Walk in the light of the Lord

Come, descendants of Jacob, let us walk in the light of the Lord ...

When I was in college, and a part of Campus Crusade for Christ, we would share the Gospel using a tract called “The Four Spiritual Laws.” Law One is “God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life.” I found law one to be incredibly good news because as a freshman student I had no clue where my life was headed. So I was more than glad to hear that God had a plan for me.

But this idea of law one poses a question. Is it possible to miss God’s plan? Our lesson today from Isaiah would indicate that it is possible and that is why Isaiah is delivering such a strong message. As we look into this passage it is important to see that Israel didn’t miss God’s plan due to a simple oversight or because they were in the right place but at the wrong time. No, Israel didn’t miss God’s plan because of a mistake, they missed God’s plan because of grievous sin. 

But let’s back up. The verses that come before our reading today show us what God’s plan was for Israel. It begins in Isaiah 2:1

It shall come to pass in the latter days
that the mountain of the house of the LORD
shall be established as the highest of the mountains,
and shall be lifted up above the hills;
and all the nations shall flow to it,
and many peoples shall come, and say:
“Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD,
to the house of the God of Jacob,
that he may teach us his ways
and that we may walk in his paths.”
For out of Zion shall go forth the law,
and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem.
He shall judge between the nations,
and shall decide disputes for many peoples;
and they shall beat their swords into plowshares,
and their spears into pruning hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war anymore.

O house of Jacob,
come, let us walk
in the light of the LORD.

The LORD had chosen Israel to be a model for how life should be lived and how the kingdom of God would unfold on the earth. He would be their God and they would be His people. They would learn His ways and walk in His path and others nations would be drawn to Him through their example. But Israel failed to meet that plan.

Although Israel failed the plan would be enacted when the Messiah of Israel appeared. It is noteworthy that a number of Church Father, such as Cyril of Jerusalem, Theodoret, Augustine and Gregory the Great all interpreted the mountain that Isaiah speaks about as a metaphor for Jesus. They also interpreted the line “For out of Zion shall go forth the law and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem” as a reference to the Gospel being preached. The Old Law came out of Sinai while the New Law, which is the New Commandment, comes out of Zion or Jerusalem. And then it goes to Judea, Samaria and to the ends of the earth so that all the nations could walk in the light of God.

Additionally Christ and His kingdom will be marked by peace. “and they shall beat their swords into plowshares,and their spears into pruning hooks;nation shall not lift up sword against nation,neither shall they learn war anymore.” That is a stark contrast from the kingdoms and empires of this world that only know how to expand their power by the use of the sword.

Because Israel chose to walk in her own ways, the prophet Isaiah is calling her out. He mentions three areas before he addresses their issue that we read today.

First Isaiah confronts Israel for her compromising ways that resulted in unfaithfulness towards the LORD. Verse 2:6“For you have rejected your people…because they are full of things from the east and of fortune tellers like the Philistines and they strike hands with the children of strangers”. They were supposed to be a unique people, like a city set on a hill. But instead their dealings with the pagan people and their syncretism caused them to adopt pagan ways and Israel lost her uniqueness. She ended up looking like all of the other nations.

Second Isaiah confronts them for their materialism. Verse 2:7 “Their land is filled with silver and gold and there is no end to their treasures; their land is filled with horses and there is no end to their chariots.” As St Chrysostom pointed out, “The prophet was not criticizing the use of their possessions but the misuse of them.” There is a vast difference between the wisdom to acquire wealth and the wisdom to use wealth correctly in a godly manner and with godly priorities. 

Third Isaiah confronts them for their idolatry. Verse 2:8 “Their land is filled with idols; they bow down to the work of their hands to what their fingers have made.” St. Augustine commenting on this passage reminds us that idols are not just statues. We can make gods of just about anything that acts as the ruling factor in our lives. 

But their syncretism, materialism and idolatry are just symptoms. In the verses that we have before us today Isaiah confronts the true illness which is pride. Verse 2:11. “The haughty looks of man shall be brought love and the lofty pride of men shall be humbled, and the LORD alone will be exalted on that day.”

Isaiah’s references to the cedars of Lebanon, fortified walls and the ships of Tarshish are about the things that men look to in order to undergird their might and power, which in turn increases their pride. If Isaiah had been prophesying to Rednecks he would be speaking of four wheelers, bass boats and AR-15s. 

And what is God’s answer to such things? The LORD repeats Himself. Verse 2:11 “The haughtiness of people shall be humbled, and the pride of everyone will be brought low; and the LORD alone will be exalted on that day.”

Since the Church is the New Israel it is worth asking ourselves what Isaiah would prophecy to us today. Would he find compromise and syncretism with the world? Would he find materialism or secret idols? Above all would he find pride?

Sadly the answer is yes, in varying degrees. We see all kinds of compromise and syncretism in the mainline denominations, as well as non-denominational churches that causes them to be extensions of the world rather than lights to it. 

Sadly I have seen abounding pride in some neo Anglican church plants. I visited one on a Sunday evening to see what was being planted and I left discouraged. It met in a beautiful stone Presbyterian Church but you would not know that we were in sacred space. Men had their hats on and everyone was milling around in the Nave with either the mandatory cup of coffee or giant water jug. You would have thought they were hydrating to cross the Sahara. Conversations were very loud which made prayer and preparation for the Sacrament very difficult.

When the service began there was very little about it that indicated it was Anglican. That is because the goal of such churches is to be seen as woke and hip. Not only were no vestments there was not even a clerical collar in the room. But of course the leaders’ long sleeve shirts were rolled up in order to reveal tattoos to give them street cred. 

I couldn’t tell who the priest was until he popped up from the congregation to give the absolution. Various women stepped into the pulpit to lead different parts of the liturgy, but it did not come close to following the Book of Common Prayer. They wrote their own version of the Prayers of the People offering prayers that were filled with virtue signaling. 

What bothered me the most was that the “Worship Team”, dressed like a grunge band, was up in the Sanctuary where the altar should have been. Instead the Body and Blood of Christ were placed at floor level on a folding table. 

St. Paul wrote to the Thessalonians saying,“So then, brothers, stand firm and hold to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by our spoken word or by our letter.”For generations clergy have attempted to be faithful to learn and then pass on the teachings and traditions of our fathers. But this new crop of neo Anglican clergy evidently thinks it is more important to be hip and relevant than it is to be faithful. That is nothing more than pride and that is why it is so important for our parish to hold the line and to plant other churches so that we are able to preserve and pass on the treasures with which we have been entrusted. These traditions were given to the Church by the Holy Spirit must not be lost.

A cautionary note, however. It is just as possible for us to slip into pride about keeping our traditions. This kind of pride will turn us from stewards of treasures into liturgical experts, and as they taught us in seminary, the difference between a liturgical expert and a terrorist is that you can negotiate with a terrorist. This kind of pride is to be avoided at all costs because when it takes root in a vibrant church it turns that church into a museum. 

So how do we avoid this grievous sin of pride? In this Gospel lesson, Matthew 10:34-42, Jesus mentions two things and who better to go to than the Jesus who described Himself as “meek and lowly of heart” ?

First He challenges us to be honest about who is sitting on the throne of our lives. He makes it clear that there is only room for one. If it is my ego that is sitting on the throne of my life then I am in trouble. He said, “Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” 

I lose my life by getting off of the throne of my life. But if I decide to abdicate the throne of my life and instead give it to anyone or anything other than the Lord Jesus Christ, then I am still in trouble. Even if it looks like a noble choice it is still wrong. “Whoever loves father and mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me….”

Thus we defeat pride when we not only take ourselves off of the throne of our lives but also remove anything else that could be an idol. How do you know if it is an idol? Look at what kind of priority you give it in your life. Consider what kind of influence it has over you? Does it receive the best of your time and treasure and talent? If you take an honest look at your life and conclude that God is your co-pilot then for heaven’s sake swap seats. St. Benedict had a very simple rule for his life. “Prefer nothing to Christ.”

The second thing that Jesus makes reference to in this passage that directly strikes at the heart of pride is having a will to serve. “Whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple – truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.” Of course Jesus is the perfect model for the heart of a servant and we are commended to follow His example. St. Paul writes to the Church in Philippi, “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or empty pride, but in humility consider others more important than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others.Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus:Who, existing in the form of God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped,but emptied Himself, taking the form of a servant…”

It is especially noteworthy, that on the night before He was crucified, one of the last lessons that Jesus taught His disciples was when He rose from supper, laid aside His outer garment, wrapped a towel around His waist and washed the disciples’ feet….including Judas’ feet. 

How do you know if you are following His example? By answering the question, “Whose feet do I wash?”

Including St. Brigid’s we have trained 5 men to answer the call to the priesthood. We have trained them to be servants to the servants of God, and that is a good thing. But I equally celebrate that we have had three women in our parish to answer the call to be nurses. Debbie, her daughter Brianna and most recently Sheryl Findley. What examples they are of servants. From saving lives to cleaning up vomit they take on tasks that most of us would never do. 

What about Beth and Charmaine and Amy and the social workers of this parish? They deal with people at some of the worst times in their lives and they do so for little money and even less appreciation. 

What about the Craig, Suzanne, Jim and the police in our parish? I can’t imagine anyone wanting to do their job, especially in this current dangerous climate. It is a shameful climate that should be beneath the dignity of our nation. And yet every day they literally risk laying down their lives for us. 

What about Wayne, Amanda, Rachel and the teachers in our parish? These servants who are raising up the next generation. Too often theirs is also a thankless job. 

If we had the proper priorities as a society we would take professional athletes on one side and nurses, social workers, police and teachers on the other side and we would swap their salaries. 

My point is that there are many, many ways to be a servant beyond being a cleric. Nor does your role as a servant have to be rooted in the social sciences. Our financial manager at Raymond James has the heart of a servant. Instead of telling us what to do with our investments he asks about our goals and then helps us to make them a reality. I do worry about him a little bit because I am not sure that he is old enough to have a driver’s license but he has been a great help to us.

In fact you can be a servant even if you are not dealing directly with people at all. You can be a servant if you have a paint brush in your hand all day and never talk to a soul. How can that be? St. Paul writes to the Colossians, “Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward. You are serving the Lord Christ.” So whatever you do, do it as if you were doing it for the Lord. If you are a painter then paint that house as if it is the Lord’s house. If you are a cook, offer those aromas to God as savory incense. If you clean tables in a restaurant then clean them as if they were heavenly banquet tables. If whatever you do you do it as if you are serving the Lord, then you still are washing feet and crucifying pride at the same time.

