Wheat and tares baby, wheat and tares

wheat and tares 4

Romans 8:9-17; St. Matthew 13:1-23

A woman once said to me, “My husband and I have very serious religious differences. He thinks he is God but I don’t.” She was kidding of course but religious differences are very serious and should never be taken lightly; especially religious differences that exist within ourselves. In particular I am referring to the times when we allow doubt to be mixed with our faith. This results in what James in his Epistle calls “double mindedness” and James goes on to say that a double minded man is unstable in all his ways. None of us want that.

I bring this up because our lesson from Romans today addresses the uncomfortable topic of suffering and when it comes to suffering and reconciling it with the goodness of God it is all too easy to let doubt sneak in, to become double minded. We become conflicted or we just try to ignore the subject. But ignoring it does not make it go away and being double minded about it makes us unstable in our faith. So in spite of it being an unpleasant topic, we should bite the bullet and address it head on.

First I think that it is important that we not look for quick answers or settle for platitudes. The Book of Job is one of the longest books in the Bible, consisting of 42 chapters. We can conclude from this that if the Lord is going to take 42 chapters to address the problem of human suffering then we are not doing our due diligence if we are satisfied with a pithy statement like, “God won’t put on you more than you can handle.” We have to dig deeper than that.

Second we cannot settle for answers about human suffering that question the character and nature of God by suggesting that He is not all loving or all powerful. Nor is it a valid option for a Christian to believe in non-theistic powers like fate or karma.

Third, as much as we may want it to be an option, avoiding suffering by retreating from the world is not one of them. That is one of the conclusions that we can draw from Jesus’ parable of the wheat and tares. As long as Christians are in this world but not of this world, as long as wheat and tares coexist, there is going to be conflict. And Jesus points out that things are not going to be made right until the end of the age when the angels come and “gathers out of His kingdom all causes of sin and all lawbreakers and throw them into the fiery furnace.” So if we are expecting to see peace and justice in our lifetime we may be waiting a very long time. It doesn’t mean that we should not work for them but we should not hold our breath.

Allow me to take a quick digression. Note what happens after the angels come and take away all the tares and throw them in the furnace. The passage says, “Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father.” This sounds like it is the wicked who are taken away and it is the righteous who are left behind. Interesting. But that is another sermon.

Back to the topic of not being double minded about suffering. Around 2008 when the housing balloon popped and the economy tanked, I heard an interview with a life coach on his perspective for getting through challenging times. His suggestion was that we need to develop what he called “mental toughness” and he used as an example my parent’s generation. First, they lived through the Great Depression. My mother has stories of picking apples and only having apple sauce to eat for a meal. Then they fought World War II and won it. Then they came home and started careers and built homes and raised families and sent their kids off to college. The life coach went on to say that every generation faces tough times and this is our time to learn and to shine like the Greatest Generation.

I believe that there is some truth in what that life coach said, but where I would probably disagree with him is that I do not believe the answer for mental toughness comes from reaching deep within and drawing on our own reserves. James’ answer for gaining mental toughness and not being double minded was this. “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him.” It is the wisdom of God that grants us mental toughness because as we develop God’s perspective we find ourselves standing on solid rock and not shifting sands.

With that understanding let’s return to our passage from Romans and see what we can glean from there of God’s wisdom about suffering.

First we need to define suffering. Given all that St. Paul has gone through while sharing the gospel; beatings, imprisonment, stoning, shipwreck etc., the suffering he is speaking about includes persecution for the sake of the Gospel. While that may not be our immediate experience we know that it is going on all around the world and not just in Muslim countries. I have been corresponding with an Anglican priest named Babu, who is shepherding a small flock of Pakistanis who have fled to Thailand because of persecution in their homeland. Sadly the government of Thailand is treating them as criminals so they are being pressured from both sides and yet they remain faithful brothers and sisters.

So while suffering surely includes persecution I don’t believe it is limited to persecution. St. Paul goes on to speak of even creation itself suffering which is clearly not a result of persecution. Why is creation suffering? It is suffering because of the universal and damnable consequences of the fall. It was not God who introduced sin into the world; it was man. And the effects of sin not only warped man but also the creation over which man had been given dominion. St. Paul says, “For we know that whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now.”

