First Sunday After Christmas 2012 – Sermon

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A few years ago, our son called and excitedly told us that they were expecting the birth of their third child, their first son, and that they had decided to name him Joseph. Diane and I immediately thought of Joseph in the Old Testament.  We thought a baby quilt of many colors might make an appropriate gift.

We were then informed that our grandson was being named in honor of St. Joseph, the husband of Mary and foster-father of Jesus. As you might suspect, other than some child-sized woodworking tools, nothing immediately came to mind. We perused several Christian internet sites for something associated with Joseph and eventually found a St. Joseph tee-shirt that read, “Not your average Joe.”

Neither St. Mark nor St. John wrote about Joseph in their Gospels. St. Luke, in his Infancy Narrative, wrote extensively about many persons involved in the coming of the Messiah. He mentions Zacharias and Elisabeth, the parents of John the Baptist, as well as Simeon and Anna at the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple. However, St. Luke has almost nothing to say about Joseph other than making an occasional reference of his physical presence at selected events in a few passages. Quote, “…and Joseph was there…” It certainly makes for a good start, but is that really all that’s expected of a father – just show up? Just be there?

God did not think it wise or prudent that a father be merely a bystander in the life of a family. A child needs the love and active involvement of both a father and a mother. With as much care and thought as Mary was selected to be the Mother of our Lord, God prepared Joseph for his important role as a father.

St. Matthew describes Joseph as a “Just Man” meaning that he conformed his life to faithfully and conscientiously observing the commandments of God. The Law forbade a man to marry a woman who had been guilty of fornication with another man during the time of their betrothal. It provided two remedies. Joseph could opt for a public divorce stating charges and possibly subjecting Mary to death by stoning or he could divorce her “quietly” without providing a cause for the action. His intent was to do the latter and spare her public shame. The virtue of Justice applies the requirements of the God’s Law with compassion and mercy. Joseph was indeed “just”.

Joseph also lived the virtue of Obedience. This morning’s Gospel tells us that while Joseph thought on these things, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream telling him that the child was from the Holy Ghost and that he should take Mary as his wife. This was the first of three dreams Joseph received and he humbly and obediently responded to each one in faith.  To obey requires listening, accepting what is said, and following through in action, even when it is difficult or challenging. Joseph was obedient and as such he modeled obedience for the child Jesus as he grew towards manhood and the Cross.

Following God can be inconvenient and require a change in thinking. Being asked to be a foster father and human role model for the Messiah was not a job one would normally volunteer for. Joseph the husband had to be helpful, caring, sensitive and reliable. He took full responsibility, caring for a very pregnant wife on an arduous three or four day journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem. As protector of his wife and child, he had to endure rejection, accept lodging in a lowly stable, welcome strangers and live among animals – and that was just the beginning!

Later on, Joseph the family man had to endure fleeing his ancestral home, becoming a refugee and reestablishing himself in an expatriate community.  He knew what it was like to search for a job and to provide for his family’s needs. Joseph the worker was a “tekton”, which in Greek refers to being a craftsman or artisan, one who works with wood, stone or metal. He labored hard physically, on a daily basis, to provide for the needs of his family.

Nonetheless, Joseph was faithful to the call of God upon his life. After a time, when it seemed the danger was over, there appeared to be nothing to keep Joseph in Egypt.  But Joseph the patient remained in Egypt without complaint, continuing his work as though he would never leave. He stayed there for no other reason than that of being faithful to the Angel’s instruction to remain (Mt. 2:13) “there until I bring thee word.” He resisted the temptation to get ahead of God’s will and timing, exercising trust and endurance.

Scripture does not record one word uttered by Joseph. It only tells us of what Joseph the silent did in his life. However, as Jesus teaches us, quote, (Mt 7:16) “By their fruits you will know them.”

Twenty centuries later, Joseph still provides us with an example of what it means to live as a godly man. We learn from Scripture that Joseph was faithful and obedient to all that God asked of him. He was a protective husband and father who placed the well being of his wife and child above his own wants and desires.

He was certainly “Not your average Joe.”

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The Third Sunday in Advent 2012 – Sermon

A. John the Baptist and Advent.

1. On the Third Sunday in Advent the focus in on John the Baptist. He prepared the way for Christ by calling the people to repent. St. Mark describes the ministry of John in this way:

The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God; As it is written in the prophets, Behold, I send my messenger before thy face, which shall prepare thy way before thee. The voice of one crying in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. John did baptize in the wilderness, and preach the baptism of repentance for the remission of sins. And there went out unto him all the land of Judaea, and they of Jerusalem, and were all baptized by him in the river of Jordan, confessing their sins (1:1-5).

2. John preached in the wilderness or desert. This is curious. In our day, when someone wants to tell people to repent, the would-be prophet typically chooses a public and crowded place. From time to time people show up at some gathering or event with signs proclaiming that the world will soon come to an end and that people better repent now. Evangelistic organizations rent large stadiums in big cities to facilitate repentance by large groups. But John preached in the desert.

3. John preached in the desert to fulfill prophecy. You can’t be the voice of one crying in the wilderness (Isaiah 40:3) unless you are actually in the wilderness. But he may have been slotted for wilderness preaching because there is something about the remote location. Mark tells us that “all the land of Judea, and those from Jerusalem went out to him.” The travel distance for these people would have ranged from a mile or two up to 20 miles or more—on foot. It took effort; you had to really want to be there. John told you to change the way you live. But just getting to where John was in the first place required the rearranging of some plans.

B. Repentance requires real change

1. This highlights one problem we have in processing the call to repent. We come to church on Sunday and hear the message of John enshrined in our liturgy: “Ye who do truly and earnestly repent…draw near with faith.” But we hear this call to repent in the midst our routines of life. Tomorrow and next week, we will be in the same places, seeing the same people and facing the same temptations. Our disordered habits of thought, word and deed are hard to break and new virtues are hard to develop while we remain in the same places, practicing the same patterns of life that produced them in the first place.

