New Creation: God’s Hope and Promise to Us in the Midst of Our Grief

Sermon preached at the funeral of Sarah Whitson, Saturday, June 30, 2012, at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Columbus, OH.

Lectionary texts: Revelation 21.1-7; Psalm 23.1-6; 1 Corinthians 15.1-26, 35-38, 42-44a, 53-58; Psalm 139.1-11; John 11.17-27.

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

Death under any circumstance is hard, isn’t it? While death came to our race because of human sin and rebellion and is a universal experience (cf. Genesis 3.1-24), it still serves as the ultimate poke in God’s eye because God created us for life and relationship with him, not death. That is one of the reasons we have such a difficult time dealing with death. Besides the obvious fact that death separates us from our loved ones, at least for a season, we know instinctively that death is so wrong precisely because we know we were created for life. Not only that, it is doubly hard to stand by and watch those we love grow increasingly infirm to the point of death. It sucks the energy right out of us and like Martha in today’s gospel lesson we want to throw our hands up in the air and ask in desperation why God allows this to happen.

But if you paid attention to our gospel lesson, you notice that Jesus gave Martha and us a much more satisfactory answer to her “why” question about evil and death. Jesus did not answer her question directly. Instead, echoing Psalm 23, he acknowledged that while evil and death still exist in God’s good but fallen world, he had come to destroy their power over us. That is why Christian funerals are so important. They serve to remind us that for those who are in Christ, evil and death do not have the final say because of God’s great love for us expressed in the death and resurrection of Jesus. As Paul reminds us in his letters to the Romans and Colossians, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ because God bore the punishment for our sins himself so that we could be reconciled to him and enjoy life and peace in the way God intends for us (Romans 8.1-3; Colossians 1.20-21). God’s love for us in Christ is so great that even death itself cannot separate us from it or from God’s life-giving presence.

We see tangible signs of God’s love for us in Christ in the various symbols that are part of today’s service. First, we remember that Sarah’s ashes were led to their place of repose by the lighted paschal candle and now rest next to it. The paschal candle is the great visible symbol that reminds us of the pillars of cloud and fire that represented God’s presence with his people as he led them out of their bondage to slavery in Egypt and remained with them during their wilderness wanderings despite their stubborn rebelliousness (cf. Exodus 13.20-22; Numbers 14.13-16). This serves to remind us that even in death God continues to lead Sarah and that God always remains faithful to us, even when are do not always remain faithful to him, so that we can trust his promises to us that in the cross he has conquered sin and death and that resurrection and new life in God’s new creation is Sarah’s destiny and ours, not death.

Second, we note that Sarah’s ashes are covered by a pall with its emblem of the cross. This serves to remind us that when Sarah was baptized she was buried with Jesus in a death like his so that she could also be raised with him and share in a resurrection like his (Romans 6.3-5). The shroud that covers Sarah’s ashes reminds us that while her mortal body has died and will be buried, even now she is in the direct presence of the Lord of life as she awaits her new resurrection body that is patterned after his. Of course, the light of the paschal candle also reminds us of Jesus’ resurrection and all that is in store for those like Sarah who live and die in him. That’s why believing in Christ’s bodily resurrection is so important because we believe that eventually we will have a body like his when he comes again in great power and glory to consummate his victory over evil, sin, and death, and usher in his promised new creation.

Paul tells us about the nature of our promised resurrection body in his letter to the Corinthians and it is worth our time to see what he has to say. Paul tells us that unlike our mortal body that is subject to disease, decay, and death, the resurrection body with which we will be clothed will be like Jesus’ resurrected body. It will be a spiritual body, that is, it will be animated and powered by God’s Spirit instead of being animated and powered by flesh and blood. This means that our new body will no longer be subject to all the nasty things to which our mortal body is subjected. Whatever that looks like—and surely it will be more beautiful and wonderful than our minds can comprehend or imagine—it will be impervious to death and suited to live in God’s promised new creation, which the writer of Revelation talks about in our NT lesson.

