Rend Your Hearts, Not Your Clothes

Sermon preached at St. Andrew’s Anglican Church, Ash Wednesday, February 25, 2009.

If you would like to listen to the whole sermon, usually somewhat different from the text, click here

Lectionary texts: Joel 2:1-2, 12-17; Psalm 103:8-14; 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10; Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21.

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

What is the Human Condition?

Good evening, St. Andrew’s! It is nice to see so many of you here this evening. That must mean that you have been particularly bad this year and are in need of extra forgiveness! Me too! Immediately after this sermon, Fr. Ron is going to call us to observe a Holy Lent. This evening I want to focus on why we should partake in acts of self-examination, prayer, fasting, self-denial, and reading the Scriptures during this season of Lent.

When I was a young man of 22, my grandma Shaffer died. A friend of mine came to visit and asked me if she knew Jesus Christ as her Lord and Savior, implying that if she did not, she was not in heaven as we spoke. Now I was a practicing Christian, or so I thought, but I was furious. I told my friend that my grandma was one of the gentlest, sweetest, most saintly persons I had ever known and for him to imply that she was not in heaven was highly offensive to me.

I share this story with you because in it is one of the reasons why it is important for us to partake in the various Lenten disciplines of self-denial. For you see, I was practicing a theology of works righteousness and projecting it onto my grandma (she was a devout and practicing Christian, BTW, so the story turned out well after all, despite my protestations to my friend).

How many of you have said something like this about either yourself or someone you know: “I know I have my faults but I am not entirely bad. At least I am not a [fill in the blank with your favorite heinous sins]”? If you have, you, like me, are guilty in trusting in your own righteousness and counting on your good works to earn your way into heaven. 

But when we look at the biblical witness about this way of thinking, not to mention our own experience, we quickly see how delusional trusting in our own righteousness really is. From beginning to end in both the OT and NT, we hear a clear and consistent message. The wages of sin is separation from God and death (e.g., Romans 6:23), and there is no one who is righteous, not even one (e.g., Romans 3:10). No, the biblical witness is clear. No one can earn his or her way into heaven. Self-righteousness is a delusion and will lead only to death.

Yet how many of us as we prepare for Lent, dutifully grit our teeth and prepare to engage in acts of self-denial and discipline thinking that if we do, we will somehow be helping our cause and ensuring our place in heaven? The thinking goes something like this, either spoken or unspoken: “I’ll give up [name your favorite vice] for Lent and if I am successful, it will make me a better person and increase my chances for getting right with Lord so that he will think I am a swell person and consequently punch my ticket into heaven.” 

If this line of thinking weren’t so utterly tragic, it would be comical. But when we shine the light of God’s Word on it, we are confronted with the grimness and utter futility behind this thinking because it represents self-help at its finest and self-help is no help at all when it comes to matters of salvation. It represents all the reasons why we should NOT partake of Lenten disciplines because it betrays a sinful self-righteousness that leads to death, not life. It is the kind of self-righteousness that our Lord condemned in tonight’s Gospel reading because those folks were doing works for show, not because they loved the Lord. This kind of thinking represents rending our clothes, not our hearts, the very opposite of what the Lord spoke through the prophet Joel about in tonight’s OT lesson. Partaking in Lenten disciplines for show or because we think we will be made righteous in God’s sight will lead us to death, not life, and probably make us miserable in the process.

Where is God’s Grace?

So why should we partake in the Lenten disciplines of repentance, self-denial et al.? Part of the answer lies in tonight’s Epistle lesson. Paul tells us right off the bat, “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21). For you see, God is a God of justice as well as mercy. He cannot let evil go unpunished or enter into his Kingdom (and who among us would want to be confronted with evil in the kingdom of heaven?). 

