Get the World out of the Church & Get the Church into the World

Carl Henry

Wisdom 16-2:1  James 3:16-4:6  Mark 9:30-37

Our Scripture lessons today are particularly relevant because even though they are ancient texts they read as a diagnosis and prescription for our trou8bloed world today.

The diagnosis is found in our lesson from the Apocrypha. If you are new to Anglicanism I need to first clarify our use of the Apocrypha. We do not believe it to be the Word of the Lord. Those are the canonical books of the Old and New Testament. That is why the Lector ended with “Here ends the reading” rather than the usual “The Word of the Lord.” But because the Apocrypha has been so widely received by the Church catholic, east and west through the centuries, we hold that it can be edifying to read. We are not to draw doctrine from it but we can learn from its wisdom.

Here is the diagnosis from Book of Wisdom. There is a universal conflict between darkness and light and it runs through the ages. “Let us lie in wait for the righteous man, because he is inconvenient to us and opposes our actions, he reproaches us for sins….the very sight of him is a burden to us because his manner of life is not like ours and his ways are strange.”

Translation: “We would be much happier if you Christians weren’t around to remind us of our sins. So we are going to shut you down.” 

Does the conflict between light and dark exist in our day? You know that it is! Over the last few weeks pro-abortion forces were putting pressure on a Senator to vote a certain way. When she would not bow to their pressure she received over 3,000 coat hangers in the mail as well as death threats. Death threats! It seems that we are moving slowly towards mob rule with Antifa entering our streets to assault anyone who does not agree with their radical agenda. A new form of atheism is raising its head and not just attacking things like prayer at a high school football games. In an article entitled “So Many Christians, So Few Lions these people were quoted and they were educated folks. They suggested that someone who holds strong religious views (us) should not be allowed to serve in any capacity where laws are made, or serve on the police force or be allowed to influence children. One 45-year-old woman with a Masters Degree even said that Christians should be somehow supervised if they were working with other people.

So if it is true that there is a universal conflict between darkness and light, and some believe that the answer is for the righteous man to go away, then what is the righteous man to do? Let’s first consider what the Church has done in the past that hasn’tworked.

One approach has been to retreat from the world. Early Christians called anchorites went into a cave or climbed up a pole and separated themselves as far as humanly possible from the world. Some forms of monasticism did similarly and were really a form of escape. It may have helped their individual souls to flee from the world but it did little to address the conflict and even less to advance the kingdom of God.

A second approach was to take the fight to them. Light attacks the darkness. But whether it be the Spanish Inquisition of the Middle Ages or today’s militia groups that call themselves “Christian,” it is very very difficult to square that approach with the Sermon on the Mount.

A third approach, which we see in liberal mainline denominations, is “if you can’t beat em join em.” Embrace every new thing that comes down the pike so that you will be relevant and popular. The thesis is that this will bring many into the fold and end the conflict. How has that worked out? Between 1980 and 2010 the Episcopal Church lost 30% of its membership and today the average Episcopal Church has an average Sunday attendance of 57.

Jesus’ approach was not to run away from the conflict, nor to take the fight to them, and it most certainly was not to blend in with the darkness. He was salt and light in the midst of it all and He calls on the Church to be the same. Our other lessons give us practical ways to do so.

But first it is important to see the conflict for what it really is. The conflict between light and darkness is not Republican vs. Democrat, or Conservative vs. Progressive or America vs. Russia. The conflict is between Jesus who is the Light of the World and the Prince of Darkness. That was what St. John wanted the persecuted Church to see in his Revelation. The persecuted Church’s battle was not with the Roman Empire, it was with the dragon. St. Paul says that we wrestle not against flesh and blood but against principalities and powers. It’s vital that we see what the conflict truly is because that keeps us from thinking that the solution comes from winning an argument on Facebook.

So lets ask the question given the conflict that we are in, as Francis Schaeffer put it, “How should we then live?”Two approaches stand out in our lessons and they are a both/and and not an either/or. They should be done concurrently.

The first approach is to get the world out of the Church. We get this from James. At first blush it seem like James is giving them quite a tongue lashing, even calling them “Adulterers.” But the Apostle is doing more than name calling. He is making the strongest of declarations that while the Church must be in the world, we MUST, MUST, MUST get the world out of the Church. Why? Because we cannot be effective for the Kingdom of God if we are acting like the world, continually engaging in conflicts and disputes. The Washington Post had an Op Ed with the title “Americans are addicted to outrage.” I couldn’t agree more. There is plenty that is wrong in our world and we do need to expose injustice but when EVERTHING is offensive then nothing gets truly addressed and nothing is made right.

Christians must not be addicted to outrage. We cannot extend the Kingdom with everyone wanting their own way or envying what others have or being jealous towards one another as James points out. We can’t bring the healing power of Christ to the world if we are battling one another or if we are in a constant state of being offended.

James’ council is that we have to make a decision. He says that friendship with the world puts us at enmity with God. Let me be clear. He is not saying that we cannot have friends IN the world. He is saying we cannot have friendship WITH the world. We have to make a choice. This reminds me of Jesus’ teaching about not being able to serve two masters. We have to make a choice. To be a friend of God means that you reject the values and standards and mores of the world. Or should I say that we are to reject the LACK of values and standards and mores of the world.

The world that is full of lies and angst and chaos must be kept outside the walls of the Church. We are to be built on the solid Rock of Jesus Christ who has said to us, “In the world you will have much tribulation but fear not I have overcome the world.”We should not be surprised by the world’s animosity towards us but we also must not fear it and we must not react to it. Instead we must walk in the Spirit and get the world out of the Church.

At the same time that we work to get the world OUT of the Church we must work to put the Church IN the world. This approach comes from Jesus and as is so often the case with Jesus it seems counter intuitive. But it only seems counter intuitive because we have been flying upside down for so long that we have gotten used to it.

This approach to facing the conflict between light and darkness is to become like a child. In today’s Gospel He speaks of receiving a child and in a few more verses He again takes a child in His arms and teaches that if we do not receive the kingdom like a child we shall not enter it. When we put those two events together it becomes clear that He is using children to instruct us.

What can we learn from children? Before they are corrupted by the world children freely accept others. I have seen toddlers who are total strangers walk up to one another and hug. Many years ago I was standing in line with my daughter on my hip in a BBQ joint.  As we were waiting to get take out I saw her look at a black woman and then look at her arm. Then looked back at the woman and back again at her arm. I realized that it was the first time that it had even dawned on her that there were differences in the races. Gratefully I got her out of there before she could announce it to the world.

Children don’t see color or social status or ask what model of tricycle the other is riding. They just see another kid and become friends. I believe that Jesus is telling us that what we are to bring to the conflict is love and acceptance. When we meet outrage with outrage it only increases the outrage. We are not to have love and acceptance of the darkness but of those who are victims of the darkness. St. Paul says in Romans “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty give him something to drink…do not overcome evil with evil but overcome evil with good.

The wonderful benefit that being childlike brings to our lives is that it offers us an alternative the rat race. In the rat race you are living for yourself. In childlikeness you live for others. In the rat race status is all-important. In childlikeness the other person is all-important regardless of status. You will even receive a child.

We can tell that the disciples were getting drawn in the rat race direction because they were discussing among themselves who was the greatest. What is somewhat shocking is that they knew that they were wrong to do so because when Jesus asked them what they had been talking about they were too embarrassed to answer Him. He knew anyway and so He took a child in His arms and showed them another way to live.

What a lesson that is for us. Even walking with Jesus and witnessing Him loving and accepting others, seeing His humility, watching Him choose servant hood over status and power, they were still tempted to go the way of the world and join the rat race. If the temptation was that great for them, then how much more do we need to be vigilant in being childlike and keeping kingdom values? I suggest that the call to “seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness”is a daily decision and not a one-time choice.

