Category Archives: Sermons

Homiletics

The Miracle Nation Israel

Flag-of-Israel

As I have grown up, I have always held in my heart a keen interest in the nation of Israel . . . and to this day I am not sure why. It may be because of a number of prophetic sermons I heard in my youth from the book of Isaiah. As you may recall, in that book, the prophet Isaiah speaks about an astounding miracle that would happen in the last days. It is found in the 66th chapter of Isaiah where we read “Who has heard such a thing? Who has seen such things? Can a country be born in a day or a nation be brought forth in a moment? Yet no sooner is Zion in labor than she gives birth to her children.” Isaiah 66:8

We’ve all heard the expression, Rome wasn’t built in a day yet this verse, while confessing the absurdity of a nation being formed in one day, promises that Israel would again become a nation. The passage in Isaiah leaves no room for doubt as to what this prophecy indicates. It specifically compares Israel (Zion) to a woman in labor and clearly states the nation’s rebirth will occur within a day. And as promised, Israel did indeed become a united, sovereign nation by a vote at the United Nations for the first time since the days of King Solomon in just one day on May 15, 1948.

Throughout history, it has never been known for a people to have been dispersed for millennia and then to later become united with their culture, religion, and language –intact- and yet in Israel, we have seen this happen within our lifetime. And even today we at Saint Nicholas Church continue to support the Jewish people in their quest and desire to return to Israel, or make what they call ‘Aliyah’ – or the return to Israel . . . which was part of another prophesy of the end times in the 32nd chapter of the Book of Jeremiah – “Behold, I will gather them out of all countries where I have driven them . . . and I will assuredly plant them in this land, with all My heart and with all My soul.”

Today, as we continue to watch the news reports and the current war in Israel with its neighbors in the Gaza Strip we are continually surprised and amazed at the type of reporting that is being done, mainly to the detriment of Israel who is the victim of attack, and amazingly to the support of the aggressor which is Hamas. In little over a generation we have seen what was once full support and respect for Israel and its people by the United States and other freedom loving countries devolve into something that is truly grotesque. Anti-Semitism in the world today is on the rise and as it rises, it fuels hate for the Jewish people and their decedents. And yet, at the same time, it also fuels anew the desire for the Jewish people to leave these countries where they are harassed and hated, and to finally return to Israel – even in the face of fear, war and death.

But you must know that it is through the nation Israel all nations of the earth will be blessed and have been blessed because as Jesus, a Jew, came to us the first time to live and die as one of us and then to take on the sins of the whole world, this same Jesus will return again himself, in person, to Israel on the last day to vanquish evil forever from the world . . . and that is the reason why we see the things we see today. For the Spirit knows the truth in all things and it is the Spirit who is directing all that is happening in today’s world and it is the evil one who knows his days are now numbered because the end is now fast approaching.

This of course is the story of Israel at the end . . . but in today’s lesson we hear about Israel’s very beginning; with a man named Jacob . . . the son of Isaac, and grandson of Abraham. It is in this story that Israel’s true nature is revealed, that of being a fighter who will not give up, who will not yield, and it is this, his nature, that God blesses in the story . . . when the angel of the lord says, “Let me go, for the day is breaking.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” So he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” Then the man said, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but you shall be called Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.”

And so it is in Israel that God finds just the right individual to advance his will and just the right nation in which he will one day bless all mankind . . . a nation that has prevailed with God and with all the world over the many obstacles of time and space even to the last day.

At the time of Paul’s writing, Israel was under the thumb of Roman rule and the temple priests had become corrupted with money and power. The Jewish leadership did not recognize the Messiah when he came the first time – including Paul, but the disciples and other people in the region did recognize him and proclaimed Jesus as the messiah; especially after seeing him perform many miracles as in today’s gospel. But in today’s epistle reading, Paul laments to himself in prayer “I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my own people, my kindred according to the flesh. They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises; to them belong the patriarchs, and from them, according to the flesh, comes the Messiah, who is over all, God blessed forever.” Paul today is lamenting the fact that his own people, Israel rejected the very blessing they had been waiting so many years for. But in the book of Micah we read that it won’t be until the very end of time that Israel will turn from unbelievers in Christ to true worshippers of the risen lord, Jesus Christ; and until that time it has been given to us gentiles, the Church of Jesus Christ, the mission to continue to spread the blessing and the Good News that Jesus has come into the world to save not only Israel, but the entire world and all of his creation.

Biblical Prophecy tells us that when the great commission is finally fulfilled, when everyone who will ever believe and accept Jesus as their Lord has been born, only then will the time of the church cease and the end will come, but not before many in the church will fall far from the faith once delivered by the apostles . . . and not before many in Israel will accept Jesus as their Messiah.

In 2006, Israel’s chief Rabbi . . . a man named Yitzchak Kaduri died at age 106. Before his death, Rabbi Kaduri had said that he expected the Mashiach, the Jewish Messiah, to arrive soon, and that he had met him a year earlier. Rabbi Kaduri left a hand-written note to his followers and they were reportedly instructed to only open the note after the Rabbi had been dead for one year. After this time period had passed, the note was opened by his followers and was found to read in Hebrew the statement, “ירים העם ויוכיח שדברו ותורתו עומדים” (translated as “he will raise the people and confirm that his word and law are standing”), which by acronym, suggested the name “Yehoshua” which is Hebrew for the name “Jesus”.

