Don’t Live in a Museum

Museum

I enjoy museums and I have been privileged of visiting some wonderful ones. While in seminary I regularly visited the museums of Fine Arts and Science in Boston. I have also been metaphorically lost in the Smithsonian in DC, the Chicago Museum and the Getty in L.A. But the ones that were most memorable to me were the Prado in Madrid, the British Museum in London and the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities in Cairo.

The thing that baffles me is that I cannot fully explain why museums have such an impact me. I love to learn and so that is part of it. I know next to nothing about art but I know beauty when I see it and I find it healing to the soul. And it also rings true that we can only really understand our present and prepare for our future if we understand our past and museums help us do just that.

But one thing that is true for all of the museums is that they have a closing time because museums are places to visit but we are not meant to live in them. And while it may seem preposterous to suggest that anyone would want to live in a museum, I have met many over the course of the years who are doing just that. They live in museums, not in Boston or in LA, but museums of their own making.

For example, no doubt that each of you have met someone who is living in the museum of his glory days. His sole focus, and all that he talks about, are those good old days when he was a football star, or some kind of hero or when he was the best in his career. This poor soul is so stuck in the past that he barely has a present and what  is worse is that his future is very bleak because he knows that he will never be able to recoup what he had in the good old days.

Some are living in a museum of traditionalism. This is where a tradition has lost its original intent and while it is still held as sacred, in reality it is now meaningless. This was the problem of many of the Jewish leaders in Jesus’ day. They were so wed to their traditions that they failed to see that they were but signs pointing to the One to come. Now that He was here the signs were no longer needed. But they were blind to that and so they continued to live in their museums. Christians can do a similar thing when we are engaged in traditions but have no idea why, except for the response, “Because that’s the way we have always done it.” Orthodox scholar Jaroslav Pelikin reminds us, Tradition is the living faith of the dead, traditionalism is the dead faith of the living.”

Some choose to live in museums of past pain. They are stuck in a time when they suffered an injustice or a time when they were betrayed by a loved one or a time when someone that they loved suffered a wrong. These museums act more like prisons because it feels very much like the inhabitants are there involuntarily. But they are not there involuntary because they could leave if they chose to do so.

Some time ago I received a certified letter from Miami. It was from a friend from so many years ago that may as well have been from a former life. We knew each other when we both were non denominational ministers in Florida, but we had no contact with one another in over 20 years. The point of his letter was to tell me that he was an alcoholic, that he had two failed marriages, that he was estranged from his children, and that he traced it all back to me.

It was true that we had gone through some very difficult things. Conflicts had emerged and none of us handled it well. There were scars all around. We were able to meet face to face and he was right in some of the things that he accused me of. I admitted where I had wronged him and I asked for his forgiveness. But at the same time I disagreed with him that I had the power to make him an alcoholic, to ruin two marriages and certainly not to estrange him from his kids. He was the one choosing to live the museum of his past pain. I told him about my life as a priest, about this wonderful church, about my marriage to Beth. I did it not to rub salt in his wounds but as a testimony that we don’t have to stay stuck in the past. I wanted him to know that in Christ, God has given us a way to move forward.

Another kind of museum that I have witnessed folks living in is the museum of their past sins. They become emotionally and/or spiritually stuck because they wrongfullybelieve that God could never forgive them. Or even if they are able to get over the hurdle of God’s forgiveness, often they don’t seem to be able to forgive themselves. It is not hard to imagine that it was this kind of thinking that led Judas to take his own life.

So the question is, what do you do if you find yourself living in one of these museums or something akin to them? The answer can be found in these dynamic words from St. Paul to the Philippians.

First St. Paul acknowledges the loss. He does not make light of his or anyone else’s suffering. He says, “For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things.”In St. Paul’s case he suffered the loss of his reputation and his standing in his community. Earlier in the chapter he went through his past credentials. He was circumcised on the eight day, which made him a son of the covenant. He was of the tribe of Benjamin. He called himself a Hebrew of Hebrews. He was a Pharisee, which meant that he was an expert of the law. He was so zealous for God that he persecuted the Church. He even said that when it came to righteousness under the law he was blameless… blameless at least by all outward appearances.

And what is he now? Now he is a penniless preacher in jail for his faith and he is despised by his kinsmen. “But Paul, doesn’t all that loss devastate you?” He replies, “I count them as refuse that I may gain Christ and be found in Him.”

Do you see what he does? Rather than living in the museum of his loss, he compares it to what or rather Whom he has found and that makes what he lost seem like junk. The actual word that he uses is “dung.” Once your realize that the museum you are living in is really a sewer, then you will be happy to move out. St. Paul certainly was.

The second thing we see St. Paul doing is taking action by moving forward. He refuses to be stuck in a museum. He says “….forgetting what lies behind …I press on…” He sounds here very much like the prophet Isaiah. “Remember not the former things nor consider the things of old. Behold I am doing a new thing.”

Why forget the past? Because St. Paul is on a journey or better yet a race. He is not paralyzed by his pain. He uses the words “straining forward” to describe his progress, giving us the image that he is running with all his might, with his eye on the tape at the finish line.

If you have ever played a sport, or learned to play an instrument or developed a specific skill then you know with certainty that you will only win or succeed if your have a single focus. If Fr. BE is in a tennis match but he is worried about his upcoming sermon then you can bet that he will play poorly. If pilot Fr. Chris is thinking about anything else during takeoff or landing then I’m going to have to ask the Bishop to help me find another associate. It is St. Paul’s single focus, and the hope that it brings, that gave him the perspective and ability to write to the Philippians from prison and say “Rejoice in the Lord always and again I say rejoice.”

We need also to remember that part of what St. Paul is putting behind him, by “forgetting what lies behind,”are his former sins; in particular his persecution of the church. It’s not the he literally no longer remembers. He certainly remembers and likely is why he refers to himself as “chief among sinners”and  “the least of the apostles.”But St. Paul is refusing to be stuck in those past sins because as he says, “Christ Jesus has made me his own.” St. Paul is pressing forward. He doesn’t have time for museums.

St. Paul then tells us what it is that we are to be straining forward to achieve. He says, “I press on toward the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.” But that language is a little fuzzy. What is our upward call? Our lessons today stops too short because St. Paul goes on to define it later in the same chapter. He says, “ But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself.”

Our upward call is to be resurrected and to reign with Christ when He returns and His kingdom has come in its fullness. The prize is eternal life with our Lord in a new heaven and a new earth. That is the vision that gets us out of our museums and living life as God intended us to live. That is why Jesus told us in so many ways to make seeking the kingdom of God our highest priority.

