The Bread of Heaven

HC

 

Lessons – Exodus 16:2-4, 9-15;  Psalm 78:14-25;  Ephesians 4:17-25;  St. John 6:24-35

When I accepted the call to come to Smyrna to plant a church, we had a house to sell back in Chattanooga. The house was basically sound but it did have some problems. To help us along, each time the house was shown by a realtor, Beth would put some dough in her bread machine and time it so that the house would be filled with the smell of baking bread while folks toured the house. Needless to say it worked. The house sold quickly and we learned first hand of the power of bread. The baking of it evokes memories and emotions for many.

Now I don’t know if the people of the Bible had the same memories of grandma and accompanying good feelings that baking bread gives us. But I do know that they did not see it as the almost poison that the no carb folks do today. For the people of the Bible bread was an essential of life. And nearly every culture has it in some form or another to this day. From tortillas, to hot cross buns that miraculously look like Mother Theresa, it is the universal food. 

But more than just sustenance, bread was a symbol of God’s divine provision and prosperity to the people of the Bible. When they journeyed from Egypt God kept them alive by giving them manna, which the Psalmist called “the bread of angels.”Later when the king of Assyria was trying to lure the people away from following King Hezekiah, he made them this promise. “I come and take you to a land like your own, a land of grain and new wine, a land of bread and vineyards….Choose life and not death” !(I Kings 8:32). Thus it is not by happenstance that Jesus used this powerful symbol to teach His followers more about Himself. In this Gospel, as well as last weeks, He unpacks what it means for us that He is the bread of life.

First when Jesus speaks of being the bread that comes down from heaven, His hearers would have immediately thought of the manna in the wilderness that I just mentioned. Manna was an interesting phenomenon because it came down each day and was collected each morning. It was only good for one day except the day before the Sabbath and then it lasted for two days so that they would not work on the Sabbath to collect it and thereby violate the Sabbath laws.

Just as manna was God’s miraculous provision that sustained them day by day so Jesus is saying that He is that for us now. And the fact that the manna came each day reminds us of the Scripture that tells us that God’s mercies are new every morning. Jesus is the incarnation of that mercy and we are invited to walk with Him new every morning. With Him every day is a new fresh start.

But Jesus also contrasts Himself from manna. He says, “Your ancestors ate manna in the wilderness and they died. This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die.”

In this comparison manna can be seen as a symbol of the Old Covenant. Jesus came to fulfill the temporary Old Covenant and replace it with the eternal New Covenant. He did this because Manna and the Old Covenant were like tophu. It may be healthy for you but you’re still going to die. The Ten Commandments can show us how to live but they cannot give life. Just as manna was a temporary provision so the Old Covenant was a temporary bread until the coming of Jesus as the true and living bread that gives life to the whole world.    

Next in this same discourse, but a few verses earlier, Jesus says of Himself that He is the “true bread from heaven.” The word true here is significant because it shows yet another contrast.

They say that you are what you eat but if that were true I would be a 6ft block of Velveeta. And yet in a spiritual sense, that saying is very accurate. We become what we consume spiritually. And we also suffer spiritually when we fail to consume the right bread.

In calling Himself the true bread Jesus is implying that there is a false bread , a bread that does us harm. In Matthew’s Gospel, just after He multiplied the loaves and the fishes, Jesus warned the disciples “beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” What is the leaven of the Pharisees and the Sadducees? It is a showy religion that looks good on the outside but is dead on the inside. You may remember that Jesus didn’t speak well of this bread. “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of dead men’s bones and everything unclean. (Mt 23:27).

I would suggest that this is one of the greatest challenges of a faithlike ours that is so steeped in history, tradition and our catholic forms of worship. We have a treasurein the Book Common Prayer and in the way that we worship but we all know that itis possible to only say the words with our lips and never have themtouch our hearts

We must be careful that candles and colorful vestments and sweet smelling incense are SIGNS of the beauty of holiness and not window dressings that camouflage cold hearts. We can come into this sacred space and get a good fix of religion but then go outside of those doors and fail to care for our neighbor which the Scriptures tell us would make our religion null and void.

Jesus as the true bread replaces the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees. He causes the inside to match the outside. When we “feed on Him in our hearts by faith and with thanksgiving” we become united with Him. Then our hearts are filled with love and gratitude. Then we find that the Book of Common Prayer gives us the right words to express our love. Then we express true worship that involves lamps and colored vestments and whatever else that represents the best that we can offer. But it goes even further. When we are full and know that there is no end to this bread that comes down from heaven, then we want to invite our neighbor to receive this bread so they too can eat and live.

When I had my first confirmation class at All Saints’ I asked a man who had been an Assemblies of God minister if he wanted to be confirmed. He said that he wasn’t sure because he did not understand why we did all the  “stuff.” When I asked him what he meant by the “stuff” he said, “You know, the candles and vestments and bowing and sitting and standing etc. Why can’t you just worship without all that stuff?”I replied, “Imagine it is your anniversary and you goal is to give your wife an anniversary dinner. You can take her to McDonalds drive through or you can get dressed up, pull out the table cloth and china and light the candles, put on your best clothes etc. In both cases she is going to get fed but in the latter case you are conveying to her that she is the most important person in your world. And that is why we do the “stuff.” We go to all the trouble to convey to Jesus that He is the most important Person in our world.” He got confirmed.

There is another kind of false bread that stands in contrast to Jesus as the living bread. Do you remember when rice cakes became popular? I had a friend who introduced me to them and touted them like they were the best thing since… well, since sliced bread. In fact they were supposed to replace sliced bread. Supposedly they were better for you, had less calories, and were easier to digest.

I gave them a try and I discovered why they had so few calories. It’s because there are no calories in air! I had to pile so much garbage on them to make them palatable that I would have been better off eating a loaf of bread.

The false bread that Jesus warns us about is like those rice cakes.  It is a life that the world tells us to pursue but in the end does not satisfy. We break our necks trying to get happy but happiness eludes us. “If I just find the right career, if I just meet the right person, if I just made more money.”And as we pursue these things with all of our hearts we inevitably neglect our spiritual lives. And still we find that we are empty and hungry and not even sure why.

Please don’t misunderstand. It is not that careers and family and money are bad. They are gifts from God. But they are not the things that ultimately sustain our life nor fill our ultimate hunger. As St. Augustine put it, “Thou hast made us for Thyself and our hearts are restless till they rest in Thee.”We have been created to first have a relationship with God and then He adds these other gifts as we need them. We are to seek first the kingdom and these other things will be added to us.

We need to also understand when Jesus says He is the bread that gives life to the world that He is declaring Himself to be essential. Just as the children of Israel would have died without the manna, so Jesus is moving His listeners to understand that there is no life apart from Him. Sadly some today treat Him as if He were an optional appetizer that they can take or leave. Others treat Him as a dessert that rounds out their lives nicely. But we need to see Him as our only hope for eternal life and therefore give Him the premier place in our lives that He deserves.

As Anglicans we see the obvious connection that this whole discourse has with Holy Communion. Particularly when Jesus says, “and the bread that I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh.” But allow me to unpack this a little more.

Here in the South there is a tradition of something called a “hoe cake.” It is a small pancake type bread that gets its name because it was cooked on an open fire by field hands, using their hoes as griddles. It is a food that was associated with slavery and hard labor. But somewhere along the line that image was redeemed because I have been served hoe cakes in some fancy steak restaurants. And they often offer it to you as a treat before the dinner arrives. This bread is no longer associated with slavery and hard labor. Now it is associated with fellowship and celebration.

