Deacon Terry Gatwood: Praying in Step with Jesus

Sermon delivered on Sunday Trinity 9C, July 24, 2016, 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: Hosea 1.2-10; Psalm 85.1-13; Colossians 2.6-19; Luke 11.1-13.

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

If I tried to recall the number of times I have prayed the Lord’s Prayer I probably could not tell you. You all, likewise, likely could not come up with a number either. We pray it together at least 52 times per year, if we count only the Sunday’s. But then there are the Daily Office prayers where it is included in both the morning and evening liturgies. That’s 14 more times per week. And then there are other times for me when putting my boys in bed that we pray it together. Another 5-7 times each week. And then all of the other random times when we might pray it with others or by ourselves. So the number is probably between 52 and 780 times each year. But that’s only one year. I’m 33 and learned the prayer when I was around four or five. Some of you have a few more miles ahead of me on this. 22,620 is the higher end number I’ve figured that I could be close to if I were as diligent in prayer as I would ideally like to be, but the real number is probably not quite that high. Some of you in this room may have prayed through it even more than 22,000 times. That’s a lot of miles on the same words. And that’s a lot of math I’ve just figured for someone who majored in History and cowered in fear from math.

This prayer is something that has been taught to us, and that we teach to others, either directly by personal instruction, or through our prayers or participation in the liturgy. Quite often I have heard people tell me that they do not know how to pray, or are afraid of praying in front of others. And I fully understand that from the many traditions that I’ve been exposed to in my life. Often the same folks will give these long and beautiful, powerful sounding prayers that sound like mini sermons. The Lord certainly hears these prayers, but they can create in others a sense that they aren’t qualified to pray aloud in a meeting of disciples, or that they don’t know what to say because they don’t have the breadth and depth of Christian knowledge that another might have. You can pray because you can learn to pray. You don’t have to be afraid or embarrassed. If your prayer is something as simple as “Jesus, I love you,” or, “Lord, help us,” (which is a prayer I often say when Fr. Kevin begins one of his jokes), you are tracking quite well. And, as Jesus responded to his disciples’ request to teach them to pray, you also can pray in the same way that he taught them.

Each week we relearn the prayer together during the liturgy of the sacrament. We hear the bidding of this prayer when it is said, “And now as our savior Christ has taught we boldly pray…”  We do this together, verbatim. But it isn’t by some simple formula that we pray. We hear this and pray together a method that Jesus has taught us when we don’t quite know what to say. We address the King of the Universe, Creator of all things as our Father, sharing in an intimate relationship with the one true Holy God who is over all.

We call for his Kingdom to come into this earth in real time and space that we might see his redemptive work making new the whole of his creation, and the one Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church is where this Kingdom continues to grow in the world, going forth with the Good News of Jesus Christ and God’s love for all, until His coming again in glory and the full consummation of the Kingdom that has only yet been inaugurated in our time.

We ask God for nourishment. In the Gospel according to St. Luke I cannot see this as primarily a spiritual food, which it also is, but actual food. For the people who would have first prayed this in the earliest days of the Church they would have been expecting Jesus to return at any time (as we should consider now). As they had this expectation they would ask of the Lord to feed them that they may have the physical strength to get through the tasks of living and sharing the Good News of Christ for just one more day. We ask God for food, just like our ancestors have asked, and the Lord provides it.

We also have been taught through the Lord’s Prayer to confess our sins and seek forgiveness for them, as we also forgive the debts others might have toward us. Luke phrases this part of the prayer differently than is found in Matthew’s Gospel. We seek forgiveness of transgressing the law of God in thought, word, and deed, while at the same time forgiving others their debts by which they are indebted to us. Luke is pointing out that material things should never be a reason to cause a breakdown in the community. When we pray like this, we pray for forgiveness in a spiritual sense from our sins, and in a tangible way for us to lay aside quarrels with others over what they may owe to us. The Lord will help us through these very real, very difficult things of breaking from sinful patterns and building strong, loving community through sacrifice.

To ask a Jewish person during the first century if he had “been saved,” or if he knew Jesus as his “personal savior” would have been nonsensical to him. The Lord and the individual is where the sin is taken care of through confession, absolution, and the forgiveness only God can give; the debts that are owed are within the community, and we all find ourselves in debt to one another from time to time. And sometimes that debt must be forgiven for the sake of the community, the basic theme found in Jewish, and here in Jesus’, thinking. Our salvation comes in the context of the Church, which God has made a part with others. Christ has saved us, he is still saving us, and we shall all together be saved finally together as one body of Christ on earth. Building each other up now is vital to the mission of the Kingdom of God as revealed through this prayer.

We are now taught in the last petition we are to ask for salvation from the time of trail, and from bringing in the completion of this petition from Matthew, also the Evil one. Believe it or not, there are still evil forces at work in this world. I do not say this to point toward some nebulous concept of evil. There is real evil, brought by Satan and his demons. Our prayer here is that when we find ourselves in times of temptation, just as Jesus Christ was tempted in the desert and withstood the devils charming and attractive wooing, we too would be given strength by God to withstand the pressing upon us of engaging in sin that can so easily destroy us and lead us into a league with Satan and his demons, thus rejecting God as our Father.

This prayer taught to us by our Lord is a good gift to us for us to use, literally and as a guide to how we shall pray and why. It’s the text of Scripture that has been preserved for us that we might received and used not only for helping us in our prayer life, but as a point of clarity where we can find what it is the Lord is calling us to, and how he is changing us to serve him.

The words of Jesus Christ are to us a good and holy gift, assuring us of our salvation, and pushing us forward in our mission to seek the lost and treat all of God’s creation with respect and dignity. It teaches us who God is, and what he is like. His essential character is that of a Father who loves all his, and he delights in giving good gifts to his children. God is concerned with our being holy, and in fostering loving, holy community with our brothers and sisters, and seeing the Church built up, and organized to do the mission of his Church, his Kingdom in this world.

If anything, The Lord’s prayer teaches us that our ultimate dependence is upon the Lord, and that we are united together under Christ our Head in a way that should be protected and encouraged. Life as a Christian is not just a vertical relationship between me and Jesus, which it is only in part, it’s also the horizontal relationships between us, the one’s whom the Lord has called.

So you can pray; and you need not be ashamed. Pray with the words of the Scripture. Pray the Lord’s Prayer, and then pray in the way you have learned in the Lord’s Prayer through whatever you would like to pray about.  This prayer, and the collect prayers that can be found in the Book of Common Prayer in the tradition of the Lord’s prayer, are all great resources for getting you started in your journey into a robust prayer life

May the Lord bless you in this practice of such an important spiritual discipline.
In the name of God, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

The Christian Hope of Glory

Sermon delivered on Sunday, Trinity 8C, July 17, 2016 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: Amos 8.1-12; Psalm 52.1-9; Colossians 1.15-28; Luke 10.38-42.

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

In our epistle lesson this morning, Paul tells us that he is working to make the word of God fully known to us so that we will be let in on a profound mystery. God’s mysteries for the apostle and the rest of the NT writers are things previously unknown but now revealed to us by God. And what is this thing Paul is talking about? It’s none other than Christ in us, the hope of glory. But what does Paul mean by that? This is what I want us to look at this morning.

Contrary to what many of us think, the mystery revealed to us in Christ isn’t about getting right with Jesus. It isn’t just about Jesus and my salvation, although that is certainly part of what Paul is talking about. No, Paul has in mind something much richer and more exciting. He is talking about how God has revealed to us his promise to redeem his good creation gone bad, us included. If we don’t understand this fundamental promise, that God has promised to heal and redeem his broken creation, both the physical and spiritual dimensions of it, Scripture won’t make a lot of sense to us because that’s exactly the story it has to tell.

Take our OT lesson for example, with its uplifting message of the destruction of the northern kingdom of Israel’s happiness, “The end has come upon my people Israel; I will never again pass them by. The songs of the temple shall become wailings in that day,” says the Lord God; “the dead bodies shall be many, cast out in every place. Be silent!” (Amos 8.2b-3). Many of us hear judgment oracles like this and conclude that God surely must be the supreme tyrant and ogre who is always angry with us and just waiting to rain on our parade, preferably with fire and brimstone. This (false) god we conjure up in our minds is determined that we should not have a good time and unfortunately has the power to enforce his wishes.

But to read these texts in this way does violence not only to the text but to God himself because we almost completely miss the point of what is going on in the story contained in them. We must always keep in mind that the OT is the story of God’s interaction with his called-out people Israel, the people whom God chose to help him heal and redeem his good but sin-corrupted world. You can and should read the background for this narrative in Genesis 1-11 and God’s call to Abraham starting in Genesis 12. God’s people were supposed to reflect the glory and love of the one true God to the nations around them who did not know God and who worshiped false and destructive idols, because we inevitably turn into the idols we worship. But instead of acting in the truly human ways as God created them for, and the people God called them to be, so that they could show others who did not know God a much better way, Israel astonishingly adopted the ways of the nations they were supposed to convert! Sound familiar?

