While We Watch and Wait During Advent

Christ has
No body now on earth but yours;
No hands but yours;
No feet but yours;
Yours are the eyes
Through which is to look out
Christ’s compassion to the world;
Yours are the feet
With which he is to go about
Doing good;
Yours are the hands
With which he is to bless now.

—St. Teresa of Avila

This is most appropriate watching and waiting behavior! May God bless and help you be the embodiment of Jesus to folks in your world.

Fr. Philip Sang: Advent: A Time of Holy Waiting

Sermon delivered on Advent Sunday C, November 29, 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: Jeremiah 33.14-16; Psalm 25.1-10; 1 Thessalonians 3.9-13; Luke 21.25-36.

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

Advent is a time of preparation for Christ’s coming—yes, his first, but also, and perhaps even more, his second. So the season of Advent is not a time of high festivities; we’re not yet celebrating “The Holidays.” It is a time of sober reflection aimed at growing in holiness; we should treat the days of Advent as “holy days.” At least that seems to be the message of the passages today. After a very brief ministry in Thessalonica, Paul was forced to leave. He’s been gone for several months now and he has been worried about his newly born church. Will they stray from the faith they have so recently embraced? Will they forget about Paul himself, “out of sight, out of mind?” in the previous verse before our reading today, to be precise verse 5 of chapter 3 Paul says, “I was afraid that in some way the tempter might have tempted you and our efforts might be useless.” (Verse 5) To check up on them, Paul sends Timothy for a little informal church visiting. Timothy returns with the good glad tidings that all is well in the little infant church. Not only is their faith intact, but they remember Paul with genuine fondness. Paul is so excited that he feels as though he has been given a new lease on life. “”For now we really live, since you are standing firm in the Lord.” (Verse 8) He doesn’t know how to express his thanks enough, as he prays fervently and constantly for them (verses 9 and 10).

All of this personal correspondence can serve as a reminder to our church that Advent is about the ordinary affairs of our lives. In the midst of life’s loves and loses, Jesus comes to judge and to save. We rarely think of his coming as we live with family and friends, dealing with absence and heartache, reunion and joy in human relationships. This text gives us the opportunity to connect the tangled relationships of our lives to the coming of Christ, both his first and, especially, his second. For many people, us included, Advent is a time for special ceremonies or disciplines, like Advent wreaths or Advent devotionals, which is good. However, here Paul gives us some very practical Advent projects in his three wishes or prayers in verses 11-13, It’s hard to be definite about whether these are merely wishes or actual prayers. It is definitely true that we cannot do these three things in our own strength, so there’s a sense in which these are prayers asking God to help us. But they aren’t exactly addressed to God. Maybe we can think of them as blessings. Here are three wishes or prayers or blessings that should shape our Advent observance. “Now may our God and Father himself and our Lord Jesus clear the way for us to come to you.” Clearly, this refers to Paul’s desire to rejoin his friends physically. “Satan stopped us” from coming to you, says 2:18. Paul and his colleagues couldn’t remove the obstacles, so he knows that their re-union will depend on the intervention of the Father and the Son. We could apply this to the relationships in our congregation. The Holidays are often a time of great stress and disappointment as we are reminded of the blocked relationships in our lives. Satan has stopped us from getting past old memories and hurts and grudges and resentments. Our relationships have become rough and crooked. However, in the light of Christ’s coming, Advent should be a time to ask God to “clear the way” for us to come back together with those from whom we have become distanced. Before Christ comes in his Parousia, let us ask him to come into our relationships and “make the crooked straight and the rough places plain.” we can’t do that by ourselves, and Paul says, “the Lord [will] make your love increase and overflow, for each other and for everyone else, just as ours does for you.” We live in an age when Jesus’ prediction in Matthew 24:12 seems to have been fulfilled. In the last days, “because of the increase of wickedness, the love of most will grow cold.” Think of the cold blooded murders perpetrated by ISIS and the cold hearted response of some Eastern European countries to the flood of refugees from ISIS. We can multiply examples from our own country and our own lives, Colorado Springs shooting last Friday and others. In a loveless world, how can we grow in love? Paul knows. In the light of Christ’s return, ask Jesus to make our love increase. This Advent season, rather than focusing on presents and parties, let us focus on the fact that we will appear “in the presence of our God and Father when our Lord Jesus comes….”

Before Jesus comes (Mark 13:18), let us use this season of Advent to focus on loving each other and everyone else, even as God loved us in Christ’s first coming. May Jesus increase our love in order that he may strengthen our hearts, so that we may be holy and blameless in the presence of God at the Parousia. The point of that prayer is that Jesus will make us completely holy, so that we can stand in God’s presence when Jesus comes back. There is much in that sentence that calls for comment. First, the word “strengthen” was used in classical Greek to refer to putting a buttress (reinforcement) on an existing building to strengthen it. As our hearts are attacked by “the world, the flesh and the Devil,” we need to be buttressed, reinforced, or supported, so we will not fall. Second, notice that holiness is the focus of this prayer. It is very important that we be holy, because we will one day be “in the presence of our God and Father.” This reminds us of the words of Hebrews 12:14: “Make every effort to live in peace with all men and to be holy; without holiness no one will see the Lord.” While we should be careful not to turn such admonitions into a kind of legalistic works righteousness, they remind us that holiness matters to God. Jesus died to save us from sin, so that we would not only be declared righteous (justification), but also become holy (sanctification). Third, Paul asks that our love will increase so that we will be holy. What is the connection between love and holiness? Could it be that love is the essence of holiness? In my growing up, holiness was often interpreted as being separate from the world, that often meant nothing more than not participating in worldly amusements, such as drinking, dancing, card playing and theater attendance. While there was some good wisdom in the call to be careful about getting entangled in sinful pursuits, holiness in the Bible doesn’t seem to be described primarily in those terms.