2. The people who went out to John had to leave their routines and travel to a remote place. Then they had to submit to the ritual of baptism. Then they had to change. John made one thing abundantly clear. Coming out to hear him and being baptized by him would make no difference unless it led to a change in behavior. John saw that many religious leaders made the effort to come to his baptism. He was not impressed. Instead, he said to them:

Brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Therefore bear fruits worthy of repentance, and do not think to say to yourselves, “We have Abraham as our father.” For I say to you that God is able to raise up children to Abraham from these stones. And even now the ax is laid to the root of the trees. Therefore every tree which does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. (Mat 3:7-10).

3. This is a framework for our own repentance. We must step away from our normal routines so that we can begin to change them. We must not think that our family name or religious heritage will save us. And we must begin to actually do the things that God wants us to do.

C. The nature of our sin.

1. One problem people have with the call to repent is that sin is frequently misunderstood. Many of the sins we confess are symptoms rather than the real disease. For example, as we get caught up in the haste and competition of life, we may fall into the deadly sin of anger. We may, therefore, think that anger is the sin we need to confess when we come to the liturgy. However, anger is often merely the symptom of a chaotic pattern of life and a lack of prayerfulness. Or, it may be the result of a failure to forgive someone. If we continually confess our anger but do not deal with the larger, root causes, we will not make much progress in the spiritual battle against this deadly sin. It will be like treating the discomfort caused by a tumor only by taking pain killers.

2. Ultimately, the root cause of our sin is separation from God. When we are not filled with the Holy Spirit of God, we are empty and needy. We try to fill that emptiness and neediness through people and things. Sometimes the things are a partial success, and we become prideful. However, since pride is never content, it leads to envy, jealously and covetousness. When the things fail to satisfy us, we get angry and impatient; or we get lustful and gluttonous, thinking that if we only have more, then we will be happy. Or, we get listless and despairing and begin to lose our appetite for the things.

D. The answer: Christ

1. The answer to our emptiness is Christ. As the epistle to the Ephesians says,  

That Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith; that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may be able to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and depth and height–to know the love of Christ which passes knowledge; that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. (3:17-19).

John preached that people should repent in order to receive the One who was coming after him. We turn from sin in order that we may receive Christ.

2. This can sound simplistic, as if we were saying, “All you need to do is believe in Jesus Christ and all your problems will be solved.” And it may be that simple. If our faith were perfect, if we were able to completely submit ourselves to the will of God without any lingering seed of doubt or rebellion, perhaps, in the words of the hymn, “Our lives would be all sunshine in the sweetness of the Lord” (Hymn 304, verse 3).

3. But, of course, our faith is not perfect, nor is our submission complete. Consequently, we must engage in this thing called the life of prayer, in which we wrestle against our adversaries, the world, the flesh and the devil, using the weapons of spiritual warfare that we are given in Christ. We must work at becoming the new people God wants us to be.

E. The life of prayer.

1. This is why we put such emphasis on the life of prayer lived out in the community of the church. Jesus comes to fill us through the Spirit chiefly in three ways: the sacraments, prayer and the presence of other members of the body of Christ who minister to us with their gifts. It follows that if we want to be increasingly filled with all the fullness of God in Christ through the Spirit, we must commit ourselves to a pattern of life in which we habitually receive the sacraments, pray and interact meaningfully with other Christians.

2. Without consistent spiritual disciplines that open our lives up to the grace of God, we have no ability to grow in grace and Christ-likeness. That is to say, without disciplines that fill our lives with grace, we have no ability live faithfully. We are saved by grace through faith (Ephesians 2:8). But this salvation is experienced, not just in baptism or when we first come to faith; Salvation by grace through faith is experienced continually. We are continually saved from the influence of sin by the continual experience of God’s grace. And we receive this grace as we continually trust, or depend upon, God through the life of prayer.

F. Advent Repentance.

1. Consequently, repentance requires more than a list of sins to confess and work on. Acts of sin are symptoms of lives not lived in communion with God. To repent, we must change our manner of life. This is a harder task. This is why it is tempting to make the Christian life about micro-managing sinful behavior rather than pursuing union with God. This is why it is tempting to make the Christian life about not being bad instead of making it about the pursuit of holiness.

2. John baptized in the wilderness. Those who were changed by his ministry went out into the wilderness to meet him and then returned to live their lives in a new way. If we want to heed the call to repent, it is necessary for us to step away from our regular patterns and habits in order to reassess and change them. The central question of repentance is not whether we can come up with an adequate list of our sins. The central question is: Are we living a life of prayer, with the worship of God as the central piece, with habits of prayer and Bible reading as our daily bread and with significant connection to other members of the body of Christ? Holiness is the longer term fruit of this manner of life, just as sin is the fruit of life lived apart from God.

3. In the words of John the Baptist, “Repent ye, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!” (Matthew 3:2).

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First Sunday in Advent 2012 – Sermon

Intro. Why is the Palm Sunday story the gospel for Advent 1? The intended reason: Jesus “comes” to Jerusalem. Advent means “coming.” However, there is another lesson we can learn from it on Advent 1. Jesus shows how to fight the right battle.

A. Palm Sunday to Easter

1. The Holy Week narrative tells us how Palm Sunday led to disappointment on Good Friday. The king who was supposed to conquer was beaten and killed instead. The expectation of victory over the forces that oppress Israel became the apparent defeat of another would-be Messiah. Easter brought another twist in the plot, as defeat gave way to a new and unexpected kind of victory.

2. Jesus did, indeed, come to Jerusalem to fight a battle. It was just a different battle than everyone expected. It wasn’t an overthrow of political leaders or the current, corrupt temple regime. He came to fight and conquer three enemies: Satan, sin and death. To conquer these enemies he had to be faithful to the Torah (or law) of God until death, and he had to fulfill the covenant by offering the one sacrifice that would fulfill all sacrifices.

B. Our real enemies.

1. If we’ve been in the church for any length of time, we’ve heard all of this; but we do not always apply the lesson to our own lives. We are also called to engage the battle against “the world, the flesh and the devil.” In baptism, the sign of the cross was made on our foreheads, “In token that hereafter [we] shall not be ashamed to confess the faith of Christ crucified, and to fight manfully under his banner against, sin, the world and the devil, and to continue Christ’s faithful soldier and servant until [our] life’s end” (BCP 280).

2. Jesus conquered sin and death by his faith and faithfulness and gave us the fruits of his victory as gift, through baptism and faith. Our battle is to hold on to that victory. As Ephesians says, “Take up the whole armor of God that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand” (6:13). Our enemy has already been defeated. His goal is to do as much damage and destroy as many others as he can in the time he has left. Our goal is to stand firmly against him.