Last week I saw an interview of a man who is walking in everything that I have been talking about. He was imprisoned for 27 years for a murder that he did not commit. He had only been out of prison for 48 hours when they interviewed him. When asked if he was bitter he said that the Lord would not allow him to be. He even said that if the folks who put him in prison were present right now that he would hug them. Every time the reporters asked him about the events that finally led to his release He kept saying, “That’s the way God works.”He was void of anger and he was at peace. Even in prison he kept the world from getting inside of him and even in prison he was childlike in his simple trust in God and his love and acceptance of others, even towards those who did him so unjustly.

That interview was not only inspiring to me but it gave me hope. If that man can obey the call of Jesus while imprisoned in a Federal Penitentiary, then there is hope that I can do the same living freely in the comfort of my own home.  I pray that you will share that hope as well. I want to walk as a child of the light. I hope that you do too. Amen.

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Love and Respect

Love and Respect

“let each one of you love his wife as himself and let the wife see that she respects her husband.” St. Paul

The Archbishop gave instructions to the clergy at Synod that we are to preach on marriage this year and I am so glad that he did. This is the fourth Sunday that we have remained in John chapter six and the Discourse of the Living Bread and I don’t think that I have another bread sermon in me. So I’m happy for the opportunity to address something else.

I want you to use your sanctified imaginations with me for a moment as I create three scenarios in your mind’s eye. The first is from a TV show that aired years ago. It was called All in the Family and the lead character was named Archie Bunker. He was an older version of Al Bundy from Married with Children, if that helps. He was a blue-collar worker and sort of a Redneck if people from New York can be Rednecks. He was sexist and racist and would bark orders at his wife Edith from his chair, telling her to stifle herself and to get his dinner ready. You get the picture.

The next scenario is Dr. Evil from the Austin Powers movies. If you don’t know who that is the Austin Powers movies are parodies of the James Bond movies. As his name implies Dr. Evil is the lead villain. He made a clone of himself but who was only half of his size so he called him “Mini Me.”. When not being evil they exchanged loving looks and continually said to one another “You complete me”accompanied by a pinkie to his lips.

The third scene is Adam recovering from a deep sleep after some divine surgery has been completed on his side. He wakes to discover a beautiful naked creature sitting next to him, unlike any he had ever seen before. He exclaims Wo….Man!” which is how “Woman” got her name. (It’s in the Bible somewhere, look it up.)

Now what in the wide world of sports do these scenarios have to do marriage? I suggest to you that these three scenarios represent three differing views of marriage and are examples of how desperately important it is to have the correct image before you if you are going to do the will of God and experience the kind of joy that God intends for marriage to produce.

Archie didn’t just drop out of thin air. Probably everyone here has known an Archie Bunker and some have even had him as their dad. This model is husband as king of the castle, head lion in the den, lead dog in the pack, when-I-say-“jump”-you-ask-“how high?” In this image children are to be seen and not heard and wives are to quietly serve their husbands.

I had a family member who married an Archie Bunker. He used to come home from work and plop down in front of the TV and shout for a beer. Like Edith she would deliver it in haste. That went on for some time until one day a friend of hers said, “Let me take it to him”and as she did so she shook the can of beer the entire length of the hallway. After it exploded all over him the husband he never again barked out orders for a beer.

Therein is the damage of this model. It not only makes one the superior and the other the inferior, it ends up making war between husband and wife. It can be a boisterous war like Archie and Edith or it can be a quiet passive/aggressive war that goes on for years with especially the wife leading a life of quiet desperation. I used to lead domestic violence treatment groups and so I know that this Archie Bunker model is still very much with us. But it falls way short of God’s intention for marriage.

A much more popular image today is that of Dr. Evil and MiniMe with each telling one another “you complete me.” On the surface it may look like a good relationship but since MiniMe is a perfect replica of Dr. Evil their devotion to one another is really just thinly veiled narcissism.

I have witnessed some wedding ceremonies so steeped in narcissism that you fear it foreshadows the true substance of the future marriage. You don’t want to think it but as you sit in the congregation and say to yourself, “Yeah, this one is not going to last.”

That is why I deeply appreciate the wedding liturgy of the Prayer Book that puts things in their proper perspective. We don’t process to the theme of Dr. Shivago or have bridesmaids and groomsmen dance down the aisle like they are on America’s Got Talent. The Prayer Book reminds the couple that this is bigger than you. We don’t write our own vows about staying true to each other as long as our planets are in alignment. The Prayer Book declares marriage as a permanent arrangement. It is one man and one woman for life. In seeking the blessing and support of the Church the husband and wife are reminded that it is bigger than you. In fact they make a vow to God before they make a vow to each other, which reminds them that it is bigger than you. In case I have not said it enough, and I think that St. Paul is also saying it is bigger than you.  

I love the curve ball that St. Paul throws to make that point. He gives specific instructions about the relationship of husband and wife and then he says, “This mystery is a profound one, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church, however let each one love his wife as himself and let the wife see that she respects her husband.” So the reader is left asking, “Wait, are you talking about Christ and the Church or husband and wife?” And St. Paul’s answer would be “Yes, because I want you to know that this is bigger than you.”

So the unity that a couple shares is not by one becoming a clone of the other. One marriage counselor said, “If both of you are exactly alike then one of you is unnecessary.”Unity does not come from uniformity it comes when a man and a woman become a complementary whole. Each provides what the other is lacking. They do indeed complete one another but only by becoming the unique person that God had called each of them to be. 

The third scenario is Adam waking up from divine surgery to discover his wife who is bone of his bone and flesh of his flesh. She is not one of the animals over which Adam is to have dominion. Nor is she a clone of Adam so that Adam can worship himself. She is his companion and partner and coheir and lover and friend. She increases Adam’s joy, as he does hers. She makes his life whole because even though all of God’s creation is good, life is richer when there is someone you love with whom to share God’s goodness.

This guy is walking along the beach and discovers a bottle with the proverbial genie in it. He lets the genie out and so the genie offers to grant him one wish. The man says, “I love going to Europe but I hate flying so I want a bridge across the Atlantic.” The genie says, “You’ve got to be kidding. Do you realize how much steel and concrete that would take, not even to mention the engineering headaches of spanning 3,000 mile of water. Don’t you have an easier request?” The man thinks for a second and says, “Help me understand my wife.” The genie says, “Do you want 2 or 4 lanes on that bridge?”

 An author has made a fortune telling us what we already know, that men are from Mars and women are from Venus. That truth is as old as the Scripture that also recognizes that men and women have different needs and play different roles and can even be a mystery to one another. These differences are something to be celebrated rather than ignored or attacked. And before we write off this teaching of St. Paul on marriage as culture-bound and archaic, lets’ more closely consider what St. Paul is saying. I believe it is divine wisdom.

 One of my favorite movies of all times is A Few Good Men.  There is a dramatic scene when Lt Kaffee is questioning Col Jessep and he asks “Why the two orders? If Kendrick told his men that Santiago wasn’t to be touched, then why did he have to be transferred?”  That scene came to mind when I was trying to understand St. Paul’s teaching. Why the two orders? Why does he tell men to love their wives but tell wives to respect their husbands? Why the two orders.