When the new creation comes, the dimensions of heaven and earth will no longer be separate spheres for God and humans respectively and which currently only intersect. Instead, as the writer of Revelation reminds us, the new heavens will come down to earth and the two will be fused together in a mighty act of new creation so that evil will be banished and we will get to live in God’s direct presence forever. There will be no more sorrow or sickness or suffering or death or pain or evil of any kind. We will be reunited with our loved ones who have died in Christ and get to live forever with our new body and limitless new opportunities to be the humans God created and always intended for us to be. As I watched Sarah struggle with her infirmity and weakness during the last week of her life, I couldn’t help but stop and give thanks for the promise of new creation because it represents the very opposite of what I was witnessing in sorrow.

This is our hope and promise as Christians and it is the only real remedy to our grief and sorrow. Please don’t misunderstand. I am not suggesting that we should not grieve. That would be cruel nonsense. You don’t love a person for an entire lifetime and then not grieve her loss when death claims her. But as Paul reminded the Thessalonians, we are to grieve as people who have real hope and not as those who have none at all. And of course Sarah had this hope. Whenever I visited her she spoke about wanting to sing and I have no doubt she is doing so right now in the presence of her Lord who loved her and claimed her from all eternity. She surely knows better than any of us the reality of the hope that is ours in Christ, thanks be to God!

So what do we do with all this? First and foremost we embrace our resurrection hope in Christ and let it comfort, heal, and encourage us. But Paul also gives us further instruction at the end of his letter to the Corinthians. After making a massive case for Jesus’ resurrection, the resurrection of the body, and what our promised new body will be like, we would expect him to end by saying, isn’t this all great? Rejoice because you’ve got a great party awaiting you! But instead, he tells us to remain steadfast in our work for the Lord because we do not labor in vain. This suggests that by imitating our Lord and acting as people with real hope and purpose, we can be part of God’s promised new creation starting right here and now. One way we can show our love for God for all that he has done for us in Jesus is to wrap our arms around Peg, Bob, and their families as they grieve the loss of Sarah, not just for the immediate future but over the long haul. Doing so will allow God to use us as tangible signs of his love for this family in the midst of their grief and loss. It will also allow us to show the world that we really are people of real hope who believe Jesus’ promise to us that even though our mortal body dies, we live because he has conquered death, and that in his resurrection he has given us a preview of the world to come. That, of course, is Good News, not only for Sarah Florence Whitson, but also for the rest of us, now and for all eternity.

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

Generous Orthodoxy: Thinking About Funerals (What Funerals?)

If you have ever lost a loved one to death,  you need to read this. In bowing to the cultural gods of moral equivalence and tolerance, the Church has generally abrogated its responsibility to preach the Good News that our Lord commanded us to preach. The result is that survivors of the Christian dead and unbelievers alike are robbed of the only basis for real hope available to them in the midst of their grief and loss.

And if you are one of those people, take hope. Talk to those of us who still believe our Story and its promise of redemption and new creation. It is never too late to hear the Good News so that by God’s grace you have real hope and comfort.

An Episcopal clergyman told me recently that in his 6 years in office, he had never seen the pall used in his parish church. What does that mean? It means that the traditional Anglican funeral, with the coffin present and covered by the pall, has almost ceased to exist. How has this happened? The “new” (1979) Book of Common Prayer clearly calls for the body to be present in the church — the rubrics (italicized instructions) assume it, with instructions such as “The coffin is to be closed before the service.” There is even a special set of prayers to be said (p. 466) as the body is brought into the church to repose before the service.

What has happened in the 30+ intervening years to cause this to change so totally? We now have the ubiquitous memorial service, which as far as I know scarcely existed at all thirty years ago.

Read and reflect on it all.

Are You Out of Your Mind for Christ’s Sake?

Sermon delivered on Sunday, Trinity 2, June 17, 2012 at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Columbus, OH.

Lectionary texts: 1 Samuel 15.34-16.13; Psalm 20.1-9; 2 Corinthians 5.6-17; Mark 4.26-34.

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

In this morning’s epistle lesson, Paul continues to defend his apostolic ministry. As we saw last week, there was confusion in the church at Corinth over exactly what the apostle’s ministry should look like. Paul wasn’t acting like a guy in charge. Rather, he was suffering mightily for Jesus’ Name and sake, and appeared to be weak and sometimes indecisive. He certainly wasn’t behaving as the world expected its leaders to behave. He apparently wasn’t in it for himself. He had only one thing (and one person) on his mind—Jesus. And that just didn’t make sense to some in the Corinthian church.