The story of the nation of Israel is the story of God’s blessings and miracles that permeate the history of mankind from the very beginning on into the future until the very end. It is about a people and a culture that has continued to exist under tremendous hardship and cruelty at the hands of faithless people, and yet has survived the test of time. Though Israel is and always will be God’s chosen people, we who are not of this line, but are believers in the messiah of God have been adopted into the line of Jacob and are the sons and daughters of the most high . . . perhaps not by bloodline . . . but by the Holy Spirit and in faith in Jesus Christ. It is therefore important for us who are alive in these end times to hold the nation Israel in constant prayer, for in blessing Israel we in fact bless our own work in the world.

In the gospel story today we read “When it was evening, the disciples came to him and said, “This is a deserted place, and the hour is now late; send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves.” Jesus said to them, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.” They replied, “We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.” And he said, “Bring them here to me.” Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full. And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children.” Though we know this story to be about physical food and how the Lord supplies all our needs, it is also about another kind of food, a spiritual food that sustains all who partake of it. It is the spiritual food of the blessing of God in the Good News that each of us holds in our hearts without measure and it is this food that Jesus gives us so that we might share it with a world that is hungry for the truth. And so may God continue to bless us, as we bless his chosen people as he demonstrates again and again his love and commitment to us and to them for all time and in all seasons. Amen.

This sermon is part of the ministry of the Word at Saint Nicholas Anglican Church in West Seneca, NY in the United States and a Continuing Church in the Anglican Tradition. If you have been helped by any of the sermons or thoughts expressed on this sermon blog, we would love to hear from you at anglicanchurchofsaintnicholas.org .

Please also consider sending a gift in any amount using the form below . . . .




 

Time to Choose

Choose

I think many of us were quite relieved this week to see the Sudanese woman and her baby pictured with Pope Francis in the Vatican. As you may recall Ibrahim was the mother sentenced to be executed for converting from Islam to Christianity and for marrying a man of a different religion. Under Sudanese law, she was considered a Muslim because that was her father’s religion, and it made no difference that she claimed to be raised as a Christian by her mother. Muslim women are prohibited from marrying non-Muslim men in Sudan, and Ibrahim married a Christian man.

Although her sentence was dissolved, officials prevented her from leaving Sudan. When she attempted to travel to the U.S. in June with her husband and two infant children, officials asserted that she was using fake documents. The family then went to the U.S. Embassy in Khartoum, where they met Italy’s vice minister for foreign affairs, Lapo Pistelli who was finally able to bring her out of Sudan to Italy.

And we have to wonder, just how well would we fare in the same situation . . . condemned to hang unless we recanted our belief in our lord and savior Jesus Christ? It is a test I am sure none of us would want to endure . . . . but it is Ibrahim who shows us that great faith is possible and that God saw her and her infant baby through this terrible ordeal . . . shaken but unharmed. What a blessing it must have been for her family to see her alive and well . . . and what blessing for all Christians everywhere to witness the prime example of what it is to be a Christian believer . . . able to endure prison and hardship chained to a wall (and giving birth there no less) and at the same time ready to meet the Lord as a martyr for the faith at any minute.

Which brings us to the message from Paul this morning in today’s lectionary . . . “Who will bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us. Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written,

 

“For your sake we are being killed all day long;

we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.”

 

This week we witnessed in the news the destruction of Orthodox Christian churches pretty much all over Iraq and the indiscriminate killing of Christians pretty much everywhere in that country as well. As this degenerate form of Islam takes hold over the Middle East we will no doubt see more and more killings of fellow believers for no reason other than being a Christian, or Nazarene, as they call us.

In our part of the world we witnessed our own government trying to circumvent the 1st amendment forcing Christians to choose between our loyalty to our nation and our loyalty to God and the faith once for all delivered by the saints.

And we wonder . . . why now? Why all of a sudden are believers in Christ being singled out as deserving harassment, dismemberment, torture and death? Why does the world all of sudden hate us so?

Jesus of course would tell us that it is nothing new at all . . . in fact the world has always hated true believers in Christ and in the kingdom because the world hated Christ first. It should be of no surprise to any to us that the Jews, God’s chosen people, are hated more than Christians because the world first hated God before Christ came and so the Jews today are condemned for defending its people while the terrorist organization, Hamas, is pitied as an innocent bystander.

It is of course like the world has suddenly been turned on its head as we all wait to see what will happen next. But if the prophetic witness of the scriptures is correct, there is much more to come and it will become far worse for Christians in the future. But as bad as it gets . . . as Paul continues today . . . “No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Very often we get the physical world, which is temporary, confused with the spiritual world, which is eternal. Being finite beings, we are not able to comprehend fully the spiritual world so we focus on the world of here and now, the one that we know. But every once in a while, the spiritual world will give us a hint of what is really going on and how we might be prepared for the future.

Such an event happened this week in Mosul, in Iraq, a city once named Nineveh where the prophet Jonah, it is written, was sent by God so the people might repent and turn from their wicked ways. In the story, the people listen to Jonah, and they do repent, much to Jonah’s dissatisfaction, because God had given him the power to destroy that city and its people if they did not repent. But repent they did.

