The Pandemic and the Goodness of God

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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. 

Blessed are…

 Imagine that you are a first century Jew and that all of your life you have heard the story of Moses on the mountain delivering the law in 10 pithy statements. You were taught that God intended you to follow His commandments so that you would live life well. Further you knew that keeping these laws made you the unique people, separate from the world, unlike the pagans with their many gods and endless idols and their dissolute living.

Now you have heard about this young Rabbi from Nazareth who teaches with authority unlike anyone has seen or heard. Some are even suggesting that He could be the promised Messiah, so you go out to see for yourself. 

A large crowd gathers and sitting on a mount He delivers 9 pithy statements. Your mind is filled with questions. Is He a new Moses? Would following His teachings show us how God intends life to be lived? Would following His teachings make us a peculiar people? But how can one possibly consider themselves blessed if they are poor, or it they are in mourning, or if they are persecuted? 

Today we try to tame the Beatitudes. When I managed a Christian bookstore we sold plaques with the Beatitudes over peaceful scenes of sunsets or mountain lakes. But I do not think that this is how Jesus wanted us them or us to perceive them that way. The Beatitudes is not pastoral advice even though it does show us the way to true happiness. They are a King describing His Kingdom and putting life as we know it on its head. This is the King challenging us to follow Him no matter the cost.

Most of you will know that the word “blessed” can also be interpreted “happy.” But of course Jesus’ meaning of happiness is very different from that of the world’s. Tonight during the Super Bowl businesses will spend millions of dollars for a 30 second ad to convince you that you will be happy if you will buy their product. And it must work otherwise those companies would not spend that kind of money. But will it produce real happiness? You know the answer to that.

I said earlier that Jesus’ teaching puts life as we know it on its head. It certainly would have done so for the people of His day. The teachers of Jesus’ day in one sense taught a Jewish form of the health and wealth Gospel. How do you know that you are blessed? Because you are rich. Why are you sick? Because you have sinned. How do you become favored by God? By being righteous. So for most of the people that Jesus calls blessed in this list a Pharisee would have prayed in the temple thanking God that he was not like one of them. And it almost goes without saying that secular people would not want to have anything to do with the people about whom Jesus is speaking. 

Let’s look at the first beatitude. “Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of God.” This first line is the key that opens our understanding for all of the other beatitudes. It tells us that we will find real happiness when we enter Gods’ kingdom and this is how we enter the door. Jesus is talking here about our spiritual condition not our financial condition. Blessed are the poor in spirit.

Again, Pharisee would not consider a person who is poor in spirit to be blessed and he certainly would not have believed that they would inherit the kingdom of God. So why does Jesus proclaim this?

Let me draw an analogy from Alcoholics Anonymous. They correctly teach that most folks will not change until they hit rock bottom. They will try to change for all the wrong reasons but they will not get well until they realize that they are going to die if they do not change. Others wait until they have lost everything and the only way to go is up. So when someone in AA sees someone hit rock bottom they know that is the best thing that could have happened to them because now they are going to get well. 

In a similar vein Jesus tells us that we will not enter the kingdom of God until we have come to the end of ourselves. When Jesus spoke of saving people from their sins the Scribes and Pharisees and many Americans don’t see the need because they did not see themselves as sinners. So Jesus’ response was that He was like a physician who came not for the well but for the sick. Of course the sad reality is that we are all sick but some folks don’t realize that fact. Jesus promises that when we finally do understand that we are sick and come to the Physician He will heal us. So blessed are the sick. Blessed are the poor in spirit.  

 “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted”. God indeed promises in Scripture to comfort those who mourn due to death. But if we understand His meaning here as mourning in spirit, then we see its connection to the first Beatitude. When we realize the grievousness of our sins, we experience godly contrition and we mourn over time and opportunities that have been lost. We mourn the damage that we have done to others and ourselves because of our sins. 

In a few short weeks we will enter the season of Lent. Throughout the history of the Church this has been the time to embrace these first two beatitudes. It is a penitential season where we take stock of our lives and seek God’s grace to make the necessary amendments of life. But here is the incredibly good news. Just as Lent is followed by Easter, so those who mourn over their spiritual poverty and lost opportunities will receive not only the comfort of forgiveness but God promises to restore what has been lost. That is how our mourning turns into dancing. Hear this beautiful promise from the prophet Joel. God says “So I will restore to you the years that the swarming locust has eaten…and my people shall never be put to shame.’”  God makes all things new so that we do not have to spend our lives in grief and regret. And even if you have wasted an entire life, if you turn to Him in repentance, then He will give you an eternity without shame. You never have to look back.

 “Blessed are the meek for they will inherit the earth.” This is a great example of how this sermon is more than pastoral advice but a blueprint for revolution. It flies in the face of common thinking. The systems of the world say, “Blessed are the strong for they will conquer the earth.” The people of Jesus’ day knew that well. They were under that Pax Romana that was won with a sword. In fact very empire before and after Rome has also ruled with the sword. But Jesus’ kingdom is not set up that way. He claims that it is the meek and not the sword that will win the day

Some modern translations translate “meekness” as “gentleness” which is also a fruit of the Spirit. And yet gentleness can also be misunderstood as a call to become a doormat to the world. So I love how one commentator described meekness. It“is the characteristic that makes a man bow low before God in order that he may stand high before other men.” (James Boice, The Sermon on the Mount, Zondervan Pub., 1972, p38). 

We certainly see this quality in Jesus. He had the courage of conviction that came not only from His divinity but also from submitting Himself to the will of the Father. And you would make a mistake if you confused His gentleness with being spineless. He was no man-pleaser. He faced down Pilate and the Jewish leaders and was singularly led by the will of God. 

If we will be gentle like Jesus will we inherit the earth? Consider this. We are told that most of the empires in history have not remained in power more than 200 years yet here we are 2,000 years later listening to the words of our King and working for the spread of His kingdom. We already are inheriting the earth! 

 “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness, for they will be filled.”Just as the first beatitude was about a spiritual poverty so this one is about a spiritual hunger and thirst. There are two reasons why such a person is blessed. 

First is because spiritual hunger and thirst is a gift of the Holy Spirit. It is a sign of a spiritual awakening when you are eager to feed on God’s Word, when you long to worship, when seeking the kingdom becomes your highest priority. Spiritual thirst and hunger is a good thing. A 19thcentury preacher said, “When the prodigal son was hungry he fed upon husks but when he was starving he turned to his father.”

 Secondly such a person is blessed because Jesus promises to fill their longings and what He gives them is not a temporary fix. Jesus said to the woman at the well, “Everyone who drinks of this water will thirst again, but whoever drinks of the water that I will give will never thirst again.”

I hope that you can see the pattern here and therefore can unpack the other Beatitudes for yourself so I will skip to the last one. “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” This is a difficult truth to hear but it is still the truth. We can expect to be persecuted because, as Jesus said, the servant is not above his Master and since they persecuted our Master we should not be surprised when they come after us. 

We will be persecuted because the kingdom of God by its nature comes into conflict with the systems of this world. A number of years ago I saw a play that was the gospel in modern times called Christ in the Concrete City. In the scene where Pilate asks who he is to set free, Jesus or Barabbas, the crowd cries out, “Give us Barabbas. His ways are our ways. Give us Barabbas… our lives are not offended by his holiness.” 

This weekend the Church around the world have been praying specifically for Nigeria. 6,000 Nigerian Christians have been murdered by Islamist militants since 2015 and the world is silent. So it us up to the Church to raise awareness. It is up to the Church to call for action. It is up to the Church to pray. 

But how does such opposition grant us the kingdom? It does so by our response to it. I read once of the great Church father St. Tertullian counseling a tradesman who was tempted to compromise his faith because the pagans would not do business with a Christian. “What must I do?”he asked Tertullian, “I must live!”Tertullian replied, “Must you?”When we by God’s grace are able to love those who hate us and pray for those who persecute us it shows that Christ is in our lives in a real and meaningful way. It shows that we are already walking in the kingdom of God. 

As I have studied the Beatitudes I have seen a vein that runs through them. That vein is a call to humility. And that makes sense since the Giver of the Beatitudes humbled Himself and became a servant. 

I came across the Litany of Humility and have found it to be a convicting but profound prayer so I wanted to share it with you. As we grow in humility we will not only understand the Beatitudes but we will become the Beatitudes. We will live life as God intended life to be lived. And as Anglicans, who already are a peculiar people, we will become more so. Amen. 

