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What do we do now?

   Disciples-in-upper-room 

After witnessing the ascension of Jesus into heaven the apostles returned to Jerusalem from the mount called Olivet, which is near Jerusalem, a sabbath day’s journey away. When they had entered the city, they went to the room upstairs where they were staying, Peter, and John, and James, and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James son of Alphaeus, and Simon the Zealot, and Judas son of James. All these were constantly devoting themselves to prayer, together with certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers.

            Upon reading this verse over the course of a lifetime, my thoughts have really gone out to the apostles and I have wondered what they were thinking. They were of course instructed to gather at Jerusalem and wait for the Holy Spirit to arrive. But in those several days waiting, watching and praying I wonder how many of them sat wondering (not wanting to be the first to say) “Well, what do we do now?” Here their leader was gone, but the faith he had left them was quite alive in their small group. But they were all still very human, and so as the days wore on, I have often wondered if the frailness of being human would have overtaken them in anxiety if the days had gone on past ten.

            Two years ago this month, here at Saint Nicholas, our rector at the time, Fr. Bagen, resigned abruptly due to some personal problems. Much like the apostles in the reading this morning, there were about twelve of us left here to wonder, probably much like those apostles in the upper room, ‘Well, what do we do now?’ But, as we eventually found out, God is truly faithful and really did have a plan for us and eventually with the help of the Holy Spirit and our bishop, everything fell in to place perfectly. And although what at first seemed like a tremendous loss became for us who were left a sort of rallying cry to carry on forward and fulfill the mission that was the beginning of Saint Nicholas Church at its inception back in 2007, which was with the intention of providing authentic Christian worship, teaching and outreach to a broader community in northern Erie County. And so here we are today as a congregation – stronger and better than we were and actually growing in numbers.

            And isn’t that what Peter spoke to us about today in the second lesson when he wrote . . . Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that is taking place among you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you are sharing Christ’s sufferings, so that you may also be glad and shout for joy when his glory is revealed . . . Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, so that he may exalt you in due time. Cast all your anxiety on him, because he cares for you.

            This indeed is the promise Jesus makes to his church; that he will be with us always, even unto the end of the world . . . providing that we keep his commandments and fulfill the mission of his church, which is to preach the gospel to all people. In his final prayer, which is part of the gospel lesson today, Jesus asks his Father in heaven to protect those whom he leaves behind. It is perhaps the most important prayer in scripture as it affects all of us who are left . . . both then and now . . . “I have made your name known to those whom you gave me from the world. They were yours, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word. Now they know that everything you have given me is from you; for the words that you gave to me I have given to them, and they have received them and know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me. I am asking on their behalf; I am not asking on behalf of the world, but on behalf of those whom you gave me, because they are yours. All mine are yours, and yours are mine; and I have been glorified in them. And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one. ” . . . . so that they may be one.

            But of course we are not all one are we? We are many different groups with differing ideas of what it is that Jesus taught us. The church has been splintered into hundreds of different factions, some who are orthodox and have kept the faith and others who have gone off on a path of their own choosing and have left behind the faith once delivered for us all by the saints. Like in the story of the wheat and the chaff, today the church has been separated perhaps forever into two groups . . . those who continue to believe and keep the faith, and those who have invented for themselves a new revision of the faith once offered.

As you know, the first gay bishop in the Episcopal Church filed for a divorce last week from his gay partner. To me, the Bishop Robinson saga is a symptom of a deeper disease within much of the church today in general. Free thinkers have attempted to give it a kind sounding label such as “revisionism” but by whatever name you call it, it has infected not just the Episcopal Church from which many of us have come, but nearly all the protestant denominations. We can see its beginnings as people start questioning the meaning of terms such as “tradition”, “Biblical authority”, “marriage”, or when they diminish the writings of Paul, or they question the validity of the witness of the Gospel writers. It boils down to a disease of unbelief in anything but the self. Self-worship ensues, and with self-worship there is no longer any need for the Church other than to give self-worshipers a place to strut their stuff, and who really wants to get up on Sunday morning to see that?

And maybe this would be okay if it ended there but it doesn’t . . . because once people start believing in a lie, the truth becomes a threat to their sense of a higher calling and so the truth must be marginalized at first and then finally stamped out of existence thru false accusations and propaganda.

We can see the beginnings of this this week when a UCLA professor and the news media tried to link the killings in California with conservative Christian orthodox theology and the latest weaponized label of ‘white privilege’.

Scripture tells us that as time goes on, the church, the real Church, will continue to be maligned and accused of all sorts of atrocities just as the false church will accepted and acknowledged for doing the ‘right thing’ by calling what is evil ‘good’ through a revision of morality.

Even today, in the latest Gallup pole there are some truly astounding statistics on morality that people, in just one generation have basically turned the tables upside down from just 40 years ago. For example, today, the vast majority feel that having a child out of wedlock is now morally acceptable, as is divorce, homosexual relations between same sex people and casual sex between unmarried adults. Doctor assisted suicide is a coin-toss, but even it beats out abortion by 10 points.

So what is it that is unacceptable in today’s moral standard? Believe it or not, adultery is still considered unacceptable, as is suicide, cloning of humans and polygamy . . . but you have to wonder . . . for how long do you suppose?

The apostles, sitting in that upper room, waiting on the Holy Spirit, probably had no idea what changes they were about to make in the world, in their belief in God and his messiah that they now embraced.

When the apostles had come together, they asked Jesus, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” He replied, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” The Christian witness has been and will be unstoppable until the end, when Jesus returns to call back his own. The orthodox Christian church of which we are a part will remain faithful to its calling until that time . . . but it will be assaulted, abused, maligned and marginalized just as Jesus was . . . and so long as it is, we will know that we are on the right path and doing the right thing.

So what can we do as individual believers in Christ? Peter tells us in his letter today that we should discipline ourselves, keep alert. Like a roaring lion your adversary the devil prowls around, looking for someone to devour. Resist him, steadfast in your faith, for you know that your brothers and sisters in all the world are undergoing the same kinds of suffering. And after you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, support, strengthen, and establish you. To him be the power forever and ever. Amen.

The Good Shepherd

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A long time ago, when I first began working, I had a job as a life insurance salesman. One of my policyholders was an elderly woman named Helen. She lived on Baitz Street, not far from here. During the course of nearly six years that I worked at that job, I happened to see Helen about every other month. Those were the days when insurance men would come by your house to collect monthly insurance premiums. It was something that got started during the depression, which, apparently was when Helen got her policy. During these visits, Helen would always have a story to tell about her family; how her daughter lived in Florida, how her niece was going to nursing school and how she was praying for her youngest son. It seems that her son had ended up in prison. She didn’t tell me what he had done and I didn’t ask. Helen kept saying that, “When her son came home things would be different” and “When her son came home, he would be a better person” and that all she could do was “to keep praying for him every day.”

            When Helen was eighty five I stopped seeing her. . . you see her policy was all paid up. But one day I received a call from her nurse. She was home, she had been mugged on her way down to the hospital to get her glasses changed. She had no money for food and she wanted to make a loan on her life insurance policy. At the time, Barbara and I were running the food pantry at St. Thomas’ so I put her on our select few clients where we delivered. As it turned out, it was during these visits that I found out that Helen’s son was put in prison for abusing his mother. He had stolen money from her repeatedly. He sold things that belonged to her to buy drugs and booze. And then he had finally beat her up in attempt to collect on her insurance policy. And that was why he was in prison. We continued to help Helen with food and resources until, one day, about a year later, Helen died. Barbara and I went to the funeral home to see her, where, surprisingly, there were hundreds of flowers from all her sons and daughters and nephews and nieces, – all the people who could have helped her in life, but didn’t; but now wished her a fond farewell in death.

            This is a story about a sweetheart of a woman, a mother, who had great faith and a greater expectation in the power of God in her life. She wasn’t bitter. She wasn’t resentful. She lived each day in joyful expectation that things would be better. She loved her children and was proud of their accomplishments. She especially loved her youngest son and worried about him even though he had hurt her terribly. This is the way God loves his children; with an unconditional love that borders (at least the way most of us think) on insanity.

            All of us need to be reminded, now and again, that God loves us in spite of ourselves. He loves the most wicked person among us because he can see the potential, the good, in all of us (even though at times we fail to see it ourselves). He loves us like only a mother can and is willing and able to forgive and forget all the hurts and sorrows we have inflicted on each other and on the world. But most of us do not belief this can be true. We know how we judge others and we know the grudges we hold. But God’s ways are not ways.

            Outside a church the other day, I saw a sign that read:

No Jesus – No Peace
Know Jesus – Know Peace

            This sign is at the heart of the message in the lessons today.