It is important to understand that suffering is not just limited to persecution so that you will know that you can turn to the Lord no matter what the cause of your suffering and not just only when you are being opposed for your faith. So this can include dealing with an illness, staying faithful in a difficult marriage, being treated unfairly by others and a whole host of other reasons.

So how do we respond to the suffering? St. Paul points to three things in this short passage.

First he calls on us to enlarge our vision. He says, “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.” Now that is easier said than done. When you are suffering it is hard to look up to see the horizon. When you mash your thumb with a hammer you don’t automatically think about your upcoming vacation to the beach. But with the grace of God we can transform our minds to think this way. Whatever you are going through now, no matter how bad it is, it is not even to be compared with how good it is going to be.

Many of you have already had a foretaste of this. You have faced some suffering in your past that at the time liked to have killed you. But then years later you are in such a good place that looking back you wonder why you fretted so. In the midst of your suffering you could not see God’s hand at work but now you know He was busy the whole while. You are a living testimony that “All things work together for the good for those who love God and are called according to His purpose.”

But that was just a foretaste. The glory we will experience will be infinitely better than the good place we are in now and so in the midst of our present suffering we enlarge our vision to include the glory that is to come. And if you suffering includes some form of injustice you can take rest in the knowledge, going back to Jesus parable of the wheat and the tares, that the tares will one day be dealt with and justice will be served.

The second piece of God’s wisdom that St. Paul gives us to make us mentally tough when suffering is to have hope. He says, “And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we are saved.”

The Bible uses the word “hope” differently than we use it in common parlance. When we speak of “hope” we speak of an uncertainty. “I hope that I will get a raise this year.” We say “hope” because it may or may not happen. But when the Bible uses the word “hope” it means a reality or a fact that is not yet seen or experienced. For example St. Paul calls on us to have hope in the resurrection in his letter to the Thessalonians. Jesus’ resurrection is proof of our resurrection and as certain as it is we hope in it because we do not see it yet.

So the hope that we are to have as we suffer is the certainty that we will be fully adopted as children of God, our resurrected bodies will be raised incorruptible and all that is wrong with us and with all creation will be made right. That is a fact that is even more certain than the sun rising tomorrow. That is biblical hope.

Lastly St. Paul calls us to mental toughness by adding to our hope, patience. He says, “Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.” I want to tread lightly here. If you tell someone who is suffering to just be patient, you could get a punch in the face. But notice that St. Paul is not calling on us to be patient for the sake of patience. He is connecting patience with the biblical hope that we just spoke about. So in many ways the patience that we are to have when suffering is a fruit of the hope that we have.

If I truly believe that all things will be made right at the end of the age then I don’t have to have all things made right today. I just need to repeat to myself, “Wheat and tares baby, wheat and tares!” I don’t have to be bothered that the wicked prosper. “Wheat and tares baby, wheat and tares!” I don’t have to have my boss to stop being such a jerk. “Wheat and tares baby, wheat and tares!” I don’t have to have the people who have wronged me ask my forgiveness. “Wheat and tares baby, wheat and tares!”

Straightening out the wheat and the tares is not my job, it is the job of the angels and the One who will come to judge the quick and the dead. And as an added bonus the Lord blesses the patience that we exhibit by using even the suffering for our good. As the great hymn puts it, “When through fiery trials thy pathway shall lie, my grace all sufficient shall be thy supply. The flame shall not hurt thee I only design thy dross to consume and thy gold to refine.”

If we will embrace this teaching of St. Paul about suffering then we will become spiritually tough minded and not fear whatever the future holds. I want to end by returning us to a couple of verses of our Psalm today and offering it as a prayer for us all. Let us pray. “Teach me your way O Lord, and I will walk in your truth; knit my heart to you that I may fear your Name. I will thank you O Lord my God with all my heart, and glorify your Name for evermore.” Amen.

