Abiding in the Vine

“I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit.”

This is Jesus’ 7th“I am” statement in the Gospel of John. As Father Chris mentioned in his last sermon Jesus is intentionally using the Divine Name “I am” to declare His divinity. In biblical numerology 7 is the number for perfection or completion. For example the Lord created the heavens and the earth and on the 7thday He rested. Thus as the 7th“I am” statement it causes one to wonder if this is not intended to be the completion or apex of them all. 

I say that because this particular I am statement perfectly captures the relationship with Jesus to which we are called and it summarizes that relationship in a way that tells us all we need to know. What does it mean to be a disciple of Jesus? It is recognizing that He is the Vine and you are the branches and you are to bear fruit. What does it mean to declare Jesus as Lord? It is recognizing that He is the Vine and you are the branches and you are to bear fruit. What does it mean to walk in holiness? It is recognizing that He is the Vine and you are the branches and you are to bear fruit. 

Actually we need to take it a step further. Jesus not only declares that He is the vine and we are the branches but He adds a command in verse 4 when He says “Abide in me, and I in you.” He also gives a warning in verse 6 if we don’t abide in Him so it would behoove us to be clear about how we go about abiding in Christ. These passages give us several thoughts as well as several benefits for abiding in the Vine.

The first thought to abiding in Christ is found in verses 4 and 5. “As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abide in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me….for apart from me you can do nothing.” We abide in Him when we place our trust in Him, when we realize our utter dependence on Him. The disciples got that. As the crowds were leaving Jesus because of His hard sayings, Jesus turned to His disciples and asked if they were going to leave Him as well. They said, “Where would we go Lord? Who else has the words of life?” 

It is when we realize that we are helpless without Him that He becomes our help. It is one of those gospel paradoxes that we only find strength when we admit our weakness. We will gladly abide in the Vine when we realize that we are dead in our transgressions without Him. 

This perspective is what makes the difference between nominal Christianity and a vital faith. If you think that you are basically well and you see the Gospel as a multi vitamin then you can take it or leave it at your convenience. You will think that it is acceptable to be a C. E Christian (Christmas and Easter). After all who doesn’t miss taking their vitamins every now and then. But if you believe that you have been snake bit and the Gospel is the only anti-venom that there is then there is not a thing that you wouldn’t trade for it. 

It starts with trust. But in his book Ruthless Trust, Brennan Manning offers us a reality check about a trust that we need to hear. He says, “The story of salvation history indicates that without exception trust must be purified in the crucible of trial” (p9). He is right. From Abraham thinking that he was to sacrifice His son, to Moses standing on the banks of the Red Sea with the Egyptian army closing in, to Jesus sweating blood in the Garden of Gethsemane, their trust was tested to the max. Perhaps God can use this pandemic to purify our trust. We can seek Him to do so when we realize that, as we are told in the great hymn, His only design is “thy dross to consume and thy gold to refine.”

Believing that we can do nothing without Christ naturally leads to another way that we abide in the Vine; and that is by prayer. Verse 7 “If you abide in me and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.” Since I cannot do anything without Him then it only makes sense that I would be continually asking for His help. Ask for wisdom when you need to make a difficult decision. Ask for courage to follow where He leads. Ask for strength when you are weak. Ask for faith when your knees are shaking. As I said in a previous sermon we can ask for everything from His Kingdom to come to our daily bread and everything in between. Prayer is how the branch stays connected to the Vine. 

Of course this verse needs some clarification because it has been martyred by the televangelist and health and wealth preachers. “Ask whatever you wish” does not give us license to pray the Janice Joplin prayer of “O Lord won’t you buy me a Mercedes Benz, my friends all have Porches I must make amends…” What we wish is to flow from the previous word, “If you abide in me and my words abide in you.” If we are abiding in Him and His words are abiding in us then our prayers will be filled with what He wills and not necessarily what we will. Archbishop William Temple put it this way. “We ask whatever we will but being in Christ our will must be for the glory of God and the accomplishment of His purpose. (Readings in St. John’s Gospel, p.263).

When I was in college and part of a couple of campus ministries, while it was never said outright, the clear message that you got was if you were spiritual you would have a one hour quiet time each morning. And if you were super spiritual you would go for two hours. I tried and tried, I honestly did. And I managed to fail at every devotional plan that I ever attempted. To be real honest I dreaded morning devotions. For me it was a form of protestant penance.

Things changed for the better when I learned of the pattern of the historic church. Following the Psalmist who said, “7 times a day I will bless thee” the historic church developed a pattern of prayer of offering prayers and readings all throughout the day and into the night. It was like eating seven small meals rather than one huge breakfast. 

That pattern has continued for many centuries and is still the pattern today and not just in monasteries. That is the pattern of the Daily Office of Morning and Evening Prayer, Noonday Prayers and Compline. It is the pattern of Christians throughout the world that have embraced a rule of life like those of Benedict or Francis. 

I tell you this so that you don’t think you should only pray if you have a huge chunk of time to do so.  The most perfect prayer of all it the Lord’s Prayer and that takes less than a minute to pray. Connecting with Jesus through prayer throughout the day and into the night, about anything and everything, sure sounds to me like abiding in Him. 

A third way that we abide in the Vine is through obedience. Verse 10. “If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love.” The Pharisee in us loves this verse. Now we get to make a list and check it twice. We get to create rules to follow and especially make it our job to see that everyone else is following those rules. We become so proud of our obedience that we thank God that we are not like that sinner in the Temple. 

On the other hand the rebel in us is repulsed by this verse. As soon as we hear a call to obedience we hear legalism and control and a loss of identity. We expect to hear moralistic sermons on drinking and dancing and chewing.

Of course both of those viewpoints are entirely wrong because they have missed the connection that Jesus makes between obedience and love. “Just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in His love.” Jesus didn’t obey His Father because He was afraid that He would be sent to hell if He didn’t. He obeyed His Father because He loved His Father. He delighted to do His Father’s will. When you obey out of love then your obedience is a joy and not a burden. And when you obey out of love you don’t need a set of rules to follow. Love is your guide. Jesus said that if we love Him we would keep His commandments. What was the new commandment that He gave to His disciples? It was to love one another as He had loved them. 

Let’s consider the benefits of abiding in the Vine. First we bear fruit. Verse 5 “Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit.” Note that Jesus not only says we will bear fruit but that we will bear much fruit. What is the fruit that we will bear? How about the fruit of good works? Abiding in Christ will cause us to love and serve our neighbor. How about the fruit of the Spirit? Love, joy, peace, patience…could anyone use a little more of those these days? And what is wonderful about the image of fruit is that it is naturally produced, as the branch stays connected to the vine. It is not something that needs to be conjured up or developed by years of disciplined study. It flows naturally from your relationship to Christ.

A second benefit of abiding in Christ is that it brings glory to God. Verse 8. “By this my Father is glorified that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples.” I believe that the Presbyterians are correct in their catechism when they ask, “What is the chief end of man?” and the answer is, “To glorify God and to enjoy Him forever.”  People are always searching for happiness but they inevitably look in all the wrong places. True happiness that is accompanied with lasting contentment is found when you discover your reason for being. If our reason for being is to glorify God and we can do so by producing fruit then we have found the road to happiness. And the good news is that road is a freeway and not a toll road.

