Category Archives: Sermons

Homiletics

The Transfiguration

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One of the primary concepts of theology, one that many probably do not realize or think about much, is that . . . for us humans, God . . . exists only in the present. We may recall the past and we may plan for the future, but it is in the ‘here and now’ that we will find our connection to God and with each other.

In today’s gospel; we again heard the story of the transfiguration of Christ. We wonder . . . was this a vision of the future or did it actually happen in the present of those times when Jesus walked with his disciples. Jesus warns the disciples not to tell anyone what they saw until after the resurrection. Do you suppose that had they told that somehow the plan of salvation would have been changed . . . or perhaps ruined for them . . . or for us? We know that the future is not normally revealed by God in great detail, but at the same time we can also assume that it is laid out for those who have eyes to see it.

The transfiguration was given to the core disciples in order to build their faith for what was about to come. They were given a vision of the future showing them what had become of the past and how the future was to be shaped in God’s hand. The specific people who appeared, of Moses and Elijah, were telling. These were the only two prophets in the Old Testament that no one knows what happened to.

Elijah, as you may recall was swept up in a chariot of fire into heaven, never to be seen again. The scripture tells us that he will return as one of two final witnesses in the end days. That is one of the reasons that the people who heard Jesus from the cross calling “Ali, Ali . . .” on the cross assumed he was calling out for Elijah. And that is also, I believe why Jesus did not want anyone to know that Elijah had come in this vision.

Moses, as you may recall, was unable to enter the promised land due to a lost temper while working God’s miracle of cleaving the rock for water. Scripture informs us that he died, but that God himself only knows where his body is. The kabala (an ancient Jewish mystic book) relays a story that Moses refused to give the angel of death his soul and that God himself came from heaven to collect it. God placed the body of Moses in a special place where it would not see corruption until the day of the resurrection of the dead. Moses, we are told is the second witness who is to come at the end of time.

It is not all that clear that the disciples who witnessed this event were aware of the implications of what the transfiguration meant. But they were as startled as anyone would be if it happened to any of us.

So what does it mean for us in the present? For me it is a significant sign that all is as it should be. It is a sign from the past that links the present with the future work of God and the redemptive plan for all mankind. The fact that Jesus called three men to witness this event is also noteworthy. You may not believe one person who has seen a vision of eternity . . . two people who see a vision might also be untrustworthy as a sympathetic psychosis . . . but for three people to see the same thing and report back has to be either true . . . or . . . a conspiracy; but to what end?

The transfiguration is truly a lamp shining in the darkness as Peter describes. It was given, not for the people of that age, but for you and all others that have followed Jesus into the future holding on to the truth and life of Christ’s church throughout its generations. It was a sign that all was ready . . . all is right . . . and all will be carried out according to the plan of life and salvation.

There are two camps about the way this plan of life works.

There are some who believe that life is like a stream gently flowing to join a brook which joins other streams and other rivers and lakes until it becomes an ocean. This camp believes that everything . . . both good and evil is mysteriously being somehow brought together by God until everything that is, is cleansed and perfected as it gently flows into heaven. They believe that as mankind continues to evolve, all the things that divide us will fall away and we will become one voice, one people, all going in one direction. Our divisions will cease and all will be one with the Father of all things. This is the more liberal approach to life’s plan. It tells us that all will eventually join God in the end of time.

Then there is another camp that believes that life is more like a tree. As we continue to climb up the tree we are constantly faced with a decision as we come to a fork in the branches. Do we turn right or do we turn left. Do we embrace good or do we accept evil. This philosophy states that there is only one way and that when errors in judgment or opportunity happen, we find that we need to retrace our steps and go back (or repent) in order to stay on the Pilgrims Way, the way of life. This philosophy is uncompromising in its pursuit of perfection to be with God. It is the more conservative approach to the plan of life. It tells us that very few will join God in the end of time.

Now most of us know from experience that life is seldom a stream, but sometimes it is and we find that we can go with the flow. And it is not always a tree, but sometimes it is and we find we need to make a clear choice or take a stand. Jesus tells us that he is a vine and we are the branches. He tells us to bear the fruit of the spirit, which is love. He tells us that he will help us to bear fruit by trimming us back when he needs to. He tells us that he will give us living water to help us grow. He tells us that his love is sufficient to get us through all the things that we encounter in life. We need only to believe in the plan of salvation.

But, he also warns us that those who cannot . . . or will not . . . bear fruit will be cast aside . . . to make room for those who can. This is, for most of us, a terrifying statement, because all of us want to feel included in God’s plan. I know that each time I read this warning in the Gospels, I sometimes cringe because I know there are some who will not want to hear it. And I wonder how can this be coming from the ‘Lord of Love’?

Back, many years ago, Barbara and I decided to plant two apple trees. We planted one Golden Delicious and one Red Delicious tree. They were small saplings at the time, but they grew and grew. We never had the heart to prune them or spray them because we wanted pure apples with no chemicals. But little did we know that this isn’t how you grow apples. Before long the two trees were towering over our yard full of branches and thousands of leaves.

We did manage to get apples every year from them. We got thousands of very small horribly sour little apples that fell from the trees full of worms. Every year we cleaned up this mess and threw out two garbage pails full of apples. The fruit was inedible but the trees themselves were both magnificent, full of shade and promise. We stilled loved them. But as time went on, each year I thought about cutting them down because of the terrible mess they made, and because the fruit they produced really wasn’t any good for anything.

Conversely, in my travels throughout Niagara County, I am always impressed in the fall to see wonderful red, ripe, juicy apples in the orchards dressed by professional apple growers. These wonderful apples are hanging on some of the worst looking trees you have ever seen. They are all black and knarly and have horrible grotesque trunks. But, they have wonderful apples.

The reason is, that, to grow fruit correctly, the dresser needs to prune the trees . . . a lot. Sometimes they need to cut off whole branches to make them bear fruit. They need to do this, not out of malevolence against the tree, but out of love to make it grow and produce the finished product which is the fruit of the tree (and not the tree itself).

The point of all this is that love, though gentle as a lamb can be as ruthless as a lion when it comes to our own spiritual lives and the Church. If God can be compared to Love, then Love can be compared to Living Water that rains down and gives life equally to both the just and the unjust. But love never demands its own way, so God never prunes us unless we ask him to. Those who are pruned bear much fruit and they bear it most abundantly. Often they are not people who live in gigantic houses or drive expensive cars. Often they are the very poorest of people with the very largest of hearts. The plan of salvation is truly meant for them. But in the same way, if the vine is no longer useful and tree no longer produces good fruit, it will be cast down and removed so that others can take its place.

O God, who before the passion of your only­begotten Son revealed his glory upon the holy mountain: Grant to us that we, beholding by faith the light of his countenance, may be strengthened to bear our cross, and be changed into his likeness from glory to glory; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

David

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Many years ago, back in the early seventies, I got my first job, thanks to a friend of mine who put in a good word for me with the boss. My friend’s name was David and I had been his family’s paperboy for many years. Dave was one of those folks who wanted to believe in God but could never make a commitment to even try to open up about it. As I mentioned to you a few times before, I was at one time considered a religious fanatic by my piers . . . so I decided that . . . no matter what, I was going to help David through this. I was single handedly going to make him into a Christian.

Well as time went on it became apparent to me that not only was David not saved, he was also a drunk who would come into the store on Monday mornings with a huge hangover that would last until about lunchtime on Wednesday. On a number of occasions, Barbara and I would invite him to dinner at our house and occasionally I would invite him to come to church with us – to see what it was all about. To the idea of church, he always said ‘thanks but no thanks’ . . . but I wasn’t about to give up.

