Category Archives: Sermons

Homiletics

Salvation

salvation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CHALK

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

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

 

We adore Thee, O Christ, and bless Thee.

Because by Thy holy cross Thou hast redeemed the world.

Amen

Faith Believes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lenten Journey – We are called into fellowship

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Salvation

confession

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lead us not into Temptation

temptation1 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Deception is a Killer

Pritans

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Quiet in the Land

Presentation

Back when I was a boy, my family had, what might be described as ‘a crazy old aunt’ who was forever dreaming dreams.  Crazy was at least how my father described my Aunt Lou.  In effect though, she was what may be described today as a clairvoyant.  In talking with other folks over the years, apparently every family appears to have either a crazy old aunt or uncle living in the attic or hiding somewhere in the family’s lineage.  Perhaps you do too.

My Aunt though was far from crazy because she was able to foretell some of worse occurrences in my father’s life.  My father played hockey as a young man in Buffalo and way before the Buffalo Sabres or Buffalo Braves, area churches used to have hockey, baseball, and bowling teams.  Some churches even had bowling alleys right in the basement.  Well, my aunt happened to warn my dad on two occasions, not to go out and play hockey.  On one occasion he broke his nose which never quite healed right and on the other occasion his calf was severed by a hockey skate blade.  And yet he never quite believed his sister was able to know the future before it happened.

Anyway, while I was growing up my aunt happened to tell my mom future things about me.  One was that I would marry a girl in a yellow dress who had blue eyes which, as it turned out, was what my wife Barbara was wearing the day I saw her in high school Physics class for the first time.    The other thing she told my mom was that I would one day be priest in Buffalo, but not until my hair had turned white.  A few years back, when I had left the Episcopal Church, I also left any idea of being ordained a priest, because having left for the reasons I did, there was no going back.  But since that time, as you know, this particular prophesy came true.

So what are prophesies?  And do they always come true?  How do we know they are from God or from somewhere else?

The bible, of course is full of prophetic words written by prophets, kings and others who were very in tune with God and the way he works.  Many of the prophesies of the bible have already come true, some . . .  centuries ago . . . like the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 AD (as foretold by Jesus), and some within our own generation, like the establishment of Israel as a nation in one day  in 1948 (thru the prophet Isaiah). 

Today is one of those few Sundays that coincides with a church feast day that normally falls on a week day.  Today is the feast of the presentation of Christ in the temple.  The reason for this day is to celebrate the arrival of Jesus at the temple in Jerusalem when he was a baby and the purification of Mary after childbirth.  At one time, it was appropriate for young mothers to bring their newborns after a month to church for much the same reason.  We still have in our prayer book a blessing and thanksgiving for mothers and babies after childbirth.

In our story today, 31 days after birth, the time came for Mary and Jesus to be presented at the temple in Jerusalem for the purification service. Jesus had to be presented, like all new babies, to be ‘paid for’. This was a way of recognizing that the baby was a gift from God and really belonged to him, so the parents had to symbolically ‘buy back’ the baby from God. The amount that had to be paid for a baby was about 60 grams of silver.

Mary also had to go to the temple to be symbolically made clean and pure for the blood that she had lost when she gave birth. To be made pure, a dove or other bird had to be sacrificed; and to be made clean, a lamb to be sacrificed. However, if you were poor, a dove could be sacrificed instead of a lamb. That is why a pair of doves or pigeons were sacrificed in today’s story.

When Mary and Joseph brought Jesus to the temple for the purification service, he was welcomed and nursed by two very old people. Many of the Jews at this time were eagerly awaiting a mighty and magnificent king, who would lead the people to glorious victory against their enemy, Rome. But there were others looking for a just and godly Messiah. They were known as the ‘Quiet in the Land’, for they spent their days in prayer and worship of God, waiting patiently for the day when he would send his chosen Savior to earth. Simeon and Anna were two of the Quiet in the Land. They had waited many years to see God’s promised Messiah. As soon as they saw the baby Jesus they recognized him as God’s Deliverer and knew that their dreams were fulfilled.

One of the most beautiful pieces of prose in the prayer book is the statement by the prophet Simeon that we read in the gospel lesson this morning.  It reads . . .

Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, *

    according to thy word;

For mine eyes have seen thy salvation, *

    which thou hast prepared before the face of all people,

To be a light to lighten the Gentiles, *

    and to be the glory of thy people Israel.

