Rejoice and be Glad—Over the Death of Evildoers?

Sermon delivered on Trinity 17B, Sunday, September 27, 2015 at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Westerville, OH.

If you prefer to listen to the audio podcast of this sermon, usually somewhat different from the text below, click here.

Lectionary texts: Esther 7.1-6, 9-10, 9.20-22; Psalm 124.1-7; James 5.13-20; Mark 9.38-50.

In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

How many of you got a little uncomfortable with our OT lesson this morning with its description of celebrating and rejoicing over the death of another? Or how many of you, upon hearing the story, reacted with some guilty pleasure. A bad dude got his. The good guys won. Yes! But aren’t we supposed to forgive our enemies and pray for them, even if they are out to destroy us? If you had one of these reactions—and I suspect if we are really honest with ourselves most of us did—you are not alone. You are dealing with a vexing issue for many Christians: how to balance justice and mercy. This is what I want us to look at this morning.

In our OT lesson we witness the culmination of a gripping drama made even more remarkable by the fact that God is never mentioned throughout the entire book of Esther. Yet God is always there as we see in our lesson today. The story is about evil being perpetrated by human agents, in this case Haman, King Xerxes’ right-hand man (Xerxes is the more commonly known Greek name for Ahasuerus). Haman had been offended by Mordecai, a Jewish exile who refused to bow in submission to him, and as a result, Haman had resolved to exterminate the Jews by essentially tricking the king into issuing an edict to this effect, an edict that could not be revoked. Because of Haman’s wounded pride and vanity, we are confronted with the real possibility of unspeakable evil being committed. And we all know what genocide looks like. We’ve seen the footage from the liberated Nazi concentration camps.

But we are talking God’s people. So where is God in all this? How can God allow such evil to be perpetrated against his people? After all, isn’t God always faithful to his covenant promises? We expect God to rush in and deliver his people in a mighty act of power, just like he did for his people Israel when he rescued them from their slavery in Egypt at the Exodus. But God doesn’t do it that way in this case. He rescues his people by placing two of them, Esther and Mordecai, in critically important positions and using them to bring about his justice on the wicked Haman. So far so good. Most of us do not have a problem with justice being executed on evildoers. But the possibility that we might have to forgive this guy? Really??

And then we learn that Mordecai issues an order instructing all the Jews living in the Persian Empire to celebrate Haman’s death and their deliverance from destruction, a celebratory spirit that is implicit in our psalm as well, and now our reaction may not be so straightforward. We are Christians, after all, and should never celebrate the death of anyone, no matter how evil they might be. We do this because God himself tells us he takes no pleasure in the death of evildoers (Ezekiel 18.23, 32). Yet most of us remember watching the crowds gather to celebrate the death of Osama bin Laden. Some of us may even have wanted to join in the celebration. After all, our archenemy, the face of pure evil, finally got what was coming to him. The good guys won. I’m sure the reaction was the same when the news of Hitler’s death was announced. For those who are not Christian, this is no big deal. After all, they are not bound to follow the crucified one who died to spare us from God’s terrible and right judgment on our own sins. They don’t need to stop and think that they are celebrating the death of an image-bearing creature of God, marred as that image might be. But for us who profess to be Christian? What to do? For many of us, I suspect the answer is that we experience some guilty pleasure over the death of an evildoer. We know we shouldn’t but we just can’t help ourselves. We want justice, especially when it is comes to really bad guys like bin Laden. So what does the gospel have to say about all this? The answer is not as straightforward as some would like us to think.

Of course we are to take to heart and practice Jesus’ teaching and follow his example. We are to love mercy first and practice it. We are to pray for our enemies and forgive them instead of seeking to exact revenge on them. Doing the latter makes us agents of evil and that is simply not acceptable. Rather, as Paul reminds us in Romans, we are to leave room for God to execute his good and righteous wrath on evildoers (Romans 12.14-21). We are to leave this to God because God is our Creator and sovereign. Only he has the right to execute justice on evil and those who commit it. Let me be clear. I am talking about us as individual Christians, not the role and duty of the state. As Paul would write later in Romans, the state is God’s ordained instrument to carry out God’s wrath on the wicked (Romans 13.2-4). But most of us are not heads of state. We are just ordinary Christians who are called to embody the love and mercy of God made known to us in Jesus.

But it is a misreading of the gospel if we see all mercy and no justice. A closer look reveals that even the gospel acknowledges the existence of evil in our world and reminds us God is doing something about it. So while we are called always to forgive and be merciful to our enemies, even the blatantly evil ones, we are not called to ignore our desire to see God’s righteous justice being executed on those who perpetrate evil. As we saw last week, God will not be mocked and Scripture makes clear that God is implacably opposed to evil of any kind. He simply cannot and will not tolerate it. We see this at the Fall in Genesis 3.1-19. Adam and Eve rebel against God’s good will for them and find themselves (along with everyone else ever since) under God’s curse. We see it in God’s response to the evil his people committed when they worshiped idols and the corresponding lifestyle that developed as a result. You see, we end up becoming what we worship and when we worship false and wicked things we begin to act in corresponding ways. We see it in our OT lesson when the wicked Haman gets his just reward. He was hanged on the very pole he had erected to hang his enemy Mordecai. We see it in our gospel lesson, albeit more subtly. Along with tender words about caring for the little ones who care for Jesus comes the chilling reminder of millstones around the neck and the unquenchable fire of hell. We see it in James’ letter with its emphasis on prayer. The example of Elijah’s prayer to which James refers contains both God’s mercy and judgment. Elijah had originally prayed for drought as a result of Israel’s wicked idolatry (judgment) and his prayer for rain (mercy) came only after he had the 450 priests of Baal slaughtered. God was merciful and rain came, but only after judgment.