Now in our OT lesson, we see the fruit Israel is bearing, and it ain’t real tasty. As was God’s habit, God sent a spokesman to speak to his people on God’s behalf, in this case Amos, and we learn that after repeated warnings Israel had rejected God’s call to turn from their false and dehumanizing ways of living that had resulted from God’s people worshiping false and dehumanizing idols. And here we get a glimpse of what was happening. Merchants had made profit their idol and this resulted in all kinds of shady economic practices and the poor being exploited. These greedy folks were so eager to line their pockets they cut short their God-mandated sabbath rest and the festivals that were to produce real and heartfelt worship of the one true God. We all know what endless work does to our body, mind, and spirit, and we all know what happens when we fail to worship God regularly. We get flat worn out and our hearts get hardened. These folks presumably pursued their wealth for the same reason we pursue wealth so hard: for power and control. Implicit in these behaviors was the notion that God could not be trusted to provide. No, these folks wanted to be in control instead of aligning their lives and work to mesh with God’s good creative purposes for human living and work. It’s not that God wants us to sit around waiting for him to drop good things into our laps. It’s about who is in charge of things, us or God? When we choose the former over the latter, all hell breaks loose.

So after repeated warnings, we see God announcing the end of his people’s happiness. Their celebrating would turn into mourning when God’s final judgment fell on them. It would be so terrible that even the creation would mourn for God’s people, and we are reminded once again that God created us to be wise stewards over God’s creation so that when we act selfishly and myopically, all creation suffers, not just humans (cf. Romans 8.22). If we understand the backdrop to this story, we see what’s going on. To be sure, God is not happy with sin because sin corrupts and dehumanizes, and causes chaos and evil to erupt. But there’s more to the story than this. We see God the Father angry at his children for not living up to their purpose as God’s people. Instead of reflecting the glory of God and the promise of his redemption outward to those who desperately needed it (whether they knew it or not), God’s people had turned inward and saw their status as God’s people as a privilege with no accompanying responsibility. To make matters worse, many of them had turned away from worshiping God and worshiped false gods or idols. As parents we all get this dynamic, especially if we have dealt with children who wanted nothing to do with being part of the family. It gets messy and complicated in a hurry and that is what is going on here, only on a cosmic level. God’s people had refused to live up to their calling to help bring God’s healing to the world and in the process they had adopted lifestyles that were destructive and dehumanizing. Real love never wishes that for the beloved. Never.

And then we read a strange thing happening as part of God’s judgment on his people’s bad behavior. God would withhold his word from them and the effect would be devastating. As Genesis 1-2 make clear, without God’s word to bring order, there is only chaos, chaos in all creation and chaos in our personal lives. As Fr. Bowser continually reminds us (does that mean he is doing a lousy job of preaching if he has to keep reminding us of what he tells us?), if we do not align our lives to God’s good creative purposes for us, we can expect our lives to be chaotic and we will personally experience all kinds of physical, spiritual, and mental chaos. Here in our OT lesson we see the same thing happening to God’s rebellious people Israel. Go figure.

When God’s word is absent in our lives, we instinctively know it and it terrifies us because we know that without God’s word, we will not experience God’s order, God’s blessing, God’s fulfillment of his wonderful purposes, and God’s forgiveness. Here God is telling his people that he is withdrawing from them, giving them up in judgment to their own evil desires, and the people frantically search for that which they’ve lost. No wonder their happiness has turned to mourning! Remember, this is not about God raining on people’s parade and denying them a good time. God is condemning those behaviors that cause suffering and injustice (chaos) to break out on folks, especially on the poor, the weak, and the helpless. How can God’s love spread throughout his creation to heal it if God’s people will not cooperate?

Before we look at what Paul has to say about this, we need to stop for a moment and reflect on what this means for us because we too are called to bring God’s healing love to the world. God’s judgment on Israel’s greed and love for injustice falls on our own practices. It reminds us we cannot be two different people, ones who worship God on Sunday and then go to our areas of work to worship the god of avarice and greed. It means we must look carefully at all sides of the burning social issues of our day so that we can best bring God’s healing to bear on them. It reminds us that we have to pursue justice, hard as that can be at times, so that the poorest and weakest of our day do not suffer at our hands. When we stop looking after the needs of others, darkness and chaos will surely descend on us as it did for God’s people Israel.

Thankfully for us, however, we are not entirely like Israel because as Paul reminds us, God has become human in the man Jesus to be the faithful Israel and so complete God’s plan to heal and redeem his good world hijacked by human sin and the evil it unleashes. Paul further reminds us that we belong to Jesus, who is the firstborn of all creation, and who rules over God’s current creation and will rule over God’s promised new creation. He tells us that on the cross, evil has been defeated and we have been reconciled to God. Paul doesn’t spell this out in any detail, only that this is what God has accomplished. Evil has been allowed to do its worst to Jesus and has failed to destroy him. Instead, God raised him from the dead and in doing so, ushered in God’s new creation, God’s newly healed and redeemed world in Christ. Not only that, but God has called us as Jesus’ people to be human agents of God’s new creation in the world. When we believe that God really has overcome evil and reconciled us to him in and through Jesus’ death on the cross, we know that we too will share Jesus’ ultimate fate of resurrection so that what happened to our Lord will also happen to us. We become a forgiven people in Christ and we have confidence that we can stand before God as Jesus’ people, despite our sins.

And as Jesus’ people, we are called to work on deepening our relationship with him so that we do know without a doubt that the above promises are true and that we too are part of God’s promises to heal and redeem his good creation. This is the mystery Paul talks about in our lesson today. Jews are not the only ones who are called to be part of God’s new world. Gentiles are called to be part of it as well, specifically Gentiles who put their hope and trust in Jesus and who develop a living and active relationship with our living and active Lord. This is what it means to have Christ in us, our hope of glory. It means he is available to us at all times in the power of the Spirit to love us and heal us and help us live as people who have real hope, even in the midst of our present adversities, because we have faith that we too will share in his risen glory. What this means on a practical basis is this. As Jesus’ people, we know first and foremost that we are loved and forgiven by our Creator so that we know the real heart of God. This, in turn, means we are to live our lives patterned after Jesus for the sake of others. We look out for each other and care for each other. We are careful not to pursue our own self-interests at the expense of others. We are quick to forgive and slow to judge in self-righteous ways. We are tenderhearted toward each other and bear each other’s joys and burdens. Every time we do these things, the new creation becomes a fuller reality. And it all starts by engaging with Jesus, the Word of God. No wonder our Lord reminded Martha and the others that Mary was doing the needful thing by sitting at his feet and listening to him teach God’s truth and wisdom. It’s the very truth and wisdom that enables us to know we have Good News and to live it, 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.

Fr. Philip Sang: Obedience to God

Sermon delivered on Trinity 7C, Sunday, July 10, 2016, at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Westerville, OH.

If you prefer to listen to the audio podcast of today’s sermon, click here.

Lectionary texts: Amos 7.7-17; Psalm 82.1-8; Colossians 1.1-14; Luke 10.25-37.

Throughout scripture we hear many stories of how God uses the least likely of people to do great things. The stories of Amos and the Good Samaritan and of Paul are such stories.

Amos was a shepherd and he tended to sycamore-fig trees in the Judean countryside.    Amos was not a prophet nor was he the son of a prophet, but he loved God and devoted his life to serving God and he was an honest man. God came to Amos one day in a vision and Amos saw God holding a plumb line. We know that a plumb line is a very simple yet necessary tool which is used to ensure the straightness of a wall which will be strong and long lasting. God wants us to have a good and right relationship with him, one that is free from sin and using a plumb line as a measure will be our guide as to how to be right with God.

The people in the northern kingdom of Israel were becoming too complacent, they were worshipping idols and were oppressing the poor and so God was not pleased with them.    God asked Amos to tell the people that if they did not change their ways he would pass judgment on them. Of course when Amos delivers God’s message to the Chief Priest Amaziah, who then tells Jeroboam the King of Israel, they were not at all concerned about God’s message, they seemed to only want to maintain their own positions so they would not listen to anything God had to say.

This always seems to present a problem when leadership takes on their own ideals instead of following the path of God. Amos was the least likely messenger in the eyes of the Chief Priest and the King of Israel, and they were quite happy to keep things the way they were.    Since they did not heed God’s message to change their ways, very soon trouble befell their country.