The Jews also had a bread that was associated with slavery and hard labor. It was unleavened bread. They were ordered in the law of Moses to observe the Passover feast this way. Do not eat it with bread made with yeast, but for seven days eat unleavened bread, the bread of affliction, because you left Egypt in haste–so that all the days of your life you may remember the time of your departure from Egypt.

At the Last Supper Jesus redeemed that image by changing the unleavened bread from the bread of affliction to bread that is His flesh when He said,“This is My body.”What was once a symbol of their bondage in Egypt now becomes more than a symbol. It becomes an actual conveyer of life. And so we no longer take this bread to remember our departure from Egypt. We take it to be united with Him and He to us. A somber feast that looked back at a past of suffering has been converted to a celebration of the freedom and joy that union with Christ offers us along with the gift of a hope and a future.

Shortly after I was priested I was going down the altar rail serving communion. Out of the corner of my eye I saw a little girl standing on her tip-toes staring it me. At first I couldn’t figure out what she was doing and why her momma was letting her stand on the embroidered cushions. But as I got closer I realized that she was trying to see what it was that I had in the silver cup that I was putting in people’s hands. So when I came to her I leaned down so that she could see inside the ciborium. She glanced inside and saw the bread. Then she nodded to me and turned to her mother and said, “Mommy I just saw Jesus.” It took my breath away. It is my rule to not engage with people when they come to the altar rail because this is their time with Jesus not their time with the priest. But in this case I broke my rule and as I gave her mother the bread I said, “I love your daughter’s theology.”

I just wish that I had the eyes of the child to see Him veiled in the bread too. Perhaps one day I will but until then I will just have to take it by faith. As Anglicans we don’t try to understand this glorious mystery, we just accept it. I love how poet and priest John Donne put it. “He was the Word that spake it, He took the bread and brake it, and what the Word did make it, I do believe and take it.” Just know as you come forward today that you are doing more than merely “receiving communion.” You are uniting yourself to Christ. You are eating His flesh that is the life of the world. You are receiving grace that will keep you in eternal life. You are a branch receiving the life of the Vine. So “therefore let us keep the feast. Alleluia.”

 

Hardness of Heart

hardheart

 

“for they did not understand about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened.”

This line about hearts being hardened comes from the scene immediately following the feeding of the 5,000 hence the reference to the loaves. Jesus had gone off to pray and the disciples were in a boat battling a storm when Jesus came to them walking on the water and calmed the storm. But the astonishing thing about this line is that it is not referring to the crowds or to the authorities or even to Jesus’ enemies. This line was referring to the disciples! They didn’t understand about the loaves because their hearts were hardened.

What makes this even more remarkable is that at this point we are over a third of the way through the Gospel of St. Mark. These men were hand picked by Jesus. They had seen Him heal multitudes, cast out demons, raise Jarius’ daughter from the dead and feed well over 5,000 with a few loaves and fishes. But still their hearts were hardened.

It occurred to me that if Jesus’ Apostles could suffer from hardness of heart then it is certainly was within the realm of possibility that I too could suffer from this malady. I turned to the Scriptures and was surprised to discover over 45 references to it. As I read through these passages I concluded two things. First that it is an all too common condition and second that it is very dangerous condition spiritually speaking. It requires our constant vigilance to avoid. In order to become vigilant we need to better understand what it is, how you get into that condition, and what you can do about it.

Hardness of heart is resistance to God; resistance to His presence, to His truth, to His Spirit. We see a secular version of hardness of heart in our politics today. It doesn’t matter how many facts you give them they are going to love their guy and hate your guy. No matter what the truth, your guy can do no right the their guy can do no wrong. But this mindset is even worse when it is a spiritual condition because the truths that are being resisted are the truths that make the difference between eternal life and eternal death.

And to be clear it truly is a heart problem and not a head problem. I saw a vivid example of this in a video. The video was of a Planned Parent doctor talking about different ways to kill an unborn baby in order to successfully harvest the organs. She was having this discussion while sipping a glass of wine and eating a salad. She’s a doctor so she has to be a brilliant person but it’s not a head problem, it’s a heart problem and the Lord only knows what has happened in her past to her make her heart so hard.

But what about us? What could make our hearts hard? The first and most obvious thing is willful sinfulness or rebellion against God. Hebrews 3. “Take care brothers lest there be in any of you an evil and unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God. But exhort on another every day…that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.” (vss 12,13). One of the things that led to Judas’s downfall was that he was stealing from their common purse. He knew it to be a sinful activity and yet he did it anyway and it opened his heart for Satan to enter.

Closely related to rebellion against God is pride. We are aware of the warnings all through the Scriptures against pride and yet we all know that dude. You can’t tell him anything, there is not a topic of which he is not an expert, and anyone who disagrees with him is an idiot. If you don’t know anyone like that then you may want to ask someone who really loves you if it is you.

But there is a more subtle form of pride that also hardens the heart. The person who comes to mind when I think about this kind of pride is the professor on Gilligan’s Island. You may not know that the characters on that show were patterned after the 7 deadly sins. The Skipper is anger, Gilligan is sloth, Ginger is lust. Mary Ann envy etc. Well the professor was pride. But he was a very likeable figure because his pride was subtle. It was in the form of self-reliance. If they needed a tool or a special kind of widget he could take a coconut or a fern and make it happen. He rarely asked for help and he believed that there was nothing that he could not eventually figure out.

Of course there is nothing sinful about being intelligent or handy or even self reliant to a degree. But how often do we try to handle things on our own without first going to God and asking for His wisdom and grace? How often do we treat the Lord as the last resort? A person who is totally self-reliant is rarely one is led by the Spirit because there is too much flesh in the way. Deep down he doesn’t really believe that God’s ways are better than his ways.

Years ago a young man came to me because he was in bad financial shape. As we poured through the details of his life he admitted that he was not tithing and he was working on Sundays even though he was self-employed. I explained the biblical truths of the tithe and keeping the Sabbath and told him that if he wanted the Lord to bless his efforts that he needed to do things the Lord’s way. He ignored my advice and to the best of my knowledge is still struggling. If you asked him to describe himself he would say that he is a hard worker. If you asked me I would say he suffers from pride because his actions say that he knows better than the Lord about how life should be lived.

A third way that our hearts get hardened is when they are broken and bitterness seeps in. You hope and trust and believe and then something happens to break your heart and you decide somewhere deep inside to never hope and trust and believe again. You incorrectly believe that in this way you will never be that deeply hurt again. This pattern happens to us romantically, it happens with people that we thought were our friends, it happens within families. But it can also happen in our spiritual lives. We place our expectations on God and when He fails to meet our expectations we become disappointed with God and if left unchecked it turns into bitterness and hardness of heart. You can see this vein run through the life of King Saul who ends up dying a tragic death. We must act quickly with forgiveness to keep bitterness from taking over and we must remember that it is not our place to put expectations on God.

A fourth way that our hearts are hardened is through stubbornness. And this may be a chicken and egg thing because each causes the other. While my wife says that “Kasch” is German for stubbornness, the Bible has a little different take on it. It also uses the term “stiff necked people” which gives you a wonderful image of what is being talked about. The prophet Jeremiah uses the term “stubborn heart” seven times and reveals it as a very serious condition. It is like an addiction that is impossible to be recovered from under our own power. I will explain later what we can do about it.

A fifth common cause of a hardened heart, which you see particularly throughout Jesus’ ministry, is self-righteousness. His detractors were so caught up in keeping every minutia of the law that they were upset when He healed on the Sabbath. They were so caught up in their piety that they could not see the Messiah when He was standing right in front of them.