          The Litany of Humility

O Jesus meek and humble of heart, 

Hear me. 

From the desire of being esteemed, 

Deliver, me, Jesus.

From the desire of being loved, 

Deliver me, Jesus.

From the desire of being extolled, 

Deliver me, Jesus.

From the desire of being honored, 

Deliver me, Jesus.

From the desire of being praised, 

Deliver me, Jesus.

From the desire of being preferred to others, 

Deliver me Jesus.

From the desire of being consulted, 

Deliver me, Jesus.

From the desire of being approved, 

Deliver me, Jesus.

From the fear of being humiliated, 

Deliver me, Jesus.

From the fear of being despised, 

Deliver me, Jesus.

From the fear of suffering rebukes, 

Deliver me, Jesus.

From the fear of being calumniated, 

Deliver, me, Jesus.

From the fear of being forgotten, 

Deliver me, Jesus.

From the fear of being ridiculed, 

Deliver me, Jesus.

From the fear of being wronged, 

Deliver me, Jesus.

From the fear of being suspected, 

Deliver me, Jesus.

That others may be loved more than I, 

Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.

That others may be esteemed more than I, 

Jesus grant me the grace to desire it.

That in the opinion of the world, others may increase, and I may decrease,

Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.

That others may be chosen and I set aside, 

Jesus grant me the grace to desire it.

That others may be praised and I unnoticed, 

Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.

That others may be preferred to me in everything, 

Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.

That others may become holier than I,

provided that I become as holy as I should, 

Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.

Shrove Tuesday, Pancakes, and Lent

It would be understandable, if someone who is new to our tradition, were confused by the names and activities around the Lenten season. What does “shrove” mean? Why do we “give up” stuff for Lent? And what in the world do pancakes have to do with being penitential? Allow me to shed some light on these questions and invite you to embrace traditions that you might find edifying to your spiritual life. 

Shrove Tuesday

“Shrove”comes from the verb “shrive” which is Old English for “absolve.” The idea here is that one would make a private or auricular (to the ear) confession the day before Lent, which begins on Ash Wednesday. This practice goes back at least 1,000 years. In about AD 1,000 an English Benedictine Abbot wrote “In the week immediately before Lent everyone shall go to his confessor and confess his deeds and the confessor shall so shrive him…”        In the American Book of Common Prayer this rite is called “Reconciliation of the Penitents” which puts into practice Jesus’ commission to the Church, “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.”

When it comes to private confession, the Anglican rule is “All may, some should, none must.” But truth be told it is an under-utilized sacrament and as such folks are missing this gift of grace that can bring spiritual and emotional healing. 

There are two important things to know about making a confession. First you don’t have to wait until you have broken one of the big ten to come to a priest. We all readily accumulate sins every day. Pride, anger, unforgiveness…. on and on the list goes. Who among us could say that they have always loved God with all of their heart and soul and strength and have loved their neighbors as themselves? Thus St. John says, “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.” (I John 1:8). In light of that the Sacrament of Confession should be a regular event in the Christian’s life, a spiritual version of changing your oil every 3,000 miles. 

The second important thing to know about confession is that the seal of the confession is absolute. A priest can never repeat what he heard in a confession nor can he ever bring it up again. The Lord says, “I, even I, am he who blots out your transgressions, for my own sake, and remembers your sins no more.” (Is 43:25). Once the sin is absolved it is gone and so there is nothing left to talk about. While Shrove Tuesday is a day set apart for confessions, any day is appropriate, particularly any day during the two penitential seasons of Lent and Advent.

Pancakes?

In Ireland Shrove Tuesday is also called “Pancake Tuesday” and surprisingly very similar traditions exist all around the Christian world. In Lithuania they eat their version of a doughnut. In Spain they eat omelets. In Sweden they eat sweet rolls. But why and what does eating these things have to do with Lent?

Following the Jewish tradition of ridding the home of yeast (a symbol of sin) before Passover, Christians around the world will rid their homes of fat and meat and eggs and dairy in order to observe a Lenten fast. And what better way to rid your home of those things than by making pancakes? There is even a delightful tradition in England of a pancake race that dates back to 1445. It is said that a housewife was so busy making pancakes that she forgot about Mass until she heard the church bells ring. With the pan still in her hand, and with apron on, she dashed to church while flipping the pancake to keep it from burning. To this day you must wear an apron and flip the pancake throughout the race in order to win. It is a good that we can have some fun as we approach a penitential season. It is appropriate to feast before a fast. In this way we are taking God very seriously but ourselves not so much. 

There is a spiritual parallel to the pancake tradition. As we are ridding our homes of certain foods, we should be ridding our lives of certain attitudes and behaviors that cause us harm or that have begun to enslave us. Lent can be a time of breaking bad habits and creating new good ones. It is a time to do a spiritual spring-cleaning, which brings us back to the Sacrament of Confession.

Lent

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Lent is patterned after the 40 days that Jesus was tempted in the wilderness. It is the 40 days, plus Sundays, before Easter. Lent does not include Sundays because Sundays are always feast days in celebration of Jesus’ resurrection. Lent is a penitential time that has 3 hallmarks; fasting, prayer and almsgiving. 

For most Christians today the Lenten fast is a partial fast like Daniel’s in chapter one of that book. So when you hear someone talk about what they are giving up they are simply identifying their fast. In the western Church this fast is highly personal and therefore should be approached by prayer and the leading of the Holy Spirit. Some fast from foods like meat and dairy. Some fast from alcohol. Others fast from things that have nothing to do with food like giving up social media or listening to talk radio. 

Whatever the fast, it should be impactful enough that the temptation to break it acts as a call to prayer. In this way our prayer life increases during Lent. Fasting and prayer make up two sides of the same coin. To fast and not pray is a waste of a fast. 

Some marry increased prayer with a new godly discipline. The hope here is that by doing a new discipline for 40 days it would become a way of life that makes life better. For example the discipline could be faithfully praying the daily office, or attending mid week Mass or reading a Christian book. Lent is not intended to make us miserable, it is intended to make us more mature.

The third hallmark of Lent is increased almsgiving. This is important because so many of our daily sins are rooted in selfishness. When we quit living for ourselves alone, and care for the needs of others, we become more Christ-like. And He would be the first to point us in the direction of the poor and outcast.

One practical way to increase almsgiving is to pair it with the fast. For example as you give up your daily gourmet coffee, you would then take that money and give it to the poor. At St. Patrick’s we place our alms in mite boxes throughout Lent and then collect them on Easter. Those united funds are sent to a ministry that cares directly for the poor. 

Shrove Tuesday, Pancakes, and Lent. These are centuries old traditions that Christians have embraced throughout the ages to strengthen their walk with the Lord. This season of prayer, fasting, and self-reflection also serves to deepen the significance of Easter. Instead of skipping from Christmas to Easter, we walk with the Lord through the 40 days in the wilderness. This fast before the feast makes His victory even sweeter. 

Christmas 2019

When I was growing up and we would get together with family, one of the things we would do is open up picture albums and tell family stories. Things like, “This was the ship your grandfather’s family sailed on in order to came to America from Prussia.” “This was your father right after he got out of Boot Camp.” “This is your mom and dad on his graduation from Supply School in Athens, Georgia.”  

I hope that I am wrong but I fear that we are losing our family stories. We have gone from sharing our common history to being lost in our individual worlds. “This is what I had for breakfast.” “This is a selfie of me on vacation.” “Here’s a picture of my latest tattoo.” 

Please don’t think that I have become my father’s generation, speaking against those long hair boys from England called the Beatles who will never amount to anything. I am not advocating that we abandon technology and return to picture albums. Rather I am pleading that we not lose our family stories because those stories are so very important. They define who we are; they give us our personal awareness. They tell us where we fit in this world. They even help us to find direction for our lives. I was talking with a woman one time and she said to me, “There are three things that you need to understand about me. I am a woman, I am Irish and I am Roman Catholic and none of those three things will ever change.” I respected that answer and I respected the clarity of her life. So in this Christmas season, if you are blessed enough to be around family, talk with them and learn your family story. 