These examples serve, in part, to remind and show us that God is a good God who is implacably opposed to evil of any form and who is simultaneously at work restoring his good but fallen creation back to its original goodness. We are called to be part of that rescue mission and have strict orders to act accordingly—and to let God do likewise. Part of our calling is that we are not to take justice into our own hands. To do that results in holy lynch mobs. But to advocate mercy at the expense of justice would be to violate our sense of what is right and deny that God is both a God of justice and mercy. If God is not both, there would be no need for the cross.

So part of the challenge of living faithfully as Christians is to strike a healthy balance between justice and mercy. We must never turn mercy and forgiveness into forgive and forget, where we deny that any wrong has been done to us. That is not how forgiveness works. To truly forgive someone and extend mercy to that person requires that we first and foremost acknowledge the person has acted evilly and done us real harm. So when we forgive, we acknowledge the harm but resolve not to exact revenge and become evildoers ourselves. The hurt matters and we must work though it and ask God to heal us. This is precisely why forgiveness is so difficult and costly. When we forgive, we resolve not to get into the ditch with the pigs and become like them. We trust God to deal with our hurt as well as those who caused it because we realize God is just as well as merciful, and that we are as much in need of his mercy as our enemies are. And if we are open to this dynamic, God will never let us down.

This is why James ends his letter with the exhortation to pray for each other and forgive each other. Healing comes with forgiveness. Real healing. And it’s the only way we will ever be able to experience real healing from sins and evil perpetrated against us as well as from our own sins. James has been warning us to follow the way of Christ, precisely because he knows we are at war with our disordered hearts and the powers and principalities who use our disordered desires to entice us into more sin and evildoing. But unlike many today would have us believe, there are terrible and eternal consequences to our sins as Jesus reminds us in our gospel lesson. This is why we are to love mercy, do justice, and walk humbly with our God. We are to love mercy because we ourselves have received mercy in and through the death of Jesus, and James warns us not to throw our pearls to the swine by acting and speaking in ways that are contrary to our call as Christians. That is why he links prayer and forgiveness to healing.

But this doesn’t mean we should ignore our desire for justice. God cannot tolerate evil. Why should we? But here’s the rub. As individuals, we are to let God execute his vengeance and justice on evildoers and are not to take glee when he does. If we truly are being transformed by God’s love in Christ made known to us in and through the power of the Spirit, if we really are Jesus’ people, we should be praying for evildoers so that they don’t suffer the eternal fate of unquenchable fire. To really desire that for someone is a damning indictment of our own hard heart and indicates at some level we really have not accounted for our own sin or have a real faith Jesus. To be sure, there are different levels of sin and evil. But God is opposed to even the slightest trace of sin or evil and that makes us liable to his judgment as well.

Mark has some godly wisdom for us in this department. If we take to heart what he tells us, it will help us from becoming hard-hearted and self-righteous folks. Unlike James, Mark imparts God’s wisdom by telling us stories about Jesus and so we have to pay a little closer attention to what he says. Case in point. Consider Jesus’ rebuke of John. We stopped a man from casting out demons in your name, he tells Jesus, and I suspect he said that rather proudly. In saying this, John was really saying that only those who are authorized by Jesus can do his work. Not so, retorts Jesus. Anyone who isn’t against me is for me. Furthermore, if you hinder anyone from believing in me, you are literally toast. So what was Jesus talking about? The context of this warning, coming on the heels of John’s statement, suggests that Jesus was not talking about leading others to do immoral things like making someone lie or cheat or steal. Rather Jesus was warning his disciples to take a hard look at their own behavior. He was afraid that people would take offense at him because of what his followers did. So examine yourselves, he tells us. Cut out anything that might cause others to think badly about me because of what you say or do.

In the context of balancing justice and mercy, what do you think we could do that might make people more readily take offense at Jesus because of our actions: That we are too merciful or too eager to exact justice? Again there is a fine line here and balance is needed. But God help us if we do not take Jesus’ warning seriously. We saw last week why the Nones don’t come to church. They think we are judgmental hypocrites. Here our Lord himself warns us about the same thing. A desire for justice, yes. But each of us who have been rescued from sin and eternal death by the blood of the Lamb had better be as willing and eager to extend mercy to our enemies as we are quick to condemn them. This is true not only because Jesus tells us we will be judged by the measure we use to judge others (Matthew 7.2), but also because we embody his presence as his followers, and he calls us to be better than our enemies. This doesn’t mean we ignore the need for justice to be done. It means that we are as concerned for the welfare of our enemies as we are for our own welfare. This is radical and disconcerting stuff, and there is always the danger that we will offend some folks in our call for justice and others in our insistence that we be merciful to evildoers. But maintaining this balance is being faithful to the entire gospel message and Jesus himself, and this must always be our goal as Christians.

In closing, then, let us all reflect soberly on these matters of justice and mercy. As Christians we are always called to be merciful and to forgive. That is a gospel imperative. However, the gospel is also concerned about the need for justice. Justice is part of God’s healing of the nations, of God putting all the wrongs of his world to rights, and the demand for justice is all over the gospel as we have seen. But the gospel is Good News and should make a difference in our lives. It should transform and heal us in response to God’s love, grace, and mercy extended to us in Jesus. It should give us a real hope that God does not let evil go unpunished, unlikely as that seems to us at times. We have a real future ahead of us, a future devoid of evil and suffering, a future that entails our radical renewal where somehow all of the hurts and wrongs done to us will be fully healed so as to never hurt or wound us again. We don’t have this future because we are worthy of it. We have this future because of the blood of the Lamb shed for us, unworthy as we are. Our Lord calls us to embody his love and to live our lives in ways that will cause others to want to know him as their crucified and risen Lord, just like he is ours. Having a healthy and balanced perspective on justice and mercy, a perspective that reflects our need to show mercy to our enemies just as we desire God to show mercy to us, while at the same time acknowledging that God’s restorative justice is part and parcel of the healing of the nations as well as our own, is one of the best ways we can proclaim to the world that we really do have Good News, now and for all eternity. To him be honor, praise, and glory forever and ever.

