Sermon – 10 Pentecost C – 2013

Boy and Dog at Prayer

Lord teach us how to pray

Like those first disciples, all true followers of Jesus are interested in prayer and at the same time most will admit that they need to learn more about it. In all the years I have been doing this I have never had someone come up to me and say “Okay Fr. Kasch, I’ve got that prayer thing down, tell me what’s next.”

So the disciples observe Jesus’ prayer life and they decide to ask Him to teach them. That is interesting because as Jews they would have grown up praying. They must have seen something very different in how Jesus went about it. My guess is that they saw in Him one who was doing more than simply reciting the words. That is something that is easy to fall into and it is something that we need to be cautions about, particularly in a tradition like ours.

Martin Luther said that the Lord’s Prayer is the greatest martyr of the Church and when you think about it you realize that it is true. We roll it off our tongues without even thinking what we are saying. There was a nice breakdown of the Lord’s Prayer going around the Internet and you may have seen it but it is worth hearing it again. It was offered anonymously so I altered it a little.

Our Father — That’s Relationship!

Which art in heaven — That’s Home!

Hallowed be thy name — That’s Honor!

Thy kingdom come — That’s Hope!

Thy will be done — That’s Sovereignty!

In earth, as it is in heaven — That’s Conquest!

Give us this day our daily bread — That’s Provision!
And forgive us our trespasses — That’s His Love!

As we forgive those who trespass against us — That’s Our Love!

And lead us not into temptation — That’s Direction!
But deliver us from evil — That’s Protection!

For thine is the kingdom — That’s Royalty!

And the power — That’s Authority!

And the glory — That Transcendence!

Forever — That’s Eternity!
Amen — That’s Acknowledgement!

I like this because it invites us to think through what we are praying. Luther had a wonderful way of meditation on the Lord’s Prayer by taking it a line at a time, thanking God for the truth of it, repenting where he has not been living up to that truth and praying that he and the whole world would live according to its truth.

How do we get past just simply reciting the words. I think there is a way but let me first say that we all experience times when that is about all that we can do is to recite and I am convinced that is acceptable to God. Praying when you don’t feel like praying is a genuine act of faith and this whole journey that we are on about faith. Fr. Palmer once said to me that God even accepts bad praying and I think he may be right about that. He wants to hear from us. So don’t start out by thinking that you have to do this perfectly or you should not be doing it at all. It’s like learning to walk. You learn it by doing it and that includes stumbles and falls along the way.

That said, we do want to move beyond mere recitation of prayers. So Jesus teaches us to pray, “Our Father who art in heaven….” and it is those very opening words that move us from recitation to relationship. When we pray the Lord’s Prayer we are not fulfilling a religious duty, we are not speaking words into the air, we are addressing a Personal Being. More than that, we are addressing the Almighty. More than that, we are addressing OUR Heavenly Father. When Jesus was speaking to Mary Magdalene who was the first to see Him raised from the dead He gave her instructions to report to the Apostles. He said “go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” In teaching us to pray ‘Our Father” Jesus is inviting us into the same relationship that He has with His Father and His God.

If you let that sink in for a moment you will quickly realize what an astonishing thing that is. God the Son, who has been in perfect unity with in His relationship with His Father. Frankly we feel more like the prodigal son who would be happy simply to be numbered among the Father’s servants. Instead the Father welcomes us, puts a robe around us, a ring on our finger and calls for the killing of the fatted calf. We are His sons and daughters and He invites us to call Him “Our Father.”

A second thing that we learn from this prayer of Jesus, which was probably already understood by His disciples at that time, is the corporate nature of prayer. It is a point that modern people miss. You will notice that the word “I” does not occur even one time in the prayer. Give US our daily bread, forgive OUR trespasses, deliver US from evil.

The Jewish people had an identity of being a chosen and called out people and so they saw their worship of God and their life together as a corporate expression of that reality. This corporate identity was also understood by the early Church. They knew that it was by one Spirit that we have been baptized into one Body. They met together daily to continue in the Apostle’s teachings, fellowship, the breaking of bread and the prayers. They lived the Christian life together. Meanwhile the church today is figuring out ways to do live video streams so that folks don’t even have to leave their homes but can “worship” through a computer.

We too easily miss this corporate nature of the faith because much of spirituality is seen as an individual and even private matter and much of that is based upon personal experience and/or emotion. So rather than asking what Christ’s Body has taught and believed over the millennia, instead today people talk about how they feel or what they have experienced as a test for truth. And then if I have my truth based upon what I feel and you have your truth based upon what you feel then we will eventually not be able to talk to each other.

Beth and I visited a church while we were on vacation where the service booklet contained notes from the priest who had taken it upon himself to change the liturgy and correct what he believed to be theological mistakes in Book of Common Prayer. I could not believe his naiveté and/or arrogance. In the Roman Church it takes a national conference of bishops to petition Rome to allow local adaptations of the liturgy and here we have a single priest changing the worship of the Church all on his own. That is so post modern but this form of individualism has little place in the Body of Christ. We are members of one another who TOGETHER make up Christ’s Body on earth. So Jesus taught us to pray US and OUR and not ME and MINE.

That is why common prayer is so important. When I am left on my own I tend to pray selfishly but the Book of Common Prayer does not allow me to get away with that. And when we come together and pray the same prayers, that is how we truly experiencing the corporate nature of prayer and worship.

One time Beth and I were in Switzerland and Beth was not feeling well so I went to Mass at the Old Catholic Church in Bern. The Old Catholic Church broke with Rome in the 19th century over papal infallibility. We are in full communion with them and our liturgy is nearly identical. So while the liturgy was in German, and I do not speak a word of German, I could still worship because I knew exactly where we were in the liturgy and what prayers we were praying.

I have had people mock the Book of Common Prayer to me and accuse us of reading to God. They do this because they come from a belief that somehow extemporaneous prayer is more spiritually mature than written prayers. And while I think it is important to also learn to pray extemporaneously, I certainly don’t believe extemporaneous prayer is more spiritual than written ones. In fact to me, some of it is difficult to listen to and some badly miss the mark.

I have prayed with folks where every sentence begins with “Father God we just really….” After about a minute of listening to that, I am ready to break out the rosary. And I have also been around folks who intentionally put in “Ums” and “ahs” and long pauses to make the prayer sound more casual and conversational in nature. But when we go out of our way to make our prayers sound cool and casual, it comes across like we are treating God as our buddy and you don’t see a hint of that mentality in the Lord’s Prayer.

As evidenced by the collect we use to begin the Mass, called the Collect for Purity, the Prayer Book truly does ascribe to God the honor that is due His Name and that is why it is such great aide to us. Some of the prayers in our Prayer Book go back to the 4th century and when a prayer has for 1,700 years expressed the heart of the Church to Almighty God, in theological terms, that’s what you call a keeper.

One of the lines that folks find confusing in this prayer of Jesus, is when we pray for God to lead us not into temptation but to deliver us from evil. We know from a direct statement in the letter of St. James that God does not tempt anyone so why do we pray “lead us not into temptation”?

The short answer is that we need to see this part of the prayer in the context of spiritual warfare. The modern wording, while making it easier to remember and to recite, is the source of the confusion. Archbishop Thomas Cranmer’s first translation from Latin into English puts it in a better light for us. His translation read “And let us not be ledde into temptation.” So what we are really asking of God is to deliver us from all sources that would seek to ensnare us. Further the original literally says “deliver us from the evil ONE” and so in this portion we are asking to be protected from Satan who goes about as a roaring lion seeking whom he may devour. So in short what we are praying here is, “Lord don’t let me be the devil’s lunch.”

