who are of European descent are sitting in these pews today. One of Paul’s letters is read nearly every Sunday of the Church year. It was Paul who came up with the idea of ‘Justification by Faith’. It was also Paul who got the former Jews to accept male converts without the need of circumcision. It was also Paul who proclaimed that the dietary laws did not apply to non-Jews who became Christians. All this, from a former enemy of the original twelve, an ultra conservative orthodox Jew who hunted down fellow Jews to have them put on trial for their religious views and for believing in Jesus Christ. What do you think happened to change his mind?
This is, of course, the kind change that comes from an encounter with Jesus, even today. We may often kid each other about people who we consider ‘Jesus Freaks’, but if there was ever a poster child for a Jesus Freak, it had to be Paul. Here was a man who made a complete 180 degree turn around in his life. Here also was a man who was put in prison for his faith and chained like an animal and finally martyred for his faith like the Lord he had come to trust and love. Here also was a man who was made into an example for all believers to follow . . . a misguided person set straight by God’s own hand.
Many people that I have known in my life have had an encounter with Jesus. Fortunately, I guess, none were struck blind for three days, but some have had to go through some extraordinary lengths to be set on the right track. One of my friends at work was, admittedly a horrible hot head and a drunk who found Jesus in a prison cell. Today, he is still a hot head but has taken steps to control his temper and his drinking habits. Each week he attends Bible Study and a church group. He now holds down a full time job and is on way to becoming a success in life. Another friend was a prostitute before she also, was put into a jail cell and found the freedom of Jesus behind bars. I am sure that you know yourselves, many people who have had dramatic changes in their lives by accepting Jesus as their Lord and Savior.
So why do you suppose that with so much good going on and so much change happening in the lives of people due to Christianity, why aren’t our churches filled with believers? To answer this I want to tell you a story that happened to me some time ago:
At work, we had been doing a finish remodel of a Rite Aid Pharmacy that was open 24 hours a day. We happened to hire a new guy, an extra carpenter, to help out. Since this new guy was hired by our superintendent and didn’t know me, he asked one day if I was a salesman. One of the other carpenters said ‘No way . . . he’s your boss!’ At the time, I sort of agreed with him. But then I got to thinking about and in reality I was a salesman then and still am . . . and in fact we are all salesmen to one degree or another. A salesman convinces others to buy his product or service. A carpenter sells his time to his employer. A doctor sells his skill to his patients. A teacher sells her knowledge to her students. And so on. As a preacher, I am here to sell you (actually to persuade you) to an idea of what it is to be a Christian. As a believer, you are here to learn new ideas that you can pass along to those you know. But do you? Obviously Paul did to the people he knew, or most of us wouldn’t be sitting here today. But what about the people you know.

I am told that at St. Matthew’s, down the street, Fr. Bowles ended every service with the words, ‘The mass is ended and now the service begins!’. Fr. Bowles was right, because that is why we come to church, so that we can serve Christ in all others (especially those outside the church).
But how to you know when you have seen the Lord in others? How do you see Christ in all others? The disciples, in today’s gospel story, were met by a stranger on the shore, who told them where they might find some fish. At first they did not recognize the stranger as Jesus, but after they had hauled up 153 fish their eyes were opened and they knew they were in Jesus’ presence. Now of course this was after the resurrection, and you kind of have to wonder, what were the disciples doing fishing for fish, when they were suppose to be out fishing for men. I think Jesus came to remind them of their real destiny. I think Jesus comes to us too, to remind us of our true calling as followers of ‘the Way’.
Back at the Rite Aid where we were working, there was all kind of commotion going on, all at once. There were ceiling tiles being replaced, shelves being restocked, cabinets being installed, customers milling about and cash registers ringing. In the midst of this chaos, a voice asked, ‘How can you be so calm in the middle of all this commotion?’ It was the new carpenter speaking in my direction. What I should have said at the time was that ‘It is the peace of God that passes all understanding’, but unfortunately what came out was ‘For me, it’s just like being at home!’ So you see, even I can blow a perfectly good opportunity to sell my religion.
If we are lucky, Jesus comes to us again and again in spiritual encounter and renewal. He comes most markedly for me in the Holy Eucharist, in the prayers, and in the wonder and beauty of the natural world. For the apostle John he came in a vision of glory as he wrote the Book of Revelation in the reading today . . .

