Author: Ed Fowler

Good Government

The First Sunday After Christmas

Isaiah 9:2-7, Psalm 145, Luke 2:1-20

Good Government

                I went to the Ferghana Valley to learn what God was doing there.  The first lesson I learned was that I must first learn what man was doing there.

We fail, I think, to comprehend the light until we have seen the darkness . . . until we venture out into the Ferghana Valley, or some such hell.

In a place called Andijon, on the old Silk Road in the east of what is now Uzbekistan, I watched the nightly news.  Some Westerners resident there translated for me.

First, let me tell you what I had seen that needed no translation.  When the Soviet Union crumbled, the subjugated peoples of Central Asia had thronged the streets in celebration, toppling statues of those ogres of old.

And then, in no time at all, other old ogres resumed their places.  Lenin and Stalin had finally, mercifully been exorcised, but the apparatchiks who had represented their ghosts so ably hardly hiccupped.  They resurfaced in the new national bureaucracies, with conveniently rearranged initials.

Who needs the KGB?  The GKB or BGK will do just as well.  In those giddy days just after the Iron Curtain melted, the same old thugs replaced themselves in the places of privilege, answering no longer to Moscow but only to themselves.

Everywhere I turned, I saw a billboard featuring the forbidding face of the local strongman, known as “president.”

He had statues of his own and motorcades that held up traffic for an eternity.  And so it was that I was hardly unbelieving, if still amazed, at what I heard on the TV news.  Andijon occupies the center, there in the Ferghana Valley, of one of the most fertile cotton-producing regions on the planet.

You’ve heard of banana republics?  This is a cotton republic.  In October, all the schools, including the universities, shut down so all the students can bend their backs to the harvest.

And because Uzbekistan possesses precious little other than cotton to sell outside its borders, for a month each year the harvest is the lead story on the nightly newscast of the state-controlled television network night after night after night.  All cotton, all the time.

In a good year, the stolid anchorman reports in an approving tone the progress of the harvest.  In a bad year, he proceeds in a scolding tone to lament the failures of the farm managers to achieve the president’s lofty goals.

But of course, there’s always a story behind the story.  The Westerners filled me in.  Each year, before the harvest, the president establishes a quota for that year’s crop.  He bases it on his reckoning of what the nation’s coffers must reap from the fields to sustain his agenda for the year.

Considerations such as weather are irrelevant.  The dictator’s need is paramount.  And so it is that in a bad year the BGK or GKB or whatever it is now called rounds up farm managers and throws them into the slammer to let the nation know what happens to those who disappoint its revered leader.

Of course, such is the way of tyrants in all places in all times.  Here there is a flip side, and this is the image that sticks in my head almost two decades later.

Occasionally, in a very good year, when the rains are plentiful and growing conditions ideal, the harvesters meet the quota early.  And when they do, the students return to school and the farm managers pick up a bonus.

And the crop that remains rots in the field.  The quota has been met.  Picking more cotton would be to no purpose.  The dictator’s appetite has been sated; like Raggedy Andy, he is stuffed with cotton.

To the west of Uzbekistan, in Turkmenistan, the president anointed himself “Turkmenbashi” – Father of All Turkmen.  He renamed the days of the week after his nearest and dearest, beginning with Mom.

But before we dismiss him as a cartoon character . . . He had a passion for chess, and spent millions on a glistening chess palace to attract the world’s grand masters to his tournaments – while his people went hungry.

To the south, in Afghanistan, the ancient ethnic strife went on in one bloodbath after another.  One tribe gained the upper hand and herded scores of people from the rival group into a railway boxcar in the sizzling summer, locked them inside and cooked them to death.

I multiply examples to make the point that in America our prosperity creates a veneer of civilization that masks our depravity.  If not for the grace of God we, like them, would be destitute of both money and morals.

But God, but God, but God – praise His holy name! – is full of grace.  And as long as the people of Central Asia draw breath they, like us, may turn unto Him, beg His forgiveness and receive His pardon.  He is the hope of the world, every sin-soaked square inch of it.

Just before our passage for today from Isaiah 9, the prophet tells of those in Israel who will respond to the coming Assyrian invasion by seeking God through mediums and wizards rather than in His law that reveals His character.  These will “see trouble and darkness, gloom of anguish; and they will be driven into darkness.”

Those who sow darkness reap an even blacker gloom which has no end.  This was Israel in Isaiah’s day.  Just before him, his prophetic colleague Amos denounced God’s people because, “They sell the righteous for silver, and the poor for a pair of sandals” (2:6).

But God . . . As long as a faithful remnant remains, as long as two or three wretched sinners hold out hope for illumination that will overcome the black anguish of their transgressions, our longsuffering and merciful Father will send light into His world.

We come in chapter 9 to His promise that one day, in His time, that light will saturate His kingdom, never to contend again with darkness.  Satan is vanquished, his minions annihilated . . . the creation radiates a golden glow of holiness.

Beloved, as we continue to celebrate the coming of our Savior, we look ahead through the prophet’s eyes to His second coming, to that glorious day when our victory is finally and fully realized.  Both comings loom in our passage and Isaiah describes the two future events in the past tense, for God has willed them to be:

“The people who have walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in the land of the shadow of death, upon them a light has shined.”

This is now, for despite the darkness that tries to suffocate us, the light has entered the world, and the light will prevail.  And this is the end of days, the Sabbath that will never cease, the final day of everlasting rest and peace, of unbroken communion with our God.

All who dwell there with Him will know the joy of justice: an end of tyrants, of poverty, of oppression, of sin.

Who will accomplish these things?  President John F. Kennedy said in his Inaugural Address: “Man holds in his mortal hands the power to abolish all forms of human poverty.”

He gave us, in a sentence, the grand delusion.  By his might, man will make all things new.  Not so long ago, a more humble world knew better.  Samuel Johnson wrote, “How small, of all that human hearts endure, that part which laws or kings can cause or cure.”

Our Lord put it this way, “The poor you have with you always” (St. John 12:8).  Until that glorious day of His return.  And then, “Of the increase of His government and peace there will be no end.”

He is the Ruler – the only Ruler – whose justice does not poison His mercy, whose mercy does not curdle His justice.  In Him there is no conflict and in His kingdom there will be no contention, only peace.

The prophet pronounces, “For unto us a Child is born, unto us a Son is given.”  The Child can be born; the Son can only be given.  The Son is eternal, begotten, not born.

“And the government will be upon His shoulder.”  Many among the church fathers found in this phrase a reference to the cross our Lord bore on the way to Calvary.  “By it,” wrote Caesarius, “the devil is conquered.”

The One the prophet foretells will bear the weight of worldwide government as a trifle, for His yoke is easy and His burden light (St. Matthew 11:30).  With the government upon His shoulder, the yoke on His subjects will be as light as love.

What shall His name be called?  His names shall be many.

“Wonderful.”  In Hebrew, this word is a noun.  When used of God, it refers to One who does supernatural things . . . sometimes called miracles.  It evokes an image of God’s wondrous acts in delivering His people from slavery in Egypt, and now in deliverance from bondage in sin.

“Counselor.”  He is the repository of all true wisdom – in contrast to the wisdom of man.  The wisest man, Solomon, in the end acted so foolishly that the nation was torn asunder upon his death.  This One is so wise as to turn humiliation into exaltation, surrender into victory, death into life.

“Mighty God.”  Israel once had God as their Ruler.  A rebellious people demanded a human king.  Be careful what you ask for.  Both North and South endured a succession of tyrants as wicked as those who rule many nations today.

But God’s chosen people will see their King restored to His throne, and He will be so mighty as to absorb all evil in Himself.

Wearing a crown of thorns on the cross He will cry out, “My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken Me?”  Taking our sin upon Himself He will make us holy as He is holy, and finally fit to be governed by Him.  God is showing us sovereignty deified and humanity purified.  No human ruler can summon the power to bring about a government that establishes everlasting peace grounded in perfect justice.

“Everlasting Father.”  An eternal kingdom requires an everlasting King, and this One will rule not as a despot who oppresses His subjects but as a Father who sacrifices for His children.  Our heavenly Father, who delights to perfect strength in weakness, has sent a Child, meek and mild, into the world over which He will reign.

This name refers not to Yahweh but to Christ, who as our forever Sovereign will be the Father of the coming age.

“Prince of Peace.”  The final name comprises all the others.  Peace – shalom – in the Bible is not what breaks out when everyone stops to reload but the consummation of all of God’s promises to His people.  In this context it is the eternal Sabbath – Shabbat – in which lion and lamb trill in sweet harmony.

How man has strained to bring about this renovation of God’s creation – and not only presidents whose bloated egos tell them they can stamp out poverty or control the rising of the seas.

God gave Israel the human king she wanted.  David subdued her enemies and established peace, and God decreed that a descendant of David would occupy his throne forever.  The warrior David, however, would not erect the temple in which God would dwell among His people.  Hands stained with blood would not build the earthly home of the God of peace.

After his sin with Bathsheba and the murder of her husband, David made his peace with God.  And when God gave him another son by Bathsheba after her first died at birth, David named him “Solomon” – in Hebrew “Shlomo” from shalom.  This royal heir was named “Man of Peace.”

Solomon built the temple and God moved in.  The Shekinah glory took up residence in the midst of His chosen people on the holy mountain Zion.  The kingdom expanded to its greatest expanse ever before or since.

Israel stood poised to claim all of the territory God had promised to Abraham, that vast land that stretches from the Nile to the great river, the Euphrates.

Peace spread like the Nile overflowing its banks in springtime.  Royalty traveled from far countries to pay homage to King Solomon, the man of peace, and to drink of his great wisdom.  The king’s coffers bulged with gold.  The God of Israel must indeed be the one Mighty God.

But Solomon would be not only the first son to sit on David’s throne but also the last – among mortal men.  Waging his campaign of peace, he conquered not on the battlefield but in the wedding chapel.  He formed political alliances through marriages with foreign women.

They toted their gods along and worshiped them and, ere long, others in Israel joined in.  Now they exalted Yahweh as one god among many.  The kingdom split in two like a rotten log at Solomon’s death, never to be reunited.

But what does Isaiah say?   Isaiah declares that a son of David will reign on that throne over a kingdom that is one.  He will “order it and establish it with judgment and justice from that time forward, even forever.”

Man has had his day.  God allowed him to play king, and we can survey the wreckage that is the history of the kingdom of man.  Man will not bring about this enthronement the prophet promises and the ordered world that will be its fruit.  “The zeal of the Lord of hosts will perform this.”

The word underlying “zeal” sounds a throbbing chord of jealousy.  The Lord your God is a jealous God.  He says, “You shall have no other gods before Me.”  Solomon, he of the 700 wives and 300 concubines, chose God’s very first commandment to trample.  Of course, fatigue can fray a man’s faculties.

The Prince of Peace will remain ever faithful.  Royalty will make the arduous journey to bow before Him as well, even when a wee King, but His head will not be turned. David’s incorruptible Son will not falter in His zeal for His mission.  He will suffer no idol worship in the temple of His kingdom.  He is the temple, for the glory of God dwells in Him.

He will populate His realm with those who have made their bodies temples of His Holy Spirit. And this kingdom will span all the territory from the Nile to the Euphrates and far beyond until His glory penetrates and hallows every crevice of His creation.

He came as a Child.

He came to conquer the world.

He came armed with the invincible gospel of peace.

He came to teach us to perfect our strength in weakness.

He came to establish an everlasting domain He will rule as King of kings.

He came to impose a government that allows us to find ourselves in Him, a government that will endure for ever and ever, world without end.  Amen.

 

 

 

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Up the Revolution!

The Fourth Sunday in Advent

Isaiah 40:1-11, Psalm 80, Philippians 4:4-7, St. John 1:19-28

Up the Revolution!

                One of the most interesting seminarians I’ve met was a fellow named Butch.  Butch was not a seminarian in the usual sense of the word; he never took a course for credit as far as I know but he certainly audited a long catalogue of them. But then, there was nothing usual about Butch.

He had a fine grasp of history and a keen interest in the Scriptures.  Butch was a white-haired retired Army officer, but I figured he landed in the wrong branch because he swore like a sailor . . . as to both quantity and quality.

I assure you this was not the norm in the hushed corridors of Cranmer Theological House.  The rest of us weren’t monks, but sometimes we seemed to be trying to be.

But Butch didn’t care.  The last time I saw him was a few years ago, at synod in Dallas.  We greeted each other in a hallway at the hotel and Butch launched – in his customarily animated way — into an oration about counseling a fellow cancer patient:

“Here’s what you do.  You stand in front of the mirror and you say to that cancer inside of you, ‘Listen, you . . .’”

I’ll stop here because if I continued I’d have to bleep out more than Rosemary Woods deleted.  The presence of bishops and other august personages had no effect whatsoever on Butch.  He was who he was.  I loved the guy.  And I was grateful I was not his priest.

I bring him up today because of a talk he and I had one day.  We were speaking of issues of the day in the tones of the political conservatives we were when, somehow, we discovered we had both begun as liberals.  And what’s more, neither of us was about to apologize.

We came of age, Butch and I, in the 1960s.  Thinking back over that time, we agreed that institutionalized racism – in a significant part of this nation, legally codified racism – was wrong, and we were right to denounce it.

That the Vietnam War – perhaps in conception and without a doubt in execution – was wrong, and we were right to denounce it.  That many among our leaders were corrupt, and we were right to denounce them.

Sometimes, those out of power hold the moral high ground.  So say Butch and I.  So says John the Baptist.  And – here’s the crucial thing — so says Jesus Christ.

Our Lord Jesus is a God of order, but He will not sacrifice biblical principle for the sake of order.  So doing, we would enshrine a lie, cast deceit in concrete.  That is the way of “the Jews,” as they are called for the first of many times in John’s gospel in the first verse of our text for today.

The term refers to the leaders of Israel and, most likely in this case, to the Sanhedrin, the ruling council.  They have sent a delegation – priests and Levites – to brace the Baptist on the banks of the River Jordan.  Who do you imagine you are?  What do you think you’re doing?

One of the Sanhedrin’s important functions is the tagging and removal of false prophets.  Indeed, some have risen and fomented rebellion, and have been dealt with.

But this Baptist is a special case.  His father Zechariah ministered in the temple.  John, descended from the priestly caste, could take up the role of priest . . . but he operates more like a monk.  He did not rise through the ranks of the religious establishment; he presents no credentials.

And there’s more.  Any insurrectionist worth his copy of the Saul Alinsky bible knows one stirs insurrection in the cities. But this one called John pursues his work out yonder in the wilderness, at various locales on the Jordan’s banks.

What is his mission?  He baptizes.  What manner of ritual is this?  Israel knows of proselyte baptism, but John is baptizing the circumcised, Jews – members in good standing of the synagogues and the temple, even Jerusalemites, those purest of practitioners.

Those who come from beyond the pale need cleansing to engage with the covenant people of God, but those born into Israel are by their very nature clean.  Are they not?

John’s baptism is an affront to the religious authorities. What do those who bear the mark of the covenant need with the empty symbolism of a rite nowhere prescribed in Jewish practice?

Make no mistake, the priests and Levites who have confronted him on the Jordan’s bank can hear the muted message beneath his words.  He has invoked Isaiah, who prophesied of one crying out in the wilderness who would prepare the way of the Lord.

But that prophet of old did not stop there.  He went on to interpret the coming of the kingdom of God to earth in the language of a second exodus.  But what does Israel need of escape?  She needs to remain in place, right where God planted her, and throw off the yoke of Rome.

Exodus talk reeks of danger for the authorities’ home-brewed religion.  Orthodoxy is their prized possession.  And orthodoxy is what those in power say it is.  This orthodoxy is perverse, decaying . . . and proper, because they proclaim it so.  Who is John the Baptist to say them nay?

No one, really.

And because he is, he is God’s man for a time such as this.  For who is the One for whom John prepares the way?  The greatest revolutionary the world would ever know.  One who would foment an insurrection that would explode the world religious order and then reshape it in His image.  He will be the Head of His body the church.

The Sanhedrin suspect sedition . . . and their concern is well-placed.  Jesus is coming to free His people from bondage to sin and death.  He will overthrow an order that values privilege over righteousness, wealth over compassion, prestige over holiness.  He will cast down the powerful and exalt the humble . . . and usher them into His banquet that has no end.

One who comes to make all things new will win no favor from those who have a vested interest in preserving the old.  The rulers of Israel would tamp down this revolution; the Baptist would fan its flames.

John anticipates his Lord ideally in another way as well.  Look at how the fourth gospel presents the Baptist: no mention of his lineage, arrest or death.  Matthew, Mark and Luke can fill in those blanks.  John the Evangelist relates that God sent this man and that his ministry is baptism, full stop.  His relationship to the One who comes after him is what matters here.

The evangelist trills of Jesus with a poetic lilt . . . but prose will suffice for the Baptist.  How is he defined?  In the negative.  Who is he?  He is not the Christ.  Not Elijah.  Not the prophet, the “one like me” of whom Moses spoke.

Well, who then?  “The voice of one crying in the wilderness.”  Merely a voice.  This is that second way in which the Baptist anticipates so beautifully the Christ.  He wears camel’s hair and lives off the land, a lowly figure . . . out there in the wilderness.

Who better to make straight the way of One lowly born in a manger to parents of mean estate, One who will humble Himself unto death, even death on a cross?

He who comes after him, the Baptist explains, is the One “whose sandal strap I am not worthy to loose.”

A disciple must serve his master in every way, just as does a slave . . . save for one thing only.  He is not bound to remove shoes and wash feet.  That is work so menial that only the slave is required to do it.  But, says John the Baptist, not only am I willing to serve my Lord in so humble a way, I am too lowly to merit even that service to Him.

He is no more than a voice.  The voice is the medium, the Word is the message.  I am come, John would have us know, as the vessel that proclaims the Truth that is to follow.  Pay heed, repent, believe . . . for the kingdom of God is at hand.

Way back when, St. Augustine wrote, “John is the voice, but the Lord is the Word who was in the beginning. John is the voice that lasts for a time; from the beginning Christ is the Word who lives forever.

“Take away the word, the meaning, and what is the voice? Where there is no understanding, there is only a meaningless sound. The voice without the word strikes the ear but does not build up the heart . . .

“When the word has been conveyed to you,” Augustin continues, “does not the sound seem to say: The word ought to grow, and I should diminish? The sound of the voice has made itself heard in the service of the word, and has gone away, as though it were saying: My joy is complete. Let us hold on to the word; we must not lose the word conceived inwardly in our hearts . . .”

So wrote Augustine.

Indeed, the Lord Himself says of John, “Assuredly, I say to you, among those born of women there has not risen one greater than John the Baptist; but he who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he” (Matthew 11:11).

The kingdom of heaven is here.  It arrived when the Lord ascended and His Holy Spirit alit upon the earth.

And we have beheld wondrous things the Baptist did not see: the Lord upon the cross, crucifying sin and death; arisen from the tomb, upon the Emmaus Road, on the seashore with His disciples, ascending into heaven.  We are greater than John.  If we are greater than John, we should be more humble than he.

The world is lying to you, o man . . . again.  It tells you to trust in yourself.  It tells you you are trust-worthy.  Are you?

Trust the One who made you.  You could not make yourself.  Can you remake yourself?  Trust the One who knew you before you were.  Now that you are, will He not love what He has made you to be?  Humble thyself in the sight of the Lord.  He will lift you up.

He is coming now.  He is almost here. In Advent, we await the arrival of Truth in the world.  He is coming . . . coming to die for you . . . but first to live for you . . . to show you the way.

What is the way?  Humility is the way upward to God who is above all things; it raises you up to Him.  Pride, the elevation of the self, sends you spinning away from God on high and so casts you down.

Was it not ever thus?  In the beginning, God placed man in the garden and forbade him one thing . . . a good thing, for the fruit of that one tree was pleasing to the eye and sweet to the tongue.  God denied man one thing, a good thing, to point him to a greater good . . . obedience.

The humility of obedience is the elixir for your sin-sick soul.

The Baptist and the Christ stepped into a world bathed in the pax Romana – the peace of Rome – but still an agitated age in that little backwater called Palestine.  Among the Jews, expectations of the Messiah varied.

The Greek Christos comes from the verb chrio – I anoint — and translates the Hebrew mashia – Messiah.  The Christ was the One anointed by God . . . but anointed to do exactly what?  Opinions covered a spectrum stretching from Dan to Beersheba, but all agreed that in some way He would enhance the worldly position of Israel.

The idea that He would come as the fulfillment of Israel, the true Israel – making God known among all the nations – disturbed the thoughts of a paltry few in the nation.  Like countless generations of Jews and Christians who would succeed them, they put their own stature first and God’s glory second.

They rejected Jesus of Nazareth as the Christ not because He defied God – how could He? – but because He, like His forerunner – defied the leaders of Israel.  What God desired was exactly what the Baptist had launched and the Christ would perfect – an uprising of humility.

John the Evangelist gives us a gospel laden with the vocabulary of jurisprudence – “testimony” and “witness” and “trial” – and he offers John the Baptist as his star witness to the authenticity of Jesus as the Word made flesh.  The voice proclaims the Word.

This John, after all, had stood in the Jordan and, after he baptized Jesus, had watched the Spirit of God descend dove-like upon Him . . . but more than that.  The Spirit had alit on others in Old Testament times, but now comes something new: He abides with Jesus, who is the Christ, the Anointed One.

Yet as we have seen even the Baptist would harbor doubt . . . and see it resolved . . . and pay with his life for his witness of the Truth.  His testimony is as vital in our day as in his own for the opposition’s argument never changes:

Jesus is a man of high principle and a great teacher . . . but not the Son of God.  Oh, He might instruct you . . . but He cannot save you.

For to hail Him as the promised Messiah is to humble ourselves and submit to Him.  The human heart, unfettered by Spirit and Truth, knows no end of self-seeking.  It aches to aim its worship not upward but inward.

So harken to the voice that you might come to the Word that dwells in the heart.  John is the revolutionary, o Christian, you are called to be.  Yet you are greater than he.  Fall to your knees and, looking upward, hail Jesus as divine Savior, Lord and King.

God loves you, o sinner.  He wants to lift you up.  What greater honor could He bestow on you than to make you a forerunner of the One who comes to save the world?  Who am I?  My name is Not-the-Christ.  Amen.

 

 

 

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The Third Sunday in Advent

Isaiah 35, Psalms 22:23-31 and 99, 1 Corinthians 4:1-5, St. Matthew 11:2-10

Homeward Bound

                At Christmastime our thoughts turn to home.  Family, friends, firesides . . . the smell of gingerbread and the taste of eggnog . . . laughing children and grinning grandpas . . . pretty packages, maybe even a pony.

But where is home?  Home, some old sage once said, is where the heart is.  That’s not a bad definition.  It’s better than definition No. 1 in my online dictionary: “a house, apartment, or other shelter that is the usual residence of a person, family, or household.”

Could be a prison cell.

Let’s try definition No. 2: “the place in which one’s domestic affections are centered.”

Could be a dog house.

Words fray at the edges – especially when marketers or people with an ideological agenda grab hold of them.  One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.  An illegal alien in a red state is an undocumented worker in a blue state.

The National Football League would never dream of charging admission for an “exhibition game,” which doesn’t count in the standings, but will charge the regular-season tariff for a “preseason game,” which also doesn’t count in the standings.

And a builder or real estate agent would not consider selling you a “house,” which is but a building, but would love to sell you a “home,” which is a state of mind.  Or once was.  My online dictionary gives me a synonym study for “house” and “home”:

House “always had reference to the structure to be lived in. Home has recently taken on this meaning and become practically equivalent to house, the new meaning tending to crowd out the older connotations of family ties and domestic comfort.”

If “house” and “home” are equivalent, can we now say “house is where the heart is”?  Not exactly poetry, is it?

For the Christian, those “older connotations of family ties and domestic comfort” are more than a little hard to turn loose of, especially when we speak of our eternal home.  Our Father tells us we will dwell there forever with our family – all those united to one another through our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

And it will be a place of surpassing comfort, of perfect peace: shalom.  Home is where our peace is.

In his gospel of peace, the prophet Isaiah gives us a glimpse of home today.  “And the desert shall rejoice and blossom as the rose; it shall blossom abundantly and rejoice, even with joy and singing.”

He is projecting an image of Mount Zion, but not that lump in the earth’s crust on which the city of Jerusalem hunkers.  No, this is the same Zion we find in the Book of Revelation, God’s new creation, that glorious state in which He has made all things new:

“Then I looked, and behold, a Lamb standing on Mount Zion, and with Him one hundred and forty-four thousand, having His Father’s name written on their foreheads.

“And I heard a voice from heaven, like the voice of many waters, and like the voice of loud thunder. And I heard the sound of harpists playing their harps.

“They sang . . . a new song before the throne, before the four living creatures, and the elders; and no one could learn that song except the hundred and forty-four thousand who were redeemed from the earth” (14:1-3).

Welcome home.

Isaiah has been pronouncing God’s judgment on all the unrighteous nations, notably including Israel, but in chapter 35 he takes a breath and reveals what the future holds for those who love God and live according to His law.

Now, don’t try this at home – however you think of home – but Isaiah, being a prophet, stands on the timeline of history and looks in both directions at once.  He looks to his left 750 years and to his right 750 years . . . and on both ends of this spectrum he spies someone named “Jesus.”

To his left he sees one we call “Joshua,” from the Hebrew Yeshua.  The Greek version of this name is Iessous, or, in English, “Jesus.”  If you look up the Greek translation of the Old Testament you will find Joshua called Iessous.

And by the way, the name means “Jehovah is salvation.”

The great prophet Moses is dead.  His successor Joshua stands on the east bank of the River Jordan and gazes across into the land God has promised to His people Israel, a land flowing with milk and honey.

At long last Israel will complete her exodus and find her rest.  God’s chosen will take possession of this good land and then they will study war no more.  They will be home.

They will enter God’s peace, and their reward will be their Lord’s bountiful provision for them . . . but that will not be their great reward.  He will dwell there among them on Mount Zion, and they will have uninterrupted communion with Him.  God’s very presence is their great reward.

Joshua – “Jehovah is salvation” – has been accorded the great honor of leading God’s people into their promised rest and peace.  When he entered the land 40 years before with nine other spies and found giants lurking there, he was one of only two who trusted in God to deliver victory to His people.

Now that generation of doubters has died off and Joshua peers into the land their children will inherit.  The milk and honey remain . . . and so do the giants.  God speaks to Joshua.

“I will not leave you nor forsake you” (Joshua 1:5).  “Be strong and of good courage” (v. 6) . . . “Only be strong and very courageous” (v. 7) . . . “Be strong and of good courage; do not be afraid nor be dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go” (v. 9).

Consider Joshua’s position.  If his knees were not knocking already, I suspect that after hearing God’s command, “buck up, old boy” three times in four verses those knees are clanging like tin pots.  But maybe I’m projecting myself onto him.  He has God’s assurance that He will be always with him.

Isaiah takes up exodus language and invokes God’s encouragement to Joshua as, centuries later, the prophet addresses the descendants of those who crossed the Jordan.  “They shall see the glory of the Lord.”

The Hebrew word for “glory” here speaks of a manifestation of God, as when He led the children of Israel through the wilderness in the form of a cloud, called the “glory cloud.”  This glory would fill the tabernacle and then the temple and Moses and the Psalmist and the prophets would speak of the glory of God filling the earth – of making the creation His sanctuary.

And then comes the exhortation, “Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees.  Say to those who are faint-hearted, ‘Be strong, do not fear!’”

For the people of God – in Joshua’s day, Isaiah’s day, Christ’s day on earth, our own day – all of life is an exodus, for while we are in this life we are never at home.  St. Paul tells us we are “members of the household of God” (Eph 2:19) and our “citizenship is in heaven” (Phil 3:20).

Home is indeed where the heart is . . . but our wayward hearts sometimes lose the signal in the homing device.  I heard a story of a missionary who spent more than 50 years in Africa.  He buried his wife long before his return to America and never came back on a furlough.

Finally too frail to continue God’s work, he returned.  On the steamship as he journeyed back he spent long hours and days thinking of how alone he was.  He had outlived all of his family members and his childhood friends as well.

When the ship docked in New York harbor he found a hotel in which to spend his first night back on his native soil in more than half a century.  He went to his knees and cried out to God, “At long last I have come home and I have no one.  Have mercy on me, Lord, for I am so alone.”

And then he heard a voice: “You’re not home yet.”

Isaiah looks to his right as well, and there he sees another Jesus, the Christ.  Of Him the prophet says, “He will come and save you.”

And so indeed, one greater than Joshua has come.  St. John tells us God has made Himself manifest among us, putting on flesh so that we might behold the very glory of God (St. John 1:14).  And just as the God in the cloud led his people on an exodus, the God in the flesh does as well.

This time, He leads His chosen people not out of captivity in Egypt but out of bondage in sin.  This time, He dispatches them not onto a patch of ground tucked away by the Mediterranean Sea but onto the entire globe.  Yet this time as last time, He sends them out among hostiles, commanding them to trust in Him:

“Behold, your God will come with vengeance, with the recompense of God.”

Those without trust are without hope, and hope is the elixir of the children of God.  We must have hope, for this world teems with enemies, this world is not our home.  Yet Christ sends us out to overcome it, to overpower the giants, to annex all the nations to the kingdom of God.  And He fills our quivers with words to assault wickedness with His all-conquering gospel of peace.

And what did our Lord say to His first disciples as He sent them out to conquer?  “And lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”

He who has hope will persevere to the end, and in the end he will reap his eternal reward.  But as the great reward for Israel was not the abundant fruit of the land, the ultimate reward for the Lord’s disciples is not streets of gold or walls adorned with sapphires and emeralds.

As in Joshua’s day, the ultimate reward is God Himself, and life in His glory.

How we grunt and grasp for what is already ours, great glory.  If we have placed our hope in Christ we are fellow heirs with Him and the inheritance He shares with us is the glory the Father shares with Him.

We who carry the taint of sin within us can generate no glory of our own, yet how we strive when all we need do is bask in the reflected radiance of our King.  In the cross of Christ is our glory.

Of this God who will save us, Isaiah says, “Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf shall be unstopped.  Then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the dumb sing.”

The prophet gives us a glimpse of the resurrection body, the one we will put on when our Lord makes all things new.  But Jesus will not wait for His second coming to begin His ministry of healing.

As we heard from St. Matthew’s gospel this morning, when John the Baptist sends disciples to ask Jesus if He is the promised one, the Lord cities these words of Isaiah as evidence that He is indeed Messiah.

But Isaiah does not stop there, nor does Christ.  “For waters shall burst forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert.  The parched ground shall become a pool, and the thirsty land springs of water.”

God created through our Lord Christ and He re-creates through Him as well.  This is the picture of newness of life, sin-rent bodies made whole and barren land healed by the caress of cool waters.

Life begets life and the creation sings the praises of the Creator who redeems, restores and re-creates, bathing all He has made in His grace.  Our home is Eden restored, washed clean of sin by the blood of the Lamb.

“A highway shall be there, and a road, and it shall be called the Highway of Holiness.”

Here is the way into the very presence of God, but who may travel it?  “The unclean shall not pass over it.”

These “unclean” are the ones in Israel who did not use the sacrifices, the means of grace God provided.  They are the ones today who do not avail themselves of the final Sacrifice.

“Whoever walks the road, although a fool, shall not go astray.”  God does not deny passage to the untutored or even the feckless, if only they will hope in Christ and seek His way.

Whose road is it?  “The redeemed shall walk there, and the ransomed of the Lord shall return.”

This road is the route of the redeemed, those Christ has ransomed with His blood.

They shall “come to Zion with singing, with everlasting joy on their heads.  They shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.”

This is Mount Zion where the Lamb stands, and with Him those on whose foreheads the Father’s name has been written.  They are singing a new song before the throne.

In the year King Uzziah died, Isaiah saw the Lord in a vision.  Around His throne seraphim cried, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts.  The whole earth is full of His glory.”

Overcome by the sense of his own sin and uncleanness and that of his people, Isaiah despaired . . . until one of the seraphim took a burning coal from the altar with tongs and flew to him and touched the coal to his lips, purging his sin.

From that moment forward, God used Isaiah to proclaim the holiness of the Lord and to reveal the Highway of Holiness, which is the route of the Lord’s redeemed.    And the Highway of Holiness, beloved, is our way home.

As long as we follow it we will not go astray.  The way of holiness is the way of salvation God provides.  The pursuit of holiness is the pursuit of God, the only Holy One.

The end of holiness is the glory of God, who has shared Himself with His creation so that His glory is seen in all the things His hands have made.  The fruit of holiness is the peace of God which surpasses our understanding.

At Christmas, we think of home.  Let us think of the One who came to lead us there through the exodus each one of us must make, the One who has gone on before us to prepare a place for us, the One of whom the prophet said, “He will come and save you.”  Amen.

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Peace for the Asking

The Second Sunday in Advent

Isaiah 55, Psalm 25, Romans 15:4-13, St. Luke 21:25-33

Peace for the Asking

                Delwyn was a short, skinny convict in his 30s, pale as paste, who hailed from South Dakota but had run afoul of the law in Texas.  I met him in a prison I visited on a weekly basis for many years.

Each time I entered, Delwyn would greet me with a smile and each time I asked him how he was he would beam even brighter and say, “I am blessed!”  He was one of those folks in whom the Holy Spirit appears to have taken up residence and then turned on all the lights and left every one of them burning.

And I encountered Delwyn many times.  Long after he had completed the 18-month pre-release program Prison Fellowship operates in this particular prison, there he sat.  Completing the program places no obligation whatsoever on the parole board to grant a man’s release.

Year after year, some prisoners receive a set-off, as it’s called, and after they have done everything required of them they remain on the unit for an eternity.  Delwyn was one of these.  I don’t know the number of years he languished in that prison but I do recall somebody telling me, “Delwyn’s got the record.”

He had served more time since entering the program than any other inmate before him.  He may still hold that record.

My role as a volunteer at that time was to teach a journalism class and to oversee the prison’s monthly newsletter.  When I taught my guys how to conduct an interview, I wanted to add practical experience to the instruction.  I told them to bring a volunteer to class, an inmate who would sit for a mock interview.

One week, I walked in and there sat Delwyn, smiling.  I asked how he was and he said, “I am blessed!”  I assigned one of our class members to do the interview.

Now, asking a prisoner about his crime can be a delicate business and I coached my guys to probe gently and, if they met resistance, to move on.  A mock interview wasn’t worth creating bad blood.  These guys live in confining quarters.

The interviewer went to work and Delwyn did not balk in the least.  In fact, his story gushed out like water from a fire hydrant.  Still a teenager, he lived with a female relative and her two sons.  The woman told Delwyn and her younger son that the older son, a grown man, was demon-possessed.  She said there was only one way to eliminate the demon.

One night, she led Delwyn and her younger son to the man’s room and while he slept they fell upon him with hammers and murdered him.

As Delwyn spilled out the story, he might have been describing a day’s work in the prison laundry.  Not a sniffle.  He said he had confessed and repented and made peace with God; he could do no more.

I found myself wondering often afterward if it were truly possible to put away an act so heinous and find peace.  Can it be?  How can it be?

The answer comes thundering down upon us today from the eighth century before Christ in the voice of the prophet Isaiah: “For My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways My ways,” says the Lord.  How much higher are His thoughts and His ways than ours?  “As the heavens are higher than the earth.”

Man’s shriveled understanding does not bind God.  God knows a mercy beyond our imaginings, a grace above our dreams.  With God, all things are possible . . . and Delwyn’s salvation is one of those things.

In this season of Advent, we celebrate the arrival in the world of the Prince of Peace.  Peace pours off of Him in a torrent and falls like a spring shower on those He has made in His image.  We bathe in His peace.  It washes away the grime of our sin and leaves us blushing like babes in the pink of new life.

Those many centuries before the Prince of Peace came into His world, our Father told of this advent by the word of His prophet Isaiah.  Isaiah publishes the gospel of peace in his time and place to disobedient Israel, which is under threat from a foreign power, urging trust in God for protection.

But his words reverberate through the corridors of time, down to the tribe of Judah in captivity in Babylon two centuries later and to those who return from exile.  And, finally, to us as well, universalizing a message addressed first to those threatened with bondage to a human enemy and last to those under the yoke of sin.

Isaiah’s gospel unfolds the coming of Immanuel, God With Us (7:14) – not a disembodied principle or an unknowable being that hovers out there somewhere but a loving God who becomes one of us that He might know our temptations and trials as we know them.

The prophet declares Him the Prince of Peace and the author of an everlasting peace (9:6-7) He will establish at the end of history.  This is shalom, the full measure of everything God has promised His people by His covenants.  This shalom is the great blessing the priests of God in ancient Israel poured out on His people.

Is it not still so today?  “The peace of God which passeth all understanding . . .”  It is the peace God provides that establishes us and preserves us in the knowledge and love of God.  How do we attain it?

“Ho!  Everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you who have no money, come, buy and eat.  Yes, come, buy wine and milk without money and without price.”

Can it be?  God’s richest blessings on offer at no cost?  Is God running a soup kitchen?  Indeed He is not.  The price of peace is staggering . . . but because God has declared it so His prophet can pronounce our bill paid.  Immanuel of chapter 7 is the Prince of Peace of chapter 9 who is the Suffering Servant of chapters 52 and 53.  He pays the price in blood.

And so, peace for all!  But no.  In chapter 48 we read, “’There is no peace,’” says the Lord, “’for the wicked’” (v. 22).

Are not all wicked, damned by their sin?   Oh, yes, if not for what God has done.  In chapters 54 and 55 the prophet celebrates the saving work of the Servant.  We see first the effects of that work, the healing of estrangement and despair.

Servanthood is much on the prophet’s mind, for it is both the way of salvation and the fruit of it.  The heritage of God’s people is righteousness.  “And their righteousness is from Me,” says the Lord.   Now comes the exhortation to receive this righteousness from God that will bring with it restoration and peace.

How can it be?  Despite their sins, the people of God can look heavenward now and see not the contorted face of the wrathful God who punished their disobedience with deportation and exile but the serene countenance of a loving Father who will welcome them into the very city of God.

This is a radical idea but it is not beyond the grasp of mortal men.  Larry King got it – at least at the head level.  The former CNN host is not a Christian but he considered prominent pastors good programming.  He was fond of posing two questions to them.

First, is Jesus the one and only way to God? This was his test to determine whether the pastor would look through the camera into the eyes of a post-Christian culture and insist on the gospel truth that we can find salvation in Christ alone.

Question No. 2:  Is it possible for a pedophile to find God’s forgiveness and go to heaven?  A rapist . . . serial killer . . . war criminal?

Here was a test of the pastor’s trust in God’s grace.  The world wants justice.  You gonna buy into that jailhouse religion?  Does this God of yours who will send a gentle soul of the Buddhist persuasion to hell let a mass murderer off the hook?

So Larry King may not be a Christian but he gets it.  All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God . . . but any who turn to this God called Jesus Christ can be redeemed no matter how heinous their crimes against God and man.

Even a Delwyn can attain God’s peace.  The Servant has purchased their peace.  Those who accept this free gift can enter into the inestimable privilege of servanthood.

“Incline your ear, and come to Me.  Hear, and your soul shall live.”  Come to God in obedience.  Your obligation and your reward are the same, faithful service to your Master.  Claim the Servant’s sacrifice as your own and become His fellow heir.  Carry that sacrifice to the Father and present it to Him as payment for your sins.

“And I will make an everlasting covenant with you – the sure mercies of David.”

That covenant God made with David contained irrevocable promises of eternal mercy and peace that would be fulfilled through a Messiah who would come from the line of David.   This Davidic King, we now see, is the suffering Servant.  Is the eternal kingdom to be ruled by a Servant?

David the king was a witness to the power and glory of God.  But now we see that he did not build a nation for himself but a platform to declare the glory of God as King of all nations.  David’s royal heir will take His place upon that throne and rule over every nation.  But He will not conquer with spear and bow as His illustrious father did.

He will overcome the nations with His incomprehensible, sacrificial love.  Those “sure mercies of David” will spill out upon God’s people and overflow onto all nations.  The Prince of Peace is David’s Son, the Servant who conquers to pardon and whose pardon imposes peace upon His creation.

Go to Him!  Go to Him!  His pardon is yours for the asking.  Ask and ye shall receive.

“Seek the Lord while He may be found . . . Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts.  Let him return to the Lord . . . and to our God, for He will abundantly pardon.”