Charismata Vs. Group-Think

GroupThink

In the early 1970’s my family attended a Christian camp in Georgia named CFO. The major attractions were famous non-denominational Bible Teachers. One of them was a very well educated Englishman named Derek Prince. He was a World War II veteran, a world traveler and a captivating speaker. His English accent only added to his credibility as a teacher. He had two major themes to his ministry, one was intercessory prayer and the other was demonic deliverance.

On one occasion I heard him give a long biblical exposition on casting out devils and then he called the congregation to prayer and he began naming and casting out spirits. The entire room broke into chaos. People were screaming and coughing and some had to be physically restrained. I remained for some time in prayer but I recall leaving the meeting confused. I did not understand how that many committed Christians could be filled with demons, but filled they must have been because Derek called them out by the scores. It did not make theological sense to me that Christians can be at the same time a temple of the Holy Spirit and demon possessed, and certainly not that many and all in the same place. Perhaps a few could be harassed and maybe even controlled, but that many possessed? I harbored doubts.

Adding to my doubts, I was studying psychology at the time and had seen films on the power of group-think. I learned of positive examples like the high the crowd gets at a rock concert and negative examples as evidenced in the hypnotic speeches of Hitler and Mussolini, captivating crowds for hours.

In group-think the critical thinking skills of an individual are suspended, resulting in the greater unity of the group and giving the individual a transcendent experience as they become united with the group. It is the high a fan feels leaving a sporting event, particularly if his team wins. The unity experienced is so great that the fan will share in the victory of the team even though his feet never touched the field.

The danger of exchanging critical thinking for a transcendent experience is that the actions of the group could be wrong but not recognized as such by the group. It is the lynch mob mentality. As a group they are convinced that they are doing the right thing but if you remove individuals from the group it is much easier to convince the individual that such actions are unjust. It is the herd mentality you see when the televangelist waves his jacket and entire section of the crowd falls over or the trance like state Hare Krishna worshippers experience through their repetitive chants.

Looking back on my experiences at CFO I believe that much of it was attributable to group-think. Through intense worship together and being captivated by a gifted speaker many experienced group-think, suspended individual critical thinking and had a transcendent experience. The emotions experienced were genuine, but because it was a religious setting the emotions were attributed to the Holy Spirit. They would not have done so if they had these feelings at a sporting event or a political rally.

I certainly do believe that the gifts of the Spirit operate today. I also believe that spiritual warfare is real and that there is a role for exorcism but it is all too easy to overemphasize both the gifts and the warfare. Once I was at a clergy conference and passed by two clerics in prayer. One was laying hands the other and casting a “spirit of hangover” out of the other. I thought to myself, “He doesn’t need deliverance from a spirit, he needs to repent of drunkenness.”

I have also witnessed “gifts” used to control others through what claimed to be prophecies and words of knowledge. On another occasion I was invited to hear a “prophet” who after preaching had a personal word for everyone who wanted it. I sat up front so I could hear what he claimed to be prophecies. In the end every word he gave was positive and uplifting and there was not one time he rebuked someone for their sins. Unlike the prophets of the Bible he seemed simply to be a spiritual cheerleader. Just as I doubted there were that many demon possessed Christians at Camp CFO, I also doubted that there were that many saints at the prophet’s meeting.

Group-think can also dominate healing ministries. It is why it is so often accompanied by music both before and even during in order to create a vulnerable mood or atmosphere. When you add to that someone in authority claiming to sense a need in the room then group-think begins. As an Anglican priest I believe in healing. Unction is one of the Sacraments of the Church. But healing should be ministered in a sacramental manner and not in the context of group-think with manipulative music in the background.

When you read the healing ministries of the Apostles they frequently did so in the context of preaching that Jesus is the Christ. Then in His Name they lay on hands and prayed for healing. Never do you read of them saying, “Someone has a tumor somewhere in their body.” While some claim such an approach is operating in a word of knowledge, it is doubtful. Why would the Lord, if He were about to heal someone, be so vague? It comes across as a parlor game and is uncomfortably close to the charlatan’s technique, “Does the name George mean anything to you.” As Anglicans we anoint with consecrated oil, lay hands, pray and leave the results to the Lord. A rite for this is provided in The Book of Common Prayer.