The last thing I want to point out about this most perfect of all prayers is to note how short it is. As I told you last week I sat in my office, with my handy dandy apple phone and timed myself praying it at a respectful rate. I was surprised to see that it took a mere 13.6 seconds to pray.

There is a story of a young priest who was spending the day with an older priest that he admired a great deal. The elderly priest suggested that they end their time together in prayer before the altar. The young priest prayed first, and wanting to impress the old man he prayed and prayed and prayed and prayed. Finally the old priest tapped the younger one on the shoulder and said, “My son, if you prayed more often you would not have to pray quite so long.”

This short prayer of Jesus invites us into communion with Our Heavenly Father. Then once those lines of communication are opened at the beginning of the day, then we can follow it up throughout the day with more brief prayers. We share with Him our hopes and concerns, our fears and our needs, we pray for others, we offer thanks, we express our gratitude. I know we are all busy but I feel reasonably safe in saying that all of us can afford 13.6 seconds at the beginning of our day and then if we will pray on and off throughout the day, by the end of the day, we will have prayed quite a lot. This, I think is what the Apostle had in mind when he said that we should pray without ceasing.

I love the hymns of our church and I love the sound of the Sanctus bells but my favorite sound of all is the sound of children reciting the Lord’s Prayer in the liturgy. I’m sure that many of you love that sound as well. And I have to believe that just as it warms our hearts to hear the children pray, so it must warm the heart of God to hear us say “Our Father….” If that is true, then like the first disciples, we should be asking Jesus. “Lord teach us to pray.”

Stump the Rector Part 3

First Fruits

This was a comment to a recent blog.

“I’d like to play the devil’s advocate (if you’ll pardon the expression)… I have been trying to answer questions for somebody who is mad at God. They feel as if they’re being punished.
Knowing them as I do, their objections would be quick and clear:

With regards to financial issues… Poor decisions do lead to difficulty, agreed. What do you do when you’re already in that position? Tithing is not an option for some people, no matter how much they want to.

I don’t know how to fully answer some of these questions. Typically, my response is to have faith. Often that answer seems quite inadequate. Any suggestions?”

I will respond to the third question posed but first I want to recount a conversation that I had years ago that greatly influenced my attitude about giving. I was on a short teaching mission in Haiti, speaking to about 70 clergy who had gathered at an orphanage. Most if not all of them were bi-vocational. In many cases that was a misnomer because often they received nothing from the churches that they served. Our goal support these men by giving them lessons that they could preach to their congregations as well as trying to encourage and strengthen them. A number asked for personal time to receive counseling.

One pastor came to me with a significant moral dilemma. He knew from reading the Scriptures that God calls us to be generous in our giving and he wanted to respond to this call. His dilemma was that it was the end of the month and he was nearly out of food. In fact he was down to his last 5 potatoes and he had 5 children. But he also knew that his neighbor was out of food and he too had children. His question to me was does he keep the 5 potatoes for his children or does he split them with his neighbor’s children or does he give all 5 away? It did not even come up in our conversation that he and his wife would go without food. For him, that was a given.

To this day I cannot remember what I advised him. I was so shocked by the question, and even more shocked by the seriousness of his situation, that whatever I told him was probably wrong. But it also made me see that if this man was willing to give of his last 5 potatoes, then very few who live in America are in a place where they cannot give. We just choose to have different priorities.

So when someone tells me that they are unable to give even though they want to do so, I would challenge that thesis. I have had people ask for help with food and when I meet them at the market they are smoking a cigarette. I have had a mother tell me that she cannot afford medicine for her sick child and when I arrive at the pharmacy she was talking on her cell phone. I have had people tell me that they cannot give to the church but they are able to rent movies, they have cable TV and they even eat out every now and then. We can always do what we really want to do; it is a matter of priorities. So how do we make giving to God a priority?

First, we will change our priorities when we understand that it all belongs to God in the first place. Thus we are simply returning to God a portion of that which is rightly His. “All things come of Thee, O Lord, and of Thine own have we given Thee.” (I Chronicles 29:14). Instead of grumbling that God wants us to give 10%, we should be amazed that He allows us to keep 90%. And by the way the tithe is only a minimum standard for giving, but that is another sermon.

Second, we can become motivated to change our priorities when we see what we are doing by withholding from God. “Will man rob God? Yet you are robbing me. But you say, ‘How have we robbed you?’ In your tithes and contributions. You are cursed with a curse, for you are robbing me, the whole nation of you. Bring the full tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house. And thereby put me to the test, says the LORD of hosts, if I will not open the windows of heaven for you and pour down for you a blessing until there is no more need.” (Malachi 3:8-10)

It does not take a student of theology to understand that we do not invite God’s blessings on our lives when we are stealing from Him. That may sound like an exaggeration but that is what God says we are doing when we withhold our tithes. What is also interesting about this passage is that it is the only one that challenges us to put God to the test. Does God come through? I have never met a person who tithes that regrets it but I have known plenty who withhold from God and then don’t understand why their finances are in such shambles.

Third we will change our priorities when we better grasp God’s promises for our obedience. Jesus said, “Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.” (Luke 6). Actually I think that this principle covers more than money but it does include it. When we give love, we will receive an abundance in return. When we forgive others we experience our Father’s overflowing forgiveness. And if we are generous with our finances, He is generous with us in return. In fact Jesus tells us that when we are generous, with what the Apostles called “filthy lucre,” true riches are being stored up for us in heaven (Mt 6). Conversely if we cannot be trusted with filthy lucre, then neither will we be trusted with spiritual riches. “So if you have not been trustworthy in handling worldly wealth, who will trust you with true riches?” (Lk 16:11).

Once you change your priorities about giving, the next thing to do is to begin and begin immediately. Most of us know that if we wait to pray or we wait to read Scriptures until we have the time, then we will because we never have extra time. The same is true with giving. If you wait until you have it to give, then you never will. God expects from us our “first fruits” not our leftovers (Ex 34:26). It may mean giving up a luxury or cutting back in other areas or even going without, but if you wait until you can “afford” to give, then you never will. The pastor who was down to his last 5 potatoes still knew that he had the potential to give. What about us?

Sermon – 9 Pentecost C – 2013

Martha and Mary

Martha, you are worried and distracted about so many things; there is need of only one thing.

Fr. Palmer said last week that the part of the story of the Good Samaritan that always makes him uncomfortable is when the priest passes by the beaten guy and he does not come to his aide. I share his discomfort about that but I must admit to being even more uncomfortable with this story of Martha and Mary. It makes me uncomfortable because I have a whole lot of Martha and not nearly enough Mary going on in my life. And when Jesus confronts Martha, it feels like He is nailing me at the same time. So if you are a Mary, good for you and God bless you. You get a pass today in terms of the sermon. What I want to do is to address all of us Marthas and see if we can’t find some comfort.

Jesus as the Great Physician, correctly diagnoses Martha’s problem. She is worried and distracted. She was scattered and to be fair to Martha I think I can appreciate why she was.

Over the years we have had a number of Bishops in our home and that can be a stressful event. Not so much because I was having my boss over for dinner but because we honor our Bishops as a continuation of the Apostles. They come to us as representatives of Christ. So as you can imagine, we give our home a top to bottom cleaning, Beth puts on an elegant dinner, we talk about who should be invited and where people should sit. We want the evening to be as pleasant as possible and it takes a lot of work to make it happen. That easily leads to us into being worried and distracted. In the meantime, the Bishop, particularly Bishop Foley, probably just wants to hang and also would most likely prefer that we didn’t go to all the trouble.