Who may gain this pardon?  He who humbles himself and makes petition for the pardon that proffers peace.  Is Delwyn forever beyond the pale of God’s peace?  Was King David, adulterer and murderer, too depraved to enter into it?  Who are you, o man, to decide?  Are God’s thoughts your thoughts?  Are your ways God’s ways?

“My word . . . shall not return to Me void, but it shall accomplish what I please.”  God’s infallible word reveals His purpose and His plan, but it does more.  “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God” (St. John 1:1).

God’s Word puts on flesh and dwells among men.  God’s Word acts in history, bending history to His will.  God’s Word puts God’s plan in motion and achieves His purpose, and that purpose is pardon.

With pardon comes peace, the great blessing.  Peace upon the entire creation, peace that knows no end.  This is the peace He has left with us, not peace as man gives – no parole board, willing or not, can dispense it — but as only the Prince of Peace can give (St. John 14:27).

“For you shall go out with joy, and be led out with peace; the mountains and the hills shall break forth into singing before you, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands . . . And it shall be to the Lord for a name, for an everlasting sign that shall not be cut off.”

Giving glory to God is our very purpose in creation.  When we live according to our purpose we align ourselves with our Creator and we reflect His glory as the moon gathers light from the sun and distributes it on the planet.

The great banquet God spreads before us, saying, “Let your soul delight itself in abundance,” is the peace that comes from the pardon that is ours because our Lord has paid the price in full.  His great heart yearns to pardon abundantly all who will forsake their wicked ways and return to Him.

All He asks is that we ask.  And that is all He asks of any of us and all of us.

These days, Delwyn lives in a town not far from Fort Worth and drives a delivery truck.  I had not thought of him for some time until on Thanksgiving Day a couple of years ago I happened upon a letter he posted on Facebook:

November 28

Dear Family, Today, I’m spending the day with Mother and my brother’s wife and son; Carrie & Caleb. What a blessing!                 And I’m thankful for who I belong to; To Jesus; to my family; to my friends.                 You may know the Lord has left me one dozen chickens to care for, and how one of the hens got her leg broken when I was tossing logs off the wood pile, last year.

So, `MaryLu` was in the basement (hospital) for a couple months. I prayed for her, and anointed her leg with oil. The wound stayed clean, and healed amazingly.                 Anyway, it’s been cold this week; and the chickens cuddle up together, in the hen house, each night. Before dusk, is feeding time and the other day one of the hens came running up to me! All the others were busy eating (I mean, getting after it!), and here comes MaryLu. Bending over, I said; “Well now MaryLu all the food’s over there, Girl”.

She came right up, reaching to climb in my lap. So I picked her up and brought her inside, feeding her at the place her food and water was kept last year.                 Twenty minutes later, I came back downstairs and she was looking around for a place to fly up and roost for the night. Picking her up, I sat her in the little bed of hay & towel. Guess what she did; She layed right down and began pecking the hay up close to her. Before I went to bed, I went down to talk to her and pet her a minute.                 And ya know what?  None of the other hens got treated like that, but I would have picked any of them up if they had come to me.                 You ever wonder why The Lord our God treats some people so up close and personal?  Why does He take some in His very hand, and gently place them into His favorite place for them; into the very dwelling place He stays? And so many others just stay on the ground fending for themselves?                 Tell me if you know.                 And tell me if ya love me too, like I do you.                 Take care now, and have a very Happy Thanksgiving! Yours Truly, Delwyn.

So wrote Delwyn the murderer.  So wrote Delwyn, a man who did forsake his wicked ways and run to God and ask for His eternal pardon.  So wrote Delwyn, a man at peace. Amen.

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Who Is This?

The First Sunday in Advent

Isaiah 28:14-22, Psalm 50, Romans 13:8-14, St. Matthew 21:1-13

Who Is This?

                Who is this?  “And when He had come into Jerusalem, all the city was moved, saying, ‘Who is this?’”

As the Feast of Passover draws nigh, thousands of pilgrims from Galilee throng the highway bound for Jerusalem, intent on offering their sacrifices to Yahweh in His temple on this high holy day and celebrating Israel’s exodus from Egypt with their countrymen.

The road the Roman army built to connect Jericho to Jerusalem winds upwards 3,000 feet over the course of its 17 miles.  It passes through Bethany and Bethphage, villages on the southeast slope of the Mount of Olives.

After crossing the mount it traverses the steep Kidron Valley and drops into Jerusalem.  But before he descends every traveler must pull up atop the mount, which stands 300 feet higher than the temple hill and 100 feet above the pinnacle of Mount Zion.  He pauses to marvel at the panorama of the holy city before and below him.

This tableau re-forms itself each year as the Passover approaches in springtime.  But this time something more is afoot.  An undercurrent roils the surface.

Yonder now, behold!  There in the crowd is one from Nazareth of Galilee, called Jesus.  By no means is He entering Jerusalem for the first time . . . but it will be His last.  For three years He has stirred the masses like a bubbling cauldron.

Some have sat at His feet gazing up in adoration.  Others have branded Him an agitator and an enemy of the nation . . . and pledged to kill Him.

Give Him His due.  He is a prophet; on that point all agree.  But along these dusty roads prophets come and prophets go.  True prophets . . . false prophets . . . Are there mixed prophets?  Oy vay!  Who can say?  But this one is certainly a prophet.

On many other points both His fellow travelers from Galilee and the residents of Jerusalem alike find His biography jumbled, His purpose a mystery.  A carpenter’s son; that much is known.  As common as an olive tree.

But clearly He has an agenda.  He’s up to something, make no mistake.  He makes outrageous claims.  Some say He thinks He’s the Son of God!  We’ve seen His kind before.

Look at Him.  He seems a man like any other.  He has neither height nor bulk.  He couldn’t swagger if His life depended on it.  He strikes no commanding pose that makes of Him a magnet.

But the stories!  He has done wondrous works . . . turning water into wine . . . even raising the dead!  What mere man can perform miracles such as these?  Are they not signs of . . .?  Who is this?

As He makes His way through the villages and between the farmsteads the clamor rises.  Jesus seems unperturbed.  Up til now He has shunned crowds as others dodge lepers . . . and plunged into the midst of lepers, bringing His mystical healing touch.

When He has healed the sick and even the blind, He has admonished those He has blessed not to proclaim Him.  But now He seems to invite a public spectacle.

On His frequent journeys over the span of those three years He has always walked.  What else for one of His station?  Do carpenters travel in chariots?  But now He sits astride a donkey.

Now, about this donkey and her colt.  He has sent two of His disciples into a village to fetch them.  If any villager should challenge them they are to say, “The Lord has need of them.”  Not “our Lord” or “your Lord” but the Lord.  A curious locution.  Does He suppose He is Lord of all?

Look!  The multitude are spreading their clothes on the road and bringing palm fronds to lay in His path.

This is a reception fit for a conquering general or a returning king.  But . . . a donkey?  If He is such an exalted personage, should He not straddle a warhorse, a formidable beast, snorting and stamping?

Israel’s prophets of yore promised a Messiah, One who would liberate the people living in bondage as Moses had done, yet One greater than Moses.  Could this be He?  Who is this?

Listen!  The people are invoking the prophecy of Zechariah:

“Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout, O daughter of Jerusalem! Behold, your King is coming to you; He is just and having salvation, lowly and riding on a donkey, a colt, the foal of a donkey” (9:9).

Can this be He?  Listen again; pay heed to what they add:

“Hosanna to the Son of David! `Blessed is He who comes in the name of the LORD!’ Hosanna in the highest!”

“Blessed is He who comes in the name of the LORD!” is from their Passover song, Psalm 118, which tells, “The stone the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone.”  One prophetic voice after another sings out in fulfillment.

And Hosanna?  In the prophet’s day it meant, “Save us”; a plea for rescue.  In these times it is an effusion of praise: Hail Him!  Are they praying to Him for salvation or celebrating Him as their king?

What else do they add?  “Son of David.”  For their promised Deliverer will be of the line of their forefather, the all-conquering King David who routed the Philistines and saved his people, who lifted Israel to her greatest glory.

As Jesus enters Jerusalem the ground seems to shake.  The Judeans, bedazzled, cry out, “Who is this?”  The Galileans reply with one voice, “This is Jesus, the prophet from Nazareth of Galilee.”

Yes, but . . .  A prophet?  The prophet?  The final prophet?  Might He be One yet greater still?

Look again at the solitary figure mounted on the donkey.  Look closely and you may make out up ahead the shadow of the cross.  Encompassed by a multitude, He is utterly alone.  He speaks not a word.  Like those prophets of old, He makes His statement by symbolic works, a parable enacted.

Humble, lowly, He arrives upon a borrowed donkey.  Or is it His?  Has He claimed this brute creature as Creator of all and so Owner of all?  Who is this?

Is He human or is He divine?

Come to conquer or to scatter peace?

Royal or common?

Humble or exalted?

Bound for crucifixion or for resurrection?

Who is this?

Upon His donkey, He enters Jerusalem, the royal city of His father David; Jerusalem, the holy city; Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets.

But did not Isaiah tell us the One who comes to save would come to suffer?

A triumphal entry for a Suffering Servant?  Amen.  For only from suffering arises the humility to conquer the arrogance of sin, the sin of arrogance.

But enough! you protest.  Enough of a picture that defies focus.  Who is this?  Say it plainly, is he man or is He God?

Aye, there’s the question.  For if He is not fully man, able to take the sins of all mankind upon Himself, He cannot save us.  He cannot redeem what He does not assume.  And if He is not fully God, who alone can forgive sin, He cannot save us.

For we are they who thronged the highway to Jerusalem.  Jew, Gentile, it matters not.  Babylon or Rome or Mecca.  The enemy from whom He came to save us is called by the name Sin.

Then must not our Deliverer be both God and man?

So He must be.  This is His Advent, His Coming.  Not to judge – the judgment awaits His second coming.  But to save.

Today, beloved, we may give thanks that our fathers in the earliest days of the church took the question head-on: Who is this?  They struggled with it mightily, sometimes bitterly.  They knew they must, for they must produce a creed – not to define Christ but to describe Him in terms to which all the faithful must agree.

Cast an eye abroad today and you will see many trying to make God understandable.  The Creator penetrated by the mind of the creature?  Preposterous.  Our fathers in the church would have none of it.  We are eternally in their debt.

For this question, “Who is this?” is the very fulcrum of our being.  Every one of us must face up to it.  Is He the political Messiah for whom so many in Israel yearned, come to free us from the struggles of this vain life?  Or is He the Holy One of whom the prophets spoke, born to suffer to take away our sin?

Do you find it surpassing strange that the lectionary elves place this episode before us today?  As we embark on the path that leads to the manger they bend our thoughts to the road that leads to the cross.

Perhaps not so strange.  He came, He died.  He came to die.  The 12th-century monk Hugh of St. Victor considered the matter:

“I think of God, born of a woman, a wordless baby, swaddled, crying in a cradle, sucking at the breast.  I see Him later, seized and bound, wounded with scourges, crowned with thorns, spattered with spittle, pierced, nailed, and given gall and vinegar to drink.  First, He bore indignities, and later outrages; and yet, if we look for the reason why He condescended to the one and bore the other, we find not any except (love) alone.”

Love alone.  “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.”

Will you receive God’s love?  Will you receive God’s Son?  For these arrayed along the highway shouting “Hosanna!” today are those who will return on Friday to bellow, “Crucify!”

Heart of stone or heart of flesh?  Crucify Him and remain rooted in your sinful pride.  Hail Him as your Savior and allow God to wrap you in His love.

So begins Advent.  Jesus Christ is coming.  Prepare to meet Him again.  And rejoice, Christian; sing out “Hosanna!”: Save us!  “Hosanna!”: We praise You!  Amen.

 

 

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One Bread, One Way

The Sunday Next Before Advent

Jeremiah 3:14-18, Psalm 39, Jeremiah 23:5-8, St. John 6:5-14

One Bread, One Way

               If you’ve hung out much in church – and don’t try to deny it; I know a couple of you have – you’ve heard the story of the feeding of the 5,000 preached about 5,000 times.  And if I were a gamblin’ man I’d wager you feel as though you’ve heard 5,000 preachers say that number refers only to the men arrayed on that hillside overlooking the Sea of Galilee.

                Toss in the women and children, the preacher always says, and the total could be 20,000 or 25,000.

That information is accurate, but is it relevant?  Would it matter if there had been 50,000 hungry souls sitting with hands outstretched?

The limit on God’s provision is never His power, always human need.  And even that is an elastic boundary, for He always supplies far more than His people require.  This is the God who offers life more abundantly, and we never see that truth illustrated more vividly than in this passage.

When those countless thousands have eaten their fill – not merely enough to sustain them but to satisfy them – the Lord sends His disciples to gather the leftovers.   And they collect an excess far greater than the morsels He began with.  Would it have mattered if there had been 500,000 men, women and children to feed?  Indeed, it would not.

So we have many and we have one and we have two: many hungry souls, one Provider and two menu items, bread and fish.  Forget the second for now.  Fish figure into the gospel story elsewhere; in this episode they are merely a bit of added flavor.  It is the bread that gives life.

St. John is pointing us to something, and we shouldn’t need a Geiger counter to locate it.  A few verses later he will report our Lord’s staggering declaration: “I am the Bread of Life.”

John develops the bread metaphor through the remainder of this sixth chapter.  Jesus rebukes His followers for gawking at Him as the wizard who performed the feeding miracle without looking past it and grasping that He is the life of the world.

“Do not labor for the food which perishes,” He tells them, “but for the food which endures to everlasting life, which the Son of Man will give you, because God the Father has set His seal on Him.”

What do they know of bread?  Their fathers feared they were perishing in the wilderness but their leader Moses called down manna – bread – from heaven, and it sustained them.  Didn’t he?

“Then Jesus said to them, ‘Most assuredly, I say to you, Moses did not give you the bread from heaven, but My Father gives you the true bread from heaven.  For the bread of God is He who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.’”

And, “Most assuredly, I say to you, he who believes in Me has everlasting life. I am the bread of life. Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and are dead. This is the bread which comes down from heaven, that one may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread which came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever; and the bread that I shall give is My flesh, which I shall give for the life of the world.”

Finally, “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in you. Whoever eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. For My flesh is food indeed, and My blood is drink indeed. He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood abides in Me, and I in him. As the living Father sent Me, and I live because of the Father, so he who feeds on Me will live because of Me.”

It is Jesus and no other who is the bread of life.  One Lord, one bread.  When we gather we receive Him in the bread, His flesh.  But we receive Him by faith, and if our faith is to be rightly placed we must know the One in whom we invest it.  How do we know Him?  We know Him by His word.

And the Lord had scarcely returned to His Father on high when men began distorting that word.  False teachers began to insinuate themselves into the churches and to lead the sheep astray.

So it is that St. Paul testifies in the first chapter of his letter to the Galatians: “I marvel that you are turning away so soon from Him who called you in the grace of Christ, to a different gospel, which is not another; but there are some who trouble you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel to you than what we have preached to you, let him be accursed.”

In the Greek, let him be “anathema.”  It is no mean thing to be anathema.

Beloved, we must be united in the gospel of Christ.  Instructed by His word, we must be of one will when we approach His table to receive the one bread.  For that is our Lord’s desire for us.  John goes, in chapter 17, to relate these words of Jesus as He prays to His Father and ours:

“I do not pray for these alone, but also for those who will believe in Me through their word; that they all may be one, as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You; that they also may be one in Us, that the world may believe that You sent Me. And the glory which You gave Me I have given them, that they may be one just as We are one: I in them, and You in Me; that they may be made perfect in one, and that the world may know that You have sent Me, and have loved them as You have loved Me.”

A church is a community of believers and a community must have a common core.  Let me put the matter more plainly: We must be on the same page.  Those who have been in the Front Porch Ministry sessions have heard it from Bp. Sutton: A church cannot hope to grow unless and until it is truly united.

And in some important ways we at St. Michael’s are not on the same page.  We do not come forward each Lord’s day to receive Christ with a common understanding of who Christ is, of how we are saved, of what mission He has given His church.

I’m shooting straight with you now.  I will be your priest for only a few more weeks.  I’m running out of time and there are some things that need to be said as you prepare to confront another change.  I say these things out of a sense of duty and a spirit of love: I want nothing more than for you to come together in truly biblical fellowship.

Change is often difficult for a church.  I recall the teaching of Archdeacon Payne in a class at Cranmer Theological House.  He said a new rector should make no changes in the first year of his incumbency and no major changes in the first three years.

Those words hit home with me.  To begin knocking over apple carts would be to say, in effect, that the man he replaced had gotten things wrong – and that would be most unwise.  Then I arrived in Durango, Colo., to take my first cure and in my first month there more than half of the people in that small congregation asked me, “When are you going to start changing things?”

I thought perhaps they didn’t truly want change but were humoring me.  But a month later they were asking me again, “When are you going to start changing things?”  Their church had been shrinking and turning grayer.  They were willing – nay, eager — to adapt – to change – to survive.

In time I came to Broken Arrow and to another small church in decline.  Naively, I suppose, I expected the same practical attitude.  I got a surprise.  The predominant opinion appeared to be that, declining or not, everything should remain the same.  The archdeacon’s instruction that had not fit the situation I inherited in Durango appeared entirely applicable here.

A priest walks a fine line.  For a new priest, the more so.  If he tries to nudge parishioners onto a different course they may flee, or remain and tune him out.  If he finds them in error and does nothing by way of remedy he will fail in his duty as a shepherd of the sheep.  The patient approach is undoubtedly the best.

But due to circumstances I could not foresee I have run out of time. You will soon have a new rector, I trust, and it will be his brief to mold you into one – united in your understanding of who the Lord is when you receive him each Sunday.

I will have failed utterly if I do not ask you to consider how you will relate to this man.  To begin with, you must relate to him as Anglicans.

This is a hierarchical church.  Our democratic and egalitarian culture has all but obliterated hierarchy in the church but the Scriptures haven’t changed.  Recall that when Bp. Banek visited us a few months ago he told you that our word “rector” comes from the Latin for “ruler.”  The rector is put in place to rule the parish.

Will your new priest be your servant?  Of course he will.  He stands in the place of Christ, who is both your Servant and your King.

That is the structure the Bible gives us.  In Acts, we see the disciples devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching.  The bishops are the successors to the apostles.  In Ephesus alone by the time the last apostle died there were dozens of churches.  Bishops – episkopoi – designated elders – presbuteroi – to oversee the individual churches.  “Priest” is merely a shortened form of “presbyter.”

We find Paul serving as archbishop, instructing Timothy and Titus in the role of bishops as they supervise the presbyters, or priests, in the various churches, which they rule.  This is the order of the ancient church, of which we are heirs.

And yet I hear, “Well, you’ve got your opinion and I’ve got mine.”  That is the church following in the way of the world, not the way of the word.  It is certainly not the Anglican way and it is not the way of unity.

You have chosen to be Reformed Episcopalians.  Subject yourselves to the Reformed Episcopal Church.  Be faithful Reformed Episcopalians.

That means accepting the instruction of your rector, whom you will call but whom your bishop must certify and institute.  If you would be devoted to your bishop’s teaching you will devoted to the teaching of the man he approves to represent him at St. Michael’s.

His authority is not absolute.  Should you hear from him anything contrary to the gospel of our Lord or to the canons and constitution of the Reformed Episcopal Church you have ways of redress available to you.  But if your rector is presenting a faithful witness he is the authority in the parish.  His is not one opinion among many.

You will not become one as our Lord Jesus wishes you to be one by chasing diverse doctrines.  It grieves my heart to say this as I prepare to leave you but there are souls hanging in the balance here.  I have become aware over the last few months that some among us believe their works can save them.

Some say Jesus is not the only way to God the Father.  These are salvation issues.  Your eternal destiny is at stake.  Repent!

Others cling to views at odds with the doctrine of the Reformed Episcopal Church.  These are not matters of mere taste without consequence for the oneness of the body of Christ.  I want to show you why they are not.

If you are awaiting the Rapture you will be disappointed.  There is no Rapture.  That is part of a view held by a small, very vocal minority of the world’s Christians known as dispensationalists.  Neither Anglicans nor Roman Catholics nor Eastern Orthodox nor Lutherans nor Presbyterians subscribe to it.  Dispensationalists hold a premillennial eschatology.  The Jerusalem that will be restored is the heavenly Jerusalem which God will occupy when He transfers His throne from heaven to earth.

We are not dispensationalists and we hold a postmillennial view.  For our purpose today, the difference it makes is that your eschatology – your view of the end times – affects your ecclesiology – your view of the church.

Those who hold the premillennial view are waiting to be taken out of this world.  Those who hold the postmillennial view are committed to renovating this world in preparation for Christ’s return to transfer His eternal throne to it. Eschatology controls in large measure what we believe God has commissioned His church to do.

Some embrace the prosperity gospel.  It relies on a method of interpreting Scripture that leaves out important chunks.  Its preachers may quote the Bible and they may deliver sermons containing nothing objectionable.  Heretics, including Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses, do the same.

Those who advance the prosperity gospel will not preach the sacrifice our Lord has demanded of His followers in emulation of Him because they cannot square it with their claims that He wants health and wealth for those of true faith.

They obscure the treasures of the eternal kingdom by their incessant promotion of the things of this realm which is passing away.  This is, to use St. Paul’s term, a perverted gospel and it has no place in this church.

Finally, some among you hold fast to a way of Anglicanism you learned in days gone by.  Let me tell you a brief story.

When I arrived here Fr. Robert explained to me that my way of celebrating the Eucharist was not the right way – which is to say the way he had learned it going back to his days as an acolyte in the Episcopal Church in Oklahoma.

And I thought back to my time in Durango, when a retired priest who attended our church there informed me my way of celebrating was not the right way because it was not the way he had learned it going back to his days as an acolyte in the Episcopal Church in North Carolina.  And Fr. Randolph’s way and Fr. Robert’s way do not line up on every point.

If you were watching when Bp. Sutton celebrated here this summer, his method matched neither mine nor Fr. Robert’s in some particulars.  I do not know how the man you call to replace me will celebrate Holy Communion.

I do know that he will be your rector and you will owe him the honor he is due in that capacity.  His calling and his training have equipped him in a way you are not equipped.  His opinion is not one among many.

I do know that if you would approach the Lord’s table and take into yourselves the body of Christ as the one body of Christ you must put away diverse doctrines and unite under the apostles’ teaching as delivered by your bishop through your priest.  You must make the Anglican way – our Anglican way – your way.  And at last you will be one, according to the desire of our Lord.

We embark next on the season of Advent, a time of reflection and renewal for all Christians.  I pray you will use it, each and every one, to contemplate how you can make St. Michael’s more united and more powerful in the service of our Lord.  Amen.

 

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Where We Stand

The Twenty-Third Sunday After Trinity

Isaiah 64, Psalm 33, Philippians 3:17-21, St. Matthew 22:15-22

Where We Stand

                For a time in the 12th century, Thomas Becket wore two rings.  King Henry II made his closest chum and long-time partner in drinking, hunting and other manly pursuits Chancellor of England.

Henry was merely formalizing a relationship already in place.  The chancellor was the king’s top counselor, and Thomas already filled that role.  Henry valued his shrewdness, a quality he needed especially in his jousting with the church.

The king wanted to fill the royal coffers so he could prosecute a war in France to take back territories the English crown had once held.  He derived all of his revenues from taxes on landowners.  The church held vast expanses of land but the bishops refused to pay taxes.  Church property, they said, was exempt.

Henry tapped Thomas to advise him in his wrangling with the obstinate bishops.  And then, from the royal perspective, a most propitious thing happened: The Archbishop of Canterbury died.  In a flash of inspiration, the king determined to see his crony Thomas installed in the top church post in the realm.

Thomas got his second ring and the king got his man at the head of the church in England.  No one could thwart Henry’s desires now.

A conflict of interest?  Exponentially.  Thomas was now the highest-ranking servant in the realms of both God and king, church and state.  And ere long, all hell broke loose o’er England.

When it did, the strangest thing happened.  The archbishop got religion.  He fell to his knees and prayed . . . and he saw his duty clearly.  His first loyalty must be to God.  He soon collided with the king, and Henry trumped up a charge of embezzlement against Thomas, who in his role of chancellor had been overseer of the royal treasury.

In the end, the king grumbled loudly, and perhaps drunkenly, in the presence of four of his barons that he would be better off with Thomas dead.  They fulfilled that royal wish . . . and Henry closed this sad chapter by stripping them of their estates.  Each of them died in a monastery, impoverished.

This nasty business in medieval England differs only in the particulars from other dalliances involving civil and ecclesiastical authorities.  The state always wins.  It wins because sinful men love the things of the kingdom of man more than those of the kingdom of God.

We heard of such as these in our reading this morning from Philippians, the ones “whose end is destruction, whose god is their belly, and whose glory is their shame – who set their mind on earthly things” (3:19).

St. Paul contrasts these enemies of the cross of Christ with Christians:  “For our citizenship is in heaven, from which we also eagerly wait for the Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ . . .” (3:20).

Yet still today, some insist that the cure for our ills is a merger of church and state.  God is not numbered among them.

As far back as Mt. Sinai He weighed in on the matter.  Even in a nation that bowed to Him as their King, God instituted a divided hierarchy.  He installed His prophet Moses at the head of the civil administration and Moses’ brother Aaron as high priest over the religious authority.

In that theocracy, the division was far less crisp than in 21st-century America, but it was real and it was God-ordained.

In our gospel lesson for today, we hear our Lord Jesus enunciating this principle in response to another of the Pharisees’ tedious attempts to trip him up.  This time, they go in cahoots with the Herodians, who represent the civil government, and pose the question about paying taxes to Caesar.

Zealous Jews maintained that using Roman coins, which bore the image of Caesar, who claimed to be a god, amounted to idolatry.  Will Jesus denounce Caesar to uphold Jewish law, inflaming the Herodians and inviting a charge of treason?  Or will He deny that law to appease the Herodians and their Roman masters and arouse pious Jews to assail Him?

Either way, He indicts Himself.  At last they have set the perfect trap.  He will not wriggle free this time.

“And He said to them, ‘Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.’”

Oh.  He has confounded them again.

When our Lord returns, we will have a pure theocracy without tension between loving God and loving our neighbor.  Our perfected faith in our Creator will inform all decisions regarding life in community.  We will not even conceive of treating our fellow subjects in a way that does not honor our King.

Until that glorious day, we must have a secular government alongside the church to co-exist in the kingdom of man.  We live cheek-by-jowl with non-Christians who do not subscribe to our code.  The body politic must have a structure to administer and adjudicate our civil affairs.  And so, “Render to Caesar . . . render to God . . .”

In our present circumstances, of course, keeping our balance with one foot in each realm grows more difficult by the day.  The kingdom of man appears to be bulldozing the kingdom of God off of our shores.  The moral decay we see around us causes us to weep.

And we have an enemy and this enemy does not rest.  He plays dirty, you say?  No news there.  He plays dirty to tempt us to adopt his rules, to set our minds on earthly things and take our eye off of the realm of our eternal citizenship.  The temptation to engage with him on his ground tugs at us relentlessly.

I confess I found myself succumbing to it.  I was parsing out every item in the news and fretting over each new sign of rot.  I had allowed the enemy to make me a captive of my grievances and the stimulation I received from entertaining them.  Had I replaced the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John with those of Greta, Bill, Megyn and Sean?

So I turned off the news and turned to the Scriptures to understand the temper of the times.  And I saw anew : God is sovereign over time and tide, history and philosophy, men and governments.  As the psalmist sang, better is one day in His courts than a thousand elsewhere (84:10).

Because He is above all things, God is worthy of worship.  And because He is our King, His courts are our battleground.  We must take our stand in the precincts of our all-powerful Sovereign, under His protection, and not on the foreign soil of the secularists.

We have tried the latter strategy. We need not look back so far as the 12th century to see the error of trying to merge church and state.  Late in the 20th century we saw the Moral Majority and likeminded groups bid to make a political party their vehicle for instilling a renewed biblical ethic in the nation.

They leapt into the arms of secular conservatives – many of whom can be found in church – and congregations marched in lockstep to the polls in return for a pile of promises — such as an end to abortion.  Well . . . it has been 44 years since the Supreme Court’s monstrous Roe v. Wade decision.  Do you see an end in sight?

Politics is the art of compromise.  The secularists – those rooted in the shifting values of this age – tack more nimbly on the sea of politics than do Christians whose consciences are bound by the cords of God’s everlasting, unalterable truth.

Our national moral malaise is a matter not of bad politics but of bad faith.  Our materialism – the word describes setting our minds on earthly things – has left us prey to the predations of our enemy.  A government that opposes God’s law is not the root of a godless culture but the fruit of it.

Our enemy the devil knows that the kingdom of man is passing away and on this shifting sand he is making his last stand.  Desperate, he fights ferociously.  And he makes pawns of non-Christian rulers, who inhabit the delusion that their pathetic victories are durable when in fact they are constructed of wisps of smoke.

Can he prevail?  In the end, no, but look at the short-term damage he has wrought.  He has induced a nation built on a foundation of Christian ideals to re-interpret or even abandon our fundamental religious text, the Bible.  And if we have no recourse to divine truth, we can hardly stand on a man-made foundation constructed upon it called the Constitution.

The truth of both the kingdom of God and the kingdom of man is now an open question, subject to debate at every turn and to revision at the whim of the majority in the heat of the moment.  We answer to no authority outside of us, greater than ourselves, established in either an eternal divine perfection or an original national ethos.

In neither realm do we as a nation look to the ideals that saved us and sustained us.   In their place we allow our ever-evolving appetites and ambitions to govern us.  We are “children, tossed to and fro and carried about on every wind of doctrine” (Ephesians 4:14).  In more prosaic language, “We are the change we seek.”

When the enemy has corroded our trust in our holy writ and the law contained within it, he has in the same flick of his wrist crushed the national law code that was built upon it.  The Ten Commandments still hang in the chamber of the Supreme Court . . . but only until someone figures out what to replace them with to cover up that faded spot on the wall.

The enemy is “more cunning than any beast of the field” (Genesis 3:1) and he does not abandon a strategy that has served him well from his beginning.  When he undercuts a citizen’s commitment to transcendence — to locating his significance and purpose in something outside himself, more powerful than himself, more worthy than himself — he empties him as well of devotion to a shared community ethos.

One who has lost his faith in God will soon find himself incapable of allegiance to the once-Christian state.

We are becoming what C. S. Lewis called “men without chests.”  The chest is the place where the thoughts that descend from the mind and the yearnings that well up from the gut find synthesis in things like love for God and love for country.

Men without chests look up worshipfully to their speculations they think so high and noble and simultaneously bow down to their base cravings which they contend make them “only human” . . . and seem to have no conception of how twisted and absurd they look.

The enemy knows the creature’s need for order and structure.  He tempted Adam and Eve and got them evicted from the garden God gave them.  Outside it, they and their offspring to this day have wandered, trying to set our own boundaries and impose our own order.

Israel would pay no heed to God’s prophets and God used their enemies to afflict them, to herd them into bondage outside the land He gave them, under the rule of godless men.  Today, our enemy pushes the lie that we do not need the church God mandated in any institutional sense.  Each is free to speak to God according to his own understanding without human oversight and correction.

The God-ordained structure called the church crumbles and the enemy roams at will among those who amble hither and yon without the discipline that gives cohesion.  And those who find no need for the walls of the church have determined that the state can draw the lines of our morality according to our national consensus.  By the time they awaken to the grim reality that the consensus does not exist, we will have anarchy.

The Christian citizen sees both church and state tumbling down and he wants to seize the weapon nearest at hand and engage the enemy on the spot.  The enemy sees our distress and urges us to take up his carnal weapons and to engage on his soil.  He knows that a Christian is a citizen and a Christian citizen is subject to the governing authorities.

If the enemy can make us hate the ones we must obey, he can undermine our citizenship both on earth and in heaven . . . for in loathing our national leaders rather than praying for them we rebel against our rulers in both kingdoms.

Our enemy would have us forget that we contend not against flesh and blood but “spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:12).  And from the prince of the power of the air a smug smile descends to blanket our land.

He has no power in the kingdom of God on high, the church triumphant, but he roams to and fro upon the earth, kicking over garbage bins on his playground, the secular sphere.  The contested territory is the church militant, where God has given His people for a brief season the privilege of contesting for our faith, of winning more souls to His cause.

Where then do we take our stand?  In the kingdom of heaven on this earth.  On the victory that the One who ushered in that kingdom has already won.  On the promise of His return in glory to make all things new.  This is our turf.

Our weapon is not politics but evangelism and discipleship.  We fight with the “sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God” (6:17).   This is how the kingdom of God advances.

How is He with us?  In the word He has given and the sacraments He has commanded – in baptism for the remission of sins; in Holy Communion, where we partake of the consecrated bread and wine according to His promise that He will be in us and we in Him.

He has equipped us with all the spiritual gifts needed to form ourselves into His church.  But we must be careful to define our mission in His terms and not our own.  Our weapon is not politics but evangelism and discipleship — but those are only weapons.

The main thing is worship.

And worship is where we make our stand.  If we do not worship in spirit and in truth – meaning in the power of the Holy Spirit and the truth of the Living Word – we will have nothing of value to say to the pagans we evangelize or to the immature Christians we disciple.

In worship we receive God’s grace by God’s appointed means; in worship we renew our covenant commitment to our Lord and Savior; in worship we ascend into the heavenly places to join our voices to those of angels and departed saints in choruses of praise to God; in worship we find our foretaste of glory divine.

In worship, we celebrate not what we will do . . . but what God has done.

This is where the war to end all wars will be won.  We will prevail with Him by standing our ground with Him where we meet with Him – at His table in His church.  When the people of God render to God the worship due God, He will claim His victory and we will have our reward, the glory of His eternal presence.  Amen.

 

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His Mercy Endures

The 21st Sunday After Trinity

Isaiah 59:15b-21, Psalm 76, Ephesians 6:10-20, St. John 4:46-54

 

His Mercy Endures

                Back in Colorado, we were living temporarily above 8,000 feet on a mountain about 30 minutes west of town.  In the fall, we could watch the elk gnaw on the trees near the house.  An eagle kept watch from his perch 50 yards away.  It was all awfully rustic.

One day I learned in the daily report that a varmint had penetrated our perimeter.

Now, you must understand that my wife grew up on a farm.  The appearance of a mouse does not excite in her hysteria of the stand-on-a-chair-and-shriek kind.

But in the washing machine?

In the way of his kind, little Tom or Jerry – we can’t be sure – proved elusive.  Even in that restricted space, she could not catch him barehanded.  She hatched a plan.

She returned with a piece of cheese and a plastic container.  That morsel of Muenster proved a fateful temptation.  When he pounced on the cheese she pounced on him.  Voila!  She held him captive.

She headed for the door, intending to release him into the wild where he could roam the Rockies, for all she cared, in search of more agreeable accommodation.  On the way, alas, he escaped his plastic prison and scurried off in the garage.

Oh, well.  She had flushed him from her washer.  So far so good.

But it was – I’d swear it on the Bible – the very next washday when she reported, “He’s back in the washer . . . the same mouse.”

The same mouse?

“I recognized him.”

Hmmm.

I of all people do testify to her patient and forgiving nature; still . . . she has her limits.  This time, no more Mrs. Nice Gal.  This time, that mouse underwent an Egyptian baptism in churning waters that do not part . . . followed by the spin cycle.

Then she cast the furry remains into that dusky netherworld where unrepentant rodents go to ponder the price of their transgressions.  That mouse could have accepted her grace with thanksgiving.  Instead, he vexed her once too often.

Many people are like that mouse.

St. John takes us to a fork in the road today.  At the end of the fourth chapter of his gospel, we find our Lord Jesus back in Cana, the scene of the first of His seven signs.  This time, He will perform a miracle more stunning by gallons than turning water into wine.

Of that first miracle, the evangelist has reported, “This beginning of signs Jesus did in Cana of Galilee, and manifested His glory; and His disciples believed in Him” (2:11).  The Lord went next to Jerusalem to celebrate the feast of the Passover, and there He performed more miracles.  These are not specified but because of them many more “believed in His name” (2:23).

Follow closely now the progression of events that ensues.  In Jerusalem, a Pharisee called “a ruler of the Jews,” Nicodemus by name, approaches Jesus under cover of darkness.  Nicodemus confesses that those miracles have proved to him that Jesus had “come from God” (3:2).

Flattery will get him nowhere.  Jesus stuns him with the announcement that to enter the kingdom of God one must be born again (3:3).  Huh?  Nicodemus is bewildered, and his confusion earns him scorn.

Jesus says, “Are you the teacher of Israel, and do not know these things?” (3:10). And, “If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how will you believe if I tell you heavenly things?” (3:12).

Poor ol’ Nicodemus . . . you just want to hug him.  He has taken the unthinkable step of paying homage to this radical rabbi from the hills who has just now thrown the money-changers out of the temple and claimed He could rebuild that temple in three days.  For his devotion he gets a tongue-lashing.

But Jesus does nothing without a purpose.  While Jews of no reputation, rustics in Galilee and commoners in the capital, believe in His name, the elite of Israel cannot conceive that Messiah has appeared.

Even those such as Nicodemus who do not oppose Jesus, who regard Him as one sent by God, do not grasp the nature of His Person and His mission.  This Jesus is the Light of the World.  His disciples come to Him in broad daylight, not when darkness blankets the Holy Land.  The wealthy and privileged know their Scriptures and the promise of a Savior they hold out; are they blind?

Yet how many today grow up in Christian homes, regular in worship and study, only to wander away and never return.  In my own family we have a young man, now in his middle 30s, who fled the faith in his late teens and appears bent on pushing back the frontier of immorality.  Will he ever come back?  God knows.

Nothing less than the kingdom of God has arrived in the Person of Jesus Christ.  He has come to the Jew first and then to the Greek (Romans 1:16, 2:10).  But the leaders of Israel, as represented by Nicodemus, the best of them, have inherited and perpetuated a legacy of calcification.

Over generations, over centuries, they have so corrupted the revelation God has given through the law and the prophets that when Messiah appears the best they can do is gawk at His mighty works with no understanding of the “why” of them.  They are like children entranced by a magician.

The worst they can do is seek to destroy this God who has challenged the kingdom of man they have constructed so painstakingly on a foundation of sand.

Jesus moves on.  We follow Him next, in chapter 4, moving northward through Samaria, where He encounters the woman at the well.  We see Him proceeding from a distinguished Jewish teacher to a most common creature.

She is not a Jew and, even worse, she is a member of that despised race of half-breeds descended from the Assyrian conquerors of the Northern Kingdom of Israel and the least of the Jews whom they left in the land.  She is not a male but a female, and as such her status is little higher than that of a bondservant.

She has a tarnished past and is today a fornicator.  Surely, Messiah would not waste a single moment, expend a single breath, on one such as her.

Oh, but He will.  God is unfurling His kingdom on the earth and if those to whom the great feast is offered will not enter, the King will call others.  Did He not say by His prophet Isaiah, “The Lord has made bare His holy arm in the eyes of all the nations; and all the ends of the earth shall see the salvation of our God” (52:10)?

Jesus says to this woman, “salvation is of the Jews” (John 4:22).  The Hebrew Scriptures taught throughout that salvation, in the Person of the Messiah, would enter the world through the Jewish nation.  Now He has, and His own do not know Him, but . . .

The Samaritan woman believes, and testifies to others in her city.  Many believe her, but then they believe in the One of whom she bears witness: “’Now we believe, not because of what you said, for we ourselves have heard Him and we know that this is indeed the Christ, the Savior of the world’” (4:42).

Not Jews but Samaritans echo the confession of John the Baptist, “Behold! The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” (1:29).

Stay with me in the flow, now, because our understanding of our text for today rises when we see in it the climax of the events that precede it.  St. John relates in the next two verses that after spending two days in that city of Samaria the Lord proceeds farther north into Galilee.  Why?

“For Jesus Himself testified that a prophet has no honor in his own country” (4:44).

He is going home to those who hold Him familiar.  He’s the carpenter’s kid, not a rock-star rabbi from the capital.  Who there will recognize Him for who He is?

His fellow Galilean Jews “receive” Him.  They welcome Him, treat Him with deference.  Why?  They have “seen all the things He did in Jerusalem at the feast; for they also had gone to the feast” (4:45).  They accord Him the drooling adulation of teen-aged girls at a concert, not the honor due a Prophet of God.

And now we arrive at the episode of the nobleman whose son is dying.  This man is probably a Roman official working in the administration of Herod Antipas, governor of Galilee.  The gentile government in the region is headquartered at Sepphoris, three-and-a-half miles from Nazareth, where Jesus grew up.