And so God, knowing that none of us are righteous, took on our flesh and bore the punishment for our sins on the cross. He paid the price for us so that his justice would be satisfied. In doing so, God justified us in his sight. Justification is a legal term and it is a one time event, not a process. It means that the person is found not guilty in the eyes of the court. When Christ died on the cross bearing the punishment for our sins, God declared us not guilty in his eyes and in doing so he made it possible for us to live with him forever. For you see, the cross is the eternal symbol of God’s justice. It says to us that God is a just God but he is also a merciful God. The price for our sins has been paid by the very blood of God himself and justice has been served. THAT is what makes us righteous in God’s sight, not anything we can say or do. That is why Paul talks about the scandal of the cross or its offensiveness to those who are being lost. It is offensive because it reminds us that our salvation is not of our own doing, but God’s. It is a total affront to the very self-righteousness that I displayed when I got angry with my friend’s comment about my grandma because it reminds me that on my own I cannot pass muster. I am utterly incapable of doing anything to help earn my salvation. It is God’s doing and His alone.

If we are given grace to believe in the saving act of God through Jesus Christ, this immediately takes the monkey off our back when it comes to observing Lenten disciplines. Instead of seeing them as some bizarre form of self-help, we deny our lower desires and fallen nature, what the NT calls “the flesh” (sarx), not because we believe that in doing so we become more righteous in God’s sight but because we understand that our fallen nature is an enemy of God and can prevent us from realizing the truth of the Gospel.

We also engage in the Lenten disciplines because we have a heart that overflows with love and gratitude for a God who loves us so much he took on our flesh, bore the terrible punishment for our sins, a punishment that we rightfully deserved to bear, and made it possible for us to live with him forever. Love and gratitude always seek manifestation in our actions and so we earnestly seek to become more like him, or as Paul says in Ephesians, to grow to the full stature of Christ (4:13). We can only do this if we are able to successfully put to death our fallen nature and lower desires. This is why Paul talks about being crucified with Christ (e.g., Galatians 2:19-20). It is also why he had such harsh things to say about factions that arose in the churches he planted that called for obeying rules as the way to salvation. Paul understood that the only way to salvation is the cross of Jesus Christ and it is only when we put to death our fallen and sinful nature can Christ fully live in us. 

Unlike justification, this process, which is called sanctification, is a lifelong journey. It requires great effort on our part and is impossible to do on our own. But fear not, because there is more good news here. Our Lord promised to give us his Holy Spirit to be with us to help and transform us in our fight against our sinful selfishness (John 14:16, 26). THAT is why we partake in the Lenten disciplines of self-reflection, repentance, and self-denial. We are given grace to remember that our salvation has already been won for us by this God who loves us passionately. There is nothing left for us to do in that regard except to accept his gift and believe it is ours. With grateful and overflowing hearts, we seek to put those things to death in us that prevent us from becoming more like him and growing to his full stature. And we want to become more like him because in him is life that never ends and we love him for all that he has done for us. THAT’s what it means to rend our hearts, not our clothes.

But there is one more thing that tonight’s OT reading reminds us about repentance and rending our hearts. We are called to do it together, not just individually. We are the Body of Christ and part of a living organism. We are called to love each other and take care of each other. We are called to enter into Lent both as individuals and has members of Christ’s Body so that as we allow the Holy Spirit to help us become more like Him and hold each other accountable for our disciplines, we can be a faithful witness to his broken and hurting world that so desperately needs to hear the Good News of Jesus Christ and him crucified.

Where is the Application?

What is the Holy Spirit calling you to put to death during this Lenten season so that you can grow to be more like Christ? If you have not done so already, pray to the Lord and earnestly seek his will in this and then set out to do it. Whatever it is he calls you to do this Lent, do it with the confidence and He is with you every step of the way and will never forsake you. Partake in your Lenten disciplines of repentance and self-denial, prayer and Scripture readings together with joy and gladness, either as a family discipline or a small group discipline, so as to help each other along the way. If you are willing to trust enough in this God who loved you and gave himself for you so that you can live with him forever,  you will see that he is with you in your mutual undertaking and by the power of his Holy Spirit, he will help you grow to his full stature, helping prepare you for the day when you will be with him in a place where there is no more sadness, sorrow, sickness, infirmity, or death. He is calling you this Lenten season to begin or resume or continue that journey that really does end happily ever after.

