Monday, November 30, 2009

Sermon for Advent Sunday
St. John’s Church - Moultrie, GA
November 29, 2009

It is a glorious and wonderful new year that we begin this morning. We come to the start of a new Church Year as we have arrived again at the Season of Advent. The time when we as the Body of Christ reflect and anticipate the coming of the Messiah in the Incarnation of our Lord.

It’s amazing how me move so quickly from last Sunday where we celebrated the kingship of Jesus Christ, into the season of longing and expectation. If you look back at the lessons assigned for this morning, you might see that they provide a different sort of beginning of the Church Year and our Season of Advent.

The texts assigned don’t bring us stories of Zechariah and the coming of the prophet John the Baptist, nor do they speak of the interaction between the Archangel Gabriel and the Virgin Mary. We don’t begin where we would think we would.

The lessons today do point to the Incarnation, but they do so looking straight through the Incarnation, straight through the cross, and on to the second coming of the Messiah. They have a focus on the eschatological future or the world. Eschatology is a theological term which deals with the study of the end times, or the final things of this world. Passages such as what we’ve just heard have an eschatological focus.

Not unlike our lessons from a few weeks ago, we heard a great deal of strange language and imagery such as:

“the valley…shall be filled up by the earthquake in the days of King Uzziah.”

“there shall no longer be cold or frost.”

“there shall be continuous day.”

“before him there is a consuming flame, and round about him a raging storm.”

“there will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars.”

“people will be perplexed by the roaring of the sea and the waves.”

“the powers of heaven will be shaken.”

“and then they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory”

What are we to make of these particular passages of Scripture?
These passages certainly don’t bring to mind images of a manger, or shepherds, or wise men, or the coming of the Son of God.

No, they conjure up images of darkness and confusion.

And since we believe that the Holy Scriptures are the living, breathing Word of God, I believe they are certainly chosen specifically so that we might hear them and wrestle with them today.

Try for a moment to think about the first Christians in Jerusalem about 30 years after Jesus’ Ascension. They are meeting together to break bread, and re-tell the stories of Jesus together in small house churches. If some of these groups were lucky, they might have had something written down by one of the Apostles or one of the Evangelists. Most likely though they would have had nothing but the stories that they never got tired of telling over and over.

What would be going through their heads if they had heard these same passages being read in their midst? Most likely their non-Christian friends have been ragging them unmercifully because this so-called Messiah that they worshipped had not yet come back. Things were certainly getting rough around Jerusalem with all the Romans around.

And also think about what was happening in other parts of the world at the same time. Christianity was spreading rapidly outside Palestine, but these new converts were going about it in roundabout kind of way. There was an ex-Pharisee Saul, now Paul was telling these new followers of Christ were instructed that they did not have to be circumcised as a sign or maker of being part of the New Covenant.

However, many cried foul.

Hey! That’s not part of the deal here. Jesus was a good Jew, and he sure didn’t tell us we didn’t have to keep our part of the Old Covenant. These new folks need to follow the Law of Moses just like we do.

But what did Jesus say in our passage this morning? He told the Christians in Jerusalem the same thing he told Christians anywhere else.

Stay Awake!

Be on guard!

Hang on!

Prop your eyes open! Either literally of figuratively, whatever the case may be.
Now, let’s move forward to 2009 and St. John’s Church in Moultrie, GA. We are gathered together as a faith community preparing to break bread just like the early Christians did. We are in the process of re-telling the stories of Jesus just like the early Christians did. We aren’t doing it homes, but we are gathered around the altar for to be fed by the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ.

The more things change, the more they stay exactly the same. We are still met with the same criticisms that the early Christians did.

Come on! Are you still believing those silly stories about that Jesus person?

Don’t you know that we are now enlightened and proven that this Christianity thing is just a big hoax?

All you need is a little more pleasure in your life in whatever form it takes. Besides, hasn’t the Church done some pretty bad things in its history all in the name of Jesus? What about those Crusades and that Inquisition business? You’ll notice that everyone who wants to debunk Christianity always bring those two items up. Ravi Zacharias once said that many would like to point out how much violence was done in the name of God, how much violence has been perpetrated in the name of godlessness?