But Amos was a faithful servant of God and he obeyed God’s command to prophesy to God’s people of Israel. The church today is also called to obey God’s command, are we willing to obey God’s call when it comes to us?    Are we willing to speak the truth in love to our leaders, or anyone else for that matter, when we see something being done that is not right and we have prayed about it and we feel that the Spirit is telling us to say something? This is not an easy thing to do, but oftentimes God calls the least of us to deliver such a message, and it is up to us to obey that call.

Paul is another faithful servant of God who traveled far and wide to tell the story of Jesus Christ to the Gentiles and the Jews.    Paul is writing to the people of Colossae telling them that he has been continually praying that they may be filled with the knowledge of God’s will through all spiritual wisdom and understanding. There was a connectedness between Paul and the people of Colossae which comes through prayer, and it is said that Paul never did visit Colossae, but he prayed for the people and encouraged them to live in the ways of God. When we pray with our heart it becomes the active presence of God’s Spirit at work in our life. So when we do our intercessory prayers, as we are going to do in a moment, we do not really have to know the people we are praying for, but to hold them up in prayer brings them into the presence of God.

In the gospel story about the Good Samaritan, again we see how God uses the least likely person to do a great deed. The Jews hated the Samaritans, they thought of them as the scum of the earth because they were a mixed race and the Jews thought of themselves as pure descendants of Abraham, but in God’s eyes we are all the same because we are all made in the image of God.

We all know the story of the Good Samaritan, it was probably one of the first Bible stories we heard as a child.

Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem, he is on his way to face a trial by people who did not like him because he threatened their authority and they are planning to get rid of him. This of course is very heavy on Jesus’ heart, and then he meets a young lawyer who wants to know what he has to do to inherit eternal life. Jesus and the lawyer had quite a dialogue and then  the lawyer asks Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?”

Jesus then tells the lawyer the story of the Good Samaritan.

Let us take a look at this story again and I invite you to put yourselves into each of the characters in the story.

Think yourself as person who was beaten up by robbers and left as dead. You have been stripped of all your money and most of your clothes, and you have been beaten up, blood is everywhere and you are hurting very badly. You hear people passing by but no one is stopping to help you; and you are so weak that you are unable to cry out for help.

How often have you felt like this in your life? When you have experienced some hard times whether it is an illness, the loss of a job, the loss of a loved one, or you are feeling depressed and you desperately want someone to take the time to talk and listen to you, but no one seems to be coming to offer a helping hand or ear; so you just sit there and hurt.

Now you are the Priest or Levite who is on their way to the Temple; and out of the corner of your eyes you see that someone is laying by the side of the road and is bloody and dirty.    If you should stop to help you will become unclean and you would have to go through the ritual of cleansing before you could go into the Temple.    You are in a hurry so it is better for you to pass on the other side of the road so the hurt man does not see you.    And you say very convincingly to yourself, that it is better that I follow the law than to stop and show mercy.

How often have you passed someone on the road that seems to need help, but you just speed along, or you saw someone at work, or at church or even in your family, having a hard day, but you did nothing to help because it is easier to leave it for someone else to help them.

And now you are the Samaritan, and you are not liked by the Jews.    But as you are riding along the road you happen to notice that there is a man laying there who seems to have been hurt – yes, he is bleeding and he has been stripped of some of his clothes. You stop and pour oil and wine on his wounds and then put on some bandages, and you take the person to get help.

At sometime in your life you have shown love and compassion to the stranger as you go on your journey.

Then there is the Innkeeper, the Caretaker; you keep a nice Inn for travelers who pass your way and want to spend the night. A Samaritan has just come in and has brought in a man who has been very hurt; you are asked to take care of this man until the Samaritan passes by next week, and he has given you some money to take care of him. Your business is hospitality so of course you will take care of the sick man.

Hopefully at some time in your life you have taken in a stranger and shown hospitality to them; as you guys did to my family and I when I we came as a strangers, and when you did, it gave you great joy. To us who received the hospitality from you the warmth we felt kept us here to date.

Then Jesus asks the young lawyer who of the three people did he think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers? The lawyer answered, “The one who showed Mercy,” and Jesus told him to go and do likewise.

Having placed ourselves as each of the characters in this story, I would suspect that we can identify with each one of them; that at some time in our life we have represented all these people. Jesus wants us to show love and compassion to all God’s people, because EVERYONE is our neighbor. How does this make us feel and how do we now answer the question as to who is your neighbor. The story of Jesus is the story of Love and the story of the Good Samaritan is also a story about Love; these two stories are tied and held together with a LOVE that is so strong that Jesus gave himself up for everyone of us so that we might live a life free from the bondage of sin.

When we gather here each week for Worship, our Service nourishes us so that we can go out into the world to live the life Jesus wants for us. We are inspired to use the plump line to guide us in building a strong faithful relationship with God. We are encouraged to show compassion, love and mercy to everyone so that we will inherit eternal life. We are fed with the food of forgiveness and love which strengthens us and gives us the courage to face life’s challenges. We learn to be open to hearing God’s call as we follow what the Spirit is telling us; and then we are sent out filled with God’s Love and Peace to sustain us until we gather again.

As I conclude, like Paul, I sees the church community as one body and I pray that you  “be filled with the knowledge of God’s will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, so that you may lead lives worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, as you bear fruit in every good work and as you grow in the knowledge of God.”

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

The Transformative Power of the Gospel

We sat down to table and the officer began his story: “I have served in the army ever since I was quite young. I knew my duties and was a favorite of my superiors as a conscientious officer. But I was young, as were also my friends, and unhappily I started drinking. It went from bad to worse until drinking became an illness. When I did not drink, I was a good officer, but when I would start drinking, then I would have to go to bed for six weeks. My superiors were patient with me for a long time, but finally, for rudeness to the commanding officer while I was drunk, they reduced my rank to private and transferred me to a garrison for three years. They threatened me with more severe punishment if I would not improve and give up drinking. In this unfortunate condition all my efforts at self-control were of no avail and I could not stay sober for any length of time. Then I heard that I was to be sent to the guardhouse and I was beside myself with anguish.

“One day I was sitting in the barracks deep in thought. A monk came in to beg alms for the church. Those who had money gave what they could. When he approached me he asked, ‘Why are you so downcast?’ We started talking and I told him the cause of my grief. The monk sympathized with my situation and said, ‘My brother was once in a similar position, and I will tell you how he was cured. His spiritual father gave him a copy of the Gospels and strongly urged him to read a chapter whenever he wanted to take a drink. If the desire for a drink did not leave him after he read one chapter he was encouraged to read another and if necessary still another. My brother followed this advice, and after some time he lost all desire for alcoholic beverages. It is now fifteen years since he has touched a drop of alcohol. Why don’t you do the same, and you will discover how beneficial the reading of the Gospels can be. I have a copy at home and will gladly bring it to you.’

“I wasn’t very open to this idea so I objected, ‘How can your Gospels help when neither my efforts at selfcontrol nor medical aid could keep me sober?’ I spoke in this way because I never read the Gospels.

“‘Give it a chance,’ continued the monk reassuringly, ‘and you will find it very helpful.’

“The next day he brought me this copy of the Gospels. I opened it, browsed through it, and said, ‘I will not take it, for I cannot understand it; I am not accustomed to reading Church Slavonic.’

“The monk did not give up but continued to encourage me and explained that God’s special power is present in the Gospel through his words. He went on, ‘At the beginning be concerned only with reading it diligently; understanding will come later. One holy man says that “even when you don’t understand the word of God, the demons do, and they tremble”; and the passion for drink is without a doubt their work. And St. John Chrysostom in speaking about the power of the word of God says that the very room where the Gospel is kept has the power to ward off the spirits of darkness and thwart their intrigues.’

“I do not recall what I gave the monk when I took the copy of the Gospels from him, but I placed the book in my trunk with my other belongings and forgot about it. Some time later a strong desire to have a drink took hold of me and I opened the trunk to get some money and run to the tavern. But I saw the copy of the Gospels before I got to the money and I remembered clearly what the monk had told me. I opened the book and read the first chapter of Matthew without understanding anything. Again I remembered the monk’s words, ‘At the beginning be concerned only with reading it diligently; understanding will come later.’ So I read another chapter and found it a bit more comprehensible. Shortly after I began reading the third chapter, the curfew bell rang and it was no longer possible for me to leave the barracks.

“In the morning my first thought was to get a drink, but then I decided to read another chapter to see what would happen. I read it and did not go. Again I wanted a drink, but I started reading and I felt better. This gave me courage, and with every temptation for a drink I began reading a chapter from the Gospels. The more I read, the easier it became, and when I finally finished reading all four Gospels the compulsion for drink had disappeared completely; I was repelled by the very thought of it. It is now twenty years since I stopped drinking alcoholic beverages.