That’s good news, folks, now and for all eternity. 

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

If You Are Willing

Sermon preached at St. Andrew’s Anglican Church, Lewis Center, OH.

If you would like to hear the audio version of this sermon (usually slightly different from the text), click here.

Lectionary texts: 2 Kings 5:1-14, Psalm 30, 1 Corinthians 9:24-27, Mark 1:40-45.

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

What is the Human Condition?

Good morning, St. Andrew’s! This month our preaching theme has been ministry and you recall that we define ministry as service to Christ’s Body, the Church here at St. Andrew’s. You recall further that the purpose of service is to use our gifts to build up Christ’s Body, not to tear it down (hopefully my preaching this morning will do the former, not the latter). This morning I want to focus on the only real reason for us to do ministry and why it is so essential that we do.

In today’s Gospel lesson we come across one of the most poignant stories in all of Mark’s gospel. Let the scene arise in your mind. Mark tells us that a leper approaches Jesus, kneels before him, and begs Jesus to heal him. He cries out to Jesus, “If you are willing, you can make me clean!” (Mark 1:40). 

Several things are striking about this scene. First, leprosy was an awful disease in Jewish culture. The biblical use of the term, “leprosy,” referred to a host of skin diseases and meant more than what modern-day medicine calls “Hansen’s Disease.” Not only was the disease physically painful, it also left the victim a social outcast. Lepers were forbidden by Mosaic law to come in contact with healthy people and in Leviticus 13:45-46, we read that lepers were required to wear torn clothes, keep their hair disheveled, cover the lower part of their face, and cry out, “Unclean! Unclean!” Sounds perfectly delightful doesn’t it? So when Mark tells us that this leper approached Jesus, he was doing something that was forbidden and risked being punished further. Yet all of us can relate to this poor, desperate fellow, can’t we, because who among us at one point or another has not cried out to God in desperation to help us or one of our loved ones?

Note carefully what the leper says to Jesus as he approaches him—“If you are willing, you can make me clean.” The leper did not doubt that Jesus had the power to heal him. Rather, he wondered if our Lord was willing. Like that leper, it is sometimes easier for us to believe in God’s power than in his mercy, isn’t it? Perhaps we are that way because like the leper, we see the hopelessness of our own lives if left to our own devices and wonder how this good and holy God could ever choose to have mercy on someone like us who is so unclean.

Where is God’s Grace?

But thanks be to God that we DO have an all powerful and merciful God and this story is one of Mark’s ways of validating Jesus as being the Son of God. Mark reports that Jesus was filled with compassion for this poor, suffering person. He reached out his hand, touched the leper, and said, “I am willing. Be made clean!” (Mark 1:41).

What Jesus did was remarkable on several levels. First, he could have healed the leper by saying the word and not touching him. But Jesus reached out and provided a human touch to this suffering man who so desperately needed it. In doing so Jesus defiled himself according to Mosaic law but that did not matter to Jesus. Ritual and regulation never trumped compassion for the human condition for our Lord. The Greek word Mark uses for compassion, splagchnizomai, means literally to be moved as to one’s bowels (the ancients believed that the bowels were the seat of love and pity), thus conveying to us the power and depths of compassion Jesus had for the man. That is why he willingly healed him.

Moreover, that Jesus had this visceral reaction of compassion toward the man’s suffering is all the more remarkable because as we saw in last week’s Gospel lesson, early on Jesus struggled mightily with the nature of his ministry and withdrew to pray about it in the early hours of the morning. His earthly ministry, in part, was to help people redefine their notion of what real life was all about. For Jesus, real life was not about biological existence and/or the stuff of the world but rather in having a relationship with the living God and with him (John 17:3), and he did not want to be known primarily as a miracle healer. Yet even after this terrible inner struggle, Mark reports that here is Jesus, being filled with a deep compassion that would not allow him to withhold his healing power by turning this suffering man away, even if in doing so he knew that it would interfere with the primary message of his ministry. Of course all four evangelists report an even greater example of Jesus’ compassion benefiting us—when he willingly went to the cross to die for us so that we could live with him forever.