One day finally came when I just about begged him to come to church with us. He told me that if I went out with him, he would go to church with me. At the time, the movie, The Man of LaMancha was out and I found I had great affinity with the character Don Quixote . . . so I said to myself . . . ‘sure, why not?’ Actually, I guess I said it out loud . . . because Dave told me he’d pick me up at my house that night.

To my great surprise we went to see a Sabers hockey game against the Russians and then ended up at strip club in Cheektowaga where I had my first vodka gimlet (which I still like . . . I might add). As the young ladies walked up and down the bar, Dave asked what I thought about his life? All I could think about was how exciting it all was but in the end how very sad it all seemed. Though he yearned for companionship, his life was empty and devoid of anyone really caring whether he lived or died.

David went to church that Sunday with us . . . but only that once. I was unable to awaken him to the spirit that filled my heart and I felt like a complete failure.

The lessons and gospel point at the fundamental yearning of people – people like you and like me and like my friend David – who long for relationship with God but seldom know how to attain it. We fill out our lives with a myriad of substitutes for this relationship in our work, in our home life, in our hobbies and in every one of a number of euphoric diversions from reality, hoping that the pleasure we find in some new way will fill the void we feel in our lives.

In the time of Paul, food was a great obsession with people . . . mainly because it was scarce – and people had a great proclivity to give to their food some mystical power through offering it to their gods. This would assure them of good health or a large family or both. People would often have statues of certain favorite gods in their home and would set an altar up near it where they would offer food to be blessed. This of course, to Paul was a seemingly, ridiculous thing to do since he knew (and we know) that this was simple superstition and the household gods of the past did not really exist at all. But for the man in the street in the early life of the church, the household gods were real and they could bestow upon their followers wealth, children and good health.

And so it was that Christianity, in its earliest formation, found in these gods a kind of competition to the one true God who is the God and Father of all.

Today of course, we are no longer in competition with household gods nor do we have to worry about whether the food we eat has been offered to idols. It is a thing of the past – right? So why do we bring this subject up again and again every three years or so? What does the worship of false gods have to do with us in the 21st century?

We continue to bring it up because all of us have yet to get over the false dependence on the little gods of our lives. We may not call them Diana or Molech or Ashtoreth as in the days of the apostles. Instead, today we might call them Gucci or Jaguar or the Seahawks. The names do not matter, it is the influence these kinds of things have on our lives that matter. Paul knew this, Jesus knew this, and somehow deep down, we all know this to be true.

So are all these things bad? No, certainly not. Things that are attained by hard work can never be bad because they are part of the plan of happiness that God promises to all who believe in him. But they can become bad when the attainment of these things becomes more important than following the commandments of God. Drinking alcohol once in a while is not a bad thing . . . in fact the Bible tells us that it is God himself who ‘causes wine which makes man’s heart glad’ . . . but when wine and strong drink become the crutch on which our life depends, it is then that it becomes a bad thing . . . sometimes so bad that it destroys one’s life and the lives of all those around us. Much the same can be said about sex, drugs and gambling . . . all good things in their proper time and place, but all bad things when we become addicted to their influence in our lives.

All of us, I am sure, have people in our lives that are in need of true repentance, conversion and amendment of life. We can help them in a number of ways. We can be supportive of their efforts to beat their addictions. We can pray each day for them as they fight their invisible battle for redemption. We can list their names on the Prayer List at church each Sunday and light a candle before God’s altar in their name . . . but as I found out the hard way . . . people sometimes get the idea that they can make a person believe in God . . . I know I did at one time . . . but no longer. John Stott tells us that it is a mistake to think that the purpose of evangelism is to cajole sinners into doing what they can perfectly well do if only they put their minds to it and pull themselves together. Consider this statement from St. Paul ‘No one can say “Jesus is Lord” except by the Holy Spirit’. And from St. John’s Gospel ‘No one can come to me unless the Father draws him’.

We do not hear enough of this ‘no-one can’ at church, the inability of men to believe in Christ or to come to Christ. Only the Spirit can reveal Christ to men; only the Father can draw men to Christ. And without this double work of the Father and the Spirit no-one can reach the Son. It is also true that Jesus told some of his detractors ‘you are not willing to come to me that you may have life’.

The human mind finds it impossible neatly to resolve the tension between this ‘cannot’ and this ‘will not’. But both are true, and man’s refusal to come does not cancel out his inability without grace to do so.

One day, perhaps twenty years later, David called to ask if I would officiate at his mother’s funeral because I had known her very well. Upon talking with him at the wake, it turned out that he had just joined the Michigan Baptist Church in Buffalo and he was finally getting grounded in the Lord. He was like a different person . . . because he had finally been born again!

What I have learned along the way is that we as believers must pray for those who come our way and who are in need. How will we know? We’ll know because the spirit will tell us in our hearts! And when we pray, we need to pray often and insistently to God . . . and he will answer . . . if not now, then in the far future. I found that in trying to help my friend David, God was actually helping me grow into a better Christian and a better friend to all of God’s people. Amen

God’s Mission – Our Sacrifice

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Today, in our first lesson, we hear the last half of one of my favorite Bible stories. For those who would be missionary preachers, it is the story of the prophet, Jonah. Jonah, you may recall was the man who was swallowed whole by a giant fish (or leviathan) as described in the book of Jonah. Perhaps, you too remember parts of this story . . . and have asked yourself why he was swallowed? And why did God deliver him? These are questions that we should be able to answer from the stories of our youth.

Jonah was a prophet who was sent by God to the City of Nineveh to preach doom and gloom to all in the city because of their evil ways. Jonah didn’t want to go there because he knew that as soon as he started preaching that the people were evil and that God’s wrath was about to come upon them, he would be killed. Prophetic preachers weren’t treated very well back then, especially if their message was doom and gloom.

So, Jonah decided to shirk the responsibility that God had laid upon him. So what did he do? He did what a lot of preachers do when faced with an unpleasant task . . . He ran . . . as fast he could in the opposite direction. Well, as you may know, one cannot hide long from God, and while he was on a ship in the Mediterranean Sea sailing away, God sent a horrible storm. The men on the boat didn’t know what to do, and they thought they were all going to die.

But Jonah knew the truth, and told the men to throw him overboard so that their lives would be saved. And so they did. And as soon as he hit the water the storm ceased. Jonah, who was now in the water was swallowed by a tremendous fish at God’s instruction. For three days Jonah sat in the belly of the whale contemplating his own death as the digestive fluids from the whale started to eat away at his flesh. But, guess what? He didn’t die. God, in his mercy, and in his grand design, saved Jonah and instructed the whale to beach itself, where upon it threw up everything in its stomach including Jonah. And the place where it threw Jonah up was none other than the shore of the City of Nineveh.

By this time of course Jonah was set straight in the eyes of God. He had been punished for his cowardice and was reawakened in his faith. Jonah mends from his ordeal and vows to God to become the best missionary ever and willingly sets off for Nineveh to preach the bad news that God had in store for them.

And that is where our story begins this morning . . . So Jonah set out and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the LORD. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly large city, a three days’ walk across. Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s walk. And he cried out, “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth and turned from their evil ways. Why do you suppose they did that? I believe that the people of Nineveh were startled out of their wits by Jonah . . . probably by two things. (1) the message of this prophet from God claiming judgment soon to befall them, and (2) the look of this man, Jonah, who had been half digested by a giant fish. Most likely he looked white as snow from the acid and like a dead man . . . walking. Consequently, the people heard the message and saw the error of their ways and turned back to God, all because of Jonah, his rebirth from the belly of the whale, and his missionary message of life and death. Through this one act of cowardice and consequent repentance, the entire city of Nineveh was spared.

