All posts by The Very Reverend Edward H. Ihde

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

A Royal Priesthood – A Holy Nation

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Among the many reasons I have heard, over the course of my lifetime, as to why people do not come to church, is that of the sin of hypocrisy which is discussed in the readings this morning. I have often heard say that the church is full of hypocrites who act all nice on Sunday only to act as the devil incarnate the rest of the week. And of course, this may be true of some people who go to church, but certainly not all of us.

When I first moved into our house in South Buffalo many years ago, my neighbor, who was Roman Catholic at the time, told me that she would never step foot in her church again. When I asked why, she told me that it was because she saw her parish priest in a movie theater, one where he ought not to have been. Of course, perhaps she also, ought not to have been there either, but that did not seem to weigh too heavily on her conscience at the time. She was angry because someone she respected, who taught in his congregation about the the law and scriptures, was found wanting in his personal life and she was upset because she found out that her priest was as human as she was and it did not set well with her. At the time I tried to remind her that Christians as a whole are not perfect . . . but they are forgiven . . . and that perhaps she should understand that everyone, including her priest, is imperfect . . . and will, at times. fall short of the glory of God.

In today’s reading James tells us “If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” So how can we do this? How can we live our lives being both hearers and doers of the word, being as we are, imperfect people in an imperfect world?

There is only one way of course . . . and that is through Jesus Christ . . . for it is he who has adopted us into God’s family and it is he who has given us power to overcome the world in every circumstance in which we find ourselves, if only we would let him.

Last February, you may remember the beheading of twenty-one Coptic Christians that took place in Iraq. These men were executed because they were identified by ISIS as “people of the cross.” In them, we should be reminded of the possibility of martyrdom and the reality that in this side of glory we are but strangers in a foreign land.

Consequently, we Christians often find ourselves in a most difficult position. We are called by God to love our neighbors— even neighbors who might better be described as our enemies. And we are never to return evil for evil regardless of how much we think we are justified in our feelings of revenge. While most of us will not face the imminent threat of death, testifying to our belief in Christ is most often far from easy. How then, are we to live faithfully amid these challenging circumstances and among very difficult people?

As sons and daughters of the One who is both the eternal King and our High Priest, we have assurance that we will never be forgotten or abandoned. We do not need to be absorbed with self-preservation; we are in fact free to live our lives shaped by mercy and to love others as ourselves. To appreciate this vision, we must understand that we are in fact chosen as a people to be a blessing, and that we are to carry out this important work in a priestly manner.

A few weeks back, the apostle Peter gave us encouragement when he wrote: “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellence of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light”. Peter here drew from a long and cherished tradition, theologians call ‘election’ that is woven throughout the Old Testament.

You may remember when God called Abraham, He made it clear that from this man a great nation would arise. What is interesting about the idea of election in this context is that the goal was a gracious inclusion rather than hard-hearted exclusion. At the time, God chose Abraham and his offspring, the Jewish nation, to serve as His representatives in the world. In this way, Israel was meant to function like a city on a hill or a lighthouse, where others would be drawn to the light of the creator Lord. We, as God’s adopted people should never forget that we, like the Jewish people, are in fact blessed, in order to be a blessing. That is at the heart of the biblical movement of election. But Peter reminds us that election and priesthood are meant to go together.

Peter references the Book of Exodus where we read of the promise that “you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” Israel of course had a specific people set apart to be ordained as priests, but the promise to Abraham was that all of God’s people would serve him as priests and as kings.

It is clear from scripture that all who now have faith in the Christ, the messiah, are part of this “chosen race” that is “a royal priesthood, a holy nation.” We then, with the Jewish nation, together, are the true heirs of Abraham’s covenant with God. Barriers between Jew and Gentile are all meant to and will eventually disappear. What unites us as a people is not our ethnicity or culture, but our worship of Yeshua Meshya – Jesus our Messiah. Even amid serious diversity we have become one in Christ. As those who are connected to the Great High Priest, His people are to carry out His final work of reconciliation in the world. We as believers are to carry out two vital ministries as part of the royal priesthood.

First, in our priestly role, all Christians are to live sacrificially for others. We are, as ISIS has so rightly labeled us, “the people of the cross”. Jesus laid down His life for sinners who are in desperate need of grace and love. As imitators of the crucified Lord, we now are to offer ourselves to Christ through sacrificial acts of love done in behalf of our neighbors, even the neighbors who consider us their enemies. We can truly honor God through our works of grace and mercy, hoping and praying that these same people, who are the enemies of God now, may one day “glorify God on the day of visitation”. We cannot make atonement for them, but through our lives, we can point them to the Lamb of God who alone can bring reconciliation between a holy God and a sinful world.

Second, we are faithful in our priestly role when we offer our prayers of intercession on behalf of others. In the New Testament Paul urges Timothy to offer “supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings” for ”all people, for kings and all who are in high positions”. Part of living as the chosen people and a holy nation is that we are set apart to be instruments of God’s grace and reconciliation in this world. And this begins with our prayers. We must pray not just for those we love, nor even just for God’s own people, but for the world, including even the most dangerous people who wish to do us harm.

Jonathan Cahn, a well known prophetic Rabbi commented recently that the days of grayness are now at a close . . . that there is very soon to be only light and darkness (i.e. only good and evil) in the world. He admonishes all believers to choose and to stand firm – in the light – for salvation is quickly drawing near to us. But for those who persist in living in darkness, they will soon be lost – forever. And that is the world where we find ourselves today.

So how can we love our neighbor? We must intercede for them, asking for the light of God’s mercy to overcome the looming darkness. Jesus did this as an example for us even as He hung on the cross. You and I cannot change or save our neighbor, but we must continue to believe that God can.

Jesus, our high priest, is the perfect Mediator who makes intercession on our behalf, offering Himself as the perfect and final sacrifice so that we might enjoy peace with God. We who have received mercy are now His chosen vessels to be instruments of His grace and love to the world. This is what it means to live as part of the royal priesthood.

But in order to live the life we have been chosen to live, Jesus commands us in his Gospel today when he says to all his followers . . . “Listen to me, all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile. For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.” So we must, every one of us, prove all things; hold fast to that which is good. Abstain from all appearance of evil. And may the very God of peace sanctify you always; and pray to God that your whole spirit and soul and body may be preserved blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Amen

The Full Armor of God

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Several years ago when my children were small, I got the idea to plant a vegetable garden in the back yard. I decided I would plant everything that I liked . . . tomatoes, corn, squash, but also including some eggplant that Barbara likes. After a lot of tilling and weeding the soil, I finally got down to planting all the little starter plants that I expected would one day yield a lot of fruit. But little did I expect that I would be in for one fight after another to be able to call the fruit my own. You see the first onslaught on the tender shoots were rabbits who ate everything they could above ground. So . . . after replacing most of the crop, I erected a chicken wire fence to keep the rabbits out. Later in the summer the tomatoes were attacked by snails who ignored the fence and simply bit off the young tomato plants at their stems. After installing some beer filled fruit jars, I managed to stave off that attack, only to start battling aphids, who decided to cover the leaves of some of the young plants. After spraying nicotine laced water on them, the aphids finally subsided. By this time it was nearly fall and I went out into the yard expecting to pick a few ripe tomatoes and cucumbers. But to my utter amazement, what the rabbits hadn’t eaten and the bugs hadn’t destroyed, my prize tomatoes and cucumbers were gone. They had been stolen by a thief in the night (presumably one of my neighbors). So I put up another, bigger fence to keep people out as well.

But all was not lost, because out of the whole garden upon the advent of fall, I was finally able to harvest a wonderful crop of the most wonderful tomatoes, beans, cucumbers, squash and of course, eggplant, that you have ever seen. In fact we had eggplant to eat all the way up to Thanksgiving that year . . . yum.

I wanted to relay this story to you today because God is also a gardener of sorts. Jesus tells us he is raising and tending people of all types and sizes for a future harvest that is still to come. But the people in his garden are in far more jeopardy than a few tomatoes stems planted in Buffalo. So much in jeopardy, that they need the protection of spiritual armor and God Himself, to stave off the assaults that would do them all in.

Paul writes ‘For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. Therefore take up the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to withstand on that evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm.