I truly believe that the Lord loves you and has a wonderful plan for your lives. But pride can prevent you from discovering that plan. Making Him the Lord of your life and developing a servant’s heart will not only defeat pride but also it will open a door and He will show you the way. The Lord will say to you as He said to the house of Jacob, “Come, let us walk in the light of the LORD.”

Fear of God/Love of God

Jeremiah was in a world of pain. He was troubled about his relationship with the Lord. “O LORD you have deceived me and I was deceived.” He was troubled about his calling. “For the word of the LORD has become for me a reproach and derision all day long.”  He was troubled by the opposition that he was receiving. “Terror on every side. ‘Denounce him! Let us denounce him! Say all my close friends, watching for my fall.” And don’t you know that such opposition had to be particularly painful precisely because it was coming from his close friends. All of this made Jeremiah want to quit…. but he didn’t. 
When we understand the context of Jeremiah’s struggles we realize that this was not just some private pity party. He was a priest who was a descendent of the man who was the High Priest during the reign of King David. Jeremiah lived in very troubling times. God had called him to prophecy during the rise of the Babylonian Empire, the collapse of Judah and the destruction of Jerusalem. This is how one scholar described his time period. “Political, social, financial, moral and spiritual decay led to the country’s demise in 2 short decades.” 
During this time, like an early John the Baptist, Jeremiah preached a message of repentance. He shed light on the darkness of the people and the nations but almost no one listened. He spoke for God for 40 years and managed to make only 2 converts. When Jerusalem was destroyed he was taken against his will to Egypt and it is presumed that he died there. And yet in light of all this he still didn’t quit. The lament we read today ends with a song of praise. “Sing to the LORD; praise the LORD! For he has delivered the life of the needy from the hand of the evil doer.” One scholar said of Jeremiah, “His courage and stamina serve as examples to even the most faithful of God’s servants.” 
The challenge that his story puts before us today is how to follow his example of courage and stamina. Because we are witnessing the same kind of decay in our day we are going to need it.
And let me add that any solution to this decay that is not rooted in repentance and the Gospel of Jesus Christ will not only be ineffective, it will down right foolish. 
Do you see political decay? I see folks on both sides of the aisle so intent on preventing each other from getting an advantage by doing something good for the nation, that rather than being public servants they are self servants. Somehow on a government salary many of them manage to become multi millionaires. But don’t worry. Next November we get to send a whole new batch of public servants up to Washington to vote themselves another pay raise. How’s that for a solution? 
Do you see social decay? We may not have been this divided as a nation since the Civil War. Racial tension is much like it was in the 1960’s. A Marxist terrorist mob has taken over a section of a capital city including the police precinct. The irony here is that if they had tried this stunt in an actual Marxist nation they would either be in a mass grave or chipping ice in a Siberian gulag. But don’t worry. Warner Brothers has announced that Elmer Fudd and Yosemite Sam will no longer be drawn with guns in their hands and ConAgra Foods is going to redo Mrs. Butterworth so that no one will feel body shamed by a syrup bottle. 
Do you see financial decay? Ask the 45 million Americans who are unemployed. I made the mistake of looking last month at our 401K only to discover that it is now a 201K. But don’t worry. The government will give you your daily bread. But here is what I don’t understand about their solution. When I write a check and there is no money to back it up it is called fraud. When the government does it, it is called a stimulus. 
Do you see moral decay? This one breaks my heart. Let me give you this snapshot. During Holy Week all of our churches were shut down but the abortion mills remained open. I saw Virginia legislators stand to their feet and applaud the passing of a bill making it legal to allow a baby, born alive during a botched abortion, to be left to die from neglect. But don’t worry. We are making things right by desecrating statues that have been around for 150 years rather than saving a baby that is less than an hour old. 
Do you see spiritual decay? Jesus told us to make disciples but instead American is making consumers. Even before the pandemic an increasing number of Christians were abandoning their churches and corporate worship to sit alone in front of a computer screen. Now during the pandemic a recent survey found that half admitted that they have not looked at a live stream service in the last 4 weeks. But don’t worry. We are going to put a Starbucks in Thompson Hall so that you can sip your latte during Mass. That will happen right after we see our first flying pig.
If things do not radically change we may witness the collapse of our nation just as Jeremiah witnessed his. His nation fell because it did not heed his call to repentance and I fear that we will fall too if we do not humble ourselves and repent and return to the Lord. So again, how do we follow his example of courage and stamina in the midst of so much chaos and disappointment? I see at least partial answers in our Gospel lesson today. 
Note that Jesus is sending His disciples out to spread the kingdom also during very troubling times. He actually tells them that He is sending them out like sheep to the wolves. They are going to be taken to court, flogged in synagogues, hated by all and even their family members will have them put to death. Jesus says “But the one who endures to the end will be saved.”  So they too are going to need stamina and courage and Jesus tells them how to find it. He speaks to them of the fear of God and the love of God. While one may sound like the antithesis of the other, they are actually two sides of the same coin, and together give us the stamina to not quit when things get tough.
Let’s first consider the fear of God. Martin Luther taught on this topic and correctly made a distinction between servile fear and filial fear. Servile fear is the fear that a slave or a prisoner has in the presence of a master or a warden. There is nothing healthy about this kind of fear and most folks would move heaven and earth to be free of it. Wars have been fought to not live under this kind of fear. 
Filial fear is very different. It is what a son should feel for his father. It is rooted in love and respect. I was blessed to have this kind of relationship with my father. When I messed up and got the “wait till your father gets home” speech I did experience servile fear, but most of my life I had filial fear which again is love and respect. 
This filial fear of my father benefited me in a number of ways. It taught me respect. I loved him and he loved me but it was crystal clear in my mind that he was my father and not my buddy. And that was a healthy distinction for me as a child. 
This filial fear also gave me a great deal of peace in my life. As a Navy family we moved every two years to either a state that we might have never been to before or a country that we had never been to before. This kind of gypsy lifestyle could be very disturbing to some people but because of my love and respect for my father, I never gave it a second thought. I didn’t worry about where we would live. I knew that he would figure it out. I never worried about food or clothing because I trusted him as my provider. I didn’t fear all of the new people that were constantly in and out of our lives because I knew that my father would keep us safe. I think that the biggest worry that I had as a kid was if I was going to make the right decision about my annual new pair of Keds. Were they going to be high top or low top, black or white? In short a healthy fear of my father made my life as a kid pretty wonderful.
The filial fear that we have for the LORD benefits us in similar ways. We learn respect and reverence because He is our God and not our buddy. We realize that He is worthy of the honor that is due His Name. 
The filial fear of God gives us peace because we know that He is able to do all that He promises. That is why in the Sermon on the Mount Jesus tells us not to worry about what we are to eat or what we are to wear and to not worry even about tomorrow. Abba already has all of that covered. 
The healthy fear of God also frees us from the unhealthy fear of man. As St. Paul put it, “If God is for us who can be against us?” Think about it. The worst thing that someone can do to you is to send you home. 
The other side of the coin Jesus speaks about is the love of God. He does this by speaking of our worth to God. “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father…..Fear not, therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows.” 
I love how Jesus says “apart from YOUR Father.”  If value is determined by what you pay for it, such as two sparrows for a penny, then you are of infinite worth because Your Father purchased you with the death of His only Begotten Son. You may not always “feel” the love of God but never doubt it. What more could the LORD have done to prove your worth to Him than to give us His Son? 
Jesus also speaks of the Father’s love by demonstrating how intimate and personal it is. “But even the hairs of your head are all numbered.” (Of course some of us make His job a little easier.) Jesus’ point is that His love covers every facet of your life down to the finest detail. He doesn’t only love the world, He loves you. And as Brennan Manning so beautifully puts it, “He love you as you are and not as you should be because you will never be as you should be.” I would add, at least not until the next life where it will be glory upon glory.  
The fruit of walking in the fear of the Lord and the love of the Lord is that you will grow in trust and trust will get you through the most difficult of times. A fourteenth century theologian named John Tauler tells of meeting a beggar man dressed in rags. John greeted him and said, “Good morning dear brother. May God give you a good day and grant you a happy life.” The man replied, “Sir I do not remember ever having a bad day. You see whether my stomach is full or I am famished with hunger, I praise God equally, when I am rebuffed or despised, I still thank God. My trust in God’s providence and plan for my life is absolute…everything I receive from his loving hand or whatever He permits me to receive from the hands of others – be it prosperity or adversity, sweet or bitter – I accept with joy and see it as a sign of His favor….I have learned that the will of God is the love of God.”
That kind of trust seems almost too simplistic. It actually seems child like. But then again Jesus says that is how we enter the kingdom of God. Children trust until they are taught not to. 
But I need to add that this kind of trust is not something that we can manufacture ourselves. It is a grace that we must look to God to receive like the man in the Scriptures who prayed, “Lord I believe, help Thou my unbelief.” We need to pray every day, “Lord I trust you, help my distrust.”
Just like Jeremiah we are living in very troubling times. But the fear of the Lord and the love of God will see us through it. And don’t lose perspective. All of the powerful kingdoms that Jeremiah prophesied to are either long gone or exist in name only. Meanwhile the people of God have filled the earth. There is no guarantee that America is going to survive her many-sided decays, but we have a guarantee that the kingdom will. Jesus said, “I will build My church and the gate of hell will not prevail against it.” If you watch the news or read Facebook you will be filled with anger and fear. But if you will read your Bible you will know that you have been accepted in the beloved and the kingdom is not in trouble. And for that we say “Thanks be to God.” Amen. 

Knowing God the Holy Spirit

When I have spoken with folks about their understanding of the Holy Trinity I found that most Christians have a pretty clear idea of who Jesus is and what it means to call Him Savior. When they think of God as Father, that relationship is equally clear. But when I ask about their relationship with the Holy Spirit I frequently get back only blank stares. 

And that is not just among the laity. I have heard more than one sermon where the Holy Spirit is referred to as an “it” implying that the Holy Spirit is only a power. That is a grave error. 

Given that the Church has taught throughout the centuries that right belief in the Holy Trinity is necessary for our salvation, it is no inconsequential matter to be confused about God the Holy Spirit. Sure the Trinity is a mystery and it is also true that God is incomprehensible. But Jesus also taught us that God is knowable and that includes God the Holy Spirit. 

First let’s clear up the mistaken notion that the Holy Spirit just another name for the power of God. That particular teaching was declared a heresy by the early Church. The Holy Spirit is more than power, He is a Person, just as the Father is a Person and the Son is a Person. Thus the Holy Spirit is correctly referred to as the third Person of the Trinity. Of course we are not talking about a flesh and blood person but rather Personhood. 