And I suspect the situation hasn’t changed much from Paul’s day to ours. A quick look at Christ’s body, the Church, reminds us that it hardly has the unity for which our Lord prayed. We are at odds over a lot of things—abortion, sexual ethics, social justice, and divorce, to name just a few. And so this morning I want to look briefly at what Paul meant when he wrote that if he were considered to be out of his mind, it was for God’s sake. What does being out of our mind for Jesus’ sake mean? What might it look like and why might it even be desirable?

Given what Paul writes in today’s epistle lesson, he would tell us that it is definitely a good thing for others who do not know Christ to think that we are out of our mind for him. Why? Because after Jesus claimed Paul on the road to Damascus, Paul always had the big picture in mind. He realized that life was much more than his own particular wants and needs. As he reminds us today, each one of us will have to stand before the judgment seat of Christ and give an account of our actions. If you are like me, that is a fearsome thing to consider. How can a sinful, rebellious man like me stand before a holy, pure, and just God, a God who hates evil of any kind? On my own merits, I don’t have a prayer when it comes to being judged by God—and neither do you.

But as Paul also reminds us, thanks be to God that those who are in Christ can have confidence when they stand before the judgment seat of God because in Christ, God has borne his just punishment for our sins himself. As Paul wrote to the Romans, there is now no condemnation for those who are in the Messiah because in Christ God has condemned sin in the flesh, our sin, and suffered the terrible consequences himself so that we do not have to (Romans 8.1-4). Elsewhere, Paul calls this being justified by God’s grace through faith. This simply means that when we stand before God at his judgment throne, despite who we are and what we have done, because we believe Christ has died for us and act accordingly, God will declare us not guilty because he has taken care of our just punishment himself. And the best part of all is that this future “not guilty” verdict for those who are in Christ has come back in the present so we can enjoy that status right now. Judgment there will be. None of us can escape it. But for those who are in Christ, the judgment will be not guilty. This, of course, is a free gift of God given to us and none of us come close to deserving it. But it’s not about us. It’s about the mind-boggling love, mercy, and grace of God poured out for us on the cross of Christ.

Not only that, but there is the hope of resurrection and new creation for those who are in Christ and Paul continues to unpack that for us today. There will be a day when we lose our mortal body and go to be with our Lord who loved us and claimed us from all eternity. After a period of rest (unless he returns immediately after we die), our mortal body will be raised and transformed into a new resurrection body. We will be reunited with it and live in God’s direct presence forever in his new creation when the dimensions of heaven and earth are fused together. We will be able to enjoy this wondrous future precisely because there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ.

This is why Paul would encourage us to be out of our minds for Christ’s sake, i.e., to imitate him, even if it means we must suffer profusely for our Lord. The world does not understand why we would want to think and act like Jesus because it is hostile toward and alienated from God. But as Paul reminds us, what the world thinks doesn’t matter because the world and its values are passing away. Those who consciously choose to remain alienated from God often think we are fools because they see things from a worldly perspective and judge us superficially. But as all our lessons remind us this morning, God does not see or judge us by outward appearances. God sees and judges us by what he sees in our hearts, biblical language that refers to our very being, and God works his will in mysterious and often unseen ways.

And so we willingly suffer scorn, derision, and hurt for Jesus’ sake, not out of a sense of duty but out of a profound sense of love for all that God has done for and given us in Christ. It’s what motivated Paul and it is what must motivate us. Of course, we must have the help of the Spirit who lives in us to give us the needed perspective to have a grateful heart. But when the Spirit works his grace in us, we are indeed given the needed humility to have a grateful heart for all God has done for us in Jesus and it changes us down to the very core of our being. Not all at once, mind you, but over time. As we respond to the promptings of the Spirit, we discover that we are slowly going out of our mind for Christ’s sake. In other words, we become more and more like him and in doing so we find life and joy, even in the midst of our sorrow and suffering.

Why? Because especially in our suffering, we imitate our Lord and are confident that God will use our suffering to bring us to glory, just like he did with Jesus. And so we develop a different mindset and value system from the world that is opposed to God, a mindset and values that equip us to live as citizens of the kingdom starting right now, and which is pleasing to God. We remember that we will have to give an account of our life and if we really have a saving faith in Jesus, that faith will always manifest itself in our behavior. If we do not imitate Jesus in our actions there is no way we can have a saving faith. And by faith, we can also have confidence that God will see in our hearts that we are trying be like Jesus because we love him and want to please him, just the way Paul talked about in today’s epistle lesson, even when we fail.