Dr. John Stott, was probably the greatest evangelical preachers of our time. In his final book, he tells us that it is no accident that God’s mission, requires great sacrifice . . . in time, in talent and in resources . . . and all too often in the ultimate sacrifice of death, in order to accomplish God’s plan of redemption for the world. He tells us that mission in Christ is much like the mission of Christ who died so that we all might live. In such a way, John the Baptist was sacrificed so that the Jesus, the messiah of God could increase and bring to the Father all who would be saved. Also, in much the way the circuitous mission of Jonah in the belly of the whale awakened the people of Nineveh to the error of their ways and they lived, both they and their children and their children’s, children who would eventually become the ancient nation of Assyria . . . fundamental to the continuation of the house of Israel in the future time of King Nebuchadnezzar.

As many of you know, my family sponsored a Vietnamese family back in the early eighties. They still can tell us today the story of their ordeal on the high seas of the Indian Ocean as they escaped their country. They told us of people who were thrown overboard and who drowned on the way. They told of Thai pirates who came onto their boat and stole their food and jewelry and raped some of the women on board. They told of horrible storms and lack of water for days as they drifted with no gasoline on the ocean currents and how, miraculously, they landed on a beach in the Philippines after 14 days at sea. They told how they lived in a refugee camp for two years waiting for someone to sponsor their family of three adults and eight children. They tell of their learning English and how to flush a toilet and their plane ride to Honolulu, Chicago, and Buffalo in midwinter. They tell how they froze in our climate but were grateful for the freedom and opportunity in this new land. They tell of a story of faith, of courage and of hope for a better future.

Their story is one of the most powerful life and death struggles I know. And today, on their wall, is a painting of Jesus walking on the water in the midst of a raging sea next to a boat full of frightened men. It is their constant reminder of how God saw them through their ordeal and rescued them from death. They came here to Buffalo and were baptized and became believers in Christ and in his ability to save souls.

These kinds of stories illustrate to us how God may use very convoluted and mysterious ways in order to get his point across to us and to reach others. Often he uses the weakest among us to overcome the obstacles to grace in others. God most often uses simple folks as missionaries to send messages like seeds scattered throughout the earth. And through these messages, the church has grown from age to age, finally becoming the first and only truly global religion in this, the 21st century.

Today of course the City of Nineveh remains front and center in the news as Orthodox Christians there face the threat of ISIS and all that that entails. As Christians are murdered for their belief in Christ and as churches there are destroyed in the name of Islam, we can only guess what the message is that God is sending to us in these horrific circumstances. Could it be that there really is little time before the end? Is the blowing up of the church housing the final remains of the prophet Jonah a specific warning of dire things to come at the hand of those who hate us? Only time, of course will tell, but it is our responsibility today, in the here and now, to grow our faith stronger so that when disaster suddenly befalls us we are not like those who have no hope.

Perhaps it is no accident that Paul wrote these words today to us in the future so many years ago . . . “I mean, brothers and sisters, the appointed time has grown short; from now on, let even those who have wives be as though they had none, and those who mourn as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those who buy as though they had no possessions, and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it. For the present form of this world is passing away.”

Amen

Sin

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The readings today have to do with the subject of our sin and how the sin we carry within us affects our spiritual relationship with God. It is of course no secret that sin is an ever present occupying force in all of our lives . . . from the most devout believer among us to the worst of murderers on death row. The Bible tells us that we have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God . . . and in fact there is not one of us worthy to stand before God except the one who came from God . . . our Lord Jesus Christ.

So what is sin and how do we rid ourselves of it? And if we cannot get rid of it, how do live lives worthy of God while sin is present in our lives? These are the questions we are led to ask ourselves today.

As you are aware, sin came into our lives through birth. Like a genetic disease it has been handed down from one generation to another throughout all of history until it was present in your grandparents lives, in your parents lives, and ultimately in your own life. Sin will continue to be handed down to your children and to your children’s children until the end of time. And like a genetic disease, there is no escaping it, for it infects all of us in many different ways. And because it does, sin has a controlling grip on our lives that can be compared very much to slavery . . . and in fact we as a people have been enslaved in sin to the god of this world. And that is why Jesus came into our world, so that through the power of the atonement and through giving up of his own life’s blood, he would himself, pay for your sin and my sin and for the sins of the whole world for all time. And because he did this, we who believe in the saving atonement that Jesus made on the cross for us . . . as Christians . . . we have been set free from the sin that once enslaved us all.

How is this possible, you might ask. . . and if it is, why then do I keep on sinning if I have been set free from it?

Paul writes to the Greeks to today in Corinth and explains our freedom from sin in this way . . . “All things are lawful for me,” but not all things are beneficial. “All things are lawful for me,” but I will not be dominated by anything. “Food is meant for the stomach and the stomach for food,” and God will destroy both one and the other.

What he is saying here is that because of Christ, our sin can be forgiven us . . . not only our sin today, but our sin tomorrow and our sin next year. And although we continue to sin, we are in fact set free from sin and there is nothing left that we can do that is unlawful for us because through Christ and his atonement we have already been acquitted and found not guilty.

If what Paul is telling us is true and we can do anything we want without penalty, then why don’t we? Why don’t we go out and rob banks and liquor stores and spend our lives in luxury somewhere where it’s warm? Why don’t we just, like ISIS, go out and murder people who do not agree with us? Why don’t we cheat people out of their possessions and go on a rampage like the folks in Ferguson? We can, you know . . . so why don’t we?

We don’t do these things because when we accepted Jesus into our hearts and received the Holy Spirit from God, our lives were dramatically changed forever and because of this change, we have no desire to hurt people or to rob stores or do any of the terrible things we see on television every night. Because of Jesus we desire only that which is holy, that which is good for us and that which is true. We desire only to grow in the Spirit and we search for those things that are beneficial to our growth. We don’t do these things because we choose not to.

But even so, while trying our best doing all this good stuff, we are still captive in the world and by our surroundings. The world continues to be engulfed in sin and occasionally it does rub off on us . . . and since we live in the world, we cannot escape from the world, and we are influenced by those around us . . . and so we sin . . . and we know we sin – and we hate ourselves for it.

And because we hate ourselves for falling again into sin, we come to church each week in order to receive the help we need to get up and face another week.

And for all who come each week with an open and contrite heart, help does come in the form of our fellowship and in our prayers and in the Holy Eucharist at the altar. For this is the purpose of Holy Communion . . . and of all the Sacraments of the church, to help you to live out your Christian walk . . . to renew your spirit within you and to relieve you of the guilt you feel when you fall into sin.

The Holy Eucharist, as you may know was the only sacrament of the Church instituted by Christ himself. He gave it to us in the form of a command that we should, as often as possible, celebrate his death and resurrection by the breaking of bread and the sharing of the cup. In this way, he would be continually present with us in our memory and come to us in this form so that he might live within us, sharing our lives with him so that we might share in his life with the Father.

There are many misconceptions of what the Eucharist is and isn’t among believers. Before becoming a priest, the main question that I was asked was, what do I believe the Holy Eucharist represents? . . . How is God present in it? . . . and what do I, as an priest ordained of God have to do in order that the sacrament be valid?

These are pretty tough theological questions and apparently I must have answered them all right . . . because here I am. But I think everyone here ought to have an idea of what we believe the Holy Eucharist is and why it is important that we should partake in it as often as possible.

First off, I would tell you that as Anglicans, we believe that Christ is indeed spiritually present in the elements of the communion . . . and for those who truly believe he is present . . . he is present and can be of great help to you both spiritually, physically and emotionally by accepting him into your body in this way. Also I would tell you that if you do not believe that he is present . . . he will not be present and taking communion will not be of help to you at all – in fact the Articles of religion indicate that it may be to your detriment at the Last Judgment because those who do this would be considered a false witness.

