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.

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.

Christ: the Gate; the Shepherd

So we had this great Gospel reading on Sunday, which ended just short of Jesus making one of His great “I am” sayings (in the Gospel according to John).  He alluded to it, almost saying He is the Good Shepherd, but the lectionary stopped us short of where He actually said it.  The “I am” that we did get was… less well-known?  Jesus said, “I am the gate.”

Now, if you read through John 10:1-10, you’re going to see Jesus putting forward two images of Himself.  One is just this: He is the gate.  The other is that of shepherd.  It strikes me, in wrestling with this passage, that as Christians we tend to go one way or the other, but that we need to take Him as both.

If we emphasize that Jesus is the gate, then He becomes the way “in.”  The point of Jesus (His incarnation, life, death, resurrection, ascension, sending of the Holy Spirit) is to get us “in.”  Like some kind of fake ID that a high school kid takes with them when they head to the bar on the weekend.

On the other side of the equation, if we emphasize that Jesus is the shepherd, then He becomes a great moral teacher.  We don’t need to commit ourselves to Him, just to the way that He promotes.  The point of Jesus is to show us the right way to be.  So long as we ignore a bunch of what He says about His identity, He’s a great teacher – a shepherd who leads us in the everlasting way.

But if Jesus is both the shepherd and the gate; if Jesus is both the author and finisher of my faith, the One who saves me and the One whose way I walk in; if Jesus is my Saviour and my Lord: then I must commit to Him and His way; my ID cannot remain fake because my life will, more and more, look like His; I cannot ignore what He says about His identity, because it is in His very identity that my own is revealed.

Preliminary Thoughts on the Second

The following are some thoughts on 1 Corinthians 3:10-11 and 16-23. It’s the RCL epistle lesson for this coming Sunday. I hesitate to say that these thoughts are fully formed in me just yet, but there’s some serious fuel, here. The basic idea is that Paul is writing about the doctrine of Christ, or Christology, of the Church. On Him alone can the Church be built. Paul is concerned that the content of his preaching remain intact, for it is the truth that the Church is about – indeed, without it the Church cannot claim to be the Church. The teaching of proper doctrine, or theological reflection, leads people to encounter the risen Christ, who is the foundation stone for the Church. By accepting the true teaching, people are put in position to meet Him. The foundational doctrine, preached accurately, illustrates the true Foundation (Christ) so that people can find Him (and then know that He has found them). You may read this and, if you’ve read the passage also, say that I’m reading extra things into it, for the sake of my own theological understandings. Nothing new.

I found my mind drawn to Hermas, Vision III. You can read my summary, below, or the text itself, here (http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/anf02.ii.ii.iii.html). Or both. I’m not your boss.

The caricatures that we gain from Vision III, in Hermas, are interesting. If they can be summarized appropriately, or shortly, they may do much to open people’s eyes. The vision is of six men building a tower, shown to the Shepherd by an old woman. There are various others who bring stones to the six who are building the tower. The explanation is given as follows:

The tower is the Church;
the Church is built on water because we are saved through water;
the Church is founded upon God’s word;
the Church is built by angels;
the stones in the building are square and white and fit with each other exactly – they are in agreement with one another and are at peace together and listen to one another;
the stones dragged from the depths and fitted with the others are those who suffered for the Lord’s sake;
the stones carried in from the land are those whom God has approved because they walked in His straight ways and kept His commandments;
those stones in the act of being brought and placed in the building are those who are young in faith and are faithful, in whom no iniquity has been found;
those stones that were rejected and cast away are those who have sinned and wish to repent, who have not been cast far from the tower for they will be useful in the building if they repent;
those stones cut down and thrown far from the tower are the sons of iniquity who believed in hypocrisy and from whom wickedness did not depart – they are not saved and cannot be used in building, and are therefore cut off and cast far away;
rough stones, in great numbers, not used in the tower are those who know the truth but have not remained in it – they are unfit for use;
those stones that have rents, in great numbers, are at discord in their hearts one with another, and are not at peace amongst themselves – they keep the appearance of peace, but under the facade they hold their wicked thoughts;
those stones which are shortened are those who have believed and are mostly righteous, yet still have a considerable share of iniquity, and so are not whole;
those stones which are white and round and do not fit into the building of the tower are those who have faith, but also the riches of the world – who deny the Lord on account of their riches and business – when their seductive riches have been circumscribed they will be of use to the Lord, for round stones cannot become square until portions are cut off and cast away;
the stones which were cast from the tower and rolled into the field are those who believed but abandoned the true road through doubts, and sought out a new road, entering on pathless places (for there is no other road);
those which fell into the fire and were burned are those who have departed forever from the living God: they do not consider repentance, they are devoted to their lusts and crimes;
those stones which fell near the waters but could not be rolled into them are those who are drawn to the Lord but draw back to their own wicked desires when confronted with the chastity that will be demanded of them in baptism.