If you watch the televangelists or see clips of movements like the “Toronto Blessing” it becomes obvious how easy it is to confuse the work of the Holy Spirit with group-think. Such confusion not only misrepresents God but can be spiritually, psychologically and even physically dangerous. For example if you quit taking your medicine because it has been prophesied that you are healed then it could have dire consequences. Such abuses also can be a stumbling block to the unbeliever. It is why St. Paul ended up writing two letters to the Corinthian church to bring them back into order.

Because of its power and its danger, it is important that we resist group-think from invading Anglicanism. But how do we avoid group-think and yet make room for the Holy Spirit to do His bidding? The answer across the ages, and across the world, has been in the liturgy. Liturgy brings order to the Church and prevents her from being misled and controlled by charismatic leaders. Because the liturgy points us to God and because the Rites of the Church as so heavily infused with Holy Scripture, there is plenty of room for the Holy Spirit to operate.

Jesus said that we are to worship God in Spirit and in truth. Liturgy points us to the truth and protects us from chasing feelings and drowning in a sea of subjectivity. I tell folks, only half jokingly, that in the Jesus Movement days if the worship was going flat, all we had to do was play something in D minor to make it sound Jewish and people would be convinced that the Holy Spirit just showed up. Liturgy protects the people from this kind of manipulation.

Liturgy is also a great unifier in the Church. In my experience, one thing done right in The Episcopal Church, was when we gathered at Convention we gathered around basic prayer book and hymnal worship. No doubt Charismatics left wishing the worship had been more spirited, Anglo Catholics missed their smells and bells, and Evangelicals longed for more expository preaching. But we all knew the same prayer book and we all knew the same hymns and that brought us together even during times of great differences.

As Anglicans we have such a rich liturgical heritage to offer the Body of Christ. In fact no one else has what we have to offer. The prayers of the prayer book set the bar so high that we could spend the rest of our lives making them become prayers that we incarnate. Therefore we should jealously guard our heritage and keep it from being diluted or hijacked by other traditions that are completely foreign to our beliefs and ethos. We need to uphold common worship through Common Prayer and the accepted Rites of the Church. I had a chance to experience this in a powerful way.

We were vacationing in Switzerland and Beth became ill. So I hopped on a train and went to Bern for Mass. The day before we had discovered an Old Catholic Church that had broken from Rome in the 19th C and with which we were in full communion. I do not speak one word of German but because they were following the liturgy of the Church I knew exactly where we were in the service and was able to worship along with them. Anglicans should have the same opportunity in ACNA. We should be able to travel from the deep South to California, and apart from the typical parochial idiosyncrasies, be able to know were we are in the liturgy, and absent of group-think, worship our Lord in Spirit and truth.

“Take My Yoke”

Yoke

Text: Matthew 11:25-30

“Hear what comfortable words our Savior Christ saith unto all who truly turn to Him. ‘Come unto me all ye that travail and are heavy laden and I will refresh you.’”

We hear these beautiful words each week after the Confession and Absolution. They give us assurance of forgiveness and invite us to draw closer to Christ as we receive His Body and Blood in Holy Communion. But as you well know, hearing these words and living them is not always the same thing. Even though we have His promise of being refreshed how many of us still frequently find ourselves in travail and heavy laden, or as more modern texts put it, “weary and burdened”? But before we consider how it is that the Lord refreshes us let’s consider why it is that we are weary and burdened in the first place.

I think we get a clue on why Jesus’ original hearers were burdened when we go into the next few verses past our reading today. In chapter 12 of St. Matthew we see Jesus get into it with the Pharisees because they observed his disciples, who were hungry, picking the heads off of grain and eating them, as they walked through the grain fields. The reason that the Pharisees objected to this behavior was because it was the Sabbath and according to their rules, picking the heads off of grain and eating was classified as work and you are not supposed to work on the Sabbath. Jesus responded by reminding them of David and his companions entering the house of God and eating the consecrated bread and He ends the discussion by saying in other words, “Oh by the way, I’m the Lord of the Sabbath.” Mic drop.