Of course, the biggest complaint against Christianity has to do with the nature of evil. Skeptics say if your Jesus was so special why is there so much evil in the world, and why are we in as big of a mess as a global society as we’ve ever been?

These questions and accusations come at each of us in different forms, and are manifestations of the Devil and his work. He wants to whittle and wear us down. He wants to make us weary and tired.

And what happens when that occurs - we are not able to see the coming of the Son of Man. Jesus told us very clearly that this is exactly what we are to expect. This is what is going to be coming our way as His disciples. He continues to tell us today to stay awake, be vigilant, pray, and keep alert.

As our Gospel lesson from the morning closes, what does Jesus do?

It says that he went to the temple area during the day, and at night he would go apart and stay at a place called the Mount of Olives. Jesus knew that in order for him to stay alert he would have to go apart and be with His Father in prayer. In order for us to do the same we too must spend time apart and do the very same things.

I wish to close with a story that sets the stage for us during Advent as we approach our Lord’s Incarnation

A. J. Gordon was the pastor of Clarendon Baptist Church in Boston, MA. One day he met a young boy in front of the church carrying a rusty cage in which several birds fluttered nervously. Gordon inquired, “Son, where did you get those birds?”

The boy replied, “I trapped them out in the field.”

“What are you going to do with them?”

“I’m going to play with them, and then I guess I’ll just feed them to an old cat we have at home.”

When Gordon offered to buy them, the lad exclaimed, “Mister, you don’t want them, they’re just little old wild birds, and they sure can’t sing very well.”

Gordon replied, “I’ll give you $2 for the cage and the birds.”

“Okay, it’s a deal, but you’re making a bad bargain.”

The exchange was made and the boy went away whistling, happy with his shinny new coins. Gordon walked around to the back of the church property, opened the door of the small wire coop, and let the struggling creatures soar into the blue.

The next Sunday he took the empty cage into the pulpit and used it to illustrate his sermon about Christ’s coming to seek and save the lost - paying for them with His own precious blood.

“That boy told me the birds were not songsters,” said Gordon, “but when I released them and they winged their way heavenward, it seemed to me they were singing, ‘Redeemed, Redeemed, Redeemed!’”

This is Advent - and the message of these times is the song of those wild birds. It’s the song sung in every carol of this season: Redeemed!

It’s the word that the shepherds heard: Redeemed!

It’s the assurance Mary received: Redeemed!

It’s the message behind the star that the wise men followed: Redeemed!

We are all trapped by sin, but Christ has purchased our pardon. He who has this hope in his heart will sing, and you know the song: Redeemed, Redeemed, Redeemed!

Happy New Year to all of us here at St. John’s and the followers of Jesus Christ everywhere, we are redeemed people.

May God give us the strength to stay awake, alert, and life like the redeemed people that we truly are.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Sermon for the Feast of Christ the King
St. John’s Church – Moultrie, GA
November 22, 2009

If I were to take a guess, I would suspect that most of us here have played the game 20 questions. In an effort to discover the identity of some person, place or thing, one asks a series of questions to help us on our quest. One of the strategies of the game is to move as quickly as possible to questions of a more specific nature because the broader questions at the beginning attempts to rule out as many wrong answers as they can. The closer one gets to the answer the more specific the questions tend to become.

This morning’s Gospel doesn’t deal with 20 questions, but it does deal with some of the most critical questions that have ever been posed in all of human history.

Our Gospel from St. John sits squarely within the context of the events of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday as Jesus has already been questioned by Annas and Caiaphas, and is now in the presence of the Roman Procurator, Pontius Pilate. If we look at the few verses which precede what we just heard, we know that Pilate actually tried to have nothing to do with Jesus’ trial. He told the religious authorities that led Jesus to him to go and judge him according to their laws. He wasn’t interested in getting into what he perceived to be a religious squabble between different factions of Judaism. In Matthew’s Gospel we even have Pilate’s wife sending him word not to have anything to do with this righteous man because she had suffered much on his account in dreams just that night before. However, the religious authorities forced Pilate’s hand when they said to him that it was not lawful for them to put someone to death.

