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.”

 

 

 

Holiness: Being and apprentice of Jesus

Apprentice

Last week Fr. BE said that the ascension of Jesus and the coming of the Holy Spirit ushered in a whole new age. And so it did. When you read the Old Testament you see the Holy Spirit given to certain select people in order to accomplish a particular work in the world, but you do not see Him promised to all people. But when the Holy Spirit fell upon all of the disciples at Pentecost, and people saw this miracle, they asked what they must do to be a part of it. St. Peter said, “Repent and be baptized for the remission of your sins and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” In this new age the Holy Spirit is God’s promised gift not just to prophets and priests and kings but to all who believe in the Lord Jesus Christ. He will be God’s gift to John Henry today at his baptism.

What is grievous concerning the Holy Spirit are the many bizarre things attributed to Him. A televangelist waves his jacket over a group of people, who fall down like so many dominoes, and this is said to be a work of the Spirit. The so-called “Toronto Blessing” where people laugh and shake uncontrollably and some even bark like dogs. And this is said to the a work of the Spirit. A friend told of being in a worship meeting where people claimed that the fillings in their teeth were turned to gold by the Holy Spirit. One would think if the Holy Spirit was going to go to that much trouble that He would just make the tooth whole.

Anyway given Jesus’ stern warning about blaspheming the Holy Spirit it is critical that we are clear about who or what the Holy Spirit is, why He was sent, and what our role is in receiving and walking in the Spirit.

First let’s clarify who or what the Spirit is. It cannot be overemphasized that the Spirit is a Who and not a what. He is the third Person of the Blessed Trinity. He is more than simply a source of power. He has Personhood. We heard from St. Paul, referring to spiritual gifts, All these are empowered by one and the same Spirit, who apportions to each one individually as He wills.”“As He wills?” Energy does not have a will. A Person has a will. So please please never refer to the Holy Spirit as “it”. Follow Jesus example and call the Spirit “He” as in “For He dwells with you and will be with you.”

What is His Personhood like? Jesus was so attuned to the Father that He proclaimed to know Him was to know the Father. It is the same for the Spirit. He is so attuned to the Son that you can know what the Spirit is like by looking at Jesus. Jesus gives us a new commandment that we are to love one another. What is the first fruit of the Spirit? Love. Jesus says if we love Him we will keep His commandments. Then Jesus promises that the Spirit will bring back to the disciples remembrance all that He said. Thus helping them and us to obey. Jesus promises to be with us always, to the end of the ages. And we just heard Jesus say, “And I will ask the Father, and He will give you another Helper, to be with you forever, even the Spirit of truth…”We must be clear. The Son and the Spirit are separate and distinct Persons. Jesus said that He had to ascend to heaven in order to send the Holy Spirit. And yet they are so united that the Holy Spirit is referred to as the “Spirit of Christ” and the “Spirit of Jesus” a number of times in the New Testament. So if you love Jesus you will love the Spirit.

Why was He sent to us? First, as just mentioned, He is the fulfillment of Jesus’ promise to be with us always, even to the end of the ages. And He is not just a passive presence. St. Paul says that we don’t really know how to pray so the Spirit is interceding for us. I agree with the first part and take great comfort in the second part.

St. Peter takes it a step further in his second Epistle and helps us to better understand why the Holy Spirit is given to us. He saysHis divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to] his own glory and excellence] by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature…” The Holy Spirit is the agent by whom we become partakers of the divine nature. Or to put it another way, the Holy Spirit is given to us to make us holy.

Now I will be the first to admit that the concept of holiness can be a wee bit daunting and even frightening. First some have the kneejerk response, “Me be holy? Maybe St. Francis or Mother Theresa but me?”

Then when we ask ourselves how we go about being holy I imagine that most folks immediately go to the rules. That has certainly been the tactic of most holiness movements throughout the history of the Church. One group breaks from another group because the former group has become too worldly. So they establish a bunch of rules to keep from being worldly. But over time they get a little lax and so a third group breaks from that second group because the former are not holy enough. And on and on it goes.

What is shocking is that often we are talking about rules that go well beyond smoking, dancing and drinking. There have been divisions in the Church over whether or not it is vanity to wear a wedding ring or if women should be allowed to have a feather in their hat. And you folks with tattoos….well you had better get used to the heat!