Now, there’s a little more involved which I have conveniently not included in the above summary. It includes the possibility for all of the stones to repent, however unlikely that might be for them. It’s not that I have a problem with grace, that I haven’t included that part in my summary. Rather, it’s that I’m only interested in the content of the actual vision itself – not in what might happen to those elements of the vision that left sight. The vision is about the kind of stones that God’s Church is built with. Perfect, as your Father in heaven is perfect (Matthew 5:48). You may not like the idea, but for people in the middle ages Hermas was like Pilgrim’s Progress. It inspired them to devotion to God by challenging them with false alternatives. Esteem it as you will.

Preliminary Thoughts on the First Lesson

The following are some opening thoughts on the first lesson for next Sunday, Sexagesima (by the old Church calendar), the seventh after Epiphany by the RCL.  The passage is Leviticus 19:1-2,9-18.

Being a parent of small children is an exciting stage of life. Adriana is becoming a very skilled reader and writer. It’s interesting to come across letter pages – you know the ones, where the example of the letter is given at the top of the page and the rest of the tablet is for the child to practise on. She’s not bad now, but her letters used to be okay near the example on the page, and then get progressively less like it as the page radiated out from that point. You know what that shows, right? Rather than copying the example on the page, she was copying her own copies of the example. It’s a problematic situation. It’s the same phenomenon that we see with that telephone game, which you may have played.

It can be a similar problem for Christians, if we’re watching each other too much, rather than Jesus Himself. We borrow each other’s habits; we try to make our obedience and devotion look like the obedience and devotion of someone else; we miss the mark. In part, this has to do with how we think about obedience.

Obedience to God requires that we act in accordance with God’s will, it’s true – but more than that, it invites us to seek, in our inmost self, to put on His mind. The whole passage is introduced to us in the terms of that divine call to be holy, as God is holy. Holiness is about being set apart: for the Israelites the motivation for obedience to God’s commands was found in a desire to be set apart the way He is set apart, which includes His righteousness, and which desire proceeded for them from personal gratitude for their deliverance from Egypt. This is part of the reason that the instruction is given to not profane God’s Name – profaning means to treat it as common – when you make God common in your imagination, you lose your vision, and set the bar low for what you aspire to. For us, as Christians, the motivation should be very similar: a desire that proceeds from personal gratitude for redemption in Christ, and that leads to Godliness.

And let’s be clear about what grade of set-apartness we’re talking about. It’s true that all of the concrete examples put forward in the passage are only illustrations of what this being-holy-as-God-is-holy means in those specific situations, and they are by no means intended to be comprehensive. But they are indicative of what being God’s people, the people who show what He is like, is about: justice; care for the poor, the widow, the orphan; not exploiting the weaknesses of others. These things weren’t unique to Israel in the ancient world – but that they would extend these benefits to aliens and foreigners among them, well, that’s something that nobody else did. You have to look forward to v. 34 for it, but there it is. And Jesus did it, when He said that your neighbour wasn’t just the other guy who’s just like you.

Loving your neighbour as yourself operates as the corrective to all of the self-centred tendencies of life. It is the fulfilment of morality, and God is certainly moral. It is a part of being set apart as He is, holy as He is, to be moral. It is not the totality of the enterprise, however. Again, the Christian’s motivation proceeds from gratitude: gratitude for redemption in Christ; gratitude that fuels desire and drive to be holy as God is holy. Love of God with the whole heart, soul, mind and strength – total transformation of our passions – this is our goal.

So hear concrete examples of the passage, which are not addressed to a few ascetics – those few nuts who are fanatical about their faith – as opposed to those of us who know better, and take all things with moderation except for that maxim itself. Moses was to give these instructions to all of the Israelites, so the things they contain were not just for a select group, but all of God’s people. There are people who are unable to provide for themselves: let them be provided for from your excess; deal honestly in all things private, personal, and professional; take care of those with otherwise exploitable qualities, rather than exploiting them; don’t play favourites, but be just. All of these things proceed from a heart of love. Maybe the idea of duty and obedience doesn’t capture your imagination; then love people, but know that love is what God says it is, not what you’ve learned it to be through the distortions of the world’s passions.

The holiness that God calls us to is not some kind of religious piety that never touches our lives the rest of the week – God is concerned with the whole of our lives, not just religious ritual. Consider the injunction not to speak against the deaf. If we take it as a rule against the unfairness of speaking against someone who cannot defend themselves, since they cannot hear what’s being said, then we are faced with the reality of gossip, and backbiting, and rumour spreading (even when it’s masked as sharing prayer requests, if we haven’t been licensed to pass on the request then it’s rumour), and slandering names. All of these things are usually done when the person referred to isn’t around. When they’re deaf. When they can’t defend themselves.