 As I pondered I came to believe that St. Paul was touching on some core values of each sex. This is a generalization and of course there are exceptions to the rule but I would submit to you that the following is true for most men. You can tell us all day long that you love us but if you disrespect us then you can keep your love. And I have discovered with my wife that as long as she feels loved or cherished that she would stick with me even if it meant attacking hell with a squirt gun. Respect is a core value of men and love is a core value of women. Of course it does not mean that men don’t need love and women don’t need respect. That is not the point. But imagine a world where the wife’s chief thought and passion every day was to honor her husband. Imagine how her husband would be empowered to attack his day. Imagine a world where a husband’s number one goal each day was to make his wife feel cherished. Imagine the joy in that home. Imagine a world were Christians could evangelize by saying, “If you want to know how much Christ loves the Church come to my house and meet my family.”

 There is another divine mystery here in St. Paul’s teaching. He points us to a Second Adam whose side was also wounded in order to receive His Bride. From His side flowed water that would birth the Church and Blood that would nourish the Church. Through the Spirit empowered Sacraments His Bride would mature. His one thought and passion is to present her to His Father in all her glory and her one thought and passion is to honor Him in all that she does. Christ and the Church are separate entities, playing very different roles and yet they are one. They are one, so much so, that His Bride is also His Body. THIS is the model we are to follow. The Christian husband and wife are not in competition with each other, nor does one disappear in order to complete the other. As icons of Christ and the Church their mutual love and respect preaches the greatest sermon ever preached.

 What do you do about this teaching if you are currently single or called to celibacy? First remember that just as with couples, this is bigger than you. You live in community. You live in a spiritual household and so what affects the household affects you. If the household becomes sick through following the wrong models then eventually it will have an impact on your life. So your job as a single person is to uphold the correct teaching about marriage and refuse the world’s attempts to redefine it.

 Second pray for marriages. Your enemy knows that if he can destroy marriage then he can destroy the Church. Pray for husbands to cherish their wives and for wives to respect their husbands. Pray that their children will be raised in the love and admonition of the Lord. Pray that their love and respect for each other will preach a sermon that will touch the lives of others for eternity.

 St. Paul gives us some very practical instructions about marriage and so I want to end with a very practical suggestion. By far the best thing that Beth and I have done for our marriage has been to attend and facilitate Financial Peace University. I went to it kicking and screaming. I thought FPU people were weird and I didn’t want to invite Dave Ramsey into my heart.

Not only has it brought us the peace and joy of being totally debt free but also since half of the divorces are due to money problems we have bullet proofed our marriage. They say that Financial Peace University is a marriage seminar disguised as a financial seminar and that has been our experience. We held it for our entire Church and although only about 20% attended our members paid of over $490,000 in personal debt in 9 weeks. As my wife once put it, “If you can talk to your spouse about money, you can talk to them about anything.”

Find a class and strengthen your marriage.

Husbands love your wives. Wives respect your husbands. In this way you will experience a life, as Dave would say, is “better than you deserve.” Amen.

 

The Bread of Heaven

HC

 

Lessons – Exodus 16:2-4, 9-15;  Psalm 78:14-25;  Ephesians 4:17-25;  St. John 6:24-35

When I accepted the call to come to Smyrna to plant a church, we had a house to sell back in Chattanooga. The house was basically sound but it did have some problems. To help us along, each time the house was shown by a realtor, Beth would put some dough in her bread machine and time it so that the house would be filled with the smell of baking bread while folks toured the house. Needless to say it worked. The house sold quickly and we learned first hand of the power of bread. The baking of it evokes memories and emotions for many.

Now I don’t know if the people of the Bible had the same memories of grandma and accompanying good feelings that baking bread gives us. But I do know that they did not see it as the almost poison that the no carb folks do today. For the people of the Bible bread was an essential of life. And nearly every culture has it in some form or another to this day. From tortillas, to hot cross buns that miraculously look like Mother Theresa, it is the universal food. 

But more than just sustenance, bread was a symbol of God’s divine provision and prosperity to the people of the Bible. When they journeyed from Egypt God kept them alive by giving them manna, which the Psalmist called “the bread of angels.”Later when the king of Assyria was trying to lure the people away from following King Hezekiah, he made them this promise. “I come and take you to a land like your own, a land of grain and new wine, a land of bread and vineyards….Choose life and not death” !(I Kings 8:32). Thus it is not by happenstance that Jesus used this powerful symbol to teach His followers more about Himself. In this Gospel, as well as last weeks, He unpacks what it means for us that He is the bread of life.

First when Jesus speaks of being the bread that comes down from heaven, His hearers would have immediately thought of the manna in the wilderness that I just mentioned. Manna was an interesting phenomenon because it came down each day and was collected each morning. It was only good for one day except the day before the Sabbath and then it lasted for two days so that they would not work on the Sabbath to collect it and thereby violate the Sabbath laws.

Just as manna was God’s miraculous provision that sustained them day by day so Jesus is saying that He is that for us now. And the fact that the manna came each day reminds us of the Scripture that tells us that God’s mercies are new every morning. Jesus is the incarnation of that mercy and we are invited to walk with Him new every morning. With Him every day is a new fresh start.

But Jesus also contrasts Himself from manna. He says, “Your ancestors ate manna in the wilderness and they died. This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die.”

In this comparison manna can be seen as a symbol of the Old Covenant. Jesus came to fulfill the temporary Old Covenant and replace it with the eternal New Covenant. He did this because Manna and the Old Covenant were like tophu. It may be healthy for you but you’re still going to die. The Ten Commandments can show us how to live but they cannot give life. Just as manna was a temporary provision so the Old Covenant was a temporary bread until the coming of Jesus as the true and living bread that gives life to the whole world.    

Next in this same discourse, but a few verses earlier, Jesus says of Himself that He is the “true bread from heaven.” The word true here is significant because it shows yet another contrast.

They say that you are what you eat but if that were true I would be a 6ft block of Velveeta. And yet in a spiritual sense, that saying is very accurate. We become what we consume spiritually. And we also suffer spiritually when we fail to consume the right bread.

In calling Himself the true bread Jesus is implying that there is a false bread , a bread that does us harm. In Matthew’s Gospel, just after He multiplied the loaves and the fishes, Jesus warned the disciples “beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” What is the leaven of the Pharisees and the Sadducees? It is a showy religion that looks good on the outside but is dead on the inside. You may remember that Jesus didn’t speak well of this bread. “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of dead men’s bones and everything unclean. (Mt 23:27).

I would suggest that this is one of the greatest challenges of a faithlike ours that is so steeped in history, tradition and our catholic forms of worship. We have a treasurein the Book Common Prayer and in the way that we worship but we all know that itis possible to only say the words with our lips and never have themtouch our hearts

We must be careful that candles and colorful vestments and sweet smelling incense are SIGNS of the beauty of holiness and not window dressings that camouflage cold hearts. We can come into this sacred space and get a good fix of religion but then go outside of those doors and fail to care for our neighbor which the Scriptures tell us would make our religion null and void.

Jesus as the true bread replaces the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees. He causes the inside to match the outside. When we “feed on Him in our hearts by faith and with thanksgiving” we become united with Him. Then our hearts are filled with love and gratitude. Then we find that the Book of Common Prayer gives us the right words to express our love. Then we express true worship that involves lamps and colored vestments and whatever else that represents the best that we can offer. But it goes even further. When we are full and know that there is no end to this bread that comes down from heaven, then we want to invite our neighbor to receive this bread so they too can eat and live.

When I had my first confirmation class at All Saints’ I asked a man who had been an Assemblies of God minister if he wanted to be confirmed. He said that he wasn’t sure because he did not understand why we did all the  “stuff.” When I asked him what he meant by the “stuff” he said, “You know, the candles and vestments and bowing and sitting and standing etc. Why can’t you just worship without all that stuff?”I replied, “Imagine it is your anniversary and you goal is to give your wife an anniversary dinner. You can take her to McDonalds drive through or you can get dressed up, pull out the table cloth and china and light the candles, put on your best clothes etc. In both cases she is going to get fed but in the latter case you are conveying to her that she is the most important person in your world. And that is why we do the “stuff.” We go to all the trouble to convey to Jesus that He is the most important Person in our world.” He got confirmed.

