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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Why the Ascension?

Ascension

The Church teaches us that there are 7 Principal Feast Days that we are to observe. As instructed in the Prayer Book, they are to take precedence over any other day or observance. Can you guess what they are? They are Christmas, Epiphany, Easter, Pentecost, Trinity, and All Saints’. I have left one out. It is Ascension. May 25th was a Principal Feast Day but who knew it? How many observed it? Sadly the Prayer Book assumes that not many will do so and so it gives us a second shot on the following Sunday.

I suppose it is not all bad that this is a little known Holy Day. We don’t have to put up with advertisements of jolly elves drinking a coke while flying reindeer around the world. We go to pay for our gas only to be confronted with display of Cadbury Eggs. Nor do we have to fight with the ALCU who would want to change the name from “Ascension” to “Cloud Day” as to not offend the atheists. But it is unfortunate that this Holy Day is so little recognized because the Church has not made it a Principal Feast for no reason. In fact it is significant for a number of reasons.

But before we look at why it is so important, let’s clear up a bit of biblical cosmology. When the space race began, the Russians were the first ones to send a man into space. His name was Yuri Gagarin. After returning to earth he said, “There is no God; I’ve been up there, and I didn’t see him.” I don’t know if Yuri was looking for an old bearded guy sitting on a cloud but it is a misunderstanding of Scripture to think that when Scripture speaks of Jesus being taken up into the clouds that we are to understand that heaven is physically located directly above us. This is called phenomenological language. We use it too when we talk about “sunrise” and “sunset” even though we know that it doesn’t. It is descriptive not literal. C.S. Lewis said that heaven is not a distant place above but rather a “wholly new life.” That is where Jesus went. And unless Yuri repented of his atheism he won’t see Him there either.

Let’s go back to the significance of this Day of Ascension. Most significant for us, His ascension to the Father completes our redemption. That sounds like a bold claim but lets think through the redemption story.

Under the Old Covenant, on the day of the Atonement, animals would be sacrificed and their blood would be captured. But the death of the animal was only one part of the ritual. Next the High Priest would take the blood of the animals and enter into the Holy of Holies and pour the blood over the top of the altar, symbolically covering the sins of the people. This is how he made atonement for the sins of the people. So to complete a sacrifice there had to be both the shedding of blood AND the presentation of that blood to God.

In Hebrews we are told that when Jesus ascended on high, He entered a heavenly temple and as our High Priest He presented there not the blood of bulls and goats but His own blood as an atonement for our sins. 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.” So Jesus fulfilled both the shedding of His blood AND the presentation of that sacrifice to God and that is why I say that that the Ascension completed His sacrifice. As we just heard from Hebrews, He ascended to “appear for us in God’s presence.” That alone would make this the most significant of events but there is more.

In John’s Gospel we see Jesus praying for His disciples but His prayers did not stop at His ascension. We learn this also from Hebrews. “Now there have been many of those priests, since death prevented them from continuing in office; but because Jesus lives forever, he has a permanent priesthood.  Therefore he is able to save completely those who come to God through him, because he always lives to intercede for them. Such a high priest truly meets our need—one who is holy, blameless, pure, set apart from sinners, exalted above the heavens.” 

Because I am on the Standing Committee of the Diocese I get to see the Archbishop every other month or so. As a consequence I am frequently asked how he is doing. I always respond that he is doing remarkably well. If you have kept up with him then you know that he has a schedule that would kill ten normal men and yet I have seen him become more joyful and lighthearted and even more pleasant to be around. When I have asked him about it he attributes it to all the prayers that people offer for him and I truly believe it. Also I have heard from some of you that there are times when you can almost feel the prayers of others. I believe that too.

So if we believe that prayer works, then how much more can we believe that Jesus’ prayers work. And that should give us confidence. When you are having one of those days when you are irritable and uncharitable and downright hateful and you wonder if you are even truly a Christian, remember that Jesus is praying for you. And as a consequence of His prayers, as the writer of Hebrews says, “he is able to save completely those who come to God through him…” You are going to make it not because you are good enough or smart enough or because people just like you. You are going to make it because Jesus is praying for you.

A third reason that the Ascension is so important is because it changes humanity’s position with God. Jesus being fully man and fully God also ascended as fully man and fully God and so when He was exalted on high, so were we. One of our hymns puts it this way. “Ascending to the Father’s throne, thou claims’t the kingdom as thine own, and angels wonder when they see, how changed is our humanity.”

This understanding is supported by Ephesians. “But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved. And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus.”

It is a little difficult to try to wrap our minds around the fact that we are at the same time exalted with Christ in heavenly places and struggling to pay our mortgage here in the world. The tendency for many is to chose one or the other. Either they become so heavenly minded that they are no earthly good or they are so like the citizens of the world that their Christianity makes no perceptible difference. Allow me to offer an alternative.

As most of you know my family lived in Scotland. We were the only American family in our town and so we became totally immersed in the culture. I went to a Scottish Academy and played on the rugby team. My mother shopped in local markets and we ate Scottish food. We heated our home with a coal fireplace. It was my daily chore to fill up the coal bucket and get the fire going in the morning because that is also how we got hot water. It was a wonderful experience and I loved most things about the Scottish people….but I didn’t try to become Scottish. Unlike Madonna I didn’t get an accent after two weeks or even two years. I didn’t wear a kilt and while I made some great friends I didn’t get too attached because I knew that we would not be there forever. I was fully aware that I was an American and I was even proud of that fact. (Although I must admit that a couple of times, when I was around some very strong anti American sentiments, I claimed to be Canadian so I wouldn’t get beaten up.) I was a stranger in a strange land and I didn’t try to be any other.