 It is hard for me to believe but next Sunday is Palm Sunday and we then enter the passion of Holy Week. As Lent draws to a close, and we prepare ourselves for the Paschal Feast, it is not too late to benefit from the season. It is not nearly as important that you have successfully fasted or followed a certain discipline, as it is that you get out of your museum and press on toward your heavenly call. St. Paul said that his goal was to “gain Christ and to be found in him.”From this perspective Lent is simply a coming home to the One who loves us and gave Himself up for us. The good news is that we don’t have to reach sinless perfection to make it because He has already done that for us. St. Paul calls upon us to join him in pressing forward to attain the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.  Amen.

 

Lessons from Patrick

St-Patrick - 2019

Today is the Feast of St. Patrick. Normally Sundays would trump a saint’s day except when it is the day of the Patron Saint of the Parish. In that case the Prayer Book allows us to use the collects and lessons of our saint’s day. So here at St. Patrick’s we are going to step away from Lent just a little and celebrate Patrick’s feast.

St. Paul said, “Follow me as I follow Christ.”This gives us a precedent to look at the lives of the saints of God and see what we can learn from them to make us more effective followers of Christ. As you can imagine we have much to learn from St. Patrick.

But let me begin by giving you some historical context. The Celts had been in Ireland about 1,000 years before Patrick came on the scene in the 5thcentury. They were a pagan people but they were far more aware of the supernatural realm than secular Westerners are today. They had a high view of creation, believing it to be soaked in the supernatural, and they saw thin spaces everywhere where this world and the other world are in contact.

Additionally, as a people who were dependent upon nature, they had a high regard for the sun as a source of life and for water, particularly as found in rivers and wells. Trees also held a special place in their worldview since the tree roots go to the underworld while their branches reached to the heavens. In trees you could see the cycle of life of growth in the summer, death in the winter and then rebirth each spring.

In Patrick’s days there were no towns in Ireland. People gathered in tribes and were ruled by kings who acted as family heads and lawgivers. They were however united by a common tongue. Nevertheless their social constructs were undergoing change because Rome had been sacked in 410 and troops were withdrawn from Ireland in 420. Since the Irish could no longer look to the Roman Empire for help, their kingdoms began to consolidate north and south to become more self sufficient.

Enter Patrick. We forget that Patrick was not Irish. He was born in the region of northern England and southern Scotland. His grandfather was a priest and his father a deacon but he was not very religious. At 16 he was taken into slavery by Irish marauders and for 6 years he served as a herdsman in Ireland. Probably between boredom and loneliness he began to pray and it had a profound affect on him. He said, “I prayed a number of times each day. More and more the love and fear of God came to me and my faith grew and my spirit was exercised until I was praying up to one hundred times every day and in the night nearly as often.”

One night God spoke to him in a dream and said, “Look your ship is ready.” So 22 year old Patrick made his way to the coast, talked his way onto a ship and returned to his homeland.

There is not a lot of information about these next years. He studied for the priesthood, most likely in Gaul. Surprisingly there is evidence that the Coptics also had an impact on the Celtic Church. But since an envoy from the Pope did not come to evangelize Britain until some 200 years later, it is questionable if Patrick was a Roman priest. The Celtic Church did not submit to Rome until the Synod of Whitby in the 7thcentury.

At around age 46 Patrick had a dream in which an Irishman came to him and said, “Come and walk among us.”So once again Patrick left his homeland and for the next 31 years ministered among the Irish. He knew their language and loved and respected many things about their culture. In fact he became so united with them that he began to refer to himself as Irish, even though technically he was not.

His ministry was beyond fruitful. He baptized thousands, ordained priests and promoted a form of monasticism that itself was so missionary minded that they planted churches in Scotland and England. The foundations that he laid were so secure that two centuries after his death virtually all of Ireland had been converted to Christ. As our culture in the West moves further post Christian there are lessons to be learned from Patrick concerning ministering to an increasingly secular and even hostile world.

First we can see the foundation of prayer in Patrick’s life. It led to his conversion and it was the underpinning of all that he did.  It was prayer that opened Patrick’s heart and mind to not only hear the voice of God but to receive power to obey and return to the people that had enslaved him. It was his connection to God through prayer that gave Patrick an unwavering belief in the sovereignty of God. He believed that God had ordained a plan for his life and Patrick’s intent was to be God’s obedient servant. This belief that we are a part of a Divine plan is evangelistic because it speaks to the yearning of every human heart to believe that our lives matter, that we are significant. The Gospel tells us we are so significant that the Son of God would die for us. That is indeed Good News.

Second, while Patrick believed that He was a part of God’s plan he was brutally aware of his own shortcomings, as is evident in his Confessions. And yet because He believed that God was in control he knew that the Lord could even use his shortcoming to His glory. St. Paul certainly taught this. He said that the Lord spoke to Him and said “My grace is all you need. My power works best in weakness.” (NLT). The lesson here is that we should not worry that we are not qualified to serve the Lord because nobodyis. Just serve Him anyway and depend on His mercy to fill in the gaps.

Third we can see how St. Patrick was grounded in the Scriptures. He was embarrassed by what he believed to be a lack of education but in his brief Confessions he makes over 500 biblical references. Now remember this is the late 5thcentury so it wasn’t like he had access to a Strong’s Concordance or could do a Google search for a biblical passage. He read and studied the Scriptures so thoroughly that it became a part of how he thought and even, who he was. St. Paul commanded Timothy to study to show himself approved, “a workman who does not need to be ashamed, rightly dividing the world of truth.”Obviously St. Patrick took that command seriously.

Patrick set the example of being a student of God’s Word for those who came after him. What is amazing to me is that in his day the Irish did not yet have a written language. Nevertheless over the next two centuries not only did the Irish establish great libraries but over half of the biblical commentaries in the West were written by the Irish.

Let’s pause with this history lesson. So far there is nothing St. Patrick’s models for us, that with the help of God, is beyond our ability. I’m not suggesting that we learn to pray through the night as Patrick did or that we make it a goal to quote over 500 verses off the top of our heads, although that would be nice. But who among us could not grow deeper in prayer and in our knowledge of Holy Scripture? The truth is that we make time for the things that are really important to us. This season of Lent invites us to adjust our priorities and move in a direction that will build our souls.

Fourth, we should consider St. Patrick’s model in how he ministered to the Irish. He followed in the footsteps of St. Paul and that is why he was so successful.