But let me quickly add that as important as it is for you to know your family story, I believe that it is vastly more important to know your family story in the context of the story that we hear tonight, the greatest story ever told. And if you think that those two stories are unrelated may I suggest that you could not be more wrong. The Creator of the Universe became flesh precisely so that He could become a part of our story, a part of your story. As we heard from St. Paul, Christ Jesus “gave himself for us to redeem us…and to purify for himself a people for his own possession….”  He comes to know your temptations, to share in your sufferings, to give you new life, to provide a way to become all that you were created to be. Eugene Peterson wrote. “God shapes us for his eternal purposes and he begins right here. The dust out of which we are made and the image of God into which we are made are one and the same.” 

God does not heal us apart from our story. He heals us through and in the midst of our story. He is not a fairy godmother who taps us with a magic wand so that we instantly become Cinderella. He is a Potter who patiently molds us, as we are His clay. He is a Refiner, removing the dross from our lives in order to refine our gold. He is Immanuel, God with us! And the more that we are able to see our story entwined with His story, the more peace and joy we will have in believing. 

So how do we get there from here? How do we see the bigger picture and come to know the peace and joy that God wills to bring to our lives? That answer is found in the most famous verse of the Bible that most everyone seems to know. “For God so loved the world that He gave His only Begotten Son, that whosoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life.” But knowing it and living into it are two separate things. So let’s key in on four critical verbs so that we can live into this truth. The verbs are “loved,” “gave,”, “believe,” and “have.”

When I was 18 years old, and a freshman in college, a guy that I had never met before sat down next to me in the school cafeteria and asked me this question, “Did you know that God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life?” I was raised in church and yet that question hit me like a ton of bricks. I knew that God so loved the world but it never occurred to me that he loved Ray Kasch. And what was even more mindboggling was the thought that He would have a plan for my life. That happened nearly 50 years ago and I can testify to you that what he said was true. His plan for my life has been wonderful. At times it has been like Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride at Disneyworld, but it has been wonderful. 

God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life. That knowledge is what will keep you on course. Every time you hear “For God so loved the world” replace “world” with your name. And be assured that your life is not just a compilation of random circumstance or a product of luck or a consequence of fate. The Father that loves you, has sent His Son to enter your world, and make your life a part of His eternal, wonderful plan.

“For God so loved…that He gave…” That last word is beautiful. He didn’t so love that He “required.” He didn’t so love the world that He“dictated.” He didn’t so love the world that He “threatened.” Of course as the Almighty He could have done so but He didn’t. He so loved that He “gave” because when you love someone you give them a gift. And this precious gift tells us a lot about Him as well as a lot about us. 

This gift tells us a lot about Him when we consider what manner of gift it is that He gave. When we look upon this Christ child we don’t think to ourselves, “He went to Jared’s.” Rather we fall on our knees in wonder and awe, that the Word would become flesh and dwell among us. While we will never fully comprehend such a gift it should cause us to never doubt the Father’s love. 

This gift also tells us about ourselves. The value of something is what others are willing to pay for it. A lump of coal is worth a few cents. But take a lump of carbon, put it under extreme pressure and temperature for about 3 billion years and it becomes a diamond and folks will pay thousands of dollars for it. Its worth is determined by what folks will pay for it. 

What God was willing to pay in order for you to become His child is a good indication of your worth to Him. This too is a mystery that we will never be able to wrap our minds around but it also tells you why He does have a wonderful plan for your life. He paid too high a price for you to let your life go to waste. Of course you can choose to waste it if you want but that is not His plan. Jesus said, “I have come that you might have life and have it abundantly.”

“That whosoever believes in Him….”As most of you know when the Bible speaks of “belief” it is much more than simply acknowledging a fact. You can intellectually acknowledge that Jesus is the Son of God but that is not “belief” in the biblical sense. St. James points out in his Epistle that belief that is only acknowledgment is worthless. He says even “the demons believe and they tremble.”  Biblical belief in Jesus Christ means to place your full trust in and reliance upon Him. 

A tightrope walker walks a wheelbarrow on a tightrope stretched over a 1000-foot chasm. Then he turns around and comes back. He says “Do you believe that I can walk this wheelbarrow across this tightrope and back.” Because you just witnessed it you say, “Of course.” The he says to you “Get in the wheelbarrow.” True belief requires a commitment to the Lordship of Christ. When Bishop Frank confirms folks he says to them. “Remember you are not your own, you were bought with a price.” That is the consequence of belief and that is what makes the difference between perishing and having eternal life. 

This leads us to the last verb “have.” This is the icing on the cake of the Good News. Note that the text does not say, “will one day have eternal life.” If it were true that eternal life was something that we only experience in the future then that would make this life no more than a waiting room. But that is not the case. Jesus said, “Repent for the kingdom of God is at hand.” When we believe in Him, when we put our trust in His love and goodness then we HAVE eternal life and we have it now! We are cleansed from our sins now! We pass from death to life now! We change from being aliens to being His children now! We receive His Spirit to walk in newness of life now!

One of the signs that eternal life is something that you have now is, as St. Paul said, becoming “zealous for good works.” When Christ is truly Lord then you not only forsake any lawlessness that you may have been walking in but you get out of yourself and start to have God’s heart for others. You long to see God make things right in the world and you seek to become His hands and feet to make that happen. 

This Advent we had the honor of hearing from a remarkable lady named Ronda Paulson who became zealous for good works when her heart was broken over the plight of kids entering the foster care system. She saw something that was broken and instead of just complaining about it she became God’s agent for change. I won’t take the time to tell her story now but you can find it on YouTube by searching Isiaah117house. You will see through her story how God folded her into His story in order to reach those whom He loves. He can to the same with you. 

I saw a very convicting post that said, “Someone somewhere is depending on you to do what God has called you to do.” Each of us who are called by His Name are called to be a part of the peace on earth and good will towards men that was ushered in by the birth of Jesus. Be zealous for good works. You will find your life immeasurably enriched if you do so. Winston Churchill said it best. “We make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give.”  

“For God so loved the world.” For God so loved you! May you know the peace and joy of that Good News. Merry Christmas. 

Good and Faithful Servant

Imagine that you work for an International Company and they gave you an assignment to spend a few months at an overseas branch. A close friend of yours has had a change in his living arrangements and so he volunteered to housesit while you are gone. After being away longer than originally expected, you return to your home only to find it a complete mess. The yard is overgrown, the gutters are full of leaves and the inside is even in worse condition. The carpets are all stained, the trash is overflowing and stinks, there are empty food containers everywhere, and your previously beautiful dining room table, that you inherited from your grandmother, is covered in scratches and water marks. Besides being furious it would also make you wonder two things 1. If your friend really believed that you were coming back. And 2. If he is really your friend.

Jesus’ parables remind us again and again that we are not owners. Even the things that we think are ours, come from Him and are ultimately His. We are just housesitting. His parables also remind us again and again that we will have to give an account for how well we kept His house. Therefore the words that we should be living to hear one day are “Well done good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little. I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your Master.” In order to hear those words we need to be clear about what we believe and about how we should live. 

What do we believe? We say it every week in the Nicene Creed. “….and he shall come again, with glory, to judge both the quick and the dead, whose kingdom shall have no end.” We see today in Matthew’s Gospel a snapshot of what that will look like. “and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory.  And he will send out his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other.”His return will not be a secret. It will be obvious to all and He bring with Him all of the company of heaven. 

What will happen to those who are still alive at His return? Verse 38 “For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day when Noah entered the ark, and they were unaware until the flood came and swept them all away, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. Two men will be in the field; one will be taken and one left. Two women will be grinding at the mill; one will be taken and one left. Therefore, stay awake, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming.”

For any who are still alive everything will change in a blink of an eye. But when you read this passage in its context you see that the Left Behind teaching about the so-called Rapture has it completely backwards. Matthew points out that in the days of Noah it was the wicked that were swept away and it was Noah and his family that were left behind. In Luke’s version of this passage the disciples even ask where they are taken and Jesus’ response is “where the corpse is, there the vultures will gather.” That doesn’t sound like a place I would want to be. The Lord sweeping away the wicked, as He did with the flood, will result in the meek inheriting the earth. So Christians need a bumper sticker that instead of “In case of rapture this car will be unmanned” will say, “In case of rapture, may I have your car?”

If we truly believe that He is going to return and that we will be called upon to give an accounting of our stewardship, then that belief should have a profound impact on how we live our lives. Jesus said, “To whom much is given, much will be required.” Thus it would be wise for each of us to ask, “What markers in my life would identify me as a good and faithful servant?” The Scriptures point to several.

