Pray That It May Not Happen In Winter

Pray Winter

“Let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains….Pray that it may not happen in winter.

One commentator referred to this Gospel lesson as “an exegetical minefield” and so as you can imagine folks are all over the map about what these verses mean and they are greatly varied on how to apply them.

One approach is that in these verses Jesus is warning about the destruction of the Temple that will happen in 70AD. In this view that is all that this passage is about so there is no real application for us today. Others say this is actually an end time’s prophecy. The “he” mentioned in the text is the Antichrist and therefore we need to be on the lookout for him to better know the signs of the times and to discern when we are in the latter days.

I’m going to take a good Anglican via media approach and say, that at least in part, they are both right. Jesus draws imagery from the Book of Daniel to warn about the upcoming desolating sacrilege of the Temple. His allusion to Daniel goes back to 168 BC when the Seleucid King Antiochus Epiphanies put a statue of Zeus in the Holy of Holies and sacrificed a pig on the altar. Jesus is using that familiar text to tell His hearers that something similar is coming and it did when the Romans destroyed the Temple. Not only was one stone not left on another, according to one ancient historian, they even dug up the foundation. This was a more traumatic event than we can really grasp because to the first century Jew, this Second Temple was the literal presence of God on the earth. Because they did not understand that Jesus was now God’s presence on earth, their world was shattered and their understanding of God was shaken to the core.

But Jesus must be referring to more than just the destruction of the Temple by the Romans because in the verses that immediately follow He speaks of the Son of Man coming in great power and the angels gathering the elect from the ends of the earth. This is a clear reference to the Day of Judgment. Thus He is also warning about a time before that Last Day that is going to be equally difficult. What He is saying is that while the kingdom is coming in its fullness, its not going to be a walk in the park. The kingdom of God is going to be met with great opposition and great challenges and many will be tempted to fall away from their faith. Sadly many will.

It’s very important to understand whyJesus is pointing them to the destruction of the Temple and pointing us to the events that precede Judgment. It is not, not, not so that we become end times experts. It’s not an invitation to decode the numbers of weeks in Daniel or the symbols in Revelation so that we can either figure out who the Antichrist is or narrow down the time of His coming.

But that hasn’t stopped folks from trying! Jesus speaks of false prophets who point to the end time. The Seventh Day Adventist church was started by a supposed prophetess who predicted the day when Jesus would return. She duped a lot of people into following her. When the date that she predicted rolled around, and Jesus did not return, she declared that He actually did return but that He returned spiritually and now we are waiting for Him to return physically. Surprisingly people are still following her teachings today.

And they are not alone. There seems to be a drive in many of us to want to know all the titillation details about the end times. When I was in college I announced a Bible Study on the Book of the Revelation in my dorm and we packed a room. But when I announced that I had gotten in over my head and instead we were going to study the Book of Mark, they all bailed. We must remember that Jesus said that even He did not know the day or hour of His return and that should have us put all of our speculations to bed.

We need to also understand that Jesus did not give these warnings so that we live in a state of fear. The Scripture addresses this directly. “For God has not given us a spirit of fear but of power and love and a sound mind.” (2 Tim 1:7). But as you know too much of Christianity preaches and lives by fear. TV preachers with all their charts and corny Christian movies about end times and endless speculation about the identity of the Antichrist all fan the flames of fear. But in the end this plays right into the hand of the enemy because if you are walking in fear then you will find it difficult, if not impossible, to walk in love as God commands.

So what then is Jesus’ motive for warning us about the desolation of sacrilege, to the Temple in His day and to the Church in our day? He tells us when He says, “But take heed, I told you all things beforehand.” Another translation says, “Stay alert.” In other words He is giving us a heads up so that we won’t be taken aback and especially so that we won’t quit when the going gets tough. One commentator put it this way. Christians need to be forewarned so that they are forearmed. They will face adversity, harrowing persecution, false alarms and the ruin of nations, even their own.” (NIV Application Commentary on Mark p.505). He warns us to that we will prepare and therefore endure. In the parallel passage in Matthew Jesus says, “But the one who endures to the end will be saved.”Thus in giving us these warnings He is being a merciful and loving Head of the Church.

If it is true that He is giving us a heads up so that we will be prepared and endure, then we need to ask how it is that we get prepared for difficult times. If you listen to the world it is by storing large quantities of gold and silver and canned food. (And you will also need plenty of ammunition to ward off the zombies). But for the Christians suffering in Nigeria and Pakistan, and all around the world, the answer is hardly gold, silver and cans of spam. Their preparation came in more intimately knowing the One for whom they were willing to suffering. I have had the privilege of being around these folks and found their courageous faith to be infectious.

Following their example we prepare for whatever lies ahead as we have a clearer picture of who our Lord is and what our relationship with Him is all about. Let me point you to what seems to be an obscure line in our lesson that I believe opens the door to this clearer picture. “Pray that it may not happen in winter.” This line has always fascinated me. In its immediate context it was good to pray that the desolation did not happen in the winter because Jesus told them to flee to the mountains and the winter flash floods in Israel’s winter would prevent them fleeing.

But in a larger context we can discern a wonderful invitation to become a part of God’s overall plan. Here Jesus tells us of events that seem to be written in stone but then He invites us to engage in a prayer that could alter the circumstances of those events.

I would argue that Jesus would not call on us to pray a prayer that did not have the potential of being answered. To do so would mean He is toying with us, and that can never be. So if we pray that it does not happen in winter then there is at least the possibility that God would answer that prayer and make it not happen in the winter. This reflects the wonderful mystery of the relationship between the sovereignty of God and the responsibility of man.

Jesus tells us what the future holds and because He is Truth it will happen. But because He invites us to be a part of the process, to pray that it will not happen in winter, then we know that we are not puppets or automatons or subjects of fate. We actually have a role to play in the plans of God. We may never fully understand how God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility are two sides of the same coin but confessing it and believing it puts us on very solid ground and deepens our trust in the Lord.

You will see God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility interacting if you will look back at your own life with the eyes of faith. On one hand you know that you have made real choices that have significantly impacted your life. Some were good choices and some were bad choices but they brought you to where you are today.

On the other hand you should be able to see the grace of God in your life. He worked with your good choices and sometimes in spite of your bad choices and He has brought you where you are today. So our choices are real and not a product of fate but at the same time unless we are in rebellion against God we are not powerful enough to derail His plans. It is a mystery but it is true. I have said many times that if you told me when I was in my 20’s and pastoring a non-denominational church in Florida, that one day I would be an Anglican priest in Tennessee, I would have laughed you out of the building. God has a plan and you are a part of that plan and He invites you to be an active part. So pray that it may not happen in winter. Take your part…get in the game!

One of my professors in seminary put it this way. You are on a plane going from Atlanta to London. While you are on the plane you can make choices that significantly impact your flight. You can choose to eat or not eat. You can watch the movie or sleep. You may meet a person who will become an important part of your life. You can act out in such a way that gets you arrested when your flight arrives. You can even, for a very short distance, walk in the opposite direction of the plane. But in the end the plane is going to London.

The plane is going to London. His kingdom is going to come and He invites us to be a part of that victorious wonderful plan. As we see in the story of Jonah, we can do it the easy way or God can make a fish, a plant and a worm if we choose the hard way. But in the end His kingdom is going to come.

One other way that we prepare is to be established in convictions that are rooted in Scripture. If you are following Jesus because He makes you feel good, then what happens when you no longer feel good? But if you are following Jesus because He is the Way, the Truth and the Life then how you feel on any given day is completely irrelevant.

Thus the collect for today could not be more appropriate. It calls on us to hear, read, mark, learn and inwardly digest the Holy Scriptures so that we will embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life. This discipline of being rooted in Scripture creates learned convictions rather than emotion based beliefs.

I read a survey done by Ligonier Ministries about the state of theology among Evangelicals. Evangelicals are Christians who believe in the centrality of the Gospel, the authority of Scripture and salvation by grace through faith. These are Bible believing folk.

