Trust the Good Shepherd

jesus-lamb

 

Lessons – Acts 13:15-39;  Psalm 100;  Revelation 7:9-17;  St. John 10:22-30

 

Newsweek had an article on religion that used a term I had never before seen. It was “neurotheology” (God and the Brain: How We’re Wired for Spirituality (Newsweek: May 7, 2001, p50-58).  It is a scientific approach to understanding the affects of religious practices on the brain. These scientists believe that they have determined which parts of the brain are affected when people pray and meditate. They are the parts that orients us and gives us our distinctions between self and our surroundings. And they go quiet when we are in deep prayer. They suggest that is why folks have the spiritual experience of being one with God and with one other.

Now a skeptic could look at this research and conclude that religious experience therefore just a result of electrical stimulation or lack thereof in the temporal lobe. But a believer could look at the same research and conclude it may explain the mechanics of a religious experience but not the cause. When Saul was on the road to Damascus he may have had his frontal lobe misfire but it was because he was blinded by the Risen Jesus.

One of the things I very much liked about the article is that it underscored the benefits of what we do as a church. They spoke of feeling “transported by intense prayer, uplifting ritual (and) sacred music”. They went on to say that “even people who describe themselves as nonspiritual can be moved by religious ceremonies and liturgy…ritual and liturgy bring…a ‘softening of the boundaries of self’ and the sense of oneness and spiritual unity. Slow chanting, …liturgical melodies, and whispered ritualistic prayer all seem to work their magic in the same way….” While the use of the word “magic” is a very poor choice, it does seem that the authors of this article would have an appreciation for the ancient style of worship that we follow. It has not lasted all of these centuries for no reason.

The article ends with the $64,000 question. Is it our brain wiring that creates the idea of God, or is it God who created our brain wiring? There was a follow up article that addressed the $64,00 question. That author said that while we may be able to credit brain activity for a particular feeling of oneness with God, it does not begin to explain how a person can see Christ in an AIDS victim or truly come to love one’s enemies. I would add that countless Christians have been faithful all of their lives and prayed and believed through some very difficult life circumstances and have NEVER had a feeling of mystic union with God. So how does nerotheology explain their faithfulness?

I find these kinds of discussions interesting but when we boil it all down, for the skeptic there is never enough proof to believe and for the true believer they don’t need proof in order to believe. We can see these two perspectives in today’s Gospel. The religious leaders, who were skeptics, came to Jesus and said, “Stop holding us in suspense, are you or are you not the Messiah?” Jesus said in essence, “I have told you and I have shown you…” What did He mean by that? In chapter 8 Jesus announced “before Abraham was, I AM.”They certainly knew what He meant by that because they picked up stones to stone Him for blasphemy. In chapter 9 He healed a man who had been blind since birth and as the blind man declared, “Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a man born blind.”So Jesus certainly had told them and showed them that He is the Messiah but that still wasn’t enough proof for them.

Jesus then tells the skeptics what their problem is, and it is not a lack of evidence. Jesus said, “you do not believe because you are not a part of my flock. My sheep hear my voice. I know them and they follow me.” It’s just that simple. Why do we believe? It is because as we just said from the Psalms,“We are his people and the sheep of his pasture” (Ps 100:2). When the Good Shepherd calls, we follow.

Several things can be derived from Jesus saying that they do not believe because they are not of His flock. First, and this is paraphrase of the argument that St. Anselm put forth, we do not undertand in order to believe, we believe in order to understand. Why is that? Because as St. Paul tells us the natural mind cannot comprehend spiritual things. That is why those leaders could see Jesus perform miracles and still be confused about who He was. And that is why yet one more proof was not going to convince them. As Jesus told Nicodemus, you must first be born again. Then you begin to understand that ways of God.

This truth has evangelistic ramifications. I do believe that there is a place for C.S. Lewis types who present evidence so compellingly that it leads non believers to a verdict, but that is very different than trying to argue someone into the Kingdom of God. And sadly much of what is taught as evangelsim is just that…and it doesn’t work. Not many folks decide to follow Christ because they just lost an argument. The Bible says that before we are born again we are dead in our transgressions. It doesn’t make sense to argue with a dead man. Therefore the best form of evangelism therefore is your life. For you to become living epistles. Jesus said, “Let your light so shine before men that they might see your good works and glorify your Father which is in heaven.”

 A second implication of believing in order to understand is that it places us in a posture of humility. There is a strong vein of pride running through the man who demands of God that he be given more proof before he believes. Sheep don’t get to make such demands of the Shepherd. They either follow His voice or they get lost on their own.

Conversely it takes humlity to declare trust in God and to recognize that I am but a sheep. Some might criticize this approach and claim that it is taking a leap into the dark. That is patently false. It is not taking a leap into the dark, it is taking a leap into the arms of the One who loved us and delivered Himself up for us. So we trust Him, we hear His voice and we follow.

This however begs another question. What then does it mean then to hear the Shepherd’s voice? In ancient times, and perhaps even today, it was the custom of shepherds to gather their flocks at night and put them in the same pen or sheepfold. The next morning, each shepherd would call his sheep with his unique call and only his sheep would follow. Why? Because they knew his voice and only his voice. That is why the shepherds did not have to worry about corralling them together and getting them mixed up.

Some of you can point to a day and hour that you first heard His voice and began to follow Him. Some of you have been following Him all of your lives and don’t remember a time when you were not a sheep of His fold. Some of you moved towards Him so slowly and imperceptibly that you are not sure exactly whenHe became your Shepherd. But in the end what really matters is that He is your Shepherd TODAY and that you are following Him.

This in turn begs another question. HOW do we hear His voice. It has been my experience that He speaks to us in a variety of ways. The most universal way that the Good Shepherd speaks to His flock is through Holy Scripture. He guides us through the biblical interpretations and teaching of the Church. But it is also true that He uses Scripture to speak to us as individual sheep.

When I was much younger I was in a very dark place and my mother came to me and said that a friend of hers had a Bible verse for me. I don’t recall if I rolled my eyes but I do remember having some very cynical thoughts about some little old lady giving me her favorite passage. I very reluctantly took it but when I read it I knew that it was a specific word of the Lord to me. It was a promise that gave me hope and it was like an anchor to my soul that held me until the dark days were over.

The Good Shepherd through His Word tunes our ears to hear His voice. And He also tunes our ears to detect the voices of false shepherds. That is why it is so important an important for us to be regularly and faithfully reading Holy Scripture.

The Good Shepherd also speaks to us through community. We do not have a hard rule in the Vestry that decisions can only be made in unanimity but we understand that if we are not all hearing the same voice then it is time to stop and reconsider.  One season we had a gentleman in leadership who seemed to vote “No” way way more than any of the others. At first I was upset with him for dragging his feet but after awhileI learned that while the rest of us had heard correctly WHAT we were to do, the Lord used him to let us know WHEN to do it. When he finally got around to voting “Yes” the timing was right.