I can love a God like that. How about you?

Where is the Application?

As it relates to this month’s theme of ministry, in this poignant story of compassion and healing, our Lord provides the only right reason for any of us to do ministry—a willing spirit that is borne out of love for both our Lord and the rest of us who compose his Body, the Church. Too often when we hear calls to ministry (like you are this morning), we sometimes answer those calls out of a sense of guilt or obligation, but there can be no joy in doing so and those are quite the wrong reasons for agreeing to serve in a ministry. Rather, we are called to do ministry because we are called to imitate Christ and grow to his full stature (Ephesians 4:13). When we do ministry in this church willingly because we love and have compassion for each other, we have a natural desire to build each other up and to look out for each other. 

In serving one another with a willing spirit, we find joy in knowing that we are serving those whom we love, building them up in the process, and imitating the One who loved us and gave Himself for us. It allows us to do our ministries without feeling resentful or having our work feel like drudgery because we know that the Lord is using us to help build up his Body here at St. Andrew’s. 

And when we build each other up, we are helping each other make this place and our work to be a bright shining beacon of Christ’s light to this broken and hurting community that surrounds us and which so desperately needs to hear and receive the Good News of Jesus Christ. What better way to show others about the love of Christ than to demonstrate that love by serving his church in its various ministries?

But there is also another reason why it is important for us to willingly engage in ministry here at St. Andrew’s—our Lord needs us to act so that he can accomplish his will. We see this truth illustrated powerfully in today’s OT lesson. Consider the story of Naaman for a moment. Here we have this powerful Syrian commander coming to the prophet Elisha so that he can be healed of his leprosy, full of expectations and hope that Elisha would do something spectacular to heal him. But what did the prophet do? He sent one of his messengers to meet Naaman and told him to go wash himself seven times in the Jordan River. Naaman was furious! How insulting, this so-called prophet of Israel! Not only did he have the audacity to not meet him face-to-face, but he did not even do anything spectacular to cure him! 

So Naaman went away seething in anger and this is where the story gets really interesting because the writer tells us that one of his servants came to him and dared to speak the truth in love to him (a huge benefit of being in a small group, BTW, and another biblical example of what it means to hold each other accountable in love). He suggested to his enraged master (and risked incurring his wrath, which could have been life-threatening) that Naaman should DO what Elisha told him to do. Naaman finally did go wash himself in the Jordan and it was only then that he was healed.

Naaman had to DO before he was healed. 

Could the Lord have healed him without Naaman doing anything? Of course. Can the Lord accomplish anything he wants without our help? Absolutely. But it is one of the glories of our Lord that he CHOOSES to involve us to help him accomplish his will and that when we respond to his call with a willing heart and spirit, we should never be surprised with all that our Lord can accomplish in and through us.

I had this truth driven home to me recently. A couple of months ago I took a Webinar that talked about how to raise up leaders for small groups. One of the suggestions was to pray for leaders, meaning that I should pray to God to raise up leaders for us here at St. Andrew’s. I dutifully starting praying, and like Naaman, expected God to send me leaders without me doing anything. Then one day in prayer, God slapped me up the side of the head and reminded me that I needed to do my part in this great endeavor. How was I going to raise up small group leaders if  I did not call and ask them to serve, he asked? You know, I hate it when he asks me those kinds of questions! 

But I digress.

Can God raise up leaders without my help? Yes indeed. The point, however, is that God chooses to use me to help him accomplish his good will and purposes for St. Andrew’s and that will not happen until I choose to DO what I am supposed to do to help him build up his Body here (nor, BTW, will any of us see the power of small groups in our discipleship and the life of this church until all of us who are able have joined one).

