Surviving your Parishing 1.0

Clergy are a strange sort.  When things go well (read “well” as “the way I want,” or “as the community hopes” – this does not necessarily include “the way God has planned, before I stepped in and put my twist on it all,” which is part of the problem), when things go well I tend to praise the Lord.  And I should.  And when things go poorly (read “poorly” as “the way I didn’t want,” or “according to some other person’s planning/sabotaging,” or even “less-well-than-expected” – which usually means something about numbers), when things go poorly I tend to blame myself.  And I should.

That’s not to say that God isn’t to blame when things don’t go my way, or that I’m not a part of the picture when things go my way.  Perhaps, though, as I alluded to in my digression above, the problem is my defining of what constitutes things going well and things going poorly.  Where does God enter the equation?  So often, clergy can become so self-obsessed that they forget: is it forgetting that God belongs in the equation, or is it assuming that God’s in the equation without any intentional seeking of His will (afterall, if I’m involved then God’s will must be included)?

But for things to be going well, they must be going according to God’s will, not our own.  For things to be going poorly, they must be going according to our own will, not God’s.  We, who pray multiple times daily that God’s will be done – must we not also remember that for God’s will to be done, we must be willing to do it, with all of the lengthy discernment that is entailed?  Let us seek His will above our own!

Identity–Beloved of God: John 3:13-17

With the three children, things can get a little crazy around the rectory sometimes.  There’s a fourth on the way, due to arrive in March, so I don’t suppose that will end anytime soon.  Some of the things we find evidence for, or catch the kids in-the-act-of, just leave us asking, “Why in the world would you…?”  When frustration is great, it seems that one must scour the whole earth to find an answer for that “why.”  For some reason the question is never: “Why in the basement would you…?”  Nicky Gumbel shares, in The Alpha Course, the story of an ESL nanny who hadn’t quite mastered the nuances of the language, and upon catching her charges up-to-no-good asked, “What are you doing in the world?”  Which is a good question in it’s own right, but a different one.  Have you ever found yourself asking that question?  Looking for reasons, you ask, “Why in the world…?”  Baffled by events, you ask, “What in the world…?”  Boggled by a task, you ask, “How in the world am I supposed to…?”  Today I want to take the enterprise of being God’s people, and ask those questions of it.

Why in the world would anyone follow God?  Jesus answers our “whys” from the get-go.  God loves us.  The answer to why we would follow God is rooted in the answer to why God would have any of us follow Him.  God’s action toward us is the basis for our response toward Him.  So God’s love for us gives us the space and the impetus to love Him in return.  Because God acts out of love, to us, we can offer Him our lives.  When I was young we used to sing the chorus, “Oh, how I love Jesus.”  Do you remember the final line of that chorus?  “Because He first loved me.”

Charles Spurgeon, the great Baptist preacher, put it this way: “Christ loved you before you loved Him.  He loved you when there was nothing good in you.  He loved you through you insulted Him, though you despised Him and rebelled against Him.  He has loved you right on, and never ceased to love you.  He has loved you in your backslidings and loved you out of them.  He has loved you in your sins, in your wickedness and folly.  His loving heart was still eternally the same, and He shed His heart’s blood to prove His love for you.  He has given you what you want on earth, and provided for you an habitation in heaven.”  That is God’s great love for you – surpassing that of a spouse, a child, a friend, a parent.

It’s been said that when Christians really believe that God loves them, nothing can stop them from doing what He desires.  Think of your own experience:  how easy it is to do what those who love you desire of you – you trust their desires for you, and you can trust them because they’re desires for you that rise from love.  Love makes trust easier.  But when someone whose love we aren’t sure of desires something of us, then we double-check before we act, don’t we?  Are they trying to hurt us?  Are they trying to make fools of us?  And so it is when Christians have trouble trusting, or when they doubt, that God loves them; when we think that God hates us, or is out to get us.  We avoid Him.  We run away – like Adam and Eve in the garden, we hear Him and we hide.  Painfully aware that we’re not perfect, deceived into thinking that He couldn’t love anything short of perfection.  Rather than drawing comfort from the knowledge that He’s watching over us, we fear.

Our attitudes need to be like the young girl’s, who learned that Jesus watches over her to see everything she does.  She was asked, “Does it bother you that He sees everything you do?”  Her response: “Oh, no – He loves me so much that He can’t keep His eyes off of me!”  So listen to Jesus’ words from the Gospel lesson that we heard today: “For God so loved the world that…”  Notice that it’s not hatred that motivates God’s action toward us; not manipulation; not evil intent.  Just love.

And if the answer to the “why” of being God’s people is in His great love to us, which moves us to love Him in return, and to trust His desires for us, then our second question is “what.”  What in the world is following God about?  Again, the answer we seek is rooted in the “what” of God.  God loves us, we’ve seen, but what in the world has God’s love moved Him to do?  He comes through on His commitment of love to us, and you’ve heard about it your whole life, in Jesus’ crucifixion.  Statues and pictures of Christ hanging on the cross could quite fittingly each have inscribed at their base: “This is how God loved the world!”

