Christians and the Upcoming Elections

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I have been looking at Christian leaders for input on the upcoming elections and I have found a consistent theme. From Bill Bright, the founder of Campus Crusade for Christ, to Pope Francis their advice has been to pray, to study and to vote. Please allow me to add some priestly commentary.

PRAY. While we certainly do want God to bless our nation, the theme of prayers in the Scriptures concerning nations is more often prayers of repentance. The more famous one is from 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 will heal their land.” (7:14). There are many sins for which our nation is guilty and if God’s people do not repent on behalf of their nation who will? Second we need to pray for God to raise up godly leaders. St. Paul says that is a priority. “First of all, then, I urge 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 peaceful and quiet life….” (1 Tim 2:1). Third we should pray that our government remains within its God given parameters. Romans 13 says that governing authorities are servants of God but we must be careful not to allow them to attempt to replace God. Our rights and freedoms are given to us by God and not by the government. Therefore any government that seeks to limit our rights and freedoms is no longer serving God. To put it crassly, the chief role of the government is national security not telling it citizens how large of a Slurpee we are allowed to have. My momma lives in Orlando, not Washington D.C.

STUDY. As an instant society we are too swayed by sound bites and slogans and commercials. Experience tells us that candidates will tell us what they think that we want to hear in order to be elected. So we need to dig deeper. It is helpful to get beyond the personalities and investigate the platforms upon which the candidates are standing. The platforms of both major parties and of the independents are easily found using Google. Given the power of the American Presidency and its influence around the world it is worth some of our time to do some investigation.

VOTE. But may I add to vote your conscience. As Christians we should move beyond our personal interests and seek what it right and true and good. “Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.” Phil 2:4. So while I would like to pay less taxes that won’t be my determining factor if it means voting for someone who would oppress others. We also must give freedom to others that voting their conscience may mean for them that their conscience won’t allow them to vote. This takes us back to prayer in order to be certain that we are being led by the Holy Spirit.

Lastly I submit that it is important to put this election in perspective with the Kingdom of God. How many times have you heard that this is the most important election in our nation’s history and that if we don’t get in the right person that it will be the end of America?

Given that 70% of our nation believes that we are headed in the wrong direction this is indeed an important election but let’s keep things in perspective. As Christians our citizenship is in heaven and our purpose here is to extend the Kingdom of God. Israel was being occupied by the Romans and ruled by corrupt leaders like Herod but we don’t see a lot of hand wringing by the writers of the New Testament about the state of the nation.

For millennia nations and empires have come and gone while the unshakeable Kingdom of God continued to grow. We may well be in the declining days of our nation. This is certainly not the country that the Greatest Generation fought to preserve. But even if that is so, our marching orders as Christians have not changed. We are to be living and proclaiming the Good News of the Kingdom. No matter who is president, Jesus is still King and that will never change.

We can have a mature optimism about our future. If God hears our prayers and heals our land then we will be a blest people. If our nation moves further away from God and grows even darker, then the light of Christ will be even more obvious and more people will be drawn to Him. Jesus promised that He will build His Church and the gates of hell will not be able to prevail against it. If you are with Him, then you are already on the winning side.

There’s Something About Mary

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Among the initial series of questions I receive from a serious inquirer about our Anglican faith is “What do y’all believe about Mary?” I welcome this question because it provides a way to demonstrate the “via media” (middle way) of Anglicanism. From our vantage point, on one extreme is a recent Pope who promoted Mary as a Co-Redeemer. And on the other extreme are those who see any devotion to her as idolatry and who rarely if ever mention her. Most Anglicans are able to find a middle, more balanced way.

To clarify, we do not see her as Co-Redeemer nor as our Mediator. The Scripture is quite clear on this point. “For there is one God and one mediator between God and man, the man Christ Jesus.” ( I Tim 2:5). So we don’t have to go through Mary to approach God. And while her role in our salvation story is pivotal as the Theotokos (Mother of God), she in no more our Redeemer than is Joseph.

But second we honor her, for we are to give honor to whom honor is due (Rom 13:7). There are three holy days throughout the year that are connected to Mary directly and four when you add Christmas.

We honor her in fulfillment of her prophecy that all generations will call her blessed. (Lk 1:48). We honor her for her remarkable obedience when the will of God was revealed by the angel. We honor her because she was favored by God. (Not only did the angel say to her “Hail o favored one…” but when she was troubled by this greeting he assured her that she had indeed found favor with God ref. Lk 1: 28-30). We honor her for her wise counsel. When she was at the wedding in Cana she told the servants concerning Jesus, “Do whatever He tells you.” Her wise words should ring in our ears every day.