He was present at creation, hovering over the abyss (Genesis 1:2). He spoke through the Prophets  (2Peter 1:21). He can be grieved (Ephesians 4:30). He prays for us with groaning too deep for words (Romans 8:26). He is sovereign (2 Corinthians 3:17). Power alone can’t do or be those things. Electricity is not Lord and cannot be grieved nor can it pray. So let’s settle among ourselves, once and for all, that the Holy Spirit is more than a power, He is a Person. And we do not call Him “it” because that is blasphemous. 

Because the Holy Spirit is a Person we can have a relationship with Him just as we can have a relationship with God the Father and God the Son. But what does that relationship look like?

We have to be careful in answering that question because there is a lot of squirrely stuff out there that is attributed to the Holy Spirit but does not pass the smell test. Religious fervor and group- think can result in some significant manifestations but just because there are manifestation does not necessarily mean that they are from God. There is a vast difference between seeking a relationship and seeking an experience. I have seen videos of meetings where people are shaking violently, laughing uncontrollably and even barking like dogs. I have seen a preacher who claims to be filled with the Holy Spirit wave his suit jacket over a congregation and a whole section of people fall over. When Beth and I were first married we lived in a little town on the edge of Chattanooga that had a Pentecostal Church in which they handled snakes. And yet we read in the Scripture that God is a God of order and not of chaos. So again we need to exercise caution. 

One of the safest places we can learn of the Holy Spirit, and how to relate to Him, is in the teachings of the undivided Church and understanding what the Church has confessed for over 1,700 years. Of course I refer to the Nicene Creed.

“And I believe in the Holy Ghost, the Lord…” Just as we call the Father “Lord” and we call the Son “Lord” so we are to call the Holy Spirit “Lord.” And that is more than an honorific title, that helps defines our relationship with Him. 

What does that look like? The feudal system gives us insights in what it means to call the Holy Spirit “Lord.” To have a Lord is to be under His authority. When you have a Lord you swear allegiance to Him, which is in part what we do every week when we recite the Creed. When you have a Lord uou look to your Lord as Provider and Protector. When you have a Lord you seek to honor Him by your faithful service. In the feudal system you did not own your own land, but were a steward of that which belonged to your lord. In the same way as Christians we see ourselves as stewards of the Lord God because everything in our lives belongs to Him. “All things come of Thee O Lord, and of thine own have we given Thee.”

A daily practical way that we can apply this confession of the Holy Spirit as Lord is as we submit to His guidance. Because He is our Lord we do not take His directions merely as quaint suggestions. We have to mature in hearing Him, because He often speaks in a still small voice, but when He speaks to us, we shouldn’t debate Him. We say “Yes Lord” and we do what He has called us to do. And such obedience is not a burden because the Lordship of the Holy Spirit is rooted in pure love because God is love. And that love equips us to obey and casts out our fear. 

We need to be aware however that love does not make obedience easy. Jesus never promised easy. Priest and Theologian Henri Nouwen was absolutely correct when he said, “One of the most arduous tasks is that of giving up control and allowing the Spirit of God to lead our lives.”

We confess the Holy Spirit not only as Lord, but also “giver of life.”  This truth weaves its way through Holy Scripture. As I said earlier the Spirit was present at creation. And at the creation of man, Adam became a living soul when God breathed His Spirit into him. God promises through the prophet that He will remove our hearts of stone and replacing them with a heart of flesh by putting His Spirit within us. I love the story of the valley of dry bones where the prophet is told to prophecy to the wind so that the spirit would come into those who were slain and give them life. The resurrection of Jesus is attributed to the Holy Spirit and the text goes on to say, “he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you.” It is the Holy Spirit as the Giver of Life that enables us to walk in the newness of life. It is the Holy Spirit as the Giver of Life who produces in us the life giving fruit of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. 

It is important for us as a body to embrace the Holy Spirit as the Giver of Life because it is possible for a church to be doctrinally sound but as dead as doornail. Beth and I visited a church a few years ago that was of a very dour Scottish heritage. Their theology was sound in its core but let me tell you there was no joy in Mudville. I know I am exaggerating, but not by much, as I tell you my overall impression of the church. It felt like the opening prayer was about what miserable sinners we were, the hymns were about what miserable sinners we were, the sermon was about what miserable sinners we were. And would you like to take a guess about the theme of the closing prayer? No absolution was offered, no Sacrament was given to unite us with Christ. So when we got in the car I told Beth that I felt like jumping off the nearest bridge. As vital as it is to have right doctrine it is equally important to be open and receptive to the Giver of Life so that we worship not just in truth, but in Spirit and truth. 

The next thing that we confess is that the Holy Spirit “proceedeth from the Father and the Son.” This is important for two reasons. First, while the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit are all One, they are also distinctly separate Persons. This carefully chosen language of  “proceedeth from” upholds that truth. Thus only the Son is Begotten while only the Spirit “proceedeth.” The Son and the Spirit are One, but they are also distinct.

But the second thing that is important about confessing that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son is that He proceeds from them to us, the Church. After Jesus’ resurrection He appeared to the disciples and said. “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them. If you withhold forgiveness they are withheld.” This is referred to as “the keys to the kingdom.” 

The authority that Jesus received from the Father, He in turn conferred upon the Church through the sending of the Holy Spirit. In fact there would be no Church without the Holy Spirit. It is by the Spirit that we are baptized into Christ’s Body at our baptism. It is the Holy Spirit that equips you for your ministry at your Confirmation. It is the Holy Spirit who consecrates a man to be a priest or bishop. It is Word AND Holy Spirit that consecrates the Bread and Wine to be for us the Body and Blood of Christ. It is the Holy Spirit that inspired the Holy Scriptures. Thus it is through the Spirit empowered proclamation of the Gospel and the administration of the Spirit empowered Sacraments that the Church utilizes the keys to the kingdom and proclaims the forgiveness of sins. So it is not an accident in the Creed that immediately following the confession of the Holy Spirit that we say that we also believe in the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church.

“Who with the Father and the Son is worshipped and glorified….” This is a confession of the divinity of the Holy Spirit, who is equal God with the Father and the Son. This confession answers a question that I have been asked many times. “Is it appropriate to pray to the Holy Spirit?” The answer is “Of course.” Since the Holy Spirit is worshipped and glorified with the Father and the Son, then the Holy Spirit receives our prayers as does Father and the Son. One of my favorite parts of the ordination service is when we chant a prayer from the 9thcentury called Veni Creator Spiritus. This is part of the prayer. “Come Holy Ghost our souls inspire and lighten with celestial fire. Thou the anointing Spirit art, who dost thy seven-fold gifts impart. Thy blessed unction from above, is comfort, life and fire of love.” 

Lastly we confess that He “spake by the prophets.” The importance of those few words cannot be overstated. Divine inspiration is why we call “The Word of the Lord” the Word of the Lord. And we believe that the Holy Spirit continues to speak to us today through the Holy Scriptures. The new catechism puts it this way. “As I prayerfully learn Holy Scripture, I should expect the Holy Spirit to use it to teach, rebuke, correct and train me in the righteousness that God desires. This nourishes my soul toward the service of God and my neighbor.” 

It is through the Holy Scriptures that the Holy Spirit leads us into all truth. It is through the Holy Scriptures that the Holy Spirit shows us the path of life. It is through the Holy Scriptures that the Holy Spirit teaches us about the nature and character of God. It is through the Holy Scriptures that the Holy Spirit makes us wise unto salvation. We don’t need to make a pilgrimage to Machu Pechu to come in contact with the Divine Spirit. We don’t need to listen to self-proclaimed prophets to find God’s direction for our lives. And we most certainly don’t need to look to the stars to know what lies ahead. We just need to open the Book and allow the Holy Spirit to speak. 

The confession of the Holy Spirit in the Nicene Creed instructs us in how we may develop a relationship with the Holy Spirit. St. Paul tells us to be filled with the Holy Spirit so if you have never purposely sought a relationship with Him I encourage you to do so. What you will pleasantly discover is His graciousness. You will also find that His principle ministry is to point us to Jesus just as Jesus points us to our heavenly Father. They do this to reveal a relationship of love and then they invite us into that relationship.

I want to conclude with a beautiful prayer of invitation that was written by Brennan Manning. He wrote it addressing the Father but since the Holy Spirit is also God it is appropriate to also address this prayer to Him. Let us pray.

“Holy Spirit, I surrender my will and my life to you today, without reservation and with humble confidence, for you are loving. Set me free from self-consciousness, from anxiety about tomorrow, and from the tyranny of the approval and disapproval of others, that I may find joy and delight simply and solely pleasing you. May my inner freedom be a compelling sign of your presence, your peace, your power, your love. Let your plan for my life and the lives of all your children gracefully unfold one day at a time. I love you with all of my heart and I place all my confidence in you.” In the Name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost. Amen

25 years ago today, on the Feast of St. Alcuin, I was made a priest in Christ’s One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church. It has been NOTHING like I expected. Pt. 1

I was first ordained 41 years ago in 1979 through a consortium of non-denominational churches in Florida. I had been a student leader of a mid week campus prayer meeting that we incorporated as a church. I was called to serve as their second Senior Pastor even though I had not yet been to seminary and had no formal training. I made a lot of mistakes but words cannot adequately express how much I loved those folks and what an honor it was to serve them. 

Those were some colorful years. We bought property and built a building. The members of the parish took their faith very seriously and lifelong spiritual friendships were formed among them. The group of churches, with which we had been affiliated, became increasing cultic and so I pulled our church out from it. That was a very difficult step to take. Although it was the right thing to do it also meant that we were entirely on our own. At times the weight of that seemed unbearable because I knew that I was caring for people’s souls. I was mindful of St. Paul’s saying that teachers will incur a stricter judgment.

Over the years I worked part time on a degree from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary near Boston. I was also able to travel and taught clergy and lay ministers in Haiti, Spain and the Philippians. On one occasion I smuggled bibles into Communist China during their New Year’s celebrations. I worked very hard for the Church but not hard enough on myself, and as a consequence I went through a terrible burnout. My life unraveled and I left the ministry.

God had mercy and blessed the broken road that led me to Chattanooga, where I met and married Beth. We were both social workers and I saw myself remaining in that career until retirement. I had no interest in returning to full time ministry. I particularly enjoyed not being on call 24/7, having weekends and holidays free, and being able to completely forget about work the moment that I locked my office door. 