A first and most obvious mark of being a good and faithful servant is that you have only one Master. We read in our lesson from Romans “Owe no one anything, except to love each other….” This practical command has profound spiritual implications. Why? Because following this command secures our freedom as Proverbs 22 tells us, “the borrower is slave to the lender.” Add to that Jesus’ words, “No one can serve two Masters… you cannot serve God and money.” Ultimately how we use or misuse our money has a direct impact on who or what rules our lives.

I recently heard the saddest call on a Dave Ramsey podcast. A guy called in who had completed all the years of college and medical school but he failed the comprehensive exams three times and was expelled from school. He had $400,000 in student loan debt and was currently employed as a high school science teacher. Dave tried a number of avenues to help him but it was clear to me that this borrower would be a slave to Fannie Mae forever.

But when you owe no one anything, when you finally kick MasterCard out of your life, then you have only one Master and you are free to follow wherever He leads. He can call you to the mission field, He can call you to seminary, He can call you to be a chicken farmer and because you are free you can answer His call. 

A second mark of being a good and faithful servant is living in a state of readiness. Jesus is unequivocal that no one knows when the Day of Judgment will arrive. He says “But concerning that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only.” So any time you see a preacher pull out a chart or claim to have a biblical formula for figuring out the datejust say “Bless your heart” and move on. 

But it is precisely because we don’t know the day or hour that we are to live in a state of readiness. We are to live as if His return could be any day, perhaps even today. That was Jesus’ point when He spoke of the people in the days of Noah eating and drinking and marrying and giving in marriage. It’s not that there is anything innately wrong with eating and drinking and marrying. What Jesus was pointing out was that they were clueless. A great flood was about to come and they were living like they didn’t have a care in the world. 

Do we have this condition today? Consider Sundays in America where our churches are half full but our sports stadiums are overflowing and the Wal-Mart is packed. I’ll never forget, when we were still meeting at Lancaster Academy, driving to church on a crisp Easter Morning. As I drove past the Wal-Mart I saw enough cars to fill about 3 churches. On Easter morning! Or consider that this year we spent $8.8 billion on Halloween while 1 in 7 kids in America does not know where his next meal is coming from. What Jesus was pointing out is that when you are clueless your priorities are catawampus, so get a clue…wake up…pay attention!

I think that it is important, however, to distinguish between living in a state of awareness and living in a state of fear. Jesus says “Therefore stay awake” He does not say “Therefore stay afraid.” We are not meant to live as if the sword of judgment is hanging over our head, because it isn’t. Jesus’ atonement has removed that sword. But we are, as a collect from Morning Prayer puts it, to remember that we are ever walking in His sight. St. Paul also uses the image of being awake when he says, “the hour has come for you to wake from sleep….the night is far gone; the day is at hand.” We are to wake up and stay awake and live in a state of readiness.

A third mark of a good and faithful servant is that they live according the Master’s rules. Do you remember when you were a kid and you said to your parents, “Well at Johnny’s house they let him do thus and so…” What was the universal parent response? “Well this isn’t Johnny’s house and as long as you live under my roof you will follow my rules.”

That needs to be our mentality as Christians. It doesn’t matter what they are doing in the world, our citizenship is in heaven and so we are to follow His rules. In verse 13 St. Paul describes how the world lives and it’s not pretty. Orgies, drunkenness, sexual immorality, sensuality, quarrelling, jealousy. That is chaos. That is darkness. St. Paul says that we not to live this way. He says “Let us walk properly as in the daytime.”

Following the Master’s rules should inform not only our personal ethics but also our social ethics. It doesn’t matter how many times the Supreme Court says something is constitutional or how many laws the Legislator pass, something that is wicked cannot be made righteous just because it’s now legal. 

There needs to be a consistency between what we believe personally and our public voice, particularly on major moral issues. The Church should stay out of politics but the individual Christian should be a leading voice. I think of William Wilberforce who became the tip of the spear to abolish slavery in Great Britain in 1807. And don’t listen to the old saw about keeping your beliefs to yourself and not imposing them on others. If you are silent they will impose theirs on you. You are the salt of the earth. Be that salt. Can you imagine someone in the 1940’s saying, “Well I am personally opposed to the extermination of the Jews but who am I to impose my beliefs on the German government?” German Lutheran Pastor and Martyr, Dietrich Bonheoffer, is a model for standing against wickedness no matter the cost.

Finally a fourth mark of a good and faithful servant is that they follow the Master so closely that they become an extension of the Master. How do we do that? In verse 14 St. Paul says, “But put on Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.”

Fr. Chris and I have laughed many times over a YouTube video of a frustrated preacher rebuking his congregation. He yells, “You guys….don’t be a jerk…you’re making me look bad in front of God. O look it’s Jesus. What does He say? “Stop it!’”” 

While the video is funny the sad truth is too often that “just stop it” approach is how many Christians live. They make a long laundry list of things they are not supposed to do and they work on that list. That works about as well as the past government campaign to stop drug use by “just say no.” It doesn’t work because your dominant focus becomes the very thing that you are not supposed to be doing. If I said, “please don’t think about a pink elephant” then you will immediately think of a pink elephant. 

St. Paul points us in a more positive direction. He shows us a way to live under grace rather than under the law. He not just what not to do but he tells us to put on Christ. One commentator said of this expression, “The metaphor of putting on clothing implies more than just imitating Christ’s character but also living in close personal fellowship with Him.” (ESV footnotes p.2180). 

How do we live in close personal fellowship with Christ? Obviously we do it through the reading and study of the Scriptures, through prayer, and through the Sacraments. But there are a couple of other means of grace that I would like to underscore.

First we live in close personal fellowship with Christ as we maintain close personal fellowship with one another. You are His Body and that is why we need one another. If you hang around godly people you become more godly. The opposite is also true. In 1 Corinthians we read, “Bad company corrupts good character.” So Christian fellowship is key.

Another way to stay in close personal fellowship with Christ has been shown to us by our spiritual ancestors. During the Middle Ages there was a very popular devotional book called the Book of Hours. It was written for the laity but patterned after the Divine Offices that were observed in the monasteries. The idea was to stop at various times throughout the day to offer private prayers and to reflect on the life of Christ. This is the kind of pattern that Dorrence and Kelly Stoval keep as third order Benedictines. They could tell you more about it. 

But also know that you don’t have to join an order to keep this discipline. The 1979 and the 2019 Books of Common Prayer have brief devotions that can be done throughout the day; Morning, Midday, Early Evening and at the Close of Day as well as Compline. The pattern is to stop at various times throughout the day to refocus on Christ and say some brief prayers. It is a way, as Brother Lawrence put it, to practice the presence of Christ.

We believe that He will come again and when He does that we will have to give an accounting for what kind of stewards we have been. In the wisdom of the Church this penitential season of Advent is designed for us to ask ourselves the hard questions and to seek His grace to make the necessary changes to be good and faithful servants. But please note, and this is key, it is a work that we do not do FOR Him, it’s a work that we do WITH Him. St. Paul writes, “For I am confident of this very thing, that He who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus.” May that day come soon. Amen.

Communion of Saints Pt 2

Yesterday, at the All Souls Mass I spoke about the Communion of the Saints. I attempted to show why that belief is so important for us to confess and I attempted to explain what we mean and what we don’t mean when we speak of the Communion of the Saints. Today I want to talk about the benefits of believing in the Communion of the Saints. 

But first I want to address a common objection that I have heard. It’s a simplistic argument but I have heard it many times. “If I have Jesus why do I need the saints?” Let me address how illogical this question is and then I will give a biblically informed response. I would ask the person, “Is it true that according to the New Testament all believers are considered saints?”The correct answer is “Yes.” “Then that would make you a saint.” “Yes.” “Then you just asked‘If I have Jesus why do I need me?’” Or lets try it another way. “Do not the saints, both those on earth and those in heaven, make up the Body of Christ?” Again the correct answer is“Yes” “Then you just asked‘If I have Jesus why would I need the Body of Christ?’”  

Beyond pointing out the illogic of the question let me offer a simple response.  “We need the saints because that is how God set up the universe.” The Communion of the Saints is not the Church’s idea rather it is God’s. The same can be said about angels. “If I have Jesus why would I need angels.”? Again, because that is how God set up the universe. We know that Jesus had a perfect relationship with His heavenly Father and yet Scripture records two occasions where angels came to minister to Him. One was after the 40 days of temptation and one was at the garden the night that He was betrayed.  If Jesus was one with the Father why did He need angels to minister to Him? Because that is how God set up the universe and who are we to question His ways?

