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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Faith not Fear

Fear

Text Heb 11:1-16

“And without faith it is impossible to please God.” Heb 11:6

“If you had more faith your child would have not been born with Downs syndrome.” “If you had more faith your church would be larger.” “If you had more faith you wouldn’t have these money problems.” “If you had more faith your husband wouldn’t have left you.”

These and many more like these are the kinds of comments about faith that I have heard over the years. They reveal an appalling misunderstanding of faith and given how important faith is to God, it is a misunderstanding that we cannot afford to have. So let’s dig a little deeper into the topic of faith and ask the classic questions of “what?” “why?” and “how?”

In answering the “what” of faith let’s first make a clarification. As the earlier comments “if you had more faith….” reveal, it is a common notion that faith is something that you quantify. If you have little of it then nothing happens but if you have more then things start to pop. My guess is that this notion comes from the expression in the Bible, “Oh ye of little faith.” Doesn’t it sounds like they needed to get some more?

The problem with this view of faith is that it opens the door to all kinds of false narratives about God. Faith becomes quarters and God becomes a slot machine and if we just put in enough quarters then God will pay out eventually. Or instead of being coworkers with God, this falty view of faith puts it all on our shoulders. God would like to bless us but He can’t because we haven’t yet piled up enough faith to tip the scales in our direction. So God wanted to heal me but since I didn’t have enough faith then He couldn’t. Question. How much faith did Lazarus have right before Jesus raised Him from the dead?

Faith is not about quantity. Jesus said all we need is faith the size of a mustard seed to move mountains. Sure faith grows and matures but all we need is the faith of a child to enter the kingdom of God. So the real issue of faith is not how much you have but in what or in whom it is placed.

I was at the Outlet Mall in Lebanon and while in the restroom observed two Muslims washing up for prayers. I followed them out and they went to their car and pulled out some cardboard to use as prayer rugs. They figured out which way Mecca was and they knelt and said their prayers right there in the parking lot. While I admire such faith and devotion and admit that this is more faith and devotion than many Christians exhibit, nevertheless it is my understanding of Scripture that Mohammed will not get them to the kingdom of God. So again, it’s not the amount of faith but in what or in whom it is placed.

Our lesson from Hebrews gives us the definition of faith. “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” The New Living Translation make is clearer to me. Faith is the confidence that what we hope for will actually happen; it gives us assurance about things we cannot see.”

So faith is confidence that gives assurance. We exercise faith every day and we do it in pretty profound ways. Think of all the ways that we put our lives in danger without giving it a second thought. When we get into our cars, when we get on an elevator, when we board a plane we have confidence that the ones who build these things have done it correctly and so we assure ourselves that we will arrive safely. We do this even without having the first clue who these guys are that built these things.

A principle point of Jesus’ ministry was to reveal a God in whom we can place our faith. He is not an anonymous union worker up north putting parts together. He is a heavenly Father who like all fathers wants the best for His children. What an astonishing line in Luke’s Gospel. “Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is the Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” I saw a great quote. “ ‘Do not be afraid’ is said 365 times in the Bible so it is a daily reminder that God wants us to live each day courageously.” But even more than that, not only does God not want us to be afraid, He wants us to understand that He has gladly determined to give us His kingdom. If we could embrace that thought we would have no difficulty placing our faith in this Lord.

Through parables and teachings and demonstrations of mercy Jesus showed us a God in whom we can trust. We place our confidence in Him because He has a character worthy of such trust and because He is the same yesterday, today and forever, we have assurance, we can rest in Him.

That is the “what” of faith. Let’s consider the “why” of it. Why is faith so important for us? One reason is because faith leads to obedience. The text in Hebrews says, “By faith Abraham obeyed God when he was called to set out…and he set out not knowing where he was going” (and because he was a man he refused to stop and ask for directions). Abraham did not know where he was going but he had faith that God did so he obeyed. Here we see the facet of faith that is trust.

Some of you may not know the story of George Mueller but you should because he is such a great example of a man who had father Abraham’s kind of trust in God. Muller pastored a church in England for 60 years in the 1800’s but he also began an orphanage that cared for more than 10,000 orphans. What was amazing about this was that he purposed to never ask for money nor could any of his coworkers. He believed that if it was God’s work then God would provide and over the years he prayed in millions of pounds. One day he was told that they had completely run out of food and there was nothing to serve for breakfast. Trusting in God to provide, Muller had the orphans assembled in the dining hall and he said grace. Hearing a loud crash they ran out of the orphanage to discover that a bread wagon had collided with a milk wagon and this became breakfast for the orphans. The important lesson for us is Muller’s motives that were combined with his faith. Muller wrote, “The first and primary object of the work was and still is that God might be magnified…..” He exercised his faith in order to give God an opportunity to demonstrate His power so that God would be glorified. This is very different than sending in money that you don’t have to the TV preacher so that you can get your miracle.