Simeon was one among those enigmatic characters that we read about in the bible, who appears once and then is all but forgotten in history.  Today Simeon appears in the gospel story with Anna, the daughter of Phanuel who also gives a prophetic testimony of the boy Jesus who has been brought to the temple by his parents.

We know that prophetic witness is from God when we reflect on the spirit of who it has come from but most especially when the prophesy comes true.  Satan will offer all kinds of prophecies that may tickle our fancy but which simply are lies to trick the gullible.  But God knows . . . and because he knows, prophetic witness from God’s followers will always come true because it can be no other way.  This is why we trust in the bible and hold onto scripture as God’s revelation to us.

Simeon, Anna, Jesus, Isaiah, Micah, Jeremiah, and Solomon and David and many, mnay others were provided with dreams and visions of future events.  Some were called crazy when they lived, but very few are called crazy now.

As we enter the end times let us keep in mind some of the revelations of the prophet Joel who wrote . . . . “It will come about after this that I will pour out My Spirit on all mankind; and your sons and daughters will prophesy, Your old men will dream dreams, Your young men will see visions. “Even on the male and female servants I will pour out My Spirit in those days. “I will display wonders in the sky and on the earth, Blood, fire and columns of smoke “The sun will be turned into darkness And the moon into blood Before the great and awesome day of the LORD comes “And it will come about that whoever calls on the name of the LORD Will be delivered; For on Mount Zion and in Jerusalem There will be those who escape, As the LORD has said, Even among the survivors whom the LORD calls.

As we await this day, let us pray that we do not fail in our faith or become faint hearted because the days ahead we know will be difficult.  You and I are a remnant of a once great faith and as a reminder of our faith today we will renew the vows that we took on at our baptism as we present ourselves to God as the Quiet of the Land in this church as Jesus did in his temple so many centuries ago.

Third Sunday after Epiphany

Who_me

Several years ago I was working with a construction company in Clarence, and I happened to hire, as a subcontractor, the company I am now with, to help build a Rite Aid in Niagara County.  Through this relationship, this other company got to know me well and I got to know them.  The project ended successfully and I thought that perhaps that was that . . . until about two years later the vice president called and asked if I would someday consider working for them in Niagara Falls because he was retiring.  They would eventually offer me enough money to make the move and so I did about a year later.  By the time I came on board in Niagara Falls, I knew just about everyone there and I knew exactly what was expected of me.  There were no real surprises about the work and I have been there ever since.  In my experience, this is generally the way people get hired, through relationships.  We generally want to be able to know someone’s ‘ins and outs’ before making a commitment to them.  It’s a very human thing and it is the way it is for us in selecting jobs, in selecting our friends, in our love life, and in all the many other relationships and connections that envelope our lives . . . except of course . . . our families . . . it seems that God chooses to pick them for us.

It has always seemed to have been the contention of the church that the fisherman in today’s gospel, Peter, James, Andrew and John dropped everything at the calling of Jesus and then just got up and left.  To me this story seems to lack some reality, especially if you figure Peter was married and had a family. How many of us sitting here today, given a great opportunity, would be able to leave ‘right now’ on an adventure of a lifetime?  I know I would need to make a lot of arrangements for the care of my pets and property and I would certainly need to be able to explain it to my wife.  Actually, I remember explaining my desire to enter the ministry to her many years back and getting a blank stare when she realized I would be doing something that would take me away from home every week. Actually, thirty-some years later, I still get those blank stares every so often.

So what about the disciples?  Do you think it is logical to presume that they all left at Jesus’ calling at the drop of a hat, or do you think there might be more to the story?

Since there is no proof recorded either way, it would seem logical to assume that Jesus had previously selected these men for a mission.  I believe they knew Jesus as well as Jesus knew them and that they were waiting for the call that would change their lives.  I think the call may have come when John the Baptist was arrested.  This is more in keeping with the way God operates.  I can’t think of anyone (except perhaps the rich young ruler in the gospels) that wasn’t given an opportunity to make a choice based on some kind of foreknowledge of the risks and the rewards.

If we presume for the moment that Jesus knew these guys, (who were by the way, the inner circle of his group), why do you suppose Jesus picked them?  And just as importantly, why did Jesus pick us?