The survey was unsettling. 52% said that everyone sins a little but that people are basically good by nature. But that is not what the Bible teaches. If we were good by nature then why have all sinned and more than just a little? If we were basically good why would we need a Savoir and why would we need to be born anew?

51% said that God accepts the worship of all religions. Again, if all roads are acceptable to God then what was the point of Jesus death, burial and resurrection?

The good news is that 91% said that God counts a person righteous only because of one’s faith in Jesus Christ. But the bad news is that 78% said that Jesus Christ is the first and greatest being created by God. So Jesus is not “God from God, Light from Light, very God of very God, begotten not made”, as we confess each week in the Creed? Jesus is a created being? This is what Mormons believe but that is not the teaching of the Church catholic.

These results are a great argument of why we not only need to inwardly digest Holy Scripture but also to embrace Scripture informed liturgical worship where the true Christ is proclaimed by the Creeds, where our fallen condition is addressed in the Confession and where we join ourselves through the Sacrament to Christ as our only Mediator and Advocate.

Jesus is not the only one to tell us that the last days will be difficult. St. Paul wrote this to Timothy. But mark this: There will be terrible times in the last days.  People will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boastful, proud, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, without love, unforgiving, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not lovers of the good, treacherous, rash, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God— having a form of godliness but denying its power.” This sounds like St. Paul has spent too much time on Facebook.

The point is that we should not be surprised by the condition of the world around us. Again, to be forewarned is to be forearmed. We need to be prepared and have as our goal to endure to the end, because what comes at the end is better than we can think or imagine. Jesus’ prophecy for the destruction of the Temple was fulfilled so we don’t need to flee to the mountains. But in the meantime let’s continue to pray that it may not happen in winter. Let’s take an active role in God’s plans. Amen.

 

And the Greatest of These is…..

Faith, Hope, Love

Hebrews 5:12-6-12; Mark 10:46-52

If you are not familiar with an American pastor named Francis Chan I’d like to introduce him to you. In 1994 he planted a church in southern California, beginning with 30 people. By the year 2000 the membership had exploded to over 1,600 people and he oversaw a multi million-dollar budget. In spite of his apparent success he had the courage to ask himself if he was truly doing what the Lord had called him to do. So he took a sabbatical to figure it out and upon returning he resigned from the church, gave away 50% of his income, and donated his book royalties of about $2 million to various charities that rescued sex slaves around the world. He then moved to San Francisco to lead a ministry that planted churches in the inner city.

You have to admire such courage to follow the Lord wherever He leads, and while I’m not certain that everyone could respond with such radical obedience, I do think Pastor Chan’s model of self-examination is a healthy one to follow. The writer of Hebrews certainly points us in this direction.

In the passage before us He moves from his earlier teaching to a mild rebuke. He challenges them to take a hard look at themselves. He says by this point in their journey they should be teachers and yet they still need someone to teach them the first principles of God’s Word. This would be the rough equivalent today of me saying that it is time for our parish to move beyond Anglican 101 in our faith. He rebukes them for still needing milk when they should be ready for meat. He’s telling them that it is time to grow up spiritually.

If we will apply this rebuke in Hebrews to ourselves it could lead us to some healthy self-examination. We do this not in some morbid introspection but for our own good. for the good of the kingdom and for the greater glory of God. So let’s ask ourselves the hard questions. How am I doing on this Christian journey? What is my maturity level? Am I ready to be a teacher or am I staying a perpetual student? Have I deepened in my understanding of the faith or am I still at the “Jesus love me this I know” stage?

On way to answer the question if you are a teacher or a student, if you are on meat rather than milk, is to reflect on whose life you are impacting or to put it another way, whose feet you are washing.

 

The Anglican Church in Nigeria takes this challenge very seriously and it is one reason why the church is exploding there. In fact it is growing so rapidly that they are having a difficult time producing shepherds fast enough to keep up with the ever-increasing flock. Their approach is that it is each Christian’s responsibility to lead at least one person to Christ per year. Additionally they are to disciple that person for a year in the fundamentals of the faith. At the end of the year it becomes the new converts responsibility to do the same for someone else. So now both of them are evangelizing and discipling two others and the two become four and the four become eight and the eight become sixteen etc. Thus their growth is exponential.

But how do we get there? How do we come to the place of greater maturity and responsibility? One step in the right direction is seen in our collect for the day where we pray that God would increase in us the gifts of faith, hope and charity. A great lesson from sports is that if you want to improve you go back to the basics. So it makes sense to focus our attention on the three basic thing things that St. Paul says will abide to the end. We don’t mature by receiving some special revelation or by finding some spiritual silver bullet. We mature by growing deeper in faith, hope and love. Let’s take a closer look at each one.

First we pray for an increase of faith. We do so because the Scriptures say that without faith it is impossible to please God. We can also see the importance of faith in our Gospel lesson where Jesus tells the blind man that his faith has made him well.

But we need to be careful here because if we get this wrong, even in a small way, we will miss our intended goal by a mile. It has been said many times that all heresies contain an element of truth and that is so for the heresy of the health and wealth gospel. The truth they highlight is the importance of faith in the life of the believer. But where they go wrong is that their emphasis is on the quantity of faith. If you have enough faith you will not get sick. If you have not been healed it is because you don’t have enough faith. The right amount of faith will result in you being rich and successful. They may spin it in different ways but it keeps coming back to the quantityof your faith.

But Jesus informs us that faith is not about quantity. Remember He spoke of only needing the faith of a mustard seed to move mountains. True faith is in the OBJECT of your faith not the QUANTITY of it. And the object of our faith is Jesus. We place our trust in His nature, His character, His compassion, His love. Faith is reaching out and touching the hem of His garment. It is lowering your friend through the roof so that Jesus can touch him. It is the blind man asking Jesus for his sight.

I often wondered why Jesus would ask folks who were in obvious need of healing what they needed from Him, as He did with the blind man in today’s Gospel. I think that He does so for a couple of reasons. First to ask Jesus specifically and directly is an act of faith. That seems so obvious but how easy it is to miss that point. I have missed it many times. It used to irritate the dickens out of me when I would express a concern to my Mother and she would say “Well have you prayed about it?” And the reason that irritated me so badly was because that is such an obvious thing to do and yet in actuality I had not done it. I had thought about it, I had worried about it, I had wondered what God was going to do about it, I considered how I would receive direction or a solution. But I had not stopped and said, “Master let me receive my sight.”

Secondly I think Jesus asked them what they needed from Him so that they would know who to thank when their request was answered. So it is equally important that we ask directly and specifically so that we too know who to thank. Things didn’t just work out, it was not fate, it was not karma nor was it coincidence. When we cry out for mercy and He hears our voice and grants us mercy we are to respond with praise and thanksgiving. This is how our faith matures.

Next we pray for an increase of hope. Hope is the Willie Wonka Golden Ticket of Christianity. It is the gift of God that we should be shouting from the rooftops because all around us are people trying to live life without it. So many are in a very hard place. It is especially true for those who seek to live a meaningful life that goes deeper than eating, drinking and football. When you ask the hard question about the purpose of your life and existence you had better have hope or you will go down a very dark hole.

But first let’s be sure that we distinguish secular hope from biblical hope. Secular hope is wanting something to be so without any assurance of it happening. Think of all the people who were hoping to win the recent power ball and mega millions. And of all those millions of folks who were hoping only one person had it happen.

Biblical hope is much different. It is not wanting something to happen, it is the assurance of what is going to happen. Secular hope is wanting to win the lottery. Biblical hope is wanting the sun to rise tomorrow.

What is this biblical hope about? Our hope is about the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body and life everlasting. Our hope is that Jesus has gone to prepare a place for us so that where He is we will be with Him forever. Our hope is that we will live in a new heaven and a new earth where there will be no more sin or sickness or sorrow or death but life eternal. It is this certain hope of tomorrow that puts life today in its proper perspective and we understand that this life today is a preparation for the life to come tomorrow. That is how our hope matures.