And yet if we look back at Jesus’ earthly ministry this is precisely the kind of legalism that He continually opposed. So rules following cannot be the form of holiness that His Spirit fosters. Why? Because man looks at the outward person and so outward things become paramount. They think that holiness is a bee hive hairdo, a long denim skirt and white tennis shoes.

But God looks at the heart and so the real work of the Spirit’s work is there. When God saved me He forgave me for being a liar. But then He sends the Holy Spirit to take lying out of my heart and replace it with the truth. When God saved me He forgave me for my hatred. But He sends the Holy Spirit to change my heart of stone into a heart of flesh so that I can learn how to love. When God saved me he forgave my idolatry. But then He sends the Holy Spirit to enthrone Jesus in my heart so that I have only one Lord. And it must be added that NONE of this is an instant work. It is why we are now, and always will be, a work in progress, until we are perfected in God’s presence. So don’t be put off by the call to holiness by thinking it is a call to follow a list of rules. Holiness is simply a call to be an apprentice of Jesus so that you become more and more like Him and that is a joyful and wondrous call.

What is our role with the Holy Spirit? It most certainly is not a passive one. I can point to three principle roles we play with the Holy Spirit. They are invite, cooperate and obey.

While we receive the Spirit at our baptism, the Scriptures call us to be continually filled with the Holy Spirit. So we need to be very intentional about inviting Him into our daily lives. Jesus said, “If you who are evil, know how to give gifts to your children, how much more will your Father give the Holy Spirit to him who asks.” So invite. Invite Him daily and indeed throughout the day. And as Jesus promised He makes His home with us. One of the dad’’s of the parish asked his young daughter where the Holy Spirit lived and she said, “In your shoulders.” When the Dad got a quizzical look in his face she said, as she made the sign of the cross, “You know, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.” Maybe she is right. The important thing is that He makes His abode with us so that we become His temple.

Cooperate. I have heard many times the Holy Spirit being described as “a gentleman.” What folks mean by that is He rarely forces Himself into your life. Of course since He is God He can do whatever He likes. But because He is Love His nature is to be gentle. My guess is that is why we are given the image of a dove to represent the Holy Spirit. Thus St. Paul warns us not to grieve or to quench the Holy Spirit. We do that when we insist on doing things our way rather than His way. Thus we are to pray for wisdom to discern what the Spirit is doing and then cooperate with Him in whatever it is that He is doing.

Third, and this flows naturally out of cooperation, we need to obey. We confess each week in the Creed that the Holy Spirit is “Lord and Giver of life.”Well if He is Lord then it means that we ain’t. There will be times when the Holy Spirit will call us to a task that is well beyond our ability, or forbid us to do something that we want with all of our being. At that point it is time to put on the brakes, remind ourselves who is Lord and then obey. But it is not an obedience based in fear as much as it is based in trust and love. If the Spirit wants it for us then by definition it is for our ultimate best. It may even seem horrible for the moment but He is always working all things for our good and so we trust and obey.

I have been talking ABOUT the Holy Spirit but I would like to end by talking TO the Holy Spirit. Let us pray together the Litany of the Holy Spirit. Your responses are in italics.

Litany of the Holy Spirit

 

Lord, have mercy on us.
Christ, have mercy on us.
Lord, have mercy on us.

Father all-powerful, have mercy on us.                                                                                    Jesus, Eternal Son of the Father, save us.                                                                                 Spirit of the Father and the Son, sanctify us.                                                                            Holy Trinity, hear us.

Holy Spirit, Who proceedest from the Father and the Son, enter our hearts.                                                                                                            Holy Spirit, Who art equal to the Father and the Son, enter our hearts.