In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Mike Vaccaro: Yogi Berra’s Legacy: The Most Beloved Man in Baseball

Great tribute to Yogi Berra. See what you think.

yogi22He played ball. He sold millions of gallons of Yoo-Hoo. He owned a bowling alley with his fellow Jersey Yankee, Phil Rizzuto. He won 10 championships as a player, was a coach on the ’69 Mets and the ’77-’78 Yankees, even brought a playoff berth to Houston during a brief foray with the Astros working for his friend, John McMullen, who called Yogi “the greatest good luck charm ever.”

Hanna-Barbera insisted it did not name the character Yogi Bear for Yogi Berra, as implausible as that seems. For a time, Yogi asked for a hearing in court, but ultimately withdrew because the cartoonists insisted it was mere coincidence. And he believed them.

He was a baseball Zelig in so many ways, for so many moments: for Jackie Robinson’s steal of home in the ’55 World Series (into eternity, Yogi will swear he was out); for Bill Mazeroski’s forever blast five years later (as the left fielder, he had the best — or worst — view). He jumped into Don Larsen’s arms, and 43 years later, he stood and cheered when David Cone threw his own perfecto — on Yogi Berra Day, of course.

Yogi Berra RIP

A sad day. He was one of my all-time favorite Yankmes. Rest in peace and rise in glory in that eternal field of dreams, Yogi.

yogidefault640When former Yankees general manager Larry MacPhail first saw Yogi Berra, he said the squat, goofy-looking catcher reminded him of “the bottom man on an unemployed acrobatic team.”

At 5 feet, 8 inches tall, with a paunchy body and mischievous smirk, Berra seemed an unlikely baseball hero. But the oft-quoted New York Yankees legend, who won three American League MVP awards and 10 World Series titles, is remembered as a clutch hitter and one of the greatest catchers of all time. He died Tuesday at the age of 90.

Berra died of natural causes at his home in New Jersey, Dave Kaplan, the director of the New Jersey-based Yogi Berra Museum told the Associated Press.

Read it all.

Acting Like Wise Guys (and Gals)

Sermon delivered on Trinity 16B, Sunday, September 20, 2015 at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Westerville, OH.

If you prefer to listen to the audio podcast of this sermon, usually somewhat different from the text below, click here.

Lectionary texts: Proverbs 31.10-31; Psalm 1.1-6; James 3.13-4.10; Mark 9.30-37.

In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Last week we examined what wisdom, beginning with the fear of the Lord, looks like on the ground. Specifically, we looked at what wise speaking looks like. We also saw that for James, evil speaking among Christians was simply unthinkable. Yet we saw how difficult it is to control our tongue and I was reminded of this truth this past week in my own life. I suspect many of you were reminded of the same thing in yours. Simply put, a pattern of evil speaking is indicative that we really haven’t been rescued from the dominion of darkness, even though we call ourselves Christian, and this is quite a sobering thought. Today, I want us to continue to look at this notion of wisdom. Only this time I want us to focus on our actions. What does James have to say about acting wisely? What does that look like and why should we care?

Before we proceed, let us remind ourselves what biblical wisdom is all about. Godly wisdom is always concerned about speaking and acting rightly. It assumes there is a standard of Truth that guides all our speech and behavior, a standard given to us by God himself through his Laws, and ultimately in and through the person of Jesus, God become human. Acting wisely is commensurate with our primary task of being God’s people. We are called to embody God’s presence to his broken and hurting world so that in and through us, God can bring his healing love to bear on folks. Only God can ultimately bring about his kingdom on earth as in heaven. But we are given the wonderful and mind-boggling honor and privilege of embodying God’s love to those in our own neck of the woods, starting with each other as fellow members of Christ’s body, the Church. To embody God’s love and Truth to others means that we must speak the truth in love and act in ways that are consistent with God’s high moral standards for us.

And here is one of the challenges of acting wisely for us as Christians. On the one hand, we are called to speak the truth in love to others. On the other hand, we must not be so eager to point out the wrongs of this world (i.e., how Truth is being violated) that we forget to proclaim that goodness and beauty exist in the world because these things reflect God’s glory. To focus on the negatives without proclaiming what is good and right with God’s world makes us appear to be chronic and ungrateful grumblers and turns others off. This should not be. We of all people have the Good News of God’s love for us in Jesus to share! That’s part of God’s Truth too!

With this in mind, we are ready to hear what James has to say. Are you wise, he asks? Then show it in your behavior. This is the ultimate litmus test for biblical wisdom because our actions always speak louder than our words, powerful as our words can be. We may say all the right things. You know, things like how Christ died for us and the need to love our neighbor as ourselves. We may be able to tell others about the virtue of acting humbly and the need for us to be peacemakers because that is what Christ commanded. But if our actions don’t match our good words, we are effectively rejecting God’s good and gracious rescue of us from sin and death in and through Jesus. Instead we show that we prefer to follow the ways of the world, ways that are opposed to God’s good will and purposes for us as his image-bearers. This means we are double-minded. We speak gracious words but act in ugly ways toward others.

None of this comes from God, James warns. Like evil speaking, it comes from hell itself. This goes back as far as the Garden where the great deceiver, Satan himself, played on our capacity to get it wrong to actually bring about evil. If there is envy and selfish ambition in you, James warns us, it is a sign that you are still sin-sick and in mortal danger because these qualities cause all kinds of quarrels and fighting. More about that in a moment. No, James says. This isn’t what wise behavior looks like. Wise behavior, i.e., God’s wisdom made manifest on the ground where it really matters, looks quite different. Wise folks act in ways that bring about peace and order to their lives, their families (church families included), and their communities. They will act gently toward others, not trying to make them feel insignificant or stupid. They will be merciful toward those who offend them, willing to forgive rather than desiring to strike back at the offender. They will be busy doing good things for others, like taking meals to those who are sick or broken. And they will be willing to yield to others when it is appropriate. These behaviors reflect the fact that their God is not a God of disorder but peace (1 Corinthians 14.33).