You will recall that when St. Paul went to Mars Hill he saw all manner of statues to the gods but there was one statue that was to an unknown god. Paul could have gone Old Testament on them and called on fire to burn them up as idolaters.  But rather than condemning them he commended them for being so spiritually oriented and then he in essence said “Let me tell you about this unknown god”and he preached to them Christ and Him crucified.

In a similar manner, rather than Patrick condemning the Irish for their love of nature, He introduced them to the One who created what they loved. When he met two daughters of a King and they asked him to tell them about his God he said, “Our God is the God of all people, the God of heaven and earth, of the sea and the rivers, the God of the sun and the moon and all stars, the God of the high mountains and of the deep valleys…”He goes on for another paragraph connecting God to nature before he tells them about Jesus. In this way he was showing respect for their love of nature and their beliefs, but then like St. Paul, he filled in the blanks. The two sisters believed and were baptized.

This is the perfect day for us to model St. Patrick here. Our society is so divided and folks are so insulting and hateful towards one another that evangelism, rooted in  respect for the other person’s views, will be like breath of fresh air. I’m not suggesting that we dilute our beliefs to be more acceptable to others. Rather I am saying that with love and respect we begin where they are and then gently and lovingly fill in the blanks.

To be honest it fries my bacon when someone says, “I’m not very religious but I’m spiritual.” A large part of me wants to challenge them and say, “You have not idea what you are even talking about.”But how is that kind of confrontation going to lead them towards Christ? Following Paul and Patrick what I should say is, “I’m grateful to hear that you are a spiritual person, tell me what that looks like in your life.”And then guide the conversation to the only One who can cause them to be born of the Spirit in order to become the truly spiritual people that they believe themselves to be.

A final point where I think the life of St. Patrick is worth our consideration is in how he saw the mission of the church. As one author put it, Patrick believed that it was essential for the Church to be centrally focused on the sacraments, faith, scripture and ministry but NOT focused upon organizational structures. The lack of rigid organizational structures gave later generations of Irish the freedom and flexibility to improvise, adapt and overcome as they faced new challenges and ministered to new people groups.

What followed Patrick were monastic communities. They were not so much like we think of monasteries and convents today where folks are cloistered away from the world. They were more like Christian communities that accepted both married and celibates and men and women. St. Bridig was a significant leader in this movement.

These communities were involved in education, caring for the poor and elderly, farming and crafts. Their involvement in education also led them to foster children, which deeply connected to the Irish values of family and hospitality. All of this came together to lead to the conversion of Ireland, to drive out the metaphorical snakes, i.e. paganism.

While I am convinced, through the Scriptures and the teachings of the church Fathers, that Bishops are essential to the Church, I must admit that I share St. Patrick’s indifference to organizational structures. Because of our fallen nature it is too easy for them to quickly move from servant to master. I’m reminded of President Reagan’s saying that the 9 scariest words in the English Language are “I’m from the government and I’m here to help.”Church structures easily become the same as the government.  I’ve served on numerous ecclesiastical committees over the years and as the old spiritual puts it…. “Give me Jesus., you can have all this world, Oh give me Jesus”

What is the application of this final point? I think that the greatest flexibility is found in the local parish. We are that local monastic community that can and should get ministry done. We don’t need to wait for the Diocese to create an Evangelism Committee to develop an Evangelism Seminar to bring in an Evangelism expert, who typically has written a book but has never done it. We already have the Great Commission. Between the oversight of our Bishop and the leadership of our Vestry we have all the governance we need to do the Lord’s work. We need to move from “Why isn’t the Diocese doing X,Y,Z”to “Why isn’t St. Patrick’s doing X,Y,Z?”And then we need to move from “Why isn’t St. Patrick’s doing X,YZ?”to “Why aren’t I doing X,Y,Z?”

Patrick didn’t wait for a committee to give him permission to evangelize the Irish. Jesus had already told him to go and so he went. And as far as St. Patrick knew in his day, he had literally gone to the ends of the earth. So let’s follow Patrick’s devotion, courage and obedience as he followed the Lord.

Today is a great feast day. I encourage you to eat, drink and be merry. And then I encourage you to get back to it on Monday to return to a holy Lent. Amen.

 

 

 

Living Lent Gently

lent

Henry Nouwen, a Dutch Roman Catholic Priest and Theologian wrote, “Lent is the most important time of the year to nurture our inner life. It is the time in which we not only prepare ourselves to celebrate the mystery of the death and resurrection of Jesus, but also the death and resurrection that constantly takes place within us…When we live Lent attentively and gently, then Easter can truly be a celebration during which the full proclamation of the risen Christ will reverberate into the deepest place of our being.”

I believe that he is correct. To fail to observe Lent or to fail to attend all of Holy Week is like walking in toward the end of a movie and then wondering why you did not find it as moving as those who saw it all. Thus the Church is wise to call us to the observance of a Holy Lent. As followers of Christ we join Him in His 40 days in the wilderness and confront our own temptations. Sharing in His victory over temptations these 40 days makes His ultimate victory over death taste even sweeter

Particularly for those who may be new to this tradition, allow me to explain some of the details of this penitential season. Traditionally there are three major ways that we observe Lent, taken from Jesus’ teaching in the Gospel according to St. Matthew. The three ways of observing Lent are prayer, fasting and almsgiving. Not in all three of these Jesus did not say “If” rather He said, “When you pray…When you fast….When you give.”

One way to think of the benefit of these three is by seeing them as weapons to fight against our three major enemies, which are the world, the flesh and the devil. Older liturgies even described this season as Christian warfare.

Prayer as a weapon. English preacher Samuel Chadwick said that when we pray the devil trembles. He trembles because it is through prayer that we undo his works. When we pray “Thy kingdom come” we are praying for an invasion against the gates of hell, which Jesus said would not be able to prevail against us.

Fasting as a weapon. When we fast we confront our flesh. But we have to be careful here and not become dualists. God made our bodies and they are to be used as temples of the Holy Spirit, so our bodies are not the enemy nor are they evil. When St. Paul speaks of not walking in the flesh by “flesh” what he is referring to is that two-year old brat that lives inside of me, demanding to have his own way. Fasting is a way to say very loudly to the brat “NO!”

Giving as a weapon. Almsgiving confronts the pull of the world that demands that we watch out for number one and that fears that if we are generous then we be without. The world gives us a thousand reasons to walk past the man beaten by robbers but through almsgiving we become the Good Samaritan.