There was Peter and his brother Andrew, James the son of Zebedee and John . . . .  all of them fisherman by trade, they obviously were hardworking men.  It was Peter though, who owned his own business.  Now, if any of you knows about business owners, you know that nearly all of them (at least the ones I know) work 60-70 hours a week.  They are there when no one else is around, in the early morning and late into the night.  Why? . . . You might think it is to make money, but I would tell you that they do it because they love what they do.  Don’t get me wrong, they like the money, but it isn’t what drives them.  They love the game, the people, but especially the excitement of the risk.  And that’s the key, business people thrive on risk.  They risk there time, their fortunes and sometimes their health because they are enticed by the prize in the end, the prize of success.  I believe that to convince someone like that to drop everything and move on would take a little more than a one liner . . . even if it was from Jesus.  And that is why I think they knew each other well beforehand and were able to get up and leave everything behind.  They were already prepared, packed and ready to go.

And what about us?  The Bible is forever warning us to be prepared.  We are to be prepared because we don’t know when the ‘bridegroom’ will appear.  We are to be prepared because we don’t know when the ‘end’ will come.  We are to be prepared because we don’t know what hour that our ‘soul will be required’.  Hopefully, those of us sitting here today are as well prepared as we can be to face this unknown challenge.  It is important to realize that the earthquake that devastated Japan’s nuclear plant just three years ago next month could just as well have occurred right here on the Niagara Frontier.  We too, live near a giant fault line in the earth. Fortunately for us, it has been inactive for 60,000 thousand years.  But, 60,000 year ago it created the Niagara escarpment along with Niagara Falls and separated Lake Ontario from Lake Erie in one cataclysmic movement.

The Bible tells us that all have been called, but only a few have been chosen.  How do we know that we have been chosen?  We know when we come to realize through our relationship with him, just as the disciples did, that God is the most important thing in our life and that doing his will becomes a risk worth taking.

We also know that we have been chosen because we know God knows us as well as we knows ourselves.

The psalmist wrote of this personal relationship when he wrote Psalm 139 which reads:

1       Lord, you have searched me out and known me; *

you know my sitting down and my rising up;

you discern my thoughts from afar.

2       You trace my journeys and my resting‑places *

and are acquainted with all my ways.

3       Indeed, there is not a word on my lips, *

but you, O Lord, know it altogether.

4       You press upon me behind and before *

and lay your hand upon me.

5       Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; *

it is so high that I cannot attain to it.

6       Where can I go then from your Spirit? *

where can I flee from your presence?

7       If I climb up to heaven, you are there; *

if I make the grave my bed, you are there also.

8       If I take the wings of the morning *

and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea,

9       Even there your hand will lead me *

and your right hand hold me fast.

10     If I say, “Surely the darkness will cover me, *

and the light around me turn to night,”

11     Darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day; * darkness and light to you are both alike.

12     For you yourself created my inmost parts; *

you knit me together in my mother’s womb.

13     I will thank you because I am marvelously made; *

your works are wonderful, and I know it well.

14     My body was not hidden from you, * while I was being made in secret and woven in the depths of the earth.

15     Your eyes beheld my limbs, yet unfinished in the womb; all of them were written in your book; *

they were fashioned day by day, when as yet there was none of them.

16     How deep I find your thoughts, O God! *

how great is the sum of them!

17     If I were to count them, they would be more in number

than the sand; * to count them all, my life span would need to be like yours.

After reading this psalm, can we not tell that you have been chosen? That you are well known by our creator and that you are loved?  But the bigger question is . . . Why Me?  Why was I chosen?  Why you?  Why were you chosen?

The disciples were chosen because Jesus knew that they could be trusted with the greatest of missions.  They were hard working people with great courage and great honor.  But the most important thing for us to realize is that, the disciples had faults and they had weaknesses, but Jesus saw past them, just as we see past the faults of our own friends.  Jesus was able to use these men with all there vulnerabilities just as he is able to use us with all of ours.  What separates us most from Jesus are just those kinds of things, i.e. feelings of unworthiness, feelings of lust, greed, laziness, and fear . . . feelings we all have within us to some degree or another; but God uses us for his purposes despite our faults.

And that is the great mystery of His relationship with us.  Amen.

 

Epiphany

Epiphany icon

Often, over the course of our lives, we have heard the expression, “I had an epiphany last night!”.  It is a saying that kind of reminds us of the “Eureka” that Alexander Bell shouted out when he heard his telephone work for the first time.  An epiphany with a little ‘e’ is about a life changing experience that happens perhaps once or twice in a lifetime that changes everything about the way we think, the way we live and the way we are.  Just such an epiphany was the Baptism of Jesus in the Jordan for John and John’s disciples.