There is another kind of false bread that stands in contrast to Jesus as the living bread. Do you remember when rice cakes became popular? I had a friend who introduced me to them and touted them like they were the best thing since… well, since sliced bread. In fact they were supposed to replace sliced bread. Supposedly they were better for you, had less calories, and were easier to digest.

I gave them a try and I discovered why they had so few calories. It’s because there are no calories in air! I had to pile so much garbage on them to make them palatable that I would have been better off eating a loaf of bread.

The false bread that Jesus warns us about is like those rice cakes.  It is a life that the world tells us to pursue but in the end does not satisfy. We break our necks trying to get happy but happiness eludes us. “If I just find the right career, if I just meet the right person, if I just made more money.”And as we pursue these things with all of our hearts we inevitably neglect our spiritual lives. And still we find that we are empty and hungry and not even sure why.

Please don’t misunderstand. It is not that careers and family and money are bad. They are gifts from God. But they are not the things that ultimately sustain our life nor fill our ultimate hunger. As St. Augustine put it, “Thou hast made us for Thyself and our hearts are restless till they rest in Thee.”We have been created to first have a relationship with God and then He adds these other gifts as we need them. We are to seek first the kingdom and these other things will be added to us.

We need to also understand when Jesus says He is the bread that gives life to the world that He is declaring Himself to be essential. Just as the children of Israel would have died without the manna, so Jesus is moving His listeners to understand that there is no life apart from Him. Sadly some today treat Him as if He were an optional appetizer that they can take or leave. Others treat Him as a dessert that rounds out their lives nicely. But we need to see Him as our only hope for eternal life and therefore give Him the premier place in our lives that He deserves.

As Anglicans we see the obvious connection that this whole discourse has with Holy Communion. Particularly when Jesus says, “and the bread that I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh.” But allow me to unpack this a little more.

Here in the South there is a tradition of something called a “hoe cake.” It is a small pancake type bread that gets its name because it was cooked on an open fire by field hands, using their hoes as griddles. It is a food that was associated with slavery and hard labor. But somewhere along the line that image was redeemed because I have been served hoe cakes in some fancy steak restaurants. And they often offer it to you as a treat before the dinner arrives. This bread is no longer associated with slavery and hard labor. Now it is associated with fellowship and celebration.

The Jews also had a bread that was associated with slavery and hard labor. It was unleavened bread. They were ordered in the law of Moses to observe the Passover feast this way. Do not eat it with bread made with yeast, but for seven days eat unleavened bread, the bread of affliction, because you left Egypt in haste–so that all the days of your life you may remember the time of your departure from Egypt.

At the Last Supper Jesus redeemed that image by changing the unleavened bread from the bread of affliction to bread that is His flesh when He said,“This is My body.”What was once a symbol of their bondage in Egypt now becomes more than a symbol. It becomes an actual conveyer of life. And so we no longer take this bread to remember our departure from Egypt. We take it to be united with Him and He to us. A somber feast that looked back at a past of suffering has been converted to a celebration of the freedom and joy that union with Christ offers us along with the gift of a hope and a future.

Shortly after I was priested I was going down the altar rail serving communion. Out of the corner of my eye I saw a little girl standing on her tip-toes staring it me. At first I couldn’t figure out what she was doing and why her momma was letting her stand on the embroidered cushions. But as I got closer I realized that she was trying to see what it was that I had in the silver cup that I was putting in people’s hands. So when I came to her I leaned down so that she could see inside the ciborium. She glanced inside and saw the bread. Then she nodded to me and turned to her mother and said, “Mommy I just saw Jesus.” It took my breath away. It is my rule to not engage with people when they come to the altar rail because this is their time with Jesus not their time with the priest. But in this case I broke my rule and as I gave her mother the bread I said, “I love your daughter’s theology.”

I just wish that I had the eyes of the child to see Him veiled in the bread too. Perhaps one day I will but until then I will just have to take it by faith. As Anglicans we don’t try to understand this glorious mystery, we just accept it. I love how poet and priest John Donne put it. “He was the Word that spake it, He took the bread and brake it, and what the Word did make it, I do believe and take it.” Just know as you come forward today that you are doing more than merely “receiving communion.” You are uniting yourself to Christ. You are eating His flesh that is the life of the world. You are receiving grace that will keep you in eternal life. You are a branch receiving the life of the Vine. So “therefore let us keep the feast. Alleluia.”

 

Hardness of Heart

hardheart

 

“for they did not understand about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened.”

This line about hearts being hardened comes from the scene immediately following the feeding of the 5,000 hence the reference to the loaves. Jesus had gone off to pray and the disciples were in a boat battling a storm when Jesus came to them walking on the water and calmed the storm. But the astonishing thing about this line is that it is not referring to the crowds or to the authorities or even to Jesus’ enemies. This line was referring to the disciples! They didn’t understand about the loaves because their hearts were hardened.

What makes this even more remarkable is that at this point we are over a third of the way through the Gospel of St. Mark. These men were hand picked by Jesus. They had seen Him heal multitudes, cast out demons, raise Jarius’ daughter from the dead and feed well over 5,000 with a few loaves and fishes. But still their hearts were hardened.

It occurred to me that if Jesus’ Apostles could suffer from hardness of heart then it is certainly was within the realm of possibility that I too could suffer from this malady. I turned to the Scriptures and was surprised to discover over 45 references to it. As I read through these passages I concluded two things. First that it is an all too common condition and second that it is very dangerous condition spiritually speaking. It requires our constant vigilance to avoid. In order to become vigilant we need to better understand what it is, how you get into that condition, and what you can do about it.

Hardness of heart is resistance to God; resistance to His presence, to His truth, to His Spirit. We see a secular version of hardness of heart in our politics today. It doesn’t matter how many facts you give them they are going to love their guy and hate your guy. No matter what the truth, your guy can do no right the their guy can do no wrong. But this mindset is even worse when it is a spiritual condition because the truths that are being resisted are the truths that make the difference between eternal life and eternal death.

And to be clear it truly is a heart problem and not a head problem. I saw a vivid example of this in a video. The video was of a Planned Parent doctor talking about different ways to kill an unborn baby in order to successfully harvest the organs. She was having this discussion while sipping a glass of wine and eating a salad. She’s a doctor so she has to be a brilliant person but it’s not a head problem, it’s a heart problem and the Lord only knows what has happened in her past to her make her heart so hard.

But what about us? What could make our hearts hard? The first and most obvious thing is willful sinfulness or rebellion against God. Hebrews 3. “Take care brothers lest there be in any of you an evil and unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God. But exhort on another every day…that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.” (vss 12,13). One of the things that led to Judas’s downfall was that he was stealing from their common purse. He knew it to be a sinful activity and yet he did it anyway and it opened his heart for Satan to enter.

Closely related to rebellion against God is pride. We are aware of the warnings all through the Scriptures against pride and yet we all know that dude. You can’t tell him anything, there is not a topic of which he is not an expert, and anyone who disagrees with him is an idiot. If you don’t know anyone like that then you may want to ask someone who really loves you if it is you.

But there is a more subtle form of pride that also hardens the heart. The person who comes to mind when I think about this kind of pride is the professor on Gilligan’s Island. You may not know that the characters on that show were patterned after the 7 deadly sins. The Skipper is anger, Gilligan is sloth, Ginger is lust. Mary Ann envy etc. Well the professor was pride. But he was a very likeable figure because his pride was subtle. It was in the form of self-reliance. If they needed a tool or a special kind of widget he could take a coconut or a fern and make it happen. He rarely asked for help and he believed that there was nothing that he could not eventually figure out.