As the saying goes, “If you want to make God laugh, tell Him your plans.” My plans for a career in social work were not His plans. Beth and I were newly married when the call returned, doors opened widely, and everything changed for us. It involved quitting my job, leaving Chattanooga and taking on additional studies at Sewanee’s School of Theology. 

The reason that I said the priesthood is nothing like I expected goes back to 4thgrade. My father was stationed in Boston and so we lived nearby in a town in Rhode Island. My family attended a small parish that was so close to our home that we walked to church. The rectory was next door to the church and our priest led a beautiful liturgy. His life seemed to be quiet and serene. This planted an image in my mind of one day being a priest in a small stone church that was next to a quaint rectory. I imagined spending most of my day in my study in the rectory, smoking a pipe and reading. Once a day I would saunter over to the church to say Mass, and twice on Sunday. Other than an occasional counseling session, life would be quiet, contemplative and alternate between study and worship. 

My curacy, instead of being in a small stone church, was in a very large, historic, downtown parish. And the church, rather than being quiet and contemplative, was always bustling with a large staff and much activity. I had an office in an old part of the church where monks used to live. It was a very wealthy parish and was known as the church to go to when you want to see and be seen. My job was to do everything that the Rector did not want to do. It was a privilege to serve in that beautiful and historic parish but the Rector and his wife were so dysfunctional that it soon became time to leave. 

Providentially in the fall of 1996 I received a call from the Bishop of Tennessee to plant a church in Smyrna. The challenge was that there was no one waiting for me, I could not ask for help from nearby parishes (because they were upset with the Bishop for planting a church near them) and we had to be completely self-supporting in 5 years. To be honest I felt the call but I was terrified. 

I moved to town first and Beth followed a few months later when she was able to secure a transfer in her job. I converted a second floor real estate office into a chapel/office/library. It was warm and inviting. All that was missing was the people. 

It made sense to start with a Bible Study. And since at the time all I had was a Bible, a Prayer Book and a Processional Cross, I could not have started with worship even if I had wanted to. I went around town introducing myself to people, feeling very much like a Fuller Brush salesman. (This gave me a whole new respect for folks who make a living doing cold calls). I took out an ad in the newspaper announcing the Bible study, and I put up a poster in the Post Office. They kept taking it down and I kept putting it back up. Each of these attempts made contact with someone and so the first night of the Bible Study there were 12 in attendance. Someone said to me later, “Hey that number 12 worked the first time.”

As the little flock grew I added a class called “Anglican 101” to introduce Anglican life and worship. After a few months I had gathered an altar and a World War II Mass kit and was able to offer our first experience of worship. We almost lost one member when she saw me in vestments for the first time. She had grown up in a deeply anti Roman Catholic atmosphere. Those prejudices came roaring back when she saw me. She looked as though she had just seen the anti-Christ.

Once we outgrew the chapel we began to meet on Sunday afternoons in a Cumberland Presbyterian Church. It was there in the fall of 1997 that we had our formal launch. At the next Annual Convention the Diocese accepted us as a Mission. 

The quiet and contemplative life that I expected as a child still was nowhere to be found. Planting a church is like starting a new business. When you are not working 60-80 hours per week, you are thinking, and often worrying, and always strategizing about your next move. It did help my prayer life however; that is if you can call yelling “Help!” to God about every 15 minutes a prayer life. 

When an old Wal-Mart became vacant we moved into it. We did so both to have more room and to finally be able to offer Sunday morning worship and Christian Education. I learned a valuable lesson from that move. The outside of the building needs to match what is going on inside or you will be sending out wrong signals. Folks told me later that they knew about our presence in the old Wal-Mart but they did not visit then because they assumed that because we were in a strip mall it meant that we were not a traditional Anglican parish. To them a storefront meant drums and guitars and not smells and bells.In 2001 we built our church on 18 acres and in January of 2002 we walked the aisle of the Cathedral in Nashville to be accepted as a Parish in the Diocese. Then all hell broke loose.

Abiding in the Vine

“I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit.”

This is Jesus’ 7th“I am” statement in the Gospel of John. As Father Chris mentioned in his last sermon Jesus is intentionally using the Divine Name “I am” to declare His divinity. In biblical numerology 7 is the number for perfection or completion. For example the Lord created the heavens and the earth and on the 7thday He rested. Thus as the 7th“I am” statement it causes one to wonder if this is not intended to be the completion or apex of them all. 

I say that because this particular I am statement perfectly captures the relationship with Jesus to which we are called and it summarizes that relationship in a way that tells us all we need to know. What does it mean to be a disciple of Jesus? It is recognizing that He is the Vine and you are the branches and you are to bear fruit. What does it mean to declare Jesus as Lord? It is recognizing that He is the Vine and you are the branches and you are to bear fruit. What does it mean to walk in holiness? It is recognizing that He is the Vine and you are the branches and you are to bear fruit. 

Actually we need to take it a step further. Jesus not only declares that He is the vine and we are the branches but He adds a command in verse 4 when He says “Abide in me, and I in you.” He also gives a warning in verse 6 if we don’t abide in Him so it would behoove us to be clear about how we go about abiding in Christ. These passages give us several thoughts as well as several benefits for abiding in the Vine.

The first thought to abiding in Christ is found in verses 4 and 5. “As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abide in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me….for apart from me you can do nothing.” We abide in Him when we place our trust in Him, when we realize our utter dependence on Him. The disciples got that. As the crowds were leaving Jesus because of His hard sayings, Jesus turned to His disciples and asked if they were going to leave Him as well. They said, “Where would we go Lord? Who else has the words of life?” 

It is when we realize that we are helpless without Him that He becomes our help. It is one of those gospel paradoxes that we only find strength when we admit our weakness. We will gladly abide in the Vine when we realize that we are dead in our transgressions without Him. 

This perspective is what makes the difference between nominal Christianity and a vital faith. If you think that you are basically well and you see the Gospel as a multi vitamin then you can take it or leave it at your convenience. You will think that it is acceptable to be a C. E Christian (Christmas and Easter). After all who doesn’t miss taking their vitamins every now and then. But if you believe that you have been snake bit and the Gospel is the only anti-venom that there is then there is not a thing that you wouldn’t trade for it. 

It starts with trust. But in his book Ruthless Trust, Brennan Manning offers us a reality check about a trust that we need to hear. He says, “The story of salvation history indicates that without exception trust must be purified in the crucible of trial” (p9). He is right. From Abraham thinking that he was to sacrifice His son, to Moses standing on the banks of the Red Sea with the Egyptian army closing in, to Jesus sweating blood in the Garden of Gethsemane, their trust was tested to the max. Perhaps God can use this pandemic to purify our trust. We can seek Him to do so when we realize that, as we are told in the great hymn, His only design is “thy dross to consume and thy gold to refine.”

Believing that we can do nothing without Christ naturally leads to another way that we abide in the Vine; and that is by prayer. Verse 7 “If you abide in me and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.” Since I cannot do anything without Him then it only makes sense that I would be continually asking for His help. Ask for wisdom when you need to make a difficult decision. Ask for courage to follow where He leads. Ask for strength when you are weak. Ask for faith when your knees are shaking. As I said in a previous sermon we can ask for everything from His Kingdom to come to our daily bread and everything in between. Prayer is how the branch stays connected to the Vine. 

Of course this verse needs some clarification because it has been martyred by the televangelist and health and wealth preachers. “Ask whatever you wish” does not give us license to pray the Janice Joplin prayer of “O Lord won’t you buy me a Mercedes Benz, my friends all have Porches I must make amends…” What we wish is to flow from the previous word, “If you abide in me and my words abide in you.” If we are abiding in Him and His words are abiding in us then our prayers will be filled with what He wills and not necessarily what we will. Archbishop William Temple put it this way. “We ask whatever we will but being in Christ our will must be for the glory of God and the accomplishment of His purpose. (Readings in St. John’s Gospel, p.263).

When I was in college and part of a couple of campus ministries, while it was never said outright, the clear message that you got was if you were spiritual you would have a one hour quiet time each morning. And if you were super spiritual you would go for two hours. I tried and tried, I honestly did. And I managed to fail at every devotional plan that I ever attempted. To be real honest I dreaded morning devotions. For me it was a form of protestant penance.

Things changed for the better when I learned of the pattern of the historic church. Following the Psalmist who said, “7 times a day I will bless thee” the historic church developed a pattern of prayer of offering prayers and readings all throughout the day and into the night. It was like eating seven small meals rather than one huge breakfast. 

That pattern has continued for many centuries and is still the pattern today and not just in monasteries. That is the pattern of the Daily Office of Morning and Evening Prayer, Noonday Prayers and Compline. It is the pattern of Christians throughout the world that have embraced a rule of life like those of Benedict or Francis. 

I tell you this so that you don’t think you should only pray if you have a huge chunk of time to do so.  The most perfect prayer of all it the Lord’s Prayer and that takes less than a minute to pray. Connecting with Jesus through prayer throughout the day and into the night, about anything and everything, sure sounds to me like abiding in Him. 

A third way that we abide in the Vine is through obedience. Verse 10. “If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love.” The Pharisee in us loves this verse. Now we get to make a list and check it twice. We get to create rules to follow and especially make it our job to see that everyone else is following those rules. We become so proud of our obedience that we thank God that we are not like that sinner in the Temple. 

On the other hand the rebel in us is repulsed by this verse. As soon as we hear a call to obedience we hear legalism and control and a loss of identity. We expect to hear moralistic sermons on drinking and dancing and chewing.

Of course both of those viewpoints are entirely wrong because they have missed the connection that Jesus makes between obedience and love. “Just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in His love.” Jesus didn’t obey His Father because He was afraid that He would be sent to hell if He didn’t. He obeyed His Father because He loved His Father. He delighted to do His Father’s will. When you obey out of love then your obedience is a joy and not a burden. And when you obey out of love you don’t need a set of rules to follow. Love is your guide. Jesus said that if we love Him we would keep His commandments. What was the new commandment that He gave to His disciples? It was to love one another as He had loved them. 

Let’s consider the benefits of abiding in the Vine. First we bear fruit. Verse 5 “Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit.” Note that Jesus not only says we will bear fruit but that we will bear much fruit. What is the fruit that we will bear? How about the fruit of good works? Abiding in Christ will cause us to love and serve our neighbor. How about the fruit of the Spirit? Love, joy, peace, patience…could anyone use a little more of those these days? And what is wonderful about the image of fruit is that it is naturally produced, as the branch stays connected to the vine. It is not something that needs to be conjured up or developed by years of disciplined study. It flows naturally from your relationship to Christ.