Since God has set up the Communion of the Saints what are the benefits? I will offer a number. First they fill need in our lives. Unless you are a narcissist you need a hero, someone to challenge you and inspire you to be a better you. This has been true across humanity and throughout history. Think of the ancient myths and legends and how invariably they involve a hero. Hercules, Beowulf, Achilles, Romulus and Remus, the list is endless. Who are our heroes today? Look at the movies. Spiderman, Captain America, Wonder Woman, Batman. Again the list is endless.

The saints fill this role in much better ways. I mean I can’t really relate to Batman. I’m not rich and I don’t drive at night. But the saints were real folk and like real folk they also had their issues and I can relate to that. St. Jerome, the brilliant translator of the Bible, was evidently a very difficult person with which to get along. St. John of the Cross battled spiritual and emotional depression. As we all know St. Peter suffered from foot in mouth disease. This list is also endless. 

What is important is that as far as we know these saints completed the race, and in spite of their issues, received a crown of glory that never fades away. The danger of current sports heroes or current celebrity heroes or even current preacher heroes is that we don’t know the end of their story, we don’t know if they will finish the race or if they will drop out or if they will be disqualified.

Secondly the saints show us a different way than the way of the world. Let me tell you about Alphonsus Rodriguez who died in 1617. He was the son of a prosperous merchant in Segovia. He began his studies to become a Jesuit but when his father died he had to return home to run his family business. He fell in love and married and had two children. His wife died bearing his third child, then his other two children died, then his mother died, and then his business collapsed. Although completely broken he offered the shattered pieces of his life to God. 

He was denied entrance into the Jesuits because his lack of education but they made him a lay brother of the order and gave him the job of being a doorkeeper. For 40 years he opened the door for others with such love and devotion that they said that he performed it as if it were a sacrament. His Christlikeness became so well known that students began seeking him out for spiritual direction. Rodriguez was so well respected that Spanish nobility along with throngs of the poor and the sick attended his funeral testifying to his miraculous life as a doorkeeper. When we confess the Communion of the Saints we are speaking truth against the constant quest for power, against the materialism of atheism and against the secularism of western culture. 

The Communion of the Saints reorients us. At least six days a week we are being bombarded with lies and half-truths from the world, the flesh and the devil and sadly from ABC, NBC and CBS. It is very easy in the midst of all of these lies to become disoriented and even to begin to drift. At first the drift is every so slightly but before we realize it we are way off course. 

A few years ago Beth and I flew to Italy on a brand new jet. One of the things I enjoyed most about the flight was that it had cameras all over the plane and so you could bring different views to the monitor before you. As we were landing I chose the camera that allowed me to see what the pilots were seeing. And there before us were two rows of lights marking the runway and guiding us home. It occurred to me that is how I see the saints. They are not home but they mark our way home. When we have drifted from the course they reorient us for a safe landing. In Jeremiah we read, “This is what the Lord says: ‘Stand at the crossroads and look; ask for the ancient paths, ask where the good way is and walk in it and you will find rest for your souls.” The saints show us those ancient paths.

The Cloud of Witnesses gives us perspective on our lives in a number of ways. Back to Hebrews 11. “They were stoned, they were sawn in two, were tempted, were slain with the sword. They wandered about in sheepskins and goatskins being destitute, afflicted, tormented…” And here I feel persecuted when the insurance company tells me that I haven’t met my deductible. But more than reminding me that I don’t have it too bad the saints call us to be better. 

It was not until the 1950’s that runners broke the four-minute mile. Until that point no one thought that it was even possible. Today if you can’t run a four-minute mile you likely won’t make the team. The bar has been raised that high.

The saints raise the bar for us. If I was in this alone and heard a call to be more loving or more generous or more courageous, I could dismiss it by saying the only one to do that was Jesus and I’m not Jesus. But when I look back at my spiritual ancestors and see the love of Mother Theresa or the generosity of St. Francis or courage of St. Patrick, I know that the spiritual version of the four-minute mile has been broken and so I give it a try. And if I listen very carefully I can hear the cloud of witnesses cheering me on. 

The Communion of Saints also model for us selfless service. In September of 1878, yellow fever hit epidemic proportions in Memphis, Tennessee. So many people died that the city lost its charter. Every one who could afford to do so fled the city, while Anglican nuns and clergy rushed in to offer care. They became known as Sister Constance and her companions. The cathedral was turned into a hospital. Constance was the first to die and then her companions followed. In all 38 Anglican and Roman clergy and nuns died in this selfless service of others. “They loved not their lives even unto death.” The high altar of the cathedral, consecrated on Whitsunday 1879, was commissioned by Bishop Quintard to memorialize the Sisters of St. Mary. Inscribed on the altar steps are “Alleluia Osanna,”which were Sister Constance’s last words. 

Lastly the Communion of Saints inspires us to finish the race that we have begun. That is the message of Hebrew 12. The picture in my mind is that we are on the field in a very tough race and the cloud of witnesses in the stands is cheering us on. The text says that because we are surrounded by this great cloud of witnesses we are to  “run with endurance the race the is set before us.”  The key word here is, “endurance.”As you well know the Christian life is not a sprint, it is a marathon and marathons are tough. In the letters to Timothy and to Thessalonica, St. Paul prophesies that in the latter days there will be a great falling away from the faith. While I have never been one to try to predict the latter days I do know that t is all too easy to quit. I have seen many do so. This year alone between 8,000 and 10,000 churches will close their doors in the US.  

I will make this personal. I was first ordained in 1979 so I’m sure it would not surprise you that I have had days when I said out loud to myself, “I don’t want to do this any more.”I recently hit that wall. In part because I don’t have the stamina that I did when I was younger and in part because ministering to the pain and trauma and heartache of folks that you love takes its toll over the years.  I was in that mindset a couple of weeks ago when Beth and I went to Savannah to celebrate her 29thbirthday  (Lord I apologize). As we were walking around Savannah we came across a square where the great Anglican preacher Fr. George Whitfield had preached to hundreds if not thousands. Just to be standing where he stood was enough inspiration to straighten up and get my head back in the race. The saints of God do that for us.

I would encourage you to read up on the saints and make it a goal to have a hero or heroes that will inspire you to run with endurance and to finish the race. I know that I need all of the help that God offers me and so I celebrate being surrounded by their fellowship of love and prayers. While it is true that the whole notion of the saints became riddled with superstition in the Middle Ages, we need not fear that it will happen to us. Anglican theology and worship is too Christ centered to see those abuses repeated. In an excellent article about the saints Fr. Wesley Walker reminds us that we should not allow abuses of a practice to negate that practice, especially when the practice predates the abuse. We know that if belief in the Communion of the Saints was so universal in the Church that it was placed in the Nicene Creed in 325, then it didn’t first appear in 324. The ancient practice of the Church was to pray for the faithful departed and to be comforted in the knowledge that they are praying for us. I believe in the Communion of the Saints. 

“The lived not only in ages past, there are hundreds and thousands still. The world is bright with the joyous saints who love to do Jesus’ will. You can meet them in school or in lanes or at sea, in church or in trains or in shops or at tea, for the saints of God are just folk like me and I mean to be one too.

In his book Retire Inspired, Chris Hogan tells of meeting with a client named Michael who was desperate to get his financial affairs in order. Michael’s favorite aunt had called him and asked if he would mow her two-acre yard. He did so and about noon he went into her kitchen to rustle up some lunch. When he opened her fridge all that was in it was some expired milk and a bottle of catsup. He searched the cabinets only to find dishes. And when he came to her cupboard all he saw was 7 cans of dog food. Michael said to Chris. “Chris, my aunt doesn’t own a dog.

We are called the richest nation in the world but let me give you some statistics and averages, and they are not good news. 76% of Americans are living paycheck-to-paycheck, which means that ¾’s of us are not planning for our future. The average American family is $8,000 in credit card debt, which conservatively means that they are wasting over $1,400 a year in interest. The average Millennial has $29,000 in personal debt, most of which is student loans. The average American spends $1.25 for every $1 that they make. And how about our nation? By the end of this Mass we will have added over $100 million to the national debt.