3. We win our battle by being faithful to Christ until death; by resisting temptation and obeying the commandments of God; by confessing our sins and being reconciled to God when we fall; by loving God and our neighbor and using our gifts to advance the kingdom; by perseverance—not giving up or giving in when the battle is hard and we are weary.

4. We also are tempted to make some visible battle our main battle. Just as many in the first century believed that their problems would be solved if the Romans were overthrown and the Jewish state restored, so we are tempted to believe that our problems would be solved if we could only achieve success in the battle against some visible enemy; so we make some visible accomplishment in politics, business, sports or family the main focus of lives, and the demands of the kingdom of God become secondary to those visible goals.

C. What happens when we do not engage the spiritual battle?

1. There is a larger problem in our time that is less evident, but highly significant. Our age has lost sight of the sense that the Christian life is, essentially, a fight, a battle, a struggle against the forces of evil. The military image is no longer pre-eminent. Few people talk about the “church militant” anymore in any real, practical sense. The themes of personal fulfillment have taken precedent over the themes of battle and conquest.

2. The problem is that we are, by our very nature, drawn to epic struggle and battle. We will fight for or against something. If our desire to conquer significant enemies is not directed towards the spiritual battle, it will be directed towards other lesser but more visible battles. We will not stop fighting because we avoid the spiritual battle. We will only fight too strongly for all the wrong things. The great energy that is expended to fight for various causes is frequently disproportionate; the effort that ought to be expended to withstand the world, the flesh and the devil ends up being wasted on some temporal goal. The saints of the church are attractive because they were heroes in the spiritual battle. It may be that we have so few saints in our time because not enough people in the church are fighting at all.

D. What battle are we fighting?

1. We can begin our Advent preparations for the coming of Christ by asking, What battle are we fighting? What is the main focus of our lives? Are we striving to live life faithfully in Christ so that we may be vindicated, along with the all the elect of God, in the resurrection on the Last Day? Or is some other, temporal victory more important to us?

2. Of course, we have visible battles that must be fought. We are workers and parents; we are friends and spouses. In every area of our lives there are things we want now. This is not necessarily bad. The questions are: How do we go about pursuing the things we want? And, if it is God’s will, are we willing to sacrifice something we want in order to remain faithful?

3. When some visible goal in this life becomes more important than faithfulness, we end up making compromises to attain it. Duty to God gives way to urgency of the moment and the need to have what I want now. Rather than trying to love God with all our heart and fulfill the law, we attempt to justify and rationalize our disobedience. Rather than trying to love our neighbor as ourselves, we start using our neighbors for our own purposes. The funny thing is that is never really works. When we compromise to get the thing, we aren’t contented with the thing—because we were not made to be contented with temporal things.

4. Jesus said, “Seek ye first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added unto you” (Matthew 6:33). In every situation, we are called to ask questions like, what does the kingdom of God look like here? What gives honor to God and is good for the people involved? How am I supposed to work for the spread of the kingdom in this situation?

5. The answers to these questions are not always easy to find or put into practice. This is precisely the point. The Christian life is a battle, a striving to do the will of God. This is why we cannot live it without a firm, persevering commitment to the life of prayer, in which we wrestle constantly with the implications of the kingdom for our lives. This is the thing that is supposed to preoccupy us. This is the battle we are supposed to be fighting.

 E. The results of the battle

1. The devil said he would give Jesus all the kingdoms of the world in exchange for worship (Matthew 4:9). He sJesus chose, instead, to pursue the long term rewards that come through faithfulness. And he was rewarded. The result of the battle Jesus fought on the cross was the resurrection and ascension. He is now King of Kings and Lord of Lords, and everything in the creation belongs to him (Philippians 2:9-11).

2. Fighting the right battle is the way to get the things we really want. To fight the right battle, to seek first the kingdom in all things, is to chose our highest and best eternal good and refuse the short terms temptations and compromises that would take that away from us. We won’t be able to fight the right battle until we really believe that what God wants for is best for us—until we really trust God.

2. Advent tells us that Christ is coming to judge the world. Advent reminds us that both the rewards for faith and faithfulness and the consequences for sin and unfaithfulness are real. Thus, Advent exhorts us to fight the right battle. As Romans says,

Now it is high time to awake out of sleep; for now is our salvation nearer than when we believed. The night is far spent, the day is at hand. Therefore let us cast off the works of darkness, and let us put on the armour of light.

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Sunday Next Before Advent 2012 – Sermon

A. Intro.

Today is, technically, the Twenty-fifth Sunday after Trinity; it is the last Sunday in Trinity, but it goes by the name of “The Sunday Next before Advent.” It tells us that it is not yet Advent, but Advent is near. It provides a transition from Trinity into Advent—It is something like what the three Sunday’s of pre-Lent are to Lent.

The theme of the day is highlighted by the collect, which says,

Stir up, we beseech thee, O Lord, the wills of thy faithful people, that they, plenteously bringing forth the fruit of good works, may, by thee be plenteously rewarded.

B. Wills not emotions.

We should note that the collect says, “Stir up the wills,” not “Stir up the emotions.” This is the most significant thing we emphasize about the spiritual life. It distinguishes our approach to the life of prayer from what is common in our culture. Our message is not, “Get really excited about God.” Our message is, “Commit to doing the right things as a habit of life.”

Our “will” is what we want to do; it is what we desire in our “heart of hearts.” People almost always end up doing what they want to do. We can, in the short term, manipulate and pressure people into doing what we want them to do; but, eventually, people will follow their own desires. As Fr. David once said, “A man convinced against his will is of the same opinion still!”

C. Long term not short term.

The challenge is to understand what we really want. Because of our fallen nature, we are tempted to want whatever we feel like having now; we are tempted to want to satisfy our desires in the short term. However, doing what we want to do in the short term often ends up making us unhappy and discontented in the long term. This is the dilemma of fallen man. He wants the very things that end up destroying him.

Consider the story of the fall in Genesis. Eve was tempted to eat the fruit that God said not to eat. After the serpent called God a liar and told her there would be no consequences, Genesis tells us,

When the woman saw that the tree was good for food, that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree desirable to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate. She also gave to her husband with her, and he ate. (Gen 3:1-7).