In our Western churches, Epiphany (with a Big ‘E’) commemorates the revealing of the infant Jesus to the Shepherds and Three Wise Men who had come from the East. In Eastern churches, it celebrates the baptism of Jesus.  In the Anglican tradition, we walk the fence . . . as usual . . . and celebrate both.  The word Epiphany comes from a Greek that means to appear or to show oneself.  When we use the term ‘to have an epiphany’ we mean that God has revealed himself (or something) important to us.

Between the three Wise Men bearing their gifts to the Christ child in the Feast of Epiphany gospel we heard a week ago and the baptism of Jesus by John in the Jordan in this week’s gospel, there appears to be about a thirty-year gap.  We know little or nothing about the life of Jesus outside of his three years of ministry recorded in the gospels.  We know he grew up as a carpenter under Joseph’s instruction.  But we have little knowledge of his schooling, his teen years, his birthdays, his likes or his dislikes.  (We have no idea whether he liked broccoli or not.) There exists an additional text not used in the Bible called The Gospel of St. Thomas that described some of this life, but it was discounted by the church fathers a long time ago as a myth.

There are many church teachers who believe that Jesus had no idea that he was the Son of God until the voice from heaven revealed it the day he was baptized.  They believe that this miracle caused his epiphany, and that his ministry began at these words from the Father in heaven.  Others believe that Jesus always was aware of his true identity from birth and that the voice was manifested to confirm it, not only to Jesus, but especially to others like John and his disciples, standing by.  They believe the voice of confirmation caused John the Baptist to have an epiphany and confirmed his role as the Preparer of the Way, which also lead to his eventual arrest and execution by Herod.  It also confirmed for John’s disciples, that here was the Messiah, pronounced by their own master, as the one. . .  “And I myself have seen and testified that this is the Son of God”.  And there are still others that believe that this story was included in the gospels to confirm to you, the listener, that indeed this man Jesus, is the Son of God.  In this way, and through hearing this Gospel, you too, might have an epiphany of your own . . . and believe.

Life changing experiences come in many forms and in many ways.  In today’s story, the disciples of John will eventually leave the Baptist to go and stay with Jesus.  They never look back after that, and are always with him throughout the gospels up until the time of the end.  And that is the way Jesus works, through life altering encounters, for some, similar to Jacob, wrestling with an angel, and for others, simply an invitation to ‘come and see’.

I have witnessed many people having life changing experiences at Cursillo.  One of those was that of Bob Coykendale, a local justice of the peace and an Historian. He came to Cursillo No. 1 and was totally startled into the realization that God could reveal Himself in such a profound way to him.  I was Bob’s table leader, and every time I ever saw him after that time, he reminded me of the event.  And that was almost 40 years ago.  Others in the Cursillo movement could tell you of many, many people to whom God revealed himself in the three day encounter.

Other life changing experiences come in times of sickness or distress.   In my own life, I have nearly died twice. During these times, at each moment, when I felt most abandoned, here was God, ready to release me from my pain and uncertainty, and envelope me with his healing touch.  These times were for me, my own epiphany, the times when I felt most changed and most committed to doing his will.  But, it should come as no surprise that God would reveal himself at our weakest, most vulnerable moments in our lives.  It is at those times in our lives that He has our full attention.  It is at those times that we are most vulnerable and most open to his spirit . . . especially if we want to live.

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

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

But that’s not where it ends . . . not by a long shot.  God continues to reveal himself to all people, in all generations, so that we might inherit the story of his redemption and his love.  Because, just like ripples in a pond, all of us throughout all generations affect the generation from which we came and the future generations that are yet to be born.  We do this through our own individual epiphanies of celebration in the power of God to change lives.  For in this way God acts and is revealed from one generation to another.  The most important thing we all should realize and keep forever in our hearts is that the only Christ that some may meet in their lives is the one that we mirror in our thoughts, in our words and in our deeds.  This is how Jesus worked back two thousand years ago when he told the disciples, ‘come and see’ when asked where he was staying . . . and it is the same way he works today in the hearts and minds of all the faithful.  Amen

 

2nd Sunday in Christmas

three kingsthree kingsthree kings

Last week, if you’ll remember, I mentioned a water color from the year 1794 painted by William Blake entitled ‘The Ancient of Days’.  It is a picture, presumably of God the Father stooped over in a wind storm holding a set of dividers at what I always thought was the very beginning of creation.  Today, however I am not as sure it is of the beginning of creation . . . as it could very well be the end as well.  In effect William Blake was trying to show God in the person of an architect, one of the few professions beside builders who used dividers at the end of the 18th century.

