Category Archives: Sermons

Homiletics

At the Name of Jesus

KingJesus

Today we celebrate the Feast of the Holy Name.  Back in the days of my youth, the Church Calendar recognized this feast as the Feast of the Circumcision of Jesus.  But in more recent times we have become a little queasy with the word ‘circumcision’ and this holy day (transferred to today) has become secularly known as New Years Day, but in the church it is known as Feast of the Holy Name.

In order to understand this feast day, we really need to go back to the gospel for today and find out more about what is happening in today’s continuation in the reading of the Christmas story.

As you should know, Jesus was a Jew.  He became Jewish on the eighth day of his life when Joseph took Jesus to present him to the temple priest for circumcision and to receive a name.  Today there is a lot of controversy over the custom of circumcision, but in the days of Jesus and even to this day, all males who are born into or who are converted to the Jewish faith are required to be ritually circumcised as part of the covenant between God and the children of Abraham.  It was only through a personal sacrifice, which to the Old Testament Jews meant, the literal separation of blood and flesh that the covenant could be consummated.  The covenant was a contract and was done, as we understand it, for a very mystical but also a very practical reason, so that a man might be able to hold the Torah in his hands and interpret its meaning. 

The practice of initiation through circumcision was one of the first controversies settled by the Christian church fathers. The Jewish converts into Christianity wanted to continue this ancient practice and require that every male who adopted Christianity be circumcised in the tradition of the covenant with Abraham.  But it was Paul, himself a Jew, who argued against this because as he put it, through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ and faith in his blood, there is no longer a need for an outward sign of the covenant because we have all been reborn in the Spirit and are adopted through God’s grace into a new covenant between God and all of mankind.  You can imagine that many of the gentile coverts in the early church were quite relieved at this far reaching decision. 

But for Jesus and Joseph this was quite normal and it was at this point that Jesus received his name, which in Aramaic is Yeshua which means literally, ‘Savior’.  But the interesting part of the story is that Jesus did not receive his name from his parents or his family, like most kids.  If you remember, it was Gabriel who told Mary at the annunciation that she was to name the child ‘Jesus’ and that he would be great and be called the Son of God and that he would save his people.  And so, it was God himself who named Jesus.

Names are of great importance in Holy Scripture.  In the Old Testament God reveals himself to Moses and pronounces his name.  Now the name of God is steeped in mystery because the priests of the temple did not want the name to fall into the hands of evil men.  The closest we have come to know it is as ‘Yahweh’ which means ‘The one who causes things to happen’ or ‘the Lord’.

Think to yourself for a moment where you would be without your name.  Like the ‘bulletproof monk’ you would be like the wind.  No one could control you if they could not call on you.  You would be invisible, wouldn’t you?  Names are one of the most important things that define us.  Our names, both first and in many cases last names all have meaning, many of them hidden within our family’s history.  My name, Edward for instance is Anglo Saxon and means ‘Guardian’.  I have known this all my life and have often felt that it has defined part of who I was to become as I grew up.  Many people I know have been greatly influenced by the meaning of their names, especially among the clergy.

Right up there with the gift of Free Will, one of the greatest gifts we have been given is the ability to name things.  If you remember from the story of Genesis, it was God who called the firmament heaven and the land earth.  It was also God who named the sun and the moon and day and night.  But then, as the story goes, God made man and named him Adam and he gave to Adam dominion over creation as the text reads from Genesis . . . ‘And out of the ground the LORD God formed every beast of the field, and every fowl of the air; and brought them to Adam to see what he would call them: and whatever Adam called every living creature, that was the name it was given.’

One of my favorite paintings is a very famous one called ‘the Ancient of Days’ by the writer/artist William Blake.  I inserted it in this month’s Newsletter.  It depicts God the Father as a weathered windswept ancient man with a giant pair of dividers in his hand hovering over the earth as an architect over his design.  As the great I AM ‘who causes things to happen’, God provides all the mathematical equations, the laws of gravity, motion and thermodynamics, a design and a platform in time and space on which his creation is based.  In all this expanse of the universe, God creates galaxies and suns and planets in their courses but gives names to only a few things that we know of . . . they are the sun, the moon, the earth, the sea, heaven, Adam and of course, Jesus.  The rest, for some reason known only to Him, he leaves up to us to ponder, to discover and to name like a gigantic game of Pictionary.  And we’ve been trying to figure it all out ever since.

Today we celebrate the one name that God shared with all of us, a name that is on par with creation itself, the name of Jesus, at which all knees will bend in heaven and on earth and under the earth.  I believe that this is just how important this event of the incarnation was.  For at the naming of Jesus and the passing of the Davidic Kingdom to him, time itself began afresh thanks to the forethought of the church fathers at the Year 1 and continues in every land and nearly every language two thousand and fourteen years later until this very day.

Jesus was named Savior and came to earth for one reason and one reason only.  That was in fact his name’s sake . . . that he would be the savior his people. 

To understand the importance of the name ‘Jesus’ we must go forward in time about 33 years into the infant Jesus’ future.  Here we will find him at Passover with the disciples where they will break bread together, and during his last hours with the disciples before he dies Jesus will offer up broken bread and wine poured out as a perpetual memory of the coming sacrifice of his body and blood on the cross.  Because, just like the sacrifice of circumcision that required the separation of both flesh and blood, the new covenant that God had in mind also required personal sacrifice in order to consummate it.  It was Jesus who was appointed from the beginning to be that sacrifice, appointed by his Father from before he was born in order to save his people.  For in the very hour that Jesus was hung dying on the cross, what some may have not realized is that the Passover lambs in the temple were being sacrificed for the sins of the Jewish people.  This is why the church calls Jesus the Lamb of God. . . for in so doing, by willingly going to the cross and taking onto himself the sins of the whole world, Jesus became the means of sacrifice that saved his people.

So what should the Feast of the Holy Name mean to us in this place and at this time?  For me, it gives me peace in knowing that all is as it was destined to be, that the order of the universe which was broken by man’s sin has now been restored and that believers in Jesus the Savior live in victory over the grave.  It gives me hope that the miraculous story of the incarnation will continue to unfold through future generations as the church cycle of seasons continues and until we are all finally called home.  And it gives me a feeling of deep and abiding gratitude that God would humble himself to live among us as one of us and to offer his life so that I might live in him; and finally it gives me a feeling of resolve to live a life worthy of his call to me as a servant, as a brother and as a friend.

Eternal Father, you gave to your incarnate Son the holy name of Jesus to be the sign of our salvation: Plant in every heart, we pray, the love of him who is the Savior of the world, our Lord Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen.

In the beginning was the Word . . .

 

Beginning

The three gospels that we are most familiar with, that of Matthew, Mark and Luke, give us an eyewitness account of the birth of Jesus . . . a story that we all know very well.  They recount the story of Mary and Elizabeth and their pregnancies.  They tell about Joseph and his dreams sent from God to protect the Holy Family.  They each tell of wise men and the holy angels and poor shepherds who visited the baby in the manger.  They each tell of the evil deeds of King Herod when he found out that he was tricked by the wise men, and they all tell about the holy family’s flight into Egypt and their eventual return.  These are the stories that we know, that we’ve grown up with and that are familiar to us in our carols and hymns at Christmas time.

But the fourth Gospel, the one we read this evening is quite different.  The Gospel of John tells us about who Jesus really is. 

‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  He was in the beginning with God.  All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.  What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it . . . . . No one has ever seen God.  It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.’ It is he who has become for us – Emmanuel – God with us.

Human beings, for the most part, think in terms of months, years and decades.  We do this because we are time driven, finite beings.  We all know that we have a beginning, and we are all (sometimes painfully) aware that someday we will have an end.  It is hard for us to think in perspective of hundreds of years.  I can remember back perhaps forty of my sixty-four years.  Before that it becomes a blur.  In history, we learn about things that happened hundreds of years ago and some things that happened perhaps thousands of years ago.  But for the most part, things that happened beyond six or seven thousand years ago tend to remain somewhat obscure in our collective human conscience.  We aren’t that clear on the dinosaurs or on the ice age because we only have fossils and a few footprints left to identify with.  The baby Jesus in the manger is relatively easy to envision at a mere 2,000 years, but the creation, we tend to limit with our understanding of the event.  For some, there is the feeling that 8,000 years is a good estimate and yet for others 8 million years might be better.

But science today has been given a number of clues that the creation was not millions of years ago or even tens of millions.  It has been estimated that the universe we live in is at least fourteen billion years old; and that this may not be the only universe ever created; there may be others.  Science has also been given clues as to our own origins and the origin of all matter.  There is clear evidence that the creation we see, the rocks, the metals, the air and everything that is, is the result of the implosion of hydrogen and helium driven stars.  There also seems to be evidence that at one time there was nothing and then  . . suddenly . . . there was everything, as if someone ‘gave the Word’ and it was.

