Beyond Tokenism

Tokenism

Lessons: Deut 15:7-11; 2 Cor 8:1-9, 13-15; St. Mark 5:22-43

We live in a time of tokenism. Two years ago New Jersey was declared a disaster area due to the storms. Politicians showed up and made speeches of support but CBS reported that thousands of our fellow citizens are still without homes. When the Muslims kidnapped the 300 girls in Nigeria the First Lady and other famous people tweeted their support for the girls but nothing was done to free them or to punish their captors. But at least they knew that we cared, that is if they had a twitter account. Last week when 9 Christians were martyred studying God’s Word the overwhelming response was to remove the Confederate flag. Ironically many of those calling on the flag’s removal are the same folks who would argue that pornography has no influence on violence against women and violent video games has no affect on kids, but hate will end if we just get the flag out of the WalMart.

Tokenism. The prevailing ethic these days is that you must show that you care, even if nothing of substance gets done. In fact it doesn’t even seem to matter that nothing of substance gets done as long as people know that you care. Feigned compassion is a new virtue.

We must not allow this ethic to enter the church. As James tells us we must be more than hearers of the Word, we must be doers of the Word. It is not enough to say that we love or that we care. We have to put hands and feet to our love and the lessons today give us very practical examples of that.

First notice that this call to show compassion for others, especially for the poor, in both the Old and New Testament Lessons is free of guilt. It is a call from God; it is not a threat. In fact the Old Testament lesson even contains a promise of blessing if we do what God says.

Last week I watched a YouTube video of a sermon that was preached by the priest that married Beth and me. The sermon addressed the killings in Charleston but he spent the first half of it saying that it was his congregation’s fault because they were not accepting enough of diversity as a church.

I don’t understand this kind of logic but it is used all the time. It is manipulative and therefore wrong. I would agree that we at St. Patrick’s, and I personally, need more work on showing acceptance and love. But I’m not about to take the blame for a wicked maniac racist in South Carolina. False guilt is no more productive in addressing the real problem than tokenism.

Second, notice that this call to show compassion is a voluntary call. St. Paul says, “I do not say this as a command, but I am testing the genuiness of your love….” We must be generous with others as God is generous with us but it should come from the heart. That is why I strongly disagree with the Pope’s recent statements that he would support the government taking money from the wealthy in order to redistribute it to the poor. God calls on us to be generous to the poor but He does not give others, including the government or even Robin Hood, the right to take from you and give it away. That is called stealing.

Imagine that you are in a class in college and you work very hard to make a good grade. What would be your response if the professor announced that to ensure grade equity he has reduced your A to a C and given your points to those with lower grades. You would be rightfully outraged. You should be able to keep that for which you have worked. If you choose to give it away, that is your right, but it is not the right of others to take it from you.

Especially coming from South America, the Pope of all people should realize what an assault his philosophy is on the work ethic. Nearly a third of his nation is below the poverty line. Why? What is their incentive? Who would bother burning the midnight oil to get an A in a class if it was going to be taken away and given to the jocks, some of whom don’t even try or care? I don’t think I would.

Third notice that this call to be generous to the poor comes from a realization that it all comes from God to begin with. The Deuteronomy passage speaks of giving to the poor in any of the towns “within the land that the LORD your God is giving you….” We have what we have because the Lord our God has given it to us and so in giving to the poor we are merely passing on what is His.

Several of us went to a conference where when we came back from lunch we found an envelope on our desks with 3 single dollar bills in it. We were told that we were going to take a few minutes to play a game. The game was that we were to give away the dollar bills and the only rules were that we could not refuse a gift and we could not give to someone who had given to us. People started moving around the room, trying to give their money away and many were receiving money as fast as they were giving it. The room filled with conversation and laughter and after about 20 minutes we were told to sit down. The result was not income equality. Some had given everything away and some ended up with more than $50. When asked why it was so fun to give this money away and why there were no resentments about what others had or did not have, it was obvious that it was because it was not our money to begin with.

Knowing it is not yours to begin with opens to door to generosity. Knowing that it is God’s frees you from the fear of scarcity or worry that there is not enough to go around. The Bible says, God owns the cattle on a thousand hills.