By this point in Jesus’ ministry, He was well known. He had called and sent out the disciples. He had healed many and cast out demons. He had preached to the multitudes and been transfigured on the mountain with Moses and Elijah. He had fed the 5,000, calmed a storm and raised a little girl from the dead. They knew who he was. So not only was it an incredible honor for Martha to host Jesus in her home, it was a weighty responsibility. She started out with the best of intentions but she lost her focus on what was really important and she became worried and distracted. She was so busy doing things FOR Jesus that she forgot to be WITH Jesus.

Martha’s dilemma is a common one. Life can be so busy and such a challenge that we lose our focus and as a result we become worried and distracted. We have financial pressures, concerns about our health, we try unsuccessfully to balance work and family, we have to deal with ongoing family dynamics. Then we turn on the news and we see national unrest and division, cities and states facing financial collapse, natural disasters and manmade wars. There are days when both from the perspective of the world and from the perspective of our front porch, it seems that we are only one step ahead of total chaos. There are plenty of good reasons to be worried and distracted.

Martha however compounds her own problem by proposing a way to make things right. She comes and fusses at Jesus. “Jesus don’t you care that I’m slaving away in this hot kitchen while my sister is sitting on her duff?” What is Martha really asking for here? She is really saying, “Jesus, this ain’t fair and you need to make it right!”

In our fallenness we confuse fairness and justice and we think that because God is a God of justice then He must be a God of fairness. So Martha reasons that if she is slaving away then it is only fair that Mary is slaving away also. But justice and fairness are not the same thing. Fairness says we should all be treated exactly the same, justice says we should get what we deserve. As one writer put it, “Justice is not an equalizer of conditions, it is an evaluator of actions.” (Hanover Baptist Church, Pastor’s Thoughts, Aug 22, 2010).

Jesus demonstrated the difference between justice and fairness in a wonderful parable of a landowner who hires men throughout the day to work for him. To the first men hired he promised a certain wage. Then throughout the day he hired more men. When the day was over the landowner first paid the men who had been hired last. He paid them the amount that he had promised the men who had worked all day. This got their hopes up that they would be paid even more than first promised. Why? Because it would not be fair to be paid the same amount as men who had only worked for one hour. But true to his word, the landowner paid them the wage he had promised. When they objected, the landowner informed them that he paid them what had been agreed upon. So the landowner had treated them justly and their cries of it being unfair were irrelevant. If the landowner wanted to be generous to others then that was his business not theirs.

This is a great lesson to keep in mind because sometimes it is tempting to fall into the role of the workers who complained that they were not being treated fairly. We work hard and we do good but we look around and it seems like the wicked are prospering and we tell God it’s not fair. But God causes the rain to fall on the just and the unjust and as long is the rain is falling on us we should not begrudge it to others.

So Jesus does not give in to Martha’s appeal to make things fair. He does not tell Mary to get up and help her sister. Instead, He challenges Martha’s priorities. “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.” He wants Martha to change her focus and do what Mary is doing. And what is Mary doing? What does Jesus mean when He says that there is need for only one thing and that Mary has chosen the better part?

Jesus is actually making a clever play on words here. Martha presumably wants help getting the food ready and so in the Greek Jesus says that Mary has chosen the better “portion.” But what is that portion? What is the one thing that Martha should be doing? Is it sitting at Jesus’ feet instead of serving? Is this a call to prayer?

I think it goes deeper than that. Martha being worried and distracted over food verses Mary who has made spiritual food a priority paints a picture of what Jesus preached in the Sermon on the Mount.

Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?… So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Matthew 6
In sitting at Jesus feet, Mary is demonstrating that she is making the kingdom of God the priority in her life. Meanwhile Martha is worried about what they will eat and what they will drink and by doing this she is missing the most important thing of all.

For me, this is what makes it such a challenge. It wasn’t as if what Martha was doing was a bad thing. The truth is that often in our lives the good is the enemy of the best and Martha had chosen the good over the best.

We make the same mistake when we allow the concerns of our daily lives to edge out our relationship with God. We have so many things to do that we decide that we will pray when we get the time or we will read the Scriptures when we get the time or we will come to Mass as long as nothing else is going on. And when we put our spiritual lives off “until we get the time,” you know what happens. We never get the time.

So again, Jesus was not rebuking Martha for doing something bad, He was challenging her priorities; to choose the best over the good, to“Seek FIRST, the kingdom of God.” Let me offer some practical suggestions.

Some of us are reading through the One Year Bible, which coincidentally, has us read through the whole Bible in one year. Go figure. Those daily reading take about 15 minutes. Additionally I have actually timed reciting the Lord’s Prayer and it takes 13.6 seconds to pray. So as a step in seeking first the Kingdom of God, how about putting those two things together and begin there. How about getting up 15 minutes and 13.6 seconds earlier than you normally do and read the lessons for the day and say the Lord’s Prayer and off you go. You will soon want to spend more time in prayer but start there. Don’t set yourself up for failure by trying to have a 2 hour quiet time from the get go.

In terms of the Mass, make it a rule that unless you are sick or dead, you will be at Mass. This is your time to receive Jesus and to offer yourself to Him as a living sacrifice. What in your life can be more important than that? But what if there is a home game? Come to Saturday Mass or Sunday at 9am. But what if I have company? Invite them to church or be a witness to seeking first the Kingdom and tell them you will be back in an hour or so. Are you saying Jesus is more important than family? Well did any of your family die for your sins?

Seek the Kingdom first through your giving. The Bible speaks of giving God our first fruits as opposed to giving God our leftovers. Someone once told Beth that after they pay all of their bills, whatever is left over, they give God 1/10 and they thought that was a tithe. But if you do the math it was probably more like 1/10 of 1 or 2%. God did not give us His leftovers, He sent His Only Son, so it is certain that He deserves more than our leftovers.

I encourage you parents to start early with your children. I don’t know what kids get today for an allowance but if you give them a dollar then train them to take a dime and set it aside to give to God as an act of worship. If they learn this early it will become a way of life and you will have done a wonderful thing for them. Jesus said that givers will receive back, pressed down and overflowing. (Lk 6:38). In doing this you will have set your children up to be blessed by God throughout their lives.

I haven’t spoken much about Mary but I do want to say that I admire her courage. Men and women had very distinct roles in those times and Mary had to have raised some eyebrows in playing the role of a disciple and sitting at Jesus’ feet. She also had to have known her sister well enough to know that she would not be pleased with her for not helping out with the chores. But being with Jesus was more important to Mary than having people’s approval and so she made that her priority. Here too Mary is a good example to us because as the climate of our nation changes I think it is going to take increasing courage to be a follower of Jesus. But when you have before you two pictures, one of a person worried and distracted and the other of a person sitting quietly at Jesus’ feet, the best choice is obvious. May God give us the grace to be a lot less like Martha and a lot more like Mary. Amen.

Stump the Rector Part 2

Lady at Prayer

This was a comment to a recent blog.

“I’d like to play the devil’s advocate (if you’ll pardon the expression)… I have been trying to answer questions for somebody who is mad at God. They feel as if they’re being punished. Knowing them as I do, their objections would be quick and clear:

‘How am I to know God’s will in order that I might pray to that?’ Any suggestions?”

This is a good question because it is clear from Scripture that it is possible to pray wrongly. St. James writes “You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions.” So how do we know when we pray that we are praying what God wants us to pray?

The first thing we can do is to immerse ourselves in Holy Scripture and we do this for two reasons. Number one is because we find in the Scriptures the revealed will of God and so when we pray according to His revealed will, then we can be assured that we are praying correctly. We pray for our governing authorities because that is what the Scriptures tell us to do (1 Timothy 2:2). We pray for the salvation of others because we are told that God is not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance (2 Peter 3:9). So as we discover God’s revealed will, it guides our prayers in the proper direction. Number two we immerse ourselves in Scripture so that we become familiar with the ways of God. We may not find a chapter and verse that gives us specific instructions but as we learn His ways were are better equipped to tell if what we are praying is commensurate with His will. It’s about becoming familiar with His voice. A Christian doctor who has been formed by Holy Scripture would not need to waste time discerning about a lucrative offer to work for a clinic of questionable ethics. He would know from learning God’s ways that such work would not be pleasing to God.