            In the Gospel this morning, Jesus talks about the Good Shepherd. “The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice. They will not follow a stranger . . . “ Many times I have been reminded of the closeness and presence of the Good Shepherd through knowing people like Helen and many others, through dreams, and songs, and pictures, and flowers and all creation. This week, especially, with new life finally blossoming forth through the trees and flowers of Spring, I have been reminded of the words of the reassurance of Easter and of the resurrection. I have been reminded about the blessedness of life and the joy of freedom in this land. This week, though, I was especially reminded of the Good Shepherd in the memory of Helen who is for me the image of the way God is. It is in these types of experiences that we know that God is near. For I believe it is in this way that Jesus shares His Peace and Presence with us, but only if we are willing to give up all the other cares of life that are constantly filling our minds with worries and expectations.

            The believers today in our reading from Acts were on a spiritual high when they forsook all and sold their possessions to live in charity with each other. Many of us may feel more than a little uncomfortable with this reading. Is it God’s will that we should sell everything and live in common like the early church? Or was that a demonstration of some ‘spiritual solidarity’ that the early believers envisioned as they witnessed the very first fruits of the Spirit in the Church?

            Very often, we have a choice in life. That choice depends only upon what we believe to be most important in our lives. All of us seek the exactly same thing . . . happiness. But we all have a different idea about how to attain it. For some, happiness is the amassing of wealth, for others it is family and friends. For others it is good health or a good job. For others it may be cars, boats or hardware. For others it may be a home of one’s own. For the great majority, it is all of these things all lumped into one, and for many, this happiness that we perceive to be true and good becomes a goal, quite out of reach to the vast majority of us. For as much money as we amass, it never seems to satisfy our longing, and for as many things we have, or as much prestige we have attained, it never seems to be enough.

            The Epistle today describes the world in which all of Christ’s followers ought to belong. “For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps.” Here in this letter, Peter provides for us a vision of life without the things of the world that cause us worry and disunity. Here is Peter’s vision of the Kingdom of God and the first thing we ought to seek as followers of Jesus. Here is the thing that ought to be most important in our lives and worthy of our remembrance and practice and our time and honor. We are God’s Children, Paradise is our destination and Heaven is our home.

            One of my favorite books that I have is “How to live like a King’s Kid”, and though I haven’t read it in a long time, I am constantly reminded through the title of that book that I am a King’s Kid and that I am here only for a very short time to do as much good as I can accomplish. But how can I measure my accomplishment? Is it in what I have? My money? My Home? My Car? The Madison Avenue folks would say “YES, YES” that’s it . . . you need to buy, buy, buy! But what Jesus would say is . . . no, in the end, the true accomplishment of anyone can be measured only in what he has shared with others and what he as freely given away. For that is the only thing truly worthy of God’s praise at the end of one’s life. Jesus tells us that we can start living in the Kingdom now and that we don’t have to be a part of this world if we choose not to be. The Peace of God will be ours as long as we put the Kingdom of God first in our life. And that Jesus, the Good Shepherd, will continually remind us of his presence so long as we seek his will and dwell on his Word. And if we do all these things, then true happiness will be ours and the blessing of God the Almighty will be with us.

            Grant us Lord, that we may always hear you when you call and follow where you lead us in this world and in the next. Amen.

On the Road to Emmaus

Our Easter story continues today with the eyewitness account of Cleopas, one of many other followers of Jesus. As we are all quite aware, there were twelve disciples in the inner circle of Jesus’ ministry. But there were others, like Cleopas, Matthias, Barnabas and Stephen who, also, were numbered among the believers of the time. From Cleopas, as told by Luke, the physician, we get a feel for what the resurrection was like as witnessed by the average man.

            Here was Cleopas, walking to the nearby town of Emmaus on Sunday morning, the first day of the week, and the day of the resurrection. He was walking and discussing the last few days’ events with a friend, when they are joined by the resurrected Jesus (assuming the form of a stranger). As they walk on, Jesus explains the old testament biblical references pertaining to the coming of the Messiah and opens up for them the meaning of all the hardship and suffering he must endure in order to set his people free. The two men are so engaged by the conversation that they invite the stranger to have dinner with them. It is only after Jesus sits down with them, says a blessing, and breaks the bread that their eyes are opened and they realize for the first time, it is Jesus, the risen Lord. At that very moment, Jesus disappears into thin air.

            What a fantastic story! And what makes it fantastic is the fact that these men were not the disciples. They were just ordinary people like you and like me. How important to Jesus, it must have been, to give these ordinary men a vision of the resurrection; to stay with them for a six mile hike to Emmaus (which must have taken about six or seven hours).

            Today, as we ponder this story, should we not reflect on what we would do or say if we had six hours to kill walking to a town like Emmaus? We, like the men in the story would probably be talking about the daily news. For them it was the crucifixion on Friday. For us, it would probably be the mounting scandals of gay marriage, the acceptance of abortion and the liberal agenda in much of the Church. But for all of us, for them, then . . . and for us, now, it would be a very similar story . . . a story of our leaders and chief priests handing over the innocent to be put into harms way, all for the sake of pride and position in the religious order of the day.

            How does it come to that? How does religion become so twisted and deformed that the very people who are entrusted to do what is right become the pawns of forces that seek its downfall? How do godly men get fired for preaching the truth while the guilty are elevated to positions of power? How do a known sexual predators get put into a leadership role in the presence of children . . . all in the name of God?

            These are hard questions, and as we walk our six miles with Jesus, he would open for us the scriptures and show us that all is, as it was prophesied . . that in the end times the very elect, the very pillars of the church would be deceived by blind pride and travel far from what has been ordained by God. He would explain that wars and rumors of wars would be the norm and that earthquakes and disasters and famines and floods would herald his return in the end times.

            But how can we be sure that this is the case? That all is as it should be? We don’t have Jesus here to walk with, to ask questions . . . to get things explained. But what we do have, is his Word. We have our Bibles and if we read them and thoroughly understand them, we will come to the realization that all is well . . . and all because He Lives!

            Some time ago, I watched a movie entitled The Body. It was a story about the uncovering of a secret tomb in the Judean hills that contained the body of a man of about 30 years old who had been crucified and laid in this tomb. The entire movie was about what lengths the Catholic Church would go to, in order to cover up this discovery. What made it so interesting was how real it all seemed. That, if indeed a body like that was actually found (one that might be Jesus), you could just imagine what lengths the Church would go to in order to save the faith. It showed the religious leaders in league with terrorists and others who were willing to kill innocent people in order to keep the status quo.

            But for us, in the real world . . . we know that a body like that will never be found because we have written accounts of the resurrection of Jesus from many believers including that of Cleopas in today’s story. We have testimony from the disciples and from the women at the tomb that were witness to his resurrection. And we have our faith that has withstood two thousand years of assault by the enemy and yet, still stands, unyielding in the face of evil . . . and that is why I know He Lives.

            But we have, yet, other proof that Jesus lives . . . and that is in the breaking of bread and in the prayers. For it is in the breaking of bread and in the prayers that Jesus revealed himself to Cleopas and the other disciples and it is in this way he continues to reveal himself every time we partake of a meal with friends and every time we pray. For all of us are on a spiritual journey of sorts . . . a spiritual walk to Emmaus . . . if you will. Jesus continues to come and travel with us on our journey in the form of friends, relatives, and strangers along the way. Some of us wonder, where are we going? Others think they may have lost their way. Still others get so tired and simply want to quit. But all of us are heading in the same direction.  All of us have the same goal. Because just as our Lord’s goal was the resurrection, so too does he promise to all of his believers, the same goal, which is the Resurrection and the Life.

            A parishioner once asked me . . . What do mean? “I’m planning on going to heaven, not resurrecting!” But here is the mystery! When we say we believe in the resurrection of the dead, we’re not just talking about the resurrection of Jesus. We’re talking about the resurrection of ourselves, US! (which is the reason we cross ourselves when we say it). I am always amused at how many people who are Christian have no idea that they will one day live again. Not in heaven, but right here, on earth . . . all over again. That was the whole purpose of Jesus’ coming to earth and dying on the cross and rising again so that one day you too will rise from your own death in your own grave to eternal life. That is the definition of the Blessed Hope of the Resurrection. Jesus was the first fruit of the resurrection and that is why we call him Lord.

            The Church is here to continually remind us to seek Jesus in all people, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers. This is the main reason we meet each week . . . to rediscover the Risen Lord in each other, in the miracle of prayer and in the breaking of the bread. In this way, Jesus is continually revealed to us, if only we would open our eyes to see His handiwork before us. Amen

The Last Act of Redemption

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Easter and Holy Week that precedes it is unlike any other celebration in our church year.  It is a time of celebration and exultation . . . and yet also a time steeped in the mystery of deliverance, redemption, and resurrection.  Historically within the church, it was during this time that people, who for one reason or another found themselves outside the church, were welcomed back into the communion of faith and with God. It is also at this time during the middle ages that those who were to be Baptized came out of their forty days of prayer and fasting, as catachists, or students. They came to the great Bapistries of the early church to be baptized on the eve of the Resurrection in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. They were required to come as they were born . . . naked and alone . . . and led into a great pool of water by a Deacon where they were submerged and reborn in the Spirit and given a white robe to mark their entrance into the Church as members of Christ’s body and as living members of the Kingdom of God, and as the Redeemed of Heaven.

