Blessed are…

 Imagine that you are a first century Jew and that all of your life you have heard the story of Moses on the mountain delivering the law in 10 pithy statements. You were taught that God intended you to follow His commandments so that you would live life well. Further you knew that keeping these laws made you the unique people, separate from the world, unlike the pagans with their many gods and endless idols and their dissolute living.

Now you have heard about this young Rabbi from Nazareth who teaches with authority unlike anyone has seen or heard. Some are even suggesting that He could be the promised Messiah, so you go out to see for yourself. 

A large crowd gathers and sitting on a mount He delivers 9 pithy statements. Your mind is filled with questions. Is He a new Moses? Would following His teachings show us how God intends life to be lived? Would following His teachings make us a peculiar people? But how can one possibly consider themselves blessed if they are poor, or it they are in mourning, or if they are persecuted? 

Today we try to tame the Beatitudes. When I managed a Christian bookstore we sold plaques with the Beatitudes over peaceful scenes of sunsets or mountain lakes. But I do not think that this is how Jesus wanted us them or us to perceive them that way. The Beatitudes is not pastoral advice even though it does show us the way to true happiness. They are a King describing His Kingdom and putting life as we know it on its head. This is the King challenging us to follow Him no matter the cost.

Most of you will know that the word “blessed” can also be interpreted “happy.” But of course Jesus’ meaning of happiness is very different from that of the world’s. Tonight during the Super Bowl businesses will spend millions of dollars for a 30 second ad to convince you that you will be happy if you will buy their product. And it must work otherwise those companies would not spend that kind of money. But will it produce real happiness? You know the answer to that.

I said earlier that Jesus’ teaching puts life as we know it on its head. It certainly would have done so for the people of His day. The teachers of Jesus’ day in one sense taught a Jewish form of the health and wealth Gospel. How do you know that you are blessed? Because you are rich. Why are you sick? Because you have sinned. How do you become favored by God? By being righteous. So for most of the people that Jesus calls blessed in this list a Pharisee would have prayed in the temple thanking God that he was not like one of them. And it almost goes without saying that secular people would not want to have anything to do with the people about whom Jesus is speaking. 

Let’s look at the first beatitude. “Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of God.” This first line is the key that opens our understanding for all of the other beatitudes. It tells us that we will find real happiness when we enter Gods’ kingdom and this is how we enter the door. Jesus is talking here about our spiritual condition not our financial condition. Blessed are the poor in spirit.

Again, Pharisee would not consider a person who is poor in spirit to be blessed and he certainly would not have believed that they would inherit the kingdom of God. So why does Jesus proclaim this?

Let me draw an analogy from Alcoholics Anonymous. They correctly teach that most folks will not change until they hit rock bottom. They will try to change for all the wrong reasons but they will not get well until they realize that they are going to die if they do not change. Others wait until they have lost everything and the only way to go is up. So when someone in AA sees someone hit rock bottom they know that is the best thing that could have happened to them because now they are going to get well. 

In a similar vein Jesus tells us that we will not enter the kingdom of God until we have come to the end of ourselves. When Jesus spoke of saving people from their sins the Scribes and Pharisees and many Americans don’t see the need because they did not see themselves as sinners. So Jesus’ response was that He was like a physician who came not for the well but for the sick. Of course the sad reality is that we are all sick but some folks don’t realize that fact. Jesus promises that when we finally do understand that we are sick and come to the Physician He will heal us. So blessed are the sick. Blessed are the poor in spirit.  

 “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted”. God indeed promises in Scripture to comfort those who mourn due to death. But if we understand His meaning here as mourning in spirit, then we see its connection to the first Beatitude. When we realize the grievousness of our sins, we experience godly contrition and we mourn over time and opportunities that have been lost. We mourn the damage that we have done to others and ourselves because of our sins. 

In a few short weeks we will enter the season of Lent. Throughout the history of the Church this has been the time to embrace these first two beatitudes. It is a penitential season where we take stock of our lives and seek God’s grace to make the necessary amendments of life. But here is the incredibly good news. Just as Lent is followed by Easter, so those who mourn over their spiritual poverty and lost opportunities will receive not only the comfort of forgiveness but God promises to restore what has been lost. That is how our mourning turns into dancing. Hear this beautiful promise from the prophet Joel. God says “So I will restore to you the years that the swarming locust has eaten…and my people shall never be put to shame.’”  God makes all things new so that we do not have to spend our lives in grief and regret. And even if you have wasted an entire life, if you turn to Him in repentance, then He will give you an eternity without shame. You never have to look back.

 “Blessed are the meek for they will inherit the earth.” This is a great example of how this sermon is more than pastoral advice but a blueprint for revolution. It flies in the face of common thinking. The systems of the world say, “Blessed are the strong for they will conquer the earth.” The people of Jesus’ day knew that well. They were under that Pax Romana that was won with a sword. In fact very empire before and after Rome has also ruled with the sword. But Jesus’ kingdom is not set up that way. He claims that it is the meek and not the sword that will win the day

Some modern translations translate “meekness” as “gentleness” which is also a fruit of the Spirit. And yet gentleness can also be misunderstood as a call to become a doormat to the world. So I love how one commentator described meekness. It“is the characteristic that makes a man bow low before God in order that he may stand high before other men.” (James Boice, The Sermon on the Mount, Zondervan Pub., 1972, p38). 

We certainly see this quality in Jesus. He had the courage of conviction that came not only from His divinity but also from submitting Himself to the will of the Father. And you would make a mistake if you confused His gentleness with being spineless. He was no man-pleaser. He faced down Pilate and the Jewish leaders and was singularly led by the will of God. 

If we will be gentle like Jesus will we inherit the earth? Consider this. We are told that most of the empires in history have not remained in power more than 200 years yet here we are 2,000 years later listening to the words of our King and working for the spread of His kingdom. We already are inheriting the earth! 

 “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness, for they will be filled.”Just as the first beatitude was about a spiritual poverty so this one is about a spiritual hunger and thirst. There are two reasons why such a person is blessed. 

First is because spiritual hunger and thirst is a gift of the Holy Spirit. It is a sign of a spiritual awakening when you are eager to feed on God’s Word, when you long to worship, when seeking the kingdom becomes your highest priority. Spiritual thirst and hunger is a good thing. A 19thcentury preacher said, “When the prodigal son was hungry he fed upon husks but when he was starving he turned to his father.”

 Secondly such a person is blessed because Jesus promises to fill their longings and what He gives them is not a temporary fix. Jesus said to the woman at the well, “Everyone who drinks of this water will thirst again, but whoever drinks of the water that I will give will never thirst again.”

I hope that you can see the pattern here and therefore can unpack the other Beatitudes for yourself so I will skip to the last one. “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” This is a difficult truth to hear but it is still the truth. We can expect to be persecuted because, as Jesus said, the servant is not above his Master and since they persecuted our Master we should not be surprised when they come after us. 

We will be persecuted because the kingdom of God by its nature comes into conflict with the systems of this world. A number of years ago I saw a play that was the gospel in modern times called Christ in the Concrete City. In the scene where Pilate asks who he is to set free, Jesus or Barabbas, the crowd cries out, “Give us Barabbas. His ways are our ways. Give us Barabbas… our lives are not offended by his holiness.” 

