Thursday, May 27, 2010

Sermon for Whitsunday
St. John’s Church
May 23, 2010

I don’t know if anyone here has ever been through a hurricane, or tornado, or earthquake, but I’ve seen enough footage on The Weather Channel to know that any of those above mentioned events aren’t places I want to find myself anytime soon. It’s bad enough when you have some head’s up warning that an event such as one of these is possibly coming so that you can somewhat prepare yourself what might lie ahead. I think it’s impossible for any of us to comprehend what that first Pentecost must have been like for the group in that upper room – much like another the other times that God appeared to the apostles in an upper room.

The small group of Apostles and disciples, most likely the 120 mentioned in the first chapter of Acts, were gathered together, probably in prayer and worship, when all of a sudden a sound like a mighty rushing wind came down from heaven and filled the entire house where they were sitting. This was no still small voice as Elijah experienced God as recorded in the First Book of the Kings, but rather, it was more like the way Moses experienced God in the burning bush, or how the people of Israel experienced God in the pillar of fire in the wilderness, or how they experienced God at the foot of Mt. Sinai when Moses was receiving the Law from God. It was an experience in power and majesty and awe and wonder. How appropriate that those are the words that the church uses when she speaks about how we are to worship and presume to come into the presence of a Holy God in His sanctuary.

Those who were in that room on the first Pentecost morn appeared to have tongues of fire resting above their heads. As I mentioned in an adult forum some months back, that is the reason that a bishop wears a pointed hat known as a miter to symbolize the tongues of fire and the anointing of the Holy Spirit to be an overseer and shepherd of the flock who is to go out and proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ. The Apostolic Teaching and ministry that we hold fast to proceeds from this very event. There is a special degree of authority that comes from accepting the mantle and call to be a bishop, and that is one of the principle reasons that we are as concerned as we are about the state of our church and its most recent developments.

At any ordination whether it be that of a deacon, priest, or bishop, the hymn Veni Sancte Spiritus is sung, where we invoke and seek the indwelling of the Holy Spirit upon the ordinand and another Pentecost moment. For all believers that same invocation comes at our confirmation when we receive the power and blessing of the Holy Spirit when we come to make a mature affirmation of the Faith, seeking the power and grace to help us embody and live out the vows and promises that were made on our behalf at our baptism. At this most important moment, the bishop places his miter on his head before he lays hands on the candidates. For most of the service, the bishop is bareheaded, but at this moment that tongues of fire area visible once again.

The text then makes a shift and we really don’t know what transpired next other than all that were in Jerusalem, no matter what their native tongue, began to hear the Good News of Jesus Christ with no language barrier whatsoever. As inadequate is this illustration is, I can only think of it being like the pictures we’ve all seen of the General Assembly of the United Nations where everyone is hearing the speaker through a translator in his native tongue all at the same time. The only difference here is that the translator isn’t another human fluent in two languages, but rather the Holy Ghost Himself who has now linked speaker and hearer in a wonderfully mysterious new way. There is then somewhat of a dig when some in the crowd declares that they can’t believe that this bunch of Galileans could do such wonderful things – like declare the mighty works of God in several different languages.

One of the most wonderful things about Salvation history is the fact that in God’s economy, everything seems to come full circle. The incredible thing about the Pentecost event is the fact that the Gospel transcends all human barriers. It breaks down all walls of separation. As the line from the hymn declares, “God is working His purpose out.”

If we think back to Genesis there is another event like the one we heard this morning but from an opposite perspective. Hear the words from the eleventh chapter of Genesis:

And the whole earth was of one language, and of one speech. And it came to pass, as they journeyed from the east, that they found a plain in the land of Shinar; and they dwelt there. And they said one to another, Go to, let us make brick, and burn them thoroughly. And they had brick for stone, and slime had they for morter. And they said, Go to, let us build us a city and a tower, whose top may reach unto heaven; and let us make us a name, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth. And the LORD came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of men builded. And the LORD said, Behold, the people is one, and they have all one language; and this they begin to do: and now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do. Go to, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another's speech. So the LORD scattered them abroad from thence upon the face of all the earth: and they left off to build the city. Therefore is the name of it called Babel; because the LORD did there confound the language of all the earth: and from thence did the LORD scatter them abroad upon the face of all the earth.

These people did not do what the Lord commanded at the Creation to be fruitful and multiply and fill the whole earth. They were content to congregate in one place and do the very same thing that people continue to do today – build a world in which Man is the center of his own universe and the measure of his own existence. This world that he builds is one that that has no time or place for God, and is destined for death and failure. The people who attempted to build a tower into the heavens had one thing in mind, and that was to attempt to make a name for themselves and exult in their own greatness.