For us, much of the drama of the Early Church Easter celebration has been dropped out of usage over the passage of centuries.  In some ways I am kind of glad they dropped the naked thing, but in other ways I think we have been sorely shortchanged by the absence of the pools of water and of complete submersion, and by the absence of the difficult journey it used take in order to become a follower of Jesus Christ.  Though much of the mystery has been forgotten, there still remains intact, all of the story that we celebrate each year at this time.

As emphasized in the readings this Easter morning, these past three days, beginning with our Lord’s last day with his disciples in the upper room on Maundy Thursday; his death on Good Friday and ending with the resurrection on Easter Sunday are a commemoration of life and of death, they are about 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 each year.  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.

Some years ago, I heard a story about a near death experience.  We have all heard these stories I am sure, you know, the one’s where people float above their bodies and then go through a long tunnel and are welcomed by friends or relatives and a being of light on the other end only to be told that they’re not done yet and are sent back to finish their lives.

Well, this story, that I want to relay to you, is different.  It stands out for me because there is no floating, there is no tunnel and there are no friends.  There is only aloneness and misery.  The person who died described himself standing alone on a beach that spread out for miles along a lake of fire below a sky of crimson red and black.  He described a burning thirst that was unquenchable and an aloneness that was unbearable and a roaring of waves that crashed against the shore that was deafening.  He told how he stood there, alone on that beach for what seemed like days watching the flames of the lake as they swept up the beach like windblown sand as it races across a desert.  He thought at first that he was dreaming, but after the third day, he knew that he had come to reside in Hell.  There was no longer anyone to blame, there was no longer anyone to swear at, there was no longer anything to do, there was only himself in a world he had created, devoid of all life and everyone who had ever loved him.  Finally, on the third day of his torment, when he looked out into the lake, he saw someone, walking away from him on the lake among the flames, and somehow he knew at once that this was Jesus.  Somehow he knew that if he could only get his attention, he would be saved from this awful life of misery.  So he called out to him above the roar of the waves, Jesus! Jesus! Have mercy on me! . . . but the man kept on walking across the lake.  Again he called out louder Jesus! Jesus! Have mercy on me! . . . but still the man walked on.  Again he cried out as he had never cried before; he cried for Jesus to have mercy on him and to forgive him.  And in the flaming lake of fire, Jesus turned and looked at the man with the most incredible love and compassion he had ever felt.  At once the man woke up in his hospital bed after having been dead more than three minutes from a gun shot by his own hand.  Was it a dream?  No one can say . . . but the man went out after his recovery, and like many in near death experience, changed everything about his life . . . his friends . . . his habits . . . and his work.  He began to study and learn what God had in store for him and he began to tell this amazing story of deliverance and redemption and resurrection to anyone who would listen, and because of him hundreds and perhaps thousands have learned from him . . . a thief, a robber, and a criminal, about the incredible power and love of God.

For those of you who are as old as I am, you may remember that in the old creed, you know, the one that was printed in the real prayer book, back in 1662, the line that now reads “He descended to the dead” used to read “He descended into hell”.  Why do you suppose Jesus descended into hell after he was crucified.  It wasn’t like he was a bad person who deserved to go to hell . . . so why do you suppose he spent that first Good Friday and Holy Saturday in hell?

To answer this, you need to go back to the first time that Jesus stood up to read in his hometown in Nazareth.  You’ll remember, where he read from the book of Isaiah, the same passage we read last Thursday . . .  “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me to bring good tidings to the afflicted; he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound.”  The place where those who were bound . . . the prison . . . that Isaiah describes may not only be a description of those mentally bound in the prison of their own minds as many would have us believe. You’ll remember from Revelation, it is Jesus who announces that “Fear not, I am the first and the last, and the living one; I died, and behold I am alive for evermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hell.”  It is more probable to me that the place where those people were bound is in hell itself.

I live in a 100 year old house that has its share of problems.  Every once in a while something wears out or gets broken that requires me to crawl under the house in what the real estate people would call a ‘crawl space’ but what I would call hell, or at least as close to hell as I would ever want to go.  I had occasion to go under my house a few years ago, because a pipe froze and I needed to take a torch and thaw it out.  As Barbara can tell you, if there is anything that I could do to avoid crawling under the house, I would do it, even if it meant hiring someone else to do it.  Well, the morning we woke up to find out that we had no water put a pit right in the middle of my stomach.  First, because I figured I would have to crawl under there, and second because if there is anything I like worse than crawling under a house, its plumbing!  I really do hate plumbing!  So after learning on the news that it was supposed to warm up to 32 degrees, I drove to work thinking that I would just let nature take its course, I would let the sun thaw out that frozen pipe.  Around one o’clock that afternoon, Barbara called to tell me that ‘benign neglect’ wasn’t working very well and that she needed water to use the bathroom . . . she would have to mention that.  So I went home, and armed with a trouble light and a torch I proceeded into that black hole of a crawl space praying that for once, my trouble light wouldn’t burn out or someone wouldn’t accidentally pull the plug on it.

But then, in the middle of the work, when I finally crawled through the hundred years of cob webs and dirt and frozen bugs and spiders and got to the center of the house, my light hit against the frozen ground, and I was instantly immersed in the blackness of that frozen abyss.  With the floor joists spanning just four inches away from my nose and not having the room to turn on my side, I felt that familiar panic attack of being forever locked under my house like someone in a cold, dark tomb.  But then I remembered my torch, I lit it and that blue flame lit up the darkness. I then proceeded with my mission and thawed out the pipe.  When I heard the water begin to run free I continued on my way, led out by the light of that steady flame hoping all the way that the flame would keep burning.  When I emerged from that crawl space, it was as if I had gone to hell and back and had lived to tell the tale. Why had I done it? . . .  because I had no other choice and there was nobody else to send.  It was something I had to do.

Dying on a cross and going to hell was the last redemptive act of Christ’s ministry on earth.  He didn’t go there because he wanted to, he went there because he had to, he went there to unlock the prison of hell and to lead all those who were bound there out of that place to share with him, in his Easter resurrection.  He came here to earth not only to save those who were living then and those of us yet unborn, but also to save those who had lived and died before he came.  And he did it all by willingly taking up his cross on our behalf.  This is what makes Easter so exciting for believers and so mysterious at the same time.  That God was willing to come, to take on our humanity, to live and die as one of us all so that we could be delivered from the distress of our sin and be welcomed into heaven as the redeemed and blessed of God.

Today, we who are baptized believers in the risen Christ, like millions before us, share in this last redemptive work of Christ.  We believe that through the act of our Baptism, we have a share in Christ’s death and have been reborn in the spirit and delivered from sin. We are, in fact, the redeemed and have been reborn through the Holy Spirit and have become true sons and daughters of the Most High and inheritors of the Kingdom of Heaven.  For me, the day of resurrection gives me a chance to renew the pledge of myself once again to God’s love and service and to acknowledge him as the only Savior and Lord in my life.  It gives both you and I a chance to walk out of this place as Easter people, Delivered, Redeemed and Reborn anew in the Holy Spirit who sustains us.

Finally, from our Psalm today we read . . . The LORD is my strength and my song, * and he has become my salvation.  There is a sound of exultation and victory * in the tents of the righteous:  “The right hand of the LORD has triumphed! * the right hand of the LORD is exalted! the right hand of the LORD has triumphed!”  I shall not die, but live, * and declare the works of the LORD.

Almighty God, who through your only-begotten Son Jesus Christ overcame death and opened to us the gate of everlasting life: Grant that we, who celebrate with joy the day of the Lord’s resurrection, may be raised from the death of sin by your life-giving Spirit; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

Salvation

salvation

Today is the Sunday of the Passion or some may remember it as Palm Sunday, a day on which we read together the gospel story of the passion of the last moments of our Lord’s life.  The question I am often asked about this tradition is . . . Why?  Why do we torture ourselves with the sordid details of the Lord’s passion every year at this time?  Why do we enter the church singing ‘All Glory Laud and Honor’ in one breath . . . and then yell out ‘crucify him!’ in the next?  To many it makes no sense at all . . . and there are even those who stay home from church on Palm Sunday because of its emotional toll.

Those of us who have walked the Stations of the Cross these last several weeks can attest to the powerful message that the Story of the Passion brings to us.  As we hear the story repeated throughout Lent and examine the sculptures depicting these events on the walls of the church and spiritually walk the road to Golgotha with Jesus, the story begins to be more and more real to us.  And that is why we do it . . . to remember the story of our salvation.