A second way to know if we are praying God’s will is to look to the Church. The Holy Spirit throughout the centuries has guided the Church into all truth and as a consequence there is a treasury within the Church that we should freely mine. As an Anglican I love the Book of Common Prayer. Some of the prayers in that book go back to the 4th century. Also I have been edified by prayers from the Roman and Orthodox traditions.

Prayers that have stood the test of time, and been prayed by untold numbers of Christians over the centuries, can be trusted to reflect the will of God. I also use the prayers of men and women in the past, saints of God, who had a close walk with the Lord. Praying their prayers is like walking in the footsteps of giants. I find in them a depth of spirituality and Christlikeness that I hope to have one day but must admit that I have not yet attained.

You can also look to the present Church for help in discernment on how to pray. Recently I was trying to discern how to pray for an unusually difficult matter and so I submitted my thoughts to the Bishop and asked for his guidance. We are not alone on this journey, or at least we should not be. Christ has placed us in His Body and given each of us differing gifts to help one another. Other Christians can help you learn how to pray correctly.

A third way to know if you are praying according to God’s will is to examine your heart. In the same chapter where St. James speaks of asking wrongly he goes on to say “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble. Submit yourselves to God.” (James 4:6,7) When we pray, it should be in an attitude of submission, desiring God’s will above all things. The motive of our prayers, as in all things, is to bring glory to our Father. James said that we pray wrong when what we are praying for is to fulfill our passions. If we are demanding or self-willed or exhibit pride in our prayers then we can rest assured that we are going down the wrong path. Once I heard a Health and Wealth preacher tell his congregation to order God to act. That is very poor, if not blasphemous, advice. As we pray we must always keep in mind who is the clay and who is the Potter.

Lastly the way to know whether or not we are praying according to God’s will is to keep praying. The only way to learn to pray is to pray. As just mentioned, as long as we are humble before God, we don’t need to fear negative consequences for praying amiss. Since we are not all-knowing we are going to make mistakes in our prayers. We are like toddlers learning to walk and our loving Heavenly Father is patient. As we keep praying we will discover a gratitude for times when God did not answer some of our prayers because it would not been for our best.

A pattern you see in the Psalms, which is the Church’s most ancient prayer book, is that even when the Psalmist is hurt or angry or complaining, he invariably expresses his trust in the Lord. He casts himself upon God’s goodness. He often uses the word “hesed” which is God’s covenant love towards us. It is that quality of God’s character that we trust when we pray. We are not looking for the right formula, rather we are looking for the right relationship. We may want Him to stop the storms but He wants to become our hiding place. We won’t be far from the mark if we will consistently humble ourselves before Him, trust His love for us, and keep asking and seeking and knocking (Mt 7:7-12).

Stump the Rector Part 1

Devil's Advocate

This was a comment to a recent blog.

“I’d like to play the devil’s advocate (if you’ll pardon the expression)… I have been trying to answer questions for somebody who is mad at God. They feel as if they’re being punished.
Knowing them as I do, their objections would be quick and clear:

1. If my prayers are not aligned with God’s will, and I’m being selfish… Why bother to pray? God is going to do whatever he wants anyway. My prayers are of no effect or value.
2. How am I to know God’s will in order that I might pray to that?
3. With regards to financial issues… Poor decisions do lead to difficulty, agreed. What do you do when you’re already in that position? Tithing is not an option for some people, no matter how much they want to.

I don’t know how to fully answer some of these questions. Typically, my response is to have faith. Often that answer seems quite inadequate.
Any suggestions?”

To my way of thinking these are some great questions because they take us out of the theoretical and into day-to-day discipleship. Because they require a thoughtful response I will take the questions one at a time and make this a three part “Stump the Rector.” In answer to “why bother to pray?” I will offer several reasons.

First, we pray because God loves us and desires a relationship with us. Prayer is simply communication with the Lord and every healthy relationship is based upon good communication. About what do you communicate? You tell Him anything that you would tell a close friend. That is what the Psalmist did. In the Psalms you can find both complaining and high praise and everything in between. As we trust the Lord with all that is going on with our lives the relationship deepens.

Second, we pray because Jesus tells us to pray. He did not say, “If you pray…” He said, “When you pray…” (Mt 6:6). Jesus modeled what He told us to do by going off to be alone with His Father. Luke tells us that He did this often (Lk 5:16).

Third, we pray because it changes us. As we pray for others we become less self-centered. As we offer praise and thanksgiving it takes us out of a state of self-pity and negativity into a place of joy and hope. As we pray for those who are suffering and those who have no one else to pray for them, we draw closer to the heart of God, who is all compassion. Prayer is the antidote to anxiety. “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” (Phil 4:6,7). Through prayer we cast our burdens on Him and if we are wise enough to leave them with Him, our load becomes significantly lighter (1 Peter 5:7).

Fourth we pray because God uses means to accomplish His ends, and prayer is one of the chief means that He has ordained. This touches on the mystery of Divine sovereignty and human responsibility, both of which we believe are true. God is sovereign but His sovereignty does not negate our responsibility. We have a role to play in what God is doing in the earth. That is evident by what Jesus taught us to pray in the Lord’s Prayer.

If we say that God is going to do whatever He wills to do, so He doesn’t need our prayers, then we have wrongfully divorced these two truths of Divine sovereignty and human responsibility. The result is fatalism and fatalism is not Christian. When the disciples asked Jesus why the man had been born blind, Jesus did not say it was karma or the will of Allah. He took action and healed the man. While I do not pretend to understand why God has ordained it to be so, I do believe that God acts in the world as a result of prayer and often God does not act when we fail to pray. St. James said, “You have not because you ask not.” (James 4:2).

If you read through the Book of Acts you will see how the early Church bathed everything that they did in prayer. When the disciples were imprisoned they would spend their nights in prayer. Peter was in prayer when he received the revelation that the Gospel was to go to the Gentiles. When Paul would leave a place they would kneel and pray before he boarded the ship. We are told in Acts 1:14, “All these (disciples) with one accord were devoting themselves to prayer…” In his epistles St. Paul was continually seeking the prayers of the churches and also assuring them of his prayers for them. So the sense you get of these early Christians is that prayer was a way of life.

Above all we must reject any notion of God as a celestial vending machine, and if we learn to pray correctly then He dispenses whatever it is that we desire. Prayer is communion. It is a joining of our hearts and minds to God’s. Sometimes it is sitting in silence, just to be in His presence.

I once was visiting an old timer in a retirement home and at the end of the visit I asked him if would like to pray. He said to me that he really didn’t know how to pray so what he would do is to imagine Jesus sitting next to him in a chair and talk to Him. I told him that was the best definition of prayer that I ever heard.

Why bother praying? We pray because, as St. Augustine said, “Thou hast made us for Thyself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee.”

Angry with God?

Crying out to God

People ruin their lives by their own foolishness and then are angry at the Lord – Proverbs 19:3 New Living Translation

Is it ever appropriate to be angry with the Lord? The implication of this verse is that it is not appropriate, particularly when we are shifting blame and not admitting that it was our own foolishness that has resulted in our problems.