Well this week the prophet Jonah was in the news worldwide because it seems that the Sunnis terrorists decided among themselves that the tomb of Jonah was a threat to them and they decided to destroy it, which they did. But was Jonah’s grave really a threat or was it something else that made them lash out at a prophet of God now dead for over two and a half thousand years? What was the consequence of destroying a tomb from 800 B.C.? In the eyes of the world it was one sad day to see something so worth saving lost forever from our collective historical conscience. But in the eyes of the spirit it should truly be a wakeup call for many; well worth the destruction of a temporal building if it leads even one person to believe. For by doing this deed, the long lost story of Jonah has been resurrected into the mainstream of our reality and what was once a Bible Story told to children in Sunday School has become a subject of intense study.

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 . . .

Jonah was a prophet who was sent by God to the City of Nineveh to preach doom 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 either, 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 many 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. 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 now called Mosul in modern day Iraq.

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.

But that’s not the whole story. You see the people of Nineveh were startled out of their wits on seeing 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.

In Dr. John Stott’s final book before he died, 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 our mission in Christ is much like the mission of Christ who died so that we all might live. In such a way Joseph was given up for dead and planted in the foreign land of Egypt . . . but out of this ‘planting’ a nation of believers, ‘God’s Chosen People’ was born and raised up. 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.

Today I think the story of Jonah should awaken all Christians everywhere in the world that now is the time to choose. Will you conform to the world in all its evil and die in your sins or will you conform to God’s will and keep his commandments (even in the face of torture and death) and live? Some may find they are too afraid to make this decision but as Paul reminds us today “it is the Spirit who 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

This sermon is part of the ministry of the Word at Saint Nicholas Anglican Church in West Seneca, NY in the United States and a Continuing Church in the Anglican Tradition. If you have been helped by any of the sermons or thoughts expressed on this sermon blog, we would love to hear from you at anglicanchurchofsaintnicholas.org .

Please also consider sending a gift in any amount using the form below . . . .




 

One High Calling

thCAPDO1Q3

When my grandfather was a young man, a fellow came up with a great new snack that he got rave reviews on from his friends. He became so excited about this product that he decided to go into business marketing this snack food to the public. Unfortunately for him, it was around this time, at the turn of the 20th century that lots of other products were being invented and introduced. Competition for any product was fierce. So the inventor decided to try something new.   He decided to market the product to an, as yet, untapped market . . . kids . . . And the way he decided to entice the kids into buying the product was to put a prize in every box along with a catchy slogan . . . “The More You Eat the More You Want”. Well, once the kids heard about the product and found out there was a toy for them in every box, they started bugging their parents to buy the snack . . . probably for the toys. Soon the parents were hooked on it too, and everybody started buying it. Excitement for this product became so great that the factory couldn’t keep up with the orders, and even to this day, Cracker Jack is a favorite of millions, including me. It was in fact the first junk food ever invented.

            When I was little, saving box tops was the way manufacturers sold cereal. Because with 25 cents and two box tops, a six year old kid could fulfill all his dreams. I still remember the day I saw a picture of this giant submarine on the back of a new kind of cereal box. The label read that if I had a quarter and two box tops, I too, could be captain of this baking soda powered submarine. Well, I asked my mom to buy me two boxes of that new cereal, but she told me she would only buy me one this week, after all, it cost thirty-nine cents and she wasn’t sure I would eat it all. So, for one of the longest weeks of my life I sat every morning eating my cereal dreaming of the day that I could get another box of it while gazing with longing eyes on that submarine that hopefully soon would be mine. Well the day finally arrived when I took my envelope with the two box tops and a whole weeks allowance and walked down to the mailbox assuring myself that the next day, I too, would be the captain of a great toy submarine. But my day of waiting turned out to be a week, then two weeks, then three weeks, and as time went on, I thought every day that ‘this might be the day’ until one day, it came. And even though the submarine wasn’t quite as big as it was in the picture, it was one of the greatest days of my life to be able to fill this little ship with baking soda and watch it sail and dive in my own bath tub. A truly remarkable experience. And you know, to this day, when I eat KIX I still remember that wonderful little toy.

            So, you are probably wondering . . . what do Cracker Jacks and KIX Cereal have to do with the lessons this morning? Well, it seems to me that some of our greatest preachers work on Madison Avenue as salesman, getting us all enthused on everything from hairspray to bug killer. They do it by planting seeds, and they make millions of dollars doing it because we buy the products that they are convincing us that we need. They do it by piquing our interest, by giving a little hope here and creating a little faith there, letting the enthusiasm for their products grow, until everyone in America wants to jump like Michael Jordan, or look like Katie Holms. The people at Madison Avenue are in the business of spreading their good news to create a favorable marketing impression.

            The Church too, is in the business of spreading the Good News, but sometimes it falls woefully short on delivery.    

            As you know, Jesus used parables . . . little stories . . . that were meaningful to the people of his time to pique the interest of his listeners. Today he told them about a planter who walked around planting seeds everywhere. Now, the farmers he was talking to knew how to plant seeds; and it wasn’t by throwing them around anywhere, because if you didn’t clear the soil of stones, pull out the weeds and till the ground and make it fertile, it would be like one big waste of time. Sure, you might get some good plants in the long run, but the seeds falling around the weeds and rocks and pathways would not do well and they knew it. It is only natural.  