I suggest to you that because of the Ascension we must work to strike a similar balance in our lives. Yes we are seated with Christ in heavenly places but we are also His Body on earth with work to do. We are not called to build a Christian bunker and wait for the Second Coming. Nor are we called to become so immersed in the world that we live just like they do. What is so wrong with living like the world? Let me give you a visual. The number one rated show last week in America was Keeping Up With the Kardashians. These are the ones who spent over $10 million dollars on a wedding and the marriage lasted 72 days and they are offered as icons of our society. Jesus calls us to nobler more abundant lives. The Scripture says that we are to be a peculiar people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation. We are to continually remember that we are citizens of heaven and act like it as lights in the world. What would that look like? Recall the prayer of St. Francis.

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me bring love.
Where there is offense, let me bring pardon.
Where there is discord, let me bring union.
Where there is error, let me bring truth.
Where there is doubt, let me bring faith.
Where there is despair, let me bring hope.
Where there is darkness, let me bring your light.
Where there is sadness, let me bring joy.
O Master, let me not seek as much
to be consoled as to console,
to be understood as to understand,
to be loved as to love,
for it is in giving that one receives,
it is in self-forgetting that one finds,
it is in pardoning that one is pardoned,
it is in dying that one is raised to eternal life.

There are even more important consequences of the Ascension but let me touch on one more and we will see it fulfilled next Sunday. Jesus ascended to the Father in order to send us the Holy Spirit and in this way He fulfills His promise to be with us always, even to the end of the ages. When He was with us in the flesh His presence was localized. If the Scripture says that He was in Nazareth, obviously it meant that He was NOT in Jerusalem. But because of the Ascension that has changed. We are told in Ephesians, “He who descended is the one who also ascended far above the heavens that he might fill all things.” Now His presence, glory, power and prerogatives are no longer localized. He will be present today at every Mass that will be said all across the globe. From magnificent gothic cathedrals to dirt floor homes the Ascended One will come as the bread of heaven to feed His people.

It also means that He is with us in joyous celebrations like a wedding or the birth of a child and He is with us in terrible times when the doctor brings us bad news or when our hopes and dreams have been shattered. He is with us in the midst of our worship and He is still with us even when it feels that God is a million miles away. Because of the Ascension we are never alone and this means that we are always, always, always immersed in God’s love. And St. Paul reminds us in Romans that nothing can separate us from that love.

I hope that this helps us understand why the Church has made Ascension one of the Principal Feasts of the year. It always falls 40 days after Easter and so it always falls on a Thursday. Next year it will be on May 10th, so mark your calendars and join us for Mass. Amen.

 

 

 

 

 

Much More

Much More

Over the years as I have done pastoral counseling a common theme has presented itself. It often takes awhile to get to it because it is so embarrassingly basic but it comes down to some very personal questions. Folks don’t always put it in these words but variations of this come out. “I believe God loves the whole world. Everybody knows John 3:16. But does He really love me? “I know that Jesus died for the sins of the whole world, but did He truly die for mine?” “I know that Jesus forgives the sins of the whole world but does He really forgive me?” “If He does all these thing then why don’t I feel loved and free and forgiven?”

While Romans is the most theological of all of St. Paul’s writings it is also very pastoral. I say that because in it St. Paul answers these kind of real questions that real people have. He does not philosophize. He does not tell us how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. But He does let us know the heights and depths of God’s forgiveness and love. He moves us from being dependent upon the shifting sands of our emotions to a solid rock of truth on which to stand.

And he does it with two wonderful words. “much more.” “Much more.” As Moses instructed Israel I want you to bind these two words as a sign on your hand, make them as frontlets between your eyes and write them on the doorposts of your houses. (And just to be clear I’m not suggesting you go out and get a tattoo, I am being symbolic here.)

Four times St. Paul uses “much more” in chapter 5 and each time it opens the door to a greater vision of what God has done for us in Christ Jesus and if we will embrace this vision then it will significantly address our doubts.

First he says in verse 9. “Since therefore we have been justified by his blood much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God.”

“Justified” is the language of the court. This is a “not guilty” verdict. We have lost the weight of our sins and so our old clothes no longer fit us and as the saying goes, “if it doesn’t fit, you must acquit.”

And notice what has made us justified, what has given us the “not guilty” verdict. It is not our good works. It is not our sincerity. Nor may we choose any path believing that they all lead to the same place. There is only one thing that brings us the “not guilty” verdict and that is the blood of Jesus. His sacrifice on the cross, and His sacrifice alone, pays for the sins of the world. So St. Paul is arguing here that if we have been acquitted by the blood of Jesus, then we have nothing to fear on the Day of Judgment. If we have been acquitted in the past then much more will be acquitted in the future.

The second time St. Paul uses “much more” is in verse 10. “For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life.”

“Justified” was the language of the court, but “reconciliation” is the language of relationships. When a married couple has struggles they sometimes choose to separate. But when they go through counseling and work through their problems they are then said to be “reconciled.”

This is a beautiful word because it is far more interpersonal than “justification.” A judge can acquit you but still think that you are guilty as sin and believe that you should hang. But “reconciliationspeaks of healing, it is an end to separation. Reconciliation is the father embracing the prodigal son. Reconciliation is forgiveness and starting again, new and fresh. Reconciliation is tearing down the walls and making loved ones out of enemies. And that is exactly what God has done for us. “While we were yet sinners Christ died for us.

“Does God really love me?” “Does God really forgive me?” “Does God really care for me?” In saying “much more” St Paul is saying “Are you kidding me? He did all these wonderful things for you when you his enemy so just imagine how much more he will do for you now that you are his child.”

The third time St. Paul says “much more” is in verse 15. “For the free gift is not like the trespass. For if many died through one man’s trespass, much more have the grace of God and the free gift by that grace of that one man Jesus Christ abounded for many.” What is this free gift of which he speaks? He will tell us in the next chapter. “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Do you see the progression here and how it is getting better and better. Do you see how everything truly is “much more?” We have gone from being justified or acquitted by the Father; to reconciliation or restoring our relationship with Him; to now to being given the free gift of eternal life. Did you know that there are some forms of Judaism that does not believe in an after life. Just to walk with God in this life is seen as gift enough. But He offers us much more in having this restored relationship last for an eternity. And as if that is not good enough there is one more “much more.”