A third benefit of abiding in Christ is joy. Verse 11. “These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be full.” That is quite a promise. Not just any joy but we are to receive Jesus’ joy and not just some joy but joy that is full, drinking from the saucer joy. 

You have probably figured it out by now but you are not going to get that kind of joy by watching the news. I counted the other morning and I came up with either 6 or 7 reports in a row that were nothing but bad news. It started with Covid-19, then a meat shortage, then a monster killer wasp discovered out West, then a strange new infection in children, then the airline industry collapsing and on and on it went. I know that they have to sell ads but the news has not always been delivered in such apocalyptic tones. It is more and more difficult to discern how much is information and how much is manipulation. 

So that is why when I want some joy in my life I think about His unfailing love and mercy for me. I think about a kingdom that is not in trouble. I think about a day when all things will be made right. I think about eternity with those I love. I think how nothing can separate me from His love. I think of Jesus admonition again and again to not be afraid but to trust. All of this brings me joy. I can’t stand here and declare that my joy is yet full, but I’m working on it. 

I want to mention one more way that we abide in Christ that is not seen in today’s portion of John’s Gospel but is found in a few chapters earlier in John 6. Jesus said, “He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me and I in him.” It is through the Sacrament that we abide in Christ and that is why we need to reopen Sunday worship as soon as possible. Our plan right now is to return to Sunday worship on the last Sunday of May, which is the Feast of Pentecost. And we need to do this together because it is as we receive the Body and Blood of Christ together that we are the Body of Christ. That cannot be done sitting alone in front of a computer. 

Beyond that we are meant to live in community because we are created in God’s image and God lives in the community of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. We need to be together. If we are honest with ourselves we will admit that “Making your way in the world today takes everything you got. So taking a break from all your worries sure would help a lot. Sometimes you want to go where everybody knows your name. And they’re always glad you came. You want to be where you can see; our troubles are all the same. You want to be where everybody knows your name.” (Someone should turn that into a song). 

The clear message from Jesus today is that we are to abide in Him. And please note that He gives that to us as a command and not as a suggestion. This command comes with a promise. If we abide in Him then He will abide in us. Could there be anything better? We abide in Him by being utterly dependent upon Him, staying connected to Him in prayer, walking in obedience based on love and by regularly and faithfully receiving the Sacrament. Let’s commit ourselves to this and may His joy be and you and your joy be full. Amen. 

Freedom from Fear

This 1928 Prayer Book that I use during the Mass was my father’s. He received it when he was confirmed in 1935.  He was born and raised in the small town of Monroe in Upper State New York Sate. (In terms of importance to me, Monroe ranks right next to the holy city of Jerusalem because it is also the birthplace of Velveeta Cheese). 

My father grew up during the Great Depression and joined the Navy at 17 when the US entered World War II. He had only a high school education but he was a very smart man and he rose through the ranks to Lt. Commander. After retiring from the Navy he earned a college degree and started a small business. It was difficult watching him age and become frail because he was quite the jock growing up. I had the privilege of being with him when he died. I administered last rites to him. A day or so before he died he looked me square in the eye and said, “Ray, I’m not afraid to die.” And he said it with such calm conviction that I absolutely knew that he was speaking the truth. His death was a gentle passing. That experience made me wonder if I would be able to say the same thing about fear when it was my time to go.

King David was of the same mindset as my father according to today’s Psalm. “Ye though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I shall fear no evil….” That is significant because David wasn’t just waxing poetic. From fighting lions and bears as a shepherd, to slaying Goliath, to being hunted by Saul, to the rebellion of his son, to the many battles that he fought, David had multiple opportunities to be afraid. And yet he was fearless when facing death. 

This presents us with a question. How do we come to a place where fear is not ruling our lives? Of course given the time that we are living in, that is a purely theoretical question, but let’s ask it anyway. The other day I was reading the alternate Old Testament lesson from last week, which was a portion of Isaiah 43, and some points jumped off of the page that provide us with some answers.

Verse one says, “But now thus says the LORD, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.” So the first point is this; Do not fear because you are the Lord’s possession. And that really is the major point of Psalm 23. You may have heard the story of a little boy who has memorized Psalm 23 in Vacation Bible School and was chosen to recite it on the final day before parents and visitors. He stood and said, “The Lord is my shepherd…” and then he froze, his mind went blank. His VBS teacher encouraged him to try again. “The Lord is my shepherd…..” Nothing. She said, “Try one more time.” “The Lord is my shepherd….and that’s all I need to know.” And truly that is all we do need to know. When fear shows up don’t try to battle it head on, look to your Shepherd. As He tells us that as a Good Shepherd He will lay down His life for us so what will He not do for His flock? Do not be afraid, you are the Lord’s possession. 

Verse 2 says, “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through the fire you shall not be burned and the flame shall not consume you.” Point two is this; Do not fear because you are always in His presence. The LORD say, “I will be with you.” Jesus added, “And I will never leave you nor forsake you.”

This point is where I frequently need my perspective adjusted. A wrong expectation that slips its way into my thinking is that if He truly loves me then there would be no waters or rivers of fire to pass through. But God does not promise that does He? What He promises is that He will be with us. “Ye though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil…” Why? “because Thou art with me.” 

Years ago I was trying to catch a flight out of Atlanta. It was supposed to leave at 11am but we were notified that our plane was delayed because it was snowed in at Chicago. The delay ended up being over 11 hours. What they did not tell us was that our plane would not be able to leave Chicago, so rather than canceling the flight they worked all day repairing a grounded plane in Atlanta. Finally as we were nearing midnight we boarded. As we lifted off and were banking out of Atlanta, the engine on my side of the plane exploded and sent fire the length of the entire fuselage. Because it was so dark the flames were particularly dramatic and foreboding. Chaos broke out. People were screaming, the old man across the aisle from me wet himself and the flight attendants were all crying. If I told you that at that moment I was not afraid I would be lying. But to my surprise I was not frozen in terror. Instead I began to pray and I prayed and prayed and prayed. Much to my chagrin I had a good amount of time to pray because the airplane had to circle Atlanta to dump most of its fuel before we could make an emergency landing. I remember praying for the pilot’s math so that he wouldn’t dump too much fuel because two weeks earlier a pilot had made that error in California and they dropped in the drink. When we finally landed the crew took over a red eye flight to the West Coast and offered it to us but about half of the people refused to get on another plane. Now again I would be lying if I said that I was not afraid but I believe that I was not panicked because the Lord was present with me. I believe He is the One who gave me the grace to pray when my natural reaction would have been to be in fetal position under the seat in front of me. 

But what do we do about the times when we are passing through the river or fire or valley and we don’t feel His presence. What do we do then? We trust that He is there nonetheless because He said that He would be. As one teacher put it, “We are already in the presence of God, what is absent is awareness.” You may remember a poem from a few years ago called “Footsteps.” It’s about a guy looking over his life and seeing two sets of footsteps in the sand, one set his and one set the Lord’s. But then he asks about the times that he only sees one set of footsteps and the Lord says, “That was when I was carrying you.”  The poem was repeated so many times that it became a little trite but it remains so true. I can definitely look back at my life and see many, many times that He was carrying me and I don’t know that I would be here today if He hadn’t done so. So do not be afraid, you are in His presence.