Roman Catholics believe that during the Eucharist, Jesus is sacrificed again on the altar by the priest, and because of this sacrifice, the bread and wine become physically the actual body and blood of Christ. They believe that because God became man in Jesus in human form, God can also become bread and wine in physical form. If this was the case, and a non-repentant non-believer took the physical body and blood of Christ into himself, I am not sure what would happen. They aren’t sure either . . . this is the reason they give for requiring a personal confession to a priest and absolution before going to communion.

So what is the role of the priest in the Anglican tradition? If there is no sacrifice, why even have a priest present at the altar? These have been questions made by theologians throughout our history, and at one time (and even in our own prayer book) there were no priests . . . there were only ministers of communion.

First off, technically there are no altars in Anglicanism. There are only Holy Tables, at least that is what our Prayer book calls them. The priest represents our High Priest each week at the Holy Table and breaks the bread and distributes the wine just as Jesus did in the Passover before his death. The Anglican priest, when lifting his hands to God, prays on behalf of his congregation just as Jesus prayed on behalf of his disciples and it is the priest who absolves ours sins in the place where Jesus would stand if he were here with us physically.

In our tradition the priest faces east with the people looking for the second coming of Christ with the people, because even though he represents Christ, he is also one of the people . . . so you see the priest serves two functions . . . he is both himself, a sinner of God’s own choosing, and also represents Christ with us, as our chief priest and pastor. The best way to remember the difference is when arms up he represents Christ with us – with hands folded he represents himself, a sinner in need of repentance and absolution. That is why the priest can be a sinner and yet still bless and sanctify the holy elements to be for our use in the Holy Communion.

But he can’t do it alone, for it is you, the body of Christ (the people) that provides the final blessing in the final Great Amen that finalizes the Holy Eucharist and gives power to what it truly represents. For without you and without your presence and your total acceptance in the final Amen, there can be no communion.

So the point of all this is that when you come to church, you are asking God for help and for forgiveness, willing to try again to live a life in accordance to God’s plan. And because we come in humility, Christ himself is willing come into our lives and strengthen us for his service so that we might go out again into the world to spread his love to all people. And if we know that when leaving here, that we hold Christ in our bodies just as assuredly as the ark of the covenant held God in the days of the priest, Eli, then we will be all the more strengthened to reject sin and fight against evil in all its forms. Amen

 

Epiphany

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We’ve all heard the expression, “I had an epiphany last night!”. It is a saying that kind of reminds us of the “Eureka” that Alexander Bell shouted out when he heard his telephone work for the first time. An epiphany with a little ‘e’ is about a life changing experience that happens perhaps once or twice in a lifetime that changes everything about the way we think, the way we live and the way we are. Just such an epiphany was the Baptism of Jesus in the Jordan by John. But whose epiphany was it? That is the question that we are given to ponder in today’s readings.

In Roman Catholic and Protestant churches, Epiphany (with a Big ‘E’) commemorates the adoration of the infant Jesus by the Three Wise Men who had come from the East. In Eastern Orthodox churches, it celebrates the baptism of Jesus. In the Anglican tradition, we walk the fence, as usual, and celebrate both. Epiphany comes from a Greek word that means to appear or to show oneself. When we use the term ‘to have an epiphany’ we mean that God has revealed himself or something important to us.
Between the three Wise Men bearing their gifts to the Christ child in last week’s gospel and the baptism of Jesus by John in the Jordan in this week’s gospel, there appears to be about a thirty-year gap. We know little or nothing about the life of Jesus outside of his three years of ministry recorded in the gospels. We know he grew up as a carpenter under Joseph’s instruction. But we have little knowledge of his schooling, his teen years, his birthdays, his likes or his dislikes. There was once an additional text called The Gospel of St. Thomas that described some of this life, but it was discounted by the church fathers a long time a go as myth.

There are many church teachers who believe that Jesus had no idea that he was the Son of God until the voice from heaven revealed it the day he was baptized. They believe that this miracle caused his epiphany, and that his ministry began at this word from heaven. Others believe that Jesus always was aware of his true identity from birth and that the voice was manifested to confirm it, not to Jesus, but; to others like John and his disciples, standing by. They believe the voice of confirmation caused John to have an epiphany and confirmed his role as the Preparer of the Way, which also lead to his eventual execution by Herod. And there are still others that believe that this story was included in the gospels to confirm to you, the listener, that indeed this man Jesus, is the Son of God. In this way, and through hearing this Gospel, you too might have an epiphany of your own and believe.

Life changing experiences come in many forms and in many ways. But, unlike Jesus in today’s story, it seems least likely to occur for us at baptism (because we are usually just children when we are baptized). I have witnessed many people having life changing experiences at Cursillo. One of those was that of Bob Coykendale, a dear friend, a judge and an Historian. He came to Cursillo No. 1 in our and was totally startled into the realization that God could reveal Himself in such a profound way to him. I was his table leader, and every time I ever saw him after that time, he reminded me of the event. And that was at least 30 years ago. Others in the Cursillo movement could tell you of many, many people to whom God revealed himself.

Other life changing experiences come in times of sickness or distress. In my own life, I have nearly died twice. It should come as no surprise that God would reveal himself at our weakest, most vulnerable moments. It is at those times in our lives that He has our full attention. It is at those times that we are most receptive and open to his spirit . . . especially if we want to live.

But, there are other times . . . times of God’s own choosing, when he reveals himself to us that causes us to change our lives in mid-stream. These are the mountain top experiences that we hear about that cause a 180 degree turn in the way we live. It might come from a confirmation class, or through a hearing a sermon, or watching the news, or through something as simple as a photograph in a magazine. God uses all methods in trying to continually communicate to us, but it is up to each of us to keep our spiritual eyes and ears open in order to be aware of his presence.

I believe that, in the case of Jesus, Jesus must have grown up like any normal adolescent. I can’t be sure of that, of course, but the Bible always mentions that he was a person, a human, just like us, who lived as a man and was tempted as a man, so that he would know us and know all of our faults. And if he did this, if he truly lived like one of us, then he too, must have had his own epiphanies, perhaps one that drove him out to see John, his cousin, to take on the baptism of repentance and new life that John offered his followers. Because, it was directly after this baptism that Jesus was driven out into the wilderness for forty days to be tempted by Satan. Perhaps it was part of this epiphany or perhaps he planned it all along, no one knows for sure. But it was at this pivotal event that his life was changed and that his ministry began. And because of His epiphany, billions of believers across the centuries experienced their own epiphany and came to believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.

But that’s not where it ends . . . not in a long shot. God continues to reveal himself to all people, in all generations, so that we might inherit the story of his redemption and his love. Because, just like ripples in a pond, all of us throughout all generations affect the generation from which we came and the future generations that are yet to be born. We do this through our own individual epiphanies of celebration in the power of God to change lives. For in this way God acts and is revealed from one generation to another.

And that is why we pray today that all who are baptized into His name may keep the covenant we have made, and boldly confess Him as Lord and Savior. For in this way, the story continues forever. Amen

Good News of Great Joy

An-angel-announcing-to-the-shepherds-of-Bethlehem-the-birth-of-Jesus

The story of Christ’s birth that we celebrate tonight is in fact ‘part two’ of another story which began some thousands of years ago at the creation. You may remember from your church school days the story of Adam and Eve and how, when Eve was tempted by the devil, she ate of the forbidden fruit and then gave it to her husband to eat as well. Thus began the fall of the human race from relationship with God. But it didn’t end there, for you also may remember that God tells the serpent who lied to them “I will put enmity between you and the woman, And between your seed and her seed; He shall bruise you on the head, And you shall bruise him on the heel.” Thus began a prophecy that was spoken by God himself that would eventually set things right with human race – a plan if you will – to redeem what had fallen . . . back into a state of grace.