In many respects this shows us that we are not ‘merely vegetables’ in the garden of God, but are, in fact, soldiers in the army of God. So you might ask, when did we all get drafted?

A few months ago a friend at work relayed a story to me about how her son, who has been an honor ROTC student in high school and was awarded numerous prizes and honors from the Air Force but was turned down when he went in to sign up. You see, the boy had had ADHD and speech therapy when he was little and this fact on his medical record excluded him from joining the very thing he had worked toward his whole life. The good news is that he was finally this year accepted into the Niagara County Sheriff’s Department. The point is we hear on television ads asking us, pleading with us, and begging men and women to join the armed forces . . . but once they do, the government appears to be extremely selective in who they will actually accept.

We might say to each other that this isn’t very fair. Why should a young man or young woman be denied because of something they can’t help or change? And we think how very intolerant.

But Jesus tells us that God takes much the same position. We have heard it said by Jesus that ‘many are called but few are chosen’. Jesus tells us that God is extremely selective in choosing his friends and that is why so many are called, but so few appear to be chosen to walk with Him. Some would say that, and especially in this world of tolerance for the individual, whatever their belief, whatever their behavior, that this is an intolerant intolerance . . . and you know what? They would be correct. For God has a bar for us to pass over, one that is set very high . . . but there are others who would set the bar so low that it becomes a stumbling block for the many who would try to take the easy way out. That bar, of course, is Jesus Christ our Lord and it is only with his help in overcoming that bar that we can succeed in obtaining Gods fellowship and access into the Kingdom of God.

But you might ask then, will some not be saved? . . . and I would tell you that many will not be saved. Jesus, who in the gospel lesson today, was perhaps the greatest preacher who ever lived, and also lost nearly his entire following by telling them a spiritual truth, that they must eat of his flesh. To which when many of his disciples heard it, they said, “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?” But Jesus, being aware that his disciples were complaining about it, said to them, “Does this offend you? Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before? It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life. But among you there are some who do not believe.” Because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him. So Jesus asked the twelve, “Do you also wish to go away?” Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom can we go?”

Not much is known about the many disciples who would not accept and believe, and who left Jesus and the disciples. The New Testament tells us there were at least seventy disciples besides the original twelve. But we also know that there were others who stayed; among them were Stephen, Barnabus, Mathias, the two Marys, Martha and Phoebe. Did the others return? I think someone would have reported it if they did return, so I am thinking that they probably did not and so perhaps they were lost.

But of the ones who stayed there came forth the truth of the Spirit of God and an entire belief system in redemption, in the resurrection and the life hereafter in God’s Kingdom.

Paul, who came to the scene later writes to the church in Ephesus while in chains and describes a war, not as the vanquished, but as a general directing his army, he writes . . . “Stand therefore, and fasten the belt of truth around your waist, and put on the breastplate of righteousness. As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace. With all of these, take the shield of faith, with which you will be able to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.”

There was another disciple of sorts who also wrote while in chains, but in an English prison. His name was John Bunyan and his work was the book ‘The Pilgrim’s Progress’ written in 1678 and remarkably, still in print. John Bunyan relates the story of a man named Christian who sets off on a journey from ‘The City of Destruction’ to the ‘Celestial City’. The story is an allegory of the Christian walk and all the obstacles that we face in a faith-filled journey towards our heavenly home. It is one the best books I have ever read and it is actually available for free online.

The man Christian comes across other characters like Evangelist, Pliable and Obstinate and many others who sometimes help him and sometimes become stumbling blocks to him on his way to the Celestial City. The point of the story is that we as Christians, are burdened with our sins and we need to relieve ourselves of the burden that we hold in order to be saved. But many of us do not want to unburden ourselves because we have become so used to the burden that we cannot bear the drastic change in our life. It is only through Christ that our burdens are set down and we are released to live in perfect freedom.

The book is an allegory of what our spiritual walk is all about but in a very real and dramatic way it also portrays our physical world in what and who we need to fight off in order to win the final battle.

Today, we face an onslaught of unbelief and of evil on all sides. Our freedom to choose is in jeopardy and those who would limit it are telling us it is for our own good as they slowly take it away. As you go about your lives this week, keep your ears open and the shield of faith at your side. Become more aware of your surroundings and note how many times you hear or see an attack on God, his Christ or the Truth. You will be quite surprised to find that Paul is right . . . believers in God literally are at war with the world. Amen.

On the Feast of Saint Mary the Virgin

The universal church over the centuries and within its liturgy evolved with a number of habits that are sometimes rather hard to break. One is that baptisms are always performed on a Saints Day or other Holy Day as can be arranged with those who wish to be baptized. At one time this was pretty easy to do because baptisms were at one time private family affairs and were done during a small weekday service that also corresponded to a Holy Day; which are conveniently spread out over the whole year.

But today of course we perform baptisms in much the same way as the early church did, on a Sunday, with the whole congregation present. But Sundays don’t always fall on Holy Days – so in the present day we sometimes need to move Holy Days a few days forward or back which we have done today. For today we celebrate not only the baptism of Valery Rose but also the Feast of the Virgin Mary who we all know of course as the mother of Jesus Christ, our Lord.

Now, as good Anglicans or Episcopalians, you may never have heard of the Feast of the Virgin Mary because as ‘protestants’ we have never much completely bought into the doctrine of Mary as the Queen of Heaven as our Roman Catholic brothers and sisters regard her.

But in our own way Anglicans certainly should and do venerate Mary as a saint of the elect and as the mother of Jesus because Mary’s place within the gospels carries a message of veneration. Many who do not see this particular feature of the New Testament generally get lost in the details, reading too much into sayings such as Jesus’ “Woman what have I to do with you?” and the like.

But I would tell you that the stories of Mary hold an important place in the gospel narrative. Whereas Mark’s gospel has the least mention of her, with no birth narrative – Saint Luke has the most material, and Saint John’s Gospel perhaps the most important.

For me, it is the seemingly “gratuitous” material that points to veneration of Mary. St. Luke’s account has within it the most famous Magnificat hymn as was read in our Gospel lesson today in which Mary declares, “All generations will call me blessed.” It is a phrase that can only be compared to God’s promise to Abraham which we read a few weeks past – I will make you a great nation; I will bless you And make your name great; And you shall be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, And I will curse him who curses you; And in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” (Gen 12:2-3)

Then in Mary’s encounter with her aunt Elizabeth (and with the child in her womb, John), the focus is on Mary herself rather than the child within her womb. As Elizabeth exclaims “But why is this granted to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For indeed, as soon as the voice of your greeting sounded in my ears, the babe leaped in my womb for joy.” (Luke 1:43-44) And then Later in Luke, when the child Jesus is presented in the Temple, the elder Simeon prophesies addressing both Mary and Joseph, her husband: “Behold, this Child is destined for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign which will be spoken against (yes, a sword will pierce through your own soul also), that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed. (Luk 2:34-35) . . . thus linking Mary to the Cross of Christ in the piercing of her soul.

The abundance of Marian material in Luke explains her veneration in the primitive early Church. She is not just the Virgin who gives birth to Christ – she is also blessed by all and she is the cause of joy to the Prophet John even in his mother’s womb; she is a unique participant in the sufferings of Christ, destined herself for a mystical sword that will pierce her very own soul. She is present at the beginning, at the incarnation and she is present at the end at Calvary.

This all points to the unique place that Mary held in the first century Christian community and in their worship.

The veneration of Mary has actually never ceased in the Anglican Church over the centuries, but has matured over time as the Church considered the meaning and depth of Christ’s Incarnation, Crucifixion and Resurrection.

John’s gospel stands out for us as imbued with a profound understanding of the mystery of Mary. Of special note is John’s first mention of Mary. We meet her at the Wedding in Cana. John provides no introduction to her character – because he presumes a prior knowledge on the part of his readers. At the Wedding, the wine runs out. And with no explanation of a practical sort, John simply relates that Mary tells Jesus, “They have no wine.”

This is profound because the disciples have seen nothing as yet that would relate Jesus to the Father in Heaven. No miracles have been performed; for this Wedding will be the scene of the first miracle. And yet Mary knows who Jesus is and what He means for mankind. She is already fully initiated into the truth of His life and ministry.