In verse 17 St. Paul says, “For if, because of one man’s trespass, death reigned through that one man, much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ.”

Mini Pearl had an expression “I’m just so proud to be here.” I would guess that would be an appropriate expression for most of us when it comes to heaven. We’d be just proud to be here. But God has much more planned for us than just an entrance. St. Paul is saying that we will not only be with Christ but that we will reign with Christ. It is an amazing idea to think that we will go from being forgiven by Christ all the way to reigning with Christ but that is what the Apostle taught. He says it so matter of factly to Timothy, “If we endure with Him we will reign with Him.”

I don’t pretend to know what that honor will look like but it certainly harkens back to the role that Adam lost in the fall when he was to have dominion over the earth but lost that position through sin. Perhaps reigning with Christ will look something like having that position restored, only not surprisingly, much more.

So let’s assume that the early Church embraced these truths. They replaced their doubts about God’s love and care for them with the knowledge that they have been forgiven, that they have reconciled to God, that they are invited into an eternal relationship and were even destined to reign with Christ. But then real life hits them. I can imagine after some time a little hand written note coming back to St. Paul. “Sir, all this sounds well and good but you are about to be arrested and we are getting pummeled. The Jews have kicked us out of their synagogues and the Romans are feeding us to the lions. How does all that fit with your ‘much more’ talk?”

Perhaps expecting such objections St. Paul makes a preemptive strike and puts suffering in perspective with being justified by faith and having peace with God. He points out in verses 3 & 4 that being reconciled with God does not exempt us from suffering. Rather being reconciled with God is what gives meaning to suffering. There is a great line in a hymn that we recently sang. “When through fiery trials thy pathway shall lie, my grace all sufficient shall be thy supply; the flame shall not hurt thee; I only design they dross to consume and they gold to refine.” (#636 – How Firm A Foundation).

And so St. Paul tells us that we are to have faith that suffering produces endurance and endurance produces character and character produces hope and we have hope because of God’s love for us. So neither Paul’s arrest, nor their excommunication from the synagogues (and as he goes on in chapter 8) “nor death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separated us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.” St. Paul strengthens our weak knees by calling us to the trinity of faith, hope and love. This is how we anchor our souls. 

If you are doing this Lenten journey correctly then you too may be facing the questions with which I began this sermon. They tend to come up in this penitential season as this season is designed to be a time of serious soul searching. Besides embracing St. Paul’s “much more” I want to call two things to your attention.

First remember that this kind of doubt does not come from God. Faith is God’s gift to us. I believe that some forms of wrestling with God can be fruitful but this is not one of them. The kind of doubt that questions if you are loved or if you are forgiven comes from the enemy of your soul, whom the Scriptures call “the accuser of the brethren.” Remember his words to Jesus that we heard a couple of weeks ago? “If you are the Son of God?….If you are the Son of God?” He was trying to sew doubt. So if in you heart and mind you hear, “If you really are loved?….if you really are forgiven?” then you can bet where it is coming from.

Second it is important to confront these kinds of doubts as lies and hit them head on with the truth. Do what Jesus did and come back with “It is written…..” You may find a passage of Scripture or a prayer that centers you when you are under attack. The Eastern Church uses what is called the Jesus Prayer and many in the West find praying the rosary as a means of stabilizing themselves in the storm.

I have woven together two texts, one from Ephesians and one from Hebrews, that are very meaningful to me. I recite them like a mantra when I am feeling weak in the knees. When I hear “If you are…” I come back with “I am accepted in the Beloved and His kingdom cannot be shaken.” (Eph 1:6 with Heb 12:28). It has been my experience that that truth recited a few times goes a long way in warding off “ghosties and ghoulies and things that go bump in the night.” You may choose a completely different approach but the point is to confront the lies of the enemy with the truth just as Jesus did and like Jesus you will come through Lent as a victor.

I have a sneaking suspicion that St. Paul’s unfolding of “much more” in Romans is only meant to act as highlights of all that God has in store. He writes the Corinthians, “No eye has seen, no ear has heard, and no mind has imagined what God has prepared for those who love him.” (NLT). So when the doubts and questions arise, “Am I truly loved? Am I truly forgiven?” you can tap into the abundance of assurance from God’s Word and them smile to yourself and say “O yes….and much more.”

 

 

Christmas Eve: Why Are We Here?

christmas-altar

The English writer, poet, philosopher G.K. Chesterton, of whom George Bernard Shaw described as having a colossal mind, said “The great majority of people will go on observing forms that cannot be explained; they will keep Christmas Day with Christmas gifts and Christmas benedictions; they will continue to do it; and some day suddenly wake us and discover why.” We certainly do not want to be those people and so let’s pause for a moment and consider what it is that brings us here tonight. Why are we here?

For some the Midnight Mass is a treasured tradition and while tradition sometimes gets a bad name it as the glue that keeps our lives from being shattered by chaos. I have a vivid memory of when it became a beloved tradition for me. I was in elementary school and we were living in Rhode Island at the time. We lived within walking distance of our parish and so we walked to church that Christmas Eve night. It must have started snowing right after we entered the church because by the end of the Midnight Mass there was at least an inch of snow on the ground. I remember the priest in his biretta and black cape standing in the snow wishing us Merry Christmas as my family crunched through the snow on our way back to our home. It was like a scene from a Christmas card. If this is a treasured tradition to you then no doubt you have a similar memory that made it so.

But as important as tradition is, there is an even more important reason that we gather on this night and the clue to that reason can be found in this picture that I am holding. Some of you are old enough to recognize what these are. They are called S&H Green Stamps. When my mother would go shopping she went to stores that gave these stamps with a purchase. And the more she purchased the more Green Stamps she received. These would be collected and glued into Green Stamps books and when she had compiled enough books she would go to another store to exchange the books for merchandise such as a lamp or a toaster. Does anyone recall what these stores were called? They were called Redemption Centers. Redemption is where something is exchanged for something else and it is a term that comes straight out of the Bible. We just heard from Titus, that Jesus gave Himself to redeem us from all lawlessness.

