Kissing Your Scars

Baby-Kissing-on-Mirror

In the One Year Bible we have been reading about the life of Joseph. Given that his story begins in chapter 37 of Genesis and ends in chapter 50, it is one of the longer narratives in the Bible. The life of such a prominent man surely has lessons for us.

The greatest lesson for me is Joseph’s ability to avoid bitterness and unforgiveness by grasping God’s greater plan. His brothers sold him into slavery and lied to his father that he was dead. While in Egypt he was treated unjustly by the wife of his Master, falsely accused and imprisoned. Joseph had a number of reasons to be resentful about the events of his life over which he had no control.

Years later, after coming to power and being reunited with his brothers, he had every opportunity for revenge. While he did play a number of cat and mouse games, his love for his brothers was evident throughout. The Scriptures record a number of times when Joseph had to leave the room to weep, which is hardly the action of a man hardened by bitterness.

When his brothers realized that this powerful man was their brother Joseph, understandably they feared for their lives. But Joseph said, “you meant it for evil, but God meant it for good.” He knew that if his brothers had not sold him into slavery in Egypt then he would not have risen to power and been able to save many, including his own family, from starvation. Joseph had learned to kiss his scars.

I connect to this story. Many years ago my best friend betrayed and sinned against me, which resulted in a number of dominos falling and negatively impacting my life in a profound way. Of course I was not without my own sin and guilt, but that does not change the fact that, like Joseph’s brothers, he did evil against me. When I was in the midst of the fallout and pain I could not for the life of me understand why God would allow such a thing to happen. As I was drowning in self-pity a true friend said to me, “He did you a favor” but I could not see it at the time. He was right.

As years went by I was able to see the hand of God in it all. If it were not for my friend’s actions I would have not moved to Chattanooga. If I had not moved to Chattanooga I would have never met Beth, whose very smile heals my soul. If I had not attended St. Paul’s in Chattanooga, my Rector would not have directed me into the priesthood. If I had not entered the priesthood, then I would have never had the privilege of knowing and serving the people of St. Paul’s and All Saints’ and St. Patrick’s and Church of the Redeemer and St. Stephens and on and on. God meant it for good.

Joseph understood and I am learning that evil does not have the final word. God does not cause the evil but His love is so powerful and His goodness so transformational that He works all things together for our good. Thus, in only a way that God could orchestrate, Judas’ kiss sets the stage for the redemption of the world.

Look back over you own life. Unless you have been blinded by bitterness and unforgiveness you will see God’s hand also has turned evil into good. You may have scars that you would not wish on your worst enemy but they are a part of who you are today. You would not be you without them. So give thanks to God for His goodness by learning to kiss those scars.

Stump the Rector – Saints, Resurrection and a New Heaven and Earth

new heaven and new earth

I’m showing my protestant raising here but I’m still confused about the Saints. I’m in agreement that they are in glory but it’s confusing when I read scriptures about the resurrection of the dead (hope of resurrection) 1 Corinth 15-33; and expounded on further in the same scripture.

Do our spirits go to God when we die but the body lies in the ground (corruptible) until that glorious day when Jesus comes and transforms our bodies from corruptible to incorruptible? And if so, what scriptures can we use as a ‘defense’ when we get attacked by those who don’t share the same belief?

Good question and you are on the right track. Also you were very right to go to 1 Corinthians 15 because it is all about the resurrection of the dead. In addition we can make some educated inferences about the afterlife from looking at the activities in heaven as recorded in the Revelation to John.

First it is important to rid ourselves of cultural notions about heaven. When we die we don’t become angels. They are a different order of creation. (Sorry but this means Clarence will never get his wings). Also our ultimate state is not sitting on clouds behind some pearly gate guarded by St. Peter. The promise of the Scriptures is a new heaven AND a new earth (Rev 21). We will dwell in this new heaven and earth with the Lord and with each other in our resurrected bodies. This is what Bishop NT Wright calls “ the life after the life after death.”

What happens until then? Our bodies return to the earth (“remember thou art dust and to dust thou shalt return”) while our spirits are taken to be with the Lord and we await the resurrection when we will receive our incorruptible bodies. Those spirits presently with the Lord are the saints we read about in the Revelation to John who are making intercession and who are crying out “how long?” (Rev 6:9-11; 8:4).

There are some who mistakenly believe that we are unaware of anything between the time of our death and the resurrection of the dead because St. Paul uses the term “asleep in the Lord” (1 Thess 4:14). But that is a euphemism for death and the dead are nor more asleep than there was actually a bucket for them to kick. How do we know that? First because St. Paul says “to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord” (2 Cor 5:8). Again we have the saints in heaven praying (Rev 8:4) as well as elders worshipping (Rev 4:10). Third at the Transfiguration Jesus was speaking with Moses and Elijah who were aware of what was going to happen to HIM, even though the disciples did not (Mt 17:1-13). Fourth, when Jesus told the story of the beggar Lazarus and the rich man, both dying and going to their respective rewards, they were not asleep but were aware of one another’s condition (Lk 16:19-31).