But we want to protest. Why yield, why be merciful? we snort. Only gutless wonders back down from a good fight or forgive their foes. And besides, aren’t we supposed to defend biblical truth? Well yes we are, but James isn’t talking about defending biblical truth. He’s talking about lesser things. Of course we should not yield to those who argue there are many ways to God. We know better. Jesus himself has told us otherwise (John 14.6) and we believe Jesus to be the very embodiment of God. So no, we shouldn’t yield to arguments such as these. But more often than not, we don’t have these kinds of arguments. We’ve been shamed into silence or led to believe these kinds of things just aren’t that important, despite the fact that they are. Instead, we spend our time fussing about how long the sermon is or whether to cross ourselves at certain times during worship or whether it is appropriate to sing contemporary or traditional hymns. After all, we have our expectations and ways of worshiping, and God help those who differ from us. They’re just wrong and we are not afraid to tell them so. Pride anyone? Selfish ambition? This is the stuff James is talking about, not the non-negotiables of our faith.

We see a positive and negative example of James’ teaching in our OT and gospel lessons. On the positive side, consider the wise wife who is praised in Proverbs. Before we say anything about her, let us be careful to remember this woman is the ideal, not the reality. Who can find this kind of wife, the author asks? The short answer is no one can because she doesn’t exist. It is simply impossible, given all that she does. But that is not the author’s point. He wants us to see that her behavior is driven by a fear of the Lord and results in all kinds of humble and self-giving behavior for the benefit of others. That’s exactly right and reflects God’s glory.

On the negative side, consider Jesus’ disciples. Continuing our lesson from last week, once again Jesus in effect lays out for them the supreme example of living out God’s wisdom. He tells them he is going to give his life for the sake of the world (although he does not say this explicitly here) so that those of us who believe in him may have life instead of death. This will involve terrible suffering on his part. It will also involve one of the most extreme forms of humiliation known to humans. Think about it. What can be more humiliating than to be stripped naked and nailed to a cross to die a slow, tortuous death as a spectacle for all to see? But out of his suffering love and humility comes our redemption. The disciples’ response? Cluelessness.

But let’s not be too hard on them, especially out of some sense of smug superiority that comes from 20-20 hindsight. You see, they were starting to believe that Jesus was the real deal, the long-awaited Messiah of God, and in their minds that didn’t mean suffering and humiliation. It meant power and glory and honor. So they had argued about who would be Jesus’ chief spokesman. Pretty heady stuff being the King’s mouthpiece and/or right-hand man! Selfish ambition at its finest, don’t you think? And the thought of being snarfed out of that position by one of the others in the inner circle (envy anyone?)? Well that was more than they could take. The result? Quarreling and fighting. Jesus counters by telling them that anyone can be his spokesman, and the humbler the better. Truly humble people reflect real humanity and God’s glory.

This is exactly the point James is making. He apparently had seen folks in local parishes fighting and quarreling among themselves and condemns it in the strongest terms possible, something to which we need to pay attention. James is not talking about the healthy conflicts that should be expected in parishes like ours with growing ministries. He is talking about fights that break out as the result of envy and selfish ambition. Beware of those who are too eager to assume positions of leadership, he warns. That eagerness is a sign of a more serious and less obvious problem. We all know how this works. We start to hear grumbling about how money is being spent (or not spent) or that the service runs too long or that there’s too much singing (or not enough) or that there is not enough fellowship (or too much of it) or that it’s crazy to try to buy a building to worship in and serve the Lord (or it’s crazy not to). And of course, if only we were in charge. Things would be so much better! And so we gossip and backbite, which produces factions and unhealthy conflict. None of this manifests wise behavior, warns James. In fact, just the opposite. This kind of behavior (thankfully absent in large part here at St. Augustine’s Anglican) is more consistent with hell than God’s kingdom. And this, BTW, is one of the main reasons the so-called Nones—those who have either walked away from the Church or who are unwilling to become a member of Christ’s body in the first place—claim to be Nones. They hear us speak gracious things as Christians and then see us act in quite ungracious ways. As James would ask, how can this be? We should be asking likewise!

I can hear some of you now. Ah, Father Maney! Such an uplifting sermon! You’ve stated the obvious and acknowledged a dangerous problem within ourselves and for the Church. You’ve told us there’s not much hope of fixing it on our own. Such good news. How inspiring. Well, folks, can’t you allow a guy to have a little fun once in awhile? I mean really. But seriously, James (and Scripture in general) does not leave us without a message of hope or some good news. There is a remedy to the problem of evil that dwells in all of us and it is called God’s power and grace. Want to rid yourself of these mortally dangerous problems, James asks? Ask God! But the problem is you don’t ask God, either because you don’t believe God will deliver or because you really don’t want God to heal and transform you, strange as that might sound.

So here we see James issuing each of us an invitation and a challenge. The invitation is for us to humble ourselves before the word of God, i.e., to submit to its authority rather than try to twist Scripture to make it fit our own disordered desires, so that we recognize we have a problem. God cannot fix us if we don’t think we have a problem in the first place. Healing doesn’t work like that. Just ask any therapist. Once we recognize we have a mortal problem, James calls us to serious self-examination to identify exactly how our disordered thinking manifests itself in our lives. Then we are to go to God in prayer and ask God to heal us, expecting that he will, while simultaneously being open to exactly how that healing will occur. God loves us and has given his Spirit to us so that we are connected to him in a life-giving and organic way. And he will act to restore his image in us if we persevere in prayer. James isn’t talking about a quick prayer we rattle off before the business of the day overtakes us. He is talking about the kind of sustained prayer that results from a godly sorrow that stems from our knowledge that we are not the kind of people God desires us to be, a knowledge that can only come from humility. And therein lies the challenge. Our transformation is never easy or total. That apparently has to wait until we are made into new creations at the resurrection. But that should never stop us from pushing ahead because our transformation will come, maddeningly slow and idiosyncratic as that might be. That’s the “changed by God” part of our mission statement.