What about the other 24% that are not living paycheck to paycheck? They may be doing well, they may even be wealthy, but are they honoring God with their wealth? Just because you are wealthy does not mean that you are being a faithful steward. I read of a Rapper that spent $600,000 in ONE NIGHT in a club in Atlanta. Or how about a TV preacher in Texas living in $12 million mansion? Or another in Atlanta who appealed to his audience to buy him yet another private jet? (I would remind you that Jesus had to borrow His donkey to enter Jerusalem.) The 24% may not all be millionaires, but by the standards of the rest of the world they are rich. If they are praying the Lord’s Prayer ever day, for God’s kingdom to come on earth, the next question is what are they doing with their resources to see that happen?

But these challenges about money are not just an American problem. Problems with money are a human problem. In fact misuse of money is a sin problem. Scripture tells us that it is the love of money that is at the root of all kinds of evil. And so today we hear Jesus address this problem and tell us what we are to do about it.

He begins with this parable about an unfaithful servant who is about to be fired so he cuts a deal with the Master’s debtors and thereby one again rips off his Master. He does this to try to secure his future with his newfound friends. Then what is even more shocking is that he gets commended for it! This seems like a very strange parable to tell us how to deal with money.

Here is where we need to turn to the principles of biblical interpretation. As a general rule a parable is not an extended metaphor to be picked apart as if it is filled with code. Most of the time a parable is intended to teach one point and I believe that the point of this parable is contained in the following line. “The master commended the dishonest steward for his shrewdness; for the sons of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than the sons of light.” Jesus is telling them that they must be shrewd when it comes to money. St. Augustine put it more eloquently than I. He said, “Jesus is recommending to the disciples the steward’s foresight, prudence and ingenuity.”

But why would Jesus recommend that we be shrewd when it comes to money? He does so because money is like a snake. You had better learn which end with which to pick it up or it will bite you. Notice that Jesus doesn’t just call it “mammon” He calls it “unrighteous mammon.” Why is it unrighteous? Because again, the love of it is the root of all kinds of evil. It is unrighteous because some times money is gained by hurting others, as we just heard from the prophet Amos. It is unrighteous because some times the motives for getting it are unrighteous. We seek it for selfish purposes or falsely believing that it will bring us security.

I had a relative that had a sign on her refrigerator that read, “You can never be too rich or too thin.” Unfortunately that was her creed instead of the Nicene Creed. And she fulfilled her creed. She was wealthy and she was very attractive. I was with her when she died and to this day it was one of the worst deaths that I have witnessed. Disease had taken her looks and she passed screaming, filled with terror. Her riches were useless to her at that moment. That is why in this lesson Jesus says of money not “IF it fails” but “WHEN it fails.”

Mammon is unrighteous because it can have a corrupting influence on a person, like the ring did to Gollum. So that brings us back to the need to be shrewd when picking up this snake. Jesus shows us how.

First He says that we are to use money to make friends. He says “I tell you make friends for yourselves by means of unrighteous mammon…” Now when Jesus begins a command with “I tell you” that is like being aboard ship and hearing “Now hear this.” He is not whistling Dixie here; He wants us to pay careful attention.

That part is clear but what does He mean that we are to use money to make friends? That hardly sounds Christian. We don’t want people to love us for our money. We want them to love us for who we are.

The key to understanding what He is telling us to do here is found in the rest of the sentence. “So that when it (unrighteous mammon) fails they may receive you into the eternal habitations.” (Boy that sure clears things up doesn’t it?)

I wrestled with this idea for some time until I saw that the next story He tells in the same chapter is the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus. You will recall that in this story the rich man feasted every day while the poor man Lazarus sat at his gate covered with sores. Lazarus would have been happy to have eaten whatever fell off of the rich mans table but he did not even get that. They both died and while Lazarus went heaven, to the bosom of Abraham, the rich man went to Hades. The point is that if the rich man had used his mammon to care for Lazarus, then Lazarus would have greeted him in heaven. But he didn’t, so he didn’t.

I was relieved to discover that some of the Church Fathers also interpreted this call to make friends by unrighteous mammon as a call to care for the poor. The challenge however is that there are so many charities and so many individuals with so many needs that it is difficult to know where to begin. Add to that the many scams out there. What to do? One idea is to be like the Good Samaritan and minister to what is in front of you rather than ignoring it and passing it by. This is a major reason that we raise money for Food for the Poor every year because they are ministering to the poorest of the poor in our hemisphere.

I know for a fact that I have been conned over the years, thinking that I was helping someone in need but it was a ruse. I have thrown good money after bad trying to help a parishioner only to have them turn on me. So I have wrestled with myself, wondering if I was doing the right thing. I am comforted by the words of St. Augustine who said, “When you give alms to all different types of people then you will reach a few who deserve it.” Evidently St. Augustine had been conned too but he was okay with that because He was fulfilling Christ’s command.

It is vital to understand that God’s call to be generous towards that poor is not just about the poor. He calls us to learn generosity because that is who He is. The more we learn generosity the more we will be like God, who causes the rain to fall on the just and the unjust.

The second thing that Jesus says, to help us to be shrewd about money, is when He gives us this perspective. “If then your have not been faithful in the unrighteous mammon, who will entrust you with true riches.” Or to put it in the positive, if we are faithful over unrighteous mammon then we will be entrusted with true riches.

A couple things jump out to us about this verse. One is that Jesus contrasts mammon with true riches. From the perspective if the Kingdom of God, mammon is Monopoly money. I love how Beth puts it when I get upset over how much something costs. She says, “What the heck, its just dead presidents.”

We become shrewder when we realize that mammon with which we have been entrusted, are not true riches, but are a vehicle to make us truly rich. If God can trust us to use this Monopoly money properly then He will grant us true riches. And what are they? Eye hath not seen nor ear heard but surely in part it is to rule and reign with Him in a new heaven and new earth. That would be worth all of the Monopoly money in the world.

Another thing that confronts us from Jesus’ words is that stewardship is not an option. Our only options are if we are going to be faithful stewards or unfaithful stewards.

I have to confess to you that I was a hypocrite in this area for too long. I knew that verses like these on stewardship existed, I just ignored them. I always paid my tithe and I always paid my bills, but money was more of an irritant to me and I didn’t think of myself as a steward.

Then when we married, Beth was better at finances than I was, so I just gave her my paycheck and stuck my head in the ground. That put an unfair burden on her as we were in that 74% category that lived paycheck to paycheck. And when we looked into our future, other than modest pensions, we had no idea how we would retire. It took going through Financial Peace University that I was confronted with the fact that I was an unfaithful steward. So we began working together and we worked hard to become faithful with all that God had given us. We are not doing it perfectly but I don’t feel like a hypocrite any more.

And we have discovered that one of the joys of living into the Scripture that says, “owe no man anything but love” is that it has freed up resources to give offerings beyond our tithe to the Church. We have added a number of charities that are doing God’s work. One ministry that I really like giving to is out of California. It is made up of veterans who go around the world and perform military type strikes to free children from being sex slaves. There is so much greater joy in giving than there is in receiving.

A third perspective that Jesus gives us to make us shrewder with unrighteous mammon is when He says that we cannot serve two masters. We cannot serve both God and Mammon. But how do we know whom we are truly serving? It is revealed through our priorities. God says that we are to honor the Sabbath and keep it holy, but if instead I choose to pursue the almighty buck then I am showing who I truly serve. If I ignore God’s call to care for the widow and orphan so that I can store up riches for myself, then I am showing who I truly serve. If I am so enslaved by debt that I cannot answer the call of God then I am showing who I truly serve.

I recently got to hear the story of Pastor Ronnie’s call to Zimbabwe. Years ago he met an apostle type leader who came to the States seeking teachers for his Bible School. Ronnie came home and told Margaret about meeting him and she said, “Ronnie I’ve seen that look in your eye before.” Through a couple of clear signs they knew that they were supposed to go to Zimbabwe, even with young kids in tow. They sold everything they had, packed up what they absolutely needed, and answered the call. He even had to raise his own salary before going because the Bible School did not have the money to pay the teachers. It was a great experience for them and they have kept ties with Zimbabwe over these many years. My point in telling you this is that if Pastor Ronnie had loved money, he would not have WANTED to answer the call. Or if Pastor Ronnie had been enslaved to debt he would not have been ABLE to answer the call, no matter how much he may have wanted to do so. Our life priorities tell us whom we truly serve.

If I may be so blunt and boil it all down, this teaching of Jesus confronts us with two options and whether or not to choose is not one of them. When we boil it all down, we will either love God and use money or we will use God and love money. The shrewd knows that the eternal destiny of his soul depends on making the correct one. So choose wisely beloved, choose wisely Amen.