It is even harder to imagine that every particle of every being . . . every atom that ever existed or was created is still here and yet even more bizarre, if you think about it long enough . . . they are within all of us and make up our very being.  I may be 64 years old, but the components that make me and you and the entire world around us are in a word . . . ancient, created hundreds of millions of years ago by the God of creation who we can only regard as incomprehensible.

Then there is DNA, the stuff of life, a molecular compound that within every cell stores a nearly infinite record of our collective histories and exact instructions on how to build a human being . . . and not just any human, but a particular human like ‘me’ and a particular human like ‘you’ from the primal elements of creation.  And what of the prime mover in all this?  Is it a mystery for us to ponder, as many secularists have declared –or- have, we who believe, been given clues to the origin of our creation? 

The Christmas gospel we read tonight from John the Evangelist bears witness to these mysteries that in the beginning there was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.  What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.

Jesus, the Christ, has been described in the scriptural texts as the Author of Life.  Life itself is God’s crowning glory of his creation.  For out of the billions of suns and planets in the universe, it was on this planet earth where God chose to create life where there was none.  The gospel bears witness to the fact that Jesus was with God billions of years before the world came into being.  That alone is hard for me to imagine.  But harder still, is the fact that he came personally to save this creation from certain doom in the form of one of us as Emmanuel – God with Us.  Why do you suppose he did that?  I believe that life itself is so important, so unusual, and so delicate an event in the universe that it continues to command God’s every attention.

That is why Jesus tells us in the gospels that every hair on your head is numbered and that not even a sparrow falls out of a tree without God’s knowledge.  That is how important all life is to God’s purpose.  So important, in fact, they He came personally to protect what was His from the beginning so that nothing would be lost, but would forevermore be with Him, where he is.

Jesus came into the world, born of a woman, to buy back his lost creation with his own blood.  As Paul tells in his letter to the Galations  . . . before faith came, we were imprisoned and guarded under the law until faith would be revealed.  Therefore the law was our disciplinarian until Christ came, so that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer subject to a disciplinarian.  In other words, before Christ, we were subjects under the law and we were also condemned under the law.   But through Christ and faith in his blood, we have been acquitted under the law and made free to become adopted into the family of God where we are able to call God ‘Abba’ father – or a more literal translation – daddy!

This is the ultimate gift of Christmas: that God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, so that none would perish but have everlasting life.  By accepting this free gift, we become true sons and true daughters of the most high and heirs to the Kingdom of God.

We celebrate this truth each and every week in the Eucharist as we perpetually remember the great mystery of Christ’s sacrifice  . . .  We who are believers can bear witness to these great events by living lives worthy of God’s call to us.  Whether we call ourselves Protestant, Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Anglican, Lutheran, or Messianic Jew, we have been chosen by the Lord of Life and author of all creation to respond to him in praise and adoration through acts of hope, love and charity for all people.   And I am not talking about the ‘ho-hum’ lives of faithless humanism in which we Americans tend to find common ground, but in justice and in truth and in service to all people everywhere and in all the varied situations of life.  To be excited about our freedom and our faith just as King David was in tonight’s Psalm . . .

 

Sing to the LORD a new song, *

for he has done marvelous things.

With his right hand and his holy arm *

has he won for himself the victory.

The LORD has made known his victory; *

his righteousness has he openly shown in the sight of the nations.

He remembers his mercy and faithfulness to the house of Israel, *

and all the ends of the earth have seen the victory of our God.

 

The prophets of old weren’t complaining about getting out of bed each week to go to temple, they were . . . all of them . . . living their faith like . . . ‘free men’  . . . who were once condemned under the law!  And so should we see each and every day as a blessed opportunity to praise God and to serve all God’s people where ever we find them.  This year we found that our Anglican friends in Tanzania live life loving and praising God even in the worse imaginable circumstances.  Their families live in poverty and have suffered for years from AIDS and HIV.  And yet, one of their greatest pleasures is in praying for us in this church . . . for this ministry so that through us they might be relieved and protected in some way in the circumstances in which they find themselves.

What we have learned from Fr. Kahene and his congregation is that we should praise God in all the varied circumstances of life and never write anyone off . . . because God has a vested interest in each and every soul that he has ever created.  When we give up on people who we believe are unreachable, we diminish the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives and in the lives of all the faithful.

The Christmas Story is a story of redemption for God’s creation.  And much like the air we all breathe and the water we all drink, God’s redemptive grace must apply to everyone . . . every gender, every race, ever age, every body or it is meaningless for all.  Our job in this season is to spread the good news of the Christmas message, to rejoice with God and his whole creation that once all was lost, but now all shall be restored through Jesus, the Christ and our Messiah.                  Amen

Giving Thanks

Give Thanks

For much of our lives, we Americans have been taught about the origins of the holiday of Thanksgiving…we all know about the feast co-hosted by the native American Indians to the near starving Puritan settlers at the end of that very first year of 1620 in the New World.  We remember stories about how the Indians introduced the settlers to corn, squash and wild game turkey and deer that was so prevalent in North America at that time.  We also know how grateful the pilgrims were to receive the help of the Indians in their time of need.  The story of the Indians and the pilgrims is truly a Thanksgiving story that will live on and on as we pass this story from one generation to another as a never ending story of hopefullness, helpfullness, and happiness.  The story we remember is like a snapshot made in heaven of what the world ought to be like…about how one people can help another people… not because of some article of religion, or some commandment that says we have a duty to help (I doubt the Indians of the day had yet to hear about the Bible or about Jesus or about Christianity), but because of some greater, deep down, good that says to us down in the depths of our soul that, ‘Yes, you need to help, for the good of your brother, but also for your own sake as well and for the sake of your soul’.

            This need, or yearning to help, is what St. James explains to us in his epistle.  That every act of generous giving is from above and in his words . . . ‘comes down from the Father of lights’.  Giving is not a natural tendency among humans.  It may be ‘more blessed to give than to receive’…but most of us find it is a lot easier to keep than to give away.  Why do you suppose that that is true?  Do we have a tendency to keep things because we are so attached to them that we cannot bear to part with them…or is it because we have some deep seated feeling that in giving we may someday go wanting?  Jesus talked about our dependency on material things in the gospel reading today.  How many of us could really live these words that he spoke to us this morning?  He basically is saying, have a deep and abiding faith, give generously, and with abandon and God will replenish your supply, God will fulfill all your needs.  But to a person like me with gas bills, electric bills, insurances, mortgages, kids, tuition, two cars, two cats and a dog, it becomes a little more frightening to give with the abandon he describes, to go out on limb, unsure of how or when my own future needs will be met.

            But that leads us right back to the story of the Pilgrim fathers, who, for the freedom to practice their religion they chose to abandon everything they knew in England and in Europe, to abandon their homes, their families, their jobs, their careers, in order to face a very uncertain future in the New World.  Armed with only faith and a prayer, they gave up everything to face unthinkable dangers and struggles and starvation in a land that only held for them one promise, the freedom to worship as they chose.  And I’ll tell you, I think that is why they succeeded.  They were armed with only the faith that the God they knew would provide for them and an earnest prayer giving Him thanks for all things, no matter what the outcome.  And isn’t that the mark of true discipleship in Jesus Christ?  Isn’t that what Jesus was trying to explain to all of us today?

            I want to remind you of a modern day thanksgiving story you may remember that was printed in the Buffalo News a few years back.  It was an Associated news release about how, during the American invasion of Haiti, the people there were seen dancing in the streets, because, all of a sudden besides a new found freedom, they have so much to eat.  You may know that Haiti is the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere, and most Haitians, at least before the Americans came to their country, only ate one meal per day.  Well, the article interviewed many mothers who were so grateful for the extra food that was available after the Army came to her town.  She recounted how now she could feed her family twice a day, with good food, American food like lasagna, and brownies and Rice Krispies.  The reporter told about how whole cottage industries that had sprung up selling this wonderful stuff and how that year (the year 2000) would be the greatest Thanksgiving in recent Haitian memory.  The writer became very interested in which agencies distributed food to these Haitians but was taken by surprise when the lady told him that, there weren’t any agencies . . . no NGOs . . . no Red Cross . . . nothing.  Incredibly, the people simply went to the Army Dump every day and picked up the garbage of what the American soldiers threw away!  Can you imagine an entire country living off of what a few thousand soldiers threw in the trash?!  To the Haitians it was a blessing from God.  To us, I am sure, it is an appalling embarrassment.

            In our Eucharistic Service each week, we are reminded that it is our bounden duty, at all times and in all places to give thanks for what God as done for us.  How often do we unconsciously worry about how we expected so much more out of our lives than what we have, and yet in comparison, everyone in this room lives like a virtual king when compared to the lives of the vast majority of humanity living outside this building.  We have been richly blessed by God and for that I am sure we should all be exceedingly thankful.  But how can we express this thankfulness, our thanksgiving if you will?