St. Paul wrote to the Corinthians that every matter must be confirmed out of the mouth of two or three witnesses because it is too easy to be self deceived. I can rationalize just about anything and call it God speaking to me if I want bad enough, so I need my brothers and sisters to tell me if I truly heard from God or if the incredible dream that I had was simply the result of  a pepperoni pizza.

The Good Shepherd also uses circumstances to speak to us. We have to use extreme caution here because it is also easy to misinterpret circumstances and be deceived by them. But the longer you walk with the Lord the more you will find you ear tuned to Him speaking to you in this way.

As Christians we should be much more comfortable with the idea of providence than with the idea of coincidence. That is especially true when you see a number of  “coincidences” fall in line with one another.

The Church that I served in Chattanooga was a beautiful and very wealthy parish. We had three full time priests, and I was an assistant, so the job was pretty easy on me because I didn’t bear much responsibility. I was in high cotton. Nevertheless I found myself growing frustrated with my position because I didn’t feel that I was having much of an impact. Then something happened that got the Rector’s wife mad at me and let me tell you when the Rector’s wife ain’t happy with you, buddy you are skating on some pretty thin ice. Then I preached a pretty strong sermon that offended an influential liberal member, who sent a copy of it to our very liberal Bishop, who unbeknowced to me, told his Canon to figure out a way to get rid of me. As all of this was brewing I got a call from the Bishop of this middle diocese wanting to know if I would come to Middle Tennessee to plant a church. Those circumstances were telling me to run, not to walk, but to run. God does speak to us through circumstances but I would caution that as often as you are able use Scripture and community to help you to be sure that you are interpreting them correctly.

I find the imagery of Jesus being my Shepherd and me being a sheep extreemly comforting. I don’t have to carry the burden of figuring out everything about my life or worrying that I will not be provided for in the future or fearing any and all enemies. I’m just a sheep. Those weighty matters are the Shepherd’s problem. So if you are a part of His flock, relax and trust Him. He knows where the green pastures and still waters are and He also knows how to lead you there. He is the Good Shepherd and He loves you.

If you are not yet a sheep of His fold, don’t wait until you have all the answers because you never will. And don’t wait for more proof because there will never be enough proof to convince you. Humble himself and trust Him. Someone wrote, “I didn’t need to understand the hypostatic union of the Holy Trinity, I just needed to trust the One who came up with the red wood trees.” Once you belong to the Good Shepherd you will discover that have all that you need and be able to say with Kind David, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.”Amen

 

 

 

 

 

He is Risen! So Let God Love You

Empty Tomb

My wife Beth asked for the recommendation of a book to read during Lent. I suggested Abba’s Child by Brenan Manning. I find his writings filled with grace. We were having dinner one night and she said that she had begun the book and it seemed to her that he was basically saying three things. One, “Get over yourself”Two, “Forgive yourself“and Three, “Let God love you.”And then she said, “I suppose we all wrestle with those things.” I think that she is right that we all wrestle with those three things in one way or another and so I thought that it might be a good idea to address them in light of this glorious day of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ.

First “Get over yourself.”That would be a good line in the New Beth Kasch Paraphrase Bible for when Jesus said, “Repent for the Kingdom of God is at hand.”He really meant, “Get over yourself.”

And if there was ever a generation that needed to hear those words it is ours. To try to help people feel better about themselves, we have told them that not only may they self identify as any number of genders but also any age or even other species. I saw a video of a woman insisting that she was a cat and wanted to be treated accordingly. (Wonder where they put her litter box?) But extremes like this, to make us feel better about ourselves, are not working. The Chicago Tribune reported that a higher percentage of incoming college freshmen are being treated for mental and emotional illness than ever before in our history. And while it is wonderful that medications and therapy are available, it is also true that in many instances they are only treating the symptoms and not the root cause. St. Paul talked about root causes when he prophesied in 2 Timothy about the latter generations. I’m not really an end times buff but see if any of this rings true for you. “For people will be lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to parents, ungrateful, unholy, heartless, unappeasable, slanderous, without self control…and I’m only about half way through his list. But you get his point. We don’t need to feel better about ourselves; we need to get over ourselves.

Jesus told a great story of how we can do just that in the parable of the prodigal son. A son, who was full of himself, asked for his inheritance early so that he could go off and live life the way that he wanted to live. He gave no consideration for his Father’s wishes or anyone else. After partying all of his inheritance away he became so desperate that he took a job feeding pigs. For a Jew that was as low as you could go. Then one day it dawned on him that even the servants in his Father’s home had it better than he did so he got over himself and decided to come home. Since he has squandered his inheritance he thought that he could only be received back as a servant. But when his father saw him returning home, his father ran to greet him, put a ring on his finger and a robe over him and called for a feast because his son who had been lost was now found.

Jesus’ resurrection paves the way for us to get over ourselves and come home. In His crucifixion He addressed the core of our problem and He paid the debt of our sins. That is why St. Peter could declare, “To Him all the prophets bear witness that everyone who believes in Him receives forgiveness of sins through His Name.” By His resurrection He has, as the prophet said, “swallowed up death,”and He goes to prepare a place for us so that we too will live forever in a new heaven and a new earth.

“Forgive yourself.”Admittedly this is much easier said than done. I have spoken with some pretty hardened folks over the years, who corporately have violated each of the Ten Commandments many times over. Often their guilt is so overwhelming that it paralyzes them emotionally and spiritually and they feel hopeless. But the Scriptures reveal to us a way to be set free from guilt.

First DON’T minimize the sin. The modern approach is to call sin a “mistake” but a mistake is when you forget to carry a number when doing long division. Sin is not a mistake. Ultimately all sin is a transgression against God. King David prayed, “Against Thee only have I sinned.”So step one is naming the sin, taking responsibility for it and asking for God’s forgiveness.

Step two is to forgive. Why? Because unforgiveness of others is one of the biggest blocks that keep us from forgiving ourselves. Thus we pray in the Lord’s Prayer, “Forgive us our trespasses AS we forgive those who trespass against us.”And here I am not suggesting that you wait for a certain emotion or that you wait until you could have a beer with the offender. Some churches pray, “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.”  What Jesus is telling us to do is to rip up the offender’s IOU. That doesn’t require making the offender your best friend. It is an act of will that frees the other guy from your debt, so that you too can be free.

Step three is to put your sin in perspective with God’s mercy. Again this is not to minimize the sin but rather to embrace God’s mercy. How many times did you do that sin from which you suffer such guilt? Once? Twice? A hundred? That is terrible but the Bible says that His mercies are new every morning, so His mercies outnumber your sins. How many years did you sin? One? Two? Fifty? That is terrible too but the Bible says that His mercy is to a thousand generations, so again His mercies outnumber your sins.