A second reason that faith is so important is because it focuses our lives. The reason that Abraham could leave his homeland is because by faith he could see a better one before him. The text says, “For he looked forward to the city that has foundations whose architect and builder is God.” The reason that the Apostles could sell their possessions and follow Christ was because they had just been told that it was the Father’s delight to give them the kingdom. It’s like meeting someone for lunch with a bologna sandwich in hand only to discover that they have prepared for you a steak dinner. By faith we can see that what the world offers us cannot compare with what God has in store so it is not really a burden to leave the world behind.

Lastly we need to ask the “how” of faith. How do we grow and mature in the faith? If faith has to do with convictions and assurances that are based in the character of God, where do we best learn about the character of God?

First we learn best about the character of God through the Scriptures. The Bible says, “Faith comes by hearing and hearing by the Word of God.” Some translations say “and hearing by the word of Christ.” To put it another way, we learn about God best by listening to what Jesus said about Him.

There are so many false narratives about God in the world and even at times in the Church that it is very easy to have a distorted image of Him. This in turn makes it difficult to place our faith in Him. It took me forever to rid myself of my childhood image of God as a big cop in the sky who was looking for an excuse to punish me. That He would delight to give me His kingdom never entered my imagination. It took years of study for that truth to replace the childish false narrative and sometimes it still is a battle. The point of the Scriptures is not so that we can debate about fine points of theology, the point of the Scriptures is so that God can reveal Himself to us so that we can place our faith in Him. Bottom line is that you will never grow and mature in faith if you are ignorant of God’s Word.

Second we learn best about the character of God through prayer. What has especially helped me has been using the Book of Common Prayer for decades. The prayers and liturgies of that book have taught me about God and His will for us. In the morning we pray, “O God who are the author of peace and lover of concord, in knowledge of whom standeth our eternal life, whose service is perfect freedom…..” What did we just learn? We learned that God loves peace and concord and so I better not put on Facebook my response to my commie pinko friend. I learned that knowing God gives us eternal life so it’s not the end of the world if I don’t know the difference between a cruet and a ciborium. I learned that rather than being a burden serving God it is how I find the freedom that I seek. If we can get all of that from one half of one prayer, imagine what is formed in us as we pray many of these prayers day after day and year after year.

A third way that we learn best about God is through His Church. Why is that? It is because the Church is the Body of Christ. One of the things I enjoy about Bible Study is when we get together we represent different parts of the Body of Christ. And these different parts will see in the Scriptures things that I would never see only coming from my perspective. So the other parts of Christ’ Body give me a more full picture of this God who is revealing Himself to us and it is why lone ranger Christianity does not work.

There is a dangerous sentiment on the rise that the Body of Christ is optional. It is becoming more and more popular for Churches to stream their services live so folks can stay home and watch it on the computer but they will soon discover that is a huge mistake. Not only can you not receive the Sacrament through a computer screen, you also cannot wash anyone’s feet. God so loved the world that He did not become a Facebook friend. A religion based on the incarnation of God Himself requires that we spend real time with real people in order to love and serve one another.

Strengthened by these first three ways, a fourth best way that we learn about the character of God and grow our faith is through patient suffering. You probably don’t want to hear that and I really did not want to have to say it but the Scriptures compel me to do so. The Bible says that if we are His children He will discipline us and although no discipline seems pleasant at the moment it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace (Heb 12). Like the guy who had seven theories and no children, and then had seven children and no theories, I have learned not to trust an authority who is not a wounded healer. Jesus was the suffering servant of Isaiah and so it follows that His followers will also be suffering servants. It is only as we are in the valley of the shadow of death that we truly learn that His rod and staff will comfort us. Up until then it is a nice verse on a plaque. As the saying goes, “mountain tops are wonderful but the fruit only grows in the valley.” It is when we are in the valley, in times of suffering, that we learn more deeply about who God is if we will turn to Him in those times.

“And without faith it is impossible to please God.” So the opposite must also be true. This means that our faith pleases God even faith the size of a mustard seed. Jesus asks us to place our faith in the One who delights to give us His kingdom even though we have not earned it nor do we even deserve it. So let’s be God pleasers and place our full trust in Him. Amen.