So what does being out of our mind for Christ look like? Let me give you two quick examples of behavior that might indicate our sincere desire to love and please the Lord because of all he has done for us. In each case, the world might look at these behaviors and question our sanity, and that is for our good (and theirs). The first example deals with our mission statement, Changed by God to Make a Difference for God. We have already seen how the love of God changes us. But how do we make a difference for God? By being his agents of new creation and proclaiming the Good News to others. Being agents of new creation means, in part, that we willingly forgive those who wrong and hurt us and seek to be reconciled to them. The world, of course, would encourage us to stand up for our rights. It would encourage us not to let our enemies use us or take advantage of us. But that is not what our Lord told us to do. He told us to forgive seventy times seven, an unlimited amount. He didn’t tell us to wait until the time is right. He told us to get busy and do our part to be reconciled to our enemies. Are you doing that with your relationships that need the healing touch of Christ?

Regarding the latter behavior of proclaiming the Good News in word and deed, our culture tells us that this is a cardinal sin because it worships the gods of moral equivalence and tolerance and we can count on being persecuted if we fail to do likewise. But if Christ really did die for our sins and was raised from the dead as Paul and the other NT writers claim, and if there will be condemnation for those who are not in Christ when they stand before God’s judgment throne, how can we possibly remain silent, especially if we claim to love Jesus and our fellow human beings? Does not compute. Of course, the world will challenge this claim and we can prove none of it the way the world demands because we walk by faith, not sight. But faith does not mean we do not have certainty. We have certainty because we have the love of Christ poured into our hearts in and through the power and presence of the Holy Spirit. Do you love others enough to keep talking to them about and demonstrating the love of Christ in your life or will you bow and remain silent before the gods of moral equivalence and tolerance? If you choose not to remain silent, I can promise that you will quickly find out what it means to be considered out of our mind for Christ’s sake and it won’t be pretty.

A second example that might illustrate being out of our mind for Christ’s sake is how we decide to allocate our financial resources. The wisdom of the world tells us to save as much as we can and look out for number one (that would be us). What happens to others is just not our concern. But since Jesus’ resurrection reminds us that God’s creatures and creation are important in God’s economy and that God intends to redeem rather than destroy his creation and us, this suggests that the conventional wisdom of the world might be a bit myopic in this area as well. Precisely because we value God’s creation and creatures, whenever and wherever we see suffering, want, and need, as Jesus’ people we are called to do something about it, even if it is costly to us. Seen from the world’s perspective, we would therefore be acting as fools, giving generously to those in need instead of looking out for number one and keeping our resources to ourselves out of fear they might someday run out.

But the world’s economy is not the kingdom’s economy. As Jesus reminds us constantly, we are not to put our ultimate trust in wealth (cf. Luke 12.13-21). We are to put our ultimate trust in God who can and does provide for us. Consequently, we are led to give generously and even outrageously because this is pleasing to God (cf. Luke 7.36-47). The only way we can really do this consistently is to remember Whose we are and the gift we have been given in our crucified and risen Messiah.

So are you out of your mind for Christ’s sake? If you are, stop and rejoice in the great gift you have been given. If you are not, don’t despair because it is not too late to give yourself to the Lord who has given himself for you. God’s love for you in Christ is the only way you can ever be out of your mind for Jesus’ sake. But when you are, it means you really do have Good News, now and for all eternity.

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

FN: Mysterious Bones May Belong to John the Baptist

As with any of these discoveries, caution is the operative word until scholarly opinion has time to form. Yet, the story remains interesting nevertheless.

Historical research by Oxford professor Georges Kazan suggests that relics supposedly from John the Baptist were on the move out of Jerusalem by the fourth century. Many of these artifacts were shuttled through the ancient city of Constantinople and may well have been gifted to the Sveti Ivan monastery from there.

None of this proves that the bones belonged to a historical figure named John the Baptist, but researchers haven’t been able to rule out the possibility, Higham said. Their study has not yet been published in a peer-reviewed journal, but a program detailing the research will be aired on the United Kingdom National Geographic Channel on Sunday (June 17). National Geographic funded the research.