Instead of fulfillment and wisdom, they experienced guilt, shame, fear and death. Sin causes us to act the same way, with the same results. We want what seems good now, without regard to the long term consequences. Jesus Christ saves us from this pattern of sin. In his temptation, he refused the short term fulfillment offered by the devil (Matthew 4:1-11) because he wanted the long term fulfillment that comes through obedience and faithfulness. This is the model for redeemed humanity. Through faith in Jesus Christ, we put off the pattern of our old humanity and we begin to make decisions in the present moment on the basis of long term good.

D. Not the absence of pleasure, but the desire for the highest and best pleasure

This is where the New Testament concept of bearing our cross comes in. We must pick up our cross and follow Jesus. We must suffer with him. We must die to sin—etc, etc. etc. This is often misunderstood or characterized wrongly, as if being a Christian means being committed to misery. The short term cross bearing is the pain of killing our fallen nature—the nature that never made us happy in the first place.

Our wills need to be stirred up so that we will learn to desire what is really good and experience pleasurable long-term rewards. Our wills are stirred up in the right way when we realize the foolishness of short-term thinking and begin to really want the long term good that comes from obedience and faithfulness. Our wills are stirred up when we become “willing” to endure short term discomfort; when we become willing to act faithfully now, in spite of the inconvenience, because we see that this is how we acquire what we really want.

E.  The results of life lived in captivity to momentary desire

We have two laboratories in which we can learn this lesson; one is our culture. Many of our current problems result from short-term thinking. The massive debt burden that virtually all countries now face is a result of deciding to spend or borrow now without thinking about the long term impact. The sexual revolution that has created so many social problems is rooted essentially in this: sex was removed from its long term context of commitment, family, children and future and turned into a means of short-term pleasure. The miserable failure of both experiments may be the undoing of our culture.

The other laboratory is the church. Short term thinking has permeated cultural Christianity. People want to know what faith will “do” for them right now. How can I feel better now? How can I get better results in my life now? People are drawn to the new and exhilarating worship, the cutting edge approach to Bible study—or mission or you name it—the newest translation of Scripture or the newest method for prayer. This experiment has gone on for about a generation in the church. It has created much periodic excitement in many places at many times; but it has not produced much personal, ecclesial or cultural transformation or holiness. That is to say, it is not working.

F. Advent preparations. Living with an eye on the long term and eternity

Advent reminds to get ready for the coming of Jesus. What do we need to do? In order to break away from captivity to the culture of short term thinking, we must ask different questions and approach the faith in different ways. Instead of looking at faith as a product to be consumed to satisfy what we feel we need in the moment, we must begin to think about developing patterns and habits of prayer and spiritual disciplines that will form us over the long run.

This is why we talk about a “rule of life.” A rule of life is the framework for prayer and spiritual disciplines that we commit to practicing over time. If we get excited about God one day and, as a result, pray and read the Bible more for a week or two, we will have a week or two of benefit that will quickly vanish. However, if we commit ourselves to living by a rule of life over next five to ten years and beyond, we will experience significant progress in our faith and significant growth in holiness.

In talking about the life of prayer we may sound a bit like a continuously repeated song, or, as we used to say, a broken record. We regularly teach and exhort people to do the same old things; to be present each week for the Eucharist; to pray the daily offices of Morning and Evening Prayer; to have an ongoing conversation of prayer with God; to make good confessions; to practice silence; to discover your gifts and use them to serve others; to fast and tithe. We teach and exhort people to do these things because, when people commit to them over time, their lives are changed by these disciplines. At any given moment there are many more exciting things to do than remain faithful to the life of prayer; but none of them will have the same impact on your life over time and into eternity.

Our practice of Advent should relate to our rule of life. It is appropriate for those who live by a rule to add something to it for the penitential season; perhaps some practice of fasting, the making of a confession or increased time devoted to silence. If you have no rule of life, the function of Advent should be to establish one; Break away from following momentary urgencies and being content with periodic spiritual excitement and begin to live out the Christian faith in a disciplined and habitual way. We are formed by what we habitually do over time; unless we commit ourselves to being formed by our faith, we won’t be.

Of course, we will all do what we really want to do. Thus, we begin our preparations for Advent by asking God to teach us to want the right things.

Stir up, we beseech thee, O Lord, the wills of thy faithful people, that they, plenteously bringing forth the fruit of good works, may, by thee be plenteously rewarded.

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Twenty-Third Sunday After Trinity 2012 – Sermon

The Epistle, Gospel and Politics

It is propitious that, on the Sunday after an election, both of our lessons make reference to the way we should look at temporal governments.

In the epistle, St. Paul says, “Our citizenship is in heaven, from whence we eagerly wait for the Savior.” This statement contains a couple of digs at the politics of the day. Philippi was a military colony, full of retired and proud Roman soldiers. There would have been an air of Roman patriotism in the city. St. Paul’s emphasis on our heavenly citizenship is a caution against having too great an enthusiasm for the current order. Caesar was given the title, “savior of the world” for the relative peace he brought to the Roman Empire. When St. Paul says that we look for the Savior to come, he is reminding his hearers of the limits of military and political salvation.

While St. Paul was confronting Roman patriotism, Jesus was speaking in Israel to an audience more hostile to Caesar. Those who came to test him meant to create a dilemma. If Jesus said it was okay to pay taxes, he would be seen as legitimizing the despised Roman rule. If he said it was not okay to pay taxes to Rome, he would risk arrest as a political agitator. His answer put things in perspective. The coin bore Caesar’s image and likeness, and therefore might rightly be rendered to Caesar. But since the whole human person bears the image and likeness of God, we should give ourselves in worship and service only to God. Thus, when Caesar demanded worship of the early Christians, they refused and chose martyrdom instead.

The meaning and implications of heavenly citizenship.

When St. Paul spoke of heavenly citizenship, he wasn’t merely offering a spiritualized dissent to Roman ruleor speaking of a future existence in something called heaven. He was speaking of an actual kingdom that exists right now. The kingdom of God is ruled over by Jesus, the Lord of Savior of the world. He was crowned as king in the Ascension after he conquered sin and death on the cross. We became citizens of that kingdom in baptism. We have actual responsibilities, as citizens, to obey the king, worship God and work and pray and give for the spread of the kingdom as we wait for Jesus to come.