Likewise, James tells us to resist the devil, the source behind all our hellish behavior. This makes many of us uncomfortable because frankly, believing in the devil is just not very enlightened and we certainly don’t want others to view us as unenlightened, superstitious chumps. But if we are able to humble ourselves before God’s word, we will realize our reluctance to believe in the dark powers and principalities is quite foolish and life-threatening. Satan is real. Jesus knew he is real. He is behind much of the disorder in our lives. And one of the lies Satan tries to foist on us is that he is invincible. Not so, says James. Resist him by disciplining yourself, ensconcing yourself in God’s word, and persevering in prayer (among others), and the devil will flee from you. Every time we acknowledge that evil has been defeated on the cross of Jesus, every time we proclaim the strong man has been bound, the devil knows he is beaten and will flee. I experienced this truth personally a few years ago. I used to have a recurring dream that Satan (and man is he one bad dude, I mean really bad) was chasing me until one time I stopped and turned to confront him in the power of the Lord. I woke up before that scene played out but since then I have thankfully not had that dream again.

Yes, we are broken people who act unwisely at times. But it doesn’t have to be, say James and the rest of the NT writers. And so in closing, my challenge to all of us is this. Let us resolve to examine (or continue to examine) ourselves before almighty God and then persevere in prayer by asking God to cleanse and heal us, confident that he will do so. Let us also pay attention to our behavior, to how we treat and speak to each other, to ensure we are not being double-minded. Overall we do a good job in this department. Just look, for example, at the unbelievable response to St. Ann honey. I trust we will do likewise for Len and Sharon this week as Len goes under the surgeon’s knife a second time. Let us also ask God to make us zealous for doing good to others and to continue to turn us into his bright beacons of light for the world. Doing so will ensure that the second part of our mission statement, “to make a difference for God,” is accomplished. It’s hard work. But the rewards far outweigh the work and struggle involved. It is about living life as the fully human beings God created us to be, both in this world and the next. We have this promise of eternal life because we have seen and experienced God’s love made known to us in Jesus’ death and resurrection, and we have the very Spirit of God living in and among us, testifying to us that this is true, which means we really do have Good News, now and for all eternity. To him be honor, praise, and glory forever and ever.

In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Living (and Speaking) Wisely

Sermon delivered on Trinity 15B, Sunday, September 13, 2015 at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Westerville, OH.

If you prefer to listen to the audio podcast of this sermon, usually somewhat different from the text below, click here.

Lectionary texts: Proverbs 1.20-33; Psalm 19.1-14; James 3.1-12; Mark 8.27-38.

In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Today I want us to explore some of the often neglected treasure of biblical wisdom. What is it and why should we care about it? In answering some of these questions, we will have the chance to assess our humility quotient because ultimately our acceptance or rejection of biblical Wisdom is directly related to how humble or proud we really are.

In our OT lesson we are introduced to Lady Wisdom, the very personification of God’s Wisdom. In our passage, we see that Wisdom is not simply a set of passive principles we have the option of accepting or rejecting. No, Wisdom is seen as a teacher who is very active. She is one who cries out in the streets, peddling her wares. Like a good teacher, she is willing to do almost anything to attract and maintain her students’ attention because there is much at stake here. But sadly, the implication is that while she is actively pursuing students to learn from her, there are not many takers to be found. Hmmm. Are we one of those people?

Specifically, Lady Wisdom addresses three types of folks: the simple, the scoffer, and the fool. The simple are those who are either young or naive. They haven’t really had a chance to learn wisdom and by implication are ripe for the picking. The scoffer, on the other hand, not only rejects Lady Wisdom’s teachings, but is actively opposed to them by ridiculing the wisdom found in her teachings. We all get how this works. How often do we hear Christians being ridiculed or mocked when espousing biblical Wisdom to a world that is increasingly hostile to it? Take this proverb, for example. “A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger” (Proverbs 15.1). How ridiculous, the scoffer snorts! Everyone knows that he who shouts the loudest or carries the biggest stick gets the prize! Who cares how many feathers get ruffled in the process? Following this advice would give the appearance of weakness and any who do follow it are fools! Or how often have we been silenced out of fear that we will be scoffed at for holding a biblical perspective on any of the current hot topics in the public forum? Then there is the fool, those people who are said to “hate knowledge.” Indeed, to love folly is to hate Wisdom and vice versa. There is no middle ground to be had here and that makes many of us who prefer to measure our colors in shades of gray rather than black and white uncomfortable.

In our lesson we are not told specifically what constitutes Wisdom, only that the beginning of wisdom is to choose to fear the Lord. To fear the Lord means we have a healthy and reverential respect for the all-knowing, all-powerful, and ever-present God who is incomparably greater than us. It does not mean cowering from an unpredictable bully. And while Lady Wisdom does not tell us what Wisdom looks like in our lesson, the psalmist does. He tells us that Wisdom consists in following God’s good will and purposes for us. Do this, say both the psalmist and Lady Wisdom, and you will prosper. Don’t do this, and disaster will surely strike. It’s not so much a matter of God rewarding us for good behavior or punishing us for bad behavior as it is reaping what we sow. There really are consequences that accompany our thoughts and behaviors! Be wise, says Lady Wisdom. Don’t play the fool!

All this ought to make sense to us at some level. If God really is our Creator, who knows better how to make us happy than God? And so God has given us his Laws to follow (think, e.g., the Ten Commandments) because acting in these ways will surely result in harmonious, peaceable living. If we are loving and treating others as we want them to love and treat us (part of the Great Commandment Jesus gave us), we reduce exponentially the chances of strife and conflict and all the other nastiness we experience as the result of our own folly. And behaving in these ways also helps prevent evil from working its poison in our lives.