Promise of God the Father, have mercy on us.
Ray of heavenly light, have mercy on us.
Author of all good, have mercy on us.
Source of heavenly water, have mercy on us.                                                               Consuming fire, have mercy on us.
Ardent charity, have mercy on us.
Spiritual unction, have mercy on us.
Spirit of love and truth, have mercy on us.
Spirit of wisdom and understanding, have mercy on us.
Spirit of counsel and fortitude, have mercy on us.
Spirit of knowledge and piety, have mercy on us.
Spirit of the fear of the Lord, have mercy on us.
Spirit of grace and prayer, have mercy on us.
Spirit of peace and meekness, have mercy on us.
Spirit of modesty and innocence, have mercy on us.
Holy Spirit, the Comforter, have mercy on us.
Holy Spirit, the Sanctifier, have mercy on us.
Holy Spirit, Who governest the Church, have mercy on us.
Gift of God, the Most High, have mercy on us.
Spirit Who fillest the universe, have mercy on us.
Spirit of the adoption of the children of God, have mercy on us.
Holy Spirit, inspire us with horror of sin.
Holy Spirit, come and renew the face of the earth.
Holy Spirit, shed Thy light in our souls.
Holy Spirit, engrave Thy law in our hearts.
Holy Spirit, inflame us with the flame of Thy love.
Holy Spirit, open to us the treasures of Thy graces.
Holy Spirit, teach us to pray well.
Holy Spirit, enlighten us with Thy heavenly inspirations.
Holy Spirit, lead us in the way of salvation.
Holy Spirit, grant us the only necessary knowledge.
Holy Spirit, inspire in us the practice of good.
Holy Spirit, grant us the merits of all virtues.
Holy Spirit, make us persevere in justice.
Holy Spirit, be Thou our everlasting reward.

Lamb of God, Who takest away the sins of the world,
send us Thy Holy Spirit.
Lamb of God, Who takest away the sins of the world,
pour down into our souls the gifts of the Holy Spirit.
Lamb of God, Who takest away the sins of the world,
grant us the Spirit of wisdom and piety.

  1. Come, Holy Spirit! Fill the hearts of Thy faithful,
    R. And enkindle in us the fire of Thy love.

Let us pray. Grant, O merciful Father, that Thy Divine Spirit may enlighten, inflame and purify us, that He may penetrate us with His heavenly dew and make us fruitful in good works, through Our Lord Jesus Christ, Thy Son, Who with Thee, in the unity of the same Spirit, liveth and reigneth, one God, forever and ever.

  1. Amen.

 

Trust the Good Shepherd

jesus-lamb

 

Lessons – Acts 13:15-39;  Psalm 100;  Revelation 7:9-17;  St. John 10:22-30

 

Newsweek had an article on religion that used a term I had never before seen. It was “neurotheology” (God and the Brain: How We’re Wired for Spirituality (Newsweek: May 7, 2001, p50-58).  It is a scientific approach to understanding the affects of religious practices on the brain. These scientists believe that they have determined which parts of the brain are affected when people pray and meditate. They are the parts that orients us and gives us our distinctions between self and our surroundings. And they go quiet when we are in deep prayer. They suggest that is why folks have the spiritual experience of being one with God and with one other.

Now a skeptic could look at this research and conclude that religious experience therefore just a result of electrical stimulation or lack thereof in the temporal lobe. But a believer could look at the same research and conclude it may explain the mechanics of a religious experience but not the cause. When Saul was on the road to Damascus he may have had his frontal lobe misfire but it was because he was blinded by the Risen Jesus.

One of the things I very much liked about the article is that it underscored the benefits of what we do as a church. They spoke of feeling “transported by intense prayer, uplifting ritual (and) sacred music”. They went on to say that “even people who describe themselves as nonspiritual can be moved by religious ceremonies and liturgy…ritual and liturgy bring…a ‘softening of the boundaries of self’ and the sense of oneness and spiritual unity. Slow chanting, …liturgical melodies, and whispered ritualistic prayer all seem to work their magic in the same way….” While the use of the word “magic” is a very poor choice, it does seem that the authors of this article would have an appreciation for the ancient style of worship that we follow. It has not lasted all of these centuries for no reason.

The article ends with the $64,000 question. Is it our brain wiring that creates the idea of God, or is it God who created our brain wiring? There was a follow up article that addressed the $64,00 question. That author said that while we may be able to credit brain activity for a particular feeling of oneness with God, it does not begin to explain how a person can see Christ in an AIDS victim or truly come to love one’s enemies. I would add that countless Christians have been faithful all of their lives and prayed and believed through some very difficult life circumstances and have NEVER had a feeling of mystic union with God. So how does nerotheology explain their faithfulness?

