Category Archives: Sermons

Homiletics

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.

Pentecost

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Today is the Birthday of the Church. We who celebrate today celebrate nearly 2,000 years of history beginning at the reading from Acts today as the tongues of fire settled on the apostles, and as the story reads: ‘they began to speak in other tongues about the mighty deeds and wonders of God’.

But you might remember, there is another story about languages in the Bible set in the town of Babel in what is now modern day Iraq. Do you remember the story of Nimrod? Nimrod was a king so drunk with his own power that he ordered a tower built as high as heaven. When it was complete, Nimrod ascended the stairs to the very top of the tower. Do you remember why? It was to shoot an arrow into the eye of God. Nimrod had decided that there should be only one God to rule the earth and by symbolically killing the God in heaven, he was about to take the place of God on earth. But what happened? If you remember, God said, ‘Let us go down and confuse their language’ because the people had become very evil in the sight of God. And so all the people who Nimrod had ruled began to speak and hear different languages. And so, Nimrod’s power was diluted because he could no longer influence his followers or lead them in the way he wanted them to go. And so, as the story goes, the people dispersed from the tower of Babel and went off to find others who spoke the same language. These groups left the country and settled in families, clans and nations over the face of the whole earth. The people who were left, including Nimrod and a few of his followers named the city ‘Babylon’ because it was there where the tongues of men were confused by God.

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

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

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

But it is as true today as it was back in the seventies that fear breeds contempt and the institutional church at that time as well as now was very much in fear of the workings of the Holy Spirit in the world because the Holy Spirit is in fact, the spirit of truth. And there is nothing that those who preach falsehood fear more than ‘the truth’ because it reveals them for who they really are.

The church of the 70’s looked at the charismatic movement as some kind of occult or voodoo even though it is clearly part of our Christian heritage and blessing as the body of Christ. The Episcopal bishops at the time did their best to quell this interest in the spiritual gifts by banning charismatic meetings from churches in some of their dioceses. People who had an interest in developing these gifts had to separate themselves from their church and meet in homes and in secret. There were many hurt feelings and harmful accusations as Christians pigeonholed each other as ‘you’re one of us’ or ‘you’re one of them’. The Roman Catholics, the Lutherans, the Presbyterians and the Methodists all had the same problem with their hierarchy. But there were two places where the charismatic movement was embraced. One was the Full Gospel Businessmen’s Fellowship and the other was the Franciscan Community.

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

 

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

 

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

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

You have to know that not all are led to this kind of worship. As the Bible says, there are a variety of gifts and varieties of services, but it is the same Lord who activates them all. To each is given a manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. The proof of ‘our’ pudding as Anglicans is in our liturgy and in our tradition. It is the way we have worshipped for the last 1,500 years and it is the way the Holy Spirit came to be among us originally. The charismatics are not wrong, they are simply different.

One of the great lessons learned as the Continuing Anglican Church began to re-form during this same period in time (during the 70’s) was that, it too was a genuine movement of the Holy Spirit that impressed on the hearts of those who founded it that the Scriptures really are the inspired and authoritative Word of God. We, as a true church, cannot separate the Spirit from the Spirit-inspired Scriptures. The gift of the Holy Spirit is given to enable Christians to grow in biblical holiness and to equip them with gifts to build up the church in a hostile world. Therefore it continues to be a tragedy when other Christian leaders whose minds have been captured by the spirit of the age commend the values of the world to the Church and then claim they are led by the Spirit of God. But this is the challenge we face as a church founded outside of the mainline.

On the day of Pentecost, Peter’s preaching makes clear that the gift of the Holy Spirit is given to those who repent, but the continuing crisis of the mainline churches has come about through a failure to call to repentance those who are systematically grieving the Holy Spirit by claiming that what Scripture calls immoral and anathema is in fact ‘new truth’ revealed by the Spirit.

Orthodox Christians are convinced today that we are caught up in a transforming movement of the Holy Spirit of God in our own day. Despite our lack of power, money and resources, the movement continues to grow, as do our churches. The Holy Spirit is using us to help gather the elect of God in a unique and unprecedented way. The continued growth of the continuing Anglican churches is confirmation of this reality.