And yet I have seen such behavior many times over the years. People speak to me of being angry with God because He is not answering their prayers. The real problem is, as we are told in James, that they are praying amiss (4:3). They are praying selfishly or for their own will to be done or with deep unforgiveness in their hearts. Even though the Scriptures tell us that such things will block our prayers, still they blame God.

Another complaint I often hear is that God is not blessing their finances. Typically the real issue is a spending problem and not an income problem. Or many times I will discover that they are not tithing even though in Malachi God’s promise is to bless us if we do. So it is pointless to be angry with God when we ignore what He tells us to do and then we don’t like the results. To quote a popular song, we need to start with the man in the mirror.

Nevertheless I would argue that there are times when it is permissible and even advisable to be angry with God. In many Psalms, the Psalmist is venting frustration at how things are. In Psalm 74 he cries out, “O God, why do you cast us out forever?” In Psalm 73 he admits to being embittered in his heart towards God (vs. 21). The Prophet Jeremiah speaks of complaining and pleading his case before God because he wants to know why the wicked prosper and the treacherous thrive (12:1).

The ultimate hissy fit is the Book of Job. It is one long lament by a man who wants an explanation and will not settle for the religious clichés of his so-called “friends.” In his book on lament, “The Hidden Face of God,” Michael Card points out that Job refused to say what he thought that God wanted to hear. Instead Job spoke what was truly on His heart. His statements about God were not correct but they were what he really thought and felt. After he got them off of his chest, then he repented for speaking about things that he did not understand. The point is that he spoke them to God. He expressed his anger and frustration to the Almighty.

Thus, while we must not be irreverent or blasphemous, it is okay to be angry with God. Put it in the context of a Father/child relationship. What child has never been angry with their parents? And when we were, also we knew that there were appropriate and inappropriate ways to express our frustration. God as our heavenly Father is more than equipped to handle our anger. He is not surprised or shocked by it because it is one of the ways that we have been created in His image. If we try to ignore anger or to press it down then we only end up hurting others or ourselves.

What we see through the life of our Savior is that God wants a genuine relationship with us. He is not interested in empty religious trappings. He wants our hearts, even and especially when they are broken. So when you need to do so, do not be afraid to cry out to God and tell Him what He already knows that is going on deep inside. As you trust Him with those thoughts and feelings, including expressing your anger to Him, then your relationship with Him will deepen and you may well experience healing.

What is going on in Egypt?

Egyptian Protests

For those of you, like me, who have had difficulty understanding that is going on in Egypt I found this helpful. An Egyptian writes to explain what has happened there as if it happened here in the U.S.

From an Egyptian in Alexandria
“In a Nutshell…
A lot of my dear American friends still ask me what on earth really happened in Egypt, for their benefit, and anyone else on earth genuinely trying to make heads or tails of us “crazy Egyptians” ; here’s exactly what happened in Egypt over the past 12 months, but expressed in “American” terms…

There are no exaggerations or lies, these events all took place:
On June 30th 2012, democratically elected Barack Obama wins the election with 51.7%, takes the oath, and is sworn in as president of the United States.
First five months of his term go relatively smoothly, where he makes almost no decisions (except for some dubious presidential pardons to a dozen convicted terrorists, including some convicted for their part in the assassination of a former US President).
Suddenly, on November 21st 2012, president Obama issues a presidential decree giving himself sweeping powers, to the extent that his future decrees become un-contestable in any court, in effect his decisions henceforth are akin to the word of God.
His laws a new Bible…

Nationwide protests erupt as a result of this decree and 1.5 million people organize a sit-in at the White House to peacefully request he rescind it.
Some of Obama’s democratic party supporters attack the peaceful sit-in outside the White House with guns & shoot 5 peaceful protesters dead
A few weeks later president Obama dissolves the US Supreme Court and labels them all “traitors to America”

One short week later, he fires the United States District Attorney and personally appoints a Democrat to replace him.

A month later he annuls the US Constitution and forms a ‘constitutional committee’ to draft a new constitution (committee includes no Republicans or Independents, no Moslems or Jews, and only a handful of women.. And is composed primarily of Democrats & religious preachers)

In a referendum not supervised by any judicial branch, this constitution narrowly wins, and President Obama ratifies it the very next morning (despite it having only gotten the approval of 18% of all Americans).

Within a month he invites top global terrorists, known jihadists and Al Qaeda members from all over the world, to a rally in Yankee stadium, where he cuts ties with and declares war on, Canada.

Throughout this whole time, the US economy is sinking, the stock market collapsing, foreign investment has all but stopped, tourism has died, and electricity, fuel, and water shortages are a daily occurrence.

Unemployment has almost doubled, and the US$ dollar has lost 20% of its value globally.

Oh, and president Obama also outlines his new plans to lease the entire Silicon Valley area to China for 50 years (with full administrative control)…
Democratically elected president Barack Obama has done all the above in his FIRST YEAR IN OFFICE!!!

Ultimately, on June 30th, 2013…
110 million Americans take to the streets in 50 States peacefully and politely demanding -for 4 straight days- that democratically elected Obama leave immediately, and not continue his remaining 3 years….

That’s it in a nutshell
Who would you say had “legitimacy” in this case if it had been America?
“Democratically elected Barrack Obama”, or the 110 million Americans who fired him … ?”

Sermon – 7 Pentecost C – 2013

Boast in the Cross

May I never boast in anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Paul is facing a crisis. In his first missionary journey to Galatia, the Gospel was well received, the church was established and Paul was able to move on to preach to other regions. But after he left some wolves in sheep’s clothing arrived and began to sway the church to a different Gospel, which in reality was no Gospel at all. These were men who thought that compromise was a virtue and so while they claimed to embrace Christianity, they also embraced the law and encouraged the new converts in Galatia to do the same.

Those of you who went through the crises in the Episcopal Church will be able to relate well with this conflict in Galatia. When we were in the thick of it Fox News called me and asked if they were missing anything or not getting it right. I told them that they were missing something. I said “Y’all keep making it all about sexuality when the real issue was the authority of Scripture and the Church not having the authority to alter Scripture.” To which the reporter said to me, “Oh I know that Father but sex sells.” So there are presenting issues and there are deeper issues beneath.

In Galatia the presenting issue was circumcision. It was being taught that these new Gentile believers should submit to circumcision in obedience to the law. But there was a deeper issue, as Paul said, “neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is anything.” The deeper issue was a true gospel verses a false gospel, righteousness by faith verses righteousness by works. Or simply put it was about the law versus grace. The deeper issue was how we are to live our lives as Christians. Have we been set free so that we can live as sons and daughters or are we to go back into slavery under the law? Whose yoke are we wearing, Christ’s or Moses’?

So Paul cuts through it all by declaring that it is all about the cross and by claiming that he will boast in nothing else but the cross, he puts himself over against those who boast in themselves and their ability to keep the law.

Those who were preaching what Paul called in chapter one, “a different Gospel,” were no doubt motivated by a number of things. First as I said earlier, they saw compromise as a virtue. They could walk among the Christians and claim to be Christian themselves and at the same time make the Jewish leaders happy by declaring how many Gentiles they had circumcised. In this way they would also avoid the persecutions that the Jewish leaders were fomenting against the Church.

But there is another reason to avoid focusing on the cross. Paul writes in 1 Corinthians, “For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written: ‘I will destroy the wisdom of the wise; the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate.’…For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe. Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.” If you preach the Cross of Christ, you must proclaim Him and not yourself. If you preach the cross, how can you receive the praise of men for how clever you are? Besides, the cross is a scandal. It is a stumbling block to the Jews and foolishness to the Gentiles and indeed to all who are perishing. You can’t purchase a ministry jet by turning people off, for heaven’s sake! So instead let’s tickle their ears, tell them what they want to hear, and be sure that when they leave they feel good about themselves. Don’t tell them that they cannot save themselves. Give them something to do in order to save their dignity.