For it is in the life of Jesus Christ that we see a second Adam . . . and in the life of Mary his mother . . . a second Eve. For as in the beginning Eve was taken out of Adam, in this our Christmas Story, Jesus, the second Adam was born of Mary, the second Eve . . . and so begins the restoration of the fall of man into the presence of God in his glorious kingdom.

And for this reason the angel was truly excited that first Christmas night and came to the shepherds saying “Do not be afraid; for see– I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”

“For to you is born a Savior, who is the Messiah” . . . and that is why we call him Our Lord. And although none of us were present at the birth of Emmanuel who came to be among us, we his Church will continue forever to hold this memory, a memory made real anew for us at each passing year. And though we are unable to fully grasp the meaning of his birth, we know in our hearts that this birth holds a reality beyond anything we may presume to know. It is nothing less than the wonder of God coming among us as a tiny human child, to live and to grow and to be one of us in the world in which we live.

And although we are mostly ignorant of the true purposes of God in this event, we do know some facts, a few temporal details that we can hold: Jesus was born in a stable in Bethlehem some two thousand years ago. At that time, Bethlehem was an obscure corner of the great Roman Empire. We also know it was nighttime. The people of that country, aside from a few shepherds, were all asleep. So it was that the Son of God was born at night in a tiny stable in a remote corner of a mighty empire.

God came to us but there was no welcome for Him, even though he was the creator of heaven and earth . . . there was no pageantry; there was no outpouring of thanks. There were only the silent stars of heaven and the love of his parents to greet . . . Him . . . who had created everything . . . and it was enough, because there really was no understanding by anyone at the time that he had even entered the world at all. But Jesus knew that world – he knew our world. He knew the world and he knows each of us far better than we ever will. And he chose to be among us, to live with us, to share all of human life with us in that time, in this world, in Bethlehem.

Christians continue to be drawn to that place each year at Christmas time. Our minds seek to understand a mystery that seems too impossible to grasp. We look at the manger scenes we see around us, trying our best to understand what happened so long ago . . . and we look at our nativity sets with awe, like little windows into the divine mystery of God’s presence with us.

And so it was that God came to us searching our world for his own . . . a people of his own choosing; a people enslaved by the dark forces that oppose God’s will . . . for in Bethlehem that night long ago heaven and all creation joined in an embrace that will never end until the lost are found and those who call upon the name of the Lord are redeemed by Jesus Christ, our messiah.

Today those same forces are gathering to eradicate every thought of God and of his Son from the public square in many places where freedom once thrived. It is entirely possible for a child today living in the United States or Europe to not know the love of Jesus Christ or the real story of Christmas. A child growing up today in our world may never in his lifetime see a manger or know of its relevance to his life; but at the same time today in the third world there live more Christians than have ever lived in the history of the mankind. Many live out their Christian belief in secret and in hiding because of rampant persecution of Christians throughout the whole world . . . and yet even so, the number of Christians continues to grow each and every day.

The enmity of which God spoke in Genesis continues to separate the seed of the woman and the seed of evil. Today we, who have chosen God as the light of our life, hold all life as sacred . . . our enemies do not . . . and so it behooves all who are believing Christians to hold no doubt about God’s purpose for your life . . . and to stand firm against evil.

For ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it . . .
. . . He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.

And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth . . . From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, He has made him known.
Amen

John the Baptist

st-john-the-baptist

Several years ago, I was on the Baptismal Task force where the subject for the night was deacons. After a lot of discussion, it was decided that the main difference between being a priest and being a deacon was that deacons had incredibly more freedom than priests, especially in regard to preaching. One priest mentioned to me that he could not wait until he could retire because he heard retired priests can actually preach what they genuinely feel without worrying about their jobs. I have known many priests (and a few bishops) who have found themselves in hot water with their vestries and churches because of something they preached from the heart. Sometimes today, just like in the time of John the Baptist, the messenger is chastised because people don’t like the message. That is why God uses so many different kinds of messengers to get his message across. But even the messengers have their problems.

Forty years ago, I was a much different person that I am today. I have memories of a consuming zealousness for God and a passion to do whatever it was that He called me to do. It troubles me sometimes to realize that at one time I was able to simply drop everything and follow the direction that I felt Him calling me. But this is not always as possible as it once was. Due to the many complexities of life, of work and of family, the things that I once did, like moving off to Chicago at the drop of a hat, are no longer on my top ten things to do in life. Though I am still, and will always be his servant, I have found that my faith has become perhaps more mature (that’s a nice way of saying that I just ‘got old’), and my ability to give God a definitive YES has become more like a ‘well, maybe’, you know… maybe I can do that if we can work out this and that and then there’s this condition and then there’s that….and well, you know what I mean.

As we grow older, our lives become more complex. Our work becomes more demanding. Our families become larger and take more of our time. Life itself naturally progresses to a point where too many in our society simply say ‘stop the ship, I want to get off’ . . . and jump ship some do . . . in many destructive and terrible ways, sometimes leaving families and friends behind to face their loss due to drugs, or suicide, gambling, or infidelity. These tragedies of life are avoidable only through the grace of God and the ability of his Spirit to sustain us in a world that continuously threatens to engulf us in a barrage of pleasure, technology, and cheap gimmicks that draw our attention away from where it ought to be.

This week in Advent, as we do every year at this time, we bring up the person of John the Baptist. As you may remember John the Baptist’s birth was supernaturally foretold by the angel Gabriel to John’s father, Zacharias, a priest of the temple at Jerusalem, who when hearing news from Gabriel, did not believe it because his wife Elizabeth was too old to conceive. For this reason, Zacharias was struck dumb by God and could not talk for nearly a year until the day that Elizabeth’s baby was born and named John. Zacharias was given a lot of time to contemplate what he would say if ever he was able to speak again and although we generally do not read the Song of Zacharias in our lectionary, it is much like the magnificent read this morning and I would like you to hear it:

And (upon naming the child John), his father Zacharias was filled with the Holy Spirit, and prophesied, saying,

68 Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel;
For he hath visited and wrought redemption for his people,
69 And hath raised up a horn of salvation for us
In the house of his servant David
70 (As he spake by the mouth of his holy prophets
that have been from of old),
71 Salvation from our enemies,
and from the hand of all that hate us;
72 To show mercy towards, our fathers,
And to remember his holy covenant;
73 The oath which he spake
unto Abraham our father,
74 To grant unto us that we being delivered out of the hand of our enemies should serve him without fear,
75 In holiness and righteousness before him
all our days.
76 Yea and thou, child, shall be called the prophet of the Most High:
For thou shall go before the face of the Lord to make ready his ways;
77 To give knowledge of salvation unto his people
In the remission of their sins,
78 Because of the tender mercy of our God,
Whereby the dayspring from on high shall visit us,
79 To shine upon them that sit in darkness and the shadow of death;
(and) to guide our feet into the way of peace.

. . . And the child grew, and waxed strong in spirit, and was in the deserts till the day of his showing unto Israel.

The readings today direct our attention to just what kind of a person God uses for his redemptive work. In the Magnificat we hear from Mary, a teenage girl with an obedient heart and an incredible spirit who volunteered to supernaturally bear the child Jesus at a very inconvenient time in her life. With her also in the Advent story, is Joseph, Mary’s spouse-to-be, a just and obedient man, who said not one word in the recorded Bible but was instrumental in protecting Jesus through his dreams at his birth and in finally raising Jesus to adulthood. Here also was Elizabeth, an elderly woman, well past here prime, who also said ‘YES’ to God when asked to bear a child at very old age. And then, the temple priest, Zacharias, who though, at first unbelieving, became a believer and named the child ‘John’, as directed by the Angel, and saw his son, John the Baptist through to his adulthood. And then there was John himself who forsook the temple life to become a wandering preacher in the hills of Judea. All of them, quite ordinary people, whose only claim to fame was that they said ‘yes’ when asked by God for a favor. All of them were quite ordinary people, ordinary believers, just like us.