So what can we here at Saint Nicholas do? We must continue to press forward to be a Spirit-filled Church that makes visible the grace, as well as the truth, of Jesus Christ as the Lord of our Life. We must continue to welcome all who enter our doors and reach out to those who are searching for God’s truth in their lives.

“We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.

Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.”   Amen

Caught by Grace

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A few weeks ago on facebook there was a video of a horned mountain ram with its head stuck between two young trees. It was obviously stuck there for some time and was quite distressed.   Some hikers happened to come across this ram and took its picture in the woods. One of the hikers was brave enough to try to help the ram get free . . . and after bending one of the saplings down in order to get a good grip, the man pulled and prodded the ram’s horns trying desperately to get the ram out of his troubles while still trying to avoid getting gorged by the ram. The ram of a course did not quite understand what was happening and tried his best to avoid the man who would eventually become his savior. After struggling with the tree and with the ram for quite some time the ram was finally freed and ran off into the woods.

It occurred to me watching this dramatic video stream that many of us have been exactly in the same position as this ram . . . caught between a rock and a hard place . . . sometimes out of curiosity . . . sometimes out of our own stupidity . . . and sometimes perhaps just out of bad luck, by being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

It is in those awkward moments in our lives where we find that we really need a savior . . . whether it’s a friend with bail money or a father who can drive us home (because we can’t) or a concerned mom or wife who at first screams at us for being so careless and then turns around and hugs and kisses us because we are now safe . . . these are the moments of our lives that we do not soon forget. These are also the moments that most shape our lives . . . whether for the good or for the bad.

For it in these moments that we find out who it is that truly cares for us . . . who cares enough to face with us our humiliation and our shame at doing stupid things for sometimes less than honorable reasons and it is in these kinds of moments that some of us find God . . . or more accurately God finds us.

For many today the thought of a commandment that God has given us is like a red light that is there to be driven through. For many, being told not to do something becomes only an obstacle to our lives and our fun that ought not hold us back from doing the things we desire. But the commandments of God were never meant to hold anyone back. They were designed only to help us gain true happiness in the world in which we live . . . a world ruled by natural laws.

In construction, we put up barriers when we work so that people will not wander into where they should not go. The barriers are meant to keep them from harm and not to say they are unwelcome. Along every highway in the world you will see guard rails where danger exists. These guard rails will keep your car from falling down a cliff or from falling into a river or from head on collisions should something happen to you while you are driving . . . should you fall asleep or lose control. Such are the commandments that Jesus talks with us about in the gospel today that we should follow . . .

Jesus said to his disciples, “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete [and] this is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”

For it here in this particular gospel that Jesus adds to the Father’s Ten Commandments that were meant to keep us safe in this world and he adds yet one more that explains all the others, that we should at all times and in all places love one another as he has loved us for it on these commandments that hang all the law and the prophets. This is at the heart of Christianity and it central to our religion . . . for Jesus came into our world to save us and to redeem us all as we were struggling in our sin . . . and it was through his death that we were all set free.

And though we have . . . all of us . . . every single one of us . . . been redeemed by the blood of Christ, not all of us have been saved . . . for many of us have refused to believe that we have been set free and stubbornly remain where we are. Like a caged man sitting in a prison cell . . . many of us will not turn to see that the door has been opened and that we are set free . . . and because of sin, or guilt or any number of reasons we will not leave the prison in which we find ourselves, and sadly it is here where many of us will die.

But it is not so with you, for Jesus tells us who believe that “you are my friends if you do what I command you. I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name. I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.” This is at the heart of the Gospel and it is life giving to all who believe that Jesus came into the world to save sinners.