To be sure, this doesn’t mean that wise people never suffer or that fools don’t prosper. They do at times, but this is an exception to the rule, not the rule itself, and in this life there are always exceptions to the rule. These exceptions, however, do not invalidate the rule! Choose to act wisely, Lady Wisdom exhorts us, and you will prosper. Choose to act foolishly (e.g., by acting selfishly or recklessly or by following the ways of the world that are opposed to God) and you will bring disaster on yourself. There is not a person in this room who has not experienced the truth Lady Wisdom teaches here. And to top it off, she tells us she will scoff at us when we have failed to follow her advice and wreaked havoc on ourselves by our folly. Pretty harsh, Lady Wisdom. Yes it is, she replies, but the stakes are high and I want you to enjoy life as you were meant to live it. Sometimes harsh talk is needed to wake you up out of your stupor. Learn to live as God created you to live and wants you to live, and you will find out what it means to be truly happy. Do you believe this? If you do not, you might want to look at the pride in you that causes you to think you know better than God and leads you to reject his good purposes for you.

So what does biblical Wisdom, the willingness and ability to follow God’s good will for us as his human creatures, look like? James has an answer for us in our epistle lesson. Consider our inability to control our tongue. How can we use our mouth to praise God in worship one minute and then use it to speak badly about others the next minute, he asks? This is sobering stuff because the evil that comes out of our mouth every time we use angry and abusive language or gossip about others has its very origins in hell itself. That’s why James calls the tongue a restless evil full of deadly poison. An uncontrolled tongue is responsible for spreading evil, James warns us. It stains the whole body. In other words it works to corrupt our entire being. How? Spread gossip and people won’t trust you. Insult people and use bitter sarcasm, and they will not follow you. Who wants to be around a mean, spiteful person (like Ebenezer Scrooge) who never has anything good to say about anything or anyone? So much for our desire to have real relationships with others!

But it gets worse. A wicked tongue not only corrupts us, it destroys the course of our life, precisely because we eventually become what we speak. Use vulgar and crude language and you will become a vulgar and crude person. Use hateful language and eventually you will begin to act hatefully toward others. Use cruel language and you will become a cruel person. Don’t believe James? Then consider this advertisement from 1964.


Anyone see sexual innuendo in it? Any of you blush or giggle or get embarrassed or uncomfortable as I read it? How could an advertising agency publish something like this? Well, 51 years ago, our culture was not nearly as sexualized as it is today. We didn’t hear crude jokes and a steady stream of sexual innuendo and explicit sexual language in the media like we do today. That’s why if you look at any of the old TV shows from the late 50s to mid 60s, they almost seem naive in their innocence, just like this ad. And because we have been bombarded with sexualized language at every turn, it changes us ever so gradually and insidiously until voila! We see sexual innuendo in places it was never intended. Likewise with the language we use and how it changes the course of our life, for better or worse. We are not so much what we eat but what we speak. In this utterly devastating denunciation of an uncontrolled tongue, James lays out a steady progression of evil, from self-corruption that extends to the whole course of our life, climaxing in exposing the tongue’s source of evil to hell itself.

How can this be, asks James? How can we Christians (notice James includes himself) who were bought at the price of Jesus’ blood and who have the very Spirit of the living God living in us, use our tongue to speak evilly? If we have been made clean by Jesus and given his Spirit to dwell in us, we should bear commensurate fruit (cf. Matthew 12.33-37). But we don’t bear good fruit consistently because we cannot control our mouth. When we speak abusively to others and/or gossip about them, we are heaping contempt on God’s own greatness because human beings, even our enemies, are made in his image. Speak evilly about someone and we in effect speak evilly about the One who created that person. Given the great and terrible cost the Father endured to rescue us through Jesus, how can we as Christians even consider using impure and unchecked language? Where is the biblical sense of shock and outrage about this? After all, the implication is that a true Christian will not make a practice of using unchristian speech and anyone who does, gives evidence that (s)he is not a Christian and therefore in danger of hell. And yet here we are, speaking badly about those who anger us or with whom we disagree, friends included! James is warning each of us that we had better be practicing self-discipline to purify our speech or we expose our faith as a sham and us as imposters, therefore making us liable to judgment after all. We might be able to fool some of the people some of the time by how we act, but God is not mocked. He knows our heart and hears our uncharitable speech. I bought you with my own dear Son’s blood, he tells us. I didn’t rescue you from your sin so you could continue to be the fallen person you were before I touched your life. I rescued you so that my image could be fully restored in you so that you would start acting in ways that are truly human. Start speaking and acting the part before it’s too late!

These are sobering words and more than a bit worrisome because our language can land us in hell. Yet how many of us tend to discount these kinds of warnings or try to rationalize them away? James does not warn us about these things because he is some overbearing prude who is trying to get all judgmental on us. No, like Lady Wisdom, he warns us because he loves us and wants the best for us. How can a loving person want to see someone cast into hell? And James wants us to remember Whose we are and what it has cost God to redeem us from sin and death so that we will learn to have a thankful heart, and speak and act accordingly. That’s his point about the quality of water. We’ve been healed and we need to start acting and speaking like we have. This is the function of biblical Wisdom and sometimes it is hard for us to hear.

But hard things don’t stop us from protesting about all this. Not fair, we cry! If we can’t control our tongue as James argues, how can God punish us for something beyond our control? God really must be an angry bully after all! Not so, James replies. That is your hard heart speaking! Sure, controlling our tongue is very difficult and none of us is able to do it completely. After all, I’ve just told you that anyone who can control his/her tongue completely is perfect. Yet none of us is perfect! But don’t you know you have God’s very Spirit living in you, making Jesus’ healing love available to you? Don’t you know that God the Father has an egregiously generous heart and loves to lavish his children (you know, those who follow Jesus) with good gifts (James 1.5, 17)? But you don’t ask for good gifts or don’t believe God will grant them to you and so you don’t receive them (James 1.6-8). So if you really want to obey the Father’s commands and align yourself with his good and wholesome wisdom, ask him to help you control your tongue so that you can begin the hard work of repentance and self-discipline that forming new speech patterns requires. Remember we are talking patterns of speech and those patterns should reflect the healing love of Christ that is working on us as well as the Spirit who lives in us. So don’t lose heart or hope over what I’ve said or my warnings to you about the danger of unchecked speech because you have been rescued from your slavery to sin and death and freed to live your new life in Christ wisely, a life whose patterns of speech and behavior reflect the One who died for you on a cross to save you. Remember we still live in a fallen world where the glory of God is only partially revealed. Likewise with our transformation. While it has begun, our transformation will not be completed until Jesus returns again to usher in the new creation. But return he will and when he does, our speech and praise of him will be pure and unending. In the interim, let us resolve to work diligently to rid ourselves of all unchristian and unhealthy language with the Spirit’s help. Let us do so, confident that God’s healing love will continue to transform our speech patterns so that they will conform to the glory and wisdom of God while simultaneously giving witness to the world that we do this because we really do believe we have Good News, now and for all eternity. To him be honor, praise, and glory forever and ever.