I find these kinds of discussions interesting but when we boil it all down, for the skeptic there is never enough proof to believe and for the true believer they don’t need proof in order to believe. We can see these two perspectives in today’s Gospel. The religious leaders, who were skeptics, came to Jesus and said, “Stop holding us in suspense, are you or are you not the Messiah?” Jesus said in essence, “I have told you and I have shown you…” What did He mean by that? In chapter 8 Jesus announced “before Abraham was, I AM.”They certainly knew what He meant by that because they picked up stones to stone Him for blasphemy. In chapter 9 He healed a man who had been blind since birth and as the blind man declared, “Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a man born blind.”So Jesus certainly had told them and showed them that He is the Messiah but that still wasn’t enough proof for them.

Jesus then tells the skeptics what their problem is, and it is not a lack of evidence. Jesus said, “you do not believe because you are not a part of my flock. My sheep hear my voice. I know them and they follow me.” It’s just that simple. Why do we believe? It is because as we just said from the Psalms,“We are his people and the sheep of his pasture” (Ps 100:2). When the Good Shepherd calls, we follow.

Several things can be derived from Jesus saying that they do not believe because they are not of His flock. First, and this is paraphrase of the argument that St. Anselm put forth, we do not undertand in order to believe, we believe in order to understand. Why is that? Because as St. Paul tells us the natural mind cannot comprehend spiritual things. That is why those leaders could see Jesus perform miracles and still be confused about who He was. And that is why yet one more proof was not going to convince them. As Jesus told Nicodemus, you must first be born again. Then you begin to understand that ways of God.

This truth has evangelistic ramifications. I do believe that there is a place for C.S. Lewis types who present evidence so compellingly that it leads non believers to a verdict, but that is very different than trying to argue someone into the Kingdom of God. And sadly much of what is taught as evangelsim is just that…and it doesn’t work. Not many folks decide to follow Christ because they just lost an argument. The Bible says that before we are born again we are dead in our transgressions. It doesn’t make sense to argue with a dead man. Therefore the best form of evangelism therefore is your life. For you to become living epistles. Jesus said, “Let your light so shine before men that they might see your good works and glorify your Father which is in heaven.”

 A second implication of believing in order to understand is that it places us in a posture of humility. There is a strong vein of pride running through the man who demands of God that he be given more proof before he believes. Sheep don’t get to make such demands of the Shepherd. They either follow His voice or they get lost on their own.

Conversely it takes humlity to declare trust in God and to recognize that I am but a sheep. Some might criticize this approach and claim that it is taking a leap into the dark. That is patently false. It is not taking a leap into the dark, it is taking a leap into the arms of the One who loved us and delivered Himself up for us. So we trust Him, we hear His voice and we follow.

This however begs another question. What then does it mean then to hear the Shepherd’s voice? In ancient times, and perhaps even today, it was the custom of shepherds to gather their flocks at night and put them in the same pen or sheepfold. The next morning, each shepherd would call his sheep with his unique call and only his sheep would follow. Why? Because they knew his voice and only his voice. That is why the shepherds did not have to worry about corralling them together and getting them mixed up.

Some of you can point to a day and hour that you first heard His voice and began to follow Him. Some of you have been following Him all of your lives and don’t remember a time when you were not a sheep of His fold. Some of you moved towards Him so slowly and imperceptibly that you are not sure exactly whenHe became your Shepherd. But in the end what really matters is that He is your Shepherd TODAY and that you are following Him.

This in turn begs another question. HOW do we hear His voice. It has been my experience that He speaks to us in a variety of ways. The most universal way that the Good Shepherd speaks to His flock is through Holy Scripture. He guides us through the biblical interpretations and teaching of the Church. But it is also true that He uses Scripture to speak to us as individual sheep.

When I was much younger I was in a very dark place and my mother came to me and said that a friend of hers had a Bible verse for me. I don’t recall if I rolled my eyes but I do remember having some very cynical thoughts about some little old lady giving me her favorite passage. I very reluctantly took it but when I read it I knew that it was a specific word of the Lord to me. It was a promise that gave me hope and it was like an anchor to my soul that held me until the dark days were over.