            The easiest way that I know of is to simply emulate as closely as possible the giver of all good things.  Go out of your way to find someone, some family, some organization, someone or something that needs your help, your prayers, your money or your enthusiasm and simply give of what has been given you.  If you know a person you can’t stand – start praying for him.  If you have a neighbor or a relative who is in trouble financially – then give them a boost anonomously  with no strings attached.  If you are asked… say YES – if you aren’t asked… then volunteer.  In this way you will be sharing with others what God has given you, you will be sharing God’s love for all of his creation.  You will be showing your thanks, and not merely saying your thanks for all that He has done for you in your life.  Amen

Christ the King Sunday

christ_the_king-1

As the Church Year winds down to the end, we are increasingly being drawn in by the readings to a discussion of what our religion really means to us.  The Gospel of Christ continually begs the question . . . can your faith survive persecution?  How strong is your religion in the face of evil and imminent death?  Are you ready to die in your convictions to the faith?  These are the questions that haunt us at the end of our church year and as well as at the end of our lives. 

          It has been said, there are no atheists in foxholes on the battlefield.  When the bombs are dropping and bullets are flying . . .  that is the time when every man finds true religion.  It is when life is sweet and safe, and the outlook of the future is secure that one finds people who say  “It is vain to serve God.  What do we profit by keeping the God’s commandments or by going about as mourners before the Lord of Hosts?”  That is  . . . Why should we try to remain honest and pure when, indeed, the only ones having any success at all seem to be unbelievers and wicked people?

          I can’t think of a time when the words of the scriptures today were more appropriate to our times than now.  Within this past year, hundreds and perhaps thousands of Christians throughout the world have been murdered, tortured, raped or brutalized in some way or another for their belief.  We hear about this news usually in a round-a-bout manner because it does not seem important enough to make the newspapers or television.  It seems it cannot compete with the Kardashians or the political climate of the day or with white on black crime – so we don’t hear and because there is no outcry, it is assumed that the church simply does not care. But of course we do care, but we care in a way that is not expected by the world, because though we are in the world, we know we are not part of the world.  In effect, though it seems to the world we have lost, thru Christ our King we have already conquered in all things.

Paul writes to the Colossians in today’s lesson . . . “May you be made strong with all the strength that comes from his glorious power, and may you be prepared to endure everything with patience, while joyfully giving thanks to the Father, who has enabled you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the light. He has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.”

The world cannot understand this because the world is lost in error and a slave to the god of this world.  It is through the cross of Christ that Christians have already conquered the worse that the world can offer and so whether we live or whether we die it does not matter, for we are, in fact, the Lord’s possession.

But many who are not quite so sure in this belief may ask how do we develop within ourselves and our friends and families this certainty of faith?

John Stott, one of the foremost evangelicals of our day explains that you must learn that. . . Belief doesn’t come first.  One begins with entering in to the experience–going to church, saying the prayers, singing the hymns, meeting other believers in fellowship. If you do this, then eventually, worship will shape your believing.  We go to church first and foremost to find a relationship with God.  And out of that comes the shaping of belief.  If indeed the preaching we hear is centered on the gospel and the worship is faithful and reverent you will begin to cultivate an abiding relationship with God and with each other and true religion will grow.  . . . And as it grows you will not be able to contain it within yourself.  Others will see in you a change that can only be described as joyful expectation and an inner peace that passes all understanding.

But there is another side to the story that Jeremiah decries today in the prevalence of false religion promoted by false teachers . . . “Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture! says the LORD. Therefore thus says the LORD, the God of Israel, concerning the shepherds who shepherd my people: It is you who have scattered my flock, and have driven them away, and you have not attended to them. So I will attend to you for your evil doings, says the LORD.”  Jeremiah speaks of a religion spread by false teachers that is devoid of belief and lacking in faith . . . it is indeed an empty religion.

No book, not even by the atheist, Carl Marx and his followers, is more scathing of empty religion than the Bible.  Jeremiah and all the prophets were outspoken in their denunciation of the formalism and hypocrisy of false worship.  Jesus applied their critique to the Pharisees of his day: ‘These people [he said] … honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me’ (Is. 29:13; Mk. 7:6).  And this indictment of religion by the Old Testament prophets and by Jesus is uncomfortably applicable to many churches in our world today.  In many churches today worship has become ritual without reality, form without power, fun without fear . . . religion without God.

And you know what?  Many people sense this and leave these churches . . . sometimes never to return again.  They are scattered as Jeremiah describes, sometimes never to have a relationship with God again. And because of this, their shepherds and leaders are damned.

So where does that leave the true church in its quest to promote true religion and abiding faith in Christ – the King of Glory?  We must always be aware that in fact . . . we do not convert people . . . God does. The Church is merely a participant in God’s mission of salvation.  It is our primary task, as believers, to reflect Jesus in our individual and corporate lives . . . to worship and to proclaim Christ in word and deed. Judging by the number of cars I see parked in driveways on my way here each Sunday, there are countless numbers of people who choose not to be involved with church at all.  Through the internet we can and do communicate with those who sit home each Sunday.  Our sermon blog has become an extension of this pulpit where more than four hundred people read sermons each week.  On things like Facebook younger people are contemplating God and the meaning of life in coffee shops and at home and so we have tried to adapt in order to help reach them. But the truth of it is that Christianity is a social religion done best in community with other believers.  One cannot be a virtual Christian in a virtual world . . . you need to find others and worship and pray with them – for where there is two or three, there is Christ in their midst.

All of us need to realize that Christianity is in its very essence a rescue religion.  It does not seek to restrain you . . . or to subject you . . . or to enhance you in any way . . . Christ seeks only to save you and to enrich your life with true joy and a blessing that the world cannot give.

Some believe that they can worship God without including Jesus Christ in the mix.  They don’t trust the gospel and believe the New Testament to be a fable made up by the early church to gain followers of the new religion.  But you must know that Jesus Christ is at the center of both the Old and the New Testaments.  Without the power of the cross and the blood of the Messiah sacrificed for us, there is no help for anyone . . . for without the cross we are all lost in our sins.  Christianity without Christ then is a frame without a picture, a door without a handle, a body without breath.  In effect Christianity without Christ is completely worthless in every respect . . . in fact Paul describes Christianity as “foolishness” in the eyes of a world that denies Christ.  And so the true Church must continue to endure the hardship, insults and hatred that so many inflict on it.

          Endurance is the key word for us in the reading today from Paul.  Endurance to persevere under all circumstances.  Endurance to run the great race and win the victory and the crown at the end of our lives.  Endurance to succeed where others have fallen.  Endurance to be tested to the point of breaking.  You might think that love, kindness, patience and understanding are the key words in the description of a believer, and they are important qualities.  But, it is endurance against all odds that is the metal from which we are to be forged. 

          All of us, I am sure, have stories to tell of our life and times when we overcame obstacles in order to become better people.  God willing, most of us will never face the kind of persecution that others are facing in the world today.  I am sure many of us have gone from overcoming small obstacles to overcoming larger ones.  Sometimes the obstacle might be a bully in school, or a bad habit, or rocky marriage or an awful job.  Sometimes we are triumphant and sometimes we are not.  But the mark of a true disciple is that we try, and are true to the end.

But regardless of what may befall any of us we must always bear in mind that we are the Lord’s possession for

God is our refuge and strength, *

a very present help in trouble.

Therefore we will not fear, though the earth be moved, *

and though the mountains be toppled into the depths of the sea;

Though its waters rage and foam, *

and though the mountains tremble at its tumult.

The LORD of hosts is with us; *

the God of Jacob is our stronghold.

Amen

“Joy; Work; Steadfastness”

Steadfast

Good Morning!  It is with great pleasure to be here with you this morning to celebrate with you Fr. Ed’s first anniversary as priest in the holy Church of God.  Last year, Fr. Ed extended an invitation to share in the joy of his ordination to the priesthood on November 17 and it saddened me that it was necessary to decline his gracious invitation.  You see, last year on this very same date, November 17, Barbara and I celebrated our 50th wedding anniversary.  Fr. Ed, I believe you’ll agree – there are priorities!  When Fr. Ed extended his invitation to celebrate with you his first year as priest, it is an honor to accept and to be with you this morning.

Fr. Ed and I have known each other for nearly 30 years, back at St. Bartholomew’s in the days when he was known just as Ed and I as Dick. As the old proverb states, “A lot of water has flowed over the dam since then.”  No moss grew under Fr. Ed’s feet when he served as deacon.  Fr. Ed served three bishops: Bishop Robinson; Bishop Bowman; and Bishop Garrison, and he served these bishops well. Married to Barbara, now Sr. Vice President of Walter S. Johnson Building Company, Fr. Ed, then Dn. Ed, served in five parishes, on numerous diocesan commissions, and was appointed to work on several diocesan projects by the Bishop at that time.  His primary focus was parish ministry, ministering to immigrants, serving on emergency food pantries and as Director for the Order of St. Luke’s healing ministries.  Fr. Ed brings to St. Nicholas a deep enriching servant ministry experience, one that that has very well prepared him for the office of priest.  Congratulations, Fr. Ed. on this your first anniversary as Priest. Am I correct in stating that it is a given that your learning curve increased significantly in these past twelve months?