Many Protestants have made much of Christ’s reply to her: “What is this between you and me?” They have treated the statement to mean: “What business is this of yours?” In fact, it simply asks, “What is this between you and me?” But Saint John puts the statement in a context: “For mine hour has not yet come.” Christ says to His mother, “It’s not time. This doesn’t have to begin yet.”

I believe that Mary and her Son shared a bond of knowledge of the coming Cross. His life will be offered and a sword will pierce her soul. And once His ministry begins, nothing can stop his movement towards the cross for our redemption. Her response is simple: “Do whatever He tells you.” It is a repetition of her earlier, “Be it unto me according to your word.” Her complete humility and self-emptying before God is a human reflection of the self-emptying of Christ on the Cross.

And it is for this reason that the Feast of Saint Mary the Virgin is the perfect opportunity for baptism in the church. For it is in Baptism that we, like Mary, come to God in complete humility knowing only the cross and Christ crucified.

 

From our Epistle today we read from Paul’s letter . . .

 

When the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children. And because you are children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” So you are no longer a slave but a child, and if a child then also an heir, through God.

In far eastern religions, it is said that a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. This is true of all journeys, both physical and spiritual. By means of our baptism, we have taken the first step (and for many perhaps, upon reflection, this has been one giant leap). But none the less, it is through our Baptism that we have begun a journey that will last our whole lives long and we are walking where Jesus walked and we are going where Jesus went. But there are many who have an idea that the rest of the journey is simply a slide into heaven, but it is not. Like Jesus, who went directly into the wilderness to be tempted by Satan, we too are to follow him and begin a journey that is hard and difficult and not without pain. Jesus’ journey ended on the cross where he died so that we wouldn’t have too. Our journey ends at the cross with His mother, Mary and His disciples . . . waiting . . . in hopeful expectation for his resurrection and his return, when he will gather us all up into the arms of His Father and live forever in His Heavenly Home. Amen

 

The Bread of Life

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Back a few years ago when the diocese was considering ordaining me to be your priest, I got a call from the head of the commission on ministry for an interview by phone. The Canon asked me basically one question that would either let me go forward towards ordination for the priesthood or would stop me in my tracks if I happened to answer it wrong.
The question was to explain the meaning of the Holy Eucharist as I have come to believe it to be.
Now you might think that this should be a fairly easy question that any clergyman should be able to answer off the top of his head. But I would tell you that wars have been fought and lost over this one question because the answer is very much subject to one’s interpretation. The Orthodox and Anglicans believe the Eucharist to be one thing, whereas Roman Catholics believe it to be something different. Protestant denominations believe it to something quite different than us and yet all of us partake of the body and blood of Christ regardless of denomination because it is the one thing what Christ commanded us to do until his coming again.
So whether you are Anglican, Catholic, Lutheran or Baptist or Presbyterian or a Mormon you will at least once during the liturgical year partake of the supper of the lord.
During the middle ages, when nearly every church was in fact Roman Catholic, the Eucharist was believed to be so holy that the people who it was offered for were unable to partake of it. Instead it was the priest only who partook of Holy Communion for the people . . . for it was the priest only who it was believed worthy to receive it in both forms. This was the beginning of something called priest-craft that eliminated the congregation from the blessing of the holy elements. The priest would instead place the consecrated host wafer in a monstrance (sort of a holder) and stand before the people blessing them with the mere sight of the host. In this way, the people could partake of Holy Communion spiritually without actually touching it or ingesting it.
This went on for several hundred years and was among several causes of the reformation. When the reformation finally did happen, it was Archbishop Thomas Cranmer who came up with the prayer we say each week before we take communion. It is the prayer of humble access on page 12 of your booklet and begins . . . We do not presume to come . . . .
Early in this prayer, we are reminded that what we are coming to is a meal. We are invited as guests to a table where God is the generous host, and not an altar where we make an offering to appease God’s wrath. Our rubrics refer to this piece of furniture as ‘the Lord’s Table’ although we are used to calling it the altar.
This prayer is to create in all of us an attitude of humility, helplessness, and dependency on God. We do not deserve to be here. We have no suitable garment of our own to wear to the feast. The contrast is repeatedly drawn between what we do not have and what God does have, between what we are not and what God is: ‘not… trusting in our… but in thy… We are not… But thou art…’ Cranmer alludes to our Lord’s encounter with the Samaritan woman, who says, “Even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs” (Mark 7.28). But the allusion is somewhat double-edged, for it expresses both great humility and great faith, as seen by our Lord’s commendation of this same woman in the gospel accounts.
The Prayer of Humble Access has the same dynamic. It does not leave us in a state of hopelessness and despair. Although ‘we do not presume to come… trusting in our own righteousness’, God’s many, varied (‘manifold’) and great mercies combined with his unchanging essence (‘the same Lord’) mean that we do presume to come. Praying this prayer is an enactment of the gospel of God’s grace.
Some conservative evangelicals, however, wish to alter the second half of the prayer, seeing in it the reference to eating the flesh and drinking the blood of Christ, a residue of the Roman Church’s use of the word transubstantiation which Cranmer failed to eliminate. There are some today who wish to eliminate this phrase entirely as being to Romanish. But ironically, this is one of the most directly scriptural parts of the prayer! Jesus says, “Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me and I in him” (John 6.56). The context indicates that Jesus is referring to his death, and the response he is seeking is faith. Whatever you may think about this, receiving the sacramental bread and wine in faith is a means of trusting in Jesus, and enjoying union with him and the cleansing from sin achieved by his death on the cross. It is in church where we can ask God to give us this without any qualms or trepidations.
In today’s gospel the people who had just eaten of the loaves and the fishes come to Jesus obviously looking for more food; more miracles . . . So they said to him, “What sign are you going to give us then, so that we may see it and believe you? What work are you performing? Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, `He gave them bread from heaven to eat.'” Then Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” They said to him, “Sir, give us this bread always.”
As you know the center of our worship here in this place is the Holy Eucharist, which is in fact the bread of heaven that Jesus describes today and the cup of salvation which he describes elsewhere in his Gospel. The Eucharist joins our offering of worship to Christ’s offering of Himself upon the altar of the cross. It is in this way that Jesus is truly, spiritually present under the outward forms of the consecrated Bread and Wine, to infuse our lives with the spiritual strength of His life. And that is why we take and eat it . . . for us – as often as we can. For it is the Eucharist that sustains our spirit and makes us ready at all times to meet the Father in heaven as the children of God.
And because of this fact Paul today exhorts us all to live as the redeemed ought to live where he writes . . . I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all. But each of us was given grace according to the measure of Christ’s gift . . . the gifts he gave were that some [of you] would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ. We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people’s trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming. But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love.
And it is specifically for this reason that Christians come to church each week – hopefully to be strengthened and equipped for ministry here in this world and at the same time, be sustained in hope of the resurrection and the life of the world to come.
It is the Eucharist that does this for us as the central act of our devotion, for it is in the Eucharist that God becomes present for us and in us and in our lives as we go about the business of life outside this place. This was the plan from the beginning and it is the essence of the Gospel that we are in fact Christ’s ambassadors of heaven until we are finally called home.
Each week as we come to Holy Communion we come as God’s servants, his teachers, and his messengers . . . not only for solace for our sins but for the renewal of our souls. And because we are his children we should always feel we can come to his house without embarrassment, and approach the Lord’s Table expectantly in the company of brothers and sisters in Christ, conscious of our unworthiness but truly confident of God’s welcome. Amen

The Words of the Prophets

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In today’s Old Testament reading there is a portion left out . . . skipped over as it were . . . perhaps because it is a bit too distressing and quite frightening as David found out. The part that was skipped is in 2 Samuel 6 . . . the part where the oxen pulling the cart carrying the Ark of the covenant (that is the box containing the Ten Commandments) hits a ditch in the road and is about to fall. A man named Uzzah steps in and tries to stabilize the cart from falling and grabs hold of the Ark. When he does, he is killed instantly by the presence of God in the Ark. What this may tell us about God is that though he loves us and desires to be in communion with us . . . He is still Holy and set far apart from us in ways that are incomprehensible to us. As most of the prophets attest, God and the Law can be both awesome and dangerous if not respected.