Moreover, our heavenly citizenship is not secondary or added on top of our connections to this world. We do not hold a dual citizenship in the kingdom of God and the city of man. Rather, the Bible describes us as “strangers and pilgrims,” resident aliens in the world (1 Peter 2:11). To be sure, the Bible exhorts heavenly citizens to be exemplary resident aliens in the city of man. For example, St. Peter writes,

Submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake, whether to the king as supreme, or to governors, as to those who are sent by him for the punishment of evildoers and for the praise of those who do good. For this is the will of God, that by doing good you may put to silence the ignorance of foolish men—as free, yet not using liberty as a cloak for vice, but as bondservants of God. Honor all people. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the king (1Pe 2:13-17).

We are called to submission and obedience to secular authority because we are ambassadors for the kingdom of God. We are to represent our homeland well as a matter of foreign policy.

The difficulty and opportunity for Christians in America.

There are two particular challenges for us as we attempt to adopt and live out this biblical framework. First, America has historically been a friendly place for Christians. It’s hard to act as strangers and pilgrims when one feels very much at home. Second, this sense of being at home is slowly declining. Many Christians feel a sense of angst and, even, anger as they try to figure out how to get back to where we once were.

One thing seems obvious. America is not going back to where it was for the simple reason that Americans are less profoundly Christian than they once were. Some three quarters of us still identify ourselves as Christians. But this shared faith is highly diluted and individualized. The former national consensus about the moral order of universe has given way to a general sense that all should be free to do as they please as long as no apparent harm is done. Deists and Baptists of the colonial era had more in common that many Christians today.

There is opportunity in this change of circumstances to more fully embrace the biblical model. It is increasingly evident that we are, indeed, like Abraham, strangers and pilgrims, resident aliens in this world. The church has a greater opportunity to fulfill its vocation when it is not at home in the world and, thus, sets its sights more clearly on the world to come. This is precisely what St. Paul is saying. We are not citizens of earth looking for Caesar to save us. We are citizens of the heavenly city, eagerly waiting for our king to come.

When vibrant and committed Christian faith declines, eternal goals are replaced with temporal ones. Thus, for the last generation cutting edge Christianity has been eager to show how the kingdom of God can have a positive, practical impact on this world. The result has, largely, been that Christian faith has no impact at all; or, it has resulted in the appearance that Christian faith has failed because it did not produce some desired temporal result.

Christian renewal requires that the Christian hope—the coming of Christ, the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come—be restored as the goal; and it requires that we begin to look at life in this world in terms of how it serves the goal of eternal life. As C. S. Lewis wrote, “Aim at heaven and you will get earth thrown in. Aim at earth and you get neither.”

The kingdom of God and prayer.

Living life now in light of eternity requires a serious commitment to the life of prayer. This is not just a commitment to pray for things. It is a commitment to live out the reality of our status as heavenly citizens. Ephesians tells us that God “raised us up together, and made us sit together in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus” (2:6). In Christ, we are restored to our vocation as kings and priests, and we exercise this vocation through prayer. Through prayer, we offer the sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving; and through prayer, we reign with Christ over the world.

The practice of prayer has suffered greatly from the focus on time instead of eternity. People are always praying for short term, practical benefits rather than eternal salvation, progress in virtue and the larger purposes of the kingdom. Consequently, there are many small, temporal miracles, but little evident holiness and power in the church.

People don’t commit themselves to the life of prayer because it seems to have no practical impact; it gets in the way of “doing” things. This is precisely the problem. When eternity becomes the servant of time, the framework of prayer is turned upside down. Christian prayer is not the way to get things done in time. Christian prayer is the way that time is continually lifted up into eternity; it is the way we learn to live in the present moment in the light of the eternal victory.

When we focus on the temporal, we get caught up in the false urgencies and emergencies of the kingdom of man; and we get anxious, fearful and angry. Conversely, when we lift up our hearts to the Lord; when we continually ascend into heaven and take our place among the elect of God; when we take all of life and offer it to God in Christ, things change. We become new people. We look at life in a new way; and, strangely, we are able to have a greater impact in the world. Prayer gives us new power because it aligns our desires and goals with the will and purposes of God.

One thing we learn through prayer is that God’s time horizon is different than ours. God is not in a hurry. Our crises are not his crises; our deadlines are not his deadlines. With the Lord, a thousand years is as a day and a day is as a thousand years (2 Peter 3:8). He is doing what he is doing, and he always accomplishes his will. Prayer gets us on board with him—it does not work the other way.

Think of it this way. The church gathers around the altar on the Lord’s Day, as the outpost on earth of the kingdom of God, to exercise its priestly and kingly vocation. It has continued to do this for two thousand years through the rise and fall of various editions of the city of man; through the fall of Jerusalem and the Roman Empire; through periods of intense persecution and relative peace; through the dark ages and times of human flourishing; through the emergence and overthrow of various enemies of God. Through all of this, Jesus has remained Lord of the creation. Through all of this, the church has reigned with him through prayer, enduring faithfully through persecution, offering praise and thanksgiving for God’s blessings and praying for justice and the needs of the world. And through all of this the church is constantly reminded, “The Lord is in his holy temple. Let all the earth keep silence before him” (Habakkuk 2:20).

As we habitually enter into God’s presence through prayer, we learn to experience God’s joy and peace. We learn that God is concerned for the world, but he is not worried about it. He is slowly but surely accomplishing his purposes as we move toward the final victory over death (1 Corinthians 15:25-26). Through prayer, we discover that it is not God’s will for us to be anxious, fearful and angry. We learn that God wants us to faithfully pray for God’s will to be done in the world; to do the good that he calls each of us to do, and trust him for the results that he will accomplish in his good time. For,

Our citizenship is in heaven, from which we also eagerly wait for the Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body that it may be conformed to His glorious body, according to the working by which He is able even to subdue all things to Himself.