Today’s appointed scriptures take us on a journey of mixed emotions, first of joy in the creation of a new heavens and a new earth, then to a warning against idleness in this time period of grace, culminating with a warning about what to expect before Christ’s second coming.

The prophecy of Isaiah may have sounded familiar to you for we also read this same message in the Book of the Revelation of Jesus Christ by St. John.  We heard read these familiar words: 7 “For behold, I create new heavens and a new earth; And the former things will not be remembered or come to mind. 18 “But be glad and rejoice forever in what I create; For behold, I create Jerusalem for rejoicing And her people for gladness.  Isaiah shares with us that we are to rejoice in what will be, for no longer will there be weeping  or sadness.  Life, once again, will be as ageless as it was in the very beginning of creation, before sin entered the world.  Our labor will not be in vain. There will be contentment and peace that compares with life in the Garden of Eden.  Greeting card publishers such as Hallmark have wonderfully illustrated Isaiah’s prophecy, 25 The wolf and the lamb shall feed together, the lion shall eat straw like the ox;   I have seen greeting card illustrations featuring an infant sitting among such animals.  “How can this be?” you might ask.  The ending phrase of this verse answers that question, They will do no evil or harm in all My holy mountain,” says the LORD.  This means that there will be no struggle for existence nor survival of only the fittest animal; the weaker no longer falling prey to the stronger.  Humans, freely and unafraid, will once again mingle with the once feared and now peaceful animal kingdom.  As it was in the beginning, as it was in the Garden of Eden, so shall it be at the end of the age.  Isaiah shares that we are to rejoice, for better times are approaching.

But in the meantime, during this period of grace, this period of time between Christ’s Ascension and His return, we are reminded by Paul that as we patiently wait for Christ’s return, we are not to remain idle.  Paul and his followers set for the people of Thessalonica a high bar of expectations, a bar of expectations they themselves strove to achieve. Paul and his supporters modeled the expected.   Apparently there were numerous instances of idleness among the people; people who were not willing to pull their own weight.  From verse 10 of chapter 3 of our second reading, Paul states: For even when we were with you, we used to give you this order: if anyone is not willing to work, then he is not to eat, either.

On the surface, this statement of Paul’s may sound severe, almost punitive. However, we ought to remember that from the very beginning, God ordained that men should work for their food.  From the 2nd chapter of Genesis, verse 15, we read, 15 Then the LORD God took the man and put him into the garden of Eden to cultivate it and keep it.  Even in the Garden of Eden, man was commanded by God to work for his food, to work for his existence.  Therefore, can we find fault with Paul’s statements when he actually was basing his statements upon God’s commandment to Adam while in the Garden of Eden?  If we thought the Garden was only a place of fun, frolic, and idleness, then we are in error.  The Garden was also a place where there was work to be done, even in paradise.

Paul is the greatest theologian to have ever lived.  Is there another level of learning to be observed here?  I believe there is.   When Jesus taught His parables, they were stories of life’s practical experiences to illustrate spiritual teachings on the kingdom of God.  When reading the parables, one is to think on two levels, the human and the spiritual.  I believe Paul is doing the same here in his 2nd letter to the Thessalonians.  God created man to love Him, to serve Him, and to give thanks for the blessings of life given by God to him.  But mankind was not created to live in idleness, but created to serve the living God as well as to work for his own existence. 

I believe Paul was teaching not only that man was to work for his existence, but also to work for his salvation.  Can one be saved through idleness?  No!  According to Matthew, what was the last command to us given by Jesus before His ascension?  Go!  Go into the world, teach and baptize!!!  What is the reason for all of you to be here this morning?  To be taught and fed.  For what purpose?  To go into the world to bring others into the kingdom.

Every parish has what is called a parish register in which statistics of attendance, services, marriages and burials etc. are kept.  You and I are parish statistics for today.   Aren’t you thrilled?  You have been counted!  But I have yet to see a parish register that keeps what I believe to be the most important statistic of all, a statistic I believe Jesus will use in His judgment more than any other.  That statistic is: How many people have members of this congregation brought to Christ?  How many souls have been brought into God’s kingdom through the witness of this congregation?  Read Paul’s words again, reflect on their practical meaning; reflect upon their spiritual meaning.

So, we are to rejoice that a new heavens and a new earth are to be created.  And until that is accomplished, we are not to exist in mere idleness, but to be proactive witnesses for Christ, to be diligent in bringing others into His kingdom. Ah, that sounds easy enough.  But not so fast.

I think you would agree that we are living in very difficult times.  This land of the free is being challenged in every way: culturally, socially, economically, politically, morally, and spiritually.  Have we not witnessed nation rising against nation?  Have we not only heard but also experienced wars in our lifetime?  Have we not experienced earthquakes, drought, and disease epidemics?  Yes, we have!  So, is what is written in the scriptures only for a time long passed?  Not by a long shot, but written for us today as well.

Are we experiencing persecution as did the disciples?  Most definitely.  Once we thought that persecution occurred only in the mid-east, or in Africa, or in Communist controlled nations. Would it surprise you to learn that Christians are being persecuted right here in this country?  Little by little, our freedom of religion is being eroded.  Did you know that our US Army troops were recently told that organizations such as the Christian American Family Association have been declared domestic ‘hate groups’?  Service members are warned that they face punishment for participating in such organizations.  Recently, a teacher in California bullied a student in front of the class for reading the Bible which complied with an assignment given by the teacher to read a non-fiction book.  A small city in Florida demanded its residents to remove any and all ‘God Bless America’ signs from their property.   Our Pledge of Allegiance is under severe attack.  And on and on it goes.

So, what did Jesus say about what is befalling us?  Verse 13 of chapter 21 reads: 13 This will be a time for you to bear testimony.  Enduring persecution is not a time to run and hide!  But Jesus stated it is a time to bear witness to our Savior, Jesus Christ, to share His love, mercy and forgiveness.  Isn’t this what St. Nicholas and St. Bartholomew’s did?  We all stood fast in the Word.  We all stood firm in our faith that Jesus is indeed the Son of God and only through him shall we be saved!  To sit and do nothing is just what Satan wants.  Remember Paul’s words, this is not a time to be idle, but a time to work for the kingdom.  There is a new heaven and a new earth coming, but only for those who accept Jesus as their Lord and Savior and follow in His ways.  Yes, some may lose friends, have disagreements with family, and as we have read in the papers, some disciples of Christ have been so hated that they were thrown into prison.  Their crime?  Witnessing for Christ.  Thousands upon thousands are murdered only because they love Jesus.  This is what is happening in many parts of the world today.  The prophecy of scripture continues to unfold before our very eyes.

What did Jesus say about those being persecuted for His sake?  From Matthew, 5:10: “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.   God is pleased when His people show they value Him above everything else in the world.  When persecuted, His people courageously remain faithful in the face of opposition for righteousness sake.  Persecution per se is not something to be sought, but when evil is spoken against a Christian falsely and for Christ’s sake, such persecution comes with the blessing of God. St. Nicholas’ and St. Bartholomew’s share a bit of common history. Both have suffered heretical teachings and many, especially the clergy, were persecuted for believing, witnessing and holding steadfastly to God’s Word, the Holy Scriptures.  Are we not now more greatly blessed for making our stand?   I cannot speak for Fr. Ed, but I can say for the clergy and people of St. Bartholomew’s, we have joyfully experienced what scripture means when it says: ‘the truth will make you free.’  Jesus does not share with us about the tough times ahead without giving us hope and His blessing.  His grace, love, and spiritual protection will never be withdrawn from us. 

In the last two verses read today from Luke, Jesus stated: 18 But not a hair of your head will perish. 19 By your endurance you will gain your lives.  Hmmm… “But not a hair of your head will parish.”  If we take this literally, I am not the only one here this morning that ought to worry.  Jesus is not making a reference to our physical lives, but rather a guarantee of gaining eternal life.  And Jesus further states, “…by your endurance, you will gain your lives.”  Hagar the Horrible cartoon strip use to be in our local paper, and I enjoyed it very much.  One particular strip is quite appropriate for today.   In frame one, Hagar attempts to motivate his troops by saying, “This is the moment we have been waiting for, men!  The moment we do battle with the enemy!  Is everyone here?”   They shout “Yes!”  Frame two:  Hagar continues, “Okay, men, repeat after me.  I am a Viking warrior!”  “I am a Viking warrior!” they shout.   Frame three: Hagar continues, “And I will fight to the death for what I believe!”  Pause.  Frame four:  Total silence.  Frame five, Hagar asks, “Okay, what aren’t you repeating after me?”  One meek Viking speaks out, “Hagar, the men would like to change that to ‘and I will fight hard until it is time for dinner.”  Endurance, stamina, fortitude, will gain your lives; will gain your salvation, will gain your entrance into the new heavens and new earth.  And Jesus said, “And lo, I am with you always…” Jesus said it, and it will be so. 