Let Brotherly Love Continue

That Love Thy Neighbor

 

On the inside of your bulletin beneath our Mission Statement we read, “We will engage our mission and strengthen our parish with four pillars: Sacramental Living, Joyful Discipleship, Radical Love and Gracious Evangelism.”Today’s lesson from Hebrews focuses us on the third pillar when it says, “Let brotherly love continue.”

Then right after this exhortation to let brotherly love continue we see a number of what looks like random instructions. But I submit to you that they are not random at all. I believe them to be practical applications of how we go about letting brotherly love continue. Additionally these practical applications are interesting because they are not the first things that jump to mind when you think of love. For example when I think of love I don’t immediately think of visiting a prison. These instructions are very helpful in getting us to think outside of the box. They are also helpful because they move us away for sentimentality or some innocuous definition of love that has no hands or feet attached to it. In these verses love calls us beyond emotion into action.

First we let brotherly love continue by showing hospitality.“Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.” Hospitality was a big deal in the ancient world. You may recall that when the Lord appeared to Abraham in the form of three angels the first thing he did was to offer them hospitality. He said to them “My lord, if you are pleased with me, don’t pass me by. Let me get you some water. Then all of you can wash your feet and rest under this tree. Let me get you something to eat to give you strength. Then you can go on your way. I want to do this for you now that you have come to me.”

Romans 12 and 1 Peter 4 also give commands to show hospitality. Travel was difficult in those days. It wasn’t like there were a dozen hotels at every exit and although there were inns they were not always the safest of places. So a Christian could show love of neighbor, even one who is a stranger, by opening their home and by giving them a meal and providing a safe place to rest.

Today there are a dozen hotels at every exit, and they are usually safe, so the needs have changed. However we can still show hospitality in other ways. For example last week when we had the conference a couple of families offered their homes to clergy who were coming from out of town. And I have said before that one of the best tools for evangelism that you have at your command is your dining room table. It is an act of love to invite someone to break bread with you and there is an added benefit in that it has a sacramental element to it. Imagine the impact if you were a first time visitor to a church and one of their parishioners asked you to join them for Sunday dinner. You would immediately know that they were not Country Club Christians.

The second way that we can let brotherly love continue is to remember those who are in prison. It is likely that the context here is concerning those who are in prison for their faith, like the Apostle Paul. Rather than being embarrassed by their imprisonment, the Church was to remember them through prayer and through visit whenever possible. You will recall that a number of folks accompanied Paul when he was under house arrest. The book of Philemon was about a slave who had been with Paul and whom Paul was hoping to get back not a slave but as a brother in Christ.

I don’t think that this command to remember those in prison means that each of us has to run out and start a prison ministry. Rather it is a call to be sensitive to that need if the Lord should connect you to someone in that situation. I have been corresponding with a couple of inmates in different prisons around the state, sending them books and visiting one of them. A close friend of mine got to know a man who was working with his brother and who ended up being convicted of murder. Without making a big deal out of it my friend faithfully visited him for years. So if the Lord gives you an opportunity then take advantage of it.

Besides those who are in prison the writer adds, “and those who are mistreated” which would certainly

include the persecuted church around the world. This century is shaping up to have the largest number of martyrs in the history of the church. Just last year 4,305 Christians were martyred in Nigeria but you didn’t hear about that because it did not fit into the major medias narrative. We can let brotherly love continue as we pray for and support the persecuted church. If you would like more information about the persecuted church we have magazines and requests for prayer down at the Cole House.

A third way to let brotherly love continue is to honor marriage. And one way he tells them to honor marriage is to keep from immorality and adultery. And note that God is dead serious about this because this command comes with a warning of God’s judgment. The Greek word that the writer uses for “immorality” is an all-inclusive word that covers all forms of sex outside of the bonds of marriage and marriage was defined by Jesus as one man and one woman for life. Thus immorality covers all sex outside of marriage whereas “adultery” is more specifically a violation of the marriage bed.

 

The ancient world was a deeply immoral world. When I was a kid we lived in Italy and our family visited a small town that was decimated by Vesuvius. I was not allowed to go into some of the houses because the mosaic tile work in their homes was pornographic. Pagan religions engaged in temple prostitution. Their gods and goddesses were believed to engage in drunken orgies.  That was the world in which the Church found herself but such immorality was not to be found in the Church. And yet if you read Corinthians you know that it was. Hence the strong command and warning of judgment here in Hebrews.

Not much has improved since the days of Corinth. We have gone from prudishness in the 50’s and 60’s, where married couples could only be shown in separate beds on TV, to commercials today that would make a sailor blush.

I have been listening to a podcast about a woman who was taken in by a con man. The reporter interviewed her daughter and the daughter said that her mother preferred to date Christian men, especially Christian men that attended her church. And then without a hint of impropriety on her part we learn that by the third date the man is spending the night and in just over a month he is asked to move in with her. She has been divorced 5 times but she said the she just can’t figure out why her relationships don’t work out.

God shows us a path to walk, and while it is indeed the straight and narrow, it saves us from a world of pain when we try to do things our own way and life blows up in our face. The culture says that we are defined by our sexuality. The Church says that we are defined by our sonship, by our identity in Christ. Your worth does not come from how you self identify, it comes from the fact that you are made in the image of God. Our bodies therefore are to be temples of God and the marriage bed must be undefiled.

Lastly we let brotherly love continue by being free from the love of money. Sex and money are arguably the top two idols in America and the writer of Hebrews hits them both.

Being free from the love of money is key because Jesus said that it is the love of money that is at the root of all evil. A Bishop once told me that every fight that he has seen in the Church is about power or money and usually both. So imagine the peace that the Church that would have if we could follow this command.

And we can follow it because he tells us how. The command to be free from the love of money is accompanied by these words, “and be content with what you have.” Contentment is how we become free and it is a wonderful freedom. I have a friend who is a millionaire and so he could buy anything that his heart desires but he doesn’t because he has learned the secret of contentment. There is nothing more that his heart desires. They say that there are two ways of becoming rich. One way is to make more money and the other is to want less stuff.

I want go back to the example of my friend, because he has taught me something else about how to be free from the love of money. It is through generosity. He is very generous and gives a boat load of money away rather than hoarding. As a consequence knows financial peace. One might argue that his peace comes from having so much money but I have known very wealthy people who are absolutely miserable. No, his peace comes from the knowledge that he is using his wealth as God intends it to be used.

Dave Ramsey says that there is only three things that you can do with money; save it, spend it and give it away. It is as we learn to give it away, to live a lifestyle of generosity, that we truly walk in freedom. And it comes with an added benefit because Jesus said that it is more blessed to give than to receive. Jesus is not talking here about giving so that we can be financially blessed in return. The blessing, at least in part, is the joy and fulfillment that comes when we allow God to pass His wealth through us to the benefit of others. It’s like the joy a parent experiences at Christmas as they watch their little children open their presents with glee.

The beauty of living out this command to let brotherly love continue is that it flows naturally to our fourth pillar of gracious evangelism. History has proven this to be so. Jesus said that all men will know that we are His disciples if we love one another. Tertullian, a church father born in the 2ndcentury wrote that pagans would look at the church and say “See how these Christians love one another, they are ready to die for each other.” I believe that we have a real opportunity today because the great division in our nation and the vitriol with which folks treat one another. By continuing in brotherly love we shine a light in the darkness and glorify our heavenly Father.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Being a Mary in a Martha World

Martha and Mary

“Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things…”

 In part it was understandable that Martha was anxious and troubled. Hospitality was and still is a very important concern in the Middle East. Once I was in Egypt and was told that if the host offers you something to drink, accept it even if you don’t really want it. To say “No” would be considered a great insult. So Martha was no doubt feeling some pressure to do it right and that is why she wanted Jesus to send Mary back to the kitchen.

Nevertheless it is a good thing for us that Jesus addressed her anxiety because anxiety is no small matter. This is from the American Journal of Managed Care. “The lifetime prevalence of anxiety disorders is approximately 28.8% in the United States, with more than 1 of every 4 adults experiencing at least 1 anxiety disorder in their lifetime…The total annual cost of anxiety disorders has been estimated to be between $42 billion and $46 billion….”  Another report stated that worldwide 75% of anxiety disorders go untreated which in turn leads to about 1 million suicides per year.