Obviously, this sower wasn’t much of a farmer to plant in this way. But Jesus wasn’t actually talking about farmers, he was talking about his disciples. He was telling them that spreading the Good News in the world will seem at times like a complete waste of time.   You may never, ever see the seeds you plant grow. You will tell your story to as many as will listen, but it will be up to God to make it take hold and give it root and water. You will plant seeds where you know you have not tilled, leaving it up to the Spirit to bring forth the fruit. In this way, it will be God Himself who will be glorified in your work.

            The farmer in today’s story is not Jesus, but his disciples . . . it is YOU and it is me. All of us are here to be dumb farmers planting seeds every day as part of our Christian walk . . . . we are to be about planting seeds of the blessed hope of a New Jerusalem, of the coming of Christ into our lives, and the message of our salvation to a dying and sinful world through acts of kindness, love and compassion. That is THE PLAN . . and it is the only plan. Many think that the plan of Christianity is to open and support a bunch of church buildings where we can come and worship for an hour each week. But Jesus did not come into the world to build buildings with the hope that you would come and fill an envelope every week. Christianity is really not about candles or altars or pews or vestments. The church building and all of its adornments is here simply to bring you a holy focus to your faith. The Church exists only to resound with the call to holiness—the call the Lord makes so clear—and then help those who respond to the call to live their lives in a way that is pleasing to the Lord (rather than pleasing to the world and the flesh). Anything else is just another social club, something that more and more of our churches have now become. The preacher is here to . . . hopefully . . . give you some direction; to help give you some enthusiasm to spread your message. The Church’s purpose is to recharge your batteries every time you come here; to give you something to say and to think about as you go about your daily tasks of working and playing and loving and praying. The leaders of the liberal mainline churches think that by slouching toward the world, the Church will thrive and the world will become holier, purer, and more godly. But it’s precisely the other way around. This week, Magyn Kelly, on Fox news made the comment that the Catholic faith is not for ‘wusses’ . . . and I would most heartily agree with her. To be a catholic takes courage and it takes guts.

The Christian faith really is about YOU. YOU are the reason Jesus came into the world, so that a seed might fall and take root and flourish in a land untilled, and become a great tree with many branches and bear much fruit. And, that on the last day “all the trees of the field might clap their hands” for . . . YOU are the trees of the field from Isaiah, and YOU will be those who will rejoice with song. For on that great day when you see the New Jerusalem coming down from heaven, you will see the culmination of the work of the Spirit in the hearts of all the faithful, and you will know that you had a part in the grand design, the Good News that God and Man are once again united in love . . . and that my friends is the blessed hope that we celebrate each and every week . . . at least in this church.

            Finally, I have been driving to Niagara Falls every day for the past twenty years. And on each trip I have become accustomed to seeing a dandelion growing on the very top of a tall chimney at one of the abandoned plants up there. Well, every spring a dandelion appears in green leaves, then blooms into two or three flowers, and then turns to seed like dandelions do. The winds, which I assume are fierce at the top of a 40 foot chimney carry those seeds probably farther than any other dandelion seed ever travels . . . to parts unknown . . . to places unseen. But as that dandelion grows by itself in the crevice of the bricks at the top of that chimney, depending only on God for water and sunlight, it does more for the ‘dandelion cause’ perched up there in that desolate and precarious place than the thousands of dandelions that grow in the grass at the bottom of the chimney. I have learned from that dandelion that when I feel alone in the world at my job or in my neighborhood, I try to think of myself as God’s own dandelion spreading new life as best I can through acts of kindness, of love, and compassion to parts unknown and places unseen. In the week ahead, think on this, for spreading the gospel message really is your one high calling in a life in grace through Jesus Christ. Amen

This sermon is part of the ministry of the Word at Saint Nicholas Anglican Church in West Seneca, NY in the United States and a Continuing Church in the Anglican Tradition. If you have been helped by any of the sermons or thoughts expressed on this sermon blog, we would love to hear from you at anglicanchurchofsaintnicholas.org .

Please also consider sending a gift in any amount using the form below . . . .




 

Lead us not into Temptation

addiction

Last week Saint Paul tried to teach us in his letters that we are no longer condemned by the law but are in fact justified by faith though the blood of the cross. This week he complains that though he is not condemned by the law, he is still beset with evil and with evil habits that continually well up in his soul, and like all of us, he tends to do the evil he would rather not do and forgoes the good his spirit longs to do. And so, it is left to us to contemplate this and wonder to ourselves just why this is the case.

To explain this, we need to understand that all of us, from the highest, holiest prophet, down to the most wretched miserable soul among us seeks personal comfort over all things. We all seek comfort in food, shelter, love, warmth and security. We need to know that these comforts that we all seek are not evil and in fact are among the greatest blessings God can give us. Sometimes though, this comfort that we seek becomes an intense desire and then occasionally may become an overwhelming driving force in our lives that can become hurtful to ourselves and to others around us. We call these overwhelming desires for comfort at all cost, addictions and it happens to many of us as in addictions to drugs, sex, food, material things and alcohol, to name a few.

To understand how something like a God given gift, very good and pleasing can turn to become something evil and self-destructive in our lives is the challenge for us today, as all of us have faced this problem in one way or another in the past and some may face it again in the future, because none of us are immune to the effect of evil in our lives.