When I was growing up, there was a song that was popular, performed by Simon and Garfunkel called the “Sounds of Silence”. One of the verses in the refrain always got to me as a kid mainly because I didn’t understand what Art Garfunkel meant by the ‘Words of the Prophets are written on the subway walls’. As I have gotten older and comparatively wiser it has dawned on me finally what he meant by those words.

For years I was looking for some prophetic message written in graffiti, some hint that some guy with a spray can knew something that everyone else didn’t. I would often drive down Bailey Avenue reading graffiti searching for something to pop out at me; but there was never anything spiritual to be found. I didn’t see anything except a lot of bad words that I already knew and lot of slang that I still have no idea what it means. But one day, as I happened to be listening to the Sounds of Silence on the radio I saw someone painting on a wall with spray paint and it came to me just how stupid I had been. It wasn’t anything in the message that I had missed, it was the very act of writing the message, the lawlessness, of damaging another’s piece of property that the prophets had predicted. The breakdown of society and the utter disregard for another is what the prophet’s had warned us about, and here was a clue that prophesy had been fulfilled. This is what the song was saying; and I couldn’t believe I had totally missed the point.

You may remember from your church school days that the prophet Amos brought to us a message from God about a plumb line. In the passage God shows Amos a wall built with a plumb line. Much like in Amos’ time, we still build walls with plumb lines. We say the wall is plumb if it is straight up and down and can be compared exactly with the straight line of a hanging plumb bob, i.e. a straight line connected by two points, in this case one being any point in space and the other being the exact center of gravity at the center of the earth. With a plumb line, a compass and a straight edge you can build anything that can be imagined… from the pyramids of Egypt to the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco.

Getting back to the story though, God shows Amos a wall built to the exact tolerance of a plumb line (proving that the wall is true) and then moves the plumb line to the center of Israel. By doing so he is comparing the trueness of the wall he built to the lives of the people, and they are apparently coming up wanting.

In constructing a building, much of what we do to produce plumb columns or level surfaces is achieved by comparing what we know to be true to what we want produce. In this way a building will stand if all its parts are true, or plumb, and balance is achieved within its members. If balance is out of whack, that is, if the walls are built eschew, the building will fall. So during construction we continuously go back to the plumb line that we know to be true and compare it what have built. If something is crooked, it must be corrected or replaced because there is no tolerance for shoddy construction. Lives depend on the balance of the framing and its relationship to gravity and all other forces that are generated within the structural members. If you have good balance, you will have a good building. No balance and the building will fall down and you will need to start over again.

In constructing a life, much of what we do to produce an upright character with moral tenacity is achieved by comparing what we know to be true to what we want to produce. In building, this may be a plumb line, but in living it is, at least for Christians, it is the Ten Commandments. By comparing our lives with the commandments, it becomes woefully clear where we have gone astray. And that is exactly what God was doing through the ministry of prophets like Amos and John the Baptist. Amos and John were comparing the truth of God’s Law against the evil and corruption of their people and they had been found wanting. God was implying that if this people were a building, it would need to be destroyed, totally, and He would have to start over. He is telling the prophet that he should take this message to the king and tell him that he will destroy his house and that he will basically start over with a new people, one that will use his guidelines and follow his commandments to rebuild their lives according his laws.

Obviously, these ‘words of the prophet’ were not well received and Amos was begged to leave the country and earn his living as a prophet somewhere else and never again to prophesy in the Kings court. To which Amos says, “You don’t understand, I am not a prophet at all, but herdsman and a lumber jack . . . God told me to warn the king and I did what I was told”. All that he said eventually came true. Israel was scattered and left desolate and the king’s House was killed by invading armies. Such is the life of a prophet.

Recently there has been controversy about the Ten Commandments appearing in state houses and courts throughout the country. Some legislators want to post the ten commandments in our court houses and schools for all to see. Others of course want to ban them from the public square. The reasoning is that if you are exposed to the ten commandments you will become a better person because you will compare what you are doing with what you ought not to be doing. This may seem on the surface a great thing to do. The Supreme Court justices saw past the surface and declared posting the Ten Commandments as unconstitutional. Why do you suppose that is? Don’t you think it would be a great idea to put the Law of God out there for all to see? Don’t you think it would make an impact on the lives of criminals about to be tried? I, for one, do not think so . . . and I’ll tell you why.

How many of us, who are Christians can recite from memory all of the Ten Commandments? Be honest now? Why so few? If the Ten Commandments were to be posted anywhere, why aren’t they posted in our church? I don’t see any commandments around here, do you? Why not? When I was growing up in the Episcopal Church, it was at one time part of the rubrics to recite the Decalogue, that is the Ten Commandments, each time there was a Fifth Sunday in the month. That fell out of use over the years for some reason. I think it was dropped in the liberated seventies when people did not want to be reminded of their infidelities. At any rate, what I am saying is that if we, as Christians cannot bear to keep the Ten Commandments, why should we impress on others something that we ourselves cannot do?

A criminal facing trial for his crime is not going to be impressed by something he obviously never came into contact with in his life. But, if his mother or father had shown him the rules early in his life; and if he had grown and been instructed in what is right and what is wrong, that criminal would not be a criminal would he? He would probably be home cutting his grass and paying his taxes. So for him, learning the rules at his trial is too little, too late.

But the real reason that we don’t dwell on the Ten Commandments is in the fact that they are the Law under which we all have been both convicted and ultimately acquitted. All of us, from the criminal in the street, to the taxpayer who keeps his grass cut, the Supreme Court Justice, and the prophet in our midst . . . all of us have fallen from grace and have been found wanting when compared to the Law. And it is for this reason that Jesus came into the world, that he might fulfill the law by living a perfect life under the law and by dying a sacrificial death under the law . . . the death that has been sentenced to each of us as criminals under the law. It is for this reason he is called ‘the Lamb of God’, for he was sacrificed under the law and took our place on the cross. For this reason we have been justified, or made right under the law, because the penalty for our crime has already been paid, and we have been acquitted.

So how is it that we have been acquitted under the law and yet others have been condemned? Are we truly destined, as Paul insists today to be the children of God? And if this is the case, are others destined not to be? These are difficult questions for us to think about but to which Paul tells us plainly . . . that God “chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love. He destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace that he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved. In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace that he lavished on us.” This of course is wonderful for us who have been saved by grace . . . but does this mean that others have been predestined to be condemned? I don’t think so and I’ll tell you why. All of us . . . every single one of us has the ability to choose. If we have been exposed to the gospel and we choose to live by the law of God then this is what we are called to do as every man is called to do. But if we are exposed to the gospel and choose to deny God’s law and walk a different path, then this our choice and God will respect our choice even if it is self-determined and leads to our death. Scripture insists that Jesus came into the world, not to condemn the world, but to save those who have chosen to walk apart from God . . . and that was his purpose from the very beginning. But being God, he already knows who will ultimately choose life and who will not. So in that sense only we are predestined by God.

The wall that God showed to the prophet Amos was the Law, built to perfection by the Master Builder who continues to build and restore his creation in the lives of all those who with humble hearts receive His Word. As we go through life, traveling on the straight and narrow path that our Lord as laid before us, remember the standard to which we ought to build our lives, which is the Law of God, but bear in mind always that it is Jesus Christ who ultimately corrects our faults and in the end will make us stand justified, free from error, and free to live, in the presence of God . . . and that is why we call him Lord. Amen.

Prophetic Witness

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We begin today with one more reading appropriate to the lessons today from the prophetic book of Ezekiel . . .The Lord said to me: O mortal, stand up on your feet, and I will speak with you. And when he spoke to me, a spirit entered into me and set me on my feet; and I heard him speaking to me. He said to me, Mortal, I am sending you to the people of Israel, to a nation of rebels who have rebelled against me; they and their ancestors have transgressed against me to this very day. The descendants are impudent and stubborn. I am sending you to them, and you shall say to them, “Thus says the Lord GOD.” Whether they hear or refuse to hear (for they are a rebellious house), they shall know that there has been a prophet among them.