 

 

Lord, teach us to pray

Fish, Snake, Egg, Scorpion

Lessons : Gen 18:20-33; Col 2:6-15; Luke 11:1-13

Not one time, in all my years of ordained ministry, has someone said to me, Okay Ray Ive mastered that prayer thing, what’s next for me to learn? In fact I’m not certain that I have ever met someone that is even close to feeling that they are more than a novice when it comes to prayer, including myself.

Fr. BE brought it up in a recent sermon the quote from a past saint who said that the Lord loves it even when we pray poorly. That took a lot of guilt away from me because that is how I would describe my prayers most of the time. I was reading a blog from a priest about prayer and he said that he would start his morning and evening prayers with this brief confession, “What is about to happen will not go well, Lord. I’m sorry.”  

So if you don’t feel great about your prayer life I can guarantee that you are far from being alone. In fact you are in some pretty impressive company because the Apostles themselves felt that they needed improvement. That is why they went to the Master and asked to be taught. “Lord teach us to pray as John taught his disciples.”

And Jesus does and as you would expect it is genius. He gives them a model prayer that touches on 5 key areas and we can see in this prayer 5 characteristics that make will make their prayers effective. First let’s look at the 5 key areas.

He begins the prayer ascribing to the Lord the honor that He is due. “Father, hallowed by your name.” Psalms 29:2 and 98:8 command us to do just that. We can see this pattern all through the great collects of the Book of Common Prayer. Listen to the opening lines of several collects. “Almighty and everlasting God, who dost govern all things in heaven and earth…” “O God, the strength of all those who put their trust in thee…” “O most loving Father who willest us to give thanks for all things….” “Almighty and everlasting God, who hatest nothing that thou hast made….” “O God whose glory is always to have mercy….”

Beginning our prayers by ascribing honor to God reminds us who it is that we are addressing. We are not dropping a coin in a vending machine and expecting an automatic response. We are not naming it and claiming it and demanding Him to deliver like God is our butler. We are not putting good thoughts into the Universe so that good karma will come back to us. We are children of the Most High coming to the Omnipotent Holy One with reverence, awe, love and devotion.

Next we pray for His kingdom to come. This is our first petition. Matthew adds to this petition that His will is done on earth as it is in heaven. We immediately see through this petition whose agenda we are on when we pray. My agenda in prayer is not to be Ray getting his will and his way. Rather it is to be the agenda of my prayer, and indeed for my entire life, for the Lord to have His will and His way. And that is a positive thing because what could be better for me or for my family or for my church or for my nation or for this entire planet than God’s will being accomplished?

I was asked by a parishioner last week what I thought was the greatest idol that we had in the Church today. I replied that it was seeking the middle class American life above the kingdom of God. And in my opinion what makes it such a dangerous idol is that there is so much good about the middle class American life. I know because I am living it.

There is nothing inherently wrong with getting an education, finding a good job, buying a home and raising a family. There is nothing wrong with Dave Ramsey’s goals of living like no one else so that you can live and give like no one else.

But where these things become wrong is when these good things are moved to the wrong place on our priority list. Jesus said that we are to seek first His kingdom and so it is a problem when we place before His kingdom our favorite teams our careers or even our families.

After we pray for His kingdom to come we enact it in our lives by placing all that we have before Him. His kingdom comes in our lives when He is Lord of our finances and Lord of our families and Lord of our careers and Lord of our very futures.

The second petition has us pray for our daily bread. I have heard it said that it is selfish to pray for ourselves and so we never should. We should pray for others but when it comes to our personal lives we should just pray, “Thy will be done.” That sounds quite spiritual but it does not match what Jesus teaches us here about prayer. In this second petition we pray for our needs…not our wants but our needs. We are praying for our daily bread not a Mercedes Benz. In fact it may be necessary to pray first to discern the difference between wants and needs so that we can pray effectively for our daily bread. And notice that this prayer anticipates our needs rather than waiting until the need arises.

Next we pray for forgiveness. This is how the prayers of the Book of Common Prayer are structured. We offer the Prayers of the People or Prayers for the Whole State of Christ’s Church before we seek forgiveness for our sins. This order also keeps us from making prayer all about ourselves.

In this version of the Lord’s Prayers Jesus uses the word “everyone.” He says,“For we ourselves forgive everyone who is indebted to us.Well do we? What about those who don’t ask for or deserve forgiveness? We are to forgive even those who don’t deserve it because God forgave us in Christ when we did not deserve it and before we could even ask for it. The Scripture says, “While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.”