Lastly we pray for an increase of love and you will remember that St. Paul says that this gift is the greatest of all. But as we just did with hope, we need to distinguish secular love from biblical love. What is secular love? The Righteous Brothers told us.

You lost that lovin’ FEELIN’
Whoa, that lovin’ FEELIN’
You lost that lovin’ FEELIN’
Now it’s gone, gone, gone, woh, woh, woh

Secular love is FEELIN’. And so when the feelin is gone you are justified in breaking your promises or being unfaithful or acting selfishly.

What is biblical love? How did Jesus define it? “Greater love hath no man than this, that he lays down his life for his friend.”Love is sacrifice. “If you love me you will keep my commandments.” Love is faithfulness. He commands us to love our neighbor and then He gives the parable of the Good Samaritan. Love is action.

I was following a debate on line about immigration laws and the mass of immigrants that are making their way through Mexico towards the United States. As folks were lining up on either side of the debate someone commented to a person who was pro open borders, “Please post your address because they will need a place to stay when they get here.”I’m bring this up not to make a political statement or to take a side. My point is that this comment goes right to the distinction between love as a feeling and love as action. Too many think that expressing a feeling of compassion goes far enough. No doubt the priest who passed by the man in Jesus’ parable who had been beaten and robbed offered up a prayer for him. But it was the Good Samaritan who rolled up his sleeve and got his hands dirty that truly expressed love.

Earlier this year we had a team of folks go to Puerto Rico to help them rebuild after the devastating hurricane.  One of our members was so moved by what he saw there that he has gone back almost weekly to organize teams of builders to get the homes of the poor habitable. He has done this on his own dime. He did not come to the Vestry for support. He did not form a committee because they would still be talking about what to do. He didn’t get on Facebook and complain that the government is not doing enough to help these folks. He rolled up his sleeves like the Good Samaritan and love was evidenced by his self sacrifice, his faithfulness and his action. Immature love says, “Somebody needs to do something.” Mature love says “I’ve got this”and then does it.

By the grace of God we have been given some great models, like Pastor Chan and the brother that I just mentioned, to challenge us to ask ourselves some hard questions. Let’s set our hearts to move from student to teacher, from milk to meat. Let’s commit to deepening our walk in the kingdom by growing in faith, hope and love. And the greatest of these……….Amen.

Get the World out of the Church & Get the Church into the World

Carl Henry

Wisdom 16-2:1  James 3:16-4:6  Mark 9:30-37

Our Scripture lessons today are particularly relevant because even though they are ancient texts they read as a diagnosis and prescription for our trou8bloed world today.

The diagnosis is found in our lesson from the Apocrypha. If you are new to Anglicanism I need to first clarify our use of the Apocrypha. We do not believe it to be the Word of the Lord. Those are the canonical books of the Old and New Testament. That is why the Lector ended with “Here ends the reading” rather than the usual “The Word of the Lord.” But because the Apocrypha has been so widely received by the Church catholic, east and west through the centuries, we hold that it can be edifying to read. We are not to draw doctrine from it but we can learn from its wisdom.

Here is the diagnosis from Book of Wisdom. There is a universal conflict between darkness and light and it runs through the ages. “Let us lie in wait for the righteous man, because he is inconvenient to us and opposes our actions, he reproaches us for sins….the very sight of him is a burden to us because his manner of life is not like ours and his ways are strange.”

Translation: “We would be much happier if you Christians weren’t around to remind us of our sins. So we are going to shut you down.” 

Does the conflict between light and dark exist in our day? You know that it is! Over the last few weeks pro-abortion forces were putting pressure on a Senator to vote a certain way. When she would not bow to their pressure she received over 3,000 coat hangers in the mail as well as death threats. Death threats! It seems that we are moving slowly towards mob rule with Antifa entering our streets to assault anyone who does not agree with their radical agenda. A new form of atheism is raising its head and not just attacking things like prayer at a high school football games. In an article entitled “So Many Christians, So Few Lions these people were quoted and they were educated folks. They suggested that someone who holds strong religious views (us) should not be allowed to serve in any capacity where laws are made, or serve on the police force or be allowed to influence children. One 45-year-old woman with a Masters Degree even said that Christians should be somehow supervised if they were working with other people.

So if it is true that there is a universal conflict between darkness and light, and some believe that the answer is for the righteous man to go away, then what is the righteous man to do? Let’s first consider what the Church has done in the past that hasn’tworked.

One approach has been to retreat from the world. Early Christians called anchorites went into a cave or climbed up a pole and separated themselves as far as humanly possible from the world. Some forms of monasticism did similarly and were really a form of escape. It may have helped their individual souls to flee from the world but it did little to address the conflict and even less to advance the kingdom of God.

A second approach was to take the fight to them. Light attacks the darkness. But whether it be the Spanish Inquisition of the Middle Ages or today’s militia groups that call themselves “Christian,” it is very very difficult to square that approach with the Sermon on the Mount.

A third approach, which we see in liberal mainline denominations, is “if you can’t beat em join em.” Embrace every new thing that comes down the pike so that you will be relevant and popular. The thesis is that this will bring many into the fold and end the conflict. How has that worked out? Between 1980 and 2010 the Episcopal Church lost 30% of its membership and today the average Episcopal Church has an average Sunday attendance of 57.

Jesus’ approach was not to run away from the conflict, nor to take the fight to them, and it most certainly was not to blend in with the darkness. He was salt and light in the midst of it all and He calls on the Church to be the same. Our other lessons give us practical ways to do so.

But first it is important to see the conflict for what it really is. The conflict between light and darkness is not Republican vs. Democrat, or Conservative vs. Progressive or America vs. Russia. The conflict is between Jesus who is the Light of the World and the Prince of Darkness. That was what St. John wanted the persecuted Church to see in his Revelation. The persecuted Church’s battle was not with the Roman Empire, it was with the dragon. St. Paul says that we wrestle not against flesh and blood but against principalities and powers. It’s vital that we see what the conflict truly is because that keeps us from thinking that the solution comes from winning an argument on Facebook.

So lets ask the question given the conflict that we are in, as Francis Schaeffer put it, “How should we then live?”Two approaches stand out in our lessons and they are a both/and and not an either/or. They should be done concurrently.

The first approach is to get the world out of the Church. We get this from James. At first blush it seem like James is giving them quite a tongue lashing, even calling them “Adulterers.” But the Apostle is doing more than name calling. He is making the strongest of declarations that while the Church must be in the world, we MUST, MUST, MUST get the world out of the Church. Why? Because we cannot be effective for the Kingdom of God if we are acting like the world, continually engaging in conflicts and disputes. The Washington Post had an Op Ed with the title “Americans are addicted to outrage.” I couldn’t agree more. There is plenty that is wrong in our world and we do need to expose injustice but when EVERTHING is offensive then nothing gets truly addressed and nothing is made right.

Christians must not be addicted to outrage. We cannot extend the Kingdom with everyone wanting their own way or envying what others have or being jealous towards one another as James points out. We can’t bring the healing power of Christ to the world if we are battling one another or if we are in a constant state of being offended.

James’ council is that we have to make a decision. He says that friendship with the world puts us at enmity with God. Let me be clear. He is not saying that we cannot have friends IN the world. He is saying we cannot have friendship WITH the world. We have to make a choice. This reminds me of Jesus’ teaching about not being able to serve two masters. We have to make a choice. To be a friend of God means that you reject the values and standards and mores of the world. Or should I say that we are to reject the LACK of values and standards and mores of the world.

The world that is full of lies and angst and chaos must be kept outside the walls of the Church. We are to be built on the solid Rock of Jesus Christ who has said to us, “In the world you will have much tribulation but fear not I have overcome the world.”We should not be surprised by the world’s animosity towards us but we also must not fear it and we must not react to it. Instead we must walk in the Spirit and get the world out of the Church.