A second benefit of abiding in Christ is that it brings glory to God. Verse 8. “By this my Father is glorified that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples.” I believe that the Presbyterians are correct in their catechism when they ask, “What is the chief end of man?” and the answer is, “To glorify God and to enjoy Him forever.”  People are always searching for happiness but they inevitably look in all the wrong places. True happiness that is accompanied with lasting contentment is found when you discover your reason for being. If our reason for being is to glorify God and we can do so by producing fruit then we have found the road to happiness. And the good news is that road is a freeway and not a toll road.

A third benefit of abiding in Christ is joy. Verse 11. “These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be full.” That is quite a promise. Not just any joy but we are to receive Jesus’ joy and not just some joy but joy that is full, drinking from the saucer joy. 

You have probably figured it out by now but you are not going to get that kind of joy by watching the news. I counted the other morning and I came up with either 6 or 7 reports in a row that were nothing but bad news. It started with Covid-19, then a meat shortage, then a monster killer wasp discovered out West, then a strange new infection in children, then the airline industry collapsing and on and on it went. I know that they have to sell ads but the news has not always been delivered in such apocalyptic tones. It is more and more difficult to discern how much is information and how much is manipulation. 

So that is why when I want some joy in my life I think about His unfailing love and mercy for me. I think about a kingdom that is not in trouble. I think about a day when all things will be made right. I think about eternity with those I love. I think how nothing can separate me from His love. I think of Jesus admonition again and again to not be afraid but to trust. All of this brings me joy. I can’t stand here and declare that my joy is yet full, but I’m working on it. 

I want to mention one more way that we abide in Christ that is not seen in today’s portion of John’s Gospel but is found in a few chapters earlier in John 6. Jesus said, “He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me and I in him.” It is through the Sacrament that we abide in Christ and that is why we need to reopen Sunday worship as soon as possible. Our plan right now is to return to Sunday worship on the last Sunday of May, which is the Feast of Pentecost. And we need to do this together because it is as we receive the Body and Blood of Christ together that we are the Body of Christ. That cannot be done sitting alone in front of a computer. 

Beyond that we are meant to live in community because we are created in God’s image and God lives in the community of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. We need to be together. If we are honest with ourselves we will admit that “Making your way in the world today takes everything you got. So taking a break from all your worries sure would help a lot. Sometimes you want to go where everybody knows your name. And they’re always glad you came. You want to be where you can see; our troubles are all the same. You want to be where everybody knows your name.” (Someone should turn that into a song). 

The clear message from Jesus today is that we are to abide in Him. And please note that He gives that to us as a command and not as a suggestion. This command comes with a promise. If we abide in Him then He will abide in us. Could there be anything better? We abide in Him by being utterly dependent upon Him, staying connected to Him in prayer, walking in obedience based on love and by regularly and faithfully receiving the Sacrament. Let’s commit ourselves to this and may His joy be and you and your joy be full. Amen. 

Freedom from Fear

This 1928 Prayer Book that I use during the Mass was my father’s. He received it when he was confirmed in 1935.  He was born and raised in the small town of Monroe in Upper State New York Sate. (In terms of importance to me, Monroe ranks right next to the holy city of Jerusalem because it is also the birthplace of Velveeta Cheese). 

My father grew up during the Great Depression and joined the Navy at 17 when the US entered World War II. He had only a high school education but he was a very smart man and he rose through the ranks to Lt. Commander. After retiring from the Navy he earned a college degree and started a small business. It was difficult watching him age and become frail because he was quite the jock growing up. I had the privilege of being with him when he died. I administered last rites to him. A day or so before he died he looked me square in the eye and said, “Ray, I’m not afraid to die.” And he said it with such calm conviction that I absolutely knew that he was speaking the truth. His death was a gentle passing. That experience made me wonder if I would be able to say the same thing about fear when it was my time to go.

King David was of the same mindset as my father according to today’s Psalm. “Ye though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I shall fear no evil….” That is significant because David wasn’t just waxing poetic. From fighting lions and bears as a shepherd, to slaying Goliath, to being hunted by Saul, to the rebellion of his son, to the many battles that he fought, David had multiple opportunities to be afraid. And yet he was fearless when facing death. 

This presents us with a question. How do we come to a place where fear is not ruling our lives? Of course given the time that we are living in, that is a purely theoretical question, but let’s ask it anyway. The other day I was reading the alternate Old Testament lesson from last week, which was a portion of Isaiah 43, and some points jumped off of the page that provide us with some answers.

Verse one says, “But now thus says the LORD, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.” So the first point is this; Do not fear because you are the Lord’s possession. And that really is the major point of Psalm 23. You may have heard the story of a little boy who has memorized Psalm 23 in Vacation Bible School and was chosen to recite it on the final day before parents and visitors. He stood and said, “The Lord is my shepherd…” and then he froze, his mind went blank. His VBS teacher encouraged him to try again. “The Lord is my shepherd…..” Nothing. She said, “Try one more time.” “The Lord is my shepherd….and that’s all I need to know.” And truly that is all we do need to know. When fear shows up don’t try to battle it head on, look to your Shepherd. As He tells us that as a Good Shepherd He will lay down His life for us so what will He not do for His flock? Do not be afraid, you are the Lord’s possession. 

Verse 2 says, “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through the fire you shall not be burned and the flame shall not consume you.” Point two is this; Do not fear because you are always in His presence. The LORD say, “I will be with you.” Jesus added, “And I will never leave you nor forsake you.”

This point is where I frequently need my perspective adjusted. A wrong expectation that slips its way into my thinking is that if He truly loves me then there would be no waters or rivers of fire to pass through. But God does not promise that does He? What He promises is that He will be with us. “Ye though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil…” Why? “because Thou art with me.” 

Years ago I was trying to catch a flight out of Atlanta. It was supposed to leave at 11am but we were notified that our plane was delayed because it was snowed in at Chicago. The delay ended up being over 11 hours. What they did not tell us was that our plane would not be able to leave Chicago, so rather than canceling the flight they worked all day repairing a grounded plane in Atlanta. Finally as we were nearing midnight we boarded. As we lifted off and were banking out of Atlanta, the engine on my side of the plane exploded and sent fire the length of the entire fuselage. Because it was so dark the flames were particularly dramatic and foreboding. Chaos broke out. People were screaming, the old man across the aisle from me wet himself and the flight attendants were all crying. If I told you that at that moment I was not afraid I would be lying. But to my surprise I was not frozen in terror. Instead I began to pray and I prayed and prayed and prayed. Much to my chagrin I had a good amount of time to pray because the airplane had to circle Atlanta to dump most of its fuel before we could make an emergency landing. I remember praying for the pilot’s math so that he wouldn’t dump too much fuel because two weeks earlier a pilot had made that error in California and they dropped in the drink. When we finally landed the crew took over a red eye flight to the West Coast and offered it to us but about half of the people refused to get on another plane. Now again I would be lying if I said that I was not afraid but I believe that I was not panicked because the Lord was present with me. I believe He is the One who gave me the grace to pray when my natural reaction would have been to be in fetal position under the seat in front of me. 

But what do we do about the times when we are passing through the river or fire or valley and we don’t feel His presence. What do we do then? We trust that He is there nonetheless because He said that He would be. As one teacher put it, “We are already in the presence of God, what is absent is awareness.” You may remember a poem from a few years ago called “Footsteps.” It’s about a guy looking over his life and seeing two sets of footsteps in the sand, one set his and one set the Lord’s. But then he asks about the times that he only sees one set of footsteps and the Lord says, “That was when I was carrying you.”  The poem was repeated so many times that it became a little trite but it remains so true. I can definitely look back at my life and see many, many times that He was carrying me and I don’t know that I would be here today if He hadn’t done so. So do not be afraid, you are in His presence.

Verse 4 says “Because you are precious in my eyes, and honored, and I love you, I give men in return for you, peoples in exchange for your life.”  We know now that this prophecy was ultimately fulfilled when He gave the Son of Man in exchange for our lives. Therefore point three is this; Do not be afraid because you are precious in the sight of God.

For some that can be a hard concept to wrap our minds around. “Me? Precious to God?” I don’t really know why but as I was growing up, and would think about God, my first thought was that He was disappointed in me. I imagined Him sitting with a big book in His lap and marking down every time I messed up. And because that was so often I could see Him shaking His head at me in disapproval. That misconception of God was deep within me, most of the time on an unconscious level, but it was there. When someone from Campus Crusade said to me, “God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life” my immediate reaction was “Really?” rather than “Of Course!” It turned out that He does love me and He did have a wonderful plan for my life but I wasn’t convinced of that then. 

What started to break down this terrible misconception about our Lord was an experience that I had one morning during a daily devotion. I was reading through the Bible and was in the prophet Zephaniah. (Look it up, there really is such a book). I read these words.  “The LORD your God is in your midst, a mighty one who will save; he will rejoice over you with gladness; he will quiet you by his love; he will exult over you with loud singing.” I was blown away. It hit me like a revelation. Instead of being disappointed with me and shaking His head, when God sees me He breaks out in song. What? That is what the text says. “He will exult over you with loud singing.”  Not just singing but LOUD singing. What a concept! 

If you find it difficult to believe that you are precious in God’s sight then I want to encourage you to do three things. First if you are not regularly reading through the Scriptures then add that discipline to your life. This is important for several reasons. You have some powerful forces warring against you. They are called the world, the flesh and the devil and the last thing that they want is for you to be convinced that you are loved by God. You need a defense against their influence. St. Paul says in Ephesians we are to “take up the shield of faith, with which you are able to extinguish the flaming darts of the evil one.” How do we get this shield of faith? St. Paul tells us in Romans. “Faith cometh by hearing and hearing by the word of Christ.”

A second reason that regular reading of Scripture is so important is because our world is filled with mental and spiritual pollutants. This pollution comes to us all day every day through multimedia, the internet, the printed word and talk around the water cooler. The pollution comes to us in the form of distortions, half-truths, gossip, propaganda, and outright lies. In Ephesians St. Paul speaks of Christ’s love for the Church and how He sanctifies her “having cleansed her by the washing of the water with the word.” Daily Bible reading therefore is like a daily shower only instead of cleansing your body it cleanses your heart and your mind. 

A third reason for the disciplined reading of Scripture is it becomes the hammer that breaks your chains. We become enslaved when we are not walking in the truth. I was enslaved by the misconception of God that I just spoke about. I was imprisoned by a lie. Jesus said it is the truth that sets us free and so the more we expose ourselves to Scripture, the more truth fills our lives and the freer we become. So read your Bibles. Doing so in the context of the Daily Office of the Prayer Book is a great start for us as Anglicans.