This nobleman lives in Capernaum, at the northern end of the Sea of Galilee.  Having heard of Jesus and His mighty works, he treks westward through the mountains to Cana, 20 miles distant, to plead for his son’s life.

And he, like Nicodemus, earns a rebuke.  “Unless you people see signs and wonders,” Jesus says to him, “you will by no means believe.”

Jesus is not addressing this gentile official alone but the Galileans who have thronged to this wonder-working rabbi.  St. John, who makes so much of the seven signs he shows us the Lord performing, is not condemning the signs themselves but those who will not regard them as manifestations of One endued with divine power and authority.

For the nobleman, the Lord’s words are a test of faith.  Will he skulk away, humiliated by the accusation that he is imploring help from a wizard rather than the Creator of heaven and earth?

“Sir,” he says urgently, “come down before my child dies!” (4:49). He did not come looking for a theology lecture; he’s trying to save his son.  He knows in the depths of his soul that Jesus has the power of life and death.  He is the life of the world.  Is that not the faith to which you and I are called?

But Jesus does not budge a single step.  “Go your way; your son lives,” He says (4:50).  And the man’s faith is sufficient.  He simply turns and goes, trusting.  And then he confirms, perhaps for the benefit of his servants he meets on the way home, that the boy’s fever broke at the time Jesus pronounced him healed.

“And he himself believed, and his whole household” (4:53).

The rulers of the Jews will not believe, but many Samaritans and now an official of the occupying force and his family and servants do.  From what does this love of God spring?  From need, need for a God who first loved us.

But one born into sin must put away pride.  He must first humble himself to admit his need for the saving power of One greater than he.

A nobleman of the ruling Romans pours out his need to a low-born carpenter of the subservient people.  You and I have the great privilege of approaching our Lord on His throne to beg, “Lord, have mercy upon us.”

First, the Jews of Jerusalem; next the Samaritans; then the gentile nobleman in Galilee.  The evangelist is showing us our Lord foreshadowing the mission of His church revealed in the Book of Acts.  In chapter 1, the resurrected Jesus says:

“But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be witnesses to Me in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (v. 8).

In chapter 2, St. Peter tells the Jews gathered in Jerusalem at Pentecost to repent and be baptized (v. 38), adding, “For the promise is to you and to your children, and to all who are afar off (the gentiles), as many as the Lord our God will call” (v. 39).

In chapter 10 we encounter the Roman centurion Cornelius who feared God “with all his household.”  In chapter 16, first Lydia and then the Philippian jailer come to faith and they and their entire households are baptized.  The kingdom is billowing out to blanket the known world.

In the fourth chapter of his gospel, meanwhile, St. John shows us his Lord and ours at that fork in the road.  He will take the path that leads to the cross, where He will make the final sacrifice – not for one tribe or nation but for those from all tribes and nations.

Opposition in Israel will mount even as Jesus’ fame grows among those enchanted by His signs and wonders until, in chapter 6, He tells the adoring masses, “. . . unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in you” (v. 53).

And His popularity plummets.  A gentile nobleman trusted in Him as the life of the world but Jesus’ fellow Jews will not make that radical confession.  Salvation is “of the Jews” but masses of the Jews will join their leaders in rejecting their promised Messiah.

For us gentiles, I suppose, there would be no end of comfort in leaving the story there.  Alas, we know too many people like the mouse who would not accept grace.

When I was attending another school before I moved over to our Reformed Episcopal seminary, Cranmer Theological House, I had a professor in a preaching class who told of his own father.

This man had heard the gospel of God’s salvation from his son, who was eminently qualified to present it, and he refused it.  “I want to go to hell,” he told his son, and no argument, no plea, could dissuade him.  “For the life I’ve lived, hell is where I deserve to be, and hell is where I want to go.”

Few are quite so candid, but many share the sentiment.

Rejection of the gospel burbles up from a pit of perverse pride that makes one’s own acts the measure of his worth before God and not faith in the consummate act of the Lord Jesus on the cross.  If only those who lived a meritorious life entered the kingdom of heaven, its population would never exceed Three.

But God’s mercy endures . . . and it extends to all who draw breath, to both Jew and gentile.  The way of salvation is open today to any Jew who will name Jesus as the promised Messiah.

Indeed, the New Testament shows Samaritans and gentiles embracing God’s grace in no small measure to fill the first covenant people with envy.  St. Paul writes in Romans 11 that he takes the gospel to the gentiles to “provoke to jealousy those who are my flesh and save some of them.”

The way is open to that young man in my family.  His Christian parents named him Paul and his namesake was once a sworn enemy of the Lord Christ.   The way is open, if he is still alive, to that seminary professor’s father.

Salvation dangles like low-hanging fruit before anyone who will join the gentile nobleman who humbled himself before a Jewish carpenter’s son, placing his trust in Jesus Christ as the life of the world.  His kingdom has come.  He abides with us today in His Holy Spirit.  He is our Redeemer, our Head, our joy  . . . and the hope of the world.  Amen.

 

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The 20th Sunday After Trinity

Psalm 11, Ecclesiastes 9:4-10, Ephesians 5:15-21, St. Matthew 22:1-14

 

The Reformation Proceeds

                And so we come, beloved, to a milestone in the long march of Christ’s church.  Two days hence, on October 31, the eve of the Feast of All Saints, we will mark the 500th anniversary of that momentous day when – according to the lore – a monk named Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the church door in Wittenberg.

So began the Reformation, at the outset an effort to call the church back to the Bible.  The result, alas, was a splintering of that church into thousands of pieces, some larger and some smaller, and the chaos that prevails today, half a millennium later.

Protestants fired the pope . . . and made every man his own pope.  We have divisions and divisions within divisions.  Nowhere are the fractures more evident than in our own Anglican Communion.

Its primates met earlier this month in Canterbury.  I would like to say “our” primates, but in truth they are not “ours” and we are not “theirs.”  Lest there be any confusion, they made this condition abundantly plain in the statement they issued to sum things up.

To those of us in the Anglican Church in North America they said, “you are not Anglican, but we love you as Christian brothers anyway.”

We are members in good standing of the Anglican Church in North America yet they tell us we are not Anglican.  It’s enough to give a guy an identity crisis.  I’m reminded of the fellow who wrote a book on the Indiana University basketball program that outraged its coach, Bobby Knight.

Knight – always a model of restraint – called this fellow a “pimp” and a “whore.”  The author responded, “I wish he’d make up his mind so I’d know how to dress.”

This analogy is perhaps not far off the mark because the wedge issue, as you know all too well, is human sexuality.  It carries us back 500 years to the question the German monk Luther raised: Will the Bible be our guide?

Because if it is, we must follow God’s instruction on what is and what is not an acceptable expression of the sexual nature He gave us.  We might reply to those primates who assembled in Canterbury: We know it is not necessary to be an Anglican to be a Christian, but is it necessary to be a Christian to be an Anglican?

Some of us remain stuck in the stodgy old notion that it is, and that to be a Christian is to follow God’s will revealed in His word.

One such is Nicholas Okoh.  He is archbishop and primate of Nigeria, and one of those who declined the invitation to the meeting in Canterbury.  Others may trifle with Nigeria but if you’re in the oil business or the Anglican business you take it very seriously.

Of 80 million Anglicans in the world, 60 million live in Africa and 24 million of those in Nigeria.  Archbishop Okoh speaks for well over a quarter of the Anglicans on this planet – and for even more.

He also serves as chairman of GAFCON, the Global Anglican Future Conference, which was established a decade ago to represent those of us committed to an orthodox expression of the faith once delivered to the saints.  Our Anglican Church in North America is a member of GAFCON.

He and other primates refused to participate in the conference this month because Canterbury previously issued sanctions against The Episcopal Church, which it recognizes as the Anglican province in the United States, for blessing same-sex unions and then reneged on its sanctions.

Canterbury’s trajectory could not be clearer.  The primates’ statement said: “We welcomed the news that the Church of England has embarked on a major study of human sexuality in its cultural, scientific, scriptural and theological aspects and anticipated considering the results of this work at a future meeting.”

Rest assured that the “cultural and scientific” aspects will trump the “scriptural and theological” ones, which will be mangled beyond recognition, anyway, and that at the next Lambeth Conference in 2020 the official Anglican Communion will embrace same-sex marriage as the doctrine of the church.

Answering for those of us Canterbury has declared non-Anglicans, Archbishop Okoh wrote:

“My dear people of God,

“On the 31st October, it will be 500 years since Martin Luther’s 95 Theses triggered the Reformation. He was fired by holy indignation because of the way ordinary Christians were being abused by a church which was turning the need for divine forgiveness into a money making machine through the sale of indulgences, but that led him on to see the root of the problem.

“The message of God’s free grace in the gospel had been buried under layers of superstition and human tradition, which Luther and the Reformers then exposed to the light of God’s Word. The recovery of the Bible as the first and foremost source of authority in the Church was the basic principle of the Reformation. Everything else depended on this and still does.”

And still does.  So here we are, these 500 years later, alienated from Rome and apart from one another.  Yet we are not adrift.  As long as we hold fast to that basic principle of the Reformation, as long as we embrace the Bible as the first and foremost source of authority in the church, we are not adrift.

This very issue that divides us, the matter of how we in Christ’s church are to relate to those who engage in deviant sexual practices, is often framed as one of inclusion.  It’s a red herring.  For the bottom-line issue is not who is welcome in this congregation but who is welcome in God’s kingdom.

And we find it addressed, of all places, in the Bible, and nowhere in sharper relief than in our gospel lesson for today, our Lord’s parable of the wedding feast of the king’s son.  This, says Jesus, is what the kingdom of heaven is like.  The son is about to wed and his father has planned a huge banquet in celebration.

The Lord’s first-century audience would have pictured with no difficulty the scene He was sketching.  In the Old Testament, God is married to His people; thus sin, and especially idolatry, is spiritual adultery.  We find the same analogy applied to the Son and His covenant people, the church, in the New Testament.

The kingdom of heaven has arrived on the earth in the Person of Jesus Christ, God the Son.  He has come to claim His bride, His church, and His Father wants to mark the glorious event with a feast.  He invites those with whom He made covenant centuries before, the Jews.

This would not be the initial invitation.  The invited guests would have accepted some time earlier, or made a pretense of it.  The king’s servants deliver the word that the feast is prepared.  The invitation is a summons as well.  This is their king who bids them appear, not the president of the local Kiwanis Club.

But they will not come.  The king sends out other servants and even sweetens the invitation by delivering the menu for the savory meal He has prepared.

Still, they will not come.  Some cite the press of business; these have chosen mammon over God.  Others let their hostility for their Lord gush out, seizing and killing the king’s messengers.  The king destroys them.  They were welcome here, in the kingdom.  They chose estrangement from the king, which is death.

Again, the king dispatches servants, this time to invite others.  These are the ones who have not known the Lord because they have been outside the community of His covenant people.  Now the servants bring them in to the marriage supper.  They throng the wedding hall.

Let us not glide over the description of the mixed crowd.  These guests are “both bad and good,” our text tells us.  This Lord who had suffered so patiently with rebellious Israel for centuries now invites not only virtuous gentiles but the vile as well – both bad and good.  And one of them, a representative of all who will not turn away from wickedness, attracts the King’s notice.

He has not put on a wedding garment, which represents that attitude of the heart that conforms the subject to the will and the way of his King.  And this King who would not tolerate in His realm the unrepentant and insubordinate among Israel will no more accept a gentile who refuses to mend his ways and respond in love to the law of a loving King.

But the King is just.  He does not dispatch the man without a chance to explain himself.  “Friend,” he says, “how did you come in here without a wedding garment?”  Allow me a paraphrase: “Are you welcome here?”

“And he was speechless.”

The King would have undressed a lie, so the undressed man spoke not at all.  Who was it, then, who consigned him to the outer darkness, the place of weeping and gnashing of teeth?  He made himself unwelcome here, in the kingdom of heaven.  The passage concludes:

“For many are called, but few are chosen.”

The many, both bad and good, receive the invitation to the feast, but the few who are chosen – the new chosen people of God – are not unlike the old chosen people in the most vital way.

“For they are not all Israel who are of Israel,” St. Paul declares in Romans 9.  The bad and the good were gathered together in the camp of Israel, but not every Jew was among the chosen.  For us today as for the Jews of old, it is the response of faith that marks one as among the chosen.

He who does not come in faith will not put on the garment of righteousness – the righteousness that is ours in Christ — and will find no place in the kingdom of God.  Only the poor in spirit will enter the abode of eternal glory.

And so, I ask again, are all welcome here?  And I say again, the question is a red herring.  In the end, it is not this congregation or any other, this priest or any other, but the Lord who extends the invitation.

He is the Head of His body the church and He knows how each heart comes dressed.  He will divide bad from good, tares from wheat, goats from sheep.

All may tarry at this church or at another and we must make those who come to us feel welcome among us, as we do.  Still, hugs are nice, but we cannot hug even our husbands and wives, sons and daughters, into the kingdom of heaven.

At the last, each one will arrive at a narrow gate and there the Son to whom the Father has given all power in heaven and on earth will stand as Judge. Beyond that gate, His Father has laid a feast that will never end.  In his vision of heaven, St. John hears the voice of a multitude crying out:

“Alleluia! For the Lord God Omnipotent reigns!  Let us be glad and rejoice and give Him glory, for the marriage of the Lamb has come, and His wife has made herself ready.  And to her it was granted to be arrayed in fine linen, clean and bright, for the fine linen is the righteous acts of the saints.”

The evangelist goes on, “Then (the angel) said to me, ‘Write: “Blessed are those who are called to the marriage supper of the Lamb!'”  And he said to me, ‘These are the true sayings of God.’” (Revelation 19:6b-9).

At the gate, the Judge will inspect the dress of each, and to those who wear no wedding garment, I suspect He will say, “Are you welcome here?”  And these will be speechless, for they have passed sentence on themselves.

Those who wear the fine linen that is the righteous acts of the saints have made themselves welcome in that place where the Lord God Omnipotent reigns.  And at His table here.

Beloved, we are indeed divided but we are not adrift . . . not as long as we remain faithful to that basic principle of the Reformation, the Bible as the first and foremost source of authority in the church.

As always, that’s the crux of the matter.  Pick any of the dust-ups within Christendom that pollute our worship and dilute our evangelism and it will reduce to this: Will we accept God’s word as definitive or will we substitute an understanding of our own devising?

From time to time, I see some long faces around here.  My own might even droop a bit once in a while.  Let us remind ourselves occasionally that God’s realm takes in a bit more than Tulsa.  If we will lift our gaze to the horizon we will see there are many more arrayed there who are for us than those who are against us.

Archbishop Okoh did not go to Canterbury.  He wrote:

“Anglicanism claims to be an expression of Reformed Catholic Christianity, but the Canterbury Primates Meeting held earlier this month shows once again that the Anglican Communion is in urgent need of a new reformation. I and a number of brother Primates (representing between us over half of practising Anglicans worldwide) did not attend as a matter of conscience.

“We cannot ‘walk together’ with those who have abandoned the teaching of the Bible, but that is what the Communiqué issued from the meeting encourages us to do. The painful truth is that the authority of Scripture is being replaced by the authority of Canterbury . . .

“So how should we move forward? The process of reformation is never smooth sailing, but we can be sure that as we remain faithful to our vision of restoring the Bible to the heart of the Anglican Communion, we shall have success in God’s good time. Already, Gafcon is enabling training, building global mission relationships, gathering the marginalised and resourcing Anglicans worldwide.

“Our next conference in Jerusalem in June 2018 will mark a further step in the great project of reformation begun ten years previously and by the grace of God will enable Anglicans around the world to walk together in the true communion of gospel partnership.”

The Most Rev’d Nicholas D. Okoh

Archbishop, Metropolitan and Primate of All Nigeria and Chairman, the GAFCON Primates Council

We are not adrift.  Luther’s spirit may be sputtering in Germany and flickering in the United States but it burns brightly in Nigeria and elsewhere.  God’s reformation of His church on earth will proceed until His work is done.  Amen.

 

 

 

 

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God’s Grace By God’s Means

The 19th Sunday After Trinity

Job 24:1-17, Psalm 72, Ephesians 4:17-32, St. Matthew 9:1-8

God’s Grace by God’s Means

                Richard Sharpe is a fictional soldier in the English army who goes to the Continent to wage war against Napoleon.  In camp one day, his commanding general goes for a ride, unaware that an enemy patrol is close by.  The enemy descends at the gallop.

If not for the alert and courageous intervention of Sgt. Sharpe, the general would be done for.  The grateful general commissions him.  And now for the low-born Sharpe, no end of trouble commences.

Lt. Sharpe’s immediate superior suffers a grievous wound in battle.  As he lies dying, the captain gives his sword to Sharpe, knowing the difficulty he will face commanding men with whom he once stood shoulder-to-shoulder.  Soldiers, the captain says, don’t see an officer up from the ranks as “touched by grace, set apart.”

They see him as they see themselves, as one of “the damned.”

Put another way, common soldiers want a man with uncommon blessing as their leader.  They cannot save themselves, and if their officer cannot save them he can at least train them and stand up for them.  He is their conduit, the one who receives orders from the high command and implements them at the level of “You take the left flank and you watch the rear.”

He must serve them as he commands them; he must monitor their condition and make it known to those above him if his men are too bloodied or too fatigued to fight.  He is their mediator . . . and, thus, their priest, for mediation is the priestly role.

Or once was.

St. Matthew shows us a healing today, and we have seen no shortage of our Lord’s healings as we have traipsed through the gospels this Trinity season.  In this instance, Jesus returns to Nazareth and some of the townsfolk bring to Him a paralytic.

The Lord responds to the faith of the man’s friends and provides the cure they seek, but this time He does something startling.  “Son, be of good cheer,” He says, “your sins are forgiven you.”

The scribes are scandalized.  “This Man blasphemes!”  Did not God say through His prophet Isaiah, “I, even I, am He who blots out your transgressions for My own sake”?

Who then is this Jesus of Nazareth who claims to scrub sin?  Does He suppose He is God?

Now again we find the poor in spirit trusting implicitly in this One who does things only God can do.  And again we find the proud and self-important, so keen on demanding proof, clamping shut their eyes to avoid the proof before them.

Jesus has read their thoughts.  Who can do such a thing?  Might He not be the long-awaited Messiah God would send, the One who would fulfill the law and, so doing, make Himself the perfect sacrifice for the sins of the world?

No, oh no.  For if He is, these scribes must look to Him for forgiveness of their own sins, a task they are managing smartly for themselves.  They are fulfilling the law by living perfectly according to its statutes.  They have no need of Another to lift that burden off of them.

Arise and walk, Jesus says to the paralytic, and the man arises and walks.  The multitudes marvel, but the hard of heart begin to scheme a way to trip Him up.  Jesus has cleansed a leper, healed many, rebuked the wind and waves.  No one complained.

But here, as He claims authority to forgive sins, comes the first sign of opposition to Him: He has taken for Himself the prerogative of God; He has gone too far. “This Man blasphemes!”

The scribes and Pharisees launch their campaign to expose Him for a fraud.  It will soon morph into a crusade to eliminate Him that will end at the cross.  Or will it end there?

The grave cannot contain our Lord Jesus . . . but He will depart of His own volition.  He will ascend to His Father on high and He will remain absent from the creation until He returns at a time of His Father’s choosing.

But His work will continue for He will establish on earth His church to carry on what He has begun.  He will send His Holy Spirit to empower and equip this body of which He is the head and He will pour out His grace on the world through this church.

And so we must not miss the puzzling plural with which St. Matthew concludes this passage.

The multitudes “marveled and glorified God, who had given such power to men.”  Not to a Man but to men.  Did not Jesus alone heal the paralytic?  What can the evangelist mean when he refers to such power given to men?

Good Protestants shudder.  They come close to crossing themselves.  St. Matthew might be referring to a priesthood.  He might be pointing ahead to those troublesome passages in chapters 16 and 18 in which Jesus tells His disciples that whatever they bind on earth will be bound in heaven and whatever they loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.

It sounds disturbingly like He is ordaining certain men with extraordinary authority to carry on His work.  Reformed theologians, intent on stamping out any vestiges of the Roman Catholic priesthood with its sacrificial function, arrive at this verse and they harrumph mightily.

One of the best of them, D. A. Carson, has written a splendid commentary on the Gospel of St. Matthew.   But this passage concerns Christ, he says, and not the church.  He dismisses as “unlikely” any notion that the church and its hierarchy are in view.  He neglects to tell us, however, what is “likely.”

God the Father is the God of grace and He has sent a Priest named Jesus to mediate grace to His people.  This One is the great High Priest, a Priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek.  But the evangelist tells us the people of Nazareth glorified this God who had given such power to men.

Can there be other, lesser priests, mere mortals whom God will use as ministers of His grace?  If so, might they be “touched by grace, set apart” as officers for God’s special purpose?

Two thousand years later, the questions echo – much louder, I suspect, than when St. Matthew penned his gospel.  In that day, this now-puzzling plural must have seemed plain enough.  The first Christians were all Jews and for them nothing was as unremarkable as a priesthood within the priesthood that was Israel.

“A kingdom of priests, a holy nation,” God had called them when He made covenant with them at Mount Sinai.  And in His next breath He set apart the tribe of Levi as the priestly clan who would be His agents to represent Him to His people and His people to Him.

So who would find it in the least odd that “a royal priesthood, a holy nation,” as the Jew St. Peter calls the church in the New Testament, would have within it a caste of priests, taken not from any clan but called by God from every people, nation, tongue and tribe to minister to His people and mediate between Him and them?

The mediator matters – not because I say so but because God says so.  When our Lord cleansed 10 lepers, He dispatched them to the priests to have their healing certified.  The law of Israel required that they receive that affirmation before they could return to the community.

The priests could not heal.  God had already done what only God can do.  But He sent them to the priests.

Oh, but that was on the other side of the cross . . .  Since our Lord offered the final sacrifice we have no need of a priest.  Well, on this side of the cross, this same Lord met a certain Saul of Tarsus on the Damascus Road and commissioned him to ordain presbyters – priests – for all the churches.

Why?  To referee fights over the color of the carpet?  No, to minister God’s grace to God’s people by God’s means.

The early church understood.  It instituted the two sacraments the Lord had commanded, baptism for entry into the covenant community and Holy Communion for frequent renewal of the covenant commitment.

It ministered the evangel – the gospel – to the people not merely to equip them for evangelism but to grow them in grace.

The apostles Christ had summoned ordained men called priests to follow in this work.  The church searched the Scriptures and found other means of grace God had given. It incorporated these into worship for the people’s sanctification – advancement in Christlikeness.

These were confirmation, ordination, the reconciliation of a penitent, marriage and anointing of the sick with oil.

A Christian marriage mirrors the covenant relationship between Christ and His church. It affords a godly man and wife the great privilege of raising covenant children in the nurture and admonition of the Lord, of sending them out into the world as witnesses of their Lord’s mercy and love.  It is holy matrimony, a means of grace, to be solemnized by a priest.

The reconciliation of a penitent sinner comes through confession of sins to a priest.  Would you not unburden yourselves of the curse of leprosy?  Go, show yourselves to the priests.  Would you not unburden yourselves of the curse of sin?  Go, confess your sins to the priests.

A priest of the new covenant can no more forgive sins than one of the old could cure leprosy, but he has authority to declare what God has done.

Sin, alas, infects those in the pulpits as well as those in the pews.  In the middle ages, those leaders elevated these “lesser” sacraments to the stature of the two the Lord commanded and used all the sacraments as means not of God’s grace but of man’s manipulation and control – and a revenue stream.

Finally, a monk named Luther cried out, “How can man barter what only God can provide?  How can man turn a profit on what God bestows for free on those He loves?”  The wonder is that there were not a million priests of God joining in chorus with Luther.

He gave the pendulum a shove in the opposite direction – but then others would not let it rest at the bottom of its arc.  They set out not to reform what Rome had corrupted – it was called the Reformation, was it not? – but to abolish.  Protestants threw the baby out with the holy water.

Out go robes and in come Hawaiian shirts.  Out go priests and in come buddies.  Out go the means of grace and in comes “I’m okay, you’re okay.”

The church of God looks moribund today, you say?  How could it not?  It must receive God’s grace before it can disseminate it in the world.  Confirmation, confession, anointing of the sick, even communion . . . many have tossed them out like a broken rosary and others have stopped little short.

Again, the leadership bears most of the blame – but now Protestants must share it with Rome.  A few years ago, I met a black man from a Caribbean island.  Andres is a physician by training, a missionary by calling and a high-ranking leader in a mission agency by gifting.

He grew up in the palace of his father, an Episcopal bishop among whose perks of office was . . . a mistress.  By God’s grace, Andres did not flee the faith so sadly modeled for him, but he did flee the historic church and go searching for pure and undefiled religion in other precincts.  Little wonder.

We – you and I — have the privilege of remaining in the church the apostles set in motion in the power of the Spirit on orders from the Lord.  The means of grace are lying in the open if we will only pick them up.

Tools once employed for a wrong purpose need not be cast away.  In the hands of those who would use them as the early churchmen did they will serve just as well now as then.  God’s people will receive blessing and He will receive glory.

Jesus healed a paralytic, showing compassion for one created in His image and demonstrating His power over disease.  He forgave the man’s sins, putting before all His authority to cleanse the spirit as well as the body.  He is the God of grace.

And through His priests today He heals by His means of grace.  Those disgruntled soldiers Lt. Sharpe commanded saw themselves as the damned.  You are not the damned but the redeemed.

Yet your redemption is not complete until you join that blessed company who dwell in the Lord’s presence, when you have no sickness to heal, no sin to absolve.

Until that glorious day, disease and sin will recur like a fungus.  So it is that God has made provision for ongoing treatment. He offers the healing of disease by anointing with oil and the absolution of sins through confession.

He wants His sheep tended.  He wants His healing, forgiving grace dispensed.  Christians once put a price on what God gives away for free.  Will we now throw away that grace as though it were void of value?

Each time we gather for Holy Communion, we petition God to “assist us with thy grace.”  In both of our daily offices, Morning and Evening Prayer, we offer thanks for God’s means of grace.  Will we thank Him for them and not use them?

When King David saw his sins against Bathsheba and Uriah in the enormity of their horror, he said to Nathan the priest, “I have sinned against the Lord.”  The priest replied, “The Lord also has put away your sin; you shall not die.”

In his first epistle, St. John assures his charges that if they confess their sins, a faithful and just God will forgive them of their sins.  He urges them to keep the Lord’s commandments and adds, “I write to you, little children, because your sins are forgiven you for His name’s sake.”

The church fathers in their wisdom saw that God’s absolution is not to be assumed but declared – by a priest.  The same mediator who ministers baptism for the remission of sins hears the sinner’s confession and pronounces forgiveness of sins.

The church of old erred in making confession to a priest mandatory, not in making it available.  Do it under duress and you will take a beating; do it from devotion and you will bathe in a blessing.

The redeemed should not live like the damned.  Absolution allows you to arise and walk.  It lifts your burden from you.  It grants you peace and frees you for your Lord’s service.  “. . . they marveled and glorified God, who had given such power to men.”  Amen.

 

 

 

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Spiritually Simple

The Eighteenth Sunday After Trinity

St. Matthew 22:34-46

 

Spiritually Simple

            By his own testimony, as a student at Cambridge University Charles Simeon was “spiritually careless.”  An almost flippant phrase.  If we could get round behind those words, what secrets would they tell?

In the year of our Lord 1779, Simeon faced a crisis.  The university requitudents to attend Easter Communion.  How could a “spiritually careless” young man partake of the gifts of God, and on the highest holy day of the year?

Simeon picked up “Instruction for the Lord’s Supper” by Bishop Thomas Wilson and began to read.

As he read, a sense of panic over his unworthiness set in.  Simeon fasted and prayed until he made himself ill.  But he read on, and at last he came to this explanation of the Old Testament sacrifices of atonement:

“The Jews knew what they did when they transferred their sin to the head of their offering.”

A tide of comprehension threatened to drown him.  “I can transfer all my guilt to Another.”  He decided in that moment, “I will not bear my sins on my soul a moment longer.”  He later wrote:

“Accordingly I sought to lay my sins upon the sacred head of Jesus; and on Wednesday began to have a hope of mercy; on the Thursday that hope increased; on the Friday and Saturday it became more strong; and on the Sunday morning, Easter Day, April 4th, I awoke early with those words upon my heart and lips, ‘Jesus Christ is risen today!  Hallelujah!  Hallelujah!’

“From that hour peace flowed in rich abundance into my soul, and at the Lord’s Table in our Chapel I had the sweetest access to God through my blessed Saviour.”  Such is the witness of Charles Simeon.

Can the gospel be so simple?  As I proceed step by agonizing step on my way to the death chamber, Another overtakes me and offers His life in payment for my crimes.  If this is the Christian proposition, what fool would spurn it – once he has awakened to the simple truth of it?

Charles Simeon would serve Holy Trinity Church in Cambridge as rector for 53 years and play a major role in the English evangelical revival.  Armed with an understanding of substitution, a “spiritually careless” young man morphed into a powerful preacher with a gift for making salvation simple.

The Pharisees, on the other hand, never quite caught on.

In our gospel lesson, St. Matthew marries two ideas that might first appear to have a compatibility issue, simplicity and sovereignty.  Flowing out of his inspired quill, they waltz on a cloud of cotton candy, missing not a single step.

Life in the kingdom becomes simple when we bow before our Savior as our King.  He commands, we obey.  You may keep your precious democracy.  Give me a Ruler ruthless in His love for His subjects.

Give me a Sovereign who spares nothing, not even His own life, to preserve His people in His sanctuary.  Give me a King who wraps me up in a love so irresistible I have no choice but to love Him back.

Let me submit my imperfect obedience in response to His perfect love.  He has promised me He will accept that paltry offering.  Put me down for a subject in the realm of a perfectly just King rather than a citizen in everyman’s deluded state.

Well, the Pharisees are back for an encore.  See how simple our Lord makes the gospel as they have another go at tripping Him up.  Do not miss the rhetorical thrust-and-parry.  Jesus has just now silenced the Sadducees on the question of resurrection, their cause célèbre, when the Pharisees trot out theirs – the law – to test Him once more.

If Ronald Reagan had been there, he would have said, “There you go again.”

A lawyer poses the question: Which is the greatest commandment?  This was the subject of an ongoing debate among the rabbis.  The Jews by this time had a corpus of law that had swelled to 613 statutes.  Their scholars peered at it from 613 directions in an effort to determine which were more “weighty” and which less so.

And so, Teacher, You with the big following and bigger ideas, what say Thou?  Which commandment is the greatest?

Jesus’ answer: Love.  Period.  He throws all 613 of their laws into a pot and turns up the heat to a roiling boil.  Let’s cook away all the silly stuff and see what good sauce is left.  He reaches back into their God-given Scriptures and plucks out two passages.

The first is from the Shema in Deuteronomy 6.  Pious Jews recited it twice daily.  Jesus tells them to love God with all their heart, soul and mind.  These are not distinct parts of the person but overlapping ones.  Give all of yourself to God.

The second is from Leviticus 19: Love your neighbor as yourself.  On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.  Again, He has made a summary statement.  The phrase “law and prophets” refers to the entirety of the Hebrew Bible.  He has distilled the 39 books of the Hebrew Scriptures into this: Love God, love your fellow man.

Oh dear.  A legalist runs from simplicity like it was leprosy, and then some.  Simplicity deprives him of endless hours of tinkering with something that had no need of fixing.  It robs him of the grandeur of explaining a thing to the great unwashed.  It cheats him of his rationale for manipulating a code to use it to make himself worthy.

In the chapter that follows, St. Matthew will report Jesus’ pronouncement of woes on the scribes and Pharisees.  In 23:23, the Lord says:

“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!  For you pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. These you ought to have done, without leaving the others undone.”

This rabbi from the sticks who didn’t attend “the right schools” is schooling the greatest theologians of the era on the law – by reducing it to the principle that underlies it and always has.  It has ever been, since that far-distant day on Mount Sinai when God gave Israel the 10 Commandments, the law of love.

Come to think of it, this simple Man from Galilee, the carpenter’s son, had a habit of using the simple things of this world to confound the wise.  Not intellectuals or aristocrats but ordinary fishermen.

Could it be to show that He calls all to a simple faith?  An ‘A’ in systematic theology is no ticket into the kingdom of God.  Just give me Jesus, without all the bells and whistles.  Bring your GED.  Don’t have one?  Bring your trust and love.  It is those who are wise in their own understanding who flunk.

Why study then?  Because the saved soul who would be sanctified, who would become like his Lord, must know all he can about this Lord.  We study not to attain grace but to grow in grace, and to make God’s grace simple for others.

Marjorie and I have friends named Jack and Clare who were missionaries in a Muslim country in North Africa.  Jack is from Texas, Clare is from the north of England, near Durham, where to my untrained ear the English sound more like Scots.  Clare was describing for us the church they planted in their town in North Africa:

“When visitors come to our church, our people ask ‘em, ‘Are ya Christian or are ya Muslim?’  And if the visitors say, ‘We’re Muslim,’ our people tell ‘em, ‘Well, ya better believe Jesus died for your sins ‘cause if ya don’ you’re goin’ to hell.’”

Is that simple enough for you?

Clare said, “Me and Jack, we kinda crrringe.”

God has His say through those who stumble over nuance.  What my King says . . . that’s what I say.

Because of what Christ has done – that straightforward act of substitution that overwhelmed Charles Simeon when the Holy Spirit revealed it to him in its splendid simplicity — we may rise with Him and enter – due to no merit in us – into the Father’s favor and the blessed company of His saints.

And as the way of attaining God’s grace is simple – in Christ Jesus – so also is our response to it that He commands – love God, love your neighbor.

The naked truth of it strikes the legalist mute.  “And no one was able to answer Him a word, nor from that day did anyone dare to ask Him any more questions.”

Oh . . . love.  Period.

Have you considered God’s servant Job?  He, too, ran out of questions.  After God speaks to him from the whirlwind Job sees “things too wonderful for me, which I did not know.”  From that point, he surrenders his demand that God must align His justice with Job’s notion of justice.

He discovers within himself the faith of a child, that simple, all-trusting faith that renders him what has been called a “holy fool.”  God’s reason becomes his reason, God’s desire becomes his desire, God’s wish becomes his command.

Now Jesus poses a question to those who have been trying to trap Him because they refuse to believe He is God, also known as the Messiah.  About this Messiah: “Whose Son is He?”

A first-century first-grader could answer.  “The Son of David.”  They know from their Scriptures the Messiah, or Christ, will come from King David’s seed, the tribe of Judah.

Jesus reaches back into those Scriptures again, to Psalm 110: “How then does David in the Spirit call Him Lord?”  “In the Spirit,” David was speaking with a prophetic voice.  This One whom David called “Lord” will sit at the right hand of God on His throne.

If your mightiest king called Him “Lord,” what must you think of Him?  Again, silence.  They will not utter the inescapable conclusion: that He must be David’s son in time and David’s Lord in eternity.  He is the One who has merged heaven and earth in Himself, that He might reconcile the two.

David was king over Israel; David’s Son is king over no trifling single human empire but over every people, nation, tongue and tribe.  And more than that, He is Lord over the heavens as well as the earth, over all His hands have made.

As the angel Gabriel declared to the virgin Mary of the One who would be born in the city of David:

“He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Highest; and the Lord God will give Him the throne of His father David.  And He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of His kingdom there will be no end.”

The enemies that will be made His footstool are not only the satraps and petty dictators who flex their muscles for a moment on the earth but the “spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places.”

These first four verses from Psalm 110 will become the Old Testament passage most quoted by New Testament writers, who cite it to establish the Messiahship of Jesus, a priest according to the order of Melchizedek.  He became a priest that He might serve as our Mediator with the Father, bridging the chasm our sin has torn between God and man. . . but Jesus was first a King.

And in a monarchy, which happens to be God’s preferred mode of government, the King hung the moon – in this case, literally.  I’m reminded of Susan’s query to Mr. Beaver about Aslan the lion, the king of beasts, who represents Jesus in “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.”

Susan asks, “Is he quite safe?”  Mr. Beaver replies:

“Who said anything about safe?  ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good.  He’s the King, I tell you.”

Hear any complexity there?  We can call a meeting, interpret the data, tease out the nuances, consider the contingencies, anticipate the consequences . . . We may amuse ourselves endlessly in this fashion or we can declare, “What the King says goes,” and get on with it.

Is He quite safe?  By no means!  He is ferocious in His love.  And a subject’s response of love to his King is submission.  Not from fear, neither from hope of gain.  But from a love that tries, at least, to match the intensity of our Lord’s love for us.

If I do not obey enough, it is because I do not love enough.  And I do not.

But one day, I will succeed.  It will be so simple then.  I will dismantle the gates that guard the ego, hurl incredulity and irony into the outer darkness.  Imagine a trust without rust, a faith never faltering.  Where’s the nuance in that?

You may keep your precious democracy.  I ache to kneel before the One David called “Lord,” to see at last with the eyes of my head the One I adore now with the eyes of my heart.

Give me bondage or give me death!  Just let my Ruler be the One who died for me.  Let me His servant be for all eternity.  Amen.

 

 

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Humble Thyself

The Seventeenth Sunday After Trinity

St. Luke 14:1-1

Humble Thyself

                When I was a deacon, it occurred to me one day that the people in the parish I was serving needed to know how smart I am.  I puzzled over how to turn on that light for them.  Finally, I settled on a course of action.

I decided to pick an argument with Mr. Harrington.  He teaches humanities in a private school.  When I was a kid – going to public school – all we knew about humanities was that it was something like the SPCA.

In our neighborhood, when you found a stray dog, you knew sure as you knew Mickey Mantle’s batting average that your dad wasn’t going to pay to feed him so you took him down to the humanities society shelter.

But now I know that humanities is something you’ve got to be really smart to learn.  Anybody who teaches it must be a big brain.  So when I won my argument with Mr. Harrington, everyone would see how smart I am.

But then I decided, no, instead of Mr. Harrington I’ll pick an argument with another parishioner, Dr. Bob.  He’s a Rice University guy with a Ph.D.  When I was a kid – going to public school – I was the oldest of three in a family in which no one had ever gone to college.

I mean the whole extended family.  My dad told me from the time I was gnawing on his ankles, “Boy, you’re goin’ to Rice.”  I came to think of Rice as my destiny.

So when the time came I headed over to Rice and said, “Here I am!”  And they said, “Great!  Do you want to cut the grass or mop the halls?”  So that didn’t go awfully well . . . but I’ve gotten smarter since then.  I knew when I won my argument with Dr. Bob everyone would know how smart I am.

But then I thought, no, all of Dr. Bob’s degrees are in history and political science.  I want to win an argument with a theologian.  So I decided I’d pick an argument with our rector, the Very Rev. Dr. Curtis I. Crenshaw.  He was also dean of our seminary.

When I was a kid – going to public school – we figured anybody with a title like that had to be bigger’n the pope . . . or even Joel Osteen.  When I won my argument with him they’d all have to admit how smart I am.

But then I thought, if you’re going to pick an argument with a theologian, why not go straight to the top?  I’ll start an argument with God.

And that, I suppose, is something like the thought process the Pharisees used in deciding to take on Jesus Christ.

It didn’t go so well for them.  I had a better chance of getting into Rice.

But they’re at it again today.  St. Luke gives us in chapter 14 the third occasion on which our Lord heals on the Sabbath.  The Pharisees are shocked – shocked, I tell you!  Exactly as they had planned to be.

On the Sabbath at the house of one of the chief Pharisees, Jesus heals a man with dropsy, or edema, a condition that causes one to retain water and swell.  We might conclude he was a throw-down sick guy, that the Pharisees had planted him there to lure Jesus into an illegal healing . . . but that would be speculation.

We know for certain that they were watching our Lord closely – trying to catch Him out.  Again.  And again we see His mastery of them.  He uses their arrogance in thinking they could bait Him, their condescension to a hillbilly rabbi from Galilee, to teach humility.

Let’s bear in mind that in his gospel St. Luke is giving an account of the Lord’s ministry to someone he addresses as “Most Excellent Theophilus.”  The name means “Lover of God,” but that’s all we know about him.  The evangelist is relating what Jesus did and laying out the case for why He did those things.

At the Lord’s first Sabbath healing, St. Luke recounts, the Pharisees were “furious.”  At the second, they were “humiliated.”  Along the way, St. Luke lets us know that Jesus had informed them that One “greater than Solomon” had come.

He is wiser than the wisest man who ever lived . . . and still they refuse to listen to the saving wisdom He brings but instead try to match wits with Him.