Read it all and see what you think.

Parents Furious After School Teaches Graphic Sex Class

Welcome to your brave new world where common sense is generally abandoned for the sexualization of America’s kids. I am so relieved that super Fenter defended a stupid act by yet another principal and very much appreciate his defense of his underling. Thank goodness the principal in question withheld demonstrations of oral and anal sex and only gave FIFTH GRADERS factual info about these acts! Maybe the demonstrations will be available in advanced sex-ed classes during their sixth-grade year. One can only hope.

I wonder if the good superintendent  ever considered that doing outrageous things like this might just contribute to these kids’  sexual awareness? The whole thing is just ludicrous and all involved should both apologize for their stupidity and lack of judgment, not to mention be ashamed of their behavior.

It is a good thing they do not have me as a boss because they would be banned from ever setting foot in a school again. Kids have a hard enough time growing up these days without having to deal with leaders who show terrible judgment and lack common sense.

Fifth-graders at Onalaska Elementary School were supposed to get a lesson about HIV-AIDS, but the class discussion turned graphic when a child asked about other forms of sexual activity. The principal, who happened to be teaching the class, then told the children about oral and anal sex.

“I’m one pissed off cowboy,” parent James Gilliand told Fox News Radio. “I didn’t appreciate them teaching my daughter – who is innocent of that – at all.”

Gilliland and his wife, Kadra, were among the moms and dads in Onalaska, about 73 miles south of Tacoma, demanding answers from their local school system – and so far – they are still waiting.

“I was just shocked because I trusted my little country school,” Kadra Gilliland told Fox News Radio. “I didn’t think they were going to talk about such things. I trusted by school – that’s the bottom line and they crossed the line.”

School officials did not return calls seeking comment.

However, Superintendent Scott Fenter defended the principal’s action to local media and said that the lesson did not go too far.

“I think the principal handled it appropriately at the time; she only gave factual information, no demonstrations,” Fenter told “Because in sixth grade they start becoming sexually aware and you’ve got to teach them ahead of time.”

Read the whole sad story.

TV Host Behar Jokes that She Wants to See Romney’s ‘House Burn’

More evidence that the end of civil political discourse is imminent (if it hasn’t already arrived). Shame on her and all like her, whatever their political persuasions may be.

“I’d like to see his house burn, one of his millions of houses burning down,” said Behar, a co-host on ABC’s “The View” daytime talk show, in an interview with the website Mediaite. “Who’s he going to call, the Mormon fire patrol?”

Read it all.

Don’t misunderstand from whence I come. All sides of the political debate have people who behave badly and that kind of behavior should never be tolerated, especially if it is to advance a political ideology. Ms. Behar should be ashamed of herself in this instance. She is free to disagree with Romney and even be President Obama’s sycophant if she chooses. But she has crossed the line here when she “jokes” that she wants to see another’s property destroyed to make her point.

And what is up with her comment about a “Mormon fire patrol”? Where is the love, the inclusivity that she and her ilk regularly espouse? If Ms. Behar cannot make her point without resorting to using such extreme examples and implicit name-calling, she had better stop and examine the legitimacy of her viewpoint in the first place.

Columbus Dispatch: [Mayor] Coleman Defies Call to End Prayer Luncheon

Good for him.

Coleman held his 13th Interfaith Prayer Luncheon yesterday despite a letter of criticism from the Freedom From Religion Foundation, a nonprofit group that seeks to promote constitutional separation of church and state and to offer education on non-theism.

“First, I believe in the almighty God our father,” the mayor proclaimed to applause and cheers from the about 600 people gathered in the Aladdin Shrine Center for the event. “Second, I believe that we should be doing God’s work here on earth, and I believe in thanking God for bestowing our city with his blessings.”

Read it all.