When I was growing up at my parents’ house in Tonawanda, we had some neighbors across the street who were very close friends. Each Friday night, we either went to their house for supper or they would come to our house. Sometimes, when we went to their house, Mr. Cook, would set up a slide show of vacations and places he or their family had visited. Upon the first showing he was so very enthusiastic about his trip, and we, also caught this enthusiasm as he described the San Diego Zoo or the Grand Canyon. I guess we got caught up in his enthusiasm because my family had never gone anywhere, and it was sort of a thrill to see pictures and hear stories from someone who actually went to some exotic place. A few months later, he would show the set of slides again.   This time with somewhat less enthusiasm because his memory had somewhat faded. It was still enjoyable, but it was not like the first time. A year or so later, on the fourth and fifth showing, the show had become somewhat dull and boring. It was like watching Star Wars for the eighth and ninth time. You know all the action and the lines by heart.

Our friend, Mr. Cook, had worn out his story because the newness of his vision was gone. Storytellers, reporters, writers and artists all face the same challenge. In order to keep their listener’s interest, they need to come up with new slants on the same basic story or medium. This entails going to new places, or writing about new adventures or painting with new landscapes or new subjects. This case holds true also with prophets, prophetic vision, which is what the readings are about today.

Although the readings are set in the days of Jesus and Ezekial, the age of prophetic vision has really never left us. Even today, prophetic voices abound in the teachings of John Stott, Jonathan Cahn, Herbert O’Driscoll and others who have inspired us with their stories and visions. Pastors, priests, and clergyman are people who have, in some point in their lives, made a prophetic journey. They have been given some greater insight into the way things really are. And, as a result, they returned full of zeal and enthusiasm to tell their story to anyone who will listen. One of the main reasons that I went into this ministry was to tell the story I was given when I was about eighteen. That story, along with other experiences, has been the guiding theme for all the sermons I have ever written and it continues even to today.

Paul, in today’s letter to the Corinthians, tells of a man who had traveled to a place he calls the third heaven. Here the man had received some inner vision of enlightenment and traveled back elated with this vision. In reality, Paul is talking about himself. He was the man he had known fourteen years earlier. But now, the vision seems to be somewhat obscured and the memory somewhat faded. But what he does know is that he went. At the time, I am sure it was as if a light had turned on. It was this inner vision that helped him write all those letters to the Romans, the Ephesians, the Galatians and the Colossians. But this letter today, is fourteen years later and perhaps the memory of his journey somewhat more faded. He complains of a ‘thorn’ set in his side as a message from Satan. This thorn has always been a mystery. Some think that Paul may have had a chronic illness, a really bad habit or short temper. I think that whatever it was, it was put there to keep him humble.

God gives to all of us the ability to communicate with him. But, to some he beckons to a greater journey. And for those who make the journey he gives even a greater responsibility to go back and tell what they saw. In the reading from Book of Ezekiel, God tells the prophet to go to His people, the Israelites, and tell them what he has learned. God warns Ezekiel to not be afraid of what the people might say or react to his message because the message is more important than the messenger.

This was one of the hurdle’s to being a preacher that I found very hard to overcome. First, was my message genuine? And if it was, how did I know it was? Second, was my fear of speaking in public. If you had known me in high school, you never in your wildest dreams think I would ever stand up in front of a lot of people and speak. It is only through God’s grace (and a lifetime of practice) that I stand here and not be terrified to tell you my inner most thoughts that are floating around in this brain of mine.

Many of you may not realize it but, I was turned down by the diocesan Standing Commission when I first approached them about ordination. They did not think I had a strong enough personality to fill the description of what they thought a minister ought to have. At the time, I was younger and was unable to explain to them thoroughly enough, my call to ordination, or my prophetic vision. During the eight years I waited for them to catch up, I decided to continue in the course of my walk by doing refugee resettlement work. It was during this time that Barbara and I sponsored two Vietnamese families to come to America. Today, and I am not ashamed to take at least a small amount of the credit in that those families have produced a Nuclear Medicine Technologist, three Medical Doctors, a Physicians Assistant, a Pharmacist, a bank manager, and an RN. Literally hundreds of lives will be saved or lengthened through this one good deed and all because of God working through one or two persons giving them the courage to say ‘Yes Lord, I believe’.

 

I often recall one of the prayers the Paul writes in his letter to the Ephesians:

 

“Glory to God whose power, working in us, can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine:

Glory to him from generation to generation in the Church, and in Christ Jesus fro ever and ever”. Amen

 

In these last days, you and I have been appointed, along with thousands of others, to be the hands of God and the ears of God and the eyes of God working in the world . . . but only if we let Him. When I give the dismissal at the end of the service “Let us go forth in the name of God”, it is right after that that the work of God begins anew. It is your hands that he depends upon to heal a broken world. It is your voice he depends upon to bring the Good News to all people. It is your ears he depends upon to listen for cries of help in the world. And it is your heart he depends upon to break when you see injustice, cruelty and hatred.

When you were baptized, God gave you a commission. You may not remember the words, but the Spirit was given to you and it dwells within us all for one purpose and that is to help to heal a broken world. You and I are part of the eternal priesthood. We are the prophetic witness (and, indeed, the physical evidence) that God is alive and and still at work in this world. It is up to each of us to bear this message into a sick and broken world, for that is our purpose as followers of Christ.

But it is certainly not an easy task as even Jesus could not convince his own people in his own home town. And they said to one another, “Where did this man get all this? What is this wisdom that has been given to him? What deeds of power are being done by his hands! Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?” And they took offense at him. Then Jesus said to them, “Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house.”

And so it is with all who follow in the Way of Truth.

Amen

 

 

 

Life Isn’t Fair

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When I first began dating my wife Barbara back nearly fifty years ago, her mother had a list of rules on her refrigerator that were first sort of funny and then kind of scary. Rule Number One was that ‘The Woman was always right’. Rule Number Two was that ‘The rules could change at any time without notice and if you had questions, again, see Rule Number One’. Although these rules were meant to be funny, there are some rules that are actually good life tips to follow. One of them, perhaps ‘Rule Number One’ that we have always tried to instill on our kids is that ‘Life is Not Fair!’. For if life was fair, then everyone would be equal. Everyone would live in the same kind of house and drive the same kind of car and eat the same kind of food and go to the same kind of school. Our government as tried, in the past sixty years or so, to even the score for many through welfare, Obamacare, job fairs and affirmative action work programs.   But, even after all the money has been spent and all the effort has been exhausted, one of the Biblical truths has always held true. The poor will always be among us.

Poverty is the world’s greatest problem and there is no easy quick fix known. Poverty in the United States is estimated at 16% or nearly five million people and consists for the most part of single women with children. This is the same group that has always been in the majority of the poor. Poverty in the world scale is estimated in the billions of people. Unfortunately, many middle income American white folks have a prejudice that sees only one cause. It would seem that we, the working class for the vast majority of us, see laziness as the cause for being poor. But, poverty has many root causes.

Back in the days of the prophets, poverty was caused by war, calamity, disease, and death. If these sound familiar it is because these are the four horsemen of the apocalypse. These are the horsemen who will one day herald the end of the world as we know it. In our own history, they have wreaked havoc on humanity from the beginning of time. If you look at all the countries in the world, the nations with the greatest amount of poverty have in their recent past these four things. War begets calamity, the breakdown of family, calamity begets disease, the breakdown of the body, and disease begets death and the cycle continues.

In the United States, where there has not been a war in a long time, poverty has other causes. Poverty can be caused by racism, classism, lack of opportunity, lack of education, by drugs, alcohol, by depression, and by mental illness. Poverty also can be caused by gambling, ignorance, and chronic illness. Today in Buffalo, there are hundreds of beds filled with homeless men every night. But these beds represent only the tip of the iceberg to the number of actual homeless people that are roaming the streets of the city at night. Because many poor people suffer from these items, they are stigmatized as somehow bringing this on themselves by a self-indulgent lifestyle. People who suffer from AIDS and HIV are stigmatized regardless of how they contacted the disease. People on welfare are also stigmatized as living off the labor of others. People who cannot read are often stigmatized as lazy and unemployable even though, in many cases, their plight is not entirely their fault.