There us an underlying false concept with the Pope’s suggestion that the government take from some to give to others. The false concept is that there is only a finite amount of wealth and if there is a finite amount of wealth, then it is wrong for some to have disproportionately more than others. Some would even argue that the only way that the wealthy are wealthy is because they have stolen from the poor and so it is only right that the poor get back what should be theirs.

But you do not see this kind of argument in the Scriptures because that is a false concept. There is no end to God’s wealth. It all belongs to God. We have what we have not because we have stolen from anyone but because God has blessed us and He calls upon us to pass the blessings along. If the government followed what the Pope suggests it would actually be robbing us of a blessing and that is the blessing of being a blessing to others.

A fourth observation is that we are to be careful about our attitude toward the poor. We are not to be hard hearted or tight fisted. Deuteronomy says, “Be careful that you do not entertain a mean thought…”

The reality, as this text tells us and that Jesus reiterates, is that there will always be poor among us. But this is key. The poor are not a problem to be fixed, they are people to whom we show the love of God, especially if they are our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ.

But isn’t it the government’s job to care for the poor? The war on poverty in the United States has been going on for 50 years and according to the Heritage Foundation has cost us $22 trillion, that’s trillion with a “t” and yet there are more Americans on food stamps than ever before. How much is a trillion? If you spent $1 million EVERY DAY, since the birth of Jesus, you would not have yet spent $1 trillion. And yet $22 trillion later the government is still working on it. So again, we should not think of the poor as a problem to be fixed but as people to whom we show the love of God.

We also need to dispel any notion that the poor are poor because they want to be. Go to Haiti and you will see some of the worst poverty that you have ever seen. And no one there wants to be poor and they are not poor because they are lazy. That may be true for some in our country and it is also true that many of our programs end up fostering poverty but in many many cases, like the churches in Macedonia, people are poor because they face what St. Paul calls “a severe ordeal of affliction.”

I was there once. I became very ill which started a kind of domino affect in my life and I lost almost everything and I mean everything. I lost my job as pastor of a non denominational church and the loses kept happening until I was down to an old car that I bought for a dollar, my clothes in the back seat of the car and a boom box. That was it. I moved into a converted motel that was a dingy rent-by-the-week room and while I was there I was robbed. They took my boom box and my shoes. I had no idea what I was going to do when I got a call from someone who at the time I wouldn’t have even called a friend, although later he became a great one. He said to me, “The Lord has told me to hire you.” I asked “To do what?” He said, “I don’t know stupid, He hasn’t told me that part yet.”

We met for lunch and I ended up working with him for a season and he even sponsored me to finish my first seminary and later to attend an episcopal seminary. In many ways I am a priest today because he answered God’s call to be generous to someone who suffered “a severe ordeal of affliction.” He didn’t judge me. He didn’t presume I had become poor because of God’s judgment. He didn’t treat me like a problem to be fixed. He responded to God’s call with love and generosity and was a great source of God’s blessing in my life. The joy of doing this is that you have no idea the impact that you are making on their life and the life of countless others when you reach out in love.

A fifth observation is that when we respond to the needs of the poor, we are acting like Jesus. “For you now the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich.” In fact Jesus takes it a step further. He says that not only are we acting like Jesus when we help the poor but we are actually helping Jesus Himself. “As you have done it unto the least of these my brethren, you have done it unto Me.” 

It is also important to realize that when we act like Jesus, when we minister to Jesus by ministering to others, it will cost us just as it cost Him. There is more to ministering to others than just writing a check. In fact on some occasions that is precisely the wrong thing to do. Jesus became flesh and dwelt among us. He offers us His Body and Blood in the Eucharist. Ours is an incarnational religion so we need to have flesh in the game.

Last year before our first mission trip to Bolivia we had an important and needed discussion. Some rightfully wondered why we were spending all of the time and money to go down there in person when it seemed like it would more benefit the church in Bolivia if we just sent them a check. But they went down anyway and discovered how much richer their love and support meant to that church than if we had just sent money. When we help our mission team go down to Bolivia, as St. Paul said to the Corinthians, we are participating in that ministry with them. But we go in person because God came to us in Person.