Now to God who forever is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Amen.

A Sacrificial Life

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How many of us will remember the family feud story about the Clampets and the McCoys?  In our American folklore there were two families in West Virginia who carried on a feud for over a hundred years over a stolen pig.  Both families had generations of people shot and killed and murdered because they could not tolerate each other.  In much the same way, the Arabs and the Israelites have also had a feud brewing, but theirs has been going on for three thousand years!

Many of us, I am sure do not have a clue as to why the Arabs hate the Jews, but the Bible gives some pretty revealing information about the conflict, if we care to investigate.

As you may recall scripture tells us that Abraham was chosen by God to become the father of a great race.  You may also recall, that while waiting for a child to be born, his wife, Sarah, became impatient with God and asked her husband to ‘sleep with’ her servant girl so that he might have an heir to leave his possessions to.  Abraham’s wife at the time was about 65 and didn’t think God could pull it off.  Abraham, being the kind of guy he was, objected to his wife’s demands, but finally, like most of us men, gave in to his wife and had a child named Ishmael, born of his wife’s servant.  God was not at all pleased with this because Sarah and Abraham did not wait for God to act as he had promised.  But act he did, and Sarah, who by this time was in her late seventies, bore a child named Isaac.

Isaac grew up to inherit his father’s name and land while Ishmael and his mother were paid off and banished from the country as illegitimate heirs.  Ishmael eventually became the father of the Arab world and they have hated the children of Isaac and of Israel ever since, all because of an impatient wife who wanted the best for her husband.

You would think it would have ended there, but no . . . it gets worse . . . in the story about Jacob and Esau in today’s lesson.  As you may recall Esau was the first son of Isaac (who you have to remember was the legal heir of Abraham).  Esau sold his birth right to his twin brother Jacob for a bowel of soup.  Later, Esau grew up to become the father of the nation of Edom which is today modern day Jordan, and Jacob, his brother was renamed Israel by the angel of God in today’s old testament story.  Jacob grew up to become the father of the people of Israel.  The countries of Israel and Jordan have been contentious neighbors ever since  . . .  and all over a bowel of soup.

I didn’t intend to have this sermon become a history lesson, but this is the background for the situation in which we find our world today, and we should all become more aware of the historical issues involved in the Middle East.  Over the course of the last several years, all of us I am sure, have felt some trepidation and have become extremely anxious as to what may happen in our world in general and in our country in particular as events like the Arab Spring and the Syrian Civil War take place.  We, as Americans, over the past 20 years have become embroiled into a three thousand year old family feud.  One that I hope will one day be resolved, if not by America, then by some other nation or nations.

In today’s, Gospel we are told to ‘always pray and to never lose heart’ and that is good advice in times such as these.  As bad as we feel knowing full well the importance of faith in our lives, you must know and consider the many millions throughout the world who have no faith and who are feeling tremendous anxiety building up in their lives as this story continues to unfold.

You have heard it said, that “when the going gets tough, the tough get going”.  Well that is exactly what Paul is telling Timothy in today’s Epistle.  It is time for us to start sharing our faith with our neighbor so that they might be strengthened to meet the challenges ahead.

“In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who will judge the living and the dead, and in view of his appearing and his kingdom, I give you this charge: Preach the Word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage–with great patience and careful instruction.… keep your head in all situations, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, discharge all the duties of your ministry.”

But how do we do this while still keeping our wits about us?  Be led by the good examples we see each day.  Be led by the courage of our armed forces who are showing in their action just what self-sacrifice and endurance are all about.  Be led by the courage of Christians throughout the world who are persecuted for their belief and whose churches are being destroyed almost on a daily basis.  But most of all, be led by the example of our Savior who died that all men might one day be free.  In this way you will be a success and a worthy heir of the most high.

Success in life has little to do with how the world defines it.  It is said that money and fame cannot buy happiness, so why do we all long to be rich and famous?  The Bible says that Jesus is the key to our success as Christians.  His life demonstrated for us that a life of self sacrifice and humility is deemed of far greater importance in the Kingdom of God than earthly goods and treasure.  And though it is a good thing to be rich and famous, it is a far better thing to be happy and loved and accepted for who we are.

God loves you for who you are, he is the one person able to look past your faults and value who you are as a person.  He values our courage in the face of insurmountable obstacles.  He values our unity in the face of adversity and how we will sacrifice everything, even our lives to save another.  He values our candor and our humor and our uncontrollable urge to spiritually persecute ourselves for our mistakes and failures.  He loves our creativity and our skill and our ability to love.

Our God is a sacrificial God and creation has inherited His sacrificial nature.  His need for us now, in these last days, is to take on this sacrificial nature full time.  To live a sacrificial life, worthy of his calling . . . to rejoice when things are right with our lives and to be reflective and change our course when things go awry . . . to be willing and able to lend a hand when asked . . . to give of our talents and our time to causes worthy of his call to us . . . to do our work and to live our lives as if everything depended on it.    In this way we will fulfill the gospel and live in the shelter of the Most High.

You may suggest that what God asks of us is too hard, that it just isn’t natural to be sacrificial, especially in times of uncertainty.  It is simply unnatural.   But you have to ask, is it natural that people, on their own, will run willingly into harms way to protect others they do not even know as we have witnessed in the Kenyan Mall disaster?    No, it isn’t natural.  In every case, there is the Holy Spirit, the Source of all life, providing the impetus, giving us the courage and will to continue.

Jesus came into the world to save us because he loves us.  Through thoughtful prayer and reflection, our lives can change from where they are to where we would like them to be.   And through our failures we can learn and grow into a better people.  A successful life has little to do with money or power.  If you have loved your God and have loved others as yourself, then you are a success in the Kingdom of God.  And in the end, that’s all that really matters.  Amen.

Giving Thanks

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A number of years ago Barbara and I got involved in a church project to sponsor a family of Vietnamese refugees at a church here in South Buffalo.  A refugee coordinator from Genesee Ecumenical Ministries came to our church and gave an account to a group of us about the appalling conditions that refugees faced in the camps set up in the Philippines after the fall of Saigon.  She spoke of large families with small children being the most difficult to place; whose  chances of escape were extremely limited and whose chances of dying in the camps was extremely great.  The talk moved us so much that our group decided to sign on for the largest family that could be found.  Barbara and I decided that we would be their official U.S. sponsors.  At the time, it was a giant leap of faith into something that we had no idea we could do.  But with the support of our group, we had faith that we could do it and perhaps more importantly, we believed we had to do it.

When word got out to the church proper, we had expected great support for what we were about to do.  But to our surprise the reviews were quite the opposite.  There were many veterans in the congregation who had mixed feelings about helping Asian people.  Many had fought a war in the Pacific to keep Asians from coming here – they referred to them all as ‘chinks’.  There were others who worried the newcomers would expose us to exotic oriental diseases.  There were still others who felt we should be helping those in our own neighborhood instead of importing strangers from a foreign land to an uncertain future.  There were of course the rest who said ‘we never did that before’ and refused to get involved.  But Barbara and I and our group of about five stood firm in our belief that this is what had to be done.  If it split the church then we would have to deal with it after.  For now, we were resolved to save as many of these people as we could  . . . no matter what.

From Paul’s letter to Timothy today our cause was affirmed  . . . “Share in suffering like a good soldier of Christ Jesus. No one serving in the army gets entangled in everyday affairs; . . . . Think over what I say, for the Lord will give you understanding in all things. . . . And our faith was justified  . . . “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved by him, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly explaining the word of truth.”

And so they came . . . a family of eleven men women and children  who we still have contact with some 30 years or so later.  When we visit them they often recount again for us the story of their ordeal on the high seas in the Indian Ocean as they escaped from Vietnam.  They tell us of people who fell overboard and who died on the way.  They recount for us the Thai pirates who came onto their boat and stole their food and jewelry and raped some of the women on board and assaulted some of the men.  They remind themselves again about the horrible storms and lack of water for days as they drifted with no gasoline on the ocean currents and how, miraculously, they landed on a beach in the Philippines after 14 days at sea.  They tell how they lived in a refugee camp for two years waiting for some one to sponsor their family of three adults and eight small children.  They tell of their learning English as a new language and how to flush a toilet and their plane ride to Honolulu, Chicago, and finally to Buffalo in mid-winter.  They tell how they froze in our winter climate but were grateful for the freedom and opportunity in this new land. They tell of a story of faith, of courage and of hope for a better future.  They tell the story of an exiled people who left their homes and families and put their lives and futures into the hands of the Unknown.