In the days of yesteryear . . . that is before television and movies, there were passion plays performed which only the more wealthy could attend and books written which were also beyond the reach of most common folk (until the invention of public libraries).  It was in the church where much of the adult learning took place . . . through missals, and sermons and great music and occasional acting. It was the tradition of the reading of the Passion on this Sunday before Easter that became part of the liturgy of the word.   It was in this way that the story could be recited and remembered by all.

With the advent of movies in the twentieth century such as King of Kings and the Ten Commandments by director Cecil B. DeMille   it became sort of a contest as to who could produce the best and most accurate Biblical narrative.  As time went on and motion picture techniques developed, movies became more and more realistic until today we have such films as The Passion of Christ by Mel Gibson, which if you saw it, you will probably never forget it (and probably will never view it again).

But the reason for it all is to learn and to remember why Jesus came to us and lived among us and had to die a most horrible death for us.  It is a teaching tool so that we as a people can appreciate the mighty acts that God has done.  And not only appreciate it for ourselves but also to know enough of the story to be able to tell others.

In the gospel some weeks back, there were Greeks who came to the disciples asking to see Jesus.  We didn’t talk about it much at the time, but this event was the pivotal moment in the life of Jesus when Jesus knew that the time had finally come.  The Greeks came and asked “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” Philip went and told Andrew; then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus. Jesus answered them, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor.

The Greeks coming and asking for Jesus appear to have been a sign that Jesus knew meant that the time had come and that the passion would soon begin and his eventual death and glorification at the resurrection was assured.

The spiritual world played an important part in the life of Jesus and also plays a very important role in our physical space.  Though unseen and unheard, we are taught through prophetic witness in the scripture that the angelic realm guides those who pray for guidance and helps those who ask for help.  Christians throughout the ages have always been in a spiritual battle between good and evil, and many of us, unknowingly, play a part as soldiers in this battle of wills.  Jesus was obviously much more aware of his role in this battle than we are.  He knew all the players . . . and they knew him.  When the demons he encountered tried to reveal his identity to us, Jesus was able to silence them with a command.  And so a war of sorts continues between these realms even in our own day, and certain things are revealed to certain people but hidden from others until the time is right.

The passion of the crucifixion was itself a harbinger. . . a warning . . . and a sign of something extraordinary happening in the history of the world.  The cross at Calvary is the focal point of good and evil touching for one brief moment in time that has consequences for us far beyond our lives here.  The cross was a horrible instrument of execution that has been transformed by God into the sign of hope of salvation for the many millions who understand its meaning in their lives.  And it is through the cross that our salvation is assured.

So what is salvation?  Salvation is a free gift offered by God to all who ask for it.  In our dictionary Salvation means being saved or protected from harm or being saved or delivered from some dire situation. In religion, salvation is stated as the saving of one’s soul from sin and all of its consequences.  And although it cannot be seen or felt in any physical way, it is by its very essence all that keeps us from utter damnation. And the scariest part, the part we that we learned a few weeks back at a retreat with the Franciscans is that our salvation can be lost.

Back when I was about to enter kindergarten I was a bit insecure as a young boy and had two stuffed animal friends, a cat and a horse, that my mother had made me.  They went everywhere with me and I was never without them.  They were like the boy Linus’s blanket in the comic strip Peanuts.  Well, school was coming, and my parents knew that I couldn’t take my trusted friends with me there, so they devised a plan.  They bought me a gigantic present in a very, very large box.  It was a cardboard supermarket that I could put together and sort of live inside.  They thought it would take my mind off my two stuffed animals and finally one day it would take their place . . . which it did . . . and since the supermarket was too large to take to school, I was content to leave it behind each day knowing that it was there waiting for me whenever I wanted to play with it.  They knew that for me the animals had become a crutch that I would never let go of unless they did something.

CHALK

The fact is that many of us hold on to things that are bad for us  . . . yet comfort us and seldom do we ever want to let go.  Our monk friend showed us that like these two pieces of chalk we hide things, like our sin from view and we keep them close at hand always grasping and never letting it go.  But the salvation of the cross of Christ, we also know is a great gift that we all desire . . . but in order to receive it, Jesus tells us that, we must be willing to let go of those things we hold so close so that we can finally claim this free gift of salvation for ourselves . . . some are able to do this by the grace of God – but many are not.

You must know by now that Christianity is not a religion (although the world would want you to believe it as just one religion among many).  No . . .  Christianity is not a religion . . . it is a bond, a relationship between God and his children.  It is actually a way of new life because spiritually all of us have already died with Christ and have been raised to this new life, this new way, only by believing that Jesus Christ died on a cross so that you would not have to.  A Christian is any person who willingly turns his back on his sin and gives his heart and life to Jesus, the messiah, and endeavors to live a life worthy of God’s greatest of gifts . . . eternal life in Christ who is the author of our salvation.

 

We adore Thee, O Christ, and bless Thee.

Because by Thy holy cross Thou hast redeemed the world.

Amen

Faith Believes

23324heaven

 

Several years ago, actually twenty-one, to be exact, I came down with a cold that I could not shake.  I was home-bound for about a week and it wasn’t getting any better . . . in fact it was getting worse.  I lay on the living room couch without the strength to even get up for glass of water.  I didn’t eat for days.  As my temperature began to soar past a hundred degrees, it appeared I was destined for the hospital.  I had never really been sick in a very long time so I didn’t have a doctor to turn to.  When finally, I got to Mercy Hospital I remember literally having to crawl on my hands and knees to get up the steps at the front door.

The ER people took one look at me and called in an emergency internist who began to diagnose my problem.  It turned out that I had a life threatening form of pneumonia that was resistant to the normal routine drugs.  Over the next two weeks, my doctor would try a number of combinations of antibiotics to try to counter the disease.  After about ten trials and twenty three different drugs, he hit on the right combination; but not before nearly losing me completely to the disease.  During those final hours I was delirious with pain due to lack of oxygen as my lungs were nearly completely filled with fluid and my body was screaming for air.

I knew that I was at the point of death and begged for God to relieve me of my life by calling me home.  That night I was given an extraordinary gift; one that I have remembered in great detail even to today.

We often read about near death experiences, but seldom do we encounter many who actually have had one.  Well this was for me a second experience, far more vivid than the first one, back when I was eighteen.  In this experience I was ushered somehow through a tunnel of light and was met on the other side by one who I can only describe as a being of light.  I didn’t know if it Jesus or an angel but I knew that it was a being, clothed in light and exuding great love for me and for everyone there.  In an instant I was shown my past – where things had gone right and where they had gone wrong.  I was also shown a probable future if I decided to not go back.  But the future I was shown would not be a pleasant one for my family or for those I would leave behind.  I felt an intense desire to stay where I was but was ridden with guilt by the thought of leaving those I loved behind.  And so I was given the choice to give up my life and be welcomed into paradise and be forever surrounded in love –or- go back to save my family from a dismal future and to begin a second life’s work – to be literally born again.  In either case I was assured that I would be forever welcome into the arms of mercy regardless of the choice I made.  And so reluctantly, I chose to return.  I awoke that morning in my hospital bed.  My temperature was now normal and I was finally able to breathe.  Whether it was a dream, the medication or a miracle I am not able to tell you.  But I know it was an experience so intense that it has stayed with me all these years and I have been thankful for every minute of every day since.  I was healed of pneumonia and was given a new lease on life; but more importantly I was given the blessed assurance that all is exactly as how we all have been taught.

Today’s gospel story relays to us the story of another healing.  It is the healing of a man, blind from birth, and how Jesus relates to those who have doubts about God’s miracles.  In this story there are many who are blind.  One who was physically blind and did not know the Messiah and yet was healed; and those who proclaimed they knew about the Messiah but yet were spiritually blind to him when he appeared right in front of them.

The key question in this story was when His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him. We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work. As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.”

And so this man’s mission in life was to be born blind and be healed for the sole purpose to illustrate for those would believe that Jesus Christ came down from heaven in order that all people might be saved from what afflicts them.  The story also illustrates for us that those who cannot believe or will not believe and who are blinded by pride and arrogance may be lost forever in their sins.

Jesus said, “I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see . . . may see, and those who do see may become blind.” Some of the Pharisees near him heard this and said to him, “Surely we are not blind, are we?” Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, `We see,’ your sin remains.”

There can be no doubt that both the blind man and the Pharisees in the story desired to go to heaven,  I think most everyone holds in their hearts, to some degree or another, a general expectation of what heaven is about. 