It’s very important to understand that these disciplines are means to a goal and not the goal in themselves. We are not trying to build up brownie points so that God will like us more. Rather we are confessing that we are not where we need to be, that in part we have wandered away and we use this season and these disciplines to make our way home. It is the returning that Prophets called out for. We are saying, as the beautiful hymn puts it, “Prone to wander Lord I feel it, prone to leave the God I love. Here’s my heart so take and seal it, seal it for thy courts above.” In saying “NO” to the world, the flesh and the devil we are saying “YES” to the Lord and offering Him our hearts.

We begin this season through repentance and ashes. Again we are not trying to earn favor rather we are simply admitting who we are. As we say weekly in the confession, we are admitting that we have not loved God with our whole hearts and we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. And for this we seek the Lord’sabsolution, because as Frederick Beuchner put it, we can no more absolve ourselves than we can sit in our own laps. Additionally the ashes remind us that we are mortal and so we should not put off our repentance until tomorrow because we may not have  tomorrow.

I really like that Henry Nouwen said that we should keep Lent attentively and gently. The word “gently” brings it into proper focus. Gently means that we are not driven to keep Lent perfectly, to turn it into a legalism. We are not trying to become the spiritual equivalent of Navy Seals and Lent is not the Church’s version of hell week. Keeping Lent gently is simply responding to Jesus’ loving invitation to come back home.

There is a beautiful line in the Psalm appointed today for Morning Prayer. It reads, “…mercy embraces those who trust in the Lord.”  Use this season of Lent to renew your trust in Him and allow His mercy to embrace you. May God grant us the ability to live Lent attentively and gently. Amen.

 

Don’t Be a Nimrod…Love

Buggs

Text 1 Corinthians 13

Editor’s Note: One of Bug Bunny’s favorite things to call Elmer Fudd was “Nimrod.” This name comes from Genesis 10:8,9 where the descendants of Noah are recounted and it says of Nimrod “He was a mighty hunter before the Lord.” So Bugs was being ironic and really calling Elmer a jerk. File that away for a moment.

Most folks have heard this beautiful love passage of 1 Corinthians 13 in the context of a wedding or have seen it hanging on a wall, written in lovely calligraphy with flowers around the borders. And while both of those are certainly appropriate, we get a better understanding of this passage when we see what has come before it. It may surprise you to learn that St. Paul wrote this piece as much as a corrective as he did to inspire. Let’s pull the camera way back to see the bigger picture.

I Corinthians

1:11“For it has been reported to me that there is quarreling among you.”

3:1,2 “But I could not address you as spiritual people but as people of the flesh…for while there is jealously and strife among you, are you not of the flesh?”

5:1“It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you that is not tolerated even among the pagans….
6:1 “When one of you has a grievance against another, does he dare go to the law before the unrighteous instead of the saints?”

He goes on telling them to stop doing things that evidently they were doing. In chapter 6 he tells them to flee immorality. In chapter 8 he tells them that they should not eat meat sacrificed to idols if it makes a weaker brother stumble. In chapter 10 he tells them to flee idolatry. In chapter 12 he corrects them from thinking that if someone has a differing gift or if they are not very important then they are not needed in the Church.

So after numerous corrections over 12 chapters, then and only then does he show them a more excellent way and he speaks to them about love. In a very beautiful and poetic way he is telling them to stop being such Nimrods and start living like Christians should live. Seeing this passage as addressed to the whole Church changes our focus when we read this passage from – “I need to learn how to be more loving” to “How are we doing as a Church in the way that we treat one another?”

St. Paul gives us a kind of grid so that we know what genuine love is about and raise the bar for the whole Church. He speaks of the absence of love, the essence of love and the preeminence of love.

First he speaks of the absence of love. If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.  If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.

St. Paul is saying that the inherent problem of being spiritually gifted or having great spiritual insight or even possessing enormous faith is that if these things are not completely baptized in love then they are worthless. And they are not only worthless, they are dangerous because they lead to malignant pride. The Scripture says that pride goes before a fall and a haughty spirit before destruction. Both the Scriptures and current times are replete with examples of folks who were incredibly gifted and yet were toppled by their own hubris. Pride is so destructive because it places me first. Love is so healing because places you first. And we cannot have both because one forces out the other.

Next St. Paul gives us the essence of love. Note how little it has to do with feelings that is the culture’s major definition of love. Rather loves true essence is filled with actions and attitudes towards the well being of others.  Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful] it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”

One scholar points out that all of the verbs St. Paul uses in describing the essence of love are in the present continuous tense. He says that this denotes “actions and attitudes which have become habitual, ingrained gradually…”

That says to me that love, like so many other things, is learned by practicing. Fr. BE didn’t just wake up one day and decide that he was a great tennis player. It took him years of practice to be good at it. Thus the more we practice love then more it becomes ingrained in us.

The line that jumped out at me in this description of love is that love “does not insist on its own way.” A couple of years ago I was in the Post Office and an elderly lady, seeing my clerical collar, approached and asked if she could ask me a question. When I said “Surely” she asked if I believed that it has become increasingly difficult to be a pastor in the last few years. I told her that I believed that it has. After I explained why I asked her why she brought it up. She said that her church had just gone through a split over the color of the carpet in the Sanctuary and that the split had nearly killed her Pastor with grief.

That sounds petty and ridiculous but insisting on having our own way runs deeply in the church. It runs from the color of carpets to the splitting of denominations to have our own way. But it is broader still. It is an evil power that dominates our politics and our culture and results in states recently passing laws that permit infanticide. “I’m going to have my own way even if it costs the life of a child.” How did we get here?

In his book Renovation of the Heart, Dallas Willard states, “Jesus’ resurrected presence with us, along with his teaching, assures us of God’s care for all who let him be God and let him care for them. It is love of God…and regular experience of his care that frees us from the burden of ‘looking out for ourselves.’…Then I meet everything that happens as sent or at least permitted by God….I not longer have to manage weather, airplanes or other people.” So a paraphrase of “it (love) does not insist on its own way, is“love is not being a control freak, stop being a Nimrod.”

But how do we do that? How do we stop being a Nimrod? Dallas presses the point further and says that we stop insisting on having our own way when we die to self. This comes from St. Paul who wrote in Galatians, I have been crucified with ChristIis no 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 gave himself for me.” Or to quote St. Carrie Underwood, “Jesus take the wheel.”We turn it all over to Him.That is how we die to self.

Dallas describes the fruit of that approach to life. “Being dead to self is the condition where the mere fact that I do not get what I want does not surprise me or offend me and has not control over me…what we surely can say it that those who are dead to self are not controlled in thought, feeling or action by self exaltation….but are easily controlled by love of God and neighbor.”He concludes with this. “To accept, with confidence in God, that I do not immediately have to have my way releases me from the great pressure that anger, unforgiveness and the need to retaliate imposes upon my life…It removes the root and source of by far the greater part of human evil we have to deal with in our world.”