It is helpful that Jesus also uses the word “indebted.” I take this to mean that I am canceling out their debt to me and that is an action and not a feeling. I simply picture myself ripping up their IOU. Sometimes I have to do it a number of times but I don’t have to wait until I feel like it, I don’t even have to want to be their buddy. I simply cancel their debt just as God has canceled mine.

The last petition is for protection. We pray to be delivered from a time of trial and Matthew adds “and rescue us from the evil one.” There is a vast difference between being disciplined by the stern hand of a loving Father and being assaulted by the evil one and it is the latter that we are to pray protection from. Let’s be clear. We are not praying that our life will be a bed of roses. Jesus in many times and many ways lets us know that if we are going to follow Him that it won’t be the Rose Parade. In this petition we are recognizing that we are in a spiritual battle and we are asking for the Lord’s protection.

Those are the 5 key areas for which to pray. Let’s next consider the 5 characteristics of this prayer. First note how short it is. Prayed slowly it is under 20 seconds.

This young priest was being mentored by an elderly one and when it came time to pray the young priest wanted to impress his mentor so as they knelt at the altar he prayed and he prayed and he prayed and he prayed. Finally the old man tapped him on the shoulder and said, “You know if you prayed more often you wouldn’t have to pray quite so long.”

In some circles it is a badge of honor to be someone who prays a long time. In fact for some it is a form of spiritual pride. (I think it is called “Phariseeism.”) But Jesus illustrates here that is not true that you have to pray long to pray effectively. I would argue that it is the frequency of your prayers and not the length of your prayers that is most important. I refer you back to the collects of the Book of Common Prayer. They are brief but many of them are so full of theological content that you could preach an entire sermon from them. So when you pray ignore the clock.

Second note how specific the petitions are, such as praying for daily bread. If we want specific answers to prayer then we need to pray specifically.

When I first went into full time ministry I did not have the money to purchase the clothes that I needed. One morning I was reading the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus says that we are not to worry about what we are to wear because our heavenly Father knows what we need. I decided to respond to that promise and I asked the Lord for $500 to buy clothes. That very night after I preached a sermon a man walked up and handed me a check for $500. When I told him what I had prayed that morning he got misty eyed and said that he had wanted to give me the money for weeks but never felt that the time was right until this night. I think he was as blessed to know that he was being led by the Lord as I was to receive the money. So pray for your needs and pray specifically.

Third these prayers are offered daily, that is if we want our daily bread. We don’t wait until the cupboard is bear and then cry out to God. This prayer is meant to be daily contact and communion with our heavenly Father and not a one time cry from the belly of the whale. In fact even more than daily, this prayer invites us into an ongoing conversation with God, or as Brother Lawrence put it, to practice the presence of God.

Fourth, this prayer is to be persistent, as Jesus illustrated by telling the story of the guy banging on the door for bread. Jesus uses the words, “ask” “seek” “knock.” So we don’t pray once and then forget about it. We are invited to make a nuisance out of ourselves with our petitions. We see this in the Old Testament lesson that borders on being comical as Abraham strikes a deal with God about the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah.

But why persistence in prayer? I think for a couple of reasons. First, as we pray persistently for something we may find ourselves altering our prayer. As mentioned earlier we may find that we are praying for a want and over time change it to praying for a need.

But second, as we pray persistently we are in a sense drawn into that prayer and it becomes a part of us. William Cary was an 18th century English cobbler. In his shop he had a map of the world and as he made shoes he would pray and weep over those who did not have the Gospel. Eventually he could not remain in his shop and he left all and went to India to share the love of Christ. He had such an impact that he is often referred to as “the father of modern missions.” It was his persistent prayer that molded his heart and developed his vision for India. Persistent prayer is how we get some skin in the game.

Lastly, effective prayer is offered in faith. But it is not faith in how much faith we have, rather it is faith in the character of God. Jesus says, Is there anyone among you who, if your child asked for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish? Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him? As we pray we keep the character of God before us. As we pray we remember that nothing is impossible with God. As we pray we remember that He is full of mercy and loving-kindness. As we pray we remember that His mercies are new every morning. So our faith is not in our faith, our faith is in His goodness.

It is said that the best way to learn how to pray is to pray. Jesus has given us the perfect prayer and if we begin there we have no reason to doubt that He will continue to teach us as He did His disciples. So let’s follow their example and ask the Master to teach us to pray. “Lord, teach us to pray.” Amen.

Called and Sent

Harevst Plentiful

Lesson: Luke 10:2-20

According to an article last year in Forbes Magazine 90% of all start up businesses fail. I knew that it was high but I didn’t expect it to be that high. So from a purely secular point of view the chances of the brand new Christian church surviving for even one generation was minimum at best. But the idea that Jesus’ startup would continue to expand 2,000 yrs later would be beyond anyone’s imagination. And yet here we are today, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets proclaiming the faith that has been once and for all delivered to the saints.