Hebrews 11 gives a list of heroes of the faith. Such heroes should inspire and encourage us. They are certainly more edifying as role models than sports figures or movie stars. For many Mary is the quintessential role model. When God revealed His plans through an angel, which no doubt turned her world upside down, she simply responded, “Be it unto me according to They Word.” We should pray for such humble willingness.

Because of the breadth of Anglicanism there in not universal agreement beyond what was mentioned above about her role in our lives. Some read the Articles of Religion literally and so they do not believe in the invocation of the saints. Others read in the Revelation to John of the incense in heaven representing the intercession of the saints and so they do believe that she and others in glory pray for us. Therefore some will pray a traditional rosary, others will recite biblical passages using an Anglican rosary, and some do neither. You will also not find agreement about her immaculate conception, her perpetual virginity nor her assumption into heaven. Because none of these doctrines are provable by Holy Scripture, Anglican clergy may not teach them. Individuals are free to hold them or not. We find room for disagreements on such beliefs that are not essential to the faith to be healthy.

Some argue that there is no difference between veneration and worship and so honoring saints is idolatry. This puritanical reasoning is shallow. Even a child can discern the difference between venerating our country by placing a hand over his heart and praying to God as an act of worship. Similarly we easily discern the difference between the reverence that we give to Holy Scripture and the worship we give to God. The two acts are completely unrelated. So with saints, both the living and the dead, we give honor but we reserve our worship for God alone.

Flying Upside Down?

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Text: Luke 17:5-10

Last week I read an article about John Kennedy Jr.’s death in 1999 due to a plane crash. The article said that he had just enough experience in flying to be dangerous. He was told not to fly if he could not see the horizon but he ignored that instruction and he and his wife and her sister took off in a bad storm with little to no visibility. John experienced what is called black hole vertigo where your instincts lie to you. Because of his inexperience he trusted his instincts even though his instruments were telling him something else. Experts believe that he ended up actually flying upside down, so when he pulled back to gain altitude instead he flew them into the ocean and they were killed upon impact.

It occurred to me that this accident is a very good analogy about why we need to rely on the Word of God for our life’s direction. God’s Word is our instrument panel. It is all too easy for us in life to get our own form of black hole vertigo and become disoriented. It is all too easy to have our instincts lie to us. And if we ignore the instruments, and trust our instincts, then the results could be tragic, both in this life and in the life to come.

Our Gospel lesson today is an example of our need to trust the instruments, because Jesus’ teaching here goes against our instincts. Jesus tells what seems to be a kind of harsh story that ends up having us call ourselves “unworthy.”

Telling folks that they are unworthy certainly goes against our instincts. In fact we have spent a good deal of time doing just the opposite. Barney and Mr. Rogers told us continually how wonderful we are. Some sports have quit taking the score so that everyone will feel like a winner. In some competitions every kid gets a trophy so no one will feel slighted. I once attended an awards ceremony where every kid there got an award.

I don’t doubt the motives behind these actions but I do question the outcome. By not listening to Jesus about real life and trusting our instincts we have created a society that is flying upside down. We have a society where we have to have safe places in universities for students to go to in order to recover when they have heard something with which they don’t agree. We are asked to ignore the reality of the person in front of us and instead ask them how they self identify. We have become a society where institutions are pulling out of states and punishing them financially because the state won’t allow boys to go into girls’ bathrooms. We have followed our instincts and we are flying upside down.

So let’s for a moment ignore our instincts and take another look at our instruments. Let’s ask what would happen if we do as Jesus said and considered ourselves unworthy. What might be the results of following that view of life.

First let’s put the story in its larger context. Our lesson today starts out with the disciples asking for more faith. The reason that they are asking for more faith is that Jesus just told them that if your brother asks for forgiveness even seven times a day still you are to forgive. The common thought of the day was that if you forgave someone three times you were a righteous man. But to forgive seven times every day? That’s why they asked for more faith. But Jesus in essence tells them that they don’t need more faith, they just need to do it.

And so do we. Fr. BE has told us that forgiveness is THE basic attribute of being a Christian and he is so right. If we fail to be forgiving then we can forget about any further spiritual maturity. Unforgiveness becomes a damn that holds back God’s blessings. Jesus taught us to pray every day for God to forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. It’s not something for which we need more faith, we just need to do it.

I believe that the reason that Jesus tells the story about the unworthy servant, right after calling on the disciples to forgive, is so that they will avoid a common mistake that happens to folks when they walk in the path of righteousness. A very subtle form of pride begins to grow and while they would never be so crass as to put it in these words, they develop an attitude that because they are walking in the path of righteousness that God is in some way indebted to them.