Verse 4 says “Because you are precious in my eyes, and honored, and I love you, I give men in return for you, peoples in exchange for your life.”  We know now that this prophecy was ultimately fulfilled when He gave the Son of Man in exchange for our lives. Therefore point three is this; Do not be afraid because you are precious in the sight of God.

For some that can be a hard concept to wrap our minds around. “Me? Precious to God?” I don’t really know why but as I was growing up, and would think about God, my first thought was that He was disappointed in me. I imagined Him sitting with a big book in His lap and marking down every time I messed up. And because that was so often I could see Him shaking His head at me in disapproval. That misconception of God was deep within me, most of the time on an unconscious level, but it was there. When someone from Campus Crusade said to me, “God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life” my immediate reaction was “Really?” rather than “Of Course!” It turned out that He does love me and He did have a wonderful plan for my life but I wasn’t convinced of that then. 

What started to break down this terrible misconception about our Lord was an experience that I had one morning during a daily devotion. I was reading through the Bible and was in the prophet Zephaniah. (Look it up, there really is such a book). I read these words.  “The LORD your God is in your midst, a mighty one who will save; he will rejoice over you with gladness; he will quiet you by his love; he will exult over you with loud singing.” I was blown away. It hit me like a revelation. Instead of being disappointed with me and shaking His head, when God sees me He breaks out in song. What? That is what the text says. “He will exult over you with loud singing.”  Not just singing but LOUD singing. What a concept! 

If you find it difficult to believe that you are precious in God’s sight then I want to encourage you to do three things. First if you are not regularly reading through the Scriptures then add that discipline to your life. This is important for several reasons. You have some powerful forces warring against you. They are called the world, the flesh and the devil and the last thing that they want is for you to be convinced that you are loved by God. You need a defense against their influence. St. Paul says in Ephesians we are to “take up the shield of faith, with which you are able to extinguish the flaming darts of the evil one.” How do we get this shield of faith? St. Paul tells us in Romans. “Faith cometh by hearing and hearing by the word of Christ.”

A second reason that regular reading of Scripture is so important is because our world is filled with mental and spiritual pollutants. This pollution comes to us all day every day through multimedia, the internet, the printed word and talk around the water cooler. The pollution comes to us in the form of distortions, half-truths, gossip, propaganda, and outright lies. In Ephesians St. Paul speaks of Christ’s love for the Church and how He sanctifies her “having cleansed her by the washing of the water with the word.” Daily Bible reading therefore is like a daily shower only instead of cleansing your body it cleanses your heart and your mind. 

A third reason for the disciplined reading of Scripture is it becomes the hammer that breaks your chains. We become enslaved when we are not walking in the truth. I was enslaved by the misconception of God that I just spoke about. I was imprisoned by a lie. Jesus said it is the truth that sets us free and so the more we expose ourselves to Scripture, the more truth fills our lives and the freer we become. So read your Bibles. Doing so in the context of the Daily Office of the Prayer Book is a great start for us as Anglicans.

The second thing I would suggest is take every opportunity when we offer classes that are about or developed from the four pillars. I am not sure yet when we will be able to offer classes again. It may not be until the fall. Time will tell. But these four pillars of Sacramental Living, Joyful Discipleship, Radical Love and Gracious Evangelism are grounded in Christ and they will establish you in His love. 

The third thing that I would highly recommend is that you read about anything that you can get your hands on by Brennan Manning. He was a very broken servant of God but boy howdy did he get the Good News. One of my favorite quotes of his, that is a goal for me, is this. “My deepest awareness of myself is that I am deeply loved by Jesus Christ and I have done nothing to deserve it.” That is about as solid as “The Lord is my shepherd and that is all I need to know.”

How do you conquer fear?  You do so by knowing that you are His possession, that you are always in His presence, and that you are precious in His sight. If you can get those truths planted deep into your heart then you will be able to say with St. Paul, “If God be for us, who can be against us?” Amen. 

Fellow Heirs with Christ

Happy Easter! Christ is Risen! I want to begin by thanking Fr. Chris and Fr. BE for their insightful sermons over the last few weeks. They could not have given us a better perspective for these challenging days. Nothing better and nothing more needs to be said about it so I’m going to point us in a different direction. I want to direct our minds, as we just heard in Colossians “…above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God.”

I once saw an old preacher raise a tattered Bible in the air and proclaim. “I’ve read the back of the book….we win!” He is so right. It is because of this day, because Jesus stepped out of the tomb, because He lives, because He is seated at the right hand of God, that we truly do win. But to more fully appreciate it let’s go back to the beginning to put this win in its context. 

In the first chapter of Genesis we read, “Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image after our likeness, so God created them in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” We know that when God said, “Let US make man in OUR image” He was not talking to the angels. In this same chapter we see God creating everything that is by His Word, the Word that would become flesh, while the Spirit hovered over the face of the deep. Thus the “us” is a clear reference to the Holy Trinity. 

What does that mean? It means that we are not made in the image of the angels; rather we are made in the image of the Holy Trinity. Stop and let that sink in for a moment. You are God’s image bearer; therefore you are a sacred being. Jesus’ victory over death was so that God could gather back to Himself His sacred beings, His image bearers, that had been lost to Him through the fall of man. 

This perception of ourselves as sacred beings is important because too often the Gospel that is presented stops with the message of the forgiveness of sins. Thus it is all too easy for folks to see themselves only as forgiven sinners. But our identity in Christ is so much more than that.  That is why, in the post communion prayer that we will pray today, we thank God for assuring us,“that we are very members incorporate in the mystical body of thy Son, which is the blessed company of all faithful people; and are also heirs through hope of thy everlasting kingdom, by the merits of his most precious death and passion. 

Listen to St. Paul to the Romans in chapter 8. “…but you have received the spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry ‘Abba! Father!’ The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirits that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ.” Fellow heirs with Christ! That is what Christ’ victory has done for us. Now I don’t pretend to understand what all of that means but I do know that it’s even better than finding out that you have been adopted by Bill Gates. If you are in Christ, then from a spiritual point of view, Easter has made your life a rags-to-riches story.

Consider what being fellow heirs with Christ means for us? There are numerous benefits. First it puts this temporal world into proper perspective and thereby helps us to remain faithful to the end. The very next verse after St. Paul tells us that we are fellow heirs with Christ he says, “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.” St. Paul had already suffered much in his missionary journeys but that was not going to stop him because he had his eye on the prize. St. Paul could take up a temporary cross and stay true to Christ because he knew that a permanent crown awaited. That is our assurance as well. Looking past the temporal to the eternal will keep us steadfast.

Second, knowing that we are fellow heirs with Christ gives us a healthy form of restlessness. St. Paul goes on to write, “And not only creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.” 

Growing up in a Navy family we moved every two years. My father would get orders at about 18 months and by 24 months we were gone. Life as a Navy family meant that while we always made friends wherever we were, and we loved most of the places where we lived, we still did not put down roots too deeply in any one place. 

