Good and Faithful Servant

Imagine that you work for an International Company and they gave you an assignment to spend a few months at an overseas branch. A close friend of yours has had a change in his living arrangements and so he volunteered to housesit while you are gone. After being away longer than originally expected, you return to your home only to find it a complete mess. The yard is overgrown, the gutters are full of leaves and the inside is even in worse condition. The carpets are all stained, the trash is overflowing and stinks, there are empty food containers everywhere, and your previously beautiful dining room table, that you inherited from your grandmother, is covered in scratches and water marks. Besides being furious it would also make you wonder two things 1. If your friend really believed that you were coming back. And 2. If he is really your friend.

Jesus’ parables remind us again and again that we are not owners. Even the things that we think are ours, come from Him and are ultimately His. We are just housesitting. His parables also remind us again and again that we will have to give an account for how well we kept His house. Therefore the words that we should be living to hear one day are “Well done good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little. I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your Master.” In order to hear those words we need to be clear about what we believe and about how we should live. 

What do we believe? We say it every week in the Nicene Creed. “….and he shall come again, with glory, to judge both the quick and the dead, whose kingdom shall have no end.” We see today in Matthew’s Gospel a snapshot of what that will look like. “and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory.  And he will send out his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other.”His return will not be a secret. It will be obvious to all and He bring with Him all of the company of heaven. 

What will happen to those who are still alive at His return? Verse 38 “For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day when Noah entered the ark, and they were unaware until the flood came and swept them all away, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. Two men will be in the field; one will be taken and one left. Two women will be grinding at the mill; one will be taken and one left. Therefore, stay awake, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming.”

For any who are still alive everything will change in a blink of an eye. But when you read this passage in its context you see that the Left Behind teaching about the so-called Rapture has it completely backwards. Matthew points out that in the days of Noah it was the wicked that were swept away and it was Noah and his family that were left behind. In Luke’s version of this passage the disciples even ask where they are taken and Jesus’ response is “where the corpse is, there the vultures will gather.” That doesn’t sound like a place I would want to be. The Lord sweeping away the wicked, as He did with the flood, will result in the meek inheriting the earth. So Christians need a bumper sticker that instead of “In case of rapture this car will be unmanned” will say, “In case of rapture, may I have your car?”

If we truly believe that He is going to return and that we will be called upon to give an accounting of our stewardship, then that belief should have a profound impact on how we live our lives. Jesus said, “To whom much is given, much will be required.” Thus it would be wise for each of us to ask, “What markers in my life would identify me as a good and faithful servant?” The Scriptures point to several.

A first and most obvious mark of being a good and faithful servant is that you have only one Master. We read in our lesson from Romans “Owe no one anything, except to love each other….” This practical command has profound spiritual implications. Why? Because following this command secures our freedom as Proverbs 22 tells us, “the borrower is slave to the lender.” Add to that Jesus’ words, “No one can serve two Masters… you cannot serve God and money.” Ultimately how we use or misuse our money has a direct impact on who or what rules our lives.

I recently heard the saddest call on a Dave Ramsey podcast. A guy called in who had completed all the years of college and medical school but he failed the comprehensive exams three times and was expelled from school. He had $400,000 in student loan debt and was currently employed as a high school science teacher. Dave tried a number of avenues to help him but it was clear to me that this borrower would be a slave to Fannie Mae forever.

But when you owe no one anything, when you finally kick MasterCard out of your life, then you have only one Master and you are free to follow wherever He leads. He can call you to the mission field, He can call you to seminary, He can call you to be a chicken farmer and because you are free you can answer His call. 

A second mark of being a good and faithful servant is living in a state of readiness. Jesus is unequivocal that no one knows when the Day of Judgment will arrive. He says “But concerning that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only.” So any time you see a preacher pull out a chart or claim to have a biblical formula for figuring out the datejust say “Bless your heart” and move on. 

But it is precisely because we don’t know the day or hour that we are to live in a state of readiness. We are to live as if His return could be any day, perhaps even today. That was Jesus’ point when He spoke of the people in the days of Noah eating and drinking and marrying and giving in marriage. It’s not that there is anything innately wrong with eating and drinking and marrying. What Jesus was pointing out was that they were clueless. A great flood was about to come and they were living like they didn’t have a care in the world. 

Do we have this condition today? Consider Sundays in America where our churches are half full but our sports stadiums are overflowing and the Wal-Mart is packed. I’ll never forget, when we were still meeting at Lancaster Academy, driving to church on a crisp Easter Morning. As I drove past the Wal-Mart I saw enough cars to fill about 3 churches. On Easter morning! Or consider that this year we spent $8.8 billion on Halloween while 1 in 7 kids in America does not know where his next meal is coming from. What Jesus was pointing out is that when you are clueless your priorities are catawampus, so get a clue…wake up…pay attention!

I think that it is important, however, to distinguish between living in a state of awareness and living in a state of fear. Jesus says “Therefore stay awake” He does not say “Therefore stay afraid.” We are not meant to live as if the sword of judgment is hanging over our head, because it isn’t. Jesus’ atonement has removed that sword. But we are, as a collect from Morning Prayer puts it, to remember that we are ever walking in His sight. St. Paul also uses the image of being awake when he says, “the hour has come for you to wake from sleep….the night is far gone; the day is at hand.” We are to wake up and stay awake and live in a state of readiness.

A third mark of a good and faithful servant is that they live according the Master’s rules. Do you remember when you were a kid and you said to your parents, “Well at Johnny’s house they let him do thus and so…” What was the universal parent response? “Well this isn’t Johnny’s house and as long as you live under my roof you will follow my rules.”

That needs to be our mentality as Christians. It doesn’t matter what they are doing in the world, our citizenship is in heaven and so we are to follow His rules. In verse 13 St. Paul describes how the world lives and it’s not pretty. Orgies, drunkenness, sexual immorality, sensuality, quarrelling, jealousy. That is chaos. That is darkness. St. Paul says that we not to live this way. He says “Let us walk properly as in the daytime.”

Following the Master’s rules should inform not only our personal ethics but also our social ethics. It doesn’t matter how many times the Supreme Court says something is constitutional or how many laws the Legislator pass, something that is wicked cannot be made righteous just because it’s now legal. 

There needs to be a consistency between what we believe personally and our public voice, particularly on major moral issues. The Church should stay out of politics but the individual Christian should be a leading voice. I think of William Wilberforce who became the tip of the spear to abolish slavery in Great Britain in 1807. And don’t listen to the old saw about keeping your beliefs to yourself and not imposing them on others. If you are silent they will impose theirs on you. You are the salt of the earth. Be that salt. Can you imagine someone in the 1940’s saying, “Well I am personally opposed to the extermination of the Jews but who am I to impose my beliefs on the German government?” German Lutheran Pastor and Martyr, Dietrich Bonheoffer, is a model for standing against wickedness no matter the cost.

Finally a fourth mark of a good and faithful servant is that they follow the Master so closely that they become an extension of the Master. How do we do that? In verse 14 St. Paul says, “But put on Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.”

Fr. Chris and I have laughed many times over a YouTube video of a frustrated preacher rebuking his congregation. He yells, “You guys….don’t be a jerk…you’re making me look bad in front of God. O look it’s Jesus. What does He say? “Stop it!’”” 

While the video is funny the sad truth is too often that “just stop it” approach is how many Christians live. They make a long laundry list of things they are not supposed to do and they work on that list. That works about as well as the past government campaign to stop drug use by “just say no.” It doesn’t work because your dominant focus becomes the very thing that you are not supposed to be doing. If I said, “please don’t think about a pink elephant” then you will immediately think of a pink elephant. 