In Jeremiah today, the prophet tells the Hebrew exiles seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.

The Book of Ruth recounts the raw emotion of this same struggle as she also commits herself to the unknown with her mother-in-law as they begin their journey to a foreign land.  Ruth pledges her life to her friend in one of the most beautiful passages of the Bible as she begs Naomi to let her come with her and face the unknown together . . .

“Do not press me to leave you

or to turn back from following you!

Where you go, I will go;

Where you lodge, I will lodge;

your people shall be my people,

and your God my God.

Where you die, I will die–

there will I be buried.

May the LORD do thus and so to me,

and more as well,

if even death parts me from you!”

And so, for those of you who don’t know the rest of the story Ruth and Naomi travel to Bethlehem where Ruth marries Boaz and becomes the great great great grandmother of King David, Joseph, husband of Mary, and finally Jesus, the son of God.

And what of our Vietnamese friends? . . . the parents who came with nothing but high hopes owned a small store for twenty years and are now retired and living in Florida.  Their children grew up to become a medical doctor, a dental surgeon, a physical therapist, a pharmacist, a financial office, a retail manager, a nuclear medical technologist and a teacher.  Each year they get together at New Years and invite all those who helped them along the way to recount their struggles and successes and to give thanks.

Today in the gospel lesson there is another who gives thanks.  You may recall that this is the story of ten lepers who are told by Jesus to go show themselves to the priests.  He did this because of the Levitical statute that those were healed of leprosy needed to show themselves to the priests before they were cleared to go back to their friends and families.  But the one who turned back was not a Jew like the others but a foreigner in the land.  He was an unbeliever and had no priest to show himself to.  He knew only this Jesus who had changed his life forever, and so . . . “when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. He prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him. And he was a Samaritan”.  Jesus of course asks what happened to the other nine who were healed and probably continues to ask, even in our own day, why so many are missing out on the opportunity to give thanks to God.

Giving thanks, of course, is what church is all about.  Through the sacrificial Lamb of God we have been given the gift of eternal life.  Many of us don’t exactly know what this means for us, but we are satisfied to recognize that it must be a good thing.  But to those on the front lines, like the soldier serving in the army of God in the epistle today or the farmer who does the hands-on work and who receives the first fruits, or the athlete who runs the race by the rules and wins the crown . . . it is a ‘no brainer’ . . . it is a life changing experience far greater than being healed of a dreaded disease or leaving one’s family forever or crossing an ocean on little more than hope and a prayer.

Jesus said he came to give us life so that we might live more abundantly . . . even through failure, sickness and family struggle.   But how can he expect us to remain thankful in adversity and in sickness you might ask? . . . .  At times God uses very convoluted and mysterious ways in order to get his point across to us.  Sometimes he uses our greatest weakness to overcome obstacles to His grace in ourselves and in others.  Sometimes he uses preachers and evangelists  to send messages.  And sometimes, people actually listen to those preachers and are touched by them.  Sometimes God needs to give us all a little shake to bring us back in the fold.  Sometimes it seems more like a hit in the head.  Sometimes God forgives others, even if we don’t.  And just sometimes, maybe, we will admit in the end that, He was right all along.

All of us have our struggles, our failures and our victories in life.  It is what life is all about.  We learn from our struggles to be resourceful, and to stay the course.  We learn from our victories, to always trust God for a happy ending.  But most of all, we learn from our failures that God is always with us and able to help us, especially in the darkest moments of our lives, if only we would look for him there.  From Paul’s letter to Timothy today we read.

If we have died with him, we will also live with him;

if we endure, we will also reign with him;

if we deny him, he will also deny us;

if we are faithless, he remains faithful–

for he cannot deny himself.   Amen

Increase Our Faith

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Today’s readings are about the relationship between faith and prayer and how God relates to each of us solely dependent on the how we relate to Him.  One of the reasons that prayers are sometimes not answered has to do with whether we are in relationship with God, or whether we are in a deeper, spiritual, and committed fellowship with him.

            A week ago here at Saint Nicholas, we had a guest pianist who came from Boston to try out our keyboard.  I had asked Anne to do this because we were intending to have her play a piano recital for us next summer.  Anne is a Masters student and piano instructor at the Boston Conservatory and a very talented pianist.  Unfortunately, our little keyboard was found to be somewhat deficient for the kind of classical music she wanted to perform for us.  So while we were downstairs we all sat with our coffee in hand and lamented that we didn’t have a real piano on which she could perform.  So I told her that she should arrange to come anyway and that we would just pray for a piano fully expecting that God would supply one by then.  In the instant I said this, Becky Littler and Jan Siebold both knew of pianos that might be available – one an upright and one a spinet.  But what we really needed was a baby grand piano that would be the right tone like an upright but not block the front of the church like a spinet.  So we prayed to God to help find a piano that would fit our needs.  Cheap would of course very good but free would be even better.

I didn’t think much more about this on Monday but then on Tuesday I had the compulsion to type into Google ‘free piano for a good home’ which returned a website of hundreds of people with hundreds of pianos free to a good home.  The problem was that almost all of them were in NY City, Long Island and Connecticut – but – there was one in Depew, NY not far from here.  It was the right type and the right color and the right price – free.  So Don and Jim and I went to go see it.  The person who owned it had moved to a smaller place leaving the piano behind and offered it to us free of charge.  All we needed to do was to arrange to move it.  And to make a short story even shorter . . . here it is – needing some tuning but a remarkable instrument built in the thirties in Germany.  I let our friend Anne know about this right away in Boston and we all believe it is a miracle because it happened so fast.

            Why do you suppose this happened?  It happened because we had enough faith to believe that God can do anything, and if it was his will, then nothing could stop him from supplying our need.  But the other part of the equation was that I truly expected him to provide it and because of this expectation – here it is.

            Now we might not all to think that prayer works this way, but the Bible tells us that the best way to get God’s attention is to be righteous in the sight of God and . . . to live in joyful expectation.  Why?  Because like any good parent, God wants to fulfill our needs – not just the important stuff like food and clothing or a job – but even extra things, like a church in which to pray or a piano on which to play music to God’s glory.  The Psalmist says that prayers of the righteous avail much, whereas the prayers of others may not be heard. 

Today we read in the Psalm . . .

Put your trust in the LORD and do good; *

dwell in the land and feed on its riches.

4

Take delight in the LORD, *

and he shall give you your heart’s desire.

5

Commit your way to the LORD and put your trust in him, *

and he will bring it to pass.

6

He will make your righteousness as clear as the light *

and your just dealing as the noonday.

7

Be still before the LORD *

and wait patiently for him.

            So how do we become righteous in the sight of God?  We become righteous by living the gospel and by confessing our sins and asking for forgiveness in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.  We become righteous when we care for the less fortunate and become willing workers in God’s Kingdom.  We become righteous when we develop a personal relationship with God by reading and believing in His Word.  And we become righteous as a community of believers when we become one mind and one spirit with one another, joyfully expecting God to act on our behalf for whatever we ask.

            Those of you who are new to Saint Nicholas may not know this, but before this building became available, the original St. Nicholas church members came here and walked around this building claiming it for Jesus to be used in the building of his kingdom (and not just this particular building – but the whole property.  After some months, this building became available for lease and we have been here ever since.  This week we had the opportunity to meet the real estate agent who has been trying to sell this property for the past 4 ½ years.  Jim Siebold commended him on doing such a fine job.  But now it seems the property will be sold  . . . to another church.  But the good news is that they don’t want this building – they will use the gym and the school and that we are welcome to stay and worship here.  Another prayer prayed long ago . . . and another answer from a God who truly does care for us and who obviously wants us to continue here in this place . . . all because the leadership here continues to cultivate a growing relationship and dependence on God to fulfill our needs.

            The easiest way to think about this is comparing it to your own relationships.  When your son or daughter is in trouble, you know you will do anything to help them as quickly as possible whereas if the stranger down the street is in trouble and you hear about it from someone else, you may or may not get involved because, though you may be acquainted with him, you have no relationship with him.  Your help is not as warranted, and you think, well . . . his own family is better able to care for him than I.

            I think I may have told you once that there is a myth held among the mafia that the prayers of a righteous woman married to a mafia member will give them a ‘get out of hell free card’ no matter what they do.  How do I know this?  I once knew the wife of a mafia member who believed that as long as his wife remained pure and that ‘he showed his face to God’ every week at church that God would accept him into heaven because of the prayers of his righteous wife.  Whenever you hear or read stories about the mafia, you may recall that they are almost always married to a faithful, believing woman who has no knowledge of the family business.  This is part of the shroud of evil that they delude themselves with.  As it happens, this woman I knew was looking to get a divorce which would totally disrupt her husband’s plan of salvation.  It was better if she be killed for the cause than divorced for obvious reasons. And so she was on the run.