I also believe that there is not one person outside these doors, however false may be their views, however unscriptural the ground of their hope, however worldly-minded they may be . . . who does not wish there to be a heaven to go to when they die.  But Jesus tells us that many in the world, without a change of heart, will never get there.  He tells us that many desire to wear the crown – but most are ashamed of the cross.  Many would like the glory–but few can stomach grace.  All would like the happiness–but very few buy into holiness.  All would like the peace that believing brings–but very few will seek after truth.  We all would like the victory–but none of us wants to fight.  We all would like the reward–but not the labor.  We all would like the harvest–but not the plowing.  We all would like the reaping–but not the sowing.  And so the way to heaven is fraught with difficulty for those who have little faith and it is nearly impossible for those who have none at all.

So why is it so difficult for even those of us who actually believe?  I think it’s difficult because we hear the stories of God’s workings and of his healings as in today’s reading, but few of us are healed.  We see earthquakes in Japan and recent mudslides in Washington and disasters all around the world and we wonder where is God in all this?  We see stories on the news of fellow Christians killed while at mass and their church buildings destroyed and we wonder what is our faith all about if God allows atrocities against innocent people to be committed?

If God is not sending earthquakes, destroying economies and inflicting pain upon human beings, then we might ask, what is He doing?  I believe that God works through people like you and me, calling them to help their neighbors in need. God comforts his people, walking with them even through the valley of the shadow of death as we read in today’s Pslam.  God bends or forces suffering, tragedy and evil that occur to bring about good in all things. God redeems the suffering and heals the broken hearted. Those who are believers in God find strength from their faith in the face of suffering. They are compelled to give sacrificially to help those in need.  And they have the hope that comes from knowing that, with God by their side, the tragedy they witness in others, or are facing tragedy themselves, is never the final word.  I believe they are called, like Christ himself, to be “wounded healers” in a broken world.

You and I were each born for a purpose; we each have a mission in life.  We may not be aware of exactly what it is but like the blind man in the Gospel story and the child David in the Old Testament, you were chosen just as you are (perhaps in ways broken, confused, blind or deaf) so that God’s works might be revealed in you.  Remember always that you did not choose God, no one can . . .  God chose you for this time and in this place.   

If you go away with any thought from this homily today, remember that there’s nothing more precious to your life than time. You probably feel you have a measureless supply of it, but you do not.  Wasted hours will destroy a life just as surely at the beginning of life as at the end, only at the end it becomes much more obvious.

Once you were darkness, but now in the Lord you are light.  Live as children of light– for the fruit of the light is found in all that is good and right and true.  Try to find out what is pleasing to the Lord.  Amen

Lenten Journey – We are called into fellowship

 

Looking at the list of participating West Seneca churches, it is interesting to me how interconnected we are with each other.  My son Ethan attended 14 Holy Helpers some years ago through grammar school.  He once asked Fr. Seblicki to become a Roman Catholic.  Father, knowing that I was an Episcopal deacon at the time, told Ethan that he would much prefer him be a good Episcopalian than bad Catholic . . . he told me that he already enough of those.  Saint David’s Episcopal Church saw the beginnings of the Charismatic group ‘Jubilate’ through a Forward in Faith weekend in the 70’s of which I was involved in the music ministry for many years, along with our current church organist Don Bliss and also Lynn Smith who I’ve known for years.  Also at St. Davids, Fr. Farrabee was the person I went to see when I needed to store my father-in-law’s remains at the Cathedral downtown. Little did I know that that would be the longest time Jack ever spent in church!  I’m sure I’ll hear about it one day.  Father Wolf at Saint John XXIII, if you don’t it by now, is our landlord at Saint Nicholas and we are challenged sometimes to share the parking lot with him on Bingo nights.  And I was at Ebenezer UCC some weeks ago to say farewell to a dear friend, Michael Misechok whose father and mother I knew and finally saw to rest many years ago.  I am sure you all have stories to tell like these and I know it is something we’d like to hear about later in the evening.

Tonight of course, the theme is Christian fellowship . . . in that we are called into fellowship.  At home on my computer desk stop screen I have a picture that was painted around the 14th century entitled Schism.  It depicts a protestant bishop seated in an easy chair . . . back to back . . . with a Roman Catholic cardinal who is seated as well.  They appear to be in the last stages of a horrendous argument . . . but the telling thing is that the bishop is not speaking . . . as his mouth is clamped shut and the cardinal is not listening . . . as his hands are placed tightly over his ears.  The Bible, which they obviously had been arguing over, sits open and face down on the floor as if only a discarded player in this argument among two very angry men.  I have it there on my desktop to remind me each and every time I go to write something that we should all be honor bound, as believers in Christ, to avoid doing just what these two are doing . . . causing a schism over a shared belief in our Lord Jesus Christ.

How appropriate this picture is to tonight’s reflection based on how we are called into fellowship . . . and how over the centuries we all, though separated by denomination, have held an abiding faith in one Lord, on Faith, one Baptism and yet, at the same time, have failed so miserably to communicate our shared belief and faith with each other.  I use as my text for this homily the reading from 1John that we read tonight where the apostle wrote:

“we declare to you what we have seen and heard so that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. We are writing these things so that our joy may be complete.”

One of the best things and one of the worse things that ever happened to the early Church was when the Christian religion was made the official religion of the Holy Roman Empire.

It was one of the best things that could have happened because it ended the time of persecution in the church and created a way for Christianity to spread over all of Europe, North Africa and throughout the Middle East .

It was also one of the worse things that could have happened because state sponsored religion, or legislated religion, is full of inherent problems caused by people, human beings, who seem to have a natural inclination to impress their own value systems on others . . . and sometimes not with the best of intentions.

Today we continue to fight a seemingly never ending war in Afghanistan that was initiated by a state sponsored religion.  The Taliban, as you know, is an Islamic right wing sect who has taken their religion to extreme ends.  Even after many years of fighting, people in Afghanistan continue to live in constant fear of the Taliban.  People have been jailed for insignificant offenses, like wearing their beard to short, or playing music, or in the case of women . . . being shot for going to school.  The Taliban take their cue from the Koran . . . and they read into every verse, a literal interpretation.

I mention this because at the time of Jesus and the apostles, Judea also was in the grip of a state sponsored religion, which was in effect, a Theocracy.  The Priests and scribes of that time were much like the Taliban in our day.  They had read into every verse of the bible a literal interpretation, and from it created thousands of laws that the people were bound to uphold.  In effect, they had enslaved the people into a religious and legal nightmare where people could be stoned by mob rule for offenses or turned into the temple police for saving a lamb that got tangled on the Sabbath day.  The Jews had laws governing every moment of every day that oppressed the people unendingly and it was this, that Jesus came to change.

Jesus said, “You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored?  It is no longer good for anything; but is thrown out and trampled under foot.” In this way Jesus was telling the Scribes and the Pharisees that they were in fact the best that the world had to offer and its one great hope for survival, but they had been corrupted by teachings that were never intended by God.  They had enveloped their people in the letter of the law while ignoring the spirit of the law.  They had opened crooked money changing schemes in the temple and had exacted temple taxes and sacrifices, even from the very poor, who could not afford them.  They had set themselves up as the holy and pure elite among their constituents, even though in private they were themselves corrupted by money and power.  They had used their power to corrupt the true message of Judaism, which was a religion of worship, charity, prayer and tolerance.  And because of this, God sent Jesus into the world, to set things right.  And that is why he was crucified.

Nearly four hundred years ago the pilgrims arrived here to settle in a new land at Plymouth, Massachusetts.  They left their homes because of religious persecution by a right wing state sponsored religion.  They came to risk life and limb, to endure hardship in an untamed wilderness and exposure to the elements.  In the first few years almost half of them died.  They came to settle in a new land where differing religious belief systems would not only be tolerated, but welcomed.  They knew what they believed and they knew why they believed it.

And so the beginnings of one of the chief tenets of our country’s constitution began.  The Freedom of religion, second only to the Freedom of Speech.  The Pilgrims founded this country based on the freedom of religion and the proposition that all men are created equal in the sight of God.

But perhaps what you didn’t know, and buried in the dusty pages of history, are WHO these founding fathers were escaping from.  Everyone has the mistaken idea that it was the Pope and the Roman Catholic Church, but it was not . . . they were escaping from the Church of England better known to us as the Anglican Church.  The state sponsored Anglican Church called them separatists and they were considered traitors to the crown because they did not believe in the hierarchy of the church or the use of communion altars or graven images.  For this they were either imprisoned or ‘re-educated’ in the ways of the church or were barred from holding land or having tradesmen’s jobs. The Puritan’s as they became known were the sheep of their time, living among the wolves of their time.  And so they fled England and its state sponsored Church to come to America.