Thus after the writer of Hebrews dedicates a whole chapter on the actions of the saints that have gone before us he says, “Therefore since we have so great a cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us lay aside every encumbrance and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us.” It would be difficult to be encouraged by a great cloud of witnesses if they were all asleep.

Instead the picture the writer of Hebrews gives us is that of a stadium where we are on the field engaged in a race while those who have gone before us are surrounding us and cheering us on. There is a prayer in the BCP that captures this so well.

“Almighty God, by your Holy Spirit you have made us one
with your saints in heaven and on earth: Grant that in our
earthly pilgrimage we may always be supported by this
fellowship of love and prayer, and know ourselves to be
surrounded by their witness to your power and mercy. We
ask this for the sake of Jesus Christ, in whom all our
intercessions are acceptable through the Spirit, and who lives
and reigns for ever and ever. Amen.” (BCP p395).

Therefore when we die, we join the cloud of witnesses and pray for and cheer on the Church that is running the race after us. With them we all await the resurrection of the dead when we will receive our incorruptible bodies and live forever with the Lord in a new heaven and new earth. It will be the ultimate answer to our prayer “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”

On Divorce

Divorce

A parishioner who was divorced due to physical and emotional abuse wonders about Jesus’ teaching in Matthew and if she would have the option of marrying again.

“It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of sexual immorality, makes her commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery. (Matthew 5:31, 32 ESV)

How do we interpret this passage and how do we pastorally apply it?

Before we can make an application to our own lives, first we need to understand the problem that Jesus is addressing. In His day a man could divorce his wife for any and every reason and all he had to do was to declare it and the marriage was over. In that era women did not have a great deal of options to have meaningful lives outside of marriage so easy divorce was the bane of women. In this defense of marriage Jesus was demonstrating God’s justice.

Second we need to understand the sin that Jesus said can lead to divorce. In the Greek it is “porneias” from which we get the word pornography. The ESV correctly interprets it “sexual immorality” because it includes homosexuality, bestiality, adultery and any other variation of sex outside of marriage. In this Jesus is protecting the sanctity of marriage where the nature of its unity is a reflection of Christ’s unity with the Church (Eph 5:25-333). Since we are to be one flesh with our spouse, to join our flesh with any other violates the covenant and destroys the image of Christ and the Church. This is no light matter in spite of how the culture portrays it.

Is sexual sin the only valid reason to end a marriage? Some say yes but others point to St Paul’s words that speak of abandonment. “But if the unbelieving partner separates, let it be so. In such cases the brother or sister is not enslaved. God has called you to peace.” (1 Corinthians 7:15 ESV) If this is so then we need to consider what actions or attitudes comprise abandonment. Without getting legalistic it would seem to open to the door to various forms of abandonment, which would require the discernment and counsel of the Church.

When I was first in ordained ministry I faced a very difficult situation related to this. A woman who had a three year old daughter came to me because she was concerned for her daughter’s safety. Her husband was addicted to pornography and had moved deeper into his addiction by now consuming child pornography. She asked my counsel. My struggle was that technically he had not touched the girl so had he broken the covenant? Did his addiction equal porneias? Even more the point, were we supposed to wait until he destroyed his daughter’s life before we acted?

I called him into my office and confronted him about his sexual addiction but he took the route of it being a victimless “crime” so he saw no problems with it. He ignored my warnings and he refused to repent. I concluded that this was an abandonment of the marriage because he was choosing pornography over his wife, and since the kind of pornography that he was consuming was setting the scene for abuse, that it was time to act. I counseled the wife to take her daughter and get as far away from his as humanly possible and not consider returning until he had repented and sought treatment. It was a heartbreaking thing to see a family come apart but it seemed to me that the protection of that little girl was our highest priority.

A third thing that should be addressed about Jesus’ words. While divorce except for sexual immorality (and possibly abandonment) is a sin, is it the unpardonable sin? No. Jesus tells us that there is only one sin that is unpardonable and this isn’t it. So if a person has a marriage fail, it should be treated as any other sin. They move forward by admitting the sin, repenting of it and purposing to amend their life.