Similarly as Christians, while we should be grateful for this life, the knowledge that there is permanent home to which we are journeying should keep us from putting down our roots too deeply in this world. The eagerness we feel for our complete redemption allows us to have a godly detachment and that helps to keep us out of the reach of the world, the flesh and the devil. It also helps us to live generously in the service of others. The riches that will be ours as fellow heirs of Christ make the riches of this world look like monopoly money and it’s easy and fun to give away monopoly money. 

A friend of mine truly has this perspective. He inherited $400,000 and he turned around and gave it all to his deceased brother’s widow. He did not give a tithe or a half; he didn’t even keep just a little for himself. He said to me in a very matter of fact way, “She needed it more than I did.” He knows where his true riches are. 

A third benefit of embracing our identity as fellow heirs with Christ is that it fills us with hope. Just a few verses later St. Paul uses the word “hope” five times in one verse. Hope is such an invaluable gift because the opposite is a nightmare. I have read of prisoners of war becoming so hopeless that they willed themselves to die and so they did. 

And just like the other two benefits that I mentioned, hope has us look beyond this world to look above where Christ is seated. It forces us to do so because what we hope for is not offered in this life. Resurrected bodies in a new heaven and new earth cannot be won in the lottery, ordered from Amazon or delivered by Prince Charming. 

The Scripture says that hope is the anchor of our souls but only if our hope is correctly placed. The important difference between Christian hope and secular hope is that Christian hope is placed in a Person while secular hope is placed in circumstances. Christian hope is rooted in a God who is faithful and true and so we know that His promises are certain. Secular hope is focused on circumstances that may or may not be realized. 

To encourage you to deepen your hope by deepening your relationship with the Lord I have thought of an acronym for hope. H. H is for honor. Make it a major focus of each day to honor God in both your words and your deeds. You may have noticed that many of the collects in the Book of Common Prayer begin by giving to God the honor that is due His name. “O God, the strength of all who put their trust in you….” “Almighty and everlasting Lord…” “O Lord, from whom all good proceeds…” “Lord of all power and might, the author and giver of all good things…” “O God, your never failing providence sets in order all things in heaven and on earth…”  In these collects the Church is teaching us that worship begins by honoring God. Then honoring God with your words leads naturally to honoring God with your deeds especially when those deeds point others to Him. H is for honor.

O is for offer. It is such a profound line in the 1928 Mass where we pray, “And here we offer unto Thee O Lord ourselves, our souls and bodies to be a reasonable, holy and living sacrifice unto Thee.” And it is a wonder that because God’s mercies are new every morning we are able to make a new fresh offering to Him every day. There is a beautiful prayer of self-dedication in the Book of Common Prayer that would be beneficial to add to your daily prayers. “Almighty and eternal God, so draw our hearts to thee, so guide our minds, so fill our imaginations, so control our wills, that we may be wholly thine, utterly dedicated unto thee; and then use us, we pray thee, as thou wilt, and always to thy glory and the welfare of thy people; through our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.” O is for offer

P is for pray. Pray about everything! That is what St. Paul said to the Church in Philippi. “In everything, by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God…” Jesus shows us that we are to pray for everything when He has us pray, in the very same prayer, for both for the kingdom to come and our daily bread. Don’t fall for the lie that the Lord is only interested in the big things of your life. The Scripture says that we are to cast our cares on Him because He cares for us. When I was in seminary at Christmas time I tore Boston apart looking for a specific Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle. You would have thought that I was on a quest for the Holy Grail. That silly toy was that important to me because it was that important to my son. Now multiply an earthly father’s love by infinity and you will be certain that you can take everything to your heavenly Father in prayer. P is for pray. 

E is for exalt. By this I mean to praise or extol the Lord. Years ago there was a very popular chorus called “I exalt Thee” and a little kid in our church misunderstood what we were singing and so he sang very loudly “I exhaust Thee.” There are times in the Old Testament when it looks like the Lord is nearly exhausted with His people and so we want to learn from that negative example and live a different way. We want to exalt Him and one of the best ways to exalt God with our lives is to be an Easter people. We should be a people of celebration and life. We don’t bring glory to God as His children if we live like we had been baptized in lemon juice. Joy is a fruit of the Spirit. We are an Easter people. I freely admit that life can be tough and even seem to be unfair but life doesn’t get the final word, God does and He is good all the time. So let’s consider ways to live in such a way that exalts God. E is for exalt.

In his book “How Happiness Happens” Max Lucado gives a wonderful illustration. An Italian named Andrea Mosconi would get up six days a week, put on his coat and tie, and go down to a violin museum in Cremona, Italy. The museum held some of the most priceless instruments in the world including one made by Stradivari himself. It was Mr. Mosconi’s job to play each instrument daily because if they were never played the instruments will lose their vibrancy and begin to deteriorate.  

Max Lucado says that we have a similar job every day, except instead of bringing the best music out of violins; we are called to bring the best out of other people. Why? Because, going back to an earlier point, standing before you is not just a check out girl or a bag boy or a mechanic. Standing before you are sacred beings, image bearers of God. A famous Pentecostal preacher in Nashville used to say that we should be so filled with Christ than when a mosquito bites us it flies away singing “There’s power in the blood of the Lamb.” We are to be Christ like to those sacred beings, those image bearers of God, and bring out their best. That is our calling as fellow heirs of Christ.

Well I too have read the back of the book and sure enough we win! And so this glorious Easter day resounds with the words of St. Paul to the Corinthians. 

O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?

The sting of death is sin; and the strength of sin is the law.

But thanks be to God, which gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.

Good Friday Fast

Historically the Church has called believers to fast on Fridays to commemorate our Lord’s passion. Typically it is a call to a partial fast such as not eating meat. Thus when I was growing up public schools served fish on Fridays and today during Lent all the burger joints are selling fish sandwiches. 

But the Prayer Book calls us to a total fast on Good Friday. If you are new to fasting or need a refresher allow me to give you some background and then some suggestions. 

WHY FASTING? There are several good reasons for fasting. First it is a way to humble ourselves before God. Ps 69:10. That little two-year-old kid that lives in all of us (the Bible calls it “the flesh”) always wants his way and wants it now. When we fast we are telling the little brat “NO!” It does him good to be put in his place.

Second, when we fast we are reminding ourselves of our true priorities. We are declaring, as our Lord put it, “man does not live by bread alone but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God. 

Third fasting empowers us during spiritual warfare. We see this when our Lord overcame the temptations of the enemy during His fast. This is particularly important during this plague. I read an article that priests are reporting an increase of demonic activity in part because Mass is not being sad. I do not think that it is just a coincidence that the virus is peaking during Holy Week. There is more going on here than just a virus. Fasting and prayer is how we push back against the forces of darkness. 

Fourth fasting intensifies discernment. In Acts 13 the Apostles fasted to discern whom to send out to proclaim the Gospel. It seems that when we quiet our flesh through fasting that our spirit can better hear the Lord’s voice. 

Fifth, barring any medical issues, fasting is good for you. It is like a soft reboot to your body and soul.