Another reason to avoid preaching about the cross is because it forces you to address the why of the cross. One day I had a visitor come up to me after Mass and she was more than a little put out with me. She pointed to the altar cross and said to me, “You know He is not on the cross anymore!” I decided to defuse her anger with a little humor and so I smacked my head and said, “Man when did that happen? Nobody tells me anything any more.” I went on to explain to her that while we are fully aware that Christ has risen from the dead, we have a crucifix to remind us of His passion and that it was for our sins that He died.
When you preach the Cross you are forced to explain why He was put on that cross and that puts you and me in the cross hairs. People love hearing about His birth and they celebrate His resurrection but most would rather skip from Palm Sunday to Easter and miss Good Friday all together. You will recall some of the outrage over Mel Gibson’s movie “The Passion of Christ.” It was upsetting to many because it hit a nerve. Preaching the cross does that. I didn’t have anything to do with His birth and I didn’t have anything to do with His Resurrection but I am the one who put Him on the cross. It was for my sins that He died and that is not a comfortable truth to preach or to hear.

So Paul says he will never boast in anything except the cross of Christ. When you really think about it, that makes all the sense in the world. In what else could Paul boast? His brilliance? His gifts? His apostleship?

When I was in seminary outside of Boston I used to make frequent trips to the Museum of Fine Arts in the city. Believe it or not, seminary can be a very dry place for your soul. Gordon-Conwell was so intensely academic that I had to use all of my resources to keep up and all that work and no play made Johnny a dull boy. So when I would feel my soul getting dry I would go to the museum and stand before the Masters, in particular the European and American Impressionists, and I would drink in the beauty and restore my balance. That place was heaven for me because it also had a very large collection of Samurai swords and armor, which I also find fascinating and beautiful works of art.

But as I think about what I saw, I give credit not to the paint and the canvas that I viewed but to the Master who painted them. People would most often call these paintings not by their titles but by the Master. “Look, there’s a Monet, there’s a Degas, there’s a John Singer Sargent.”
And so it is with us as Christians. We are His workmanship. We can’t boast about who we are because we did not make ourselves who we are. Any gift or calling or ability we have comes from the Master and so there is nothing in us to boast about. Our boast is in Him. Our hope is that when others look at us they say. “Look there is a Christ in one” and credit the Master.

Paul takes it a step further and says that it is through the Cross that the world is crucified to him and he to the world and then he goes on to speak of a “new creation.” These are some powerful ideas and we sell ourselves short if we don’t understand what he is talking about here.

Too much of the Church thinks that the Christian life is, in essence, asking Jesus to forgive you so that one day you can go to heaven. That’s pretty much it. Until that day comes you hang on and hope to get raptured. But that is not the picture that the Bible paints. Being a Christian is uniting with Christ, being buried with Him in the waters of baptism and being raised with Him in newness of life. The person that you used to be; now you consider as dead. The inheritance that you have in Christ is far more precious to you than the bowl of porridge that the world offers to you in exchange. Christ has made and is making you new so that you fit into this new heaven and new earth that He is preparing.

As I was cross-referencing this idea of a new creation, I came across these study notes in 2 Corinthians 5 in the English Standard Version Study Bible. It said that the new creation is “the redemption of a people who now live for Christ by living for others, effected by the power of the Spirit and the death of Christ. (it) is the new creation that was destined to come amid this evil age. This new creation is also the beginning of Israel’s final restoration from God’s judgment in the exile.”

They are saying three things here. First is that when we die to our old selves through the Cross and are filled with the Spirit, we will live for Christ by living for others. We will never know any spiritual depth if we are living for ourselves alone. I think of Mother Theresa who was dead to the world but lived for others, looking for Christ in all people.

The second thing they are saying about the new creation is that it is not pie in the sky in the sweet by and by. It is the kingdom of God breaking into this evil age. The Rapture error is rooted in an untruth that the Church will be taken out of here and the world turned over to the devil. But Jesus says the kingdom of God is like leaven, it starts out small but eventually leavens the whole lump. As Christians we are not to be looking how to bail out of this world, rather we are to be working and praying to transform this world. That is the proper vision of the Kingdom of God. One of my favorite prayers in the Prayer Book is found in the Good Friday liturgy. It shows us Jesus’ goal in dying on the Cross, this Cross in which we boast.

O God of unchangeable power and eternal light:
Look favorably on your whole Church, that wonderful and sacred
mystery; by the effectual working of your providence, carry
out in tranquility the plan of salvation; let the whole world
see and know that things which were cast down are being
raised up, and things which had grown old are being made
new, and that all things are being brought to their perfection
by him through whom all things were made, your Son Jesus
Christ our Lord; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity
of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

God is making not just you and me, but He is making all things new. That’s worth living for!
The third thing that these notes tell us about the new creation is that it is the beginning of Israel’s final restoration from the time of the exile. Isaiah who prophesied to Israel when they were in exile said this as the voice of God.
“See, I will create
new heavens and a new earth.
The former things will not be remembered,
nor will they come to mind.
But be glad and rejoice forever
in what I will create,
for I will create Jerusalem to be a delight
and its people a joy.
I will rejoice over Jerusalem
and take delight in my people;
the sound of weeping and of crying
will be heard in it no more….
They will not labor in vain,
nor will they bear children doomed to misfortune;
for they will be a people blessed by the Lord,
they and their descendants with them.
Before they call I will answer;
while they are still speaking I will hear.
The wolf and the lamb will feed together,
and the lion will eat straw like the ox,
and dust will be the serpent’s food.
They will neither harm nor destroy
on all my holy mountain,”

This vision of peace and prosperity is a vision of the Kingdom that is now and is to come. It is a vision fulfilled through the Church, as we become the royal priesthood and holy nation that we are destined to be. It is why we refuse to live a life that is divided between secular and sacred. Rather we take this new life of Christ into our businesses and into the market place and into our families so that the reign of Christ can be felt there too. It is as we treat others with dignity and respect and stand up for righteousness; it is as we refuse to compromise or tolerate injustice; it is as we bear one another’s burdens and thus fulfill the law of Christ, that we will see the gates of hell begin to bend and break against the ever expanding Kingdom of God. God has not given us an evacuation plan; He has given us a commission to bring all things in subjection to His Christ. Our job is not over until that comes about. The first step is to decide along with St. Paul to never boast in anything except the cross of Christ. Amen.

Sermon – 6 Pentecost C – 2013

BBQ

Some of you may have watched live TV last Sunday as Nic Walenda spent 22 minutes walking on a two-inch cable across the Grand Canyon. I could not watch it. I have a thing about heights and it is getting worse as I age. If I am sitting in a movie and they have a dramatic scene or a battle that involves heights, even though I keep telling myself that it is only a movie, my hands go clammy and I start to sweat. I don’t do anything over 6 feet because gravity is a law and I believe that you should always obey the law. Plus I’m a coward.

So before Nic walked across the 1,500 ft. deep canyon, with no tether and no net, he was interviewed. He said that he felt it was his destiny to do it. I might say psychosis but he called it destiny. He was confident and he was prepared. When I heard this interview it made me wonder what the Church would be like if all of us were that confident and prepared to live into our callings, to fulfill our destiny. St. Peter in his second epistle exhorts all Christians to be diligent to make our calling and election sure and so I think it is a holy goal to become confident and prepared in our calling. Today’s lessons point us in the right direction.

The passages that we have in front of us today, in the Old Testament lesson and in the Gospel, are remarkably similar. In 1st Kings we see Elijah calling Elisha and in Luke we see Jesus clarifying His call to His disciples. In both cases the response expected was to be without reservation. I see in these narratives a pattern that perhaps we can look for in our own lives.