The second thing I would suggest is take every opportunity when we offer classes that are about or developed from the four pillars. I am not sure yet when we will be able to offer classes again. It may not be until the fall. Time will tell. But these four pillars of Sacramental Living, Joyful Discipleship, Radical Love and Gracious Evangelism are grounded in Christ and they will establish you in His love. 

The third thing that I would highly recommend is that you read about anything that you can get your hands on by Brennan Manning. He was a very broken servant of God but boy howdy did he get the Good News. One of my favorite quotes of his, that is a goal for me, is this. “My deepest awareness of myself is that I am deeply loved by Jesus Christ and I have done nothing to deserve it.” That is about as solid as “The Lord is my shepherd and that is all I need to know.”

How do you conquer fear?  You do so by knowing that you are His possession, that you are always in His presence, and that you are precious in His sight. If you can get those truths planted deep into your heart then you will be able to say with St. Paul, “If God be for us, who can be against us?” Amen. 

Fellow Heirs with Christ

Happy Easter! Christ is Risen! I want to begin by thanking Fr. Chris and Fr. BE for their insightful sermons over the last few weeks. They could not have given us a better perspective for these challenging days. Nothing better and nothing more needs to be said about it so I’m going to point us in a different direction. I want to direct our minds, as we just heard in Colossians “…above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God.”

I once saw an old preacher raise a tattered Bible in the air and proclaim. “I’ve read the back of the book….we win!” He is so right. It is because of this day, because Jesus stepped out of the tomb, because He lives, because He is seated at the right hand of God, that we truly do win. But to more fully appreciate it let’s go back to the beginning to put this win in its context. 

In the first chapter of Genesis we read, “Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image after our likeness, so God created them in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” We know that when God said, “Let US make man in OUR image” He was not talking to the angels. In this same chapter we see God creating everything that is by His Word, the Word that would become flesh, while the Spirit hovered over the face of the deep. Thus the “us” is a clear reference to the Holy Trinity. 

What does that mean? It means that we are not made in the image of the angels; rather we are made in the image of the Holy Trinity. Stop and let that sink in for a moment. You are God’s image bearer; therefore you are a sacred being. Jesus’ victory over death was so that God could gather back to Himself His sacred beings, His image bearers, that had been lost to Him through the fall of man. 

This perception of ourselves as sacred beings is important because too often the Gospel that is presented stops with the message of the forgiveness of sins. Thus it is all too easy for folks to see themselves only as forgiven sinners. But our identity in Christ is so much more than that.  That is why, in the post communion prayer that we will pray today, we thank God for assuring us,“that we are very members incorporate in the mystical body of thy Son, which is the blessed company of all faithful people; and are also heirs through hope of thy everlasting kingdom, by the merits of his most precious death and passion. 

Listen to St. Paul to the Romans in chapter 8. “…but you have received the spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry ‘Abba! Father!’ The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirits that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ.” Fellow heirs with Christ! That is what Christ’ victory has done for us. Now I don’t pretend to understand what all of that means but I do know that it’s even better than finding out that you have been adopted by Bill Gates. If you are in Christ, then from a spiritual point of view, Easter has made your life a rags-to-riches story.

Consider what being fellow heirs with Christ means for us? There are numerous benefits. First it puts this temporal world into proper perspective and thereby helps us to remain faithful to the end. The very next verse after St. Paul tells us that we are fellow heirs with Christ he says, “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.” St. Paul had already suffered much in his missionary journeys but that was not going to stop him because he had his eye on the prize. St. Paul could take up a temporary cross and stay true to Christ because he knew that a permanent crown awaited. That is our assurance as well. Looking past the temporal to the eternal will keep us steadfast.

Second, knowing that we are fellow heirs with Christ gives us a healthy form of restlessness. St. Paul goes on to write, “And not only creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.” 

Growing up in a Navy family we moved every two years. My father would get orders at about 18 months and by 24 months we were gone. Life as a Navy family meant that while we always made friends wherever we were, and we loved most of the places where we lived, we still did not put down roots too deeply in any one place. 

Similarly as Christians, while we should be grateful for this life, the knowledge that there is permanent home to which we are journeying should keep us from putting down our roots too deeply in this world. The eagerness we feel for our complete redemption allows us to have a godly detachment and that helps to keep us out of the reach of the world, the flesh and the devil. It also helps us to live generously in the service of others. The riches that will be ours as fellow heirs of Christ make the riches of this world look like monopoly money and it’s easy and fun to give away monopoly money. 

A friend of mine truly has this perspective. He inherited $400,000 and he turned around and gave it all to his deceased brother’s widow. He did not give a tithe or a half; he didn’t even keep just a little for himself. He said to me in a very matter of fact way, “She needed it more than I did.” He knows where his true riches are. 

A third benefit of embracing our identity as fellow heirs with Christ is that it fills us with hope. Just a few verses later St. Paul uses the word “hope” five times in one verse. Hope is such an invaluable gift because the opposite is a nightmare. I have read of prisoners of war becoming so hopeless that they willed themselves to die and so they did. 

And just like the other two benefits that I mentioned, hope has us look beyond this world to look above where Christ is seated. It forces us to do so because what we hope for is not offered in this life. Resurrected bodies in a new heaven and new earth cannot be won in the lottery, ordered from Amazon or delivered by Prince Charming. 

The Scripture says that hope is the anchor of our souls but only if our hope is correctly placed. The important difference between Christian hope and secular hope is that Christian hope is placed in a Person while secular hope is placed in circumstances. Christian hope is rooted in a God who is faithful and true and so we know that His promises are certain. Secular hope is focused on circumstances that may or may not be realized. 

To encourage you to deepen your hope by deepening your relationship with the Lord I have thought of an acronym for hope. H. H is for honor. Make it a major focus of each day to honor God in both your words and your deeds. You may have noticed that many of the collects in the Book of Common Prayer begin by giving to God the honor that is due His name. “O God, the strength of all who put their trust in you….” “Almighty and everlasting Lord…” “O Lord, from whom all good proceeds…” “Lord of all power and might, the author and giver of all good things…” “O God, your never failing providence sets in order all things in heaven and on earth…”  In these collects the Church is teaching us that worship begins by honoring God. Then honoring God with your words leads naturally to honoring God with your deeds especially when those deeds point others to Him. H is for honor.

O is for offer. It is such a profound line in the 1928 Mass where we pray, “And here we offer unto Thee O Lord ourselves, our souls and bodies to be a reasonable, holy and living sacrifice unto Thee.” And it is a wonder that because God’s mercies are new every morning we are able to make a new fresh offering to Him every day. There is a beautiful prayer of self-dedication in the Book of Common Prayer that would be beneficial to add to your daily prayers. “Almighty and eternal God, so draw our hearts to thee, so guide our minds, so fill our imaginations, so control our wills, that we may be wholly thine, utterly dedicated unto thee; and then use us, we pray thee, as thou wilt, and always to thy glory and the welfare of thy people; through our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.” O is for offer

P is for pray. Pray about everything! That is what St. Paul said to the Church in Philippi. “In everything, by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God…” Jesus shows us that we are to pray for everything when He has us pray, in the very same prayer, for both for the kingdom to come and our daily bread. Don’t fall for the lie that the Lord is only interested in the big things of your life. The Scripture says that we are to cast our cares on Him because He cares for us. When I was in seminary at Christmas time I tore Boston apart looking for a specific Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle. You would have thought that I was on a quest for the Holy Grail. That silly toy was that important to me because it was that important to my son. Now multiply an earthly father’s love by infinity and you will be certain that you can take everything to your heavenly Father in prayer. P is for pray. 

E is for exalt. By this I mean to praise or extol the Lord. Years ago there was a very popular chorus called “I exalt Thee” and a little kid in our church misunderstood what we were singing and so he sang very loudly “I exhaust Thee.” There are times in the Old Testament when it looks like the Lord is nearly exhausted with His people and so we want to learn from that negative example and live a different way. We want to exalt Him and one of the best ways to exalt God with our lives is to be an Easter people. We should be a people of celebration and life. We don’t bring glory to God as His children if we live like we had been baptized in lemon juice. Joy is a fruit of the Spirit. We are an Easter people. I freely admit that life can be tough and even seem to be unfair but life doesn’t get the final word, God does and He is good all the time. So let’s consider ways to live in such a way that exalts God. E is for exalt.

In his book “How Happiness Happens” Max Lucado gives a wonderful illustration. An Italian named Andrea Mosconi would get up six days a week, put on his coat and tie, and go down to a violin museum in Cremona, Italy. The museum held some of the most priceless instruments in the world including one made by Stradivari himself. It was Mr. Mosconi’s job to play each instrument daily because if they were never played the instruments will lose their vibrancy and begin to deteriorate.  

Max Lucado says that we have a similar job every day, except instead of bringing the best music out of violins; we are called to bring the best out of other people. Why? Because, going back to an earlier point, standing before you is not just a check out girl or a bag boy or a mechanic. Standing before you are sacred beings, image bearers of God. A famous Pentecostal preacher in Nashville used to say that we should be so filled with Christ than when a mosquito bites us it flies away singing “There’s power in the blood of the Lamb.” We are to be Christ like to those sacred beings, those image bearers of God, and bring out their best. That is our calling as fellow heirs of Christ.

Well I too have read the back of the book and sure enough we win! And so this glorious Easter day resounds with the words of St. Paul to the Corinthians. 

O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?

The sting of death is sin; and the strength of sin is the law.

But thanks be to God, which gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.

Good Friday Fast

Historically the Church has called believers to fast on Fridays to commemorate our Lord’s passion. Typically it is a call to a partial fast such as not eating meat. Thus when I was growing up public schools served fish on Fridays and today during Lent all the burger joints are selling fish sandwiches. 

But the Prayer Book calls us to a total fast on Good Friday. If you are new to fasting or need a refresher allow me to give you some background and then some suggestions. 

WHY FASTING? There are several good reasons for fasting. First it is a way to humble ourselves before God. Ps 69:10. That little two-year-old kid that lives in all of us (the Bible calls it “the flesh”) always wants his way and wants it now. When we fast we are telling the little brat “NO!” It does him good to be put in his place.

Second, when we fast we are reminding ourselves of our true priorities. We are declaring, as our Lord put it, “man does not live by bread alone but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God. 