A sixth cause of hardness of heart is selfishness. I am a dog lover to the max so please don’t take this wrong. But in 2015 Americans spent $60 billion, with a B, on their pets and yet we have a national problem of kids going to bed hungry.  It would be safe to assume that the average American spends far more on their pets than they do giving to the poor. There is something desperately wrong with that picture.

Listen to God’s perspective. This is from Deuteronomy 15. If anyone is poor among your fellow Israelites in any of the towns of the land the Lord your God is giving you, do not be hardhearted or tightfisted toward them.  Rather, be openhanded and freely lend them whatever they need. (vss 7,8). This thought is echoes by the Apostle John. “This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters. If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person? Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth.”(I Jn 3:17).

Dave Ramsey speaks of building wealth so that you can live and give like no one else. The Scriptures speaks of tithes and offerings and so it is a good goal to come to a place where you not only give your tithe to your local church but that you are able to give offerings to those in need. I read that if Christians in the US simply met the tithe it would add $150 billion annually to do ministry. With just the tithe we could change the world.

So those are some of the causes of hard heartedness. If you feel that I have gone from preaching to meddling then I may have hit a nerve. What to do about it?

First, simply admit it to the Lord. He typically does not fix what we won’t admit is broken. I think that is why Jesus asked people all the time what they wanted even when it was obvious that they needed healing. We will have the general confession in a few minutes and it would be the perfect time to declare your hard heartedness and ask to be healed.

Second, declare your inability to heal yourself. As I said earlier this is a very dangerous condition spiritually and so we are going to need more than a tonic to fix it. What we need is open heart surgery and you can’t perform open heart surgery on yourself. We need the Great Physician.

Third, stand upon the promises of God. This was God’s promise to Israel through the prophet Ezekiel. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws. Then you will live in the land I gave your ancestors; you will be my people, and I will be your God.” (36:26-28).

Since the Church is the New Israel and God’s goal is for us to be His people, I see no reason why this promise is not extended to us as well. But note that God says, “I will give you…” because only God can give us a new heart. And yet we are not to sit passively by and wait for a surgical date. It is as we seek Him through prayer and Word and Sacrament that He fulfills His promise to us. Recall in Jesus’ parable of the seeds that the soil was the heart and the seed was the Word of God. It was only the heart that allowed the Word of God to take root that produced fruit. In other words we are not going to get a new heart by watching the Kardashians. Prayer, Word and Sacrament.

Here is the good news. Even after seeing Jesus do all of these miracles, including feeding the 5,000 and walking on water, the disciples still didn’t get it. They still suffered from hardened hearts. I would have given up on them by that point but Jesus did not. He hung in there with them until they did get it, until there hearts of stone were turned into a heart of flesh. He loves us no less than He loved them so we can be assured that He will hang in there with us until we get it too.

I’d be tender, I’d be gentle
And awful sentimental
Regarding love and art
I’d be friends with the sparrows
And the boy that shoots the arrows
If I only had a heart

The Tin Man got one. May God grant us a new one too. Amen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Dresser of Sycamore Trees

Amos

“but I am a herdsman and a dresser of sycamore trees.”

That was Amos’ response when he was told to take his message elsewhere. God hadn’t chosen him to to be a traveling prophet to take his message on the road. He was not from a school of prophets. He was not a priest, serving in the temple. He was a herdsman and a dresser of sycamore trees and God had raised him up to deliver a specific message to a specific people and that was what he was going to do.

Amos gave his prophecies about 750 before the birth of Christ. So it would be natural to think that while this ancient work gives us historical insights it could hardly be applicable in our day. But that assumption would be a mistake. Not only because it is the Word of God and therefore living and active and sharper than a two edged sword, but because his message is one we need to hear TODAY.

Here is some background. The threat of the Assyrian Empire had begun to wane and so Israel was experiencing a relatively stable government and a time of prosperity. It is not unlike what the United States experienced at the fall of the Iron Curtain. But do you remember the motto of the 80’s that came from the movie Wall Street? “Greed is good.” Israel could have had the same motto.

Israel interpreted this time of prosperity as God’s approval and fully expected God to judge the nations around them. But Amos was there to tell them that judgment was going to begin with them. Why? Because the government was oppressive and Israel’s religion was full of compromise and heresy. Now I know it’s a real stretch to think of the government treating people unfairly (like using the IRS to punish political enemies) or the church being full of compromise and heresy (like changing the definition of marriage) but use your sanctified imaginations and hang in there with me. Amos prophecies revolve around 5 themes. Let’s see how relevant they are for us today.

His first them was that since God is Creator of the Universe, His ethics are universal and all people will be judged in light of them. This concept while true is like a foreign language to the average guy on the street today that has been raised in radical relativism.

People correctly bemoan how fractured and divided we are as a society but they fail to see that it is our own relativism that has caused it. If there are no absolutes and every man’s truth only has to be true for him, then what is it that will bring us together? As our lawmakers stray further and further from law based on the law of God then it further divides us because we end up with law rooted in politics.

The Church needs to be a strong voice in our society that God’s laws are true for all people because He is the maker of all people. It is our common submission to God’s laws that will bring us together. We may not be able to agree in fine points of politics but “Thou shalt do no murder”has worked for the last 3,000 years to keep societies out of chaos. With elections around the corner we need to participate in them and vote for people who will support righteous laws.

Amos’ second theme was that while the people were looking for peace and prosperity God was looking for justice and righteousness. Evidently some televangelist had time traveled and snuck into Israel with the prosperity gospel because that was their mindset.  But God was not judging them on the size of their bank accounts, He was judging them on how they treated others especially the least among them.

This is a common theme throughout the Scriptures and we see it particularly in Gods’ concern for the widow and orphan. But Israel was failing miserably. In fact in chapter two Amos said that they were selling the poor into slavery because of their indebtedness for something as paltry as a pair of sandals.

Now I understand the challenge here. The difficulty in caring for the poor is that their needs seem so overwhelming that we don’t know where to begin and so we end up doing nothing. But may I offer some practical steps.

The first thing is to say your prayers and seek God’s wisdom and direction. Emotional reactions can cause as much damage as they do good so you need a plan. Second, once you have a direction then be faithful to it. You are not trying to change the world. You are simply called to serve those in need around you. The results are up to God.

We have seen this in our parish. We did not set out to have a ministry to Burmese refugees but today we have a Burmese daughter church. It all started with sponsoring one family. Again it didn’t change the world but it did change that family’s world.

Well the husband had a cousin and she had a relative that wanted to join them. We thought “why not?” Then she had a nephew and he had a friend and before we knew it there were about 150 Burmese that we were ministering to. Of course there has been challenges and they have gone through their own squabbles but it is God’s work and we were right to be involved. Amos would tell us that what God is looking for in St. Patrick’s is not the size of our budget but whom are we serving in His Name.

Amos’ third theme was that compromised religion is disgusting to God. This is what God had him prophesy; “I hate, I despise your feasts, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer me you burnt offerings and your grain offerings, I will not accept them….take away from me the noise of your songs; to the melody of your harps I will not listen. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”

The reference to justice rolling down like water was because the religious leaders of his day were also involved in the oppression of others. Try to imagine in our day that a wealthy religious institution would kick people out of their churches, sue congregations for their property and take away all of their resources. Since such an institution would be disgusting to God you would want to take great care to distance yourself from it.

Amos’ fourth theme is that while Israel may think that their covenant with God ensures them special protection, that same covenant also holds them to a higher standard and a stricter judgment. “Behold I am setting a plumb line in the midst of my people Israel; I will again pass by them; the high places of Isaac shall be made desolate, an the sanctuaries of Israel shall be laid to waste, and I will rise against the house of Jeroboam with the sword.”