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All Saints Day 2012 – Sermon

Tithing and the Mission of the Church

A. Sin and the human vocation

We are in the Octave of All Saints. All Saints is a sort of “catch-all” feast for unknown holy people who don’t have their own day. However, since we are all called to be saints (1 Corinthians 1:2), it is, prophetically, our own feast day. The “multitude which no man could number of all nations, and kindreds, and peoples, and tongues” (Revelation 7:9) is a timeless vision of all who persevere in faith through tribulation and stand victorious before God’s throne.

This is, “The Communion of the Saints;” the fellowship of all who are bound together in Christ through the Spirit. It consists of all believers, whether they are currently living in the body or in the intermediate state, awaiting the resurrection. The restoration of our relationship with God in Christ necessarily restores us to union with all who belong to him.

Sin severed our union with God; but is also alienated us (and continues to alienate us) from each other. After the original sin, the next sin was that one human being killed another—a murder that was a result of offerings made to God. Cain made an offering that was rejected by God. Abel made an offering that was accepted. For that reason, Cain killed Abel (Genesis 4:1-8). In Christ, this pattern is reversed. When we turn from sin and put our faith in Jesus, our offering is accepted; and, rather than killing each other, we are reconciled and learn to work for one another’s good.

Redemption in Christ restores us to the vocation that we lost through sin. We were made to be priests and kings of the creation. We were made to take the creation that God gave us and offer it back to God in thanksgiving; and we were made to rule over the creation righteously. The paradox is that only when we give the creation back to God as an offering in thanksgiving—only when we let go of the creation—do we fully possess it and rule over it. When we hold on to the creation, it becomes an idol, and it rules over us.

B. The story of Cain and Abel and its implications.

Let us look at the story of Cain and Abel. Genesis tells us, “In the process of time it came to pass that Cain brought an offering of the fruit of the ground to the Lord. Abel also brought of the firstborn of his flock and of their fat. And the Lord respected Abel and his offering, but He did not respect Cain and his offering.” (Genesis 4:3-5).

The language of Genesis 4 suggests the problem. Abel offered the first and best of his flock. In the Bible, the first and best represents the whole. By this offering, Abel exercised his priestly duty. He took what God had given him and he offered it back to God in thanksgiving. God accepted Abel and his offering. Cain brought “an offering.” Cain knew he was supposed to give, but did not want to; so he brought something he thought he could spare. This attitude is a consequence of the fall. Fallen man says of the creation, “This is mine.” He clings tightly to the creation as though he were the owner and not a steward; as though it was a possession and not a gift. As Hebrews says, “By faith, Abel offered to God a more acceptable sacrifice than Cain, through which he received approval as righteous, God bearing witness by accepting his gifts” (11:2).

Throughout the Bible, the righteous follow in Abel’s footsteps by giving back to God the first and best of what God gives to them. The first and best is represented by the tithe. Abraham tithed to Melchizedek (Genesis 14:18-20). Jacob made the following vow to God: “Of all that thou givest me I will surely give the tenth to thee” (Genesis 28:20-22). Various tithes were established in the Torah, the chief of which went to support the ministry of the Priests and Levites in the temple (Leviticus 27:30-32). At the end of the Old Testament, when the temple languished because Israel neglected to tithe, God accused his people of robbing him. God promised that if his people would repent and give the tithe he would pour down his blessing upon them (Malachi 3:8-12). In the New Testament Jesus criticized the hypocrisy of the scribes and Pharisees, but he commended their meticulous practice of tithing (Matthew 23:23). It is the will of God that the ministry of the church, which is the temple of the Holy Spirit and the successor to the Old Testament temple, be supported by the tithes of the people of God.

C. Tithing and trusting God.

We tithe when we take the income God gives to us and give the first tenth as an offering to God. The tithe should be the first check we write. This is how we imitate Abel and offer God our first and or best. This is one way we fulfill our vocation as priests of the creation.

Some will say, “I can’t afford to tithe.” Of course, this is literally false; the first and best are always there to give. What this really means is, “I am afraid that if I tithe I won’t have enough left over for the rest of my needs.” This is precisely what makes the tithe an expression of faith. We give God the first and best trusting that God will make the rest sufficient to meet our needs. As Hebrews says, “Without faith it is impossible to please [God], for he who comes to God must believe that He is, and that He is a rewarder of those who diligently seek Him” (Heb 11:6).

God’s faithfulness is illustrated by the story of the prophet Elijah and widow of Zarephath. During a severe famine, God sent Elijah to the widow to ask for food. She told Elijah that she only had a little food. She was about to prepare for herself and her son as a sort of last meal before they died of hunger. Elijah told her, “Do not fear; go and do as you have said, but make me a small cake from it first, and bring it to me; and afterward make some for yourself and your son. For thus says the Lord God of Israel: `The bin of flour shall not be used up, nor shall the jar of oil run dry, until the day the Lord sends rain on the earth.’” 1 Kings tells us, “She went away and did according to the word of Elijah; and she and her household ate for many days. The bin of flour was not used up, nor did the jar of oil run dry, according to the word of the Lord which He spoke by Elijah” (1 Kings 17:8-16). The widow gave first to God, and the rest was made sufficient to meet her needs.

D. The corporate dimension of tithing.

The mission of our church is, “To follow Christ, to worship God every Sunday in his church, and to work and pray and give for the spread of his kingdom” (BCP p. 291) This means that it is the mission of each of us to use our gifts in service, take our part in church’s life of prayer and support the church with our tithes—and with other offerings as we are able.

Our participation in the mission of the church is not just for our own benefit; it is our part of the mission and work of the church. If any of us fails to do our part, the mission of the church is less powerful than it ought to be. The church is the army of God; if any soldier in God’s army does not man his post and fulfill his calling, we are less able to fight and conquer the enemy.

People sometimes ask how they can help the church; they are looking for some special thing they can do. However, what they church really needs is not so much the periodic act of heroism; what the church really needs is for all of its members to be committed to our mission; to be faithful in the regular habits of following Christ, worshiping God and working, praying and giving for the spread of his kingdom.

Ordinary faithfulness makes people heroes in the church. What God has done through the ministry of St. Matthew’s Church has been made possible by those who have been faithful, year in and year out, to take their part in our mission. This is particularly true with regard to money. We have always been able to do more than what our size would suggest because so many of our people have been faithful in their tithing. We have often had year-end deficits erased by people who experienced financial blessing from God and, as always, were faithful to give. Expansion of our ministry has been made possible by new people who join us and begin to support our ministry with their tithe.