WHEN TO FAST?  It is important not to be legalistic about this because it can be a fast track to being a junior Pharisee. Remember that Jesus said to do it in secret and not before men so that the Father will properly reward you. As mentioned above Fridays are typical fast days. Ash Wednesday and Good Friday are days of total abstinence, which means not just giving up meat but giving up all food. It has also been the tradition to fast before receiving Holy Communion. (That is why the 8 0’clock Mass was so popular.) But if you are not able to do that, the tradition is total abstinence at least one hour before receiving Holy Communion. Other times of fasting are tied to the leading of the Holy Spirit. 

HOW LONG TO FAST? Again be careful about legalism. Total abstinence is best kept to a 24-hour period. Ancients would fast from sundown to sundown. Partial fasts can be for a season as we do in Lent. Liquid only fasts can go for more than 24 hours but I strongly advise being under spiritual direction if you choose to go on an extended fast. 

HOW TO FAST? In a one day fast it is typical to abstain from all food but allow liquids such as water or juice (no it doesn’t count if you put a cheeseburger in a blender). If the fast is longer than 24 hours the liquids may be more substantial than just water. Use your good judgment here. Remember we are not jumping through spiritual hoops or trying to win God’ favor. He already could not love you any more or any less. Periodic fasts like Fridays and Lent, and sometimes Advent, are when we fast from particular foods or from things other than food such as social media. 

This Good Friday we are fasting from one another, which makes it a particularly difficult fast. Let’s stay connected. Morning Prayer will be live streamed at 7am. Stations of the Cross will post at noon. The Good Friday liturgy will be up by 3pm. We fast to humble ourselves but the beautiful promise of God is that when we humble ourselves He will exalt us. 

The Radical Love of Jesus

Image result for Radical LOve

Each week in our bulletin we include our mission statement and then we add these words. “We will engage our mission and strengthen our parish with four pillars: Sacramental Living, Joyful Discipleship, Radical Love, Gracious Evangelism.” These four pillars are what we seek to build into the culture of this parish and into each of our individual lives. Why these pillars? Because if I am continually receiving God’s grace through the sacraments of the church (Sacramental Living), if I am learning how Jesus means for my life to be lived and closely following Him (Joyful Discipleship), if I am loving others as He loves me (Radical Love), and if I am sharing the good news of His love and forgiveness with others (Gracious Evangelism), then I would be experiencing the living water that Jesus spoke about with the woman at the well. In fact we can see that Jesus perfectly represents two of these pillars in His engagement with her by His radical love and gracious evangelism.

We see Him model radical love. We can see that when we understand that there are at least three reasons why this meeting should have never happened. 

First He is a Jew and she is a Samaritan. The text even tells us in verse 9 that Jews had no dealings with the Samaritans. And saying that they had “no dealings” was an understatement. It was more like the Hatfields and McCoys. 

In case you are new to this story let me explain the animosity between these two people groups. In the 8thcentury BC the northern kingdom was conquered and taken into captivity. Not everyone was taken and those left behind eventually intermarried with non Jews and so were considered heathen. Further they developed their own off shoot of Judaism, which included rejecting the Prophets and the Temple in Jerusalem, and so they were also deemed heretics. Thus observant Jews would literally go out of their way to not even enter Samaria much less speak to a Samaritan. 

The second reason that this conversation should have never happened was because she was an unaccompanied woman and he was an unaccompanied man. Jesus as a single man speaking with her was so beyond the pale that verse 27 reports that the disciples “marveled” that He was talking with a woman. The New Living Translation used the word “shocked.”

Remember that at that time religion was quite segregated. Woman worshipped separately from the men. Women were not invited to study and discuss Torah with men. It took a certain number of men to form a synagogue and women and children were not included in that count. Women could only go to an outer court when visiting the Temple. And since the sign of the covenant was circumcision, women did not have the status of men. This together makes the thought of a Rabbi talking theology with a heathen woman something that is unthinkable.

The third reason that this conversation should have not happened is because Jesus was a holy man and she was a woman of ill repute. She comes to draw water in the heat of the day to avoid the tongues wagging and the judgmental looks and the rejection that she felt from her community. Her spirit had been crushed by 5 failed marriages. She was burdened by nagging guilt because knew full well that it was wrong to be shacking up with the guy that she was with now. 

But Jesus, who is love because God is love, did not care about customs and man-made traditions and what others might think of Him. Neither did He wait until she cleaned up her act before He loved her. What He saw was a prisoner that needed to be set free, a sick woman who needed a physician, a broken vessel that needed to be made new. He discerned a thirst much deeper than the thirst that brought her to the well and so in love He sprang into action. Brennan Manning reminds us that God’s love for us is so unconditional that He loves us as we are, not as we should be. As His children we must learn to love the same way.

Jesus’ radical love led naturally to gracious evangelism and here He gives us a number of wonderful examples to follow. First note that He is engaged very intentionally in one-on-one evangelism. Yes, He taught the crowds and called them to repentance but crowds ebb and flow. Some days they cry “Hosanna!” and some days they cry “Give us Barabbas.” Jesus’ most effective evangelism was person to person. Last week we saw Him with Nicodemus who evidently became a believer because at the end of John’s Gospel we learn that Nicodemus joined Joseph of Arimathea in burying Jesus’ body. Think of Jesus’ contact with Zaccheus, or His meeting Phillip, or of His calling of Matthew or His conversation with the Centurion or His healing of the man born blind. What we see again and again is that evangelism is best done person to person because at its core, conversion is not a head issue it is a heart issue. The prophet Ezekiel declared,  “I will remove the heart of stone from their flesh and give them a heart of flesh, that they may walk in my statutes and keep my rules and obey them. And they shall be my people, and I will be their God.” And one on one, face to face is how you reach the heart.

Second we observe that Jesus initiated the conversation. This can be the most difficult part especially for us introverted Anglicans but Jesus shows how it can be made easier. Jesus began where she was. He didn’t ask her if she had been born again. He didn’t ask if she believed in the Rapture. He didn’t even invite her to Church. She was there to fetch water and so He asked for a drink and then a conversation about water ensued. 

Max Lucado writes that one of the best ways to build bridges with folks is to come to them in a way that in essence says, “Help me understand what it’s like to be you.” Max goes on to say, “Then sit back and listen. Really listen.” 

There was a class on evangelism at Gordon-Conwell where the final was comprised of pictures of classmates. You had to give their name, their spouse’s name, their kid’s names and their denomination. What does that have to do with evangelism? The point that Dr. Wilson was making was that if you don’t care enough about the person to learn about their life then you haven’t earned the right to evangelize them. 

A third point is that Jesus kept to His message and did not get derailed because there were a couple of opportunities for that to happen. The conversation could have gone south at the beginning because instead of giving him a drink, the woman makes a comment and its not clear if it was shock or sarcasm or both. She says “How is it that you a Jew ask for a drink from me, a woman of Samaria?” Instead of being insulted by this Jesus answers “If you knew the gift of God and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink’ you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.” His goal was to reveal Himself to her and so He stayed on point. 

Then a little later she asks a theological question that seems completely out of context. She just admitted that she wasn’t married but was living with a guy and then she asks where is the proper place in which to worship God, on this mountain or in Jerusalem. 