Of course there is nothing sinful about being intelligent or handy or even self reliant to a degree. But how often do we try to handle things on our own without first going to God and asking for His wisdom and grace? How often do we treat the Lord as the last resort? A person who is totally self-reliant is rarely one is led by the Spirit because there is too much flesh in the way. Deep down he doesn’t really believe that God’s ways are better than his ways.

Years ago a young man came to me because he was in bad financial shape. As we poured through the details of his life he admitted that he was not tithing and he was working on Sundays even though he was self-employed. I explained the biblical truths of the tithe and keeping the Sabbath and told him that if he wanted the Lord to bless his efforts that he needed to do things the Lord’s way. He ignored my advice and to the best of my knowledge is still struggling. If you asked him to describe himself he would say that he is a hard worker. If you asked me I would say he suffers from pride because his actions say that he knows better than the Lord about how life should be lived.

A third way that our hearts get hardened is when they are broken and bitterness seeps in. You hope and trust and believe and then something happens to break your heart and you decide somewhere deep inside to never hope and trust and believe again. You incorrectly believe that in this way you will never be that deeply hurt again. This pattern happens to us romantically, it happens with people that we thought were our friends, it happens within families. But it can also happen in our spiritual lives. We place our expectations on God and when He fails to meet our expectations we become disappointed with God and if left unchecked it turns into bitterness and hardness of heart. You can see this vein run through the life of King Saul who ends up dying a tragic death. We must act quickly with forgiveness to keep bitterness from taking over and we must remember that it is not our place to put expectations on God.

A fourth way that our hearts are hardened is through stubbornness. And this may be a chicken and egg thing because each causes the other. While my wife says that “Kasch” is German for stubbornness, the Bible has a little different take on it. It also uses the term “stiff necked people” which gives you a wonderful image of what is being talked about. The prophet Jeremiah uses the term “stubborn heart” seven times and reveals it as a very serious condition. It is like an addiction that is impossible to be recovered from under our own power. I will explain later what we can do about it.

A fifth common cause of a hardened heart, which you see particularly throughout Jesus’ ministry, is self-righteousness. His detractors were so caught up in keeping every minutia of the law that they were upset when He healed on the Sabbath. They were so caught up in their piety that they could not see the Messiah when He was standing right in front of them.

A sixth cause of hardness of heart is selfishness. I am a dog lover to the max so please don’t take this wrong. But in 2015 Americans spent $60 billion, with a B, on their pets and yet we have a national problem of kids going to bed hungry.  It would be safe to assume that the average American spends far more on their pets than they do giving to the poor. There is something desperately wrong with that picture.

Listen to God’s perspective. This is from Deuteronomy 15. If anyone is poor among your fellow Israelites in any of the towns of the land the Lord your God is giving you, do not be hardhearted or tightfisted toward them.  Rather, be openhanded and freely lend them whatever they need. (vss 7,8). This thought is echoes by the Apostle John. “This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters. If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person? Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth.”(I Jn 3:17).

Dave Ramsey speaks of building wealth so that you can live and give like no one else. The Scriptures speaks of tithes and offerings and so it is a good goal to come to a place where you not only give your tithe to your local church but that you are able to give offerings to those in need. I read that if Christians in the US simply met the tithe it would add $150 billion annually to do ministry. With just the tithe we could change the world.

So those are some of the causes of hard heartedness. If you feel that I have gone from preaching to meddling then I may have hit a nerve. What to do about it?

First, simply admit it to the Lord. He typically does not fix what we won’t admit is broken. I think that is why Jesus asked people all the time what they wanted even when it was obvious that they needed healing. We will have the general confession in a few minutes and it would be the perfect time to declare your hard heartedness and ask to be healed.

Second, declare your inability to heal yourself. As I said earlier this is a very dangerous condition spiritually and so we are going to need more than a tonic to fix it. What we need is open heart surgery and you can’t perform open heart surgery on yourself. We need the Great Physician.

Third, stand upon the promises of God. This was God’s promise to Israel through the prophet Ezekiel. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws. Then you will live in the land I gave your ancestors; you will be my people, and I will be your God.” (36:26-28).

Since the Church is the New Israel and God’s goal is for us to be His people, I see no reason why this promise is not extended to us as well. But note that God says, “I will give you…” because only God can give us a new heart. And yet we are not to sit passively by and wait for a surgical date. It is as we seek Him through prayer and Word and Sacrament that He fulfills His promise to us. Recall in Jesus’ parable of the seeds that the soil was the heart and the seed was the Word of God. It was only the heart that allowed the Word of God to take root that produced fruit. In other words we are not going to get a new heart by watching the Kardashians. Prayer, Word and Sacrament.

Here is the good news. Even after seeing Jesus do all of these miracles, including feeding the 5,000 and walking on water, the disciples still didn’t get it. They still suffered from hardened hearts. I would have given up on them by that point but Jesus did not. He hung in there with them until they did get it, until there hearts of stone were turned into a heart of flesh. He loves us no less than He loved them so we can be assured that He will hang in there with us until we get it too.

I’d be tender, I’d be gentle
And awful sentimental
Regarding love and art
I’d be friends with the sparrows
And the boy that shoots the arrows
If I only had a heart

The Tin Man got one. May God grant us a new one too. Amen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Dresser of Sycamore Trees

Amos

“but I am a herdsman and a dresser of sycamore trees.”

That was Amos’ response when he was told to take his message elsewhere. God hadn’t chosen him to to be a traveling prophet to take his message on the road. He was not from a school of prophets. He was not a priest, serving in the temple. He was a herdsman and a dresser of sycamore trees and God had raised him up to deliver a specific message to a specific people and that was what he was going to do.

Amos gave his prophecies about 750 before the birth of Christ. So it would be natural to think that while this ancient work gives us historical insights it could hardly be applicable in our day. But that assumption would be a mistake. Not only because it is the Word of God and therefore living and active and sharper than a two edged sword, but because his message is one we need to hear TODAY.

Here is some background. The threat of the Assyrian Empire had begun to wane and so Israel was experiencing a relatively stable government and a time of prosperity. It is not unlike what the United States experienced at the fall of the Iron Curtain. But do you remember the motto of the 80’s that came from the movie Wall Street? “Greed is good.” Israel could have had the same motto.

Israel interpreted this time of prosperity as God’s approval and fully expected God to judge the nations around them. But Amos was there to tell them that judgment was going to begin with them. Why? Because the government was oppressive and Israel’s religion was full of compromise and heresy. Now I know it’s a real stretch to think of the government treating people unfairly (like using the IRS to punish political enemies) or the church being full of compromise and heresy (like changing the definition of marriage) but use your sanctified imaginations and hang in there with me. Amos prophecies revolve around 5 themes. Let’s see how relevant they are for us today.

His first them was that since God is Creator of the Universe, His ethics are universal and all people will be judged in light of them. This concept while true is like a foreign language to the average guy on the street today that has been raised in radical relativism.

People correctly bemoan how fractured and divided we are as a society but they fail to see that it is our own relativism that has caused it. If there are no absolutes and every man’s truth only has to be true for him, then what is it that will bring us together? As our lawmakers stray further and further from law based on the law of God then it further divides us because we end up with law rooted in politics.

The Church needs to be a strong voice in our society that God’s laws are true for all people because He is the maker of all people. It is our common submission to God’s laws that will bring us together. We may not be able to agree in fine points of politics but “Thou shalt do no murder”has worked for the last 3,000 years to keep societies out of chaos. With elections around the corner we need to participate in them and vote for people who will support righteous laws.