Rather, holiness is loving the Lord your God with all your heart and your neighbor as yourself. So, of course, Paul prays that we should increase in love so that we might be holy, because the essence of holiness is precisely love. In the light of Christ’s coming, let us turn the days of Advent into holy days, days in which we focus not only on enjoying the worldly holidays, but also and primarily on growing in love and holiness. Our Lord Jesus is coming with all his holy ones, says verse 13. That might mean his holy angels, but it certainly means the saints who have died and gone to be with Jesus (cf. I Thess. 4:13-18). When Jesus returns, he “will bring with him those who have fallen asleep in him.” During this holiday season, we feel more keenly the loss of loved ones, lamenting “that empty place at the table,” and looking forward to that day when we are re-united with our dearly departed. Let’s use this season of Advent to focus on holy living, so that we won’t feel out of place when Jesus comes with all his holy ones.

Jesus in the Gospel describes the kind of trust with which God calls God’s people to await his return. However, he also alludes to the kind of threats to the kind of godliness for which the psalmist prays in our text. Jesus seems to think of “dissipation, drunkenness and the anxieties of life” as particularly powerful temptations for those who await his return. However, He tells us that the ultimate future really does contain a world of hope.

And Jeremiah reminds us that even in the midst of life’s worst woes, even in a time of collapsing securities and the disorientation that always results, God has a word. God has a plan. God has a gracious set of promises that he will fulfill. Destitution does not have the last word. The tragedies that come do not define us ultimately. God’s ways will not be thwarted by a bad economy, by unemployment, by disease, by outright poverty, by terrorism, by shootings, or even by death itself. These promises will be fulfilled by the promised “righteous Branch” whose name is “the Lord our righteousness” . He will come to do what is “just and right”. Let us wait expectantly being prepared as we pray to God to open our way, to increase our love for Him and others, and May He strengthen our hearts in holiness.

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

Happy Thanksgiving!

Mom basting the turkey at Thanksgiving

I wish you a happy Thanksgiving today. Please take a few moments and stop to give praise and thanks to God for his bountiful blessings to us as individuals and as a nation.

Among others, I am thankful for God’s gift of himself to us, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and for his promise to rescue his good but corrupted creation.

I am thankful for my family and friends, past and present, and for a childhood that was second to none. I am thankful for my family of origin and for the many wonderful memories I have of Thanksgiving growing up in Van Wert. What a blessing it was to have two wonderful parents and my extended family all living in the same town.

What are you thankful for?

A Thanksgiving Day Prayer

Almighty and gracious Father,
we give you thanks for the fruits of the earth in their season
and for the labors of those who harvest them.
Make us, we pray, faithful stewards of your great bounty,
for the provision of our necessities
and the relief of all who are in need,
to the glory of your Name;
through Jesus Christ our Lord,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God,
now and for ever. Amen.

A Thanksgiving Litany

Let us give thanks to God our Father for all his gifts so freely bestowed upon us.

For the beauty and wonder of your creation, in earth and sky and sea.
We thank you, Lord.

For all that is gracious in the lives of men and women, revealing the image of Christ,
We thank you, Lord.

For our daily food and drink, our homes and families, and our friends,
We thank you, Lord.

For minds to think, and hearts to love, and hands to serve,
We thank you, Lord.

For health and strength to work, and leisure to rest and play,
We thank you, Lord.

For the brave and courageous, who are patient in suffering and faithful in adversity,
We thank you, Lord.

For all valiant seekers after truth, liberty, and justice,
We thank you, Lord.

For the communion of saints, in all times and places,
We thank you, Lord.

Above all, we give you thanks for the great mercies and promises given to us in Christ Jesus our Lord;
To him be praise and glory, with you, O Father, and the Holy Spirit, now and for ever. Amen.

A Most Unusual King

Sermon delivered on Christ the King Sunday B, November 22, 2015, 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: Daniel 7.9-10, 13-14; Psalm 93.1-6; Revelation 1.4-8; John 18.33-37.

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

Today we celebrate Christ the King Sunday, a feast relatively new in the Church’s calendar. Pope Pius XI instituted this feast in 1925 as a way to resist the rise of totalitarianism and secularism of his day. It marks the last Sunday of the Church’s calendar year and as its name implies, today is a day when we culminate the season of celebration of Jesus as King, Messiah, and Lord of all God’s creation. But Jesus doesn’t fit our concept of kingship so easily, at least not yet. For starters, he’s a crucified king! So this morning I want us to look at exactly what kind of king Jesus is and what that means for those of us who follow him.