Can you imagine living under a religious system where everything you do, including snacking, is put under the microscope of laws and traditions? No wonder the people in Jesus’ time were weary and burdened. Thank the Lord that doesn’t exist in Christianity! Oh but it does.

Adam grew up in an ultra fundamentalist household and he can talk to you about the rules. I have a friend of many years ago who was a part of a very conservative Presbyterian group doing his doctrinal dissertation on the meaning of the Sabbath. One of his sources told him that if he went out on a Sunday afternoon, after going to church mind you, and tossed the football with his son, he would be violating the Sabbath. He finished his dissertation and became an Anglican.

I suggest that it would be helpful to take an inventory of our own lives and see if we have had any legalism sneak into our relationship with God. But note that there is a difference between tradition and legalism. Godly traditions are like train tracks that take you where you want to go while there is no progress in legalism. Legalism makes you stuck and makes you weary and burdened. If you find it in your life get rid of it without any guilt. It’s not from God. The Scripture tells us that where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty.

What other things make us weary and burdened? Self-righteousness, the kissing cousin of legalism, makes us weary and burdened. Often when we think of self-righteousness we think of the prideful Pharisees but it can be subtler than that and even come from a well-meaning heart.

Martin Luther was an Augustinian monk before he became the famous renegade priest. He was desperate to know and to please God so he not only obeyed all of the rules; he went above and beyond, trying to make Himself acceptable to God. He had a confessor named Von Staupitz whom he nearly drove crazy. He would go to confession and later remember another sin that he forgot to confess and then go back to Von Staupitz. He did this so often that eventually Von Staupitz talked him into leaving the monastery. Luther said, “If ever a monk could have be saved through monkery it was I.”

As well meaning as it can be, trying to make ourselves acceptable to God, trying to make ourselves righteous, is like trying to dig ourselves out of a hole. We end up just being in a deeper hole and we become weary and burdened. “For by grace are you saved…it is not a result of works.” I believe that self-righteousness is a major reason that people become dechurched. They think that church that is not working for them when all the while, in their attempts at making themselves acceptable to God, they only succeed in burning themselves out.

Guilt and unforgiveness are also towards the top of the list of things that make us weary and burdened. They are so damaging that they can end up somatizing, that is being manifested as bodily illnesses.

I was very moved by a scene in the movie named The Mission. The character played by Robert Dinero had killed his brother in a fight over a woman. As an act of penance he joined a religious order. Knowing that he was caring an unbearable amount of guilt and unable to accept forgiveness they had him carry a backpack full of rocks. Dinero did not make the connection until they were scaling a cliff that was almost vertical. While Dinero was struggling and failing to climb it, a brother cut the pack off of his back. As the backpack tumbled away Dinero let his guild tumble with it and he wept like a slave who had just been made free. It made me wonder what bag of rocks I have been carrying around. How about you?

You can probably identify many more things that make us weary and burdened but let me mention one more. Fear or worry about the future is a great burden that wears us out. If you are young you worry about paying tomorrow’s bills, how your kids are going to turn out, if your marriage will survive. As you grow older you ask how long am I going to live? From what will I die? Am I going to be put in a nursing home? Will I run out of money in retirement?

To get your mind off of your worries you turn on the TV only to hear that the Russians allegedly interfered with the elections, North Korea has an intercontinental nuclear weapon and climate change is going to kill us all in ten years. But don’t worry. Be happy. If you just drink the right soft drink you will be okay!

Two questions then are 1. How Jesus gets us from being weary and burdened to finding rest for our souls, and 2. What would that rest look like?

First how does Jesus get us from weary to rest? I believe the key is found in verse 29 and the most important word in that sentence is the word “my.” Jesus does not say, “Follow these rules.” He does not give us the 5 pillars of Islam. He does not point us to the way of enlightenment. He says take My yoke and learn of Me.