St. Paul points us in a more positive direction. He shows us a way to live under grace rather than under the law. He not just what not to do but he tells us to put on Christ. One commentator said of this expression, “The metaphor of putting on clothing implies more than just imitating Christ’s character but also living in close personal fellowship with Him.” (ESV footnotes p.2180). 

How do we live in close personal fellowship with Christ? Obviously we do it through the reading and study of the Scriptures, through prayer, and through the Sacraments. But there are a couple of other means of grace that I would like to underscore.

First we live in close personal fellowship with Christ as we maintain close personal fellowship with one another. You are His Body and that is why we need one another. If you hang around godly people you become more godly. The opposite is also true. In 1 Corinthians we read, “Bad company corrupts good character.” So Christian fellowship is key.

Another way to stay in close personal fellowship with Christ has been shown to us by our spiritual ancestors. During the Middle Ages there was a very popular devotional book called the Book of Hours. It was written for the laity but patterned after the Divine Offices that were observed in the monasteries. The idea was to stop at various times throughout the day to offer private prayers and to reflect on the life of Christ. This is the kind of pattern that Dorrence and Kelly Stoval keep as third order Benedictines. They could tell you more about it. 

But also know that you don’t have to join an order to keep this discipline. The 1979 and the 2019 Books of Common Prayer have brief devotions that can be done throughout the day; Morning, Midday, Early Evening and at the Close of Day as well as Compline. The pattern is to stop at various times throughout the day to refocus on Christ and say some brief prayers. It is a way, as Brother Lawrence put it, to practice the presence of Christ.

We believe that He will come again and when He does that we will have to give an accounting for what kind of stewards we have been. In the wisdom of the Church this penitential season of Advent is designed for us to ask ourselves the hard questions and to seek His grace to make the necessary changes to be good and faithful servants. But please note, and this is key, it is a work that we do not do FOR Him, it’s a work that we do WITH Him. St. Paul writes, “For I am confident of this very thing, that He who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus.” May that day come soon. Amen.

Communion of Saints Pt 2

Yesterday, at the All Souls Mass I spoke about the Communion of the Saints. I attempted to show why that belief is so important for us to confess and I attempted to explain what we mean and what we don’t mean when we speak of the Communion of the Saints. Today I want to talk about the benefits of believing in the Communion of the Saints. 

But first I want to address a common objection that I have heard. It’s a simplistic argument but I have heard it many times. “If I have Jesus why do I need the saints?” Let me address how illogical this question is and then I will give a biblically informed response. I would ask the person, “Is it true that according to the New Testament all believers are considered saints?”The correct answer is “Yes.” “Then that would make you a saint.” “Yes.” “Then you just asked‘If I have Jesus why do I need me?’” Or lets try it another way. “Do not the saints, both those on earth and those in heaven, make up the Body of Christ?” Again the correct answer is“Yes” “Then you just asked‘If I have Jesus why would I need the Body of Christ?’”  

Beyond pointing out the illogic of the question let me offer a simple response.  “We need the saints because that is how God set up the universe.” The Communion of the Saints is not the Church’s idea rather it is God’s. The same can be said about angels. “If I have Jesus why would I need angels.”? Again, because that is how God set up the universe. We know that Jesus had a perfect relationship with His heavenly Father and yet Scripture records two occasions where angels came to minister to Him. One was after the 40 days of temptation and one was at the garden the night that He was betrayed.  If Jesus was one with the Father why did He need angels to minister to Him? Because that is how God set up the universe and who are we to question His ways?

Since God has set up the Communion of the Saints what are the benefits? I will offer a number. First they fill need in our lives. Unless you are a narcissist you need a hero, someone to challenge you and inspire you to be a better you. This has been true across humanity and throughout history. Think of the ancient myths and legends and how invariably they involve a hero. Hercules, Beowulf, Achilles, Romulus and Remus, the list is endless. Who are our heroes today? Look at the movies. Spiderman, Captain America, Wonder Woman, Batman. Again the list is endless.

The saints fill this role in much better ways. I mean I can’t really relate to Batman. I’m not rich and I don’t drive at night. But the saints were real folk and like real folk they also had their issues and I can relate to that. St. Jerome, the brilliant translator of the Bible, was evidently a very difficult person with which to get along. St. John of the Cross battled spiritual and emotional depression. As we all know St. Peter suffered from foot in mouth disease. This list is also endless. 

What is important is that as far as we know these saints completed the race, and in spite of their issues, received a crown of glory that never fades away. The danger of current sports heroes or current celebrity heroes or even current preacher heroes is that we don’t know the end of their story, we don’t know if they will finish the race or if they will drop out or if they will be disqualified.

Secondly the saints show us a different way than the way of the world. Let me tell you about Alphonsus Rodriguez who died in 1617. He was the son of a prosperous merchant in Segovia. He began his studies to become a Jesuit but when his father died he had to return home to run his family business. He fell in love and married and had two children. His wife died bearing his third child, then his other two children died, then his mother died, and then his business collapsed. Although completely broken he offered the shattered pieces of his life to God. 

He was denied entrance into the Jesuits because his lack of education but they made him a lay brother of the order and gave him the job of being a doorkeeper. For 40 years he opened the door for others with such love and devotion that they said that he performed it as if it were a sacrament. His Christlikeness became so well known that students began seeking him out for spiritual direction. Rodriguez was so well respected that Spanish nobility along with throngs of the poor and the sick attended his funeral testifying to his miraculous life as a doorkeeper. When we confess the Communion of the Saints we are speaking truth against the constant quest for power, against the materialism of atheism and against the secularism of western culture. 

The Communion of the Saints reorients us. At least six days a week we are being bombarded with lies and half-truths from the world, the flesh and the devil and sadly from ABC, NBC and CBS. It is very easy in the midst of all of these lies to become disoriented and even to begin to drift. At first the drift is every so slightly but before we realize it we are way off course. 

A few years ago Beth and I flew to Italy on a brand new jet. One of the things I enjoyed most about the flight was that it had cameras all over the plane and so you could bring different views to the monitor before you. As we were landing I chose the camera that allowed me to see what the pilots were seeing. And there before us were two rows of lights marking the runway and guiding us home. It occurred to me that is how I see the saints. They are not home but they mark our way home. When we have drifted from the course they reorient us for a safe landing. In Jeremiah we read, “This is what the Lord says: ‘Stand at the crossroads and look; ask for the ancient paths, ask where the good way is and walk in it and you will find rest for your souls.” The saints show us those ancient paths.

The Cloud of Witnesses gives us perspective on our lives in a number of ways. Back to Hebrews 11. “They were stoned, they were sawn in two, were tempted, were slain with the sword. They wandered about in sheepskins and goatskins being destitute, afflicted, tormented…” And here I feel persecuted when the insurance company tells me that I haven’t met my deductible. But more than reminding me that I don’t have it too bad the saints call us to be better. 

It was not until the 1950’s that runners broke the four-minute mile. Until that point no one thought that it was even possible. Today if you can’t run a four-minute mile you likely won’t make the team. The bar has been raised that high.

The saints raise the bar for us. If I was in this alone and heard a call to be more loving or more generous or more courageous, I could dismiss it by saying the only one to do that was Jesus and I’m not Jesus. But when I look back at my spiritual ancestors and see the love of Mother Theresa or the generosity of St. Francis or courage of St. Patrick, I know that the spiritual version of the four-minute mile has been broken and so I give it a try. And if I listen very carefully I can hear the cloud of witnesses cheering me on. 

The Communion of Saints also model for us selfless service. In September of 1878, yellow fever hit epidemic proportions in Memphis, Tennessee. So many people died that the city lost its charter. Every one who could afford to do so fled the city, while Anglican nuns and clergy rushed in to offer care. They became known as Sister Constance and her companions. The cathedral was turned into a hospital. Constance was the first to die and then her companions followed. In all 38 Anglican and Roman clergy and nuns died in this selfless service of others. “They loved not their lives even unto death.” The high altar of the cathedral, consecrated on Whitsunday 1879, was commissioned by Bishop Quintard to memorialize the Sisters of St. Mary. Inscribed on the altar steps are “Alleluia Osanna,”which were Sister Constance’s last words. 