Lastly St. Paul speaks of the preeminence of love. “Love never ends. As for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, 10 but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away. 11 When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways.12 For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.13 So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.”

So many of the things that our Lord has graciously given us to make our way in this world will pass away. As we heard last week from St. Paul this includes our bodies that will be sown perishable but will be raised imperishable. He gives us gifts to see our way on the journey but once we have reached our journey’s end there will be no more need for those gifts. We need them now because we have only partial sight. But once we see Him face to face we will be like a child who puts away those childish things to embrace a full and perfect relationship.

Some of the early fathers suggested that ultimately even faith and hope will fade away. Why? Because we won’t need faith when we know as we are known and we won’t need hope because all that we have hoped for will be realized. So all that is left, and all that we will need throughout eternity, is love. And for the first time and for all of eternity we will perfectly fulfill the command to love the Lord our God with all of our heart and soul and mind and our neighbors as ourselves. For all eternity we will live in the fullness of God’s kingdom and that is why the Church has always prayed, “Come Lord Jesus!”

Today we heard about the Transfiguration of our Lord. A chief purpose of this event was to present the divinity of Jesus Christ to His disciples. His divine glory was as brilliant to them as when He spoke to Moses.

Since Jesus is divine, and God is love, then it is correct to say also that Jesus is Love. When we take that truth and apply it back to our text we can look at this diamond through a different facet. Let’s listen to it one last time.

If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not Jesus, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not Jesus, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not Jesus, I gain nothing.

Jesus is patient and kind; Jesus does not envy or boast;..is not arrogant or rude. Jesus does not insist on His own way; He is not irritable or resentful; 6 Jesus does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. 7 Jesus bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

Jesus never ends. As for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away…For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.13 So now faith, hope, and Jesus abide, these three; but the greatest of these is Jesus.

As we see who He is and seek to become more and more conformed to His image then love becomes less about what we DO and more about who we ARE. Of course we will practice love and fail at times and practice some more and fail some more. So I find the words of St. Paul to the Philippians encouraging as we practice walking in love. He writes, “Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.”

As we enter into Lent this week let’s make this Lent much less about what we are giving up and much more about what we are putting on. Let’s put on Christ and learn to walk in love. Amen.

Eternal Blessedness

poor-in-spirit

Proverbs 10:19 says “Where there are many words transgression is unavoidable.” While I was not yet a priest, I started preaching full time when I was in my 20’s. That is a lot of words over the years so I shudder to think of the number of my transgressions. One of my worst was when I first preached on the Beatitudes, those “blessed are” verses in both Matthew’s and Luke’s Gospels. The big mistake that I made was to approach the Beatitudes as if they were virtues to which we should aspire. It fit for some of them like “Blessed are the meek” and “Blessed are the peacemakers.” But I had to get pretty creative to explain as virtues, “Blessed are you that hunger now” and “Blessed are you that weep now.” What I failed to see at the time was the context of what Jesus was preaching and to whom He was preaching it. Jesus declared that the Kingdom of God had come and now He was explaining who it is that will walk in that kingdom. And as is so often the case, His explanation completely flies in the face of the common held beliefs of His day.

You might say that the beliefs of Jesus’ day were like an early version of the health and wealth gospel, which of course is a heresy and no gospel at all. Here was their reasoning. If you walk according to the covenant then God will bless you, and if you don’t then He won’t. What is a sign that God is blessing you? It is to be healthy and prosperous. Thus if you are poor then you are not receiving God’s blessings and therefore we may conclude that you are not keeping the covenant. And if you are sick? You remember the question that the disciples asked Jesus concerning the blind man. “Who sinned, him or his parents?”With this logic it was easy to believe that the poor and the sick would be the last ones to enter the kingdom, if they enter it at all. But then Jesus comes along and says that the last will be first and so He begins, “Blessed are the poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.”

But some might object that since poverty is such a soul crushing power, how is it that Jesus can call it a blessing? The short answer is that is not what He is saying. It is not poverty per se that is a blessing rather it is the utter reliance upon God that the poor often have, because they have nothing else, that is the blessing . In his book, The Jesus I Never Knew, Philip Yancey explains it this way. “ ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit’… One commentary translates that ‘Blessed are the desperate.’ With nowhere to turn, the desperate just may turn to Jesus, the only one who can offer the deliverance they long for. Jesus really believed that a person who is poor in spirit, or hungry or thirsty for righteousness has a peculiar ‘advantage’ over the rest of us. Maybe, just maybe, the desperate person will cry out to God for help. If so that person is truly blessed.”

I have certainly witnessed this in my travels and I know that Billy Crain, who has been to Haiti, has seen it too. These Christians don’t have anything in their lives to dilute the joy of their salvation because salvation is all that they have. There is no fear that they will try to serve the two Masters of God and Mammon because they only have the one Master. Their faith and their joy is almost child like. It is both humbling and convicting to be around.

But the Beatitudes in Luke are only half of Jesus’ sermon. Jesus sets this sermon up in the tradition of the Prophets. It is presented as a set of contrasts that is intended to lead the listener to get off of the fence and to make a commitment. We see this kind of sermon in the Book of Deuteronomy when Moses points out two mountains and says that one stands for blessings and one for cursings and he calls the people to choose which it is going to be. We also see these kinds of contrasts in Jeremiah’s message to us today. “Cursed are those who trust in mortals” and“blessed are those who trust in the Lord.”We see it in the Psalm. “Happy are those who have not walked in the way of the wicked…they are like trees planted by streams of water…it is not so with the wicked, they are like chaff which the wind blows away”.

Thus Jesus uses this familiar sermon approach to lay it on the line. “Blessed are the poor…woe to you who are rich; blessed the hungry…woe to you who are full; blessed are those who weep…woe to you who laugh; blessed are you who are hated on account of the Son of Man…woe to you when all speak well of you.”

The thing that makes this lesson so difficult for us to hear is that if we are honest with ourselves in some if not many cases we fall into the woe category. Consider His first “Woe” “Woe to you who are rich”.

Now I certainly don’t see myself as rich but when I consider that over 1/3rdof the world’s population lives on less than $600 PER YEAR, perhaps I need to reevaluate. Think of that! $600 PER YEAR. Our poorest college students spend more than that on coffee. I’m not saying that we don’t have poor in our country but in many cases it is a first world poverty. Over the years there have been a number of times that I have met a person at a store to help them with food or medicine only to find them talking on their smart phone. Our first world problems need to be seen in proper perspective. “Woe to you who are rich”really does apply to most of us.