This weekend the Church around the world have been praying specifically for Nigeria. 6,000 Nigerian Christians have been murdered by Islamist militants since 2015 and the world is silent. So it us up to the Church to raise awareness. It is up to the Church to call for action. It is up to the Church to pray. 

But how does such opposition grant us the kingdom? It does so by our response to it. I read once of the great Church father St. Tertullian counseling a tradesman who was tempted to compromise his faith because the pagans would not do business with a Christian. “What must I do?”he asked Tertullian, “I must live!”Tertullian replied, “Must you?”When we by God’s grace are able to love those who hate us and pray for those who persecute us it shows that Christ is in our lives in a real and meaningful way. It shows that we are already walking in the kingdom of God. 

As I have studied the Beatitudes I have seen a vein that runs through them. That vein is a call to humility. And that makes sense since the Giver of the Beatitudes humbled Himself and became a servant. 

I came across the Litany of Humility and have found it to be a convicting but profound prayer so I wanted to share it with you. As we grow in humility we will not only understand the Beatitudes but we will become the Beatitudes. We will live life as God intended life to be lived. And as Anglicans, who already are a peculiar people, we will become more so. Amen. 

          The Litany of Humility

O Jesus meek and humble of heart, 

Hear me. 

From the desire of being esteemed, 

Deliver, me, Jesus.

From the desire of being loved, 

Deliver me, Jesus.

From the desire of being extolled, 

Deliver me, Jesus.

From the desire of being honored, 

Deliver me, Jesus.

From the desire of being praised, 

Deliver me, Jesus.

From the desire of being preferred to others, 

Deliver me Jesus.

From the desire of being consulted, 

Deliver me, Jesus.

From the desire of being approved, 

Deliver me, Jesus.

From the fear of being humiliated, 

Deliver me, Jesus.

From the fear of being despised, 

Deliver me, Jesus.

From the fear of suffering rebukes, 

Deliver me, Jesus.

From the fear of being calumniated, 

Deliver, me, Jesus.

From the fear of being forgotten, 

Deliver me, Jesus.

From the fear of being ridiculed, 

Deliver me, Jesus.

From the fear of being wronged, 

Deliver me, Jesus.

From the fear of being suspected, 

Deliver me, Jesus.

That others may be loved more than I, 

Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.

That others may be esteemed more than I, 

Jesus grant me the grace to desire it.

That in the opinion of the world, others may increase, and I may decrease,

Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.

That others may be chosen and I set aside, 

Jesus grant me the grace to desire it.

That others may be praised and I unnoticed, 

Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.

That others may be preferred to me in everything, 

Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.

That others may become holier than I,

provided that I become as holy as I should, 

Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.

Shrove Tuesday, Pancakes, and Lent

It would be understandable, if someone who is new to our tradition, were confused by the names and activities around the Lenten season. What does “shrove” mean? Why do we “give up” stuff for Lent? And what in the world do pancakes have to do with being penitential? Allow me to shed some light on these questions and invite you to embrace traditions that you might find edifying to your spiritual life. 

Shrove Tuesday

“Shrove”comes from the verb “shrive” which is Old English for “absolve.” The idea here is that one would make a private or auricular (to the ear) confession the day before Lent, which begins on Ash Wednesday. This practice goes back at least 1,000 years. In about AD 1,000 an English Benedictine Abbot wrote “In the week immediately before Lent everyone shall go to his confessor and confess his deeds and the confessor shall so shrive him…”        In the American Book of Common Prayer this rite is called “Reconciliation of the Penitents” which puts into practice Jesus’ commission to the Church, “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.”

When it comes to private confession, the Anglican rule is “All may, some should, none must.” But truth be told it is an under-utilized sacrament and as such folks are missing this gift of grace that can bring spiritual and emotional healing. 

There are two important things to know about making a confession. First you don’t have to wait until you have broken one of the big ten to come to a priest. We all readily accumulate sins every day. Pride, anger, unforgiveness…. on and on the list goes. Who among us could say that they have always loved God with all of their heart and soul and strength and have loved their neighbors as themselves? Thus St. John says, “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.” (I John 1:8). In light of that the Sacrament of Confession should be a regular event in the Christian’s life, a spiritual version of changing your oil every 3,000 miles. 

The second important thing to know about confession is that the seal of the confession is absolute. A priest can never repeat what he heard in a confession nor can he ever bring it up again. The Lord says, “I, even I, am he who blots out your transgressions, for my own sake, and remembers your sins no more.” (Is 43:25). Once the sin is absolved it is gone and so there is nothing left to talk about. While Shrove Tuesday is a day set apart for confessions, any day is appropriate, particularly any day during the two penitential seasons of Lent and Advent.

Pancakes?

In Ireland Shrove Tuesday is also called “Pancake Tuesday” and surprisingly very similar traditions exist all around the Christian world. In Lithuania they eat their version of a doughnut. In Spain they eat omelets. In Sweden they eat sweet rolls. But why and what does eating these things have to do with Lent?

Following the Jewish tradition of ridding the home of yeast (a symbol of sin) before Passover, Christians around the world will rid their homes of fat and meat and eggs and dairy in order to observe a Lenten fast. And what better way to rid your home of those things than by making pancakes? There is even a delightful tradition in England of a pancake race that dates back to 1445. It is said that a housewife was so busy making pancakes that she forgot about Mass until she heard the church bells ring. With the pan still in her hand, and with apron on, she dashed to church while flipping the pancake to keep it from burning. To this day you must wear an apron and flip the pancake throughout the race in order to win. It is a good that we can have some fun as we approach a penitential season. It is appropriate to feast before a fast. In this way we are taking God very seriously but ourselves not so much. 

There is a spiritual parallel to the pancake tradition. As we are ridding our homes of certain foods, we should be ridding our lives of certain attitudes and behaviors that cause us harm or that have begun to enslave us. Lent can be a time of breaking bad habits and creating new good ones. It is a time to do a spiritual spring-cleaning, which brings us back to the Sacrament of Confession.

Lent

CREATOR: gd-jpeg v1.0 (using IJG JPEG v62), quality = 82

Lent is patterned after the 40 days that Jesus was tempted in the wilderness. It is the 40 days, plus Sundays, before Easter. Lent does not include Sundays because Sundays are always feast days in celebration of Jesus’ resurrection. Lent is a penitential time that has 3 hallmarks; fasting, prayer and almsgiving. 

For most Christians today the Lenten fast is a partial fast like Daniel’s in chapter one of that book. So when you hear someone talk about what they are giving up they are simply identifying their fast. In the western Church this fast is highly personal and therefore should be approached by prayer and the leading of the Holy Spirit. Some fast from foods like meat and dairy. Some fast from alcohol. Others fast from things that have nothing to do with food like giving up social media or listening to talk radio. 

Whatever the fast, it should be impactful enough that the temptation to break it acts as a call to prayer. In this way our prayer life increases during Lent. Fasting and prayer make up two sides of the same coin. To fast and not pray is a waste of a fast. 

Some marry increased prayer with a new godly discipline. The hope here is that by doing a new discipline for 40 days it would become a way of life that makes life better. For example the discipline could be faithfully praying the daily office, or attending mid week Mass or reading a Christian book. Lent is not intended to make us miserable, it is intended to make us more mature.