“But Father you don’t understand how great is my sin. Even if God could forgive me I could never forgive myself.”  Often I answer that objection by pointing out that is in fact a very strange form of pride. What you are really saying by this is that even though God has forgiven you, you somehow know better than God and so you cannot forgive yourself. I acknowledge that sin feels enormous and that the guilt can be overwhelming but the Scripture says that Jesus has paid the price for that sin and the text say “and not for our sins only but for the sins of the whole world.”Are your sins greater than the sins of the whole world? Of course not! So you must decide. Do you want to boast in the greatness of your sins or do you want to boast in the greatness of God’s mercy.  A missionary in Peru once said, “I have given God countless reasons not to love of me. None of them have been strong enough to change Him.” Once you confess your sin to God then take your eyes off of your sin and put them on the vastness of His mercy. Then you will walk out of the prison of guilt. We can’t change our past but we don’t have to live there. David walked in the freedom of God’s mercy after committing adultery and murder. We can do it too, no matter what we have done.

“Let God love you.”I really like that Beth worded it that way. The Scriptures tell us that God is love and so if we are not getting wet it’s not because the tap has been turned off. You may have heard the saying, “If you don’t feel close to God then you need to ask yourself, ‘who moved?’”

Of course that is not always the case. The ancients spoke of “the dark night of the soul” when for reasons of His own, God allows us to spend time in a spiritual desert. But for most of the time if we do not “walk in love as Christ loved us”it is because we are not, as Scripture commands, abiding in Christ nor having the mind of Christ. What do I mean by that?

First because He is risen we can truly abide in Him. Dallas Willard said, “The Gospel is less about how to get into the Kingdom of Heaven after you die, and more about how to live in the Kingdom of Heaven before you die.”The Gospel is an invitation not to a set of doctrines but to a living relationship with the Risen Lord and God has given us means to build and maintain that relationship. But if we don’t utilize those means that God has given we will find ourselves drifting away.

Each of us as priests has had the conversation with a person who feels far away from God. The first thing we ask if they are saying their daily prayers, if they are regularly reading Holy Scripture, if they are faithfully receiving the Sacrament. When they get a quizzical look on their face, as if we had just asked if they had two heads, it is very tempting to want to knock on their forehead and ask if anyone is at home.  Prayer, Word and Sacrament are not duties we fulfill to get God to love us more. They are means of grace that God has provided so that we can abide in Christ and experience the righteous, peace and joy of His kingdom. Further we need one another to accomplish this. When we burn incense we use more than one coal because it is too easy for a coal by itself to go out. God has given us the grace of the each other, the grace of the Church to keep one another burning. Or maybe I should say to keep one another FROM burning.

In a similar way God has given us His truth, both through Holy Scripture and the guidance of Holy Spirit through Holy Tradition, so that we can know His will and have the mind of Christ. Jesus said that He is the Truth and He also said that the truth will set us free. So the more that we have the mind of Christ, the more truth we walk in, the more freedom we will know.

Jesus said that He has come that we might have life and have it abundantly. Where we blow it is when we insist on doing life our own way. We just heard from the prophet “On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wine, of rich food full of marrow of aged wine well refined.” But here we stand with our bologna sandwich in hand essentially saying back to God, “No that’s okay I brought my own, I’ll just sit over here and eat by myself.”

We need to drop our bologna sandwich, accept His invitation and let God love us. Those of you being baptized today accept His invitation, give yourself fully over to Him and let God love you. As you come forward today to receive His Body and Blood accept His invitation give yourself fully over to Him and let God love you. And the fruit of this is that you will be in a better place to love your neighbor as yourself.

Like millions around the world last week I was brokenhearted to watch Notre Dame in flames. Cardinal Dolan of New York said that it was like attending a funeral. But it also occurred to me that this tragic event happening during Holy Week invites theological reflection.

Just as the creation of Notre Dame represents the epitome of human achievement in the Middle Ages, so humanity represented the epitome of God’s achievement in creation. Genesis says, “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him, male and female he created them.”

Then, just as the next day we saw the cathedral in ashes, so it will be true of each of us. We heard on Ash Wednesday, as the priest imposed ashes on our foreheads “Remember O man thou art dust and to dust thou shalt return.”

But that is not the end of the story. The Resurrection of Jesus has changed EVERYTHING. Death no longer has the final word. As Notre Dame will be rebuilt, and hopefully even greater than her formal glory, so those who are in Christ have a hope and a future. St. Paul says, “So is it with the resurrection for the dead. What is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable. It is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power.”

Our prayer for Notre Dame is that it will be rebuilt as a house of worship and not as a cultural icon. And so our prayer for ourselves is that our bodies will be temples of the Holy Spirit and not carnal playthings. St. Paul said, “Let us celebrate the feast, no with the old leaven, the leaven of malice and evil, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.” The Resurrection of Jesus makes that possible.

Alleluia, Christ is Risen. The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia.Then get over yourself.

Alleluia, Christ is Risen. The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia.Then forgive yourself.

Alleluia, Christ is Risen. The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia.Then let God love you. Amen.

Don’t Live in a Museum

Museum

I enjoy museums and I have been privileged of visiting some wonderful ones. While in seminary I regularly visited the museums of Fine Arts and Science in Boston. I have also been metaphorically lost in the Smithsonian in DC, the Chicago Museum and the Getty in L.A. But the ones that were most memorable to me were the Prado in Madrid, the British Museum in London and the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities in Cairo.

The thing that baffles me is that I cannot fully explain why museums have such an impact me. I love to learn and so that is part of it. I know next to nothing about art but I know beauty when I see it and I find it healing to the soul. And it also rings true that we can only really understand our present and prepare for our future if we understand our past and museums help us do just that.

But one thing that is true for all of the museums is that they have a closing time because museums are places to visit but we are not meant to live in them. And while it may seem preposterous to suggest that anyone would want to live in a museum, I have met many over the course of the years who are doing just that. They live in museums, not in Boston or in LA, but museums of their own making.

For example, no doubt that each of you have met someone who is living in the museum of his glory days. His sole focus, and all that he talks about, are those good old days when he was a football star, or some kind of hero or when he was the best in his career. This poor soul is so stuck in the past that he barely has a present and what  is worse is that his future is very bleak because he knows that he will never be able to recoup what he had in the good old days.

Some are living in a museum of traditionalism. This is where a tradition has lost its original intent and while it is still held as sacred, in reality it is now meaningless. This was the problem of many of the Jewish leaders in Jesus’ day. They were so wed to their traditions that they failed to see that they were but signs pointing to the One to come. Now that He was here the signs were no longer needed. But they were blind to that and so they continued to live in their museums. Christians can do a similar thing when we are engaged in traditions but have no idea why, except for the response, “Because that’s the way we have always done it.” Orthodox scholar Jaroslav Pelikin reminds us, Tradition is the living faith of the dead, traditionalism is the dead faith of the living.”

Some choose to live in museums of past pain. They are stuck in a time when they suffered an injustice or a time when they were betrayed by a loved one or a time when someone that they loved suffered a wrong. These museums act more like prisons because it feels very much like the inhabitants are there involuntarily. But they are not there involuntary because they could leave if they chose to do so.