But you can tell from how St. Paul uses this term in Titus that it is more than simply an exchange. There is more going on here than swapping Green Stamps for a lamp. In saying the Christ has redeemed us FROM all lawlessness, St. Paul uses an Old Testament idea of redemption that is an exchange to free someone from bondage. So I would submit to you that ultimately we come here tonight to celebrate our emancipation and to give honor and worship to the One who has set us free.

But wait. Isn’t it a little over the top to describe mankind’s condition as being in bondage to lawlessness? I don’t think so, not if you are paying attention! On a global level we have international jihad with country after country throughout Europe on high alert. The Middle East is on fire. There are active genocides in a number of nations across Africa. The figures change daily but one source I read identified 68 nations in significant wars battling 802 identifiable rebel groups, anarchists and drug cartels.

On a societal level, for those above 12 years old, one in every ten Americans is an addict. The recent rash of police assassinations are surely a product of lawlessness. Chicago’s murder rate had jumped 85% over last year reaching the terrible milestone of over 700 murders this year and counting.

And if we are honest with ourselves we will admit that lawlessness is true of us on a personal level as well. As St. Paul so accurately put it, we do things that we know full well that we are not supposed to do and we don’t do that things that we know full well that we are supposed to do. An old prayer correctly adds, “and there is no health in us.” No it is not too much to describe an unredeemed condition as lawlessness. God reveals to us through Holy Scripture that our dilemma is not simply a lack of self-discipline or the need for more education or more self improvement books. Our dilemma is that mankind is separated from God AND we are in bondage.

So the Father in His love, understanding our dilemma, sent His Son to do for us what we could not do for ourselves. As the Christmas carol puts it, “to set us free from Satan’s power when we have gone astray.” He did it by paying a debt that He did not owe, to free us from a debt that we could not pay. And how did He pay it? How did He redeem us? St. Paul tells us in Ephesians 1. “In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of sins, according to the riches of His grace….” The exchange was His life for ours, and He did it willingly and He did it out of love. Jesus said, “Greater love hath no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.”

But the good news gets even better. He did not redeem us just to leave us on our own to muddle through. As St. Paul told Titus He redeemed us “to purify for Himself a people for His own possession.” This is an echo of what the Lord said to Israel from Mt. Sinai. “If you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples… and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” So the Lord didn’t redeem us from slavery to lawlessness just to make us His slaves. He redeemed us to make us His treasured possession, to make us His family, to make us heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ. This is what we celebrate tonight.

But there is more! The text from Titus goes on to show us what we are to do with our freedom. After being described as a people who are redeemed from lawlessness it says that we are “a people of his own possession zealous for good works.” Let’s be clear. It is not our good works that redeem us. No. As we just heard from Ephesians we are redeemed through His blood, through His sacrifice on our behalf. But once redeemed the natural consequence is that we become zealous for good works. That is what the book of James is all about. We are saved by faith alone but the faith that saves is never alone. If there are no good works then our faith is DOA.

What is fascinating about this connection between being redeemed and being zealous for good works is that it goes all the way back to God’s covenant with Father Abraham. God made Abraham a two-pronged promise. First He promised to bless him. That blessing continues. As the spiritual children of Abraham what could be more of a blessing for us than being redeemed and made joint heirs with Christ?

But second He promised to make Abraham a blessing to others and it is through our good works that we continue blessing others. Deitrich Bonhoffer, the German theologian who was martyrd by the Nazis just before the end of WWII wrote about this in his book “The Cost of Discipleship.” He pointed out that right after Jesus delivered the beatitudes He tells the disciples “You are the salt of the earth.” They were not called to be so heavenly minded that they were no earthly good. In fact their calling as salt was for the good of the earth, especially Bonhoeffer points out, for “the poor, ignoble and weak, whom the world rejects.” As redeemed people we should be known for our good works. I heard a comedian say recently, “You can complain about Christians all you want but I’ve never seen an atheist soup kitchen.”

Next month a team is going from St. Patricks’ to Honduras to support the ministry of Mike and Kim Miller. He is an Anglican deacon and they are leading a foster home/orphanage in a tiny community in the mountains. When Mike visited us last month he spoke to our team and a number of times he referred to himself as having been a very broken man. But it is evident that God has so healed him that what is broken now is his heart for those children and getting them away from abusive situations. They started a coffee business to provide work and hope for the locals who live in abject poverty. They have built a school so that with better education the children can break the cycle of poverty. They bring in mission teams like ours to work along side the villagers to encourage them and show them God’s love. Honduras is a dangerous country and Mike and Kim are not getting rich living down there. So why do they do it? They do it because once taken over by God’s love the natural consequence, or maybe I should say supernatural consequence, is to want to share His love with others. Once redeemed the fruit of our redemption is that we become zealous for good works.

It seems that every business that you go into these days has a program to give back to the community. I love that they are doing this but I am compelled to believe that in many cases they would not be doing it unless it helped their bottom line. The Church should be leading the way in this effort but we do so with a different motive than building customer loyalty. Jesus said that we are to let our light shine so that people will see our good works and glorify our Father who is in heaven. That is our motivation. That more voices would join with the angels and sing glory to God in the highest.

So we have come tonight to this Redemption Center to celebrate our redemption and to celebrate our Redeemer. As we do so may we think ahead to the next few weeks and months and consider how we may become even more zealous for good works that God would be greater glorified. But in the meantime, rest tonight in the knowledge that you have been redeemed by the blood of the Lamb and you have been made His precious possession. Receive His peace in this silent holy night. Merry Christmas.