I never cease to be amazed that very few people ever seem to challenge the validity of the arguments that groups like the Freedom from Religion Foundation mount against (primarily) Christianity. It is indicative of how badly the Church has failed to respond to the intellectual challenges mounted by the Enlightenment. What exactly gives this group the high ground or allows them to dictate the terms of the debate or discussion? The last time I checked, no one died and made the values of the Enlightenment king. Empiricism and rationalism do not inherently have the final say in matters of life nor should they be held as the ultimate arbiter of issues, especially when it comes to matters of religion. Despite scientific advances, there is still evil and death in the world. The Enlightenment and its thinkers have not succeeded in obliterating evil or ridding the world of all its problems as many of its proponents claimed it would. To the contrary, history has shown that progress, the very darling of Enlightenment thinking, is not inevitable, nor even desirable, depending on how one defines “progress.” Neither has secularism produced ideal forms of government or idyllic states. In fact, some of the most notorious regimes of late have been utterly devoid of true religion and some of the destructive lifestyles being advocated by the “enlightened” folk of our day are hardly superior to the lifestyles they seek to replace. What then gives the values behind and associated with the Enlightenment the moral and intellectual high ground? I’ve seen nothing that comes close to providing a satisfactory answer to this question and challenge from folks like me.

Moreover, the foundation’s very name suggests that they themselves have badly misinterpreted the First Amendment, which never was intended to give people freedom from religion, but rather to allow people to worship (or not) as they choose. The framers of the Constitution were reacting, in part, to the fact that the Church of England was an established church and they were determined not to have that happen under their watch, having just gained their independence from England. Here is the exact language from the First Amendment pertaining to government and religion:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.

Clearly from the language above, if the Freedom from Religion Foundation was fashioned after the concept of separation of church and state, an often misunderstood concept to begin with, there is nothing in the amendment that remotely suggests people should be protected from religion. Neither is Mayor Coleman forcing religion or his own faith down people’s throats. Any reasonable person would conclude this by reading the article or being familiar with the Mayor’s political beliefs.

This then essentially reduces Freedom from Religion’s argument to sheer opinion, one among many, which of course they are allowed to have, misguided and narrow-minded as it might be. But again, what about them or their argument gives them the right to impose their views on others? Nothing as far as I can tell because as we have seen above, they have failed to make their case. They, and others like them, are sadly free to choose death. But they have no inherent right or authority to tell others they must follow their badly mistaken beliefs.

More Evidence that Common Sense is Dying

From the NY Post.

Greta Hawkins, principal of PS 90, the Edna Cohen School, won’t allow kindergartners to belt out the beloved Lee Greenwood ballad, also known as “Proud to be an American,” at their moving-up ceremony.

Five classes spent months learning the patriotic song, which skyrocketed in popularity after the 9/11 attacks and the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

But Hawkins marched in on a recent rehearsal and ordered a CD playing the anthem to be shut off, staffers said.She told the teachers to drop the song from the program.

It was to be the rousing finale of their musical show at the June 20 commencement. The kids, dressed up for their big day, would wave tiny American flags — which, as the lyrics proclaim, “still stand for freedom.”

“We don’t want to offend other cultures,” they quoted her as explaining.

More proof that common sense is on its last leg. I am really worried about the mental state of some of the people who are in charge of our schools. Very worried.

If you read the article, what really frosts me is that this woman not only makes an incredibly foolish decision, she then lies to try and cover up her foolishness and expects people will believe her explanation that the lyrics for God Bless the USA are “not age appropriate” for the students (but Justin Bieber’s lyrics about teen romance are).

Ms. Hawkins, I hope you recover (or develop) some semblance of common sense and good judgment before it is too late for you. Right now you don’t have a clue. I also hope that in the future, if you are going to make foolish decisions like this, you will at least show some moral courage and simply stand behind your decision instead of offering poppycock reasons for making it.

But please do get a life and get a clue. Read it all.

Jesus? Who Wants a King Like That?

Sermon delivered on Sunday (Trinity 1B), June 10, 2012, at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Columbus, OH.

Lectionary texts: 1 Samuel 8.4-20; Psalm 138.1-8; 2 Corinthians 4.13-5.5; Mark 3.20-35.

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

In today’s OT lesson we see yet another enigmatic story from the history of God’s people, Israel. They come to the prophet Samuel and ask him to appoint a king for them just like the other nations have. Do you see the almost comical nature of this request? It brings to mind scenes from the old sitcom, Welcome Back Kotter, in which Kotter asks a question to the class and there’s old Horshack, raising his hand wildly and begging to be called on, and Kotter would rather have a root canal than do that. God certainly isn’t our pupil nor are we God’s teacher, but you get the point. In the biblical story of God and his people, God keeps reaching out to his people Israel and continues to be faithful to them, and they keep looking for anyone or anything else besides God to lead them, not unlike many of us do today.