Some time ago I received a certified letter from Miami. It was from a friend from so many years ago that may as well have been from a former life. We knew each other when we both were non denominational ministers in Florida, but we had no contact with one another in over 20 years. The point of his letter was to tell me that he was an alcoholic, that he had two failed marriages, that he was estranged from his children, and that he traced it all back to me.

It was true that we had gone through some very difficult things. Conflicts had emerged and none of us handled it well. There were scars all around. We were able to meet face to face and he was right in some of the things that he accused me of. I admitted where I had wronged him and I asked for his forgiveness. But at the same time I disagreed with him that I had the power to make him an alcoholic, to ruin two marriages and certainly not to estrange him from his kids. He was the one choosing to live the museum of his past pain. I told him about my life as a priest, about this wonderful church, about my marriage to Beth. I did it not to rub salt in his wounds but as a testimony that we don’t have to stay stuck in the past. I wanted him to know that in Christ, God has given us a way to move forward.

Another kind of museum that I have witnessed folks living in is the museum of their past sins. They become emotionally and/or spiritually stuck because they wrongfullybelieve that God could never forgive them. Or even if they are able to get over the hurdle of God’s forgiveness, often they don’t seem to be able to forgive themselves. It is not hard to imagine that it was this kind of thinking that led Judas to take his own life.

So the question is, what do you do if you find yourself living in one of these museums or something akin to them? The answer can be found in these dynamic words from St. Paul to the Philippians.

First St. Paul acknowledges the loss. He does not make light of his or anyone else’s suffering. He says, “For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things.”In St. Paul’s case he suffered the loss of his reputation and his standing in his community. Earlier in the chapter he went through his past credentials. He was circumcised on the eight day, which made him a son of the covenant. He was of the tribe of Benjamin. He called himself a Hebrew of Hebrews. He was a Pharisee, which meant that he was an expert of the law. He was so zealous for God that he persecuted the Church. He even said that when it came to righteousness under the law he was blameless… blameless at least by all outward appearances.

And what is he now? Now he is a penniless preacher in jail for his faith and he is despised by his kinsmen. “But Paul, doesn’t all that loss devastate you?” He replies, “I count them as refuse that I may gain Christ and be found in Him.”

Do you see what he does? Rather than living in the museum of his loss, he compares it to what or rather Whom he has found and that makes what he lost seem like junk. The actual word that he uses is “dung.” Once your realize that the museum you are living in is really a sewer, then you will be happy to move out. St. Paul certainly was.

The second thing we see St. Paul doing is taking action by moving forward. He refuses to be stuck in a museum. He says “….forgetting what lies behind …I press on…” He sounds here very much like the prophet Isaiah. “Remember not the former things nor consider the things of old. Behold I am doing a new thing.”

Why forget the past? Because St. Paul is on a journey or better yet a race. He is not paralyzed by his pain. He uses the words “straining forward” to describe his progress, giving us the image that he is running with all his might, with his eye on the tape at the finish line.

If you have ever played a sport, or learned to play an instrument or developed a specific skill then you know with certainty that you will only win or succeed if your have a single focus. If Fr. BE is in a tennis match but he is worried about his upcoming sermon then you can bet that he will play poorly. If pilot Fr. Chris is thinking about anything else during takeoff or landing then I’m going to have to ask the Bishop to help me find another associate. It is St. Paul’s single focus, and the hope that it brings, that gave him the perspective and ability to write to the Philippians from prison and say “Rejoice in the Lord always and again I say rejoice.”

We need also to remember that part of what St. Paul is putting behind him, by “forgetting what lies behind,”are his former sins; in particular his persecution of the church. It’s not the he literally no longer remembers. He certainly remembers and likely is why he refers to himself as “chief among sinners”and  “the least of the apostles.”But St. Paul is refusing to be stuck in those past sins because as he says, “Christ Jesus has made me his own.” St. Paul is pressing forward. He doesn’t have time for museums.

St. Paul then tells us what it is that we are to be straining forward to achieve. He says, “I press on toward the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.” But that language is a little fuzzy. What is our upward call? Our lessons today stops too short because St. Paul goes on to define it later in the same chapter. He says, “ But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself.”

Our upward call is to be resurrected and to reign with Christ when He returns and His kingdom has come in its fullness. The prize is eternal life with our Lord in a new heaven and a new earth. That is the vision that gets us out of our museums and living life as God intended us to live. That is why Jesus told us in so many ways to make seeking the kingdom of God our highest priority.

 It is hard for me to believe but next Sunday is Palm Sunday and we then enter the passion of Holy Week. As Lent draws to a close, and we prepare ourselves for the Paschal Feast, it is not too late to benefit from the season. It is not nearly as important that you have successfully fasted or followed a certain discipline, as it is that you get out of your museum and press on toward your heavenly call. St. Paul said that his goal was to “gain Christ and to be found in him.”From this perspective Lent is simply a coming home to the One who loves us and gave Himself up for us. The good news is that we don’t have to reach sinless perfection to make it because He has already done that for us. St. Paul calls upon us to join him in pressing forward to attain the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.  Amen.

 

Lessons from Patrick

St-Patrick - 2019

Today is the Feast of St. Patrick. Normally Sundays would trump a saint’s day except when it is the day of the Patron Saint of the Parish. In that case the Prayer Book allows us to use the collects and lessons of our saint’s day. So here at St. Patrick’s we are going to step away from Lent just a little and celebrate Patrick’s feast.

St. Paul said, “Follow me as I follow Christ.”This gives us a precedent to look at the lives of the saints of God and see what we can learn from them to make us more effective followers of Christ. As you can imagine we have much to learn from St. Patrick.

But let me begin by giving you some historical context. The Celts had been in Ireland about 1,000 years before Patrick came on the scene in the 5thcentury. They were a pagan people but they were far more aware of the supernatural realm than secular Westerners are today. They had a high view of creation, believing it to be soaked in the supernatural, and they saw thin spaces everywhere where this world and the other world are in contact.

Additionally, as a people who were dependent upon nature, they had a high regard for the sun as a source of life and for water, particularly as found in rivers and wells. Trees also held a special place in their worldview since the tree roots go to the underworld while their branches reached to the heavens. In trees you could see the cycle of life of growth in the summer, death in the winter and then rebirth each spring.

In Patrick’s days there were no towns in Ireland. People gathered in tribes and were ruled by kings who acted as family heads and lawgivers. They were however united by a common tongue. Nevertheless their social constructs were undergoing change because Rome had been sacked in 410 and troops were withdrawn from Ireland in 420. Since the Irish could no longer look to the Roman Empire for help, their kingdoms began to consolidate north and south to become more self sufficient.