I submit to you that a major part of the success of the Church was due to the miraculous transformation of Jesus’ ragtag band into the Apostles that we so highly revere today. This Gospel lesson gives us insights into how the Lord did this transformation in their lives. Fr. BE preached recently about us having turning points with the Lord and it is my hope that as we look at their transformations that we may discover some turning points for ourselves.

The first thing that we can see Jesus doing to transform the disciples is to call them to prayer. I hope that I am not being irreverent in saying this but it seems to me that our Lord was being a wee bit sneaky here. He tells them that the harvest is plentiful but the laborers are few so He calls on them to pray to the Lord of the Harvest to send out laborers into the fields. Question: who is it that will be sent out as laborers into the harvest as an answer to their prayers? The disciples, right? So He is really having them pray for themselves. Why should prayer come first?

Several years ago I was at a conference in Columbia Tennessee and attending with me were an Episcopal priest and a Presbyterian minister from the same small town. Over lunch I asked them what they were doing to grow their churches and they replied, “Nothing.” That surprised me and so I asked why not, and they replied that they sat down together and did the math. They said that statistically, in a town their size, only about one third of the people were going to church. And of that one third the vast majority were attending fundamentalist churches. By their calculations only about 3% of the 1/3rd would be interested in liturgical worship, and since they represented the only two liturgical churches in town, they concluded that they were competing over just a handful of people. They didn’t think that it was worth the effort and that is why they did not bother to try to grow their churches.

Did you catch the flaw with their logic? They were focusing on the 1/3rd and were forgetting the 2/3rds who are unchurched! What is sad and surprising it that those statistics are generally true throughout the US, even in the Bible belt. So Jesus words that the fields are white with harvest are as true today as when He first spoke them. That is why we must pray first before we do anything else. We pray so that we can get God’s perspective about the harvest. We pray so that we will have God’s heart about the harvest. We pray so that we will know our place as laborers in the harvest.

I had a friend who was a priest in Dayton Tennessee, where the Scopes trails were held. He called himself the Vicar of all Monkeytown. He did what he called Wal-Mart evangelism. He would hang out at the Wal-Mart and when someone would ask him about his clerical collar he would engage them in conversation and before they knew it they were attending his church. This priest regularly baptized more adults than he did infants. He used to say that evangelism is not difficult; all you need is a bucket of water and a pagan. It may not be quite that easy, but first we need to pray because we are not used car salesmen closing a deal. We are ambassadors who represent the King of Love bringing Good News to all people. We need to get our orders from the King.

After calling them to pray, Jesus gives them an assignment. He tells them that He is sending them out as lambs among the wolves and they are not to carry a purse or bag or sandals and they are to live from the benevolence of others.

In his wonderful book The Training of the Twelve, AB Bruce points out that the conditions Jesus placed upon this particular commissioning were not permanent. We are told at the end of Luke’s Gospel, when Jesus sends them out for the last time, Jesus says, “But now if you have a purse, take it, and also a bag; and if you don’t have a sword, sell your cloak and buy one. Lk 22:36” Obviously by this point in their training they had learned to trust the Lord in such a way that they would not rely on their purses or bags or swords so it was safe for them to take those things along. But in this earlier commissioning they could not do so in order that the valuable lesson of trust would be learned.

When I was in college I met regularly with a man who was discipling me at a pivotal point in my life. I was wrestling with a whether or not I was called to ordained ministry and after praying about it for some time and getting no direction I became very frustrated. I complained to my spiritual director. It seemed to me that if I was willing to serve, the least the Lord could do is to make it plain whether or not it was His will. In a rebuking tone the spiritual director said to me, “No Ray you are not asking for discernment, you want a map to come out of heaven to show you how the rest of your life is going to go so that you don’t have to walk by faith.” His words stung and they made me a little angry but I also knew that he hit the nail on the head. I was looking for assurances. I wanted to know that if I went this route that it would be successful. I didn’t want to hear that I had to trust. I certainly didn’t want to hear that I was being sent out as a lamb among the wolves.