Now we can debate God’s wisdom in choosing to use someone like me to help him accomplish his will for St. Andrew’s, but like Naaman, I am sometimes guilty of sitting back and expecting God to get things done around here without me doing anything in that process. And like Naaman, I am usually disappointed when I try to pigeonhole God into acting in a certain way or when I refuse to do my part. 

But when I willingly do my part because I love our Lord and you all, and want to see you get plugged into small groups so that he can use those groups to help you all grow in your faith and to become more like him, I trust that God will use my puny efforts to help him accomplish his good will and purpose for us here. What an awesome thing, and that is why I am confident that starting next week when I begin to ask some of you to be small group leaders, my prayers will be answered. 

What about you? What is Jesus calling you to do here at St. Andrew’s to build up his Body? Whatever it is, you can be sure that he will equip you and be with you every step of the way to help you accomplish his will through your ministry and service. And because you love the Lord, you can be confident that when you serve, you will find a joy that will be inexpressible and cause you to want to continue serving him all your days. 

Our Lord is all powerful and merciful. He loves you and has great compassion for you, especially in your weakness, and consequently your weakness is no reason not to serve him. He wants you to love him, in part, by serving the other members of his Body so that he can use you to bring him glory and help equip the saints here at St. Andrew’s to bring the Good News to the people in this surrounding community. His love for you will never end and can never be broken, not even by death. He promises to give you his Spirit to help serve him here, and when your work in this life is done, he promises to let you see him face-to-face.

That’s good news, folks, now and for all eternity. 

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

The Ministry of Small Groups

Sermon preached at St. Andrew’s Anglican Church, Lewis Center, OH.

If you would like to listen to the whole sermon, click here.

Lectionary texts: Isaiah 40:21-31, Psalm 147:1-12, 1 Corinthians 9:16-23, Mark 1:29-39.

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

What is the Human Condition?

Good morning, St. Andrew’s! This warmer weather feels so good that right after this service, I’m putting on my bathing suit and going out to get a tan! Today we continue with our preaching theme for this month—ministry. Last week Fr. Ron reminded us that ministry refers to work and service inside and for this church. Furthermore, he reminded us that because the Church is a living, breathing organism, Christ’s Body, and not an organization, we, being members of his Body, must act accordingly, which translates into service. Today I want to focus on one aspect of that service—leading and/or participating in small groups.

In today’s Gospel lesson, Mark tells a story from the early part of Jesus’ ministry to which we can all fully relate. Jesus has been healing the sick and casting out demons and people are flocking to him to be healed. Very early the next morning Jesus arose and withdrew to a lonely place to pray, causing Peter and his companions to hunt for him to tell him that everyone was searching for him, presumably so that he could continue to cash in on his growing popularity. Mark uses two extraordinarily strong verbs to describe Peter’s search for Jesus. One of those verbs, zeteo, means literally to crave or demand something from someone, so we can be quite certain that Jesus was making quite an impression on people to make them want to crave for something he could offer them, namely healing. It is a poignant scene, isn’t it? Who among us cannot relate to these people and their desperate search for Jesus because who among us has not been sick, broken, or hurting? 

But Mark suggests that these people were seeking after Jesus for the wrong reasons, that their interest in him was more superficial than genuine. They seemed to be interested in Jesus for what he could do for them, namely his healing power, rather than in listening to his message, and Jesus apparently struggled with that. We see this in his withdrawing to pray and in his response to Peter. Mark selectively tells us of three instances in which Jesus withdrew to pray—this instance, after feeding the five thousand (Mark 6:46), and in Gethsemane (Mark 14:32-42). In each instance, Jesus was faced with the temptation of fulfilling his Messianic mission in a more attractive, less costly way. But in each instance, he gained strength through prayer, which enabled him fulfill his mission by going to the cross and dying for us so that we have the chance to live with him forever. That is why Jesus told Peter that they needed to move on to other towns so that he could preach his message of Good News to the people.