Lastly the Communion of Saints inspires us to finish the race that we have begun. That is the message of Hebrew 12. The picture in my mind is that we are on the field in a very tough race and the cloud of witnesses in the stands is cheering us on. The text says that because we are surrounded by this great cloud of witnesses we are to  “run with endurance the race the is set before us.”  The key word here is, “endurance.”As you well know the Christian life is not a sprint, it is a marathon and marathons are tough. In the letters to Timothy and to Thessalonica, St. Paul prophesies that in the latter days there will be a great falling away from the faith. While I have never been one to try to predict the latter days I do know that t is all too easy to quit. I have seen many do so. This year alone between 8,000 and 10,000 churches will close their doors in the US.  

I will make this personal. I was first ordained in 1979 so I’m sure it would not surprise you that I have had days when I said out loud to myself, “I don’t want to do this any more.”I recently hit that wall. In part because I don’t have the stamina that I did when I was younger and in part because ministering to the pain and trauma and heartache of folks that you love takes its toll over the years.  I was in that mindset a couple of weeks ago when Beth and I went to Savannah to celebrate her 29thbirthday  (Lord I apologize). As we were walking around Savannah we came across a square where the great Anglican preacher Fr. George Whitfield had preached to hundreds if not thousands. Just to be standing where he stood was enough inspiration to straighten up and get my head back in the race. The saints of God do that for us.

I would encourage you to read up on the saints and make it a goal to have a hero or heroes that will inspire you to run with endurance and to finish the race. I know that I need all of the help that God offers me and so I celebrate being surrounded by their fellowship of love and prayers. While it is true that the whole notion of the saints became riddled with superstition in the Middle Ages, we need not fear that it will happen to us. Anglican theology and worship is too Christ centered to see those abuses repeated. In an excellent article about the saints Fr. Wesley Walker reminds us that we should not allow abuses of a practice to negate that practice, especially when the practice predates the abuse. We know that if belief in the Communion of the Saints was so universal in the Church that it was placed in the Nicene Creed in 325, then it didn’t first appear in 324. The ancient practice of the Church was to pray for the faithful departed and to be comforted in the knowledge that they are praying for us. I believe in the Communion of the Saints. 

“The lived not only in ages past, there are hundreds and thousands still. The world is bright with the joyous saints who love to do Jesus’ will. You can meet them in school or in lanes or at sea, in church or in trains or in shops or at tea, for the saints of God are just folk like me and I mean to be one too.

The Communion of the Saints

Yesterday was the feast of All Saints, which we will celebrate tomorrow at what is commonly called All Saints’ Sunday, but today is the feast of All Souls. Why two feasts? It follows the pattern of Hebrews 11 that begins by recounting the deeds of the heroes of our faith. It mentions Enoch and Noah and Abraham and Sara and Moses and many others. But towards the end of the chapter no names are given. Just their deeds. The text simply says, “others were tortured…still others had trial of mockings and scourging…They were stoned and sawn in two…they wandered about…” And I love this line; “of whom the world was not worthy.”

Thus on All Saints’ Day we honor the saints that are in the Hall of Fame. On All Soul’s Day we honor all the rest of the faithful departed. The Apocrypha make the distinction this way. “Some of them have left a name behind so that others declare their praise…But of others there is no memory…but these also were godly ones, whose righteous deeds have not been forgotten.” That is a perfect description of Hebrews 11. Then chapter 12 begins “Therefore since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight and the sin which so easily ensnares us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us….”

Misconceptions about the saints abound especially here in the Bible Belt. Years ago I received a call from a guy who wanted to confront me about calling a church after a saint. He said that the church belonged to the Lord and so we shouldn’t name it after a saint. I explained the we fully realized that the church belonged to the Lord but there was a very long tradition of having patrons, so that as Scripture says, we are giving honor to whom it is due. He still objected and was very angry with me and slammed down his phone. So in his mind it was blasphemous to name a church after a saint but it was okay with the name “Franklin Road Baptist Church.” Go figure.

Each week we confess in the Nicene Creed that we believe in the Communion of the Saints. Celebrating All Saints and All Souls is a natural result of that belief but it also posses some questions. Why is belief in the Communion of the Saints important? What do we believe about the Communion of the Saints” and of what is the benefit of this belief? 

But before I address those questions let me clarify  potential misconceptions concerning our beliefs about the saints. First we reject a common belief that there are the saints in heaven and then there are us sinners here on earth. The New Testament is quite clear that all believers, those in heaven and those on earth, are saints in the eyes of God. St. Paul begins his letter to the church in Philippi. “Paul and Timothy, bondservants of Christ Jesus to all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi, with the bishops and deacons.”I do find it troubling that he did not include the clergy with the saints but that is my problem. The believers in Philippi are called saints. 

Second we reject any notion of the saints being mediators, that is the idea that we pray to them and then they go to God on our behalf, like having a friend in the court. The Scripture is also clear on this. There is only One Mediator between God and man and that is Jesus Christ (I Timothy 2:5). Why would we have it any other way when we have the indescribable privilege of going directly to the Father in Jesus’ Name. 

Third, in particular reference to this feast of All Souls, we do not pray for the departed in order to help them get out of purgatory, because as Anglicans we do not believe in purgatory. Jesus said to the thief on the cross, “Today you will be with me in Paradise.” Any work that needed to be done to wash us from our sins was done when Jesus said, “It is finished” and then three days late came bursting out of His tomb conquering death and the grave. And then ascended to the Father presenting to Him His sacrifice.

So if we are not praying for the departed to get out of purgatory then why are we praying for them? That is one of the most frequent questions I am asked is “Why do y’all pray for the dead?”The short answer is “Because they aint dead.”Jesus said “But concerning the resurrection of the dead have you not read what was spoken to you by God saying ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob’? God is not the God of the dead but of the living.” A believer passes through the gate of death into the presence of God. So we pray to God for the faithful departed because they still live.

We pray to God for the faithful departed, as is so beautifully put in the 1928 BCP, “…beseeching thee to grant them continual growth in thy love and service; and to grant us grace so to follow their good examples that with them we may be partakers of thy heavenly grace…” We may not need to pray for one another once the whole Church becomes the Church triumphant, and we receive our new bodies at the Resurrection, and we are placed in a new heaven and a new earth. But that has not happened yet and so we continue to pray. 

We pray to God for the faithful departed because death has not stopped our love for them. Praying for others keeps us linked or connected to them. And so because of my love for my Father I hold my Father’s memory alive when I mention him before God’s altar. 

We also pray to God WITH the faithful departed. This is chiefly done through worship. “Therefore joining our voices with angels and archangels and with all the company of heaven, we laud and magnify thy glorious Name….”

I hope that clarifies a few things. Now I want to return to my original questions. Why is it important that we believe in the Communion of the Saints, what do we believe about it and what is the benefit of this belief? 

A chief reason that this belief is so important is because it flows from what we believe about the completed work of Christ and what we believe about the Church. If Jesus had not conquered death there would be no Communion of the Saints. There would be no voices in heaven with which to join our voices. There would only be the silence of the grave. But because the Old Testament Saints looked forward in faith to His victory, as we look back in faith to His victory, there is indeed a blessed Communion. 