In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Martin Milner RIP

One of my favorite cop shows growing up. Rest in peace, officer Malloy.

iuMartin Milner, whose wholesome good looks helped make him the star of two hugely popular 1960s TV series, “Route 66” and “Adam-12,” has died.

He was 83. “Adam-12” co-star Kent McCord, who spoke to Milner’s children, said Milner died Sunday near the La Costa neighborhood of Carlsbad, Calif. He said the family is doing well, but gave no other details.

Read it all.

Fr. Ron Feister: Mission Impossible

Sermon delivered on Trinity 14B, Sunday, September 6, 2015 at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Westerville, OH.

If you prefer to listen to the audio podcast of this sermon, click here.

Lectionary texts: Proverbs 22:1-2, 8-9, 22-23; Psalm 125.1-5; James 2.1-17; Mark 7.24-37.

In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

The Proverbs are the quick, good advice phrases gathered by the authors of the Scriptures which contained a good deal of practical advice. Some of this advice is directed to a particular time or culture, but many of the Proverbs speak of universal truths. Today’s Proverb reading is one of those. It speaks to the  reader of the importance of a “good name” that is of having a good reputation.

A good reputation is valuable more valuable than material wealth.  We can look  around at the people that we respect and its is not the people of wealth that we look up to but the people whose character is beyond reproach. Such people  are listened to and their advice treasured. When that “good name,” that reputation is lessened or destroyed, all of the good that the  person has otherwise  accomplished is held in contempt. It did not take till the coming of Jesus for God’s people to be reminded that all of us are God’s children, that rich and poor alike are treasured by God and that God blesses those who are generous in sharing with the poor.  We are warned that if we involve ourselves in injustice and especially if we take advantage of the poor—and by poor we mean both those lacking financial resources and those lacking the means of prospering, for example those lacking adequate education—that we will experience God’s  displeasure either in this time or in eternity.

Some of this same theme is picked in the Epistle from James in which he builds upon the reading we had last week. James is applying some of the principles to a church which has lost sight of these values. Clearly at least some in the church have gone so far as to discriminate against other members based upon wealth or status or appearance. He has to remind them that those less fortunate often have a stronger faith than those with much. James also would emphasize that Jesus himself did not show partiality in that he did not cater to the rich and powerful. James is calling for a church that lives its faith, a church that lives under the law of mercy, showing that mercy may abound for all. James is again calling for a church that  is rich in works because its members are rich in faith. We can all take these admonitions to heart because from one time to another we are all tempted to show preferences. We are all from one time to another desire to what we believe is justice over showing mercy. We all forget that the grace of God is not really real until it is lived out. As Father Kevin reflected last week, this is one of those churches in which faith and good works both abound. It is a church that does care for those who less fortunate and has many a mission of service. Speaking of missions, we come to our Gospel.

Growing up I used to watch a television show called Mission Impossible and in recent times there have been a number of movies based on the same premises that a small group could overcome overwhelming odds to pull off missions that were impossible. They would do this by their skill and by use of tricks and technology. The missions were really not impossible but merely very risky and difficult. There is however one person, Jesus Christ, who is capable of  the mission impossible. Several weeks ago, we heard in John’s Gospel about the feeding of the five thousand. In that story Jesus asks his disciples to solve the problem of feeding the multitude. Jesus knows what he is going to do, but first he tests his closest followers. He does this not to embarrass them or to cause them pain but so that they might look at their own resources and limitations. Challenged as they were, they did come up with five loaves and two fish but feeding the multitude with so little was truly a mission impossible. Yet it was just this bread and fish that Jesus blessed in the hands of his disciples that the multitude were fed and so much was remaining that there were seven baskets of leftovers. Mission was accomplished.

Well, that is a fine lesson for that weeks readings, but what does that have to do with today’s. In some manner or another, all of our readings put before us a seemingly impossible mission. In today’s Gospel from Mark we have several such impossibilities. We have Jesus approached by a gentile woman, a Syrophoenician who asks Jesus to heal her daughter.  Women in the time of Jesus would not under almost any circumstance begin a conversation with a man. It was something that just was not possible. Yet driven by the love she held for her tormented daughter, she did the impossible. Jesus in what must have sounded like harsh terms responds that the, “Children (that is the Jews, the Chosen People, be fed first for it was not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs” (the non-believers). There are at least two theories as to why Jesus said what he did and the way he did. One theory is that Jesus saw his ministry, up to this time, as one only to the Jews and it was through this encounter that the Father revealed to Jesus that his mission was to the whole world. To me this is doubtful, for he had worked healings for other non-Jews before. Further, this occurred in the region of Tyre which was not Jewish territory. This was the land of the Gentiles. Yet Jesus had deliberately chosen to be there.

The other theory is that he was testing the woman just like he tested his Disciples over the feeding of the five thousand. He is asking her what are you willing to give of yourself? What are you willing to do or contribute? In doing this within that culture, Jesus may have been actually honoring the woman, rather than disrespecting her as the words seem to imply in our translation. The woman gives only that which she can. She has her persistence and acknowledges that she is not worthy but pleads for mercy. This is all she has. This is enough. The demon is driven from her daughter; her agony is ended. Now Jesus knew right from the start what he was going to do. He had worked many healings and delivered many a poor soul from such torture but here he treats a woman and a non-Jew like he treated his disciples. There is a need. They ask Jesus to meet that need, he asks them what they bring of themselves to meet the need, then Jesus takes whatever they bring and does what for them was impossible. In this process there is the opportunity for spiritual growth.