Heed the Prophets

heed-the-prophets

While folks will be working hard over the next few weeks to capture the spirit of the season through music and parties and movies, Christ through the Church is calling us to choose a different path. This is not the time to get into “the Christmas spirit” because we are not only preparing to celebrate His birth, we are also preparing ourselves for His Second Coming when He shall come to judge the living and the dead. As our collect today informs us, He is calling us to prepare the way for our salvation by heeding the warnings of the prophets and forsaking our sins. This call while sobering is somewhat generic so it would behoove us to focus in more closely on what it is that the prophets are warning us about and which sins it is that we need to forsake.

It is a little difficult to discern a warning in this Isaiah passage because it is filled with such beautiful promises. It begins with a prophecy of Jesus. He is the shoot from the stump of Jesse. We know this because St. Matthew opens his gospel with the genealogy of Jesus, whom he calls “the son of David” and he tells us that Jesse is David’s father.

After this prophecy of Jesus, Isaiah paints a picture of what Jesus’ reign will look like. There will be harmony between natural enemies like a wolf and a lamb. This is an image most likely signifying peace between warring nations. There will be no more hurt or destruction and the earth will be as full of the knowledge of God as the waters cover the sea. Isaiah says “His resting place shall be glorious.”

This is a vision of the kingdom of God in its fullness. How this will all come about is where we find the prophet’s warning. “but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek and he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked. Righteousness shall be the belt of his waist and faithfulness the belt of his loins.”

This Messiah King will not be clothed in the usual trappings of earthly emperors that signify their power. He will be robed in righteousness. His righteousness is a two edged sword that brings equity for the meek but death to the wicked. So the warning of the prophets is that the King will come in righteousness to judge the world. In what condition will He find us at His coming? Will we be on the side of the meek or on the side of the wicked?

What then are the sins that we need to forsake? On one level that is a very personal matter. I say that not in the sense of situational ethics or relativism but simply acknowledging that we each are at very different places in this journey of faith. Sins that I am wrestling with may have been completely banished from your life and visa versa. So part of forsaking our sins is asking the Holy Spirit to convict us and reveal what specific sins that He is calling us to forsake.

That said, there is a theme in our lessons that points us in a direction. Isaiah speaks of God giving equity to the meek. The Psalmist speaks of God defending the needy among His people. Romans speaks of the obligation of the strong to bear with the failings of the weak. And John the Baptist calls on those who repent to bear fruit in keeping with repentance.

As a parish we are doing a number of things well. When Bishop Frank was here he told several of us that we have some of the best liturgy in the Diocese. Additionally I cannot imagine a better musician than Kirk and Marty has created for us a first class Christian Education program. I could go on and on but the one area that I am convinced that we need to shore up is our outreach to the most vulnerable among us. Why them? Because they are the ones that Scripture consistently portrays as being close to God’s heart. You read over and over His concern for the widow and the orphan. Mary in the Magnificat celebrates that God has cast down the mighty from their thrones but has lifted up the lowly and filled the hungry with good things. In the Psalm we read, “For He shall deliver the poor who cries out in distress and the oppressed who has no helper.”

I don’t mean to imply that we are not doing any ministry in this area. Our work with the Burmese refugees and the upcoming clean water project in Honduras are great example of what we are doing right. But again I am convicted that we need to do more, particularly on a personal basis. I say that because of the Scriptures that point us in that direction.

Think about the parable of the Good Samaritan. You will recall in the story that a man was beaten by robbers and when a priest and a Levite saw him they passed on the other side of the road. But a Samaritan took it upon himself not only to provide immediate assistance but gave the innkeeper money from his own pocket so that the man would continue to receive care. He didn’t form a committee. He didn’t apply for Obamacare. He didn’t say to himself, “Someone ought to do something about this” and then move on. He acted. He did what he could. He didn’t change the world but he changed that man’s world.

What about us? I’m sure most of us have acted as Good Samaritans, but have there been other times when we acted like the priest and the Levite and crossed to the other side. If so we should take advantage of this penitential season, repent of our sin, and seek the guidance of the Holy Spirit on how to be not only a Good Samaritan but an even Gooder Samaritan. (Apologies to English teachers).

Another text comes to mind that calls us to action is from James 2. What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.”

The modern version of this text is when someone comes to you and needs help with their basic needs like food and clothing and you say to them, “I’ll pray for you.” First of all you probably won’t but second, according to James, this kind of faith without works is dead. If this has been your approach in the past then again take advantage of this penitential season, repent of the sin, and seek the guidance of the Holy Spirit on how to add works to your faith.

I could come up with plenty more texts to show us our personal responsibilities to serve those in need but I want to move on and ask why we don’t do so and possibly expose a more fundamental sin for us to forsake in this penitential season. I suggest that we are not more vigorous in our service of others because of our uber busy lives. It’s not that we are heartless or indifferent, it’s just that we don’t have the time.

But if we will inspect our busy lives then we may discover that they are more aligned with pursuing the American dream than with responding to a call to be servants like Christ. And while the American dream is not inherently evil it requires a lot of selfishness to make the dream come true and that is the more fundamental sin for us to forsake. It is not as if the Good Samaritan was less busy than the priest and the Levite, rather he was more selfless than the other two and so he acted Christ-like in loving his neighbor.

The collect adds one more thing to the call to heed the warnings of the prophets and to forsake our sins and that is the reason for doing so. “That we may greet with joy the coming of Jesus Christ our Redeemer.” We do not approach this penitential season like the wearing of the Middle Ages hair shirts or the self flagellation of the crazy monk in the DaVinci Code. This is not a season of self- punishment, it is a season of self-preparation.

It’s so important to clarify our goal so that we are not driven by guilt or emotion because both of those lead to bad ends. Guilt and emotion do not make us faithful. Guilt and emotion do not sustain us. Conviction does. Conviction acts in spite of feeling. Our conviction then is that we heed the prophets and forsake out sins so that when He comes in righteousness we will be celebrating and not cowering. I John says And now, little children, abide in him, so that when he appears we may have confidence and not shrink from him in shame at his coming.”