Please know that if you are not called to ordained ministry that you are still not exempt from also learning this important lesson of trust. If you want to be a transformed person, who makes a difference in this world for the sake of the kingdom, then you need to know that there are no shortcuts. Your every day lives are filled with opportunities to cultivate trust as opposed to self-reliance. When you start your day with prayer you are confessing your reliance upon the Lord. When you offer thanks throughout the day you are acknowledging that it is not by your might but by His Spirit that you go forward. When you bring your tithes and offerings you are proclaiming trust that it is all His anyway and you are only returning a portion of what is His. When you pray for your spouse, your family and friends you are entrusting them to the Lord who alone is their rock and their salvation. When you share with someone the Good News of God in Christ you are demonstrating your trust that His Spirit will use your words to penetrate their hearts. When you take a stand for the truth and refuse to be a part of lies, knowing full well that you will pay a price for that stand, you demonstrate your trust that His rod and His staff will comfort you. Genuine trust in the Lord is like the powder milk biscuits commercial. It “gives shy people the courage to get up and do what needs to be done and it’s pure mostly.”

The other thing that we see the Lord is doing in this transformational training of the disciples is that He focuses their message. He tells them to tell others that the kingdom of God has come near and He tells them further that if anyone rejects them they also reject Jesus and if they reject Jesus then they also are rejecting the One who sent Him. That is pretty blunt and there is nothing pc about it. It is another way of His saying. “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life, and no one comes to the Father except by Me.”

We need to key in on this focused message because much of the Church, if it still is the Church, is waffling badly. I saw an article by the top leader of a main line denomination called Pondering the Great Commission. Given this weeks lessons I was hoping to be given new insights. Instead it was the antithesis of Jesus’ clarity and focus. The author asked the question why we would seek to baptize other people and rather than saying, “because Jesus told us to in the Great Commission” the conclusion was that we should NOT seek to baptize others but rather “graciously recognize that God is at work in the world around us.” Last week another major mainline denomination opened their biannual General Assembly by praying to the Muslim god Allah. Jesus sent his disciples out like prophets to preach repentance for the kingdom of God is at hand and these folks go out to like Mr. Rogers to tell everyone that God loves them just like they are and that they don’t need to change.

The difference between these two messages could not be greater and as we might expect the results of these two messages are also very different. The mainline churches in the United States that preach this universalist message are in serious decline. Meanwhile the churches around the world that are preaching the focused message that Jesus gave to the Apostles are healthy. The Anglican Church of Nigeria, where the Gospel is preached without compromise, tripled under Archbishop Peter Akinola. What is even more amazing is that while the harvest fields in Africa include horrifying conflicts with Islam, according to aljeera.net, they are seeing 16,000 Muslims a day convert to Christianity. That is nearly 6 million per year! God says that His Word never returns to Him void but accomplishes the purpose for which He sent it. If we will send out a clear word then the Lord of the Harvest will be able to use it. If we water it down and make it pc then it will no longer be the Word of the Lord and therefore profitable for no one.

I came across an article that offered an interesting theory. About 30 years before our War for Independence Anglican priest George Whitefield traveled our land preaching the uncompromising Gospel of Jesus Christ. Traveling from New England to Georgia he preached over 18,000 sermons. Benjamin Franklin was fascinated by him and reported that on one occasion Whitfield preached to over 20,000 people on Boston Commons. People were converted and had their faith renewed by the tens of thousand and this article suggested that it was this spiritual awakening that paved the way for the American Revolution. Why? Because once people tasted spiritual freedom through Jesus Christ they longed for political freedom as well.

It is this life changing and nation changing and even world changing Gospel that Jesus called His Apostles to preach. But these calling narratives are not given to us in Holy Scripture to reminisce about the good old days. They are given to us instruct us about our own callings as well. While none of us are called to be Apostles with a capital “A” we are called to be small “a” apostles in our own worlds; with our families, with our friends, with our coworkers. An Apostle is simply one who is sent and Jesus continues to send out workers for the harvest. The harvest is still plentiful and the workers are still too few so lets add some more workers. Amen.

Hypocrite?

hypocrite

Texts 2 Samuel 11:26-12:10; Galatians 2:11-21; St. Luke 7:36-50

Fill in the blank. “No I don’t go to church, it’s filled with too many _______.

You guessed it, “hypocrites.” The response to that statement that I would like to give, but never have is, “Well if it is filled with too many hypocrites then one more won’t really matter will it?”

I believe that this is such a common excuse for two reasons. First is because they are partially right, there are indeed hypocrites in the church. But second they offer this excuse because they don’t really know what a hypocrite is. Let’s tackle the second reason first.

People outside the church think that we are hypocrites for coming to church, claiming to be followers of Christ, when the truth is that we sin all the time. They mistaking think that we think that we are perfect. How can a sinner claim to be a Christian? Doesn’t that by definition make you a hypocrite?

