25 years ago today, on the Feast of St. Alcuin, I was made a priest in Christ’s One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church. It has been NOTHING like I expected. Pt. 1

I was first ordained 41 years ago in 1979 through a consortium of non-denominational churches in Florida. I had been a student leader of a mid week campus prayer meeting that we incorporated as a church. I was called to serve as their second Senior Pastor even though I had not yet been to seminary and had no formal training. I made a lot of mistakes but words cannot adequately express how much I loved those folks and what an honor it was to serve them. 

Those were some colorful years. We bought property and built a building. The members of the parish took their faith very seriously and lifelong spiritual friendships were formed among them. The group of churches, with which we had been affiliated, became increasing cultic and so I pulled our church out from it. That was a very difficult step to take. Although it was the right thing to do it also meant that we were entirely on our own. At times the weight of that seemed unbearable because I knew that I was caring for people’s souls. I was mindful of St. Paul’s saying that teachers will incur a stricter judgment.

Over the years I worked part time on a degree from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary near Boston. I was also able to travel and taught clergy and lay ministers in Haiti, Spain and the Philippians. On one occasion I smuggled bibles into Communist China during their New Year’s celebrations. I worked very hard for the Church but not hard enough on myself, and as a consequence I went through a terrible burnout. My life unraveled and I left the ministry.

God had mercy and blessed the broken road that led me to Chattanooga, where I met and married Beth. We were both social workers and I saw myself remaining in that career until retirement. I had no interest in returning to full time ministry. I particularly enjoyed not being on call 24/7, having weekends and holidays free, and being able to completely forget about work the moment that I locked my office door. 

As the saying goes, “If you want to make God laugh, tell Him your plans.” My plans for a career in social work were not His plans. Beth and I were newly married when the call returned, doors opened widely, and everything changed for us. It involved quitting my job, leaving Chattanooga and taking on additional studies at Sewanee’s School of Theology. 

The reason that I said the priesthood is nothing like I expected goes back to 4thgrade. My father was stationed in Boston and so we lived nearby in a town in Rhode Island. My family attended a small parish that was so close to our home that we walked to church. The rectory was next door to the church and our priest led a beautiful liturgy. His life seemed to be quiet and serene. This planted an image in my mind of one day being a priest in a small stone church that was next to a quaint rectory. I imagined spending most of my day in my study in the rectory, smoking a pipe and reading. Once a day I would saunter over to the church to say Mass, and twice on Sunday. Other than an occasional counseling session, life would be quiet, contemplative and alternate between study and worship. 

My curacy, instead of being in a small stone church, was in a very large, historic, downtown parish. And the church, rather than being quiet and contemplative, was always bustling with a large staff and much activity. I had an office in an old part of the church where monks used to live. It was a very wealthy parish and was known as the church to go to when you want to see and be seen. My job was to do everything that the Rector did not want to do. It was a privilege to serve in that beautiful and historic parish but the Rector and his wife were so dysfunctional that it soon became time to leave. 

Providentially in the fall of 1996 I received a call from the Bishop of Tennessee to plant a church in Smyrna. The challenge was that there was no one waiting for me, I could not ask for help from nearby parishes (because they were upset with the Bishop for planting a church near them) and we had to be completely self-supporting in 5 years. To be honest I felt the call but I was terrified. 

I moved to town first and Beth followed a few months later when she was able to secure a transfer in her job. I converted a second floor real estate office into a chapel/office/library. It was warm and inviting. All that was missing was the people. 

It made sense to start with a Bible Study. And since at the time all I had was a Bible, a Prayer Book and a Processional Cross, I could not have started with worship even if I had wanted to. I went around town introducing myself to people, feeling very much like a Fuller Brush salesman. (This gave me a whole new respect for folks who make a living doing cold calls). I took out an ad in the newspaper announcing the Bible study, and I put up a poster in the Post Office. They kept taking it down and I kept putting it back up. Each of these attempts made contact with someone and so the first night of the Bible Study there were 12 in attendance. Someone said to me later, “Hey that number 12 worked the first time.”