Back at St. Nicholas there is a testimonial about me.  It is signed by a Bishop and sealed with a seal.  It says basically, that here is a person who is to be trusted beyond any doubt and who believes that the Holy Scriptures contain all things necessary to salvation.  It was my certificate of Holy Orders to the Diaconate in the Episcopal Church twenty-six years ago this month.  I read it every so often to remind myself what others thought of me then and how, in some cases, I have failed to live up to that standard.  If I have succeeded in anything, it is most likely in the wide latitude I try to extend to every person I meet.  I lived with the wolves once, and I would tell you that at one time I would have been first in line to utterly condemn today’s liberals.  But one day I finally grew up.  And with spiritual maturity comes spiritual temperance.

I can remember in my youth trying desperately to follow a bunch of arbitrary rules in order to stay pure.  One of them that I can remember was a teaching against eating lobster and pork.  It must have taken hold, because even today the thought of eating lobster still bothers me a little.  The church where I grew up was to the far right of the spectrum of orthodox belief.  The priest tried to resurrect in his congregation, the Judaic dietary laws, that one shouldn’t drink milk with roast beef or steak; that you shouldn’t mix bread in the same bowel as you mix meat.  He of course, meant well, but I think he was wrong in suggesting this.  That church had denied the teachings of the apostles in order to gain control through the ignorance of the people . . . and so I left.

The church where I ended up before coming where I am was to the very far left of the religious spectrum . . . where virtually anything goes so long as it is not illegal . . . or fattening.  Here was a church where Good Friday was joked about and where the resurrection was deemed a myth made up by ignorant, but well intentioned, disciples. This church also had denied the teachings of the apostles in order to gain acceptance through the ignorance of the people . . . and so again, I left.

So you might ask, what happened?  What happened is that I discovered that in both cases the love of God had been sucked right out of my religion and all I had left was a black and white belief system on the one hand, that was condemning . . . and on the other a religion of exclusive intolerance that was outrageous . . . both of them far from the Kingdom that I believed Jesus had come to secure for me.

But today I know where I stand, which is somewhere in mid-stream.  I say this because to me, though I know his ways well, God is still a complete mystery, awesome and hidden from my eyes.  Who am I to judge his creation, his motives, and his Spirit?  Religion for me boils down to this.  I know that Jesus came to die for my sins so that I wouldn’t have to; and that through his sacrifice, I am saved.  That’s it!  That’s my whole philosophy . . . much in line with Saint Paul who wrote to the Church in Corinth, “For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified” . . . . Period.

There are many today who would try to sway me from this skewed, but orthodox, way of looking at Christianity.  There are many revisionists in our day who read into the scriptures and find things that aren’t there or re-interpret the things that are.  In doing so and teaching others to do likewise, they have led many far from the truth.  Jesus of course warns us . . .

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished . . .

And so what is the law? The ten commandments? The golden rule? The two greatest commandments?  It is indeed all of these and much more, written for our enlightenment and encouragement in the scriptures.  But how do we know we have the correct interpretation?  How do we know we are right?  How do we know that others are wrong?  Christians are bound to hold true what Paul describes . . . that “we speak of these things in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual things to those who are spiritual.  Those who are unspiritual do not receive the gifts of God’s Spirit, for they are foolishness to them, and they are unable to understand them because they are spiritually discerned. Those who are spiritual discern all things, and they are themselves subject to no one else’s scrutiny.”

Christian believers down through the ages have held fast to the truth revealed by the Spirit through those who have come before, through the church fathers, the creeds and the bible, which is the scriptural basis of our faith.  The orthodox believe what the early church received from the first believers, the apostles, as it was taught to them by Jesus Christ Himself.  The orthodox believe what Christ told us to believe.

As a fellowship of believers, we must always bear in our minds eye that there is really only one Church, one Faith, one Baptism, one Lord and Father of All.  We may call ourselves  ‘Anglicans’, or ‘Lutherans’, or ‘Methodists’ or ‘Roman Catholics’ but in the end we are simply all one fellowship of believers in the Lord Jesus Christ who have received the Spirit of Life from our Father in Heaven . . . but only so long as we hold true the message that has been given to his people.

But what about the differences between us all and all our differing belief structures and liturgies?  I would say that the differences in which we find ourselves pale in comparison to the joy that God holds in the saving grace of just one of his own.  Do you think it really concerns God if his ministers are ordained through a hierarchy of bishops or touched directly by the Spirit?  Paul never even met Jesus until after the resurrection.  Is Paul’s ministry to be any less revered than Peter’s, who actually walked with Jesus and was physically touched by him?  Does this negate the apostolic tradition of the church?  No it doesn’t  . . . I believe the scripture shows us clearly that God uses every and all means possible to get His point across and that it will remain for us a mystery until we see him face to face.

We should all be aware by now that the Church today is at a critical time in its life.  There are voices who have come forward to show the faithful alternative pathways to the truth, but their words and actions show that they are deceived and their deception is a killer. They do this because they believe they have been enlightened by the spirit and have been given a new freedom to act out and to embrace what they choose to hear and . . . to believe what they want to believe . . . but in fact, they are promoting a false gospel and teaching others to do the same because they claim they have a God given freedom to do so.  In the same way, we all may possess the freedom to yell “fire” in a crowded movie theatre, but that does not mean we are justified or moral in doing so.  Freedom is never free and there will ever remain a cause and an effect.

One of the great thinkers of our time was Pope John Paul II who described it this way . . . “When freedom does not have a purpose, when it does not wish to know anything about the rule of law engraved in the hearts of men and women; when it does not listen to the voice of conscience, it will turn against humanity and eventually lead society to destruction.”  I believe that this is what we are seeing in the continued splits and fracturing in the Church in many places in the world today.

This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light and in him there is no darkness at all.  If we say that we have fellowship with him while we are walking in darkness, we lie and do not do what is true; but if we walk in the light as he himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.

Gathering in fellowship as we are here tonight, gives us a unique opportunity to learn from each other and experience that peace of God which passes all understanding. We must continue at all times to pray for the church that indeed, we will, one day all be one.  Amen.

Salvation

confession

Over the last few days I attended a ‘clericus’ meeting at Graymoor which is a Franciscan monastery in Garrison, New York.  ‘Clericus’ is Latin for a meeting among the clergy of a diocese.  I was accompanied by two fellows from our parish.  Even though this kind of meeting is generally for clergy, anyone interested is certainly welcome to experience this kind of retreat.  I was given the great honor by our bishop of giving the homily for the final Eucharist.

The retreat was centered on the topic of spiritual formation of the clergy and how we, as clergy, and also as laypeople, tend to take our salvation for granted.  The bishops, priests, deacons, postulants and lay observers gathered there were all quite humbled by the two monks from our diocese who led the four sessions. There was much that I learned from them that I had no idea about . . . things that you ought to know as well about the free gift of salvation and how our own sin and guilt could in fact, jeopardize our salvation.

Last week Pope Francis relayed a story about a theft in which he confessed to have stolen a cross from the coffin of his confessor.  He told how he keeps his stolen cross in a special pocket of sewn into his cassock.  It is a constant reminder to him and to us that we are all human, including the Pope, and we are all subject to the same temptations, mainly because, though we are believers, we still live in the enemy’s camp and sin still has a hold on us.  We may be proclaimed free by the risen Christ but often times the glittering lure of the other side is much too great for us to bear . . . and we fall into sin.  But when sin becomes instilled into us without repentance and without remorse, it becomes very much a part of us . . . much like a cancerous tumor that grows within in us hoping (I suppose) to one day devour us.  For this reason we come as often as possible to mass to repent (or turn back) or literally ‘turn our back’ on our sin, which is what repentance really means . . . and receive absolution or forgiveness for our sins.  The absolution of the church, though most of us take for granted, is extremely powerful to the repentant spirit and voids where sin once was.  For this reason we consume the body and blood of Christ in the faith that through this sacrament we will be made spiritually whole again . . . able to return to the world and to survive yet another day until we fall yet again or we are finally called home.

But there is a problem sometimes that arises when the sin we hold becomes a secret worth keeping . . . one that we guard against and hold tightly onto in our hearts so that no one knows it and it is never . . . ever revealed.  These are the sins that can spiritually cripple and disable us until they are finally confessed and brought out into the light of day.  God of course knows our secret thoughts and sins; but he will only go there and help us with them when we invite him into these most despicable areas of our lives.

Such was the secret that the woman at the well had . . . for truly she was not married as she had had many other husbands.  I have often thought that perhaps while talking with Jesus, she may have been looking at him as yet another . . . otherwise she would have told him she was married in the first place.  Anyway, Jesus knows her and knows her secret and reveals it in front of her.  This of course startles the woman . . . as it would any one of us if our secret was revealed . . . and she goes and tells her friends what Jesus had done.  And because of this, many in Samaria came to believe in Jesus as the Messiah.