At this point in time Pilate was in a dilemma, he’s obviously dealing with someone who has done something serious enough to warrant the death penalty, and the last thing he wanted on his hand was a riot amongst the people. Talk about your untenable positions, Pilate was walking the tightrope between the Jewish people who despised the fact that they were under the occupation of Rome, and having to live under the rule of these pagans, and the Roman government who did not want to hear about their territories being problem areas and causing trouble. Pilate’s job was to keep the peace, and the last thing he wanted was this kind of a problem taking place around the Passover and Jerusalem packed with pilgrims from all over the country.

Pilate begins the interrogation with a series of questions, and unlike 20 questions, he starts off with a very specific question right off the bat. He asks Jesus directly if He is the King of the Jews. Interesting that Pilate goes right to that question from the very beginning as that might tell him who or what he’s dealing with here. An affirmative answer to Pilate’s question would lead him to want to know what this does for Herod’s authority. If he answers no, then Pilate would want to know why the religious folks are even attempting to put Jesus to death. In typical Jesus fashion He answers Pilate’s question with another question, “are you saying this on your own behalf or did others say that about me?” If we notice in Jesus’ answer, he never denies the accusation, and never shuns the title of King of the Jews. He simply turns the question on top of itself.

Pilate then replies in an almost sarcastic fashion following Jesus’ response when he says to him, “Am I a Jew?” Even in his answer it seems like Pilate is doing all he can to find get this case dismissed. He tells Jesus that it is his own people who have turned him over to him for judgment and Pilate wants to know what Jesus has done to warrant death. Jesus then gives a most interesting response when he says, “My kingship is not of this world; if my kingship were of this world, my servants would fight, that I might not be handed over to the Jews; buy my kingship if not from the world.” Twice in Jesus’ answer he uses the phrase, “my kingship is not of this world.” The word that is translated as kingship also means kingdom, so not only is Jesus saying that his authority comes from outside this world, his kingdom is from another realm as well.

Pilate then asks a follow-up question – one that I see as a bit more broad than the first one he asked. In our game of 20 questions, it appears that Pilate is moving in the wrong direction. He asks Jesus the more general question, “So, you are a king?” Based upon Jesus’ reply, Pilate merely wants to know more about this kingdom which comes from outside the cosmos in which he claims to have attendants and servants who will fight on his behalf. Who is this person who is standing before him? What is he up to, and what is he going to do?

Again, to this question Jesus answers in an almost sarcastic and short fashion when he simply replies, “You say that I am a king.” There is no direct affirmation, and yet there is no denial either. However, Jesus doesn’t stop there, but continues his answer in one of the most incredible statements ever uttered by our Lord. The Incarnation is defined in the following terms, “For this I was born, and for this I have come into the world, to bear witness to the truth. Every one who is of the truth hears my voice.” Jesus declares that his kingdom and kingship is beyond this world, beyond this cosmos. Yet, it is for this very world that Jesus was born and came here. He did it for us in order that we might be able to experience the kingdom that lies beyond this life.

I know I said it a couple of weeks ago, but I’m certainly going to say it again now. Why does our lesson for today stop with verse 37?

I ask that question because of the question that Pilate asks of Jesus following his last statement. Personally, I believe that Pontius Pilate asked the most pertinent, most honest, and most important question anyone has ever asked. Verse 38 continues with Pilate asking Jesus, “What is truth?”

His questions of our Lord are the exact opposite of what one might expect in a game of 20 questions. He starts with the specific, “Are you the King of the Jews?” He continues with a more general question, “Are you a king then?” Finally, he ends with an incredibly broad question, “What is truth?”

It’s Pilate’s third question that is by far the most critical because it actually would have led him to the answer. His only problem was he didn’t wait around to hear Jesus’ answer. The Truth was standing right in front of his eyes, and yet, he didn’t know it or comprehend it. I often wonder what Jesus would have said if Pilate had not gone right out of the room after asking that question and tell the crowds that he found no crime in Jesus, and sought again to release him. Would he have listened to Jesus’ answer? Could he even comprehend what Jesus might have said?