The challenge from these lessons today is a challenge for us as a parish and for us as individuals. The challenge is to assess if we are doing all that God has called us to do to impact the lives of others. I know that it has been God’s work to help the Burmese Refugees but is God calling St. Patrick’s to do more? I believe that He is. I don’t think that we have yet impacted this community to the extent that we could or should, particularly when it comes to the poor.

How about us as individuals? Beth and I tithe to this church because the Scripture calls us to bring the tithes to the storehouse, which we believe to be the local congregation where Word and Sacrament are ministered. But the Bible also speaks of tithes AND offerings. Where else is His money going? Whose lives are we impacting, whose needs do we need to meet?

These are questions that no one can answer for us, they must be answered by discernment and prayer. Bottom line is that the world is full of tokenism and impotent compassion. What it needs is for the Church to rise up, and through word and deed, demonstrate the love of God. So rise up ye saints of God! Amen.

Eastward Facing Altars

Ad Orientem

The altar against the eastern wall (ad orientem) is a centuries old tradition full of significance. First it has the people facing east, the rising sun, which is a symbol of the resurrection of Christ. Second, east is also the symbolic direction of His Second Coming (Matthew 24:27). Third it connects the Church militant with the Church triumphant. We are to imagine the altar as the end of the heavenly banquet table, breaking into our time/space world. It is like the kiddie table at a Thanksgiving meal, where we are feasting together with all the faithful departed. Third, the eastward facing altar has the priest face the Lord rather than the people. That is important because his primary duty in worship is to minister to the Lord. The priest is not the host, he is the officiant, and so he leads by pointing the people to the Host.

I once had a Spanish speaking Bishop visit our church and through a translator asked me, “Do you celebrate with your back to the people?” I asked the translator to literally interpret my response. I said, “No sir I do not celebrate with my back to the people. I celebrate facing Christ with the people.” To this he gave a nod of understanding if not agreement.

Why Baptism?

Image

Lessons: Gen 3:1-21; 2 Cor 4:13-18; St. Mark 3:20-35

One of my favorite professors in seminary was named Roger Nicole. He was born in the French-speaking part of Switzerland and he maintained his heavy French accent. As a result when you sat in his class you felt like you were studying theology under Inspector Clouseau. Besides a string of degrees from some of the finest schools in Europe, he was an ordained Baptist minister. Each year he would debate a Presbyterian professor on the merits of infant baptism. Dr. Nicole did not believe in infant baptism so he would always begin his lecture by saying, “There are three types of scriptures. There are scriptures that mention baptism but do not mention children. There are scriptures that mention children but do not mention baptism. And there are scriptures that mention neither children nor baptism.” He would then get a wry smile on his face as if he just knocked one out of the park and there was nothing left to be said.

By contrast I served under a Bishop who was once asked by a street preacher if he believed in infant baptism. His response was “Believe in it? Why I’ve actually seen one.” And so will you today.

As you can imagine I agree with the Bishop but in honor of Dr. Nicole I want to take a look all three of our lessons today, which mention neither children nor baptism, and talk about both. I want to do this not as a defense of infant baptism but for us to consider more closely what we are about to do in baptizing Zoë and to remind all of us of the responsibilities that we bear as baptized followers of Christ.

The first and most obvious reason for baptism is for cleansing. That is why the Sacrament involves water. But is not an outward cleaning, it is an internal or spiritual cleansing. St. Peter puts it this way in his first letter. “Baptism…now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body, but as an appeal to God for a good conscience through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.” Baptism is a cleansing of our hearts and minds.

But why do we need such a cleansing? We need this cleansing because of the condition of our hearts that goes all the way back to the garden as we just read in Genesis. God created us to be in perfect harmony with Him but through the pride and rebellion of our first parents, that harmony was broken. They were not content to be in union with God they wanted to BE God and that original sin is in every one of us. It is a sin from which we must be cleansed if we want to be in harmony with God.

I’ve read a number of theories and debates about if there is actually such a thing as original sin and if there is how exactly it is passed on from generation to generation but those kinds of debates are a little too academic for me. To paraphrase the Bishop, if someone were to ask me if I believe in original sin my response would be “Believe in it? Why, I’ve actually seen it.”