I looked, and I heard the voice of many angels surrounding the throne and the living creatures and the elders; they numbered myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands, singing with full voice,

“Worthy is the Lamb that was slaughtered
to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might
and honor and glory and blessing!”
Then I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them, singing,

“To the one seated on the throne and to the Lamb
be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!”
And the four living creatures said, “Amen!” And the elders fell down and worshiped.

Too many of us attempt to hide from God in our work, or in our play. Like the disciples in the Gospel story, we want to go off fishing when we should be working towards the kingdom. A few of us, like Paul, have great potential, but can only unleash it by being hit on the head, or by being made blind, or by being imprisoned. Sometimes I wonder just what God sees in any of us. But you know, he truly does love each and every one of us, with all our faults and folly. And I believe that is what he wants you to know today. Amen
 

He is Risen!

Women at the tomb

Alleluia, the Lord is Risen! The Lord is Risen indeed! Alleluia!

With these words the Church has rejoiced in the resurrection of Jesus Christ for nearly two thousand years. The proclamation is not new, but the exhortation of the proclamation is one of continual renewal and eternal hope. And although none of us were direct witnesses to the resurrection, we believe Jesus rose from the dead because of the testimony of those who were there, the disciples and the women who found the empty tomb. The Gospel this morning bears witness to these events and is for us an eyewitness account of the great miracle of Easter. It was Mary Magdalene, and Joanna, and Mary the mother of James, and some other women that were with them, which told these things to the apostles and thus, culminated in the Easter Resurrection story.
The story of Easter began in the far distant past. Before the Cross of Calvary, before the Manger in Bethlehem, before King Solomon and before King David, the prophets foretold of a great deed that God would accomplish in order that mankind might be freed from sin and death. The writings of the prophets Isaiah, Jeremiah and Micah and others were told and retold for over 20 generations before the actual event took place. And then, when it did, almost no one had a clue about what was going to happen. Chief among these were the scholars. . . the priests and the scribes who were the clergy and the lawyers of the day.

Although they had prided themselves on knowing the letter of the law and every verse in scripture, they were totally unprepared for the coming of the Messiah for whom they were waiting (and are still awaiting today). They thought they knew the story inside and out, but they were wrong. They were wrong because the Messiah that they wanted to believe in (a Messiah that would come as a conquering king) did not fit the profile of a suffering servant. The priests of the day wanted deliverance from the Roman Empire. They were looking for justice, not forgiveness. They were looking for vengeance, and not mercy. But when Jesus came, showing mercy, forgiveness, healing and compassion, it was too much for them to bear. In their own ignorance they sought to destroy Him, not because he was a man who claimed to be the Messiah, but because he wasn’t the one who fit their expectations of a vengeful and jealous Messiah who would destroy their greatest enemy which, at the time, was Rome.
They basically got the story wrong, but because they did, they fulfilled the prophets by sacrificing the Lamb of God on a cross for all our sakes. Jesus did not come to defeat the Roman Empire. He came to defeat sin and death. By dying on the cross he became for us a perfect and sacrificial offering for all our sins, and that is why we call him Lord. Because, by his sacrifice we have been released from sin . . . by his resurrection we have been delivered from death.
These last three days, beginning with our Lord’s death on Good Friday and ending with His resurrection on Easter are a commemoration of His life and death, they are about confrontation between darkness and light, they are about our rejection of God, our deliverance through God and our redemption by a God who loves us beyond our ability to understand. Easter is for the Church, and for us, a nexus where the spiritual and the physical worlds mysteriously become one for a brief moment in time. That mystery being that once we were lost, alone and chained to our sins, but today we are delivered, redeemed and restored to a God who loves us.
That is why it is so important for all of us to know the story of our deliverance. Over the course of a year, we hear at church about 160 Chapters of the Bible. But that leaves out thousands of Chapters we will never hear if we don’t read them for ourselves. Christians today are woefully shortchanged when it comes to hearing the whole story. Depicted above the tabernacle are the three Mary’s from the Bible – they are Mary Magdalene, Mary, the mother of Jesus, Mary, the sister of Martha. These are people we should all know about, but do we? When we sponsor a child in Baptism, we promise to bring them up in the Church’s teaching and fellowship. Part of this ‘bringing up’ is in retelling the story, the whole story, over and over until it is second nature to all of us. But how can a child learn from his sponsor, if his sponsor doesn’t know or share the story? This is the responsibility we all share in bringing our children to Christ.
In today’s world, when kids think of Easter, they think of chocolate eggs, and Bunnies and little marshmallow chicks and butter lambs, because that is what Hallmark and others want them to think about. And that isn’t a bad thing as long as they know that that isn’t all there is. There seems to be a pervasive conspiracy that is slowly eroding what the church regards as a Holy Day with what the world regards as a Holiday. Kids think of Easter as a time of eggs and bunnies instead of the New Birth that the eggs and bunnies represent. They think of Gouls and Goblins at Halloween instead of the Hallowed Saints that the Holy Day of All Saints represents. And they think of presents and Santa Claus instead of the true gift and meaning of Christmas. These are the kinds of things that children should be taught by their parents and by the Church so that the story can continue.
In these end times, it is important for all of us who are left to never be disheartened by the world. God loves us for who we are, he is the one person able to look past our faults and value who we are as a people. 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 our failures. He loves our creativity and our skill and our ability to love. And that is why he went to the cross, willingly, sacrificially, and on our behalf.
Our God is a sacrificial God and creation has inherited His sacrificial nature. His need is for us is to take on this sacrificial nature full time. To live a sacrificial and baptismal new 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 wrong. To be willing and able to lend a hand even when none is asked for or expected. 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 live out the story, we will know the story, and our children will see the story written in our lives.    Amen.