How many times are we confronted with the truth, when it’s right in front of our eyes and don’t’ do anything about it? Sometimes our eyes are blinded and we can’t see. More often though, I think we turn a blind eye to the truth that confronts us. In our efforts to accommodate, and not offend, and be inclusive, the truth seemingly becomes optional.

In St. Paul’s letter to the Ephesians he exhorts his hearers to “speak the truth in love.” He believed the loving thing to do is to speak the truth no matter what. The worst thing that we could ever do is temper or lessen the truth in order for the person to like what we have to say.

Pilate had the truth standing right in front of him, and he never knew it. He never knew that the King of kings, and Lord of lords was looking him squarely in the eyes with the eyes of love and compassion. The Truth does just that. He looks each of us in the eye with that same love and compassion and bids us to come and follow Him, to come and listen to His voice. The Good Shepherd is bidding us to listen to His voice, the voice of truth.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

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Sermon for Trinity XXIII – Proper 28
St. John’s – Moultrie, GA
November 15, 2009

Several years ago a friend of mine gave me a copy of a teaching that The Rev. Dr. N. T. Wright gave at a church in Minneapolis, MN, after she discovered that I was a fan of Dr. Wright. As you might imagine if you’ve ever read any of Tom’s writings that the topic of his lecture was on the historical Jesus. He has been one of the most fervent supporters of the traditional teachings when addressing the question ‘Who was Jesus?’ or ‘Who is Jesus?’ as opposed to what I believe to be the heretical positions put forward by the Jesus Seminar and the likes of Marcus Borg and others. We’ll save a discussion of the Jesus Seminar for another day, but in the lecture that Dr. Wright presented, I came away with a description and interpretation of this morning’s Gospel that I think might help us all.

Passages like the one we just heard from St. Mark, sometimes called the little apocalypse, most likely gives us pause, and I’m sure we’ve been tempted to ask the question, “How do I understand what I’ve just read?” What is Jesus talking about when he speaks about a tribulation, and the sun being darkened, and the moon not giving off her light, and stars falling from heaven, and the powers of heaven being shaken, and the Son of Man coming in the clouds with great power and glory?

This is one of those passages of Scripture where we are actually required to use our brains, and think, and listen to the Spirit, and trust Him to discern what we are to read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest. This is one of those places where we really must understand the concept of multiple genres of biblical literature. As we know, the Bible is a collection of 66 books written as history, poetry, wisdom literature, parables, apocalyptic, visions, letters – I’m sure others could be mentioned as well. So in our passage from Mark 13, what are we working with? For some strains of Christianity, this passage is to be read as a literal sequence of events that either took place in the past, or will take place in the future. They see these events in an almost George Lucas or Steven Spielberg type fashion, and try to envision what that might look like.

Let me make a side note here. Please don’t hear me saying that I don’t believe that God isn’t fully capable of ordering all of these things to occur in the exact order that Jesus declares according to His Divine Providence. He absolutely can and could do so at any time that He desired. End of side note.

However, I find the explanation that N. T. Wright gives about this passage to be most helpful in gleaning what our Lord wishes us to hear.

“We need to learn how to read apocalyptic. One of my colleagues at Oxford used to put it this way in his lectures. If we read a Jewish text which says that the sun will be turned into darkness, and the moon will be turned into blood, and the stars will be falling from heaven, we know as a matter of genre that the next line will not read the rest of the country will have scattered showers and sunny intervals. This is not a cosmic weather forecast.”

Dr. Wright went on to tell the story about a cover picture on either a Time Magazine or The Economist that came out after the mid-term elections during the Clinton presidency, and the picture showed a piece of earth that had opened up with a great fissure with Bill Clinton stuck down in the chasm by his elbows and the title read, “Large earthquake in America, one president hurt.”

We use imagery like earthquakes, and we speak of earth shattering events to describe things of a cataclysmic nature – in an oxymoronic sense to prove our point. This cover uses imagery to refer to political events in order to explain their significance. If someone came across that magazine cover in 1,000 years, we would certainly hope that they didn’t really believe that there was a literal earthquake in Washington D.C. sometime toward the end of the 20th Century in which President Clinton was literally injured.