Israel had become arrogant. We can see the depth of their spiritual arrogance and blindness in the priest Amaziah’s response to Amos. In essence he said,“Tell someone who cares. After all, this is the kings special place.” They thought that they could treat people badly, act immorally and look down their noses on the heathen because after all they were God’s covenant people. God through Amos told them differently.

This theme is also a great warning to the Church. We have to strike a delicate balance. On one hand we are to believe, as we just heard from St. Paul, that we have been called before the foundation of the world to be God’s children. But on the other hand, as St. Paul said elsewhere, we are to work out our salvation in FEAR AND TREMBLING.

We must not become complacent or lax by thinking that our standing with God exempts us from the call to be holy or to act justly. We are on a journey and must remember that Scripture also says that it is he who perseveres to the end that will be saved.

I believe that it is particularly important that those of us who are so proud of our Anglican heritage should exercise caution. It is possible to be very religious and still miss the kingdom. It is possible to get so caught up in the liturgy that we miss the Lord of the liturgy. Recall Jesus’ sobering words. “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’”

God does not judge us based on our pedigree. There is a vast difference between spiritual assurance that gives us peace and spiritual pride that makes us blind to our need to repent and to change.

Amos’ last theme was that while a terrible destruction will fall on unrepentant Israel, there will yet be a remnant that will be preserved and they will see a day of glorious restoration. This prophecy of course came to be. Assyria reemerged as a superpower and in 722 the kingdom of Israel was destroyed but a remnant remained.

This idea of a remnant preserved by God is not a theme that is peculiar to Amos. Lot’s family surviving Sodom and Gomorrah was the story of a remnant being saved in the midst of a disaster. The family of Noah after the flood is one as well. The few prophets in Elijah’s day who did not bend the knee to Baal, and those who returned from the exile were the remnant. Isaiah, Micah, Zechariah and more speak of it.

In the New Covenant it is the true Church that is the remnant that God has and will preserve. God says to the remnant, through the prophet Jeremiah, “I have loved you with an everlasting love therefore I have continued my faithfulness to you. Again I will build you up and you shall be built.” 31:3,4. Jesus echoes this prophecy when He said, “ I will build my church and the gates of hell will not prevail against it.”

 Emperors have outlawed the Church, dictators and despots have banished the Church, atheist regimes and false religions have tried to eradicate the Church and secularist have told us that we will disappear because we are no longer relevant. Yet Jesus remains true to His promises and we are still here and the remnant will remain until the end of time. The Revelation to St. John speaks of the remnant and they are defined as those who keep the commandments of God and have the testimony of Jesus.  This light will never be put out. You want to be sure that you are part of that remnant.

One final thought about our friend Amos and applying his message today. It was not an easy job for him to deliver such sobering news. Again he was not a professional cleric, he was a herdsman and a dresser of sycamore trees. Yet God used him to speak some hard reality to both the government of Jeroboam and the religion of Amaziah.

I believe that it continues to be the Church’s call to speak prophetically to society and especially to those in political and religious power. We are to call for justice and righteousness and to not mince our words. The lesson of John the Baptist is that it will not always go well with us if we do, but standing up for the truth is not only the right thing, it is the loving thing to do. Without the light of the truth, people will continue to live in darkness.

Political correctness tells Christians to keep their beliefs and opinions to themselves but God calls us to be bold and to be salt and light. If we will not be salt and light then who will? When the apostles were ordered by the authorities to remain silent they asked the rhetorical question,“Who should we obey, God or man?” 

I encourage you to look around at your circles of influence and consider where God may be calling you to speak prophetically. Speak the truth in love but speak the truth. It may involve uncomfortable topics like abortion or the plight of the poor or telling someone the truth about Islam, but if God is calling you to do it, then be obedient. You may not feel worthy. You may feel untrained or ill-equipped. You may even think to yourself, “but I’m just a herdsman and dresser of sycamore trees.” To which God will say, “Perfect, then you’re just the one that I was looking for.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Call to Faithfulness

The-Importance-of-Faithfulness

Text  Ezekiel 2:1-7 Mark 6:1-6

When we moved here to plant a church part of my responsibilities included meeting with the Bishop every month. He gathered other church planters and priests who were over missions to help our churches grow to the place where they became self-supporting and no longer needed aide from the Diocese. While he continually told us not to focus on numbers, his first question each month was inevitably how many we had in worship last Sunday.

I still hear the refrain that serving a church is not about the numbers and yet every year I have to fill out a parochial report for the Anglican Church in North America. I report on our average Sunday attendance, how many baptisms, funerals and weddings we officiated, how much money we gathered and how much we sent to the diocese. When we gather at Diocesan Synod every year the number of votes we get depends on the size of our church. But remember, it’s not about numbers.

My point here is not to be cynical. I understand that keeping track of the numbers is important because there is a business side to the Church. My point is to demonstrate how easy it is to focus primarily on the fruit or outcome of ministry while our lessons today point us in a different direction.

Let’s look first at Ezekiel. How would you like to have had his job? “Son of man, I send you to…a nation of rebels who have rebelled against me…the people are also impudent and stubborn…do not be afraid of their words though briers and thorns are with you and you sit upon scorpions.” For the first 25 chapters of his book he warns Israel, calling them to repentance. They ignore his prophecies and are invaded. As a result God’s temple was destroyed and they were taken into captivity into Babylon. If you were only evaluating Ezekiel’s ministry by how fruitful it was then you would be forced to give him a pretty low score indeed.

Next let’s look at the Gospel and the snap shot we have of our Lord’s ministry in the Galilee region. He was so ineffective in His teaching ministry among them that the text says that He was unable to do mighty works there because of the level of their unbelief. What’s more He began His ministry with 12 Apostles but ended with only 11 after one committed suicide. Again if you were only evaluating Jesus ministry by its fruitfulness you would conclude that He and Ezekiel are tied for last place.

So what are we to take from this? What I hear in these passages, and in many other places in the Scriptures like them is that it’s not about fruitfulness it’s about faithfulness. I don’t mean that fruitfulness is unimportant, but that it should not be our focus. From the perspective of fruitfulness things look badly for them but from the perspective of faithfulness both Ezekiel and Jesus were absolutely successful in their ministries. They did exactly what the Father called them to do in spite of tremendous resistance. So it’s not about fruitfulness, it’s about faithfulness.

If it is that simple, that we are called to faithfulness, then we must ask why this virtue seems to be so difficult to attain? After all Ezekiel was speaking to an entire nation that failed to be faithful and Jesus the text said, marveled at the level of unbelief among His people. How about today? Today we see entire denominations one after the other abandoning the Word of God.  How does this happen? St. Paul gives us a hint in Ephesians 2 when he speaks of an unholy trinity, called the world, the flesh and the devil.

Here is how the world assaults our faithfulness. A fallen world has lost its connection with its Creator and so we try to reconcile this problem by desperately seeking favor from one another. And how do we get acceptance? We get it through conformity.

Remember the tremendous power it had over you as a teenager? We would do almost anything to fit in. Or if you were a rebel you would do almost anything to fit in with the kids who didn’t fit in. Rebels would go goth to be unique that is just like all the other unique goth kids. Our parents tried to get us to resist that power with the classic speech, “And if everyone else was jumping off the cliff would you jump with them? We would reply “Of course not!” but in our hearts we knew that we might. The need to be accepted and the fear of rejection are just that strong.

And so even though God had called Israel to be a unique people they chose to fit in with the cultures around them by imitating them. Recall this was their argument for rejecting the LORD as their King and calling on Saul and that started them on a long path of unfaithfulness. The call of the world to conform is powerful. But the Scripture says, “Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.”