At the same time that we work to get the world OUT of the Church we must work to put the Church IN the world. This approach comes from Jesus and as is so often the case with Jesus it seems counter intuitive. But it only seems counter intuitive because we have been flying upside down for so long that we have gotten used to it.

This approach to facing the conflict between light and darkness is to become like a child. In today’s Gospel He speaks of receiving a child and in a few more verses He again takes a child in His arms and teaches that if we do not receive the kingdom like a child we shall not enter it. When we put those two events together it becomes clear that He is using children to instruct us.

What can we learn from children? Before they are corrupted by the world children freely accept others. I have seen toddlers who are total strangers walk up to one another and hug. Many years ago I was standing in line with my daughter on my hip in a BBQ joint.  As we were waiting to get take out I saw her look at a black woman and then look at her arm. Then looked back at the woman and back again at her arm. I realized that it was the first time that it had even dawned on her that there were differences in the races. Gratefully I got her out of there before she could announce it to the world.

Children don’t see color or social status or ask what model of tricycle the other is riding. They just see another kid and become friends. I believe that Jesus is telling us that what we are to bring to the conflict is love and acceptance. When we meet outrage with outrage it only increases the outrage. We are not to have love and acceptance of the darkness but of those who are victims of the darkness. St. Paul says in Romans “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty give him something to drink…do not overcome evil with evil but overcome evil with good.

The wonderful benefit that being childlike brings to our lives is that it offers us an alternative the rat race. In the rat race you are living for yourself. In childlikeness you live for others. In the rat race status is all-important. In childlikeness the other person is all-important regardless of status. You will even receive a child.

We can tell that the disciples were getting drawn in the rat race direction because they were discussing among themselves who was the greatest. What is somewhat shocking is that they knew that they were wrong to do so because when Jesus asked them what they had been talking about they were too embarrassed to answer Him. He knew anyway and so He took a child in His arms and showed them another way to live.

What a lesson that is for us. Even walking with Jesus and witnessing Him loving and accepting others, seeing His humility, watching Him choose servant hood over status and power, they were still tempted to go the way of the world and join the rat race. If the temptation was that great for them, then how much more do we need to be vigilant in being childlike and keeping kingdom values? I suggest that the call to “seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness”is a daily decision and not a one-time choice.

Last week I saw an interview of a man who is walking in everything that I have been talking about. He was imprisoned for 27 years for a murder that he did not commit. He had only been out of prison for 48 hours when they interviewed him. When asked if he was bitter he said that the Lord would not allow him to be. He even said that if the folks who put him in prison were present right now that he would hug them. Every time the reporters asked him about the events that finally led to his release He kept saying, “That’s the way God works.”He was void of anger and he was at peace. Even in prison he kept the world from getting inside of him and even in prison he was childlike in his simple trust in God and his love and acceptance of others, even towards those who did him so unjustly.

That interview was not only inspiring to me but it gave me hope. If that man can obey the call of Jesus while imprisoned in a Federal Penitentiary, then there is hope that I can do the same living freely in the comfort of my own home.  I pray that you will share that hope as well. I want to walk as a child of the light. I hope that you do too. Amen.

Love and Respect

Love and Respect

“let each one of you love his wife as himself and let the wife see that she respects her husband.” St. Paul

The Archbishop gave instructions to the clergy at Synod that we are to preach on marriage this year and I am so glad that he did. This is the fourth Sunday that we have remained in John chapter six and the Discourse of the Living Bread and I don’t think that I have another bread sermon in me. So I’m happy for the opportunity to address something else.

I want you to use your sanctified imaginations with me for a moment as I create three scenarios in your mind’s eye. The first is from a TV show that aired years ago. It was called All in the Family and the lead character was named Archie Bunker. He was an older version of Al Bundy from Married with Children, if that helps. He was a blue-collar worker and sort of a Redneck if people from New York can be Rednecks. He was sexist and racist and would bark orders at his wife Edith from his chair, telling her to stifle herself and to get his dinner ready. You get the picture.

The next scenario is Dr. Evil from the Austin Powers movies. If you don’t know who that is the Austin Powers movies are parodies of the James Bond movies. As his name implies Dr. Evil is the lead villain. He made a clone of himself but who was only half of his size so he called him “Mini Me.”. When not being evil they exchanged loving looks and continually said to one another “You complete me”accompanied by a pinkie to his lips.

The third scene is Adam recovering from a deep sleep after some divine surgery has been completed on his side. He wakes to discover a beautiful naked creature sitting next to him, unlike any he had ever seen before. He exclaims Wo….Man!” which is how “Woman” got her name. (It’s in the Bible somewhere, look it up.)

Now what in the wide world of sports do these scenarios have to do marriage? I suggest to you that these three scenarios represent three differing views of marriage and are examples of how desperately important it is to have the correct image before you if you are going to do the will of God and experience the kind of joy that God intends for marriage to produce.

Archie didn’t just drop out of thin air. Probably everyone here has known an Archie Bunker and some have even had him as their dad. This model is husband as king of the castle, head lion in the den, lead dog in the pack, when-I-say-“jump”-you-ask-“how high?” In this image children are to be seen and not heard and wives are to quietly serve their husbands.

I had a family member who married an Archie Bunker. He used to come home from work and plop down in front of the TV and shout for a beer. Like Edith she would deliver it in haste. That went on for some time until one day a friend of hers said, “Let me take it to him”and as she did so she shook the can of beer the entire length of the hallway. After it exploded all over him the husband he never again barked out orders for a beer.

Therein is the damage of this model. It not only makes one the superior and the other the inferior, it ends up making war between husband and wife. It can be a boisterous war like Archie and Edith or it can be a quiet passive/aggressive war that goes on for years with especially the wife leading a life of quiet desperation. I used to lead domestic violence treatment groups and so I know that this Archie Bunker model is still very much with us. But it falls way short of God’s intention for marriage.

A much more popular image today is that of Dr. Evil and MiniMe with each telling one another “you complete me.” On the surface it may look like a good relationship but since MiniMe is a perfect replica of Dr. Evil their devotion to one another is really just thinly veiled narcissism.

I have witnessed some wedding ceremonies so steeped in narcissism that you fear it foreshadows the true substance of the future marriage. You don’t want to think it but as you sit in the congregation and say to yourself, “Yeah, this one is not going to last.”

That is why I deeply appreciate the wedding liturgy of the Prayer Book that puts things in their proper perspective. We don’t process to the theme of Dr. Shivago or have bridesmaids and groomsmen dance down the aisle like they are on America’s Got Talent. The Prayer Book reminds the couple that this is bigger than you. We don’t write our own vows about staying true to each other as long as our planets are in alignment. The Prayer Book declares marriage as a permanent arrangement. It is one man and one woman for life. In seeking the blessing and support of the Church the husband and wife are reminded that it is bigger than you. In fact they make a vow to God before they make a vow to each other, which reminds them that it is bigger than you. In case I have not said it enough, and I think that St. Paul is also saying it is bigger than you.  

I love the curve ball that St. Paul throws to make that point. He gives specific instructions about the relationship of husband and wife and then he says, “This mystery is a profound one, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church, however let each one love his wife as himself and let the wife see that she respects her husband.” So the reader is left asking, “Wait, are you talking about Christ and the Church or husband and wife?” And St. Paul’s answer would be “Yes, because I want you to know that this is bigger than you.”

So the unity that a couple shares is not by one becoming a clone of the other. One marriage counselor said, “If both of you are exactly alike then one of you is unnecessary.”Unity does not come from uniformity it comes when a man and a woman become a complementary whole. Each provides what the other is lacking. They do indeed complete one another but only by becoming the unique person that God had called each of them to be. 

The third scenario is Adam waking up from divine surgery to discover his wife who is bone of his bone and flesh of his flesh. She is not one of the animals over which Adam is to have dominion. Nor is she a clone of Adam so that Adam can worship himself. She is his companion and partner and coheir and lover and friend. She increases Adam’s joy, as he does hers. She makes his life whole because even though all of God’s creation is good, life is richer when there is someone you love with whom to share God’s goodness.