We are committed as a church to mission. We believe that God is calling us to reach out beyond ourselves and share with others what God has given to us. A church that merely wants to survive—that merely wants to pay the bills for another year—might sustain itself with an offering of some of the left over grain. But a church with a mission, the army of God dressed for battle, requires our first and our best, our tithe.

Think of the church as a canoe and of each member as an oarsman. When all row in harmony, the mission of the church moves forward efficiently and effectively. When some choose not to row, others have to row harder to make up for those who do not row. When some are difficult, others have to row harder to make up for the oars that are dragging in the water. As we begin to plan for next year, we are asking all of our members to get on board and row with us. We believe is calling us to do great things. The more people who get on board and row with us, the more people who work and pray and give for the spread of the kingdom, the greater will be the works that God will do through us.

 

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P.S. A note on pledge cards. Pledge cards provide an estimate of our tithes for the year to help the vestry in the process of budgeting. If circumstances change, one’s pledge/tithe will also change. For example, if you lose your job during the year, your pledge would obviously be reduced—a tithe of 0 is 0! Conversely, if your income is greater than anticipated, your pledge/tithe would increase. The pledge cards let us know that people are on board with us and are committed to our mission.

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Saint Simon and Saint Jude 2012 – Sermon

The Apostolic Model: Called to follow and then sent to serve

We do not have much information about St Simon and St. Jude. The tradition says that they carried on active missionary careers and died as martyrs in Persia. But, even with the lack of details, we do know significant things about them. Jesus called them to follow him, and Jesus sent out them out to minister to others. The word Apostle means, “One who is sent.”

The calling and sending of the apostle’s provide a model for our growth into maturity as Christians. We were each in some way called to follow Jesus. We began as disciples and learners. But, as some point in time, we also are sent to serve others for Jesus.

From takers to givers

The Apostles didn’t begin as missionaries to Persia and other far off lands. They began as followers. Jesus had a three year ministry, and the apostles spent that time learning, watching and being ministered to by Jesus. To be sure, the apostles did things for others during this time, but their work was something of an apprenticeship or residency. Jesus sent them out to preach and heal, and they reported back to Jesus on how the work went. It was not always a complete success. There was, for example, a failed exorcism; the apostle’s were not able to cast out the demon and Jesus had to be called upon to help (Matthew 17:14-21).

It wasn’t until Ascension and Pentecost that the Apostles were called to make the transition from followers to leaders. Jesus returned to the Father, sent the Spirit to them and said, essentially: “Now you are in charge.” Then they began to preach, teach and heal, first in Jerusalem and Samaria and then unto the uttermost parts of the earth” (Acts 1:8). That’s how a couple of native Israelites ended up dying in Persia.

This is the pattern of our own discipleship. We begin as learners and receivers of grace in the Body of Christ. Our sins are forgiven and our wounds are healed. We begin to learn the Biblical story and discover how to apply it to our lives. We take note of more mature Christians and learn to imitate their examples. Then, at some point in time, we are called to shift from takers to givers. Where we once looked to others to teach us and show us how it is done, we begin to be called to teach others and provide examples for them to follow.

Of course, we never stop needing grace, teaching, healing or mentoring. But, at some point, the balance should begin to shift. At some point in our development we should experience a transition from net taker to net giver, from mere follower/learner to missionary.

A newborn child does nothing but eat, make noises and poop. When the child grows, there is an expectation that the child will help with some chores as well as empty the refrigerator.  When the child becomes an adult, there is an expectation that he will begin to fill the refrigerator and provide support for others. A young plant requires much water, sunlight and, perhaps fertilizer. It does nothing but take; but all that is given to the plant is in expectation that the plant will grow and bear fruit—that the plant will eventually give as well as take.

Trinitarian Theology, Creation and New Creation.

We can understand the transition from takers to givers through the lens of Trinitarian theology. We believe that God created the world out of love. The Father loves the Son, the Son loves the Father and the Holy Spirit is their mutual love that that flows out from them into creative activity. God is so full of love that it is his nature to freely share it.

Sin separates us from God’s love. It makes us self-centered and causes us to be concerned mainly with our own interests and needs. When we are called to follow Christ, we are called out of our self-centeredness back into the love of God. As we begin, in the words of Ephesians, to “learn Christ” we begin to be filled again with the love that comes from God, and we experience a change is orientation. We no longer live only for ourselves. We are no longer focused only on our own wants and needs. We realize that Christ has given us gifts that we can give to others. We begin to perceive the needs in the world around us and we begin to respond to them.

This is a restoration of the human vocation. We were made in the image of God. We were made to share in the fullness of his Trinitarian love. We were made to be participants in God’s creative activity; to be signs and instruments of God’s love in the world. We lost this exalted status through sin, but are restored to it through the gift of the Holy Spirit. In Christ, we are filled with the love of God (cf. Romans 5:5). W become participants in the work of God’s new creation.

This is why the mission of the church is not merely to do good things on a human level. It is to give to others what we have received from God. If we do not experience the love of God in Christ through the Holy Spirit in the life of prayer, we cannot be signs and instruments of that love to the world. Prayer and sacramental grace are the necessary foundations for mission.

The Missionary Church

It is a problem in the church when significant numbers of people do not make this transition from follower to missionary; from taker to give. This seems to be a particular problem in our time, with the prevalence of the narcissistic personality and the ubiquity of the consumer culture. Many people live in perpetual Christian immaturity—“I’m not being fed.” “I don’t like this and therefore I am leaving.” They complain and demand rather than sacrifice and serve. They are perpetually the problem rather than the solution. They are perpetually children who never become adults. They are trees that receive water but bear no fruit.

One sign of mature and healthy Christians is that they develop an outward orientation. They cease to be mere religious consumers and begin to be missionaries. They stop demanding that the church do what they want and begin to ask how they can help with the church’s mission. They are not only healed by grace; they also become instrumental in the healing of others. This is also the sign of a mature and healthy church. It is focused on reaching out to the world with the gospel; it desires to share with others the love of God it experiences.