At the end of chapter 13, St. Luke reports Jesus’ lament over Jerusalem, which “kills the prophets and stones the ones who are sent to her.”  Now in chapter 14, he presents more evidence of the Pharisees’ intransigence.  Another Sabbath healing.  More outrage.

They are both furious and humiliated once more, of course, but this time we learn that they fall silent.  If you had a farm animal that fell into a hole on the Sabbath, Jesus asks, would you not render the simple mercy of pulling it out?  He is saying, by implication, if you would help a dumb beast, why would you not help a man?

They have no answer.  But neither do they repent – change their thinking.  I see your point.  I can’t refute it.  But still I choose not to change my opinion to fit the facts; I’d rather burrow deeper into my own corrupted attitude in which I have lived so comfortably for so long.

Sound familiar?  To return to Solomon for a moment: “There is nothing new under the sun.”

For centuries, the Jewish leaders had stoned the prophets God sent to condemn their sin and preach repentance.  St. Luke has told us in his gospel of the arrival of John the Baptist, the final Old Testament prophet, who came preaching a baptism of repentance.  The enemies of God killed him as well.

Now appears the final Prophet, God’s own Son.  St. Luke and his fellow evangelists show us healing after healing to demonstrate the Lord’s great patience, to leave no doubt that He produced repeated signs and wonders as evidence of His mercy and power for any who would soften their hearts.

And the Pharisees turn a deaf ear to Him as well.  Soon they will shout, “Crucify!  Crucify!”

Surely you see, Theophilus, Lover of God, how desperately God ached in His great heart for His chosen people to return His love.  Surely you see, Christian, how great was the sacrifice of our Lord Christ for those who would bear His name.

Jesus tells the dinner party a story of a banquet.  The most important guests often arrived last.  If you should be at such a function, do not claim one of the best seats – those nearest the host – lest that host ask you to give way to someone greater than you who arrives late and you suffer shame.

Take a lesser seat and perhaps the host will bid you move up closer.

The leading cause of humiliation is lack of humility.

Our good news for today has to do with humility.  The bad news about the good news is that our Lord addressed it not only to a small gathering in a home in first-century Palestine but to us as well.  Jesus says to us today:

“Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”

Then and now, a proud sinner wants to spit up the medicine of humility the way I used to gag on my grandmother’s cod liver oil.  Just look at the Pharisees.

In the arrogance of their self-justification, their determination to redeem themselves by their observance of the silly statutes into which they had twisted God’s good commandments, they made themselves blind to the kingdom of God as it paraded before their eyes.

Throw away your empty ritual, purge the books of nonsense laws.  The One who will offer the final sacrifice, the One who fulfills the law of God . . . has come.  Perfect Grace walks among you on two legs and He is making all things new.

Healing is the very essence of the Sabbath.  Nothing could be more fitting than to restore men to perfect health for that is the state in which we will spend our eternal rest in the presence of the God of glory.

No dropsy, no disease or defect will we carry there.  Christ is lifting from us the palsy of our sin and making us clean and whole to dine at His table.

Arrogance has no place at that table.  Jesus, the washer of feet, has come bearing the gift of humility.  He bestows it through His Holy Spirit on those who will receive it.  Receive it!  You will not enter the eternal Sabbath without it.

The Pharisees embraced the Sabbath and shunned healing as they sought righteousness and rejected repentance, as they pursued knowledge and spurned godly wisdom, as they grabbed at glory for themselves and denied honor to others.  They were master builders of the kingdom of man and a wrecking crew running loose in the kingdom of God.

They prayed for a demagogue and when God sent not the one they wanted but the One they needed they executed the divine deliverer.

But He lives on in His Holy Spirit, who dwells in you, bidding you not to quench the Spirit but to reveal Christ to a lost and hurting world that is desolate without the healing gift of humility.  “The queen of the Christian graces,” it has been called.

God bestows the gift of prophecy on some, of teaching on some.  He favors some with talent to praise Him with glorious playing and singing, some with uncommon courage to take the witness into hostile places.  But He offers the gift of humility to all.

Unlike the Pharisees, those who receive this gift can produce an answer.  It begins with repentance.  Absent confession of sin there is no sorrow for sin and absent sorrow for sin there is no remission of sin.  On the seventh day, God entered into His Sabbath and threw open its gates to the creature He made as the crown of His creation.

Our prideful rebellion has cost us the fullness of it in this life but our Lord has come to restore it to those who will kneel before Him and accept His healing gift of humility.

Here’s a definition of humility: putting the interests of God and our fellow man ahead of our own.  No, wait a minute . . . that’s the Great Commandment.  To love God and love my neighbor as myself is to humble myself.

I will not pretend expertise in the field of humility – there’s a minefield for you – but I can claim some recent experience in it.  When I decided on a change of course well into middle age, I unwittingly set myself up for a baptism of humility.

In my previous incarnation I had traipsed through press boxes and locker rooms, never feeling ill-equipped for the challenges I encountered.  Even in dealing with general managers and owners of professional franchises it never occurred to me that I could not hold my own.

But when I began a transition into vocational ministry God placed in my path some men before whom I stood in awe.  I think of two in particular who set their courses early in life and prepared for God’s service at a level beyond my imagining.

They studied the classics alongside the Scriptures, learned languages, read the great books, interacted with the thought of the great thinkers.  They trained at a graduate level at the best schools for secular vocations that gave them a platform for their ministries and a means of support for their families.

I learned to check my opinions and pay close heed to theirs.  I developed enough wisdom to understand that when there are faster guns around I’d better keep mine in its holster.

One of these men founded an agency that is pushing the gospel into dangerous, faraway places.  The other founded a Christian college and honored me by asking me to teach Bible and New Testament Greek.

One of my students, named Sean, came to us having devoured the high school curriculum for home schoolers by age 14.  While he was taking Greek with me and Latin with another teacher as well as an intensive great books course and a full academic load, he and a friend began learning French, Spanish and Italian for fun.

I taught him biblical Greek for two years and then he wanted to read Homer in the original.  I had never studied Homeric Greek but I said we would tackle it together.  Halfway through our first semester I watched Sean barreling into the distance as I was struggling to get out of the starting blocks.  I blessed him and sent him off of an odyssey to find a better teacher, if he needed one.

If I wanted a vocation in His kingdom, God seemed to be telling me, I would need a bucketful of humility. And for a hard case like me, He would provide a few extra blessings.

In the first seminary I attended, I sat under the teaching of men three decades my junior.  Along the way, I heard it said that if you want to find a person in any field acutely aware of his ignorance, look for one with a Ph.D. in that discipline.  So far, I have achieved only a master’s level of ignorance – but even that is imposing.

I became a postulant for holy orders at age 61 and watched younger men race past me on the ordination track because I was required to put in my time in the denomination before I could sit for the deacon’s exam.  Sometimes grudgingly, I learned to give honor to those to whom honor is due.

Serving in that parish in which our seminary dean, Dr. Crenshaw was rector, I found myself in strong disagreement with him on two occasions.  I gave him my views and swallowed hard.  God had made him rector, not me.  Until the day I was ordained a priest I addressed him as “Fr. Crenshaw,” never by his first name.

I had come to see that he did not need to be exalted; I needed to be humbled.  That realization helped me to grasp that God does not need to receive my worship; I need to offer it.

By this time I was thinking, well, Lord, maybe I’m getting overqualified in humility . . . but He had a different view.  Still does.

On high, He beckons us into His Sabbath rest – if only we will accept His healing gift.

The God who commands us to forgive others if we desire His forgiveness tells us to exalt others if we yearn for exaltation into His glorious presence.  We can join the Pharisees in picking an argument with God or we can bow low before Him and offer thanks for His healing gift of humility.

It is only when we lose ourselves that we find ourselves – in Christ the Giver.

When I was a kid, going to public school, I thought it would be way cool to run the world.  Now I consider it a privilege to serve the One who made it.  Amen.

 

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Jesus Saves!

The Sixteenth Sunday After Trinity

Psalm 116, Ephesians 3:13-21, St. Luke 7:111-17

 

Jesus Saves!

                In our gospel lesson today, St. Luke gives us a story only he tells.  A man has died and is on his way to his grave.  His mother leads the funeral cortege and a substantial number of the townsfolk follow the litter that bears the body.

Uninvited and unannounced, Jesus shows up.  The dead man’s mother is a widow already, and this is her only son.  She will be utterly without support, destitute.  Jesus feels compassion for her.  He consoles her, and then He speaks a word of life: “Young man, I say to you, arise.”

The corpse sits up . . . and speaks.  Oh, my.

I’m reminded of a M*A*S*H episode, or maybe it was the movie: Hawkeye and Trapper are at a funeral for a man who has died in camp.  Well, the “corpse” sits up in the coffin.  Hawkeye looks at Trapper and says, “I thought you said he was dead.”  Trapper says, “So . . . he got better.”

And these are surgeons.  So much for medical science.

I know a lawyer who tells the story of a trial.  The prosecutor calls the medical examiner as a witness and asks all the routine questions: Did you examine the deceased?  What was the cause of death?  Etc.

Then the eager, young defense lawyer goes to work: Did you check the man for a pulse?  No.  Did you listen to his chest to learn whether he might still be breathing?  No. Well then, how can you be certain he was dead?

“Well,” says the doc, “his brain was in a jar on my desk.”

Now that’s scientific.  But for our purposes it doesn’t quite settle the matter.  When is a dead man dead?

The widow’s son is dead, and then alive.  What happened?  And who made it happen?  A short time ago we saw Jesus heal 10 lepers.  That story made us consider a question.  Today, we confront the same question in an even more forceful way: Who is this Jesus of Nazareth?

And that is precisely the question He intended those present in the town of Nain to examine.

Overcome by awe, the folks in the funeral procession speculate that a great prophet has appeared in their midst.  And they’re right, but incompletely so.

Centuries before, another great prophet, this one named Elijah, had performed a remarkably similar restoration.  In 1 Kings 17 we find Elijah lodging in the home of another mother of an only son, also a widow.

When the prophet arrives, she is destitute, about to use the last of her food to prepare a final meal for her young son and herself before they die of starvation.  By the power of God, Elijah provides food that does not run out.  The son falls sick, however, and dies.  The prophet calls on God and the son revives.

The people of Nain grasp the parallel.  They summon Old Testament language: “God has visited His people.”  And St. Luke wants us to see it.  He uses the same language of Jesus as that employed to describe what Elijah did next: He presented the son to his mother.

A prophet is one who makes God present in the world by representing perfectly what God has revealed.  He does not interpret God’s message to His people but delivers it precisely as he received it from on high.

The people of Nain know about prophets.  They know that Elijah did not taste death.  God sent a chariot of fire which carried him heavenward on a whirlwind.  They know of the promise of Elijah’s return.  This man, too, revives the dead.  Could this be Elijah, now come again?

Who is this Jesus of Nazareth?   The people say, “A great prophet has risen up among us.”  Could he be greater even than Elijah?  He has touched the litter used to transport the dead man to the graveside.  No Jew – and certainly not a rabbi – would make contact with a corpse, or anything touching a corpse.

He would suffer ritual defilement and face a lengthy, expensive process of purification before he could resume his normal life.  But this one shows no more worry over contact with the dead than with what to have for breakfast.

No fear of death?  More than that, power over death.  Who could be so courageously casual when confronted with death?  Might He be the Author of Life?  Who is this Jesus of Nazareth?

Ah, but we know.  From our perch on this side of the cross, this side of the empty tomb, we have no doubt about who He is – not Elijah but the final Prophet, the One God promised through Isaiah.  The Prince of Peace has stepped into His creation.  God the Son has made the Father manifest in the world.

In the next passage in this very chapter, St. Luke reports on John the Baptist sending messengers to the Lord to inquire, “Are You the Coming One?”  Jesus replies, “Go and tell John the things you have seen and heard: that the blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised . . .”

John the Baptist is the manifestation of Elijah, the forerunner of the Messiah.  Jesus of Nazareth is One greater than he.

Yes, we know who this Jesus of Nazareth is.  And because we do, how strange it is that in our place and time we face another question: Who is this God?  Surely there is a dispute in the Lord’s church today on that very issue.  Because when I hear some speak of the Lord and His salvation I imagine a scene in heaven:

St. Peter approaches the throne with the daily report from earth.  He bows low before the Father and then steps forward and places a stack of papers in His hand.  The Father reads one page after another and as He finishes each He passes it to His Son seated at His right hand.

When they finish, the Father says, “A good catch today, Son. Well done.  And we must remember to compliment our Holy Spirit.”

The Son says, “Yes, Father, a nice one, indeed.  And I’m so pleased about Sally from XYZ Community Church in Broken Arrow.  Such a lovely girl.  I was so hoping she’d make a decision in My favor and enter our kingdom.”

What?  He’s God.  He doesn’t wake up every morning wondering who will choose to spend eternity with Him.  And He didn’t get a sneak preview in eternity past of events over which He has no control.

I have read the Bible from cover to cover more than once and I have yet to find a single instance of God reacting to man.  I haven’t noticed Him calling an election.  I haven’t seen Him seek advice from His creatures.

Neither man’s decision nor his indecision binds God.  Neither man’s action nor his inaction binds God.  God will do as God will do.  And if I do not understand what God does, He’s not the one with the problem.  I have a problem only faith will solve, and faith comes only from God.

Yet we cannot be surprised.  Think with me for a moment on the history of the church under both old and new covenants.  Under the old, God forgave His people Israel repeatedly.  He chastised them and finally judged them with bondage in foreign lands.

Even after Judah’s return from its Babylonian captivity, God’s people returned to disobedience and idolatry.  In time, they came under the domination of foreign rulers in Syria.  The worst of these, Antiochus IV Epiphanes, tried to stamp out the Jewish religion without a trace.  He went so far in his sacrilege as to sacrifice a pig upon the sacred altar in Jerusalem.

Among those who resisted were a group called the Pharisees.  They were good and faithful Jews who wanted to preserve their ancient religion in the form God had given it to them – including the covenant sign of circumcision, Sabbath worship and their Holy Scriptures, all things Antiochus forbade.

But by the first century, as the New Testament opens, we find them practicing a perverted religion in which they justify themselves by obeying trivial rules they have formulated that have nothing to do with God’s law and in many cases deny it.

At the center of their religion has been the temple, God’s dwelling place on earth.  The Pharisees and their cronies have corrupted the priesthood, kicked God out and taken over His temple.  Now Messiah appears and declares Himself the new Temple.  The Pharisees must not permit Him to replace the temple they “control.”

The Pharisees have become so intoxicated with their man-made righteousness that when their promised Messiah appears on earth to save them they view Him as a threat to their religion.  They clamor for His crucifixion.

Not many years after the Lord’s execution, the Romans destroy that man-made temple and the members of God’s first church flee Jerusalem and scatter on the winds.

God’s next church has by now sprung up.  Men and women of abiding faith in the Lord Jesus Christ as their Savior stand fast on that faith and many die in the persecutions of the early centuries.  Like the Pharisees before them, they cling fiercely to the truth God has given them.

But when the trials end, when Christianity becomes comfy as an old cardigan, what do we see?  In the Middle Ages, men multiply the sacraments.  No longer are there only the two the Lord mandated, baptism and Holy Communion, but now seven.

More sophisticated than the Pharisees, Christians seize upon good things God has given – marriage, confession, prayers for the dying – and twist them into means of justifying the self.  Once again, man has put himself at the center, in the place reserved for God.

A tide of reform rolls through the church.  Salvation, these Reformers shout, comes by God’s grace through man’s faith – and that faith comes from God.  Read Ephesians chapter 2 . . . in Greek, in English, in Lithuanian.  It says the same: salvation comes by grace through faith which God supplies.

The Reformers got it right . . . and launched the Protestant church.  And much of the Protestant church in 21st-century America insists that Sally at XYZ Community Church must rise from her pew and walk to the front and declare her decision for Christ as her Savior . . . and without such affirmation on her part God cannot save her from the penalty of her sins.

Rejecting the Roman view of added sacraments, these have added a sacrament of their own, the altar call.

Some make bold to say that Sally, if she cannot cite the day and the hour that she chose Christ, is not truly saved.

I would enter a personal note in the record here.  I experienced the sort of epiphany they describe.  I can roll out the date, hour and other details of my salvation.  And I submit that the idea that God cannot save by other means is balderdash.

God will do as God will do.  His usual way of salvation involves Christian parents raising covenant children in a loving, nurturing, church-going, Bible-believing home.  Most Christians have no road-to-Damascus moment to report and they are no less Christian for it.

At Nain, no one invites Jesus to the funeral.  Elsewhere, we see Him healing in response to a plea from those afflicted.  Ten lepers cry out, “Lord, have mercy upon us.”  We find Him healing after a relative or friend has entreated Him. A father or a centurion begs him to perform a miracle.

In the case of another resurrection, the sisters of Lazarus, Mary and Martha, implore their Lord to come and restore health to their gravely ill brother.

Elsewhere, we see Jesus rewarding belief with healing: “Your faith has made you well.”

But at Nain, He appears uninvited and unannounced.  No one appeals to Him.  No one demonstrates faith in His powers.  The widowed mother asks for nothing and receives His great compassion.

“Do not weep,” He says to her.  Anyone can console with empty words; this One can lift away the cause of her weeping – for no other reason than His care for one He has created in His image.

The corpse who is this mother’s son has not sprung up in response to an altar call.  We have no cause to see in him any faith that has made him well.  God’s unmerited favor is the one and only cause of his salvation.

Oh, but Preacher . . . Jesus raised him but we don’t know that He saved him.  This widow’s son might have died again and gone to hell for all we know.

I think not.  As we work our way through these stories of healing and resurrection over and again we see physical and spiritual salvation sloshing together like bourbon and branch water.  You couldn’t separate them with a centrifuge.  St. Luke is presenting a picture of new life that transcends the raising of an anonymous first-century Jew in a backwater in Palestine.

The people of Nain saw God snatch one away from the grave.  They had to wonder, Who is this Jesus of Nazareth?  You and I . . . well, we have seen Jesus Himself rise from the tomb, and still we must ask, Who is this God?  St. John offers a good, crisp answer:

“For as the Father raises the dead and gives life to them, even so the Son gives life to whom He will.”

God will do as God will do.  He is King of kings and Lord of lords.  And in that great truth is our great hope.

Like many of you, I have unsaved loved ones.  They are dead in their trespasses and sins.  How dead are they?  Their brains might as well be in jars on the coroner’s desk.

If I were trusting in them to save themselves I would be awash in tears.  The Pharisees multiplied laws.  Roman Catholics of the Middle Ages – and beyond – have multiplied sacraments.  Protestants of our day have invented a new one, the altar call, and made it the fulcrum of salvation.

All have begun with the brightest of motives and slid into the swamp of self-justification.  But

at Nain, uninvited and unannounced, our Lord saved a young man from death not because of any good He found in him but out of God’s unmerited grace.  Thanks be to God!

Oh, but Preacher . . . you have made God a puppet master.  He yanks the strings and we get jerked around.  Have I?  Repeat after me: “There is none righteous; no, not one.”

If 10 men commit murder and are convicted and sentenced to execution, and if the governor should pardon one, is the governor responsible for the death of the nine?

God grants pardons.  And I would be a very great liar indeed if I claimed to know His criteria.  But I know this: Man will yield to the deathward tug of his sinful flesh but God gives life to whom He will.  That is my belief and my hope.

And this is my prayer: that like the widow’s son at Nain, like me, my unsaved loved ones, and yours, will appear in that blessed company of the saved – not because of any good in them but because of the great mercy of our Lord.  Amen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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An Attitude of Gratitude

 

The 14th Sunday After Trinity

Micah 6:1-8, Psalm 19, Galatians 5:16-24, St. Luke 17:11-19

An Attitude of Gratitude

Before I moved over to Cranmer Theological House I attended a well-known, well-regarded Texas seminary . . . until I escaped.  One day I was drowsing through one of those dreadful Christian education classes when something interesting actually happened.

                In this class were 25 or 30 students, and maybe six or eight were black.  One of the white folks piped up with an opinion that there is so much more grace in black churches than in white ones.  White churches, we were told, are legalistic and judgmental whereas black ones exhibit compassion and charity.

A number of other white folks chimed in and before long I was in the throes of an identity crisis.  I was in an integrated church, about half-black and half-white, and it occurred to me we must be schizophrenic – compassionate legalists, or something.

Well, one of my classmates was a young, black fellow who was a youth pastor in a black church in an adjacent county.  He might have been in one of those denominations that ordain a guy first and then train him but I had found him to be a bright, reflective young man.

This opinion was confirmed when he joined in the discussion on black and white churches.  “Well, maybe so,” he said, “but in the black churches in my county over the last year we’ve had so much grace that I wonder if we have any accountability left whatsoever.”

That cooled some peoples’ jets.  We sinners can fold, spindle and mutilate God’s grace until it bears no resemblance to the original.  We twist it into a parody that makes sin O.K. because we choose to call it something else.  This is now not grace but license.

St. Paul locks onto the problem in his letter to the Romans.  The only medicine for our sin is God’s grace, of course, but he sees how some might contort his argument: If sin provokes grace, we should sin even more and reap more grace.  If you’re not aware of the problem with that line of thought, look me up later.

In our gospel lesson we encounter 10 lepers who stand under a waterfall of grace.  Jesus heals them – just like that.  In the Bible, infirmity and disease often represent sin.  When we see a leper healed, we’re seeing a sinner cleansed.

But of the 10 He heals only one gives thanks.  In the Bible, grace and gratitude are tighter than peanut butter and jelly.  The New Testament word for grace is charis and the word for thanksgiving is eucharistia.  Listen again: eu-charis-tia.  Grace is the root of thanksgiving.

So it is that we approach the Lord’s table to take in the grace of God in the Eucharist.  After we receive the bread and wine, the body and blood, our first words are, “Almighty and everliving God, we most heartily thank thee . . .”

Only one of the 10 lepers turns back to give thanks to God, and he is a Samaritan.  St. Luke invites us to ponder what sets the one Samaritan apart from the nine Jews.  The Jew Jesus of Nazareth makes it plain He has come to scatter God’s grace among His own – first to the Jew and then to the gentile.  Yet this outsider is the only one to give thanks.

A week ago, Luke showed us the good Samaritan, he who gave aid and succor to the man left beaten and dying on the roadside after his fellow Jews passed him by.

We’re up to our gunwales in Samaritans and healings.  The evangelist – and the lectionary – are pointing us to something.

When the hated Assyrians herded the 10 northern tribes of Israel into exile more than seven centuries before Christ, they populated the vacated territory, known as Samaria, with their own people.

These intermingled with the smattering of Jews the conquerors had left behind because they were too wretched to be of any use in captivity.  From this humble stock came a race known as Samaritans.  When the Jews to the north in Galilee and the south in Judea looked at Samaria, they saw a field planted with bad seed.  They despised the Samaritans as half-breeds.

When these pure Jews returned from their own captivity in Babylon, they set about rebuilding their temple in Jerusalem.  The Samaritans offered assistance.  When the Jews spurned them, we learn at the close of the Old Testament, the Samaritans menaced them during construction.

The Samaritans went on to build their own temple on Mt. Gerizim.  In 128 B.C., the Jews razed it to the ground.  Historians tell us the hatred played out over even more centuries.  In an age without a calendar on every laptop, the Jews lit a fire in their capital to signal the beginning of the annual Passover celebration.

More Jews lit more fires to the east in a series until the announcement had traveled all the way to the River Euphrates, hundreds of miles away.  Samaritans bedeviled this system by starting fires of their own on nearby dates to confuse the timing.  Imagine celebrating Easter on the wrong Sunday and you have a sense of the skullduggery at work here.

When Jesus’ Jewish revilers summon the most venomous insult they can hurl at Him, they snarl, “Do we not say rightly that You are a Samaritan and have a demon?”  Oh, there is no love lost between Samaritan and Jew.

But near one unnamed village on the border between Samaria and Galilee, one Samaritan lives among nine Jews.  Perhaps their desperate existence as sufferers and outcasts bound them with a tie stronger than their racial animosity.  The evangelist provides no detail on the point.

One other point, however, he makes abundantly plain.  In the original, Luke uses an emphatic construction: “And he was a Samaritan.”  With this story of a grateful Samaritan, no doubt, Luke is reminding us of the Good Samaritan.  But I suspect he is doing even more.

If we walk just a mile or so into the hills outside this village and sit and reflect, we might hear an echo.  The Prophet Isaiah relates God’s words as He reveals His ancient plan to redeem Israel:

“Go forth from Babylon! Flee from the Chaldeans! With a voice of singing, declare, proclaim this, utter it to the end of the earth; say, “The LORD has redeemed His servant Jacob!” (48:20). The Father is speaking.

But at the beginning of chapter 49, the speaker changes.  He is no longer “the Lord” but the Lord’s Servant – that’s with an upper-case ‘S.’ This Servant reports that God the Father has told Him:

“It is too small a thing that You should be My Servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob, and to restore the preserved ones of Israel; I will also give you as a light to the Gentiles, that you should be My salvation to the ends of the earth” (v. 6).  This is the Son.

Is St. Luke, the only gentile among the gospel-writers and the only one of them to record this episode in our Lord’s life on earth, recalling Israel’s past to point us to the church’s future?

Because in his next book, the Acts of the Apostles, he tells us in the first few lines that the gospel must go out not only to Jerusalem and Judea but also to Samaria and the end of the earth.  He shows us one episode after another in which official Israel tramples the gospel of our Lord — and those who proclaim it.

In chapter 8, we see that devout Jew Saul persecuting the Lord’s church, dragging off men and women alike and casting them into prison.

But not the hated Samaritans.  When St. Philip arrives in the city of Samaria to preach the good news, “the multitudes with one accord heeded the things spoken” by him, “and there was great joy in that city.”  In chapter 15, Paul and Barnabas travel from Antioch back to their capital to attend the Jerusalem Council.

As they pass through Samaria, describing God’s harvest of gentiles for the church on their journey, “all the brethren” greet the news with “great joy.”

While the rulers of Israel and most of her people are spitting on God’s good news of salvation for sinners, despised Samaritans are gobbling it down like sweet potatoes on Thanksgiving.  Those who know they are forgiven much . . . love much.  Those who celebrate their forgiveness rejoice when others are forgiven.

The divine plan has included them from eternity past.  The rescue of Israel alone was always “too small a thing.”  To that joyous news, you and I must say, thanks be to God!

In our gospel lesson, this Servant we met in Isaiah, called Jesus, heals 10 lepers.  The nine Jews do not praise God, they do not fall on their faces at His feet and give thanks; only the one non-Jew does those things.  What gives?

A defective view of grace.  Without a biblical view of grace we will never offer acceptable thanks.

The Jews have come to view God’s grace as an entitlement.  They are the chosen people.  God singled them out for His special favor from among all the peoples.  If they have the divine blessing they must have deserved it.

This is the fatal error.  Grace is by its definition unmerited favor.  Decide you have earned it and when you reach out to grab it, it will go poof! and vanish into the vapor.

Why did God summon Abraham from Ur of the Chaldees and make of him a great nation?  Why did he anoint Moses and David to preserve and lead this people He had set apart?  Why did He rescue them from foreign bondage?  Why did He send His Son into His creation to take on Jewish flesh?  I don’t know . . . and neither did they.

The Samaritan – another of the lowly and despised on whom our Lord lavished so much special attention – knew himself to deserve nothing from God.  Because he did, when he received God’s grace he gave thanks for it.

Did God leave gentiles out in the dark for so long for this very reason?  When the Syrophoenician woman asked Jesus to heal her daughter He told her He had come to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.  It would not be right for Him to give the children’s bread – that intended for the Jews – to the little dogs – the gentiles.

“And she said, ‘Yes, Lord, yet even the little dogs eat the crumbs which fall from their masters’ table.’” (Matthew 15:27).

And He healed her daughter.

Entitlement is a cancer.  It suffocates grace.  It smothers gratitude.

Yet in some sense more than those Jews of 2,000 years ago we inhale it daily.  In our culture, entitlement ain’t just for welfare queens.  You need not watch much television or read many magazines to hear incessantly of all the things you deserve.  If you’re breathing, you’re deserving.

Marjorie and I have a friend named Mary.  For quite a few years, her widowed mother Nicki lived with her.  Nicki, a child of the Great Depression, died a few years ago in her mid-90s.  She had declined over the last couple of years and her conversation was limited to reminiscence.

She thought back over all the years she and her husband had scratched out a living from farms in Arkansas and Texas, over the squawking chickens and muddy pigs and long, hard, hot days in the fields.  And she said the same words over and over until they sounded like a mantra to me: “We always had enough.”

They’d had little by our standards but God gave them enough, and for that she was forever grateful.

Gratitude is the attitude of the redeemed.  If pride is the first deadly sin, gratitude is the first lovely virtue.

If you have a child who strays far from the straight and narrow . . . if you stand by your child through all the pain and terror . . . if your child repents and returns like the prodigal son . . . you may judge the quality of his transformation by the depth of his gratitude.

If it is shallow, the change will be thin.  If it is pretty good, the turnaround will be kinda nice.  But if he cannot find words to express his appreciation for the love you showed him while he was doing hate-worthy things, if his thanksgiving overflows because he cannot shut off the spigot, you will know his metamorphosis is robust.  Behold the butterfly.

And that, my fellow Samaritans, is the outpouring we owe our Lord.

And because our Lord is gracious so far beyond our understanding, our gratitude to God circles round and blesses us.  An old English theologian named Simon Patrick put the matter smartly: “whatever doth Him most honour, will certainly do us most good.”

When the Israelites of old approached the glowing altar in the temple with their sacrificial bulls and goats and made an offering to God they then received it back from Him and consumed it.  Their expression of gratitude for His mercy melted into His act of grace.

An attitude of gratitude is our aisle to the altar, this altar where we receive His grace and offer our thanks.  An attitude of gratitude is our entryway through the veil and into the divine presence.  It speaks of our trust and joy and hope and love.  It is our only way of approach to Him.

He has healed us of that leprosy called sin.  Let us return to Him now with the Samaritan, and give thanks.  Amen.

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To Count the Cost

The 13th Sunday After Trinity

Joshua 24:14-28, Psalm 104, Galatians 3:16-22, St. Luke 10:23-37

To Count the Cost

                Maybe you’ve been following the recent kerfuffle over the Nashville Statement.  For those who haven’t, a consortium of leaders of the evangelical churches in this country saw a need to generate a direct and uncompromising affirmation of what the Bible teaches on human sexuality.

They were responding, of course, to the shifting attitudes on the subject in our culture.  More and more we read that young people consider homosexuality an acceptable and even “normal” way of life – and that’s not all.

Not a few of these young people were raised in church, even the evangelical church.  For our purposes, we’re defining that term to refer to those churches that say the Bible is the inspired, inerrant and authoritative word of God.  Still, these young people call homosexuality “normal.” And that’s not all.

Not a few pastors of such churches, including some who lead megachurches and have become famous through books and television ministries, have come around to the same conclusion: God is love; therefore, loving is good and however and whomever people choose to love is, therefore, good.

Those leaders who decided to state plainly and boldly the biblical rationale for human sexuality that is at such a great remove from these misguided ideas came together to produce the Nashville Statement.  Many leading lights of orthodoxy in America including Tim Keller of the Presbyterian Church in America and Russell Moore of the Southern Baptist Convention are among the signers.

The preamble begins by citing Psalm 100:3:

“Know that the Lord Himself is God; it is He who has made us, and not we ourselves . . .”

It goes on:

“Evangelical Christians at the dawn of the twenty-first century find themselves living in a period of historic transition. As Western culture has become increasingly post-Christian, it has embarked upon a massive revision of what it means to be a human being.

“By and large the spirit of our age no longer discerns or delights in the beauty of God’s design for human life. Many deny that God created human beings for his glory, and that his good purposes for us include our personal and physical design as male and female. It is common to think that human identity as male and female is not part of God’s beautiful plan, but is, rather, an expression of an individual’s autonomous preferences.

“The pathway to full and lasting joy through God’s good design for his creatures is thus replaced by the path of shortsighted alternatives that, sooner or later, ruin human life and dishonor God.”

The statement proceeds in the classic format of such documents to list 14 affirmations, each followed by a denial.  Article I reads:

“We affirm that God has designed marriage to be a covenantal, sexual, procreative, lifelong union of one man and one woman, as husband and wife, and is meant to signify the covenant love between Christ and his bride the church.

“We deny that God has designed marriage to be a homosexual, polygamous, polyamorous relationship.  We also deny that marriage is a mere human contract rather than a covenant made before God.”

The 13 subsequent affirmations and denials elaborate this picture of how our Creator intends His creatures to have sex.  You can find the entire text easily online.  I’m not going to quote more of them now because I don’t want to lead you off into the culture wars or even into a lesson about biblical teaching on sex.  I have a different purpose, and it relates to our gospel lesson, commonly called the Parable of the Good Samaritan.

The pro-homosexual marriage lobby knew the Nashville Statement was coming, of course, and had both barrels loaded.  One example comes from the Rev. James Martin, a Catholic priest and author who is an adviser to the Vatican.  He produced his own counter-list, beginning:

“I affirm: That God loves all LGBT people. I deny: That Jesus wants us to insult, judge or further marginalize them.”

And so on.  This response takes us to the heart of the matter I wish to address.  The Nashville Statement has many signers but a single author.  Her name is Rosaria Butterfield.  She brings what we might call inside information to the debate.

Rosaria Butterfield was an English professor at Syracuse University.  She holds a Ph.D. from Ohio State.  She published a book and numerous scholarly articles.  She had all the credentials and trappings associated with academia.

She pursued academic emphases in feminism and queer studies.  She lived with a lesbian partner.  She reviled Christians.  Later, she wrote:

“The word Jesus stuck in my throat like an elephant tusk; no matter how hard I choked, I couldn’t hack it out. Those who professed the name commanded my pity and wrath . . . Stupid. Pointless. Menacing. That’s what I thought of Christians and their god Jesus, who in paintings looked as powerful as a Breck Shampoo commercial model.”

Researching the religious right “and their politics of hatred against queers like me,” she launched her crusade with a piece in a local newspaper condemning Promise Keepers, the Christian men’s accountability group.  It provoked a torrent of mail, including a letter from a local Presbyterian minister.

Unlike others who disagreed with her, he took a respectful, dignified tone.  He challenged her assumptions without attacking her person.  She accepted his invitation to dinner.  And Rosaria Butterfield became fast friends with Rev. Ken Smith and his wife Floy.

In relatively short order, her world turned inside-out.  But there was more to her conversion than friendship.  As a scholar, she was honest enough to read the book that she considered the root cause of that “politics of hatred,” the Bible.  Over the course of a year, in fact, she read it several times.

The change in her did not take place in a day or a week or a month, but over time she could not deny the power of the eternal truth she read in those pages.  She tried.  She dug in her heels.  She clung to the people and the ideas she had long held dear.  But in the end she could not resist the working of the Holy Spirit within her.

She broke off her lesbian relationship, joined her new friend’s church and wrote “The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert.”  She lives today in Durham, N. C., with her husband, also a Presbyterian minister, and their children.  She describes herself as a “wife, home-school mother, author and speaker.”

But the transition was not that neat and tidy, of course.  She remained on faculty at Syracuse when her book came out and her colleagues and students reacted in a fashion we’ll call less than enthusiastic.  Imagine their outrage over her betrayal.  But the reaction from another quarter is more interesting for our purposes.

Certain church-goers urged her to resolve the tension between her old life and this strange new one by continuing as a lesbian and simultaneously living as a Christian.  This she could not do.  Whether those who sought to advise her had read the Bible or not I do not know, but Rosaria Butterfield had.  She knew that to be a compromised Christian was to be no Christian at all.

I cannot help recalling him who came to be called St. Augustine.  As he made his way through Manichaeism and then Neo-Platonism he kept a mistress.  He, too, picked up a Bible without the slightest intention of mining eternal truth from its pages and received a shock.  But he didn’t want to abandon his mistress.

He prayed, “Lord, make me chaste . . . but not yet.”

He would not insult God by pretending to be His disciple while holding onto his fleshly ways.  Jesus never called anyone to lukewarm discipleship.  As for me, give me an honest pagan over a half-baked Christian any old day.

You know the Parable of the Good Samaritan.  A desperate traveler lies in a heap on the roadside, battered, robbed and probably dying.  Two fellow Jews – conspicuously religious Jews – pass him by.  A foreigner, one of the despised Samaritans, stops to help, and his help knows no limits.

Jesus is teaching a smart-aleck lawyer who has asked, “what shall I do to inherit eternal life?”  They agree that the answer, distilled, is “love God and love your neighbor.”  The lawyer, getting cagey, comes back with, “And who is my neighbor?”

The parable by which our Lord answers that question teaches us that everyone is our neighbor, and so worthy of our love.

Some years ago, I heard a man preach in prison.  The men arrayed before him wore, head to toe, the dingy white of Texas inmates.  The preacher wore khakis, a blue plaid shirt and loafers . . . but he knew his audience.  He had worn white for the 34 years he served on a life sentence for murder.

In that time he came to saving faith and resolved that, upon release, he would proclaim the life-saving gospel of Jesus Christ behind the wire.

                Jesus in me . . . gonna love the Jesus in you . . . and ain’t nothin’ you can do about it . . . You hearin’ what I’m sayin’? . . . Nah, you ain’t hearin’ what I’m sayin.’

                You hear me now, you hear what I’m sayin.’  Jesus in me . . . gonna love the Jesus in you . . . and ain’t nothin’ you can do about it . . . You hearin’ what I’m sayin’? . . . Nah, you ain’t hearin’ what I’m sayin’. . .

I think I’m hearin’ what he’s sayin.’  He’s sayin’ Christian love is not contingent on the loveliness of its object.

Some will mock the preacher to his face.  Some will crack wise behind his back.  Some will hate him for his assault on the worldly philosophies and the fleshly desires and the demonic powers they have allowed to lodge within them.

And the preacher will love them.  He has given his oath to his Lord to impose no limits the Lord does not impose.  He can do no other.

We, too, will love our neighbors, every one of them – heterosexual, homosexual, transsexual, pansexual . . . and vegetarian.  But to love them is not to pass them by, succumbing to spiritual death in broken heaps by the roadside.  It is not to pretend, as so many would have us do, that God is hoodwinked when men call love what He calls sin.

One lesson we must take from this parable is that Christian love is not disinterested, is not dispassionate.  It is not a mere matter of saying and doing the right things in church – of the formal, hollow religion of the priest and the Levite who kept on truckin’ down the road.

Christian love makes demands on us.  Later in his gospel, in ch. 18, St. Luke relates another story, this one involving a rich young ruler.  He also wants to know what he must do to inherit eternal life.  This time, Jesus runs through the commandments of the Decalogue and the young man says he has kept them all.

Jesus tells him to do one more thing: Sell all his possessions and distribute the proceeds to the poor and follow Him.  And “he became very sorrowful, for he was very rich.”

Following Christ should cost us something.  If it does not, we’re telling Him He’s not worth anything.

In our day, many claim to be seeking God.  I read something interesting about these folks the other day.  Mark Loughridge wrote:

“Here’s something I’ve noticed: It’s cool to search for God, but uncool to find him. People talk about wanting to find spiritual reality and deeper meaning, about wanting to get in touch with God. The idea of looking for him sounds good — the search, the journey — but the reality of actually finding him is too much.”

These folks feel the pain of a knot in their innards they cannot untie or the unyielding mystery of life haunts them.  Many bounce from friend to support group to counselor or therapist in search of help.  When nothing else works, they decide to try God.

The rub comes when they realize God won’t play the Genie and let them hand Him their problems and go larking off, unencumbered and free as sparrows.  He demands that they hand Him themselves.

“It’s cool to search,” Loughridge writes, “but the last thing many want is to find the living God, or be found by him.  Maybe we need to ask people when they say they are looking for God, ‘What do you hope to find?’ or ‘Are you ready to find him?’”

God is a Person, full of grace and truth.  He enters into a covenant with His people.  It requires that they place their trust in Him, and approach Him in faith.  And this faith has objective content.  If we would give ourselves to God we will love Him and love our neighbor.  And that means stopping by the roadside to help, even if so doing costs us a great deal.

The robbers might return and fall upon us as well.

“If you seek him you will find him, for he is not far off,” Loughridge adds, “but we must seek him on his terms, not our own.”  He has been discussing seekers but in conclusion he turns to Christians:

“And that applies to Christians too — for we can be as guilty of this as others. We can love talking about our issues — as long as we don’t have to actually do anything about them. We unburden ourselves to those who will listen, maybe going round the same circle of three or four people, keeping moving so that they don’t get time to move beyond sympathy to advice, and then hold us accountable.