It was for love that Jesus died on the cross, for love that God gave Himself for us.  Our answer to this question, of what following God is all about, is just that: Jesus’ self-sacrifice.  Following God is about giving of ourselves.  You’ve heard it said, and there’s something to it, that the measure of a man is in what he gives, not in what he gets.  We look to the Cross to see that great act of love, where God gave Himself for the people He loved, because He loved them.  Because He still loves even you.  He shows, He proves, His love for us through the things that He does.  How did Jesus say it?  “For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son…”

There was a young couple who sat gazing at the sky as the sun set.  Hand-in-hand.  Enthralled with the glory and beauty of nature.  She asked him, “Do you love me?”  He pulled his eyes away from the view and glanced at her.  “You know I do.”  She turned her head, and their eyes met.  She asked him, “Would you die for me?”  He answered, “No, dear…mine is an undying love.”  But God’s answer to that question is “Yes!  Yes I will die for you.  I have died for you!  Though I am immortal I send my Son and experienced mortality and death for you.”  What in the world would make anyone want to follow God?  He loves us that much.

And so let’s look at Jesus’ words again “God so loved the world that He sent His only Son…that all might have everlasting life.”  Seems straight-forward enough, but there is a “how” involved.  It’s not an automatic thing.  The question might rightly be asked, “How in the world does God loving us enough to send His Son to the world for us – how does that give us everlasting life?”  And Jesus’ answer is in the verse, and you know it already.  All that believe in Him will have everlasting life.  That’s the “how” of being God’s people, of following after Him.

Why in the world…?  Because God so loves us.

What in the world…?  He sent His only Son, Jesus.

How in the world…?  All who believe in Him may have everlasting life.

Beloved of God, know today that God loves you.  Know today how He has shown that love to you.  Know today what His love can mean for you, if you will only believe.  This is the game-changer.  Amen.

A New Lifestyle–Aug. 31/14

What are we here for?  It can’t simply be for bragging rights – I am a part of a church community; I go to church every Sunday; and it isn’t because God grants us fire insurance if we show up.  God didn’t make the Church so that we could feel good about ourselves, having done our duty joining worship each week; He didn’t make the Church so that we could get together with a bunch of nice people and learn to be nicer.  The Church is here as the firstfruits of Christ’s Kingdom which is breaking upon the world since Jesus walked it; the Church is here as the place where the standard of faith and knowledge of God is taught and learned; the Church is here to teach us to be good – not “nice,” but holy (the kind of “good” that God is).  One of the Church Fathers noted that though we were once babies, children, youths, then adults, we may never yet have been good.  Holiness of living takes transformation, which takes time.

More recently, the puritan divine George Swinnock commented that: “The upright soul is constant in his profession, and does not change his behaviour according to his companions.  Oh that I might never, through shame or fear, disown Him who has already acknowledged me!”  Today we’ll explore the question of what our identity in Christ, in whom we are known – as we have been known by Him; the question of what our identity in Him does to our way of living.  The Prime Minister of the Netherlands from 1901 to 1905, Abraham Kruyper, put it like this: “Wherever man may stand, whatever he may do, to whatever he may apply his hand, in agriculture, in commerce, and in industry, or his mind, in the world of art, and science, he is, in whatever it may be, constantly before the face of his God.  He is employed in the service of his God, he has strictly to obey his God, and above all, he has to aim at the glory of his God.”

The starting point for Christian living is always in Jesus – always in God.  God’s side of the equation is the starting point, from which our side of the equation is inspired.  The constancy of God’s love and care for us is what our faithfulness toward Him is based in.  Richard Hooker, author of the captivating 5 volumes on church polity, offered this (on the mutuality of our faithfulness): “The earth may shake, the pillars of the world may tremble under us, the countenance of the heaven may be appalled, the sun may lose his light, the moon her beauty, the stars their glory; but concerning the man that trusts in God…what is there in the world that shall change his heart, overthrow his faith, alter his affection towards God, or the affection of God to him?”  We declared, in our psalm this morning, the words of the psalmist, whose own faithfulness to God was based in his conviction of God’s faithfulness to him.

The starting place for living in faith is always God’s faithfulness to us.  Where do we go from there, though?  What makes the difference between being a person who is loved by God and loves Him in return, and a person who does something about it?  What can be done about loving God?  You love your spouse so you treat to dinner, bring home flowers or chocolate; you love your children so you provide all they need; you love your parents so you honour them in life and in death; you love bbq, so you visit it often.  We know what to do about our love in all of these cases, but what do you do about loving God, and what makes the difference that actually makes that happen?  The difference comes from knowing Him.

Thomas a Kempis, the midiaeval mystic, suggested: “Plant in the garden of your memory, the tree of the holy Cross; it produces a very efficacious medicine against all the suggestions of the devil.  Of this most noble and fertile tree, the root is humility and poverty; the bark, labour and penitence; the branches, mercy and justice; the leaves, true honour and modesty; the scent, sobriety and abstinence; the beauty, chastity and obedience; the splendour, right faith and firm hope; the strength, magnanimity and patience; the length, long-suffering and perseverance; the breadth, benignity and concord; the height, charity and wisdom; the sweetness, love and joy; the fruit, salvation and life eternal.”  Knowing God is transformative.