Again in the Psalm appointed we read today . . .

8

Do not fret yourself over the one who prospers, *

the one who succeeds in evil schemes.

9

Refrain from anger, leave rage alone; *

do not fret yourself; it leads only to evil.

10

For evildoers shall be cut off, *

but those who wait upon the LORD shall possess the land.

The apostle James tells us that ‘the prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up; and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven. Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed.

            As a minister here at St. Nicholas it has been an honor and a privilege for me to proclaim to you the Good News of Jesus Christ.  I have tried my best to show you what it’s like to live a life in grace.  But, as your priest, it is my added responsibility to teach you how to live a life in grace . . . and it begins each day with faith and ends each day in prayer.  We are to pray for each other unceasing and for our congregation so that God’s will for us will be revealed.  Our guest visitor confirmed to us that God is still performing miracles when they are needed and He is performing them here in our own lives if only we will expect them and accept them for what they are.

            As long as the Good News is being preached and people are coming to Jesus then all is well.  It is when the Gospel is not being preached and no one is coming to know Jesus that we are warned that that church will fail . . . and churches are failing today . . . by the thousands. 

So which churches are growing . . . current statistics show that it is only the churches that are evangelical, who preach the Good News in their pulpits and who spread the Good News to their neighbors that grow.

            Our job, in this place and at this time in history is to stand firm and continue to do as our church has been doing for the past millennia holding fast to the faith once delivered by the saints.  If we continue to do this . . . if we continue to do what is righteous in the sight of God and continue to pray and to spread the Good News as it has been revealed to us, we will grow and there will be no stopping us.  But we need to have faith and we need to pray for this congregation each and every day . . . and if we do all this, God will bless us . . . and he already has. 

Amen

Saint Michael and All Angels

Angels

A few weeks back there was a story in the news that you probably heard about of a young lady who was in a traffic accident that pinned her in her car.  The paramedics and first responders came, but were concerned that she was pinned in by the steering wheel of her car and that she was losing a lot of blood from her legs.  They were worried that she might not be able to be released in time because of the lack of the proper tool needed to get her out.  At the same moment that all this was going on, a catholic priest sort of just appeared on the scene.  The woman asked if he would pray with her – seeing as how she herself felt she might not make it out of this alive.  The priest prayed and pronounced absolution for her and then told her that everything was going to be okay.  The priest left the scene almost as quickly as he had come and was not seen again.

 At that instant the equipment that was needed arrived on the scene and the woman was extracted from her car and sent to the hospital.  She lived, thank God, and looking back at the incident everyone wondered what had become of that priest who sort of appeared and then disappeared.  The police and the fireman checked their photos and camcorders, but it seems the priest didn’t show up on any of them.

 This of course got into the news of the day and then on to the internet and went viral overnight.  People began to speculate that this priest was actually an angel sent from God.  Entire blogs started to report other strange but similar events in the lives of people writing in on how an angel or mysterious person was sent from God at the right time and at the right moment to save them from some terrible accident or event.  For days, it seems, this story kept making the rounds on Yahoo and AOL until finally, nearly a week later, the priest himself came forward to identify himself as the Good Samaritan of the story.

 What this incident shows us is that people really do believe – or at the very least- they want to believe in angels.  There are literally thousands of stories on the internet about people being helped, influenced or warned by angels or strangers who show up and then are gone again in one mysterious moment.

 In my own life, I do not have a story of this type to tell, but my wife Barbara does.  When we were living in West Chicago some years ago, it was Barbara’s habit to walk out into the fields with our dog, Brownie.  One day, Barbara took a little longer walk than usual and found herself on a steep incline of small round gravel or pebbles.  She immediately lost her footing and fell backwards actually seeing both of her feet in front of her as she fell – but all of a sudden she was standing up again . . . straight up.  Her only explanation for this was that God’s angel had caught her by the arms and kept her from landing on her back and breaking her neck.  Had she fallen, no one would have known where she was and there were no cell phones in those days.  If you ask her about it she would quote the lyrics of the song . . .

 You who dwell in the shelter of the Lord,

Who abide in His shadow for life,

Say to the Lord, “My Refuge,

My Rock in Whom I trust.”

 

And He will raise you up on eagle’s wings,

Bear you on the breath of dawn,

Make you to shine like the sun,

And hold you in the palm of His Hand.

The snare of the fowler will never capture you,

And famine will bring you no fear;

Under His Wings your refuge,

His faithfulness your shield.

 

And He will raise you up on eagle’s wings,

Bear you on the breath of dawn,

Make you to shine like the sun,

And hold you in the palm of His Hand.

You need not fear the terror of the night,

Nor the arrow that flies by day,

Though thousands fall about you,

Near you it shall not come.

 Barbara believed, and still believes to this day that it was God’s angels that bore her up and because of this her faith was made stronger because her life was saved.  That is the purpose of all God’s messengers, weather of earthly or heavenly origins . . . to assist in the building of faith in God.

 So . . . today being Saint Michael and all Angels day, we might just ask what is an angel and how do we know when we’ve experienced one and  . . . why does the church believe in angels?

 The word angel means literally, messenger, and throughout the old and new testaments, messengers called angels, or the angel of the Lord, come to men and women usually when no other way is possible . . . in fact, that is the most significant proof of angels existence because they only come when there is no other way to communicate an urgent message.  Angels are found from Genesis to Revelation.  They are the ones who drive Adam and Eve out of the Garden and guard its entrance so that no one may return.  Angels are the ones who go to Sodom and Gomorra to warn Lot and his family to flee.  Angels are keys to the mystery of the incarnation of Christ, his birth and his resurrection from the dead, for at all these instances they are present in scripture . . . and we know that they have names.  We know it was Gabriel who brought the good news to Mary at the incarnation.  We know it is Michael who fought another angel named Lucifer when there was a war in heaven.  We also know that it is Michael who is the protectorate of Israel and is now the protectorate of the entire Church of God.

 We also know there are ranks of angels.  We sing of them in our hymns of angels, archangels, choirs, virtues, powers, seraphs and thrones and others that make up the nine ranks in the angelic legion of the army of God.  We know from scripture that an angel is assigned to every church to protect it from the assault of the enemies of Jesus Christ.

 And we know from a number of eye witnesses what they look like in the physical sense.  In Daniel we read . . .

 On the twenty-fourth day of the first month, as I was standing on the bank of the great river, the Tigris, I looked up and there before me was a man dressed in linen, with a belt of fine gold from Uphaz around his waist. His body was like topaz, his face like lightning, his eyes like flaming torches, his arms and legs like the gleam of burnished bronze, and his voice like the sound of a multitude.

 I, Daniel, was the only one who saw the vision; those who were with me did not see it, but such terror overwhelmed them that they fled and hid themselves. So I was left alone, gazing at this great vision; I had no strength left, my face turned deathly pale and I was helpless. Then I heard him speaking, and as I listened to him, I fell into a deep sleep, my face to the ground.

 A hand touched me and set me trembling on my hands and knees. He said, “Daniel, you who are highly esteemed, consider carefully the words I am about to speak to you, and stand up, for I have now been sent to you.” And when he said this to me, I stood up trembling. Then he continued, “Do not be afraid, Daniel.

 ‘Do not be afraid’ is nearly always the first words that you will hear from an angel, because coming across one, we humans should be afraid because these beings are in  many cases completely alien to everything that we know.  By all accounts they are much larger than us and stronger and extremely fierce warriors in battle.

 So why do we see them depicted as cherubs on our Christmas cards and as pleasant guardians hovering above our children?  Why do we see them described most often as beautiful women like on Touched by an Angel and hardly ever as fierce Vorlons like on Babylon 5?

 The answer is in part represented in today’s epistle reading . . .

 War broke out in heaven; Michael and his angels fought against the dragon. The dragon and his angels fought back, but they were defeated, and there was no longer any place for them in heaven. The great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, who is called the Devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world– he was thrown down to the earth, and his angels were thrown down with him. 

 The war described was won in heaven but a battle continues on a new front.  It is a spiritual battle between the forces of good and the forces of evil.  But the important thing to realize about this battle is that the battlefield on earth is for the souls of men and so anything the enemy can do to seduce men into his camp, he will do . . . through false religions, false prophets, false depictions of God and his angels, false gospels, and addictions of every kind . . . anything that he can use to turn us from God is at his disposal because Lucifer, along with his legions of fallen angels, is the god of this world . . . and people, being both spiritually blind and deaf and stupid, will willingly follow him and believe everything that he says.