Why We Do what We Do

palm-sunday[1]

Long before I was born, my father’s family, who had come from northern Germany, settled in Buffalo and brought with them certain traditions that were reminiscent of German life. One of those traditions was to open presents on Christmas Eve. Each Christmas Eve was marked in the same way, with a large ham dinner (always ham) and eggnog. The dinner always started at 6:00 PM and always had the same wonderful treats each year. When my grandfather married my grandmother, who was from Ireland, there was a melding of German and Irish traditions. So along with opening some presents on Christmas Eve, most had to wait now until Christmas morning. The Christmas Eve dinner included Irish potato salad and other items mixed into the Ihde family’s traditional German ham and trimmings.
So when I was little, the family Christmas Eve tradition continued with this meld of German and Irish traditions, when in the 60’s, my mother found a great recipe and decided to add Swedish meatballs to the mix, and thus began a new offering each year of opening some presents on Christmas Eve, some on Christmas morning and always having ham, potato salad and Swedish meatballs every year.
So now 60 some years later, when my grandparents are all gone, and both my parents are gone, what do you suppose we had last Christmas Eve. We had German ham, my grandmother’s Irish potato salad, Swedish meatballs and egg nog. Why? Because this is now our tradition, an Ihde family liturgy for Christmas if you like, honoring our family’s past as well as looking to the future for generations to come.
Now I know our tradition might seem strange to a guest, especially if that guest comes from an entirely different traditional viewpoint. But those who have been invited to share with our family’s Christmas Eve tradition have remarked how at home they feel while this tradition is re-played each year. Everything seems to go, even though it really doesn’t. It goes together because we are confident that we are doing it the right way . . . and that is what makes all the difference in the world.
This week we celebrate the martyrdom of Thomas Camner who wrote the prose in our lectionary nearly 400 years ago. Thomas Cramner was a word smith genius who linked together texts directly from the Bible in such a way that the prayer book became for us not only a selected group of wonderfully written prayers but a liturgical tradition that has been unsurpassed since the beginnings of the Anglican Church. Cramner took all that was right with previous Christian thought and liturgy and wrapped it around the theme of the Good News . . . i.e. the Cross of Calvary being front and center to our salvation. For it is at the cross that our savior died, and it is at the cross, where our new life in Christ begins.
Today being Palm Sunday, I am often asked why we do the things we do. Suddenly, everything is changed! The cross which normally stands pre-eminent, is now subdued. We begin with songs of praise and acclamation and yet turn and yell out crucify him almost in the same breath.