Some people say that we should look for God in others, but I say that you can’t see someone you don’t know.  You can’t recognize them.  But when we know God, when He starts transforming us, our eyes are opened.  A preacher spoke about Heaven, and was approached by a wealthy member of his congregation: “Pastor, you preached a good sermon about Heaven.  You told me all about it, but you did not tell me where Heaven is.”  “Ah,” said the pastor, “I’m glad of the opportunity this morning.  I have just come from down the street.  In a particular house you’ll find a member of your church who is extremely poor; she is sick and in bed with fever.  If you will go, and bring her groceries, and say, ‘My sister, I have brought this in the Name of our Lord and Saviour,’ if you ask for a Bible and read the 23rd Psalm, and then get down on your knees and pray – if you don’t see Heaven, before you finish, I’ll reimburse you for the groceries.”  The next morning the man returned to his pastor and said, “I saw Heaven, and I spent fifteen minutes there, as certainly as you’re standing before me now.”

The difference comes from knowing God – knowing whom we’re to recognize, whom we’re seeking after.  Moses had every excuse for not doing what God wanted, he was making them up on the fly (we didn’t hear all of them this morning), but he came face to face with God; he came to know God, and to know that God knew him; God told him His Name.  It changed history.

And for us, because we are known by God and accepted by Him, our lives, our living, our worlds, our world, can change.  When we’ve already received our full reward from God, in Christ, we are freed to live for others.  Teresa of Avila urged Christians to see themselves as the servants of all, which is what Jesus Himself told His disciples will make a person great in His Kingdom.  There’s a connection there that I want you to make, this morning: the Church is the firstfruits of God’s Kingdom springing forth in the world, and to be great here we must serve others – not ourselves.

And the idea of fruit ripening is an important one, when we speak of firstfruits.  If we liken Christian living to a plant growing, then good works – service to others – is not the root of the plant, but the fruit.  As I said, the root is in God’s faithfulness to us; knowing Him is like the stalk that grows from His faithfulness; service to others is the fruit that develops from that stalk.  If our service to others is spoiled fruit, then we need to look at the root and stalk – perhaps we’re already sick in one of these foundational areas.  Do we really trust in God’s faithfulness?  Do we really strive to know Him more, and better?

So the key to this is real transformation, authentic transformation.  The kind of transformed living that St. Francis meant when he said, “Preach the Gospel at all times.  If necessary, use words.”  You can’t fake that kind of authenticity.  There was a Presbyterian minister named James Bryan who commonly came home overcoat-less, having given his to someone who had none.  One day he was driving a horse and buggy – just so you know the time this took place – and he saw a farmer standing in the field.  It was time for spring plowing, but his horse had died.  The pastor unhitched his horse, gave it to the man, and walked home.  When a biography was written about him, it was called Sermon in Shoes.  Whereas, I fear that sometimes we take St. Francis’ injunction, to only use words when necessary to preach the Gospel, as an excuse to neither preach the Gospel either by our living or our words.

There’s something about a story like that of James Bryan that has a ring of authenticity, isn’t there?  It’s not just a “going through the motions” kind of life.  Not just words, but putting money where the mouth is.  Sometimes Christians become so insular, focused on their own persons – but we have far greater work to do than merely securing our own salvation, which, by the way, Christ has already secured for us.  Richard Baxter, the English puritan, observed that “we are trusted with our Master’s talents for His service, in our places to do our best to share His truth, and grace, and Church…to honour His cause and edify His flock, and further the salvation of as many as we can.  All this is to be done on earth…”

But it’s easier to just go through the motions, isn’t it?  I think that’s because it doesn’t take real commitment or real investment.  You can’t be heartbroken when an effort you’ve been going-through-the-motions with doesn’t come to fruition.  Prophets in the Old Testament were not always quick to commit.  We saw part of Moses’ discourse this morning.  Jeremiah thought he was too young; Ezekiel wouldn’t be listened to; Isaiah lived among unclean people.  All of these had reasons why “they” couldn’t do it.  Which was God’s point – that He could do it; that success wasn’t what they’d always thought it was.  But it’s hard to commit to something that doesn’t depend on you for success, isn’t it?  You can’t control the outcome – and we like to be in control.

But, again, that’s the point.  We can’t control the outcome.  Which is why the whole enterprise of Christianity, and of Christian living (as a sub-heading under that) is based in and rests upon God’s faithfulness first and above all else.  Not our own.  He cleansed Isaiah; He raised Jeremiah up; He gave Ezekiel a hard head to butt against others’; He gave Moses His Name.  It starts with Him, and success is measured in doing what He asks, not on how others respond to it.

Jesus said to seek His Kingdom first – again, the Church is the firstfruits of His Kingdom as it breaks in on earth.  We, who are a part of it, should be doing this!  Seek His Kingdom first, and all those other things that He knows we need will be added to us.  It begins, not with our seeking, but with our trusting His faithfulness – which precedes our response to it.  C. S. Lewis said it two ways: if we put first things first then we’ll get second things thrown in; if we put second things first then we’ll get neither…; and, “Aim at heaven and you will get earth ‘thrown in’: aim at earth and you will get neither.”  No going through the motions!

What this takes is that we would take God seriously.  He doesn’t want a bunch of people who are basically good people, in comparison to other people, and usually just meaning that they’re “nice” – which is not, by the way, a moral evaluation of a person, but simply a statement that a person is more committed to not offending anyone than they are to having any view of something worth standing for.  Taking God seriously, and thus committing one’s living to Him.  He isn’t looking for a bunch of people who were baptized, and He isn’t looking for a bunch of people who came back again to ‘get’ confirmed.  He’s looking for people who will commit the way they live their lives to Him.  St. Basil of Caesarea said of Christians, and perhaps you’ll find the imagery reminiscent of runners in a race, “It is not he who begins well who is perfect.  It is he who ends well who is approved in God’s sight.”