He was way to young to remember this event but my son Andrew gave me a practical demonstration of original sin when he was about 3 years old. We were in the living room together and he was playing on the floor full of curiosity about the world around him. At one point I looked up as he was reaching for the wall socket. I was afraid that he was going to get a terrible shock, so I yelled “Andrew, don’t touch that.” He turned and looked me right in the eye and gave me the kind of go-to-hell look that you would expect from a rebellious teenager. Then he stuck his finger directly into the socket. By the grace of God he did not get hurt but it shocked me how a two year old can have the rebellious will of a full-grown Adam and believe me, I saw Adam in his eyes.

Call it original sin or give it another name but we all know when we are honest with ourselves that we need cleansing from it. We know, as St. Paul puts it, that we do things that we are not supposed to do and we don’t do the things that we are supposed to do. Too often we try to ignore it or even blame someone else. It is almost comical in this Genesis story how they play the blame game. God asks what happened and Adam blames Eve and Eve blames the snake and the snake, because he is a snake, doesn’t have a leg to stand on.

It never stops! We blame our parents and our parents blame their environment and their parents blame their genes. All the while God stands by offering us His grace and cleansing. The corruption within us is so great that God became a man and died on our behalf because of His great love for us. The Uncreated entered creation to win His creation back. It is this mercy that we call upon today through the waters of baptism.

A second reason that baptism is so vital is for the sake of unity. St. Paul says that it is by one Spirit that we are baptized into one Body. Baptism not only unites us to God but it unites us to one another and the living to the dead. Through baptism we enter into a covenant with God and are united with one another as the family of God. We just heard Jesus say, “Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”

Both in the lesson from Genesis and in the Gospel we can see a pattern of division. In Genesis man is divided from God by the evil one and in the Gospel scribes attempt to sew seeds of division between Jesus and the crowd through false accusations.

And this is not just a pattern that can be seen in these texts, this is a pattern throughout human history. Look at how we even mark our history. We are so accustomed to division that we tend to reference our past by wars. The Civil War, known here in the South as the war of Northern Aggression, is still acutely felt. A local hero is Sgt. Alvin York from World War I. The “Greatest Generation” are those who fought in World War II. We use terms like “Vietnam era politics.” You never hear someone say, “Yeah that happened around the time that they found a cure for polio.” We are so used to division that we mark our time by it.

But it goes even deeper. Watch the news and see the pattern of division. It is the human condition, here, there and everywhere. ISIS murdering Christians, civilians rioting against the police, racial tensions are at the boiling point in a number of major cities, political parties demonizing one another, the 99 percenters hating the one percenters… this too never stops.

We try to address our division in our power but to no avail. The peace and love movement of the 1960 fizzled out and is mostly now remembered for all the famous folks who died of overdoses. John Lenon wrote songs to inspire unity and he was murdered. Dr. King took the political route to work for unity and he too was murdered. Utopian societies have been tried over and over again but they become historical sites like the one nearby in Rugby, Tennessee. Communism began as a utopian ideal to unite all people but between the Russians and the Chinese it is estimated that nearly 100 million were murdered trying to make it happen.

The one force that has for 2,000 years proven itself to bring people together, to heal divisions, is the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Jesus makes us one flock under one shepherd. It was such a powerful image at the Investiture Service for Archbishop Foley last year, when Bishops from around the world came to lay their hands upon him. There were Bishops from Asia, Africa, the Middle East and South America who all prayed over him. In the faces of those international Bishops was the true face of the Church around the world and it was inspiring.

In the Highly Priestly prayer that Jesus prayed the night before His crucifixion, He prayed that we would be one. Unity is not an event, it is a journey and that journey begins when we understand that by one Spirit we are baptized into one Body. Our prayer is that one day all people would come to know God’s saving love so that there will be one flock under one Shepherd. As baptized Christians we are to work and pray for that unity.

Baptism is FOR us but it’s not just ABOUT us. So a third reason why what we are doing here today is so important is that it is for the glory of God. We just heard from the Epistle “so that grace, as it extends to more and more people, may increase thanksgiving, to the glory of God.” We appropriate that grace through this Sacrament. We do this publically so that this grace will be extended to more and more people. And as there are more and more people giving thanks for the grace that they have received, God is glorified.

One of the questions that man has asked himself since the beginning of time is, “Why am I here?” And how you answer that question makes a marked difference on your day-to-day life.