I know this because it happened to me. About 30 years ago I went through some extremely difficult times. Some of it was of my own doing but some of it was beyond my control and I got angry with God about it. Here was my thinking. “I have been following you Lord and being faithful and doing all that I knew to do and then you allows this garbage to happen to me?”

Did you hear it? That was pride. I was in essence saying that God owed me because I had been a good boy.

If that sounds like the book of Job it is and it was Job who taught me what my response should have been. Job thought that because he was a righteous man that God owed him a hearing. But when God does show up Job does an about face and he repents and says, “though He slay me yet will I trust him.”

So it is a good thing to consider yourself unworthy. It avoids the trap of pride. There is something very liberating in admitting that we are unworthy. Conversely it is a terrible burden to attempt to be worthy. That was the way of the Pharisee. Recall this passage also from Luke’s Gospel.

“To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. 12I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’ “But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’ “I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

So Jesus tells a story to demonstrate that God is never indebted to us, no matter how faithful we are. When we have done everything God asks us to do we are still not worthy and He is not obligated to us. That is reality and Jesus is teaching us to live in that reality. It is why I love that we pray the Prayer of Humble Access right before we receive Holy Communion. “We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under Thy table….” That is not groveling, it is expressing a reality. But it doesn’t stop there.

The reality of our unworthiness leads us to the next reality as we continue the prayer. “…but Thou are the same Lord whose property is always to have mercy.” I find it interesting that also in Luke Jesus tells another story about servants and master but this one has a very different ending. This is from Luke 12. “It will be good for those servants whose master finds them watching when he comes. Truly I tell you, he (meaning the Master!) will dress himself to serve, will have them recline at the table and will come and wait on them. It will be good for those servants whose master finds them ready, even if he comes in the middle of the night or toward daybreak.”

 Here Jesus tells us the Lord will bless our faithfulness. So when we put the two stories together we conclude that while God will bless our faithfulness He is never required to do so and we will never be worthy enough to receive it. It’s all about GRACE.

There used to be a character on Saturday Night Live named Stuart Smally who would look in a mirror and give himself affirmation by saying “I’m good enough and smart enough and doggone it, people like me.” That is what you do when you are trusting your instincts but the instrument panel tells us that is flying upside down. To fly right we must accept that we are unworthy. This creates a life of humility and that is important because James tells us that God is opposed to the proud but gives grace to the humble (4:6). But it doesn’t stop there

When we accept that we are not worthy and embrace humility it opens the door to another important attribute and that is gratitude. If you keep looking for God to treat you as you think that you deserve, then you are going to live a life of anger and bitterness and depression.

First of all you really don’t want God to treat you as you deserve. I certainly don’t. Why? Well compared to Charles Manson I may be a good guy but compared to Mother Theresa I’m a self absorbed jerk. So if I am judged on God’s scale of holiness I wouldn’t stand a chance. So please, please Lord don’t treat me as I deserve.

But secondly when we are aware of our unworthiness then any good that comes to us is received as a gift from above rather than something we have earned. This way we live life with gratitude in our hearts rather than with a sense of entitlement. The former makes a saint. The latter makes a brat.

I love being around people who see every day as a gift and who delight in the simplest of things. People who are filled with gratitude build up those around them. In this way they end up building up the Church and expanding the kingdom. And so St. Paul says in a number of His letters that we are to give thanks in everything. We are to be a people of gratitude. But it doesn’t stop there.

When our cup runneth over with gratitude, what spills over is joy. Jesus said that He wanted His joy to be in us and for our joy to be complete. I submit that this path is how we come about it. We move from unworthiness to gratitude and from gratitude to joy.

Next week is the Feast of St. Francis and when you read of his life you see this pattern very clearly. He was certainly known for his humility but he was equally known for his joy. In fact Francis had so much joy in his life that he has been called God’s Jester.

If you have been around Christians in other parts of the world, especially in third world countries, you will see the same pattern. They are humble, they are thankful and they are joyful. They are so much so that it is convicting to be around them. Further their joy is evangelistic in nature. People in those countries come to faith seeing this fruit in Christian lives.

This path from unworthiness to joy also explains why all the things that we look to bring us joy fail in the end to do so. They say that the two greatest days in a man’s life are the day he buys a boat and the day he sells it. Stuff doesn’t bring us joy. But what about sports? Well if you are a Titans fan you can’t remember ever having joy. We eat and drink to find joy and that only leads to diets and hangovers. But the joy that flows from a grateful heart, the joy that comes from the gratitude of being accepted in the Beloved, that is the living waters that Jesus talks about.

So we can see from all of this that Jesus’ story about us being unworthy servants is not only true but it is for our good that we embrace it. It not only leads us to the path of joy but it ensures that we are not wasting our lives flying upside down. Amen.