Years ago, before Barbara and I were married, we started to set up a house we were going to rent when we got married. One the main items we needed was a mattress and so we went out looking at mattresses and box springs. Going from a comfortable single bed at our parent’s house to a new double mattress took some doing for both of us. There were many a sleepless night, but finally we both got used to it and slept well on that mattress for many years. And as the years unfolded, that mattress became even better and better as it got broken in almost to the point where we didn’t want to get up in the morning. As more years rolled by that mattress became increasingly conformed to our bodies until one day it had so enveloped us that it was difficult to get up out of bed, and when we did, we found that our backs and necks ached and we began to wonder why we were tired all the time and hurt so. It wasn’t too long after that we figured out that it was time for a new mattress, and so we went out shopping again.

That night the new mattress was switched out for the old one. We got into bed – lay there for a few minutes and then Barbara said to me – “Umm, I think I want the old mattress back – it fits me and I’ll never be able to get used to this” . . . but of course we did get used to it but the change to a new mattress was painful at first until we got used to a comfortable bed again.

What I am trying to relay to you this morning is that all of God’s gifts are good and right for us and give us comfort and joy. Things like wine and spirits, dancing and sex, banquets and merriment, things that have been historically looked down on by religious society for the evil that they sometimes spawn are indeed good things. But as time goes on, and we become more and more accustomed and attracted to these things, they tend to take hold of us and we find it more and more difficult to do without them, until unfortunately, we wake up one morning to find that we need them, not because we want them, but because they own us, very much like an old mattress that has completely encompassed round about us.

And so like many in groups like alcoholics anonymous and narcotics anonymous, we are forced to admit the truth, that we have no power to control our own behavior – and so we do what we don’t want to do even as we know we should not.

But what about all those who refuse to admit a problem? How do they justify it? Do they like Paul say to themselves . . . “For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me.” . . . Or do we say . . . “I want it,” “I am going to get it,” and “I don’t care what you or anyone else says.”

There is a story I once read of a man’s daughter who was three-years-old and enjoying a snowy, wintry day when she discovered that snow was great for both sledding and eating. When the man’s wife saw her eating the snow, she told her that snow was not for eating and that she needed to stop.

That night the daughter added this to her prayer before she went to bed: she prayed “And Jesus, is it okay if I eat snow?” Immediately her eyes opened wide, and she said “Mommy, Jesus said YES!”

The human heart is writ large in a three-year-old. And they wondered how did the little girl even know that toddlers could receive words from the Lord? The parents of course laughed. But they laughed because eating snow is probably not that big of a deal, and they could be with her and help her when tempted with doing something far worse. But, at least they thought, she had the concept of praying about everything. They decided then that they would take it one step at a time and reserve a discussion about the darkness of the human heart for later.

Things are not so harmless in the adult version. “I prayed about it,” adult-style, is nearly always invoked when Scripture clearly teaches one thing and the person wants to do another. For example, a Christian woman is (somehow!) granted that coveted spiritual exception to marry an unbeliever. When challenged by her friends, she says: “I prayed about it.” Or another follower of Christ is startled to hear the Spirit say a resounding “YES, you can move in with your girlfriend,” or “YES, you can leave your wife and children, because, after all, I want you to be happy.” Or an entire church denomination decides among themselves that abortion and homosexuality are blessings, because . . . well “We prayed about it”.

I have to wonder what “God” are these people praying to? How often this perverse, self-deceived foolishness is apparent to everyone except the people involved. So how do we respond? We have very few possibilities.

The obvious place to start is to wonder as we are looking in the mirror. Indeed, where and how do we justify our own desires? And so we say to ourselves “Yikes”, we certainly didn’t have to look very hard.

So what do we do? How do we accept the gifts of God and at the same time reject the evil that is instilled within us? This of course is THE question that priests and philosophers have been writing about for centuries. In the gospels Jesus tells us that if something offends you pluck it out, or cut it off . . . and he is right in that people addicted to one thing or another need to make conscience choice to cut it out of their lives completely if they are ever going to be free . . . and so should we. But once we do so there is a void that needs to be filled, and not just by anything but by another gift, another comfort . . . one that will be as uncomfortable as a new mattress but something new to get used to. It might be exercise, or a study group, or even church . . . anything that may fill the void of where evil once thrived. In the gospel lesson today Jesus tells us . . . “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” And isn’t that what we are looking for each week at church . . . rest for our souls? Jesus tells us to repent . . . to turn from evil and reject it utterly . . . and in that way we will live to God and not ourselves.

Very often in life we tend to pray to God and then answer our own prayer in the way we want it answered. How often do we like Laban in today’s Old Testament lesson ask to be shown what it is that God desires. How many of us ask for a sign from heaven that this is okay or that is okay. Today, Laban gives God a condition to meet and God complies . . . “I came today to the spring, and said, `O LORD, the God of my master Abraham, if now you will only make successful the way I am going! I am standing here by the spring of water; let the young woman who comes out to draw, to whom I shall say, “Please give me a little water from your jar to drink,” and who will say to me, “Drink, and I will draw for your camels also” — let her be the woman whom the LORD has appointed for my master’s son.’