This guy is walking along the beach and discovers a bottle with the proverbial genie in it. He lets the genie out and so the genie offers to grant him one wish. The man says, “I love going to Europe but I hate flying so I want a bridge across the Atlantic.” The genie says, “You’ve got to be kidding. Do you realize how much steel and concrete that would take, not even to mention the engineering headaches of spanning 3,000 mile of water. Don’t you have an easier request?” The man thinks for a second and says, “Help me understand my wife.” The genie says, “Do you want 2 or 4 lanes on that bridge?”

 An author has made a fortune telling us what we already know, that men are from Mars and women are from Venus. That truth is as old as the Scripture that also recognizes that men and women have different needs and play different roles and can even be a mystery to one another. These differences are something to be celebrated rather than ignored or attacked. And before we write off this teaching of St. Paul on marriage as culture-bound and archaic, lets’ more closely consider what St. Paul is saying. I believe it is divine wisdom.

 One of my favorite movies of all times is A Few Good Men.  There is a dramatic scene when Lt Kaffee is questioning Col Jessep and he asks “Why the two orders? If Kendrick told his men that Santiago wasn’t to be touched, then why did he have to be transferred?”  That scene came to mind when I was trying to understand St. Paul’s teaching. Why the two orders? Why does he tell men to love their wives but tell wives to respect their husbands? Why the two orders.

 As I pondered I came to believe that St. Paul was touching on some core values of each sex. This is a generalization and of course there are exceptions to the rule but I would submit to you that the following is true for most men. You can tell us all day long that you love us but if you disrespect us then you can keep your love. And I have discovered with my wife that as long as she feels loved or cherished that she would stick with me even if it meant attacking hell with a squirt gun. Respect is a core value of men and love is a core value of women. Of course it does not mean that men don’t need love and women don’t need respect. That is not the point. But imagine a world where the wife’s chief thought and passion every day was to honor her husband. Imagine how her husband would be empowered to attack his day. Imagine a world where a husband’s number one goal each day was to make his wife feel cherished. Imagine the joy in that home. Imagine a world were Christians could evangelize by saying, “If you want to know how much Christ loves the Church come to my house and meet my family.”

 There is another divine mystery here in St. Paul’s teaching. He points us to a Second Adam whose side was also wounded in order to receive His Bride. From His side flowed water that would birth the Church and Blood that would nourish the Church. Through the Spirit empowered Sacraments His Bride would mature. His one thought and passion is to present her to His Father in all her glory and her one thought and passion is to honor Him in all that she does. Christ and the Church are separate entities, playing very different roles and yet they are one. They are one, so much so, that His Bride is also His Body. THIS is the model we are to follow. The Christian husband and wife are not in competition with each other, nor does one disappear in order to complete the other. As icons of Christ and the Church their mutual love and respect preaches the greatest sermon ever preached.

 What do you do about this teaching if you are currently single or called to celibacy? First remember that just as with couples, this is bigger than you. You live in community. You live in a spiritual household and so what affects the household affects you. If the household becomes sick through following the wrong models then eventually it will have an impact on your life. So your job as a single person is to uphold the correct teaching about marriage and refuse the world’s attempts to redefine it.

 Second pray for marriages. Your enemy knows that if he can destroy marriage then he can destroy the Church. Pray for husbands to cherish their wives and for wives to respect their husbands. Pray that their children will be raised in the love and admonition of the Lord. Pray that their love and respect for each other will preach a sermon that will touch the lives of others for eternity.

 St. Paul gives us some very practical instructions about marriage and so I want to end with a very practical suggestion. By far the best thing that Beth and I have done for our marriage has been to attend and facilitate Financial Peace University. I went to it kicking and screaming. I thought FPU people were weird and I didn’t want to invite Dave Ramsey into my heart.

Not only has it brought us the peace and joy of being totally debt free but also since half of the divorces are due to money problems we have bullet proofed our marriage. They say that Financial Peace University is a marriage seminar disguised as a financial seminar and that has been our experience. We held it for our entire Church and although only about 20% attended our members paid of over $490,000 in personal debt in 9 weeks. As my wife once put it, “If you can talk to your spouse about money, you can talk to them about anything.”

Find a class and strengthen your marriage.

Husbands love your wives. Wives respect your husbands. In this way you will experience a life, as Dave would say, is “better than you deserve.” Amen.

 

The Bread of Heaven

HC

 

Lessons – Exodus 16:2-4, 9-15;  Psalm 78:14-25;  Ephesians 4:17-25;  St. John 6:24-35

When I accepted the call to come to Smyrna to plant a church, we had a house to sell back in Chattanooga. The house was basically sound but it did have some problems. To help us along, each time the house was shown by a realtor, Beth would put some dough in her bread machine and time it so that the house would be filled with the smell of baking bread while folks toured the house. Needless to say it worked. The house sold quickly and we learned first hand of the power of bread. The baking of it evokes memories and emotions for many.

Now I don’t know if the people of the Bible had the same memories of grandma and accompanying good feelings that baking bread gives us. But I do know that they did not see it as the almost poison that the no carb folks do today. For the people of the Bible bread was an essential of life. And nearly every culture has it in some form or another to this day. From tortillas, to hot cross buns that miraculously look like Mother Theresa, it is the universal food. 

But more than just sustenance, bread was a symbol of God’s divine provision and prosperity to the people of the Bible. When they journeyed from Egypt God kept them alive by giving them manna, which the Psalmist called “the bread of angels.”Later when the king of Assyria was trying to lure the people away from following King Hezekiah, he made them this promise. “I come and take you to a land like your own, a land of grain and new wine, a land of bread and vineyards….Choose life and not death” !(I Kings 8:32). Thus it is not by happenstance that Jesus used this powerful symbol to teach His followers more about Himself. In this Gospel, as well as last weeks, He unpacks what it means for us that He is the bread of life.

First when Jesus speaks of being the bread that comes down from heaven, His hearers would have immediately thought of the manna in the wilderness that I just mentioned. Manna was an interesting phenomenon because it came down each day and was collected each morning. It was only good for one day except the day before the Sabbath and then it lasted for two days so that they would not work on the Sabbath to collect it and thereby violate the Sabbath laws.

Just as manna was God’s miraculous provision that sustained them day by day so Jesus is saying that He is that for us now. And the fact that the manna came each day reminds us of the Scripture that tells us that God’s mercies are new every morning. Jesus is the incarnation of that mercy and we are invited to walk with Him new every morning. With Him every day is a new fresh start.

But Jesus also contrasts Himself from manna. He says, “Your ancestors ate manna in the wilderness and they died. This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die.”

In this comparison manna can be seen as a symbol of the Old Covenant. Jesus came to fulfill the temporary Old Covenant and replace it with the eternal New Covenant. He did this because Manna and the Old Covenant were like tophu. It may be healthy for you but you’re still going to die. The Ten Commandments can show us how to live but they cannot give life. Just as manna was a temporary provision so the Old Covenant was a temporary bread until the coming of Jesus as the true and living bread that gives life to the whole world.    

Next in this same discourse, but a few verses earlier, Jesus says of Himself that He is the “true bread from heaven.” The word true here is significant because it shows yet another contrast.

They say that you are what you eat but if that were true I would be a 6ft block of Velveeta. And yet in a spiritual sense, that saying is very accurate. We become what we consume spiritually. And we also suffer spiritually when we fail to consume the right bread.

In calling Himself the true bread Jesus is implying that there is a false bread , a bread that does us harm. In Matthew’s Gospel, just after He multiplied the loaves and the fishes, Jesus warned the disciples “beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” What is the leaven of the Pharisees and the Sadducees? It is a showy religion that looks good on the outside but is dead on the inside. You may remember that Jesus didn’t speak well of this bread. “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of dead men’s bones and everything unclean. (Mt 23:27).