It just doesn’t make sense.
It’s been said that Palm Sunday is the only schizophrenic day in the life of the church. It doesn’t go – and yet – for those who know the gospel . . . the story, it can go no other way.
This day, that shields our eyes from the cross, is actually all about the cross. This day is a re-enactment of that fateful week in the final days when Jesus marches triumphantly into Jerusalem only to be nailed to a cross and executed a week later. It is the cross that we focus on in Holy Week and it is the cross that I would like us to think about today.
There are three great lessons which we learn from the cross. First, that our collective sin is foul beyond words. If there were no other way for our sins to be forgiven but that the Son of God should have to die for them . . . then our sins must be very foul indeed.
Secondly, we learn that God’s love is great beyond all human understanding. God could have abandoned us to our just fate and left us to perish in our sins. But he didn’t. He loved us, and he pursued us even to the agony of execution on the cross.
Thirdly, we learn that salvation is a free gift. We do not deserve it. We cannot earn it. We do not need to attempt to procure it by our own merit or effort. Jesus Christ on the cross has done everything that is necessary for us to be forgiven by God the Father. He has borne our sin and our curse.
What, then, must we do? Nothing! Nothing but fall on our knees in penitence and faith, and stretch out an open, empty hand to receive salvation as a gift that is entirely free.
But as free a gift as God’s atonement for us is, there are those among us who would reject the cross utterly. These are the enemies of the cross. To be an enemy of the cross is to set oneself against its purposes. Self-righteousness (instead of looking to the cross for justification), self-indulgence (instead of taking up the cross to follow Christ), self-advertisement (instead of preaching Christ crucified) and self-glorification (instead of glorying in the cross) – these are the distortions which would make us ‘enemies’ of Christ’s cross and at the same time, enemies of Christ himself who sacrificed himself for our sake.
Yesterday Barbara and I were invited to a breakfast with one of our global mission outreach partners . . . Ebenezer Emergency Fund. We were both comparing notes about the worship structure that was part of the program. We noted how this “informal” worship service was free of the liturgical forms we are used to here at Saint Nicholas’. I thought about how some nowadays might think how difficult it is to compete with such spontaneity, given the Anglican formality of our church’s approach to worship.
I can’t speak for those who favor less liturgical approaches to worship. But those, like us, who use liturgical forms should never buy into the logic that our approach is too “formal,” as contrasted with “informal.” And I can tell you why . . .
One:
We will never compare favorably with other approaches to worship, if those are the only criteria we use. After all, we live in a culture that is increasingly bereft of rites of passage and ceremony. Our culture has ceremonies, of a sort, of course, because we can’t live without them. But — with notable exceptions — we live in a world that prefers to invent them “on the fly.”
Two:
Properly understood and performed, the church liturgy has a power and drama all its own that is rooted in millennia of reflection on the saving work of God. Our Anglican liturgy, while “scripted”, has its own attraction and a powerful message if done right. How could a narrative stretching across the history of human existence and longing for a divine word be boring — unless we ourselves have succeeded in killing the drama inherent in the story?
Thirdly, and probably most importantly, ours is not a formality for formality’s sake. The liturgy is sacred space. It is a space that ushers the worshipper into the presence of God. And beginning with our baptisms the liturgy signals the Christian’s awareness that the world is not what we think it is.
My hope is that the next time someone complains to you that our approach to worship is too “formal,” or “too catholic” by all means, ask yourself, “Have we somehow smothered the drama of the saving work of Christ?” or did they, with their heavy metal rock music . . . and thank you Jesus?
I personally love the words of the liturgy because they speak to how and what Anglicans believe, from beginning to end we express our faith in our worship by the words we use to worship God. The words express our faith. The words said in our worship service connect us to God and express our common love for the Savior. We confess our sins, we recieve absolution and we join in the sacrifice of Holy Communion. If you listen to the prayers and take them literally you will know you have been to Church, you know through the Sacrament of Holy Communion you have become one with Christ and He has become one with you. You have made a few statements to God and he has answered your prayers. That is why I feel honored and at the same time humbled to be your Priest here at this time and in this place.
Much like my family’s tradition of ham, potato salad and Swedish meatballs on Christmas Eve, the traditional liturgy of the church is an integral part of the workings of the whole family of God. The ancient liturgy we do connects us to the millions of believers who for thousands of years have done this thing in exactly the same way . . . and at the same time it guarantees that the story continues as we have come to know it, far into the future in the lives of those who are yet unborn. Amen