As I was writing this sermon Fr. Chris answered a call. A couple that had been working in Florida was driving back to Indiana and their truck was broken into and their things were stolen. They needed help with gas and food. So Fr. Chris met them at the Kangaroo, put gas in their truck, bought them a pizza and gave them a gift card. This according to James is pure religion. This is what we are to be about. Fr. Chris did not change the world by this one act of kindness but he changed their world. He did not try to be their savior, he just did what he could and that is all the Lord is asking us to do.

Let’s listen for God’s guidance during this season rather than getting caught up in premature celebration. There will plenty of time for that. Let’s heed the warnings of the prophets and forsake our sins so that we will greet with JOY the coming of our Redeemer.

Flying Upside Down?

flying-upside-down

Text: Luke 17:5-10

Last week I read an article about John Kennedy Jr.’s death in 1999 due to a plane crash. The article said that he had just enough experience in flying to be dangerous. He was told not to fly if he could not see the horizon but he ignored that instruction and he and his wife and her sister took off in a bad storm with little to no visibility. John experienced what is called black hole vertigo where your instincts lie to you. Because of his inexperience he trusted his instincts even though his instruments were telling him something else. Experts believe that he ended up actually flying upside down, so when he pulled back to gain altitude instead he flew them into the ocean and they were killed upon impact.

It occurred to me that this accident is a very good analogy about why we need to rely on the Word of God for our life’s direction. God’s Word is our instrument panel. It is all too easy for us in life to get our own form of black hole vertigo and become disoriented. It is all too easy to have our instincts lie to us. And if we ignore the instruments, and trust our instincts, then the results could be tragic, both in this life and in the life to come.

Our Gospel lesson today is an example of our need to trust the instruments, because Jesus’ teaching here goes against our instincts. Jesus tells what seems to be a kind of harsh story that ends up having us call ourselves “unworthy.”

Telling folks that they are unworthy certainly goes against our instincts. In fact we have spent a good deal of time doing just the opposite. Barney and Mr. Rogers told us continually how wonderful we are. Some sports have quit taking the score so that everyone will feel like a winner. In some competitions every kid gets a trophy so no one will feel slighted. I once attended an awards ceremony where every kid there got an award.

I don’t doubt the motives behind these actions but I do question the outcome. By not listening to Jesus about real life and trusting our instincts we have created a society that is flying upside down. We have a society where we have to have safe places in universities for students to go to in order to recover when they have heard something with which they don’t agree. We are asked to ignore the reality of the person in front of us and instead ask them how they self identify. We have become a society where institutions are pulling out of states and punishing them financially because the state won’t allow boys to go into girls’ bathrooms. We have followed our instincts and we are flying upside down.

So let’s for a moment ignore our instincts and take another look at our instruments. Let’s ask what would happen if we do as Jesus said and considered ourselves unworthy. What might be the results of following that view of life.

First let’s put the story in its larger context. Our lesson today starts out with the disciples asking for more faith. The reason that they are asking for more faith is that Jesus just told them that if your brother asks for forgiveness even seven times a day still you are to forgive. The common thought of the day was that if you forgave someone three times you were a righteous man. But to forgive seven times every day? That’s why they asked for more faith. But Jesus in essence tells them that they don’t need more faith, they just need to do it.

And so do we. Fr. BE has told us that forgiveness is THE basic attribute of being a Christian and he is so right. If we fail to be forgiving then we can forget about any further spiritual maturity. Unforgiveness becomes a damn that holds back God’s blessings. Jesus taught us to pray every day for God to forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. It’s not something for which we need more faith, we just need to do it.

I believe that the reason that Jesus tells the story about the unworthy servant, right after calling on the disciples to forgive, is so that they will avoid a common mistake that happens to folks when they walk in the path of righteousness. A very subtle form of pride begins to grow and while they would never be so crass as to put it in these words, they develop an attitude that because they are walking in the path of righteousness that God is in some way indebted to them.

I know this because it happened to me. About 30 years ago I went through some extremely difficult times. Some of it was of my own doing but some of it was beyond my control and I got angry with God about it. Here was my thinking. “I have been following you Lord and being faithful and doing all that I knew to do and then you allows this garbage to happen to me?”

Did you hear it? That was pride. I was in essence saying that God owed me because I had been a good boy.

If that sounds like the book of Job it is and it was Job who taught me what my response should have been. Job thought that because he was a righteous man that God owed him a hearing. But when God does show up Job does an about face and he repents and says, “though He slay me yet will I trust him.”

So it is a good thing to consider yourself unworthy. It avoids the trap of pride. There is something very liberating in admitting that we are unworthy. Conversely it is a terrible burden to attempt to be worthy. That was the way of the Pharisee. Recall this passage also from Luke’s Gospel.

“To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. 12I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’ “But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’ “I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

So Jesus tells a story to demonstrate that God is never indebted to us, no matter how faithful we are. When we have done everything God asks us to do we are still not worthy and He is not obligated to us. That is reality and Jesus is teaching us to live in that reality. It is why I love that we pray the Prayer of Humble Access right before we receive Holy Communion. “We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under Thy table….” That is not groveling, it is expressing a reality. But it doesn’t stop there.

The reality of our unworthiness leads us to the next reality as we continue the prayer. “…but Thou are the same Lord whose property is always to have mercy.” I find it interesting that also in Luke Jesus tells another story about servants and master but this one has a very different ending. This is from Luke 12. “It will be good for those servants whose master finds them watching when he comes. Truly I tell you, he (meaning the Master!) will dress himself to serve, will have them recline at the table and will come and wait on them. It will be good for those servants whose master finds them ready, even if he comes in the middle of the night or toward daybreak.”

 Here Jesus tells us the Lord will bless our faithfulness. So when we put the two stories together we conclude that while God will bless our faithfulness He is never required to do so and we will never be worthy enough to receive it. It’s all about GRACE.