The Communion of the Saints manifests what we believe about the Church. The Church is the Body of Christ and just as there is only one Head there is only one Body. There is the Church triumphant in glory and the Church militant on earth, but there is only one Church, one Body. Thus we should be very diligent to work for unity with fellow saints on earth and we should maintain our unity with the saints in glory. The new catechism asks “How are the Church on earth and the Church in heaven joined?”  Answer. “All of the worship of the Church on earth is a participation in the eternal worship of the Church in heaven.” Hebrew 12:22-24. Thus to abandon worship, or to think that worship is all about me, is to abandon the Communion of the Saints

What do we believe about the Communion of the Saints? We believe that the Church triumphant is not passive towards us. Hebrews 12 tells us that we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses. I love the picture that the BCP paints for us through this collect. “Almighty God, by your Holy Spirit you have made us one with your saints in heaven and on earth: Grant that in our earthly pilgrimage we may always be supported by this fellowship of love and prayer, and know our selves to be surrounded by their witness to your power and mercy…”

Wait a moment. Did that collect say that the saints in heaven are praying for us? Yes it did! But how do we know that? We know it from Revelation 5 and 8 that tell of golden bowls of incense, and the text tells us,“which are the prayers of the saints.” Their prayers for us imply that they know what is going on with us, which they most assuredly do. At the Transfiguration of Jesus we are told that Moses and Elijah were speaking with Him about His upcoming departure when the disciples didn’t yet realize that was about to happen.  

I have personally experienced this fellowship of love and prayer. When we were building All Saints’ in Smyrna it was one of the most challenging experiences that I ever had. The builder was a crook of the highest order and I was in a constant battle with him over his lies and his shoddy work. Our lawyer had been involved with the building of the Titans stadium. He said that work put him in contact with some Mafia types and he said that the Mafia was easier to deal with than our builder. The Bishop saw what stress I was under and offered to me to use his condo in St. Augustine, so Beth and I went down for a few days to try to decompress. 

As we were walking through the Old City I saw an Orthodox Shrine and I asked Beth to give me a few minutes to go in and say my prayers. I was still heavy with the burden of the project and I had serious doubts that we would be able to complete it, which would have been a financial disaster for the parish. I knelt before a number of life sized icons of various saints and I lit a candle and I cried out to the Lord for His mercy. Although my eyes were closed I could tell that I was not alone. I felt a distinct presence. It was as if each saint had stepped out of his icon and they were standing around me, giving me the assurance that God had heard my prayer and that all would be well. The burden lifted, we had a great time in St. Augustine and the project got completed. 

I went back to the shrine after the church was built to offer thanks to the Lord for hearing my prayer. I was also secretly hoping to have the same experience again but it was crickets that time. However as I was leaving the shrine I read a plaque on the wall that told of their history. It said that before coming to St. Augustine it was in a town called New Smyrna, which gave me goose bumps. I definitely believe in the Communion of the Saints. 

This belief in the Communion of the Saints directly confronts the me-and-Jesus heresy that plagues the Western Church. If you google “I love Jesus but I hate the Church” you will see all kinds of videos and research and books. It is a growing theme. But you don’t need a degree in theology to know that is one of the dumbest things that you could possibly say. Since the Church is the Body of Christ, you are really saying. “I love Jesus but I hate His Body.”  Or to use another image from Scripture, “I love you Jesus but I hate your Bride.” The sin filled arrogance that fuels such a perspective is incomprehensible but it is alive and well. 

The Communion of the Saints is a constant reminder that there is no such thing as just me-and-Jesus. “For by one Spirit you have been baptized into one Body”and each of us are a part of that Body. I don’t know if I am an ear of an eye or a toenail. It does not really matter to me. Like Minnie Pearl, I’m just proud to be here. It is humbling to realize the shoulders that we stand upon, the sacrifices of those who came before us, and as Ephesians puts it, the inheritance that we have in the saints. I cannot think of another company with whom I would wish to be joined. 

This leads me to the third question. What are the benefits of the Communion of the Saints? To learn that you will have to come tomorrow as we celebrate the Sunday after All Saints. In the meantime lets give thanks for the faithful departed and as the BCP puts it “rejoice in their fellowship and run with endurance the race that is set before us; and together with them, receive the crown of glory that never fades away.” Amen.

In his book Retire Inspired, Chris Hogan tells of meeting with a client named Michael who was desperate to get his financial affairs in order. Michael’s favorite aunt had called him and asked if he would mow her two-acre yard. He did so and about noon he went into her kitchen to rustle up some lunch. When he opened her fridge all that was in it was some expired milk and a bottle of catsup. He searched the cabinets only to find dishes. And when he came to her cupboard all he saw was 7 cans of dog food. Michael said to Chris. “Chris, my aunt doesn’t own a dog.

We are called the richest nation in the world but let me give you some statistics and averages, and they are not good news. 76% of Americans are living paycheck-to-paycheck, which means that ¾’s of us are not planning for our future. The average American family is $8,000 in credit card debt, which conservatively means that they are wasting over $1,400 a year in interest. The average Millennial has $29,000 in personal debt, most of which is student loans. The average American spends $1.25 for every $1 that they make. And how about our nation? By the end of this Mass we will have added over $100 million to the national debt.

What about the other 24% that are not living paycheck to paycheck? They may be doing well, they may even be wealthy, but are they honoring God with their wealth? Just because you are wealthy does not mean that you are being a faithful steward. I read of a Rapper that spent $600,000 in ONE NIGHT in a club in Atlanta. Or how about a TV preacher in Texas living in $12 million mansion? Or another in Atlanta who appealed to his audience to buy him yet another private jet? (I would remind you that Jesus had to borrow His donkey to enter Jerusalem.) The 24% may not all be millionaires, but by the standards of the rest of the world they are rich. If they are praying the Lord’s Prayer ever day, for God’s kingdom to come on earth, the next question is what are they doing with their resources to see that happen?

But these challenges about money are not just an American problem. Problems with money are a human problem. In fact misuse of money is a sin problem. Scripture tells us that it is the love of money that is at the root of all kinds of evil. And so today we hear Jesus address this problem and tell us what we are to do about it.

He begins with this parable about an unfaithful servant who is about to be fired so he cuts a deal with the Master’s debtors and thereby one again rips off his Master. He does this to try to secure his future with his newfound friends. Then what is even more shocking is that he gets commended for it! This seems like a very strange parable to tell us how to deal with money.

Here is where we need to turn to the principles of biblical interpretation. As a general rule a parable is not an extended metaphor to be picked apart as if it is filled with code. Most of the time a parable is intended to teach one point and I believe that the point of this parable is contained in the following line. “The master commended the dishonest steward for his shrewdness; for the sons of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than the sons of light.” Jesus is telling them that they must be shrewd when it comes to money. St. Augustine put it more eloquently than I. He said, “Jesus is recommending to the disciples the steward’s foresight, prudence and ingenuity.”

But why would Jesus recommend that we be shrewd when it comes to money? He does so because money is like a snake. You had better learn which end with which to pick it up or it will bite you. Notice that Jesus doesn’t just call it “mammon” He calls it “unrighteous mammon.” Why is it unrighteous? Because again, the love of it is the root of all kinds of evil. It is unrighteous because some times money is gained by hurting others, as we just heard from the prophet Amos. It is unrighteous because some times the motives for getting it are unrighteous. We seek it for selfish purposes or falsely believing that it will bring us security.

I had a relative that had a sign on her refrigerator that read, “You can never be too rich or too thin.” Unfortunately that was her creed instead of the Nicene Creed. And she fulfilled her creed. She was wealthy and she was very attractive. I was with her when she died and to this day it was one of the worst deaths that I have witnessed. Disease had taken her looks and she passed screaming, filled with terror. Her riches were useless to her at that moment. That is why in this lesson Jesus says of money not “IF it fails” but “WHEN it fails.”

Mammon is unrighteous because it can have a corrupting influence on a person, like the ring did to Gollum. So that brings us back to the need to be shrewd when picking up this snake. Jesus shows us how.