It is pretty obvious how the flesh makes us unfaithful. It is so very very easy to chose pleasure over sacrifice, self gratification over service, self promotion over humility. And you could write a book today about how folks are being driven by their feelings. Folks are not only offended by anything and everything it almost seems that are seeking new ways to be offended. You can’t ask for a skinny late because that is weight shaming and you also can’t call it a no fat late because that would get you accused of fataphobia. In the end what makes the flesh an enemy of true religion is because the flesh makes it all about me while true religion makes it about loving God and my neighbor.

And we must not overlook the devil. You don’t want to get too spooky about it but we have an enemy and he is real and he wants you to be anything but faithful. If he can sow doubt, or make you feel discouraged or get your feelers hurt, he will do it. He will do whatever he can to make you quit. Remember in the parable of the seeds the birds of the air that stole the seed was the evil one stealing the word of God from the heart. The solution is to shoe the birds away with the power of His Name. It is why we pray “deliver us from evil” every day.  And work to grasp the word of God to allow it to take root. You have an enemy but he is not in charge.

So if the world, the flesh and the devil are working overtime to keep us from being faithful what can we do to develop the virtue of faithfulness so that like Ezekiel and Jesus we can remain strong even in the face of great opposition? Allow me to suggest four things.

First is courage. The Lord told Ezekiel not to afraid of his opponents or of their words. I haven’t stopped to count it to be sure but I have read several times that “be not afraid” or some version thereof occurs 365 time in the Bible. Courage is not a total absence of fear but it is a commitment to not be controlled by fear. Fearful people will desert you in the battle but courageous people keep standing and when all else is done they remain standing. One way to develop courage is to hang out with courageous people. That is one reason godly fellowship is so important.

Second is clarity. Both Ezekiel and Jesus had pinpoint clarity about what they were called to do and that is why they did not cave when they faced opposition. When I was being interviewed by a diocesan committee to determine if they were going to send me go to seminary a woman asked Beth that if they allowed me to go if she wanted to take courses also to keep up with me spiritually. Beth said, “Absolutely not! I believe Ray is called to the priesthood but I am called to Social Work and I am not about to let his calling interfere with my calling.” I’m convinced that is why they accepted me and sent me to seminary. And it is also her clarity of calling that has had her last in her job for over 30 years when the burnout rate is about 3. If you are not clear about who you are in the Lord and what He has called you to do then ask, seek, knock and you will receive what you ask for. I believe that He loves answering that prayer.

I also encourage you, as you are clarifying your vision, to have the kingdom of God central. Jesus said “Seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness and all these things shall be added unto you.” That is not a religious motto that is a life committment.

When everything was hitting the fan for the Episcopal Church Beth and I had dinner with a former Archbishop of Canterbury. I asked him, “Your Grace, how do I step into the pulpit this Sunday? What do I tell my people? He said, “You tell them to keep working for the kingdom and don’t get the church confused with the kingdom.” That could be taken wrongly but I immediately knew what he meant. I love Anglicanism and believe it to be the most authentic expression of Christianity that I have experienced but the truth is if the Anglican Communion disappeared tomorrow Jesus would still be on the throne and His kingdom would not be shaken.

Courage, Clarity and the third is Consistency. Notice the last line of the Gospel. Jesus had just been rejected for His teachings by His own people and the text says, “And he went about among the villages teaching.”Woody Allen said, “80% of success is showing up.”  It should be obvious that you can’t be faithful if you don’t show up! This Christian journey is a marathon and not a sprint, or as Eugene Peterson described it in the title of one of his books, it’s a “long obedience in the same direction.”

 Most of you don’t realize it but Chris Morris who tapes our sermons and puts them on the web is neither a 9 o’clock nor 11 o’clock parishioner. His family’s principal service is the Wednesday night Mass and yet Sunday after Sunday after Sunday he comes here and records us to serve you and others. He has never asked for a dime. He is consistent and faithful and that has resulted in fruitfulness. I have had responses to a sermon from Africa and Australia which never could have happened without Chris. Shout out to Chris and his consistency.

Lastly Continuity. If you will realize that the Lord is building something in your life brick by brick, or as Corrie Ten Boom put it, sowing your life into a beautiful tapestry, then you will be faithful to see it to the end. You will not see your life as filled with random events and a series of coincidences. If you will faithfully walk with the Lord you will often discover why He allowed some things to transpire and realize that previous experiences prepared you for what you are facing today.

David chose 5 smooth stones and was able to put one in between Goliath’s eyes because he had done it time and time again as a shepherd killing lions and bears. And to show you David’s hutzpah he chose the 5 stones because Goliath had a brother and three sons. Shepherding sheep and developing a relationship with the Lord during those lonely years prepared him to shepherd Israel and be a king who was a man after God’s own heart. So look for continuity in your own life. It will build your faith as you see the Lord fulfilling His plans for you. This in turn will result in you being faithful to Him.

So it’s not about fruitfulness, it about faithfulness. Again, that does not mean that fruitfulness is unimportant, but that is ultimately not our responsibility. St. Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians “I sowed, Apollos watered, but God gave the increase.” When it comes to the kingdom we do not measure success the way the American Dream measures success. It’s not about numbers and it is not about how large your house or bank accounts are or what kind of car you drive. When it comes to the kingdom there is one measure of success, one prize that we should keep our eyes on. That is when you enter His presence and hear, “Well done good and faithful servant. Enter into the joy of your Master.”

Tigger or Eeyore? Hope Makes the Difference

Tigger and Eeyore

I came across a TED talk by a man who has been given 2 months to live. He said that it was not okay with him that he was going to die, especially because he had some young kids, but he refused to be morose or become an object of pity. He said that you have to decide once and for all if you are going to be a Tigger or an Eeyore. You know Tigger. The happy bouncy character in Winnie the Pooh? And “the wonderful thing about Tigger is Tigger’s a wonderful thing.” Then there is Eyore. “Well I was going to have a picnic but then I saw some clouds which probably means it’s going to rain so I called the whole thing off.”

This talk got my attention precisely because he was not some motivational speaker charging an arm and a leg to inspire you to walk on hot coals. This guy is DYING. So his words carry weight with me. But they did even more so when I detected the same basic message in today’s Epistle.  St. Paul decided to be a Tigger. He writes, “So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this momentary light affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison.” 

What I see St. Paul doing here is minimizing the negative by maximizing the positive. Or to put it another way, he is bathing his suffering with hope, and Scripture says that hope is the anchor of our souls. His focus is not on his challenges but on his glorious future that he says is beyond all comparison.

I love how St. Paul calls his circumstances a “momentary light affliction.” Later in this Epistle he gives us a rundown of those momentary light afflictions. We read in chapter 11; Five different times the Jewish leaders gave me thirty-nine lashes. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked. Once I spent a whole night and a day adrift at sea. I have traveled on many long journeys. I have faced danger from rivers and from robbers. I have faced danger from my own people, the Jews, as well as from the Gentiles. I have faced danger in the cities, in the deserts, and on the seas. And I have faced danger from men who claim to be believers but are not. I have worked hard and long, enduring many sleepless nights. I have been hungry and thirsty and have often gone without food. I have shivered in the cold, without enough clothing to keep me warm. Then, besides all this, I have the daily burden of my concern for all the churches.”

Any one of those things would have been enough to make me want to quit but not St. Paul. Why? Because, again, his focus was not on the present problems but on his glorious future. What you focus on makes that much of a difference. Think of it this way. The sun is almost 865,000 miles across but you can make it disappear if you hold a quarter close enough to your eye. In the same way we can make our glorious future disappear if we only focus on things that are passing away or on current afflictions.