Jesus came to us as one of the poor for many reasons. First, he wanted to show us that to be poor is not a crime. Second, people do not really need worldly possessions in order to be happy and fulfilled in life and to be loved by God. Third, he wanted show a parallel between God and man; man being a slave to sin and God being the benign Father leading the way out.

Finally, he showed us that there exist definite parallels between slavery of sin and poverty of spirit . . . and that is what I want to talk about today.

Much has been said in recent days about the Confederate flag and its association with slavery. Many believe it to be a terrible reminder of the differences that divide us. But a flag or any symbol cannot have power over us unless we give it that power. And too many of us are way too willing to give others and things like flags the power to rule our lives. Slavery, in the United States, was abolished after the Civil War. Slavery is when one person owns, as property, another person just like you own your refrigerator or your car. In our day, slavery is not condoned in any modern nation in the world, though it still exists in many third world countries. Back in the days of the Bible, slavery was considered part of the normal scheme of things. The biblical writers saw nothing wrong with it because it was always the way things were from the beginning. In many ways, I guess, it was part of Rule Number One ‘Life is not Fair’ and it was accepted for what it was. Slavery had root causes in war when the victor enslaved his enemy so that they would not be a threat again. As you know, the Jews were once slaves in Egypt and also in Persia and also in Babylon. Slavery, historically, has also been a way for a family to escape poverty, by selling a child or sibling so that the rest of the family might survive. The original slaves who came to the Americas may have been men and women who were sold by their own tribal families in Africa. Why they were sold is anyone’s guess, but that is what many historians surmise transpired.

Unfortunately there are very few ways out of slavery once enslaved. You basically have three options: 1. You can try to escape, but you have to be willing to look over your shoulder for the rest of your life because your owner will come after you. 2. You can give in, and do whatever it is your master desires. 3. You can be bought and emancipated by another rich but benevolent owner. 4. Or in the case of ISIS you can die a the hand of your capture.

The Bible tells us that all of us have been born into slavery to sin. It happened because our forefathers were slaves to sin and their forefathers before them and theirs before them all the way back to Adam and Eve who rejected God and accepted the works of darkness. This is what we call original sin. And just like slavery in third world countries, slavery continues upon birth. Slaves beget slaves who beget slaves which means we, who are living today, have been born into the family of man as slaves to sin. We cannot help but sin because that is our nature. But it is through our Baptism that we are freed from the bonds of slavery and are adopted as children of light. Jesus came to buy us back with the price of his own blood. Though many do not live like it, we are indeed free and need never sin again. But like the Israelites who were freed from slavery, after escaping Pharaoh and crossing the Red Sea, they had been slaves so long that they didn’t know what to do. So, if you remember, they got tired of waiting for Moses to come down from the mountain with a word from God, their liberator, but rather they built for themselves a new god to rule them out of gold, i.e. the golden calf.

And we do the much same thing. We who have been freed from sin, like the Israelites in the desert, have no idea what to do with our new freedom, so many of us build for ourselves our own version of a golden calf. It may be a house or a career or a way of life, but just like the golden calf, if it takes the place of the God who saved you, it is no less than the god who enslaved you in the first place. What this causes is a spiritual vacuum in many of us that can lead to poverty of spirit. On the outside we have all the trappings of the redeemed, but on the inside we are spiritually bankrupt. This is what Jesus accused the temple priests of becoming.

Because they, like us, were wealthy and self-righteous, living what they perceived as pure and wholesome lives while ignoring the plight of those around them. Where they should have been helping the poor, they were instead accusing them of sinful lives, of laziness and self-indulgence. Which brings us back to the poor among us. Jesus said that the poor would always be with us. The poor are here to interject Gods goodness in us so that we might be moved by the Spirit to help them as he helps us. The poor are also here to convict us of self-indulgence and greed in our lives.

When Paul asked the Corinthians, in today’s reading, to help the Macedonians, he was asking a wealthy educated elite to help a poor and impoverished community of believers. What you probably don’t know was that he was asking the Greeks to put away their bigotry and their hate for a people they had learned to mistrust for the sake of the blood of Jesus, which freed both the Greeks and the Macedonians from sin. Even today, the Macedonians do not like the Greeks and the Greeks cannot stand the Macedonians. The two peoples have been fighting for two thousand years over land, water and family names.

Jesus does not ask us to go without in order to provide for the poor.   He asks us to trust in Him to provide for the poor through Him by your offerings at Church, by your cheerfully paying your income and property taxes and through private giving and by lending to anyone in need. God indeed loves a cheerful giver.

 

Amen.

A Question of Faith

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Of all the teachings and parables of Jesus, one of the most recognized is the parable of the seed scattered on the ground that we heard in this morning’s Gospel reading. I think it is recognizable because it is finally something that we can understand without too much trouble, i.e. something tangible that we can really get a grip on because we have all planted seeds. And we have all watched in amazement as the seeds we planted grew into fruition whether they were tomatoes, flowers or trees. It is truly amazing to realize that we have absolutely nothing to do with it outside of planting that little seed and standing back to watch as a miracle takes place before our eyes. Jesus tells us that the Kingdom of God is much the same thing. Seeds are planted, growth happens and a harvest takes place. Can it be that simple? I wonder.

In the gospel lesson last week you may recall that Jesus was talking to Nicodemus about speaking of heavenly things and how if Nicodemus could not understand earthly things, how could he possibly be able to understand the things of the spirit that Jesus was talking about. Many of us wonder about the same thing. We wonder, what is it all about? Why don’t we understand? Why does religion have to be so incomprehensible that no one can understand it? Why is creation so cloaked in mystery that we need to accept it on faith? Why doesn’t God just give us a sign so that we know for sure that we are right in the universe?

This week, Paul, in his letter to the Corinthians speaks about things just as enigmatic when he brings up the word tent. He says . . . “We know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.” What do you suppose Paul is talking about? A tent is sort of a temporary home, good for shelter but not very permanent. One good wind and it could be completely destroyed. A building is, of course, a different story. A building is something much more permanent that can withstand wind and rain and anything the elements can throw at it if it is build correctly.

But Paul isn’t really speaking about tents or houses is he? He is speaking about us, our souls, our minds and spirits. He is saying that we live in merely an illusion of what really is. Our bodies are like a tent, fragile and prone to leaks and the ravages of time. We are so frail that we can be blown away at any time. But within us, there is a longing to dwell in a house not made of hands; a fortress that is indissoluble and enduring; something that we long for and have faith that will one day come to be. That dwelling place of course is the prize of everlasting life that awaits all the faithful and who long to be with God.

That is what makes the parable of the Mustard Seed appropriate to this task because just as a seed is planted into the ground so are we planted into this life to rise up and grow into the next life. Is it a mystery? Yes and much more.

Jesus came to tell us about this life and tried his best using examples we all could relate to like the planting of seeds in today’s story. It should be of great comfort to us that Jesus never objected to be in the company of people who were considered outcasts. His ministry included everyone who sought him out, the poor, the lepers, the lame, and those afflicted with demonic oppression and obsession. But, most especially, he welcomed conversation with all those who were exploring their faith and seeking the truth . . . and not only those who sought him out then, but also those of us who continue to seek him today. Jesus’ ministry was demonstrated in his ability to bring people closer to God by explaining the truth of the situation at the moment. This was truly Jesus’ calling, to be first, and foremost, the servant of us all.

I am sure many of you have had spiritual discussions with friends or neighbors or relatives who, for one reason or another, started a conversation about religion. If you ever had such a discussion, and if you aided some one by helping him see something more clearly, then you were exercising your true calling through the baptismal ministry of every Christian.

I have had many such conversations in ministry. Some turned out good, some turned out “not so good” and the vast majority left a giant question mark for me to ponder, “I wonder what ever became of Susan or George or Sam or many other names to numerous to tell?”

One such acquaintance was a friend named Geraldine. Geraldine was a retired nurse who lived in Lancaster. I worked for her many years ago for several weeks building a summerhouse in her back yard. She and her husband were retired and lived a comfortable life playing scrabble with friends, having four o’clock wine and cheese breaks and generally doing all the things I might like to do if I ever get to retire. While there, the subject of religion never came up except when I asked if they belonged to a church. To which the answer was a curt, “No” . . . without explanation.