I would suggest that this is one of the greatest challenges of a faithlike ours that is so steeped in history, tradition and our catholic forms of worship. We have a treasurein the Book Common Prayer and in the way that we worship but we all know that itis possible to only say the words with our lips and never have themtouch our hearts

We must be careful that candles and colorful vestments and sweet smelling incense are SIGNS of the beauty of holiness and not window dressings that camouflage cold hearts. We can come into this sacred space and get a good fix of religion but then go outside of those doors and fail to care for our neighbor which the Scriptures tell us would make our religion null and void.

Jesus as the true bread replaces the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees. He causes the inside to match the outside. When we “feed on Him in our hearts by faith and with thanksgiving” we become united with Him. Then our hearts are filled with love and gratitude. Then we find that the Book of Common Prayer gives us the right words to express our love. Then we express true worship that involves lamps and colored vestments and whatever else that represents the best that we can offer. But it goes even further. When we are full and know that there is no end to this bread that comes down from heaven, then we want to invite our neighbor to receive this bread so they too can eat and live.

When I had my first confirmation class at All Saints’ I asked a man who had been an Assemblies of God minister if he wanted to be confirmed. He said that he wasn’t sure because he did not understand why we did all the  “stuff.” When I asked him what he meant by the “stuff” he said, “You know, the candles and vestments and bowing and sitting and standing etc. Why can’t you just worship without all that stuff?”I replied, “Imagine it is your anniversary and you goal is to give your wife an anniversary dinner. You can take her to McDonalds drive through or you can get dressed up, pull out the table cloth and china and light the candles, put on your best clothes etc. In both cases she is going to get fed but in the latter case you are conveying to her that she is the most important person in your world. And that is why we do the “stuff.” We go to all the trouble to convey to Jesus that He is the most important Person in our world.” He got confirmed.

There is another kind of false bread that stands in contrast to Jesus as the living bread. Do you remember when rice cakes became popular? I had a friend who introduced me to them and touted them like they were the best thing since… well, since sliced bread. In fact they were supposed to replace sliced bread. Supposedly they were better for you, had less calories, and were easier to digest.

I gave them a try and I discovered why they had so few calories. It’s because there are no calories in air! I had to pile so much garbage on them to make them palatable that I would have been better off eating a loaf of bread.

The false bread that Jesus warns us about is like those rice cakes.  It is a life that the world tells us to pursue but in the end does not satisfy. We break our necks trying to get happy but happiness eludes us. “If I just find the right career, if I just meet the right person, if I just made more money.”And as we pursue these things with all of our hearts we inevitably neglect our spiritual lives. And still we find that we are empty and hungry and not even sure why.

Please don’t misunderstand. It is not that careers and family and money are bad. They are gifts from God. But they are not the things that ultimately sustain our life nor fill our ultimate hunger. As St. Augustine put it, “Thou hast made us for Thyself and our hearts are restless till they rest in Thee.”We have been created to first have a relationship with God and then He adds these other gifts as we need them. We are to seek first the kingdom and these other things will be added to us.

We need to also understand when Jesus says He is the bread that gives life to the world that He is declaring Himself to be essential. Just as the children of Israel would have died without the manna, so Jesus is moving His listeners to understand that there is no life apart from Him. Sadly some today treat Him as if He were an optional appetizer that they can take or leave. Others treat Him as a dessert that rounds out their lives nicely. But we need to see Him as our only hope for eternal life and therefore give Him the premier place in our lives that He deserves.

As Anglicans we see the obvious connection that this whole discourse has with Holy Communion. Particularly when Jesus says, “and the bread that I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh.” But allow me to unpack this a little more.

Here in the South there is a tradition of something called a “hoe cake.” It is a small pancake type bread that gets its name because it was cooked on an open fire by field hands, using their hoes as griddles. It is a food that was associated with slavery and hard labor. But somewhere along the line that image was redeemed because I have been served hoe cakes in some fancy steak restaurants. And they often offer it to you as a treat before the dinner arrives. This bread is no longer associated with slavery and hard labor. Now it is associated with fellowship and celebration.

The Jews also had a bread that was associated with slavery and hard labor. It was unleavened bread. They were ordered in the law of Moses to observe the Passover feast this way. Do not eat it with bread made with yeast, but for seven days eat unleavened bread, the bread of affliction, because you left Egypt in haste–so that all the days of your life you may remember the time of your departure from Egypt.

At the Last Supper Jesus redeemed that image by changing the unleavened bread from the bread of affliction to bread that is His flesh when He said,“This is My body.”What was once a symbol of their bondage in Egypt now becomes more than a symbol. It becomes an actual conveyer of life. And so we no longer take this bread to remember our departure from Egypt. We take it to be united with Him and He to us. A somber feast that looked back at a past of suffering has been converted to a celebration of the freedom and joy that union with Christ offers us along with the gift of a hope and a future.

Shortly after I was priested I was going down the altar rail serving communion. Out of the corner of my eye I saw a little girl standing on her tip-toes staring it me. At first I couldn’t figure out what she was doing and why her momma was letting her stand on the embroidered cushions. But as I got closer I realized that she was trying to see what it was that I had in the silver cup that I was putting in people’s hands. So when I came to her I leaned down so that she could see inside the ciborium. She glanced inside and saw the bread. Then she nodded to me and turned to her mother and said, “Mommy I just saw Jesus.” It took my breath away. It is my rule to not engage with people when they come to the altar rail because this is their time with Jesus not their time with the priest. But in this case I broke my rule and as I gave her mother the bread I said, “I love your daughter’s theology.”

I just wish that I had the eyes of the child to see Him veiled in the bread too. Perhaps one day I will but until then I will just have to take it by faith. As Anglicans we don’t try to understand this glorious mystery, we just accept it. I love how poet and priest John Donne put it. “He was the Word that spake it, He took the bread and brake it, and what the Word did make it, I do believe and take it.” Just know as you come forward today that you are doing more than merely “receiving communion.” You are uniting yourself to Christ. You are eating His flesh that is the life of the world. You are receiving grace that will keep you in eternal life. You are a branch receiving the life of the Vine. So “therefore let us keep the feast. Alleluia.”

 

A Dresser of Sycamore Trees

Amos

“but I am a herdsman and a dresser of sycamore trees.”

That was Amos’ response when he was told to take his message elsewhere. God hadn’t chosen him to to be a traveling prophet to take his message on the road. He was not from a school of prophets. He was not a priest, serving in the temple. He was a herdsman and a dresser of sycamore trees and God had raised him up to deliver a specific message to a specific people and that was what he was going to do.

Amos gave his prophecies about 750 before the birth of Christ. So it would be natural to think that while this ancient work gives us historical insights it could hardly be applicable in our day. But that assumption would be a mistake. Not only because it is the Word of God and therefore living and active and sharper than a two edged sword, but because his message is one we need to hear TODAY.

Here is some background. The threat of the Assyrian Empire had begun to wane and so Israel was experiencing a relatively stable government and a time of prosperity. It is not unlike what the United States experienced at the fall of the Iron Curtain. But do you remember the motto of the 80’s that came from the movie Wall Street? “Greed is good.” Israel could have had the same motto.

Israel interpreted this time of prosperity as God’s approval and fully expected God to judge the nations around them. But Amos was there to tell them that judgment was going to begin with them. Why? Because the government was oppressive and Israel’s religion was full of compromise and heresy. Now I know it’s a real stretch to think of the government treating people unfairly (like using the IRS to punish political enemies) or the church being full of compromise and heresy (like changing the definition of marriage) but use your sanctified imaginations and hang in there with me. Amos prophecies revolve around 5 themes. Let’s see how relevant they are for us today.

His first them was that since God is Creator of the Universe, His ethics are universal and all people will be judged in light of them. This concept while true is like a foreign language to the average guy on the street today that has been raised in radical relativism.

People correctly bemoan how fractured and divided we are as a society but they fail to see that it is our own relativism that has caused it. If there are no absolutes and every man’s truth only has to be true for him, then what is it that will bring us together? As our lawmakers stray further and further from law based on the law of God then it further divides us because we end up with law rooted in politics.