Lest this sound like another version of positive thinking allow me to offer some theological background. Today we hear the story of the fall but don’t forget the amazing garden that they were placed in and their astonishing role of tending that garden for the Lord. This is what we were made for but the fall changed all that. And yet the fall did not have the last word.

You will recall that the prophets saw a spectacular day in the future when swords would be beaten into plowshares and the lion would lie down with the lamb. In this second letter to Corinth St. Paul makes the case that the kingdom of which he preaches is exactly what the prophets were speaking about.

In Acts Peter is preaching in Solomon’s Portico when he says, For he (Jesus) must remain in heaven UNTIL the time for the final restoration of all things, as God promised long ago through his holy prophets.” Hear it again. “Until the final restoration of all things.”

When we go to the Revelation of St. John we get a clearer picture of what the final restoration will look like. This is from chapter 21.Then I sawa new heaven and a new earth, forthe first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more.And I sawthe holy city,new Jerusalem,coming down out of heaven from God,preparedas a bride adorned for her husband.And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold,the dwelling placeof God is with man. He willdwell with them, and they will be his people,and God himself will be with them as their God.He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, anddeath shall be no more,neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” Andhe who was seated on the throne said, “Behold, Iam making all things new.”

A new heaven and a new earth, the healing of the nations, the elimination of pain and sorrow and death, and all that is wrong being made right. The study notes in the English Standard Bible say “and the earth itself will be renewed even beyond the more abundant and productive state it had before Adam and Eve’s fall.”  We are not going back to the garden…that one had a snake in it. We will be in a new world that will be more spectacular than we can even imagine.

I read a book called All Things Newthat challenged me to take this perspective a step further. He challenged his readers to make a list of the first three things they want to do at the final restoration of all things. To be honest when I first read that I thought he had gone a bit too far. That seemed a little kooky to me.

But then as I pondered it I realized how helpful that would be. After all we make a list of things we want to do in the future, when that future is a reality to us. For example next week, Lord willing, I am going to Israel as a delegate to GAFCON.  So I have already booked a room in Tel Aviv and then I will travel to Jerusalem early Sunday morning to attend church. Then I will find my hotel and attend the conference Sunday evening. Making plans not only makes this upcoming trip more real to me but it also helps me prioritize the things that I need to do before I go.

In a similar manner planning for the final restoration not only makes it more real to us but it helps us prioritize my life here and now. It helps us, as St. Paul said, to focus on things eternal rather than things transient.

So what are my plans for the final restoration? I’ll tell you. I’m going to take God literally when He says that He will restore all things, that “all”means “all.”

First I want to see and speak with those I have loved that have gone before me. My Father passed a few years ago. There is a miscarried child I want to meet. I also have a good number of family and friends that I hope will be there. We’ve got a lot of catching up to do.

Second I want to be reunited with my pets. Some object that there will not be animals in heaven because animals don’t have souls. I’m not even convinced that that they are souless. Why would God restore a new heaven and new earth and leave out the creatures that He made for the first heaven and earth? Besides the four horsemen of the apocalypse have to get their horses from somewhere!

Third I want to go and see the Milky Way. I mean in person! We know that Jesus after His resurrection had a body and ate and drank but He could also come and go as He pleased, even appearing in a room that had locked windows and doors, and then disappearing again. If we get similar bodies and can also come and go as we please I’m going to do a lot of traveling. I want to go to places that I never got to see in this life. And remember, we will live forever, so we won’t need a bucket list. There will plenty of time to do what we want to do.

Now I admit that what I have just spoken about is speculation on my part but I find it fun to dream. Even if I don’t get to see the Milky Way there is no doubt that we are promised a new world and Bishop NT Wrights goes on to say, “In Revelation and Paul’s letters we are told that God’s people will actually be running the new world on God’s behalf.” So the author ends a chapter asking and answering this question. “What will you do in the life to come? Everything you were born to do. Everything you’ve always wanted to do. Everything the kingdom NEEDS you do to.”

I recognize that I have treated this topic somewhat lightly by using the imagery of Tigger and Eyore. I recognize at the same time it has a very sobering side. Hope is not a luxury. Hope is not optional.

This last week we saw the suicide of two very successful and famous people. I was shocked to learn that the suicide rate in the US has increased 40% since 1999 with a peak during the economic crash in 2008. Also in the news almost every day is the mention of our nation’s opioid epidemic. CBS reported that more Americans died just last year from drug overdoses than in the entire Vietnam War. And I would argue that the same hole in the soul that leads to suicide and overdose is what fuels teens turning guns on their fellow students or crazy men shooting up a concert or a church.

Hope is not a luxury. Hope is not an option. I heard the testimony of a soldier who survived the Battan Death March. He witnessed men give up hope and literally roll over in their beds and die. Without this anchor of hope our souls get tossed around by life like a piece of driftwood in a storm. But with this anchor we can weather whatever comes our way and maybe even refer to them as “momentary light afflictions.”

It is the hope of this glorious future, the hope of the restoration of all things, that anchors our soul in this present life. When you grasp the reality of that future there is no way to remain an Eeyore. You simply have to become a Tigger. And then “The wonderful thing about you, is that you’ll be a wonderful thing.”Amen.

 

 

The Ascension Puts Us On Mission

On Mission

I have placed a picture on the front of the bulletin of the Apostles looking up, with two Angels evidently explaining what just happened. This scene is from the Book of Acts and happens immediately preceding the choosing of Matthias. This is what it says in Acts, with the resurrected Jesus addressing the Apostles. “‘But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit had come upon you and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria and to the end of the earth.’ And while they were gazing into heaven as he went, behold, two men stood by them in white robes and said,’ Men of Galilee, why do you stand there looking up into heave? This Jesus who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.’”

I may get into trouble for this but this scene strikes me as somewhat comical. Jesus had just given them instructions and then ascended into heaven. Rather than doing what Jesus told them to do they are standing around looking up in the sky with their mouths open. So the Lord sends two of His messengers to tell them to get back to work. They are not to stand around and simply wait for His return. They have a mission to fulfill, so get to it!

This picture could also be a picture of some of the Church today? I have witnessed and worked with Churches whose only mission was to survive, which is the corporate equivalent of standing around with your mouth open while looking up? We are to grow the kingdom but the kingdom does not grow if the Church is in survival mode. Think of the many ways that Jesus told us that when He comes back He best find us doing what He told us to do and not find us with our talents buried, or our lamp out of oil or our branches without fruit.

How about us as individual disciples? Are we on mission? If not then this is a day for revaluation and a day to make a commitment to get back on mission. Except instead of sending you two white-robed Angels God has sent you Groucho, Chico and Harpo. I let you decide which priest is which.

It is my contention that an important step for getting us on mission is to better understand and more fully embrace what the death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus has done for us. Such knowledge will inspire us and empower us to His service.

First we are inspired and empowered for His service by embracing Christ’s victory. A few years ago I accompanied John Drivas to an Easter Eve celebration at a Greek Orthodox Church. There was a lot in the liturgy that was foreign to me and I my not have my memory of it exactly as it happened, but that did not keep it from being absolutely beautiful. At first the church was dark, lit only with candlelight. Suddenly the doors of the iconostasis opened up and a tall bearded priest stepped out with a lighted Paschal Candle and announced that Christ has risen. The darkness turned into joy. Then we did an interesting thing. We all processed out of the church with the priest and the doors were closed behind us. The priest shouted to the doors and a man inside responded. They were quoting Psalm 24. The priest said, “Lift up your head, O Gates. And be lifted up , O ancient doors, that the King of glory shall come in.”The man behind the doors responded, “Who is this king of glory?”The priest said,“The Lord strong and nighty, the Lord mighty in battle.”And they did this versicle and response for a few more verses until the doors were opened and we entered back into the church behind the priest.