First He says that we are to use money to make friends. He says “I tell you make friends for yourselves by means of unrighteous mammon…” Now when Jesus begins a command with “I tell you” that is like being aboard ship and hearing “Now hear this.” He is not whistling Dixie here; He wants us to pay careful attention.

That part is clear but what does He mean that we are to use money to make friends? That hardly sounds Christian. We don’t want people to love us for our money. We want them to love us for who we are.

The key to understanding what He is telling us to do here is found in the rest of the sentence. “So that when it (unrighteous mammon) fails they may receive you into the eternal habitations.” (Boy that sure clears things up doesn’t it?)

I wrestled with this idea for some time until I saw that the next story He tells in the same chapter is the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus. You will recall that in this story the rich man feasted every day while the poor man Lazarus sat at his gate covered with sores. Lazarus would have been happy to have eaten whatever fell off of the rich mans table but he did not even get that. They both died and while Lazarus went heaven, to the bosom of Abraham, the rich man went to Hades. The point is that if the rich man had used his mammon to care for Lazarus, then Lazarus would have greeted him in heaven. But he didn’t, so he didn’t.

I was relieved to discover that some of the Church Fathers also interpreted this call to make friends by unrighteous mammon as a call to care for the poor. The challenge however is that there are so many charities and so many individuals with so many needs that it is difficult to know where to begin. Add to that the many scams out there. What to do? One idea is to be like the Good Samaritan and minister to what is in front of you rather than ignoring it and passing it by. This is a major reason that we raise money for Food for the Poor every year because they are ministering to the poorest of the poor in our hemisphere.

I know for a fact that I have been conned over the years, thinking that I was helping someone in need but it was a ruse. I have thrown good money after bad trying to help a parishioner only to have them turn on me. So I have wrestled with myself, wondering if I was doing the right thing. I am comforted by the words of St. Augustine who said, “When you give alms to all different types of people then you will reach a few who deserve it.” Evidently St. Augustine had been conned too but he was okay with that because He was fulfilling Christ’s command.

It is vital to understand that God’s call to be generous towards that poor is not just about the poor. He calls us to learn generosity because that is who He is. The more we learn generosity the more we will be like God, who causes the rain to fall on the just and the unjust.

The second thing that Jesus says, to help us to be shrewd about money, is when He gives us this perspective. “If then your have not been faithful in the unrighteous mammon, who will entrust you with true riches.” Or to put it in the positive, if we are faithful over unrighteous mammon then we will be entrusted with true riches.

A couple things jump out to us about this verse. One is that Jesus contrasts mammon with true riches. From the perspective if the Kingdom of God, mammon is Monopoly money. I love how Beth puts it when I get upset over how much something costs. She says, “What the heck, its just dead presidents.”

We become shrewder when we realize that mammon with which we have been entrusted, are not true riches, but are a vehicle to make us truly rich. If God can trust us to use this Monopoly money properly then He will grant us true riches. And what are they? Eye hath not seen nor ear heard but surely in part it is to rule and reign with Him in a new heaven and new earth. That would be worth all of the Monopoly money in the world.

Another thing that confronts us from Jesus’ words is that stewardship is not an option. Our only options are if we are going to be faithful stewards or unfaithful stewards.

I have to confess to you that I was a hypocrite in this area for too long. I knew that verses like these on stewardship existed, I just ignored them. I always paid my tithe and I always paid my bills, but money was more of an irritant to me and I didn’t think of myself as a steward.

Then when we married, Beth was better at finances than I was, so I just gave her my paycheck and stuck my head in the ground. That put an unfair burden on her as we were in that 74% category that lived paycheck to paycheck. And when we looked into our future, other than modest pensions, we had no idea how we would retire. It took going through Financial Peace University that I was confronted with the fact that I was an unfaithful steward. So we began working together and we worked hard to become faithful with all that God had given us. We are not doing it perfectly but I don’t feel like a hypocrite any more.

And we have discovered that one of the joys of living into the Scripture that says, “owe no man anything but love” is that it has freed up resources to give offerings beyond our tithe to the Church. We have added a number of charities that are doing God’s work. One ministry that I really like giving to is out of California. It is made up of veterans who go around the world and perform military type strikes to free children from being sex slaves. There is so much greater joy in giving than there is in receiving.

A third perspective that Jesus gives us to make us shrewder with unrighteous mammon is when He says that we cannot serve two masters. We cannot serve both God and Mammon. But how do we know whom we are truly serving? It is revealed through our priorities. God says that we are to honor the Sabbath and keep it holy, but if instead I choose to pursue the almighty buck then I am showing who I truly serve. If I ignore God’s call to care for the widow and orphan so that I can store up riches for myself, then I am showing who I truly serve. If I am so enslaved by debt that I cannot answer the call of God then I am showing who I truly serve.

I recently got to hear the story of Pastor Ronnie’s call to Zimbabwe. Years ago he met an apostle type leader who came to the States seeking teachers for his Bible School. Ronnie came home and told Margaret about meeting him and she said, “Ronnie I’ve seen that look in your eye before.” Through a couple of clear signs they knew that they were supposed to go to Zimbabwe, even with young kids in tow. They sold everything they had, packed up what they absolutely needed, and answered the call. He even had to raise his own salary before going because the Bible School did not have the money to pay the teachers. It was a great experience for them and they have kept ties with Zimbabwe over these many years. My point in telling you this is that if Pastor Ronnie had loved money, he would not have WANTED to answer the call. Or if Pastor Ronnie had been enslaved to debt he would not have been ABLE to answer the call, no matter how much he may have wanted to do so. Our life priorities tell us whom we truly serve.

If I may be so blunt and boil it all down, this teaching of Jesus confronts us with two options and whether or not to choose is not one of them. When we boil it all down, we will either love God and use money or we will use God and love money. The shrewd knows that the eternal destiny of his soul depends on making the correct one. So choose wisely beloved, choose wisely Amen.

Let Brotherly Love Continue

That Love Thy Neighbor

 

On the inside of your bulletin beneath our Mission Statement we read, “We will engage our mission and strengthen our parish with four pillars: Sacramental Living, Joyful Discipleship, Radical Love and Gracious Evangelism.”Today’s lesson from Hebrews focuses us on the third pillar when it says, “Let brotherly love continue.”

Then right after this exhortation to let brotherly love continue we see a number of what looks like random instructions. But I submit to you that they are not random at all. I believe them to be practical applications of how we go about letting brotherly love continue. Additionally these practical applications are interesting because they are not the first things that jump to mind when you think of love. For example when I think of love I don’t immediately think of visiting a prison. These instructions are very helpful in getting us to think outside of the box. They are also helpful because they move us away for sentimentality or some innocuous definition of love that has no hands or feet attached to it. In these verses love calls us beyond emotion into action.

First we let brotherly love continue by showing hospitality.“Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.” Hospitality was a big deal in the ancient world. You may recall that when the Lord appeared to Abraham in the form of three angels the first thing he did was to offer them hospitality. He said to them “My lord, if you are pleased with me, don’t pass me by. Let me get you some water. Then all of you can wash your feet and rest under this tree. Let me get you something to eat to give you strength. Then you can go on your way. I want to do this for you now that you have come to me.”

Romans 12 and 1 Peter 4 also give commands to show hospitality. Travel was difficult in those days. It wasn’t like there were a dozen hotels at every exit and although there were inns they were not always the safest of places. So a Christian could show love of neighbor, even one who is a stranger, by opening their home and by giving them a meal and providing a safe place to rest.