Where is God’s Grace?

Yet, it is important for us to see that Jesus did not see his healing ministry and his ultimate mission of dying for us so that we can be reconciled with God as being mutually exclusive because Mark reports next that Jesus went throughout all Galilee preaching, healing, and casting out demons. Instead, Jesus kept things in perspective, an eternal perspective. He understood that this life is transient and broken. It is but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of eternity. He understood that life, real life, is having a relationship with God (John 17:3), the kind of life that Isaiah talks about in our OT lesson today. Our God is an eternal God, not a finite or transient one. He created us to have a relationship with him and did what was necessary for us to live with him forever should we choose to do so.

But being God, Jesus also understood that we live in a broken world and so he went about not only urging people to develop an eternal perspective about life and enter into a life-saving relationship with God, but also healing our physical and emotional brokenness. Yet Jesus also knew the human heart and understood how easily we can go astray and pursue the lesser things. That is why he went off to pray after healing so many and that is why he told Peter that he needed move on to preach the Good News.

Where is the Application?

Things haven’t changed too much today, have they? Many of us want to know Jesus but sometimes for the wrong reasons. We are more interested in knowing Jesus for what he can potentially do for us rather than loving him for who he is, growing in our relationship with him, and becoming more like him so that when this transient life ends we can live with him forever. No, like those earlier followers of Jesus we read about in today’s Gospel lesson, we sometimes search for Jesus because we think he is some sort of cosmic Santa Claus who will grant all our wishes or can make all of our troubles disappear. 

But that is a rather short sighted perspective, isn’t it, because even if he did make all our problems disappear or heal all our diseases and infirmities, what would be the ultimate result? Death. And so we who seek after Jesus would be wise to learn what he really wants from us and that is where the ministry of small group leadership and/or participation comes in. 

We Christians know that in Christ, God has given himself for us in a terrible and costly act so that we can live with him forever. We also know that at Pentecost, God has poured out his Holy Spirit on us to live with us each day to guide us, lead us, and help us to become more like him. Furthermore, he has given us other means of grace to help us in developing our relationship with him—daily Bible reading, prayer, and the sacraments so that each week we can feed on him by faith with thanksgiving and bring our hurts and fears as well as our hopes and dreams to him so that he can help sustain us in this present life. 

But because we humans are finite and broken, we can get it wrong and that is why we need to also participate in small groups so that when we do, we have a built-in corrective. Moreover, God did not create us to be alone (Genesis 2:18) and in the ministry of small group participation and leadership, we learn that we don’t have to be. In small groups we learn to bear each other’s burdens. We learn to share our joys and fears. We learn to pray for and with each other and play together so that the risen Christ can help us bear our burdens in this life. In small groups we learn that we do not have to go through life alone, that God loves us and gives us other faithful souls to help us in difficult times and to rejoice with us during the happy ones. We get a foretaste of God’s great love for us when we discover that our small group members love us for who we are, warts and all, and will help pick us up when we fall down. 

Likewise, in small groups we learn to dare to love each other enough to correct one another if we go astray or if we develop goofy ideas about Jesus or what Scripture says so that we don’t seek him for all the wrong reasons. All this is possible because Jesus has promised that where two or three gather in his name, there he will also be. So when we gather in small groups we are confident that our Lord is there with us to help us love each other, serve each other, and grow in grace together so that we can become more like him as we navigate the rough waters of this life here on earth.

It is in the context of small groups and in humble service to each other that we really learn what it means to be a member of Christ’s Body, the Church, because we take the time and effort to help each other deal with all the stuff that life brings our way, both good and bad, under the guidance of Christ’s Holy Spirit so that we learn to trust him and love him for who he is rather than what he can do for us, and to become more like him. In other words, we learn to cope with the joys and sorrows of this life and in doing so we learn to develop an eternal perspective of life, the kind Jesus wants us ultimately to have. 