God’s plan for Mankind is quite different. He intends for us to go as he commanded his followers at the end of Matthew’s Gospel to go unto all nations, and share with them the Good News of the Gospel. For that which was dispersed across the face of the earth back in Genesis is now reunified in the person of Jesus Christ and the salvation of mankind. We have a common language once again – not one whose end is our glory, but is for God’s glory. We have common hope, a common destiny, a final destination.

Those Apostles were changed from that very moment – they were truly slain in the Spirit, and we are the beneficiaries of that change. They were given the boldness, the courage, the strength to proclaim the message of the Good News of Jesus Christ, and they did so knowing that they would meet death for doing so. With the exception of St. John, all of the Apostles were martyred for their faith, and yet, they never backed down from preaching and teaching Jesus’ message of repentance, amendment of life, and reconciliation. Theirs is the witness and record that we have to follow today.

What we have received, we are called to give away to others. We have received the free gift of eternal life through the shed blood of Jesus Christ, and it isn’t our gift to hoard. It is something that we are called to share, and to share freely with those we encounter throughout our lives. Throughout the Bible, whenever someone is empowered to do God’s work and His will on Earth, he is given the abilities needed for service.

Think of the prophets during the Old Testament. They weren’t empowered for a life of asceticism. They were given the gifts for service. That is why our lives as Christians cannot be lived out in isolation. A Christian in isolation, apart from the Church, is an oxymoron. If people tell you that they are Christians, but they really don’t get the Church thing, I’m sorry, those people haven’t truly embraced the Christian message. If you or I encounter such a person, we have work to do.

Just like the Apostles, we have received the Holy Spirit, and He is working in us to do more than we can ever imagine. Isn’t it remarkable that God would entrust us to do His work here on Earth?

When I sit back and ponder that thought, it drives me to my knees, because I know my shortcomings, my faults, my SINS!

And yet, God has chosen a person like me, He has chosen people like us, sinful, broken, seemingly unworthy, to share His Good News to all mankind. We have an awesome responsibility, but we have been given a more awesome gift. We have been given God.

We have received the One who proceeds from the Father and the Son, and He is the one who empowers us for this work. The work is not going to be easy. There are going to be times of struggle, and pain.

We may never see a time when we are actually confronted with physical persecution for our faith, but we are certainly seeing persecution in other areas. Society cannot fathom the concept of Universal Truth. Instead, we are told that truth is individualistic, and no one has a corner on truth.

However, our Lord Jesus told His disciples quite clearly that He was the Way, the Truth, and the Life, and that our only path to the Father was through Him. This is the message that our pluralistic world needs to hear. The world needs to hear that there is something to live for beyond our selves, and that what is to come so far exceeds anything that we can comprehend or fathom.

We have received the gifts to proclaim that message.

Will we have the courage to boldly proclaim that message to a world that so desperately needs to hear it?

Sunday, May 09, 2010

Sermon for Rogation Sunday
St. John’s Church – Moultrie, GA
May 9, 2010

One of the geniuses of Anglican worship is the use of the Collect. As I’ve mentioned before the term collect comes from the Latin collecta and it basically means a gathering together just as the name implies. Its purpose is to form a succinct statement and usually gives a one sentence synopsis of the Epistle and Gospel lesson appointed for a particular Sunday or Holy Day. The Rev. Paul Zahl once said if you want to know the theology of Anglicanism, simply read the collects. His point in making that assertion is that the overarching principle of the Gospel can be found therein – the Law of God, and the Mercy of God in that important order.

I think that most of the time the collect is overlooked, and yet, every Prayer Book service has at least one appointed to be prayed. I would ask you to turn again to page 175, and reflect again upon those words, which were offered at the beginning of the service.

We begin with a petition to God and the acknowledgement that all good things come from him. The ancient Prayer Book Lectionary is built on a wonderful order because if you look at the previous page and the portion from St. James’ Epistle which preceded ours this morning, that same sentiment is expressed again, “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and cometh down from the Father of Lights, with whom there is no variableness, neither shadow of turning.”

There is the temptation within secularism to chase the things that we build up in our minds as good, and we often discover that there is nothing but a letdown at the end. We spend our lives chasing a career, money, security, and realize that our true happiness can never be found in making those things an end unto themselves. Only when we can recognize and acknowledge that all that we have is a gift from God, and that he has entrusted them to us for a short time will we ever realize where true joy and happiness can be found.

The collect continues with what I see as parallel ideas that play off of each other, and begin to solidify what St. James is saying in the Epistle lesson for this morning.

The pleading portion asks God for two things – to think those things that are good, and then to perform them. The pleading incorporates two additional themes that I believe give the collect its tremendous beauty and theological depth. We don’t simply ask God for those two things that I just mentioned, rather, we seek our Lord’s holy inspiration and His merciful guiding.

Our Epistle lesson today opened with the words, “Be ye doers of the word, and not hearers only.” I have always loved those words from St. James because that is the mission statement for all Christians – put your faith into practice and action. Go out and do, that what we hear Christ calling us all to do.