What does that kind of commitment look like?  I think we’ve heard some examples this morning.  I think we’ve got some examples among us and around us.  The Duke of Wellington held that “British soldiers are not braver than French soldiers, they are only brave for five minutes longer.”  That’s the kind of stick-to-it commitment that God desires of us.  He doesn’t mean for us to be so much more incredibly committed to him than to all of the other things that we commit ourselves to, but He means for us to hold to our commitment to Him, unlike so many of the passing fads that we commit to from time-to-time.

Some of you know that I started my university studies in a music programme, playing piano.  Expectations for practising were at least two hours a day, every day (even the lesson day!).  If I missed a day, I knew it.  But if I had hit six out of seven, then maybe the teacher didn’t notice.  If I missed two days, though, she did.  And if I missed three days a week, well, everyone did.  We cannot live as Christians if we do not commit ourselves to the daily practise of Christ’s presence in our lives, and to living in faith to Him that is grounded in His faith to us.  If we do, it will transform our lives, as we know Him more and more, and better and better.  It will transform our church; our city; our country; our world.  We are called to be agents of transformation, transformation that begins in each of us and plays itself out in our way of living.  Amen.

Identity–Those Known by God–Aug. 24/14

Now, don’t take this the wrong way, but there’s something different about you.  I don’t mean that you’re a weirdo, although if the shoe fits… No, there’s something different about you.  It’s not your hair… not a new sweater… I know what it is!  You changed your heart, didn’t you?  You may never hear those words from your spouse, parent, or child, but they’re the words that God longs to have true of you.  A changed heart.  God is in the business of changing people’s hearts – because He knows what a human heart is otherwise, and because He knows what it can become.  God, who spoke Creation into being, is recreating it.  St. Athanasius said it like this: The renewal of Creation has been the work of the self-same Word that made it at the beginning.

The question is sometimes asked, “If you were on trial for being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you?”  And maybe that’s the place to start.  Where is your heart today?  What is your heart today?  How has God changed your heart – how is He continuing to work in it, today?

We need to be clear about what God changing the human heart looks like.  Jesus doesn’t set us free from the power of sin, which is death, in our lives so that we can uninhibitedly mould our lives around the standards and expectations of the cultural contest we find ourselves in.  He doesn’t set us free for the purpose of conformity to the world.  Rather, He sets us free so that we can be open to the Spirit’s work in us, transforming us to be like Him.  As Scripture says elsewhere, it is for holiness, for righteousness, that you have been set free.  Sanctification, it has been said, is a gracious work of God whereby He gradually divests from sin the inclinations and dispositions of the regenerate and clothes them with holiness.

Consider the midwives in Egypt at the start of Exodus.  It would have been easy for them to just stick to the Pharaoh’s plan, wouldn’t it?  I can’t imagine it was a comfortable conversation when he summoned them back to ask why the babies were surviving.  Kill those baby boys; conform to the standards of the surrounding, dominant, culture.  Not in God’s Kingdom; not to the midwives.  They chose, therefore, transformation from the world rather than conformity with it.

Thomas a Kempis put forward this challenge: Let us arm ourselves against all sins, against pride, against hatred, against ambition, against envy, against covetousness, against sensuality.  Let heaven see that, even on earth, it has those who stand on its side.  Let hell know that, even on earth, there are those who make war against it with the Word of God.  And let earth itself know that it is still capable of once more growing green and of giving much fruit.

And so God calls us to transformation by His Spirit’s work in us, not conformity with the world.  And He calls us to transformation as members of a transformed community.

Paul talks about living together as one, though we are many.  The image he uses is of a body with many members.  Last week I talked about a stained glass window that has many pieces of glass fitted together in it, or a number of pianos all tuned to a single tuning fork.  This is another way that we’re different – God changes our hearts to include one another.  In a similar way to when a couple gets married and they learn to think as a unit, rather than as two individuals.  They consider one another: feelings, commitments, responsibilities.  They plan a future that includes them being together.  They spend joint resources for joint benefit.  So it is for us, in Christ’s Body, the Church.

Richard Baxter represented Christian one-up-manship like this: For one sect to say, “Ours is the true church,” and another to say, “No, ours is the true church,” is as mad as to dispute whether your hall, kitchen, parlour, or utilities room is your house; and for one to say, “This is the house,” and another, “No, this is it”: when a child can tell them that the best is but a part, and the house contains them all.

And so God changes our hearts by transforming us to be like Him, by putting the rest of His children in it, and by teaching us to be reliant on His goodness rather than our own ability.

As He changes hearts He also teaches us to trust and rely on Him – not on ourselves.  And that’s a significant thing.  My heart is naturally disposed to myself.  I’m naturally self-confident, naturally full of self-ambition, naturally self-promoting above others (even at their expense, when necessary).  Yet as God remakes my heart I find that I’m more and more reliant on Him.  More and more I trust in Him: in His abilities, His goodness; because of what He’s done in the past I trust Him for the future.  He moves me to praise Him for His mighty deliverance, as the Psalmist does.

But do not let reliance on God’s goodness, rather than your own ability, lead you to neglect doing what God desires!  Martin Luther observed, “It is not from works that we are set free by the faith of Christ, but from the belief in works – that is, from foolishly presuming to seek justification through works.  Faith redeems our consciences, makes them upright, and preserves them, since by it we recognize the truth that justification does not depend on our works, although good works neither can nor ought to be absent, just as we cannot exist without food and drink and all the functions of this mortal body.”