The gospel story today of course is about John the Baptist who was a preacher who grew up in the temple of Jerusalem and was most likely taught by the best scholars of his day. As I mentioned John’s father was a priest and a Levite descended for the house of Aaron. The elderly Elizabeth, John’s mother, was most likely Mary’s aunt. John grew up within the temple walls, but upon attaining adulthood gave up his destined role as a priest and instead became a wondering preacher in the wilderness as ‘a voice crying in the wilderness’ as he describes himself. There is a lot unspoken about the life of John, but one thing is for certain . . . He knew the scribes and Pharisees who came to question him. It is to them who he called out in other texts ‘You brood of vipers, who told you of the wrath that is to come?’ Not exactly a friendly greeting in the middle of a sermon, especially to people who he obviously knew. But that was John, and because of his insistence to tell things exactly the way they were, (the truth, if you will) he lost his life because of the message he preached. But that seems to be the way of all God’s prophets in the service of their Lord.

In Mary, Joseph, Zacharias, Elizabeth and John, we see three things that we need to have in order to be fully used by God in his service. They all have to do with the nature of God and the way he gets things done, both naturally and supernaturally. One is a ‘purity of spirit’, that is a soul that sees only the good in people, whose main ambition in life is to do what is pleasing to God . . . a person who is, in a word, incorruptible. The second is an abiding ‘simplicity’, living a life uncluttered by the world and all its temptations and gimmicks. A life that does not hold on to the past . . . nor lives for the future, but is only interested in the problems of today. And thirdly, ‘the willingness to be compliant’, that is the willingness to be directed and to serve, no matter what the cost, no matter what the embarrassment, like Don Quixote, ‘to be willing to march into hell for a heavenly cause’.

These three things . . . Purity, Simplicity, and Servanthood, are what God looks for in all of his children, but when they all occur in any one person, then there is the potential for what may be called a living saint. Just such a person was John the Baptist. It was John who found favor with God because of his purity of spirit. And through the simplicity of his life he became keenly aware of God’s presence within him. And because of his acceptance and willingness to be a servant he took on the role of prophet in the name of God.

I think all of us have something to learn from the life of John, and it seems that Jesus thought so too. It was of John that Jesus spoke when he said, “For I say unto you, among those that are born of women there is not a greater prophet than John the Baptist: but he that is least in the kingdom of God is greater than he.”

Prophets are not only for a time in our distant past. God continually calls each and every one of us to bear his prophetic message of charity, justice and humility even in this age of technology and corporate greed. He is calling you and me to bring into the world His words of grace and repentance through our lives, through our words, and through our actions to all that we may meet until his coming again.

The Church of Jesus Christ today is facing a major crisis of faith. What is at stake is nothing less than the essential character of Christianity: is the Christian religion natural or supernatural? There have been various attempts by different denominations to rid Christianity of its supernaturalism, to reconstruct it without its embarrassing miracles like the virgin birth, the gift of tongues, or the resurrection of the dead. But these efforts are as fruitless as they are misguided. You cannot reconstruct something by first completely destroying it. Authentic Christianity — the Christianity of Jesus Christ and his apostles — is in fact, supernatural. It is not a tame and harmless story, consisting of a few moral platitudes, spiced with a dash of religion. It is in fact seriously supernatural in origin and by its own definition a resurrection religion, a holy life lived by the power of God. John the Baptist knew this, Mary knew this, the apostles knew this . . . and Jesus proved this for all of us and for all time by his resurrection from the dead. It is left for us to prove it to others by living the life he has called us to live in this his holy advent. Amen

Prophesy

maranatha

In 1898 there was a book written by an author named Morgan Robertson called Futility. It was a story about the lives of many important and influential people who boarded a huge steamship for its maiden voyage across the Atlantic Ocean. In the book, the ship was described as ‘unsinkable’ and carried approximately 3,000 people. The story goes on to tell of the ship setting sail in mid-April and how it hits an iceberg in the middle of the Atlantic. The unsinkable ship begins to sink and the passengers on board discover that there aren’t enough lifeboats to save everyone on board.

This particular book, at the time of its printing, never made to the top ten, in fact it was an obscure little book that never got past the first printing because the publishers said no one wanted to hear such a depressing and unbelievable story. So Morgan Robertson the author was buried into the obscurity of history and his little book called Futility about a steamship called Titan never quite made it . . . until 14 years later when this prophetic work was resurrected upon the sinking of an actual unsinkable ship, the Titanic hit by an iceberg in the Atlantic on April 15th 1912.

Today’s lessons are about prophecy and how one can either believe, or not believe . . . but how only the foolish will ignore or mock God’s prophetic message to all mankind.

Jesus himself spoke these words that continue to beckon the church to wait and to watch especially during the season of Advent . . . “From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates. Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.”

And again . . . “In those days, after that suffering, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see `the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory. Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.

The gospel lesson today mirrors what the prophet Malachi wrote some 400 years before Jesus was born as he writes “ . . . he is coming . . . but who can endure that final day . . . who can stand when he appears.”

These are the prophetic visions of Advent that we celebrate each year concerning the Lord’s second coming and the event we as Christians have been waiting for since the ascension of Christ into heaven some 2000 years ago.

As Malachi continues . . . “for he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap; he will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the descendants of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, until they present offerings to the LORD in righteousness. Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the LORD as in the days of old and as in former years.”

The prophet Isaiah was also was looking for this great day as we read this morning . . . “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence . . . as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil . . .
to make your name known to your adversaries, so that the nations might tremble at your presence!”
What all these visions offer to us is a look into the far future when nation of Israel will be restored and the sons of Levi, the descendants of the temple priests at Jerusalem will be refined . . . meaning that what was impure will be drawn out of them and they will once again make an offering of thanksgiving to God which will be pleasing in his sight as in the days of old.

Today, both Christians and Jews around the world and for generations before us have been waiting for the rebuilding of the temple and re-establishment of the ancient religion at Jerusalem, the prophetic capital of the world at the end of time.

But it hasn’t been until this generation that the rebuilding of the temple could be even remotely possible. For within this generation, within the past 60 years or so, nearly all of the biblical prophesies about Israel and the end times have come to pass beginning with the establishment of Israel as a nation in 1949 . . . then the return of the Jewish people from all across the world during the great Exodus, then in 1966 a great war that Israel would win against foes on every side and the regaining of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, and then lately the desert of the Negev has been transformed by irrigation and now supports pools of water and . . . more recently, just last week the Pool of Siloam, an ancient spring in Jerusalem, has filled for the first time since the destruction of the second temple, nearly two thousand years ago.

Israel, once a desert, now exports its fruit like dates, pomegranates and olives and grows vegetables and raises dairy cattle and in fact has been transformed within one generation into a land of milk and honey and is the virtual garden of the entire region and the envy of all its neighbors. All of these . . . fulfilled prophesies of Israel before the end of time.

So when, you might ask did all this start? Well it all started with the coming of John the Baptist, the son of Zachariah, and himself a Son of Levi who would herald in the messiah, Jesus Christ, the Son of God who would first free his people from their sins by sacrificing himself upon the cross . . . and then would finally lead his people from this world into a paradise by finally defeating Satan, our enemy and the god of this world.

And if you and I are blessed to live long enough, we may see the end of days happen within our life time. As the time draws on, it seems to becoming a distinct possibility that the final prophesies of the Bible could take place within our generation because the rebuilding of the temple is already a distinct possibility as the corner stone is already hewn and the vessels for the service at the altar are already forged and in waiting. With the recent rise of ISIS, the war of Armageddon (the final war between good and evil), seems a lot nearer today than at any time in our history, so it seems expedient for us to continue to watch and to wait as we pray each and every day for the coming of the Lord.