Our collect puts additional flesh on those words.

O Lord, by thy holy inspiration, help us to think those things that are good.

One of our greatest shortcomings is the notion that we can do things on our own. After all, we were all raised with the thoughts of pulling ourselves up by our own bootstraps, and yes, that is what we are supposed to do. However, if we believe that we have all the ability we’ll ever need to accomplish this task, then we’ve only set ourselves up for failure.

That goes with our thoughts as well. I can say with 100% certainty that the thoughts that run through my head are some of my most besetting sins. No, I’m not going to turn the pulpit into my own confessional booth, but I would venture to say that all of our thoughts are the ones that tend to get each and every one of us in our most trouble. Of course, one step further is putting those thoughts into action, but I only wish to dwell on the thoughts for right now.

Jesus told his followers in the Sermon on the Mount:
Ye have heard that it was said of them of old time, Thou shalt not kill; and whosoever shall kill shall be in danger of the judgment: But I say unto you, That whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment: and whosoever shall say to his brother, Raca, shall be in danger of the council: but whosoever shall say, Thou fool, shall be in danger of hell fire.

And further on:
Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not commit adultery: But I say unto you, That whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart.

Jesus is entreating us to get our thoughts in order because our thoughts will no doubt lead to action. If we don’t get our mind under control, then our mind will begin to justify what the will has already decided it wants to do. And the most important of our collect this morning is that we pray that we might receive the inspiration from Almighty God that we might begin to think on those things that are good.

As St. Paul says to the Philippian Church:

Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.

We are told to think on those good and pleasant things, and we most definitely need holy inspiration to do so. It is ours for the asking.

Now all of the thoughts and dwelling on these good and pleasant things is wonderful, now comes the application and putting it into practice. That is where the second half of the collect comes in, and what James is speaking about in his epistle.

Lord, by thy merciful guiding may I perform those same good things.

I think the combination of those two words, merciful and guiding, speaks so eloquently to the human condition. In all that we do we are still constantly in need of God’s mercy. Even when we’ve given our best, we still come face-to-face with our sinfulness. I wish I couldn’t count the times that even sitting in church my mind wanders, I think sinful thoughts, and yet, I’m engaged in the worship of Almighty God.

There’s a witty little prayer that floats around the Internet every few months or so that goes something like this:

Dear Lord, I thank you that I haven’t thought any evil thoughts today, I haven’t gossiped, I haven’t cursed, that I’ve committed myself to you and your will for my life, but I’m about to get out of bed now, and I know I’m going to need you now more than ever. Amen.

As the Psalmist declares and we pray on Ash Wednesday, “Behold, I was shapen in wickedness, and in sin hath my mother conceived me.”

When we can admit our condition, we can then more easily entrust our lives to the merciful guiding that our Lord desires for us. Then we can do the work that St. James speaks of when he speaks of the Christian as a doer of the Word and not a hearer only.

We are called to be a doer of the Word not to earn favor, or merit, but rather out of a sense of humility and utter thankfulness for the merciful guiding that we continue to receive. Our ability to understand and attempt to grasp the grace of God only becomes evident when we fully diagnose who we really are in the sight of God. When we are able to do this, then can we start to comprehend the futility of our actions apart from a posture of gratitude.

The medieval church got itself into trouble with some of these passages, and perhaps this is why Martin Luther had so much trouble with them. He saw what happened when works were seen as an end in themselves, rather than a means to an end, which is the worship and service toward a merciful God. He saw what happened when the church abused her authority over the souls of her members and exploited them for deeply sinful and selfish purposes. Seen in its proper context, one can recognize the beauty in seeing God’s holy inspiration shaping our thoughts and desires, and mercifully guiding us into action, thus, helping bring about His kingdom on earth, as it is in heaven.

O Lord, from whom all good things do come; Grant to us thy humble servants, that by thy holy inspiration we may think those things that are good, and by thy merciful guiding may perform the same.

Now, through our Lord Jesus Christ, may we have the opened ears to hear those words, and the minds, wills, and desires, to go forth and perform the same, to the honor and glory of Almighty God, to whom be ascribed all might, majesty, power, and dominion, both now and forever. Amen.

Friday, May 07, 2010

Sermon for the Fourth Sunday after Easter
St. John’s Church – Moultrie, GA
May 2, 2010

One of the things that many of us find disturbing and hardest to deal with is the concept of a moving target. Think about our relationships with one another. Just when we think we have someone figured out, things change, we change, situations change. Those things that we thought were fixed end up changing and we no longer have a point of reference.

In order for a ship to be able navigate or a plane to fly, they have to have complex navigational instruments such as gyroscopes or GPS systems that help keep them tied to fixed points so that they know where they are at all times. I’ve never spoken to a pilot about this, but I could almost guarantee he would never start-up his plane if his orientation devices were not functioning properly.