“In this passage that we heard this morning, our Lord is speaking about a time of great tribulation at the heart of which Jerusalem and the Temple will be destroyed and He as the prophet who has warned about these events will be vindicated. And the language of vindication is taken straight out of Daniel chapter 7 which is the Old Testament lesson that we will hear next Sunday.

When we look to the events of Good Friday through Easter, most of those very things which Jesus spoke of in our Gospel this morning did in fact come true.

All three Synoptic Gospels state that from the sixth hour until the ninth hour, while our Lord hung upon the cross, darkness covered the entire land. St. Luke goes so far as to say that the sun’s light failed. All three Synoptics record that the Veil of the Temple was torn in two from the top to the bottom. The word for torn there has a connotation of being forcefully rent in two. This veil was the large curtain which was the barrier in the temple into the Holy of Holies. The only person allowed into this region was the High Priest, and only once per year on the Day of Atonement when he would make the sacrifices for the nation. Think about the significance of this barrier being ripped open.

Matthew records that after Jesus’ death, “the earth shook, and the rocks were split. The tombs also were opened. And many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised, and coming out of the tombs after his resurrection they went into the holy city appearing to many.”

Matthew and Mark both record that the centurion who stood beside the cross declared that Jesus was the Son of God after witnessing what took place on that Friday afternoon almost 2,000 years ago.

Look at the way that Jesus describes the earth shattering events, both figuratively and literally, which would in fact happen to him. No, Jesus does come floating down to earth on a fluffy white cloud, but he bursts open the gates of hell, conquers the powers of sin and Satan, and establishes a way for everyone to enter into the saving embrace of His Heavenly Father. He established a means for us continue to receive the grace He intends for us in the Sacrament of His Body and Blood.

We heard in our Collect this morning that our Lord has caused ALL Holy
Scripture to be written for our learning. Our church has certainly gotten itself into all kinds of trouble by missing that one word ALL. All of Scripture is given to us for our instruction, teaching and learning. It is given for us to hear, read, mark, learn and inwardly digest so that we might both embrace and hold fast that blessed hope of everlasting life. It is given to us so that we might have ears to hear and eyes to see all that God has in store for us both in this life, and in the life that is to come.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Sermon for Trinity XXII – Proper 27
St. John’s Church – Moultrie, GA
November 8, 2009

There are a number of times that I often wonder how the framers of our lectionary decide what portions to keep, and what portions to exclude from our Sunday readings. For instance, this morning we skip the three verses which precede the lesson we just heard regarding Jesus and David, and how can Jesus be considered David’s son, when David called him his Lord? Perhaps since we do hear the parallel passage in Matthew in Lectionary Year A that it is skipped when it comes up in Years B and C when we read Mark and Luke’s Gospels.

This morning, I’m not so much concerned with the passage that is skipped in the Gospel as I am the first seven verses of the seventeenth chapter of I Kings. We don’t hear read very many of the events surrounding the prophet Elijah, but as a stage setter, I think these first few verses shed some additional light on the incredible faithfulness of one of the great prophets of Israel.

I Kings 17 begins with the following words:

1And Elijah the Tishbite, who was of the inhabitants of Gilead, said unto Ahab, As the LORD God of Israel liveth, before whom I stand, there shall not be dew nor rain these years, but according to my word. 2And the word of the LORD came unto him, saying, 3Get thee hence, and turn thee eastward, and hide thyself by the brook Cherith, that is before Jordan. 4And it shall be, that thou shalt drink of the brook; and I have commanded the ravens to feed thee there. 5So he went and did according unto the word of the LORD: for he went and dwelt by the brook Cherith, that is before Jordan. 6And the ravens brought him bread and flesh in the morning, and bread and flesh in the evening; and he drank of the brook. 7And it came to pass after a while, that the brook dried up, because there had been no rain in the land. (I Kings 17:1-7)
Look what we lose if we do not hear these words – we hear of Elijah’s heeding of God’s word and doing something that seems quite illogical. After Elijah prophesies to Ahab that there will be no dew nor rain until God opens up the heavens again, he is told to flee the area and hide. That’s not so hard to imagine because most of the prophets whenever they gave the people warnings that they didn’t want to hear would have to flee for their lives.