The Good Shepherd through His Word tunes our ears to hear His voice. And He also tunes our ears to detect the voices of false shepherds. That is why it is so important an important for us to be regularly and faithfully reading Holy Scripture.

The Good Shepherd also speaks to us through community. We do not have a hard rule in the Vestry that decisions can only be made in unanimity but we understand that if we are not all hearing the same voice then it is time to stop and reconsider.  One season we had a gentleman in leadership who seemed to vote “No” way way more than any of the others. At first I was upset with him for dragging his feet but after awhileI learned that while the rest of us had heard correctly WHAT we were to do, the Lord used him to let us know WHEN to do it. When he finally got around to voting “Yes” the timing was right.

St. Paul wrote to the Corinthians that every matter must be confirmed out of the mouth of two or three witnesses because it is too easy to be self deceived. I can rationalize just about anything and call it God speaking to me if I want bad enough, so I need my brothers and sisters to tell me if I truly heard from God or if the incredible dream that I had was simply the result of  a pepperoni pizza.

The Good Shepherd also uses circumstances to speak to us. We have to use extreme caution here because it is also easy to misinterpret circumstances and be deceived by them. But the longer you walk with the Lord the more you will find you ear tuned to Him speaking to you in this way.

As Christians we should be much more comfortable with the idea of providence than with the idea of coincidence. That is especially true when you see a number of  “coincidences” fall in line with one another.

The Church that I served in Chattanooga was a beautiful and very wealthy parish. We had three full time priests, and I was an assistant, so the job was pretty easy on me because I didn’t bear much responsibility. I was in high cotton. Nevertheless I found myself growing frustrated with my position because I didn’t feel that I was having much of an impact. Then something happened that got the Rector’s wife mad at me and let me tell you when the Rector’s wife ain’t happy with you, buddy you are skating on some pretty thin ice. Then I preached a pretty strong sermon that offended an influential liberal member, who sent a copy of it to our very liberal Bishop, who unbeknowced to me, told his Canon to figure out a way to get rid of me. As all of this was brewing I got a call from the Bishop of this middle diocese wanting to know if I would come to Middle Tennessee to plant a church. Those circumstances were telling me to run, not to walk, but to run. God does speak to us through circumstances but I would caution that as often as you are able use Scripture and community to help you to be sure that you are interpreting them correctly.

I find the imagery of Jesus being my Shepherd and me being a sheep extreemly comforting. I don’t have to carry the burden of figuring out everything about my life or worrying that I will not be provided for in the future or fearing any and all enemies. I’m just a sheep. Those weighty matters are the Shepherd’s problem. So if you are a part of His flock, relax and trust Him. He knows where the green pastures and still waters are and He also knows how to lead you there. He is the Good Shepherd and He loves you.

If you are not yet a sheep of His fold, don’t wait until you have all the answers because you never will. And don’t wait for more proof because there will never be enough proof to convince you. Humble himself and trust Him. Someone wrote, “I didn’t need to understand the hypostatic union of the Holy Trinity, I just needed to trust the One who came up with the red wood trees.” Once you belong to the Good Shepherd you will discover that have all that you need and be able to say with Kind David, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.”Amen

 

 

 

 

 

He is Risen! So Let God Love You

Empty Tomb

My wife Beth asked for the recommendation of a book to read during Lent. I suggested Abba’s Child by Brenan Manning. I find his writings filled with grace. We were having dinner one night and she said that she had begun the book and it seemed to her that he was basically saying three things. One, “Get over yourself”Two, “Forgive yourself“and Three, “Let God love you.”And then she said, “I suppose we all wrestle with those things.” I think that she is right that we all wrestle with those three things in one way or another and so I thought that it might be a good idea to address them in light of this glorious day of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ.

First “Get over yourself.”That would be a good line in the New Beth Kasch Paraphrase Bible for when Jesus said, “Repent for the Kingdom of God is at hand.”He really meant, “Get over yourself.”