And so God changes our hearts, inclining us to Him in everything.  And more than that, He gives us a new name.  There was maybe a time when you lived to make something of yourself – to make a name for yourself so that you’d be remembered.  It didn’t matter if the attention you got was positive or negative – it just mattered that you got it.  I was once like this.  Now, because of His work in my heart, however, I live so that He can make something of me.  And that makes all the difference.  Jesus wouldn’t be conformed to the world around Him, but was an agent of God’s transformation in it; Jesus considered others in all things – truly loving His neighbour as He loved Himself; Jesus trusted in God’s power at work in Him in everything, even to the point of death on the Cross.  God changes our hearts to be like Jesus’.  And on top of that, He gives Jesus’ precious Name to us.

We are called Christians.  We bear His Name.  People see us and they understand Him to be something like this, something like us.  Our lives are our witness of His work in us to the world.  In spite of suggestions to these ends, we are not known by the name of any other – not by an English royal or a church official.  Neither is the Baptist Church known by the name of John the Baptist, even though they joke that way at times.  We are not known by the name of Elijah, or Jeremiah, or any other prophet (which names Jesus’ disciples gave to Him as comparisons people were making).  We are not even known by our own names, any longer, if you can accept it.  But we are called Christians – we are Christ-bearers to the world.  he gives His Name to us, and because He knows us and reveals Himself to us, we are able to know ourselves as we become more and more fully who we are, and have been created to be, as He works in us.

Our lives are our witness to Christ.  It’s been said that “the holiest moment of the church service is the moment when God’s people – strengthened by preaching and sacrament – go out of the church door into the world to be the Church.  We don’t go to church, we are the Church.”

God calls us out of who we have been.  He took our flesh upon Himself, He knows all that we go through.  He knows us.  He made us.  It is because He knows us so intimately – our Creator, who alone knows what we were each created for – that we find our identity in Him.  And He reveals it to us as He works in us, changing our hearts.  Jesus, who gave Himself for others; who brought God’s Kingdom to the darkness of the worlds kingdom; who taught and exemplified faith in God’s promises above all accomplishment; who gives His Name to us: Jesus comes to us today, and it is in knowing Him that we find ourselves – and all of this stems from Him, who first knew us.  Amen.

RIP Tillie Jaeger–August 25, 2014

St. Paul is talking about resurrection, and there’s one particular thought in there that I want to highlight to you this afternoon. He talks about seeds sprouting: the plant that grows from the seed is not the same thing as the seed was; it may produce seeds, but that’s something different. When we speak of seeds growing, we don’t usually mean that they’re expanding and becoming larger seeds. We mean that they’re not seeds anymore, that the potential of what was inside has been released. Paul brings this image to mind as he talks about resurrection.

What he means is this: that the seed must die to being a seed, die to its seed-ness, if what it’s meant for is to be realized. Paul says that this is how it is with humans also. When we leave this life – this mortal flesh – we realize what God has had for us, we come to know it in actuality – no longer just in hope. One person put it like this: that the souls of God’s redeemed, like the bird in the egg, still grow – or ripen – in grace, till at last the shell breaks open by death, and the soul flies away to the place it is prepared for, and where it abides forever.

It’s been described that in Jesus humanity is capable of three births: by nature, we enter into the present world; by God’s grace, we may enter into spiritual light and life; by death, we may enter into God’s glory. Now, there is some church-y language in there that I’ll decode for you – soul, glory, salvation, Jesus, redeemed – this, then, is the hope of the Christian, the reason Christians can face the reality of mortality without fear:

Jesus, the Son of God, suffered to prepare freedom from suffering for those who trust in Him; He descended from heaven that He might raise us up; He took on Himself the trial of being born, that we might love Him; He came down to corruption that corruption might put on immortality; He became weak for us, that we might rise with power; He descended to death that He might bestow on us immortality, and give life to the dead. Finally, He became man, that we who die as men might live again, and that death should no more reign over us; for His Word proclaims, “Death shall not have dominion over us.”

And so, you see, for Christians death is not a blind alleyway, but a thoroughfare into the Father’s House, of many rooms. Death is not a box canyon with only one way in and no way out. Death is a pass through the mountains into the beautiful green valley of eternal fellowship with the Lord and with loved ones gone before.

And so while we make jokes about heaven’s distance, like the one about the Baptist Church that had a direct phone line to heaven for $1 a call, the Lutheran Church that had the same set up for only 25 cents, and the Anglican Church that had the same for free – because it’s a local call from here; while we make jokes about heaven’s distance, it is within speaking distance to those who belong there – to ALL those who belong there.

So, with regard to my friend of these last four years, Tillie, who out-danced some of you nine years ago, at her 90th birthday celebration; who loved family & friends deeply, and always shared news – a number of names that I’ve heard so much about I can now put with faces; who enjoyed reminiscing about her travels; with regard to my friend Tillie, who was so fashionable, so dedicated, and so capable for so long, I am not concerned. Her hope in Jesus – in whom she trusted in this life – is realized now in eternity. Take comfort, then, in God’s promises. Know that she rests in Him.