“It’s easier to search than it is to work at what God calls us to do.  Again we need to ask ourselves —‘Do we really want to find God’s answer?’”

Rosaria Butterfield, an honest pagan, wouldn’t pretend to be a Christian.  She would not offer God half of herself.  In the end, she really wanted to find God’s answer.  Do you?  Amen.

 

 

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Two Came to Pray

The Eleventh Sunday After Trinity

St. Luke 18:9-14

Two Came to Pray

Recently I struggled with a vexing spiritual and emotional dilemma.  I began to doubt my own holiness.  This trial almost laid me low.

The problem was bishops.  It occurred to me one day that bishops are holier than I.  There’s no avoiding it.  Every bishop was a priest.  He’s still a priest, of course . . . but the fact remains that he’s a bishop.

How does one become a bishop?  He proves himself the holiest among priests.  Higher holiness puts on purple.  And I’m stuck in a shirt as black as a Pharisee’s heart.  I grieved.

But then I had a thought that perked me up like a daisy after the rain.  Or rather two thoughts.  The first is that bishops have a boss . . . so there is someone holier than they.  The bishops’ boss is the presiding bishop.  So bishops may be holier than I but they’re not the holiest guys on the block.

And even the presiding bishop, I think, answers to God.  Or his wife.

The second thought was even more reassuring.  It lifted me higher than a space shuttle.  It is this: I am holier than thou.  It’s not even open to discussion.  A priest is holier than a layman.  Case closed.

And this, I suppose, is something like the rationale of the Pharisee who swaggers onto the scene today in St. Luke’s gospel.  How does he know he’s righteous?  Why, he is clearly superior to that low-life tax-collector over there on the other side of the temple court.

It’s a case of relative righteousness.  As though there were such a thing.

J. C. Ryle, the noted English commentator of two centuries ago, put the matter succinctly. “We are all naturally self-righteous,” Ryle wrote.  “It is the family disease of all the children of Adam.”

In fact, all men are sinners in God’s eyes, made righteous, if at all, by the saving act of Jesus Christ on the cross.

We find ourselves back in the Jerusalem temple today.  A week ago, we saw Jesus cleansing it, casting out the merchants who had profaned the holy place.  He referred to it as a “house of prayer,” and we considered that the term means simply what we think of as a “church.”  God’s people assemble there to learn, to celebrate the sacraments, to sing praises and, yes, to pray.

Today, in a parable our Lord tells, two men have come to the temple for prayer, the Pharisee and the other a tax-collector.  If you were to read the commentaries on this passage you would find that scholars see in it a lesson in righteousness:

The Pharisee, believing himself justified by his punctilious observance of the law, sees himself as righteous.  The tax collector, knowing himself for a sinner in desperate need of God’s forgiveness, knows himself as unrighteous.

The former is afflicted by that family disease of self-righteousness; the latter bears within him a contrite and humble spirit that God will not despise.

This is the thrust of the parable, of course, and the focus I have applied when I’ve preached this lesson in the past.  This time, I want to look at the story from a different angle.  These men have come to pray.  What can we learn from our Lord’s teaching on righteousness about how we should pray?

It may seem rather straightforward, even formulaic.  Earlier in his gospel, St. Luke has described a scene in which an unnamed disciple asks Jesus to teach him and the others to pray.  Jesus tells them to say, “Our Father, who art in heaven . . .”

Maybe you’ve heard that one before.  But then maybe you haven’t heard it before.  It begins with an address to a Person, a Father, who is in heaven . . . our heavenly Father.  He who does not know God as his heavenly Father cannot very well pray to Him.

Noise may proceed from his mouth.  He may shape the words.  But how many bazillions of words of “prayer” have spiraled off into the nether reaches unheard because people prayed them into a vacuum?  Because they didn’t know the God to whom they prayed?

This God has revealed Himself.  First, in His creation.  The world He made speaks of who He is.  Then in His word, the Scriptures which speak of His nature and character.  Finally, in His living Word, the Son He sent to represent Him perfectly in His creation.

He is eminently knowable, yet many pray to Him without knowing Him.  They spill out words that may sound humble, even beautiful, but these words flit away unattended because those speaking them are unacquainted with God.  If the Pharisee in the story had known Him for who He is he would not have exalted himself instead of God in his prayers.

That Pharisee was a sinner, as you and I are sinners.  Our sin has defaced the image of God within us . . . but it has not annihilated it.  It has corrupted and disrupted our communion with our Lord . . . but it has not eliminated it.

In His great mercy, God has provided us channels of grace that we might know Him and commune with Him even in our fallen state.  One is baptism; it ushers us into the covenant community of God’s people – those He has set aside for His holy purpose.

Another is the Eucharist; it allows us to take our Lord into us and join the feast at His table on high until we arrive in His presence to sup with Him in glory.  And another is prayer, through which we open our hearts to tell Him of our praise and gratitude, our hopes and dreams, our needs and desires.

A week ago we observed the folly of thinking we can turn up for worship now and then – once a week or even less – and go forth equipped to engage the enemies our culture arrays against us in spiritual warfare.

We noted that since the time of St. Augustine our Lord’s church has understood the Christian life to include three prayerful elements – the Eucharist, daily ordered prayer and private devotion.

Today we see the Pharisee engaged in the last of those, spontaneous prayer that issues from his heart.  And we must not doubt that it does begin in his heart, for prayer reveals the thoughts and intentions of our hearts.  It speaks of who we are.

The Pharisee will not look up because he has no need to call on God.  The tax-collector will not look up because he is not worthy to look on God.  With eyes averted from the holy presence above, the tax-collector smites his breast.  “Out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, blasphemies” – all “those things that defile a man” (St. Matthew 15:19-20).

A dutiful Jew, the Pharisee would of course participate in the required sacrifices and other rituals of the temple.  He would engage in all three forms of prayer as they were in his day.  And still he would fail to pray – if to pray is to know the One to whom prayer is directed.

The cure for self-righteousness is self-examination.  The Pharisee gazes fondly on his own sin-pocked image through spiritual cataracts and sees an unblemished holy man.

The tax-collector trains the 20-20 vision of humility on the reflection of a sin-marred face and his head snaps back; he looks away in shame.

The Pharisee is a religious man.  He takes his duties ever so seriously.  He cannot tear his adoring eyes away from his own reflection even for a second to cast a glance upward.  This Pharisee stops just short of complimenting God on making him so pure.

But in the end, it is the self-abasing tax-collector who goes away justified – which is another way of saying “made pure.”

In telling this parable, our Lord puts a fine point on the jolting news He delivered to the multitude in the Sermon on the Mount: “. . . unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and the Pharisees, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven.”

The Pharisee should have read St. Luke’s previous chapter.  The evangelist quotes these words of Jesus:

“. . .when you have done all those things which you are commanded, say, `We are unprofitable servants. We have done what was our duty to do'” (17:10).

In his contrition, the tax-collector is beating down the sin that indwells him like a cancer.  He has made his self-examination and named the disease inside him for what it is.

Now comes one of the most exquisite moments in the New Testament.  The tax-collector pleads, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.”  He asks God in a specific way in all humility for mercy and this plea comes from the depths of his being.

Songs – and sermons – that exalt man express the “meology” of our place and time that tries to drown out the theology of the Scriptures.  Do not undervalue the treasure we have in our Book of Common Prayer.  Its 17th-century ethic chimes true to the Bible on every note.  A few phrases from the confessions:

“We have erred, and strayed from thy ways like lost sheep . . . And there is no health in us . . . We acknowledge our manifold sins and wickedness . . . Provoking most justly thy wrath and indignation against us . . . And we are heartily sorry for these our misdoings.  The remembrance of them is grievous unto us; the burden of them is intolerable.”

Our self-examination can yield no other verdict.

Jesus gives us in these few verses a double dose of theology.  He teaches on the proper attitude in prayer and on the way of righteousness.  And the manner of prayer of our two characters says enough about their thinking on righteousness to fill a library.

Again, the prayer book shuns “meology” and gives us theology.  We have glanced at the confessions.  What follows our declaration of our sinfulness?  Pleas for mercy follow: “But thou, O Lord, have mercy upon us, miserable offenders.  Spare thou those who confess their faults . . . Have mercy upon us, Have mercy upon us, most merciful Father; for thy Son our Lord Jesus Christ’s sake.  Forgive us all that is past . . .”

So we can examine our prayer life as a gauge of the depth of our relationship with our Lord, but as we do we must tread carefully to avoid certain pitfalls.  We must not lose sight of one truth so obvious it is sometimes ignored: Any person’s faith begins with God.

Jesus called each one of His disciples; they did not seek Him out.  So it is with us.  If you do not pray because you do not know the One to whom you might pray, you can pray for Him to reveal Himself to you and establish a relationship with you.  Your knowledge of Him will not come without His sovereign act, but you can request that act of Him.

For those who do know Him, one trap is expecting too much too soon.  C. S. Lewis looms as a towering figure in 20th-century Christianity, a man of the highest esteem not only within our Anglican tradition but throughout the church.  But did you know that Lewis said he didn’t have much of a prayer life until the end of his life?

Much of the church in our time has fallen into complacency, a comfortable mediocrity in our spiritual life.  This was not the attitude of the fathers and the church well into the Middle Ages, which saw spiritual progress as the goal of a Christian’s life.  We should be moving forward.

Yet those divines who held this view never saw progress as even.  It comes in different measures in different seasons of one’s life and one person’s pace is not that of another.  Do not despair if you are not a spiritual champion just yet.

Another snare is the devil’s lie that faith depends on intellect.  When I was in Bible college I had a professor named Roy Ledgerwood, a godly man.  He made his living by day as an engineer and taught at the college at night.

He told me one day over lunch that he had tired of teaching Sunday school classes filled with students who never gave a thought to the lesson from one Sunday to the next and who, somehow, didn’t grow in the love and knowledge of God.

So Roy took seminary classes at night and earned a master’s degree so he could teach eager students in Bible college.

I should point out that regardless of the level the quality of students will be uneven.  I recall arriving a few minutes early one evening for a theology class.  We were to take our second test of the semester.  The professor in this class had us exchange papers with our neighbors when it came time for grading.

A middle-aged woman named Joan had taken a maternal interest in a young man named Billy who sat next to her on the front row.  As I arrived, both were in their seats and Joan was asking:

“Billy, did you study for this test?”

“Well, not too much,” said Billy.  “I don’t like to do anything to get in the way of the Holy Spirit.”

“Billy,” said Joan, “after the grade the Holy Spirit made on that first test you better get to studying.”

Well, Roy related one night an experience he’d had a few years before when he was taking classes for his master’s.  On his way to the campus he had to make his way through a depressed part of town and on this particular occasion he spotted an old black woman pushing, very slowly, a grocery cart down the sidewalk.

And the thought struck him that there was an aged rag-picker who had every bit as much access to God as he.

Can you believe it?  Him with all his fine learnin’?

And of course she did, because God does not demand theological acumen of those He calls.  He wants a response of trust, a confession that we are all tax collectors in desperate need of His saving grace.  We shouldn’t need a Ph.D. to arrive at that conclusion.

God redeems us as we are.  He doesn’t wave a wand and transform a bag lady into a theologian any more than He turns a frog into a prince.  He sanctifies us where we live.  Martin Thornton takes Mary Magdalene as an example.  The Bible, by the way, never identifies her as a harlot; Thornton accepts that verdict from the tradition of the early church as he makes his case:

“It is apparent that her innate characteristics remained to the end.  Her sensuousness, her physical generosity, her passionate, impetuous self-giving, her sexuality and femininity; all this was once given to her revolting clients, then to the Son of God.

“Her kisses and caresses began in sin and ended in sanctity, at the feet of Christ, but they were still kisses and caresses.  Her generosity started with harlotry and ended with precious ointment, but it was the same generosity.  Her passionate love was first carnal and then contemplative, but it was the same love, the same nature, only sanctified.”

Over-dramatized a bit?  Perhaps.  But it makes the point.

We should not expect to be transported onto a cloud, given wings and handed a harp.  God will accept us and love us and use us as we are.  He asks only that we approach Him as who He is.  Amen.

 

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Jerusalem, America

Tenth Sunday After Trinity

Joshua 24:14-24, Psalm 145, 1 Corinthians 12:1-11, St. Luke 19:41-47a

Jerusalem, America

Back before I was ordained, before we became Anglicans, Marjorie and I worshipped in a church in inner-city Houston called City of Refuge.  We spent six years there.  Almost half the members were black and almost half white, with a sprinkling of Latinos and Asians.

We members spoke of our mission using terms such as “intentionally integrated.”  Not a bad idea.  It was supposed to look like the church triumphant, consisting of those of every nation, people, tongue and tribe, and I suppose to some extent it did.

But as I look back on that time I have the sense that in the interest of merging black and white we made the gospel gray.

For the first four of our six years there we met in the chapel of a homeless shelter.  For the last two we worshipped in a building we built across the street.  Even before construction began, some wealthy people from the suburbs who were not part of our church approached us with a vision to create a private Christian school for inner-city kids.

We agreed to lease them space in our new building and they launched their school.  Soon, the school outgrew the space.  The founders raised more money and bought an elementary school building the public system no longer wanted.  And our church was without its tenant and a vital source of revenue.

But not for long.  A charter school approached us about taking over the vacated space.  The rent it paid would replace our lost revenue.  A charter school is not a traditional public school but it relies on tax dollars and it teaches a curriculum infused with secular dogma, including Darwinian evolution.  We would be inviting worldly knowledge into sacred space.

I reminded the elders that when we laid the foundation we wrote Scripture citations on the tongue depressors doctors use and embedded them in the wet cement to set this building apart for a holy purpose.  I argued that it was a sacrilege to bring the wisdom of the world that makes God a liar into His temple.

“All your children shall be taught by the Lord,” God said through His prophet Isaiah, “and great shall be the peace of your children” (54:13).   But not here.  I heard in rebuttal that God is spirit who goes wherever He wishes.  A building is only a building.

The elders joined their voices and led a chorus, proclaiming, “peace, peace, where there is no peace.”  I lost the argument, and the world came rushing into the temple.

Today, Jesus is cleansing the temple.  St. Luke reports that “He went into the temple and began to drive out those who bought and sold in it.”  These merchants are selling animals for sacrifice at the coming Passover celebration.  Others are operating money exchanges for Jews arriving from the faraway reaches of the Roman Empire to keep the feast.

Jesus roars, “It is written, ‘My house is a house of prayer,’ but you have made it a den of thieves.”  We take it from this passage and from the account of the cleansing in Matthew’s gospel that His emphasis is not on dishonest dealings per se but on profaning the temple by conducting commerce within its precincts.

The term “house of prayer” in our text means simply a place of worship, encompassing all that attaches to it – confession, absolution, praise, petition, hymn-singing, Scripture-reading, celebration of the sacraments . . . and one other thing.  St. Luke tells us immediately after he recounts the cleansing that Jesus “was teaching daily in the temple.”

I promise you He wasn’t teaching Darwin.

Men had desecrated this holy place by turning a house for worshipping God and learning about Him into a profit center.  The more things change . . . With regard to opening a church to the teaching of worldly wisdom today, some will ask, “How is that different from worshiping in a school auditorium or movie theater?”

I reply that’s it’s as different as light and darkness.  If a school chooses to turn a profit by inviting in the light, even for a few hours a week, let the church rush in to supply it.  But that is no warrant for a church allowing the world to cross her palm to admit its darkness.

Our Lord will have none of it.  But there’s more to our lesson than the cleansing of the temple.  In the Scriptures, the text is elusive without the context; we must examine what precedes this episode.

Jesus has just made His triumphal entry into Jerusalem.  The multitudes lining the roadway have cried out, “Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the LORD!  Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!”

Surely all is well . . . or well beyond well.  After centuries of waiting, of bitter affliction and foreign domination, the people of God are at last receiving their promised Savior and Sovereign.  Hallelujah!

But they are chanting, “peace, peace, where there is no peace.”  Our passage begins, “Now as He drew near, He saw the city and wept over it.”

Jesus weeps because He knows far too much.  He knows the people would not rejoice if they truly knew Him and knew His mission.  He knows their religion is a mile wide and an inch deep.  He knows they will leap for joy over the prospect of freedom from Rome but have no understanding of freedom from sin.

And He knows the merchants and money-changers in the temple are a symptom . . . a symptom of a spiritual disease, and one that has reached epidemic proportions.  These masses who have contracted it – not all of His followers, certainly, but the great majority of them – have lost any appetite they ever had for repentance, devotion and discipline in their religion.

They will show up, now and then, for a service . . . and mark that day off the calendar, getting on with their mundane lives and worldly amusements and forgetting their God until the next one rolls around.  More than anything else, He knows they don’t truly love Him.

Knowing all this, Jesus weeps over Jerusalem.  He tells them, “If you had known, even you, especially in this your day, the things that make for your peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes.”

Would He weep over Tulsa?  I suspect He would.  And as Jerusalem represented all of Israel, Tulsa, while it is not a capital, is as good a town as any to represent all of America.  Post-Christian America.

What’s going on here?  Well, for the past several days, Charlottesville has been going on.  Social media is abuzz with commentary on the tragic events there.  We have denunciations of racism, reminders that the world went to war over racial hatred, demands to tear down statues honoring Confederate heroes, petitions to rename schools . . . and so on.

Somehow, from this cacophony of indignation, my ear teased out one quiet voice.  It’s the voice of one of our own.  This brother wrote on Facebook:

“Jesus did many counter cultural things. One of those activities was finding a place where He could be alone and pray. That might have been the most counter cultural activity he did. I am not against action and resistance to evil, but I think we can often seek to wage a war of frenzied response instead of beginning with a realization that our enemy may use the forces of flesh and blood, but the enemy upon which we should focus our warfare is not flesh and blood.

“This is why Jesus seeking to be alone to pray was counter cultural. It is why he never lost sight (of) where the true battle was.”

Israel had her prophets.  She ignored them.  We have the witness of the apostles as well.  Are we paying them any more heed?  They lay out the reality of spiritual warfare clearly before us.

In the churches, we bemoan lustily the tumult wrought by the moral decay in our culture.  If we are awaiting a time of crisis to move beyond moaning, to take action – authentic, counter-cultural action with prayer at the forefront – I want to suggest that the day is upon us.

We are ill-equipped to engage the battle in the heavenly places because we have not taken up the whole armor of God, put on the breastplate of righteousness, shod our feet with the preparation of the gospel of peace.

Charlottesville happened.  Virginia Tech happened.  Oklahoma City happened.  The Tulsa race riot of 1921 happened.  Abortion keeps happening.  The day is far spent.  What can we do?

I spend no little time considering that subject.  We can begin by agreeing that spiritual problems will not yield to political solutions.  The battles raging in the heavenly places are a matter for prayer.

I’m reading two books that offer hope – to those willing to seize it.  The first is “Desiring the Kingdom,” by James K. A. Smith.  He builds a case that Christians, and others as well, learn much more through our hearts than through our heads.

We set our hearts on an image we construct of the good life – that life we consider ideal.  Smith argues that our culture shapes our desires at a subconscious level; it teaches us through our hearts what we should treasure.

The culture uses liturgies to implant in us its message about what is desirable.  He refers to the liturgies of the shopping mall, the sports arena and the universities and develops in each case a picture of how unknown forces cultivate our passions to engender the image of the good life the wizard behind the curtain wants us to embrace.

At the mall, for example, we enter through sets of doors into a cathedral of smoky glass and chrome.  The walls contain no windows; nothing outside the sacred space can tug at our attention.  The ceiling has windows; the light from above draws our gaze upward, reverently, to feast on icons swirled in brilliant colors.

The smells of perfumes and, from the food court, brownies and cinnamon buns mingle in a sweet incense.  Artful displays beckon us to reach out and grasp things that delight us.  If we could simply buy this and that and that shiny object we could surround ourselves with all the things that would complete our life and make us happy.  The good life would be ours.

The church’s counter-cultural response to the culture’s liturgies, Smith maintains, should be her own liturgy, exquisitely fashioned over the centuries to arrest our affections and train them on our Lord.  Intent on winning minds, the church has been losing hearts.

This is not a hypothetical exercise.  We can parade examples of those who have grown up in a parish school or in a church tradition of worship multiple times each week who have strayed from their faith only to experience a trigger that yanked them back into it.  Those chants and songs and psalms embedded within them seeped back up to the surface and overwhelmed them.

These are those for whom it is true, “All your children shall be taught by the Lord, and great shall be the peace of your children.”

If we can immerse our children in the liturgy of the church in their formative years they will imbibe the nurture and admonition of the Lord through their hearts.  They will go into the world equipped to engage in counter-cultural battle with those cultural liturgies.  They will know how to pray.  More than that, they will yearn to pray.

But most of us in this congregation here present have little influence over the education of our children today or even our grandchildren, yet we do have responsibility for ourselves.  Here we are; what shall we do?  Toward the end of his book, Smith gets around to a sobering fact:

If we suppose that spending an hour-and-a-half or so each week in worship will form us into meat-eating prayer warriors and brace us to fend off the culture’s liturgies we are indeed deluded.  An aspirin a week will not cure cancer.

The second book I’m reading is “English Spirituality,” by Martin Thornton.  This author begins in the Bible and then traces the influences that have shaped the spirituality we have inherited as 21st-century Anglicans.  This is the tradition that has given us as its crowning achievement the Book of Common Prayer, which orders and instructs our religious life – to the extent we use it.

Thornton moves from the Bible first to St. Augustine, who gives us the foundation on which our spirituality is constructed.  At its center is the Eucharist and flanking it are the Daily Office – regular, ordered prayer – and private devotions.  This three-part construct has undergirded Christian spirituality for 1,500 years and it is thoroughly incorporated into our English spirituality.

Weekly Eucharist, daily office, private devotions – these three.

And so I want to suggest, beloved in the Lord, that if we’re waiting for things to get bad to get serious we need wait no longer.  The hour is upon us.  Christ is weeping over Tulsa.  It is time to cease playing at church as man has degraded it and begin being the church as God designed it.

I ran across this line the other day from Christian author Jen Wilkin: “We will not wake up ten years from now and find that we have passively taken on the character of God.”

If we truly wish to be counter-cultural – which is to say, if we truly wish to be Christ’s church – we will set aside those vain things that charm us most, fall to our knees and begin actively taking on the character of God.

For many years now, Marjorie and I have been diligent – not perfect, but diligent – in Morning Prayer.  We have been lax in Evening Prayer – until last week when, as I was working on this sermon, we rededicated ourselves to beginning and ending each day in the company of our Lord.

It is not too early – we pray it is not too late – to embrace the ways of our fathers in the faith, to combine weekly Eucharist, twice-daily ordered prayer and frequent private devotions in a spiritual life that gives glory to our Lord and brings peace to us.

Will you not join us?  Amen.

 

 

 

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A Higher Grace

The Ninth Sunday After Trinity

Proverbs 8:1-21, Psalm 103, 1 Corinthians 10:1-13, St. Luke 15:11-32

A Higher Grace

I grew up in the Navy.  We changed addresses as often as we changed socks.  I was born on Key West.  We moved to Providence, Newport, Norfolk, back to Key West, San Diego.  I’m good at leaving.

My wife grew up on a farm.  Her father worked that land.  And – you guessed it — his father had worked it before him.  Their idea of change was rotating the crops.  Then they quit doing that.  They were rooted in that land.  My wife is good at staying.

At a previous posting, one day after worship, I thought my wife – who is good at staying — was leaving with me.  We began walking around a corner and toward the front door.

I reached the door.  I looked around and . . . no wife.  She had a lot of friends.  She wouldn’t leave until she had greeted every one of them.  That’s the way they’d done things in the days of her girlhood, back on the farm.

I was standing there at the door like a hobo waiting to hop a freight when our rector, Dr. Crenshaw, happened by.

He said, “What’re you doin’?”  He’s from backwoods Tennessee . . . Possum Holler or Coon Valley or some such place.  He speaks with a nasal twang.

I said, “I’m waiting.  My wife is good at a lot of things, but leaving is not one of them.”

He said, “That’s obvious; she’s still with you.”

Beware the ecclesiastical rapier.  It pierces deep.  And true.

Some folks are good at leaving, some at staying.

Today we consider a story usually called the Parable of the Prodigal Son.  A better title would be “The Parable of the Father and the Two Sons.”  One son can’t wait to leave.  He squanders his inheritance in a far country.

The other can’t wait to stay.  He would slave away forever on his father’s farm, desperate to earn an inheritance that is already his.

One leaves, the other stays . . . and we get an education in grace.

I must confess that the first time I read this tale – and maybe the second and the third – I saw the prodigal son as the villain, the elder son as the hero and the father as a sap.  In this opinion I betrayed a profound misunderstanding of grace.

Of all the parables, this is perhaps the best-known and most-loved.  It will bring into sharper focus for us themes we have watched develop as we have studied the gospel lessons this Trinity season – themes such as freedom and righteousness, our debt to God and His grace.

We begin by looking at the story through a first-century lens.

Then – and this part is no different today — in the Middle Eastern cultures, for a son to request his portion of his living father’s worldly goods is to wish him dead.  He is bellowing from the rooftop: “I can’t wait for you to die.”

A healthy father might allocate his property for distribution after his death but he would do so of his own volition.  No son would suggest such an act.  And if the father did make such an allocation, he would do so with the stipulation that he retain the rights to his property and all income from it until his demise.

The prodigal first asks for the allocation and then goes the further unthinkable step of requesting that he be allowed to dispose of his portion to underwrite his footloose wanderings.

The only conceivable reaction from a father is an explosion and a severe beating for the boy.  But that is not the response of this father.  His response frames for us the question: What is freedom?

For the younger son it is the absence of restraint.  He wants more than the opportunity for “prodigal living.”  He wants to chart his own course rather than following the one his loving father sets out.  He holds worthless his father’s guidance and protection.

This is his understanding of freedom.  But freedom can be a seductress.

Is it liberty or is it license?  Liberty trusts in the truth of God, license bows before an array of idols.  Liberty serves our fellow man, license celebrates the license-holder.  Liberty loves righteousness, license breeds licentiousness – crude, self-serving immorality.

Sinful man has confused liberty and license since Adam’s time: If I could grab any fruit I want whenever I want, I’d be free.  God wouldn’t be bossing me around any more.

But St. Paul tells us in Romans that all will be slaves to sin or slaves to righteousness, to Satan or to God.  Freedom means you get to choose your master.  In slavery to righteousness we discover authentic freedom, which is life according to the purpose for which our Creator shaped us.

The eagle is free when he soars, the turtle when he creeps.  Man is free when he lives within the will of the benevolent Father who protects and guides him.  The prodigal son held a warped idea of freedom – and it is precisely the view of most people 2,000 years later.

The freedom to which the father calls his prodigal son, on the other hand, invites us to trust the one who gave us life, to conform our desires to his desires for us in the certain knowledge that he knows better than we what is best for us.

The Collect for Peace in our Order for Morning Prayer captures this idea beautifully: “O God, who art the author of peace and lover of concord, in knowledge of whom standeth our eternal life, whose service is perfect freedom . . .”

I have had occasion once before to tell you of my only son, Brett, who is serving a life sentence for murder in Texas.  That occasion was the story of Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac and my point was that our God restores – gives back – sons . . . and daughters and mothers and fathers.

I bring up Brett again today because God has a purpose in creating, redeeming, restoring us.  In that purpose is true freedom.  When we realize He has snatched us out of the devil’s grasp, rescued us from eternal death and delivered us into life everlasting, we should recognize that the freedom He gives us has an end – loving and serving Him with all our being.

This is freedom in Christ – in the One who died to deliver us.

Brett calls frequently with news of some sort: He talked Capt. So-and-So into allowing him to lead a 4 a.m. prayer group for the kitchen workers.  The warden approved his plan to take a team onto the transit wing to minister to the men there who are locked down 23 hours a day.

He performed this or that service for the unit chaplain.  He has applied for the four-year seminary program the state has made available to long-term offenders

Or, more often, he had the opportunity to witness to another inmate, to deliver the good news of what God has done for him in Christ.

This is freedom – not of the kind he once knew: drinking and drugging and robbing and, at last, killing, to feed his carnal passions.  This is freedom from the sting of the mocking attitudes and opinions of the sort of God-hating men he once was.  This is freedom from the endless plotting and scheming to find a way out on which he once obsessed.

This is freedom from the bouts of depression that once assaulted him regularly and in which he committed the bad acts that landed him in the bad graces of his jailers, including two stints of several years each in solitary confinement.

But this is not only freedom from but also freedom to.  It is freedom to live as God’s man on the inside, to serve his Master and fulfill his purpose – regardless of his circumstances.  I’m in awe of my son.  I preach freedom in Christ; Brett lives it.  He has more freedom on the inside than anyone I know on the outside.

In our story, we find something else, the father’s superhuman response to his two sons.  We have already seen Jesus addressing the scribes and Pharisees in the first two parables in the 15th chapter of St. Luke’s gospel, the lost sheep and the lost coin.

In those parables, the shepherd and the woman who has lost the coin do exactly what we expect them to do; they search for what is lost.  But now the Lord ratchets up His teaching on divine love with a portrait of a father who transcends by light years the human capacity for love.

Hearing his son wish him dead, any other would have erupted.  This father grants the request: “And he divided to them his livelihood.”

This is self-giving love, so deep that it grants freedom to reject the one who loves. All the while, it never swerves from its purpose of redemption, even as its object wishes the lover dead.  What wondrous love is this that defies human understanding!

According to the cultural norms, the elder son should protest in the strongest terms his loyalty to his father and refuse to accept his share.  He should also assume the role of reconciler between his father and his brother.  He does neither.  Instead, he fractures his relationships with both.

The prodigal liquidates his inheritance as quickly as he can.  He has made himself a pariah in the village by his treatment of his father.  He meets with contempt everywhere he goes.  He must race away.

Having secured his “freedom,” he journeys to a “far country” – and descends into hell.  No sooner has he thrown away his inheritance on loose living than famine seizes the land.  Among gentiles now, he takes the only work he can get, feeding swine – anathema to a Jew — and covets the pigs’ food.

He eats these pods, bitter, black berries called carobs the pigs grub from low shrubs.  They afford so little nutrition that he remains hungry every moment.  Finally, he accepts the inevitable.  He must return to his home and his father and beg for work as a servant.  His father’s servants have more than enough to eat.

This homecoming portends far more peril than his leaving.  He has not only squandered his father’s money, he has lost it to gentiles.  He can expect to face a seething mob on his return.

Yet once again his father reacts as no father has ever done.  Custom demands that the prodigal approach him in abject humiliation, stooping to kiss his hands or even his feet.  But the father takes his son’s shame upon himself.

He comes down from his house and runs to greet his son.  This is outrageous behavior for an Eastern patriarch; none would ever make such a spectacle of himself.  But this father does not stop there.

He pre-empts the prodigal’s humiliation by falling on his neck and kissing him first.  So doing, he makes a public display of forgiveness and reconciliation.

In this way, the father is like the shepherd in the story of the lost sheep.  When he finds what has been lost, joy wells up from deep inside him – no accusation or recrimination, only joy.

The father then cuts short his son’s prepared speech.  Listen closely now.  The prodigal had planned to say:

“Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you, and I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Make me like one of your hired servants.”

When a son has said, “I am no longer worthy to be called your son,” he has said everything.  The job of restoration now falls to the father.  This father stops his son there, before he can add, “Make me like one of your hired servants.”

Now, in the son’s reaction, we see true repentance.  Fearful and confused, he finds in his father’s self-humiliation a love beyond comprehension.  Shaken and stripped of all pretense, he must now confront the truth:

The money, regardless of how much he lost or to whom, is nothing.  His shattered relationship with his father is everything.

He cannot heal it.  He has spurned his father and his love. How could he assign a price to a father’s love, or, if he could name its price, how could he work off his debt?

He must accept reconciliation and restoration to his father’s household as a free gift.  When the son finally allows himself to peer into the bottomless love on offer to him, this unmerited grace he cannot fend off even with his most contemptible behavior, he comes to terms with true repentance.

The father orders his servants to drape his best robe, the one he wears on feast days, around his son’s shoulders.  He is commanding reconciliation on the part of his servants and the entire village.  In the messianic age, all will wear a bright new garment of reconciliation.

The ring is probably a signet, a symbol of authority: its wearer can be trusted.  Shoes designate a free man of a good house.  Only slaves and the poor go shoeless.  The servants must accept this son as their master.  A fatted calf will feed 100 or more: The entire village will turn out for the feast.

The father does not want a servant obligated to work off a debt of mercy for a wage.  He desires a son who loves him unconditionally in response to his free grace.  The son accepts the gift, entering into the feast his father has prepared for him.

This is not the father of the “New Yorker” cartoon who says to the prodigal, “This is the fourth time we’ve killed the fatted calf.”

We cannot encase grace in a transaction.  When we try to buy it or sell it, we destroy it.

The younger son left, the elder stayed.  Or did he?  Embittered by the grace his father shows his brother, the elder son refuses to join in the feast.  This is an insult almost on a level with wishing the father dead.  Yet the father’s reaction is the same:

He comes down from the house and pleads with him.  He humiliates himself once more from the same motive of love.  No criticism, rejection, judgment; only love.

The answer, however, is far different.  The elder son does not address him as “Father,” another grave insult.  Complaint, bitterness, arrogance pour out of him as though from a broken sewer.   And then the stunning pronouncement: “I never transgressed your commandment at any time.”

What Pharisee could have said it better?  Here is the self-justification of the legalists distilled: To hell with your fatherly grace.   You, father, owe a debt to me for my goodness to you.

No mercy for one who goes astray, no joy over his return, no celebration of his father’s happiness. This son has no need of forgiveness for he has never sinned.  Needing none, he can summon none for his brother.  Our Lord told the Pharisees that one who is forgiven little loves little.

The prodigal son left, an honorable sinner.  The elder son stayed, a hypocritical saint.

But did he stay?  Or did he go a-wandering in a far country of the heart, a spiritual Babylon?  One son was lawless outside the law, one was lawless within the law.  A would-be servant, overwhelmed by the father’s grace, becomes a son.  A son, appalled by the father’s grace, will not forsake the role of servant.

The father will not apologize for the feast.  What was lost is found, one who was dead is alive.  Repentance is not being found but accepting the love of the one who rushes out to offer it no matter the cost.  The father will not abandon joy to appease his elder son’s anger.  Some have called this parable the gospel within the gospel.  It ends fittingly.

It leaves unresolved the final destination of the elder son.  Does he join the feast in the end?  His absence from the final frame allows us to put ourselves in it.

Step outside the story now.  In the fourth chapter of his epistle to the Galatians, St. Paul addresses sonship in the context of the One who is telling this parable, the eternal Son:

“But when the fullness of the time had come, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, that we might receive the adoption as sons.

“And because you are sons, God has sent forth the Spirit of His Son into your hearts, crying out, “Abba, Father!”  Therefore you are no longer a slave but a son, and if a son, then an heir of God through Christ” (Galatians 4:4-7).

When we abandon pursuit of a righteousness of our own doing, when we accept the inheritance that is ours as fellow heirs of Christ, we are at last able to accept our Father’s love, freely given, and freely to give it back.  This is Jesus’ message to the Jews, to the gentiles and to you.  Amen.

 

 

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No Offense

The Eight Sunday After Trinity

Proverbs 1:1-9, Psalm 119:33-48, Romans 8:12-17, St. Matthew 7:15-21

 

No Offense

A few years ago Marjorie and I were looking for a school for our grandson Caleb.  He was about to finish up in a Christian school that stops at eighth grade.  We couldn’t rule out the possibility that God’s overtaxed grace might hold out and Caleb might get through high school.  With God, all things are possible.

I visited a Christian high school on senior thesis day.  These youngsters had spent the entire year in their rhetoric class researching and writing a 25-page paper.  They then pared it down to a 20-minute oral presentation, which they defended before a panel of judges.

I heard a number of impressive presentations on both sacred and secular subjects, but one in particular lodged in my mind’s eye like a perfect rose.  A young lady wielded the wrench of logic in a brilliant dismantling of the prosperity gospel, piece by corroded piece.

She then called out the huckster extraordinaire Joel Osteen by name and ripped him from stem to stern.  Then she reversed course and ripped him from stern to stem.

I thought, “This is the school for Caleb.”

Not so long before, I was looking for a school for myself.  I was attending a seminary in which I was a misfit, doctrinally speaking.  I decided to try Cranmer Theological House, the Reformed Episcopal seminary in Houston.

In one of my first classes, one of our bishops fielded a question about The Episcopal Church.  He replied, “The Episcopal Church is apostate; if there are any true Christians left in it they should get out now.”

I thought, “This is the school for me.”

“Beware of false prophets,” our gospel lesson for today trumpets.  Toward the end of the Sermon on the Mount, our Lord admonishes His followers to avoid these “ravenous wolves” who “come in sheep’s clothing.”

In Christ’s days on earth, false prophets frolicked across the terrain, leading gullible souls astray.  Matters are not noticeably improved in our time.

I am going to call out some false prophets by name today.  I do understand the danger.  No one knows the heart of another. Our Lord, however, goes on to declare, “You will know them by their fruits.”   Clearly, He expects us to use the faculties He has bestowed upon us to identify the frauds, fakes and fiends who mislead millions today.

To speak through a mouth of mush out of a perverted sense of Christian charity is to play the coward.  It is to dishonor the many across the centuries who have remained resolute in the truth even as the flames devoured them.  If I sit mute when a high school girl stands up and proclaims the unvarnished gospel, what claim have I on the title “minister or the word”?

Joel Osteen is only the most prominent of the “encouragers” extant today.  Whether we brand them with “prosperity gospel” or “health-and-wealth theology” or “name it and claim it religion” or “word of faith movement,” they all sing the same siren’s song of “your best life now.”

They beguile their victims with soothing assurances that God wants them to glow a rosy hue as they giggle their way to the bank every day.  All they must do is summon up a robust faith that issues from the divine spark within them.

Pledges and gifts are also accepted, whether by cash or check, or, for the convenience of those in our vast television audience, MasterCard, Visa, Diner’s Club or American Express.  In terms of wealth, the apostle of this unholy gospel should be first among equals.

So cartoonish are they in their perverting of the Scriptures that I should like very much to dismiss them out of hand and move on; alas, I cannot.  I find that the tentacles of this heresy have stretched into this congregation here present.

Be not deceived.  “Take up your cross and follow Me” cannot be translated, “I, Christ Jesus, owe you health and wealth for who you are and what you have done.”  It can only mean, “I, Christ Jesus, the only righteous One, have suffered death, even the death of the cross, to win the Father’s favor for you and deliver you from the penalty you deserve for your sins.

“Now, take up your cross, the instrument of your death, and crucify the desires of your flesh so that you might be fit to follow Me.”

These are only some of our false prophets.   An even more pernicious breed flourishes among us.

These are the ones who swap out theology for therapy, presenting Jesus as role model but not Savior.  Their mission is to repair damaged self-esteem.  They appear troubled not at all that they put their victims’ eternal salvation in the balance.  They peddle this twaddle in the guise of “relevance.”

The retired bishop C. FitzSimons Allison terms their approach “pastoral cruelty.”  The theologian Michael Horton adds in “Christless Christianity”: “Like any recreational drug, Christianity Lite can make people feel better for the moment, but it does not reconcile sinners to God.”

This is the epidemic delusion false prophets are ladling out in our time.  It deletes Christ crucified.  And out go satisfaction, justification, redemption and sanctification.  Did I mention grace?  Did I mention salvation?  Nothing of value remains.  Where there is no Christ crucified, there is no true church.

Oh, but there are myriad buildings called churches.  Imagine an unchurched person, raised among pagans, with no more than a warped cultural conception of the Bible and the faith.  Perhaps a mother lately concerned with the eternal destiny of her children.  A false prophet offers an express lane to heaven that mentions no sin, no guilt, no encounter with Christ at His cross.

Salvation arrives in a pretty package filled with encouraging words, self-help advice and an assurance that God has provided a route to eternal bliss that detours miles wide of the cross.  O happy day!

Would it occur to this victim of pastoral cruelty to ask, “Could God have sent His beloved Son to die a ghastly death in vain?”

Overwhelming evidence says it would not.

No cross, no salvation.  No salvation, no discipleship.  And where there is no discipleship, the Bible is expendable.  This deceived soul would not encounter the two verses that precede our text for today:

“Enter by the narrow gate; for wide is the gate and broad is the way that leads to destruction, and there are many who go in by it.  Because narrow is the gate and difficult is the way which leads to life, and there are few who find it.”