Third fasting empowers us during spiritual warfare. We see this when our Lord overcame the temptations of the enemy during His fast. This is particularly important during this plague. I read an article that priests are reporting an increase of demonic activity in part because Mass is not being sad. I do not think that it is just a coincidence that the virus is peaking during Holy Week. There is more going on here than just a virus. Fasting and prayer is how we push back against the forces of darkness. 

Fourth fasting intensifies discernment. In Acts 13 the Apostles fasted to discern whom to send out to proclaim the Gospel. It seems that when we quiet our flesh through fasting that our spirit can better hear the Lord’s voice. 

Fifth, barring any medical issues, fasting is good for you. It is like a soft reboot to your body and soul.

WHEN TO FAST?  It is important not to be legalistic about this because it can be a fast track to being a junior Pharisee. Remember that Jesus said to do it in secret and not before men so that the Father will properly reward you. As mentioned above Fridays are typical fast days. Ash Wednesday and Good Friday are days of total abstinence, which means not just giving up meat but giving up all food. It has also been the tradition to fast before receiving Holy Communion. (That is why the 8 0’clock Mass was so popular.) But if you are not able to do that, the tradition is total abstinence at least one hour before receiving Holy Communion. Other times of fasting are tied to the leading of the Holy Spirit. 

HOW LONG TO FAST? Again be careful about legalism. Total abstinence is best kept to a 24-hour period. Ancients would fast from sundown to sundown. Partial fasts can be for a season as we do in Lent. Liquid only fasts can go for more than 24 hours but I strongly advise being under spiritual direction if you choose to go on an extended fast. 

HOW TO FAST? In a one day fast it is typical to abstain from all food but allow liquids such as water or juice (no it doesn’t count if you put a cheeseburger in a blender). If the fast is longer than 24 hours the liquids may be more substantial than just water. Use your good judgment here. Remember we are not jumping through spiritual hoops or trying to win God’ favor. He already could not love you any more or any less. Periodic fasts like Fridays and Lent, and sometimes Advent, are when we fast from particular foods or from things other than food such as social media. 

This Good Friday we are fasting from one another, which makes it a particularly difficult fast. Let’s stay connected. Morning Prayer will be live streamed at 7am. Stations of the Cross will post at noon. The Good Friday liturgy will be up by 3pm. We fast to humble ourselves but the beautiful promise of God is that when we humble ourselves He will exalt us. 

The Radical Love of Jesus

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Each week in our bulletin we include our mission statement and then we add these words. “We will engage our mission and strengthen our parish with four pillars: Sacramental Living, Joyful Discipleship, Radical Love, Gracious Evangelism.” These four pillars are what we seek to build into the culture of this parish and into each of our individual lives. Why these pillars? Because if I am continually receiving God’s grace through the sacraments of the church (Sacramental Living), if I am learning how Jesus means for my life to be lived and closely following Him (Joyful Discipleship), if I am loving others as He loves me (Radical Love), and if I am sharing the good news of His love and forgiveness with others (Gracious Evangelism), then I would be experiencing the living water that Jesus spoke about with the woman at the well. In fact we can see that Jesus perfectly represents two of these pillars in His engagement with her by His radical love and gracious evangelism.

We see Him model radical love. We can see that when we understand that there are at least three reasons why this meeting should have never happened. 

First He is a Jew and she is a Samaritan. The text even tells us in verse 9 that Jews had no dealings with the Samaritans. And saying that they had “no dealings” was an understatement. It was more like the Hatfields and McCoys. 

In case you are new to this story let me explain the animosity between these two people groups. In the 8thcentury BC the northern kingdom was conquered and taken into captivity. Not everyone was taken and those left behind eventually intermarried with non Jews and so were considered heathen. Further they developed their own off shoot of Judaism, which included rejecting the Prophets and the Temple in Jerusalem, and so they were also deemed heretics. Thus observant Jews would literally go out of their way to not even enter Samaria much less speak to a Samaritan. 

The second reason that this conversation should have never happened was because she was an unaccompanied woman and he was an unaccompanied man. Jesus as a single man speaking with her was so beyond the pale that verse 27 reports that the disciples “marveled” that He was talking with a woman. The New Living Translation used the word “shocked.”

Remember that at that time religion was quite segregated. Woman worshipped separately from the men. Women were not invited to study and discuss Torah with men. It took a certain number of men to form a synagogue and women and children were not included in that count. Women could only go to an outer court when visiting the Temple. And since the sign of the covenant was circumcision, women did not have the status of men. This together makes the thought of a Rabbi talking theology with a heathen woman something that is unthinkable.

The third reason that this conversation should have not happened is because Jesus was a holy man and she was a woman of ill repute. She comes to draw water in the heat of the day to avoid the tongues wagging and the judgmental looks and the rejection that she felt from her community. Her spirit had been crushed by 5 failed marriages. She was burdened by nagging guilt because knew full well that it was wrong to be shacking up with the guy that she was with now. 

But Jesus, who is love because God is love, did not care about customs and man-made traditions and what others might think of Him. Neither did He wait until she cleaned up her act before He loved her. What He saw was a prisoner that needed to be set free, a sick woman who needed a physician, a broken vessel that needed to be made new. He discerned a thirst much deeper than the thirst that brought her to the well and so in love He sprang into action. Brennan Manning reminds us that God’s love for us is so unconditional that He loves us as we are, not as we should be. As His children we must learn to love the same way.

Jesus’ radical love led naturally to gracious evangelism and here He gives us a number of wonderful examples to follow. First note that He is engaged very intentionally in one-on-one evangelism. Yes, He taught the crowds and called them to repentance but crowds ebb and flow. Some days they cry “Hosanna!” and some days they cry “Give us Barabbas.” Jesus’ most effective evangelism was person to person. Last week we saw Him with Nicodemus who evidently became a believer because at the end of John’s Gospel we learn that Nicodemus joined Joseph of Arimathea in burying Jesus’ body. Think of Jesus’ contact with Zaccheus, or His meeting Phillip, or of His calling of Matthew or His conversation with the Centurion or His healing of the man born blind. What we see again and again is that evangelism is best done person to person because at its core, conversion is not a head issue it is a heart issue. The prophet Ezekiel declared,  “I will remove the heart of stone from their flesh and give them a heart of flesh, that they may walk in my statutes and keep my rules and obey them. And they shall be my people, and I will be their God.” And one on one, face to face is how you reach the heart.

Second we observe that Jesus initiated the conversation. This can be the most difficult part especially for us introverted Anglicans but Jesus shows how it can be made easier. Jesus began where she was. He didn’t ask her if she had been born again. He didn’t ask if she believed in the Rapture. He didn’t even invite her to Church. She was there to fetch water and so He asked for a drink and then a conversation about water ensued. 

Max Lucado writes that one of the best ways to build bridges with folks is to come to them in a way that in essence says, “Help me understand what it’s like to be you.” Max goes on to say, “Then sit back and listen. Really listen.” 

There was a class on evangelism at Gordon-Conwell where the final was comprised of pictures of classmates. You had to give their name, their spouse’s name, their kid’s names and their denomination. What does that have to do with evangelism? The point that Dr. Wilson was making was that if you don’t care enough about the person to learn about their life then you haven’t earned the right to evangelize them. 

A third point is that Jesus kept to His message and did not get derailed because there were a couple of opportunities for that to happen. The conversation could have gone south at the beginning because instead of giving him a drink, the woman makes a comment and its not clear if it was shock or sarcasm or both. She says “How is it that you a Jew ask for a drink from me, a woman of Samaria?” Instead of being insulted by this Jesus answers “If you knew the gift of God and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink’ you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.” His goal was to reveal Himself to her and so He stayed on point. 

Then a little later she asks a theological question that seems completely out of context. She just admitted that she wasn’t married but was living with a guy and then she asks where is the proper place in which to worship God, on this mountain or in Jerusalem. 

This reminds me of times when I have been sharing the Gospel with someone and just as they are coming under the conviction of the Holy Spirit they ask why bad things happen to good people or what about the folks in Papua New Guinea who never heard the Gospel. Most of the time those questions are rabbit trails to change the conversation and get the heat off of them. Follow Jesus’ example, provide a quick response and then get them back on track. She then says, “I know that the Messiah is coming….” And He says, “I am He.” Jesus stayed on message. Mission accomplished. 

A fourth observation is that while the topic of her brokenness and sinfulness came up, Jesus did not lead with that nor was it the central part of His conversation with her. He did not come to condemn but to save.

When I was in seminary on weekends I would take the T into Harvard Square where it was like a circus with everything from very weird cults to street musicians to fundamentalist spewing fire and brimstone. I would join the crowd that was listening to and yelling at the fundamentalists and I would ask the person next to me, “What do you think about what they are saying?” After giving their critique they would often ask me, “What do you think?” I would respond, “Some of what they are saying I agree with but I hate how they are saying it. May I buy you a cup of coffee?” Quite often they would go with me and we would have a polite and respectful conversation about the good news. 

St Paul says in Romans 2 that it is the goodness of God that leads us to repentance. Folks who don’t believe that they are sinners are like the Pharisees who didn’t think that they were sick and so they have no need of the Physician. But broken folks, like this woman at the well, don’t need to have a conversation start with what miserable sinners they are. They already know that they are broken. What they need is hope that they truly can be made whole. Often the part that is most difficult for them to believe is that God truly loves them. Of course we do not avoid the topic of sin but neither do we make it the main topic. Our job is to point them to the One who will forgive and heal them. This is a joint work with you and the Holy Spirit. You catch em, He will clean em. 

Lastly look how wonderfully God used this woman. Verse 39 says, “Many Samaritans from that town believed in him because of the woman’s testimony.” They even asked Jesus to stay with them longer in contrast to some Jewish towns that would ask Him to leave. And the Samaritans really got the message. They said in verse 42, “…and we know that this is indeed the Savior of the world.”  It is noteworthy that they recognized that He is not just the Jewish Messiah but the Savior of the world. That is remarkable. And remember that she had only been a believer a number of hours and look at the ripple affect that she caused. I hope that you could believe that God can use you in a similar fashion.

I got a call this week from a fraternity brother that I have not seen in decades. He is in an Anglican church that is having its problems and he wanted some advice but first he wanted to tell me his back story that I had not heard before. When I first met him he hated Christians because he saw them as weak and effeminate. So when I became his roommate he watched for signs of weakness without me realizing it. Then one day he thought he had found my weakness. He invited me to go with him to an FSU football game and I said, “No thanks I don’t care much for football.” Well since all real men love football he was about to label me a sissy but then I added, “I love rugby, that was my game in high school.” “What?” he said, “Folks get killed in rugby.” I said, “I know, I love being in the scrum with the mud and the blood, it’s wonderful.” 