The message of this work speaks about the design of creation and just how involved God is in it.  We often picture God as a kindly old man with a white beard who made the earth and all there is and then let it all go its own way.  We hear the Genesis story how everything was good and suddenly everything was not so good at the fall of the first of our race.  We have been taught that our free will and a penchant for pride caused our fall and we were forced out of the perfection and everlasting life of Eden to toil on our own behalf throughout our lives and die in the dust of our own desire and making.

But in the beginning did God really let his creation go to its own demise?  Is creation like a bowel of spilled marbles, as many would believe?  Or is it more like dominoes, set up in a strategic pattern with a definitive design and purpose?  And how often is the design adjusted to complete God’s desired outcome?  These are the questions that the lessons ask us to think about today.

As a general contractor, I am often in contact with the architects of the buildings that we estimate and construct. As a lead project manager, I am responsible to see that that the intent of the architect’s design is accomplished and built as precisely as possible to the design drawings.  Sometimes it is difficult work, because being human myself, I have found that architects and engineers make mistakes . . . as well as builders.  When this happens, adjustments are made to compensate for error.  Fortunately, no one ever notices these adjustments and the only ones who are aware of them are the builders themselves and a few astute construction engineers.  I sometimes amuse myself by looking for errors in buildings as I go shopping or out to restaurants.  Actually I think it is one of the many things I do that drives my wife crazy.  But there are always clues left over, and it is interesting to me to see how a problem was solved.

I am convinced today that creation is not like a bowl of marbles dropped on the floor.  It really is more like a design in progress.  Like William Blake’s painting suggests, God is the perfect architect and he chooses some from among us to be his builders. And occasionally we make mistakes – because we are human.  But like any architect, who would rather not start over, God it seems makes adjustments in the design and leaves it for other builders to continue the construction.  But like any adjustment in the building model, there are clues left showing the turning points.

In today’s Old Testament reading there is one of these clues for us to ponder.  It is not very obvious unless you know the whole story.  It is in the verse that reads:

 

I will let them walk by brooks of water,

in a straight path in which they shall not stumble;

for I have become a father to Israel,

and Ephraim is my firstborn.

 

Now you may not remember who Ephraim was, but he definitely was not the first born.  In fact, he was the second born of Jacob’s eleventh born son who was Joseph in Egypt.  So how was it that the second born became the firstborn and inheritor of the family name of Israel?  And how does this story affect us in the here and now?

You may remember that there were twelve sons of Jacob (who was later renamed Israel).  Due to jealousy, ten of his older brothers got together and sold Joseph to a slave trader bound for Egypt.  While in Egypt, Joseph had two sons of his own by the daughter of an Egyptian high priest (who was a gentile).  The first born was Manasseh and the second son was named Ephraim.  The short story is that after Joseph saved his entire family from a famine through the interpretation of a dream, Jacob, Joseph’s father, blessed his two grandsons, knowingly promoting the second born, Ephraim to firstborn status and adopting him as his son into the nation of Israel.  God told Jacob, we assume in a dream, that Ephraim was his choice to be placed ahead of the others because Ephraim’s descendants were destined to become many nations.  In this way God, thru Jacob was showing us that the last would be first and that gentiles could be grafted into the family tree of Israel (and also into the tree of life).  I think that in a way God was predicting an adjustment that would be made in creation . . . one that he planned all along to redeem the gentiles and adopt them into the household of faith.

 

Next from the Gospel of Matthew today we read:

 

In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews?  For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet . . . .

 

It was no accident that Bethlehem was destined to become the birthplace of the Messiah, because the rest of the story is that this is the place from which Jacob brought his whole family into Egypt to escape the famine foretold by God to Joseph in Pharoah’s dream.  The entire lineage of Jacob’s family heritage was buried in Bethlehem including Rachel and Leah his wives and Jacob himself whose bones were brought out of the eventual slavery in Egypt and buried there by Joshua some 200 years later.