I’ve heard it said before, and I’ll share it with you as well, it’s never a good thing when a prophet shows up. The words of the prophets were never filled with accolades or encouragement. They were almost always filled with gloom and doom that is to come. When living on St. Simons, I was told of the time when Jim Cantore from the Weather Channel was doing a live broadcast from the pier. For those of you who watch the Weather Channel during hurricane season, you know full well that wherever Jim Cantore is, you don’t want to be there! He’s never reporting how calm the surf is, or how beautiful the sunset looks.

Getting back to Elijah, the strange thing that he hears is the fact that God tells him that he will receive water from the brook Cherith, and that the ravens will bring him food. I don’t know about you, but I almost wonder what was going through Elijah’s mind when he heard that he would depend on the birds for his daily nourishment. Of course, we never know if there was any hesitation or questioning on his part, we simply hear that “he went and did according to the Word of the LORD.” What a measure of faith that God’s mouthpiece would exhibit.
Yet, in light of Israel’s history, this isn’t so far-fetched. If we remember back to the time of the Exodus, God fed His people with “the bread of angels” which would appear on the ground each morning. When the Hebrews complained against Moses and Aaron, He was still faithful, and spoke to them saying:
12I have heard the murmurings of the children of Israel: speak unto them, saying, At even ye shall eat flesh, and in the morning ye shall be filled with bread; and ye shall know that I am the LORD your God. 13And it came to pass, that at even the quails came up, and covered the camp: and in the morning the dew lay round about the host. 14And when the dew that lay was gone up, behold, upon the face of the wilderness there lay a small round thing, as small as the hoar frost on the ground. 15And when the children of Israel saw it, they said one to another, It is manna: for they wist not what it was. And Moses said unto them, This is the bread which the LORD hath given you to eat. (Exodus 16:12-15)
Elijah of course knew his people’s history, and knew of the Exodus. He had no reason to doubt that the Lord would be faithful to him as He had to his ancestors before him.

I think it is important to have heard that introduction and background to help provide additional insight into our first lesson.

Both our Old Testament lesson and Gospel deal with the most vulnerable of people in the Ancient Near East. Widows had no income, no status, and were truly exploited if they had no male heir to advocate for them. In our lesson this morning, the widow that Elijah meets is preparing the last meal for her and her son. All her possessions have given out, and she is ready to confront the horrors that lie ahead.

What makes this story so remarkable is where it takes place. Elijah had been commanded to leave Israel and head to pagan lands. He meets this woman Baal’s backyard, where polytheism was rampant, and the God of Israel would not have been revered. Yet when Elijah gives the woman a command, she has some insight into who is speaking to her. When she is asked for some bread she tells Elijah, “As the Lord your God lives, I have nothing baked, only a handful of flour in a jar and a little oil in a jug.” There is some semblance of acknowledgement that she is in the presence of someone special. That is further exhibited by her unwavering trust in his words that her supply of flour would never run out, and her jug oil would never go empty. For we hear that the woman, “went and did as Elijah said.” As we heard at the beginning of this chapter, “[Elijah] went and did according to the word of the LORD.”

In this first half of I Kings 17, we see both sides of the virtues of giving and receiving. The chapter opens with Elijah receiving from the Lord everything he needed as he was in hiding on the east side of the Jordan River. When he traveled to Zarephath he was then able to give a gift from the Lord to a widow who was in desperate need. The gift that she received was one that she in turn would share with her son. For our text says that, “she and he and her household ate for many days. The jar of flour was not spent, neither did the jug of oil become empty, according to the word of the LORD the he spoke by Elijah.”

As we turn to our Gospel, we hear of another widow and her most remarkable generosity.

Jesus sets the stage by his comments regarding the religious authorities who like to stand around in their long robes, and pray erudite prayers, and claim the best seats, and like to hear people call their names and use their titles. He says that these people not only exploit the widows, they actually, “devour their homes.” Quite a condemning statement from our Lord.

So Jesus and his disciples are sitting watching the goings on at the temple, and are seated opposite one of the gazofulakion. In this context this word is used to describe the receptacle mentioned by the rabbis to which were fitted thirteen chests or boxes, i.e. trumpets, so called from their shape, and into which were put the contributions made voluntarily or paid yearly by the Jews for the service of the temple and the support of the poor.