This reminds me of times when I have been sharing the Gospel with someone and just as they are coming under the conviction of the Holy Spirit they ask why bad things happen to good people or what about the folks in Papua New Guinea who never heard the Gospel. Most of the time those questions are rabbit trails to change the conversation and get the heat off of them. Follow Jesus’ example, provide a quick response and then get them back on track. She then says, “I know that the Messiah is coming….” And He says, “I am He.” Jesus stayed on message. Mission accomplished. 

A fourth observation is that while the topic of her brokenness and sinfulness came up, Jesus did not lead with that nor was it the central part of His conversation with her. He did not come to condemn but to save.

When I was in seminary on weekends I would take the T into Harvard Square where it was like a circus with everything from very weird cults to street musicians to fundamentalist spewing fire and brimstone. I would join the crowd that was listening to and yelling at the fundamentalists and I would ask the person next to me, “What do you think about what they are saying?” After giving their critique they would often ask me, “What do you think?” I would respond, “Some of what they are saying I agree with but I hate how they are saying it. May I buy you a cup of coffee?” Quite often they would go with me and we would have a polite and respectful conversation about the good news. 

St Paul says in Romans 2 that it is the goodness of God that leads us to repentance. Folks who don’t believe that they are sinners are like the Pharisees who didn’t think that they were sick and so they have no need of the Physician. But broken folks, like this woman at the well, don’t need to have a conversation start with what miserable sinners they are. They already know that they are broken. What they need is hope that they truly can be made whole. Often the part that is most difficult for them to believe is that God truly loves them. Of course we do not avoid the topic of sin but neither do we make it the main topic. Our job is to point them to the One who will forgive and heal them. This is a joint work with you and the Holy Spirit. You catch em, He will clean em. 

Lastly look how wonderfully God used this woman. Verse 39 says, “Many Samaritans from that town believed in him because of the woman’s testimony.” They even asked Jesus to stay with them longer in contrast to some Jewish towns that would ask Him to leave. And the Samaritans really got the message. They said in verse 42, “…and we know that this is indeed the Savior of the world.”  It is noteworthy that they recognized that He is not just the Jewish Messiah but the Savior of the world. That is remarkable. And remember that she had only been a believer a number of hours and look at the ripple affect that she caused. I hope that you could believe that God can use you in a similar fashion.

I got a call this week from a fraternity brother that I have not seen in decades. He is in an Anglican church that is having its problems and he wanted some advice but first he wanted to tell me his back story that I had not heard before. When I first met him he hated Christians because he saw them as weak and effeminate. So when I became his roommate he watched for signs of weakness without me realizing it. Then one day he thought he had found my weakness. He invited me to go with him to an FSU football game and I said, “No thanks I don’t care much for football.” Well since all real men love football he was about to label me a sissy but then I added, “I love rugby, that was my game in high school.” “What?” he said, “Folks get killed in rugby.” I said, “I know, I love being in the scrum with the mud and the blood, it’s wonderful.” 

I don’t remember any of that conversation but I do know that he did not write me off. We began a conversation about the good news and after some time I prayed with him to receive salvation. He wanted me to know that all these years later he is faithfully following the Lord. And knowing Henry I have no doubt that he has had quite the ripple affect of his own since our college days.  

The point is that if God can use a stupid remark about rugby to open someone’s heart, don’t be afraid that you don’t know enough Bible or theology or have enough knowledge to talk to folks. The Holy Spirit is with you. You have a story to tell so just tell your story. You are not a Philadelphia lawyer trying to persuade a jury. You are just a person who almost died of thirst telling a person who you see that is dying of thirst, where to find the water. Jesus said, “The water that I shall give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” 

The Pandemic and the Goodness of God

Image result for God is good

In this chaotic time it is understandable that folks would be confronted by some doubts and ask some tough questions. Please know first of all that if that is happening to you that you need not feel guilty about it. Questioning God is not a sin. Recall that our Lord Himself in essence questioned His Father in the garden. Referring to His impending crucifixion He fell on His face and asked the Father if there was any other way. 

The important thing is where our questions take us. So let’s ask a hard question and see where we end up. “Why would a loving God let something like a pandemic happen?” Or to put it how it is most frequently asked, “Why does a loving God allow bad things to happen to good people?” I certainly don’t have the definitive answer to that question, and may not even come close from your perspective, but I hope to offer some clarity that will build your faith. 

There is a lot to unpack here. The first thing we need to address is the sovereignty of God and human responsibility. The Bible teaches both.

By saying that God is sovereign we are confessing that He is before all things and all things came into being by Him and for Him. His power and His knowledge are without limit. Jeremiah 32:17 “Ah, Sovereign Lord, you have made the heavens and the earth by your great power and outstretched arm. Nothing is too hard for you.”

When we speak of human responsibility we mean that while God is indeed sovereign over all, we are still responsible for the decisions that we make as well as for the consequences of those decisions. That is a part of being made in the image of God. We are not animals driven by instinct, we are not automatons that have no free thought and we most certainly are not controlled by fate, karma or the stars. Thus in Deuteronomy 30, when Moses puts before the people the choice of life and death, that choice was genuine. 

The mystery of God’s sovereignty and human responsibility is how both can be true at the same time. While we will never fully understand how it can be, nevertheless we can believe it to be true and work diligently to see them as two sides of the same coin. 

One of the clearest examples in Holy Scripture of the two sides of the same coin is in the story of Joseph. His brothers out of jealousy sold him into slavery in Egypt. Joseph rose to power, second only to the Pharaoh, and he used that power to save the region from starvation. When eventually he was reunited with his brothers he forgave them because he believed in this two-sided coin of God’s sovereignty and human responsibility. He said, “You meant evil against me, but God meant it for good.”  (Genesis 50:20).

It is this perspective that causes St. Paul to write “And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose.”(Romans 8:28). It is important to note that St. Paul did not say that God causes all things; rather that God will work all things to our good. That is a critical distinction and important tenet of our faith. 

I can testify to that truth. In 1979 I was ordained as a pastor of a non-denominational church. Things went very well at first but because I was not in touch with my brokenness I entered a dark place that lasted for a long time. I even made things worse by trying to out work the darkness by doubling my efforts. When that approach failed I left the ministry moved to Chattanooga and joined St. Paul’s Episcopal Church. Through work I was introduced to Beth and my priest all but pushed me back into ordained ministry, which was something that I told myself that I would NEVER do again. 

If you had told me in 1979, while I was pastoring and living in Florida, that one day I would be a priest, married to Beth and live in Middle Tennessee, I would have had you committed. So how did I get here? Did God cause my darkness? No. Did God make me move to Tennessee? No. That was on me. That was human responsibility. But did God work my darkness to my good? Absolutely. I have had an incredible life since that time. That is God being sovereign. I hasten to add that I realized years ago that I would make myself crazy trying to connect all the dots, or ask “what if” or try to make sense of it all. Instead I just give thanks that God is good all the time, even when it doesn’t feel like it. 