The third hallmark of Lent is increased almsgiving. This is important because so many of our daily sins are rooted in selfishness. When we quit living for ourselves alone, and care for the needs of others, we become more Christ-like. And He would be the first to point us in the direction of the poor and outcast.

One practical way to increase almsgiving is to pair it with the fast. For example as you give up your daily gourmet coffee, you would then take that money and give it to the poor. At St. Patrick’s we place our alms in mite boxes throughout Lent and then collect them on Easter. Those united funds are sent to a ministry that cares directly for the poor. 

Shrove Tuesday, Pancakes, and Lent. These are centuries old traditions that Christians have embraced throughout the ages to strengthen their walk with the Lord. This season of prayer, fasting, and self-reflection also serves to deepen the significance of Easter. Instead of skipping from Christmas to Easter, we walk with the Lord through the 40 days in the wilderness. This fast before the feast makes His victory even sweeter. 

A Bruised Reed He Will Not Break

1st Sunday after Epiphany  A                   St. Patrick’s                    January 12, 2020

I’m sure that most of you have had the experience of reading or hearing a verse of Holy Scripture that seem to really connect with your soul. That has been my experience with a passage from today’s Old Testament Lesson in Isaiah, “A bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench.”The last part is even more poetic in the King James Version; “…the smoking flax he shall not quench.” It is such a comforting promise.

This promise in its context is a prophecy of the Messiah, telling us of the Messiah’s very nature. We discover in this passage, as we pray in the Prayer of Humble Access, that “his property is always to have mercy.

“A bruised reed he will not break….”When the Scriptures talk about the mighty and the powerful, it sometimes uses the analogy of trees, like the Cedars of Lebanon or the tree firmly planted by streams of water in Psalm 1. By contrast, this prophecy speaks of a slender, wispy plant that grows on the edge of a swamp. A plant easily damaged by wind and rain and the forces of nature. 

The image here is of those who are poor or those who lack power or those who have been dealt harsh blows by life. It refers to those who are hurting and vulnerable. In Darwin’s survival of the fittest world, these are the ones outside of the herd that get picked off by the scavengers. And good riddance because all they do is weaken the gene pool. If the weak are taken from the tribe it only makes the tribe stronger. Right? And as most of you know we live in a Darwin world 

Over the years I have counseled with folks in their 50’s and 60’s who have been let go of a job, through no fault of their own. As they seek a new job they discover it to be a soul racking experience. Rather than wanting these men and women for their wisdom and experience, companies seek younger people who are cheaper to hire and have more curb appeal. Too often in our society if you show weakness or vulnerability you can see the vultures begin to circle overhead. One of our societal laws is “Never let them see you sweat.” 

The prophet is telling us that our God is not like this. His kingdom is not a Darwinian nightmare. When God finds us bruised He does not break us, He heals us. 

We see this at the very beginning of the story. Adam and Eve sinned against God by disobeying Him and eating of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, what was the first thing that God did? He killed some animals and he clothed them so that they would no longer be ashamed. This foreshadows when God will slay the Lamb of God to cover our sin and shame and clothes us in Christ’s righteousness. 

Additionally while driving them from the garden was surely punishment, we can also see this as an act of mercy, of not breaking the bruised reed. This is so because there was another tree in that garden, the tree of eternal life. If God had allowed them to remain in the garden after they had separated themselves from Him through disobedience, and if they had eaten of the tree of eternal life, then they and wewould have been separated from God for eternity. He chastened them, not to break them, but ultimately to bring human kind back. He did not break a bruised reed.

We also see this kind of compassion all through the life and ministry of Jesus, which is birthed in His humility. Note that He did not have Himself declared the Messiah of the world by being anointed in the Temple in Jerusalem. Rather He humbled Himself and went out into the desert to be baptized by a bizarre prophet. He did this to fulfill all righteousness. And His baptism opened the door to all who would be baptized in His Name. And this would be revolutionary because it would include male and female, Jew and Greek, slave and free.

And what of His miracles? His very first one is to save a young couple from embarrassment because they ran out of wine at their wedding. He gives a woman back her only son from death. He heals a man who is blind all of his life. He heals a woman who had run out of doctors and money. They were small miracles on the grand scheme of things, but not small miracles to each of the individuals that He touched. These were bruised reeds that were ready to break and He strengthened them. 

These tell us volumes about God’s nature and it tells us why He is so worthy of our trust. It may be true that you cannot let others see you sweat, but it is not so with God. He is the very one we can come to with our brokenness and weaknesses and fears to and we know that He will not break us. Jesus said, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me to bind up the broken hearted…”That is what He has entered our lives to do.

“smoking flax he will not quench”.Here the image is of a lamp that is running out of oil and so the flame is almost gone out. This analogy has to do with matters of faith and hope. What is God’s disposition towards us when, for whatever reason, our faith or our hope is all but extinguished? 

Gratefully He does not respond like churches today. In too many it is deadly to say that you are wrestling with faith. You might as well as have declared yourself a leper. It is a refreshing tenet of Anglicanism, because we see this life as a journey into Truth, we do not expect anyone to have it all figured out on this side of glory. Because of that we end up attracting folks who have received the left foot of fellowship from other Churches who do not want doubters in their midst. 

We have received this perspective from the Jewish religion that believes that wrestling with God, as itself an act of faith. If you are wrestling with someone then you must believe that there is a Someone with whom to wrestle. I have met people who are no longer growing and learning because they think they have arrived. Maybe they have but it is also true that people no longer grow or learn when they are spiritually dead. The Pharisees called themselves doctors of the law. Jesus called them tombs, whitewashed sepulchers. 

We can be very thankful that God’s disposition is to blow on the embers that you have left until they become a flame again. This too we see this so clearly in the life and ministry of Jesus. There were a few spiritual giants around Him, like the Anna and Simeon who waited for years to see Him. But the vast majority of his original followers were not bright flames. Even the disciple seem to get it and then you read a few chapters later and they do or say something that shows that they don’t get it after all. Most if not all of the people who came to Him, didn’t do so because they perfectly understood who He was. They came because He gave them a glimpse of hope. 

I take great comfort in that very honest exchange in St. Mark’s Gospel, where the father of a possessed boy comes to Jesus. He explains the boy’s affliction and says, “But if you can do anything, take pity on us and help us!”  And Jesus said to him, “If you can! All things are possible to him who believes.”The boy’s father cried out “I do believe, help my unbelief.”Then Jesus healed the boy. 

What a great and honest prayer. We too should pray it. Don’t hold back because you don’t believe that you have enough faith. Just offer what you have. It’s like that little boy who offered Him a few loaves and fish. Look what Jesus did with that offering!

And please note that if your light has all but gone out, the answer is not to try harder or to be more disciplined. The answer is to get more oil. If your light is almost out pray for more of the Holy Spirit. God will answer that prayer. Jesus said, “If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”

We prayed in today’s collect that we would be faithful as adopted children. One sure way to be faithful it to become more and more like the Father who adopted us. If it is not God’s nature to break a bruised reed or to put out a dim light, then it should be against our nature as well. That can have many applications and I will leave it to you to make those but allow me to give you a couple of suggestions to start the ball rolling.