The widow is supporting the very group that should be supporting her. The religious authorities should be taking note that the very person who needs their help is doing all that she able to do her part, even if it seems quite insignificant. We don’t really have a good idea of how small her offering is unless we look at what these two copper coins were really worth. If we look at the Greek and the term that is used, the woman put into the treasury two lepta, which was the smallest and least valuable coins in circulation in Palestine, worth one-half of a quadrans or 1/128 of a denarius, or about six minutes of an average daily wage. In essence, this really was an insignificant amount of money.

Yet, Jesus said that her contribution was the largest of all placed into the treasury by everyone else. “With God, giving is weighted evaluatively, not counted. The widow was praised because she gave sincerely and at some cost to herself.” Our Lord says that she put in what she had to live on, everything she had. The widow that Elijah met gave to God through His prophet everything she had as well, and she was blessed for that gift. We never hear what happens to this widow in Mark’s Gospel, but we live with the assurance that what we give to for our Lord’s service will return to us according to our Lord’s good purpose.

We too are called to give back to God with that same sense of gratitude and trust. As our alms and oblations are presented at the altar we pray each week, “All things come of thee, O Lord, and of thine own have we given thee.” All that is ours is truly God’s. He entrusts us with a tremendous responsibility, and our duty is to return thanks in a like manner.

Elijah met a poor widow who was planning to die, and she gave all that she had back to God and His servant. Jesus and his disciples witnessed another widow giving back to God all that she had in the service of His temple. May we also return to the Lord the honor, glory, praise, and worship that is due his most Holy Name.

Sunday, November 01, 2009

Sermon for All Saints’ Day
St. John’s Church – Moultrie, GA
November 1, 2009

One of the wonderful attributes of the Christian faith is the fact that our focus is always on what lies ahead. We are a people who live with the sure and certain hope that there is more to life than just what we live here on earth. We have been promised an inheritance, and a future that is more glorious, more incredible than we could ever imagine or comprehend. We live today knowing that everything good in this life will be eclipsed by something more remarkable in the life to come, and all of our challenges, hurts, disappointments, and trials are for our building up and growth.

This morning we celebrate one of the high feasts of our Church Year. We commemorate and celebrate the saints who have gone before us, and as our opening hymn states are now at rest from their labors here on earth. We celebrate this day each year in order that we never forget to make sure we look backward at those who have preceded us along this faith journey. This date has been on our Kalendar for 1,300 years when Pope Gregory III consecrated a chapel in the Basilica of St. Peter on November 1, in the first part of the eighth century. Gregory IV extended a church-wide commemoration of All Saints the following century.

The Gospel lesson appointed for All Saints’ Day is always the traditional hearing of the Sermon on the Mount. When we look at this particular piece of our Lord’s teaching, we certainly see the connection between those attributes that Jesus mentions and the lives of those godly men and women who now dwell upon the eternal shore.

There are two portions of the sermon that I wish to expand upon this morning.
The first point has to do with the setting of the stage for these three chapters in Matthew’s Gospel. It says in our text that when Jesus saw the crowds, he went up on the mountain. One of the attributes of Matthew’s Gospel is its intentional linking back to the Hebrew Scriptures. One of the terms that Matthew uses almost exclusively is Son of Man in reference to Jesus, and those hearing it would immediately draw a link back to the Book of Daniel and other Old Testament references.

The physical location of this teaching within Matthew’s Gospel has the potential of conjuring up some of those same historical links. One of the terms many use in reference to Jesus is the new Moses, and of course the Law, the 10 Commandments were given to Moses by God upon Mount Sinai. Moses ascended a mountain as God commanded, and received the tablets of stone. Jesus now ascends a mountain, not to receive a new teaching, but to give one. The Law came down from a mountain by a human messenger, and this remarkable teaching from Jesus himself is going to come down from a mountain as well.