I did not grow up in the country so I had to do some research about yokes. All I knew was that it was the yellow part of the egg. Ends up I was wrong. I discovered a document on line named Tiller’s Advanced Training Techniques for Oxen by a professor at the University of New Hampshire. And let me tell you it was a real page-turner. In it he says this. “Using a well broke animal to calm and train a smaller animal works well, especially if there is no chance of the untrained animal challenging the well broke ox…. yoking an untrained animal with a trained ox can be a very successful technique. The advantages of this may be due to imitative learning, as over time the young animal learns what it should do in the yoke by following the trained ox.”

Jesus said, “Take my yoke and learn from Me.” Do you see what Jesus is offering us? He is inviting us to become yoked to Him so that, just as the young animal learns from the older animal, we learn from Him and that is how we find rest. It is not only a beautiful image but it takes a tremendous burden from us. We don’t have to figure it out on our own. We are not alone. We don’t have to search the Scripture for hidden codes. We are not alone. We don’t have to try to make ourselves acceptable to God or gin up our feelings in search of a religious experience. We are not alone. We simply yoke ourselves next to Him and whatever He is doing we do it with Him. And let me tell you there is a vast difference between trying to do things FOR Him and doing things WITH Him. I have tried it both ways and it is almost like having two separate religions.

What does the rest that He promised look like? Let’s go back to the things that make us weary and burdened and see.

We find rest when Jesus frees us from legalism. As mentioned in our collect for the day He boils it all down to loving God and loving our neighbor. That’s covers it all. You don’t have to fret that you are violating the Sabbath when you toss the football with your son on a Sunday afternoon.

We find rest when Jesus frees us from self-righteousness by showering us with the mercy of God. There is a story of a mother approaching Napoleon on behalf of her son. The young soldier had committed the same violation twice and was sentenced to death. The mother asked Napoleon for mercy and Napoleon said that the boy had done nothing to deserve mercy. The mother replied, “I’m not asking for mercy because he deserves it, I am asking for mercy because I am asking for it.” Napoleon set the soldier free. We need to keep at the front of our minds that we receive God’s mercy not because we deserve it but simply because we ask for it. Yoked with Christ the Father’s love flows to us both. The Psalmist said, “The Lord is loving to everyone and His compassion is over all His works.”

What about guilt and unforgiveness? We find rest from them as we heard in the lesson from Romans because there is now no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus. He is the Lamb of God who has taken away the sins of the world. When He was nailed to that cross our guilt was nailed there with Him. As the prophet put it, though our sins are as scarlet we will be washed whiter than snow.

In terms of unforgiveness, we find rest from it because God loosing us from out debts frees us to loose those who are indebted to us. I think Fr. BE is right when he says that forgiveness is the most basic act of a Christian. We forgive as we have been forgiven. We forgive because we have been forgiven.

Lastly what about fear anxiety over the future? Jesus addressed that directly in the Sermon on the Mount and tells us how to find rest here. “Consider the lilies…Look at the birds of the air…are you not much more valuable than they?” Then Jesus ends the analogies with two great zingers. “Which of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life?…Therefore do not worry about tomorrow for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.” Worry about the future serves absolutely no purpose but only manages to bring tomorrow’s trouble into today. How do we not worry about tomorrow? Yoked to Christ we trust Whom He trusted. He had absolute confidence in His heavenly Father and this too we can learn from Him.

Ex NFL player Tim Tibow was being interviewed by the Gainesville Sun about his future now that he is no longer playing football. He said, “I’ve said this a few times, I don’t know what the future holds, but I do trust who holds my future.” Three things about that line. First, I don’t think that Tim Tibow originated that saying. Second, if I am quoting a football player it is proof that these are the last days. And third, it is a great line and worthy of being repeated often. “I don’t know what the future holds, but I do trust who holds my future.”

So Jesus is not offering us just any yoke. He is offering us HIS yoke. He is inviting us into a relationship with Him. We are not in this alone. The stole of a priest is to symbolize that the priest is yoked with Christ, but that is merely a model for you and not the sole right of a priest. You too can be yoked with Him and learn from Him and you too can find rest for your souls. Amen.