Laban shows us here just the kind of prayer we need to ask . . . one where God can provide an answer . . . not one that we may want to hear . . . but one that he wants to give . . . for in setting up this scene Laban knows for sure that the answer is not of himself but of God.

Finally, we have all received gifts from God in the form of family, friends and neighbors, love, food and clothing all given to us for our comfort and our benefit. It is up to each of us to cherish these things because they are from God and to be ever thankful to Him above all things. It is when we let the gifts of God become the god in our life that we encourage evil to grow in our hearts to the point that God, the real God of our fathers, has no longer a place for Himself in our soul; that we are doomed in our sins.

God, you have taught us to keep all your commandments by loving you and our neighbor: Grant us the grace of your Holy Spirit, that we may be always devoted to you with our whole heart, and united to one another with pure affection; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

This sermon is part of the ministry of the Word at Saint Nicholas Anglican Church in West Seneca, NY in the United States and a Continuing Church in the Anglican Tradition.  If you have been helped by any of the sermons or thoughts expressed on this sermon blog, we would love to hear from you at anglicanchurchofsaintnicholas.org .

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Color within the Lines

coloring

Paul teaches us in today’s reading from his letter to the Romans that because of Christ’s redeeming sacrifice, death and resurrection that sin has no dominion over us, since we are not under law but under grace. This concept, that the law no longer applies to believers in Christ is a very important one, one that everyone should know in their hearts, but a very confusing one, because we are told by virtually everyone in our culture that if we break the law, there are consequences; and a price to pay for our actions i.e. steal a car and go to jail . . . murder someone and you forfeit your own life. Each Sunday we kneel in all humility and confess the sin in our souls that we have little control over and yet Paul tells us sin has no dominion, no control over us.

            So we ask . . . which is it? Does sin control us or do we control sin’s effects over us?

            To answer this question we must go back to our very earliest training about the rules. All of us at one time I am sure were given a coloring book and crayons in which to color in all the spaces to make a picture of one kind or another. In our very earliest attempts at this we were sometimes chastised for not staying within the lines. To scribble outside the lines was a definite no-no in the early fifties and sixties. Today of course, it is an accepted practice because we wouldn’t want to squash little Johnnie’s self-esteem; but back then it was a given that after some practice, one was expected to stay within the lines. As time went on, the lines became our friends, and many of us outlined the lines in color so that they would be more pronounced in our artwork.

            Once we’d mastered the art of coloring, the book was changed; and all of a sudden there were no longer lines, but instead dots with numbers. It was up to us to now draw in the lines ourselves in a corresponding sequence of numbers; and to our surprise, a picture developed from these dots that we could again, color in as before. This new coloring book taught us to count as well as to stay within the lines. We found that if we got the series of numbers wrong, the whole picture would not appear as it was supposed to.

            And then finally, when we had mastered number-pictures we were given another book, one that had no lines and no numbers. It was a very blank book of white pages. We were told that we could draw anything we pleased and it would be kept in that book for all time. The importance of this book could not be overstated, because the young artist’s work would be there for all time and for everyone to see. And so we set out on an imaginary journey of shadows and colors, all of them defined by a matrix of lines of how we saw the world.

            And even today, if given a blank sheet of paper, all of us when asked to draw something, will start with an outline of the object we wish to portray and then, and only then, color it in. Why do you suppose we do that? It is because our drawings were once controlled and orchestrated by the lines of a coloring book, but now we control with our own minds where the lines lay in our work. The lines are still there in our imaginations, but they do not control us, we control them; for good or for ill . . . depending of course on how well we can draw.

            The law of Moses, meaning the Ten Commandments, were given to the ancient people of Israel to be much like the lines in a coloring book that we just discussed. Step outside the lines, and break the law, and the consequences were severe. Stay within the lines and the community would live in harmony. And it worked, for the law of Moses was what separated the nation of Israel from all of its lawless neighbors. Where Israel had a law against murder and mayhem, its neighbors had no such written laws and ruled by ‘might makes right’ and the heavy hand of subjugation of the weakest.

            The law worked, but the people saw their neighbors literally getting away with murder, so it wasn’t long before the Israelites rebelled and started to ignore the law, but to their great peril. Soon they forgot the law and were abandoned by God to the whim of their hearts and were sent off into slavery on various occasions only to be brought back as a nation after severe punishment at the hands of their oppressors.

            When Jesus finally arrived on the scene, the scribes and Pharisees were keeping the letter of the law but disregarding the spiritual intention of the law, which was to promote peace and justice among all people. They even went so far as to write new laws that were never intended by God in order to hold the people as captives to the law. When a law was broken, there was no mercy; and hundreds of thousands were executed and tortured for little or no reason. The people were in affect slaves of their sin and lived in fear of breaking the law because of its consequences, both in this world and in the life hereafter.

            The reason we were under the discipline of the law goes way back to the Garden of Eden and the original rebellion of man from God. We call this rebellion, the original sin which we each inherited from our forebears. It is this sin that, like a virus, infects all of humanity. We cannot escape its influence because it has a profound effect on our minds and bodies. The sorry truth is that we all hate, we all lust, we all covet, we all lie . . . we do things which we ought not and do not do the things we ought to do . . . and there truly is no health in us. And so before Jesus came into our lives, we were truly lost in our sins . . . and under the law, which sees only black and white, we were, all of us, damned souls because we had no way of paying the price for our transgressions.