“Everyone was surprised at the change that took place in me, and after three years I was reinstated as an officer and then climbed up the ranks until I was made a commanding officer. Later I married a fine woman; we have saved some money, which we now share with the poor. Now I have a grown son who is a fine lad and he also is an officer in the army.”

—The Way of a Pilgrim

What a wonderful story of the multifaceted ways in which Christ works in our lives! Notice first how Christ uses human agency (the monk) to introduce the young soldier to his Gospel. Notice the monk’s persistence and the faith he has in the transformative power of the Gospel in people’s lives, a faith based, in part, on past experience.

Next, pay attention to how Christ used circumstance instead of understanding to stay the young soldier’s hand from drinking. He read the Gospel without understanding it, but was prevented from going on a drinking binge because he had lingered in his quarters to read it.

Finally, mark how understanding occurs—through persistent reading. Ask anyone who reads the Bible regularly and systematically and you will hear this same answer. God grants understanding to humble minds willing to submit to his word (as opposed to trying to make his word submit to their agendas) through our persistent reading of his word. God doesn’t beat us over the head to make us learn (usually). Instead he uses ordinary people and circumstances along with our own efforts to speak to and transform us. That may not be sexy enough for some of us but it is much more effective over the long haul

If you are struggling with your faith, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest this story and its lessons. Here is indeed balm for your soul!

Real Freedom

Sermon delivered on Trinity 5C, Sunday, June 26, 2016, at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Westerville, OH.

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

Lectionary texts: 2 Kings 2.1-2, 6-14; Psalm 77.1-2, 11-20; Galatians 5.1, 13-25; Luke 9.51-62.

In a few moments we are going to baptize a brand new member into God’s family in Jesus. But given what Jesus said to those who wanted to follow him, why would we do this? Why would any of us be willing to be Jesus’ disciples? This is what I want us to look at today.

In our gospel lesson this morning, Jesus has some surprisingly harsh and uncomfortable things to say to would-be followers of his. Luke sets the broader context for us by reminding us that Jesus has resolutely decided to go to Jerusalem where he will be rejected, tortured, and killed in one of the most brutal ways imaginable. In other words, Luke is reminding us that in Jesus we are looking at a rejected leader. Jesus’ rejection in the Samaritan village is but a preview of what will happen to him in Jerusalem. And implicit in this warning is an attendant one. Those who follow rejected leaders will often find themselves rejected. So in telling this story, Luke is forcing us to answer this question: Are we willing to follow a rejected leader?

We see this fleshed out in the three would-be followers of Jesus. The first comes to him and volunteers to follow Jesus wherever he goes. Jesus responds by telling him that even the animals have it better than Jesus. They have homes with their relative stability and comfort. But those who choose to follow Jesus? He tells us that we must make him our first and only priority. All other things that can prevent us from following him must go, if necessary. You know, for example, our desire for stability, our cozy homes, our insistence on economic security, our desire for power and prestige, our love of all kinds of material stuff. All these things have the power to distract us and siphon off our loyalty to Jesus, who calls us to deny ourselves, take up our cross, and follow him. As Bonhoeffer famously put it, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” And sometimes Jesus asks us to ditch these things for him. If we choose to follow Jesus, we must not let our love for material possessions get in the way of following him. Jesus turns around to see who is following him and notices the line has gotten much shorter.

Likewise for the other two would-be followers. All the social things we consider to be important, even burying our dead loved ones, must not take priority over following Jesus. There is an urgency in his warnings. You can’t let anything or anyone stand in the way of taking up your cross and following me, including those responsibilities you honor most. Jesus looks again at the line of folks following him and it is desperately short now (are you still in it?). We are being reminded of the cost of discipleship. It is a wonder anyone shows up to worship on Sunday.

So why would we want to follow Jesus with all of his stern demands for our ultimate love and loyalty? Why would Aiden’s parents want to have him baptized? Are we all deluded masochists who want to lead miserable and severely austere lives for Jesus’ sake? Well, some of us might be like that, but the answer is no. We are willing to follow Jesus for one reason: Freedom. But freedom in what sense?

To answer this question, we have to look briefly at the overarching story of the Bible to be reminded what it is all about. Scripture is not God’s rulebook chocked full of eternal timeless truths, although such truths can be found throughout Scripture. No, the Bible is the story of how God is rescuing his good world gone bad. Integral to that story is why God created humans in his image in the first place. God created us to be his good stewards to run God’s world on his behalf by reflecting God’s goodness out into creation as wise and benevolent rulers, and reflecting creation’s praise back to the Creator. And as Genesis 1-2 make clear, when we were faithful to that charge, we lived in paradise and things were wonderfully whole and good and healthy and beautiful. But we didn’t want to rule God’s world on God’s behalf. We wanted to rule it on our behalf, even though we were never equipped to do so. Instead of God’s goodness being reflected out into his world through humans to sustain its goodness, our sin caused evil and chaos and disorder and sickness to spread out into God’s world to corrupt it, and our rebellion got us kicked out of paradise. But God, being faithful to his creation and especially to his image-bearing creatures, set out to right the wrongs we introduced, to overcome our sins, and to defeat the evil and death that resulted. Thanks be to God!

Now most of us, when we think about how God operates, think like the psalmist in our psalm lesson today. We know God is all powerful so we expect God to use that power and zap all that is wrong with the world. The problem with that, however, is that if God did that, we would be zapped along with everything else because we are part of the problem. We all have sinned and we all have the potential for evil, and God cannot ultimately countenance either sin or evil. But if God zapped us, then his creation would be a failure and God would have to start over. But Scripture makes it very clear God never intended to do that (see, e.g., Genesis 6.9-9.17) because God created us for relationship and life and goodness and health and happiness.

To put it differently, people matter to God because God has chosen to run his world through human agency. This doesn’t mean God cannot act in extraordinary and jaw-dropping ways to demonstrate he is worthy of our worship and loyalty. Scripture is full of examples like this, our OT lesson included. But that seems to be the exception rather than the rule. God in his unsearchable wisdom has chosen to run his world though us. That is why he called his people Israel—to bring his healing love and blessing to the world. And that is why God became human in Jesus—to fulfill Israel’s role to be a blessing to the world, to be the one true and faithful Israelite. As Luke reminds us, Jesus was going to Jerusalem to die for us so that God could deal adequately with our sin and the death and evil it causes without destroying us. In other words, God was doing the impossible work of bringing healing and life and his blessing back to his world in the manner he always intended so that we could be his true image-bearing and wise stewards. That is what Jesus’ resurrection points to. Jesus’ resurrection points us to the day when the new heavens and earth are ushered in fully at his Second Coming. The new heavens and earth will be ruled by—us on God’s behalf, because in Jesus’ death, our sin and the evil it has produced have been dealt with decisively. Not yet in full to be sure, but that day’s a’coming.

And what do we need for us to be those wise stewards? Freedom. Not freedom to follow our own fallen desires that Paul lists in our epistle lesson. Those things cause death and will be excluded in God’s new world, and for our good. Who wants to deal for all eternity with strife and enmity and fear and the suffering that such behavior causes? No, in Jesus’ death and resurrection we are freed to be the truly human beings God calls us to be, i.e., we are made free to love so that we will once again live like God’s image-bearing creatures because God is love.

This was the problem in the churches at Galatia. Agitators had infiltrated the church and had convinced some that to be followers of Jesus, they had to follow works of the law, i.e., they had to become Jews. They had to be circumcised and eat only kosher foods. They couldn’t eat with Christians who refused to do so. And the result? Dissension, factions, strife, anger. We all know how this game is played. Imagine what would happen if I insisted that any of you who weren’t baptized by full immersion weren’t legitimately baptized and therefore not eligible to receive communion. What do you think would happen to our parish family? By insisting that mode of baptism is more important than the spiritual reality of new birth it symbolizes, I would effectively be insisting that human practices and teachings are more important than God’s. Being Jewish could not heal and transform people. Neither can modes of baptism. Only faith in Jesus who is present and available to his people in the power of the Spirit can do that, so that instead of doing the things that come naturally to us and cause death, we learn to do the things that produce the fruit of real life.