Today there are a dozen hotels at every exit, and they are usually safe, so the needs have changed. However we can still show hospitality in other ways. For example last week when we had the conference a couple of families offered their homes to clergy who were coming from out of town. And I have said before that one of the best tools for evangelism that you have at your command is your dining room table. It is an act of love to invite someone to break bread with you and there is an added benefit in that it has a sacramental element to it. Imagine the impact if you were a first time visitor to a church and one of their parishioners asked you to join them for Sunday dinner. You would immediately know that they were not Country Club Christians.

The second way that we can let brotherly love continue is to remember those who are in prison. It is likely that the context here is concerning those who are in prison for their faith, like the Apostle Paul. Rather than being embarrassed by their imprisonment, the Church was to remember them through prayer and through visit whenever possible. You will recall that a number of folks accompanied Paul when he was under house arrest. The book of Philemon was about a slave who had been with Paul and whom Paul was hoping to get back not a slave but as a brother in Christ.

I don’t think that this command to remember those in prison means that each of us has to run out and start a prison ministry. Rather it is a call to be sensitive to that need if the Lord should connect you to someone in that situation. I have been corresponding with a couple of inmates in different prisons around the state, sending them books and visiting one of them. A close friend of mine got to know a man who was working with his brother and who ended up being convicted of murder. Without making a big deal out of it my friend faithfully visited him for years. So if the Lord gives you an opportunity then take advantage of it.

Besides those who are in prison the writer adds, “and those who are mistreated” which would certainly

include the persecuted church around the world. This century is shaping up to have the largest number of martyrs in the history of the church. Just last year 4,305 Christians were martyred in Nigeria but you didn’t hear about that because it did not fit into the major medias narrative. We can let brotherly love continue as we pray for and support the persecuted church. If you would like more information about the persecuted church we have magazines and requests for prayer down at the Cole House.

A third way to let brotherly love continue is to honor marriage. And one way he tells them to honor marriage is to keep from immorality and adultery. And note that God is dead serious about this because this command comes with a warning of God’s judgment. The Greek word that the writer uses for “immorality” is an all-inclusive word that covers all forms of sex outside of the bonds of marriage and marriage was defined by Jesus as one man and one woman for life. Thus immorality covers all sex outside of marriage whereas “adultery” is more specifically a violation of the marriage bed.

 

The ancient world was a deeply immoral world. When I was a kid we lived in Italy and our family visited a small town that was decimated by Vesuvius. I was not allowed to go into some of the houses because the mosaic tile work in their homes was pornographic. Pagan religions engaged in temple prostitution. Their gods and goddesses were believed to engage in drunken orgies.  That was the world in which the Church found herself but such immorality was not to be found in the Church. And yet if you read Corinthians you know that it was. Hence the strong command and warning of judgment here in Hebrews.

Not much has improved since the days of Corinth. We have gone from prudishness in the 50’s and 60’s, where married couples could only be shown in separate beds on TV, to commercials today that would make a sailor blush.

I have been listening to a podcast about a woman who was taken in by a con man. The reporter interviewed her daughter and the daughter said that her mother preferred to date Christian men, especially Christian men that attended her church. And then without a hint of impropriety on her part we learn that by the third date the man is spending the night and in just over a month he is asked to move in with her. She has been divorced 5 times but she said the she just can’t figure out why her relationships don’t work out.

God shows us a path to walk, and while it is indeed the straight and narrow, it saves us from a world of pain when we try to do things our own way and life blows up in our face. The culture says that we are defined by our sexuality. The Church says that we are defined by our sonship, by our identity in Christ. Your worth does not come from how you self identify, it comes from the fact that you are made in the image of God. Our bodies therefore are to be temples of God and the marriage bed must be undefiled.

Lastly we let brotherly love continue by being free from the love of money. Sex and money are arguably the top two idols in America and the writer of Hebrews hits them both.

Being free from the love of money is key because Jesus said that it is the love of money that is at the root of all evil. A Bishop once told me that every fight that he has seen in the Church is about power or money and usually both. So imagine the peace that the Church that would have if we could follow this command.

And we can follow it because he tells us how. The command to be free from the love of money is accompanied by these words, “and be content with what you have.” Contentment is how we become free and it is a wonderful freedom. I have a friend who is a millionaire and so he could buy anything that his heart desires but he doesn’t because he has learned the secret of contentment. There is nothing more that his heart desires. They say that there are two ways of becoming rich. One way is to make more money and the other is to want less stuff.

I want go back to the example of my friend, because he has taught me something else about how to be free from the love of money. It is through generosity. He is very generous and gives a boat load of money away rather than hoarding. As a consequence knows financial peace. One might argue that his peace comes from having so much money but I have known very wealthy people who are absolutely miserable. No, his peace comes from the knowledge that he is using his wealth as God intends it to be used.

Dave Ramsey says that there is only three things that you can do with money; save it, spend it and give it away. It is as we learn to give it away, to live a lifestyle of generosity, that we truly walk in freedom. And it comes with an added benefit because Jesus said that it is more blessed to give than to receive. Jesus is not talking here about giving so that we can be financially blessed in return. The blessing, at least in part, is the joy and fulfillment that comes when we allow God to pass His wealth through us to the benefit of others. It’s like the joy a parent experiences at Christmas as they watch their little children open their presents with glee.

The beauty of living out this command to let brotherly love continue is that it flows naturally to our fourth pillar of gracious evangelism. History has proven this to be so. Jesus said that all men will know that we are His disciples if we love one another. Tertullian, a church father born in the 2ndcentury wrote that pagans would look at the church and say “See how these Christians love one another, they are ready to die for each other.” I believe that we have a real opportunity today because the great division in our nation and the vitriol with which folks treat one another. By continuing in brotherly love we shine a light in the darkness and glorify our heavenly Father.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Being a Mary in a Martha World

Martha and Mary

“Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things…”

 In part it was understandable that Martha was anxious and troubled. Hospitality was and still is a very important concern in the Middle East. Once I was in Egypt and was told that if the host offers you something to drink, accept it even if you don’t really want it. To say “No” would be considered a great insult. So Martha was no doubt feeling some pressure to do it right and that is why she wanted Jesus to send Mary back to the kitchen.

Nevertheless it is a good thing for us that Jesus addressed her anxiety because anxiety is no small matter. This is from the American Journal of Managed Care. “The lifetime prevalence of anxiety disorders is approximately 28.8% in the United States, with more than 1 of every 4 adults experiencing at least 1 anxiety disorder in their lifetime…The total annual cost of anxiety disorders has been estimated to be between $42 billion and $46 billion….”  Another report stated that worldwide 75% of anxiety disorders go untreated which in turn leads to about 1 million suicides per year.

With anxiety being so prevalent and even so dangerous we certainly need more than a cute song telling us over and over “don’t worry, be happy.”In his book called Anxious for Nothing, Max Lucado does a masterful job of unpacking St. Paul’s words to the Philippians. Words that give concrete and divine instruction concerning anxiety. Here is St. Paul.

“Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy— think about such things.”

First we see that St. Paul does not begin his instructions by condemning them for their anxiety. That is important because feeling guilty about being anxious is not a way to conquer it. Having anxiety attack you is not a sign of spiritual immaturity nor is it an indicator of a lack of faith. It comes with life. It’s even highlighted in our morning and  evening news. Nearly every morning we hear a shootings in Nashville. We read of home invasions, international terrorist threats, the economic bubble about to burst, home prices going out of sight, global warming, and worst of all, everything that you love to eat is going to kill you, especially bacon! Anxiety is delivered to you on a silver platter every day.

The key is what you do about it. As Martin Luther said in general about temptations, you cannot keep a bird from flying over your head, but you can keep it from making a nest in your hair. Anxiety is constantly flying overhead but we have the power to make a choice about whether or not we are going to invite it in to live with us. Jesus of course says that we should not because it is of no value whatsoever. As He classically put it, Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?” Mt 6:27

Max Lucado took the words of St. Paul and provides a very handy acronym. Fittingly the acronym is CALM.