Enter Patrick. We forget that Patrick was not Irish. He was born in the region of northern England and southern Scotland. His grandfather was a priest and his father a deacon but he was not very religious. At 16 he was taken into slavery by Irish marauders and for 6 years he served as a herdsman in Ireland. Probably between boredom and loneliness he began to pray and it had a profound affect on him. He said, “I prayed a number of times each day. More and more the love and fear of God came to me and my faith grew and my spirit was exercised until I was praying up to one hundred times every day and in the night nearly as often.”

One night God spoke to him in a dream and said, “Look your ship is ready.” So 22 year old Patrick made his way to the coast, talked his way onto a ship and returned to his homeland.

There is not a lot of information about these next years. He studied for the priesthood, most likely in Gaul. Surprisingly there is evidence that the Coptics also had an impact on the Celtic Church. But since an envoy from the Pope did not come to evangelize Britain until some 200 years later, it is questionable if Patrick was a Roman priest. The Celtic Church did not submit to Rome until the Synod of Whitby in the 7thcentury.

At around age 46 Patrick had a dream in which an Irishman came to him and said, “Come and walk among us.”So once again Patrick left his homeland and for the next 31 years ministered among the Irish. He knew their language and loved and respected many things about their culture. In fact he became so united with them that he began to refer to himself as Irish, even though technically he was not.

His ministry was beyond fruitful. He baptized thousands, ordained priests and promoted a form of monasticism that itself was so missionary minded that they planted churches in Scotland and England. The foundations that he laid were so secure that two centuries after his death virtually all of Ireland had been converted to Christ. As our culture in the West moves further post Christian there are lessons to be learned from Patrick concerning ministering to an increasingly secular and even hostile world.

First we can see the foundation of prayer in Patrick’s life. It led to his conversion and it was the underpinning of all that he did.  It was prayer that opened Patrick’s heart and mind to not only hear the voice of God but to receive power to obey and return to the people that had enslaved him. It was his connection to God through prayer that gave Patrick an unwavering belief in the sovereignty of God. He believed that God had ordained a plan for his life and Patrick’s intent was to be God’s obedient servant. This belief that we are a part of a Divine plan is evangelistic because it speaks to the yearning of every human heart to believe that our lives matter, that we are significant. The Gospel tells us we are so significant that the Son of God would die for us. That is indeed Good News.

Second, while Patrick believed that He was a part of God’s plan he was brutally aware of his own shortcomings, as is evident in his Confessions. And yet because He believed that God was in control he knew that the Lord could even use his shortcoming to His glory. St. Paul certainly taught this. He said that the Lord spoke to Him and said “My grace is all you need. My power works best in weakness.” (NLT). The lesson here is that we should not worry that we are not qualified to serve the Lord because nobodyis. Just serve Him anyway and depend on His mercy to fill in the gaps.

Third we can see how St. Patrick was grounded in the Scriptures. He was embarrassed by what he believed to be a lack of education but in his brief Confessions he makes over 500 biblical references. Now remember this is the late 5thcentury so it wasn’t like he had access to a Strong’s Concordance or could do a Google search for a biblical passage. He read and studied the Scriptures so thoroughly that it became a part of how he thought and even, who he was. St. Paul commanded Timothy to study to show himself approved, “a workman who does not need to be ashamed, rightly dividing the world of truth.”Obviously St. Patrick took that command seriously.

Patrick set the example of being a student of God’s Word for those who came after him. What is amazing to me is that in his day the Irish did not yet have a written language. Nevertheless over the next two centuries not only did the Irish establish great libraries but over half of the biblical commentaries in the West were written by the Irish.

Let’s pause with this history lesson. So far there is nothing St. Patrick’s models for us, that with the help of God, is beyond our ability. I’m not suggesting that we learn to pray through the night as Patrick did or that we make it a goal to quote over 500 verses off the top of our heads, although that would be nice. But who among us could not grow deeper in prayer and in our knowledge of Holy Scripture? The truth is that we make time for the things that are really important to us. This season of Lent invites us to adjust our priorities and move in a direction that will build our souls.

Fourth, we should consider St. Patrick’s model in how he ministered to the Irish. He followed in the footsteps of St. Paul and that is why he was so successful.

You will recall that when St. Paul went to Mars Hill he saw all manner of statues to the gods but there was one statue that was to an unknown god. Paul could have gone Old Testament on them and called on fire to burn them up as idolaters.  But rather than condemning them he commended them for being so spiritually oriented and then he in essence said “Let me tell you about this unknown god”and he preached to them Christ and Him crucified.

In a similar manner, rather than Patrick condemning the Irish for their love of nature, He introduced them to the One who created what they loved. When he met two daughters of a King and they asked him to tell them about his God he said, “Our God is the God of all people, the God of heaven and earth, of the sea and the rivers, the God of the sun and the moon and all stars, the God of the high mountains and of the deep valleys…”He goes on for another paragraph connecting God to nature before he tells them about Jesus. In this way he was showing respect for their love of nature and their beliefs, but then like St. Paul, he filled in the blanks. The two sisters believed and were baptized.

This is the perfect day for us to model St. Patrick here. Our society is so divided and folks are so insulting and hateful towards one another that evangelism, rooted in  respect for the other person’s views, will be like breath of fresh air. I’m not suggesting that we dilute our beliefs to be more acceptable to others. Rather I am saying that with love and respect we begin where they are and then gently and lovingly fill in the blanks.

To be honest it fries my bacon when someone says, “I’m not very religious but I’m spiritual.” A large part of me wants to challenge them and say, “You have not idea what you are even talking about.”But how is that kind of confrontation going to lead them towards Christ? Following Paul and Patrick what I should say is, “I’m grateful to hear that you are a spiritual person, tell me what that looks like in your life.”And then guide the conversation to the only One who can cause them to be born of the Spirit in order to become the truly spiritual people that they believe themselves to be.

A final point where I think the life of St. Patrick is worth our consideration is in how he saw the mission of the church. As one author put it, Patrick believed that it was essential for the Church to be centrally focused on the sacraments, faith, scripture and ministry but NOT focused upon organizational structures. The lack of rigid organizational structures gave later generations of Irish the freedom and flexibility to improvise, adapt and overcome as they faced new challenges and ministered to new people groups.

What followed Patrick were monastic communities. They were not so much like we think of monasteries and convents today where folks are cloistered away from the world. They were more like Christian communities that accepted both married and celibates and men and women. St. Bridig was a significant leader in this movement.

These communities were involved in education, caring for the poor and elderly, farming and crafts. Their involvement in education also led them to foster children, which deeply connected to the Irish values of family and hospitality. All of this came together to lead to the conversion of Ireland, to drive out the metaphorical snakes, i.e. paganism.