4th Sunday in Lent

  113r5sm.jpg

Back when I was little, my brother and I had what you might call a love-hate relationship.  This probably stemmed from the fact that I was the second born son and arrived on the scene when my brother was three and at the height of his need for attention.  I guess he saw me as an interloper and decided that I had far too much love being shown my way, at least far more than he was willing for my parents to give me.  I can remember being picked on and hurt by him most of my very young life.  It finally got so bad that when I was about nine, my dad finally decided to do something about his constant picking on me and took my brother out into the garage beat the crap out of him (pardon my French).  My mom and I stayed in the house quite fearful that my dad might actually kill my brother.  Our garage was attached to the house, so we could hear just about every thump, every bump and scream.  This episode in my life so scarred me that, from that point on, I vowed to avoid conflict of any kind in my life (and still do to some extent).  This was for me a life lesson that has stayed with me throughout my years.

            We, all of us, have lessons to learn during this time we call life, but these lessons become far more acute during times of personal stress, illness or the death of a family member.  As you may know I have had my share of experiences with illness and death.  Back when I was 18 I had contracted hepatitis during which time I spent nearly a month at death’s door.  Sometimes I thought surely death would come at any moment.  Many times I remember waking up actually disappointed that it had not come, for I was (at least I thought) ready for it.  But I didn’t die then, and I didn’t die later when I came down with pneumonia.  I believe that I am still into learning the lessons of life, perhaps my final lessons.  These lessons, I believe, are sent from God and are the ultimate truths about our lives, in fact they are the secrets to life itself.

            The scriptures point to the fact that each of us has within ourselves the capacity for tremendous good as well as the capacity for the greatest of evils.  We each hold within us what could be described as a Hitler and as a Mother Theresa.  The Mother Theresa refers to the best in us, the most compassionate in us, while the Hitler refers to the worst in us, our negatives, our shallowness and faults.  The lessons in life should be on working on our smallness, getting rid of our negativity . . . but at the same time finding the best in ourselves and in each other.  These lessons usually are learned in the windstorms of our life.  They are the very things that make us who we are.  It is through our religion, that I am convinced that we are here to help heal one another spiritually, to bear one another’s burdens and to help ourselves by helping the least among us.

            When I speak of learning lessons, I’m speaking about getting rid of unfinished business.  Unfinished business is about anything in your life that stands between you and true happiness in life.  When you finally complete any part of this task, it is as if a burden is lifted off your shoulders and you can declare yourself free, it is this freedom that God desires for every single person and all of his creation, for it is the gift of God that passes all understanding . . . it is called wisdom . . . and it comes to us all as a free gift from on high.

            Today’s gospel story of the prodigal son shows for us, what many of us may need go through in order to gain this kind of perfect freedom.  Here was a son who decided to go his own way.  Armed with his father’s money, he goes out into the world to find happiness, all the while squandering what he has been given, as the bible says, on riotess living.  But in the end, he finally comes to his senses and goes home thinking that even his father’s servants have it far better than he. 

            Jesus was trying to explain to us in the parable that sometimes the answers to the greatest of life’s lessons are to be found in great pain and in suffering.  We may find many things on this long, sometimes strange journey we see as life, but mostly, like the son in the gospel story, in the end . . . we finally find ourselves and who we really are and what really matters most to us.  We learn from the peaks and valleys of life what love and relationships really are.  We find the courage to push through our anger, our tears and fears and ultimately our stubborn pride.  But in the mystery of all this, we discover that we have been given all we need to make life work . . . in order to find true happiness.  Maybe not perfect lives, maybe not storybook endings, but authentic lives that can make our hearts swell with meaning.