First is that we should resist the temptation to engage in the emotional pile-ons that are so prominent in our culture. There is this strange inclination in our culture that when others, and particularly those of prominence, topple or fall, we seem to revel in their tragedy. We read the tabloids or get on social media to find all of the juicy tidbits. Then we talk about how we never trusted them to begin with or remark how they had it coming. 

Proverbs says, “Do not rejoice when your enemy falls, and do not let your heart be glad when he stumbles, lest the Lord see it and be displeased…”(Prov. 24:17). If that is how we are to treat our enemies then how much more should we use caution in how we treat one another?        

A priest that mentored me when I was a deacon experienced a fall from grace and was removed from his parish by his bishop. Priests do have recourse if they have been falsely accused but since no recourse was taken most just trusted the bishop’s decision. One Sunday the priest was there and the next Sunday a supply priest was in his place. To this day no one, including me knows exactly what happened. 

This is quite a contrast to a priest in Florida that was recently removed. His bishop publically released a 30-page document that included all the gory details. A link to it made the front page in the local paper and a friend who lives in that town said that non Christian forces were reveling in the priest’s fall. 

The Scripture says that “love covers a multitude of sins.” It does not approve of sin but love does not allow you to break a bruised reed. The Church is not to shoot its wounded it is to heal it. The Church makes a mistake when it seeks the counsel of lawyers over the counsel of Holy Scripture. 

A second application has to do with living generously toward others. Since it is God’s inclination to reach out, especially to the downtrodden, it should be ours as well. The Church has historically been concerned about the downtrodden not because she feels guilty but because she is trying to make a political statement but because she has seen it as a part of the Gospel. It is our vocation. This is not a conservative or liberal issue. This is a gospel issue. St. John Chrysostom, a 4thcentury Bishop said, “Do you want to honor Christ’s body? Then do not…honor him here in the church with silken garments while neglecting him outside where he is cold and naked.” You can see in history that when the Church is only focused upon itself it becomes very ill but when it focused on the needs of others, it is at its healthiest. That is so for us as individuals as well.  If you will live a generous life you will be blessed beyond measure.

Jesus does indeed fit the profile that the prophet gives us. He did not break a bruised reed and He did not quench a smoldering flax. Just the opposite. And some of you have had first hand experien with God’s mercy. You have once been a bruised reed or a smoldering flax and God’s grace has entered your life and made you new. But here is the deal. There is a world out there that does not know that about God and so it is up to each of us to tell them and to show them that by demonstrating His mercy and grace in our lives. Amen.

Christmas 2019

When I was growing up and we would get together with family, one of the things we would do is open up picture albums and tell family stories. Things like, “This was the ship your grandfather’s family sailed on in order to came to America from Prussia.” “This was your father right after he got out of Boot Camp.” “This is your mom and dad on his graduation from Supply School in Athens, Georgia.”  

I hope that I am wrong but I fear that we are losing our family stories. We have gone from sharing our common history to being lost in our individual worlds. “This is what I had for breakfast.” “This is a selfie of me on vacation.” “Here’s a picture of my latest tattoo.” 

Please don’t think that I have become my father’s generation, speaking against those long hair boys from England called the Beatles who will never amount to anything. I am not advocating that we abandon technology and return to picture albums. Rather I am pleading that we not lose our family stories because those stories are so very important. They define who we are; they give us our personal awareness. They tell us where we fit in this world. They even help us to find direction for our lives. I was talking with a woman one time and she said to me, “There are three things that you need to understand about me. I am a woman, I am Irish and I am Roman Catholic and none of those three things will ever change.” I respected that answer and I respected the clarity of her life. So in this Christmas season, if you are blessed enough to be around family, talk with them and learn your family story. 

But let me quickly add that as important as it is for you to know your family story, I believe that it is vastly more important to know your family story in the context of the story that we hear tonight, the greatest story ever told. And if you think that those two stories are unrelated may I suggest that you could not be more wrong. The Creator of the Universe became flesh precisely so that He could become a part of our story, a part of your story. As we heard from St. Paul, Christ Jesus “gave himself for us to redeem us…and to purify for himself a people for his own possession….”  He comes to know your temptations, to share in your sufferings, to give you new life, to provide a way to become all that you were created to be. Eugene Peterson wrote. “God shapes us for his eternal purposes and he begins right here. The dust out of which we are made and the image of God into which we are made are one and the same.” 

God does not heal us apart from our story. He heals us through and in the midst of our story. He is not a fairy godmother who taps us with a magic wand so that we instantly become Cinderella. He is a Potter who patiently molds us, as we are His clay. He is a Refiner, removing the dross from our lives in order to refine our gold. He is Immanuel, God with us! And the more that we are able to see our story entwined with His story, the more peace and joy we will have in believing. 

So how do we get there from here? How do we see the bigger picture and come to know the peace and joy that God wills to bring to our lives? That answer is found in the most famous verse of the Bible that most everyone seems to know. “For God so loved the world that He gave His only Begotten Son, that whosoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life.” But knowing it and living into it are two separate things. So let’s key in on four critical verbs so that we can live into this truth. The verbs are “loved,” “gave,”, “believe,” and “have.”

When I was 18 years old, and a freshman in college, a guy that I had never met before sat down next to me in the school cafeteria and asked me this question, “Did you know that God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life?” I was raised in church and yet that question hit me like a ton of bricks. I knew that God so loved the world but it never occurred to me that he loved Ray Kasch. And what was even more mindboggling was the thought that He would have a plan for my life. That happened nearly 50 years ago and I can testify to you that what he said was true. His plan for my life has been wonderful. At times it has been like Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride at Disneyworld, but it has been wonderful. 

God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life. That knowledge is what will keep you on course. Every time you hear “For God so loved the world” replace “world” with your name. And be assured that your life is not just a compilation of random circumstance or a product of luck or a consequence of fate. The Father that loves you, has sent His Son to enter your world, and make your life a part of His eternal, wonderful plan.

“For God so loved…that He gave…” That last word is beautiful. He didn’t so love that He “required.” He didn’t so love the world that He“dictated.” He didn’t so love the world that He “threatened.” Of course as the Almighty He could have done so but He didn’t. He so loved that He “gave” because when you love someone you give them a gift. And this precious gift tells us a lot about Him as well as a lot about us. 

This gift tells us a lot about Him when we consider what manner of gift it is that He gave. When we look upon this Christ child we don’t think to ourselves, “He went to Jared’s.” Rather we fall on our knees in wonder and awe, that the Word would become flesh and dwell among us. While we will never fully comprehend such a gift it should cause us to never doubt the Father’s love. 

This gift also tells us about ourselves. The value of something is what others are willing to pay for it. A lump of coal is worth a few cents. But take a lump of carbon, put it under extreme pressure and temperature for about 3 billion years and it becomes a diamond and folks will pay thousands of dollars for it. Its worth is determined by what folks will pay for it. 

What God was willing to pay in order for you to become His child is a good indication of your worth to Him. This too is a mystery that we will never be able to wrap our minds around but it also tells you why He does have a wonderful plan for your life. He paid too high a price for you to let your life go to waste. Of course you can choose to waste it if you want but that is not His plan. Jesus said, “I have come that you might have life and have it abundantly.”