If we read the two contrasting lists of behaviors simply as lists of dos and don’ts we must follow and avoid to get our ticket punched, we misunderstand what Paul is telling us. Paul isn’t telling us that we have to follow the rules or otherwise we’re toast. If that were the case, nobody would be in God’s new world, i.e., God’s kingdom, because we’ve all done most of those things on the naughty list. It’s our first nature, and behaviors like anger, idolatry, and strife come naturally and ultimately dehumanize us so that we are not free to love. As we have just seen, trying to emphasize human works like circumcision or modes of baptism won’t do anything to fix the problem. It will only make our problems worse! That’s not the way it should be, Paul warns, because focusing on those things plays right into our natural, corrupted desires and needs (remember, Paul is talking about patterns of living, not occasional behaviors). And when that happens, we cannot love in the way God created us to love, in the way Christ loved us and gave himself for us by dying for our sins so that we could live. This way of loving doesn’t come naturally and we need the help of the Spirit to become such people. This doesn’t mean we sit back, act snotty, and wait for the Spirit to magically transform us. It means we resolve to rely on his power and presence to help us learn to love as the fully human beings we are created to be.

And when that happens, we discover a surprising thing. Instead of being joyless, we become joyful. Instead of strife, we become patient with each other. Instead of focusing on following the rules which only feeds our pride, we focus on loving each other well and bearing with one another in our joys and sorrows, even when we don’t always agree with each other. This is what it means to live as God’s people. We eat and drink together. We play and work together. We love each other sacrificially. We pray for each other and weep for each other. We celebrate with each other and are each other’s cheerleader because we want the best for each other as God intends for us, which is the very definition of real love. I think overall we do this pretty well as a parish family and there is real power in this because people are starved for this kind of community and connection that can only be lived out when we are truly free people.

And only when we are truly free will we learn what it is like to be God’s image-bearers so that we can live accordingly as rulers on God’s behalf in God’s new world. This is why we risk following Jesus, our rejected leader. This is why we baptize Aiden. To be sure, it is a hard thing to follow Jesus. Life is enormously messy and so are we. But there is no greater prize in the world than to become truly human by becoming like Jesus in the power of the Spirit. When we decide to risk it all and follow our Lord, we will find not only life and health, we will discover the joy of being truly human. We have a taste of what that looks like here at St. Augustine’s and I hope you all understand that. Because if you do, you know that you not only have Good News, but are living it, 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.

LJ: 5 Dumb Things Christians Must Stop Saying When Evil Strikes

A very appropriate and helpful article, whether you are a Christian or not. See what you think.

14657281973474. “I don’t agree with their lifestyle, (or politics, or religion, or…) but…”

When people are in pain, why even mention our differences?

I don’t care what side of the moral, religious, political, ethnic or sexual fence you’re on right now. Even if you’re not on my side.

In the face of massive loss due to horrifying evil, we need to concentrate on our common humanity.

5. “Everything happens for a reason”

No. It just doesn’t.

Evil has no reason. It is anti-reason. And anti-love.

Read it all.

Deacon Terry Gatwood: Paul and the Law: What Things Must I Do To Be Saved?

Sermon delivered on Trinity 4C, Sunday, June 19, 2016, at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Westerville, OH.

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

Lectionary texts: 1 Kings 19.1-15a; Psalms 42.1-43.6; Galatians 3.23-29; Luke 8.26-39.

Grace to you, and peace, from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

Despite what may be in the bulletin, you better be paying attention this morning. I’ll be distributing a quiz during the passing of the peace that will include ten multiple choice questions, a short essay, and for bonus points your best joke about Kevin for future use from the pulpit.

Paul’s letter to the Galatian Christians is a six-chapter argument against the teaching of people he has come to call “the agitators.” If you read this letter from the beginning to the end you’ll get a sense that Paul is madder than an ol’ wet hen at the insistence of these folks that the Galatians must be circumcised now to really be part of the covenant family of God. He has preached to them the good news of Jesus Christ, and God’s purposeful inclusion of all whom he will call to himself, not only the Jews, but also the Gentile peoples of the earth. Paul is so insistent that the practice of circumcision is no longer necessary for living in a covenant relationship with God that he calls the Gospel, shockingly in the Jews and Judiazers ears, the “gospel of the foreskin” (2:17)

Paul understands this through the promise that was given to Abraham before circumcision or the Law was ever even given, that his descendants would be so numerous that counting them would be impossible, and that through him all the nations of the earth would be blessed. It was a unilateral act of God that always had in mind the inclusion of people outside of ethnic Israel.

But what about the Law? If the law has been fulfilled by Jesus, then what are we to make of it? Paul answers this by explaining that the Law has acted as a schoolmaster, or a tutor, which has taught us about God’s holiness and sovereignty. God’s people have been cared for and taught under the Law. But the Law was never an end. It was the schoolmaster, or the tutor that taught us. It was a tether, meant to keep God’s people in communion with him until the time when they no longer needed the schoolmaster or tether.

I’m reminded of the kid leashes my dad and mom had for us when we were children and would go to the Ohio State Fair. They kept us from wandering too far away, but if we worked hard enough at it we could most certainly slip away and go running through the Bricker Building, crashing into whatever display stood in our way. The leash was a reminder to me that, as a child, I was incapable of caring for myself, even if I thought I could. And I REALLY thought I could take care of myself.

The Law, like the leash, cannot save someone from harm if the one on the end of the tether does not want to be safe and close to the Father. But the Law did, and still does, one thing that cannot be overlooked: it points to the Law fulfilled. It points to Jesus Christ. It wakes us up to the fact that through its rites and ceremonies, and through the sacrifices that were made in the legal system, that the whole narrative history of Israel is always pointing, constantly pointing, straight towards Jesus and the promises that were made to Abraham, and are realized by grace through faith. It is Paul’s argument against these agitators that it is precisely because the promise was given to Abraham prior to circumcision and the Mosaic Law that our justification does not come after following God’s Law, but is given to us before it.

Let me tell you a story. It was a beautiful summer day in 1998. A group of kids were sitting in the dugout at their local baseball field awaiting their coach for practice. The sun was shining, everyone seemed to be in great spirits, and the typical teenage boy banter was going back and forth between the boys. At the end of the dugout sat one boy. He was mostly a quiet kid. He had been overlooked by other kids when they were gathering together others to form their teams for the summer league. He was a little chubby, wore glasses, and wasn’t terribly quick. And no, I’m not talking about myself. He was also known as being the “church kid.” If anyone had cared to talk with him they’d have learned that he was really one of the greatest guys they’d ever come to know, but the issues of teenage politics kept them from doing so.

But there was one other boy who desperately needed to fill his roster, and this slow kid was the only guy left he knew who lived close enough to play regularly. So he asked him to join. This quiet kid at the end of the bench struck up a conversation with, as he saw it so far, the only person on the team who didn’t make fun of him (at least to his face). He was speaking to the one who used him as a warm body to fill a bench position. In the course of their conversation the boy who had done the recruiting started to feel really awkward, but didn’t know why. So he blurted out, “you know, I’ve been thinking about going back to church. It’s been a long time, but I feel like I need to get myself straightened out before I do.” The other boy just looked up at him from his seated position in the dugout, squinting towards the captain who had the sun at his back, and he said, “why would you clean yourself off before getting into the bath? When you follow Jesus, you’re free from the legal stuff that you couldn’t possibly accomplish on your own. Come with me this weekend, and I’ll show you what I mean.” The captain had never heard it quite put that way, and this just stuck in his head. He agreed to go to church with the bespectacled kid, and there in that place heard the Gospel proclaimed: “Jesus saves.”

Why do I tell you this story, you might ask? Because it presents a truth that is so simple that Freshmen in high school can understand it. Jesus fulfilled the law’s requirements, and he reenacted in himself the long and stained history of Israel, but did it without blemish of sin or transgression. And now the law that we follow is a fulfilled Law, very much alive and active on our behalf now.

This is Jesus. And, as has been promised in the Prophets, God’s Law will be written on our hearts and minds by the Holy Spirit who came into us at baptism to mark us and make us truly alive, breaking us free from the schoolmaster and tether, causing us to grow and be like Christ here and now. This law that is written on our hearts and in our minds is this: that you should love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and the second greatest commandment and summary of the Law is that you shall love your neighbor as yourself.

For in our baptism into Christ we have put on Christ. He has taken our old and filthy rags of our self-attempt at doing righteous deeds and cast them away, and now he clothes us with his righteousness, enclosing us in white garments signifying the holiness of life we can now live because of the grace of God alone. Bathing before baptism (trying to clean up our acts before being united with Jesus) would be akin to wallowing in a pigsty with a bar of soap. We cannot make ourselves clean; neither can following the legal requirements of the covenant that pointed to what life in God’s kingdom through Christ would look like. It is in the baptismal waters where we encounter God’s Holy Spirit beginning the work in us, and uniting us with Jesus himself, and his body the Church.