First is the call itself. It is so important to be clear about that because that sets stage for all that follows. Elisha was out plowing in a field when Elijah walked by and threw his mantle or cloak over him. This is where we get the term “passing the mantle” when authority is being transferred from one person to another. The call came from the Master to the servant, not the other way around. In the same way Jesus said to His disciples in John 15, “You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide.”

There is great comfort in knowing that God chose us, as it says in Ephesians, even before the foundations of the world. He adopts us into His family and since it is His idea, His initiative, we know, as St. Paul said, that He who began a good work in us will carry it on to completion until that day of Christ Jesus (Phil 1:6). He chose us so we can be assured that nothing can separate us from His love (Rom 8:38).

There is a psychological phenomenon called “the imposter syndrome.” It happens to intelligent, successful people who are unable to internalize their success. They credit their accomplishments to luck or being in the right time at the right place and they feel like a fraud, undeserving of their position and salary. They secretly fear that if anyone finds out that they don’t have a clue what they are doing, they will be fired and disgraced.

I believe that there is a spiritual version of this that many suffer from. Even though they are fruit-bearing followers of Christ, they feel like a fraud. They know their own demons and they secretly fear that if anyone found out the evil thoughts and desires of their hearts that they would be labeled a hypocrite or a non-Christian. The way to stop those condemning inner voices is to remember that Christ chose you, you did not choose Him and what you are doing is responding to His call. You are not making claims that you are perfect or that you have arrived. You are simply saying “Yes” to Him because He has called.

The next step I see in the pattern before us is that after the call comes the challenge. The call places a fork in the road and as Yogi Berra once said, “When you come to the fork in the road, take it.” At least that’s what we want to do. But in reality we cannot. We must make an either/or decision. When the Bishop called me and told me that he wanted me to quit my job and go to seminary, how would he have reacted if I said, “I will do that Bishop but first I want to get a lucrative job and become a millionaire so that I don’t have to worry about money while I am in seminary.” Most likely I would have never been sent to seminary. “Yeah Elijah I want to follow you but first let me say goodbye to my parent.” “That’s okay, maybe you need to go think about it.” “Yeah Jesus I want to follow you but let me first go back and say farewell.” “That’s okay, if you start looking back you shouldn’t have made the commitment in the first place.”

Challenges come to us in many forms. I have always been confused by the testimonies that I have heard in churches or on TV of someone whose life was a total mess but once they came to Jesus then everything in their life turned into a blessing. That is so far from my experience that I wondered if we were talking about the same Jesus.

Look at the life of St. Paul before his conversion. He had a place of dignity and respect. He was a Pharisee of Pharisees, schooled by one of the wisest men in the world. He would be given the seat of honor at a banquet. Then he became a follower of Christ and he was arrested, beaten, stoned and left for dead, shipwrecked, bitten by a snake, exposed to hunger and cold and spent the last part of his life chained between two soldiers before he was executed. I guess St. Paul just didn’t have enough faith.

God of course does not send us these challenges to torment us but He does use them to test us and even to strengthen us. I have a passion for edged weapons and I used to get a couple of monthly magazines that had great articles on the making of knives and swords. Part of the process of making a good edged weapon is called tempering. This is where the steel is placed in heat because the heat rearranges the molecular structure of the metal to make it both strong and flexible. Otherwise the metal is too hard and brittle to be of good use. In Romans 5 St. Paul says, “More than that, we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that sufferings produce endurance and endurance produces character and character produces hope…” So if you are facing challenges, don’t take them as a sign that God has abandoned you, rather understand that He is tempering you, it is a part of being called.

The third part of the call pattern is commitment. This is done in a dramatic way with Elisha. He not only accepts the call from Elijah but he takes the animals with which he was plowing and he sacrifices them to God. There was no going back. Jesus said that if we put our hand to the plow and look back we are not fit for the kingdom of God.

We are often told that we should never burn our bridges, but that is not true in the kingdom of God. Our commitment is to be total and complete. Why? First of all because Jesus’ commitment to us was total and complete. “He who was without sin became sin for us so that we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21). But secondly because without a total commitment the door is left open to compromise and from a spiritual perspective, compromise is a deadly disease.

In our Bible Study we have been reading through the One Year Bible. Last week the readings included the story of King Jehu who created a clever sting to rid that land of Baal worship. He called for a solemn assembly of all who worshipped Baal pretending that he was going to offer a great sacrifice. He declared that to miss the assembly would result in death. Jehu even had special robes given to all the ones who worshipped Baal and once he had them marked and all in one place, he killed them and destroyed their temple, converting it into a public toilet. This was recorded in the Book of Kings as pleasing to God but his commitment was not total which opened the door to compromise. The text says, “In this way Jehu destroyed every trace of Baal worship from Israel. He did not however destroy the gold calves at Bethel and Dan, with which Jeroboam had caused Israel to sin… Jehu was not careful to walk in the law of the Lord…with all his heart” (1 Kings 10:25-31). We read over and over again in the Old Testament of the people of Israel declaring allegiance to the One True God but also clinging to the pagan gods as a kind of backup plan. If YHWH does not bless the herds and the crops maybe this or that god will. They stand as an eternal warning to the Church not to compromise, to have no plan B.

That is the one thing I will give to Nic Walenda, as insane as I think he was to walk across the Grand Canyon. He was all in. There was no plan B. As I mentioned earlier, he refused a net or a tether and so it was literally either do or die. Nic is a Christian and he said that he knew where he was going if he fell. Yeah, me too 1,500 feet straight down into the Colorado River! But of course he meant by that that he knew was going to heaven.

But let’s give this some perspective. If Nic Walenda was willing to put it all on the line, to not have a plan B, all for fulfilling a dream of walking across the Grand Canyon, then it is not too much of Jesus to ask us to put our hands to the plow and not look back so that we can inherit the kingdom of God. It may sound like an impossible demand but we must always remember that the Lord never gives us a command without also giving us the grace to obey His command. Jesus sent us the Holy Spirit to empower us for that purpose. St Paul said in Galatians that we are to live by the Spirit so that we do not live to gratify the desires of the flesh. And the benefits to our lives of living by the Spirit are amazing. This is especially true when compared to what we reap in our lives when we follow the world, the flesh and the devil, in spite of the promises they make to give you a better life.

The false promises of the world, the flesh and the devil remind me of those commercials that promise to relieve you of pain or help your depression or help you lose weight. It all sounds great until you listen to the disclaimers and warnings. This is an actual disclaimer after a promised miracle cure.

Some side effects can be serious. The following symptoms are uncommon, but if you experience any of them, call your doctor immediately:
* leg pain or swelling
* shortness of breath
* coughing up blood
* cough that doesn’t go away
(here is my favorite warning)* blue-grey color or darkening around mouth or nails
* dizziness
* fainting
* blurred vision
* temporary confusion
* slow or difficult speech
* loss of memory or ability to concentrate
* hallucinating (seeing things or hearing voices that do not exist)
* extreme tiredness
* seizures
* weakness, numbness, heaviness, or tingling in arms or legs
* floppiness or loss of muscle tone
* lack of energy
* increased or rapid heart beat
* irregular heart beat
* chest pain or tightness
* excessive sweating
* fever, sore throat, chills, cough, and other signs of infection
* rash
* hives
* itching
* swelling of the face, throat, tongue, lips, eyes, hands, feet, or ankles
* wheezing
* difficulty breathing or swallowing
* hoarseness. Well sign me up!

The flesh says that you should not take your religion too seriously otherwise you will not have fun in life. But after promising fun, St. Paul gives us their list of warnings. “…impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, anger quarrels, dissentions, factions….” We want those things in our lives about as much as we want the symptoms on the commercial.