            But the story does not end there because the son, though he found himself, returns to the father to humbly offer himself for hire in his father’s service.  And the father who hopefully, like any good father would, runs out to greet his son proclaiming that his son, who was dead, is now alive.  The father forgives all and welcomes his son back into his loving embrace . . . one of the greatest stories in the bible.  Why? Because it mirrors for us how God thinks and acts each time one of his children repents of sin and error and returns to God’s great fellowship.  It demonstrates to us God’s infinite capacity to forgive and his great mercy in pardoning our offenses.

            Many of us may remember the prayer from Morning Prayer.  It is the prayer of the penitent and reads like this:

ALMIGHTY and most merciful Father; We have erred,

and strayed from thy ways like lost sheep. We have

followed too much the devices and desires of our own

hearts. We have offended against thy holy laws. We have

left undone those things which we ought to have done; And

we have done those things which we ought not to have

done; And there is no health in us.

Those of us who profess a faith, and who engage in quiet confession on a weekly basis, ideally preceded by some degree of sincere internal reflection, are often considered by the world as unhealthily ‘weird’.  It is in fact why the world hates Christianity, as a religion, because Christianity compels us to not only acknowledge faults but also to beg forgiveness, something the world would never do.

Confession is always slightly uncomfortable, and a repulsion to accept responsibility for our actions adds to the cultural resistance to a religious practice that many unbelievers struggle to understand, much less accept.  The difference between religious confession, as opposed to public-media confession like we hear from those who publically proclaim their ‘mea culpa’ like Lance Armstrong or Oprah, is that within the framework of Christianity, you are actually supposed to mean it.

I think that most of us sitting in this room believe in the old adage that confession is good for the soul. Today I would like to relay to you why we confess our sins.

The first thing to say that may surprise non-believers; and that is it is for our benefit, not God’s.   God is not to be pictured smiling at us, watching us squirm while we confess.  The short of it is that God already knows our sins; He has numbered them as precisely as He has numbered the hairs on our heads.  Even more surprising is that within our understanding, Jesus has already paid the price for them. The deal has been closed, and all that is happening is that our Lord awaits our arrival, just like the prodigal son, to reclaim our inheritance.  Very often the only one seemingly not in on the secret is our own selves.

If we tell God what is on our account, and own our share of the sins of the world, gratefully claiming the gift of forgiveness that is offered for sincerity, then we can receive his forgiveness in the absolution that always and reliably follows true and unfeigned repentance.

It works for us, but it requires honesty, integrity, and, unlike its secular pale equivalent, there is an expectation that we shall follow that repentance through . . . not only with the intention of leading a ‘godly, righteous and sober life’, but also that God will ‘forgive us our trespasses – as we forgive those who trespass against us’. ‘Go and do thou likewise’ applies to forgiveness as well as to charitable action.

The problem, of course, is that many of us are as addicted to sin as any substance abuser: we know we shall be back again next week with a conscience laden with more guilt.  Even in the most ungodly of Church circles, few would dare suggest skipping confession.  It is that important to the life of the believer.

Yet it is also good if confession and the acceptance of absolution results in an encouragement to others to follow that path that leads towards the answers to life’s problems on the way to grace.

In his death Jesus did something quite final, absolute and decisive which enabled him to cry on the cross, ‘It is accomplished’; something which was described by Paul as ‘one sacrifice for sins forever’; something which turns Christianity from pious good advice into the glorious good news which we proclaim  and  transforms the characteristic mood of Christianity from the imperative (do) into the indicative (done); which makes evangelism not an invitation for men to do something, but truly a declaration of what God has already done it in Christ.

And we wonder how could God express simultaneously his holiness in judgment and his love in pardon?  Only by providing a divine substitute for the sinner, so that the substitute would receive the judgment and the sinner the pardon. 

Life shows us that we sinners still will have to suffer some of the personal, psychological and social consequences of our sins, but the penal consequence, the deserved penalty of alienation from God, has been borne by Jesus Christ in our place on the cross, so that we may be spared it . . . and that is why Christians can proclaim that indeed . . . Christians are not perfect . . . . only forgiven.  Amen