While I am convinced, through the Scriptures and the teachings of the church Fathers, that Bishops are essential to the Church, I must admit that I share St. Patrick’s indifference to organizational structures. Because of our fallen nature it is too easy for them to quickly move from servant to master. I’m reminded of President Reagan’s saying that the 9 scariest words in the English Language are “I’m from the government and I’m here to help.”Church structures easily become the same as the government.  I’ve served on numerous ecclesiastical committees over the years and as the old spiritual puts it…. “Give me Jesus., you can have all this world, Oh give me Jesus”

What is the application of this final point? I think that the greatest flexibility is found in the local parish. We are that local monastic community that can and should get ministry done. We don’t need to wait for the Diocese to create an Evangelism Committee to develop an Evangelism Seminar to bring in an Evangelism expert, who typically has written a book but has never done it. We already have the Great Commission. Between the oversight of our Bishop and the leadership of our Vestry we have all the governance we need to do the Lord’s work. We need to move from “Why isn’t the Diocese doing X,Y,Z”to “Why isn’t St. Patrick’s doing X,Y,Z?”And then we need to move from “Why isn’t St. Patrick’s doing X,YZ?”to “Why aren’t I doing X,Y,Z?”

Patrick didn’t wait for a committee to give him permission to evangelize the Irish. Jesus had already told him to go and so he went. And as far as St. Patrick knew in his day, he had literally gone to the ends of the earth. So let’s follow Patrick’s devotion, courage and obedience as he followed the Lord.

Today is a great feast day. I encourage you to eat, drink and be merry. And then I encourage you to get back to it on Monday to return to a holy Lent. Amen.

 

 

 

Living Lent Gently

lent

Henry Nouwen, a Dutch Roman Catholic Priest and Theologian wrote, “Lent is the most important time of the year to nurture our inner life. It is the time in which we not only prepare ourselves to celebrate the mystery of the death and resurrection of Jesus, but also the death and resurrection that constantly takes place within us…When we live Lent attentively and gently, then Easter can truly be a celebration during which the full proclamation of the risen Christ will reverberate into the deepest place of our being.”

I believe that he is correct. To fail to observe Lent or to fail to attend all of Holy Week is like walking in toward the end of a movie and then wondering why you did not find it as moving as those who saw it all. Thus the Church is wise to call us to the observance of a Holy Lent. As followers of Christ we join Him in His 40 days in the wilderness and confront our own temptations. Sharing in His victory over temptations these 40 days makes His ultimate victory over death taste even sweeter

Particularly for those who may be new to this tradition, allow me to explain some of the details of this penitential season. Traditionally there are three major ways that we observe Lent, taken from Jesus’ teaching in the Gospel according to St. Matthew. The three ways of observing Lent are prayer, fasting and almsgiving. Not in all three of these Jesus did not say “If” rather He said, “When you pray…When you fast….When you give.”

One way to think of the benefit of these three is by seeing them as weapons to fight against our three major enemies, which are the world, the flesh and the devil. Older liturgies even described this season as Christian warfare.

Prayer as a weapon. English preacher Samuel Chadwick said that when we pray the devil trembles. He trembles because it is through prayer that we undo his works. When we pray “Thy kingdom come” we are praying for an invasion against the gates of hell, which Jesus said would not be able to prevail against us.

Fasting as a weapon. When we fast we confront our flesh. But we have to be careful here and not become dualists. God made our bodies and they are to be used as temples of the Holy Spirit, so our bodies are not the enemy nor are they evil. When St. Paul speaks of not walking in the flesh by “flesh” what he is referring to is that two-year old brat that lives inside of me, demanding to have his own way. Fasting is a way to say very loudly to the brat “NO!”

Giving as a weapon. Almsgiving confronts the pull of the world that demands that we watch out for number one and that fears that if we are generous then we be without. The world gives us a thousand reasons to walk past the man beaten by robbers but through almsgiving we become the Good Samaritan.

It’s very important to understand that these disciplines are means to a goal and not the goal in themselves. We are not trying to build up brownie points so that God will like us more. Rather we are confessing that we are not where we need to be, that in part we have wandered away and we use this season and these disciplines to make our way home. It is the returning that Prophets called out for. We are saying, as the beautiful hymn puts it, “Prone to wander Lord I feel it, prone to leave the God I love. Here’s my heart so take and seal it, seal it for thy courts above.” In saying “NO” to the world, the flesh and the devil we are saying “YES” to the Lord and offering Him our hearts.

We begin this season through repentance and ashes. Again we are not trying to earn favor rather we are simply admitting who we are. As we say weekly in the confession, we are admitting that we have not loved God with our whole hearts and we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. And for this we seek the Lord’sabsolution, because as Frederick Beuchner put it, we can no more absolve ourselves than we can sit in our own laps. Additionally the ashes remind us that we are mortal and so we should not put off our repentance until tomorrow because we may not have  tomorrow.

I really like that Henry Nouwen said that we should keep Lent attentively and gently. The word “gently” brings it into proper focus. Gently means that we are not driven to keep Lent perfectly, to turn it into a legalism. We are not trying to become the spiritual equivalent of Navy Seals and Lent is not the Church’s version of hell week. Keeping Lent gently is simply responding to Jesus’ loving invitation to come back home.

There is a beautiful line in the Psalm appointed today for Morning Prayer. It reads, “…mercy embraces those who trust in the Lord.”  Use this season of Lent to renew your trust in Him and allow His mercy to embrace you. May God grant us the ability to live Lent attentively and gently. Amen.

 

Don’t Be a Nimrod…Love

Buggs

Text 1 Corinthians 13

Editor’s Note: One of Bug Bunny’s favorite things to call Elmer Fudd was “Nimrod.” This name comes from Genesis 10:8,9 where the descendants of Noah are recounted and it says of Nimrod “He was a mighty hunter before the Lord.” So Bugs was being ironic and really calling Elmer a jerk. File that away for a moment.

Most folks have heard this beautiful love passage of 1 Corinthians 13 in the context of a wedding or have seen it hanging on a wall, written in lovely calligraphy with flowers around the borders. And while both of those are certainly appropriate, we get a better understanding of this passage when we see what has come before it. It may surprise you to learn that St. Paul wrote this piece as much as a corrective as he did to inspire. Let’s pull the camera way back to see the bigger picture.

I Corinthians

1:11“For it has been reported to me that there is quarreling among you.”

3:1,2 “But I could not address you as spiritual people but as people of the flesh…for while there is jealously and strife among you, are you not of the flesh?”

5:1“It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you that is not tolerated even among the pagans….
6:1 “When one of you has a grievance against another, does he dare go to the law before the unrighteous instead of the saints?”

He goes on telling them to stop doing things that evidently they were doing. In chapter 6 he tells them to flee immorality. In chapter 8 he tells them that they should not eat meat sacrificed to idols if it makes a weaker brother stumble. In chapter 10 he tells them to flee idolatry. In chapter 12 he corrects them from thinking that if someone has a differing gift or if they are not very important then they are not needed in the Church.

So after numerous corrections over 12 chapters, then and only then does he show them a more excellent way and he speaks to them about love. In a very beautiful and poetic way he is telling them to stop being such Nimrods and start living like Christians should live. Seeing this passage as addressed to the whole Church changes our focus when we read this passage from – “I need to learn how to be more loving” to “How are we doing as a Church in the way that we treat one another?”