As the little flock grew I added a class called “Anglican 101” to introduce Anglican life and worship. After a few months I had gathered an altar and a World War II Mass kit and was able to offer our first experience of worship. We almost lost one member when she saw me in vestments for the first time. She had grown up in a deeply anti Roman Catholic atmosphere. Those prejudices came roaring back when she saw me. She looked as though she had just seen the anti-Christ.

Once we outgrew the chapel we began to meet on Sunday afternoons in a Cumberland Presbyterian Church. It was there in the fall of 1997 that we had our formal launch. At the next Annual Convention the Diocese accepted us as a Mission. 

The quiet and contemplative life that I expected as a child still was nowhere to be found. Planting a church is like starting a new business. When you are not working 60-80 hours per week, you are thinking, and often worrying, and always strategizing about your next move. It did help my prayer life however; that is if you can call yelling “Help!” to God about every 15 minutes a prayer life. 

When an old Wal-Mart became vacant we moved into it. We did so both to have more room and to finally be able to offer Sunday morning worship and Christian Education. I learned a valuable lesson from that move. The outside of the building needs to match what is going on inside or you will be sending out wrong signals. Folks told me later that they knew about our presence in the old Wal-Mart but they did not visit then because they assumed that because we were in a strip mall it meant that we were not a traditional Anglican parish. To them a storefront meant drums and guitars and not smells and bells.In 2001 we built our church on 18 acres and in January of 2002 we walked the aisle of the Cathedral in Nashville to be accepted as a Parish in the Diocese. Then all hell broke loose.

Abiding in the Vine

“I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit.”

This is Jesus’ 7th“I am” statement in the Gospel of John. As Father Chris mentioned in his last sermon Jesus is intentionally using the Divine Name “I am” to declare His divinity. In biblical numerology 7 is the number for perfection or completion. For example the Lord created the heavens and the earth and on the 7thday He rested. Thus as the 7th“I am” statement it causes one to wonder if this is not intended to be the completion or apex of them all. 

I say that because this particular I am statement perfectly captures the relationship with Jesus to which we are called and it summarizes that relationship in a way that tells us all we need to know. What does it mean to be a disciple of Jesus? It is recognizing that He is the Vine and you are the branches and you are to bear fruit. What does it mean to declare Jesus as Lord? It is recognizing that He is the Vine and you are the branches and you are to bear fruit. What does it mean to walk in holiness? It is recognizing that He is the Vine and you are the branches and you are to bear fruit. 

Actually we need to take it a step further. Jesus not only declares that He is the vine and we are the branches but He adds a command in verse 4 when He says “Abide in me, and I in you.” He also gives a warning in verse 6 if we don’t abide in Him so it would behoove us to be clear about how we go about abiding in Christ. These passages give us several thoughts as well as several benefits for abiding in the Vine.

The first thought to abiding in Christ is found in verses 4 and 5. “As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abide in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me….for apart from me you can do nothing.” We abide in Him when we place our trust in Him, when we realize our utter dependence on Him. The disciples got that. As the crowds were leaving Jesus because of His hard sayings, Jesus turned to His disciples and asked if they were going to leave Him as well. They said, “Where would we go Lord? Who else has the words of life?” 

It is when we realize that we are helpless without Him that He becomes our help. It is one of those gospel paradoxes that we only find strength when we admit our weakness. We will gladly abide in the Vine when we realize that we are dead in our transgressions without Him. 

This perspective is what makes the difference between nominal Christianity and a vital faith. If you think that you are basically well and you see the Gospel as a multi vitamin then you can take it or leave it at your convenience. You will think that it is acceptable to be a C. E Christian (Christmas and Easter). After all who doesn’t miss taking their vitamins every now and then. But if you believe that you have been snake bit and the Gospel is the only anti-venom that there is then there is not a thing that you wouldn’t trade for it. 