            But because Jesus came, a man who had no sin, no infection of sin, and offered himself, his life, as payment for our sin, we have been acquitted and set free of the law. But notice that we have only been acquitted – we have not been proclaimed innocent – much like a convicted inmate who is freed because another has taken his punishment, he is still guilty, but forgiven. And so, so are we free under the law because someone else has paid the penalty for our transgressions.

            And that is why Jesus came to earth . . . that is to set us free from the dominion of sin and death. Jesus wiped the slate clean for all of us and for all time and gave us a new way of living . . . like a coloring book with no lines, we have been freed to be able to draw our own lines, that is to follow the law in our hearts, not because we have to out of fear of retribution, but because we want to out of love for God and a grateful heart and ‘as those who have been brought from death to life’. And so we must trust in God . . . and, you know . . . the more you know and trust the heart of God, the less you stress when you don’t know or understand all His ways.

            Which leads us from drawing in the coloring books of the past to this life in the real world of here and now, and how to deal with our sins and the sins of our neighbors, while at the same time embracing the law of which we are now and forever been set free. And so we need to see the difference between what men see and what God sees . . . between reputation and reality.

John Stott writes that the distinction between reputation and reality, between what human beings see and what God sees, is of great importance to every age and place. Although we have responsibilities to others, we are primarily accountable only to God. It is before him that we stand, and to him that one day we must give an account [of our life]. We should not therefore rate human opinion too highly, becoming depressed when we are criticized [or] elated when we are flattered. We need to remember that ‘The Lord does not look at the things man looks at. Man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks only at the heart’. He reads our thoughts and knows our motives. He can see how much reality there is behind our profession of faith and how much life there is behind our facade.

We must consider always that though we are in the world, we are not part of it. Just as this building stands in this community enshrining the holy elements of the Holy Eucharist, it is a special building, a temple and a dwelling, set apart from the world for people to worship God in it . . . and so are you a temple of the most high separate from the world, yet in the world because Jesus dwells in you and you in him and that is why we proclaim Jesus as our Lord.

The two-word affirmation ‘Jesus is Lord’ sounds pretty harmless at first hearing. But it has far-reaching ramifications for all Christian believers. Not only does it express our conviction that he is our God and Savior, but it also indicates our radical commitment to him. The dimensions of this commitment are intellectual (bringing our minds under Christ’s yoke), moral (accepting his standards and obeying his commands), vocational (spending our lives in his liberating service), social (seeking to penetrate society with his values), political (refusing to idolize any human institution) and global (being jealous for the honor and glory of his name).

Jesus, for all intensive purposes is our king and we do well to honor those who honor him. That is why in today’s gospel Jesus is very specific in how to treat those who welcome you as a believer . . . “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. Whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward; and whoever welcomes a righteous person in the name of a righteous person will receive the reward of the righteous; and whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple– truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.”

Almighty God, you have built your Church upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the chief cornerstone: Grant us so to be joined together in unity of spirit by their teaching, that we may be made a holy temple acceptable to you; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen

Pathway to Christ

GenesisOne the things children share in common with each other is an intense curiosity about life that seems to have no bounds. Most of us I am sure can recall a time when we were curious about where we came from. And all of us at one time asked that age old question of our mother or father . . . that question being . . . “Where do babies come from?” and then . . . as we compared notes with each other about this most important topic . . . some of us were surprised to hear that many of us were picked up by our moms in a cabbage patch . . . or that a stork brought some of us and dropped us down the chimney. We knew of course that these had to be made up stories and judging from the nervous tick in our parents faces while telling us these types of stories, that this was a subject that was not easily broached among the elder set.

But as time went on and we became more and more aware of the differences between boys and girls . . . and . . . as bothers and sisters arrived on the scene with no storks or cabbages in sight, it became apparent for most of us that babies were of course ‘purchased’ like canned goods at the local hospital . . . there could be no doubt.

I, of course, being as curious as any other kid asked this question of my mother, who, because she was busy with something at the time, quickly told me that I should go ask my father, who was sitting in the living room. What my father told me when I asked the question, sort of threw me for minute, because unlike my friends’ stories . . . there were no storks, or magic beans, or cabbages or pumpkin patches.

My father told me when I was five that babies were a gift, given to mommies and daddies by God when they shared a special kind of love. For a five year old, this seemed to answer the question perfectly and it wasn’t until a decade later that my father finally filled me in on all the unmentionable details.

In the genesis story we read today, we don’t read about where babies come from. The author assumes the reader is already quite aware of where babies come from because no mention is made about this subject except a mandate to go out have as many as possible. What the story of genesis attempts to answer is another age old question . . . one asked by mature, thinking adults . . . the question being “Where did everything come from?”   The answer, written in the first book of the bible called Genesis, written down when language was finally more than just a spoken word around 1700 BC is quite simple and direct, and its’ answer has sufficed us for over three millennia . . . that being that in the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.

Today of course, scientists and academia are quite bewildered with this answer because it leaves them in the awkward spot of not having an answer that disproves the claim of an ancient religious tradition. Some do not wish to believe in a God, or a prime mover of the universe, who is our Father so many have gone out of their way to look at the genesis story through the prismatic lens of the scientist and the skeptic and have tried their best to debunk the story of the biblical creation as a myth. But is it?