Then there is the supreme irony in the Israelites’ request. Here is Israel, the people whom God called to be his agents of healing and redemption to God’s broken and sinful world, asking God’s spokesman, Samuel, to give them a king so that they could be like their neighbors. Excuse me? Isn’t Israel supposed to model for her neighbors what it means to be God’s chosen people and truly human? What’s going on here?

Then, of course, there is God’s enigmatic answer to Samuel. “They’ve rejected me as their rightful king but go ahead and give them a king anyway.” So which is it, God? Do you want Israel to have a king or don’t you? Samuel dutifully warns his people that they’d better be careful what they wish for because they just might get it! And of course Samuel was proved right. The history of Israel’s monarchy would be as great an enigma as Israel itself because Israel’s kings would range from the good to the bad to the ugly. On the ugly end of the spectrum, we see kings like Manasseh, who built an Asherah pole, the very symbol of Baal worship that God utterly despised, in God’s Temple and sacrificed his own children to the pagan god Molech. On the good end of the spectrum, we see kings like David and Solomon who, while being declared to be good kings, were deeply flawed themselves. David, for example, was an adulterer, a murderer, and a war-monger, who was almost murdered by his own children. But David was also the man after God’s own heart (1 Samuel 13.14; Acts 13.22) because he steadfastly refused to worship other gods despite all his flaws. Solomon was the epitome of God’s wisdom but at the end of his career allowed pagan worship to be reintroduced in Israel because he had a concubine of foreign wives who worshiped various pagan gods and led Solomon astray. All this indicates that God’s chosen people were as much a part of the problem as the solution when it came to being the people God called them to be and it goes a long way in helping us understand God’s often stormy relationship with his people. It is hard to be the people God calls us to be when we want to be like those to whom we are called to bring God’s healing love.

And we see this enigma and conflict continue into the NT when God himself becomes human to fulfill his ancient promise to return to his exiled people and live with them forever. The problem stemmed, of course, from the fact that when God came to his people as King in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, it was not what God’s people wanted or expected. We see this illustrated clearly in this morning’s gospel lesson when Jesus’ family came to take charge of him because they thought he was out of his mind. Then there were Jesus’ opponents who accused him of being an exorcist in the power of Satan’s name! None of them were looking at Jesus thinking that they were witnessing God become human, doing battle with the Evil One and all of his dark forces, and bringing healing to people and places where it was desperately needed. For you see, that’s just not how we expect our kings to behave. Oh, we might appreciate Jesus’ display of power in his exorcisms and understand Jesus’ claim to have tied up the strong man (Satan). After all, we expect our leaders to be powerful and kick butt. But it was those other things Jesus did, things like eating and drinking with outcasts and and lowlifes, things like demanding that we serve those who could not possibly hope to repay us, things like offering mercy and forgiveness to our enemies instead of working to destroy them, and things like demanding from us our first and ultimate loyalty, even if it means subordinating the needs and desires of our own family. I mean, what’s up with that? Didn’t God tell us to honor our mother and father and now we see Jesus apparently insulting his own family! It just doesn’t make sense. We don’t expect our leaders and kings to think and behave in these ways, especially if we think that leader is God.

No, we want our God to be mighty in deed and word. We want a God who will zap our enemies like he did for Israel at the Red Sea so that we can be kings of the hill. We want a God who is unambiguous and who will solve all our problems for us in a clear and decisive manner so there is no doubt he is God and he is on our side. We don’t want some wimpy God who takes on our human form and who will mix it up with us, operating on our own level, especially when it results in him getting crucified, even if in the cross we find peace and reconciliation with God as well as our own healing. To be fair to Jesus’ contemporaries and first followers, they would need some time and the perspective of the resurrection for their eyes to be opened to the reality of who he really was (and is). But the very fact that they would need something like the resurrection to change their perspective about Jesus reminds us that Jesus’ first followers were not looking for God to come to them and become their king once again in the manner God did.