It starts with trust. But in his book Ruthless Trust, Brennan Manning offers us a reality check about a trust that we need to hear. He says, “The story of salvation history indicates that without exception trust must be purified in the crucible of trial” (p9). He is right. From Abraham thinking that he was to sacrifice His son, to Moses standing on the banks of the Red Sea with the Egyptian army closing in, to Jesus sweating blood in the Garden of Gethsemane, their trust was tested to the max. Perhaps God can use this pandemic to purify our trust. We can seek Him to do so when we realize that, as we are told in the great hymn, His only design is “thy dross to consume and thy gold to refine.”

Believing that we can do nothing without Christ naturally leads to another way that we abide in the Vine; and that is by prayer. Verse 7 “If you abide in me and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.” Since I cannot do anything without Him then it only makes sense that I would be continually asking for His help. Ask for wisdom when you need to make a difficult decision. Ask for courage to follow where He leads. Ask for strength when you are weak. Ask for faith when your knees are shaking. As I said in a previous sermon we can ask for everything from His Kingdom to come to our daily bread and everything in between. Prayer is how the branch stays connected to the Vine. 

Of course this verse needs some clarification because it has been martyred by the televangelist and health and wealth preachers. “Ask whatever you wish” does not give us license to pray the Janice Joplin prayer of “O Lord won’t you buy me a Mercedes Benz, my friends all have Porches I must make amends…” What we wish is to flow from the previous word, “If you abide in me and my words abide in you.” If we are abiding in Him and His words are abiding in us then our prayers will be filled with what He wills and not necessarily what we will. Archbishop William Temple put it this way. “We ask whatever we will but being in Christ our will must be for the glory of God and the accomplishment of His purpose. (Readings in St. John’s Gospel, p.263).

When I was in college and part of a couple of campus ministries, while it was never said outright, the clear message that you got was if you were spiritual you would have a one hour quiet time each morning. And if you were super spiritual you would go for two hours. I tried and tried, I honestly did. And I managed to fail at every devotional plan that I ever attempted. To be real honest I dreaded morning devotions. For me it was a form of protestant penance.

Things changed for the better when I learned of the pattern of the historic church. Following the Psalmist who said, “7 times a day I will bless thee” the historic church developed a pattern of prayer of offering prayers and readings all throughout the day and into the night. It was like eating seven small meals rather than one huge breakfast. 

That pattern has continued for many centuries and is still the pattern today and not just in monasteries. That is the pattern of the Daily Office of Morning and Evening Prayer, Noonday Prayers and Compline. It is the pattern of Christians throughout the world that have embraced a rule of life like those of Benedict or Francis. 

I tell you this so that you don’t think you should only pray if you have a huge chunk of time to do so.  The most perfect prayer of all it the Lord’s Prayer and that takes less than a minute to pray. Connecting with Jesus through prayer throughout the day and into the night, about anything and everything, sure sounds to me like abiding in Him. 

A third way that we abide in the Vine is through obedience. Verse 10. “If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love.” The Pharisee in us loves this verse. Now we get to make a list and check it twice. We get to create rules to follow and especially make it our job to see that everyone else is following those rules. We become so proud of our obedience that we thank God that we are not like that sinner in the Temple. 

On the other hand the rebel in us is repulsed by this verse. As soon as we hear a call to obedience we hear legalism and control and a loss of identity. We expect to hear moralistic sermons on drinking and dancing and chewing.

Of course both of those viewpoints are entirely wrong because they have missed the connection that Jesus makes between obedience and love. “Just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in His love.” Jesus didn’t obey His Father because He was afraid that He would be sent to hell if He didn’t. He obeyed His Father because He loved His Father. He delighted to do His Father’s will. When you obey out of love then your obedience is a joy and not a burden. And when you obey out of love you don’t need a set of rules to follow. Love is your guide. Jesus said that if we love Him we would keep His commandments. What was the new commandment that He gave to His disciples? It was to love one another as He had loved them. 