Circumcision is not a follow on to this saving faith in Jesus. It’s is the old pattern that is no longer in effect for us as Christ has already completed its demands. But the Law does still exist, and whenever we read it or speak about it it reminds us that, although we are saved by God’s grace, we are still at the same time sinners. Sinners saved by grace. Simul iustus et peccatore. And this causes us to cling to God’s grace all the more. We still don’t deserve it based upon our own merits, but solely cling to Jesus name. We accept his invitation for all to come to his bath waters, the sacrament of baptism, that we may be made clean and indwelled by his Spirit.

It is through this uniting with Christ and his holy Church through baptism that we are set free; free to do good works, to bless, to heal, to forgive, to love with a heart filled with God’s love. It is what will cause us to say to someone, “Grace and mercy are yours in Jesus Christ.” If we were to continue under the law we would be less merciful, as we would all be bound children crying out for justice whenever someone transgressed the law. We would shame people for not doing what we feel they should be doing. It’s when we fly some bird shape at people in traffic with whom we may have disagreed with their driving style.

But under the grace of God, the fulfillment of the Law in Jesus, we do not do these things. Rather, we love people. We love people right into God’s kingdom, and to their uniting with the Triune God and the Kingdom of God on earth, the Church. We know they are coming from a place where the law reigned, and is evident in the devastating after-effects of sin in this world and in their lives. So we gently speak to them, and we treat them as equal with us. For we being simultaneously righteous and sinner must remember that we still are sinners who are saved by grace. We were that other person once upon a time.

And it’s the Law that reminds us of that, making this gospel message clearly more beautiful by the moment.

There is now neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for we have all been baptized and saved by the Lord Jesus Christ, marked as sons and daughters of the Father by the Holy Spirit, and transformed for a new life. A life of holiness after the Law of Christ that the Holy Spirit will write on our hearts, as was promised. No longer should there be a distinction and discrimination between races and classes of people here in the Church as there were in the time of Paul’s writing. The pattern of superiority and inferiority has become irrelevant: it does not matter as far as belonging to Christ and being Abraham’s true heir goes, whether you are whatever you are. What you are, or for those in this room who aren’t can be, is God’s own adopted child, dearly loved and cared for. You’ve been given good gifts, and are called to do good with them in your love and service for the Lord. You’ve been circumcised in the heart as was foretold by God in Deuteronomy, and then echoed by Paul in Romans.

So, my dear brothers and sisters live a life of serving the Lord, loving him with all your heart, and mind, and soul; and love your neighbor as yourself. This is our standard in Christ. Proclaim the freedom of Jesus Christ to all who need to be set free from the curse of the Law, that it cannot save although it still can teach us about the one who did and does save us, and why we needed to be saved.

May the Lord of grace and mercy, the Lord who has set us free, imprint his law in our minds and our hearts, circumcising them, that we may be holy and pleasing in his sight as we do our work in his Kingdom and world.

The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit, brothers and sisters. Amen.

A Prayer for Fathers’ Day

Heavenly Father,
you entrusted your Son Jesus,
the child of Mary,
to the care of Joseph, an earthly father.
Bless all fathers
as they care for their families.
Give them strength and wisdom,
tenderness and patience;
support them in the work they have to do,
protecting those who look to them,
as we look to you for love and salvation,
through Jesus Christ our rock and defender.
Amen.

Forgiven

Sermon delivered on Trinity 3C, Sunday, June 12, 2016, at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Westerville, OH.

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

Lectionary texts: 1 Kings 21.1-21a; Psalm 5.1-8; Galatians 2.15-21; Luke 7.36-8.3.

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

In our epistle lesson this morning, Paul talks about Christians being justified by our faith in Christ. In other words, we are put right with God and declared to be not guilty for the sins we have committed. But I suspect for many of us, this means little to nothing. After all, justification is a legal term and a rather clinical one at that. Moreover, we tend to talk about being justified by faith in Christ in the abstract. It just doesn’t hit home for a lot of us. So what does justification look like on the ground and why should we care? This is what I want us to look at this morning.

In his letter to the Roman churches, Paul wrote that we should, “consider the kindness and sternness of God” (Romans 11.22). It is important that we keep the two attributes in balance because if we ignore the former we have a God who is a raging tyrant, angry and vindictive, waiting to strike us down for the slightest mistake. We see the sternness of God in our OT lesson. Ahab, the king of Israel, resorts to deceit and murder to get what he wants, namely Naboth’s plot of land. The result? God sends his prophet Elijah to condemn Ahab to death for his sin.

We also hear the psalmist in our lesson this morning talk about a God who takes no pleasure in wickedness and who can countenance no evil, a God who abhors the deceitful and bloodthirsty, and who hates all who work wickedness. If we let these attributes stand alone, it is not a pretty picture of God we have. It is a terrifying one, and we should rightly be terrified at the prospect of meeting this God. Sadly, many folks have grown up knowing this false, one-dimensional god who is all anger and has no love for his image-bearing creatures.

But neither should we just consider God’s kindness without also considering God’s sternness because then we get a doting old grandpa who really doesn’t care about what the kiddies do with their lives or God’s creation. As we just saw, sin and evil do matter to God because they corrupt God’s good world and dehumanize his image-bearing creatures whom God created to run his beautiful world. So the point is, we have to keep both the kindness and sternness of God in mind if we want to know God’s true character.

But here’s the rub. I suspect many if not most of us focus more on the sternness of God than on God’s kindness. Like David in Psalm 51, we know our transgressions all too well and our sin is ever before us, i.e., we find it hard to forgive ourselves, try as we might. And if we can’t forgive ourselves, how can God? This, combined with the fact that many of us were taught that God is more stern than kind, and fundamentally hostile to us, can produce no small amount of personal anxiety. We walk around waiting for God to drop the hammer on us because we are such rotten people and are terrified about what awaits us when we die. The writer of Hebrews sums it up nicely for us: It is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God (Hebrews 10.31). If you are such a person, then listen carefully and ask the Holy Spirit to give you ears to hear and a heart to believe as I continue because I’ve got some really Good News for you this morning.

To be sure, evil and sin are offensive to God. As we have seen, God created this world and its creatures good, and God created humans to run his world on God’s behalf. When we do that well, things cannot go better for us. We can only find real and lasting happiness when we live our lives according to God’s creative purposes for us. Sadly, however, most of us didn’t get that memo and we seek to create our own happiness, which often conflicts with God’s creative purposes and intentions, and God finds that offensive. Not because God is an ogre and hates us, but precisely because God loves us and wants the best for us. God knows that when our relationship with him gets disrupted and we find ourselves alienated from him, that sickness, madness, anxiety, and ultimately death enter into the picture and that’s not why God created us!

So what to do? Humans have a rich history of trying to play God and create our own failed solutions to the problems we have created and the alienation we experience with God our Father. So God took the initiative to end our alienation and reverse sin and evil in the world. God did that, of course, by becoming human and dying on a cross for us so that God could rightly condemn our sins without having to condemn us. Not only that, but as the NT writers affirm, God conquered evil and death, replacing both with light and life in Jesus’ death and resurrection. This is the faith Paul talks about in our epistle lesson, a faith that causes us to be put right in God’s eyes right here and now, a faith that allows us to know that we will not be condemned at the great final judgment at history’s end. That’s the logic of justification.

But as we have seen, this is all rather clinical and abstract. It really doesn’t get at why God did all this for us. But if you paid attention to our epistle lesson, Paul tells us. In what is probably our earliest statement about the doctrine of atonement, in which we are reconciled to God through the blood of Christ, Paul writes these breathtaking words: The Son of God loved me and gave himself for me (and you and you and you). These words speak of the cross as an act of love, and not simply a cold legal transaction. They speak of arms outstretched in love, and a heart bursting for love. They speak of the self-giving love offered to the undeserving beloved, you and me, so that we might rediscover (or perhaps discover for the first time) the true heart of the Father. If you want to know the kindness of God, look no further than the cross. On it, the sternness of God was satisfied and we were saved from evil, sin, and death because of it. It is the only way we can escape and find new life, new hope, and new and fresh forgiveness.

Yet even God’s kindness revealed to us on the cross, wondrous and comforting as it is, still is rather abstract. What does the Father’s love and forgiveness look like on the ground? Can we find it in the living of our days? If so, how? To find answers to these questions we look at a couple of examples from our readings this morning. First we see that even wicked old King Ahab found God’s kindness. Hear the rest of the story:

(Indeed, there was no one like Ahab, who sold himself to do what was evil in the sight of the Lord, urged on by his wife Jezebel. He acted most abominably in going after idols, as the Amorites had done, whom the Lord drove out before the Israelites.)