Before a priest can perform a marriage of someone who has been divorced he must counsel the couple and together with them seek permission from the Bishop. This is usually done in a letter that explains why the last marriage failed, why it is believed that this marriage will succeed, and a statement of faith. They also must give assurance that all previous responsibilities are met and that this is a life long commitment. I also STRONGLY suggest that he or she or both make a sacramental confession concerning their divorce so that the slate can be cleaned, the door to the past sins shut, and the mercies of God carry them into their future. In fact I encourage someone who had biblical justification for divorce to also make a sacramental confession because I have never witnessed a failed marriage where it is 100% one partner’s fault. We have an Advocate who is the propitiation for our sins so we should not hesitate to come before the throne of grace. This strikes the balance of upholding marriage as a sacrament while not making divorce a permanent scarlet letter.

Sermon – Hope, Riches, Power

Hope, riches and power

2nd Sunday after Christmas Day A St. Patrick’s/Smyrna Fr. Raymond Kasch
January 5, 2014
Jer 31:7-14 Ps 84:1-8 Eph 1:3-5, 15-19 St. Matt 2:13-23

Here we are at the beginning of a new year and it is still new enough to be filled with all kinds of promise. Post after post on Facebook these last few day have expressed hopes that this would be the best year ever. But that will only be possible if we fix our attention in the right direction. My response in my own post was “Our hope is not in the new year….but in the One who makes all things new.” This lesson from Ephesians points us in that direction.
When we consider what St. Paul is praying for them, and when assume as an inspired apostle that these are what God wants for them and for us, then we can conclude that what God wants for us is nothing short of astonishing. He prays that they would 1) know what is the hope of their calling, 2) know what are the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints and 3) know what is the immeasurable greatness of God’s power for us who believe. Hope, riches and power. That’s what the Apostle is praying for. Hope, riches and power. Just saying that out loud makes me feel like a TV preacher, but not wanting to sound like one of them does not negate the fact that this is God’s desire for us.
But let me quickly add that our next task is to better understand what these things truly are and what they mean for our lives. You probably don’t need a spoiler alert for me to tell you that the hope, riches and power of the Apostle’s prayer are not what people typically imagine them to be.

First we need to understand that St. Paul uses the word “hope” very differently than how we use it today. When we speak of hope today we really mean something that we wish for and that may or may not happen. “I hope one day to get married.” “I hope one day to be rich and famous.” “I hope one day to win the lottery.” Some of those hopes may be realistic and some of them don’t have a prayer but none of them are assured. That is why we hope for them. But when St. Paul speaks of hope it is not a wish, it is a reality but it is a reality that has yet to been realized. For example when he speaks in Philippians of the hope of the resurrection he is not wishing for something that may or may not happen for him. He is assured of the resurrection but because it has not yet happened it is his hope. It is in the future but still he can take it to the bank today.

Thus while the New International Version says “I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you” the New Living Translation avoids confusion over the word hope and simply says “so that you can understand the wonderful future he has promised to those he called.”

It is important to note here that St. Paul is NOT praying that we will have a wonderful future; rather he prays that we will be enlightened so that we will understand that we have a wonderful future. It is already a part of God’s plan for us who are in Christ but we often lose sight of that in our day-to-day lives. We also lose sight of that when it looks like the good guys are not necessarily winning and when it seems that the light at the end of the tunnel may just be an oncoming train. That is why we need the eyes of our heart to be enlightened.

I read a statistic the other day that pleasantly surprised me. Researches at the University of Cincinnati have discovered that 85% of what we worry about never comes to pass. 85%! That statistic is enough to make you worry about how much you worry. I’ll give you an even more accurate statistic. In 50 years 100% of what I am worried about will not happen. And yet how much of peace and joy I lose through this fruitless activity. How about you?

When Jesus tells us in the Sermon on the Mount not to worry about what we will drink or eat or wear but to seek first the kingdom of God, He is telling us to get our eyes off of the temporal things and to focus on the wonderful future that God has for us. It’s not that we are not to care about our life here and go off and join a convent. But rather we are to put our cares and concerns for this life in the context of the guaranteed wonderful life that God has in store for us. Why is that important to do?

To put it simply, if you think this life is all there is then it makes sense to do all that you can do to be happy now, even if that includes being unfaithful to the truth. But if you believe that you have an eternity of happiness before you, then you will endure what you need to endure in this life in order to be faithful, even if it means not being happy…….at least not yet.

The icing on the cake of this prayer is that we are told that Christ has been raised to God’s right hand in heavenly places and we as His Body are there with Him. We are even now seated with Him in heavenly places! This means that for the Christian, even tragedy is a temporary state. God has ordained us for a joy and glory that is everlasting.

There is a second thing that St. Paul prays. He prays that we will see what a rich and glorious inheritance God has given to us in the saints. Actually the Greek here is not really clear and I wonder if the Apostle did not intentionally make it ambiguous in order to leave us with a layer of interpretations. You can either translate the passage to read that we have a rich heritage WITH the saints or we have a rich heritage IN the saints. Or perhaps we are to understand it as both.