Let’s consider the benefits of abiding in the Vine. First we bear fruit. Verse 5 “Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit.” Note that Jesus not only says we will bear fruit but that we will bear much fruit. What is the fruit that we will bear? How about the fruit of good works? Abiding in Christ will cause us to love and serve our neighbor. How about the fruit of the Spirit? Love, joy, peace, patience…could anyone use a little more of those these days? And what is wonderful about the image of fruit is that it is naturally produced, as the branch stays connected to the vine. It is not something that needs to be conjured up or developed by years of disciplined study. It flows naturally from your relationship to Christ.

A second benefit of abiding in Christ is that it brings glory to God. Verse 8. “By this my Father is glorified that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples.” I believe that the Presbyterians are correct in their catechism when they ask, “What is the chief end of man?” and the answer is, “To glorify God and to enjoy Him forever.”  People are always searching for happiness but they inevitably look in all the wrong places. True happiness that is accompanied with lasting contentment is found when you discover your reason for being. If our reason for being is to glorify God and we can do so by producing fruit then we have found the road to happiness. And the good news is that road is a freeway and not a toll road.

A third benefit of abiding in Christ is joy. Verse 11. “These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be full.” That is quite a promise. Not just any joy but we are to receive Jesus’ joy and not just some joy but joy that is full, drinking from the saucer joy. 

You have probably figured it out by now but you are not going to get that kind of joy by watching the news. I counted the other morning and I came up with either 6 or 7 reports in a row that were nothing but bad news. It started with Covid-19, then a meat shortage, then a monster killer wasp discovered out West, then a strange new infection in children, then the airline industry collapsing and on and on it went. I know that they have to sell ads but the news has not always been delivered in such apocalyptic tones. It is more and more difficult to discern how much is information and how much is manipulation. 

So that is why when I want some joy in my life I think about His unfailing love and mercy for me. I think about a kingdom that is not in trouble. I think about a day when all things will be made right. I think about eternity with those I love. I think how nothing can separate me from His love. I think of Jesus admonition again and again to not be afraid but to trust. All of this brings me joy. I can’t stand here and declare that my joy is yet full, but I’m working on it. 

I want to mention one more way that we abide in Christ that is not seen in today’s portion of John’s Gospel but is found in a few chapters earlier in John 6. Jesus said, “He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me and I in him.” It is through the Sacrament that we abide in Christ and that is why we need to reopen Sunday worship as soon as possible. Our plan right now is to return to Sunday worship on the last Sunday of May, which is the Feast of Pentecost. And we need to do this together because it is as we receive the Body and Blood of Christ together that we are the Body of Christ. That cannot be done sitting alone in front of a computer. 

Beyond that we are meant to live in community because we are created in God’s image and God lives in the community of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. We need to be together. If we are honest with ourselves we will admit that “Making your way in the world today takes everything you got. So taking a break from all your worries sure would help a lot. Sometimes you want to go where everybody knows your name. And they’re always glad you came. You want to be where you can see; our troubles are all the same. You want to be where everybody knows your name.” (Someone should turn that into a song). 

The clear message from Jesus today is that we are to abide in Him. And please note that He gives that to us as a command and not as a suggestion. This command comes with a promise. If we abide in Him then He will abide in us. Could there be anything better? We abide in Him by being utterly dependent upon Him, staying connected to Him in prayer, walking in obedience based on love and by regularly and faithfully receiving the Sacrament. Let’s commit ourselves to this and may His joy be and you and your joy be full. Amen. 

Freedom from Fear

This 1928 Prayer Book that I use during the Mass was my father’s. He received it when he was confirmed in 1935.  He was born and raised in the small town of Monroe in Upper State New York Sate. (In terms of importance to me, Monroe ranks right next to the holy city of Jerusalem because it is also the birthplace of Velveeta Cheese). 

My father grew up during the Great Depression and joined the Navy at 17 when the US entered World War II. He had only a high school education but he was a very smart man and he rose through the ranks to Lt. Commander. After retiring from the Navy he earned a college degree and started a small business. It was difficult watching him age and become frail because he was quite the jock growing up. I had the privilege of being with him when he died. I administered last rites to him. A day or so before he died he looked me square in the eye and said, “Ray, I’m not afraid to die.” And he said it with such calm conviction that I absolutely knew that he was speaking the truth. His death was a gentle passing. That experience made me wonder if I would be able to say the same thing about fear when it was my time to go.