The short answer to that is “no it does not.” Our gospel lesson clarifies this for us. While he doesn’t use the word ‘hypocrite” that was the Pharisee’s attitude toward the woman who was anointing and kissing Jesus’ feet. She is referred to in the text as “a sinner” and you can fill in the blank what that meant. So the Pharisee believed that she has no right to be in Jesus presence. Given who she was it seems hypocritical for her to be worshipping Him.

We get the word “hypocrite” from the Greeks and they used it for someone who acts in a play. It is wearing a mask or pretending to be someone else. Was this woman wearing a mask or pretending to be someone else? No. She was so broken that she was bathing Jesus’ feet with her tears. She knew that she was drowning and so she came to the only One who could save her. Calling her a hypocrite for being a sinner who comes to the Savior is like calling someone with a deadly illness a hypocrite for going to the hospital. Where else are they supposed to go?

Instead of being offended by her the Pharisee should have been filled with admiration for her. Not for her sin of course but for her courage. She obviously came uninvited because Pharisees don’t invite sinful women into their homes. And without permission she touches this Rabbi. In the eyes of the Pharisee the touch of this morally unclean woman would have made Jesus ceremonially unclean. Then in incredible humility she wets His feet with her tears and dries them with her hair. This is an astonishingly intimate act between two strangers, particularly in that era and culture. But there is nothing hypocritical going on here. This is a prodigal daughter coming home; a prodigal daughter being forgiven much and loving much.

The example of hypocrisy that we do have before us is that of St. Peter in the lesson from Galatians. St. Peter came to visit Antioch, which was St. Paul’s base of operation. The church in Antioch was mixed with both Gentile and Jewish believers in Christ and so when they took meals together St. Peter would sit with the Gentiles as well as the Jews. But then an ultra conservative faction arrived from Jerusalem. These were called “the circumcision faction” because while they were believers in Christ, they continued to keep the law of Moses which included circumcision and laws of purity. The laws of purity included what you could and could not eat and with whom.

St. Peter for fear of his reputation rejected the Gentiles and St. Paul says, “And the other Jews joined him in his hypocrisy, so that even Barnabas was led astray by their hypocrisy.” St. Paul rightfully took great offense at this and publically rebuked St. Peter.

Was this the right thing to do? Yes it was for two reasons. First, because leaders incur a stricter judgment. The Scripture says that when a leader persists in sin he is to be rebuked in the presence of all so that the rest may stand in fear (I Tim 5:19,20). But secondly consider what St. Peter’s actions were conveying. By once again observing the purity laws St. Peter was in essence saying that he believed the he can be justified by the law. St. Paul objects, “if justification comes through the law then Christ died for nothing.” This is not a debate over using the 1979 verses the 1928 Book of Common Prayer. We are talking here about the essence of the gospel and so St. Paul was not only right to defend it, as an Apostle he was required to do so.

So as we can see by St. Peter’s example, the criticism that there are hypocrites in the church is a valid one. The question before each of us then is how we go about making the church have one less.

The first thing that we can do to avoid hypocrisy is to avoid being a man pleaser. A man pleaser puts on different masks and goes along to get along and that is the very definition of hypocrisy. It is only natural to want to have people like you otherwise you turn into Ebenezer Scrooge. But we need to have clear limits on that desire.

In today’s world it is all about not offending someone as if giving offense somehow has turned into a capital crime. An article in the New York Times last March reported that Universities are now creating what they call “safe spaces.” These are places that students can go to recover when they feel threatened by ideas and beliefs that differ from theirs.

As Christians we should err on the side of love and respect but if you make it your goal to never offend anyone, especially today, then you will fail as a disciple of Christ and turn into a man pleaser. Jesus told us flat out that they will hate us because they hated Him and they hated Him because they were offended by the truth that He proclaimed.

We need to get past the fear of being offensive. It’s not like anything happens to someone when they are offended. They don’t wake up the next day with a terminal disease. I saw a great post on Facebook of young men hitting the beaches of Normandy on D Day and the caption was “young men of college age leaving their safe spaces.” Here is a reality check. If my faith offends you then prepare to be perpetually offended because I am not going to hide my light under a bushel and I will not be bullied into calling evil good. This is the stand we must make as Christians.

How do we get past being a man pleaser? We do so by focusing on being a God pleaser. In the previous chapter in Galatians, St. Paul put it this way. “For am I now seeking the approval of man or of God. Or am I trying to please man? If I were still trying to please man, I would not be a servant of Christ.”

The woman in the Gospel story did not care if the Pharisee would be offended or if his guests would be offended, she only cared about what Jesus thought. She is our model.