But lets clarify. It is not that wealth is evil in itself, just as poverty is not a blessing in itself. People often misquote Jesus here. He did not say that money is the root of all evil, rather he said that the LOVE of money is the root of all evil. Why is that? It is because the love of money leads us to other sins like coveting and theft and murder. It is because the love of money competes with loving God with all of our heart and soul and mind. It is because the love of money competes with loving our neighbor as ourselves. Jesus put it bluntly. We cannot have two masters, we must choose between God and Mammon.

What He is saying here is that we have to be very careful that our wealth does not insulate us from being desperate for God, desperate for His grace and mercy. So what do we do about it?

One important way that we keep our blessings from being a curse is to honor God with our wealth. It is what the Bible calls “first fruits.” When the children of Israel gathered the harvest, the first of it went to the Lord as an act of gratitude and worship and that is how they kept their priorities right. In that same vein many Christians, when they sit down to pay their bills, will write the first check as a tithe to the Lord. It is a way to say that God comes first rather than giving Him our leftovers. It is a way to say that our trust is in God and not in Mammon.

We also honor God with our wealth when we see others in need and care for them in Jesus’ Name. Jesus gave us a great illustration of this in the parable of the Good Samaritan. Lent is quickly approaching and that is a great time to take a closer look at our budgets to see if we can’t rearrange some expenses in order to be more generous to the poor. If we try to keep it all, if we try to have it all, we will not know blessedness.

Another way that stay out of the woe category is to live more simply. There is a famous Chinese actor named Chow Yun-Fat who you have likely seen in the movies. He was the star of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and the Bulletproof Monk. He is worth $714 million but he rides public transit, eats food from street vendors and had a flip phone for 17 years, and he only got a new phone when the old phone died. He only spends $102 per month on himself and plans on leaving his fortune to charities. He said,“The hardest thing in life is not about how much money you earn, but how to keep a peaceful mindset and live the rest of your life in a simple and carefree manner.”Jesus teaches us that we gain this peaceful mindset by seeking first the kingdom of God and His righteousness and trust God to add to us all else that we need.

We note that in this brief sermon of contrasts Jesus does not stop with the discussion of money. He also addresses our hearts and our relationships. “Blessed are you who weep now….woe to you when all speak well of you .”His goal of course is not for us to be miserable and lonely. Rather He is touching on some core values of life and challenging us about how we prioritize them.

If our chief goal is to be happy then we will most likely not be faithful to God because the pursuit of happiness will not allow us to take up our cross and follow Jesus. He certainly chose faithfulness over happiness. If our chief goal is to have everyone like us then we will be man pleasers and not God pleasers. Again Jesus did not compete in a popularity contest. Pleasing His Father rather than man resulted in His death.

In essence we see in the sermon that Jesus is being a realist. He is telling us that we can’t have it all, at least not yet. This life is not all there is and so we make a mess of it if we try to pack everything in for the brief time that we are here. Ultimate peace and love and joy are not found until we have entered the fullness of the Kingdom of God. If you don’t understand that then you can party all you want, and shop all you want, and have as many relationships as humanly possible and still won’t find the kind of fulfillment that you seek. What we truly seek is not here and so Jesus challenges us to see the bigger picture.

If we hoard our money in hopes that riches will make us happy then we miss the joy and blessedness of giving. If we try to please everybody and care more what people think about us than what God thinks about us then we miss the love of the only One who loves us with an everlasting love. If we try to define ourselves by our things or the people around us then we will never know the blessedness of discovering who God created you to be. In short, if we seek heaven on earth then this may be the only heaven that we will know.

Jesus is challenging our priorities. Since we can’t have it all now, but we can have it all later, then we should live wisely now with later in ther forefront of our minds. As I said earlier, the point of the contrast sermon is to move the listener off of the fence. Jesus calls us to make a choice between  eternal blessedness over temporal happiness. Choose wisely. Choose to be blessed. Amen

           

Members of One Body

bodyofchrist

Lessons – Nehemiah 8:2-10; Psalm 113; 1 Corinthians 12:12-27; St. Luke 4:14-21

“Now you are the Body of Christ and individually members of it.” 

One of the most encouraging things that happened in our transition from All Saints’ Episcopal into St. Patrick’s Anglican was the response that we received from the Body of Christ. Encouragement came from Christians of all stripes. A Baptist minister emailed me with words of assurance that we had done the right thing. A Roman Catholic priest wrote that he stumbled across our story on line and was using it as a model in a retreat that he was leading for Roman Catholic clergy. An anonymous person wrote and offered to help us purchase new prayer books. One priest up North said that he was so inspired by our story that he too was going to plant a traditional Anglican parish. And of course we could never repay Pastor Ronnie and Smyrna of God for opening their facility to us, at no charge I might add, as we launched St. Patrick’s.

While it is certain that St. Paul was not thinking of different denominations, when he was teaching about the various parts of Christ’s Body, I do think that the unity that these others Christians modeled for us was the kind of unity and support that we are to have with one another. This reading from Corinthians challenges us to consider our own understanding of the Church as the Body of Christ and our place as members of it.

First, it is so important to understand that because we are members together of one Body, our connection to one another is not to be taken lightly. In fact it is vital. No part can survive unless it is connected to the whole. Simply put, God doesn’t make Lone Ranger Christians.

A priest goes to visit a member who has been absent from church for some time. As he entered the man’s home he saw the elderly gentleman sitting in front of a fire. Without saying a word the priest sat next to him. After awhile, still without saying a word, the priest went to the fireplace, pulled a log out of the fire, and sat it on the hearth. He took his seat again as he and the old man watched the log smolder and its flame die out. Then the priest got up and put the log back in the fire and it burst into flames again. As he turned to leave the old man said, “I will see you in church next Sunday.”

St. Paul’s vision for the Church is very different than what is often preached in American Christianity. The individualism of American Christianity, that the Gospel of all about me getting into heaven, turns us into consumers. We only go to church if we are getting something out of it or we change churches because we like their music program better. But according to St. Paul we are not individual shoppers, we are members of one another, members of One Body. He says that we should be so connected to each other that when one member suffers we all suffer and when one member is honored we all rejoice.

 The Church as the Body of Christ also tells us that our unity is real and genuine. We are not acting as if we are one. We ARE one because God has made us so.