King David was of the same mindset as my father according to today’s Psalm. “Ye though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I shall fear no evil….” That is significant because David wasn’t just waxing poetic. From fighting lions and bears as a shepherd, to slaying Goliath, to being hunted by Saul, to the rebellion of his son, to the many battles that he fought, David had multiple opportunities to be afraid. And yet he was fearless when facing death. 

This presents us with a question. How do we come to a place where fear is not ruling our lives? Of course given the time that we are living in, that is a purely theoretical question, but let’s ask it anyway. The other day I was reading the alternate Old Testament lesson from last week, which was a portion of Isaiah 43, and some points jumped off of the page that provide us with some answers.

Verse one says, “But now thus says the LORD, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.” So the first point is this; Do not fear because you are the Lord’s possession. And that really is the major point of Psalm 23. You may have heard the story of a little boy who has memorized Psalm 23 in Vacation Bible School and was chosen to recite it on the final day before parents and visitors. He stood and said, “The Lord is my shepherd…” and then he froze, his mind went blank. His VBS teacher encouraged him to try again. “The Lord is my shepherd…..” Nothing. She said, “Try one more time.” “The Lord is my shepherd….and that’s all I need to know.” And truly that is all we do need to know. When fear shows up don’t try to battle it head on, look to your Shepherd. As He tells us that as a Good Shepherd He will lay down His life for us so what will He not do for His flock? Do not be afraid, you are the Lord’s possession. 

Verse 2 says, “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through the fire you shall not be burned and the flame shall not consume you.” Point two is this; Do not fear because you are always in His presence. The LORD say, “I will be with you.” Jesus added, “And I will never leave you nor forsake you.”

This point is where I frequently need my perspective adjusted. A wrong expectation that slips its way into my thinking is that if He truly loves me then there would be no waters or rivers of fire to pass through. But God does not promise that does He? What He promises is that He will be with us. “Ye though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil…” Why? “because Thou art with me.” 

Years ago I was trying to catch a flight out of Atlanta. It was supposed to leave at 11am but we were notified that our plane was delayed because it was snowed in at Chicago. The delay ended up being over 11 hours. What they did not tell us was that our plane would not be able to leave Chicago, so rather than canceling the flight they worked all day repairing a grounded plane in Atlanta. Finally as we were nearing midnight we boarded. As we lifted off and were banking out of Atlanta, the engine on my side of the plane exploded and sent fire the length of the entire fuselage. Because it was so dark the flames were particularly dramatic and foreboding. Chaos broke out. People were screaming, the old man across the aisle from me wet himself and the flight attendants were all crying. If I told you that at that moment I was not afraid I would be lying. But to my surprise I was not frozen in terror. Instead I began to pray and I prayed and prayed and prayed. Much to my chagrin I had a good amount of time to pray because the airplane had to circle Atlanta to dump most of its fuel before we could make an emergency landing. I remember praying for the pilot’s math so that he wouldn’t dump too much fuel because two weeks earlier a pilot had made that error in California and they dropped in the drink. When we finally landed the crew took over a red eye flight to the West Coast and offered it to us but about half of the people refused to get on another plane. Now again I would be lying if I said that I was not afraid but I believe that I was not panicked because the Lord was present with me. I believe He is the One who gave me the grace to pray when my natural reaction would have been to be in fetal position under the seat in front of me. 

But what do we do about the times when we are passing through the river or fire or valley and we don’t feel His presence. What do we do then? We trust that He is there nonetheless because He said that He would be. As one teacher put it, “We are already in the presence of God, what is absent is awareness.” You may remember a poem from a few years ago called “Footsteps.” It’s about a guy looking over his life and seeing two sets of footsteps in the sand, one set his and one set the Lord’s. But then he asks about the times that he only sees one set of footsteps and the Lord says, “That was when I was carrying you.”  The poem was repeated so many times that it became a little trite but it remains so true. I can definitely look back at my life and see many, many times that He was carrying me and I don’t know that I would be here today if He hadn’t done so. So do not be afraid, you are in His presence.