I don’t remember any of that conversation but I do know that he did not write me off. We began a conversation about the good news and after some time I prayed with him to receive salvation. He wanted me to know that all these years later he is faithfully following the Lord. And knowing Henry I have no doubt that he has had quite the ripple affect of his own since our college days.  

The point is that if God can use a stupid remark about rugby to open someone’s heart, don’t be afraid that you don’t know enough Bible or theology or have enough knowledge to talk to folks. The Holy Spirit is with you. You have a story to tell so just tell your story. You are not a Philadelphia lawyer trying to persuade a jury. You are just a person who almost died of thirst telling a person who you see that is dying of thirst, where to find the water. Jesus said, “The water that I shall give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” 

The Pandemic and the Goodness of God

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In this chaotic time it is understandable that folks would be confronted by some doubts and ask some tough questions. Please know first of all that if that is happening to you that you need not feel guilty about it. Questioning God is not a sin. Recall that our Lord Himself in essence questioned His Father in the garden. Referring to His impending crucifixion He fell on His face and asked the Father if there was any other way. 

The important thing is where our questions take us. So let’s ask a hard question and see where we end up. “Why would a loving God let something like a pandemic happen?” Or to put it how it is most frequently asked, “Why does a loving God allow bad things to happen to good people?” I certainly don’t have the definitive answer to that question, and may not even come close from your perspective, but I hope to offer some clarity that will build your faith. 

There is a lot to unpack here. The first thing we need to address is the sovereignty of God and human responsibility. The Bible teaches both.

By saying that God is sovereign we are confessing that He is before all things and all things came into being by Him and for Him. His power and His knowledge are without limit. Jeremiah 32:17 “Ah, Sovereign Lord, you have made the heavens and the earth by your great power and outstretched arm. Nothing is too hard for you.”

When we speak of human responsibility we mean that while God is indeed sovereign over all, we are still responsible for the decisions that we make as well as for the consequences of those decisions. That is a part of being made in the image of God. We are not animals driven by instinct, we are not automatons that have no free thought and we most certainly are not controlled by fate, karma or the stars. Thus in Deuteronomy 30, when Moses puts before the people the choice of life and death, that choice was genuine. 

The mystery of God’s sovereignty and human responsibility is how both can be true at the same time. While we will never fully understand how it can be, nevertheless we can believe it to be true and work diligently to see them as two sides of the same coin. 

One of the clearest examples in Holy Scripture of the two sides of the same coin is in the story of Joseph. His brothers out of jealousy sold him into slavery in Egypt. Joseph rose to power, second only to the Pharaoh, and he used that power to save the region from starvation. When eventually he was reunited with his brothers he forgave them because he believed in this two-sided coin of God’s sovereignty and human responsibility. He said, “You meant evil against me, but God meant it for good.”  (Genesis 50:20).

It is this perspective that causes St. Paul to write “And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose.”(Romans 8:28). It is important to note that St. Paul did not say that God causes all things; rather that God will work all things to our good. That is a critical distinction and important tenet of our faith. 

I can testify to that truth. In 1979 I was ordained as a pastor of a non-denominational church. Things went very well at first but because I was not in touch with my brokenness I entered a dark place that lasted for a long time. I even made things worse by trying to out work the darkness by doubling my efforts. When that approach failed I left the ministry moved to Chattanooga and joined St. Paul’s Episcopal Church. Through work I was introduced to Beth and my priest all but pushed me back into ordained ministry, which was something that I told myself that I would NEVER do again. 

If you had told me in 1979, while I was pastoring and living in Florida, that one day I would be a priest, married to Beth and live in Middle Tennessee, I would have had you committed. So how did I get here? Did God cause my darkness? No. Did God make me move to Tennessee? No. That was on me. That was human responsibility. But did God work my darkness to my good? Absolutely. I have had an incredible life since that time. That is God being sovereign. I hasten to add that I realized years ago that I would make myself crazy trying to connect all the dots, or ask “what if” or try to make sense of it all. Instead I just give thanks that God is good all the time, even when it doesn’t feel like it. 

Of course the ultimate example of human responsibility and God’s sovereignty is seen in the crucifixion of our Lord. Judas, Pilate, the High Priest, the Romans, they all were responsible for their actions. What they did was nothing short of wicked. But God in His sovereignty used this heinous act to be the salvation of the world. There is no way that we will ever be able to wrap our minds around the events of our salvation but we should give thanks daily that it is so. That is the nature of a mystery. 

Okay let’s take it a step further. “Why do bad things happen to good people?” A short first answer is that the question is erroneous because there are no good people. The Bible is clear that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God and that our righteousness is like filthy rags before God. (Romans 3:23, Isaiah 64:6). In light of that the real question is “Why do good things happen to us?” Of course the answer is because God is love. And as Brennan Manning says, He loves us as we are and not as we should be. But I would add that He also loves us too much to leave us as we are. 

But even if we are not good people that still does not answer the question of why bad things happen. They are several layers to an answer and it is an answer that will be incomplete but hopefully point us in the right direction. 

First bad things happen because of the fall of man. The world was in perfect harmony when God made it and placed man as the overseer of it all. When Adam and Eve sinned against God they threw not only themselves but also the created order into chaos. St. Paul writes in Romans, “For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it…”Thus we have tornadoes and earthquakes and viruses. It is why nature has a hundred different long legged beasties that can kill you a thousand different ways. But that is not how things were created to be. In the coming kingdom “the nursing child shall play over the hole of the cobra.” (Isaiah 11:8). Hence St. Paul, personifying nature, says that creation waits with eager expectation for the manifestation of the sons of God. (Romans 8:19). In other words, creation is as eager as we are for the kingdom to come in its fullness and make all things right and new.

Second bad things happen because of human brokenness and human evil. Infants are born addicted because their mothers were addicted, narcissists leave a trail of broken relationships behind them without seeing any fault on their part, and dictators oppress millions for their want of power. Each of us could come up with a never-ending list. Bad things happen because of bad people. 

Third bad things happen because there are principalities and powers that utilize the world’s chaos and are most likely the cause of much of it. Here we have to use some discretion. We don’t want to turn into Church Lady and blame everything on Satan, but we also don’t want to be naïve and ignore that the enemy is real and his hatred for God’s image bearers is incalculable. A goodly portion of Jesus’ ministry was casting out demons. Evil spirits are real however “greater is He that is in you than he that is in the world.” (I John 4:4).

Fourth bad things happen for the glory of God. That is what Jesus told his disciples when they asked why a man was born blind. They wanted to attribute the blindness to either his sin or his parent’s sin. Jesus gave them a different way to look at it. He viewed things from an eternal perspective while they were stuck in the temporal. An old hymn teaches us so well. “When through fiery trials thy pathway shall lie, my grace, all sufficient, shall be thy supply; the flame shall not hurt thee; I only design thy dross to consume, and thy gold to refine.” 

Lastly while some bad things have an explanation other bad things will remain a mystery. My Old Testament Professor was an expert on the book of Job. He spent 40 years studying it, including learning the languages of the nearby nations to understand any idioms that may have found their way into the book. It was his contention that Job was the first written book of the Bible. I find it fascinating if that is true because Job is the ultimate book on why bad things happen to good people. 

You will recall that Job lost everything and he was covered in boils and he sat on a dung heap. Things were so bad his wife’s counsel was that he should go ahead and curse God and die. His friends came to support him and at first they did the right thing. They didn’t miss the opportunity to shut up. But then they started doing what Jesus’ disciples did about the man born blind and offered explanations. And they were all wrong. 

Finally Job confronts God about his sufferings and asks Him why. God answers, “Dress for action, like a man; I will question you, and you make it know to me. Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth…have you commanded the morning since your days began and caused the dawn to know its place…” This questioning goes on for four chapters. It’s like in the movie A Few Good Men when Jack Nicholson yells, “You want the truth? You can’t handle the truth.” The Lord was poetically telling Job that he would not understand it even if He told him. When Job finally grasped what the Lord was saying he said, “I have uttered what I did not understand things too wonderful for me which I did not know…I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes.” The fact is that there are going to be many things that we will never understand this side of glory. Thus we are called to walk by faith and not by sight.

Faith calls upon us to take a different line of reasoning than the world when it comes to suffering in this life. The world argues this way. 1. A good and all-powerful God would not allow meaningless suffering. 2. There is meaningless suffering. 3. Therefore God is either not good or not all-powerful. I’m not sure how that gives folks comfort and I would also argue that such a god would not be worthy of our worship. I don’t need a god who answers my prayers by saying. “Gee I’d like to help you but there isn’t anything that I can do about it.” 

Some take it a step further. I took a course from a brilliant man who was a “death of God” theologian. His argument went like this. 1. A good and all-powerful God would not allow meaningless suffering. 2. There is meaningless suffering. 3. Therefore there is no God. He lost his entire family in the holocaust so his atheism was understandable albeit tragic. His rejection of the Holy Comforter left him a tormented man.

The sovereignty of God would have us argue this way. 1. A good and all-powerful God would not allow meaningless suffering. 2. God is good and all-powerful. 3. Therefore there is no meaningless suffering. Like Job we may not understand the meaning of our suffering but we can believe that He means it for “our dross to consume and our gold to refine.”

Job actually had the right answer earlier in the book before his thinking became muddled by his false counselors. He said, “Though He slay me, yet will I trust Him.” (Job 13:5). And that is exactly what Jesus did. After asking if there was any other way Jesus put His trust in His Father and said, “Nevertheless, not my will but thine be done.” His last words were words of trust. “Into thy hands I commend my spirit.” 

Following Jesus’ example that is what we need to do; TRUST. The ultimate answer to why bad things happen to good people is “I don’t really know but I trust that God is good and will work everything for my good” That is hardly a naïve statement or a leap of faith into the darkness. What better evidence do we need of God’s love and goodness than the gift of His Son? St. Paul in Romans 8 writes, “What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?”

Then St. Paul ends with these words of celebration. “No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

On March 25th we celebrate the Feast of the Annunciation. This is when the angel of the Lord came to Mary and told her that she would be with child. This means, God willing, in 9 short months we will be together worshipping the newborn King and this pandemic will be a distant memory. For now TRUST. “And after you have done everything, stand.” (Ephesians 6:13).

“Therefore, my brothers and sisters, you whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, dear friends!” (Philippians 4:1 NLT)