Amos’ second theme was that while the people were looking for peace and prosperity God was looking for justice and righteousness. Evidently some televangelist had time traveled and snuck into Israel with the prosperity gospel because that was their mindset.  But God was not judging them on the size of their bank accounts, He was judging them on how they treated others especially the least among them.

This is a common theme throughout the Scriptures and we see it particularly in Gods’ concern for the widow and orphan. But Israel was failing miserably. In fact in chapter two Amos said that they were selling the poor into slavery because of their indebtedness for something as paltry as a pair of sandals.

Now I understand the challenge here. The difficulty in caring for the poor is that their needs seem so overwhelming that we don’t know where to begin and so we end up doing nothing. But may I offer some practical steps.

The first thing is to say your prayers and seek God’s wisdom and direction. Emotional reactions can cause as much damage as they do good so you need a plan. Second, once you have a direction then be faithful to it. You are not trying to change the world. You are simply called to serve those in need around you. The results are up to God.

We have seen this in our parish. We did not set out to have a ministry to Burmese refugees but today we have a Burmese daughter church. It all started with sponsoring one family. Again it didn’t change the world but it did change that family’s world.

Well the husband had a cousin and she had a relative that wanted to join them. We thought “why not?” Then she had a nephew and he had a friend and before we knew it there were about 150 Burmese that we were ministering to. Of course there has been challenges and they have gone through their own squabbles but it is God’s work and we were right to be involved. Amos would tell us that what God is looking for in St. Patrick’s is not the size of our budget but whom are we serving in His Name.

Amos’ third theme was that compromised religion is disgusting to God. This is what God had him prophesy; “I hate, I despise your feasts, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer me you burnt offerings and your grain offerings, I will not accept them….take away from me the noise of your songs; to the melody of your harps I will not listen. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”

The reference to justice rolling down like water was because the religious leaders of his day were also involved in the oppression of others. Try to imagine in our day that a wealthy religious institution would kick people out of their churches, sue congregations for their property and take away all of their resources. Since such an institution would be disgusting to God you would want to take great care to distance yourself from it.

Amos’ fourth theme is that while Israel may think that their covenant with God ensures them special protection, that same covenant also holds them to a higher standard and a stricter judgment. “Behold I am setting a plumb line in the midst of my people Israel; I will again pass by them; the high places of Isaac shall be made desolate, an the sanctuaries of Israel shall be laid to waste, and I will rise against the house of Jeroboam with the sword.”

Israel had become arrogant. We can see the depth of their spiritual arrogance and blindness in the priest Amaziah’s response to Amos. In essence he said,“Tell someone who cares. After all, this is the kings special place.” They thought that they could treat people badly, act immorally and look down their noses on the heathen because after all they were God’s covenant people. God through Amos told them differently.

This theme is also a great warning to the Church. We have to strike a delicate balance. On one hand we are to believe, as we just heard from St. Paul, that we have been called before the foundation of the world to be God’s children. But on the other hand, as St. Paul said elsewhere, we are to work out our salvation in FEAR AND TREMBLING.

We must not become complacent or lax by thinking that our standing with God exempts us from the call to be holy or to act justly. We are on a journey and must remember that Scripture also says that it is he who perseveres to the end that will be saved.

I believe that it is particularly important that those of us who are so proud of our Anglican heritage should exercise caution. It is possible to be very religious and still miss the kingdom. It is possible to get so caught up in the liturgy that we miss the Lord of the liturgy. Recall Jesus’ sobering words. “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’”

God does not judge us based on our pedigree. There is a vast difference between spiritual assurance that gives us peace and spiritual pride that makes us blind to our need to repent and to change.

Amos’ last theme was that while a terrible destruction will fall on unrepentant Israel, there will yet be a remnant that will be preserved and they will see a day of glorious restoration. This prophecy of course came to be. Assyria reemerged as a superpower and in 722 the kingdom of Israel was destroyed but a remnant remained.

This idea of a remnant preserved by God is not a theme that is peculiar to Amos. Lot’s family surviving Sodom and Gomorrah was the story of a remnant being saved in the midst of a disaster. The family of Noah after the flood is one as well. The few prophets in Elijah’s day who did not bend the knee to Baal, and those who returned from the exile were the remnant. Isaiah, Micah, Zechariah and more speak of it.

In the New Covenant it is the true Church that is the remnant that God has and will preserve. God says to the remnant, through the prophet Jeremiah, “I have loved you with an everlasting love therefore I have continued my faithfulness to you. Again I will build you up and you shall be built.” 31:3,4. Jesus echoes this prophecy when He said, “ I will build my church and the gates of hell will not prevail against it.”

 Emperors have outlawed the Church, dictators and despots have banished the Church, atheist regimes and false religions have tried to eradicate the Church and secularist have told us that we will disappear because we are no longer relevant. Yet Jesus remains true to His promises and we are still here and the remnant will remain until the end of time. The Revelation to St. John speaks of the remnant and they are defined as those who keep the commandments of God and have the testimony of Jesus.  This light will never be put out. You want to be sure that you are part of that remnant.

One final thought about our friend Amos and applying his message today. It was not an easy job for him to deliver such sobering news. Again he was not a professional cleric, he was a herdsman and a dresser of sycamore trees. Yet God used him to speak some hard reality to both the government of Jeroboam and the religion of Amaziah.

I believe that it continues to be the Church’s call to speak prophetically to society and especially to those in political and religious power. We are to call for justice and righteousness and to not mince our words. The lesson of John the Baptist is that it will not always go well with us if we do, but standing up for the truth is not only the right thing, it is the loving thing to do. Without the light of the truth, people will continue to live in darkness.

Political correctness tells Christians to keep their beliefs and opinions to themselves but God calls us to be bold and to be salt and light. If we will not be salt and light then who will? When the apostles were ordered by the authorities to remain silent they asked the rhetorical question,“Who should we obey, God or man?” 

I encourage you to look around at your circles of influence and consider where God may be calling you to speak prophetically. Speak the truth in love but speak the truth. It may involve uncomfortable topics like abortion or the plight of the poor or telling someone the truth about Islam, but if God is calling you to do it, then be obedient. You may not feel worthy. You may feel untrained or ill-equipped. You may even think to yourself, “but I’m just a herdsman and dresser of sycamore trees.” To which God will say, “Perfect, then you’re just the one that I was looking for.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Call to Faithfulness

The-Importance-of-Faithfulness

Text  Ezekiel 2:1-7 Mark 6:1-6

When we moved here to plant a church part of my responsibilities included meeting with the Bishop every month. He gathered other church planters and priests who were over missions to help our churches grow to the place where they became self-supporting and no longer needed aide from the Diocese. While he continually told us not to focus on numbers, his first question each month was inevitably how many we had in worship last Sunday.

I still hear the refrain that serving a church is not about the numbers and yet every year I have to fill out a parochial report for the Anglican Church in North America. I report on our average Sunday attendance, how many baptisms, funerals and weddings we officiated, how much money we gathered and how much we sent to the diocese. When we gather at Diocesan Synod every year the number of votes we get depends on the size of our church. But remember, it’s not about numbers.

My point here is not to be cynical. I understand that keeping track of the numbers is important because there is a business side to the Church. My point is to demonstrate how easy it is to focus primarily on the fruit or outcome of ministry while our lessons today point us in a different direction.