Jesus himself answers the question as to what kind of king he is in our gospel lesson. He tells Pilate, the cynical Roman procurator, that he is indeed a king, but not the kind of king the world expects or acknowledges. My kingdom is not from this world, Jesus tells us. But what does that mean? Does it mean that Jesus doesn’t really think this world is very important, that his kingdom is really a spiritual kingdom and more focused on getting to heaven? If that were the case, it makes that inconvenient little clause in the prayer Jesus gave us look pretty nonsensical. You know, the clause that asks for God’s kingdom to come on earth as in heaven? No, when Jesus tells us that his kingdom is not from this world he wants us to understand that his kingdom is from God for the sake of the world and for our sake. Jesus’ kingdom is about bringing truth—God’s truth, the only truth—to reality in God’s good but desperately sick world for the healing of the nations. Despite Pilate’s caustic rejoinder that the lectionary curiously omits from today’s lesson (What is truth?), and despite the fact that many in our own day stand with Pilate, Jesus, who had earlier told his disciples that he is the Way, the Truth, and the Life, and that no one comes to the Father except through him (John 14.6), testifies to us as he stands before Pilate, bound and a prisoner, that he has come to make the truth known to people. It is the truth of God’s love for his image-bearing creatures and the consequent rescue plan devised from eternity past for his good but evil-infested creation and creatures. It is God’s good rescue plan that culminates in God sending his only Son, Jesus, (i.e., in God becoming human) to die on a cross so that our alienation from God might be ended forever and we pass from death to life. As John the Elder reminds us in our epistle lesson, God sent his Son so that by his blood we could be freed from our sin and inherit real life. God devised this plan, strange, enigmatic, and improbable as it seems to us at times, because God loves us and wants us to be reconciled to him so that we can be finally and really healed. As we saw last week, without the shedding of blood there can be no forgiveness of sins. And without forgiveness of sins, we remain desperately sick with no real hope of ever being fully and finally healed. This is the truth that Jesus told Pilate he had come to proclaim. This is the truth that Jesus had to live out, mainly by his death and resurrection. We live because Jesus lives. So while Jesus’ kingdom is not from this world, it is emphatically for this world, thanks be to God! Amen?

Contrast the nature of Jesus’ kingship to the world’s kings. Earthly kings rule in their brokenness, usually trying to aggregate power, prestige, and wealth, and almost always lording their own desires and whims over those they rule. Not so with King Jesus, who came to serve us by freeing us from sin and death, and inviting us to rule with him in love and service for the sake of others (cf. Mark 10.45). Moreover, earthly kings usually don’t hesitate to use force to ensure they get what they want. Jesus, on the other hand, rules for our sake because he loves us and wants us to live, not die. But like earthly rulers, Jesus insists that we give him our complete loyalty. If you want to follow me, he tells us, you must come and die. In other words, you must work your whole life in the power of the Spirit to put to death all that is in you that causes you to remain hostile and rebellious toward me. It means, for example, you are to speak the truth in love, even to your enemies. It means you are to be merciful and work for peace, rather than be ruthless and create all sorts of conflict. It means you must challenge the injustice and evil in this world, not by conventional means but by following my example of loving those who hate you and inviting them into a real relationship with me because it is only in me that they can find real life and God’s truth. The world will see what you are doing and hate you because you belong to me. They will persecute and treat you evilly. But don’t be afraid. I’ve overcome the world by my death (John 16.33). Therefore, you are not to return their evil with evil. You are to return their evil with goodness and love, just like I did when I let the powers and their human agents nail me to the cross. This is a lifelong work and it is by no means straightforward. But unlike the temporary rewards you work so hard to get, things like money, prestige, and power, the reward you get for following me is eternal life that begins the moment you give your life to me, imperfect as you are and hard as that is for you to do.

These, then, are the main reasons we should follow King Jesus. He offers us real life not death, healing not sickness, peace not anxiety, real hope not hopelessness, eternity not fleetingness and impermanence, among others. But because Jesus’ kingship is so unlike the earthly counterparts we are all used to, we sometimes wonder if he really is a king at all. I mean, who ever heard of a crucified king? Where’s the sense in loving our enemies and forgiving them when we really want to hit them back as hard as we can? Why would we want to put the needs of others before our own? How can we get ahead in this world if we do stupid stuff like that?

And perhaps as importantly, will King Jesus protect us in the face of all the evil that appears to be running rampant? Think about it. Terrorists crucify Christians in the mideast and blow up innocents in our cities. Our families are falling apart, not to mention our culture. We treat each other with less and less respect today. Holding a civil conversation seems to be a thing of the past. Instead we have those who resort to fear-mongering and demagoguery, and they are getting people’s attention because we no longer feel safe, a symptom of our increasing alienation and anxiety. So we want to know if King Jesus, like a good ruler, can protect us from these things. Well yes and no. Can he protect us? Of course he can. I dare say that we in this room enjoy his protection daily. But if we follow Jesus, there is no guarantee that he will protect us from evil, even though he can and does according to his good will and purposes for us. This is one of the mysteries with which we have to live. Why does God appear to let evil run rampant in his world? Nowhere does Scripture answer this question. Instead, we are told what God has done to defeat evil and being good earthly creatures we have a hard time believing the answer. As the NT writers insist, God defeated evil on the cross of Jesus Christ (see, e.g., Colossians 2.15). But we want to protest. Evil still exists! Look it up on the Internet, God! Well, yes it does. But God tells us to look at his track record and consider his rescue plan for us in Christ.