 When I was in college I was a member of a fraternity. We had a lot of fun, we drank a lot of beer and we had very high and lofty ideals of our commitment to one anther as brothers. We would say that our commitment was not for college days alone, but that ended up just being a slogan. Once we graduated, we got married and began raising families, our brotherhood faded into a memory. At the time we felt as much like a family as a bunch of single guys could, but there was no real glue holding us together. The connection we had with each other was enjoyable but temporary because it was not genuine unity

It is very different for the Church. Our unity is genuine because we have been bonded to one another by the Spirit of God. “For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body…and were all made to drink of one Spirit.”Blood may be thicker than water but Spirit is even thicker still. That is why untold numbers over the centuries have even been willing to face rejection from their natural families in order to follow Jesus and be a member of His Body.

One of the things that I have appreciated about the Anglican Church is the high value it placed on unity. We were one of the few Churches that did not split during the Civil War. The Church in Chattanooga, where I served was a pre-Civil War Church. There were a number of families that were 5thgeneration members. They told stories that during the Yankee occupation of Chattanooga both sides would worship together at St. Paul’s. It shows how seriously our Anglican ancestors were about unity within Christ’s Body.

The image of the Church as The Body of Christ also tells us that each and every member is necessary. “If the foot would say, ‘Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,’ that would not make it any less a part of the body….the eyes cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you.’”

 St. Paul is talking here to those who do not feel worthy or that they are not very important to the Church. He is also talking to the prideful who think that they don’t need anyone else. St. Paul is saying that both kinds of thinking are wrong!

It may be true that some parts of the Body are more obviously needed than other parts but that does not mean that the other parts are unimportant. We know that we cannot live without a heart, and we also know that we can live without a foot, but does that make our feet unimportant? Of course not!

In this section of the passage St. Paul is doing a New Testament version of every coach’s speech that there is no “I” in “Team.” Arguably the most admired person on a football team is the quarter back. He is often the star. And yet how often a game is one or lost by a field goal. You don’t even think about the kicker until he comes out for his one shot and the whole game rests on him. Every part is needed!

St. Paul points out that God has worked it out so that the less honorable members of the Body are actually given greater attention. So if you ever feel unworthy or believe that somehow you are disqualified to serve God, then all you have to do is to review the knuckleheads in the Bible that God called into His service, and see that there is plenty of room for you. In The Purpose Driven Life Rick Warren gives a litany of the ones that God used. Rick says, “Abraham was old, Jacob was insecure, Leah was unattractive, Joseph was abused, Moses stuttered, Gideon was poor, Samson was codependent, Rahab was immoral, David had an affair and all kinds of family problems, Elijah was suicidal, Jeremiah was depressed, Jonah was reluctant, Naomi was a widow, John the Baptist was eccentric…Peter was…hot tempered, Martha worried a lot, the Samaritan woman had several failed marriages, Zacchaeus was unpopular, Thomas had doubts, Paul had poor health and Timothy was timid.” (p233). Whatever your placement in Christ’s Body happens to be know that you are a needed part of this Body.

The image of the Church as the Body and Christ as the Head tells us that our unity is an act of God. Our lesson says, “God arranged the members in the body, each one of them as He chose.”

A number of years ago the Episcopal House of Bishops was experiencing a strain on their unity as it was becoming more and more clear that there were two churches within the Episcopal Church. One that sought to obey the Scriptures and one that believed that the Spirit was leading them beyond the Scriptures.

To help their unity the Bishops met in California and hired a relationship expert, who by the way was not even a Christian. The expert had them do relationship building exercises including one day they were to gather at the beach, hold hands and dance in the froth of the incoming waves.  

I could not in my wildest imagination see my Bishop at that time dancing in the froth so I asked what he was doing when all of this was going on. He told me that he was sitting on his balcony of his hotel with Bishop Lipscomb, smoking a cigar and laughing at all the lords a leaping in the froth below.

Unity is a work of God. If the Holy Spirit does not unite us in the truth then we can get together and talk about our feelings, or we can meet in convention and pass a thousand resolutions, or we can dance in the ocean froth till the cows come home and it will all be for naught. What was begun in the Spirit at our baptism must be continued in the Spirit. We do not create the unity but it is up to each of us to cooperate with the work of the Spirit to keep us one.

Lastly, the image of the Church as the Body of Christ tells us that unity may be broken, but only for very serious reasons after every attempt at reconciliation has been made. In this letter St. Paul identifies some rampant immorality in the Church and he instructs them in chapter 5 to separate themselves from those involved. He gives the reason that they should separate. “Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump of dough? Clean out the old leaven…”

When unity becomes more important than truth we put the whole Body at risk. Heresy will leaven the whole lump like gangrene in a foot can infect an entire body. So when the Body of Christ is placed in jeopardy by heresy then unity must be sacrificed. But like an amputation, it is painful, it is a great loss and it is never something over which to celebrate.

So what have we learned from St. Paul? We learned that like a hand to an arm or a foot to a leg we are members of one another. This is something God has done and our unity is no more optional than my hand has an option to remain connected to the arm. The Body of Christ is an organic union and it is a union we must work diligently to preserve but without turning unity into an idol.

So the question before each of us today is where do we fit into this Body? Do you see yourself as an important part of the Body? If so then celebrate that, but don’t get too proud because there is only one Head of the Body and it ain’t you. Do you believe that you are a less important part of the Body? Don’t be deceived into thinking that the Body doesn’t need you. There is NO unnecessary part of Christ’s Body.

Let’s allow this truth about being individual members of Christ’s Body call us to a deeper commitment to find our place in it and to preserve our unity. In this way each member will contribute to the health of the whole and when this happens then Jesus, who is the Head of the Body, is glorified. This is an important step in fulfilling our vision of Jesus being loved, worshipped and obeyed to the ends of the earth. Amen.

The Mess in the Middle

mess in the middle

Yesterday finished the Christmas season and today we celebrate the Feast of the Epiphany. Since I have no doubt that you did not decorate for Christmas until the third Sunday in Advent, you are now free to take down your Christmas decorations. (Right!)

The point of this season is to celebrate that the message of the Gospel is spread beyond the borders of Israel. It is a celebration that Jesus Christ is the true Light, not just of the Jewish, people but of the World. The magi that we read about in today’s Gospel were perhaps the first Gentiles to worship our Lord revealing, as Peter will preach in Acts, that He is Lord of all.

And yet many in His day wanted to hide the light under a basket. They did not want the light of God to go out to all people. They wanted instead to keep their religion parochial. They didn’t want to break from their traditions and that is why the Apostles were regularly challenged, beaten and imprisoned for preaching the good news.

