Living Lent Gently

lent

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Don’t Be a Nimrod…Love

Buggs

Text 1 Corinthians 13

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

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

I Corinthians

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eternal Blessedness

poor-in-spirit

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

           

Members of One Body

bodyofchrist

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Mess in the Middle

mess in the middle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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.