Our lessons all speak to this hope and promise. In Daniel, for example, we are told of one of Daniel’s visions. Daniel was a book written while God’s people Israel were in captivity. God had given them up to their earthly enemies in judgment for their ongoing rebellion against God. In fact, God had used their enemies to carry out his judgment! Now they were captives once again, living in exile. Was there any hope for them? Any future? Had God abandoned them forever? Sound familiar, folks, either on a global level or a personal one?

Back comes the answer. We see the Ancient One or Ancient of Days (God) sitting on his throne, a throne of fire, language that means judgment. Out come the books, presumably the books containing the names of those who will enjoy life and those who will not. The point here is this. God knows there is evil and evildoers out there and they will be judged. And when that day comes, it will not be pretty for the forces of evil and their human minions. Moreover, God knows his people’s exile is evil and God will end it just like God did with the Exodus, when he rescued his people from their slavery in Egypt.

Then we see one like a human (or as some translations have it, one like a son of man) coming on the clouds to be in God’s presence. What’s that all about? The Son of Man, of course, is Jesus, who comes to his Father on behalf of God’s suffering people who are now rescued and vindicated just like Jesus was at his resurrection and ascension. The point is that even if we must suffer for Jesus’ sake and the sake of his kingdom, we are not abandoned in the present and our future is secure. We who follow Jesus are resurrection people because Jesus is the resurrection and the life (John 11.25-26).

John the Elder has a bit different take on this in our epistle. Again we are presented with a vision of God’s heavenly throne room, this time with explicit language about Jesus. We are told that we can have confidence in his kingship because Jesus is the firstborn from the dead, and we who are his will one day enjoy similar new life. It is sad that the Revelation to John is not read widely anymore. Yes, it has strange visions and symbolism, but at its very heart is a message of hope and encouragement. We are reminded that we live in evil times and it is hard for us to remain faithful to King Jesus. But God knows this and he has not left us to our own devices. He has given us his Spirit to live in us and strengthen us to be his people. And like the book of Daniel, we are told in no uncertain terms that God is even now judging the forces of evil and has defeated them. Much of this is invisible to our senses and we are unaware of the battle that rages. That’s why letters like Revelation are in Scripture—to remind us God has not abandoned us and to encourage us to remain faithful even if the gates of hell appear to be swallowing us up. That won’t happen because God is God and evil cannot withstand his power and righteous judgment. Like Daniel, Revelation reminds us that our present and future are secure because of what God has done for us in the past in Christ. He has raised Jesus from the dead and promises to do likewise for us when Jesus returns in his royal power, this time unmistakable, to usher in God’s new creation. It’s a done deal. We needn’t be afraid or anxious.

So in the interim, we are to live and work as people with real hope. Nothing in this world should weigh us down so badly or frighten us so much that we give up our faith in God’s truth made supremely manifest in Jesus. We know what God’s kingdom will look like when it comes in full because we’ve seen signs of it in Jesus’ ministry: healing, wholeness, peace, justice, life, mercy, forgiveness. There will be no trace of evil anywhere. This is the new world that awaits us and is present in our midst when we live faithfully to our Lord who loves us and gave himself for us. If we cannot find real hope and Good News in this, God’s truth made known in Jesus and the power of the Spirit, we are to be pitied the most because we have chosen to call God a liar and to live in this evil age on our own power. Sad. But we are not that kind of people. We are people of faith, love, and hope, and that gives us power to live our lives in ways that result in an eternity of healing and life. And that really is Good News, folks, now and for all eternity. Hail King Jesus! To him be honor, praise, and glory forever and ever.

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

Places to Go, Things to Do

Sermon delivered on the second Sunday before Advent, November 15, 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: Daniel 12.1-3; Psalm 16.1-10; Hebrews 10.11-25; Mark 13.1-8.

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

On this second Sunday before Advent (can you believe it is almost here??) we continue to celebrate the coming of the kingdom and Jesus’ rule over God’s world. But what kind of king is Jesus? We will look at this question in more detail next week. Right now, however, by any reasonable standard it is often hard for us to see God’s kingdom in our midst. Let’s face it. We tend to ignore Jesus’ encouragement to his disciples and us not to be alarmed over wars and rumors of wars because we are so used to hearing about them. The various media stream bad news into our lives on such a regular basis that we wonder where God is in it all and whether Jesus will ever really return to finish his victory over evil won on the cross. But we are people of hope and power and must resist this temptation to become cynical. Despite living in an evil age, we have places to go and things to do, and this is what I want us to look at today.

Before we look at the hope that is ours in Jesus, we need to be clear in our thinking about what exactly is wrong with God’s world and us. Of course, there is much beauty and goodness in God’s world. We see it, for example, in panoramic landscapes and in healthy relationships where two people love each other deeply. We instinctively recognize the beauty in these things because we are God’s image-bearers. And when we recognize real beauty, truth, and goodness, it has an edifying effect on us. But there are also things that are desperately wrong with God’s world: war, disease, natural disasters, birth defects, hatred, madness, addictions, suffering of all kinds, greed, envy, alienation, loneliness, and the like (cf. Galatians 5.19-22). These are the result of human rebellion against God’s good will and purposes for us. After all, God created us in his own image to rule his good world and reflect his glory out into it. But we humans didn’t get that memo. We wanted to play God instead of being his wise and obedient creatures, fantastic as that privilege is. And our rebellion brought about God’s curse and opened the door to all kinds of evil to deface and destroy God’s good creation and creatures.