I had never seen the ascension of Christ represented this way and I found that part of the liturgy to be deeply moving. It portrayed to me that in the Ascension we see Christ returning as a mighty warrior who has won the battle. Christus Victor. And He did it for us!

Some might ask, “What battle has he won?” He was victorious over sin by leading a sinless life and by atoning for the sins of the world. He was victorious over death and the grave through His resurrection. He was victorious over our ancient enemy by freeing us from his prisons. And then He has ascended into heaven to receive the honor and glory and power of His victory.

But wait, if Jesus defeated them why do they still exist? And we know that sin exists because we battle with it every day, if we are honest with ourselves. Obviously we know that people still die so how has death been defeated? And the powers of darkness certainly seem to be very real for those who are paying attention. John Eldredge writes in his book All Things New, “Human sin is not sufficient to explain the rampaging, unspeakable evil of this age. There are powerful, ancient dark spirits…who are now deeply involved ensnaring, entrapping, fueling evil people making war on holiness and the human heart” And he points to human trafficking and the abortion industry as exhibits A and B. I believe that he make a good case.

So how have our enemies been defeated? This is where we must see and walk with the eyes of faith. And when we do so, we see that the happenings of sin and death and the powers of darkness are but the death pangs of the dragon. It is still roaring and spitting fire but it is dying.

And so while there is still sin in the world, Christ has given us the power to not live under its control. When we do sin we simply confess it, receive forgiveness and move on in life without condemnation.

What about death? I was speaking with Fr. Guill last week who told me that his mother was very close to death. In the midst of his explanation about all they are doing for her he said, “And so we look forward to her ultimate healing.” That is why we as Anglicans will we pray for those who suffer to experience a quick and holy death. Because of Jesus’ victory death is just a gate through which we pass to the larger life.

And when it comes to the powers of darkness not only have countless millions renounced them as they were baptized into Christ but the Revelation of John tells us that God’s holy vengeance will fall upon those powers as they are cast into a lake of fire along with death and hades. Thus in the new heaven and new earth there will an absence of sin, an absence of death and an absence of evil.

Imagine it! We won’t have to be victorious over temptation because there will be no temptation. We won’t have to create bucket lists to get the last dregs out of life because we will never die a second death. We won’t have to put on the armor of God because there will be no more enemy with which to battle. Jesus has won for us an eternity of life and peace and holiness. And so Eldrege concludes, “No wonder joy is the constant mood of the kingdom! Not to mention massive relief and vindication too.” It is in the light of this reality that we are called to be on mission, to work for His kingdom in the here and now.

Second His death, resurrection and ascension inspire and empower us to live for others. I say that because through His actions there is nothing left that we need to do to be right with God. In Hebrews we are told that when Jesus ascended on high, He entered a heavenly temple not made by human hands. And as our High Priest He presented there not the blood of bulls and goats but His own blood as an atonement for the sins of the world.  Here is how it reads in Hebrews 9. For Christ did not enter a man-made sanctuary that was only a copy of the true one; he entered heaven itself, now to appear for us in God’s presence. Nor did he enter heaven to offer himself again and again, the way the high priest enters the Most Holy Place every year with blood that is not his own….But now he has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to do away with sin by the sacrifice of himself.”Did you catch the significance of those last words? “….he has appeared once for all….to do way with sinby the sacrifice of himself.”

So again there is nothing more to be done to complete His sacrifice. There is nothing else that I need to do to become more enlightened or to become one with the universe or to empty myself of self-awareness or anything else to earn my salvation. All that I can do is to accept this free gift of forgiveness and once it is accepted then I am free to focus on others. His Ascension liberates us from a prison of self-serving to the liberty of serving of others

Third his death, resurrection and ascension give us a higher calling. Because of His Ascension He has become our High Priest in the heavenlies and as our High Priest He ever lives to make intercession for us. The Gospel lesson today is a portion of what is called The High Priestly prayer and in it we can get a glimpse of the kinds of things that Jesus is praying for us.

But we can take this a step further. Because He is our High Priest and we are His Body on earth St. Peter says that it is His will for us to be a kingdom of priests. This is from 1 Peter in the New Living Translation. “…for you are a chosen people. You are royal priests, a holy nation, God’s very own possession. As a result, you can show others the goodness of God, for he called you out of the darkness into his wonderful light.” Did you hear that call to mission? “As a result you can show others the goodness of God.”

Practically how do you do that? How do you show others the goodness of God? First as I just mentioned by having a servant’s hearts towards others. That stands out in a dog eat dog world. When most folks are asking “what is in it for me?”and you come along and ask, “how may I help?”they will see the love and goodness of God in action.

A second practical way you can show others the goodness of God is to invite folks into your life. Isn’t that exactly what Jesus did? “Drop your nets and come with Me.”Invite folks for a meal. Invite folks to join you at a sporting event. Invite folks to join you in your hobbies. Oh here’s an idea…..INVITE THEM TO WORSHIP!

When we put on events like Octoberfest or offer special classes it is always our intention that we do so not only for the parish but for our parishioners to use it as an outreach opportunity. So come and support these efforts but alsobring a friend. You are a royal priesthood and your mission is to show others the goodness of God. In this high tech hyperactive culture it is all too easy to become insular and only focus on yourself and those immediately around you and keep every one else at a safe Facebook distance. Don’t do that. For God so loved the world He didn’t send tweet. Be like Jesus. Be incarnational.

One last example of how His death, resurrection and ascension inspires and empowers us to be on mission. We will see this in its fullness next week as we celebrate Pentecost. Jesus did go away but He did not leave them abandoned. 10 days after His Ascension the Holy Spirit fell upon the Apostles, empowering them for service. He, that is the Holy Spirit, so emboldened those fearful disciples that they took the good news of Jesus to the ends of the earth and most of whom faced a martyr’s death.

We receive that same Spirit at our baptism and at our confirmation. Not a different Spirit but the same One that fell on all those in the upper room. He is an incredible blessing to us because Jesus has called each of us to do so many things that we cannot do in our own power and so He empowers us. The Holy Spirit will provide us with all that we need to be faithful and fruitful.

When it comes to the Christian journey you have been given a V8 with a turbo charger so don’t drive like a grandpa. You have the Holy Spirit! Take a risk. Step out in faith. And if you mess up, and you will, learn from it and then step out again. And step out again and step out again and keep stepping out in faith until your arches fall. When you read the Book of Acts you see that the Apostle’s didn’t do things perfectly. They even had some petty squabbles and divisions but they stayed on mission and they changed the world. They did not do that under their own power and neither will we, but because of the death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus we don’t have to.

I beg of you, let’s make a commitment as a church that we are not going to stand around looking up in the sky with our mouths open, hoping that Jesus will return. We already know that He will because both He and the angels have so. The question is really when He does return will He find us on mission? Let’s be sure that He does. Amen.

 

Know and Show: Back to the Basics

Basics

Last weekend I was in Dallas Texas for the 25thanniversary of Bishop Iker’s consecration. As I was taking a taxi to church I had a flashback. I was in Dallas 46 years ago this summer with 80,000 other students for an event called Explo ’72. We gathered for evening worship in the Cotton Bowl to be led in worship by folks like Johnny Cash and to hear sermons by Billy Graham as well as other luminaries of that time. During the day we had evangelism training and then we went door to door sharing our faith. I drove from Florida to Texas and back, cramped in a VW Beetle with two other really big guys, and by what must have been a miracle we still remained friends and didn’t murder each other.