I usually get a different kind a reaction like, “Well, I used to go to St. Swithins but they changed the color on the altar to a dreadful green so I stopped going…” you know, that kind of thing. But, the “No!” I heard meant “Don’t ask, or you’ll regret it”.

Tragedy struck suddenly one day when Geraldine’s husband died leaving her to face life alone. The scrabble games were no longer played and the wine and cheese parties ceased and Geraldine sank into a serious grief. Her life, like many widows and widowers, was shattered that day because the life she and her husband had was what they had worked for all their lives, and now it was gone and she was left alone. While working for as an estimator for a lumber company, once a month I had business in Lancaster and I stopped by her house to see how she was getting along. I visited with her each month for about two years.

During those times I found out that she was what could be described as, an agnostic, a person who questioned the existence of God and who doubted belief in an afterlife. Also during this time I was about to be ordained into the diaconate, and it seemed both of us had God on our minds quite a bit. We had many long discussions about the validity of religion and the question of Faith. I found out that her agnosticism was linked to her nursing in the hospital, and in grief for patients she had lost due to sickness and disease. She blamed God for their suffering and also for her own loss and had a hard time finding favor with a God who would let such things happen.

Does this reasoning strike a chord with you? I know it does with me, because I think all of us, at one time or another, have been hurt so much by suffering or loss that we want to blame anything or anybody, even God (if it helps), for our pain and our sorrow. We are a hurting race. Many who claim to be agnostics and atheists are only people who have been hurt, perhaps more than most, by what life has dealt them, and it doesn’t take much prodding to find the root of their distrust in God and in religion.

I mention Geraldine today because she died several years after I stopped seeing her. I only found out recently, because over the years I had lost track of her condition and her friendship. What I do know though is that God came to her in her sorrow and in her loss and gently helped her back into His abiding light.

So what, you may ask, does this story have to do with the Gospel and the lessons appointed for today? It has to do with growth and relationships . . . . your relationship to God and how you can restore His relationship in others simply by letting the Holy Spirit flow through your hearts and minds and into your life’s work. You really don’t need to understand everything to be a faithful Christian. You only need to love God and to listen to what he is saying to you. Most of us will not be put into a position to explain our faith. But in many respects, each day when we open our mouth, we are in a court of public opinion of sorts, one that is eagerly and actively searching for one word that might add some tiny seed of conviction and purpose to one’s life. And that is the ministry of faith that I wanted to relay to you all today.

We know that there are many outside this place who have doubts about religion. I know that some of us who are believers have doubts about our faith. But what do you suppose would really settle the question of faith for them and for you? I mean really ‘knock your socks off’ so that you never again could doubt that God loved you and that He is who he says he is. How about a miracle? Better yet …How about a near death experience? How about if one of us dies, and then a couple of days from now revives, gets up and tells us all about what happened? Wouldn’t that really knock your socks off and send those tingling feelings up and down your spine?

Well, that’s exactly what happened to the disciples and we (the Church) have been talking about it ever since. That is ‘the story’ folks, and it’s this story that gets the attention of just about everyone. Because along with being a hurting race, we are also, down deep, a worried race . . . worried sick about what is over the next hill that we call death and worried about what we may or may not find when we get there.

If you really want to increase your faith, talk about what you believe to someone else who needs to hear your words of faith and encouragement.   Professing your faith is the surest way I know to make it grow.

My friend Geraldine wasn’t really an agnostic. She was just a scared and gentle spirit who had been hurt by the many hardships of living. But God used the circumstances in which she found herself to begin to rebuild a trust that she had long forgotten. You and I have numerous opportunities that come fleeting by every day for just the same kind of faith building. But we need to be open to the Spirit in order to recognize them.

This week, I hope that you will open yourself to the Holy Spirit and that God will give you some opportunity to share your faith, your belief, and your love for God.   Amen

Kingship of Christ

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As the church moves through its liturgical seasons from Easter to Pentecost we see a marked difference in our environment, not only outside the church, where everything is a vibrant green, but also inside as well. The church seasons, much like our school seasons, have historically rotated with an agrarian economy . . . and though few of us plant and tend our own food anymore, the seasonal shifting of colors marks time for us and tells us it is this time, the time of Pentecost when we are asked to grow.

The lessons during the summer all point to growth in one way or another and it is incumbent upon believers to use this time wisely. In the previous six months we have heard about the second coming of the king at the end of the world and the first coming of Jesus in the Christmas Story . . . we have seen how the light has come into the world and we have watched as our savior preached his three year mission throughout the regions of Judea and Galilee. We spent forty days with Christ as he wandered into the wilderness on our behalf, and we witnessed his trial and his death and crucifixion on the cross at Calvary. We also were witness of his rising to life again on Easter morning and how he appeared to many hundreds of his disciples afterwards and how he was finally taken up into heaven, and how he sent the Holy Spirit to be with us, his church, until the time of the end.

These are all stories we know very well. These are the stories of which we never tire of hearing because they have a direct bearing on what we believe. And because we believe, we know that we live.

But this, the season of Pentecost, provides an opportunity for us to grow in our own world, not only with stories of the past church, but with a confidence in learning about ourselves and about our future together in the present age and far into the future. When Jesus left the disciples, he told them that he had much more to say to them, things that they could not bear to hear at that time. We believe that the Holy Spirit directs the church and teaches it in all things even into this present time. It is in the here and now that the Holy Spirit continues to speak to the church in all truth.

There was in the 60’s a television show that began with a quote attributed to Winston Churchill . . . “democracy is a bad form of Government – but all the others are so much worse”    I might be wrong, but I think it was the show Dragnet. And of course Winston Churchill was correct in that all forms of government are inherently bad news – mainly because they involve people who are often tempted and swayed by power and money.

In the Old Testament reading today we hear how the Hebrews wanted Samuel to appoint a king above them. Why? . . . because they wanted to be like other nations where a king led and ruled his people. They did not want to be ruled by an infinite God who they could not see, but instead chose to be ruled by a man, a King, who would be high and lifted up above the common man . . . and so they chose Saul.

Now I am sure that you have heard the saying that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely . . well it was no different with Saul. Saul was born in 1076 BC in the land of Benjamin in Israel. He became the first King of Israel circa 1046 BC where he united tribes and defeated enemies such as the Ammonites, Philistines, Moabites, and Amalekites. After disobeying God, the elder Samuel anointed David as his replacement. Jealous of being pushed aside and all the accolades bestowed upon David for slaying Goliath, Saul made several failed attempts to take is own son’s life. Saul died in 1004 BC and at his own hand when he fell on sword to avoid being captured by the Philistines.

God of course knew the temptations that any man would face as king and it really didn’t matter who the king was. He said, “These will be the ways of the king who will reign over you: he will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots and to be his horsemen, and to run before his chariots; [and he will appoint for himself commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and some to plow his ground and to reap his harvest, and to make his implements of war and the equipment of his chariots. He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards and give them to his courtiers. He will take one-tenth of your grain and of your vineyards and give it to his officers and his courtiers.] He will take your male and female slaves, and the best of your cattle and donkeys, and put them to his work. He will take one-tenth of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves. And in that day you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves; but the LORD will not answer you in that day.”

And we know that even in our own day, when we have had the good sense to put away the idea of a king above us, even now, the temptations of power and corruption continue to influence those who think they can control us. Corruption and scandal by those who lead are really nothing new, but the worst have been, and usually are, kings and dictators and anyone who holds absolute power over a people or a nation.

God of course was the king of the Hebrews and still is . . . however they rejected God and instead chose one of their own, and they have paid dearly for it throughout the centuries. At the time of Jesus, Herod was the king above the Jews. Herod was perhaps the worst of the worst for it was Herod who He has been described as “a madman who murdered his own family and a great many rabbis”, “the evil genius of the Judean nation”, and a king “prepared to commit any crime in order to gratify his unbounded ambition” (including of course killing anyone in his way).

It was no wonder that the people of the time of Jesus were looking for a messiah, a righteous King, who would take back his ancestor, David’s throne. And it is no wonder that Jesus told Pilate, when asked if he was a king, Jesus said, ‘my kingdom is not of this world’ . . . because it wasn’t and it isn’t . . . and neither is it ours . . . for we are not the citizens of this world, but of the next.  And as Paul writes to the church from centuries ago . . . So we do not lose heart. Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day. For this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure, because we look not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen; for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal. For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.