St. Paul gives us a kind of grid so that we know what genuine love is about and raise the bar for the whole Church. He speaks of the absence of love, the essence of love and the preeminence of love.

First he speaks of the absence of love. If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.  If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.

St. Paul is saying that the inherent problem of being spiritually gifted or having great spiritual insight or even possessing enormous faith is that if these things are not completely baptized in love then they are worthless. And they are not only worthless, they are dangerous because they lead to malignant pride. The Scripture says that pride goes before a fall and a haughty spirit before destruction. Both the Scriptures and current times are replete with examples of folks who were incredibly gifted and yet were toppled by their own hubris. Pride is so destructive because it places me first. Love is so healing because places you first. And we cannot have both because one forces out the other.

Next St. Paul gives us the essence of love. Note how little it has to do with feelings that is the culture’s major definition of love. Rather loves true essence is filled with actions and attitudes towards the well being of others.  Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful] it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”

One scholar points out that all of the verbs St. Paul uses in describing the essence of love are in the present continuous tense. He says that this denotes “actions and attitudes which have become habitual, ingrained gradually…”

That says to me that love, like so many other things, is learned by practicing. Fr. BE didn’t just wake up one day and decide that he was a great tennis player. It took him years of practice to be good at it. Thus the more we practice love then more it becomes ingrained in us.

The line that jumped out at me in this description of love is that love “does not insist on its own way.” A couple of years ago I was in the Post Office and an elderly lady, seeing my clerical collar, approached and asked if she could ask me a question. When I said “Surely” she asked if I believed that it has become increasingly difficult to be a pastor in the last few years. I told her that I believed that it has. After I explained why I asked her why she brought it up. She said that her church had just gone through a split over the color of the carpet in the Sanctuary and that the split had nearly killed her Pastor with grief.

That sounds petty and ridiculous but insisting on having our own way runs deeply in the church. It runs from the color of carpets to the splitting of denominations to have our own way. But it is broader still. It is an evil power that dominates our politics and our culture and results in states recently passing laws that permit infanticide. “I’m going to have my own way even if it costs the life of a child.” How did we get here?

In his book Renovation of the Heart, Dallas Willard states, “Jesus’ resurrected presence with us, along with his teaching, assures us of God’s care for all who let him be God and let him care for them. It is love of God…and regular experience of his care that frees us from the burden of ‘looking out for ourselves.’…Then I meet everything that happens as sent or at least permitted by God….I not longer have to manage weather, airplanes or other people.” So a paraphrase of “it (love) does not insist on its own way, is“love is not being a control freak, stop being a Nimrod.”

But how do we do that? How do we stop being a Nimrod? Dallas presses the point further and says that we stop insisting on having our own way when we die to self. This comes from St. Paul who wrote in Galatians, I have been crucified with ChristIis no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” Or to quote St. Carrie Underwood, “Jesus take the wheel.”We turn it all over to Him.That is how we die to self.

Dallas describes the fruit of that approach to life. “Being dead to self is the condition where the mere fact that I do not get what I want does not surprise me or offend me and has not control over me…what we surely can say it that those who are dead to self are not controlled in thought, feeling or action by self exaltation….but are easily controlled by love of God and neighbor.”He concludes with this. “To accept, with confidence in God, that I do not immediately have to have my way releases me from the great pressure that anger, unforgiveness and the need to retaliate imposes upon my life…It removes the root and source of by far the greater part of human evil we have to deal with in our world.”

Lastly St. Paul speaks of the preeminence of love. “Love never ends. As for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, 10 but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away. 11 When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways.12 For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.13 So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.”

So many of the things that our Lord has graciously given us to make our way in this world will pass away. As we heard last week from St. Paul this includes our bodies that will be sown perishable but will be raised imperishable. He gives us gifts to see our way on the journey but once we have reached our journey’s end there will be no more need for those gifts. We need them now because we have only partial sight. But once we see Him face to face we will be like a child who puts away those childish things to embrace a full and perfect relationship.

Some of the early fathers suggested that ultimately even faith and hope will fade away. Why? Because we won’t need faith when we know as we are known and we won’t need hope because all that we have hoped for will be realized. So all that is left, and all that we will need throughout eternity, is love. And for the first time and for all of eternity we will perfectly fulfill the command to love the Lord our God with all of our heart and soul and mind and our neighbors as ourselves. For all eternity we will live in the fullness of God’s kingdom and that is why the Church has always prayed, “Come Lord Jesus!”

Today we heard about the Transfiguration of our Lord. A chief purpose of this event was to present the divinity of Jesus Christ to His disciples. His divine glory was as brilliant to them as when He spoke to Moses.

Since Jesus is divine, and God is love, then it is correct to say also that Jesus is Love. When we take that truth and apply it back to our text we can look at this diamond through a different facet. Let’s listen to it one last time.

If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not Jesus, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not Jesus, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not Jesus, I gain nothing.

Jesus is patient and kind; Jesus does not envy or boast;..is not arrogant or rude. Jesus does not insist on His own way; He is not irritable or resentful; 6 Jesus does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. 7 Jesus bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

Jesus never ends. As for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away…For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.13 So now faith, hope, and Jesus abide, these three; but the greatest of these is Jesus.

As we see who He is and seek to become more and more conformed to His image then love becomes less about what we DO and more about who we ARE. Of course we will practice love and fail at times and practice some more and fail some more. So I find the words of St. Paul to the Philippians encouraging as we practice walking in love. He writes, “Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.”

As we enter into Lent this week let’s make this Lent much less about what we are giving up and much more about what we are putting on. Let’s put on Christ and learn to walk in love. Amen.

Eternal Blessedness

poor-in-spirit

Proverbs 10:19 says “Where there are many words transgression is unavoidable.” While I was not yet a priest, I started preaching full time when I was in my 20’s. That is a lot of words over the years so I shudder to think of the number of my transgressions. One of my worst was when I first preached on the Beatitudes, those “blessed are” verses in both Matthew’s and Luke’s Gospels. The big mistake that I made was to approach the Beatitudes as if they were virtues to which we should aspire. It fit for some of them like “Blessed are the meek” and “Blessed are the peacemakers.” But I had to get pretty creative to explain as virtues, “Blessed are you that hunger now” and “Blessed are you that weep now.” What I failed to see at the time was the context of what Jesus was preaching and to whom He was preaching it. Jesus declared that the Kingdom of God had come and now He was explaining who it is that will walk in that kingdom. And as is so often the case, His explanation completely flies in the face of the common held beliefs of His day.

You might say that the beliefs of Jesus’ day were like an early version of the health and wealth gospel, which of course is a heresy and no gospel at all. Here was their reasoning. If you walk according to the covenant then God will bless you, and if you don’t then He won’t. What is a sign that God is blessing you? It is to be healthy and prosperous. Thus if you are poor then you are not receiving God’s blessings and therefore we may conclude that you are not keeping the covenant. And if you are sick? You remember the question that the disciples asked Jesus concerning the blind man. “Who sinned, him or his parents?”With this logic it was easy to believe that the poor and the sick would be the last ones to enter the kingdom, if they enter it at all. But then Jesus comes along and says that the last will be first and so He begins, “Blessed are the poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.”