Many of us, like the woman at the well hold on to secrets like hers that are for us more than just embarrassing.  They may be great or they may seem minor in comparison, but they are something that we eventually need to expose and be rid of in order to be able to gain God’s forgiveness and perhaps just as importantly to gain the forgiveness of ourselves.

I myself have lived with a secret that has haunted me my entire life.  No, I didn’t murder anyone . . . but just the same I have never been able to forgive myself because I had betrayed a friend.  When I was ten, I visited my best friend Jeffrey whose father owned a dry cleaning business.   Jeff’s father would bring home rolls of coins from the store and give them to my friend for doing his chores.  One day, while he was in the bathroom, I lifted (meaning I stole) a roll of dimes from Jeff’s dresser.  Everything was good until I got home where I wondered how I could explain a new found source of cash (and a roll of dimes that we didn’t have).  So being the kind of kid I was I devised a plan where I would mail the dimes to myself with a note from a fictitious friend that he was paying me back for a school lunch from a month ago.  This would have worked of course if not for the fact that the dimes were too heavy to mail all at once . . . and the other fact that I had put my own return address on the letter.  And so much to my surprise the letter came back to our house due to insufficient postage.  But fortunately for me, it happened in the summer and it was me (rather than my mother) who met the mailman, who had a rather confused look on his face.  I was, at that point, nearly exposed in my crime, so instead decided to hide the dimes in my room and tried never to think about the incident ever again.  But it never went away.

So about twenty years ago I tried look up my friend to tell him what I had done and to repay him.  I found out that he had become an oceanographer in California and unfortunately had died during an underwater excursion; and so this incident continued to haunt me to this very day.  So . . . why am I telling you?

I am confessing this to you for the same reason the Pope confessed his crime; that is to provide it to you as an example of what we all ought to do with the burdens that we carry.  Now that you all know the truth it will be much easier for me to forgive myself and to finally forget the past.  Although God has forgiven me every time I brought this up to him prayer, the problem continued to exist for as long as I kept it a secret.  Therefore, if you carry secret around like this one, go to a trusted friend and get it off your conscience.  Confession really is good for the soul. 

But sometimes . . . just sometimes . . . we are given a burden to bear in order to keep us humble.  Paul, in his letter to the Church in Corinth describes his burden in this way  . . . Because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, for this reason, to keep me from exalting myself, there was given me a thorn in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me– to keep me from exalting myself!  Concerning this I implored the Lord three times that it might leave me.  And He has said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness.” Most gladly, therefore, I will rather boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me.…

But if you carry with you something that is profoundly disturbing I would urge you to get professional help from a believing psychologist who can help you through it or . . . at the very least find out the reason you have been carrying with you until now.  The primary duty of a priest is to make as sure as possible that his flock stays on the narrow path that leads to heaven’s gate.  It is profoundly important that everything I teach you or tell you is the truth of the gospel because anything less and it will be literally on my head . . . not yours.

In our Lenten series the Pilgrim Progress we have found just how easy it is for a Christian to fall from grace and just how much trouble it is to get back on track again.  You and I are really in this together.  If there ever comes a time when you need help in this regard I want you to know that I am available for you and will do everything I can to assist you . . . and that includes private confession and absolution if needed.

Some of us, I am sure have considered church a pleasant way to spend a Sunday morning, but the two monks who have spent their entire lives immersed in prayer, who came to teach us at the clericus, were, I would say, deadly serious in what they had to say about Jesus, the cross, salvation and damnation.  And like an old time southern preacher they laid it all out on the line for us clergy.  It was a humbling and at times terrifying experience for us who have been called to be God’s voice and person and image in the world.  But no matter the question that was raised from the bishops and priests and others that were there, the answer to every question boils down to Christ and him crucified.

John Stott described it this way . . . “The first and fundamental ground of our assurance, because it is the sole ground of our salvation, is ‘the finished work of Christ’.  Whenever our conscience accuses us, and we feel burdened with guilt, we need to look away from ourselves to Christ crucified.  Then again we will have peace.  For our acceptance with God depends not on ourselves and what we could ever do, but entirely on Christ and what he has [already] done for all [of us] on the cross.   Amen

Lead us not into Temptation

temptation1 

Back when I was in school I was a pretty good student.  Actually, I hardly missed a day and still to this day remember much of what I learned.  However, I wasn’t a very good test taker and to this day, I have problems taking tests.  I think being somewhat of a perfectionist my temperament is such that I have a real fear of failure . . . so whenever I am in a test type environment, I tend to have what we now call a ‘brain freeze’. I once had a calculus professor who always seemed to amuse himself by throwing pop quizzes at his class unexpectedly.  These quizzes . . . for a person who had a hard time with tests of any kind . . . were the worse . . . mainly because there was no time for study or memorization.  In a pop quiz you either know it or you don’t.  This same professor decided one day that he would skip giving an exam . . . and announced instead he would use the average of all our pop quizzes for our final grade. This of course made everyone happy because they didn’t have to study for a final.  But, for me, it just made me sick to my stomach. Needless to say, I didn’t do well in calculus that year . . . but it’s okay though because I have never needed to use calculus ever since.

The other night, after stations of cross, we started to study the allegorical reading of John Bunyan’s The Pilgrims Progress.  The main character, Christian, undergoes many tests of faith and courage as he makes his way to the heavenly city along the path of life.  In one episode, at the insistence of his friend, a guy called Pliable, Christian wanders off the path of life and falls into the slough of despond.  In the DVD we are watching, the slough of despond looks to be a muddy bottomed pond, but in the book it is described in grotesque terms . . . more like quicksand in which one’s very life is in significant peril.  Needless to say, our friend Christian isn’t all that good at test taking either.  We find him falling for one trap after another and if it weren’t for people sent to help him out of these situations, I doubt that he will have ever found the way to the heavenly city.

Most of us are a lot like the character Christian as we try to make our way through life.  Many of us are tempted as he is, tested has he is and fail on occasion as he does.  Although none of us likes failure or the just reward for it . . . reasonable people take it on the chin hoping to somehow learn from the experience and move on . . . confident that we’ll never make that mistake again . . . until of course we do make that mistake again, and then again, and then yet again.  And we ask ourselves why me lord?  Why do you keep testing me with the same situation?

We have been taught that Jesus was in every way tempted and tested as we are and yet did not fall into sin.  This is of course partly due to the fact that he was born without original sin as we are . . . and then of course that fact that he was the son of God after all . . . but in today’s gospel, as Jesus begins his forty day journey into the wilderness, he is led by the Spirit out into the desert and tempted . . . not by something as mundane as running a stop sign when no one’s looking or lifting a beer off the neighbor’s porch . . . but undergoing the temptation of his spirit, of life and of death by Satan himself. . .  not something any of us would wish upon our worse enemy.  The question of course is why did he put himself in this position?  Surely he could have done without it? 

Personally, I think he needed to prove to himself that he was able and willing to see the plan through.  He knew the future, he knew about the cross and the pain and the torment that awaited him . . . but what I think he didn’t know was what the limits of his soul and body were . . . and for those he needed a test of strength in order to gain his resolve to see it through.

And you know . . . I think that is why we are tested as well . . . so that we will know the limits of our strength as we go about the work of living as one of God’s own.  How often do we pray “Lord, lead us not into temptation” as this is just the kind of test we wish to avoid . . . the one that tempts our life against death . . . but instead we pray “deliver us from evil” which is actually translated “deliver us from the evil one” who is Satan.  When Jesus gave us the Lord’s Prayer, I believe that his ordeal with Satan in those forty days was paramount in his mind to the end that he provided us a petition  to God that none of us should ever have to go through what he endured in the wilderness.  And yet many have . . . and failed.              

But if we have faith like Christian and if  we trust in God to save us like Jesus, then temptation and testing will be for us at least . . . manageable.

So you might be wondering, what is the point of being tested?  The point is that for those who truly trust in God, there are no limits to one’s existence.  The worries of today come and go, but God is still with us.  The coming wars in the Crimea and the Middle East and their subsequent fallout here at home will be worrisome for many, horrific for some, and yet our faith will be strengthened because of our trust in God and our faith in him to see us through.  Our nation is no longer a nation of faith, (you can tell by all the dribble we put on our TV sets for entertainment), but thank God for us that at least a few of our people are still a people of faith.

Because when we become united to Christ by faith, something so tremendous happens that the New Testament cannot find language adequate to describe it.  It is a new birth, yes, but also a new creation, a resurrection, light out of darkness, and life from the dead.  The bible tells us we were once slaves, but now we are sons.  We were lost, now we have come home.  We were condemned and under the wrath of God, now we have been justified and adopted into his family.  What subsequent experience can possibly compare with this in importance? How do we know this to be true . . . but through testing and overcoming the many temptations in our lives?  And we will sometimes fail . . . and for that we have been given assurance of faith in the blessed sacrament of Christ’s body that sustains us and Christ’s blood that regenerates us anew whenever we fall into sin.  Amen

Deception is a Killer

Pritans

I have often commented that one of the best things and one of the worse things that ever happened to the Church over the years was when the Christian religion was made the official religion of the Holy Roman Empire. 