As you know, the United States is a democratic republic that was founded by our founders on the premise of Holy Scripture and has been blessed these many years since its founding because it was dedicated to God. And though we have had our share of bad apples as leaders, we have been perhaps the most fortunate nation on earth because of our continued resilience and dependence on God to sustain us through all hardship. But in the last several years, this has changed quite dramatically as God has been moved out of our classrooms and banished from the public square. Our leaders of course think they are doing the right thing by making everyone equal in religion, in sexual persuasion, in the political arena and in income and healthcare equality. But the problem is that, like the Hebrews in the first lesson, we are sort of asking for someone else to be our king . . . someone to tell us when to get up, when to go to sleep, what to eat, what to wear, what to buy and what to sell . . and instead of being dependent on God for his great providence, we are asking that we take God’s role for ourselves . . . and this has been to our greatest detriment these past several years, for today, for the first time since our founding, we are not better off than our parents . . . and I believe it is about to get worse – much worse.

But for us in the church, for believers worldwide we have but one King and that is Jesus Christ the Son of God who came to be our savior and will come again to be our King . . . And the government will rest on His shoulders; And His name will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace. There will be no end to the increase of His government or of peace, On the throne of David and over his kingdom, To establish it and to uphold it with justice and righteousness From then on and forevermore. And the zeal of the LORD of hosts will accomplish this.

You and I live in a time that was looked for by all the prophets and saints of the past.  I for one cannot be more excited about living in these times for it seems to me that the fruition of the prophesies given so long ago are nearly complete.

Jesus told them this parable: “Look at the fig tree and all the trees. When they sprout leaves, you can see for yourselves and know that summer is near. Even so, when you see these things happening, you know that the kingdom of God is near. “Truly I tell you, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away. “Be careful, or your hearts will be weighed down with carousing, drunkenness and the anxieties of life, and that day will close on you suddenly like a trap. For it will come on all those who live on the face of the whole earth. Be always on the watch, and pray that you may be able to escape all that is about to happen, and that you may be able to stand before the Son of Man.”

Amen

 

The Holy Trinity – One God

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Today is Trinity Sunday which celebrates the mystical being of God, the Almighty in the three persons, Father, Son and Holy Ghost. The doctrine of the Trinity is one of the most difficult Christian concepts for people to understand. This is mainly because we see oneness and uniqueness in pretty much everything living thing we experience in our lives and yet, if there is a God, how is it that He is three? Where does it say that in the Bible?

Well, it doesn’t say it at all. And that is what we need to think about today.

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

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

Unlike other doctrines of the church, like the assumption of Mary or the existence of Purgatory or the teaching of the Rapture, the doctrine of the Trinity is widely accepted as scriptural truth by the whole church . . . both east and west, both catholic and protestant. It is one of the only things in which there is wide scale agreement . . . but unfortunately, only to a point.

At the council of Nicea in 325, the church called an assembly of the leading theologians and bishops of the day. They wanted to put on paper just what the belief in the Trinity was, and it is this very same document that we recite each week – called the Nicene Creed. But some folks in the eastern church did not accept one clause in this document – called the filioque clause . . . and for this reason, the church split in two over this issue, One half of the church became the Holy Roman Catholic Church and the other half became the Eastern Orthodox Church.

The filioque clause in our creed states that the Holy Ghost proceeds from the Father and the Son. The Eastern Orthodox Church creed states the Holy Ghost proceeds from the Father (period). Now you might not think that few words could make a worldwide church split in two especially when you consider that God is unknowable anyway, and how could this be proven one way or another? . . . but such was the argument of the day and one which separated the church in two camps, two churches even up until this very day.

But words do matter, and when we take them out of context from scripture, sometimes their meaning can be eschewed or even lost especially by the man in the street who knows little about religion or of God and his ways. For example . . . you often hear people of nominal faith explaining their self-righteous vengeance on one another with the Biblical phrase “an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth”. With this phrase in hand people of all religions and no religion have slaughtered each other for years thinking this is God’s way of justifying vengeance. But they are in error . . . for the actual meaning of this phrase has only to do with bearing false witness against ones neighbor. It is actually the Levitical penalty for lying under oath . . . so if the accused is found guilty and condemned because of false testimony . . . then the one who bore false witness would receive the penalty (an eye for an eye . . . a tooth for a tooth . . .) should the truth ever come to light. In this way people would be subject to the law and if they lied under oath to God, then would they would bring God’s righteous vengeance down upon themselves. Needless to say, the truth was upheld most of the time.

Now you might think this has little to with God the Holy Trinity but I can assure you it does. For the commandments of God are pure and the righteousness of God is Holy . . . and though God’s is slow to anger, there comes a point where justice must prevail and judgement must be given. We know that God is a Holy being far removed from us in every way and yet at the same time he is also Emmanuel . . . God with us . . . and so we wonder how can God be both our high and lofty Judge and also be our friend and our Savior and the source of our Life . . . all at the same time?

Jesus Christ is the answer to this question, for it is Jesus Christ who came to save us all (every single one of us) from the Final Judgement of a Holy God, a God who cannot bear the sight of the corruption of our sin. And that is why we call him Lord.

The Lord Jesus Christ is God’s last word to the Planet Earth . . . and the Gospel of Christ is man’s last and greatest hope. . . for he is mankind’s only hope.

You might remember when Jesus spoke of a landowner who leased out a property to some renters who refused to be accountable. When his servants arrived to collect his rents, the unscrupulous tenants “beat one, killed one, and stoned another.” Showing more patience than perhaps he ought, the owner “sent other servants, more than the first.” These were given the same treatment as the first. Then our Lord said, “Last of all, he sent his son.” (Matthew 21:33ff.).

Jesus Christ was the fulfilment of the promises and types and stories of the Old Testament. He was the culmination of the Eden story, the Abraham story, the Moses saga, the chronicles of David and of Solomon.

It’s really all about Jesus Christ. This is the consistent teaching of the New Testament. And the implications for all of mankind are enormous.

–There is no other Savior.

–There is no other salvation.

–God has no other plan.

–Humanity has no other hope.

Other religions may possess admirable traits and some may even be helpful to a point. But only one “Way” is revealed from Heaven, and that is the way of Christ.

Philosophers have often had brilliant insights, but only One Person has possessed the wisdom of Heaven and been wisdom incarnate.

Jesus Christ was unique. He was one of a kind, a one-time act of a Heavenly Father for mankind’s salvation and the record of that–the only record–is the New Testament.

There is only Jesus. Only the Holy Bible. Only salvation by grace through faith. Scripture cannot admit any variations on the Truth given from Heaven . . . and we cannot either.

And if you find this offensive in our modern politically correct mindset, then I guess that’s your problem . . . because Jesus Christ is unique and nearly every one living today has pretty much missed this one point . . . that Jesus Christ is the only one who can save us from our sins.

We all know people who believe God has other plans of salvation and that there are other saviors. They might even speak of “Other Christs.” They find light, they might say, in other scriptures from different religions . . . and today there are many who will accuse Christian Bible believers of narrow-mindedness and egotism. They will attack church doctrine and dismiss our evangelism because it is in complete defiance of the world and completely opposite to the secular direction in which the world is heading.

But Jesus is unique and I suspect that one reason–perhaps the main reason–many rush to deny the uniqueness of Jesus and the once-and-for-allness of His salvation (Hebrews 9:26) is that if they believed it, they would have to completely reorder their lives and “get religion”.

But Jesus did not die for the sake of religion, he died for you. Jesus came so that those who would believe might choose to join Him and his Father and the Spirit in the heavenly kingdom. Though we are separated from him in sin, the sacrifice of his blood cleanses us and sets us free; enabling us to enter into the presence of God when we eventually are called home . . . and whether you believe that the Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son or proceeds from the Father only is really of no consequence in the grand scheme of things for the message of the New Testament clear:

Jesus Christ is coming.

Judgment of the world is coming with him.

We shall give account.

Every eye shall see. Every knee shall bend. Every tongue shall confess that . . . Jesus is Lord. Amen.