This doctrine of deceit parades a dopey confidence in universal salvation, or a facsimile of it, that demands no embrace of the Savior, no confession, repentance or obedience.

In his book, Horton relates a radio interview he conducted with Robert Schuller, who was then the renowned pastor of the Crystal Cathedral in Southern California.  Schuller advocated a “human needs approach” to the gospel and said that “classical theology has erred in insisting that theology be ‘God-centered,’ not ‘man-centered.’”

And sin?  “Any act or thought that robs myself or someone else of his or her self-esteem.”  Hell?  “A person is in hell when he has lost his self-esteem.”  When Horton asked how Schuller dealt with Bible passages that condemn love for self, arrogance, ingratitude and wantonness, he said, “I hope you don’t preach that.  It will hurt a lot of beautiful people.”

Others are a trifle more subtle, but these sentiments are rapidly becoming pervasive.  The apostate mainline denominations have no monopoly on them.  The evangelical church has broadly descended into silly skits and sappy sentimentality – and the same therapeutic drivel.

We could multiply examples until Judgment Day.  Katharine Jefferts Schori, presiding bishop of The Episcopal Church until a couple of years ago, preached a sermon arguing for “radical inclusiveness and diversity over doctrine.”  This time, she roamed so far from orthodoxy that she managed what many thought impossible.  She embarrassed some Episcopalians.

Her text came from Acts 16, the passage in which St. Paul becomes irritated with a slave girl who follows him and his companions for many days.  A fortune-teller, she brings considerable revenue to her masters.

St. Paul casts the “spirit of divination” out of her, rendering her useless to her owners.  They haul Paul and Silas before the magistrates, who order them beaten and imprisoned.  The passage, the presiding bishop proclaimed, reveals the apostle as “mean-spirited and bigoted.”  I quote:

“Paul is annoyed, perhaps for being put in his place, and he responds by depriving her of her gift of spiritual awareness.  Paul can’t abide something he won’t see as beautiful or holy, so he tries to destroy it.  It gets him thrown in prison.

“That’s pretty much where he’s put himself by his own refusal to recognize that she, too, shares in God’s nature, just as much as he does – maybe more so!”

Her misinterpretation rises to the level of hallucination, to say nothing of clerical malpractice.  Putting on the new self requires putting the old self to death by dying with Christ, an impossibility for one inhabited by an unclean spirit.  St. Paul opened for this girl the door of the narrow way.  May Katharine Jefferts Schori find it one day.

In the Hawaiian-shirt school of theology, meanwhile, evangelical icon Rick Warren told a national television audience at Christmastime that Christ entered His creation to give us a “do-over,” apparently much like a mulligan in golf.

If we had a Geiger counter, we could not locate a single nugget of the offense of the cross in this twisted theology.  And offense is exactly what God intends, a recognition that you and I are craven sinners in desperate need of salvation.  When we come face-to-face with that truth, we can see with new eyes that salvation comes from no source other than Christ, and Him crucified.

We can find outrageous heresies in any period of church history, but I wonder if we could flush out as many false prophets in any other age as in our own.  The cross once hung where it belongs, at the center of our faith.  I have hanging in my study a framed print of Rembrandt’s “Raising of the Cross.”

The little man in the blue beret in the shadows at the foot of the cross is Rembrandt himself.  It was not uncommon for Renaissance artists to paint themselves into their works, but Rembrandt, a Christian, was keeping before him a bloody reminder that it was his sin that nailed his Lord to that cross.

We need a bloody reminder.

The sometimes hysterical reaction of Protestants to Roman Catholicism may help to explain the Christianity Lite that surrounds us.  Many Protestants ignore the historic faith, treat Christianity as having begun at the Reformation and deny anything of value in Catholicism.  They acknowledge no common ground.  An illustration might shed some light.

One day at the track in Ireland, playing the ponies and losing his shirt, Murphy noticed a priest step out onto the track and bless the forehead of one of the horses lining up for the fourth race.  Lo and behold, that extra-long longshot won the race. Before the next race, Murphy watched as the old priest stepped onto the track and again made a blessing on the forehead of one of the horses.

Murphy ran to the betting window and placed a small bet on the horse. Again, the longshot the priest had blessed won the race.  Murphy collected his winnings, and hopped from foot to foot as he waited to see which steed the priest would bless for the sixth race. The priest again blessed a horse.

Murphy bet a bundle, and won a bigger bundle.  He was elated.  As the races continued, the priest kept blessing longshots and each ended up winning.  By and by, Murphy was pulling in some serious coin.  By the last race, he knew his wildest dream could come true. He went to an ATM, emptied his account and awaited the priest’s blessing that would tell him which horse to bet.

In what was hardly by now a surprise, the priest stepped onto the track and blessed the forehead of the longest shot of the day.  Murphy also observed the priest blessing the eyes, ears and hooves of this soon-to-be pile of dog food. Murphy bet every cent he owned on the nag.  He then watched in horror as the horse dawdled in dead last. In a state of shock, he made his way down to the track.

“Father!” he pleaded.  “What happened?  Every other horse you blessed today won, but in the last race the horse you blessed lost by a mile. Thanks to you I’ve lost every cent of my savings — all of it!”

The priest smiled a rueful smile.  Then he nodded and said, “Son, that’s the problem with you Protestants; you can’t tell the difference between a simple blessing and the last rites.”

The gulf between us looms large, and some may be drowning in it.  Protestants, aghast at the thought of using icons in worship, have made an icon of the empty cross.  It is clean as Lysol, never fouled by blood and tears.

It whispers “no offense,” speaks in polite, reserved tones of our Lord’s sacrifice, shouts no demand to kneel and grieve and repent before it.

That Christ died on a cross and rose again from the dead are historical facts, and facts do not skulk away no matter how much some deny them.  That He expunged your sin and mine and saved us from eternal damnation are matters of faith.

A Christian cannot dispense with faith.  Still, we need before us a vivid reminder of His sacrifice that procures our salvation.

Christ lived, died and rose again.  Protestants claim the empty cross as the symbol of His rising again, His victory over death.  This is a perplexing idea: If He had not risen again, would not the cross still be empty?  The empty tomb speaks far more eloquently of His triumph.

The church needed the Reformation desperately.  But its father, Martin Luther, found nothing troubling in the crucifix of the Catholics.  Among his pronouncements on the subject was this:

“When I hear of Christ, an image of a man hanging on a cross takes form in my heart, just as the reflection of my face naturally appears in the water when I look into it. If it is not a sin but good to have an image of Christ in my heart, why should it be a sin to have it in my eyes?”

Luther also said:

“. . .according to the law of Moses no other images are forbidden than an image of God which one worships. A crucifix, on the other hand, or any other holy image is not forbidden.”

Later Reformers demanded an empty cross as one of a myriad of devices to distance themselves from Rome.  It is not wrong.  It simply leaves empty the passion of our Lord, the core of our faith.  To use it exclusively as Protestants do, however, is to ignore the passion that secured the victory.

Without a bloody Good Friday there could be no glorious Easter Sunday.  Without Christ’s broken body on the cross the empty tomb would be empty of meaning.

And the offense of the cross speaks of more than His horrible death.  It tells as well of our desperate need to die to self that we might rise again with Him.  Without the body, without the blood, the cross too easily reduces to a piece of jewelry – a fashion statement rather than a statement of faith.

It is by no means the only factor in the deconstruction of our faith but it festoons the cultural Christianity that claims Christ’s victory as our own while denying the tortured death He had to die to defeat Satan.  It demands the blessings of discipleship without its ghastly cost.

The Roman Catholic philosopher Peter Kreeft wrote “Before I Go,” to set out the knowledge he would bequeath to his son.  When you see life as unfair, when you feel you do not merit what’s happening to you, Kreeft told his son, walk up to the crucifix and say, “I don’t deserve this.”

Imagine Joel Osteen’s victims facing the torn and crumpled body of our Lord each Sunday.  His auditorium would be as empty as his message.  The empty cross serves our false prophets well.  It allows them to peddle that recreational drug, a religion that promises happiness but cannot deliver salvation.  May God have mercy upon them.  Amen.

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On Abundance

The Seventh Sunday After Trinity
Hosea 14, Psalm 138, Romans 6:19-23, St. Mark 8:1-9

On Abundance

I remember driving through an incinerated mountainscape, erect black sticks standing in ranks like sentinels at the gates of hell. It must have been a wizard’s stagecraft. The blaze had charred every tree and devoured every blade. A nuclear blast, I thought, could not have visited a darker holocaust.

But looking a bit closer, I saw tiny shoots of green protruding from the blackened carpet, and even dots of blue and yellow, wildflowers the more resplendent for the desolation that engulfed them . . . but could not annihilate them.

Life is a stubborn thing.

God makes all things new. He creates life and re-creates life. He gives life more abundantly. He gives Himself away.

St. Mark reports for us today on our Lord’s second great feeding miracle. This Jesus has Himself known hunger. The devil tempted Him in the wilderness, where He went without food or drink for 40 days and 40 nights. The devil invited Him – after all, He was the Son of God, was He not? – to do a little razzle-dazzle, to turn stones into loaves of bread.

And our Lord responded, “Man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.”

Is He God? As the Father filled Him with the word of life, He fills the multitude with His every word. He has taught them for three days in this desolate place.

Is He God? As the Father provided the tribes of Israel with an abundance of manna in the wilderness, the Son supplies this multitude with more bread than they can eat.

Is He God? He breaks the bread as He will allow His body to be broken to feed His church. He is the bread of life. The eucharistic language allows no room for doubt: In giving away the bread He is giving away Himself. Listen to the echo of the Lord’s Supper: “He took the seven loaves and, having given thanks, He brake them . . . And they had a few small fish, and having given thanks, He blessed . . .” (William L. Lane: The Gospel of Mark, 270 nn 3-4)

Is He God? He is the Living Word and the Bread of Heaven; He is the Life of the World.

And after the people ate and were filled, His disciples picked up the leftovers. This Lord Jesus gives of Himself in such abundance that we can never consume all He offers. He bids us feast on Him . . . not nibble.

This second feeding miracle, perhaps done in gentile country, confirms and reinforces the first. It is less about the miracle than the One who performs it.

Is He God? The answer appears plain, but His apostles attended the former miracle and they seem to have wiped their memory banks clean. They moan, “How can one satisfy these people with bread here in the wilderness?”

But more about them later. What about us?

Our cup runneth over, our life is a riot of God’s grace. It blankets the ground around us like clover, crams the sky like stars on a crisp northern night. We are awash in grace. But what appears a treasure trove may be a trap.

The rich man who tormented Lazarus gorged on savory foods every day – and turned his earthly paradise into an everlasting spiritual desert. In another story, those invited twice to the great banquet had more than they needed, enough to buy land and livestock and to marry, blessing upon blessing, yet they insulted the Host and spurned His call to the feast that has no end.

And us? I fear we know not the spiritual feast until we have seen spiritual starvation. I have seen it.

In the old Silk Road city of Tashkent, an American woman named Connie insisted I visit Orphanage No. 1 with her. She told stories of children stuffed into straitjackets and bound to beds. I thought she must be hysterical. Finally, I agreed to go, and then I could no longer dismiss her tales as fantastic.

Orphanage No. 1 warehouses handicapped children. The grounds have trees and even the odd blade of grass. On the outside, it looks benign. On the inside, each floor has a number of wards, each with 15 to 20 beds.

The children divide according to age and sex. It matters not what their disability is. The warders toss those with learning disabilities and those with physical handicaps like lettuce and tomatoes.
Outside each ward, in a dark hallway, a babushka hunkers on a chair by the door. She sits and she stares at the wall, entering the room only when the schedule demands that she do a feeding or a change of soiled clothing.

The children, many of them lashed to the beds or in straitjackets, just as Connie had described, lie and stare at the ceiling. Some whimper, some cry. That’s all they do, except in a few rooms where a privileged few, the tamest ones, are allowed to move around a little as long as they’re quiet.

Connie said every few months a couple of kids die of systematic starvation that thins the numbers, lessens the burden on the state. The bureaucracy shuffles those who survive until age 18 to an institution for adults. The mortality rate there is much higher.

Some children suffer from severe disabilities, but others show only minor mental retardation. Many young ones in Orphanage No. 1 are not truly orphans. A parent, a father in most cases, has put them out because he could not bear the shame of having a “damaged” child in his home.
One memory I cannot shake, a decade-and-a-half later: At the end of each hallway are shelves on which boxes of brand new toys, still in their cellophane wrappers, rest in neat stacks. Foreigners have donated them but the orphanage workers have never taken them out of the boxes. It’s not in their job description.

This is what sin has done. This is the culture of death. Everywhere, people die, but this is quite a different thing, a place where people never live. Our Lord Jesus said, “I am the resurrection and the life.”

God and life are bound so tightly that to deny God is to forfeit life. In lands where no one calls on His holy name, the angel of death wields his scythe like a drunk on a blood binge.

This is the wilderness. Scarcely any feast on the word of God, consume the bread of life. Few know either temporal or spiritual blessing. And this is the vast expanse of the world few of us see. Peering into this hell of death, I gained a keener understanding of life. Our temporal abundance shrouds it from us.

Life is an existence dedicated to loving God. And to love God is to love our neighbor.

Like Jesus’ disciples, we must open our eyes and name His grace for what it is. In our passage, His original disciples would not see His first miracle as evidence of His divinity. As a result, they did not recognize the second. How often do we ask God for blessing and, receiving it, treat is as the fruit of our own labors or as happenstance?

Yet despite their doubts and dismal failings, Jesus continues to bestow the privilege of service upon these disciples. After He has given thanks for the bread and blessed the fish, He leaves it to them to distribute the food, to serve up His blessings to the multitude.

He forgives us our weakness over and again and allows us to serve Him by serving all those He has made in His image, whether with food for the body or food for the spirit. Should gratitude for His love that secures out salvation not propel us to do His will?

St. Augustine, who had been forgiven much, said of this passage, “In expounding the holy Scriptures, I am, so to speak, now breaking bread for you. If you hunger to receive it, your heart will sing out with the fullness of praise.

“And if you are thus made rich in your banquet, why would you then be niggardly in good works and deeds of mercy?”

We cannot consume all He provides — but we should not leave many leftovers. As He pours out His abundance on us, the more we eat, the more we know Him.

In these stories of the feeding miracles, we find our Lord modeling for us the life He would have us live. It begins with compassion, an abiding concern for those in need. And not only for those of His flock.

Among the “very great” multitude are many gawkers who would turn out for any itinerant sorcerer, any “holy man” with a good yarn to spin. The Lord who knows the hearts of all men knows that only the poor in spirit will accept the sacrifice He will offer.

He knows that most will fall away when He says, “Feed on Me.” They will eat His bread that sustains physical life but turn away from the Bread of Life everlasting.

Their destiny hangs on what they receive from the Lord and how they receive it. So does yours and mine – and that of all He pulls into our orbits. The serpent told Eve that if she ate of the forbidden fruit, “You will not surely die.” She and Adam spat out God’s words and feasted on death. The last Adam made “every word that proceeds from the mouth of God” His sustenance and His banquet.

Think again of the Parable of the Great Banquet. The invited guests revile both the host and the feast he offers. They will not eat. In the feeding miracles, all eat of the bread and fish for which He has given thanks, but many eat unworthily. They eat judgment on themselves.

Yet Jesus would weep over their sin. This is a sign of true grace in those who follow Him, this pity for unconverted sinners. King David displayed it: “I beheld the transgressors, and was grieved.”

In the days of the Prophet Ezekiel compassion for the lost gripped the godly ones: “They sighed and cried out for the abominations done in the land.”

St. Paul said, “I have great heaviness and continual sorrow for my brethren.”

God pours the mind of Christ into His people, His conduit, and it flows forth from them. Should it be different for us?

We see once more that with God all things are possible. And if He supplies the physical needs of the many, how much more will He bless spiritually those who put their trust in Him? We should stand at the ready to do good to all men; we cannot know when God the Holy Spirit will appear to this one or that one, to call his name and touch his heart.

C. S. Lewis understood. He came to view his former state as an atheist as one of spiritual hunger.

“Creatures are not born with desires unless satisfaction for those desires exists,” he wrote in “Mere Christianity.” “A baby feels hunger; well, there is such a thing as food. A duckling wants to swim; well, there is such a thing as water . . .

“If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world. If none of my earthly pleasures satisfy it, that does not prove that the universe is a fraud.

“Probably, earthly pleasures were never meant to satisfy it, but only to arouse it, to suggest the real thing.”

Like the apostles, like so many of us, like me, Lewis had been slow to come to saving faith. The apostles, of course, spent three years with the Lord. Bear with me for a minute and track the way St. Mark weaves his story.

He picks up the language of the prophets who berated God’s people Israel for their hardness of heart and refusal to see. He applies it to the apostles, who show no more understanding of Jesus’ words than do the masses.

After the feeding of the 4,000, in the boat, they will realize that they have brought only one loaf of bread for the journey across the lake. They will hurl accusations at one another for the lapse. Is the author telling us they still fail to understand that Jesus is the one true loaf?

Yet both Isaiah and the Psalmist had declared that God would make the deaf to hear, the dumb to speak, the blind to see. After the feeding of the 5,000, Jesus heals a deaf and dumb man; after the feeding of the 4,000 He heals a blind man.

In the first case, the apostles, astonished, break out in a hymn: “He has done all things well. He makes both the deaf to hear and the mute to speak.” A glimmer of light on the horizon. In the second, St. Peter, the spokesman for the 12, confesses, “Thou art the Christ.” A yet imperfect understanding, but the dawn is breaking.

This confession of faith comes in Caesarea Philippi, a part of Palestine in which many Romans have settled. They live there among the Jews. This Jesus is Lord of all.

This is the center of St. Mark’s gospel. Jesus now turns toward Jerusalem, toward the Last Supper, where He will give thanks to the Father for the bread and wine and command these apostles to consume them as His body and blood, which give life.

In Tashkent, today the capital of the corrupt and decayed old Soviet state of Uzbekistan, Connie grieved in something like the way her Lord had grieved for the helpless and hopeless. And, like Him, she did not stop there. One of the children in Orphanage No. 1 touched her deep down in her soul.

His name was Farhat and he was perhaps 10 years old. He spoke neither Uzbek nor Russian and, of course, no one could provide a biography.

His smile went through her like a shaft of white light. She convinced herself that he was only mildly retarded, the sort of child who might have moved into the mainstream with the sort of special education so ready available in America. In the ward, he was one of the privileged ones allowed to move about.

He rarely tried to speak, but he smiled at her whenever she visited. Somehow, he seemed to have descended into hell and found peace. One way or another, Connie knew, the state would strip it off of him like a soiled diaper. In a land that denies Christ, peace evaporates like cheap vodka spilt by the drunks sleeping one off on the burning sidewalks.

Connie obtained permission to take Farhat home for a few days now and then even though, in fact, she had little time for him. She had five children of her own and she ran a guest house for missionaries passing through the capital.

Mostly, Farhat spent his time on the little patch of green grass under the clothesline in the courtyard behind Connie’s house. Locked in a world only he could see, he walked around, even danced once in a while, always smiling.

I brought back a picture of him, grinning out from among red and yellow balloons on his birthday. In that moment, he was far away from the hurt and the want. Connie gave him unwrapped toys, hand-me-downs but treasures to him, and spoke kindly to him.

She provided what she could. It would have been a stale crust for us; it was a banquet for him. May we see the spiritual bounty our Lord rains down on us for what it is. Amen.

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Grace Is For Grown-Ups

The Sixth Sunday After Trinity

Isaiah 57:13b-19, Psalm 85, Romans 6:3-11, St Matthew 5:20-26

Grace Is for Grown-ups

As John Wayne and other cinematic prophets have shown us, a personal code can be a fine thing, Pilgrim.  But substituting one’s own code for the established law can have its drawbacks.  In Rapid City, South Dakota, in 1992, police apprehended an armed robber named Dennis Lee Curtis.

When they shook him down they found in his wallet a sheet of paper on which appeared his personal law code:

  1. I will not kill anyone unless I have to.
  2. I will take cash and food stamps – no checks.
  3. I will rob only at night.
  4. I will not wear a mask.
  5. I will not rob mini-marts or 7-Eleven stores.
  6. If I get chased by cops on foot, I will get away. If chased by vehicle, I will not put the lives of innocent civilians on the line.
  7. I will rob only seven months out of the year.
  8. I will enjoy robbing from the rich to give to the poor.

We might applaud some of the sentiments on that list, but they appeared to have no effect on the judge.  He went by the law on the books and not the one in Dennis Lee’s hip pocket, and sent the robber up the river.

Some centuries earlier, the scribes and Pharisees were the rock stars of righteousness.  They were the custodians of the law in Israel, and they shaped it to suit their fancy.  By the time the Lord Jesus appeared, they had bred laws like bunny rabbits, amassing 613 of them.  All was kosher . . . or was it?

If a deer entered a house through an open door on the Sabbath, could the householder close the door to capture it for later butchering and eating?  No, said the rabbis, closing the door constituted work, which was forbidden on the Sabbath.

Could a tailor carry his needle home from his shop as dusk approached on Friday, when the Sabbath began?  Yes, said the rabbis, if he stuck it in the sleeve of his coat; no, if he carried it in his hand.  That would be work.

These holy men of Israel set a standard that made them the only righteous ones.  Rumor has it they formed a band and called it the Righteous Brothers.

Their law was not God’s law, which revealed to men their sinfulness, God’s holiness and the need for reconciling the two, which only God can do.  Their law made man responsible for healing his ruptured relationship with God.  When he does – if he could — he reaps glory — the glory that belongs to God alone.

If God’s law seems a burden, it’s really not – when properly understood and applied.  Following a list of rules – or not – is a pretty straightforward matter.   It’s grace that’s scarier than a horror movie double feature.

Grace is for grown-ups.  It demands sound judgment and good decisions, sober reflection and godly wisdom.  Grace makes you think . . . and choose . . . and squirm.

In the Sermon on the Mount, where the prayer book takes us today, our Lord Jesus has set out the Beatitudes and then declared that He has come not to destroy the law but to fulfill it.  Grace can only flower when sinful man despairs of keeping the law for himself and throws himself on the mercy of the One who has done it for him, the only One who is good enough.

Dallas Willard put the matter elegantly: “In the Sermon on the Mount we are not looking at laws, but at a life: a life in which the genuine laws of God eventually become naturally fulfilled.”

Jesus has come, proclaiming His grace.  And He says: “For I say to you, unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:20).

This statement sends a tremor throughout the Holy Land – and not only through the leaders. The great unwashed cannot imagine even approaching the righteousness of these scribes and Pharisees who know their law so thoroughly and keep it so rigorously.

They even tithe of their mint and cumin.  How could the rank and file dare consider surpassing such righteousness?

This Jesus of Nazareth speaks in parables and says things none have ever heard.  Righteousness exceeding that of the scribes and Pharisees?  What can this Prophet mean?

And so once again Jesus has flipped Israel’s collective wisdom on its head to frame the question He wants before them: What is righteousness?  He will take them on a pilgrim’s quest, and a few alone will complete it.  Those who do will arrive in an enchanted place called Grace.

He will show them a faraway country beyond the land flowing with milk and honey.  Their inheritance is the very kingdom of heaven — carnelian and jasper, sapphire and emerald, streets of gold.  But, oh, so much more than that — eternal worship before the throne of God.

Good news?  There can be none better.  As St. Paul will declare, “There is no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus.”  The Father will remember your sins no more.

In Christ Jesus, God’s grace has erupted in His creation and this world will never be as it was.  The law pointed men to our sin; grace turns our eyes to God’s mercy upon us.  The law made men wear that sin like burlap skivvies; grace feels as soft and fine as a satin robe . . . once we get the hang of it.

How, then, to get this grace?  How to become more righteous than the scribes and Pharisees?  How to enter the kingdom of heaven?  The Lord has promised, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be filled.”

We hunger, Lord; we thirst.  We would be filled.  But how?

By faith.  But faith not in your own righteousness before the law; rather, faith in the Lord who came to fulfill the law.  Faith in the righteousness of the One who came to seek and save the lost, faith in His tender mercy on the lost sheep of Israel and the forlorn outsiders called gentiles, faith in His love for all mankind so deep that it will bear Him to the cross . . . faith in God’s grace.

Reach out both hands and take what He offers at great cost to Him as a free gift to you.  And you shall be righteous.

The scribes and Pharisees, trussed up by their law, are devout believers – in a righteousness of their own invention.  The Lord flays their pretense bare with a whip of words.  You have defaced grace.  “But I say unto you . . .”

Over and again in our Trinity season gospel lessons, we see the interplay between human attitudes toward God and our fellow man.  Love God, love your neighbor.  Hate your neighbor, hate God.

Now the Lord says that anyone who bears anger for his brother must not approach the altar of God.  The law said, “You shall not murder,” but Jesus says you shall not harbor malice or hurl insults or call out hurtful names.  The first will be liable to judgment, the second to the council, the third to the hell of fire.

Jesus appears to be holding up a mirror to the progression of capital punishment in Israel.  First, in each important city, judges sat in the gate and tried, condemned and executed murderers. Their judgment meant beheading.

Second, a more notorious killer appeared before the Sanhedrin, or ruling council of the nation. They applied the more horrible sentence of stoning.

Third, in especially egregious cases, the council could call for death by burning in the valley of Gehenna, where a fire burned continuously to consume rubbish.

Jesus here pronounces progressively harsher punishments not on those who commit murder but on those who bear anger for another.

The Greek word for “fool” is moros, from which we get “moron.”  It speaks not just of idiocy but immorality and godlessness as well.  Raca is an Aramaic term that can be translated “blockhead” or “numbskull” or “empty-headed one.”

To be without sense is to be without grace.  To be without grace is to be without God, and thus bound for the hell of fire.  Is Jesus saying the accuser will endure the curse with which he has cursed another?

Offering a gift to God at His altar is proper ritual, prescribed by God’s own law.  But in the age of grace, the Lord says, reconciliation with your brother takes precedence over cultic practice.  The burden here falls not on the angry man but the object of his wrath, implying a just cause: Leave your gift at the altar, make amends, then return and make your offering to God.

Mark well the words “angry with his brother without a cause.”  Some have cause.  St. James charges, “O vain man” and St. Paul “thou fool.”  Jesus Himself says to His adversaries, “O fools, and slow of heart.”

There is a righteous anger, that directed against those who slander God and the corruption they bring into His creation.  But handle it with care.  A man told of meeting Mother Teresa and asking if she did not become angry at all the social injustice she had seen in her work in the slums.

She asked him, “Why should I expend energy in anger that I can expend in love?”  Mercy is usually a better choice than wrath.

Only when the requirement of the law is fulfilled – not destroyed but fulfilled – can grace pour forth in torrents from the throne on high.

In our passage, prison is hell, the destination of all who will not abandon their hostility toward God.  They will not go free until they have paid the last penny, and the last penny will never be paid.  Love God, love your neighbor – in this life.  Then the judgment.

And the Judge is Christ.  The One who fulfills the law is its sovereign interpreter.  Men may reject Him as Savior but none will escape Him as Judge.

Another story about another habitual crook: He rejoiced when he learned the lawyer who had represented him in his earlier misdeeds was now the judge before whom he would appear – until he heard these words from the bench: “It is not now my business to defend but to judge.  I will deal with you according to my oath of office.”

Our Lord Jesus intercedes for us today; He will pass sentence on us in the last day.

Grace means, for us, living in the balance.  God’s greatest gift to us demands of us judgment and discipline.  In the early church, they had a fine hullabaloo over the dietary laws.  Must a gentile live like a Jew to become a Christian?

St. Paul addressed the matter of eating food offered to idols, decreeing that since idols are nothing, food offered to them carries no contamination.  But if eating this food might cause a weaker brother to stumble, abstain.  This is not law but grace, demanding discernment and discipline.

 

We’ve all witnessed grace incarnate – if we’ve trained ourselves to look for it.  Marjorie and I were on the homeward tack, beating down I-45 well south of Dallas.  I pulled off for a final pit stop before we pitched up in Houston.

She went inside as I pumped gas.  We got back on the road, nothing apparently amiss, and covered three or four miles before we heard the siren.  Ask not for whom the siren shrills; it shrills for thee.  I pulled over.

The sheriff’s deputy was burly, and businesslike: driver’s license, proof of insurance.  Then he said, “Why didn’t you pay for the gas back there?”

Bonnie looked at Clyde and Clyde looked at Bonnie . . . and it hit us.  This was in the early days of that civilizational advance known as pay-at-the-pump.  This station didn’t have it yet.  She assumed I paid at the pump and I assumed she paid inside.

This was rural Texas.  I could hear the judge rumbling, “I’m gonna put you under that jail, son.”

The deputy ordered me to follow him back to the station, where I apologized profusely and ponied up.  The young lady was understanding.  The deputy, after monitoring the entire transaction, told me to be on my way.

I was guilty as sin; he could’ve booked me.  But the law worked and the breach of justice was healed, and I got grace.  And Bonnie beat the rap, too.

Under grace, how do we obtain the righteousness for which we hunger and thirst?  We join ourselves to the Righteous One.  In our epistle lesson for today, St. Paul sets out for us in Romans 6 the effect of our union with Christ, which makes us both receivers and judicious dispensers of His grace.

We have been baptized into His death, buried with Him in baptism so that we might rise from the dead with Him and walk in newness of life.

“What does being baptized into His death mean?” asked the fourth-century patriarch of Constantinople, John Chrysostom.  “It has to do with our dying as He did.  We do this by our baptism, for baptism is the cross.  What the cross is to Christ, baptism is to us.  Christ died in the flesh; we have died to sin.  Both are deaths, and both are real.”

Likewise, he continues, both resurrections are real: “Do you believe that Christ was raised from the dead?  Believe the same of yourself.  Just as His death is yours, so also is His resurrection; if you have shared in the one, you shall share in the other.  As of now, the sin is done away with.”

But we have a role to play, says St. Chrysostom: “Paul sets before us a demand: to bring about a newness of life by a changing of habits.  For when the fornicator becomes chaste, when the covetous person becomes merciful, when the harsh become subdued, a resurrection has taken place, a prelude to the final resurrection.

“How is it a resurrection?  It is a resurrection because sin has been mortified (meaning put to death), and righteousness has risen in its place; the old life has passed away, and new . . . life is now being lived.”

Beloved, the new life does not hang on a neat little list of rules for Boy Scouts but a framework for a life of repentance, thanksgiving, obedience and, in the end, adoration of God — for mature believers.  The New Testament sets out attitudes, not edicts.  Grace demands that we use the minds God gave us.

The law, misused, heaped self-recrimination on men’s heads; grace gurgles like a fount of forgiveness.  The law provoked men into bitter quarrels, grace slathers on the balm of unity in the Lord. The law channeled men into a maze with no way out; grace sweeps us up and away to the Morning Star.

Because the Righteous One died on the cross, our righteousness can exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees.  He is beckoning us to follow Him on a pilgrim’s journey into an enchanted place, that place called Grace, where newness of life flows into life everlasting.  Amen.

 

 

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Faith That’s All In

Fifth Sunday After Trinity
Psalm 62, Ecclesiastes 2:1-11, 18-23, 1 St. Peter 3:8-15, St. Luke 5:1-11

Faith That’s All In

Message by The Most Rev. Ray R. Sutton, Presiding Bishop

(Transcript unavailable)

 

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On Her Knees

Fourth Sunday After Trinity

Lamentations 3:22-33, Psalm 91, Romans 8:18-23, St. Luke 6:36-42

On Her Knees

                Mary the Missionary never did fit in.  She was shy and socially awkward.  She never seemed to know what to say.  She stayed to herself a lot.  She was the only one on the team who was single.

The other missionaries reached out to her now and then, but of course they were busy with their families and their work and, truth to tell, it got to be a chore to have Mary over for dinner.  You had to carry the conversation for the entire evening.

Some of the others even wondered among themselves how she got to the mission field in the first place, what with all the psychological testing candidates had to undergo.  But there she was, in the no-fly zone of northern Iraq in the 1990s, with the rest of them.

They had come to minister to the Kurds, who were under the protection of American and British air patrols because Saddam Hussein, their president, wanted to kill them.  He had used poison gas to kill thousands in a place called Halabja and it was as grim a certainty as hatred for Jews that, given the chance, he would murder many more.

Mary’s missionary team had a leader who assigned responsibilities to each member.  The women on the team did things like teach Kurdish war widows to make patterns and sew children’s clothing for export so they could support their own children and themselves.

There was no shortage of widows. While Saddam was at war with them, the Kurdish tribes were at war with each other.

This was the land the Bible calls Babylon, and in the 3,000 or so years since Old Testament times . . . well, the more things change, the more they stay the same.  For many, to be a widow was to be an outcast, reduced to prostitution or begging to survive.

But there is this Babylon tucked in between the Tigris and the Euphrates and there is the Babylon of the heart.  Because of Mary, the question thrust itself into the missionary team like a hot poker: Was it the Kurds or the Americans living in spiritual Babylon?

To the Kurdish women, these Americans were an exotic species. They came from a magical kingdom where no one hungered and no one thirsted, where no one wrung her hands and wept over how to feed her children.

Or what she might have to do to provide for them.  These Americans might as well have floated in on a cloud of pixie dust.

Mary did her job, or so everyone on the team assumed.  If they’d been honest, they would have admitted they didn’t really know what Mary did.  The hours weren’t regular and no one punched a clock and Mary was almost invisible, anyway.  Maybe she had been here yesterday, or this morning, but who could be sure?  She was easy to misplace.

After a while, someone did notice that she didn’t seem to be around at all a couple of days a week, but nobody thought too much about it.  Along with her other shortcomings, she wasn’t picking up the local Kurdish dialect very quickly and the native women seemed happier when she wasn’t trying shyly to teach them skills using silly gestures.  No one really minded that she wasn’t there.

Finally, one of the Kurdish women from the town landed in the hospital – the nearest one was in a city an hour-and-a-half away – and two of the missionary women went over to visit.  And there they found Mary.

She was down on her knees, scrubbing toilets.

They asked why she was there, of course, and Mary seemed embarrassed, as though they had caught her playing hooky.  She said, well, she had come over several weeks before to visit one of their local women who had been kind to her and she had been appalled by what she saw.

The whole place reeked and the bathrooms were even worse and she just thought that since it seemed the team didn’t really need her she could make herself useful here.  For weeks, she had been making the round-trip twice a week on the creaky, stinking bus to mop and scrub and to do anything she could to make it the kind of hospital where a patient might actually get well.  Or at least not get sicker.

The two other missionaries were still mulling this information when they entered a ward to visit the Kurdish woman they had come to see.  She told them that everyone in the hospital was talking about Mary.

For Kurds, Americans are “kings and queens of the world” – their words, not mine.  To see one of them on her knees scrubbing toilets was like watching Saddam, with all his medals pinned to his chest, mucking out stalls.

Some of them regarded Mary with contempt – what sort of fool would stoop so far beneath her station? — but others wondered what could drive a queen to her knees before a filthy toilet in the service of people who were not her own.  It seemed a matter worth pondering.

I’ve never met Mary.  A missionary from her team told me about her.  After that day, her brothers and sisters in Christ did some pondering as well.  Was it not she rather than they who embodied the missionary spirit?  They asked themselves whether they had packed spiritual Babylon within them for the trip to physical Babylon.

She who had humbled herself in the sight of the Lord, the Lord had exalted in the eyes of her peers.

The prayer book assigns to us today a gospel lesson on Christlikeness.  It brings a picture of Mary to my mind.  She would not judge those who had judged her so uncharitably.  She would forgive those who might have seemed unworthy of her forgiveness.

Our passage in the sixth chapter of St. Luke’s gospel follows one on loving one’s enemies.  Our Lord is teaching on the very thing that sets the Christian apart from the world.  Humility is the wellhead of divine acceptance and forgiveness.

Our passage begins, “Therefore, be merciful just as your Father also is merciful.”  In our collect for today we prayed that God’s mercy would enable us to “pass through things temporal, that we finally lose not the things eternal.”

He who does not forgive knows not how much he has been forgiven – or he has not been forgiven because he has not sought God’s mercy.  A forgiving spirit is evidence that one has embraced God’s forgiveness.  As Jesus goes on to say in this chapter, “Each tree is known by its own fruit.”

Most of us kings and queens, of course, want to put limits on our mercy, something like the Irish boxer who experienced an awakening and became a preacher.  He was hard at work setting up his revival tent in a new town when a couple of local toughs happened upon the scene.

Ignorant of his previous calling, they tossed a few insults his way.  When the preacher wouldn’t take the bait, one of them took a swing and caught him on the side of the face.  The preacher shook off the blow, turned his head and offered his other cheek.  The bad boy obliged.

In a flash, the preacher whipped off his jacket, rolled up his sleeves and declared, “The Good Lord gave me no further instructions.”  And they who had exalted themselves were humbled.

We must not press the point in too literal a direction.  God does not command us ordinarily to make punching bags of ourselves.  Getting pounded does nothing to sanctify either puncher or punchee.  The point is that we are to put the interests of others ahead of our own, even to the point of suffering for them when necessary.  That is, lest we forget, the example our Lord left us.

Refraining from judging does not mean we abandon courts of law or our own discernment in the way our brothers and sisters behave.  We must praise them — and rebuke them when necessary.  It does mean that we exercise restraint in what we think and say about others.

A common error is to observe the actions of others and make assumptions about their motives: He did this so he must have been mad at the world, or acting out his hostility toward someone else, or harboring a grudge against me.

In fact, we don’t know why he did what he did.  If we speculate and discuss our conclusions with others, we violate the ninth commandment.  We bear false witness.  Unless we investigate, we are tossing out guesses, often malicious ones, as to his motive.

We err, too, when we allow our own preferences to dictate our judgment, either of the conduct of others or of acceptable standards.  That fact that I do not care for your tats does not mean I should laugh you to scorn.  The fact that you do not like a certain hymn does not mean it should not be allowed in our worship.

Another slander in our Internet age is to forward unsubstantiated accusations against those with whose politics we disagree to advance our own prejudices.  I cannot count the times I have received a forwarded email only to go to a fact-checker and discover it is either a partial truth or a total fabrication.

We are entitled to our political opinions but not to mischaracterizing or maligning those with whom we disagree.

When we give as our Lord gave, of mercy, forgiveness, blessing, we receive back – pressed down, shaken together and running over into our bosom.  The analogy comes from the measuring of grain.

To pack it loosely was to short the buyer.  We are to give of these things in such abundance that the recipient must gather his garment into a sort of pouch to catch the overflow.

In some cases, we will meet with contempt and ridicule for our efforts, as did Mary the Missionary.  As did Jesus the Christ.

Both student and teacher must practice humility as well.  When the blind lead the blind, both will fall into a ditch.  Follow a Pharisee and become a Pharisee.  For this reason, the student must choose his teacher well.

J.C. Ryle, the 19th-century pastor and scholar, wrote, “The amount of evil unsound religious teaching has brought on the church in every age is incalculable. The loss of souls it has occasioned is fearful to contemplate.  A teacher who does not know the way to heaven himself is not likely to lead his hearers to heaven.  The person who hears such a preacher runs the fearful risk himself of being lost eternally.”

But the student must take responsibility for himself.  Test the teaching.  Inform yourself from the Scriptures so that you are competent to do so.

Ryle also wrote, “With the Bible in our hands and the promise of the Holy Spirit to everyone who seeks him, we will have no excuse if we are led astray.”

And when you find the right teacher, submit to him.  The disciple is not above his teacher.  An arrogant student will be so full of his own opinions that he will shut out those of one who is better trained than he.

Many students have eventually excelled their teachers, of course, but while one sits under the faithful teacher he must accord him the respect due one the Lord has ordained to that role.  It was an idea prevalent in both Jewish and Greco-Roman cultures that the student’s goal was to become like his teacher.

By becoming “perfectly trained,” Jesus undoubtedly means the student must in the end emulate the ultimate Teacher, our Lord Himself.  “Be holy as I am holy.”

For his part, the teacher must not allow a log in his own eye to blind him to his shortcomings.  His student’s faults may be a mere speck by comparison.  John Milton saw the danger.  He wrote in “Paradise Lost”: “Neither men nor angels can discern hypocrisy, the only evil that walks invisible – except to God.”

When he is aggrieved by his own sin, the teacher is fit to guide others.

As we make our way through the gospel lessons in this Trinity season, we should be picking up certain themes.  None is more prominent than the juxtaposition of arrogance and humility.  We have seen it already in the pairing of the 99 righteous sheep and the one who was lost.