Things are not all that different today. Folks may not beat up or imprison preachers, at least not here in America, at least not yet, but there is still that resistance to spreading the Good News beyond our comfortable borders. In fact many churches put their light under a bushel by being content just to meet budget and have programs within their walls, without real concern for what is going on out there in God’s world.

Years ago I came across a wonderful exception, St. Martin in the Fields in London. When I went to their website I found their mission statement and their charter. It was so good that I want to take a moment to read it to you. Here is their ten-point charter.

  1. We believe in and proclaim both the mystery that is God, whom we partly know and partly do not know, and the human need to worship.
  2. We believe in and proclaim the person of Jesus Christ who distinctively reveals the nature of God and the meaning and purpose of life, and who calls us to follow him through the death of the cross to the place of Resurrection.
  3. We trust in the Holy Spirit who prompts liberty, beauty, truth, love and joy against the waywardness of human nature.
  4. We are committed to using the Bible in a way that takes account of all truth and relates it to the real experiences, both good and bad, that people have of life.
  5. We are committed to a Church that conveys the Christian revelation in signs and symbols, particularly in the sacraments of Baptism and Holy Communion.
  6. We are committed to exploring the meaning of the Kingdom of God and to making connections between what we profess and the way in which we live and work.
  7. We draw inspiration from our patron saint St Martin who, by cutting his cloak in two, demands that we look both at the resource that we create and possess, and the way that it is shared.
  8. We are committed to taking all people seriously wherever they might be at their particular point of understanding, while at the same time sharing with them whatever insights may have been gained by our relationship with God.
  9. We acknowledge the destructive power of human sinfulness, and we welcome gratefully the forgiveness that God offers to those who are prepared to turn to the truth.
  10. We are committed to identifying and affirming what is good and identifying and opposing what is evil, and living as best we can in the mess in the middle.

What I hear in this charter is a church that is not hiding from the world but engaging it, a church that does not pretend to have all of the answers but at the same time is bold to profess what they know to be true, particularly about Jesus Christ. I especially love the vision given in the 10thpoint that they will affirm what is good, oppose what is evil and live as best as they can in the mess in the middle.

Doesn’t this capture the Christian life? We are citizens of heaven but we are living here in the world. We are sinners whom God declares to be saints. We need a new hymn to the tune of “I’m looking at the man in the mirror” entitled,“I’m living in the mess in the middle.”This is where and how we let the light of Christ shine in the world.

I believe that it was in the 1980’s there was this teenage kid from India whose mother declared him to be the latest incarnation of God. The kid came to America and a friend of mine went to one of his appearances in Florida. Hundreds and hundreds gathered to worship him so they erected a great open-air canopy around a golden throne so that the people could come and pay him homage. For his grand entrance he came across a lake on a speedboat and once enthroned people stood in line to offer him gifts and receive his touch.

What a contrast to Jesus who is the REAL Son of God! First of all Jesus didn’t need a boat to get across a lake because He could have walkeed it. But He also didn’t sit on a golden throne so that people could come and worship Him. He went from town to town on foot, He preached on hillsides and stayed in people’s homes. He ate with sinners. He was not like royalty popping into the pub to have a pint with the locals and then wisk away to his castle. He joined people where they were… right there in the mess in the middle.

If this was Jesus’s m.o. for doing ministry then doesn’t it make sense that we understand that our baptism points us in the same direction. Baptism does not take us out of the world, rather it calls on us to engage the world. It does not make us perfect, it does not make us better than other folks, and it does not even ensure that life will be any easier. What it does do is free us from the mastery of sin so that we can follow Jesus and, in terms of the world, become a part of the solution rather than a part of the problem. Our baptism empowers us to live in the mess in the middle.

But we must be clear that living in the mess in the middle is NOT the same as having a tamed, reasonable and balanced religion. That is what Jesus called being“lukewarm.”It is possible to be passionate about our faith and do so without claiming to have all of the answers. The two are not contradictory.

One concern that I had after 911 was as folks learned more about radicalIslam, that secularists would paint all religions with that brush.  For example I came across this line in an article in USA Today. “The World Trade Center stood as the material expression of reason and reality. It fell by the material expression of faith and mysticism. To win this war we must ignore the fraud of religion and discover the philosophy of reality, reason, individualism and capitalism.” (USA Today, Tuesday, December, 2001 , p 14A). In the magazine Cigar Aficionado a writer described the terrorists as “God drunk”and said that the solution for this kind of evil is a joie de viethat has us focus on daily pleasures of the flesh.

These writers were calling for a lukewarm religion if indeed they were calling for any religion at all. But they have missed the point. The terrorists were not drunk with God, they were drunk with hate. They did their evil in the name of religion but that does not mean that religion was to blame. As we are told in the Epistle of James in the Message, “Anyone who sets himself up as “religious” by talking a good game is self-deceived…Real religion… is this: Reach out to the homeless and loveless in their plight and guard against corruption from the godless world.” (The Message, p. 567). The antidote to religious-driven terrorism is not more secularism; the antidote is true religion, or more precicely the Light of Jesus Christ. Sure there are nuts, who in the name of Jesus have instigated mass suicides unspeakable things but the answer for them is not to become more lukewarm in their faith. The answer for them is to meet the real Jesus in whose name they are doing these evils.

Here are the extremes to avoid so that we can live with the mess in the middle. One extreme is by joining a false religion and let them do the thinking for you. The other extreme is to immerse yourself in the material world ignoring the spiritual realities. But there is no real life in these two options. We were created to wonder and think and wrestle with truth, which cults and false religions do not allow. And we were created with a spirit to know and worship God, which no amount of materialism can provide. Jesus lived victoriously in the mess in the middle and He is the only one who can show us how to do the same. There was nothing passionless or lukewarm about Him and yet He stood out as clearly different from the Pharisees who claimed to have all of the answers or the secularists of his day who only cared about what they will wear or eat or where they will live.

Here is a sad post script.  I recently went back to the website of St. Martins and the strong charter has disappeared. In it’s place is a mission statement entitled “Who We Are” and there is not one mention of Jesus in it. It’s opening sentence is  St Martin-in-the-Fields is a unique configuration of cultural, charitable and commercial initiatives rooted in the life of a vibrant Church of England congregation.”That sounds to me more like a description of the BBC than a church. In just a handful of years it appears that they have lost their way. Let that be a cautionary tale for us.

So let us use this season to renew our commitment. Let’s take a closer look at our own lives and the life of this parish to see if we are engaged in the world or hiding from it. Let’s be purposefull about letting our light shime. Let’s renew our commitment to join Jesus in the mess in the middle.