But some might object that since poverty is such a soul crushing power, how is it that Jesus can call it a blessing? The short answer is that is not what He is saying. It is not poverty per se that is a blessing rather it is the utter reliance upon God that the poor often have, because they have nothing else, that is the blessing . In his book, The Jesus I Never Knew, Philip Yancey explains it this way. “ ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit’… One commentary translates that ‘Blessed are the desperate.’ With nowhere to turn, the desperate just may turn to Jesus, the only one who can offer the deliverance they long for. Jesus really believed that a person who is poor in spirit, or hungry or thirsty for righteousness has a peculiar ‘advantage’ over the rest of us. Maybe, just maybe, the desperate person will cry out to God for help. If so that person is truly blessed.”

I have certainly witnessed this in my travels and I know that Billy Crain, who has been to Haiti, has seen it too. These Christians don’t have anything in their lives to dilute the joy of their salvation because salvation is all that they have. There is no fear that they will try to serve the two Masters of God and Mammon because they only have the one Master. Their faith and their joy is almost child like. It is both humbling and convicting to be around.

But the Beatitudes in Luke are only half of Jesus’ sermon. Jesus sets this sermon up in the tradition of the Prophets. It is presented as a set of contrasts that is intended to lead the listener to get off of the fence and to make a commitment. We see this kind of sermon in the Book of Deuteronomy when Moses points out two mountains and says that one stands for blessings and one for cursings and he calls the people to choose which it is going to be. We also see these kinds of contrasts in Jeremiah’s message to us today. “Cursed are those who trust in mortals” and“blessed are those who trust in the Lord.”We see it in the Psalm. “Happy are those who have not walked in the way of the wicked…they are like trees planted by streams of water…it is not so with the wicked, they are like chaff which the wind blows away”.

Thus Jesus uses this familiar sermon approach to lay it on the line. “Blessed are the poor…woe to you who are rich; blessed the hungry…woe to you who are full; blessed are those who weep…woe to you who laugh; blessed are you who are hated on account of the Son of Man…woe to you when all speak well of you.”

The thing that makes this lesson so difficult for us to hear is that if we are honest with ourselves in some if not many cases we fall into the woe category. Consider His first “Woe” “Woe to you who are rich”.

Now I certainly don’t see myself as rich but when I consider that over 1/3rdof the world’s population lives on less than $600 PER YEAR, perhaps I need to reevaluate. Think of that! $600 PER YEAR. Our poorest college students spend more than that on coffee. I’m not saying that we don’t have poor in our country but in many cases it is a first world poverty. Over the years there have been a number of times that I have met a person at a store to help them with food or medicine only to find them talking on their smart phone. Our first world problems need to be seen in proper perspective. “Woe to you who are rich”really does apply to most of us.

But lets clarify. It is not that wealth is evil in itself, just as poverty is not a blessing in itself. People often misquote Jesus here. He did not say that money is the root of all evil, rather he said that the LOVE of money is the root of all evil. Why is that? It is because the love of money leads us to other sins like coveting and theft and murder. It is because the love of money competes with loving God with all of our heart and soul and mind. It is because the love of money competes with loving our neighbor as ourselves. Jesus put it bluntly. We cannot have two masters, we must choose between God and Mammon.

What He is saying here is that we have to be very careful that our wealth does not insulate us from being desperate for God, desperate for His grace and mercy. So what do we do about it?

One important way that we keep our blessings from being a curse is to honor God with our wealth. It is what the Bible calls “first fruits.” When the children of Israel gathered the harvest, the first of it went to the Lord as an act of gratitude and worship and that is how they kept their priorities right. In that same vein many Christians, when they sit down to pay their bills, will write the first check as a tithe to the Lord. It is a way to say that God comes first rather than giving Him our leftovers. It is a way to say that our trust is in God and not in Mammon.

We also honor God with our wealth when we see others in need and care for them in Jesus’ Name. Jesus gave us a great illustration of this in the parable of the Good Samaritan. Lent is quickly approaching and that is a great time to take a closer look at our budgets to see if we can’t rearrange some expenses in order to be more generous to the poor. If we try to keep it all, if we try to have it all, we will not know blessedness.

Another way that stay out of the woe category is to live more simply. There is a famous Chinese actor named Chow Yun-Fat who you have likely seen in the movies. He was the star of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and the Bulletproof Monk. He is worth $714 million but he rides public transit, eats food from street vendors and had a flip phone for 17 years, and he only got a new phone when the old phone died. He only spends $102 per month on himself and plans on leaving his fortune to charities. He said,“The hardest thing in life is not about how much money you earn, but how to keep a peaceful mindset and live the rest of your life in a simple and carefree manner.”Jesus teaches us that we gain this peaceful mindset by seeking first the kingdom of God and His righteousness and trust God to add to us all else that we need.

We note that in this brief sermon of contrasts Jesus does not stop with the discussion of money. He also addresses our hearts and our relationships. “Blessed are you who weep now….woe to you when all speak well of you .”His goal of course is not for us to be miserable and lonely. Rather He is touching on some core values of life and challenging us about how we prioritize them.

If our chief goal is to be happy then we will most likely not be faithful to God because the pursuit of happiness will not allow us to take up our cross and follow Jesus. He certainly chose faithfulness over happiness. If our chief goal is to have everyone like us then we will be man pleasers and not God pleasers. Again Jesus did not compete in a popularity contest. Pleasing His Father rather than man resulted in His death.

In essence we see in the sermon that Jesus is being a realist. He is telling us that we can’t have it all, at least not yet. This life is not all there is and so we make a mess of it if we try to pack everything in for the brief time that we are here. Ultimate peace and love and joy are not found until we have entered the fullness of the Kingdom of God. If you don’t understand that then you can party all you want, and shop all you want, and have as many relationships as humanly possible and still won’t find the kind of fulfillment that you seek. What we truly seek is not here and so Jesus challenges us to see the bigger picture.

If we hoard our money in hopes that riches will make us happy then we miss the joy and blessedness of giving. If we try to please everybody and care more what people think about us than what God thinks about us then we miss the love of the only One who loves us with an everlasting love. If we try to define ourselves by our things or the people around us then we will never know the blessedness of discovering who God created you to be. In short, if we seek heaven on earth then this may be the only heaven that we will know.

Jesus is challenging our priorities. Since we can’t have it all now, but we can have it all later, then we should live wisely now with later in ther forefront of our minds. As I said earlier, the point of the contrast sermon is to move the listener off of the fence. Jesus calls us to make a choice between  eternal blessedness over temporal happiness. Choose wisely. Choose to be blessed. Amen