We see the contrast in the Pharisees on the one hand and the poor in spirit on the other.   Here, it surfaces in the roles of teacher and student – and either can play the heavy.

Our resistance to the authority God places over us, I submit, provides the best understanding of the deterioration we see around us in 21st-century America.  The contemporary theologian Dallas Willard has indicted the church for its failure of discipleship: “Most problems in contemporary churches can be explained by the fact that members have not yet decided to follow Christ . . .”

Put that side-by-side with J. C. Ryle’s assault on false teachers.  Now mix in a student who is not submitted to his teacher and a teacher who is not submitted to God.  When no one is looking up, no one is becoming “perfectly trained.”  The result is a cataclysmic collapse of discipleship.

Our Lord commanded His apostles, and those who follow them, to “go forth and make disciples.”  If the church is not engaged in that work, what is her purpose?  Worship, yes, but God did not plant us here to serve ourselves.

We could remain here a long time indeed exploring the applications of the denial of God’s order in the civil realm.  To take but one example, we are watching our military, our most hierarchical structure, decay like a fish, from the head down.

It has dumped God’s prohibitions against promiscuity and homosexuality and His ordering of male and female.  Its power to assert itself, and to defend the rest of us, is seeping away.

In Old Testament times God showed His people that they could not save themselves.  The more I observe, the more I become convinced that in these latter days He is showing His people that we cannot govern ourselves.  The redeemed of the Lord sit mute as post-Christian America slides ever more rapidly back into paganism.

The world, the flesh and the devil are the enemies of God and His people, and they comprise a formidable array of adversaries.  Christlikeness is our only shield.  And while we may find it difficult to practice, it is not hard to understand.  The gospels show us how our Lord walked upon this earth to leave us an example.  When we appear before Him, we will be without excuse.

Mary the Missionary lived that gospel.  She was poor in spirit.  I wonder if she even entertained the thought that when she went down on her knees she assumed the posture of her Lord – and ours.  Amen.

 

 

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With Hands Outstretched

The Third Sunday in Trinity

Jeremiah 31:1-14, Psalm 145, 1 St. Peter 5:5b-11, St. Luke 15:1-10

With Hands Outstretched

When I was a lad, back in the old, old days when pasta was called spaghetti, I did much of my growing up around people who were less than enlightened in their attitudes toward those of another color.  To put the matter more bluntly, they were racists.

I remember the four water fountains in the Weingarten’s Grocery, marked “white men” and “white women,” “colored men” and “colored women.”  I remember separate bathrooms for “white” and “colored.”   And, yes, I remember separate seating: the main floor of the Showboat movie theater reserved for whites and the balcony for blacks.

These attitudes gushed out in a vulgar vocabulary that, like all such crude inventions, sought to elevate the status of the speaker by degrading the targets of his slurs.

But that’s not all I remember.  I noted a dichotomy in those down-home attitudes toward blacks.  This was Texas, and our schools were still segregated in those days, and so our football teams were as well.  We had a professional team, however, and nothing promotes meritocracy like the profit motive.

Our pro team had black players and even as a lad I could not miss the disconnect between white attitudes toward blacks in general and black athletes.  It was as great as the chasm that separated the rich man from Lazarus.

The star running back who scored the winning touchdown late in the fourth quarter might as well have won the Medal of Honor and cured cancer on the same day.  And white folks venerated not only his exploits but his person.

Any who found themselves near him would fawn over him and ask for his autograph.  And just to think, if he’d been a field hand or janitor instead of a football star he’d have been a “jungle bunny” – or worse.

And so, unlike some highly credentialed theologians, I have no trouble at all grasping the schizophrenic view the scribes and Pharisees of the first century took toward shepherds.  Why love ‘em or hate ‘em when you can love ‘em and hate ‘em?

The 15th chapter of St. Luke’s gospel opens with an accusation.  The tax collectors – called “publicans” in some translations — and sinners have gathered round to attend Jesus’ words.  The Pharisees and scribes bristle:

“This Man receives sinners and eats with them.”

Here is the refrain we find over and again in the gospels.  This wildly popular itinerant preacher, believed by many to be a great prophet, prefers the company not of the rabbis but of the rabble.

“We name you for a fraud,” the Pharisees and scribes bellow. “You consort with outcasts and sinners.”

And the King of all creation answers, “Well, duh.”

Yes, He makes His point with a bit more eloquence.  He spins out His reply in three parables that take up the remainder of ch 15.  We have before us today the first two of those, the story of the lost sheep and then that of the lost coin, which drives home the same point.  The third, the Parable of the Prodigal Son, we will take up down the line.

These stories make up the Lord Jesus’ response to the charge His adversaries level against Him, that He not only compromises Himself but also contaminates Himself by the crude company He keeps.  Would God do that?

Maybe so.  Mark Twain said, “Having spent considerable time with good people, I can understand why Jesus liked to be with tax-collectors and sinners.”

To grasp the Lord’s answer we must understand the accusation in the fullness of its venom.  We must not glide over this word “receives.”

To eat with sinners is bad enough.  The “righteous” would have nothing to do with them because they would be tainted by their company.  Table fellowship encompassed a great deal more than gulping down some rubber chicken.

To join others at table was to signal fraternity and community.  To receive others into one’s home or company meant even more, warm approval and affection for them.  One popular modern English translation goes a step further and translates the Greek word here as “welcomes.”  Others stick with the more literal “receives.”  Either way, it speaks volumes.

We still use it on occasion in much the same way.  We receive into our homes our family and friends and neighbors, those whom we value.  We do not normally receive those who would disturb the peace of our homes.

When I was a lad – way, way back when “stay-at-home moms” were known as “housewives” — salesman hawked their wares door-to-door.  As I recall, vacuum cleaners topped the list.  Garbage disposals were the hot new thing.  Encyclopedias were popular, too – but they cost a fortune and we were broke.

One day, my mother, a housewife, received a salesman and bought the entire Encyclopedia Britannica, about a thousand volumes, it seemed to me.  And when Dad got home, oh my, what a scene.

So this is the crux of the charge against Jesus.  Taking His three parables together, we can summarize His reply as a counter-accusation.  It begins with the story of the lost sheep.

“You accuse Me,” He tells the Pharisees and scribes, “of mingling with the lowly and despised, and in this you could not be more correct.  Now, let me pose a question to you: Did God not appoint the leaders of Israel as the shepherds of His flock?

“How could God’s sheep grow in righteousness when you, the teachers, would not sit with them even to teach them the law?  You hold yourselves above them in knowledge and virtue when you have kept them in ignorance and squalor.  Hypocrites!

“I plead guilty.  I came to seek and save the lost.  How do you plead?”

This broadside is even more damning than it sounds to modern ears.  “What man of you,” Jesus begins, and He goes on to describe a shepherd seeking a sheep that strayed.  Shepherds were among those for whom the high and mighty reserved their greatest bile.  They were as lowly as any of the tax collectors and sinners who thronged around Jesus.

Crude men who tended filthy animals, they had a reputation for putting their sheep out to graze on land that belonged to others.  To call a Pharisee a shepherd was as good as spitting in his face.

But here the Lord leaves them flummoxed once again, as conflicted as the rednecks at the football game.   The Pharisees and scribes know the law and the prophets, and they know the high esteem in which the Scriptures hold shepherds.  Moses their greatest prophet and David their greatest king had been shepherds.

Through His prophet Ezekiel, God refers to the leaders of Israel of an earlier day as shepherds, condemning them for their failure in tending and guiding their flock.  In our reading from Jeremiah this morning, we heard the Father Himself referred to as the Shepherd of Israel His flock.

And how could the Pharisees forget Psalm 23: “The Lord is my Shepherd”?

We must understand the vocabulary as our Lord’s first-century listeners did.  A “sinner” was not necessarily one who had suffered a moral lapse but one the rulers held in contempt.  Jewish tax collectors worked for the hated Roman overlords and extorted as much as they could for themselves.  They were so despised they were not allowed to give testimony in a Jewish court.

The ceremonially unclean, and any the privileged considered so, were lumped into this class also.  The shepherds fit into this group.  The “righteous” – the word used to describe the 99 sheep the shepherd left to search for the lost one – might or might not have been morally upright.  They were righteous in a legal sense.  In other words, they were Pharisees.

If we listen to the text closely we will discern another condemnation the Lord leveled against the rulers of the Jews.  St. Luke closes chapter 14 quoting the Lord saying, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.”

In the first verse of chapter 15, the apostle reports that the sinners “drew near to (Jesus) to hear Him.”

These lowly ones in desperate need of the more abundant life Jesus holds out have come, some traveling great distances, to hear the One whose words are life.  The high and mighty cannot hear Him over the noise of their grumbling and accusations.  It is the poor in spirit who will receive the true treasures of the kingdom.

The Pharisees would not so much as fulfill their assigned role under the covenant of law.  They would not teach the people who dwelt in their midst the statutes that could not save them but pointed to the life of sacrifice and obedience that would make them clean in God’s eyes.

Jesus who is the Christ has come to confer the riches of the covenant of grace on His sheep, and not merely the ones who flock to Him.  He walks the rocky paths from Galilee to Jerusalem and back to seek and save the lost.  The law wheezes while grace takes flight.

The Parable of the Lost Sheep tells us a good deal more about the shepherd than the sheep.  Going to seek the one member of the flock who wandered off into a gully or collapsed with fatigue, the shepherd finds him and lays him gently across his shoulders.

He does not punish him or even rebuke him but treats him tenderly, so jubilant is he to have found the one who strayed.  He carries him back to the village and calls out to one and all, “Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep which was lost.”

The sheep was under the shepherd’s care but was not necessarily his property.  One or more shepherds tended the sheep of many owners in the village.  The tribal life is a communal life.  When one suffers loss, others lose; when one regains what was lost, others gain.

Should this not be the way of our church?  Should not our deepest yearnings be for the good of every member, and especially for those who have strayed?

Jesus likens the recovered sheep to a sinner who repents.  But the sheep does not repent as soon as he is found.  The shepherd’s hard work is still to come.   When the shepherd lovingly bears him home, the sheep comes home to his faith.  The shepherd seeks him out before he repents — but the sinner must repent.

When he does, the heavens rejoice.  St. Bernard said the tears of repentance are the wine of angels.

The sheep across his shoulders is the shepherd’s burden; the restoration of the lost one is his joy.  Our Lord is making His way toward Golgotha, where He will bear His cross on His shoulders, carrying many sinners to salvation.  We are the burden that is His joy.

I can take the story of the racism I observed as a youngster one more step.

When I was a lad, way, way back when “sexual addiction” was called “lust,” my father served in the Navy and we moved from base to base, living in the enlisted men’s housing projects.  Whites and blacks lived cheek-by-jowl, sometimes separated by no more than a hallway.

We kids all played together, never giving a thought to our difference of color.  I don’t recall any parents making an issue of it.  But when my family went home to redneck country, we observed a different code.  If we did not go so far as to put on the attitude of our family and friends, we made sure to hold our tongues.  We were Pharisees.

Some in our crowd would say, “I got nothing against ‘em but I’m not gonna have one of ‘em in my home.”  We would not receive those who were different – unless they scored touchdowns.

The Pharisees of the gospels accord the highest esteem to Moses and David and – oh, yes – God.  It is shepherds, who are poor in spirit, they revile.

So let us ask ourselves: How do I treat those who are not like me?  As you know, I returned to the auld sod for the last couple of weeks.  Racial attitudes have changed remarkably in my lifetime but we’ll never run out of folks who are not like us.

I got together with an old friend named Bill, who’s a Christian.  He told a story on himself.  Bill works in a nuclear power plant.  He said there’s another employee there – we’ll call him Joe – who is an atheist and an altogether prickly sort of fellow.  Bill said he didn’t like Joe and he reacted by keeping as much distance as he could between himself and Joe.

But Bill has a Christian friend at work named Steve, and Steve took a different tack.  He engaged with Joe whenever he could.  One day, Steve was copying a picture of a Bible scene for his wife to use in the kids’ Sunday school class she teaches.

Joe saw the pictures and growled that he thought it was wrong to indoctrinate kids, including one’s own kids, with religious teachings.  The kids ought to be left alone to make up their minds for themselves.

Steve answered that his Lord Jesus had done such wondrous, life-changing things for him that he could not possibly withhold such a gift from his own children.  He must share it with them to the fullest.

That response stopped Joe in his tracks.  He didn’t attempt a comeback.  He seemed to be pondering.  Steve planted a seed.  We don’t know if he will water it or another will come along after him and take up that work.  We don’t know if the seed will grow.

We do know that Steve reached out in the love of Christ to one who is not like him, to a lost sheep who is not even of the same flock.  And so must we.

Before heading down to my old stomping grounds I attended General Council.  Our presiding bishop taught on evangelism and, as always, his teaching was thoughtful and even profound.

Bp. Sutton said he doesn’t have the gift of evangelism himself and he knows many of the rest of us don’t, either.  But that’s no reason for us not to be witnesses for our Lord.  We are not required to try to out-Baptist the Baptists – to press for on-the-spot decisions for Christ.  He called this approach “decisionalism.”

And he pointed to a couple of examples of believers who came to faith by fits and starts, kicking and screaming and flailing and failing along the way.  The first is St. Peter.  The second is C. S. Lewis.  We need not demand decisions of anyone.

We can engage winsomely with those who are not like us and be ready, as Steve was, with a word fitly spoken when the opportunity presents itself.  We can tell them of the wondrous things our Lord Jesus has done for us.

Bp. Sutton calls this approach “front-porch” evangelism; you’ll be hearing more about it as part of his plan to move our church out of maintenance mode and into missional mode.  Amen.

 

 

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Incomprehensible?

Trinity Sunday

Isaiah 6:1-8, Psalm 29, Revelation 4:1-11, St. John 3:1-15

Incomprehensible?

Some of you will have heard of Allister McGrath, the Anglican theologian and church historian who holds forth at Oxford University.  A few years ago, in Houston, I went to hear him speak, and he spun a yarn:

“I don’t think you use it over here in the States,” said Dr. McGrath, “but back in England we occasionally bring out the old Athanasian Creed.  It refers to ‘the Father incomprehensible, the Son incomprehensible and the Holy Ghost incomprehensible.’

“Well, after church one day two old blokes were walking out and one was overheard to say to the other, ‘The whole damn thing’s incomprehensible to me.’”

And so it should be.  The Trinity is not for finite minds to penetrate.  But the mystical vision of God is not too remote for us.  The author of Hebrews, in fact, promises us we can ascend into the divine presence when we worship.  A poet named John Gillespie Magee Jr. caught the vision.

                          High Flight

Oh!  I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I’ve climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
Of sun-split clouds, and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of – wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence.  Hov’ring there,
I’ve chased the shouting wind along, and flung
My eager craft through footless halls of air.

Up, up the long, delirious burning blue
I’ve topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace
Where never lark nor ever eagle flew –
And, while with silent lifting mind I’ve trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.

Another poet sees God reaching down to touch our hearts, this one in Psalm 33:

The LORD looks from heaven; He sees all the sons of men.
From the place of His dwelling He looks on all the inhabitants of the earth;
He fashions their hearts individually; He considers all their works.

This is God high and lifted up, seated upon His throne, whom Isaiah encountered in his vision, our Creator and Judge.  So far, He seems comprehensible . . . so far.  But He is as well God the Holy Spirit, of whom God the Son testified to Nicodemus.  He is the God, active on earth, by whom we are born again.  He is the God who is One in Three and Three in One.

Nicodemus comes by night, but the wonder is he comes at all, considering the risk.  Nicodemus – God bless him! – is more enchanted than he is afraid.  He must know who this Jesus is.  A teacher of the Jews who performs wonders never seen?  He must have come from God.  What precious jewels of wisdom must He bear!

But the truth He reveals gives Nicodemus a good old jolt: Only one who is born again can see the Kingdom of God.

Now, already unhinged, Nicodemus must grapple with the Greek word anothen.  It may indeed mean “again.”  It may mean “from above.”  It may mean “in the beginning.”  Or might it mean that to see the Kingdom of God one must be born again from above and restored to his sinless state in the beginning?

Oh, dear.  Nicodemus blurts, back into the womb?  A literal-minded man, he latches onto “again” and he is superbly befuddled.  At last, he is in a state to receive divine instruction.

That man must be born of water and the Spirit.  Water cleanses, the Spirit empowers.  One who is washed can roll in the mud again but one who has the Spirit has the strength to endure in the glistening purity of God’s truth.

And so, says John, one born of the flesh has naught but his own meager resources but one born of the Spirit has within him the victorious life of God.  He is re-created.  The Father creates, the Son saves, the Spirit re-creates.  This is God.

But now He is perhaps a bit less comprehensible.  On this Trinity Sunday in the Anglican churches, on this Seminary Sunday in the Diocese of Mid-America of the Reformed Episcopal Church, it is meet and right that we consider how we comprehend Him.

Goodness knows there’s no shortage of confusion on the subject.  Just the other day I was witnessing to a woman of about 50.  She was born and raised in Poland, in a strict Roman Catholic home.  I’ll call her Daria.

She explained that she had rebelled against a religion that was shoved down her throat.  The priests didn’t teach anything; they simply demanded she take everything they said on faith.  Her parents would brook no complaining; she should shut up and go to mass.

She took the only way out available to her: She married at a very tender age.  After the marriage collapsed, she fled with her young son to Chicago and, after many years there, made her way to Tulsa.  Along the way, she has read a good deal and formed her own idea of God.

In Daria’s telling, god is one and god is everywhere.  God exists and creates and loves – but doesn’t judge.  God is always the same, whether described by a Jew, a Christian, a Hindu or Buddhist or Muslim.  Interpretations vary but in the end everyone is referring to the same god.

I explained that this is what the Bible calls idolatry, the worship of false gods.  The religion of Jesus and that of Mohammad cannot both be true.  If one is true, the other is demonstrably false, and its god is an idol.

Daria countered that it is impossible to worship wrongly because god is everywhere and various understandings, which are conditioned in our youth, are incidental.  The important thing is to be happy, knowing God.

This to-ing and fro-ing had gone on for quite some time when I asked, “Is Jesus God?”

“Yes,” said Daria.  “Jesus is god.  Buddha is god.  You are god.  I am god.”  This belief is as old as the hills.  It has a name: pantheism.

On this Seminary Sunday I submit to you that it is imperative we build a strong seminary to train pastors and missionaries and teachers to tell the world who God is – the true God who has revealed Himself in His creation and in His Son, the Living Word, and in His written word, the Holy Bible.

This is our bounden duty as Christians commissioned to go forth and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost.

But the job doesn’t end with evangelism, it only begins there.  The next part of the task is discipleship, and for that, too, God’s people must be trained.  For it is not only on the outside but inside the churches as well that strange teaching doth proceed.

Just a couple of days ago I saw that Beth Moore has come under attack.  For many years she has been speaking to large audiences and churning out books, which have sold millions of copies, I suppose.  I don’t know her but for several decades we shared a hometown and I know her to be of pristine reputation.

Her theology is not mine but I believe she is a lovely, sincere, committed Christian with a passion for communicating the gospel.  And now she is branded a heretic.

A popular Christian blog has deemed her such – repeatedly in recent weeks.  Of what does she stand accused?  Of saying God speaks to her.  Those who indict her insist that since the last author composed the last book of the Bible in the first century God has revealed nothing to anyone.

Has He not?  Have they ever opened the book they hold so dear?  For in the 14th chapter of the Gospel of St. John we find God the Son promising:

“But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name, He will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all things that I said to you” (v. 26).

Those who accuse Beth Moore are worshiping the book, exalting it to the stature of the One who gave us the book.

We must have a strong seminary to train leaders and teachers in orthodoxy – correct doctrine.  It doesn’t happen by osmosis.  You can’t buy it in capsule form.  Telepathy has not proved effective.  It happens in the seminary.

Here’s one of the things I learned in our diocesan seminary, Cranmer Theological House: As Anglicans we persist in a resolutely Trinitarian theology because of the errors that result from an unbalanced Trinity.

The mainline Protestant churches have emphasized the Father above the Son and Holy Spirit, making God so remote as to veer off toward deism, the belief that an aloof god made the world and now sits back, as though watching a movie, to see how things will turn out.  This view opens up for them a gospel of social justice and ecological awareness that misunderstands evangelism and discipleship and worship.

The charismatic churches have elevated the Holy Spirit above the Father and Son, claiming such a torrent of direct revelation through myriad personal lifelines to heaven as to diminish the importance of the Scriptures.  Yes, the Spirit may teach us today, but you can’t whistle Him up like room service.

The evangelical churches have exaggerated the Son over the Father and the Holy Spirit to the point of making God altogether too familiar: Me and Jesus, we’re tight; He’s my homeboy.  Nowhere in view is the God Isaiah found high and lifted up, to be worshiped and praised.

We only know Him for who He is when we know Him as three Persons, equally uncreated, eternal, almighty and worthy of worship.

In my time in Tulsa I’ve had a few edifying exchanges with a man named John, a seasoned saint who loves God passionately and studies at depth.  He recently raised a point about what he sees as fellowship in the churches.

His starting point is authentic fellowship as we find it in the Scriptures – Christian people who hunger to know God through study of His Word, to love one another to the point of giving of themselves, to hold one another accountable for fidelity to the Bible – maybe something like this:

“And they continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in prayers. Then fear came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were done through the apostles. Now all who believed were together, and had all things in common, and sold their possessions and goods, and divided them among all, as anyone had need.

“So continuing daily with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, they ate their food with gladness and simplicity of heart, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to the church daily those who were being saved” (Acts 2:42-47).

John suggested the churches have fumbled their fellowship because, while celebrating the Incarnation and the Resurrection, they have forgotten Pentecost.  It is the Spirit who came to those first Christians in Jerusalem to bind them into a body of believers.  It is the Spirit who will do the same for us – if we will cease grieving Him and open ourselves to His filling.

I believe my friend John is right: We must know God in His fullness if we are to know Him rightly and well.  Only then will He begin to be comprehensible to us.  Here at St. Michael’s, we do not blow off Pentecost . . . and even we have some room for improvement in the biblical fellowship department.

When we know God rightly we can worship Him rightly.  For this is the chief end of man.  Evangelism and discipleship lead us to God’s altar, to our communion with Him.  For this purpose, too, we must have men trained in the ways of the Bible and of the Book of Common Prayer.  Trained to lead God’s people to His throne of grace.

How John must have shuddered as, in the Spirit, he surveyed the celestial array before him, gazed upon the One in Three and Three in One.  How it must have dazzled and bewildered and terrified him.  What did this revelation mean?

The Anglican theologian Gerald Bray sums up: “The sense of the presence of God is so overwhelming that we can move among the persons almost without noticing, yet we are always fully conscious of their presence.

“There is never any confusion in the reader’s mind about who is speaking or acting, yet in coldly logical terms, the three cannot be clearly distinguished from the one God.  Father, Son and Holy Spirit reveal themselves to John, and so also to us, as one God, living and moving in the fullness of his Trinitarian being.

“The doctrine, culled from the rest of Scripture, and laboriously constructed, is here presented to us in all its profound complexity and splendid simplicity.  The God whom we cannot explain, we know, the One we cannot picture, we see.

“The Book of Revelation is first and foremost a revelation of the Trinity, and it is only when we understand this that we will be equipped to interpret its meaning, which is nothing less than the mystical vision of God.”

So wrote the learned Dr. Bray.  And so, beloved, on this Trinity Sunday, on this Seminary Sunday, I ask: Is God comprehensible?  Wrong question, really.  Is God knowable?  A resounding yes.  So long as we know Him in His fullness, for who He says He is.  Amen.

 

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Many Tongues Became One

The Feast of Pentecost

Joel 2:21-end, Psalm 145, Acts 2:1-11, St. John 14:15-31

Many Tongues Became One

My dad was a sprout during the Great Depression.  His family fared better than most.  His dad worked as a superintendent in the Texas Company oil field just outside of town and he remained gainfully employed throughout that dark period.

They lived in West Columbia, Texas, home of the fightin’ Roughnecks, which is just across the river from East Columbia.

When Dad was 8 or 9 it became the custom for his mother to give him a nickel each Saturday night – assuming he had been reasonably well behaved and had tended to his chores.  That nickel would cover both admission to the movies and the price of a candy bar.

Dad would meet up with a couple of his pals and they would head over to the Bijou Theater on the main drag and take in the show.

One summer night, one of the boys had a better idea.  He’d heard about a regular Saturday night event that promised to be a better show.  And not only that, they could keep their nickels in their pockets because it was free.

So the three boys headed for the big tent on the edge of town where the Pentecostal church met.  They held their service on Saturday night because this was the Texas Gulf Coast and the summer days were hotter than blazes.

The Pentecostals also rolled up the bottom edges of their tent all the way around so that any breeze that might stir wouldn’t go to waste.  That gave three puckish boys an opportunity to flop on their bellies and peer inside.

The Pentecostal preacher was a fellow named One-Arm Brown.  He had transitioned from his previous career as a bootlegger after he lost an arm in the course of a high-speed chase.  A revenuer got off a lucky shot that sent the bootlegger skidding off the gravel road and into a tree.

This unfortunate incident limited him to the point that he felt compelled to withdraw from the bootleggers’ guild and move on to the related field of preaching.  He reckoned that both jobs were about making people feel better during those difficult days.

Well, on this particular night as the boys looked on, the praise band got to playing and the preacher got to preaching and before long some of the folks appeared to enter a state of frenzy.  A comely lass of about 17 became so ecstatic that she fell off of her chair and began to roll around in the center aisle.

As she did, the hem of her skirt began to ride up higher and higher.  The widow Jones, who was seated right there on the aisle, reached down to pull the young lady’s skirt back down in the interest of propriety.  Whereupon Reverend One-Armed Brown held up his one arm and bellowed, “Desist, Sister Jones, desist.  And let her glory shine.”

Dad and his buddies were quite faithful in their Saturday-night church attendance for some time thereafter.  The only downside for Dad, I suspect, was that the service at the Presbyterian Church in East Columbia, where his mother dragged him every Sunday morning, got even more boring.

And so as we celebrate the Feast of Pentecost I pose the question: Is that how God the Holy Spirit operates in His creation?

Pentecost is the day on which the Holy Spirit erupted in the creation and breathed out salvation on 3,000 souls in Jerusalem, the day on which God inaugurated the church as we know it and understand it and live it today.

We have our concerns – well-founded concerns – about the state of God’s church in our place and time, but perhaps this is a day to see the glass as half-full.

I read a story recently that provides some perspective.  The 18th century was a time of indifference and even apostasy in England.  A pastor named Samuel Wesley was the father of two sons, John and Charles.

One day he told the one, “Charles, be steady.  The Christian faith will surely revive in these kingdoms.  You shall see it, though I shall not.”

John of course heard of that conversation and he recalled it years later when, standing at his father’s grave, he preached to a great multitude.  England did see revival, and much of the credit for it goes to Samuel Wesley’s two boys, who spooned their gospel tonic into an ailing church in both England and America.  We are reminded once again to walk by faith and not by sight.

If we inhabit an age of the eclipse of the church, so have many others.  But from every eclipse the church has emerged and will emerge more resplendent than before.  If a spiritual gloom has descended upon our own time, it affords us an opportunity to turn up the flame of our faith in God.

This was the way of St. Augustine.

From the time of the fathers the church has seen Pentecost as the reversal of the Tower of Babel.  At Babel, one language became many; at Pentecost, many languages become one.   In the instant the church was born, she spoke with one voice.

This is the power of our God.  In this power – in His power — are our strength and our hope.  In this power – in His power — is the reason we shall not lose heart.  We are His church, and the gates of hell will not stand against us.

At Babel, God confused the tongues of the nations; at Pentecost He reversed the confusion.  At Babel, God scattered the people in judgment; at Pentecost He distributed the people to publish the gospel to all the nations.

At Babel, the people used language to advance a human agenda; at Pentecost, language became a sign to declare the power of God.  At Babel, disunity radiated outward as when a stone causes ripples in a pond; at Pentecost, people flew together as iron filings to a magnet.

Our God is ever merciful.  In the Garden, he drove man out so he could not continue to eat from the tree of life and live forever in his sinful state.  At Babel, He drove man away, delaying judgment on the City of Man and affording His creatures an opportunity of repentance.

Only God could tolerate the sin of His creatures; only God could provide a remedy for it.  After the great flood, when God looked down and saw that sin was once again rampant on the earth, He called Abraham out of Ur of the Chaldees to begin to form a people for His holy name.

Later He would send a man, born of a woman, born under the law, to complete the work.  This man, after His resurrection from the dead but before His ascension into heaven, would commission His apostles, or messengers, to “make disciples of all nations,” going “to the end of the earth” to take the gospel to every nation, tribe, tongue and people.

But wait, He told them, until you receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.  They received that gift on this day, Pentecost, the 50th day after the Feast of Unleavened Bread, which was celebrated at the time of harvest.  In God’s economy the harvest of grain would ever thereafter trigger the memory of the harvest of souls.

Even back in the day of the prophet Joel, God had promised to send His people a Helper.  The Son would pray to the Father, and the Father would send this Helper.  Of course, not everyone is astute enough to recognize a helper when the Father sends one.  I recall one soul who did.

This woman received a call at work informing her that her daughter was sick.  On her way to the school, she stopped at the pharmacy to get medicine.  When she got back to her car she found that in her haste she had locked her keys inside.

She spied an old rusty coat hanger on the ground.  She had heard of using a coat hanger to pop the lock, but even as she picked it up she thought, “I have no idea how to use this.”

She bowed her head and asked God to send a helper.  In less than five minutes a beat-up old motorcycle pulled up. The rider wore a scraggly red beard and a do-rag.  He got off of his motorcycle and asked if he could help.

The woman said: “Oh, yes, please, my daughter is sick. I’ve locked my keys in my car. I must pick her up. Can you use this hanger to unlock my car?”

The biker said, “No problem.”  He walked over to the car, and in less than a minute the door was open. The distraught woman hugged him and through her tears of gratitude she said, “Thank you so much! You are a very nice man.”

The biker replied “Lady, I am not a nice man. I just got out of prison yesterday.  I was in for car theft.”

The woman hugged him again, sobbing, “Oh, thank you, God!  You even sent me a professional!”

Now, that’s discernment.

One thing the Holy Spirit would teach us is that there is no true unity among men if not through God.  The vertical relationship must always precede the horizontal. The Holy Trinity is the model for all relationships.

Each of its three Persons has a role and the roles harmonize perfectly.  Even when one submits to another – as when the Son does the bidding of the Father even at the cost of His life – none becomes less than the others.

Instruction of this sort defies human understanding . . . and it is the way of ordering all relationships in our once and future state, in the garden and in glory.  It seems so foreign to us because we dwell today in the City of Man, and man’s government looks nothing like God’s.

God imposed it on His creation, when Jews from all points of the Diaspora, or dispersion, had assembled in Jerusalem to celebrate the feast.  It arrived with the force of a “rushing mighty wind.”  Not for the first time did God act by way of a wind.  Not by chance is the word for “breath” and “wind” and “spirit” the same in both Hebrew and Greek.

At Pentecost, the “mighty rushing wind” and “divided tongues, as of fire” — do you recall the burning bush? — brought God’s remedy for the rifts between man and God and man and man that sin produced.  Man dedicated the Tower of Babel, the house sin built, to the premise that man can unite with man while freezing God out.

The Psalmist would refute this notion:

“Unless the LORD builds the house, they labor in vain who build it . . .” (127:1).

But by the day of Pentecost sin-stained contractors,  their languages still confused, would be erecting myriad towers in the hope of ascending into the heavens of their own might or bringing God down to serve them in their realm.

The church God inaugurated on that day is His gift of a halfway house for His people, a shelter from the anarchy of the City of Man while we await communion in the City of God.  This is where St. Augustine can abet our understanding.

In the fifth century Alaric led the Goths in the sack of Rome, by this time the capital of a Christian nation for more than a hundred years.  The barbarian invader appeared to be pulling a vast darkness down on 11 centuries of civilization and culture.

Pagans and even nominal Christians attributed the catastrophe to that upstart religion called Christianity and predicted the ruin of the entire world.  Augustine, instead of joining in the cacophony, sat down to compose his classic “The City of God.”

This city of the Christian church rises out of the ruins of the civilizations of this world and survives all manner of chaos and tumult.  One day, her King will return to take up His throne and rule over an eternal realm of perfect justice and peace.

Meanwhile, we who are the subjects of this King have the privilege of looking upon this City of God with the eyes of faith and glimpsing our future home.  We have the further privilege of serving our King in preparing the world for the transfer of the City of God from heaven to earth, of proclaiming to the nations separated at Babel the solution God effected at Pentecost.  Augustine wrote:

“If pride caused diversities of tongues, Christ’s humility has united these diversities in one.  The Church is now bringing together what that tower had sundered.  Of one tongue there were made many; marvel not: this was the doing of pride.  Of many tongues there is made one; marvel not, this was the doing of charity.”  So wrote Augustine.

In Jerusalem, the Jewish authorities had prohibited certain prayers, including the Shema – “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one” — in foreign tongues.  Now the Jews of the Diaspora hear the praises of God sung out in the languages of the territories whence they came.

In Old Testament times, when the Spirit of God took control of a man, he prophesied.  Here, in like manner, the people prophesy, but in tongues.

This is not the ecstatic utterance Paul will address in 1 Corinthians but known languages spoken by those to whom they are unknown.  And those who prophesy are not Jerusalem sophisticates but a rabble from the back woods of Galilee.

Three thousand of the visitors will take their testimony to this mighty act of God back to their own lands and launch the process of disseminating the gospel throughout the nations and to the very end of the earth.  These are the firstfruits of the church . . . not a church for the Jew only but for those of every nation, tribe, tongue and people.

By the power of God, disunity has become unity, chaos has conceded to order, darkness has shriveled before the light.

Why, then, do we look out today upon the gathering gloom?

Robert D. Putnam is a scholar who studies American culture and who focuses his work on communities.  He wrote a book titled “Bowling Alone” that describes a sociological phenomenon in which more and more of our countrymen are bowling alone.

What was once a social game, to which people congregated in leagues, is turning into a solitary activity.  Bowling, of course, is not Putnam’s real concern.  His interest is in the disconnection that characterizes our culture more and more.  He notes that it has invaded the church as well as the bowling alley.

His observations appear more faithful to the reality we see around us than the notion of a church that is “one, holy, catholic and apostolic,” as we recite each Sunday – with emphasis on the “one.”  In an age of proliferating denominations, epidemic divorce and families rent asunder, how can we find the unity of the promise of Pentecost?

We will see it if we look through the eyes of Samuel Wesley, who peered beyond his own demise and saw an England restored to worship . . . if we look through the eyes of St. Augustine, who stood with feet firmly planted in the City of Man and caught the vision of the City of God.

We will not stumble if we walk by faith and not by sight, if we walk not in our own strength but in the power of the Holy Spirit. The Lord has built this house, His church, and the Lord does not labor in vain.  Amen.

 

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Love Indescribable

The Sunday After the Ascension

Isaiah 33:5-6, 17, 20-22; Psalms 21:1-6, 24; 1 St. Peter 4:7-11; St. John 15:26-16:4

Love Indescribable

Kairos is a program in which a team of Christians enters a prison on consecutive days, hauling in mountains of fried chicken and barbecued beef and pizza and apple pie and chocolate cake – items that are not staples of an inmate’s diet.

They spend a Saturday and Sunday serving up this feast . . . but it is not the only nourishment they bring.  They pack in the love of God as well.  A Texas pastor described an experience on such a visit:

“A young man I will call Ernesto wanted to talk more about forgiveness,” the pastor said. “Inmates can request one-on-one counseling with the pastors on the team.   Ernesto told me that he felt that God could forgive him, but he did not think his family could forgive him.

“Ernesto was so ashamed of his crimes that he cut off all contact with his family.  He sent their letters back; he would not see them if they came to visit.  He had not had any contact with his family for more than 10 years.

“I asked Ernesto, ‘What makes you think your mother would not forgive you?’

“He said, ‘Because she raised me better.  My mom is a Christian woman; she went to church all the time and took all of us kids to church.  She taught us right. That’s why I am so ashamed.  I knew better; she taught me right.  I don’t have a leg to stand on.’

“I asked Ernesto, ‘What if I showed you something in the Bible about forgiveness?  Probably some scripture that you mother often reads.’

“We said the Lord’s Prayer together, and after ‘amen,’ I showed him the next two verses in Matthew 6, verses 14 and 15:

“’If you forgive those who sin against you, your heavenly Father will forgive you. But if you refuse to forgive others, your Father will not forgive your sins.’

“Ernesto said, ‘But I do forgive them,’ and I said, ‘Ernesto, I am not talking about you; I am talking about your mother.  This scripture applies to her, too.’

“Ernesto looked at me kinda puzzled.  I said, ‘Ernesto, if your mother is a Christian like you are telling me, she forgave you a long time ago.  I bet she has been praying for you every single day since you got incarcerated.’

“Ernesto remained uncertain.  He said, ‘You really think so?’  I said, Ernesto, ‘I feel almost certain.  It doesn’t mean she approves of your mistakes; it just means she forgives you.  I also feel certain she has been praying that you would also change your behavior . . . but that’s up to you.’

“Then it happened. Suddenly, inexplicably, Ernesto was able to believe in the love and forgiveness of God.  And he began to weep.  He was a mess; I wondered if he was having some sort of nervous breakdown.  In hindsight, the Holy Spirit had moved into his heart

“It took a while, but he settled down.  And almost like it was right out of Acts chapter 2, he asked me, ‘What should I do?’

“I said, ‘Ernesto, it’s time to repent and ask God to forgive your sins, and to change your ways.’  He prayed.  Then we prayed together, and he was halfway laughing with joy and crying at the same time. He was slobbering and snot was flowing!

“I said, ‘It’s time to get back to our table and tell all your brothers in white (the other inmates) that you are becoming a man of God.  And you need to tell your cellmate, and you need to write your mother tonight, and tell her God has saved you.  All of this, Ernesto, is an answer to her many, many prayers.’

“And we went out to see the other inmates.  I saw a guard coming up to our table, and I heard him tell Ernesto, ‘You have a visitor.  Come check out with the chaplain and you can go see them.’

“Ernesto said: ‘Who is it?  I don’t get visitors.’    And the guard said, ‘It’s your mother.’

“All I could get out was, ‘Praise God!’  I wish I could describe his face to you.  He was overcome with joy and astonishment and . . . it was just indescribable.’”

Love – God’s love — will cover a multitude of sins.  Long before Ernesto stumbled upon this indescribable truth, St. Peter revealed it in his first letter to the persecuted and scattered Christians of the first century.

We are now six Sundays removed from Easter.  Since that highest holy day of the Christian year, our gospel lessons have led us into a growing awareness of who Jesus is as Christ and our epistle lessons into a deepening understanding of how we must live in response to His crucifixion and resurrection.

Just last week, we celebrated His ascension as well.  In the collect for Ascension Day we prayed that we who believe in Christ’s ascension “may also in heart and mind thither ascend, and with him continually dwell . . .”

We now look ahead to the advent of the One who will empower us to live in such a way that we may ascend in heart and mind and dwell with our Lord in His heaven.  The kingdom of heaven is open for business this very day . . . open to those who make Christ’s sacrificial life the pattern for their own.

One week from today, if the Lord does not return before, we will celebrate Pentecost, the coming of the Holy Spirit.

This morning we prayed in our collect to the “King of glory” who has already exalted His Son “with great triumph into thy kingdom in heaven” to “leave us not comfortless but send to us thy Holy Ghost to comfort us and exalt us unto the same place whither our Saviour Christ is gone before . . .”

We hover today in the warp between the ascension of the Son of God and the condescension of the Spirit of God.  Peter wants us to know that love covers a multitude of sins.

But we mustn’t get ahead of our story.  The apostle begins our lesson for today by raising the alarm: The end of all things is at hand.

The sky is falling!  The sky is falling!  We must go and tell the king.

And Chicken Little is off, soon to be joined by Henny Penny, Cocky Locky, Ducky Lucky, Drakey Lakey, Goosey Loosey, Gander Lander and Turkey Lurkey.

They must escape the clutches of Foxy Loxy.  Or is that Foxy Woxy?  They must go and tell the king.

But . . . no.  That wasn’t the sky falling, after all, but an acorn landing on the little chickie’s head.  Oh dear, oh dear.

The end of all things is at hand!  The end of all things is at hand!  Is St. Peter’s hair on fire?