In a very real way I believe Paul writes to us in our own generation, what I believe to be the last generation, in today’s lesson when he writes . . . I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus, for in every way you have been enriched in him, in speech and knowledge of every kind– just as the testimony of Christ has been strengthened among you– so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ. He will also strengthen you to the end.

Many years ago, my Aunt Lucille gave me a stole for use in Advent as I had just become a deacon and I needed a purple stole. My Aunt Lou was a believer and also, for all intensive purposes, a clairvoyant, who often told my family some pretty unbelievable things. We all took her with a grain of salt and delegated her as our ‘crazy old aunt of the family’. I want to tell you though, that when I received this stole from her, I received with it, a prophesy from her to me. She said that one day I would become a priest in a parish in Buffalo, but not until my hair was gray. When I left the Episcopal Church years ago, I left any thought I had ever had of becoming a priest because for
1. I knew it could not happen no matter what and
2. I really didn’t believe what she told me in the first place because it was impossible.
But today, as you know, this prophesy of hers came true, I believe because God willed it so.

During the storm last week, I happened to read a book by a devout Muslim called Searching for Allah – Finding Jesus. In this book God himself provides the author with all the proof he needs to accept Jesus Christ and the Christian message as the real thing. In so doing the writer had to give up Islam, his family, his friends and everything he held dear.

I am here to tell you that you can never take God by surprise. You can never anticipate what he will do. In my life, he has always made the first move. He was there ‘in the beginning’ and . . . before any of us existed God acted on our behalf. Before a person stirs himself up to seek God, God seeks him out. In the Bible we never see a person searching in the darkness after God; we always see God reaching out for them in the light. This is what the Lord’s Advent is about. Let us hope and pray that the Lord of the Harvest finds us faithful to our calling when he comes again to take us home.
To which we may say . . . Maranatha – Come Lord Jesus

Truth or Consequences

masscommunion

One of the mysteries (at least for me) in the New Testament was the feeling I get that the disciples believed that Jesus’ second coming was going to happen within their lifetime. Throughout Paul’s letters to the Thessalonians, and to others, it becomes clear that for the early church, the second coming was imminent and that Christians were expecting that, at any moment, Jesus would return. This is the context of today’s Epistle reading “For the Lord Himself, with a cry of command, with the Archangel’s call and with the sound of God’s trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air:”

But as we know, the “Bridegroom has been delayed”, and we who are left have waited two thousand years for this great event in the life of the Church. People have come and people have gone . . . believers have lived and died, all in hopeful expectation. The Church militant (that is those who are alive) have joined with the Church expectant (those who are at rest) as we have all awaited the great day of the Coming of the Lord. And, of course, all of us who are alive in the Church today are ready for this great event! . . . or are we?

Several years ago there was a hit and run accident that happened on Grand Island concerning a woman who was injured by a car driven by an elderly man on Halloween night and then, ironically, was killed by the car of the police officer who was coming to her aid. At the time, I wondered about this unfortunate accident and thought to myself, who would be charged in this incident? Who was at fault? Who was ultimately responsible?

The facts as reported were that the street on Grand Island was dark because there were no streetlights. There were also no sidewalks. These items were voted down by the residents of the area that year to save on their property taxes. The woman was walking home on the road, reportedly, because she was too drunk to drive. She was wearing a black witch’s costume that could not be seen in the blackness of the darkened overcast Halloween night. The man who injured the woman was very old, and he panicked. He decided to drive to his house and call the police for help rather than stopping. The people in the neighborhood heard the cries of the woman. They called the police to her aid, but made no attempt to protect the woman who was still lying in the street. The patrolman who responded was looking for the car that reportedly had hit the woman when, tragically, he ran over the woman, killing her.

So . . . who was responsible?

Was it the residents of Grand Island, who didn’t install sidewalks and streetlights?
Was it the woman herself, because she chose to wear black on a dark night?
Was it the old man who couldn’t see the woman, and then left to get help?
Was it the neighbors who heard the cry, but didn’t want to get involved?
Or, was it the policeman who drove over the woman he had come to help?

These are all the questions that would eventually be settled in court, but one thing became very clear to me in this very confusing situation. If initially, the woman had not been drunk, none of this would have happened. She would have driven her own car and would have arrived home safely. The old man would not have hit anybody. And the police would never have been called. But, in our society, this will never be brought up, because in our society no one is responsible for their own actions.

For some reason, our society has decided that no one is responsible for what they do. It is always someone else who has caused an injury or a loss to happen. Whether it is coffee that is served too hot at McDonalds or bartender who serves too many drinks to his patrons, there is always someone who is to blame for the consequences of our actions and of others.

But this is not so with God. Contrary to a popular false Christian notion of ‘salvation by community’, Jesus is telling us, through the story of the ten bridesmaids this morning that, in fact, you are responsible for your own actions. And if Jesus tells us to be prepared and warns us of the consequences, then we ought to be prepared, for there will be no one to blame but ourselves if the time comes for action, and we are left ‘holding the bag’.

Back in the days of the prophet Amos, sacrifice and atonement were central to the Jewish religion. If you did something wrong, the solution was to bring into the temple a lamb or a dove or something else of value and give it to the priest to sacrifice on the mercy seat of God (which much later was to become our altar). In this way, it was thought, that God would see your sacrificial offering, and your sin would be atoned for. But it is important to note that his did not mean you were forgiven, it only meant that you were even. Many of us speak jokingly of keeping a scorecard, a kind of tit-for-tat arrangement with those around us (and perhaps, even with God) . . . the kind of arrangement that says if you hurt me, then I’ll hurt you. This isn’t always a conscious thing, but its results seem to be very self evident among families, communities and society in general. I guess you could say it is human. Unfortunately, people believe that God works in pretty much the way. We believe that we are punished by God for stupid things that we do and that He keeps a scorecard or a book that recalls all the hurt we have caused and balances it with all the good that we do, and, as long as the good outweighs the bad, then well “we’re in!”. . . .

But the prophet Amos tells us that you can forget this idea of book balancing. God does not desire your sacrifices to balance out your sin. He desires only that you do what is right; and that is to do justice, to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God. There is no other way to please God than to do as he commands us. You can give to the poor, you can do all kindness for all people, you can do all good for all things but if you do not have love (meaning if you do not have your heart in the right place) it is all for nothing. One cannot balance out the evil you have done with anything that is good. And as Paul tells, if you think this, you are nothing more in the eyes of God than loud wind or a gonging cymbal . . . actually . . . an annoyance that, in the grand scheme of things, means absolutely nothing at all.

And it’s not that we don’t know what is required. When God uses the term ‘be prepared’ we all know exactly what he means, because we all know the consequences of not being prepared.

In our own lives, we know without a doubt that Christmas is coming. Some of us have begun to prepare for this by buying presents, making reservations, writing Christmas cards and by doing all the things that we all know we should do in advance of this day. Others of us, like me, have yet to do anything at all about it, and probably won’t until the day or two before it happens. And then, in a fit-full few hours we will go out and do all the preparations we can do in the few hours before it actually happens.

And then IT HAPPENS! And for some reason, it is always a surprise! Both for the planners and the procrastinators among us, Christmas comes as a shock, out of the blue and then just as quickly, it is over . . . until next year when it happens all over again, and the planners start working in October and the rest of us wait until the last minute.

But Christmas is easy compared to the Last Day. We can see Christmas on the calendar and we can count the days and hours before the event. Not so with the Last Day. God tells us that we will be able to read the signs of his coming but we will never know the exact day and hour. And because of this, we should always be prepared. In effect it is our individual responsibility to be prepared at all times which is what Paul was telling us in his letters.