“That whosoever believes in Him….”As most of you know when the Bible speaks of “belief” it is much more than simply acknowledging a fact. You can intellectually acknowledge that Jesus is the Son of God but that is not “belief” in the biblical sense. St. James points out in his Epistle that belief that is only acknowledgment is worthless. He says even “the demons believe and they tremble.”  Biblical belief in Jesus Christ means to place your full trust in and reliance upon Him. 

A tightrope walker walks a wheelbarrow on a tightrope stretched over a 1000-foot chasm. Then he turns around and comes back. He says “Do you believe that I can walk this wheelbarrow across this tightrope and back.” Because you just witnessed it you say, “Of course.” The he says to you “Get in the wheelbarrow.” True belief requires a commitment to the Lordship of Christ. When Bishop Frank confirms folks he says to them. “Remember you are not your own, you were bought with a price.” That is the consequence of belief and that is what makes the difference between perishing and having eternal life. 

This leads us to the last verb “have.” This is the icing on the cake of the Good News. Note that the text does not say, “will one day have eternal life.” If it were true that eternal life was something that we only experience in the future then that would make this life no more than a waiting room. But that is not the case. Jesus said, “Repent for the kingdom of God is at hand.” When we believe in Him, when we put our trust in His love and goodness then we HAVE eternal life and we have it now! We are cleansed from our sins now! We pass from death to life now! We change from being aliens to being His children now! We receive His Spirit to walk in newness of life now!

One of the signs that eternal life is something that you have now is, as St. Paul said, becoming “zealous for good works.” When Christ is truly Lord then you not only forsake any lawlessness that you may have been walking in but you get out of yourself and start to have God’s heart for others. You long to see God make things right in the world and you seek to become His hands and feet to make that happen. 

This Advent we had the honor of hearing from a remarkable lady named Ronda Paulson who became zealous for good works when her heart was broken over the plight of kids entering the foster care system. She saw something that was broken and instead of just complaining about it she became God’s agent for change. I won’t take the time to tell her story now but you can find it on YouTube by searching Isiaah117house. You will see through her story how God folded her into His story in order to reach those whom He loves. He can to the same with you. 

I saw a very convicting post that said, “Someone somewhere is depending on you to do what God has called you to do.” Each of us who are called by His Name are called to be a part of the peace on earth and good will towards men that was ushered in by the birth of Jesus. Be zealous for good works. You will find your life immeasurably enriched if you do so. Winston Churchill said it best. “We make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give.”  

“For God so loved the world.” For God so loved you! May you know the peace and joy of that Good News. Merry Christmas. 

Lessons from Joseph and Mary

St. Paul writes to the Church in Corinth, “For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive.”In light of our Gospel lesson this morning I want to paraphrase the blessed Apostle and say, “For as through the first family paradise is lost, so through the Holy Family paradise is restored.” This story of Joseph and Mary is truly remarkable and the effect of their story on our lives today is beyond calculation. And yet is all too easy to brush past this story, so let’s slow down and take a closer look.

“Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. When his mother Mary was betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit.”  There is a whole lot going on with those two sentences. Let me begin unpacking it by giving you some cultural background to betrothal and marriage in ancient Israel.  

If they were typical of their day, Joseph and Mary would have been betrothed when she was a teenager and it would not have been unusual for Joseph to be slightly older. Marriages in their day were a three-step process. In the first step, the parents arranged the marriage. This involved a dowry. When the financial arrangements had been made then a betrothal was announced. Step two, was the couple spending a year setting up their house and preparing for the actual wedding. At this point they did not live together, and in many cases they were not even allowed to be together alone. Nonetheless they were considered so bound to each other that to break it off, they had to seek a divorce. Additionally it was considered to be adultery if either one was unfaithful during their betrothal. 

The third stage of the marriage was a weeklong party and finally the consummation of the marriage. Joseph and Mary were in stage two, being considered essentially husband and wife, setting up house but not consummating the union. Like all young people they had to be filled with hopes and dreams but among all of their hopes and dreams they would not in a million years have guessed the path that God had prepared for them. 

An angel of the Lord visits Mary to tell her that a miraculous conception would take place, but Joseph evidently is left in the dark. Either that or Mary told Joseph but he wasn’t listening. Anyway, Mary goes off to visit her cousin Elizabeth and when she returns later, Joseph sees that she is obviously with child but knows that the child was not his.

At this point Joseph had a couple of choices. He could take her before the elders and have her disgraced for adultery, or he could quietly brake off the engagement and try to pick up the pieces of his life. He had to be completely heartbroken at what he must have thought to be a betrayal of his trust. And if he were at all a typical man then he would have been humiliated that another man had seduced his fiancée. 

But because he was a just man Joseph did not seek revenge. Instead he was going to quietly break things off until an angel of the Lord visited him and told him about a third option. He assured Joseph that Mary did not betray him but that her pregnancy was a miracle. Joseph was to marry her and become a stepfather or if you like a foster parent. What’s more, Joseph was even denied the normal right of naming his son, because the angel told him what He was to be named. The Lord was asking a lot of Joseph and of Mary.

What was their response? They both did as God called them to do without a care for either their own dreams or the expectations of others. Now I’m sure that the story has been compressed, and since they were real people, they had to have days where they wondered if they had lost their minds. But in the end they yielded their lives to God and this lead to the salvation of the world. Consider for a moment what a model this couple is to each of us and what a contrast they are to the first couple. 

Mary hears the Word of the Lord and responds by saying “Behold I am the servant of the Lord. Let it be done to me according to thy Word.” By contrast Eve doubted God’s Word. When the serpent said, “Did God really say…?” she went right along with that question. 

This tactic of the enemy did not stop with Eve. As you well know that is how it begins with every church that has gone apostate. It begins by doubting what God said rather than being like Mary and submitting to His Word.

Another contrast is Mary’s humility verses Eve’s pride. Mary accepts the word of the angel and submits, while Eve listens to the serpent and desires the knowledge of good and evil. Mary seeks to obey God while Eve seeks to be God. 

Again we see Eve’s sin as a mark of heretical bodies today. Rather than seeking change and transformation through God’s grace, the false prophet preaches a god in their own image. They do this in order to affirm people’s sins rather than calling them to repentance. Mary shows us a better way by yielding her will to the will of God. 

The contrast between the two husbands is equally significant. Joseph steps up to the plate and becomes a husband/protector. He protects Mary from disgrace by marrying her and later he will protect his family from Herod by leading them to Egypt. Adam on the other hand failed in his calling as husband/protector. Have you ever noticed that just after Eve eats the forbidden fruit the text says “and she also gave some to her husband who was with her and he ate.”  Who was with her? You mean he stood by while the serpent deceived his wife, watched her eat the forbidden fruit and then receive it from her hand? He should have gone redneck on the serpent and led his wife as far away from the tree as he possibly could. Adam failed as a leader and partner because he was passive. Joseph took action because he had heard from God and took his place as the protector of his family.

The other quality of a husband/protector that Joseph demonstrated is that he was led by God’s direction rather than by his personal desires. Why did Adam and Eve end up eating the fruit? The text says, “So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took the fruit and ate…”  So in essence they gave up their relationship with God and were kicked out of paradise because the fruit looked good and because they wanted to be like God. They lost everything because of carnal desires and pride.