The Church needs to be a strong voice in our society that God’s laws are true for all people because He is the maker of all people. It is our common submission to God’s laws that will bring us together. We may not be able to agree in fine points of politics but “Thou shalt do no murder”has worked for the last 3,000 years to keep societies out of chaos. With elections around the corner we need to participate in them and vote for people who will support righteous laws.

Amos’ second theme was that while the people were looking for peace and prosperity God was looking for justice and righteousness. Evidently some televangelist had time traveled and snuck into Israel with the prosperity gospel because that was their mindset.  But God was not judging them on the size of their bank accounts, He was judging them on how they treated others especially the least among them.

This is a common theme throughout the Scriptures and we see it particularly in Gods’ concern for the widow and orphan. But Israel was failing miserably. In fact in chapter two Amos said that they were selling the poor into slavery because of their indebtedness for something as paltry as a pair of sandals.

Now I understand the challenge here. The difficulty in caring for the poor is that their needs seem so overwhelming that we don’t know where to begin and so we end up doing nothing. But may I offer some practical steps.

The first thing is to say your prayers and seek God’s wisdom and direction. Emotional reactions can cause as much damage as they do good so you need a plan. Second, once you have a direction then be faithful to it. You are not trying to change the world. You are simply called to serve those in need around you. The results are up to God.

We have seen this in our parish. We did not set out to have a ministry to Burmese refugees but today we have a Burmese daughter church. It all started with sponsoring one family. Again it didn’t change the world but it did change that family’s world.

Well the husband had a cousin and she had a relative that wanted to join them. We thought “why not?” Then she had a nephew and he had a friend and before we knew it there were about 150 Burmese that we were ministering to. Of course there has been challenges and they have gone through their own squabbles but it is God’s work and we were right to be involved. Amos would tell us that what God is looking for in St. Patrick’s is not the size of our budget but whom are we serving in His Name.

Amos’ third theme was that compromised religion is disgusting to God. This is what God had him prophesy; “I hate, I despise your feasts, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer me you burnt offerings and your grain offerings, I will not accept them….take away from me the noise of your songs; to the melody of your harps I will not listen. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”

The reference to justice rolling down like water was because the religious leaders of his day were also involved in the oppression of others. Try to imagine in our day that a wealthy religious institution would kick people out of their churches, sue congregations for their property and take away all of their resources. Since such an institution would be disgusting to God you would want to take great care to distance yourself from it.

Amos’ fourth theme is that while Israel may think that their covenant with God ensures them special protection, that same covenant also holds them to a higher standard and a stricter judgment. “Behold I am setting a plumb line in the midst of my people Israel; I will again pass by them; the high places of Isaac shall be made desolate, an the sanctuaries of Israel shall be laid to waste, and I will rise against the house of Jeroboam with the sword.”

Israel had become arrogant. We can see the depth of their spiritual arrogance and blindness in the priest Amaziah’s response to Amos. In essence he said,“Tell someone who cares. After all, this is the kings special place.” They thought that they could treat people badly, act immorally and look down their noses on the heathen because after all they were God’s covenant people. God through Amos told them differently.

This theme is also a great warning to the Church. We have to strike a delicate balance. On one hand we are to believe, as we just heard from St. Paul, that we have been called before the foundation of the world to be God’s children. But on the other hand, as St. Paul said elsewhere, we are to work out our salvation in FEAR AND TREMBLING.

We must not become complacent or lax by thinking that our standing with God exempts us from the call to be holy or to act justly. We are on a journey and must remember that Scripture also says that it is he who perseveres to the end that will be saved.

I believe that it is particularly important that those of us who are so proud of our Anglican heritage should exercise caution. It is possible to be very religious and still miss the kingdom. It is possible to get so caught up in the liturgy that we miss the Lord of the liturgy. Recall Jesus’ sobering words. “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’”

God does not judge us based on our pedigree. There is a vast difference between spiritual assurance that gives us peace and spiritual pride that makes us blind to our need to repent and to change.

Amos’ last theme was that while a terrible destruction will fall on unrepentant Israel, there will yet be a remnant that will be preserved and they will see a day of glorious restoration. This prophecy of course came to be. Assyria reemerged as a superpower and in 722 the kingdom of Israel was destroyed but a remnant remained.

This idea of a remnant preserved by God is not a theme that is peculiar to Amos. Lot’s family surviving Sodom and Gomorrah was the story of a remnant being saved in the midst of a disaster. The family of Noah after the flood is one as well. The few prophets in Elijah’s day who did not bend the knee to Baal, and those who returned from the exile were the remnant. Isaiah, Micah, Zechariah and more speak of it.

In the New Covenant it is the true Church that is the remnant that God has and will preserve. God says to the remnant, through the prophet Jeremiah, “I have loved you with an everlasting love therefore I have continued my faithfulness to you. Again I will build you up and you shall be built.” 31:3,4. Jesus echoes this prophecy when He said, “ I will build my church and the gates of hell will not prevail against it.”

 Emperors have outlawed the Church, dictators and despots have banished the Church, atheist regimes and false religions have tried to eradicate the Church and secularist have told us that we will disappear because we are no longer relevant. Yet Jesus remains true to His promises and we are still here and the remnant will remain until the end of time. The Revelation to St. John speaks of the remnant and they are defined as those who keep the commandments of God and have the testimony of Jesus.  This light will never be put out. You want to be sure that you are part of that remnant.

One final thought about our friend Amos and applying his message today. It was not an easy job for him to deliver such sobering news. Again he was not a professional cleric, he was a herdsman and a dresser of sycamore trees. Yet God used him to speak some hard reality to both the government of Jeroboam and the religion of Amaziah.

I believe that it continues to be the Church’s call to speak prophetically to society and especially to those in political and religious power. We are to call for justice and righteousness and to not mince our words. The lesson of John the Baptist is that it will not always go well with us if we do, but standing up for the truth is not only the right thing, it is the loving thing to do. Without the light of the truth, people will continue to live in darkness.

Political correctness tells Christians to keep their beliefs and opinions to themselves but God calls us to be bold and to be salt and light. If we will not be salt and light then who will? When the apostles were ordered by the authorities to remain silent they asked the rhetorical question,“Who should we obey, God or man?” 

I encourage you to look around at your circles of influence and consider where God may be calling you to speak prophetically. Speak the truth in love but speak the truth. It may involve uncomfortable topics like abortion or the plight of the poor or telling someone the truth about Islam, but if God is calling you to do it, then be obedient. You may not feel worthy. You may feel untrained or ill-equipped. You may even think to yourself, “but I’m just a herdsman and dresser of sycamore trees.” To which God will say, “Perfect, then you’re just the one that I was looking for.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Call to Faithfulness

The-Importance-of-Faithfulness

Text  Ezekiel 2:1-7 Mark 6:1-6

When we moved here to plant a church part of my responsibilities included meeting with the Bishop every month. He gathered other church planters and priests who were over missions to help our churches grow to the place where they became self-supporting and no longer needed aide from the Diocese. While he continually told us not to focus on numbers, his first question each month was inevitably how many we had in worship last Sunday.

I still hear the refrain that serving a church is not about the numbers and yet every year I have to fill out a parochial report for the Anglican Church in North America. I report on our average Sunday attendance, how many baptisms, funerals and weddings we officiated, how much money we gathered and how much we sent to the diocese. When we gather at Diocesan Synod every year the number of votes we get depends on the size of our church. But remember, it’s not about numbers.

My point here is not to be cynical. I understand that keeping track of the numbers is important because there is a business side to the Church. My point is to demonstrate how easy it is to focus primarily on the fruit or outcome of ministry while our lessons today point us in a different direction.