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

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

The Good Sheperd

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Over the course of winter, my dog, Fenway, and I have to pretty much stay within the confines of our dead end street on our daily walk after I get out of work.   We do this because it is usually too icy or too muddy to go off the sidewalk for any kind of distance.  This spring, as the sun came out and as the ground dried up over the past few weeks, Fenway and I have been able to walk farther out into the fields and woods at the end of my street.  Each year it seems we end up on the same path that other folks take into the wilderness near the Buffalo River.  And each year need to get reacquainted once again to the different paths that worm their way through the fields.  One of those paths at the end of our journey splits into a Y leaving us with the choice of going either right or left.  From past experience I happen to know that the wider path leads to a different neighborhood while the narrower path leads home.  My dog, Fenway, however, never seems to remember this fact from one year to another.  Every spring he enthusiastically wants to turn right when we should be turning left . . . to go home.  I think he wants to turn right because that’s where all the good smells are and where obviously most everybody has gone.  It takes a few weeks before he gets the idea that when we come to the fork in the path, that we are to go left towards home.   So after about seven or eight tries he learns to turn left by himself without any coaching or pulling him onto the right path.

This past Wednesday our group got together, as we have been doing recently for evening prayer.  We watched a video about the end times and how it is prophesied in Revelations that in the end times there will be established a one world religion which will attempt to encompass the belief of all religions into the worship of a false messiah.  Many in the Church established by Christ will leave the true faith and be led astray by the false promise of this new faith.

And we asked ourselves how could this happen?  How could a Christian who goes to church and has heard the truth, deny Christ and take up with a false messiah who has proclaimed himself as God?  Which brings up other questions . . . just what is a Christian believer, and how do we recognize one when we see one?  How do we know that what we believe and what have been taught is true to the faith that was handed down through the disciples?  How do we know that we are on the right path whereas others may be lost, going in the wrong direction?  These are the questions the lessons tell us we need to think on today.

First off you need to be aware that not everyone who goes to church each week is a Christian . . . and in the same vein, there are some who stay home each Sunday who are Christians.  The proof of a true Christian is not whether he goes to church or not . . . but how he lives his life.  Jesus tells us that it is by their fruit that you shall know who his followers are.

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

So, why do you go to church?  What are we supposed to get out of it?

What do we want to happen here?  I am not sure what you think, but I can tell you why I am here and what I am looking for.

I am looking for people of good will to gather together in a community of faith.  I want everyone that comes here to develop a greater sense that people can and will encounter God, if they will let him in.  I want us all to grow in a greater understanding of Christ’s mission.  I want everyone to learn something that feeds you, heals you, and equips you to go out to be faithful disciples . . . to be believing Christians in the world . . . and my greatest hope is that you want this too.

In the Gospel this morning, Jesus talks about the Good Shepherd.  “I am the Good Shepherd.  I know my own, and my own know me.”  Many times I have been reminded of the closeness and presence of the Good Shepherd through the kind words and actions of fellow believers.  This week, especially, with new life blossoming forth through the trees and flowers of Spring, I have been reminded of the words of the reassurance of Easter and of the resurrection.  I have been reminded about the blessedness of life and the joy of freedom in this land.  It is in these types of experiences that we know that God is near.  For I believe it is in this way that Jesus shares His Peace and Presence with us, but only if we are willing to give up all the other cares of life that are constantly filling our minds with worries and expectations.

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

The Epistle today describes the world in which all of Christ’s followers ought to belong.  “Beloved, we are God’s Children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed.  What we do know is this:  when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is.  And all who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure.”  Here is a vision of life without the things of the world that cause us worry and disunity.  Here is a vision of the Kingdom of God and the first thing we ought to seek as followers of Jesus.  Here is the thing that ought to be most important in our lives and worthy of our remembrance and practice and our time and honor.  We are God’s Children, Paradise is our destination and Heaven is our home.

Jesus the Good Shepard is the way who teaches us to follow the path of life.  The Church provides for us an environment where we can learn to perceive the right path from the wrong path so that when we are in the world on our own, we may choose the correct path without a second thought.  Much like my dog Fenway, we are all being led by the Spirit so that finally when the time comes, we will all know the way home.

Finally from St. John today we read . . . Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.  And by this we will know that we are from the truth and will reassure our hearts before him whenever our hearts condemn us; for God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything.  Beloved, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have boldness before God; and we receive from him whatever we ask, because we obey his commandments and do what pleases him.

And this is his commandment, that we should believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us.  All who obey his commandments abide in him, and he abides in them.  And by this we know that he abides in us, by the Spirit that he has given us. Amen