Verse 4 says “Because you are precious in my eyes, and honored, and I love you, I give men in return for you, peoples in exchange for your life.”  We know now that this prophecy was ultimately fulfilled when He gave the Son of Man in exchange for our lives. Therefore point three is this; Do not be afraid because you are precious in the sight of God.

For some that can be a hard concept to wrap our minds around. “Me? Precious to God?” I don’t really know why but as I was growing up, and would think about God, my first thought was that He was disappointed in me. I imagined Him sitting with a big book in His lap and marking down every time I messed up. And because that was so often I could see Him shaking His head at me in disapproval. That misconception of God was deep within me, most of the time on an unconscious level, but it was there. When someone from Campus Crusade said to me, “God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life” my immediate reaction was “Really?” rather than “Of Course!” It turned out that He does love me and He did have a wonderful plan for my life but I wasn’t convinced of that then. 

What started to break down this terrible misconception about our Lord was an experience that I had one morning during a daily devotion. I was reading through the Bible and was in the prophet Zephaniah. (Look it up, there really is such a book). I read these words.  “The LORD your God is in your midst, a mighty one who will save; he will rejoice over you with gladness; he will quiet you by his love; he will exult over you with loud singing.” I was blown away. It hit me like a revelation. Instead of being disappointed with me and shaking His head, when God sees me He breaks out in song. What? That is what the text says. “He will exult over you with loud singing.”  Not just singing but LOUD singing. What a concept! 

If you find it difficult to believe that you are precious in God’s sight then I want to encourage you to do three things. First if you are not regularly reading through the Scriptures then add that discipline to your life. This is important for several reasons. You have some powerful forces warring against you. They are called the world, the flesh and the devil and the last thing that they want is for you to be convinced that you are loved by God. You need a defense against their influence. St. Paul says in Ephesians we are to “take up the shield of faith, with which you are able to extinguish the flaming darts of the evil one.” How do we get this shield of faith? St. Paul tells us in Romans. “Faith cometh by hearing and hearing by the word of Christ.”

A second reason that regular reading of Scripture is so important is because our world is filled with mental and spiritual pollutants. This pollution comes to us all day every day through multimedia, the internet, the printed word and talk around the water cooler. The pollution comes to us in the form of distortions, half-truths, gossip, propaganda, and outright lies. In Ephesians St. Paul speaks of Christ’s love for the Church and how He sanctifies her “having cleansed her by the washing of the water with the word.” Daily Bible reading therefore is like a daily shower only instead of cleansing your body it cleanses your heart and your mind. 

A third reason for the disciplined reading of Scripture is it becomes the hammer that breaks your chains. We become enslaved when we are not walking in the truth. I was enslaved by the misconception of God that I just spoke about. I was imprisoned by a lie. Jesus said it is the truth that sets us free and so the more we expose ourselves to Scripture, the more truth fills our lives and the freer we become. So read your Bibles. Doing so in the context of the Daily Office of the Prayer Book is a great start for us as Anglicans.

The second thing I would suggest is take every opportunity when we offer classes that are about or developed from the four pillars. I am not sure yet when we will be able to offer classes again. It may not be until the fall. Time will tell. But these four pillars of Sacramental Living, Joyful Discipleship, Radical Love and Gracious Evangelism are grounded in Christ and they will establish you in His love. 

The third thing that I would highly recommend is that you read about anything that you can get your hands on by Brennan Manning. He was a very broken servant of God but boy howdy did he get the Good News. One of my favorite quotes of his, that is a goal for me, is this. “My deepest awareness of myself is that I am deeply loved by Jesus Christ and I have done nothing to deserve it.” That is about as solid as “The Lord is my shepherd and that is all I need to know.”

How do you conquer fear?  You do so by knowing that you are His possession, that you are always in His presence, and that you are precious in His sight. If you can get those truths planted deep into your heart then you will be able to say with St. Paul, “If God be for us, who can be against us?” Amen.