Let me try to explain what St. Paul means by looking at our parish. A little over 7 years ago God called us out as a congregation, put together a staff, led us to property and later moved us into our permanent home. This was done by His and your faithfulness and it was done without old endowments or diocesan finances or diocesan oversight. (And that latter was actually a very good thing. The last time I had to defend a building program before a diocesan building committee, that didn’t know the difference between a sacristy and a sack of potatoes, I nearly lost my religion). Anyway, my point is that while we received no outside help, it all came together and we were still able to reach out in significant ways to help refugees and others in need, we were able to send support to our newly formed Diocese and we even helped a small parish in Texas to survive that was led by Bishop Ackerman.

When you consider that not all of the parishes that did a similar thing survived, we can be sure that God has blessed us with riches. But one of the most important things that we learned in this whole process was something to which most only give lip service. That is the truth that the Church is the people and not the building. While I am ever grateful for this space and I love dearly it, we learned that our riches are not in brick and mortar, nor are they found in the financial statements that the Vestry reviews each month. Our treasures are in the saints sitting next to each other in the pews. Our treasure is in the saints who have gone before us. Our treasure and inheritance will be in the saints who will come after us. Our treasure is WITH the saints, in that we all share this treasure together, and our treasure is IN the saints, in that it is each of Jesus’ sheep that is of infinite worth.

I love the story of St. Lawrence who was a deacon and church treasurer in Rome. He was arrested in 258 AD and the Prefect of Rome ordered him to produce the treasures of the church. Lawrence said he would need two or three days to gather it and after three days he returned and as the doors were opened he presented the lame and the poor and the blind and said to the Prefect, “Behold the treasures of the Church.” He was taken away, and after being tortured, he was roasted alive on a gridiron. Lawrence was one who had the eyes of his heart enlightened.

The third thing for which the Apostle prays is that we would understand the incredible greatness of God’s power toward us. This last quality makes the first two a reality. It is all well and good for God to desire for us hope and riches but if He did not have the power to deliver them, then St. Paul’s prayer would just be an apostolic version of “Have a nice day”. If we can see that God’s power is perfect, then we can know that He will accomplish whatever He says he will accomplish, including and especially giving us our ultimate salvation. We certainly see God’s power to accomplish His will in the life of Jesus as revealed in our Gospel lesson today.

This is an interesting story. It is the Holy Family’s flight into Egypt and it is layered with some interesting questions. Was their flight into Egypt an afterthought or was it a part of God’s original plan? Did Joseph improvise, adapt and overcome, or was there something greater going on here? We know that Herod filled with rage that another king had been born, crafted a plan to take Jesus’ life. But Herod’s plan failed. God warned Joseph through a dream to take his family and to flee to Egypt and in doing so they fulfilled an ancient prophecy that God’s Son would come out of Egypt.

But what are we to make of all of this? Since Herod was the instigator that forced them to Egypt was Herod then a servant of God? No, clearly he was warring against God. And yet God used that. And what about Joseph? Did Joseph take Jesus to Egypt as some kind of a self-fulfilling prophecy? No, there is no indication that Joseph even knew about the prophecy, otherwise he wouldn’t have needed an angel to come to him in a dream and give him directions. What we see here is the power of God at work to accomplish God’s will. Somehow, in a way that only God can do it, both Joseph and Herod acted as free moral agents yet God had them accomplish what He had planned all along and had prophesied through the prophets. It is a mystery how God can be sovereign and man can be responsible at the same time but we don’t have to understand how it all works in order to celebrate it. We just need to know that God is all-powerful and what He wills for us will be done.

Years ago I heard a preacher say that God is depending on us to get the job done and that if we don’t do it then God will fail. Even at the time that I heard it I didn’t think that was right but I also knew that even if it was true I didn’t want that kind of responsibility. I didn’t want to think of God in His heavens wringing His hands and wondering if Kasch was going to get it done so that He didn’t fail. But of course you know that the preacher was wrong. God is more powerful than depending on us to keep from failing. While He has called us and we have the privilege of being coworkers with Him, we also need to remember that if we fail to get the job done He is perfectly capable, as Jesus said, of raising up the rocks to do it. Our joy and privilege is that through His power we are called and equipped to be His servants and yet it is also a great relief to know that even in our weakness, His power is perfected. This is a win-win situation for us.

So there you have it. Hope, riches and power. That is God’s will for us and that just might be a good thing to focus on in this New Year. Jesus said that He gives peace but not like the peace that the world gives and so we can also believe that He gives hope, riches and power also not as the world gives. That is a very good thing given that the hope, riches and power of the world are transient at best and corrupting at worse. So we can joyfully say, “I’d rather have whatever it is that Jesus is passing out.” May this be for each of you the best year ever, but the best year ever in Christ. Amen.