Of course the ultimate example of human responsibility and God’s sovereignty is seen in the crucifixion of our Lord. Judas, Pilate, the High Priest, the Romans, they all were responsible for their actions. What they did was nothing short of wicked. But God in His sovereignty used this heinous act to be the salvation of the world. There is no way that we will ever be able to wrap our minds around the events of our salvation but we should give thanks daily that it is so. That is the nature of a mystery. 

Okay let’s take it a step further. “Why do bad things happen to good people?” A short first answer is that the question is erroneous because there are no good people. The Bible is clear that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God and that our righteousness is like filthy rags before God. (Romans 3:23, Isaiah 64:6). In light of that the real question is “Why do good things happen to us?” Of course the answer is because God is love. And as Brennan Manning says, He loves us as we are and not as we should be. But I would add that He also loves us too much to leave us as we are. 

But even if we are not good people that still does not answer the question of why bad things happen. They are several layers to an answer and it is an answer that will be incomplete but hopefully point us in the right direction. 

First bad things happen because of the fall of man. The world was in perfect harmony when God made it and placed man as the overseer of it all. When Adam and Eve sinned against God they threw not only themselves but also the created order into chaos. St. Paul writes in Romans, “For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it…”Thus we have tornadoes and earthquakes and viruses. It is why nature has a hundred different long legged beasties that can kill you a thousand different ways. But that is not how things were created to be. In the coming kingdom “the nursing child shall play over the hole of the cobra.” (Isaiah 11:8). Hence St. Paul, personifying nature, says that creation waits with eager expectation for the manifestation of the sons of God. (Romans 8:19). In other words, creation is as eager as we are for the kingdom to come in its fullness and make all things right and new.

Second bad things happen because of human brokenness and human evil. Infants are born addicted because their mothers were addicted, narcissists leave a trail of broken relationships behind them without seeing any fault on their part, and dictators oppress millions for their want of power. Each of us could come up with a never-ending list. Bad things happen because of bad people. 

Third bad things happen because there are principalities and powers that utilize the world’s chaos and are most likely the cause of much of it. Here we have to use some discretion. We don’t want to turn into Church Lady and blame everything on Satan, but we also don’t want to be naïve and ignore that the enemy is real and his hatred for God’s image bearers is incalculable. A goodly portion of Jesus’ ministry was casting out demons. Evil spirits are real however “greater is He that is in you than he that is in the world.” (I John 4:4).

Fourth bad things happen for the glory of God. That is what Jesus told his disciples when they asked why a man was born blind. They wanted to attribute the blindness to either his sin or his parent’s sin. Jesus gave them a different way to look at it. He viewed things from an eternal perspective while they were stuck in the temporal. An old hymn teaches us so well. “When through fiery trials thy pathway shall lie, my grace, all sufficient, shall be thy supply; the flame shall not hurt thee; I only design thy dross to consume, and thy gold to refine.” 

Lastly while some bad things have an explanation other bad things will remain a mystery. My Old Testament Professor was an expert on the book of Job. He spent 40 years studying it, including learning the languages of the nearby nations to understand any idioms that may have found their way into the book. It was his contention that Job was the first written book of the Bible. I find it fascinating if that is true because Job is the ultimate book on why bad things happen to good people. 

You will recall that Job lost everything and he was covered in boils and he sat on a dung heap. Things were so bad his wife’s counsel was that he should go ahead and curse God and die. His friends came to support him and at first they did the right thing. They didn’t miss the opportunity to shut up. But then they started doing what Jesus’ disciples did about the man born blind and offered explanations. And they were all wrong. 

Finally Job confronts God about his sufferings and asks Him why. God answers, “Dress for action, like a man; I will question you, and you make it know to me. Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth…have you commanded the morning since your days began and caused the dawn to know its place…” This questioning goes on for four chapters. It’s like in the movie A Few Good Men when Jack Nicholson yells, “You want the truth? You can’t handle the truth.” The Lord was poetically telling Job that he would not understand it even if He told him. When Job finally grasped what the Lord was saying he said, “I have uttered what I did not understand things too wonderful for me which I did not know…I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes.” The fact is that there are going to be many things that we will never understand this side of glory. Thus we are called to walk by faith and not by sight.

Faith calls upon us to take a different line of reasoning than the world when it comes to suffering in this life. The world argues this way. 1. A good and all-powerful God would not allow meaningless suffering. 2. There is meaningless suffering. 3. Therefore God is either not good or not all-powerful. I’m not sure how that gives folks comfort and I would also argue that such a god would not be worthy of our worship. I don’t need a god who answers my prayers by saying. “Gee I’d like to help you but there isn’t anything that I can do about it.” 

Some take it a step further. I took a course from a brilliant man who was a “death of God” theologian. His argument went like this. 1. A good and all-powerful God would not allow meaningless suffering. 2. There is meaningless suffering. 3. Therefore there is no God. He lost his entire family in the holocaust so his atheism was understandable albeit tragic. His rejection of the Holy Comforter left him a tormented man.

The sovereignty of God would have us argue this way. 1. A good and all-powerful God would not allow meaningless suffering. 2. God is good and all-powerful. 3. Therefore there is no meaningless suffering. Like Job we may not understand the meaning of our suffering but we can believe that He means it for “our dross to consume and our gold to refine.”

Job actually had the right answer earlier in the book before his thinking became muddled by his false counselors. He said, “Though He slay me, yet will I trust Him.” (Job 13:5). And that is exactly what Jesus did. After asking if there was any other way Jesus put His trust in His Father and said, “Nevertheless, not my will but thine be done.” His last words were words of trust. “Into thy hands I commend my spirit.” 

Following Jesus’ example that is what we need to do; TRUST. The ultimate answer to why bad things happen to good people is “I don’t really know but I trust that God is good and will work everything for my good” That is hardly a naïve statement or a leap of faith into the darkness. What better evidence do we need of God’s love and goodness than the gift of His Son? St. Paul in Romans 8 writes, “What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?”

Then St. Paul ends with these words of celebration. “No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

On March 25th we celebrate the Feast of the Annunciation. This is when the angel of the Lord came to Mary and told her that she would be with child. This means, God willing, in 9 short months we will be together worshipping the newborn King and this pandemic will be a distant memory. For now TRUST. “And after you have done everything, stand.” (Ephesians 6:13).

“Therefore, my brothers and sisters, you whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, dear friends!” (Philippians 4:1 NLT)

All the World

I met a missionary when I was studying at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary who told of ministering to a tribal people. One day he saw a young couple carrying a beautiful little girl, the age of a toddler. They were weeping as they walked with her and so he followed them. They eventually stopped at the edge of a cliff, overlooking a waterfall, and before he could do anything about it the couple threw the little girl to her death. The missionary later found out that the toddler had wandered into a taboo area and it was their belief that she had to be sacrificed to prevent the spirits from doing evil to the tribe.

I tell you that story to confront a widely held, but mistaken notion, that the noble savage lives a peaceful and even joyful life, being one with nature. They are naturally that way until Christian missionaries come along and spoil it all with their talk of sin and hell and the need to wear pants. The truth is that apart from Christ this is a world of bondage and it is only the message of the kingdom that can set men free. 