Theologians have long held the view that the story of Genesis, along with the other books of the pentateuch, that is the first five books of the bible were at one time part of a narrative, a spoken story, that was passed down from one generation to another for thousands of years. They believe this to be true and even gave the authors names and divided the intertwined story into segments that matched the themes and ideas of each story.

This hypothesis, sometimes called the Wellhausen hypothesis, proposes that the Pentateuch was derived from originally independent, parallel and complete narratives, which were subsequently combined into the current form by an unknown author, some now think to be Moses. The number of these narratives is usually set at four, but this is not an essential part of the hypothesis.

The hypothesis was developed in the 18th and 19th centuries from the attempt to reconcile questions that theologians had about the biblical text. By the end of the 19th century it was generally agreed that there were four main sources, combined into their final form by a series of edits. These four sources came to be known as the Jahwist, J; the Elohist, E; the Deuteronomist, D, (the name comes from the Book of Deuteronomy, D’s contribution to the Torah); and the Priestly Writer, P.

It is not for us to get into the technical aspects of these four writings today, but the fact is that what we read today is a combination of at least four accounts of the creation and for scientists and others to compare what they believe with what they assume the biblical account says, is in fact meaningless without the input of the rest of the bible to interpret the beginning.

For me, the entire argument can be settled mid-way through the very first line . . . In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth ‘comma’ . . . where we stop and say to ourselves ‘Is this not a complete thought? . . . How many heavens did God create and is earth a single planet or are we talking about something else? And then reading on we suddenly find that this earth that was just created is now formless and void. Why? What happened?

To answer this question we need to travel into the future to find in the last book, the book of Revelation that there was a war in heaven between the followers of Lucifer and the archangel, Michael and the angelic host of heaven where Lucifer was defeated and cast down from heaven to earth . . . and then to Jesus who gives us a first person account of what happened back in the beginning where he tells the disciples in the gospel a few weeks ago “…And He said to them, “I was watching Satan fall from heaven like lightning.”

So in the beginning there was a war in heaven and it apparently occurred before the comma of the first sentence of Genesis. And so was the war the cause of the earth being now formless and void? Look at our own wars – look at photos of Dresden in Germany after the allied bombing and you will understand what war means to a place, a city or a planet.

And so the statement, at least to me, asserts that when God started to create or to re-create the earth it was then formless and void.

And what about the word ‘heavens’? We always think of heaven as where God resides (as in the kingdom of heaven), but heavens is plural and certain theologians have surmised that there is in fact three heavens described in scriptures. Beside the spiritual heaven where we believe God is, there is the sky over our heads that is also called heaven that is controlled by time and there is the heaven of the universe that is controlled by space and which we call appropriately enough ‘space’.

What I am trying to say to you this morning is that there is, by design, some answers to questions that have been masked from us by God over time for our own good. One of the answers is is that Man was created in the midst of a spiritual war . . . that is still going on. The earth is the spiritual stronghold of evil but it is the physical re-creation of a God who desires most to be in communion with mankind but who lost us (and the earth itself) to the enemy almost at its very beginning. It was Jesus Christ, God’s son who came to earth and gave himself as a ransom to buy us back from Satan and it is Jesus Christ who will come again at the last battle to take back the earth and finally defeat and imprison all the forces of evil in the world.

The Bible is the inspired Word of God and running through every page of it, both Old and New Testaments, is a pathway to Jesus Christ. It seems like a million years ago the AAA used to issue something called a trip-tick. It was a book of maps and drawn on every page was a highlighted route showing the best way to your destination. Today of course we have GPS and TomTom that does pretty much the same thing, although human error is such that, like me, you might be led into traveling the wrong way on a one way street. But scripture is much different in that there is no human error. The Father is the author, the Holy Spirit is the guide and the destination has been from the beginning and always will be Jesus our Messiah.

We may not always understand the path but the path remains absolutely clear for every believer to follow.

The people who were born after the flood needed some understanding of where they had come from. Genesis was written and given to them so that they might have answers to the questions they were asking. The entire history of mankind and the people of Israel is written in our Bible that includes the vision of a future king or messiah, a savior that would bring to fruition the end of a great war and the beginning of a new millennium ruled by the author of peace who will be the King of Kings. In these last days it is vitally important to keep the essence of this message from God in our hearts and minds as we worship the Trinity of God – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen

What do we do now?

   Disciples-in-upper-room 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Good Shepherd

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

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

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

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

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

No Jesus – No Peace
Know Jesus – Know Peace

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On the Road to Emmaus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Last Act of Redemption

redemption2

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

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

As emphasized in the readings this Easter morning, these past three days, beginning with our Lord’s last day with his disciples in the upper room on Maundy Thursday; his death on Good Friday and ending with the resurrection on Easter Sunday are a commemoration of life and of death, they are about darkness and light, they are about our rejection of God, our deliverance through God and our redemption by a God who loves us beyond our ability to understand.  Easter is for the Church and for us a nexus where the spiritual and the physical worlds mysteriously become one for a brief moment in time each year.  That mystery being that once we were lost, alone and chained to our sins, but today we are delivered, redeemed and restored to a God who loves us.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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