And now here we sit, today, 2,000 years later, looking forward to our lunch.   Birds chirping, kids playing . . . The end of all things is not near.  Never was.  Those gullible Christians.  They’ll swallow any old yarn.

It is undeniably true that the early church – including its leading lights such as Peter and Paul – expected the Lord to return in judgment within their generation.  Peter had watched his Lord ascend from the Mount of Olives until He vanished in a cloud.  He had heard angels repeating Jesus’ pledge that He would return.

Some seem to have expected Him in weeks or months.  And so we ask: How near is near?  Were the apostles nervous Nellies?  Do the mockers have a case?

We must say three things in response.  First, in a real sense these apostles had seen the end already.   Christ had brought it with Him.  In Him, all Old Testament prophecies were fulfilled.  The age of man’s thrashing attempts to justify himself under the law was over.

God’s solution had arrived.  In Christ, eternity invaded time.  We may watch the clock and consult the calendar but by God’s reckoning Christ ushered in the day without end.  As His apostles died off, the demise of the last vestiges of the Lord’s life on earth passed away.  The end was near.

Second, since the Christ’s ascension, no one else has exited this world so gracefully.  The apostles and all who have followed have met physical death.  So in that sense, for you and for me, for every one of us, the end is near.

Third, and perhaps even more to the point, is Peter’s comment in his second letter.  God is not slow to keep His promises; He is allowing the reprobate ample time to repent and follow the Lord.  “But, beloved,” he writes, “do not forget this one thing, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day” (3:8).

The apostle’s point is that the Christian life enfolds an urgency of giving our best for God today because tomorrow – be it the day of our death or of our Lord’s return – is so very near.  The rich farmer in the parable filled his barns, put up his feet and took his ease.

He ate, drank and made merry.  He did not heed the caution: “This night your soul will be required of you” (Luke 12:20).

It bears noting as well that our soon-coming King is with us today in the Person of His Holy Spirit . . . and therein lies another motivation to a life pleasing to Him.

In the previous passage, Peter has given instruction on how not to live as Christians in time of trial.  Now he posits the positives by way of contrast:

Not drunken debauchery and licentiousness but sobriety, clarity of mind, self-control.  Not lust but love.  Not orgies but hospitality.  Not exploitation but ministry.  Not the pagan life but the life of  prayer.

Clarity of mind and self-control are necessary for prayer, which the Lord had prescribed for His disciples in times of crisis.  In the Garden of Gethsemane He had commanded Peter to keep watch and to pray.  Instead, Peter slept.

Now the apostle counsels his disciples to keep a clear head and a tight rein on their emotions. He is counseling them to hold on to their sanity, to keep things in perspective.  Do not hurtle pell-mell into enthusiasms of the moment – do not amuse yourselves to death — but remain grounded in eternal truth, and prayer.

For Christian unity, prayer is a non-negotiable.  What shall we pray?  “Thy will be done.”  Sober, clear-headed prayer seeks not the Christian’s fallible will but his Lord’s perfect will.   As we watch the world around us fray this day, what shall we pray?  “Thy will be done.”

In a loose translation of Proverbs 10:12, the apostle declares that “love will cover a multitude of sins.”  But whose love?  It is God’s love that covers a multitude of sins.  We cannot love passionately enough to save ourselves from our sins.  Only God can.

Forgiving, transforming love of this sort puzzles us sinners.  Like Ernesto, we sentence ourselves to a prison enclosed by the razor wire of unforgiveness; we cling to our guilt and squeeze our eyes shut against the truth of the mercy of God – and His people.  Until someone comes along to speak the gospel into our lives and we let down our guard . . . and the Holy Spirit rushes in to fill that God-sized hole inside us.

Peter goes on: Gifts are for service, not self-aggrandizement. Our Lord Himself commanded His followers to practice hospitality: “I was a stranger and you took me in” (Matthew 25:35.

The literature of the early church is replete with exhortations to open homes to traveling apostles, preachers, teachers, evangelists and bearers of letters.  Inns were few and far between and money scarce.

The “Didache,” or “Teaching,” a document of the church that dates to the first decade of the second century, sets out specific regulations for offering hospitality to travelers.  And while this instruction is intensely practical, we must not assume that it is not also spiritual.

Yes, there’s a Day’s Inn just down the road but its presence does not cancel the Christian’s obligation to exercise his gift.  Pointedly, Peter tacks on an admonition to do so “without grumbling.”  The “Didache” passage also spells out proper conduct for guests.  The authors may have been anticipating the Italian proverb: “A guest is like a fish; after three days he stinks.”

Peter is teaching on relations within the church.  His instruction on “speaking the oracles of God” applies equally to those who are preaching to the flock or ministering to outsiders. He may have in mind his own experience, described in Acts ch. 10, of witnessing to the gentile Cornelius and his family, upon whom the Holy Spirit descended in like manner of His anointing of Peter and the other Jews in ch. 2.

The preacher’s opinions matter only insofar as they align with God’s opinions.  Otherwise, he can stuff ‘em.  I must tell you that it requires a learned discipline to avoid wandering away from the text and interjecting one’s own philosophies into the sermon.  Those are not the “oracles of God.”

To have a spiritual gift – and every Christian has at least one – is to be a steward of the grace of God.  Do not treat it as a trifling thing.  God works by means – often human means – and that gift He has awarded you is to be put to work for the benefit of others and the glory of the Giver.

Only if we minister using God’s gifts and His strength will we give Him all the glory.  If we operate in our own capacities we are serving ourselves.  And when such a “ministry” finds what looks like success, that “success” may in fact be God’s judgment.

I think of the TV hucksters who promise healings . . . with all major credit cards are accepted.  The joint’s rocking, the choir’s singing, the “love” flowing.  And as Paul teaches of idolaters in Romans 1, God gives them up to their “vile passions.”

There’s a lesson here for those who are sincere in ministry as well.  Church-planting strategies and church-growth methods are not wrong in and of themselves, but those who use them must exercise caution.

When they appear to work, it’s all too easy to credit one’s own cleverness and rob glory from the One who gives the increase.

The apostles had once squabbled about who would be most exalted in the kingdom of heaven.  Now this post-Pentecost Peter acknowledges it is by God’s grace that he can bid a lame man walk and preach the gospel with conviction and power.  He is seeking glory not for himself but for his Lord.

Only when reading Peter and John among writers of New Testament letters can we compare their impetuous and immature words and actions when they were walking with Jesus to their knowledge and wisdom after the Holy Spirit descended upon them at Pentecost.

How – now — could they fail to see that it is only by God’s grace communicated by His Spirit that they could accomplish any meaningful work?

Beloved in the Lord, you and I did not tread the dusty roads of Palestine with Jesus.  We were not there to witness His ascension and we were not on hand at Pentecost when the Spirit came down and poured out salvation and blessing on His people.  But we have this same Spirit in no less measure than they.

We are equipped with His gifts to serve God in ways great and small and the humility to give Him the glory.  These attributes are present within us because the Holy Spirit is present within us.  Our job is to get out of His way and let Him do His miraculous, life-saving work through us.  Amen.

 

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Pure and Undefiled Religion

The Fifth Sunday After Easter

Ezekiel 34:25-31, Psalm 65, St. James 1:22-27, St. John 16:23b-33

Pure and Undefiled Religion

The tongue is a curious little instrument.  Unlike other weapons, the more you use it, the sharper it gets.

Winston Churchill and Lady Astor both liked to wield theirs, and they did so in a long-running feud.  In one duel, Lady Astor got in the first thrust: “If I were your wife, I’d put arsenic in your tea.”

Sir Winston parried: “If I were your husband . . . I’d drink it.”

Churchill, I imagine, had no more use for the letter of James before us today than Martin Luther, who called it an epistle made of straw . . . but for a different reason.  Luther could unsheathe a sharp tongue, too, but his complaint against James was that he advocated what Luther saw as a religion of works.

The reformer took this understanding in no small measure from the first verse of our lesson: “But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves.”

It seems odd that one as bright as Luther could not or would not see what the rest of us find as obvious as the nose on his face.  James is not advocating a works-based salvation.  He never implies that a Christian can pile up enough merits to earn God’s favor.   His point is that true faith will generate good works:

Faith without works is dead, but real faith is never without works.

Luther seems to have been so consumed with combating the works focus of the medieval church that anything anyone might take as supporting it got his hackles up.

Last week, we found James building his case in the preceding passage.  He exhorted us to “receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls.”

Now he goes on to make the point that receiving that word is not enough for the sincere Christian.  Many appear in church week in and week out; they receive the word endlessly without ever acting on it.  They deceive themselves.  A faith that bears no fruit is dead.  Attendance must not be mistaken for faithfulness.

He who loves God does not try to claim the saving power of His word and cast away its  imperatives to serve.  If you are truly a child of God you will act upon His teaching.

A new priest dazzled his congregation with his first sermon, a charge to “gird your loins” for the work of ministry.  They were abuzz with his depth of knowledge of the Scriptures and his rhetorical skill.

The next Sunday he preached the same sermon.  The people thought that was a bit strange.  And on his third Sunday in his new pulpit he preached the identical sermon for the third time.

That was more than one parishioner could take.  He demanded to know: “Don’t you have more than one sermon?”

“I do, indeed,” said the preacher.  “Actually, I have quite a few.  But you haven’t done anything about the first one yet.”

James, I have no doubt, would applaud that approach.  His one letter in the canon of Scripture relies heavily on the preaching and teaching of his half-brother Jesus.  James’ style is direct and to the point.  His letter includes more imperatives than any other and a wealth of practical exhortation.

He shows us here a contrast between the true believer who has the word within him, who looks into the word that is the gospel, perseveres in it and acts on it, on the one hand, and a man with a mirror who looks at himself, goes away and forgets his appearance.

What you see in the mirror should prompt an action – brushing your hair, straightening your tie, repairing your makeup.  The word rightly preached is a mirror.  The diligent Christian holds his life up to it and asks himself, “How do I look?  What must I do?

“Am I reflecting the word I take in in the holy place when I venture into the marketplace?”

Or, as a sign in a church vestibule framed the matter: “If you were on trial for being Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you?”

This, beloved, is a question each of us must confront.  When the secular culture looks at you, does it recognize you as different from the citizens of the unbelieving world around you?  He who hears and acts not sows deceit; he who hears and does reaps blessing.

This latter is a lover of that “perfect law of liberty.”  In worldly thinking, law and liberty are enemies.  We hear this attitude aired at an ear-splitting volume today in the never-ending argument over the supposed rights of homosexuals.

When the Final Four, the culmination of the NCAA thumpathon, was staged in Indianapolis a couple of years ago, we were treated to a fine old hullabaloo over a new Indiana law designed to protect religious liberty.  It allowed those who could not have any role in a same-sex wedding ceremony as a matter of conscience the opportunity to opt out without penalty.

This statute, some screeched, could be used as a shield by those who would deny homosexuals their rights.  These religious troglodytes were hung up on an arcane provision in an Old Testament law code that has no relevance today . . . if in fact it ever did for the enlightened.

One difficulty with this rationale is the many New Testament condemnations of homosexuality, none more forceful than that in chapter 1 of Romans.  More to the point for us today, however, is that God’s law, from which we take our attitudes toward sex and myriad other subjects – no less in our day than in that of Moses – reveals God’s character.

He promulgated it not to harm His people but to help them.  The law can’t save people and it never could.  It was given as a code of conduct for the covenant community.

“I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage (Exodus  20:2),” Yahweh said to His people Israel assembled at Mount Sinai as He prepared to give them His law.

Emerging into the light of their God’s liberty, they needed a code to instruct them in how to live free, for the faithful child wants nothing more than to reflect his Father’s character in his own.  You and I who have been saved from sin by the One who came not to abolish the law but to fulfill it need the law no less.

Just as we cannot observe society’s regulation of safe travel on the roads without speed limits, we cannot maintain orthodoxy in the church without God’s law.  Many in the churches today insist that God loves everyone without condition.  Have they checked in with St. Peter?

St Peter is sitting at the Pearly Gates when two guys arrive wearing T-shirts with a package of Lucky Strikes rolled up in a sleeve and carrying tire irons. They want in.   St. Peter looks out through the Gates and says, “Wait here. I’ll be right back.”

He trots over to God’s chambers and describes for Him the guys who are waiting for admission.

God says to St. Peter, “How many times do I have to tell you? You can’t be judgmental here. This is heaven. All are loved. All are brothers. Go back and let them in!”

St. Peter goes back to the Gates, looks around and lets out a heavy sigh. He returns to God’s chambers and says, “Well, they’re gone.”

“The guys in the T-shirts?” God asks.

“No. The Pearly Gates.”

In fact, God’s law is the law of love.  The man who serves his own passions and desires is a slave, laboring nightly in the dungeon of earthly delights and paving his pathway into the everlasting inferno.

He who obeys God’s law lends hands and feet to God’s love.  We are truly free when we live out the life our Creator intended for us, for then we are acting in accord with our pre-fall nature, to which we shall return in God’s glory.

The law protects us while we inhabit this sinful flesh, pointing us toward our once and future state unstained by sin.  It is not a burden but a blessing.

A woman was married to a man she did not love.  She could not, for he treated her shamefully.  He gave her a long list of rules that ordered all of her time.  Among the rules was one that required her to rise at 5 a.m., cook his breakfast and serve it to him promptly at 5:30.

After many years of misery, her husband died.  In time, she remarried, this time to a man she loved deeply.  One day, while cleaning out some drawers, she came upon the set of rules her first husband had given her: up at 5, breakfast at 5:30, and on and on.

As she scanned the list a thought seized her.  She was doing all the things for her current husband she had done for the former one . . . yet this time with a joyful heart.

James now gives us characteristics of the new life in Christ.  The list is hardly exhaustive, but he wants us to see what true religion looks like.  “Religion” is a word for how we live out our love for God.  One whose religion is genuine will bridle his tongue.

The philosopher Xanthus one day told his servant that he was having friends in for dinner on the morrow.  He instructed the servant to go to the market and buy the best thing he could find.

When Xanthus and his company sat down at the table the servant appeared with the first course, which was tongue.  Four more courses followed, and each of them was tongue . . . cooked in a different way to be sure, but tongue nonetheless.

The servant’s master lost his patience.  “Didn’t I tell you to buy the best thing in the market?” he asked.

“I did get the best thing in the market,” the servant replied.  “Isn’t the tongue the organ of sociability, the organ of eloquence, the organ of kindness, the organ of worship?”

The philosopher Xanthus, frustrated and wanting to make a point, told his servant, “Tomorrow I want you to get the worst thing in the market.”  On the morrow the master sat at table with a different set of friends . . . but the menu was unchanged: five more courses of tongue.

Seething, he asked his servant, “Didn’t I tell you to get the worst thing in the market?”

“I did get the worst thing in the market,” said the servant.  “Isn’t the tongue the organ of blasphemy, the organ of defamation, the organ of lying?”

The tongue gives voice to the thoughts and intentions of the heart.  It reveals whether you are one brought forth into new life by God’s word of truth (v. 18).

He whose religion is pure and undefiled attends to widows and orphans – or, more broadly, those on the margins of the society.  Does your care for them reflect the mercy of your Father, of whom the Psalmist (68:5) sang:

“A father of the fatherless, a defender of widows, is God in His holy habitation.”

Do you give from an overflowing heart with no thought of gaining a reward, for what struggling widow or poor orphan will ever be able to repay or return the favor?  One and all have been estranged from God.  He who has accepted God’s redemption and repatriation must not live as though he has not.

Are you giving of your time, talent and treasure for the good of those who are not blessed as you are?  I have a policy of not knowing what anyone in the church gives.  That’s a matter between each of you and your Lord.  But I do know the statistics on the American church.

In the U.S. 5 percent give the tithe – 10 percent of income — with 80 percent of Americans only giving 2 percent of their income.  In the Great Depression, Christians gave at a 3.3 percent rate per capita; today that number is 2.5 percent.  If every church-goer gave a tithe an additional $165 billion would flow into the churches annually.

Our Lord spoke often on the subject of money.  In the Sermon on the Mount He says:

“. . . where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matthew 6:21).

The real issue is located not in your wallet but your heart.  Where you dispense your treasure tells your Lord the condition of your heart.  God loves a cheerful giver.  And you have reason to be cheerful.  St. Paul wrote:

“For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though He was rich, yet for your sakes He became poor, that you through His poverty might become rich” (2 Corinthians 8:9).  And you are rich.  Rich in grace; rich in mercy; rich in favor with God.  And by the world’s standards, incredibly rich in money.

“Christianity Today” addressed the subject:

“For Christians in the richest nation in history to be giving only 2.43 percent of their income to their churches is not just stinginess, it is biblical disobedience — blatant sin. We have become so seduced by the pervasive consumerism and materialism of our culture that we hardly notice the ghastly disjunction between our incredible wealth and the agonizing poverty in the world.

“Over the last 40 years, American Christians (as we have grown progressively richer) have given a smaller and smaller percent of our growing income to the ministries of our churches. Such behavior flatly contradicts what the Bible teaches about God, justice, and wealth. We should be giving not 2.4 percent but 10 percent, 15 percent, even 25 to 35 percent or more to kingdom work. Most of us could give 20 percent and not be close to poverty.”

But . . . we worship.  Worship, no matter how resplendent, is not pleasing to the Lord if those who offer it do not share His love for the least, the last and the lost.  This was the snare of the Pharisee.

Just as James the Just does not condemn hearing the word but rather failing to act on it, he does not disparage beauty in worship but rather ornate ceremony set forth as a substitute for practical love for your neighbor.

Finally, the one who is truly religious will keep himself unspotted from the world.  The world is simply that system that operates on human wisdom, leaving God out.

Much religion is a façade that obscures a dead faith. James, you may have noticed, is not interested in leaving you an easy way out.

And so, I ask again: If you were on trial for being Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you?

Beloved, our heavenly Father longs to see His character, as expressed in His law, reflected in the character of His children.  He has given us a model. Follow the example of Him who was the doer of the word par excellence, James’ brother, Jesus Christ our Lord, and you will neither deviate nor stumble on your journey to eternity.  Amen.

 

 

 

 

 

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A Word to the Wise

The Fourth Sunday After Easter

Job 19:21-27a, Psalm 116, St. James 1:17-21, St. John 16:5-15

A Word to the Wise

My father was the youngest of four.  My grandfather, Edward Govan Fowler Sr., died when Dad was 12.  I know him only through the family lore.

In her later years, my Aunt Jennie was fond of telling the story of her first date.  Growing up in what was called the Texas Company camp outside the oilfield town of West Columbia, Texas, she had been looking forward to turning 16, when she would be allowed to date.

Shortly after that magic day arrived she was asked out.  She followed the family protocol.  Her young beau arrived on the front porch and her father answered the door and invited him in.

When they were seated her father made small talk with the lad for a very small time.  Then he got down to business.

“I want her back by 10.”

“Yes, sir.”

“10 means 10.  10 doesn’t mean 10:05.  10 doesn’t mean 10:01.  10 means 10.”

“Yes, sir.”

“And I want her back in the same condition she left in.”

Do you think those instructions were clear enough?

We live as Christians under the covenant of grace.  Grace is for grown-up Christians.  Our Lord expects us to know His law as He lays it out in both the Old and New Testaments – to read it, study it, meditate on it, pray over it and then apply it to our daily lives.

To learn it well enough to understand what we must do in those myriad situations for which we have no specific commandments.  Whom should I marry?  What work should I do?  How much of my time, talent and treasure should I give to God’s church?  Grace is for grown-ups.

St. James weighs in today with a reminder that while we live under grace there are absolutes in God’s law that do not bend.  “10 means 10.  10 doesn’t mean 10:05.  10 doesn’t mean 10:01.  10 means 10.”

Up above are the lights, the sun, the moon, the stars.  Down below is man.  The lights that shine down on man proceed from the Father of lights, but He is nowhere to be seen.

This is the picture James paints.  Has he forgotten the Father?  May it never be.

James brushes onto his canvas only the fickle created things.  The lights in the sky loom now over here, now over there, shifting, ever shifting.

They spill out upon this brooding creature, slow to hear, quick to speak, quick to wrath.  He knows no more constancy than a flashing meteorite.

God has no place in this earthscape of shifting shapes and bodies in motion.  He is the immortal, the invisible and, yes, the immutable.  Always the same – yesterday, today and tomorrow.

He abides over there, just off the canvas, no part of the created order but Author of all.  His word creates.  His word re-creates.  His word never changes.  His word never fails.

This is the composition of James the Just, leader of the Jerusalem church, president of the Jerusalem council, half-brother of our Lord.  The deposit of his quick mind is this bare-bones letter, devoid of clutter.  Its elegance resides in its simplicity.

Some have called it the Proverbs of the New Testament.  Others have claimed it is a collection of aphorisms tossed like lettuce and tomatoes.  But it is more.  It is wisdom distilled; the likening of it to Proverbs is apt.

The ancient world found wisdom in the contemplation of wisdom.  Solomon, that wisest of men, found a great deal to say about it.  Here’s Proverbs 10:19: “In the multitude of words sin is not lacking.  But he who restrains his lips is wise.”

And 29:20: “Do you see a man hasty in his words?  There is more hope for a fool than for him.”

This preoccupation was hardly confined to the biblical authors. Many dwelled on when a man should act with haste and when with deliberation.  Be slow to punish, said Ovid, but swift to reward.  Be slow to harm others, said Philo, but quick to benefit them.

Considering wisdom, I began to wonder: If the ancients poured so much thought into it, how is there so little of it in the world today?  Where did it go?  How did it go?  Why did it go?  Who made it go?

So for answers I turned to my browser.  Wowser.  A sampling:

“Will and Grace” revival is set to air

Maher slammed over incest joke about president, Ivanka

Simmons sues National Enquirer over sex-change story

Jimmy Kimmel confronts critics in late-night return

Big News for “American Idol” fans

Ben & Jerry’s announces recall of popular treat

And more.  So much more.

Have you ever had the feeling you’re not part of the target demographic?  Have you ever had a nightmare about being trapped at a United Nations debate without the headphones?

About 30 years ago, before the Internet was anything like the daily presence in our lives it has become, a communications professor named Neil Postman wrote a book titled, “Amusing Ourselves to Death.”

He traced the degradation of public discourse in America back to its early sources.  Postman wrote this about the telegraph: “The telegraph is suited only to the flashing of messages, each to be quickly replaced by a more up-to-date message.

“Facts push other facts into and then out of consciousness at speeds that neither permit nor require evaluation.”  The result was a sort of public conversation in a language reduced to headlines – “sensational, fragmented, impersonal.  News took the form of slogans, to be noted with excitement, to be forgotten with dispatch.”

That was the telegraph.  Now we have the Internet, email, Facebook, texting, Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat,  to say nothing of radio and television.  The world that flashes before us is ablaze with amusements kindled to torch our passions and blind us to the constant things.  Wisdom?  How quaint.

But . . .the world changes.  We’re past that eternal-truth thing.  A God who can’t keep up, who insists on standing outside the blur of the created order, who says, “Be still and know that I am God” . . . well, it worked for a while.  We got over it.

One other item from Postman: Television succeeds by flipping images relentlessly.  The Sermon on the Mount wouldn’t play on the tube today.  So televised church services become cartoons.  He writes:

“I believe I am not mistaken in saying that Christianity is a demanding and serious religion.  When it is delivered as easy and amusing, it is another kind of religion altogether.”

This accounts, I believe, for much of the divide in the church of our place and time.  Many have gotten over eternal truth, moved on.  But when religion becomes, like TV news, an entertainment for riling our passions of the moment, to be replaced tomorrow by another outrage of the century or a warm and fuzzy reunion of twins separated at birth, it sinks to the level of slapstick.

Our technology is bringing our cultural death nearer and nearer.  We have consigned telegraph  to the age of the dinosaurs.  Now, tweeting is all the rage.  The interesting – and disheartening – thing is that people are using the tweet as a substitute for real action, something like sports fans who convince themselves that their passion affects what happens on the field.

I recall from my days as a radio sports talk-show host having Bill Walton on as a guest.  Walton, a former great center, was by now a television commentator.  The Houston Rockets had a three games to none lead over the Orlando Magic in the NBA Finals.

I mentioned to Walton off-air that I was going to skip Game 4 to head up to Long Island for the U.S. Open.  He was shocked.  I was taking way too much for granted as a Houston sports media dude.  I had to remind him that I had never suited up for the Rockets and my presence or absence would have zilch effect on the outcome of that game and the series.

By the way, the Rockets won Game 4 without my help.

Sports fans can have their fun with no harm done, but when show-business celebrities – people who might do something of substance — persuade themselves that they have contributed to the cause with a tweet . . . well, empty minds generate empty gestures.

They are doing nothing but amusing themselves with their delusion.

Our fascination with the flippant and fleeting is turning us into a nation of ADD kids of all ages.  The faith God has given us to shape our culture is reinventing itself every few years to hang on by the fingernails to an ever-shrinking place in that culture.

Still, some of us cling to the moldy chestnut of a durable truth set forth in a wisdom for the ages.  Like troops on a remote island who never received word that the war is over, we soldier on.

“Of His own will,” St. James says of God, “He brought us forth by the word of truth . . .” This is not birth but rebirth.  God created by His word, to be sure, but James has in view the re-creation.  The word, specifically the word of truth, the gospel, is the divine agent of regeneration.  By it, we are born again.

James is the New Testament’s pre-eminent ethicist.  He exhorts his readers, then and now, to keep ourselves unspotted, free of the world’s contamination.  Our means of doing so is obedience to the word.  James is a bit of a scold, but I suppose Jesus’ brother does enjoy a certain status.

He wants us – and he seems really to expect that we comply – to control and even edit our emotions.  Psychologists testify to the impossibility of such a thing.  We can suppress them now and again but we’re stuck with them.

James insists on the contrary.  If God’s word and His Holy Spirit dwell within us, we can grow in godliness.  Dr. Cranmer takes James’ side.  In our collect for the day we prayed to a God “who alone canst order the unruly wills and affections of sinful men.”

Dr. Cranmer, in fact, is every bit as convinced as James is.  “Grant unto thy people, that they may love the thing which thou commandest, and desire that which thou dost promise . . .” God has the power to make His desires our desires.

Why should we love God’s commands and yearn for the things He promises? “. . . that so, among the sundry and manifold changes of the world, our hearts may surely there be fixed, where true joys are to be found; through Jesus Christ our Lord.”

Yes, God’s world is changing.  But its Creator is not.  The true joys belong to those whose hearts are fixed on His eternal word.  There is no variation or shadow of turning in the One who provides every good gift and every perfect gift from above.

We’ll grasp more of James’ thinking if we probe a bit deeper.  As our passage begins, he is concluding a thought.  He has said, “Let no one say when he is tempted, ‘I am tempted by God’; for God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does He Himself tempt anyone.”

Far from tempting anyone to evil, we now learn, He supplies good gifts.  The best of them is the new birth, by which we who are deserving only of death are rescued and redeemed and preserved unto everlasting life.  So it is that we become the firstfruits: Christians are the first stage of God’s work of reclaiming the world from the clutches of sin and death.

Next we read a warning against intemperate speech and anger that seems at first out of place.  We will soon see how it fits into James’ train of thought.  We can see on the face of it that careless talk and a hot temper subvert God’s purposes.

Yes, there is a holy anger.  Our Lord Jesus unleashed it on occasion.  But if I am to brand my anger as “holy,” I should first ask myself: Are you holy enough to own such a thing?  If not, your anger is the fruit of self-importance, stubbornness, intolerance.  And when you’re angry, you’re not listening . . . to God.

A quiet demeanor characterizes a man at peace.  A brilliant linguist once received a great compliment.  It was said of him that he could keep silence in seven languages.

But soon we see that James is setting up a contrast between the hot-tempered man of vv. 19-20 and the one in v. 21 who receives “with meekness the implanted word.”  Meekness characterizes one with a teachable spirit.  Many of us, if clothed in our meekness, would be darn near naked.

If you know better than the teacher how to run the classroom, better than the judge how to run the courtroom, better than the sheriff how to run the jail, better than the priest how to run the church, better than God how to run the world . . . you could use a double-shot of meekness.

James is building toward that best-known verse in his letter, 22: “But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves.”

Here’s the progression: God will not tempt anyone to sin but will rather give good gifts, including salvation, which comes by His word; do not rage and blow your top but maintain a meek and teachable spirit so that you might respond well to God’s word implanted in you.

Our Lord’s brother wants us to accept God’s grace and respond to it, to accept God’s gifts and answer with our service, to receive God’s word and become doers of that word.  Centuries before, God had promised a new covenant that would replace the one He gave Israel under Moses and David.  He would put His law in their minds and write it on their hearts.

So doing, He would stimulate in place of rebellion, obedience; implant in place of hearts of stone, hearts of flesh.  A heart of flesh can receive the word.  God uses the implanted word to shape us.  The word that generated a new nature in us in a flash ushers us by degrees into a new life, a lovely life.  And some still insist that mere men dreamed this stuff up on their own.

Beloved, there is wisdom in these words, wisdom that flows from a truth that has not changed since Adam’s day and which will serve as the foundation of the New Jerusalem.  Our world tells us that after two millennia of immersion in the wisdom of the God of the Bible it has escaped the rusty shackles of the word.

The world doesn’t tell us that it has not yet discovered a transcendent truth to replace our Lord’s truth, a core of wisdom that it can substitute for God’s wisdom.  But they don’t need to tell us as we watch them amusing themselves to death.

The Lord God reigns.  He gives good gifts.  He brings forth by His word.  His word endures forever and ever.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

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The Lovely Life

The Third Sunday After Easter

1 Samuel 2:1-10, Psalm 40, 1 St. Peter 2:11-17, St. John 16:16-22

The Lovely Life

I know a fellow named Jerry who’s a pretty fair amateur golfer.  He shoots in the 70s.  Years ago, I ran into him one day and he was stoked.  He had ponied up to play in a charity fund-raiser and he had just learned he was to have the privilege of playing with a PGA Tour player.

His name is Paul Stankowski.  Before a series of injuries derailed his career Paul won two tournaments on tour and finished as high as fifth in the Masters.  He had a reputation as a free spirit.

After he played with him, Jerry reported that Stankowski was indeed a frolicsome sort.  As he and his amateur partners stepped onto the tee of a par-four, Stankowski said, “I’m going to play this hole on my knees.  See what you can learn from it.”

A lean six-footer, he took his driver from his bag, went to his knees and lashed a drive down the middle of the fairway.  A few minutes later, having played every stroke, including putts, from his knees, he had a par for the hole.

“Now,” said the pro, “what did you learn from that?”

Now, I have to interject something here.  I know most of you don’t play golf.  You’re far too smart for that.  I, on the other hand, am chief among sinners.  So I can tell you that golfers are obsessive.  We’re always searching for that one tiny swing change that will fix us forever.

So when the pro asked, “What did you learn from that?” Jerry and the other amateurs noodled furiously.  What should they have learned?  They tossed out answers plucked from the esoterica on which golfers love to obsess: the position of the right elbow at impact; that sort of thing.

No, no, no. no.  Finally they gave up.  “What you should have learned,” said Paul Stankowski, “is that short people can play this game, too.”

He was big enough, as one of the world’s elite in his sport, to make himself small.  He could take whatever the world could throw at him.  St. Peter says we have that stature, too.  As sons and daughters of the King of kings, we have nothing to fear.

Peter surveys the landscape of the first-century church and sees the Lord’s sheep scattered across it.  They are lonely and frightened, huddled against one another on the angry plain of a scowling world.

The apostle has a prescription for them, and no less for us: Live the lovely life.  For this is your debt to your Lord: a fine, gracious and winsome life lived out in full view of Jew and Greek, pagan and, yes, persecutor.

The lovely life is a calculated life.  We are good not for goodness’ sake but for God’s sake.  This goodness flows not from a noble spirit within us but in answer to God’s call.  We seek glory not for ourselves but for our Lord.

The lovely life is the common life baptized – consecrated for a holy purpose.  It is our means of schooling the world of man in the ways of the kingdom of God.  You’ve heard it before: Preach the gospel always, using words when necessary.

But the world wants none of it.  It has already pierced the hand that offered it peace.  Where do we turn for strength?

Even in a time of affliction, we can live the lovely life as a witness of our Father’s goodness and greatness and grace.  To lapse back into the golf metaphor for a moment – and I offer this testimony as a recovering pagan – when it comes to life, pagans are the amateurs and Christians are the pros.

We know life.  They know life apart from God.  There’s another word for that condition: death.  Our mission is to represent to them a life so lovely that some of them will not be able to resist it.  See my lovely life.  Embrace it.  Preserve it.  Rejoice in it.  Reproduce it.  Offer it as a sacrifice upon God’s altar.

Long before Peter wrote, Hannah had the idea.  This morning we have heard her pray: “No one is holy like the LORD, for there is none besides You, nor is there any rock like our God . . . The LORD makes poor and makes rich; He brings low and lifts up.

“He raises the poor from the dust and lifts the beggar from the ash heap, to set them among princes and make them inherit the throne of glory. For the pillars of the earth are the LORD’S, and He has set the world upon them.”

Even in the shame of her barrenness she had never doubted God’s power of deliverance.  That trust had enabled her to live the lovely life always.

This idea of a life of virtue as a statement is not exclusive to biblical characters of old or Christians of Peter’s day or ours.  Four hundred years before Christ, the philosopher Plato heard of a man making slanderous charges against him.

“I will live in such a way,” said Plato, “that no one will believe what he says.”

We truly can make our life our sermon.

This is the antidote Peter urges upon the scattered sheep of the persecuted church.  Pagans charged the early church with all manner of crimes against decency.  Because households fractured when one converted to Christianity and another did not, they were destroyers of families.

Because they preached the dignity of all human beings, they were responsible for turning slaves against their masters.  Because they would not worship Caesar, they were enemies of the state.  Because they spoke of the church in opposition to the world, they were haters of mankind.

Because even husbands and wives called one another “brother” and “sister,” they must be guilty of incest.  Because Christians spoke of eating the flesh and drinking the blood, they were clearly cannibals.

In response to these accusations, says Peter, “abstain from fleshly lusts which war against the soul, having your conduct honorable among the Gentiles . . .” To what end?  “. . . that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may, by your good works which they observe, glorify God in the day of visitation.”

God’s day of visitation will prove a blessing to some and a curse to others.  Our brief is to win pagans over to worship of the Lord with our lovely life so that they will be among the blessed.

We know that when St. Paul received his revelation from the Lord it came wrapped up with the responsibility to take the gospel to the Gentiles.  Now, maybe I haven’t had a road-to-Damascus experience . . . All right, I’ll come clean: I’ve never even had a road-to-Bartlesville experience . . . but each of us has received enough revelation to scatter light among unbelievers by the way we live.

And they will know a lovely life when they see one.  In our passage, Peter launches into a list of the responsibilities of his disciples both as members of the church and citizens of the nation.  And as Plato understood a life of virtue as rebuttal to slander, both Greek pagans and Jews as well as Christians had such codes.

All held up comparable standards of behavior as praiseworthy.  Some among the Gentiles would look with admiration on Christians’ fine conduct.  When they did, the believer’s next step was to explain to them the baptized life, devoted to God.

And the scattered sheep, Peter makes plain, owe this duty to their Lord in times of trial as much as any other.   What makes them, and us, different from the upright unbeliever?  The apostle addresses them, and us, as “sojourners and pilgrims.”  Other translations have “strangers,” aliens,” “exiles.”

Peter has already referred to his readers in these terms in the first verse of his letter.  Also in chapter 1 (v 17) he has admonished them, and us, to call on the Father and “conduct yourselves during the time of your stay here in fear,” meaning in awe of God.  He is channeling Paul, who declares in Philippians 3 (v 20) that “our citizenship is in heaven.”

The author of Hebrews says, “For here we have no continuing city, but we seek the one to come” (13:14).

The New Testament writers are brushing a spiritual coating on God’s words to Abraham in Genesis 12 (v 1): “Get out of your country, from your family and from your father’s house, to a land that I will show you.”

Whatever affliction Christians suffer, Peter and the others are saying, is merely a matter of the moment.  You have the strength to live out your witness while sailing a storm-tossed sea because you have placed yourselves under God’s eternal protection.

This transitory life is not your home.  As you await your entrance into God’s glory, proclaim that glory by your lovely life.

Now, let us not pretend there is not a measure of schizophrenia in our position.  We are aliens in a sinful world but simultaneously citizens of it active in doing good works.  I think of the third-culture kids on the mission field, rooted neither in their parents’ homeland nor their country of residence.  They inhabit a culture all their own, sharing it, sometimes, with brothers and sisters and other missionary kids.

We, too, populate an intermediate zone, citizens of heaven but not yet resident in it, creatures of the created order but aliens within it.

And, like Peter’s original readers, we must expect conflict without and within.  As St. John makes plain in his gospel, a world that reviled our Lord will not blow kisses at us.  But if the world’s hatred turns us into haters we will fail in our role as ambassadors of His love.

We cannot advance the gospel of peace by waging war.  As Hannah prayed, “For by strength no man shall prevail.”  We cannot represent our God of love by hating back those who hate us.  Maturity in the Lord demands a measured response.

We must quiet the knee that yearns to jerk, and suffer the jerk who deserves our knee.

And on the inside we will struggle with those old fleshly desires.  Unlike Abraham, the scattered sheep of Peter’s day had not pulled up stakes.  Most of them were planted in the same old geography.  The country they had left behind was the old loyalties and the old ruts of thought and action.

Especially in a time of persecution, the siren sings sweetly of those old charms as just beneath the surface the rocks bare their teeth.  Come home, come home, to the rough joke and the slick magazine, to the bottle and the brothel.  No need to suffer with those sad, pious fools when you can rush back into our arms.

Way back then, Peter’s readers were still digesting the good news.  Others had fled from the word of peace, off to find a muscular messiah who would lead them out to draw Roman blood.  These disciples had chosen the One who said, “My kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36).

But who could blame them if they were still scratching their heads.  In a world of oppression, God the Father would vindicate the oppressed by vanquishing the oppressors.  They had it on good authority – form Israel’s infallible prophets.

But now comes God the Son to say, no, not in the way you expected . . . not by force of arms.  I will smite my enemies with My love, suffocate them with My submission.  I will make every creature made in God’s image greater than Myself and pay with My blood the price of his ransom.  Now, follow in My steps.

Will their courage hold?  Will ours?

Submit to one, submit to all, notably including the human king.  This is where Peter ends his list.  In the apostle’s present day, the emperor is Nero, no friend of Christ; in fact, a special enemy of the Lord’s disciples.

“For this is the will of God,” Peter adds.  And take care not to turn liberty into license.  You are free . . . because you have enslaved yourselves to God.  This is not the world’s freedom.

And while you’re living the lovely life, make sure you get caught at it.  At a previous posting, we had in the church a godly man named John.  John went to the rector and told him that he had reconnected with an old flame named Robbyn, who lived a four-hour drive away.

She would be visiting on some weekends, and staying in his spare bedroom, said John.  Oh, no, said the Very Rev. Dr. Crenshaw; your neighbors know you as a disciple of the Lord Jesus Christ.  You must not only abstain from fleshly lusts which war against the soul but be seen to abstain.

Robbyn visited, each time staying in the home of other church members.  In time, she and John married . . . and the church had a lovely flute played by a lovely lady who became a lovely wife living a manifestly lovely life.

One more golf story.  You may have heard of Willie Nelson.  He has gained fame and fortune through a body of work that includes “If You’ve Got the Money, Honey, I’ve Got the Time” and other light classics.

You may not know that he owns a personal golf course outside Austin, Texas.  It’s just for him and his outlaw colleagues.  A while back, someone asked him, “What’s par on your golf course?”  Said Willie, “Depends on what I shoot that day.”

A good line, and an apt description of the freedom the world covets.  The standard floats, but always remains firmly within my control.

My beloved fellow pilgrims, if we have left that old country behind and entered the land of God’s amazing grace we ought to have the fortitude to get down on our knees, take our swings and let the world laugh at us if it will.  We’re a bit better off than those Christians of Nero’s time.

Is the American church headed in that direction?  God knows.  But I know this: If we surrender to the urge to retreat into defeatism and cynicism we will hand the victory to those who slander us.

The purveyors of the news of the world flog us daily with the bad news – the monstrous news — that man is in control.  Yet we know he is not, for if he were he would have vaporized this planet long ago.

The Lord God reigns.  Kings and governors serve at His pleasure and under His authority and perhaps one day, when we live finally and fully in His glory, we will know more of the why than we do today.

But we know now what we need to know now: Our brief is to live the lovely life as a witness and to bid others join us in it . . . forever and ever.  Amen.

 

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