And if there was ever a generation that needed to hear those words it is ours. To try to help people feel better about themselves, we have told them that not only may they self identify as any number of genders but also any age or even other species. I saw a video of a woman insisting that she was a cat and wanted to be treated accordingly. (Wonder where they put her litter box?) But extremes like this, to make us feel better about ourselves, are not working. The Chicago Tribune reported that a higher percentage of incoming college freshmen are being treated for mental and emotional illness than ever before in our history. And while it is wonderful that medications and therapy are available, it is also true that in many instances they are only treating the symptoms and not the root cause. St. Paul talked about root causes when he prophesied in 2 Timothy about the latter generations. I’m not really an end times buff but see if any of this rings true for you. “For people will be lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to parents, ungrateful, unholy, heartless, unappeasable, slanderous, without self control…and I’m only about half way through his list. But you get his point. We don’t need to feel better about ourselves; we need to get over ourselves.

Jesus told a great story of how we can do just that in the parable of the prodigal son. A son, who was full of himself, asked for his inheritance early so that he could go off and live life the way that he wanted to live. He gave no consideration for his Father’s wishes or anyone else. After partying all of his inheritance away he became so desperate that he took a job feeding pigs. For a Jew that was as low as you could go. Then one day it dawned on him that even the servants in his Father’s home had it better than he did so he got over himself and decided to come home. Since he has squandered his inheritance he thought that he could only be received back as a servant. But when his father saw him returning home, his father ran to greet him, put a ring on his finger and a robe over him and called for a feast because his son who had been lost was now found.

Jesus’ resurrection paves the way for us to get over ourselves and come home. In His crucifixion He addressed the core of our problem and He paid the debt of our sins. That is why St. Peter could declare, “To Him all the prophets bear witness that everyone who believes in Him receives forgiveness of sins through His Name.” By His resurrection He has, as the prophet said, “swallowed up death,”and He goes to prepare a place for us so that we too will live forever in a new heaven and a new earth.

“Forgive yourself.”Admittedly this is much easier said than done. I have spoken with some pretty hardened folks over the years, who corporately have violated each of the Ten Commandments many times over. Often their guilt is so overwhelming that it paralyzes them emotionally and spiritually and they feel hopeless. But the Scriptures reveal to us a way to be set free from guilt.

First DON’T minimize the sin. The modern approach is to call sin a “mistake” but a mistake is when you forget to carry a number when doing long division. Sin is not a mistake. Ultimately all sin is a transgression against God. King David prayed, “Against Thee only have I sinned.”So step one is naming the sin, taking responsibility for it and asking for God’s forgiveness.

Step two is to forgive. Why? Because unforgiveness of others is one of the biggest blocks that keep us from forgiving ourselves. Thus we pray in the Lord’s Prayer, “Forgive us our trespasses AS we forgive those who trespass against us.”And here I am not suggesting that you wait for a certain emotion or that you wait until you could have a beer with the offender. Some churches pray, “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.”  What Jesus is telling us to do is to rip up the offender’s IOU. That doesn’t require making the offender your best friend. It is an act of will that frees the other guy from your debt, so that you too can be free.

Step three is to put your sin in perspective with God’s mercy. Again this is not to minimize the sin but rather to embrace God’s mercy. How many times did you do that sin from which you suffer such guilt? Once? Twice? A hundred? That is terrible but the Bible says that His mercies are new every morning, so His mercies outnumber your sins. How many years did you sin? One? Two? Fifty? That is terrible too but the Bible says that His mercy is to a thousand generations, so again His mercies outnumber your sins.

“But Father you don’t understand how great is my sin. Even if God could forgive me I could never forgive myself.”  Often I answer that objection by pointing out that is in fact a very strange form of pride. What you are really saying by this is that even though God has forgiven you, you somehow know better than God and so you cannot forgive yourself. I acknowledge that sin feels enormous and that the guilt can be overwhelming but the Scripture says that Jesus has paid the price for that sin and the text say “and not for our sins only but for the sins of the whole world.”Are your sins greater than the sins of the whole world? Of course not! So you must decide. Do you want to boast in the greatness of your sins or do you want to boast in the greatness of God’s mercy.  A missionary in Peru once said, “I have given God countless reasons not to love of me. None of them have been strong enough to change Him.” Once you confess your sin to God then take your eyes off of your sin and put them on the vastness of His mercy. Then you will walk out of the prison of guilt. We can’t change our past but we don’t have to live there. David walked in the freedom of God’s mercy after committing adultery and murder. We can do it too, no matter what we have done.