With anxiety being so prevalent and even so dangerous we certainly need more than a cute song telling us over and over “don’t worry, be happy.”In his book called Anxious for Nothing, Max Lucado does a masterful job of unpacking St. Paul’s words to the Philippians. Words that give concrete and divine instruction concerning anxiety. Here is St. Paul.

“Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy— think about such things.”

First we see that St. Paul does not begin his instructions by condemning them for their anxiety. That is important because feeling guilty about being anxious is not a way to conquer it. Having anxiety attack you is not a sign of spiritual immaturity nor is it an indicator of a lack of faith. It comes with life. It’s even highlighted in our morning and  evening news. Nearly every morning we hear a shootings in Nashville. We read of home invasions, international terrorist threats, the economic bubble about to burst, home prices going out of sight, global warming, and worst of all, everything that you love to eat is going to kill you, especially bacon! Anxiety is delivered to you on a silver platter every day.

The key is what you do about it. As Martin Luther said in general about temptations, you cannot keep a bird from flying over your head, but you can keep it from making a nest in your hair. Anxiety is constantly flying overhead but we have the power to make a choice about whether or not we are going to invite it in to live with us. Jesus of course says that we should not because it is of no value whatsoever. As He classically put it, Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?” Mt 6:27

Max Lucado took the words of St. Paul and provides a very handy acronym. Fittingly the acronym is CALM.

“C” stand for “Celebrate.” St. Paul says “Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!” This is brilliant. Think about it; it is very difficult to be anxious and celebratory at the same time. One tends to drive out the other.

And what are we rejoicing? While there are endless things in the Lord about which to rejoice, when it comes to life’s anxieties, it is most fitting to rejoice that He is our Sovereign Lord. We rejoice that He is good not some of the time but all of the time. We rejoice that He loves us with an unending love. We rejoice, as St. Paul said in Romans, that nothing can separate us from His love. We rejoice that nothing can befall us that He will not turn to our good. We rejoice that our past is forgiven and that we don’t need to worry about tomorrow because God is already there. We rejoice because, as author James Bryan Smith put it, “We have confidence in a great future…We are safe and secure.”

I had lunch with Pastor Ronnie Meek last week. As most of you know his wife passed just a few weeks ago and I had the privilege of officiating at her graveside. He wanted to talk about her passing and he welcomed my questions. Because we have been friends for so long I felt I could ask him a tough one. I asked what he was telling himself now that all the plans that they had together for their future are gone. He said to me, “I don’t think that there is a day that goes by that I don’t cry, but I believe that this will be a new chapter in my life. And like all of the past chapters God had been faithful and good to me every time, so I know that He will be faithful and good in this next chapter.” You can see why Pastor Ronnie is a hero as well as a friend. If you can rejoice in God’s goodness amidst your tears, then you will crush anxiety beneath your feet. “C” is “Celebrate.”

“A” stands for “Ask.” St. Paul says, “Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.” This should be the first thing that comes to mind but to be honest sometimes we do everything else BUT pray and then we don’t understand why we have no peace. St. Paul says that we are to pray “in every situation.” So we don’t wait to pray until it is the really big stuff or we are facing something that we cannot handle. The Lord says that we are not to be anxious about ANYTHING but to pray in EVERYING. I’ve done extensive research in the Greek and have discovered that “everything” means everything! This means from losing your keys to going into surgery we are to pray.

It is also noteworthy that St. Paul adds that we are to pray “with thanksgiving.” We don’t make demands of God with a sense of entitlement. We don’t “name it and claim it” as the TV preachers call us to do. We simply present our requests to our loving heavenly Father, thankful that He is fully capable of granting those requests. And we also pray with thankfulness that He may choose not to grant our requests for our own good.

I always feel convicted when I read the story in the Gospels of Jesus healing the 10 lepers but only one comes back to say “thank you.” Too often I am like the other 9 lepers, but I am working on it. Gratefully the Book of Common Prayer is a great help in that regard. “A” is for “Ask.”

“L” stands for “Leave.” After we present our requests to God then we are to leave them with Him. According to Jesus’ teachings it is perfectly fine to repeat the request but that is very different from giving our burdens to God and then picking them back up.

I once saw a very effective treatment for a lady with severe anxiety. The therapist, who was a Christian, had the lady make what she called “a God box.” It was like a Kleenex box with the word “God” written on it. Every time that lady identified something that she was worried about, she was to write it down on a piece of paper and put it in the God box. But the deal was if she kept worrying about it after giving it to God, then she had to take the bit of paper out of the box and carry it for the rest of the day. Some days she would have both hands full of bits of paper which made daily living a challenge. For example she couldn’t shake your hand and even eating was a challenge. It was a perfect visual metaphor for what she was allowing anxiety to do to her life. The more things she left with God the easier life became. Jesus said,“Come unto me all ye that are travail and are heavy laden and I will refresh you.” One way that He does so is by saying, “Leave that burden with Me. I’ll take it from here.” “L” is for “Leave.”

“M” stand for “Meditate.” St. Paul says. “Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy— think about such things.” The world says that we are what we eat but Holy Scripture says that we become what we think about. Proverbs 23:7 says, “As a man thinketh so is he.”

Thus St. Paul doesn’t just tell us not to worry, he shows us a replacement. Just like nature, our brains abhor a vacuum. If we don’t intentionally fill it with good things then all kinds of junk will rush in to fill the void. I saw an article last week that said that constant complaining rewires the brain for anxiety and depression.

But I will be the first to admit that following St. Paul’s advice here is not easy to do. It doesn’t take a lot of energy to be an Eyore but takes a world of energy to be a Tigger. However a parishioner told me that she made a New Year’s resolution to find the good in every situation and it has been positive for her. It can be a challenge but I have no doubt that what she is doing has also had a positive affect on those who are around her. Because she is a Tigger I always look forward to Lulu’s posts on Facebook. They are inevitably funny, Southern, encouraging and/or make you hungry. So do the work to fill your mind with true and noble and lovely things and it will not only fight against your worry but it will be a blessing to others.

After confronting Martha for being worried about so many things, Jesus goes on to tell her that only one thing is needful. And He didn’t have to spell it out for Martha because that one needful thing was repeated throughout her Prayer Book, which today we call the Psalms. Psalm 16:5 “The Lord is my chosen portion and my cup.” Psalm 27:4 “One thing have I asked of the Lord, that will I seek after: that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life. Psalm 73:28 “But for me it is good to be near God; I have made the Lord my refuge.”

Martha made a mistake by not heeding these words and as a result putting the temporal before the eternal. And her is the irony. She was all worried that Jesus would get fed when just a few days earlier He had fed the 5,000 with 5 loaves and 2 fish. HE has this! She was missing an opportunity to fellowship with God in the flesh.

However Mary had chosen wisely. She chose the Lord’s presence over business, the eternal over the temporal, and Jesus said that the eternal would never be taken from her. Not in this life and certainly not in the life to come.

This story of Martha and Mary is fitting for us today. Life is so very busy even to the point that our kid’s lives are booked to the max.  From a societal point of view, not only do we no longer just sit on the front porch and drink a cup of coffee, we don’t even make front porches any more. Making proper priorities for our lives is a serious challenge but Jesus helps us.

In a variety of ways in the Gospels Jesus tells us that our priority is to live for today but to do so in light of eternity. In the Sermon on the Mount He said that we are not to worry about tomorrow because tomorrow has enough trouble if its own. But instead we are to seek first the kingdom of God.

We do this when we choose the eternal over the temporal. We become like Mary when we make being with Christ our highest priority. We become like Mary when we don’t allow anything to keep us from being united with Christ through receiving His Body and His Blood. We become like Mary when we give God our first fruits rather than our leftovers. We become like Mary when we seek Christ in all people and prefer the needs of others over our own. We become like Mary when care for “the least of these.” And God has set up life so that the more we become like Mary the more peace filled our lives become.

But we don’t become like Mary by accident because we live in a Martha world. In fact millions of dollars are spent every day, through television, radio and the social media to convince you to remain like Martha. And all of your Martha like friends and colleagues will load you with expectations and guilt to get you back in the kitchen and act like “a responsible adult.”

Being a Mary in a Martha world does not come by accident. Jesus said it is a choice. So the question to answer every day is if we are going to choose to be anxious and worried about many things or if we are going to choose that one needful thing. Today you have chosen to be a Mary. Who will you choose to be tomorrow? Amen.