“C” stand for “Celebrate.” St. Paul says “Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!” This is brilliant. Think about it; it is very difficult to be anxious and celebratory at the same time. One tends to drive out the other.

And what are we rejoicing? While there are endless things in the Lord about which to rejoice, when it comes to life’s anxieties, it is most fitting to rejoice that He is our Sovereign Lord. We rejoice that He is good not some of the time but all of the time. We rejoice that He loves us with an unending love. We rejoice, as St. Paul said in Romans, that nothing can separate us from His love. We rejoice that nothing can befall us that He will not turn to our good. We rejoice that our past is forgiven and that we don’t need to worry about tomorrow because God is already there. We rejoice because, as author James Bryan Smith put it, “We have confidence in a great future…We are safe and secure.”

I had lunch with Pastor Ronnie Meek last week. As most of you know his wife passed just a few weeks ago and I had the privilege of officiating at her graveside. He wanted to talk about her passing and he welcomed my questions. Because we have been friends for so long I felt I could ask him a tough one. I asked what he was telling himself now that all the plans that they had together for their future are gone. He said to me, “I don’t think that there is a day that goes by that I don’t cry, but I believe that this will be a new chapter in my life. And like all of the past chapters God had been faithful and good to me every time, so I know that He will be faithful and good in this next chapter.” You can see why Pastor Ronnie is a hero as well as a friend. If you can rejoice in God’s goodness amidst your tears, then you will crush anxiety beneath your feet. “C” is “Celebrate.”

“A” stands for “Ask.” St. Paul says, “Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.” This should be the first thing that comes to mind but to be honest sometimes we do everything else BUT pray and then we don’t understand why we have no peace. St. Paul says that we are to pray “in every situation.” So we don’t wait to pray until it is the really big stuff or we are facing something that we cannot handle. The Lord says that we are not to be anxious about ANYTHING but to pray in EVERYING. I’ve done extensive research in the Greek and have discovered that “everything” means everything! This means from losing your keys to going into surgery we are to pray.

It is also noteworthy that St. Paul adds that we are to pray “with thanksgiving.” We don’t make demands of God with a sense of entitlement. We don’t “name it and claim it” as the TV preachers call us to do. We simply present our requests to our loving heavenly Father, thankful that He is fully capable of granting those requests. And we also pray with thankfulness that He may choose not to grant our requests for our own good.

I always feel convicted when I read the story in the Gospels of Jesus healing the 10 lepers but only one comes back to say “thank you.” Too often I am like the other 9 lepers, but I am working on it. Gratefully the Book of Common Prayer is a great help in that regard. “A” is for “Ask.”

“L” stands for “Leave.” After we present our requests to God then we are to leave them with Him. According to Jesus’ teachings it is perfectly fine to repeat the request but that is very different from giving our burdens to God and then picking them back up.

I once saw a very effective treatment for a lady with severe anxiety. The therapist, who was a Christian, had the lady make what she called “a God box.” It was like a Kleenex box with the word “God” written on it. Every time that lady identified something that she was worried about, she was to write it down on a piece of paper and put it in the God box. But the deal was if she kept worrying about it after giving it to God, then she had to take the bit of paper out of the box and carry it for the rest of the day. Some days she would have both hands full of bits of paper which made daily living a challenge. For example she couldn’t shake your hand and even eating was a challenge. It was a perfect visual metaphor for what she was allowing anxiety to do to her life. The more things she left with God the easier life became. Jesus said,“Come unto me all ye that are travail and are heavy laden and I will refresh you.” One way that He does so is by saying, “Leave that burden with Me. I’ll take it from here.” “L” is for “Leave.”

“M” stand for “Meditate.” St. Paul says. “Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy— think about such things.” The world says that we are what we eat but Holy Scripture says that we become what we think about. Proverbs 23:7 says, “As a man thinketh so is he.”

Thus St. Paul doesn’t just tell us not to worry, he shows us a replacement. Just like nature, our brains abhor a vacuum. If we don’t intentionally fill it with good things then all kinds of junk will rush in to fill the void. I saw an article last week that said that constant complaining rewires the brain for anxiety and depression.

But I will be the first to admit that following St. Paul’s advice here is not easy to do. It doesn’t take a lot of energy to be an Eyore but takes a world of energy to be a Tigger. However a parishioner told me that she made a New Year’s resolution to find the good in every situation and it has been positive for her. It can be a challenge but I have no doubt that what she is doing has also had a positive affect on those who are around her. Because she is a Tigger I always look forward to Lulu’s posts on Facebook. They are inevitably funny, Southern, encouraging and/or make you hungry. So do the work to fill your mind with true and noble and lovely things and it will not only fight against your worry but it will be a blessing to others.

After confronting Martha for being worried about so many things, Jesus goes on to tell her that only one thing is needful. And He didn’t have to spell it out for Martha because that one needful thing was repeated throughout her Prayer Book, which today we call the Psalms. Psalm 16:5 “The Lord is my chosen portion and my cup.” Psalm 27:4 “One thing have I asked of the Lord, that will I seek after: that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life. Psalm 73:28 “But for me it is good to be near God; I have made the Lord my refuge.”

Martha made a mistake by not heeding these words and as a result putting the temporal before the eternal. And her is the irony. She was all worried that Jesus would get fed when just a few days earlier He had fed the 5,000 with 5 loaves and 2 fish. HE has this! She was missing an opportunity to fellowship with God in the flesh.

However Mary had chosen wisely. She chose the Lord’s presence over business, the eternal over the temporal, and Jesus said that the eternal would never be taken from her. Not in this life and certainly not in the life to come.

This story of Martha and Mary is fitting for us today. Life is so very busy even to the point that our kid’s lives are booked to the max.  From a societal point of view, not only do we no longer just sit on the front porch and drink a cup of coffee, we don’t even make front porches any more. Making proper priorities for our lives is a serious challenge but Jesus helps us.

In a variety of ways in the Gospels Jesus tells us that our priority is to live for today but to do so in light of eternity. In the Sermon on the Mount He said that we are not to worry about tomorrow because tomorrow has enough trouble if its own. But instead we are to seek first the kingdom of God.

We do this when we choose the eternal over the temporal. We become like Mary when we make being with Christ our highest priority. We become like Mary when we don’t allow anything to keep us from being united with Christ through receiving His Body and His Blood. We become like Mary when we give God our first fruits rather than our leftovers. We become like Mary when we seek Christ in all people and prefer the needs of others over our own. We become like Mary when care for “the least of these.” And God has set up life so that the more we become like Mary the more peace filled our lives become.

But we don’t become like Mary by accident because we live in a Martha world. In fact millions of dollars are spent every day, through television, radio and the social media to convince you to remain like Martha. And all of your Martha like friends and colleagues will load you with expectations and guilt to get you back in the kitchen and act like “a responsible adult.”

Being a Mary in a Martha world does not come by accident. Jesus said it is a choice. So the question to answer every day is if we are going to choose to be anxious and worried about many things or if we are going to choose that one needful thing. Today you have chosen to be a Mary. Who will you choose to be tomorrow? Amen.

 

Free to Serve

Freedom - Girl

“Aye, fight and you may die. Run and you’ll live — at least a while. And dying in your beds many years from now, would you be willing to trade all the days from this day to that for one chance, just one chance to come back here and tell our enemies that they may take our lives, but they’ll never take our freedom.”

Most of you will recall those powerful words in Braveheart,that William Wallace shouted to the Scots, as they faced battle with their English oppressors. But these words pose an important question. Why then, and indeed throughout all of history, has freedom been so precious to men that they were willing to die for it?