Joseph however put his ego and desires in check. The Gospel says, “When Joseph woke from sleep he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him: he took his wife, but knew her notuntil she had given birth to a son. And he call his name Jesus.” Joseph did not demand his rights as a husband. He did not put his needs first. Instead, in obedience to God, and as husband/protector, he ensured the Virgin birth of Jesus Christ. And please understand that the importance of the Virgin birth of Jesus Christ cannot be over stated. 

“Born of the Virgin Mary”is not a filler line in the middle of the Apostles’ Creed. Rather it is a pivotal line without which everything that follows in the Creed would not be possible. If Jesus were a result of a natural conception and a natural birth, then He would merely be a son of Adam.  As a son of Adam He would not only have been tempted as all of us are, but He also would have sinned as all of us do who are sons of Adam. If He were a son of Adam then His death on the cross would have been for the wages of His own sins and not for the sins of the world. We would still be dead in our transgressions. If He were a son of Adam then His body would still be in the grave and we would have no hope of resurrection for ourselves or for those we love. If He were a son of Adam then we would not be able to look with hopeful expectation for His triumphal return. There wouldn’t be one. Instead we would be asking the mountains to fall on us to avoid the judgment day of the Lord. If He were a son of Adam then there would be no life everlasting and in the end it would not matter in this life if you were a saint or a serial killer because we would all go down to the same grave. 

But He is conceived by the Holy Ghost and born of the Virgin Mary; He is the Son of the Most High. As the Son of God He will be able to fulfill His name, JESUS, and save His people from their sins. Because He the Son of God He will live a sinless life, die as a propitiation for our sins, be raised from the dead and one day return in power and great glory to Judge the quick and the dead. Because He the Son of God He will do all that He promised including preparing a place for us in eternity. Because He is the Son of God death does not win in the end. We will be given new bodies to live in a new heaven and a new earth and we will be with Him and those we love forever. Because He is the Son of God you had better believe that it makes a difference if you are a saint or a serial killer because one day each of us will stand before Him to give an accounting for our lives.

The story of Joseph and Mary is truly a remarkable story. They came from a tiny town in the hills of Galilee from which no one expected anything. You will recall that when Philip told Nathanial that they had found the Messiah, Philip asked, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” They were not powerful political people. They were not academic elites. They were not from a family dynasty like the Rockefellers or the Kennedys. Joseph was a simple carpenter and Mary a teenage maiden. They were blue-collar folk from the hills. They could just as well been from East Tennessee and yet these are the ones whom God chose as agents to bring salvation to the world.

Obviously they have a unique place in salvation history and no one will ever be called upon again to do what they did. However, their example of humility and obedience should stand before each of us all of the time. They stand as an illustration that that you don’t have to be someone special or have spectacular gifts for God to use you. You just have to be available and say “yes.”  

This penitential season of Advent is coming to an end. In just a couple of days we will celebrate the most wonderful mystery of all mysteries, that God would become flesh and dwell among us. He comes “to save us all from Satan’s power when were gone astray”. Those truly are “tidings of comfort and joy.” But it is also a two-pronged celebration in that we who are now heirs in Him not only celebrate His birth but also look with joyful anticipation to His coming again.  Because of His grace, because of His GRACE “we may without shame of fear rejoice to behold His appearing.” May God bless your final preparations as you await the birth of our Savior. Amen. 

Good and Faithful Servant

Imagine that you work for an International Company and they gave you an assignment to spend a few months at an overseas branch. A close friend of yours has had a change in his living arrangements and so he volunteered to housesit while you are gone. After being away longer than originally expected, you return to your home only to find it a complete mess. The yard is overgrown, the gutters are full of leaves and the inside is even in worse condition. The carpets are all stained, the trash is overflowing and stinks, there are empty food containers everywhere, and your previously beautiful dining room table, that you inherited from your grandmother, is covered in scratches and water marks. Besides being furious it would also make you wonder two things 1. If your friend really believed that you were coming back. And 2. If he is really your friend.

Jesus’ parables remind us again and again that we are not owners. Even the things that we think are ours, come from Him and are ultimately His. We are just housesitting. His parables also remind us again and again that we will have to give an account for how well we kept His house. Therefore the words that we should be living to hear one day are “Well done good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little. I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your Master.” In order to hear those words we need to be clear about what we believe and about how we should live. 

What do we believe? We say it every week in the Nicene Creed. “….and he shall come again, with glory, to judge both the quick and the dead, whose kingdom shall have no end.” We see today in Matthew’s Gospel a snapshot of what that will look like. “and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory.  And he will send out his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other.”His return will not be a secret. It will be obvious to all and He bring with Him all of the company of heaven. 

What will happen to those who are still alive at His return? Verse 38 “For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day when Noah entered the ark, and they were unaware until the flood came and swept them all away, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. Two men will be in the field; one will be taken and one left. Two women will be grinding at the mill; one will be taken and one left. Therefore, stay awake, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming.”

For any who are still alive everything will change in a blink of an eye. But when you read this passage in its context you see that the Left Behind teaching about the so-called Rapture has it completely backwards. Matthew points out that in the days of Noah it was the wicked that were swept away and it was Noah and his family that were left behind. In Luke’s version of this passage the disciples even ask where they are taken and Jesus’ response is “where the corpse is, there the vultures will gather.” That doesn’t sound like a place I would want to be. The Lord sweeping away the wicked, as He did with the flood, will result in the meek inheriting the earth. So Christians need a bumper sticker that instead of “In case of rapture this car will be unmanned” will say, “In case of rapture, may I have your car?”

If we truly believe that He is going to return and that we will be called upon to give an accounting of our stewardship, then that belief should have a profound impact on how we live our lives. Jesus said, “To whom much is given, much will be required.” Thus it would be wise for each of us to ask, “What markers in my life would identify me as a good and faithful servant?” The Scriptures point to several.

A first and most obvious mark of being a good and faithful servant is that you have only one Master. We read in our lesson from Romans “Owe no one anything, except to love each other….” This practical command has profound spiritual implications. Why? Because following this command secures our freedom as Proverbs 22 tells us, “the borrower is slave to the lender.” Add to that Jesus’ words, “No one can serve two Masters… you cannot serve God and money.” Ultimately how we use or misuse our money has a direct impact on who or what rules our lives.

I recently heard the saddest call on a Dave Ramsey podcast. A guy called in who had completed all the years of college and medical school but he failed the comprehensive exams three times and was expelled from school. He had $400,000 in student loan debt and was currently employed as a high school science teacher. Dave tried a number of avenues to help him but it was clear to me that this borrower would be a slave to Fannie Mae forever.

But when you owe no one anything, when you finally kick MasterCard out of your life, then you have only one Master and you are free to follow wherever He leads. He can call you to the mission field, He can call you to seminary, He can call you to be a chicken farmer and because you are free you can answer His call. 

A second mark of being a good and faithful servant is living in a state of readiness. Jesus is unequivocal that no one knows when the Day of Judgment will arrive. He says “But concerning that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only.” So any time you see a preacher pull out a chart or claim to have a biblical formula for figuring out the datejust say “Bless your heart” and move on. 