But we are not just here for comfort about Tillie’s destination, today. We are here for comfort in our own situation, also. God made us to be. Ninety-nine years seems like such a long time – but no amount of time is ever enough, is it? The hard thing isn’t that she’s gone to be with the Lord, but that she’s away from us. The turns of phrase that she used, we won’t hear her use them anymore; the care she took to correspond, it won’t be taken. The hard thing isn’t that she’s gone, but that we’re still here without her.

Don’t deny what you’re feeling, neither indulge in it. But thank God for the time that you had with her, entrust her to His keeping, and carry her memory with you. When something appears that reminds you of her, thank God for her influence in your life, entrust her to His keeping, and carry her memory with you.

There will also be times when, thinking of Tillie, you will be reminded that you, too, are mortal. Don’t deny it, or try to cover it up or pretend that it’s not the case. But embracing your mortality, look to the future life – life beyond the grave – and be mindful of who you trust in, now. Do you build your life on the rock of Christ Jesus, or some other foundation you’ve managed to lay – some other foundation as temporal, passing, mortal, as this life is? Jesus invites us all to place our trust in Him.

And that doesn’t have to mean a huge change in “what” you do, but rather in who you do it for; giving one’s life to Jesus, trusting in Him, is not so much a matter of “what” as it is of “why.” One day St. Francis was hoeing in his garden when a friend said to him, “What would you do if you knew you would die at sunset?” He replied, “I would finish hoeing my garden.” And so let me extend Jesus’ invitation to a new reason for living, to you, today. Let us pray:

Almighty God, our heavenly Father, who, in your perfect wisdom and mercy, has ended for your departed servants the voyage of this troublesome life, grant, we ask you, that we who are still to continue our course amidst earthly dangers, temptations and troubles may evermore be protected by your mercy, and finally come to the haven of eternal salvation, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Marionettes

Arms and legs attached by strings which are pulled by another.  Our first father signed a deal, and we’ve all been marionettes ever since.  The deal wasn’t what he thought it was.  He didn’t get what he thought he was getting.

He thought he’d be immortal.  He thought he’d be invincible.  Instead he became more mortal than ever; more breakable than ever.  That deal is what strung him up… strung us all up.  Above us, the great booms that these strings hung from, manipulating us – pulling us this way and that.

Some fight their whole lives to resist these little influences.  To no avail.  Even their fighting is the result of the tightening and slackening of different strings attached to their various members, all hanging down from the branches of the tree of death – as we came to call it.

Far away, farther than the length of the puppet strings would let us roam, stood the tree of life.  Legend is that we once lived under its branches, rather than dying here.  But we lost that opportunity in the deal.  It really wasn’t a very good deal.

I remember the day that He arrived.  He walked among us from the direction of the tree of life.  He had no strings.  He couldn’t be manipulated by the tree of death, as we all were.  After a time among us, He walked past us and took a good long look at us all.  I’m sure he could see the tree of life through the tree of death, though it obscured his vision.  But the way to the one is through the other – and so he climbed.

When he arrived at the booms that jutted out from the trunk, he reached his arms along either of them.  The strings that had so long bound us all released us.  They snaked their way along the booms and attached themselves to Him.  He became the embodiment of its puppeteering, its manipulating, and set us all free.

But the story doesn’t end there: He couldn’t be held!  In a way that none of us had ever dreamed possible, He used the strings, not to be controlled by – but to control, the tree with its great booms.  It bowed before Him, and death – the puppeteer – became the puppet.  He was released from the tendrils of the tree.

He spoke with a voice like thunder, and invited us all to follow Him to the tree of life.  Some did not heed his invitation – they had known only the enslavement to death, to which they returned and were gladly received back.  They practically fastened its manipulative strings back to their limbs.

Others followed after Him, but when any obstacle arose in their path, they turned back – preferring the familiar guidance of the old puppeteer to the purposed hike through swamp and over rock, of the saviour.  Others followed for a time, chased by the searching strings we’d left behind.  Whether through complicity, exhaustion, or even unwillingly, these were caught again, tied to and manipulated by death.

For those of us who followed Him to our destination, however, the situation was similar – pursued by the cords of death that had been cast off of us.  Yet when we were taken ahold of, we would cry out to our leader and guide for help, and He was sure to rescue us again and again.

United in Christ Jesus

This last Sunday I felt led to begin a six-week sermon series on the new identity that Christ gives to us, His people (as opposed to the identity that we make for ourselves).  Here is the first week’s instalment.

Someone said that if there’s something wrong with your church community, we might each begin by looking in the mirror.  Is our congregation unfriendly?  Let me look into my mirror: “Mirror?  Mirror on the wall!” am I unfriendly?  Is our congregation unconcerned about people who don’t know Jesus?  Am I?  Is our congregation behind on its budget?  What about me – am I behind in my giving?  Is there hostility in our fellowship, between members?  What is my attitude like? what is my behaviour communicating to others?

Now, for any number of us there may not be answers to those questions in the mirror.  Sometimes the problems really do lie with other members of the community – but that doesn’t mean that it’s any less a problem that each of us owns.  Because God has brought us together.  A manager of a business was interviewing a potential new employee who asked, “How many people work here?”  To which he replied, “Precious few!”  Such a statement should never be made of God’s Church.  Every one of us is here by His grace; every one of us is a representative of His transformative purpose in the world; every one of us owns the witness and ministry of this congregation – this portion of His Church.