And bad as that is, our rebellion also created in us a God sickness of sorts, where we are alienated from God and hostile toward him. We seek to pursue our own agendas, not God’s, and when we do this, we cut ourselves off from the very Source of life and health. Without an intimate and proper relationship with God, the kind God created us to have where we are his obedient creatures who rule in his stead, we can never enjoy real health. Our alienation creates in us a sin-sickness that permeates our mind, body, soul, and spirit. Sure, we may enjoy physical health, but we are really dead people walking when we are cut off from our Creator. We don’t like talking about this, of course, in part because we have convinced ourselves in all our modern and post-modern arrogance that we really have outgrown our need for God and can get along just fine by ourselves, thank you very much. And then we look around at our world with all of its alienation and discord and sickness, and if we are honest with ourselves, we know there is something desperately wrong with it and us.

What I have just described, of course, is life without Jesus, God become human, a life that at its heart is a delusion and a lie because it is a life in which we reject God’s sovereign love and good will for our lives. It is a grim picture indeed. But as all our lessons attest, it doesn’t have to be this way. God is much bigger than us and his love far surpasses our love, even for ourselves, let alone for God. The writer of Hebrews clearly believed this because over the last several weeks, he has been reminding us what God has done and is doing for us in Jesus. Today he gets to the heart of the matter. Are you tired of being alienated from God, he essentially asks us? Then listen up because here is what God has done to remedy that problem. God has become human and died on a cross for you. Unlike the priests at the temple—you know, the place where God’s people believed that God came to dwell with them—who must offer sacrifices continually because they are sin-stained themselves, Jesus, the sinless one, only had to sacrifice himself once for your sins.

Let me explain because a lot of this stuff is foreign to our ears and tends to make us whacko. For starters, we wonder what these sacrifices are all about. Are they to placate an angry and capricious God who is bent on punishing us for our sins and rebellion? Sadly, I think some, if not many, Christians actually believe this caricature of God. But that caricature is a lie. We must first and foremost remember that it was God who gave Moses the sacrificial system so that God’s sinful people could come into God’s presence in the tabernacle and later the temple. God in his perfect holiness cannot abide the presence of evil in any form and because we all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God (Romans 3.23), we all carry vestiges of evil in us, some more than others. So how do we come into God’s presence (i.e., connect with God) if this is the case? If we cannot come into God’s presence and receive his forgiveness, how can we ever be reconciled to God and healed? The short answer is that we can’t.

But God knows this and so he gave Moses a way for God’s people to come into God’s presence and find forgiveness. That was the main function of priests among God’s people before Jesus arrived. The priest was to mediate between God and his people, offering sacrifices to atone for sins so that folks could come to the tabernacle and meet with God without fear of being killed. As the writer of Hebrews reminds us elsewhere, without the shedding of blood there can be no forgiveness of sins (Hebrews 9.22; cf. Genesis 9.4-6, Leviticus 17.11), thus the need for animal sacrifices. But even then, folks were restricted to certain parts of the tabernacle/temple. For example, only the high priest could enter the holy of holies, the space where the ark of the covenant rested, and then only on certain occasions. And because priests had to account for their own sins, they had to make sacrifices daily to atone for those sins so that they and their people could enter into God’s presence and find forgiveness and healing. If we remember this, it is hard to understand why anyone would think of God as angry and capricious. If that were the case, why would God offer us a way to find healing and forgiveness or enter into his holy presence without fear of dying?

Now, says the writer of Hebrews, Jesus has offered himself once and for all for the forgiveness of sins, and to end our hostility and alienation from God. Jesus, the sinless one and the very embodiment of God, did this, not because God hates us and wants to punish or destroy us. Jesus did this so that in and through him we could enter into God’s presence without restrictions and without fear to find the healing and forgiveness we crave. Jesus’ work on our behalf is done. His atoning death does not need to be repeated. Ever. Because it is perfect. This is what the writer of Hebrews meant when he tells us that Jesus sat down at God’s right hand after his death. And as a result, our sins are covered and we are really and truly forgiven. It doesn’t matter how big our sins are. It doesn’t matter if we stumble on occasion as we all do. Our sins are forgiven and therefore no further sacrifice is needed. We are freed to love God as he originally created us to love him. This is why it is so important that we keep our eyes fixed on Jesus because he is the true and perfect image of the living God. Once again, as we think this through, it is impossible to conclude that God is an angry God or that God hates us. Why would he send his Son (i.e., why would God become human) to die for us so that we can be reconciled to him and be healed of our deadly sin-sickness that alienates us from God and ultimately kills us? And as we saw a couple of weeks ago, Jesus now actively intercedes for us to the Father. Why? Because God loves us and seeks to be reconciled to us, but on his terms, not ours.