“Let God love you.”I really like that Beth worded it that way. The Scriptures tell us that God is love and so if we are not getting wet it’s not because the tap has been turned off. You may have heard the saying, “If you don’t feel close to God then you need to ask yourself, ‘who moved?’”

Of course that is not always the case. The ancients spoke of “the dark night of the soul” when for reasons of His own, God allows us to spend time in a spiritual desert. But for most of the time if we do not “walk in love as Christ loved us”it is because we are not, as Scripture commands, abiding in Christ nor having the mind of Christ. What do I mean by that?

First because He is risen we can truly abide in Him. Dallas Willard said, “The Gospel is less about how to get into the Kingdom of Heaven after you die, and more about how to live in the Kingdom of Heaven before you die.”The Gospel is an invitation not to a set of doctrines but to a living relationship with the Risen Lord and God has given us means to build and maintain that relationship. But if we don’t utilize those means that God has given we will find ourselves drifting away.

Each of us as priests has had the conversation with a person who feels far away from God. The first thing we ask if they are saying their daily prayers, if they are regularly reading Holy Scripture, if they are faithfully receiving the Sacrament. When they get a quizzical look on their face, as if we had just asked if they had two heads, it is very tempting to want to knock on their forehead and ask if anyone is at home.  Prayer, Word and Sacrament are not duties we fulfill to get God to love us more. They are means of grace that God has provided so that we can abide in Christ and experience the righteous, peace and joy of His kingdom. Further we need one another to accomplish this. When we burn incense we use more than one coal because it is too easy for a coal by itself to go out. God has given us the grace of the each other, the grace of the Church to keep one another burning. Or maybe I should say to keep one another FROM burning.

In a similar way God has given us His truth, both through Holy Scripture and the guidance of Holy Spirit through Holy Tradition, so that we can know His will and have the mind of Christ. Jesus said that He is the Truth and He also said that the truth will set us free. So the more that we have the mind of Christ, the more truth we walk in, the more freedom we will know.

Jesus said that He has come that we might have life and have it abundantly. Where we blow it is when we insist on doing life our own way. We just heard from the prophet “On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wine, of rich food full of marrow of aged wine well refined.” But here we stand with our bologna sandwich in hand essentially saying back to God, “No that’s okay I brought my own, I’ll just sit over here and eat by myself.”

We need to drop our bologna sandwich, accept His invitation and let God love us. Those of you being baptized today accept His invitation, give yourself fully over to Him and let God love you. As you come forward today to receive His Body and Blood accept His invitation give yourself fully over to Him and let God love you. And the fruit of this is that you will be in a better place to love your neighbor as yourself.

Like millions around the world last week I was brokenhearted to watch Notre Dame in flames. Cardinal Dolan of New York said that it was like attending a funeral. But it also occurred to me that this tragic event happening during Holy Week invites theological reflection.

Just as the creation of Notre Dame represents the epitome of human achievement in the Middle Ages, so humanity represented the epitome of God’s achievement in creation. Genesis says, “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him, male and female he created them.”

Then, just as the next day we saw the cathedral in ashes, so it will be true of each of us. We heard on Ash Wednesday, as the priest imposed ashes on our foreheads “Remember O man thou art dust and to dust thou shalt return.”

But that is not the end of the story. The Resurrection of Jesus has changed EVERYTHING. Death no longer has the final word. As Notre Dame will be rebuilt, and hopefully even greater than her formal glory, so those who are in Christ have a hope and a future. St. Paul says, “So is it with the resurrection for the dead. What is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable. It is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power.”

Our prayer for Notre Dame is that it will be rebuilt as a house of worship and not as a cultural icon. And so our prayer for ourselves is that our bodies will be temples of the Holy Spirit and not carnal playthings. St. Paul said, “Let us celebrate the feast, no with the old leaven, the leaven of malice and evil, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.” The Resurrection of Jesus makes that possible.

Alleluia, Christ is Risen. The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia.Then get over yourself.

Alleluia, Christ is Risen. The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia.Then forgive yourself.

Alleluia, Christ is Risen. The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia.Then let God love you. Amen.