 

July 4th

America, Bless God

It is only fitting that we as Anglicans gather to give thanks for our independence and to pray for our nation. I say it is only fitting given how Anglicans played key roles in our struggle for independence. Let me name but a few. Anglican Patrick Henry gave his famous speech, “Give me liberty or give me death” in St. John’s, Richmond. Anglican Richard Henry Lee first proposed that a Declaration of Independence be written. Anglican James Madison was the father of the Constitution. Anglican John Paul Jones was the father of the American Navy. It was in an Anglican church that Paul Revere hung the famous lantern to warn of the British arrival. And of course the father of our nation, George Washington, served on the Vestry of his parish. I tried diligently to find famous founders who were Church of Christ, but alas to no avail. So next time you greet a brother and sister in the Church of Christ, say to them, “You are welcome.”

Notice in your bulletin that just before the war broke out the Continental Congress called the colonies to a day of prayer and fasting, calling on God “to forgive our iniquities, to remove our present calamities, to avert those desolating judgments, with which we are threatened…” and they end the call by saying “And it is recommended to Christians, of all denominations, to assemble for public worship, and to abstain from servile labour and recreation on said day.” Think of that. The Congress called on Christians to fast and pray and to stop work and assemble for public worship. Either those poor guys didn’t get the concept of the separation of church and state or we have grossly misunderstood it in our day. But that is a topic for another day. We need more leadership like that today.

As our society grows not only even more secular, but also more hostile to Christianity, many are wondering which way to turn. I read that there was a lot of talk about the Benedict Option and monastic communities at the ACNA Assembly last week. If you haven’t heard of the Benedict Option let read you an excerpt from an article on the topic.

“The question…to talk about (is) whether America is headed the way of the Roman empire. Bureaucratic decay, massive public debt, an overstretched military, a political system seemingly incapable of responding to challenges—the late Roman empire suffered these maladies, and so, some fear, does contemporary America…Rising hedonism, waning religious observance, ongoing break-up of the family, and a general loss of cultural coherence—to traditionalists, these are signs of a possible Dark Age ahead.

Christians have been here before. Around the year 500, a generation after barbarians deposed the last Roman emperor, a young Umbrian man known to history only as Benedict was sent to Rome by his wealthy parents to complete his education. Disgusted by the city’s decadence, Benedict fled to the forest to pray as a hermit.

Benedict gained a reputation for holiness and gathered other monks around him. Before dying circa 547, he personally founded a dozen monastic communities, and wrote his famous Rule, the guidebook for scores of monasteries that spread across Europe in the tumultuous centuries to follow….Benedictine monasteries emerged as islands of sanity and serenity. These were the bases from which European civilization gradually re-emerged.”

It is an interesting concept and is one that has worked before. Some may be called to it but I am not convinced that is the way for us to go for a couple of reasons.

First I’m not convinced that we need to move physically into Christian communities. That is the calling for some, but not for all of Christ’s Body because that was not the pattern of our Lord. He didn’t retreat from the culture, He embraced it with His love. He came like a Physician to a leper colony. To the offense of the religious folk, He ate with sinners and tax collectors. He traveled throughout their towns and villages and stayed in their homes. He was so much among them that His enemies labeled Him a drunkard and a glutton. I understand that this call of the Benedict Option is not to be completely cloistered from the world but I believe that human nature will head in that direction once the communities come together. It is difficult enough in a parish not to become insular let alone when everyone is living together.

But where I do think Benedict’s example has something to offer us in post Christian America is in how we view ourselves. The monks saw themselves as taken out of the world in order to serve in the world. Jesus prayed for His disciples who were in the world but not of the world. Romans 12 says that we are not to conform to the patterns of this world but we are to be transformed by the renewing of our minds. So we do not need to physically remove ourselves from the world but we do need to spiritually and mentally detach ourselves and live as citizens of another kingdom.