Not only that, the writer of Hebrews also reminds us that in fulfillment of prophecy we are given God’s Spirit to help us respond to God in ways that are pleasing to God and consistent with God’s creative purposes for us. To be sure, we don’t get it right all the time. Some of us don’t get it right much of the time. But we are told not to fear because the blood of the Lamb shed for us is bigger than our foibles and flaws and sins, thanks be to God! Amen?

This means, of course, that we are people with places to go. And as our OT lesson reminds us, the place we are promised is God’s new creation where we will live in God’s direct presence because we are resurrection people. As we saw on All Saints’ Sunday, resurrection is not a concept, it is a person, and his name is Jesus. Because we are Jesus’ people, we too are called to share not only in his sufferings but in his resurrection. As we discover God’s healing love and forgiveness in the power of the Spirit, i.e., as we become new creations in the power of God’s love because we are reconciled to God through the blood of the Lamb shed for us, we develop a confidence that our lives are secure, both in this world and the next. Our end game is new life, new creation, eternal life with God, the Source and Author of all life. We can trust this promise because God has a track record that is trustworthy and true.

This is what Jesus was getting at in our gospel lesson. You are going to have to live in a world marred by sin and evil and it’s not going to be pretty. But take heart. I’ve overcome the world by my death. And I am calling you to live as people with a real and lively faith and hope, even in the midst of darkness and hopelessness. To be sure, there will be times when it seems that all is lost and my promises are false. But don’t succumb to that evil. Look at the works I did, the healings and miracles I performed, my power over the forces of darkness. Look at my resurrection. Look at my presence in the lives of my healed and transformed people, warts and all. These are signs of God’s rule that is coming and in your midst. Do you see and believe them?

Of course, left to our own devices, we cannot keep from suffering doubts occasionally. That is why we have to live out our faith together. As the writer of Hebrews urges us, we are to come together regularly to worship God for his gift of life and forgiveness and salvation (healing) in and through Jesus and the power of the Spirit. Every week when we come to Jesus’ table we are reminded of the meaning of his death and the resultant life we receive because of his death. We are also to encourage each other in the faith, and help support each other when we doubt or are in trouble. This is the doing part. Overall, I think we do a wonderful job of these things here at St. Augustine’s. It is one of the best ways for us to shine the light of Christ on each other and the world that desperately needs to bathe itself in his light. Let us therefore continue to remind each other that we are people who have things to do and places to go. Let us encourage each other with these words and in how we love each other so that we may bring glory to our Lord Jesus who died for us so that we might be healed and get to live with him forever in the light of his loving presence. That really is Good News, folks, 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.

Multi Hat Pastor: The War on Christmas

Wonderful stuff. See what you think.

enhanced-31786-1446915453-14History would agree it was really no contest: Jesus won the war on Christmas. He reigns today, but in the same way he always reigned: subversive, serving, sacrificing, forgiving, inviting. His yoke is easy and his burden is light.

But Jesus is not at war with a retail establishment and nor should his followers be. The job of a retail establishment is not to proclaim the peace of Christ, the good news that brings great joy.

That’s our job, Christians. We really shouldn’t be outsourcing the bidding of peace to retail. If history is our guide, anytime the church outsources the gospel, the message gets confused. Do we really want our retail establishments proclaiming the message?

Please. Please. Christians. Stop outsourcing the gospel and stop expecting your retail neighbors to proclaim the good news of Jesus.

Instead, learn to love your retail neighbors. Not by boycotts and letters and web rants, or worse yet, by accosting some local barista who is just trying to make 40 cups per hour, hit the store metrics and pay her bills. But by simple courtesy, gratitude and kindness. More listening, less speaking. More care, less heat.

Read it all and go and act accordingly if you are a Christian!

A Prayer for Veterans’ Day

Governor of Nations, our Strength and Shield:
we give you thanks for the devotion and courage
of all those who have offered military service for this country:

For those who have fought for freedom;
for those who laid down their lives for others;
for those who have borne suffering of mind or of body;
for those who have brought their best gifts to times of need.
On our behalf they have entered into danger,
endured separation from those they love,
labored long hours, and borne hardship in war and in peacetime.

Lift up by your mighty Presence those who are now at war;
encourage and heal those in hospitals
or mending their wounds at home;
guard those in any need or trouble;
hold safely in your hands all military families;
and bring the returning troops to joyful reunion
and tranquil life at home;

Give to us, your people, grateful hearts
and a united will to honor these men and women
and hold them always in our love and our prayers;
until your world is perfected in peace.

All this we ask through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord,
who is alive and reigns with you
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, forever and ever. Amen.

Terry Gatwood: Being Part of God’s Family

Sermon delivered on the third Sunday before Advent, November 8, 2015, at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Westerville, OH.

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

Terry Gatwood is our seminarian in residence. He attends Trinity School for Ministry in Ambridge, PA.

Lectionary texts: Ruth 3.1-5, 4.13-17; Psalm 127.1-6; Hebrews 9.24-28; Mark 12.38-44.

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

Ruth is a great little book tucked in our Bibles right between Judges and the Samuels. Its story follows a woman, called Naomi, whose husband and two sons die, and her two daughters-in-law, Moabite women, and their decisions to depart (Orpah) and to remain (Ruth).  In the passage we’ve heard this morning we find Naomi giving directions to Ruth to present herself to Boaz, the man in whose fields she had been working, so that it may end up in a marriage to one of Naomi’s kinsmen and a comfortable life for them going forward.