But it is precisely because we don’t know the day or hour that we are to live in a state of readiness. We are to live as if His return could be any day, perhaps even today. That was Jesus’ point when He spoke of the people in the days of Noah eating and drinking and marrying and giving in marriage. It’s not that there is anything innately wrong with eating and drinking and marrying. What Jesus was pointing out was that they were clueless. A great flood was about to come and they were living like they didn’t have a care in the world. 

Do we have this condition today? Consider Sundays in America where our churches are half full but our sports stadiums are overflowing and the Wal-Mart is packed. I’ll never forget, when we were still meeting at Lancaster Academy, driving to church on a crisp Easter Morning. As I drove past the Wal-Mart I saw enough cars to fill about 3 churches. On Easter morning! Or consider that this year we spent $8.8 billion on Halloween while 1 in 7 kids in America does not know where his next meal is coming from. What Jesus was pointing out is that when you are clueless your priorities are catawampus, so get a clue…wake up…pay attention!

I think that it is important, however, to distinguish between living in a state of awareness and living in a state of fear. Jesus says “Therefore stay awake” He does not say “Therefore stay afraid.” We are not meant to live as if the sword of judgment is hanging over our head, because it isn’t. Jesus’ atonement has removed that sword. But we are, as a collect from Morning Prayer puts it, to remember that we are ever walking in His sight. St. Paul also uses the image of being awake when he says, “the hour has come for you to wake from sleep….the night is far gone; the day is at hand.” We are to wake up and stay awake and live in a state of readiness.

A third mark of a good and faithful servant is that they live according the Master’s rules. Do you remember when you were a kid and you said to your parents, “Well at Johnny’s house they let him do thus and so…” What was the universal parent response? “Well this isn’t Johnny’s house and as long as you live under my roof you will follow my rules.”

That needs to be our mentality as Christians. It doesn’t matter what they are doing in the world, our citizenship is in heaven and so we are to follow His rules. In verse 13 St. Paul describes how the world lives and it’s not pretty. Orgies, drunkenness, sexual immorality, sensuality, quarrelling, jealousy. That is chaos. That is darkness. St. Paul says that we not to live this way. He says “Let us walk properly as in the daytime.”

Following the Master’s rules should inform not only our personal ethics but also our social ethics. It doesn’t matter how many times the Supreme Court says something is constitutional or how many laws the Legislator pass, something that is wicked cannot be made righteous just because it’s now legal. 

There needs to be a consistency between what we believe personally and our public voice, particularly on major moral issues. The Church should stay out of politics but the individual Christian should be a leading voice. I think of William Wilberforce who became the tip of the spear to abolish slavery in Great Britain in 1807. And don’t listen to the old saw about keeping your beliefs to yourself and not imposing them on others. If you are silent they will impose theirs on you. You are the salt of the earth. Be that salt. Can you imagine someone in the 1940’s saying, “Well I am personally opposed to the extermination of the Jews but who am I to impose my beliefs on the German government?” German Lutheran Pastor and Martyr, Dietrich Bonheoffer, is a model for standing against wickedness no matter the cost.

Finally a fourth mark of a good and faithful servant is that they follow the Master so closely that they become an extension of the Master. How do we do that? In verse 14 St. Paul says, “But put on Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.”

Fr. Chris and I have laughed many times over a YouTube video of a frustrated preacher rebuking his congregation. He yells, “You guys….don’t be a jerk…you’re making me look bad in front of God. O look it’s Jesus. What does He say? “Stop it!’”” 

While the video is funny the sad truth is too often that “just stop it” approach is how many Christians live. They make a long laundry list of things they are not supposed to do and they work on that list. That works about as well as the past government campaign to stop drug use by “just say no.” It doesn’t work because your dominant focus becomes the very thing that you are not supposed to be doing. If I said, “please don’t think about a pink elephant” then you will immediately think of a pink elephant. 

St. Paul points us in a more positive direction. He shows us a way to live under grace rather than under the law. He not just what not to do but he tells us to put on Christ. One commentator said of this expression, “The metaphor of putting on clothing implies more than just imitating Christ’s character but also living in close personal fellowship with Him.” (ESV footnotes p.2180). 

How do we live in close personal fellowship with Christ? Obviously we do it through the reading and study of the Scriptures, through prayer, and through the Sacraments. But there are a couple of other means of grace that I would like to underscore.

First we live in close personal fellowship with Christ as we maintain close personal fellowship with one another. You are His Body and that is why we need one another. If you hang around godly people you become more godly. The opposite is also true. In 1 Corinthians we read, “Bad company corrupts good character.” So Christian fellowship is key.

Another way to stay in close personal fellowship with Christ has been shown to us by our spiritual ancestors. During the Middle Ages there was a very popular devotional book called the Book of Hours. It was written for the laity but patterned after the Divine Offices that were observed in the monasteries. The idea was to stop at various times throughout the day to offer private prayers and to reflect on the life of Christ. This is the kind of pattern that Dorrence and Kelly Stoval keep as third order Benedictines. They could tell you more about it. 

But also know that you don’t have to join an order to keep this discipline. The 1979 and the 2019 Books of Common Prayer have brief devotions that can be done throughout the day; Morning, Midday, Early Evening and at the Close of Day as well as Compline. The pattern is to stop at various times throughout the day to refocus on Christ and say some brief prayers. It is a way, as Brother Lawrence put it, to practice the presence of Christ.

We believe that He will come again and when He does that we will have to give an accounting for what kind of stewards we have been. In the wisdom of the Church this penitential season of Advent is designed for us to ask ourselves the hard questions and to seek His grace to make the necessary changes to be good and faithful servants. But please note, and this is key, it is a work that we do not do FOR Him, it’s a work that we do WITH Him. St. Paul writes, “For I am confident of this very thing, that He who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus.” May that day come soon. Amen.

Communion of Saints Pt 2

Yesterday, at the All Souls Mass I spoke about the Communion of the Saints. I attempted to show why that belief is so important for us to confess and I attempted to explain what we mean and what we don’t mean when we speak of the Communion of the Saints. Today I want to talk about the benefits of believing in the Communion of the Saints. 

But first I want to address a common objection that I have heard. It’s a simplistic argument but I have heard it many times. “If I have Jesus why do I need the saints?” Let me address how illogical this question is and then I will give a biblically informed response. I would ask the person, “Is it true that according to the New Testament all believers are considered saints?”The correct answer is “Yes.” “Then that would make you a saint.” “Yes.” “Then you just asked‘If I have Jesus why do I need me?’” Or lets try it another way. “Do not the saints, both those on earth and those in heaven, make up the Body of Christ?” Again the correct answer is“Yes” “Then you just asked‘If I have Jesus why would I need the Body of Christ?’”  

Beyond pointing out the illogic of the question let me offer a simple response.  “We need the saints because that is how God set up the universe.” The Communion of the Saints is not the Church’s idea rather it is God’s. The same can be said about angels. “If I have Jesus why would I need angels.”? Again, because that is how God set up the universe. We know that Jesus had a perfect relationship with His heavenly Father and yet Scripture records two occasions where angels came to minister to Him. One was after the 40 days of temptation and one was at the garden the night that He was betrayed.  If Jesus was one with the Father why did He need angels to minister to Him? Because that is how God set up the universe and who are we to question His ways?