Closely related to ridding ourselves of man pleasing is to rid ourselves of our reputations. It was concern for his reputation that had Peter act so inconsistently. He was concerned what the Jewish brethren would think of him if they saw him eating with the Gentiles and so he acted contrary to the Gospel.

But what we see in Jesus is a refreshing lack of concern for His reputation. When people opposed or rejected Him He did not say, “Do you have any idea who I was before I took on flesh and became a man?” Instead He humbled Himself and became a servant and sought people and loved people in ways that totally offended the religious leaders. We see this Pharisee saying to himself, “If this guy had any idea who it was that is touching him….” and instead of defending His reputation, He defended her. Then with no concern for what others might think of Him He forgives her sins and leaves the people at the table saying, “Who does this guy think that he is forgiving people’s sins?” It was being free of defending His reputation that allowed Jesus to do the right thing for this woman.

So how do we get beyond defending our reputations? St. Paul shows us in this lesson. He says, “I have been crucified with Christ and it is not longer I who live but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God who loved me and delivered Himself up for me.”

If we have been crucified with Christ then it means that we have died. We have several saints buried back in our columbarium. How many of them do you think are worried today about their reputations? So we get beyond defending our reputation by being dead to self.

But we need to add that we are also called to be united to Christ and live by faith in Him who loved us and delivered Himself up for us. As we die to self and as we grow in our union with Christ, our chief concern becomes His reputation, His glory, His kingdom and concerns for our own reputations fade away.

A third way that we avoid hypocrisy is to avoid legalism. We don’t face the same purity laws that St. Peter did but over time the Church has filled herself with rules that only serve to force people into hypocrisy.

A couple of years ago I was on vacation and several clergy from another denomination invited me to join them for lunch. At first I wasn’t going to go because I was on vacation and didn’t want to feel like I was on a busman’s holiday. I reconsidered but I stayed in vacation mode. I was unshaved, dressed in very casual clothes and when it came time to order I ordered a beer. When it was delivered the other clergy looked longingly at it and started talking about their favorite drinks. But they added that they only drink when they are out of town lest any of their parishioners see them. ??????????? Now I understand someone having a conviction that a Christian should not drink but I don’t understand their line of thinking. It’s not much of a conviction if it doesn’t apply when you are out of town. That is just a legalistic rule or perhaps more man pleasing.

But worse than making you act hypocritically, as we saw with St. Peter, legalism is an assault on the Gospel. To paraphrase St. Paul, if we think that rules will make us acceptable to God then Christ has died for nothing.

What makes legalism such a trap is that Christians often get into it for the best of intentions. They want to live lives that honor God. They want to walk in the right path and so they conclude,“ just tell me what the rules are and I will follow them.” But that is how you end up becoming like the circumcision faction that came to Antioch. Their intentions to be pleasing to God were good but as one author said of them, “by struggling to appropriate God’s power to change them, they are not resting in God’s power to save them.”

Let me repeat that quote;“by struggling to appropriate God’s power to change them, they are not resting in God’s power to save them.” I found that quote extremely convicting. I cannot tell you, over the course of my life, how much time I have wasted struggling to appropriate God’s power to change me rather than resting in His power to save me. And while I know that God can even work that mistake for my good, I would be beyond thrilled if I could just save one of you from wasting the time that I have it wasted in various forms of legalism. Trust me when I say that it is a more joyful life to rest in the power of God to save you.

Truth is, as long as we have this battle going on between the Spirit and our flesh we are going to have our hypocritical moments. But we don’t have to remain in that condition. St. Peter didn’t. He accepted St. Paul’s rebuke. In Acts 15 we read of a council that gathered to deal with this conflict between the circumcision faction and the Gospel of grace being preached by St. Paul. After much discussion it was St. Peter himself who rose and said these words. “Brothers, you know that some time ago God made a choice among you that the Gentiles might hear from my lips the message of the gospel and believe. God, who knows the heart, showed that he accepted them by giving the Holy Spirit to them, just as he did to us. He did not discriminate between us and them, for he purified their hearts by faith. Now then, why do you try to test God by putting on the necks of Gentiles a yoke that neither we nor our ancestors have been able to bear? No! We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are.”

St. Peter’s words and the Gospel of grace won the day. A potentially disastrous schism in the church was avoided. The church could have split into two and then faded into history. But grace triumphed. It is this Gospel of grace that invites all of us today to rest in the power of God to save us. All are welcome. Sinful women, judgmental Pharisees, Apostles who temporarily stray from the truth and even we hypocrites. The One who loved us and delivered Himself up for us will in no wise turn us away. Amen.