When Ahab heard those words, he tore his clothes and put sackcloth over his bare flesh; he fasted, lay in the sackcloth, and went about dejectedly. Then the word of the Lord came to Elijah the Tishbite: “Have you seen how Ahab has humbled himself before me? Because he has humbled himself before me, I will not bring the disaster in his days; but in his son’s days I will bring the disaster on his house” (1 Kings 21.25-29)

Apparently even the worst of the worst kings, the very man who, because he was a king, should have embodied the love of God for his people but didn’t, could find God’s kindness when he humbled himself before the sternness of God. That speaks volumes about the heart of God!

Next we turn to our gospel lesson this morning. Remember who Jesus is as we look at this story. Let the scene rise on your mind. Jesus is invited to dine with a Pharisee. Luke doesn’t tell us explicitly that things were a bit tense from the beginning, but as the story unfolds it is clear that Jesus didn’t have a lot of fans dining with him. Perhaps Simon the Pharisee had heard Jesus previously and was skeptical about all this love and grace stuff that he taught and demonstrated. After all, if you wanted to remain pure, you had to stay away from sinners and treat them like the losers they are. So here was this wandering preacher from Galilee, rocking people’s boats and moving their cheese with all this talk about God’s healing love and forgiveness. We know Simon wasn’t completely warm to Jesus because he didn’t offer Jesus water to wash his feet or oil to anoint his head, both common courtesies of the day for invited guests. Neither was there a kiss of peace, which was also extended to invited guests.

As they are eating, a woman enters Simon’s house and crashes the party. Apparently it was the custom of that day to allow access to a meal in honor of a major teaching figure like Jesus. And this is where the fun and scandal began. Luke doesn’t tell us anything about the woman, only that she was a notorious sinner. Luke doesn’t even name her sin, only that it was well-known about town and her reputation preceded her. We get that because we have peeps with similar reps in our little congregation like, well, you know who you are. We know what we’re dealing with here!

Now the scandal wasn’t necessarily the woman’s presence, although that would have made good folks like Simon uncomfortable. No, the scandal was that the woman apparently came to anoint Jesus, to touch him. But she starts to cry because she apparently had experienced the real love and forgiveness that emanated from Jesus. We aren’t told how this came about. Perhaps she heard our Lord preach. Or perhaps she had a private encounter with him that went unrecorded. It really doesn’t matter because the fact is, we are looking at a notorious sinner who had found the love of God pulsing through Jesus and it affected her in a massive way.

Tears of joy and gratitude are now washing Jesus’ feet and to the horror of the other guests, she lets down her hair, something that decent women would never do in public, to dry her tears. After all this, she finally gets around to anointing Jesus’ feet with oil, itself a costly and extravagant act. If the oil was nard, it would have cost a year’s wages for one pound. This was no small gift she was giving Jesus! As any good self-righteous person would, Simon takes offense at the scene. Any thought that Jesus was a prophet was immediately dismissed. This dude’s no prophet. He doesn’t know the kind of woman he’s dealing with. He’s letting a whore touch him!

Not so fast, Simon, Jesus replies. I came to your house and you offered me none of the usual courtesies. In failing to do so, you showed me your heart, and is it ever hard! This woman has done for me what you should have done, but for very different reasons. She has come to me in humility and love, and look at the extravagance of her love! Because she has found forgiveness, it has changed her and turned her into a real lover. Her sins, which were many, have been forgiven and you are seeing the results of that forgiveness. How can you possibly embody the love of God for all people, irrespective of who they are or what they have done, if you shun them and condemn them outright? Jesus could have also told Simon to watch as Jesus went to the cross to die for men just like him. This is how God’s love must be embodied.

And then turning to the woman, Jesus tells her, “Your sins are forgiven. Go in peace. Your faith has saved you.” It is crucial we hear these words because underlying them is a massive authority—the authority of God himself. Think about it. Here we are, seeing God himself in the person of Jesus, offering forgiveness and love to apparently one of the worst of the worst in that town and in that day. This is what amazing grace and love look like on the ground, my beloved.

There are three things I want us to think about in closing. First, notice that Jesus didn’t condone the woman’s sins. He simply forgave her. By all worldly standards, she was unworthy to approach him and unworthy to be forgiven, but she was forgiven anyway. And because she knew her sins had been forgiven in a real and substantial way, her heart was bursting with love and gratitude and humility. This always happens when we really experience God’s love and forgiveness in Christ. The sternness was there in that Jesus did not mollycoddle her. But at the end of the day, there was forgiveness offered first rather than condemnation, thanks be to God!

Second, in this story we find instruction on how to both treat others and ourselves. How do you treat folks who are known sinners? Do you shun them and judge them and look down on them like Simon did? Or do you welcome them into your world so that you can embody the love of God for them like Jesus did? And while we are at it, do you allow the love of God made known in Jesus to work on you so that you can experience and really know God’s healing forgiveness? The woman’s story was no fluke. When we dare have the faith and trust in Christ to let him into our deepest, darkest closets and ask him to forgive us and love us, despite who we sometimes are and what we sometimes do, the woman’s story and the testimony of countless others all speak to the reality and power of Jesus’ healing and forgiving love for us. The only hearts that Jesus opposes are the ones like Simon’s that are self-righteous, haughty and proud, and judgmental. That kind of heart doesn’t even think it needs to be forgiven and our Lord obliges reluctantly. Simon the self-righteous found himself outside looking in on a scene that we all desperately hope to be part of. But even he could be forgiven with a dose of humility!

This leads us to my final point. Stop for a moment and put yourself in the woman’s place. I”m going to pause and give you some time to do that. Approach Jesus with your wounds and hurts and fears. What in your life desperately needs to feel the healing touch of our Lord’s forgiving love? Lay it out before Jesus and don’t be afraid. Let his healing love wash over you like refreshing waters. Hear him tell you the same thing he told the woman. Your sins are forgiven because I love you and gave myself for you so that you could find new life and hope and peace. Go in that peace. I love you. I want you to be with me where I am. Let my love and forgiveness heal you and transform you so that you can do for others what I am doing for you. Will you trust me? Will you dare love yourself enough to believe I can and want to love and forgive you? When you experience Jesus’ healing love, you will surely know that you 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.

Faith, Miracles, and Other Interesting Questions

Sermon delivered on Trinity 2C, Sunday, June 5, 2016, at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Westerville, OH.

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

Lectionary texts: 1 Kings 17.8-24; Psalm 146.1-10; Galatians 1.11-24; Luke 7.11-17.

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

Last week, we saw the great faith of the Roman centurion and the healing of his servant that resulted from the centurion’s faith. It was a faith so great that even Jesus was amazed by it. Then in today’s OT lesson, we see the faith of the widow of Zarephath and how her faith sustained her family through a severe drought. Conclusion? It takes great faith for God to act in our lives, right? I mean, isn’t the Bible all about a bunch of rules we need to follow if we want to receive God’s blessing? Do the right things and we’re in. Do the wrong things and we’re toast. Well, if that’s true, how do we explain what happened in our gospel lesson this morning?

And what about those miracles? Aren’t they simply about the good guys getting their just reward for being good? But if that’s the case, how do we explain, e.g., the prophet Elisha healing the Aramean commander Naaman, a sworn enemy of God’s people Israel (2 Kings 5.1-19)? Seems that things aren’t always as straightforward in Scripture as we would like them to be and this is what I want us to look at this morning. How do we make sense of the stories that make up the broader story of God’s rescue plan for us and his broken and hurting world?

We can all relate to the widows of Zarephath and Nain, can’t we, especially the widow of Zarephath. She’s shown her faith in Elijah’s God, a God not yet her own, by obeying God’s prophet Elijah. And what’s the result? Her only son dies! She complains bitterly to the prophet. You’ve come here to expose my sin to your God and he has killed my son because of it. I know this is true because any God who is powerful enough to sustain us through this long drought is powerful enough to kill my son! We get this mindset. How many times has something bad happened in our own lives and we are quick to conclude it is God punishing us because of our sins? But God didn’t demand the life of the widow’s son as a payment for her sins. No, that would come much later when God entered our world as Jesus of Nazareth and died on a cross so that God could rightly condemn our sins and not have to condemn us (Romans 8.3-4). This is quite a different God we are talking about than what the widow of Zarephath imagined, and what sadly we all too often imagine, especially during times of trouble. This is the God made known to us supremely in Jesus Christ. Do you know this God? I mean, really know God’s love for you?