Lest you think that I am exaggerating do a mental trip around the globe. There are 1 billion Chinese living under a godless dictatorship where closed circuit cameras tracks their every move and they have to earn enough good citizen points to be able to use public transport. This is a world of bondage. There are nations where girls are not allowed to be educated because an educated woman knows that she is equal to a man and will not settle for being treated as a second-class citizen. There are countries where finding fresh water and enough food to survive is the chief goal of every day. This is a world of bondage. There is an estimated 40.3 million people in slavery today, slavery that ranges from trafficking children to forced labor. This is a world of bondage and only the gospel of the kingdom can break that power. So yes, we still need Christian missionaries. In this Gospel account that we before us today Jesus not only focuses the apostles on the harvest but He gives them the message, the motive, the method and the manpower. 

The message. “Jesus went throughout the cities and villages…proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom.” That is still the message today, the gospel of the kingdom. St. Paul said that he purposed to preach nothing but Christ and Him crucified. And when missionaries do any other than that they end up doing as much damage as good. 

We see that in our own country. Rick Thurman, whose business takes him to a lot of evangelical churches, tells me that they are increasingly mixing conservative politics with the gospel and they wonder why their numbers are declining. And those of us who were in the Episcopal Church witnessed first hand how a beautiful denomination was devastated by liberal agendas that had little or nothing to do with the kingdom of God. Thus the Church needs to make her message clear and undiluted by any other message. Her message is the good news that the kingdom of God has come! It’s not a left message or a right message. Pastor and author Tony Evans said it best. “Jesus didn’t come to take sides, He came to take over.”  

Please do not misunderstand me to be saying that you as an individual Christian should be apolitical. Nothing of the sort. In a nation where the government is of, by and for the people it is very bad stewardship if you do not let your voice be heard. You need to take a stand against injustice and be a prophetic voice to the powers that be. But the Church, and those who are sent out in her name, are required to keep the main thing the main thing and the main thing is Jesus’ message, “Repent for the kingdom of God is at hand.”

The motive. “When He saw the crowds, He had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.” For God so LOVED the world…. That is the motive. And why were the people harassed and helpless like a sheep without a shepherd? It was because they had plenty of rules but no relationship with God. And so it was out of love that Jesus came to make that relationship a reality. He came to be so united with us that we could say along with Brennan Manning, “My deepest awareness of myself is that I am deeply loved by Jesus Christ and that I have done nothing to deserve it.”

William Carey, who became the father of the 19thcentury mission movement, was in his early years a cobbler. It is said that he had a map of the world over his cobbler’s bench and he would weep at the thought of all those souls who did not know the love of Jesus. He subsequently left the cobblers bench and went to India after theological training. He spent the next 41 years laboring among that harvest. He translated the Bible into 6 different languages including Hindi and Sanskrit. In that era only Brahmans, who were the upper caste, could learn to read and write. So Cary, using his own money, opened a primary school that was open to all, including girls, which was unthinkable in his day. Love had him go above and beyond in service to the Indian people. Western guilt, or a sense of superiority, or racking up a good number of converts will not sustain a missionary for 41 years. But the love of God will. 

The means. “Therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into the harvest.” The two key words there are “pray” and “send.” Any kind of missionary work, rather local or abroad, is not to be undertaken in our own power. It is first bathed in prayer. We see this pattern in the missionary work of St. Paul. He would pray and then go and sometimes he would pray and be told by the Holy Spirit not to go. But before he did anything else he prayed.

But once you have prayed you need to be ready to go when called. When we were raising money for a short-term mission trip to Honduras we had some questions about the wisdom of doing it. In fact these two questions seem to come up regularly regarding world missions in general. The first is “Why are we going overseas when there are so many needs here?” And second is “Isn’t it better stewardship to just send them money rather than spending the money on making the trip?” 

The answer to the first question is that local versus foreign missions is never an either or proposition. The question is “How do we go about doing both?” Why? Because Jesus’ commission to the Church was to go into all the world. Not some of the world but all the world. He got even more specific when He said, “you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the earth.” We don’t ignore Jerusalem but we don’t stay there either. We are to go to the ends of the earth. 

We also need to go because of how imbalanced our world is when it comes to the harvest. 75% of full time Christian workers are in areas that have already been reached by the Gospel. 0.3% are working with unreached people groups. When I was in seminary I read that in the US there was 1 full time Christian worker for every 100 people. Meanwhile there is only 1 full time Christian worker for every 60,000 tribal people and 1 for every 260,000 for Buddhists. 

But isn’t it better stewardship just to send the money rather than spending the money on going there? No. Christianity is an incarnational religion. God came to us in the flesh. We need to do the same. When we were at that children’s home in Honduras I watched as the team played soccer with the kids and played music with the kids and prayed with the kids. Those kids experienced the love of Jesus through them. A check can’t play soccer, or sing or pray. A check can’t give a hug. 

A little girl cries out frightened by a thunderstorm. Her daddy comes in the room and prays for her and assures her that Jesus is there with her. In no time at all she cries out again and her daddy returns to her room a little put out with her. “I told you that Jesus is here with you,” he says. “I know,” says the girl, “but sometimes you need someone with skin on them.” That is why we need to go.

The manpower. This is chapter 9 of Matthew’s Gospel and here Jesus introduces the idea to the apostles of praying that the Lord will send out laborers into His harvest. Note that the problem is not with the harvest. Jesus said that it is plentiful. The issue is that there are not enough laborers to take in the harvest so He calls on them to pray. But then what does He do in chapter 24 of Matthew’s Gospel? He sends them out into the harvest with what we call the Great Commission. “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit….”So between chapter 9 and chapter 24 the disciples were actually praying for themselves, possibly without even knowing that is what they were doing. It’s like this. Jesus, “Somebody needs to fix this problem!” Apostles, “Yes somebody really does need to fix the problem!” Jesus, “You’re that somebody.”

And going out into the harvest did not stop with the apostles. Generation after generation has followed in their footsteps and the Name of Jesus is known around the globe. Still there is much work to do. The harvest is still plentiful and still the laborers are too few. 

We can address that problem if we will embrace the truth that the Great Commission is to each one of us. We do not need to discern if we have a call to be missionaries. Jesus has already issued that call. The only thing we need to discern is our mission field. It may be to an unreached people group in a far off land or it may be as a home-schooler in Antioch Tennessee.  We are all missionaries and so we need to strategize like missionaries, constantly looking to the leadership of the Holy Spirit, ready to proclaim the kingdom of God to the harassed and helpless among whom God has placed us. 

A conference I went to suggested using your hobbies as your mission field. One guy that I met was an avid cyclist and so he joined the local cycle club with the intention of sharing the Gospel with his fellow members. This is a great idea but I want to go back to an earlier point and that is that our motive is to be love, the same compassion that Jesus felt when He saw the crowd. We are not collecting trophies here; we are growing the family of God. 

I take great comfort that Jesus refers to the harvest as “his harvest” meaning the Lord’s harvest. And since He is the Lord of the harvest and it is His harvest I have to believe that He is not going to let me mess up the harvest. He is management and I am labor and I trust the boss. I simply need to follow His instructions and all will be well. That was Paul’s perspective. “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. So pray to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into the harvest. Then get ready. Amen.