Gaze up, if you will, and view this incredible stained glass window that we have at the front of our worship space.  The triune God is depicted on it, and St. Luke, and St. Stephen.  There are a lot of pieces that make that one window – many pieces of glass, different sizes and shapes and colours.  They’re all pieced together in just the right way that a beautiful mosaic appears.  A mosaic that draws our hearts and minds to God.  A mosaic that light shines through.  In some ways, it’s a picture of our congregation gathered today, isn’t it?  People from different walks of life – different ways of employing our time, different ages, different upbringing – God has put us all together to produce the beautiful mosaic that He has in mind, to draw others to Himself as He shines His light through us into a dark world.  And He does shine through us to other people, because Jesus is about all people – not just the ones who are already gathering in His Name.

Our gospel lesson today told the story of a Canaanite woman who came to Jesus to beg for healing for her daughter.  Jesus told her that He’d been sent to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.  How easy it would have been to stick to that external, and to have ignored the internal – to say that she was born into the wrong family, and so stood outside of grace!  Yet Jesus never ignored the internal, and when she exhibited the kind of faith that He’d been searching for and inspiring in the lost sheep of the house of Israel, He didn’t ignore it.  So He stuck to His guns.  Your faith has brought healing.

But we get waylaid by the instruction rather than the principle behind it, and we divide by denomination.  There’s the story of the priest who’d been asked to officiate at the funeral for a Baptist man.  He inquired of his bishop as to how he should perceive.  The response he got was this: “By all means!  Bury as many Baptists as you can!”  John Wesley rightly asked: “Although a difference in opinions or modes of worship may prevent an entire external union; yet need it prevent our union in affection?  Though we cannot think alike, may we not love alike?  May we not be of one heart, though we are not of one opinion?”  Indeed, if we Christians are always bickering with one another, aren’t we denying Christ, the Prince of Peace, who has called us into His one Church, and who prayed in the garden, the night before He was crucified, that we would all be one?

But we get distracted from faith in Christ by loyalty to faction, even within our local congregations; we forget loyalty to Jesus and being open to the work of the Spirit to move us to the holiness of God, and we settle for the way of the world: we preach sermons against gossip and then turn around singing “I Love to Tell the Story,” sharing everyone’s story but Jesus’.  We forget to welcome others into Christ’s fellowship because “someone” needs to do something about the shingles on the roof – there was one man who was approached by the ushers at his church because he hadn’t taken his hat off for worship that day.  His response was telling, “Praise the Lord!  I’ve been coming here for six months and you’re the first people to speak to me.  I figured that would do it!”

We forget to be hospitable, because we’re concerned with what so-and-so is, or is not, doing for us.  We hold grudges against people that Jesus died to redeem.  How easy would it have been for Joseph to disown his brothers?  They’d disowned him years earlier, selling him into slavery (which was, in their estimation, the least they could do for him – considering that he was their brother) which had led him to prison for a crime he hadn’t committed.  In our Old Testament lesson today, they stood before him and he had the power to do anything to them that he wanted.  He could have disowned them, as they had done to him.  He could have practised “eye for an eye” retributive justice on them.  He could have mocked their attempts to get rid of him, because he’d ended up rising beyond anything he’d even dreamed of.  Instead, he turned his mind to God’s purposes – they’d intended evil, but God had used it for good.  They would be saved from the famine on the land, and all their families.

There were a handful of Lutheran pastors who’d decided to “check out” the competition, going to Saturday night mass at the local Roman Catholic church.  They arrived a little late, and found that all of the pews were filled – so they stood at the back.  The priest noticed them and recognized them, and whispered to one of the altar boys, “Go and get three chairs for our Lutheran friends.”  The boy didn’t hear, so the priest spoke a bit louder, motioning to the rear of the congregation, “Three chairs for the Lutherans.”  Dutifully, the altar boy rose and proclaimed to the congregation, who responded as prompted, “Three cheers for the Lutherans!”

Now, something tells me that three “Hip hip hurray!”s (or “Huzzah!”s) would make newcomers feel very out-of-place at our churches, and wouldn’t be a great way to welcome them in.  But that doesn’t mean that there isn’t a good way to welcome people in.  But welcoming people begins with having something to welcome them into.  And having that “something” begins with the unity of the Church.

A piano tuner doesn’t tune each piano to the one that he tuned before it.  He tunes each one, individually, to his tuning fork.  So it is with the Church.  We are not called to factions, or to interest groups, or to follow in one another’s footsteps.  We are called to Jesus, and to have our lives tuned to His.  Believe it or not, when our lives are all attuned to His – instead of trying to attune them with one another’s – we will have greater unity in the Body.  We will actually be in tune with one another.

Seek Christ, who reveals Himself to you, that you may be fit into the wonderful mosaic of His Church which He is building – fashioning us into a great stained glass window, through which His light shines in this dark world.  Amen.

St. Stephen’s Day

Yeah yeah, it’s technically on December 26.  But it transfers to August 3 (in Canadian Anglicanism, at least) – odd to sing Good King Wenceslas that day, though.  Here’s my St. Stephen’s sermon from this year – patron saint of the congregation in Swift Current.

I just returned from three weeks of vacation time.  During that time, I was able to take the kids to the park on a number of occasions.  It’s not always easy to take three kids to the park at once, as they tend to run in three directions when you get there.  I was pleased to take advantage of the city’s Families in the Park programme in the mornings, though.  I could take three kids to the park, and there were stations set up for playing with different toys, for doing different crafts, and of course there’s playground equipment right there.  And there were other adults there, too, overseeing different activities.