            It was one of the best things that could have happened because it ended the time of persecution and created a way for Christianity to spread over all of Europe and North Africa. 

            It was also one of the worse things because state sponsored religion, or legislated religion, is full of inherent problems caused by people, human beings, who seem to have a natural inclination to impress their own value systems on others, sometimes not with the best of intentions.

            Today we continue to fight a seemingly never ending war in Afghanistan that was initiated by a state sponsored religion.  The Taliban, as you know, is an Islamic right wing sect who has taken their religion to extreme ends.  Even after years of fighting, people in Afghanistan continue to live in constant fear of the Taliban’s religious police.  People have been jailed for insignificant offenses, like wearing their beard to short, or playing music, or in the case of women . . . shot for going to school.  The Taliban take their cue from the Koran, or Islamic Bible.  They read into every verse, a literal interpretation.

            I mention this today, because in the Gospel this morning, Judea also was in the grip of a state sponsored religion, which was in effect, a Theocracy.  The Priests and scribes of that time were much like the Taliban of our day.  They had read into every verse of the bible a literal interpretation, and from it created thousands of laws that the people were bound to uphold.  In effect, they had enslaved the people into a religious and legal nightmare where people could be stoned by mob rule for offenses or turned into the temple police for saved a lamb that got tangled on the Sabbath day.  The Jews had laws governing every moment of every day that oppressed the people unendingly.  This is what Jesus came to change.

            Jesus said, “You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored?  It is no longer good for anything; but is thrown out and trampled under foot.” In this way Jesus was telling the Scribes and the Pharisees that they were in fact the best that the world had to offer and its one great hope for survival, but they had been corrupted by teachings that were never intended by God.  They had enveloped their people in the letter of the law while ignoring the spirit of the law.  They had opened crooked money changing schemes in the temple and had exacted temple taxes and sacrifices, even from the very poor, who could not afford them.  They had set themselves up as the holy and pure elite among their constituents, even though in private they were themselves corrupted by money and power.  They had used their power to corrupt the true message of Judaism, which was a religion of worship, charity, prayer and tolerance.  And because of this, God sent Jesus into the world, to set things right.  And that is why he was crucified.

Nearly four hundred years ago the pilgrims arrived  here to settle in a new land at Plymouth, Massachusetts.  They left their homes because of religious persecution by a right wing state sponsored religion.  They came to risk life and limb, to endure hardship in an untamed wilderness and exposure to the elements.  In the first few years almost half of them died.  They came to settle in a new land where differing religious belief systems would not only be tolerated, but welcomed.  They knew what they believed and they knew why they believed it.

And so the beginnings of one of the chief tenets of our country’s constitution began.  The Freedom of religion, second only to the Freedom of Speech.  The Pilgrims founded this country based on the freedom of religion and the proposition that all men are created equal in the sight of God.

But perhaps what you didn’t know, and buried in the dusty pages of history, are WHO the founding fathers were escaping from.  Everyone has the mistaken idea that it was the Pope and the Roman Catholic Church, but it was not . . . they were escaping from us, Anglicans and The Church of England.  Our church called them separatists and they were considered traitors to the crown because they did not believe in the hierarchy of the church or the use of communion altars or graven images.  For this they were either imprisoned or ‘re-educated’ in the ways of the church or were barred from holding land or having tradesmen’s jobs. They were the sheep of their time, living among the wolves of their time.  And so they fled England and its State sponsored Church to come to America. 

Back in the narthex there is a testimonial about me.  It is signed by a Bishop and sealed with a seal.  It says basically, that here is a person who is to be trusted beyond any doubt and who believes that the Holy Scriptures contain all things necessary to salvation.  It was my certificate of Holy Orders to the Diaconate in the Episcopal Church twenty-six years ago this week.  I read it every so often to remind myself what others think of me and how, in some cases, I have failed to live up to that standard.  If I have succeeded in anything, it is most likely in the latitude I try to extend to every person I meet.  I lived with the wolves once, and I would tell you that at one time I would have been first in line to utterly condemn today’s liberals.  But one day I finally grew up.  And with spiritual maturity comes spiritual temperance.  I can remember in my youth trying desperately to follow a bunch of arbitrary rules in order to stay pure.  One of the silliest that I can remember was a teaching against eating lobster and pork.  It must have taken hold, because even today the thought of eating lobster still bothers me a little.  The church where I grew up was to the far right of the spectrum of orthodox belief.  The priest tried to instill in its members, the Judaic dietary laws, that one shouldn’t drink milk with roast beef or steak; that you shouldn’t mix bread in the same bowel as you mix meat.  He of course, meant well, but I think he was wrong in suggesting this.  That chrch had denied the teachings of Christ in order to gain control through the ignorance of the people and so I left.

The church where I ended up before coming here was to the far left of the religious spectrum where anything goes so long as it is not illegal, or fattening . . . they of course left out ‘immoral’ as a rule.

So you might ask, what happened?  What happened is that I discovered that in both cases the love of God had been sucked right out of my religion and all I had left was a black and white belief system on one hand, that was condemning and on the other a religion of exclusive intolerance that was outrageous; both of them far from the Kingdom that I believed Jesus had come to secure for me.

But today I know where I stand, which is somewhere in the twilight of religion.  I say this because to me, though I know his ways well, God is still a complete mystery, awesome and hidden from my eyes.  Who am I to judge his creation, his motives, and his Spirit?  My religion boils down to this.  I know that Jesus came to die for my sins so that I wouldn’t have to; and that through his sacrifice, I am saved.  That’s it!  That’s my whole philosophy.  Like Paul in today’s Epistle “For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified” . . . . Period.

 

There are many today who would try to sway me from this skewed, but orthodox, way of looking at our religion.  There are many revisionists in our day who read into the scriptures and find things that aren’t there or re-interpret the things that are.  In doing so and teaching others to do likewise, they have led many far from the truth.  Today in the gospel lessons Jesus warns us . . .

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished . . .

And what is the law?   The ten commandments? The golden rule? The greatest commandments?  It is indeed all of these and more, written for our enlightenment and encouragement in the scriptures.  But how do we know we have the correct interpretation?  How do we know we are right?  How do we know that others are wrong?         Anglican’s hold true what Paul describes today . . . that we speak of these things in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual things to those who are spiritual.  Those who are unspiritual do not receive the gifts of God’s Spirit, for they are foolishness to them, and they are unable to understand them because they are spiritually discerned. Those who are spiritual discern all things, and they are themselves subject to no one else’s scrutiny.

Anglicans hold fast to the truth revealed by the Spirit through those who have come before, through the church fathers, the creeds and the bible, the scriptural basis of our faith.  The orthodox believe what the early church received from the first believers, the apostles, as it was taught to them by Jesus Christ Himself.  We believe what Christ told us to believe.

In all this we must remember that there is only one Church, one Faith, one Baptism, one Lord and Father of All.  You may call yourself an ‘Anglican’, or a ‘Lutheran’, or a ‘Methodist’ or a ‘Roman Catholic’ but in the end we are simply all believers in the Lord Jesus Christ who have received the Spirit of Life from our Father in Heaven; so long as we hold true the message that has been given to his people. 

But what about the differences between us and all our differing belief structures?  The differences in which we find ourselves pale in comparison to the joy God holds in the saving grace of one of his own.  Do you think it really matters to God if his ministers are ordained through a hierarchy of bishops or directly touched by the spirit?  Paul never even met Jesus until after the resurrection.  Is Paul’s ministry to be any less revered than Peter’s, who actually walked with Jesus and was physically touched by him?  Does this negate the apostolic tradition of the church?  No . . . I believe the scripture shows us that God uses every and all means and methods to get His point across and that it will remain for us a mystery until we see him face to face.

The Church today is at a critical time in its life.  There are some voices who have come forward to show the faithful an alternative pathway to the truth, but their words and actions show that they are deceived and their deception is a killer. They do this because they believe they have been enlightened by the spirit and have been given a new freedom to act out and to embrace what they choose to hear; to believe what they want to believe . . . but in fact, they are promoting a false gospel and teaching others to do the same because they claim they have a God given freedom to do so.  In the same way, we all may possess the freedom to yell “fire” in a crowded movie theatre, but that does not mean we are justified in doing so.

 When freedom does not have a purpose, when it does not wish to know anything about the rule of law engraved in the hearts of men and women; when it does not listen to the voice of conscience, it will turn against humanity and eventually lead society to destruction.  I believe that this is what we are seeing in the continued splits and fracturing in the Church in many places in the world today.

We must continue at all times to pray for the church, this week and always.  Amen.