Consider the injunction not to put a stumbling block before the blind. If we take it as a rule against causing others to fall because of dangerous circumstance that they cannot see, then we are faced with the reality of witness, of example, of liberty in Christ, of responsibility to His Church; even of removing stumbling blocks from peoples’ ways, as so many have been blinded to the dangers of the ways they’ve chosen to walk through familiarity, through distorted morality, through societal and familial dysfunction. How can we, as God’s people, work to draw people out of the lives they’ve made for themselves simply because of blindness.

As we heard Christ’s voice calling us to avoid even the branches in the path that lead to the dark way, not just to avoid murder, but to avoid name-calling and spite; not just to avoid adultery, but to avoid lustful thoughts; not just to avoid breaking oaths, but to avoid making oaths, and to simply be honest in all we say. As we heard Christ’s voice calling us to a deeper kind of holiness than we generally tend to (one common saying when I was in university was that what happens in the privacy of your mind is nobody’s business but your own – clearly not the way God sees things), now we see that God calls us to lives of love, love that plays itself out in all situations of our lives, not just when we’re feeling particularly ‘religious,’ or ‘spiritual,’ or ‘loving.’ May we heed His call, and respond with the gratitude that leads us to heartfelt desire for His holiness in our lives. Amen.

The Sermon I Didn’t Preach Today

It’s a risky business, to post what wasn’t said.  Why wasn’t it said?  Why were the things said, that were?  If those were the things that God wanted said this morning, where do these things come from – and where should they go?

I watched Braveheart the other night – a fact I did mention in my sermon this morning.  But where I stopped at William Wallace’s transformation from focusing on dying well to focusing on living well (my paraphrases), the part of the movie that hits me harder involves Robert the Bruce.  The Judas (as they turn-of-phrase might put it).  William Wallace had something, and Robert took it from him.  Was it innocence?  Was it an implicit trust in his countrymen?  More specifically, was it an eye to Robert as the next monarch of the Scots?

I’m not looking for people to actually reflect too deeply upon Braveheart.  People just start weighing in on what they think the movie is trying to express.  The authoritative voice on that can only come across when the screenwriter speaks, and that’s beside the point.  Then there are those who would approach the question from a historical perspective, and discuss how accurate Braveheart’s depiction of that episode in history was.  Again, beside the point.

My point is, and the reason this part of the movie hits me hard, is because too often I feel like that.  Too often I feel like I’m the guy who pledged his loyalty to the One bringing freedom, who then stands with the enemy on the battlefield – and gets found out.  Too often I feel like I’m the guy who rages at his father for sending him to fight for the wrong side – though it’s me raging against myself, not my father (who, incidentally, never pointed me in the wrong direction).

I hate this; I hate it when it occurs; I hate that it occurs.  On the one hand, I hate that the circumstance arises.  On the other hand, I hate that I feel this guilt for it – because it seems as though this is wrong-minded in itself, too!  On the third hand (or paw, if that image strikes you less out-of-the-ordinary) I hate that I’m still in need of such refinement that the potential for either of these still exists.

But maybe that’s just it.  Maybe the picture of the process of salvation that we hold in our minds is just inadequate.  It’s convenient.  We like to have Jesus save us from the consequences of sin.  But we don’t like to admit that we’re sinners; we don’t want the discomfort of His work in us to actually remove sin from us; we certainly don’t want to put in any of the devotional human work that enables and complements His work in us.  So we ask Him to save us from sin, and we only mean “save us from the consequences of sin.”  Because the full picture of salvation is too involved.  The only thing we fully devote ourselves to is the idea that we should take everything in moderation (particularly faith – who wants to be called a fanatic?).

But I want to be a part of an alternative.  An alternative to half-hearted devotion to the One who pours our His whole heart for us; to the minimalist commitment that tries to mask itself behind “faith” that He can use even the smallest faith (no need to have more, or devote more – He may ask it, but He’s willing to work with much less); to the “good-enough” mentality of our society which is never good enough, and dulls us to the call for holiness.  Let me say, emphanatically (you read right), “No!” to these things.

If this precious metal is going to be refined, then the dross must be burned off.  If this precious metal is going to survive the refining process, then there’s got to be more to it than “all” dross.  Cultivate holiness; find that He initiates before our efforts reciprocate.  His path is the narrow one that few find, and it leads to a narrow gateway.  And there is only one way onto His path – Jesus.  Thank God that He meets us in many places as that Way.  Do not settle for less than the fullness of His call.