Let’s look first at Ezekiel. How would you like to have had his job? “Son of man, I send you to…a nation of rebels who have rebelled against me…the people are also impudent and stubborn…do not be afraid of their words though briers and thorns are with you and you sit upon scorpions.” For the first 25 chapters of his book he warns Israel, calling them to repentance. They ignore his prophecies and are invaded. As a result God’s temple was destroyed and they were taken into captivity into Babylon. If you were only evaluating Ezekiel’s ministry by how fruitful it was then you would be forced to give him a pretty low score indeed.

Next let’s look at the Gospel and the snap shot we have of our Lord’s ministry in the Galilee region. He was so ineffective in His teaching ministry among them that the text says that He was unable to do mighty works there because of the level of their unbelief. What’s more He began His ministry with 12 Apostles but ended with only 11 after one committed suicide. Again if you were only evaluating Jesus ministry by its fruitfulness you would conclude that He and Ezekiel are tied for last place.

So what are we to take from this? What I hear in these passages, and in many other places in the Scriptures like them is that it’s not about fruitfulness it’s about faithfulness. I don’t mean that fruitfulness is unimportant, but that it should not be our focus. From the perspective of fruitfulness things look badly for them but from the perspective of faithfulness both Ezekiel and Jesus were absolutely successful in their ministries. They did exactly what the Father called them to do in spite of tremendous resistance. So it’s not about fruitfulness, it’s about faithfulness.

If it is that simple, that we are called to faithfulness, then we must ask why this virtue seems to be so difficult to attain? After all Ezekiel was speaking to an entire nation that failed to be faithful and Jesus the text said, marveled at the level of unbelief among His people. How about today? Today we see entire denominations one after the other abandoning the Word of God.  How does this happen? St. Paul gives us a hint in Ephesians 2 when he speaks of an unholy trinity, called the world, the flesh and the devil.

Here is how the world assaults our faithfulness. A fallen world has lost its connection with its Creator and so we try to reconcile this problem by desperately seeking favor from one another. And how do we get acceptance? We get it through conformity.

Remember the tremendous power it had over you as a teenager? We would do almost anything to fit in. Or if you were a rebel you would do almost anything to fit in with the kids who didn’t fit in. Rebels would go goth to be unique that is just like all the other unique goth kids. Our parents tried to get us to resist that power with the classic speech, “And if everyone else was jumping off the cliff would you jump with them? We would reply “Of course not!” but in our hearts we knew that we might. The need to be accepted and the fear of rejection are just that strong.

And so even though God had called Israel to be a unique people they chose to fit in with the cultures around them by imitating them. Recall this was their argument for rejecting the LORD as their King and calling on Saul and that started them on a long path of unfaithfulness. The call of the world to conform is powerful. But the Scripture says, “Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.”

It is pretty obvious how the flesh makes us unfaithful. It is so very very easy to chose pleasure over sacrifice, self gratification over service, self promotion over humility. And you could write a book today about how folks are being driven by their feelings. Folks are not only offended by anything and everything it almost seems that are seeking new ways to be offended. You can’t ask for a skinny late because that is weight shaming and you also can’t call it a no fat late because that would get you accused of fataphobia. In the end what makes the flesh an enemy of true religion is because the flesh makes it all about me while true religion makes it about loving God and my neighbor.

And we must not overlook the devil. You don’t want to get too spooky about it but we have an enemy and he is real and he wants you to be anything but faithful. If he can sow doubt, or make you feel discouraged or get your feelers hurt, he will do it. He will do whatever he can to make you quit. Remember in the parable of the seeds the birds of the air that stole the seed was the evil one stealing the word of God from the heart. The solution is to shoe the birds away with the power of His Name. It is why we pray “deliver us from evil” every day.  And work to grasp the word of God to allow it to take root. You have an enemy but he is not in charge.

So if the world, the flesh and the devil are working overtime to keep us from being faithful what can we do to develop the virtue of faithfulness so that like Ezekiel and Jesus we can remain strong even in the face of great opposition? Allow me to suggest four things.

First is courage. The Lord told Ezekiel not to afraid of his opponents or of their words. I haven’t stopped to count it to be sure but I have read several times that “be not afraid” or some version thereof occurs 365 time in the Bible. Courage is not a total absence of fear but it is a commitment to not be controlled by fear. Fearful people will desert you in the battle but courageous people keep standing and when all else is done they remain standing. One way to develop courage is to hang out with courageous people. That is one reason godly fellowship is so important.

Second is clarity. Both Ezekiel and Jesus had pinpoint clarity about what they were called to do and that is why they did not cave when they faced opposition. When I was being interviewed by a diocesan committee to determine if they were going to send me go to seminary a woman asked Beth that if they allowed me to go if she wanted to take courses also to keep up with me spiritually. Beth said, “Absolutely not! I believe Ray is called to the priesthood but I am called to Social Work and I am not about to let his calling interfere with my calling.” I’m convinced that is why they accepted me and sent me to seminary. And it is also her clarity of calling that has had her last in her job for over 30 years when the burnout rate is about 3. If you are not clear about who you are in the Lord and what He has called you to do then ask, seek, knock and you will receive what you ask for. I believe that He loves answering that prayer.

I also encourage you, as you are clarifying your vision, to have the kingdom of God central. Jesus said “Seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness and all these things shall be added unto you.” That is not a religious motto that is a life committment.

When everything was hitting the fan for the Episcopal Church Beth and I had dinner with a former Archbishop of Canterbury. I asked him, “Your Grace, how do I step into the pulpit this Sunday? What do I tell my people? He said, “You tell them to keep working for the kingdom and don’t get the church confused with the kingdom.” That could be taken wrongly but I immediately knew what he meant. I love Anglicanism and believe it to be the most authentic expression of Christianity that I have experienced but the truth is if the Anglican Communion disappeared tomorrow Jesus would still be on the throne and His kingdom would not be shaken.

Courage, Clarity and the third is Consistency. Notice the last line of the Gospel. Jesus had just been rejected for His teachings by His own people and the text says, “And he went about among the villages teaching.”Woody Allen said, “80% of success is showing up.”  It should be obvious that you can’t be faithful if you don’t show up! This Christian journey is a marathon and not a sprint, or as Eugene Peterson described it in the title of one of his books, it’s a “long obedience in the same direction.”

 Most of you don’t realize it but Chris Morris who tapes our sermons and puts them on the web is neither a 9 o’clock nor 11 o’clock parishioner. His family’s principal service is the Wednesday night Mass and yet Sunday after Sunday after Sunday he comes here and records us to serve you and others. He has never asked for a dime. He is consistent and faithful and that has resulted in fruitfulness. I have had responses to a sermon from Africa and Australia which never could have happened without Chris. Shout out to Chris and his consistency.

Lastly Continuity. If you will realize that the Lord is building something in your life brick by brick, or as Corrie Ten Boom put it, sowing your life into a beautiful tapestry, then you will be faithful to see it to the end. You will not see your life as filled with random events and a series of coincidences. If you will faithfully walk with the Lord you will often discover why He allowed some things to transpire and realize that previous experiences prepared you for what you are facing today.

David chose 5 smooth stones and was able to put one in between Goliath’s eyes because he had done it time and time again as a shepherd killing lions and bears. And to show you David’s hutzpah he chose the 5 stones because Goliath had a brother and three sons. Shepherding sheep and developing a relationship with the Lord during those lonely years prepared him to shepherd Israel and be a king who was a man after God’s own heart. So look for continuity in your own life. It will build your faith as you see the Lord fulfilling His plans for you. This in turn will result in you being faithful to Him.

So it’s not about fruitfulness, it about faithfulness. Again, that does not mean that fruitfulness is unimportant, but that is ultimately not our responsibility. St. Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians “I sowed, Apollos watered, but God gave the increase.” When it comes to the kingdom we do not measure success the way the American Dream measures success. It’s not about numbers and it is not about how large your house or bank accounts are or what kind of car you drive. When it comes to the kingdom there is one measure of success, one prize that we should keep our eyes on. That is when you enter His presence and hear, “Well done good and faithful servant. Enter into the joy of your Master.”