I believe that the most important part of the story of the wise men is that somehow, these gentile men were given advance notice that someone great was to be born and the general place of the birth was to their west in the tiny country of Israel.  The other part is that they actually went off to seek the object of their desire, carrying gifts no less, indicating that they had great faith and truly expected to find a real king born to whom they could pay homage.

One of the repeating themes throughout the Christmas story is how God communicates with us and how he continues to get his message across.  Mary, of course, has the most famous story having been visited by the angel Gabriel announcing the birth of Emmanuel and also of John the Baptist.  But others in the Christmas story were also inspired with messages from God.  One of the most important was the message Joseph, Mary’s betrothed, received in a dream telling him to take the child and his mother and flee to Egypt because King Herod’s forces were out to destroy the baby Jesus.  The wise men, we are told today, also had a dream telling them not to return to King Herod but to leave the country by another way.  The wise men were led by a new star, today believed to have been a super nova that appeared in the night sky around 3 AD . . . but no one really knows for sure.

By communicating to us in many different ways and by manipulating the outcome of the design of creation, God has been proven to sometimes predetermine outcomes and to sometimes change things as it may please him or as may be best for us.  The Church calls this doctrine ‘predestination’ and it has in the past been a controversial issue in the life of the Church.

 

From Paul, in his letter to the Ephesians today we read:

 

‘Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, just as he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love. He destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace that he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved.’

 

What do you think is Paul saying here . . . Were we adopted and destined to be believers before the foundation of the world?  Isn’t this the definition of predestination?  And if so what about free will?  Theologians have pondered these questions over the centuries and have found only paradox . . . an unanswerable question . . . a ‘catch 22’ . . . in our own vernacular.

 

During the age of Elizabeth I, the western orthodox faith endeavored to answer the paradox in Article 17 of the thirty-nine articles of religion that states:

 

“Predestination to life is the everlasting purpose of God, whereby, before the foundations of the world were laid, He hath constantly decreed by His counsel secret to us, to deliver from curse and damnation those whom He hath chosen in Christ out of mankind, and to bring them by Christ to everlasting salvation as vessels made to honor.”

 

The Bible is clear that God’s predestinating and electing love, his apparent choice to save us, is the only possible basis for our salvation.  In so many places it makes plain that we cannot save ourselves, deal with our own sin, or even choose to follow Christ without his help at every stage along the way. The whole history of salvation, in both the Old and New Testaments, is the story of God’s choice, for his sovereign purposes.  He chose Noah, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, David, and all the prophets. On a grander scale He chose the whole people of Israel.  In each case there was no goodness or godliness in them which led to his choosing.  These were acts of pure and unmerited love.  All these Old Testament choices pointed to the coming Christ at Bethlehem.  God was choosing these people to be the ancestors and the bearers of the new covenant, his chosen one, his Messiah.  In the New Testament Jesus himself is the only one who is called elect.  Members of his church are described as being chosen in him. Jesus has from the beginning been the focus of God’s choice.  The Important thing to remember here is that apart from Christ we cannot be chosen.

It is the fact that we have been chosen in Christ that explains our faith in Him (faith is, after all, His gift to us) and that gives us grounds for assurance.  How can I know I am going to heaven?  Because I know that Christ died for me, that I am one of those chosen by God in Christ to receive the benefits for which He died.  If my eternal salvation depended on the strength and lasting quality of my choices in life, there would be little hope for me.   Because it rests on the foundation and constancy of God’s choice, you and I can be completely secure.

The doctrine of predestination should be of unspeakable comfort to Christians and to those who feel within themselves the working of the Spirit of Christ.   We are meant to be assured that He has set His love upon us and will never let us go.

We, as human beings, cannot understand all of God’s ways, but the Bible is absolutely clear both that God chooses us in Christ, and that He commands His Church to preach the gospel to all. It may be a mystery but our task is crystal clear.  We are to be about building and sustaining God’s Kingdom here on the earth.

What the readings today are all about is God’s grace. He chooses us though we are far from attractive to him. He loves us when we do not deserve it. He is faithful to us when we are unfaithful. He ensures our salvation by not only calling us in all the varied the circumstances of our lives, but calling us effectively with words of love and a gospel of truth and power that people of faith cannot refuse. He promises never to let us go when we come to Christ. He keeps us secure in Christ for all eternity.  And that my friends, is Good News.  Amen