There used to be a character on Saturday Night Live named Stuart Smally who would look in a mirror and give himself affirmation by saying “I’m good enough and smart enough and doggone it, people like me.” That is what you do when you are trusting your instincts but the instrument panel tells us that is flying upside down. To fly right we must accept that we are unworthy. This creates a life of humility and that is important because James tells us that God is opposed to the proud but gives grace to the humble (4:6). But it doesn’t stop there

When we accept that we are not worthy and embrace humility it opens the door to another important attribute and that is gratitude. If you keep looking for God to treat you as you think that you deserve, then you are going to live a life of anger and bitterness and depression.

First of all you really don’t want God to treat you as you deserve. I certainly don’t. Why? Well compared to Charles Manson I may be a good guy but compared to Mother Theresa I’m a self absorbed jerk. So if I am judged on God’s scale of holiness I wouldn’t stand a chance. So please, please Lord don’t treat me as I deserve.

But secondly when we are aware of our unworthiness then any good that comes to us is received as a gift from above rather than something we have earned. This way we live life with gratitude in our hearts rather than with a sense of entitlement. The former makes a saint. The latter makes a brat.

I love being around people who see every day as a gift and who delight in the simplest of things. People who are filled with gratitude build up those around them. In this way they end up building up the Church and expanding the kingdom. And so St. Paul says in a number of His letters that we are to give thanks in everything. We are to be a people of gratitude. But it doesn’t stop there.

When our cup runneth over with gratitude, what spills over is joy. Jesus said that He wanted His joy to be in us and for our joy to be complete. I submit that this path is how we come about it. We move from unworthiness to gratitude and from gratitude to joy.

Next week is the Feast of St. Francis and when you read of his life you see this pattern very clearly. He was certainly known for his humility but he was equally known for his joy. In fact Francis had so much joy in his life that he has been called God’s Jester.

If you have been around Christians in other parts of the world, especially in third world countries, you will see the same pattern. They are humble, they are thankful and they are joyful. They are so much so that it is convicting to be around them. Further their joy is evangelistic in nature. People in those countries come to faith seeing this fruit in Christian lives.

This path from unworthiness to joy also explains why all the things that we look to bring us joy fail in the end to do so. They say that the two greatest days in a man’s life are the day he buys a boat and the day he sells it. Stuff doesn’t bring us joy. But what about sports? Well if you are a Titans fan you can’t remember ever having joy. We eat and drink to find joy and that only leads to diets and hangovers. But the joy that flows from a grateful heart, the joy that comes from the gratitude of being accepted in the Beloved, that is the living waters that Jesus talks about.

So we can see from all of this that Jesus’ story about us being unworthy servants is not only true but it is for our good that we embrace it. It not only leads us to the path of joy but it ensures that we are not wasting our lives flying upside down. Amen.

Lost and Found

lost-and-found

It is seldom necessary to use the world “hate” but in this context I will use the word “hate” in all caps, and in bold and underlined. I HATE, HATE, HATE ……losing things! And as I age it happens more and more. Losing things rocks my world until I find them and to be honest I get a little OCD in seeking them out. I retrace all my steps. I think of ever variable. If I don’t find what I am looking for I will start the search all over again and repeat all of my steps as if by some miracle the lost item appears in the drawer that I had just opened 5 minutes ago. The best technique for finding things is when I use the Sherlock Holmes method that once you have ruled out the impossible then whatever is left, however improbable, must be true. So last week, once I rule out that the squirrels took my glasses then I concluded that they must still be in my shirt pocket, which at the moment was on the second rinse cycle under a load of darks in our washing machine. And voila, what was lost is now found. It was in pieces but it was found.

On a much more serious note, the Gospel today is about lost things and found things. Our lessons this and next week separate the stories but in actuality Jesus spoke of three lost and found things back to back. He spoke of a lost sheep, a lost coin and a lost son.

Anglican scholar John Stott argues that there is a reason that Jesus would give three parables back to back and the reason is Trinitarian in nature. The story of the Father, who did not leave his home to seek his lost son but graciously accepted his return, is a story of God the Father. The story of the shepherd, who left the 99 to seek the lost sheep, is a story of God the Son. And the story of the woman, who lights a lamp to find a lost coin, is a story of God the Holy Spirit empowering and enlightening the Church to seek and save the lost. I was intrigued by Stott’s take on this and thought to myself, “that will preach” but then I decided just not today. I want to take a different take on these stories.

While it may be true that these parables were told to illustrate the Trinity, I believe that they were also told to reveal the heart of God, particularly toward those who are lost in their sins. I say that because what sparked the parables to begin with was the negative attitude of the Pharisees towards the people that Jesus was hanging with. They were grumbling that Jesus would eat with tax collectors and sinners and so Jesus tells them three stories. And what do these stories tell us about the heart of God towards tax collectors and sinners? Let’s take them in reverse order.

First we see in the story of the Father and lost son a heart of compassion. The Father would have been just to have righteous indignation towards his son. A father has to work his whole lifetime to give an inheritance to his children and when this knucklehead squanders his inheritance on wine women and song there should have been a reckoning. The Father could have easily said to the son, “You had better believe that you are going to be numbered among my servants and for blowing your inheritance as you did you may not even be treated that well.” But that is not the heart of God. “For God sent His Son into the world not to condemn the world but that the world through Him might be saved.”

We are told over and over through the Psalms that God is full of compassion and that is what we see with the Father in this parable. Instead of condemning his son, he runs to greet him and throws a robe over his shoulders and puts a ring on his finger and he calls for a feast. From the Father’s perspective, his son who was dead is now alive. The Pharisees want to shake their fingers at the sinners and tax collectors but Jesus wants to feast with them and treat then like family.

How about us? What is our compassion quotient? Do we build up or do we tear down?