Let me pause for a moment and tell you a story. Sixteen years ago I met my wife at a teen ministry event called Bible quizzing. We were both fairly quiet, she more than I. But we ended up becoming friends because of a mutual friend who is an extreme extrovert who thinks everyone should be pals. I ended up getting an invitation to Deanna’s sixteenth birthday party; we started a friendship there that has been a great blessing for now more than half of my life.

I mention this because of something her mother did. It might have been because my favorite things to do were more akin to what people two generations older liked doing (a benefit of having lived with my grandparents and learning how to do and enjoy things their way), or that I was one of the very few boys who actually tucked his shirt in for church, or the fact that I was one of the teen boys who just didn’t act like a nut all of the time. What she did was tell us when we were still young high schoolers that we would be married someday. We weren’t even dating yet! I don’t think I had even held her hand yet at that point.

We didn’t end up actually dating one another for another decade after we first met. But we continued on as friends as her mother continued praying every combination of words, I’m sure, to get us to finally marry. But because of her mother the thought was always in my mind. I loved Deanna long before I knew I loved her and wanted to be married to her. I loved her because her mother introduced to me the idea. Once it finally hit me, it was only thirty days after we went on our first actual date that I proposed to her. Thanks to the ole’ mother-in-law and her scheming on our behalf, seeing that we would be able to love one another and take care of one another the way that we do.

In a way my mother-in-law was taking a great risk here to try to present to us the idea of marriage at such a young age. She risked looking like a crazy person if our relationship had gone awry; but it didn’t. She did some motherly scheming as an act of care and peace of mind, but it seems that she was speaking providentially when she did.

Ruth also had to take a huge risk in this passage; and so did Naomi. It was one woman looking after the best interests of another because of love and deep devotion.  And it nearly didn’t work out; there was another in line to redeem the lineage of Naomi’s dead son and husband by purchasing the estate of Elimelech, and with it the duty to marry Ruth and provide for her, as well as care for Naomi. But, it would have interfered with his own inheritance. Because of this both Naomi and Ruth are saved from a terrible future, and Ruth is blessed with a son to continue on the lineage. The house of this family continues to be built by what looks like human effort in a great and meaningful scheme to ensure a more comfortable future, but that is only the surface of the thing: the genealogy tells the greater story. We’ll come back to that in a moment.

We’ve just had a snippet from the writer of Hebrews. He speaks of the sanctuary that Christ has entered. It isn’t the holy of holies that the high priest used to enter year after year, offering sacrifices that the writer will tell us in the next chapter can never take away sins, but has entered into the presence of the Father in heaven itself. His one sacrifice of himself at the end of the age to remove sin is sufficient. The Temple and the sacrificial system was merely a copy or shadow of what God was intending to do on behalf of humanity. This system was carried out in a building built by human hands, and by priests who, even being sinful themselves and having to offer their own sacrifices for their sins, could not fully remove the issue of sin from the life of the people. But Jesus’ sacrifice does.

God used this system to prepare his people for the sacrifice of Jesus. God was working out that which we could never work out on our own. He was aiming to save our lives. Jesus came as the one with the cure that no dead person could ever give to him or herself. No amount of sacrifice by humanity on behalf of humanity could ever save humanity.

The presence of God no longer resides in the Temple built by human hands. It is present in the Church, the gathering of the saints everywhere who have received God’s Holy Spirit. This isn’t a gathering that we have forced together as a builder does with stones, but something God has done. For the Psalmist writes: “Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labor in vain.” God has built his house in us, and choses to dwell therein.

This house is built from living stones that come from every race, gender, and class of people. In this house, built and still being built by the Lord, there is no distinction such as “Jew or Gentile, slave or free,” to recall the words of the Apostle Paul, but “we are all one in Christ Jesus.” We are one house, the Temple of the Holy Spirit, designed and built by the Lord.

I recall those words of Paul this morning because of the story of Naomi, Ruth and Boaz. Ruth was a Moabite, not a Jew. She chose to follow Naomi’s God, and, if you’ll recall the genealogy at the end of the book of Ruth, became part of Jesus’ family line. What appeared to be a scheme to secure a bright future, which is what many of our evangelistic programs and practices sometimes look like as we press forward to build up congregational numbers, was really the moving of the providence of God to save not only Ruth and Naomi, but also through the line of Ruth and Boaz to bring into the world Jesus, who redeems us.

This providence of God emerges today in the Gospel passage. Mark shares with us the story of the rich people putting their money into the treasury immediately after Jesus taught about the Scribes and their practice of making themselves look and feel good. What an object lesson here! But Jesus doesn’t stop at complaining about the self-serving nature of those whom he was observing, but he points out how it should be. The poor widow, only have two pennies to rub together and likely a pocket with holes in it that couldn’t even contain them without loss, dropped into the treasury absolutely everything she had to live on.

We have given to us here the anti-Jesus, and the pro-Jesus models of religion. One does for themselves and gives what is left over to God, consuming without regard, but the other in weakness and poverty, much like Jesus’ sharing in our humanity with all the pain and grief that comes with it, gives up everything for the sake of God’s house, God’s family, God’s chosen.