What it afforded me was the opportunity to sit down, on occasion.  Park benches can be a welcome relief after you’ve pushed a number of kids on swings, caught them at the bottom of slides, and chased them into bathrooms (duties that still fell to me!).  But you know, there were times when I’d jump up from the bench, too!  What do you suppose could make a worn out person like me jump up from a bench, when it’s just sitting there begging to be sat upon?

His name’s Aaron.  And when he goes running for the street – because he doesn’t understand moving vehicles, and drivers that don’t see every little child at the park, and doesn’t understand what impact does to people.  I would jump up to catch that guy in a heartbeat, because I don’t want to miss him.  Because he’s mine and I love him.

That’s why people stand when they could sit.  Because they’ve got something to do.  A fun challenge for you: read through 1 & 2 Samuel and take note of who’s sitting down and who’s standing up throughout.

It’s a part of our liturgical posture, too.  We stand for the Gospel reading on Sunday mornings, because the Gospel requires us to be ready to share it with others.  The Gospel sends us out to the world.  So we stand.  Because in hearing the Gospel we’ve got something to do.  We stand to recite the Creed, also.  Because reciting the Creed is active.

Consider, then, this interesting “something” from the Creed.  We all know it from saying the Creed, and from Scripture, that Christ sits at the right hand of the Father.  So here’s the thing that should jump out at you from the story of Stephen.  He sees a heavenly vision, and he sees the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.  Standing.  Not sitting.  Why do people who could be sitting stand?  Because they’ve got something to do.

As Stephen was persecuted, and taken to be stoned to death by the people, Jesus stood.  He was ready to receive His loved one.  And you know what – I want to be the kind of person Jesus stands up for, deeply loved and supported.  Jesus said:

32“Everyone therefore who acknowledges me before others, I also will acknowledge before my Father in heaven; 33but whoever denies me before others, I also will deny before my Father in heaven.”

The Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version. (1989). (Mt 10:32–33). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.

In the words of the old hymn… Stand up, stand up for Jesus – ye soldiers of the Cross!  Stephen is remembered to this day, because he did.

Romance

So the other night I thought I’d put a little effort into being romantic.  I don’t do so very often – information I’m sure Cindy would volunteer.  Earlier in the day we had heard Shania Twain on the radio, first time in a long time, and I was reminded of how much Cindy had enjoyed her music, years ago.  So I thought that singing her a Shania medley might be a romantic gesture.

She was with me when I was singing “You’re still the one,” and I only got minor eye-rolls when I was singing “Don’t be Stupid.”  In spite of its insults to the listener (stupid, absurd, impossible), it does affirm the singer’s want/need/love to them.  Well, when I got to “Man, I Feel Like a Woman,” Cindy was done, and so was I.  Sound familiar?  Maybe not the specifics – but does it sound familiar?  Have you ever been so caught up in the vehicle for accomplishing your goal, that you forget the goal entirely – missing it completely?

It strikes me that worship is about giving God His due.  Or, giving God the best we can offer – the closest to what He deserves that we’re capable of.  But how often have you said, leaving worship on Sunday morning, “That did nothing for me.”  How incredibly off-the-mark that comment is!  It reveals an attitude that is all wrong, because it answers a question that is all wrong.  The real question of Sunday gatherings is this: does what we do when we gather glorify God?

If not, then what does it matter whether we ourselves have gotten anything out of it?  We didn’t even accomplish what God brought us together for.

Taking Baptism Seriously 1.0

There are four orders of ministers in the Church.  There are bishops, priests, deacons, and lay.  The Church spends a good bit of its resources on ensuring that the first three are up-to-snuff (whatever that might mean in the given context).  It is generally up to those three, the ordained clergy, to disciple the fourth, the laity, and ensure their up-to-snuff-ness.  Some Christians may not like that idea – they’re not “professional” Christians (ie. not clergy).  Why should they have to be involved in the Church’s ministry?  They were never ordained in the Church – what right do they have to tackle this task?

The old joke was that clergy-people were paid to be good, but that laypeople were good for nothing.  I would dispel this idea to some extent, because I’m not paid to be good.  I am not paid for services rendered.  Rather, I am afforded an allowance, a stipend, by the local church (through the diocese), to allow me to live within this geographical parish.  All of the “services rendered” are a function of the person I am, because of who and what God is continually making me.

In the same way, all Christians are called to ministry because ministry is the fulfillment of who and what God is making them.  Lay people in the Church may not generally consider themselves to have been ordained, and perhaps they weren’t ordained to the particular ministry of the priesthood in the Church, to thus maintain the order of the Church, but something like it did happen to them.  They were baptized.  You were baptized.

There are so many things to be said about baptism, but I will here only point in the directions that we’re going to go in future blog posts.  We can talk about baptism’s roots – where did this practise come from? was it an anomaly that sprung up in a void?  We can talk about the symbolism of baptism – what is signified by the water? what is the meaning inherent in the rite?  We can talk about the elements of baptism – why water? how was it instituted this way?  We can talk about the vows taken in baptism – what are they? what significance do they hold? how are they practically applied to daily living?  We can talk about covenantal relationship with God – what does it mean to be God’s people?  We can talk about taking our own baptisms seriously.

All these and more, to come.