We do that by reading and studying the Bible together, praying for each other, sharing our burdens and joys with one another, and holding each other accountable for our discipleship. That is Christian ministry and service at its finest, the kind of service that is reflected in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians that we heard today when he spoke of doing what was necessary to bring people to a saving faith in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. It is the kind of service that Christ ultimately manifested when he refused to succumb to the temptation of taking the easy way out and went instead to the cross so that we could live with him forever.

One of the folks in our group, John Falor, talks about how small group has helped him in his relationship with Jesus. Listen to him now [show video clip]. John talked about what small group did for him but I can attest that he serves us well too. He leads Bible study on a regular basis and his witness is powerful stuff for the rest of us. It is a wondrous and gracious thing to see how he has grown and flourished in his faith despite some very difficult circumstances in his life. My own discipleship is made stronger by witnessing his.

Next month (March 15) we are going to have a small group fair for the parish. As I have told you before, our goal is to eventually have 95% of you participate in small groups and next month’s fair will be the first step in helping achieve that goal. We will need leaders to lead these groups and if you are asked, I hope you will prayerfully consider doing so, even if you do not feel “qualified.” Even if you do not feel called to lead a group, you can still serve Christ’s Church here at St. Andrew’s by participating in one. I know that sounds like a strange way to serve, participating in a small group, but service does not always have to be dull or involve drudgery. 

After all, we have a God who loved us, gave himself for us and arose from the dead so that we too might rise with him. He has promised to come again to finish the work he started and in the meantime has promised to give us the Holy Spirit, as well as each other, to help us grow in our relationship with him so that we can live with him forever.  He is counting on each of us to help nurture his Body by helping each other to seek after him for all the right reasons. How could service to One like that in the context of small group ministry be dull or full of drudgery?

What about you? If you are not already a member of a small group are you willing to accept his gracious invitation and become a leader or member of one? If you are, he has promised to be with you and will give you everything you need to do the work he calls you to do so that you can enjoy life, both now and forever. That’s good news, folks, now and for all eternity. 

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

Happy Birthday, Dad

Today would have been my dad’s 86th birthday. He has been dead for almost five years now and it seems like forever. While I still miss him terribly, I am so very thankful God blessed me with both my parents for as long as I had them. I was blessed to grow up in a family that loved me, disciplined me, and instilled a sense of right and wrong in me. 

Life has not been the same without him, for my mom while she was living, or for me now. My dad was the leader of our family and he led primarily by example. He fought for our country in World War II and worked hard all his life to support us. He was both smart and wise beyond his formal education and his years. He loved his hometown, Van Wert, OH, and worked tirelessly to make his community a better place to live. He taught me how to be a man and instilled in me a sense of responsibility and honor. He insisted that I do the right thing and comport myself in ways that would not bring me shame or dishonor to our family.

In short, he helped teach me what it means to be a Maney.

He had a gentle sense of humor but was not afraid to tell me what he thought or when he thought I was headed down the wrong path. I cannot think of a better way for a father to love his son. Thank you, papa.

So happy birthday, dad. I love and miss you. I look forward to the day when we are reunited, never to be separated again. That will be God’s doing and I am thankful that we both believe(d) in this God who loved us and gave himself for us in a terrible and costly act on the cross so that our reunion is possible and will never again be interrupted.

What about you? How did your dad (or mom, or both) influence you? 


The Power of the Gospel

We sat down to table and the officer began his story: “I have served in the army ever since I was quite young. I knew my duties and was a favorite of my superiors as a conscientious officer. But I was young, as were also my friends, and unhappily I started drinking. It went from bad to worse until drinking became an illness. When I did not drink, I was a good officer, but when I would start drinking, then I would have to go to bed for six weeks. My superiors were patient with me for a long time, but finally, for rudeness to the commanding officer while I was drunk, they reduced my rank to private and transferred me to a garrison for three years. They threatened me with more severe punishment if I would not improve and give up drinking. In this unfortunate condition all my efforts at self-control were of no avail and I could not stay sober for any length of time. Then I heard that I was to be sent to the guardhouse and I was beside myself with anguish.