If you had asked me then where I would be on my Christian journey in 46 years I would have guessed that I would be much farther along than I actually am. I can easily say with St. Paul that I have not obtained my goal. I say that because each week when we confess to God that we have not loved Him with our whole heart nor our neighbor as ourselves, I really mean that confession because I haven’t. I want to but I haven’t. My one consolation is that since this confession is written in our Prayer Book for the WHOLE Church to pray EVERY Sunday, my guess is that I am not alone.

 That said I do not consider myself a failure as a Christian and I hope that you do not either. We only fail if we quit and the word “quit” should not be in our vocabulary. So if quitting is not an option then the next question is “What is the way forward?” How do we grow more deeply in our love of God and our love for our neighbor? Two things jumped out to me in today’s propers that I believe point us in the right direction. The first is from the collect where we pray that we will KNOW Jesus to be the way, the truth and the life. The second is from our lessons which clearly call on us to not only know it but to SHOW it.

Notice that the prayer does not ask for us to be shown the way but rather to know Jesus as “the Way.”  This is the correct way to pray because Christianity is not merely an ethical religion where someone tells us what is right and wrong and then we are left on our own to do it. Jesus comes along side us to take us with Him. He does this through the Holy Spirit whom He promised to His disciples. So we must never forget that we are not in this alone. The Way is not a direction, the Way is a Person.

Before the 1979 Prayer Book it was typical for a parish to march all 6thgraders through a Confirmation class, often rather they wanted it of not. Kids were given assignments to memorize the Lord’ Prayer, the 10 Commandments, the 23rdPsalm etc. Many were taught the catechism and some were even warned that the Bishop may ask them really difficult questions and so they better have it down cold by the time that the Bishop visited.

None of this was wrong in itself, and the Church might do well to reintroduce some of those disciplines, but one problem arose from this process. It led some to believe that all they had to do to be a Christian was to have the right information, to be able to pass the Bishop’s test.

But as you know memorizing the Creed and believing the Creed are not necessarily that same thing; just as liking Jesus and living like Jesus are not necessarily the same thing. Our reading from 1stJohn drives this home.

How do we know that we have passed from life to death? Is it by how many verses we have memorized or how much theology we know? No! We know that we have passed from death to life when we love as He loved. We know that we have passed from death to life when we lay our lives down for one another. We know we have passed from life to death when we share with a brother or sister in need. We know that we have passed from death to life when our love is not in words but in deeds.

Bob Goff in his book Everybody Always tells of meeting a witch doctor in Uganda who was arrested and tried for mutilating a boy as a child sacrifice, but the boy lived to testify against him. Although this custom of child sacrifice by witch doctors was prevalent in Uganda this man named Kabi was the first one ever to be put on trial. Bob is an honorary consul of Uganda so he attended the trial and said to look at Kabi was to look in the face of evil. To Bob’s delight Kabi was convicted and sent to the kind of prison in Uganda that makes medieval dungeons seem like Disney World.

But something bothered Bob. Bob was on a journey of moving from liking Jesus to becoming like Jesus and so Jesus words about loving our enemies weighed on him. He pulled some strings to meet with Kabi in prison and in time Kabi repented of his wicked life and sought forgiveness through Christ. Bob not only knew Jesus to be the way but he showed Kabi the way.

Next Bob got permission from the warden to have Kabi share his story with the other prisoners. Kabi stood before hundreds of men and told what Bob called the worst gospel story he had ever heard. Most of what Kabi said about Jesus was so wrong that Bob began wonder about his own beliefs. But in spite of this horrible speech a sea of men came forward and Kabi and Bob grabbed bottles of water and baptized them by the scores. When we act with this kind of love we not only know Jesus as the Way but we show Him to be the way. The challenge is as Bob put it, “Don’t put a toe in the water of love; grab your knees and do a cannonball.”

We also pray to understand Jesus as the Truth. You certainly have  heard of Scientology. It is a self-proclaimed religion invented by a science fiction writer. In truth it is a cult that had been publically accused of imprisoning and even murdering some of its detractors. So I have great admiration for actress Leah Remini who left it after 30 years and has been vocal about their abuses. One of their core doctrines is that 75 million years ago a being named Xenu brought billions of people to earth in space crafts, placed them in volcanoes and then blew them up with a hydrogen bombs. They clustered together as thetans and became negative forces that attach themselves to people today. It is the job of Scientology to help you get rid of the thetans…for a price. Why do I bring up this totally believable religion? Because it is estimated that there are about 30,000 followers in the US! That is the size of a large diocese.

So we pray to know Jesus as the Truth because we are so easily deceived and there are so many competing voices out there. We need to have one clear voice. We need to be convinced that Jesus is the Truth. He is the final authority and He is the canon by which every thing and every one else is measured. It is absolutely true that He speaks through the Scriptures and through the Church but we do not call either the Bible or the Church “Lord.” It is as we trust Him to be the Truth, and to lead us into all truth, that we are set free.

But again we must not only know Jesus as the Truth we must show Him to be the Truth? How do we do that? We do it through the fruit of our lives. The Bible calls it walking in the truth. Jesus said, “He who has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me; and he who loves me will be loved by my Father and I will love him and manifest myself to him.”

If there is no difference between how we live and how non-believers live then people would be justified in doubting the validity of our beliefs. But if we evidence our love by keeping His commandments then our lives are marked by the fruit of the Spirit. When folks witness love, joy, peace, patience, kindness etc. they will want to know what it is that we know and we will be able to tell them not what we know but WHO we know.

We also pray to know Jesus as Life. There is an old black and white movie of the sinking of the Titanic that ends with the crew and passengers singing an old Welsh hymn, “Nearer My God to Thee.” There is some debate if this is the last hymn that was sung before the ship went down but there is no debate that a number of hymns were sung by the passengers as they awaited their deaths. The survivors in the lifeboats testified to that.

One wonders what they would be singing if a cruise ship went down today. Would there be enough people with faith and practice on board to come up with the verses of even one hymn? I would hope so.

It is knowing Jesus to be our life that prepares us for our inevitable death. The family members of Barbara Bush testified how her faith allowed her to die with great peace and on her own terms.

But more than that, it is in knowing Jesus to be Life that gives meaning to our lives here and now. Have you noticed that people without faith often feel like victims of life’s circumstances. But people of faith can say with St. Paul, “For we know that all things work together for good for those who love God and are called according to His purpose.”  It doesn’t mean that we understand or even like all that life brings us but in the end we know that there is nothing that the Good Shepherd cannot work to our good and so we are free to face life without fear.

How do we show Jesus to be the Life? We do so by living lives of contentment and peace. We end the Mass by blessing you with the peace of God that surpasses all comprehension and the intent is for you to walk in that peace during the week. How can you do this? Because your sins have been put away, you have worshipped in the presence of angels and archangels and all the company of heaven, you have united with Jesus through the Sacrament of His Body and Blood, you have been declared a citizen of a kingdom that cannot be shaken, you have been given His Spirit to empower you, He is now preparing a place for you and He will return to  receive you to Himself. If that doesn’t give you contentment and peace then all the pills in Walgreens are not going to help you. And please don’t lose that precious peace be taken away over a drop in the price of Bitcoin or the latest scandal in Hollywood or whatever those knuckleheads in Washington DC are doing or not doing. All that stuff is going to pass away with the new heaven and the new earth.  You are accepted in the Beloved and the kingdom is not in trouble. Walk in peace.

46 years ago I was a pretty idealistic kid. I just knew that I would become the Navy Seal version of Christianity and here I am 46 years later still trying to learn the basics of loving God and loving my neighbor. But I’m not discouraged! There is one thing I am convinced of and that is 46 years from now I will finally have my act together and so will most of you. Christ is risen and is coming again. Amen.