To be honest we have not done a good job of this as Anglicans. Years ago, even when the Episcopal Church was solid in its orthodoxy, it was known as the “country club in prayer.” It was not uncommon to find folks who were good and faithful churchmen but had no clue about what they really believed nor had lives that manifested the fruits of the Spirit. To this day Episcopalians would rather be called “heretic” than “tacky.”

As Anglicans we need change this. We need to be even more intentional about seeing ourselves as IN the world but not OF the world. We need to think of ourselves as missionaries to America and strategize and discern ways to serve those who are products of a post Christian America. What we must remember is that while many celebrate the breakdown of our society, that breakdown will eventually impact everyone, and the Church needs to be ready to help them find their way back home.

A second reason that I am not convinced that the Benedict Option is the answer is because of Jesus’ commission to us. He said, “Let your light so shine before men that they may see your good works and glorify your Father which is in heaven.” It’s difficult for men to see our good works if we are cloistered up in a Christian community.

Years ago I visited a convent in Spain where the nuns weren’t even allowed to see you. So when I went to buy something from them, I put the money in a tiny turnstile in the window. The nun on the other side spun it around, took my money, and spun around my purchase. This did not make me want to glorify my Father in heaven. It was actually kind of creepy. I made me feel like I was on an episode of the Adam’s family and had just done business with Thing.

But again, where Benedict can be helpful to us in an increasingly post Christian America is to take seriously his rule. He had three core rules.

First is obedience. Benedict had a saying, “Prefer nothing to Christ.” Our first obedience must be to Christ. And we also need to be clear when it comes to preferring nothing to Christ, that there must not be a close second. That is what Jesus was saying when He called on His followers to love Him even more than their own families. He wasn’t calling on them to break the 5th Commandment, rather He was calling on them to place Hi above all, vastly above all.

On this day in particular we need to be careful to not allow love of nation to be on par with our love for God. Christians in the past have demonstrated that while a Christian can be patriotic they should avoid nationalism. A patriot loves his country but nationalism says, “My country is always right.” We cannot take that approach because there are times that God calls upon Christians to stand up to their nation, point out its sin, and call it to repentance.

Next in Benedict’s rule is stability. Just as the monks were committed to remain in their communities for the rest of their lives and not bounce from monastery to monastery every time they got upset or their feelings were hurt, so we need to remain committed to the community in which the Lord places us.

It is tempting, with all of the insanity in our country, to want to move to a quiet beach in another part of the world. But Jonah is a great reminder that we cannot run away from the Lord. If He wants us in Ninivah, is makes no difference if we want to go there are not.

The vow of stability is especially important when things get tough. People find all kinds of convenient reasons to quit but if you bale out on Good Friday, you never get to experience Easter. Our job as Christians is not to escape discomfort. Our job is to be a witness to the Lord even if and especially when the ship is sinking.

The third vow is conversion of life. To me this is ingenious. If you only had obedience and stability then your life would be in a rut, and as you have heard before, a rut is just a grave with both ends knocked out. Obedience and stability keep you committed, but conversion of life brings about change while you are staying put. As we offer our souls and bodies to the Lord to be living sacrifices, He molds us and shapes us and changes us to ever be more effective for His kingdom. Change can be difficult but it is what life is about. The good news for those in Christ is, that according to the Scriptures, our change is about going from glory to glory. We need to see ourselves as disciples, always learning and growing and changing.

If you look at the signs of the times, the signs are not good. America may not be the Titanic but she is taking on water. It is another reason that it is so important that we take some time on this day of celebration to pray for her. I believe that as Anglicans we are called to discover a via media in our response as Christian citizens. We need to find a place somewhere between being Pollyanna on one extreme and Chicken Little on the other. This is a great nation but it is not perfect. There are ills and injustices that must be addressed but it doesn’t mean that every time we see something wrong that the sky is falling.

As citizens of heaven we can and should work to make this a more just and righteous nation and I don’t believe that we can do that by retreating into Christian communities. At the same time we must constantly be reminded that our hopes are not fixed here. First and foremost our citizenship is in heaven. The motto of our nation may change every time we get a new President. But the message of the Church remains the same to every nation. “Repent for the kingdom of God is at hand.” Amen.