“One day I was sitting in the barracks deep in thought. A monk came in to beg alms for the church. Those who had money gave what they could. When he approached me he asked, ‘Why are you so downcast?’ We started talking and I told him the cause of my grief. The monk sympathized with my situation and said, ‘My brother was once in a similar position, and I will tell you how he was cured. His spiritual father gave him a copy of the Gospels and strongly urged him to read a chapter whenever he wanted to take a drink. If the desire for a drink did not leave him after he read one chapter he was encouraged to read another and if necessary still another. My brother followed this advice, and after some time he lost all desire for alcoholic beverages. It is now fifteen years since he has touched a drop of alcohol. Why don’t you do the same, and you will discover how beneficial the reading of the Gospels can be. I have a copy at home and will gladly bring it to you.’

“I wasn’t very open to this idea so I objected, ‘How can your Gospels help when neither my efforts at selfcontrol nor medical aid could keep me sober?’ I spoke in this way because I never read the Gospels.

“‘Give it a chance,’ continued the monk reassuringly, ‘and you will find it very helpful.’

“The next day he brought me this copy of the Gospels. I opened it, browsed through it, and said, ‘I will not take it, for I cannot understand it; I am not accustomed to reading Church Slavonic.’

“The monk did not give up but continued to encourage me and explained that God’s special power is present in the Gospel through his words. He went on, ‘At the beginning be concerned only with reading it diligently; understanding will come later. One holy man says that “even when you don’t understand the word of God, the demons do, and they tremble”; and the passion for drink is without a doubt their work. And St. John Chrysostom in speaking about the power of the word of God says that the very room where the Gospel is kept has the power to ward off the spirits of darkness and thwart their intrigues.’

“I do not recall what I gave the monk when I took the copy of the Gospels from him, but I placed the book in my trunk with my other belongings and forgot about it. Some time later a strong desire to have a drink took hold of me and I opened the trunk to get some money and run to the tavern. But I saw the copy of the Gospels before I got to the money and I remembered clearly what the monk had told me. I opened the book and read the first chapter of Matthew without understanding anything. Again I remembered the monk’s words, ‘At the beginning be concerned only with reading it diligently; understanding will come later.’ So I read another chapter and found it a bit more comprehensible. Shortly after I began reading the third chapter, the curfew bell rang and it was no longer possible for me to leave the barracks.

“In the morning my first thought was to get a drink, but then I decided to read another chapter to see what would happen. I read it and did not go. Again I wanted a drink, but I started reading and I felt better. This gave me courage, and with every temptation for a drink I began reading a chapter from the Gospels. The more I read, the easier it became, and when I finally finished reading all four Gospels the compulsion for drink had disappeared completely; I was repelled by the very thought of it. It is now twenty years since I stopped drinking alcoholic beverages.

“Everyone was surprised at the change that took place in me, and after three years I was reinstated as an officer and then climbed up the ranks until I was made a commanding officer. Later I married a fine woman; we have saved some money, which we now share with the poor. Now I have a grown son who is a fine lad and he also is an officer in the army.”

—From The Way of a Pilgrim

Years ago when I first read this piece, it made a deep and lasting impression on me. Because of its power as a story, I will generally refrain from commenting on it because it speaks for itself. I would simply point out two things: (1) the sin does not have to be alcohol abuse, it can be any kind of fleshly or spiritual sin; and (2) the story does NOT negate the transformative power of Christ working through his Body, the Church. There is no such thing as an isolate Christian and we are called to love each other and hold each other accountable in our lives.

What about you? Do you believe the Gospel has the power to transform you? Have you experienced the transforming power of the Gospel? Share your stories so that we might watch over each other in love.