The second story we have in the Gospel of Mark is the healing of a deaf man. Jesus has not yet left Gentile territory when someone brings the man to Jesus. Some person or persons cared enough to make the effort to bring Jesus and this man together and someone had the faith, or at least the hope, that Jesus would heal. Again there is a need, the testing we do not see but is implied. The only things that the man has is the support, faith, and hope of those who brought him. This too is all that it takes. Jesus heals. Jesus cautions those with the man not to tell anyone, but they cannot stop. The more Jesus asks them either out of  humility or perhaps because he does not yet feel the time has come to reveal his mission to the whole world, the Gentile people included, to not speak of it, the more they are compelled to proclaim it. Restoring the hearing and speech to one profoundly deaf in the time of Jesus was understood as an impossible mission but one that Jesus made possible. This Gospel reminds us that through Jesus Christ our spiritual ears may be opened that we can speak clearly the Word of God’s love and compassion.

These are but two stories of impossible missions made possible. There are many more but to name a few. There is the joyful miracle of Cana when the Lord turns water into wine, reminding us that God wants us to be a joy filled people. There is the calming of the sea which assures us that ourLord is with us in whatever “boat” we may find ourselves and that he has the power to calm the storms whether they be outside or within us. There is the restoration of the blind Bartimaeus which remind us that through Jesus that we can see the world around us as it is in all of limitations but also in all of its beauty. There is the raising of Lazarus from the dead that assures us that we also have new life. And the greatest mission impossible was the restoration of humanity’s relationship with its God through the sacrifice of the cross.

In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

This Day in History: Japan Formally Surrenders Ending WWII

Seventy six years ago World War II came to an end six years to the day it began. Give thanks for the brave men and women who fought against the twin evils of Nazism and Japanese militarism and if you know a vet from WWII who is still living (sadly they’re becoming fewer and fewer in number each year), take the time today and thank him/her for his/her service to our country and in the name of freedom.

This Day in History: WWII Begins

The massive conflagration known as World War II began this day 76 years ago when Germany invaded Poland. Prisoners were taken from German prisons, executed, and then dressed in Polish uniforms. Their bodies were placed at the Polish German border and used as the pretext for invading Poland. Truth never did matter to Hitler and his henchmen.

George MacDonald on Forgiveness (2)

There are various kinds and degrees of wrongdoing, which need varying kinds and degrees of forgiveness. An outburst of anger in a child, for instance, scarcely wants forgiveness. The wrong in it may be so small, that the parent has only to influence the child for self-restraint, and the rousing of the will against the wrong. The father will not feel that such a fault has built up any wall between him and his child.

But suppose that he discovered in him a habit of sly cruelty towards his younger brothers, or the animals of house, how differently would he feel! Could his forgiveness be the same as in the former case? Would not the different evil require a different form of forgiveness? I mean, would not the forgiveness have to take the form of that kind of punishment fittest for restraining, in the hope of finally rooting out, the wickedness? Could there be true love in any other kind of forgiveness than this? A passingby of the offence might spring from a poor human kindness, but never from divine love. It would not be remission. Forgiveness can never be indifference. Forgiveness is love towards the unlovely.

—George MacDonald, Creation in Christ

George MacDonald on Forgiveness (1)

“Every sin and blasphemy,” the Lord said, “will be forgiven unto men; but the blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven.” God speaks, as it were, in this manner: “I forgive you everything, Not a word more shall be said about your sins—only come out of them; come out of the darkness of your exile; come into the light of your home, of your birthright, and do evil no more. Lie no more; cheat no more; oppress no more; slander no more; envy no more; be neither greedy nor vain; love your neighbor as I love you; be my good child; trust in your Father. I am light; come to me, and you shall see things as I see them, and hate the evil thing. I will make you love the thing which now you call good and love not. I forgive all the past.”

I thank you, Lord, for forgiving me, but I prefer staying in the darkness: forgive me that too.”

“No; that cannot be. The one thing that cannot be forgiven is the sin of choosing to be evil, of refusing deliverance. It is impossible to forgive that sin. It would be to take part in it. To side with wrong against right, with murder against life, cannot be forgiven. The thing that is past I pass, but he who goes on doing the same, annihilates this my forgiveness, makes it of no effect.”

“Let a man have committed any sin whatever, I forgive him; but to choose to go on sinning—how can I forgive that? It would be to nourish and cherish evil! It would be to let my creation go to ruin. Shall I keep you alive to do things hateful in the sight of all true men? If a man refuse to come out of his sin, he must suffer the vengeance of a love that would be no love if it left him there. Shall I allow my creature to be the thing my soul hates?”

There is no excuse for this refusal. If we were punished for every fault, there would be no end, no respite; we should have no quiet wherein to repent; but God passes by all he can. He passes by and forgets a thousand sins, yea, tens of thousands, forgiving them all—only we must begin to be good, begin to do evil no more.

—George MacDonald, Creation in Christ

LifeSite: Eight Facts Most Don’t Know About Physical and Psychological Consequences of Abortion for Women

1. 31% of women having abortions report suffering physical health complications (1)

2. 10% of women having abortions suffer immediate, potentially life-threatening complications (2, 3, 4)

3. Women have a 65% higher risk of clinical depression following abortion vs. childbirth (5)

4. 65% of women suffer symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) after abortion (1)

5. Women’s death rates from various causes after abortion are 3.5 times higher than after giving birth  (6, 7)

6. Many women describe their experience as ‘a nightmare’, which can hardly equated with ‘choice’. 60% of women surveyed after abortion responded that: ’Part of me died’ (1)

7. Suicide rates among women who have abortions are six times higher than those who give birth (7, 8)

8. Abortion increases a woman’s risk of future miscarriages by 60% (9)

Read it all to see the citations.