Blessed Saint Augustine speaks of the mountain in these terms, “If it is asked what the ‘mountain’ means, it may well be understood as meaning the greater precepts of righteousness; for there were lesser ones which were given to the Jews. Yet it is one God who, through His holy prophets and servants, according to a thoroughly arranged distribution of times, gave the lesser precepts to a people who as yet required to be bound by fear, and who, through His Son, gave the greater ones to a people whom it had now become suitable to set free by love. …With respect, therefore to that righteousness which is the greater, it is said through the prophet, ‘Thy righteousness is like the mountains of God:’ and this may well mean that the one Master alone fit to teach matters of so great importance teaches on a mountain. ”

The second attribute of the setting has to do with Jesus’ posture. We hear that Jesus sat down, and his disciples came to him. Seated would have been the natural position to teach and instruct, and this is noted in number of places regarding Jesus’ posture while instructing his disciples or the crowds. One of the features of an ordination, or confirmation, or any other service where the bishop is the celebrant is the addition of a bishop’s chair or cathedra, and many parts of the service take place with the bishop seated, rather than standing. This is a symbol of authority, and certainly Jesus’ posture portrays that authority. Again, St. Augustine expresses it this way, “Then He teaches sitting, as behooves the dignity of the instructor’s office; and His disciples come to Him, in order that they might be nearer in body for hearing his words, as they also approached in spirit to fulfill His precepts.”

As I mentioned at the beginning of the sermon, we as Christians live our lives in the present always mindful of what lies ahead. In the Sermon on the Mount there are eight statements that make-up the first portion that we commonly recognize as the beatitudes. The term beatitude comes from the Latin term beatus which means ‘blessed’ or ‘happy.’ If you don’t look at these eight statements closely, you might pass over the verb tenses. If you look with me at the text from your bulletin insert, pay attention to the verb tenses, and this leads me to my other point. The first and the last beatitude end not in a future expectation, but rather convey a present reality. Jesus does not say, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs will be the kingdom of heaven.” He says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs IS the kingdom of heaven.” Those who are poor in spirit, don’t wait for something to happen in the future, but are free to experience the riches and rewards of the kingdom here and now.

Augustine helps to define the poor in spirit when he writes, “And ‘the poor in spirit’ are rightly understood here, as meaning the humble and God-fearing, i.e. those who hath not the spirit which puffeth up. Nor ought blessedness to begin at any other point whatever, if indeed it is to attain unto the highest wisdom; ‘but the fear of the Lord is the beginning of Wisdom;’ for, on the other hand also, ‘pride’ is entitled ‘the beginning of all sin.’ Let the proud, therefore, seek after and love the kingdoms of the earth; but ‘blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.’”

The eighth beatitude is a bit harder for us to hear. Our Lord says that kingdom of heaven is for those who will be persecuted for righteousness sake. Where do we ever come up with the idea that becoming a Christian means the end of persecution, the end of tragedy, the end of suffering, the end of any of the ills which confront each of us all the time? It certainly doesn’t come from Scripture. I can’t stand the “prosperity gospel” preachers out there who say if we just pray hard enough, just believe more, just think more happy thoughts, then all our troubles will disappear. Their Bibles must not contain the Sermon on the Mount. The Sermon on the Mount leaves us with the reality that life is going to present us with all of the challenges we can ever imagine. It confronts our comfort zone and says that we are going to we are in fact going to go through the “valley of the shadow of death.” But like the Psalmist says, “we will have no fear.” The beatitudes leave us with the hope that the kingdom of God is not just some future place, but is here now. Bishop N.T. Wright said that the, “Kingdom of God is not a place where God reigns, but it is the fact that God reigns.” I hope you see the huge difference.

So the first and last beatitude bring us full circle to the kingdom of heaven. Those who are poor in spirit are the people who recognize their utter dependence upon God – for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Those very same people accept the fact that that very poverty of spirit is going to lead to persecution for righteousness sake. However, in the back of their minds are the words of St. Paul when he tells the Roman church and us as well, “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written, ‘For thy sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.’ No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, not powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 8:35-39).

May we continue to walk in the blessed fellowship of the saints who have gone before us. May we see in their lives their love for our Lord and Saviour. May we be the ones who are blessed both in this life, and in the life to come. May the light which shineth in each and every one of us all point others toward our heavenly Father, and His Son Jesus Christ our Lord who is the source of that one, true light, which is the light of the whole world.