Let’s look first at Ezekiel. How would you like to have had his job? “Son of man, I send you to…a nation of rebels who have rebelled against me…the people are also impudent and stubborn…do not be afraid of their words though briers and thorns are with you and you sit upon scorpions.” For the first 25 chapters of his book he warns Israel, calling them to repentance. They ignore his prophecies and are invaded. As a result God’s temple was destroyed and they were taken into captivity into Babylon. If you were only evaluating Ezekiel’s ministry by how fruitful it was then you would be forced to give him a pretty low score indeed.

Next let’s look at the Gospel and the snap shot we have of our Lord’s ministry in the Galilee region. He was so ineffective in His teaching ministry among them that the text says that He was unable to do mighty works there because of the level of their unbelief. What’s more He began His ministry with 12 Apostles but ended with only 11 after one committed suicide. Again if you were only evaluating Jesus ministry by its fruitfulness you would conclude that He and Ezekiel are tied for last place.

So what are we to take from this? What I hear in these passages, and in many other places in the Scriptures like them is that it’s not about fruitfulness it’s about faithfulness. I don’t mean that fruitfulness is unimportant, but that it should not be our focus. From the perspective of fruitfulness things look badly for them but from the perspective of faithfulness both Ezekiel and Jesus were absolutely successful in their ministries. They did exactly what the Father called them to do in spite of tremendous resistance. So it’s not about fruitfulness, it’s about faithfulness.

If it is that simple, that we are called to faithfulness, then we must ask why this virtue seems to be so difficult to attain? After all Ezekiel was speaking to an entire nation that failed to be faithful and Jesus the text said, marveled at the level of unbelief among His people. How about today? Today we see entire denominations one after the other abandoning the Word of God.  How does this happen? St. Paul gives us a hint in Ephesians 2 when he speaks of an unholy trinity, called the world, the flesh and the devil.

Here is how the world assaults our faithfulness. A fallen world has lost its connection with its Creator and so we try to reconcile this problem by desperately seeking favor from one another. And how do we get acceptance? We get it through conformity.

Remember the tremendous power it had over you as a teenager? We would do almost anything to fit in. Or if you were a rebel you would do almost anything to fit in with the kids who didn’t fit in. Rebels would go goth to be unique that is just like all the other unique goth kids. Our parents tried to get us to resist that power with the classic speech, “And if everyone else was jumping off the cliff would you jump with them? We would reply “Of course not!” but in our hearts we knew that we might. The need to be accepted and the fear of rejection are just that strong.

And so even though God had called Israel to be a unique people they chose to fit in with the cultures around them by imitating them. Recall this was their argument for rejecting the LORD as their King and calling on Saul and that started them on a long path of unfaithfulness. The call of the world to conform is powerful. But the Scripture says, “Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.”

It is pretty obvious how the flesh makes us unfaithful. It is so very very easy to chose pleasure over sacrifice, self gratification over service, self promotion over humility. And you could write a book today about how folks are being driven by their feelings. Folks are not only offended by anything and everything it almost seems that are seeking new ways to be offended. You can’t ask for a skinny late because that is weight shaming and you also can’t call it a no fat late because that would get you accused of fataphobia. In the end what makes the flesh an enemy of true religion is because the flesh makes it all about me while true religion makes it about loving God and my neighbor.

And we must not overlook the devil. You don’t want to get too spooky about it but we have an enemy and he is real and he wants you to be anything but faithful. If he can sow doubt, or make you feel discouraged or get your feelers hurt, he will do it. He will do whatever he can to make you quit. Remember in the parable of the seeds the birds of the air that stole the seed was the evil one stealing the word of God from the heart. The solution is to shoe the birds away with the power of His Name. It is why we pray “deliver us from evil” every day.  And work to grasp the word of God to allow it to take root. You have an enemy but he is not in charge.

So if the world, the flesh and the devil are working overtime to keep us from being faithful what can we do to develop the virtue of faithfulness so that like Ezekiel and Jesus we can remain strong even in the face of great opposition? Allow me to suggest four things.

First is courage. The Lord told Ezekiel not to afraid of his opponents or of their words. I haven’t stopped to count it to be sure but I have read several times that “be not afraid” or some version thereof occurs 365 time in the Bible. Courage is not a total absence of fear but it is a commitment to not be controlled by fear. Fearful people will desert you in the battle but courageous people keep standing and when all else is done they remain standing. One way to develop courage is to hang out with courageous people. That is one reason godly fellowship is so important.

Second is clarity. Both Ezekiel and Jesus had pinpoint clarity about what they were called to do and that is why they did not cave when they faced opposition. When I was being interviewed by a diocesan committee to determine if they were going to send me go to seminary a woman asked Beth that if they allowed me to go if she wanted to take courses also to keep up with me spiritually. Beth said, “Absolutely not! I believe Ray is called to the priesthood but I am called to Social Work and I am not about to let his calling interfere with my calling.” I’m convinced that is why they accepted me and sent me to seminary. And it is also her clarity of calling that has had her last in her job for over 30 years when the burnout rate is about 3. If you are not clear about who you are in the Lord and what He has called you to do then ask, seek, knock and you will receive what you ask for. I believe that He loves answering that prayer.

I also encourage you, as you are clarifying your vision, to have the kingdom of God central. Jesus said “Seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness and all these things shall be added unto you.” That is not a religious motto that is a life committment.

When everything was hitting the fan for the Episcopal Church Beth and I had dinner with a former Archbishop of Canterbury. I asked him, “Your Grace, how do I step into the pulpit this Sunday? What do I tell my people? He said, “You tell them to keep working for the kingdom and don’t get the church confused with the kingdom.” That could be taken wrongly but I immediately knew what he meant. I love Anglicanism and believe it to be the most authentic expression of Christianity that I have experienced but the truth is if the Anglican Communion disappeared tomorrow Jesus would still be on the throne and His kingdom would not be shaken.

Courage, Clarity and the third is Consistency. Notice the last line of the Gospel. Jesus had just been rejected for His teachings by His own people and the text says, “And he went about among the villages teaching.”Woody Allen said, “80% of success is showing up.”  It should be obvious that you can’t be faithful if you don’t show up! This Christian journey is a marathon and not a sprint, or as Eugene Peterson described it in the title of one of his books, it’s a “long obedience in the same direction.”

 Most of you don’t realize it but Chris Morris who tapes our sermons and puts them on the web is neither a 9 o’clock nor 11 o’clock parishioner. His family’s principal service is the Wednesday night Mass and yet Sunday after Sunday after Sunday he comes here and records us to serve you and others. He has never asked for a dime. He is consistent and faithful and that has resulted in fruitfulness. I have had responses to a sermon from Africa and Australia which never could have happened without Chris. Shout out to Chris and his consistency.

Lastly Continuity. If you will realize that the Lord is building something in your life brick by brick, or as Corrie Ten Boom put it, sowing your life into a beautiful tapestry, then you will be faithful to see it to the end. You will not see your life as filled with random events and a series of coincidences. If you will faithfully walk with the Lord you will often discover why He allowed some things to transpire and realize that previous experiences prepared you for what you are facing today.

David chose 5 smooth stones and was able to put one in between Goliath’s eyes because he had done it time and time again as a shepherd killing lions and bears. And to show you David’s hutzpah he chose the 5 stones because Goliath had a brother and three sons. Shepherding sheep and developing a relationship with the Lord during those lonely years prepared him to shepherd Israel and be a king who was a man after God’s own heart. So look for continuity in your own life. It will build your faith as you see the Lord fulfilling His plans for you. This in turn will result in you being faithful to Him.

So it’s not about fruitfulness, it about faithfulness. Again, that does not mean that fruitfulness is unimportant, but that is ultimately not our responsibility. St. Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians “I sowed, Apollos watered, but God gave the increase.” When it comes to the kingdom we do not measure success the way the American Dream measures success. It’s not about numbers and it is not about how large your house or bank accounts are or what kind of car you drive. When it comes to the kingdom there is one measure of success, one prize that we should keep our eyes on. That is when you enter His presence and hear, “Well done good and faithful servant. Enter into the joy of your Master.”