But now you might be thinking, how do I know if I am prepared? The wise bridesmaids, who were prepared in the story this morning went and bought oil in preparation for the wedding. They knew that the bridegroom could come at any time, in the day or in the night. And so they were prepared to greet him at any time. As you know the bridegroom was delayed, and he came unexpectedly at midnight. The bridesmaids with the oil lit their lamps in the darkness and were seen at night and were collected one by one and taken to the wedding feast. Those who thought that the bridegroom would come only in the daytime were not prepared for this event. And, very much like the woman killed by a car on Grand Island, they would not be seen in the blackness of the night. In a panic they wanted to borrow oil from those who had it, but could not and they hurried off to buy oil, but by the time they got back, it was too late . . . it was all over . . . and they were left behind.

We, as believers in Christ, were given a light at our Baptism when we entered the family of God and the Kingdom of Heaven. As newly baptized you were given a lighted candle to symbolize this light, but the real light, the Spiritual light, the Light that God sees, is in your heart and in your soul. The bible tells us that it is your personal responsibility to make sure this light never goes out. You do this by living out the Baptismal Covenant through faith and in God’s mercy. The oil or fuel you need to keep your light burning can be found most easily right here in Church among fellow believers, in the blessed sacrament of the altar and in the prayers. By keeping God’s commandments, and by living and walking with him, in His mercy, and through his forgiveness for your sins, you will be prepared at all times to meet Him, whether on the The Last Great Day mentioned in the gospels, or on your own last day, when you go to meet the lord at death. This is the blessed hope of all believers. This is what our Christian faith is all about.

God sets before each of us a choice. Black or White, Good or Bad, Life or Death. It is up to each of us to choose wisely in full knowledge of the consequences of our own actions. But it is important to realize, that even in all this, if anyone sins, we have as our advocate, Jesus Christ the Righteous, who has borne our punishment so that we would not have too. And that by believing on His Sacrifice for our own sakes, we have been set free (acquitted is a better word) through God’s mercy to live in an amendment of life. In this way we await the coming of Christ on the Last Great Day, in awesome expectation that at any moment the bridegroom might come . . . perhaps even in the middle of the night.
Amen

Blessed are the Poor in Spirit

12_heaven-throne-worship

We begin today by recalling Saint John’s vision of heaven . . .

After this I, John, looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands. They cried out in a loud voice, saying,

“Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!” And all the angels stood around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, singing, “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.
“Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, “Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from? “I said to him, “Sir, you are the one that knows. ” Then he said to me, “These are they who have come out of the great tribulation; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.
For this reason they are before the throne of God, and worship him day and night within his temple, and the one who is seated on the throne will shelter them. They will hunger no more, and thirst no more; the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat; for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”

This lesson, as I have read it throughout my life, has always reminded me of at least two things . . . one is that, through the mercies of God and his Son, Jesus Christ, a great many of us who are living today will actually make it into heaven . . . and two, it shows that the brightest crowns that are worn in heaven are the ones that have been tried, and smelted, and polished, and glorified in the furnace of hardship and tribulation.

And isn’t that what Jesus came to affirm to us . . . that one . . . we are loved by God, redeemed by God and saved by God . . . and two . . . that those who are one with God will be hated in this world, and persecuted for their belief and rejected by men.

Today of course is a day set aside for the Celebration of All Saints . . . Christians . . . believers in the messiah, the Christ . . . believers like you and like me and like the many millions who have come before us. We, who are the church militant (those living) share this one day in the Church year with the church expectant (all those who have died in the Lord) in joyful anticipation of the final glory that awaits us at the end of all things.

And why do you suppose we do this? What purpose does it serve for the living to remember the dead? Its purpose is to strengthen our resolve to fight on in the midst of great adversity . . . to give us the strength of our convictions in order to live out the gospel message in our own lives . . . To recall those who have died reminds us of their great sacrifice in a just cause, to keep true faith alive so that a people yet unborn might one day inherit the truth and gain for themselves the gift of everlasting life.

As some of you may have guessed, I have always been interested in the lives of the saints, even since I was a kid. Many times in my life I have stopped at the Fatima Shrine in Niagara Falls for a walk among the saints depicted there in sculpture. I have favorite saints as I presume you do also. Mine are St. Francis and St. Augustine. Each month in our newsletter we provide a synopsis of a saint that we celebrate with each issue. Since doing this, I have found that the saints of yesterday were fighting much the same spiritual battles that we continue to fight in our world today. Injustice and hatred towards Christian believers is nothing new and spans pretty much all of the two thousand year history of the church. You need only pick up a newspaper today to know that this is as true today as anytime in the distant past.

I believe Jesus knew this and gave us a glimpse of what the future would hold for those saints who truly sought fellowship with God the Father.

The beatitudes we heard today are probably the most recognized group of verses there is . . . but there is one that for me has always been an enigma . . . that is the first one that reads “Blessed are the poor in Spirit for theirs is the Kingdom of God”

To my mind this has never made sense how one with little or no spirit could also be in line to inherit the kingdom. I always thought that only by being spirit filled . . . that is . . . up to the brim . . . that one could please God. But here Jesus is saying that no . . . it is by being poor in spirit that we inherit the kingdom of God.

And so I have been pondering this most of my life. And this is what I think Jesus meant. To be poor in spirit means a deep and abiding sense of the absolute need we are in of a Savior, a messiah, because of our utter helplessness, wickedness and condemnation. To be poor in spirit, our minds must perceive and feel guilt in such a sense as to be sure that salvation on our own merits is simply out of the question. To be poor in spirit provides in us a sense of our own vileness and that except through the sacrifice of Christ we are completely doomed in our sins.

It is easy to say we are helpless and that Christ is our only hope and dependence; it is easy to recite this in our confessional prayer each week . . . We acknowledge and bewail our manifold sins and wickedness, Which we, from time to time, most grievously have committed, By thought, word, and deed, Against thy Divine Majesty, Provoking most justly thy wrath and indignation against us. But how hard is it to see our vileness and guilt . . . our abominable filthiness for what it really is.

And so such a one who is ‘poor in spirit is given the kingdom of heaven’. Why? . . . Because in a sense, such a person has already learned what the remedy for sin is. He has learned to reject himself, and that his dependence must be utterly and forever placed on someone other than himself. He has learned how blessed it is to be nothing, to know and do nothing of himself, to be universally dependent upon Christ for everything . . . for his breath, for his grace, for his faith, for everything; to have Christ be the fount of blessings in this world, and the next.

In Christ’s eyes, the poor in spirit are emptied of dependence upon themselves, and because of this they have become rich in faith. To be poor in spirit then means to be rich in faith. And isn’t that the point of the whole gospel.

When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
“Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

Finally, today marks the 497th anniversary of the beginning of the reformation when Martin Luther’s 95 theses were found nailed to the door of Wittenberg Cathedral in Germany. This one act of defiance by this one saint of God was to begin a series of events that would bring the Holy Roman Catholic Church to fight a bloody war for its very survival. It would cause the martyred deaths of hundreds of thousands of believers throughout Europe by the hand of the pope . . . and finally it would give rise to the split between the Church at Rome and the Church of England and the formation of the Anglican Church, of which we are a part. We who are alive today can now can look back with the 20-20 clarity of vision and see God’s hand in all this and how in subsequent years the Roman Catholic Church was made to look upon itself and to judge itself for so many misdeeds made in the name of Christ over the centuries. But it is to all the saints of the reformation who stood fast in their faith that we honor and give thanks today, many who were brutally tortured and murdered because they believed that the Holy Spirit of God had shown them a new direction in the worship of God . . . that being worship of God in Spirit and in Truth. Today we believe these Saints, along with all others in a long line of martyrs, now living in the presence of God, celebrate with us today the risen life of Jesus Christ, God’s only Son who along with us who are living join and continue to sing “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever!
Amen.