Last week an Orthodox priest that I know did a very positive post on Facebook about Mother Theresa being canonized by the Roman Church. Consequentally there was so much vitriol by self-proclaimed religious folks that he has to take the post down. The Pharisees were out in numbers wagging their fingers. At first I wondered where all of this venom was coming from but then I realized that I answered my own question. This venom comes from the serpent and so it has no place among believers.

As believers we are to reflect our Father’s heart of compassion, realizing that we will never help others find their way back to the Father if we are filled with criticism and bitterness that is fueled by self-righteousness. We need to remember that we too were once prodigals and maybe some of us still are. We need show to others the same compassion that the Father had for us when we came to our senses and returned home.

The parable of the woman and the lost coin, shows us that in God’s heart there is an urgency for the lost. The woman didn’t say to herself, “I’ll look for the coin when the rent is due.” She didn’t even say “It can wait until the morning.” She got up then and there and lit a lamp and started sweeping.

We see God’s urgency for the lost all through the Bible. We see it in the story of Jonah. He so urgently wanted to call Nineveh to repentance that He was going to get a prophet to them even if it meant having a great fish vomit one up on the beach. We see God’s urgency in the life of Jesus as He tirelessly went from village to village proclaiming the Good News of the Kingdom. We see God’s urgency in the life of the Apostles, most of whom were martyred in foreign lands, as they obeyed the Lord to preach the Gospel to the ends of the earth.

What about us? What is our urgency quotient? In his book Radical, David Platt has some very convicting words. As you probably know there is a concept called “universalism” which in essence says that all roads lead to God. Obviously that is not what Jesus nor the Apostles taught. If universalism was true then Jesus died for nothing and the Apostles wasted their lives going to the ends of the earth. Addressing that Platt says, “While some professing Christians have rejected universalism intellectually, practically they may end up leading universalistic lives. They claim Christ is necessary for salvation, yet they live their Christianity in silence, as if people around them in the world will indeed be okay in the end without Christ.” (p. 142).

Platt goes on to tell a story of a missionary going to an unreached people’s group in Southeast Asia. As the missionary met with the villagers he asked them some very important questions. He asked how they were created and they said that they did not know. He asked who sends the rains. Again they did not know. He asked what happens after you die and they said, “No one has come to tell us about this yet.” As he continued a villager showed up with a can of Coke classic and it hit home with the missionary. “A soft drink company in Atlanta has done a better job of getting brown sugar water to these people than the Church of Jesus Christ has done in getting the Gospel to them.” p.159

To share the Father’s urgency does not mean that we have to turn into street evangelists or ride ten speed bikes wearing white short sleeve dress shirts with elder badges on them. But it does mean that we need to be actively engaged in searching for ways to share the Gospel of the Kingdom, particularly with those whom God has placed in our lives. I don’t believe that they in our lives by accident. And who doesn’t know a family member or a friend or a coworker or a fellow student who is oblivious to the things of God?

Urgency begins by praying for them, because evangelism is first and foremost a work of the Holy Spirit. We don’t argue people into the kingdom, they are birthed into it by the Holy Spirit. Second, just as Jesus did, you hang out with them. The Roman Catholic movement called Cursillo has a great perspective on evangelism. They say, “Make a friend, be a friend, bring a friend to Christ.” This perspective is so different and so much more Christ like than the used car salesman techniques that is often passed off as evangelism.

Fr. BE is offering us a perfect opportunity this month as he begins ALPHA, and it could not be simpler. Just invite the person for whom you have been praying to accompany you to a meal and a discussion. It is fun, it is non-threatening and it is non-confrontational. It is simply friends sharing a meal and talking about the meaning of life.

The third parable is about the shepherd going after the lost sheep. In this parable we see that God not only has compassion but that He is passionate about the lost. Look at the risk that the shepherd is taking. He leaves the 99 to go after the one! A lackadaisical shepherd would be happy he still have the 99 and call it a day, but not this one. And to go off after one sheep in the Judean wilderness was no cakewalk. There were critters in that wilderness that could eat a person. David spoke of his shepherding days that included fighting the bear and the lion. So it takes passionate love for the shepherd to go after the one lost sheep. How passionate is God toward us? John 3:16 tells us. The question is, do we share His passion, especially for the lost? What is our passion quotient?

A friend posted this last week. “I was hungry and you formed a humanities club and discussed my hunger. I was imprisoned and you crept off quietly to your chapel to pray for my release. I was naked and in your mind you debated the morality of my appearance. I was sick and you knelt and thanked God for your health. I was homeless and you preached to me of the spiritual shelter of God’s love. I was lonely and you left me alone to go and pray for me. You seem so holy, so close to God. But I’m still very hungry and lonely and cold.”

I believe that we are doing many good things, particularly for a small parish. Consider our outreach to the Burmese refugees that has developed a Burmese speaking church. Or our mission trips to Cochabamba and our upcoming trip to Honduras to get water to an orphanage. These are all acts of passionate love. There are also many quiet and behind the scenes things being done by you. We give thousands of dollars every year to Food for the Poor who go to the poorest of the poor. The recently added Second Saturday Packers ministry that takes necessary items to those in hospitals is a wonderful idea. Some of our parishioners volunteer for the Food Bank, others are working voluntarily as Court Appointed Special Advocates for Tennessee foster children. One brother mows a widow’s lawn for free. I could keep going on and on but I want to make two points.

My first point is to say to you what Bishop Herlong used to say to me. “Your doing great, just don’t stop.” So “your doing great, just don’t stop.” 

My second point is to call on us to continue to think and pray about more creative ways that we can serve our community in order to show the passionate love of God. If the 99 represent our parish family, then we need to seek out ways to leave the 99 and go after the one. I am positive that if we ask the Lord of the Harvest that He will point us in the right direction.

And one of the ways that we will know that we are doing God’s will is when the Pharisees, as they did with Jesus, start grumbling about who we are hanging out with. So let’s make them grumble. Amen.