To me, the saddest of all people are those who are so shallow that they never even ask that question. They go through life like spiritual zombies wandering aimlessly with the crowd. They have no idea where they came from or where they are going.

The next saddest are those who ask the question but end up with the wrong answer. Some have concluded that there is no real reason for them to be here and so they end their lives.

Many think that you cannot know your purpose and so they go through life looking for the next thing. They put in their 40 hours, living for the weekend. They work 50 weeks to get two off. They put in their 30 years so that they can retire. They spend their whole life waiting for the next thing. But at least they have a smart phones!

I love how the Presbyterians answer the question. Their book asks, “What is the chief end of man?” And the answer is, “To glorify God and enjoy Him forever.” We are sacred beings because we have been made in the image and likeness of God. Life is sacred and so it must be about more than acquiring more toys. We have a purpose, we have a calling, and the most important part of our calling is to glorify God. That in turn brings us joy when we are doing what we have been created to do.

If you ever get the chance to be out with hunting dogs, by all means do it, even if you don’t like to hunt. It is a religious experience to watch them work. They have an amazing intensity as they follow a scent, their tongues bleeding from running through thicket with their tongues hanging out. They will run until they drop and you have never seen a happier creature on God’s green earth. The joy that flows out of them as they do what they are created to do makes you joyful.

We have been created to glorify God and joy will flow out of us when in our lives we are doing what we have been created to do. Today God is glorified in Zoe’s entrance into His Kingdom. Today there is yet one more child to praise Him who is worthy of all praise. Would that all Christians understood that this is their chief end.

With all respect for Dr. Nicole, he missed a few Scriptures as well as the testimony of Holy Tradition. He is in glory now so it is safe to assume he has been straightened out.

When Peter brought the Gospel to Cornelius, the righteous Gentile, Cornelius and his entire household were baptized. When the Apostles saved the life of the jailer at Philippi, he and his entire household were baptized. St. Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians that he baptized the household of Stephanus and in Acts we are told that St. Paul baptized Lydia and her household. Some of the earliest Christian writings outside of the New Testament speak of baptizing infants and so for the first 1500 years of the Church, parents faithfully brought their children into their covenant with God, just as the Jews did before them. It was mainly a couple of groups in Switzerland and Moravia, during the Protestant Reformation, that doubted the validity of infant baptism. And let’s be honest, who can trust anything coming out of Moravia?

Scripture and Tradition very much support what we are doing here. In fact, more than support it, it commands it. Jesus’ last words were that we were to go into all the world, making disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Holy Trinity and teaching them to observe all that He has commanded. It is in obedience to him that we baptize Zoë today; for her good, for the good of the Church and for His glory. Amen.

Tradition?

Fiddler on the Roof

Tradition is often given a negative connotation in today’s church but that is a mistake. Jesus did speak against the traditions of man but that was in the context of man made legalism. St. Paul wrote in 2 Thess. 2:15 “Therefore, brethren, stand fast and hold the traditions which you were taught, whether by word or our epistle.”

Godly tradition represents the mind of the Church throughout the ages on how Scripture is to be interpreted and applied as well as a guide for where the Scripture is silent. The truth of the Holy Trinity is the finest example of godly tradition. If I had never been exposed to the traditions of the Church and was placed on an island with only a Bible, I would have never understood the doctrine of the Trinity as explained by the Creeds. But once I received the Church’s teaching on it, this truth becomes obvious throughout Holy Scripture.

Tradition also guides our common life as a Church. St. Paul told the Church in Corinth that “all things are to be done decently and in order.” How do we do that? The Canons of the Church show us what is decent and in order. Thus I don’t stand up each week and ask, “So who would like to celebrate Holy Communion this Sunday?” Through tradition we understand that is the role of the Bishops and Priests to see that the Sacraments are duly administered even though there is no specific chapter and verse that dictates this.

In essence godly tradition is how we preserve the guidance of the Holy Spirit for future generations. Those who care about what the Spirit is saying to the Church today should also care about what the Spirit said to the Church yesterday. Godly tradition is good stewardship in that it saves future generations from wasting time and energy trying to discern what God has already made clear to the Church. If ever a tradition can be shown to be contrary to Holy Scripture then it is by definition not a godly tradition and must be rejected as the traditions of man.