We learn from this poor widow so much about our God, whom we follow, and who has redeemed us through his son, and who blesses us to continue to build his house with living stones.  We learn that his providential care is always present in this world, even if we think we are succeeding by our own scheming and effort. Nothing we have, not one thing at all in the entirety of creation, is beyond God’s sovereignty and his providential care. In flesh he sent his son, and this son gave up everything to redeem us, even his own life.

God has always been designing something for us, that we might become part of the bride of his son, the Church. And someone told us about this wonderful man, Jesus, that we might become his bride in the Church, with all the saints scattered around the world in all places, at all times. Someone schemed on our behalf, through some sort of evangelistic method or technique, because God had already been doing the work of wooing us into his Church, to become his Temple where his Holy Spirit would dwell. And this Church has been called to bear fruit, to make new spiritual children in the faith because of God’s great love. “Children are a heritage from the Lord,” writes the Psalmist, “and the fruit of the womb is his gift.”

Let us take up this ministry given to us, and to bear children in this Church. Let us tell someone this week, this day even, of how much loves and cares for him or her, and wants to be with him or her. We cannot practice our religion in just this hour and in a few meetings throughout the week and hope that people will simply turn their lives towards Jesus Christ. As the wonderful man and faithful Bishop, Alden Hathaway used to say so often while preaching at the Parish Church of Saint Helena’s in Beaufort, SC: God does not have any spiritual grandchildren. Only children.

It is our calling, those for whom Jesus gave all he had so that this Temple of the Holy Spirit might be built, to live like this poor widow to build up Christ’s Church. It’s antithetical to much of what we understand to be prudence regarding our resources; and maybe God isn’t going to ask you to empty your IRA and put it in the plate, but I’m willing to bet that he’s going to call many of you to sacrifice your time, that most precious resource you have that you many never again recover, to share the gospel message with someone who hasn’t heard it. To invite them to the banquet with Christ. For what is evangelism other than one beggar, who we once were, telling another beggar where to find food, shelter, and a change of clothes

Take up your part in this work God is doing. Ask him to show you where and what it is that he is blessing that you might take part in this great ministry of creating new spiritual children for God. Then do it. Love someone enough that you want them to be a part of your family, the family of the redeemed, that they may spend their lives being fed and cared for by this Jesus who cares for his bride, the Church.

May the Lord himself give us a vision for ministry, and a burden for the lost, that they might become part of God’s providential story in this world with us.

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

Archbishop Cranmer: We Will Remember Them, Won’t We?

Tomorrow the English will observe Remembrance Sunday. Although his grace writes about what is going on in England, the same thing is going on in this country. Will we be part of the problem or part of the solution?

Remembrance-Sunday-4aLife isn’t really much to lose when you’re old, but it’s an awful lot when you’re young. We don’t send the old to war: we send the young so that the rest of us can grow old, and then we can build our marble monuments and write our paper memorials to remember the glorious young dead with honour and solemnity, religiously, every year. And then the politicians come along and remove those monuments and re-write those memorials because.. well, times change and we must move on. If not this generation, it’ll be the next. Or maybe the one after that. Old enemies become friends, and old friends become enemies. Memories must be erased because good is re-evaluated and evil is turned to dusty myths.

Read it all.

St. John Chrysostom Reminds Us Who We Are

iurNothing is more frigid than a Christian who is not concerned with saving others. You cannot in this respect plead poverty; the woman who contributed her last two copper coins to the collection box will rise up to accuse you. So will Peter who said: “I have neither silver nor gold,” and Paul who was so poor that he often went hungry for lack of necessary food. Neither can you point to your humble birth: for they were also little people of the lower class. Ignorance will serve as no better excuse for you: they also were unlettered. Even if you are a slave or a fugitive, you can still do your part; such was Onesimus, and look to what he was called. And do not bring up in?rmity: Timothy was subject to frequent illness. No matter who you are, you can be useful to your neighbor if you are willing to do what you can.

Do you see how sturdy, fair, well-shaped, graceful, and magni?cent are the trees that do not bear fruit? Yet if we have occasion to possess a garden, we prefer pomegranate and olive trees ?lled with fruit. Sterile trees are there for appearance rather than utility; and if they can be useful, it is only in a very limited way. Such are those persons who consider only their own interest. And such persons do not even attain this end, for they are good only to be rejected, whereas the trees can be used to build houses. The foolish virgins had purity, grace, and modesty but they were not useful to anyone because they saw themselves rejected.

Such are also those persons who do not assuage Christ’s hunger. Note well that none of them is reproached for private sins—fornication, perjury, and the like—but only for not having been useful to others. I ask you, is someone who acts in this fashion a Christian? If the leaven mixed with the flour does not cause it to rise, is it truly leaven? If perfume does not have apleasing fragrance for those who come near, do we call it perfume?

Do not say that it is impossible to lead others into the fold, for if you are a Christian it is impossible not to do so. Indeed, if it is true that there is no contradiction in nature, what we have said is just as true, for it stems from the very nature of a Christian. If you claim that a Christian cannot be useful, you dishonor God and you behave like a liar. It is easier for light to be darkness than for a Christian not to send forth light [emphasis added]. Do not declare something impossible when it is the contrary that is impossible. Do not dishonor God.

—John Chrysostom, Homily 20 on Acts 3-4: 60, 162-164