Tigger or Eeyore? Hope Makes the Difference

Tigger and Eeyore

I came across a TED talk by a man who has been given 2 months to live. He said that it was not okay with him that he was going to die, especially because he had some young kids, but he refused to be morose or become an object of pity. He said that you have to decide once and for all if you are going to be a Tigger or an Eeyore. You know Tigger. The happy bouncy character in Winnie the Pooh? And “the wonderful thing about Tigger is Tigger’s a wonderful thing.” Then there is Eyore. “Well I was going to have a picnic but then I saw some clouds which probably means it’s going to rain so I called the whole thing off.”

This talk got my attention precisely because he was not some motivational speaker charging an arm and a leg to inspire you to walk on hot coals. This guy is DYING. So his words carry weight with me. But they did even more so when I detected the same basic message in today’s Epistle.  St. Paul decided to be a Tigger. He writes, “So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this momentary light affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison.” 

What I see St. Paul doing here is minimizing the negative by maximizing the positive. Or to put it another way, he is bathing his suffering with hope, and Scripture says that hope is the anchor of our souls. His focus is not on his challenges but on his glorious future that he says is beyond all comparison.

I love how St. Paul calls his circumstances a “momentary light affliction.” Later in this Epistle he gives us a rundown of those momentary light afflictions. We read in chapter 11; Five different times the Jewish leaders gave me thirty-nine lashes. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked. Once I spent a whole night and a day adrift at sea. I have traveled on many long journeys. I have faced danger from rivers and from robbers. I have faced danger from my own people, the Jews, as well as from the Gentiles. I have faced danger in the cities, in the deserts, and on the seas. And I have faced danger from men who claim to be believers but are not. I have worked hard and long, enduring many sleepless nights. I have been hungry and thirsty and have often gone without food. I have shivered in the cold, without enough clothing to keep me warm. Then, besides all this, I have the daily burden of my concern for all the churches.”

Any one of those things would have been enough to make me want to quit but not St. Paul. Why? Because, again, his focus was not on the present problems but on his glorious future. What you focus on makes that much of a difference. Think of it this way. The sun is almost 865,000 miles across but you can make it disappear if you hold a quarter close enough to your eye. In the same way we can make our glorious future disappear if we only focus on things that are passing away or on current afflictions.

Lest this sound like another version of positive thinking allow me to offer some theological background. Today we hear the story of the fall but don’t forget the amazing garden that they were placed in and their astonishing role of tending that garden for the Lord. This is what we were made for but the fall changed all that. And yet the fall did not have the last word.

You will recall that the prophets saw a spectacular day in the future when swords would be beaten into plowshares and the lion would lie down with the lamb. In this second letter to Corinth St. Paul makes the case that the kingdom of which he preaches is exactly what the prophets were speaking about.

In Acts Peter is preaching in Solomon’s Portico when he says, For he (Jesus) must remain in heaven UNTIL the time for the final restoration of all things, as God promised long ago through his holy prophets.” Hear it again. “Until the final restoration of all things.”

When we go to the Revelation of St. John we get a clearer picture of what the final restoration will look like. This is from chapter 21.Then I sawa new heaven and a new earth, forthe first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more.And I sawthe holy city,new Jerusalem,coming down out of heaven from God,preparedas a bride adorned for her husband.And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold,the dwelling placeof God is with man. He willdwell with them, and they will be his people,and God himself will be with them as their God.He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, anddeath shall be no more,neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” Andhe who was seated on the throne said, “Behold, Iam making all things new.”

A new heaven and a new earth, the healing of the nations, the elimination of pain and sorrow and death, and all that is wrong being made right. The study notes in the English Standard Bible say “and the earth itself will be renewed even beyond the more abundant and productive state it had before Adam and Eve’s fall.”  We are not going back to the garden…that one had a snake in it. We will be in a new world that will be more spectacular than we can even imagine.

I read a book called All Things Newthat challenged me to take this perspective a step further. He challenged his readers to make a list of the first three things they want to do at the final restoration of all things. To be honest when I first read that I thought he had gone a bit too far. That seemed a little kooky to me.

But then as I pondered it I realized how helpful that would be. After all we make a list of things we want to do in the future, when that future is a reality to us. For example next week, Lord willing, I am going to Israel as a delegate to GAFCON.  So I have already booked a room in Tel Aviv and then I will travel to Jerusalem early Sunday morning to attend church. Then I will find my hotel and attend the conference Sunday evening. Making plans not only makes this upcoming trip more real to me but it also helps me prioritize the things that I need to do before I go.

In a similar manner planning for the final restoration not only makes it more real to us but it helps us prioritize my life here and now. It helps us, as St. Paul said, to focus on things eternal rather than things transient.

So what are my plans for the final restoration? I’ll tell you. I’m going to take God literally when He says that He will restore all things, that “all”means “all.”

First I want to see and speak with those I have loved that have gone before me. My Father passed a few years ago. There is a miscarried child I want to meet. I also have a good number of family and friends that I hope will be there. We’ve got a lot of catching up to do.

Second I want to be reunited with my pets. Some object that there will not be animals in heaven because animals don’t have souls. I’m not even convinced that that they are souless. Why would God restore a new heaven and new earth and leave out the creatures that He made for the first heaven and earth? Besides the four horsemen of the apocalypse have to get their horses from somewhere!

Third I want to go and see the Milky Way. I mean in person! We know that Jesus after His resurrection had a body and ate and drank but He could also come and go as He pleased, even appearing in a room that had locked windows and doors, and then disappearing again. If we get similar bodies and can also come and go as we please I’m going to do a lot of traveling. I want to go to places that I never got to see in this life. And remember, we will live forever, so we won’t need a bucket list. There will plenty of time to do what we want to do.

Now I admit that what I have just spoken about is speculation on my part but I find it fun to dream. Even if I don’t get to see the Milky Way there is no doubt that we are promised a new world and Bishop NT Wrights goes on to say, “In Revelation and Paul’s letters we are told that God’s people will actually be running the new world on God’s behalf.” So the author ends a chapter asking and answering this question. “What will you do in the life to come? Everything you were born to do. Everything you’ve always wanted to do. Everything the kingdom NEEDS you do to.”

I recognize that I have treated this topic somewhat lightly by using the imagery of Tigger and Eyore. I recognize at the same time it has a very sobering side. Hope is not a luxury. Hope is not optional.

This last week we saw the suicide of two very successful and famous people. I was shocked to learn that the suicide rate in the US has increased 40% since 1999 with a peak during the economic crash in 2008. Also in the news almost every day is the mention of our nation’s opioid epidemic. CBS reported that more Americans died just last year from drug overdoses than in the entire Vietnam War. And I would argue that the same hole in the soul that leads to suicide and overdose is what fuels teens turning guns on their fellow students or crazy men shooting up a concert or a church.

Hope is not a luxury. Hope is not an option. I heard the testimony of a soldier who survived the Battan Death March. He witnessed men give up hope and literally roll over in their beds and die. Without this anchor of hope our souls get tossed around by life like a piece of driftwood in a storm. But with this anchor we can weather whatever comes our way and maybe even refer to them as “momentary light afflictions.”

It is the hope of this glorious future, the hope of the restoration of all things, that anchors our soul in this present life. When you grasp the reality of that future there is no way to remain an Eeyore. You simply have to become a Tigger. And then “The wonderful thing about you, is that you’ll be a wonderful thing.”Amen.