We can perceive this transition in our own church. Over the last quarter century we have grown from being wounded traditionalists into being missionary Anglicans. An increasing proportion of our membership comes, not only to receive grace, but also to be part of the ministry of grace to others. This is evident in the way we are helping St. Andrew’s and other churches in the task of renewal. This is also evident in our growing involvement in overseas mission. We are growing in maturity. We are realizing that we are not here for ourselves, but are called to be apostles to others.

Further meditations on what it means to be a missionary.

We may not be sent to Persia to die as martyrs, but we are also sent out to serve. We are sent to reach out to our family members, co-workers, friends and, even, our enemies. We are sent out into our homes and our places of work and leisure as ambassadors for Christ. We are sent out to be those who solve the problem rather than create it; who end the argument rather that perpetuate it; who try to understand rather than insisting on being understood. We are called to be signs and instruments of the presence of God’s love in Christ in the midst of a fallen world.

This is why we talk so much about spiritual gifts. Your spiritual gifts are specific endowments God has given you in Christ through the Spirit. Your part in the mission of the church will, in large measure, be discerned by finding out what your gifts are and how you are supposed to use those gifts in service to others for Christ.

We cannot be the people we are called to be without a sense of mission. The great error of the world is that we see the goal of life as accumulating things for ourselves. We try to take from the world for our own account. Thus, many aspire to win the lottery, get rich and retire into a life of ease and comfort. This is sin and the fall. We were made to live for something greater than ourselves—first for God and then for others in his name. The paradox is that the more we fully we embrace our mission, our call to serve, the more full we ourselves become.

When we embrace our giftedness and mission, we participate in the work of building up the church. The church is not a physical building. The church is the new community of people who are bound together in Christ through the Spirit, with each member filling his or her God-given role. When we were called to be disciples, we were, as the epistle says, “built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the chief corner-stone.” As we mature in the faith we are sent out to participate in the ongoing work of building up the church.

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Twentieth Sunday After Trinity 2012 – Sermon

When you come to church and hear lessons that tell of a (Lk 2) decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed; of Mary and Joseph journeying to Bethlehem; of shepherds abiding in their fields being visited by angels proclaiming the birth of the Savior; proclaiming Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace good will toward men; you intuitively know that it is Christmas and we are celebrating the birth of Jesus, the long promised Messiah, (Jn 1) the Word made flesh, dwelling among us.

When you come to church and hear a lesson that tells us (Lk 24) on the first day of the week, early in the morning, women came with spices for embalming: found a stone rolled away from the sepulcher; found angels in shining garments asking them “Why seek ye the living among the dead?”, you know that it is Easter and we are celebrating that Jesus has risen from the dead – (1 Cor 15) that death has been destroyed by the victory of the Resurrection.

Jewish religious life in first century Israel was similarly attuned. A Jew listening to someone begin a teaching on today’s lesson for Morning Prayer from the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes (9:4), quote, “Let thy garments always be white; and let thy head lack no ointment,” would immediately think about a commentary by Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai in the Babylonian Talmud (Shabbat 153 A), written hundreds of years earlier. Listen, and see if this story from the Talmud sounds familiar to you.

Quote, “A king invited his servants to a banquet, but did not fix a time. The prudent ones among them adorned themselves and sat at the door of the royal palace, for they said “Is anything lacking in a royal palace?” The fools among them went to work, for they said “Can there be a banquet without preparations?’ Suddenly the king summoned the servants; the prudent ones went in adorned and the foolish ones went in soiled. The king rejoiced at the prudent, but was angry with the fools. He said, “Let those who adorned themselves for the banquet sit and eat and drink, but those that did not adorn themselves for the banquet are to stand and watch.”

Every Jewish person listening to this Talmudic tale would know that this was one of the teachings for the Jewish High Holyday of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. In this morning’s Gospel, Jesus was expanding upon the traditional Jewish commentary. (Mt 22:13) He ratchets up the consequences of being unprepared from just standing and watching at the banquet to being physically seized, bound hand and foot, taken away – cast into outer darkness, accompanied by weeping and gnashing of teeth. All knew that the heart of this message was one of personal and corporate repentance in preparation for a yearly judgment by almighty God. Further, it was understood that the white garments were not simply a liturgically appropriate color for a season or feast day, but that they symbolized purity, holiness and righteousness before the Lord. These garments were supposed to be an outward reflection of an inner spiritual life – one adorned with repentance of sins and exhibiting the living out of that repentance in observable deeds of love and charity towards one’s neighbor.

It is an appropriate theme for this time of the Church year as well. Trinity-tide will soon be coming to a close and we will begin to consider “the four last things” – death, judgment, heaven and hell.

Yom Kippur was the culmination of a ten day period called “the days of awe” by the Jewish people. They believe that this is when God annually judges the thoughts and intents of each person’s heart, as well as their actions towards others. These ten days provide a window of opportunity to seriously confront with brutal honesty those things that have been done in one’s life as well as those things that have been left undone. It is the time to attend to life’s unfinished business; a time for healing of relationships and reconciliation with friends and neighbors; a time to right wrongs, make restitution and perform acts of charity for individuals as well as the greater community.

In our Gospel lesson this morning, this kingdom parable of Jesus was spoken directly to the chief priest and Pharisees. In a very Jewish way of teaching, he was preaching their own Yom Kippur sermon back to them and calling them to embrace a life of repentance. Then as now, it is a tacit reminder that we are all called to practice what we preach and what we confess.

If we claim Christ as our Savior, if we claim membership in His family of faith, we too are called to regularly examine our hearts and our lives.

Do our daily actions reflect Christ’s Kingship in our lives? Do our attitudes toward our business dealings and co-workers, our relationships with family and friends honor the faith commitment we have made to our Lord?

As Christians, we have no need to wait for a once-a-year holyday to have the courage to face the thoughts of the awesome judgment of God. In the classical writings of sages and saints concerning the spiritual life, Christians are called to a nightly “examen”, or an “examination of conscience” – a brief overview of how we have lived out our day.

If we take a moment for honesty during our evening prayer and ask God for forgiveness of our many shortcomings, and for His help to live fully our life of faith, we need never fear the final judgment. A daily examination of conscience also can help pinpoint areas of concern that can be addressed in the Sacrament of Confession.

I encourage you to take advantage daily of the love and forgiveness God offers to us. Then, you too will be adorned and ready for the Marriage Supper of the Lamb.
 

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