Since God has set up the Communion of the Saints what are the benefits? I will offer a number. First they fill need in our lives. Unless you are a narcissist you need a hero, someone to challenge you and inspire you to be a better you. This has been true across humanity and throughout history. Think of the ancient myths and legends and how invariably they involve a hero. Hercules, Beowulf, Achilles, Romulus and Remus, the list is endless. Who are our heroes today? Look at the movies. Spiderman, Captain America, Wonder Woman, Batman. Again the list is endless.

The saints fill this role in much better ways. I mean I can’t really relate to Batman. I’m not rich and I don’t drive at night. But the saints were real folk and like real folk they also had their issues and I can relate to that. St. Jerome, the brilliant translator of the Bible, was evidently a very difficult person with which to get along. St. John of the Cross battled spiritual and emotional depression. As we all know St. Peter suffered from foot in mouth disease. This list is also endless. 

What is important is that as far as we know these saints completed the race, and in spite of their issues, received a crown of glory that never fades away. The danger of current sports heroes or current celebrity heroes or even current preacher heroes is that we don’t know the end of their story, we don’t know if they will finish the race or if they will drop out or if they will be disqualified.

Secondly the saints show us a different way than the way of the world. Let me tell you about Alphonsus Rodriguez who died in 1617. He was the son of a prosperous merchant in Segovia. He began his studies to become a Jesuit but when his father died he had to return home to run his family business. He fell in love and married and had two children. His wife died bearing his third child, then his other two children died, then his mother died, and then his business collapsed. Although completely broken he offered the shattered pieces of his life to God. 

He was denied entrance into the Jesuits because his lack of education but they made him a lay brother of the order and gave him the job of being a doorkeeper. For 40 years he opened the door for others with such love and devotion that they said that he performed it as if it were a sacrament. His Christlikeness became so well known that students began seeking him out for spiritual direction. Rodriguez was so well respected that Spanish nobility along with throngs of the poor and the sick attended his funeral testifying to his miraculous life as a doorkeeper. When we confess the Communion of the Saints we are speaking truth against the constant quest for power, against the materialism of atheism and against the secularism of western culture. 

The Communion of the Saints reorients us. At least six days a week we are being bombarded with lies and half-truths from the world, the flesh and the devil and sadly from ABC, NBC and CBS. It is very easy in the midst of all of these lies to become disoriented and even to begin to drift. At first the drift is every so slightly but before we realize it we are way off course. 

A few years ago Beth and I flew to Italy on a brand new jet. One of the things I enjoyed most about the flight was that it had cameras all over the plane and so you could bring different views to the monitor before you. As we were landing I chose the camera that allowed me to see what the pilots were seeing. And there before us were two rows of lights marking the runway and guiding us home. It occurred to me that is how I see the saints. They are not home but they mark our way home. When we have drifted from the course they reorient us for a safe landing. In Jeremiah we read, “This is what the Lord says: ‘Stand at the crossroads and look; ask for the ancient paths, ask where the good way is and walk in it and you will find rest for your souls.” The saints show us those ancient paths.

The Cloud of Witnesses gives us perspective on our lives in a number of ways. Back to Hebrews 11. “They were stoned, they were sawn in two, were tempted, were slain with the sword. They wandered about in sheepskins and goatskins being destitute, afflicted, tormented…” And here I feel persecuted when the insurance company tells me that I haven’t met my deductible. But more than reminding me that I don’t have it too bad the saints call us to be better. 

It was not until the 1950’s that runners broke the four-minute mile. Until that point no one thought that it was even possible. Today if you can’t run a four-minute mile you likely won’t make the team. The bar has been raised that high.

The saints raise the bar for us. If I was in this alone and heard a call to be more loving or more generous or more courageous, I could dismiss it by saying the only one to do that was Jesus and I’m not Jesus. But when I look back at my spiritual ancestors and see the love of Mother Theresa or the generosity of St. Francis or courage of St. Patrick, I know that the spiritual version of the four-minute mile has been broken and so I give it a try. And if I listen very carefully I can hear the cloud of witnesses cheering me on. 

The Communion of Saints also model for us selfless service. In September of 1878, yellow fever hit epidemic proportions in Memphis, Tennessee. So many people died that the city lost its charter. Every one who could afford to do so fled the city, while Anglican nuns and clergy rushed in to offer care. They became known as Sister Constance and her companions. The cathedral was turned into a hospital. Constance was the first to die and then her companions followed. In all 38 Anglican and Roman clergy and nuns died in this selfless service of others. “They loved not their lives even unto death.” The high altar of the cathedral, consecrated on Whitsunday 1879, was commissioned by Bishop Quintard to memorialize the Sisters of St. Mary. Inscribed on the altar steps are “Alleluia Osanna,”which were Sister Constance’s last words. 

Lastly the Communion of Saints inspires us to finish the race that we have begun. That is the message of Hebrew 12. The picture in my mind is that we are on the field in a very tough race and the cloud of witnesses in the stands is cheering us on. The text says that because we are surrounded by this great cloud of witnesses we are to  “run with endurance the race the is set before us.”  The key word here is, “endurance.”As you well know the Christian life is not a sprint, it is a marathon and marathons are tough. In the letters to Timothy and to Thessalonica, St. Paul prophesies that in the latter days there will be a great falling away from the faith. While I have never been one to try to predict the latter days I do know that t is all too easy to quit. I have seen many do so. This year alone between 8,000 and 10,000 churches will close their doors in the US.  

I will make this personal. I was first ordained in 1979 so I’m sure it would not surprise you that I have had days when I said out loud to myself, “I don’t want to do this any more.”I recently hit that wall. In part because I don’t have the stamina that I did when I was younger and in part because ministering to the pain and trauma and heartache of folks that you love takes its toll over the years.  I was in that mindset a couple of weeks ago when Beth and I went to Savannah to celebrate her 29thbirthday  (Lord I apologize). As we were walking around Savannah we came across a square where the great Anglican preacher Fr. George Whitfield had preached to hundreds if not thousands. Just to be standing where he stood was enough inspiration to straighten up and get my head back in the race. The saints of God do that for us.

I would encourage you to read up on the saints and make it a goal to have a hero or heroes that will inspire you to run with endurance and to finish the race. I know that I need all of the help that God offers me and so I celebrate being surrounded by their fellowship of love and prayers. While it is true that the whole notion of the saints became riddled with superstition in the Middle Ages, we need not fear that it will happen to us. Anglican theology and worship is too Christ centered to see those abuses repeated. In an excellent article about the saints Fr. Wesley Walker reminds us that we should not allow abuses of a practice to negate that practice, especially when the practice predates the abuse. We know that if belief in the Communion of the Saints was so universal in the Church that it was placed in the Nicene Creed in 325, then it didn’t first appear in 324. The ancient practice of the Church was to pray for the faithful departed and to be comforted in the knowledge that they are praying for us. I believe in the Communion of the Saints. 

“The lived not only in ages past, there are hundreds and thousands still. The world is bright with the joyous saints who love to do Jesus’ will. You can meet them in school or in lanes or at sea, in church or in trains or in shops or at tea, for the saints of God are just folk like me and I mean to be one too.