 So what is our role in this great battle?  What is our mission as servants of Christ?  John Stott would tell us that the main point of reason for being in this mission is not so much something we can train or prepare for (like a soldier) as it is something we are swept up into–almost involuntarily–in response to an authentic encounter with the grace of God in Jesus.  And as a people “on a mission,” we are always a people in transit, expelled into the desert in baptism, living on daily manna as we trek through a spiritual wilderness, always mindful that we have not yet reached the Promised Land.  Our mission then, if we choose to accept it, is to debunk the lies of the enemy and bring souls back into the household of God – at no matter what the cost.  Because we know through Christ that whether we live or die in this fight we are the Lord’s possession and that we will be raised to life eternal when it’s all over.  Satan is already defeated because Christ rose from the dead.  He knows this, but he carries on, none the less, to take with him to hell as many of us as he can.  Not because he wants us or even likes us, no, he merely wants to keep us from God’s embrace.  That’s how much Satan and his angels stand against God.

 And so the angels continue to fight for us against the dark forces in an unending battle to protect us from the onslaughts of the enemy’s forces and to deliver messages and aid when most needed and when there is no other way.

 If this sermon is an eye opener for you, God has much more to share with you than a legion of angels.  When we open the scriptures, we often may pray ‘Please, Lord, I want to see some “wonderful thing” in your word.’   But someday he may reply, ‘What makes you think I have only “wonderful things” to show you?  As a matter of fact, I have some rather “disturbing things” to show you today.  As soldiers in this fight, we need to be prepared to be challenged and disturbed by the scripture and by what goes on in the world.  When we can learn to see with the help of the Holy Spirit, things like the war in Egypt and the reasons behind the Kenyan mall massacre that happened last week, things that happen in the world today will make more sense.

 Pray on this this week and may God’s holy angels guide you into all truth.  Amen

Paradox of Humanity

paradox

The gospel reading today, about the dishonest manager is perhaps one of the most perplexing readings in our lectionary because although the manager is found to be corrupt and is on the docket to be fired, our Lord, by the end of the story, seems to be almost proud of the way in which the dishonest manager works the problem out to his advantage.  And we ask, how can one be both condemned as a thief  and at the same time win the praise of God?  How do we explain this seeming paradox?

There are sometimes problems that arise as we read the Bible, about how to interpret things that are difficult to understand; especially when we take a scripture like this out of context as in today’s reading.  If you remember the reading preceding it, in the gospel last week, there was a parable of the lost sheep and the lost coin.  These two parables were told to the people that Jesus was trying to reach at the time.  They were also heard by the Pharisees who were standing by, waiting to trip Jesus up and thereby accusing him of some error.

But unlike the reading last week, todays reading was told to the disciples as they were walking away from the crowd, but still in earshot of the Pharisees, who continued to shadow Jesus and his followers every move.  You see, although Jesus was telling the story to his disciples, he was intending for the Pharisees to overhear it, which they did.  Because in the final verse, the verse that is missing from the story today reads . . . “The Pharisees, who loved money, heard all this and were sneering at Jesus.   Jesus said to them, “You are the ones who justify yourselves in the eyes of others, but God knows your hearts.  What people value highly is detestable in God’s sight.” 

You see, in the story, the rich man is God and the manager he is about to let go are the temple priests who were charged with the temple’s treasury and also in charge of the people’s faith.

As a manager myself for nearly forty years, I have had some occasion to fire people under my direction.  Firing someone from their job is not an easy task, and I have always tried to give people the benefit of the doubt.  But there are times, when there is simply no other way, both from management’s point of view and also from the point of view of the person who is about to be let go.  One such person was a manager assistant I once had who was not only a coworker but also a very good friend.  She was going to school part time while working for me and was studying interior design at night.  On many occasions, she and her husband came to our house for dinner, and Barbara and I had gone to her house.  That is how close we were.  She happened to be so brilliantly clever about her deception that I had not a clue what she was doing for several months.  In a short time of about six months she had stolen thousands of dollars from the company I was working for and I had no idea about what she was up to until one day she got a toothache and had to leave work to go to the dentist.  It just so happened that on that day one of her customers came in that accidently exposed her theft.

At the time, I was so shocked and had no idea what to do.  Should I call the main office?  Should I call the police?  I decided to do a complete inventory just to be sure of my suspicion and compare the inventory to what was supposed to be in stock.  I did this on a Sunday so that neither she nor any of the other employees would know that I was on to it.  I was hoping it was only a onetime thing – maybe forgivable- with restitution, but to my dismay it turned out to be a devastating loss that I needed to report as soon as possible.  When I saw her next, I got all the employees together and told them that someone had stolen a lot of money and that that someone ought to quit before the report went into the main office.  My thinking was that I would give her a way out . . . but she didn’t take it.  Even after presenting her with the evidence in her own handwriting she did not admit to it until the day the district manager and I walked her out to her car to say that she was fired.  It was then that she confessed that she had stolen the money to pay for a lawyer and that she was looking to divorce her husband who was controlling and abusive towards her.  I never saw Kathy again, but somehow I admired her cunning in the theft because, had it not been for a toothache, she might still be working at that place.  Her method was wrong but her cause was just . . . and so like the manager in the story today, who gave away his lord’s money to his creditors to help himself when he was let go, this lady had both my ire and my admiration because she was found out to be “human” and as fallible as I.

In today’s lesson, Jesus was, not so subtly, telling the Pharisees that they ought to maybe start looking for another line of work because they were about to lose their jobs . . . in fact it was Jesus who several weeks later tells the Sanhedrin, the temple priests of the day that soon the temple itself would be destroyed and that not a stone would be left on stone.  This of course, happened 40 years later when a Roman general named Titus ransacked Jerusalem and completely obliterated the Temple, the City of Jerusalem and all of its inhabitants . . . a horrible thing . . . but also a blessing . . . for in the dispersion of all the inhabitants of Israel throughout the Roman world, Christianity spread to the far reaches of the Roman empire and beyond.  And like the salt that Jesus describes in several places as his true followers, these believers seasoned the entire world for the further spreading of His Kingdom.

And so here is the paradox of our humanity . . . God can use an evil person to generate an outcome of goodness and charity, even though we might not see it on the outset.  That is why in his first letter to Timothy today, Paul tells us to pray continually for everyone, both good and bad, both rich and poor . . . and especially our leaders, who may be prone to evil due to the attraction of money that isn’t theirs, but whose evil and greed may be used by God for the purpose of good, in the long run, and in God’s own time.

The paradoxical nature of our humanness is that we are at the same time both the breath of God and the dust of the earth.  We are all at the same time godlike and beastlike, created and fallen, noble and not so noble.  This seems to be why we both seek God one day and run away from him the next. We practice righteousness when it suits us and then suppress the truth in our unrighteousness when it doesn’t.  We tend to recognize the claims of the moral law upon us and then refuse to submit to it when it becomes a burden . . . indeed all of us have fallen short of the glory of the Lord and there is no health in us. But thou, O Lord, have mercy upon us, miserable offenders.

So just who are you?  Who am I?  John Stott, a favorite author of mine, reveals the defining answer . . .” The answer is that I am a Jekyll and Hyde, a mixed-up kid, having both dignity, because I was created and have been re-created in the image of God, and depravity, because I still have a fallen and rebellious nature.  I am both noble and ignoble, beautiful and ugly, good and bad, upright and twisted, image and child of God, and yet sometimes yielding [reverent] homage to the devil from whose clutches Christ has rescued me. 

My true self is what I am by creation, which Christ came to redeem, and by calling. 

My false self is what I am by the fall, which Christ came to destroy.”

So how can we who are fallen, live with ourselves?  Jesus tells us that thru him we can do all things if only we believe.  Part of that belief is in doing His will and not our own.  Jesus loves us so we must love others.  Jesus is giving in all abundance and so we also must give   generously without holding back.  Jesus is compassionate so we also must show compassion.  Jesus is merciful and we also must be merciful.

And if we do these things, they will transform us because we are no longer looking for what’s in it for me . . . but rather we are in it for the good of all . . . but most importantly we will become profoundly happy which in turn infects those around us. In a word, it is called empathy.

Giving of ourselves nurtures empathy.  And in empathy, our lives are redefined to include a new feeling of well-being, of wisdom, an ability to wonder and in being truly happy — all of which are boosted when we give our time and effort to something other than ourselves.

Within Christianity and practically every religious tradition and practice in the world, giving of oneself is a key step on the path to spiritual fulfillment. As Einstein put it, “only a life lived for others is a life worthwhile.”  Einstein was looking for a theory of everything in the physical universe, but in a study of our emotional world, there’s no analogous theory of everything, but if there were, Jesus would tell us that empathy and giving would be at the heart of it.  

Science and theology have both overwhelmingly confirmed that empathy, compassion . . . and giving are the building blocks of our spiritual wellbeing. With them we flourish; without them we perish. It really is as simple as that.  Amen