What does the Lord promise if we will live in the Spirit? Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness and self-control. I know that I would welcome those side affects in my life and I am certain that you would too.

So Christ has called each of us. When answer that call we will face some challenges but we will be able to meet them with full commitment to Him.
Job said after all said and done, “Though He slay me, yet will I trust Him.” That is where we need to be also. Jesus asks us to put our hands to the plow and not look back. It is good for us, as we answer that call us to look around and see if we have any oxen that we need to BBQ first. We can be certain that any sacrifices we are called to make will more than be rewarded by having fruits of the Spirit in our daily lives. So what do you say? You fire up grill and I’ll bring the beer. Amen.

Sermon – July 4, 2013

God Bless America 2

As most of you know I was raised in military family so being patriotic is in my DNA. Also I have lived and traveled in other parts of the world and so I know from personal experience what a great nation this is and how blessed we are to experience the freedoms that God intends mankind to have.

That said I must confess to being deeply distressed over the direction of our country. Consider the core unit that makes up our society, that being the family. Today more couples are choosing to live together than marry. Among Black families, illegitimacy has sky-rocked from under 8% in the 1960’s to nearly 70% today. This has all kinds of ramifications in terms of poverty and crime and the deepening of class divisions.

Add to this the recent Supreme Court ruling striking down the Defense of Marriage Act. The very idea of family is being redefined. Jesus said that a man shall leave his mother and father and cleave unto his wife and the two will become one flesh but Court has decided differently. They know better than our Creator

What is equally troubling are these culture wars where we are not just seeing a difference of opinion on social matters where we agree to disagree. The climate of the country is to crush the opposition. Justice Scolia in his dissent from the majority opinion was outraged with the language and reasoning of our highest court. He said that their position was that anyone who is opposed to same sex marriage is “an enemy of human decency.” So now only two sides are those who hate and those who support. You are not opposed because of the teachings of Holy Scripture, or the teachings of your Church, or even because of personal convicitions. You are only opposed because of hate. That then opens to the door, as it recently did in Canada, to any form of oppostion being declared as hate speech and the citizen or organization being punished for it.

If I am truly honest with you, I also find myself as someone who loves my country but not my government. I resent the NRS snooping on citizens, the IRS targeting pro life groups and I especially resent the government telling me that it has no power to limit the killing of unborn babies, but it does have the power to limit the size of my soft drinks. In my opinion the government control of our personal lives is far beyond the intentions of the framers. You may be okay with all these things but I find myself constantly feeling that I have fallen down the rabbit hole with Alice, where up is down and down is up. So the question I have posed to myself and perhaps to those of you with similar concerns is what do I do about this as a follower of Christ?

First, perhaps most important is to pray. St. Paul wrote to Timothy “First of all, then, I urge you that supplications, prayers, intercessions and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peacful and quiet life and dignified in every way.” (1 Tim 2:1)

We even know the theology behind Paul’s admonition to pray for our government. He says in Romans 13 “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority, except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God.” (Rom 13:1) So we are to pray for our government whether we agree with them or not.

What do we pray about? We pray for mercy for our nation. Bishop Beach posted this haunting quote from Anglican Priest John Newton, who wrote the hymn “Amazing Grace.” “Communities, as such, in their collective capacity, are visited and judged in the present life. And, in this respect, the Scripture considers nations as individuals; each having an infancy, growth, maturity, and declension. Every succeeding generation accumulates the stock of national sin, and there is a measure of iniquity which determines the period of kingdoms. Till this measure is filled up, the patience of God waits for them, but then patience gives way to vengeance . . . When God is exceedingly displeased with a people, it is not necessary, in order to their punishment, that he should bury them alive by an earthquake, or destroy them by lightning. If he only leave them to themselves, withdraw his blessing from their counsels, and his restraint from their passions, their ruin follows of course, according to the necessary order and connection of causes and effects.”

I completely agree with Fr. Newton, but my concern is that God is not so much leaving us to ourselves as much as more and more we telling Him to go away. So while I fear that we may even now be on an irreversible decline I still will continue to pray for God to not withdraw His blessing from our counsels and that He would restrain our passions. It seems like yesterday I was at a Bicentennial celebration in Florida and it also seemed that everywhere you turned in those days that you saw the words of 2 Chronicles. “If my people who are called by my Name will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and heal their land.” We need to go back to that verse
again and again and pray accordingly for our nation.

A second thing I can do is to focus on the teachings of both Deuteronomy passage and the Gospel lesson for today, both of which call upon us to walk in love. I believe that it is understandable, and even permissible, for me as a Christian to resent it when my government tries to take away my rights by violating the Constitution. That is tyranny and this very nation was created over the rejection of tyranny. But it is also true, that as a Christian, I cannot allow resentment to rule my heart. It should move me to action, but I cannot allow it to be the dominant force in my life. Since loving God and loving my neighbor is how I fulfill the law and the prophets, that must be my guiding force.

Of course that is easier said and done. For example earlier this week at a pro-life rally in Texas, a crowd was singing “Amazing Grace.” Some pro-abortion folks tried to shout them down by shouting, “Hail Satan.” You can’t get more polar opposite from one another than that. But if you match evil with evil, or hate with hate, then everyone loses. We are called to meet evil with good. Proverbs says, “If your enemy is hungry, give him food to eat; if he is thirsty, give him water to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head, and the Lord will reward you.” I like this Proverb, which by the way St. Paul quotes in Romans 12; because it takes love out of a touchy feely thing and into practical things that we can do to love our enemies. You will never argue someone into the kingdom but you can love them in and you can do that by finding practical ways to minister to them. In the end I can get into a knot about all that is wrong and be filled with anger and fear or I can decide to live righteously and love my neighbor, and go back to step one and pray.

A third I can do is to adjust my perspective.The letter to the Hebrews says that Abraham was a sojourner in this life because he was looking for a city whose builder and maker was God. St. Paul reminds us in Philippians that our citizenship is in heaven. S we have to be careful and not put our roots too deep
in this American soil. This heaven and this earth, including the US of A, are going to pass away. God is preparing for us a new heaven and a new earth and that is where our true hopes lie. So while I am much happier being a Christian in the United States, and especially in the Deep South, I am a Christian first and foremost and my ultimate citizenship is not here.

The last thing I can do is to be thankful. In spite of many problems that plague our land, there is still so much for which to be thankful. We didn’t have to call any agency to get permission to gather today as used to be the case in China, and maybe still is. We don’t live in constant fear that we are going to be slaughtered for our faith as is happening now in Nigeria. We are not facing daily missile attacks as they do in Israel. So much of the world has the challenge every day of simply staying alive one more day. We are so used to all of our blessings that we don’t even see them anymore. It is good for the soul for us to pay closer attention and give thanks to the Lord for His many blessings. It is why we are gathering here today and this is a good and proper thing to do.

Most of you will know the name Alexis de Tocqueville. He was a Frenchman who came to study the new democracy and loved what he saw. But he also issued some warnings. He said, “The American Republic will endure until the day Congress discovers that it can bribe the public with the public’s money.” He also said “America is great because she is good. If America ceases to be good, America will cease to be great.”

These quotes make me wonder about our future but I still I have to conclude that whether this experiment in democracy will go on another 200+ years or if this ship called America is sinking the role of the Church does not change. To paraphrase prophet Micah we are to work for justice, we are to love mercy and we are to walk humbly before our God. Now more than ever this nation needs to hear the voice of the Church cry out in the wilderness, “Repent for the kingdom of God is at hand.” And may our prayer forever be, “God bless America.”