We’ve all heard the old saying by Benjamin Franklin that there is nothing certain in this world but death and taxes. Even though those two things are indeed most certain, our lessons this morning tell a very different story, and there are some things in this life that are quite certain, and the Lord that we worship and serve is the most important of them all.

In our collect appointed for today, we acknowledge the reality of those sundry and manifold changes of this world. The changes of this world are both sundry – varied and diverse and they are manifold – in that we can count on them happening. Thankfully for us the collect continues and asks God to fix our hearts upon him because that is the one and only true source of joy.

If you were to poll most people, they would probably say that joy is one of those things in life that they would like to achieve. Our collect declares with certainty that true joy comes in fixing our hearts, minds and wills upon Jesus.

Our Epistle lesson for today comes from St. James. How appropriate to have commemorated the Feast of Ss. Philip and James yesterday, and hear the first few verses from his Epistle. I’m really not sure why Martin Luther once quipped, “St. James’ Epistle is really an epistle of straw, for it has nothing of the nature of the Gospel about it.” I find the Epistle of St. James to contain some of the most practical lessons for the Christian life.

He has a great deal to say about the topic of Christ as our point of reference. “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and cometh down from the Father of lights, with whom is no variableness, neither shadow of turning.” There is no variableness nor shadow of turning. What a beautiful name for God as the Father of Lights. In the Greek there is actually a definite article in front of light, and thus literally, the father of the lights. And God said let there be light. And God said, Let there be lights in the firmament of heaven to divide the day from the night; and let them be for signs, and for seasons, and for days and years. And as the Psalmist declares, “Who hath made great lights, for his mercy endureth for ever: The sun to rule the day: for his mercy endureth for ever; the moon and the stars to govern the night: for his mercy endureth for ever.” God built in change and variableness as the day passes into night and back to day again, but He as Creator of the lights of both remains constant forever. He does not move as a shadow moves due to the light of the sun or moon.

As the author to the Epistle to the Hebrews declares, “Jesus Christ the same yesterday, today, and forever. Be not carried away with divers and strange doctrines.” We are to anchor ourselves to the one thing that is solid and unmovable. It is most fitting that the symbol that the church has used to denote hope is an anchor. In the sixth chapter of Hebrews, we hear, “we may have the strongest comfort, we who have fled for refuge to hold fast the hope set before us. Which we have as an anchor of the soul, sure and firm.” The goal of an anchor is to provide solid mooring to a ship that is being tossed about by the waves, and our solid mooring is the Lord Jesus.

Our Gospel lesson addresses the hope that the Apostles were seeking as Jesus was telling them some words that they were finding difficult to hear. Jesus, during his Farewell Discourse in John, is trying to help them comprehend the fact that his departure is all part of man’s salvation and that he must in fact return to the place from whence he came. He had to go back to the Father in order that the Comforter might come to the Apostles and to us as well.

There are places in the Bible where we need to learn a little bit of Greek and this morning’s Gospel is one of those very places. The word that is used to describe the Holy Ghost is the word paraklhtos. We need to begin to use the word Paraclete, and learn all of its intricate meanings because that word carries so many connotations, and I think it’s important to hold them before us whenever we encounter it.

Many times we will see this word translated as Comforter, and certainly that is one of the attributes of the Holy Spirit. But in addition to comforter it can be translated as advocate, or intercessor, or teacher, or helper. You notice that comforter alone isn’t enough, we need these other meanings as well.

The meaning that gets perhaps the least amount of attention, but most certainly applies to everything that I’ve said thus far is the notion of an advocate or intercessor. This isn’t simply a character witness, this is the supreme defense attorney that you can ever hope to have plead on your behalf.

If you were on trial, you don’t just want someone who will simply represent you, you want someone who is willing to trade places with you, step into your shoes, and completely advocate on your behalf.

That is what Jesus promised to his Apostles and he has promised to us as well. We have been given God Himself in His Spirit, to guide us, comfort us, advocate on our behalf, and help anchor us to the sure rock of Christ Jesus our Lord.

Life is most certainly going to toss us about, to and fro, and we are going to search desperately for something to hold onto. Something that is not going to collapse under our weight, sink when things get too rough, or disappear like a mirage in the sand.

We are called to cling fast to the one and only source that can in fact order our unruly wills and affections so that we might then love the things which we are commanded to do, and then desire those wonderful things which our Lord has promised to give to us. Through the power of the Holy Ghost, the Paraclete, our advocate, counselor, comforter, intercessor, teacher, guide, and helper, may we ever embrace and hold fast the blessed hope of Eternal Life, which comes to us through the shed blood of Christ Jesus our Lord. Then will we know those joys that are ours to have, and we will be anchored to the one who was and is and is to come.