So what are we to make of the oil and grain not running out? And even more astonishingly, what are we to make of the dead being raised back to life in both our OT and gospel lessons? A couple more questions before we go there, however. How many times have we prayed for someone we love to get healed only to have the person end up getting worse or dying? Or how many of us have prayed for a certain outcome for something that was very important to us, only to have it denied? We want to rationalize it away, when that happens. We say something to the effect that everybody knows things like the dead being raised or foodstuff not running out just don’t happen. But if you are like I was at one point in my life, we are secretly terrified that the real reason God didn’t answer our prayer is because we have fallen out of favor with God and he’s punishing us by not answering our prayers because we’re such rotten people. After all, aren’t stories like the raising of the widows of Zarephath and Nain’s sons there to teach us that God does really great things for those he favors? You know, those who unlike us are obedient?

Not so fast, my anxious friends. While it is true that God wants us to love him and demonstrate faith in him by being obedient to his commands, this is not the purpose of the so-called miracle stories in Scripture. (And let’s be clear. There is no such thing as a miracle in God’s economy. God created this vast cosmos out of nothing by speaking it into existence. You can read about his creative activity in Genesis 1.1-2.25, and I encourage you to do so regularly because the creation narratives help remind us that we worship a God big enough to deserve our worship and praise and thanksgiving for all his wonderful, creative activity and how that all gets played out in our lives. God also raised Jesus from the dead. So there is nothing that is too difficult for God (cf. Romans 4.17). We call them miracles because we do not have the power to pull them off on our own nor can we completely fathom how things like the dead being raised really work. In short, we call them miracles because of our human limitations, not God’s.)

Miracle stories are present in the overarching narrative of Scripture for three primary reasons. First, they are there because they actually happened and the writers of Scripture faithfully report them as happening. Second, stories like the raising of the dead and the endless supply of oil and grain are present to validate the characters in the story. So, for example, in our OT lesson, Elijah is validated as a true prophet of God. Prophets, you recall, serve as God’s mouthpiece. God sends them to his people to remind us who God is and what God wants. In this case, God sends his prophet into enemy territory where a false god (or idol), Baal, is worshiped. Baal was supposed to be a god of fertility and rain. So what does God do? He sends a drought on his own people who have succumbed to worshiping this idol to show them they are worshiping an impotent and phony god, and the drought has spilt over into Baal’s home country. By sending Elijah to Zarephath, God is demonstrating that he is not a local god but the God of all creation. There are no borders or boundaries that can contain him, much as we like to try.

And in obeying Elijah’s command to give him something to eat and drink, the widow of Zarephath demonstrates faith in Elijah, that he is a true man of God. We aren’t told why she obeyed. Perhaps she really took Elijah at his word. Perhaps she did so out of desperation. What did she and her son have to lose? They were going to die anyway! In not telling us her motive, the writer surely wants us to see that proper motive isn’t always needed, that God’s grace and love will spill over into our lives despite our doubts and fears. After all, God is bigger than the little worlds we construct. In fact, God is greater than the vast cosmos he created. God will do what God is going to do, and because we have the cross of Christ, we know that what God does is always for our good, even when we cannot see it. So God does this miracle of sustaining the widow and her son, along with Elijah, and the woman is helped to see that Elijah is the real deal. He speaks for God and acts on his behalf. We are invited to see exactly the same thing in our lives. The only difference is that we don’t have 20-20 hindsight in the living of our days like we do when we read stories like these. That does not invalidate the truth in the stories, however.

But there’s more. Apparently the widow also needed something more than this miracle to help her see who God really is. And so her son dies and the widow is beside herself and left without hope. In that day and age, widows were basically on their own, left to the mercy of others, and mercy was often a rare commodity. Now with her son dead, the widow really had no one left in this world. We all know how it feels to think we are in it up to here all by ourselves, with no one to help or care about us. It ain’t a pretty picture. Multiply this feeling exponentially and we can begin to appreciate the widow’s complaint. But here again, God acted, not necessarily because the widow had found favor in his sight by being obedient to Elijah, although that surely was true. God acted to show a people who did not know him that he is bigger than even their worst enemy, death, and therefore worthy of their worship and loyalty. Remember, nothing is too hard for God. Nothing. And sometimes we need to be reminded of that through mighty acts of power. That is why it is important for us to remember that miracles still happen today, from the spectacular to the mundane. Every time we hear of cancer being miraculously healed (from our point of view), or every time we are healed by antibiotics and sickness is vanquished, we are reminded of the true character of God and his active presence among us.

This knowledge leads us to the last reason we read about miracles in Scripture. Miracles give us a foretaste of what is in store for us when Jesus returns to usher in the new heavens and earth. People are healed. The dead are raised. Scarcity is no more. There is only health and wholeness and life and abundance, and miracles announce this in spades. That is why we need to pay attention to our gospel lesson. While both lessons featured the raising of the dead, there are important differences. Elijah had to pray to God for the boy to be saved, and then Elijah acted accordingly. Jesus didn’t have to do that. He just spoke the word and the son was raised. In doing so, Luke, like the writer of 1 Kings, wants us to see who we are dealing with. This is Jesus, God’s promised Messiah who would free his people from their slavery to sin and death. This Jesus, acting on God’s life-giving authority, spoke the word and raised the widow of Nain’s son, just like he will speak the word one day and raise those of us who believe him to be God’s Son and Messiah back to life. It is the word we all desperately want to hear.

And notice that there was no faith required for this miracle to happen. Of course, as we saw last week, Jesus desires us to have great faith in him because faith shows itself in obedience. But faith is not necessary for Jesus to act. In this instance, Jesus saw a worst-case scenario and acted out of love and compassion for the widow to make things right. Pay attention to that because God has the same love and compassion for you. Of course, her son would eventually die again, just like Lazarus did. But this misses the point of the story. Jesus is who he says he is. He is the resurrection and the life, and those who believe in him will live, their mortal death notwithstanding. (John 11.25-26). Luke is also preparing us to hear the story of Jesus’ own death and resurrection. Did the widow of Nain receive God’s favor? Of course she did! But that too misses the point. The point is that the people perceived that God’s power was active and demonstrable in their lives in the person of Jesus, and their faith was strengthened because of it. May God grant us grace to be similarly strengthened and encouraged when we hear these stories. That’s why they are told: for our benefit and because God loves us.

In closing, therefore, I encourage you to apply the lessons we have talked about today to your own life. What fears and doubts do you need to bring to Jesus? Remember, he may not answer your prayers the way you ask for or hope. But if you bring your hurts and fears to him in prayer with these stories in mind, you will be reminded that once he enters into your dark place with you, you will get through it. After all, he is God your Creator who loves you and has given himself for you so that you can live. If that weren’t true, the cross makes no sense at all. Why would a God who hates us and is bent on punishing us become human and die a terrible death to rescue us from our sin? Reflect on that. And as you do, keep in mind the widow of Zarephath. We don’t know why she obeyed, only that she did. Her faith was not perfect and her motives might not have been the right ones. We don’t know. But God never demands 100 percent perfection from us. If he did, we would all be toast because we all come to him with a mixed bag of good and not-so-good intentions. But God loves us more than our messiness, and God’s loving power is greater than our fears and unbelief. The next time you doubt that, go back and reread the stories of the widow of Zarephath and Nain. Read also the story of Paul and his conversion (Acts 9.1-19a), and his undying faith in the crucified and risen Christ because of it, a faith he was defending in our epistle lesson. Note the more mundane miracle Paul describes, that people gave God glory because a former persecutor had become a faithful preacher of the gospel! Trust that these stories have the power to help boost your sagging faith and fearful heart because you worship and love as best you can the God who loves you and has the power to destroy evil and death forever. The result? Never-ending abundant life starting right now. Surely then you will know that you 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.

A Prayer for Memorial Day

Adapted from here:

Eternal God,
Creator of years, of centuries,
Lord of whatever is beyond time,
Maker of all species and master of all history —
How shall we speak to you
from our smallness and inconsequence?
Except that you have called us to worship you in spirit and in truth;
You have dignified us with loves and loyalties;
You have lifted us up with your loving-kindnesses.
Therefore we are bold to come before you without groveling
(though we sometimes feel that low)
and without fear
(though we are often anxious).
We sing with spirit and pray with courage
because you have dignified us;
You have redeemed us from the aimlessness
of things going meaninglessly well.

God, lift the hearts of those
for whom this holiday is not just diversion,
but painful memory and continued deprivation.
Bless those whose dear ones have died
needlessly, wastefully (as it seems)
in accident or misadventure.
We remember with compassion and thanksgiving those who have died
serving this country in times of war.

We all must come to bereavement and separation,
when all the answers we are offered
fail the question death asks of each of us.
But we believe that you will provide for us
as others have been provided with the fulfillment of
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted”
because we believe that you have raised Jesus our Lord from the dead
and conquered death itself,
and that you have given us the privilege
of sharing in his risen life as his followers,
both now and for all eternity.
We offer our prayers and thanksgiving
in Jesus our risen Lord’s name. Amen.