I believe this passion for freedom comes from being made in the image of God. There is no more free Being than Almighty God. No one or nothing can compel Him to do anything and no one or nothing can keep Him from His perfections. So as His sons and daughters it is in our spiritual DNA to also seek to be free. In our lesson today St. Paul tells us that is exactly what Christ has accomplished for us. He says “For freedom Christ has set us free.”

Note first that St. Paul puts this in the past tense. We are not awaiting our freedom, Christ has already set us free. Free from what? Free from condemnation. Romans 8. There is therefore no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” Free from guilt and shame. Psalms 103 “For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him; as far as the east is from the west so far does he remove our transgressions from us.” And how does He remove our transgressions? Hebrews 9 “For if the blood or goats and bulls, and the sprinkling of defiled persons with the ashes of a heifer, sanctify for the purification of the flesh, how much more will the blood of Christ….purify our conscience from dead works to serve a living God.” Free from unholy fear, I John 4. “There is no fear in love. Perfect love casts out all fear.” Free from slavery to sin. Romans 6 “For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under the law but under grace.” The list of our freedom goes on. As Jesus Himself proclaimed, “So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.”

Thus we are free indeed but St. Paul goes on to warn us not to lose our freedom and then he goes on to tell us how to properly use it. How do we lose our freedom? He touches on two primary ways. First, as he argues all throughout the letter to the Galatians, we lose our freedom when we return to the law to earn our righteousness. As Gentile Christians we don’t really have the great temptation to returning to the law of Moses but we certainly make up for it with our propensity toward legalism.

At the time of Jesus the purity and holiness code had become complex and moved way beyond the 10 commandments. We get a smattering of this in the Gospels as Jesus enemies confront Him about His disciples not washing their hands or healing on the Sabbath or hanging around certain people.

When I was in Jerusalem I took the stairs to exit the hotel and there was a sign on the exit door that if you opened it on the Sabbath it would be a violation. Also in parts of the city there is a wire overhead that indicates that if you walk past it you would violate the Sabbath because the walk would turn into work.

Please don’t misunderstand. I am not poking fun at this form of Judaism. In fact I wish more Christians too their more seriously and had half their zeal to please God. But my point is that keeping up with so many rules and codes puts a huge burden on someone who seeks God’s face. And so Jesus comes along and gives us the Great Commandment of loving God and loving our neighbor and that is why He could say, “My yoke is easy and my burden is light.”

Years ago I struck up a conversation with a bank teller, who was Church of Christ, and he asked if we could study Scripture together. I think that he was hoping to convert me but I agreed and we met many for weeks to study and talk. We could not have had more different approaches to God. His approach was that you had to keep the letter of the law or God would be displeased with you. Following St. Paul, my approach is that I have been accepted in the Beloved and so all things are lawful to me but not all things are profitable. So we don’t go through our day asking “What am I allowed to do?” we go through our day asking “What it the next best thing to do?” His legalistic approach to God made God seem more like the Great and Terrible Wizard of Oz and yet Jesus has come so that we can call God Abba. Don’t lose your freedom to legalism. “…you are not under the law you are under grace.”

The second way that we lose our freedom is through licentiousness. This is when we take our freedom too far and mistakenly think that since grace abounds where there is sin, then we are free to sin more so that there will be more grace. That may sound like a ridiculous agreement, because it is, but I continually see articles written you young hipster evangelicals, confronting them about the very list of sins that St. Paul refers to as “the works of the flesh.” Where St. Paul was taking his argument is that if there is no difference between our lifestyles and beliefs and the lifestyles and beliefs of the world, then Houston we have a problem. Our core calling is to be a peculiar people and a holy nation.

But again, St. Paul’s antidote to living according to the desires of the flesh is not legalism. It is walking in the Spirit and He points out that the desires of the flesh are at enmity with the Spirit. One will cancel out the other. So if you want love, joy, peace, patience, kindness etc. then you cannot walk in impurity, jealously, anger, selfishness etc. We have to make a conscious choice if our lives are going to be led by the Holy Spirit or if our lives are going to be led by the desires of the flesh.

Then after warning us not to lose our freedom, in classic biblical paradox, St. Paul tells us how we are to use it. He says, “only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love be servants of one another.”

In the John Belushi and Bill Murry era I watched Saturday Night Live. One night the guest musician was Bob Dylan and he sang a song that stopped the show in its tracks because there was no way to follow it. The song was called “Serve Somebody” and these were some of the words.

You may be an ambassador to England or France
You may like to gamble, you might like to dance
You may be the heavyweight champion of the world
You may be a socialite with a long string of pearls

But you’re gonna have to serve somebody, yes
Indeed you’re gonna have to serve somebody
Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord
But you’re gonna have to serve somebody

You can see how the truth that no matter how you cut it you are going to serve somebocy did not exactly fit Saturday Night Live but that does not make it any less the truth. Just as St. Paul said that we are either going to walk by the Spirit or walk in the flesh so Dylan is rightly saying we are either going to serve the Lord or we are going to serve the devil but we are going to serve. We use our freedom to make the right choice.

Don’t miss the motivation for our service. St. Paul said ‘but through LOVE be servants of one another.”We don’t serve to make God like us more, we don’t serve because its our cross to bear, we don’t serve to get brownie points in heaven, we serve because we love and we love because God first loved us. We serve because our cup runneth over.

St. Paul goes on to call love the first fruit of the Spirit. I believe that the image of love being a fruit is significant. If love were a grace then you would either have it or you wouldn’t. You would ask God for it and presto you are a loving person. But as we all know it doesn’t work that way. Just as you can watch fruit bud and grow and mature so will our love, except its not quite that predictable and linear with us. This is how Eugene Peterson described it. “We have spurts of love, passionate risks of faith, impressive episodes of courageous caring. But then we slip back into indolence and greed.” (Run with the Horses, p.50,51). Sure it can be discouraging that our love ebbs and flows and that it is particularly difficult to be loving before the first cup of coffee but don’t despair. The longer we walk in the Spirit the more that fruit will mature, so “through love be servants of one another.”

 Right after St. Paul calls us to serve one another he quotes the Great Commandment of loving our neighbor as ourselves. This expands our call to love and serve beyond just doing it for one another. As we promise in our Baptismal Covenant we are to seek and serve Christ in all people.

I have a friend who I have been helping to journey from a non-denominational pastor to being an Anglican. As I have heard so many times before he started reading the Church Fathers and that put him on the Canterbury Trail. Sadly the church that he was pastoring folded and so he is currently surviving by being an Uber driver. Of course the best money to be made is late at night in Nashville so he was a driver a couple of weekends ago during the Gay Pride event. He saw things that are best not described in polite company and he was having an internal battle about being there and feeling Pharisaical, ready to cast the first stone. But as he was driving some folks around he said that he heard a voice, and he said that he knew it was not audible because he was the only one who heard it, but the voice said, “And I died for these folks too.”He said that he knew that the Lord was working on him to learn to love more deeply. Of course being loving does not mean that we have to compromise our beliefs and approve of every behavior but it does mean that we don’t get to decide who is worthy to be called our neighbor. Parents learn very quickly that you can love someone and totally disapprove of their behavior. Our heavenly Father gets a lot of practice at that.

There is a collect in the Book of Common Prayer that I hope they have preserved in the new one coming out for the ACNA. A line of it reads, “O God, who art the author of peace and lover of concord, in knowledge of whom standeth our eternal life, whose service is perfect freedom….”Freedom does not come to us by allowing us to do whatever we want to do. That path only leads us back into the bondage of sin. Freedom comes from living God’s way and walking in love. Freedom comes in serving God and serving our neighbor because servanthood is love in action. That is certainly what Jesus taught and lived. Further love and service are no more a threat to our freedom than two tracks to a locomotive. The more we lay down those tracks the further we can go and the freer we become. It was “for freedom that Christ has set us free.”