Likewise for us. We too would prefer our God to be nice and tidy, a God who conforms to our expectations of him rather than us having to readjust our thinking about who God is and what God in Jesus really demands of us as his people and followers. After all, who among us really wants to deny ourselves, take up our cross each day, and follow Jesus? Who among us wants to be ridiculed as being out-dated, ignorant, intolerant, and close-minded because we follow the teachings of our Lord and his word contained in Scripture? Who among us really wants to forgive our enemies and serve those who cannot possibly hope to repay us for what we do for or give them? If we really wanted to do all that, there would be no need for God to call us out to be his people to bring his healing love to the world in the power of Jesus’ name and the working of the Spirit living in us. Instead, we’d still be in paradise! No, following Jesus is not particularly sexy. It will likely not make us rich or famous or powerful as the world defines it all and that’s why it is so hard to follow Jesus at times, even with the help of the Spirit.

And this is what Paul is addressing in today’s epistle lesson because even after Jesus’ mighty resurrection and ascension there was confusion among some in the early church about what Christian discipleship looks like. In his letter, Paul has been defending his own apostolic ministry to the Corinthians because it did not look like what they wanted or expected (imagine that). In the verses leading up to today’s pericope (selected passage), Paul has been telling us about the terrible hardships he has faced for Jesus’ sake. Listen to him now [read 2 Corinthians 4.7-12]. Why would anybody willingly submit to beatings, ridicules, and persecution to follow Jesus? It didn’t make any sense to the church at Corinth and it doesn’t make any sense to many of us today. But Paul tells us why he does what he does and why we as followers of Jesus should not hesitate to obey Jesus’ demands to put to death all of our selfish and fallen desires and become like him, even if it means that we must suffer persecution for his sake.

We follow Jesus because in him, and him alone, we have the hope and promise of God’s new creation. Our mortal body with all its brokenness and weaknesses is not the end game and so for those who are in Christ, it really doesn’t matter what happens to our body because we have died with him, will be raised with him, and share in his glory (cf. Romans 6.3-7). And when we are raised with him, our present earthly tent (our mortal bodies) will be replaced with a new Spirit-animated body that God is keeping for us in heaven. Using Paul’s analogy, it will be like moving from a cardboard box in a shantytown to a breathtakingly beautiful mansion with the choicest view of all.

Paul also uses a clothing analogy to help describe the indescribable when talking about our future resurrection body. We will go from rags to riches when death claims our mortal body and God fits us with a brand new body in the new creation. Paul seems to be telling us that we were made for something better than we currently have and suggests that we are aware of this, in part, in our desire to wear nice new clothes. When we dress up to the nines and tens in new duds it makes us feel special and here Paul suggests to us that when we get our new resurrection body, whatever it may be and look like, it will be mind-blowingly wonderful and we will finally be living in a spectacular body that will allow us to be truly human without our fallenness and foibles.

This is the hope and promise of new creation and this is what makes it worth our time and effort to be Jesus’ disciples with its demands that we die to ourselves and suffer for his Name. Jesus will use our suffering and self-denial as signs of God’s promised new creation that his resurrection inaugurated and which all followers of Jesus are called to be a part. If we have real hope that our future is secure and more wonderful than we can even begin to imagine—and the NT writers always define hope as a sure and certain expectation rather than wishful thinking—we can put up with almost anything in the present, including putting to death all that is in us that keeps us hostile to Christ and bearing the hatred and opposition of all who are opposed to him. After all, as it was in ancient times, Jesus is not the King his current enemies want or expect. The more things change, the more they remain the same, and that is why we must pray for the Spirit to open their blind eyes.

So what can we take away from all this? Two things come to mind immediately. First and foremost, we need to keep in mind constantly that we are a people who have a real hope and future, a hope and future made possible by the grace of God in the death and resurrection of Jesus. The best way to keep this in mind is to read Scripture regularly, together and individually, so that we learn better how God became King and how God is dealing with sin and evil in his world so that we can be part of the action—in a good way, of course. That requires we learn the entire story of Scripture, not just snippets of it. If we fail to do what is necessary to make God’s rescue plan of his sinful and fallen creation our own, we can expect to be robbed of it by being distracted by all that goes on in our lives.

And as Jesus reminds us in today’s gospel lesson, he expects us to be his disciples as part of his new community, the church, so that together we can help and support each other in the power of the Spirit so that he can use us to bring his healing love to those around us. Coincidentally, this corresponds with our mission statement because what we do always stems from what we believe. We cannot ever expect to make a difference for God if we do not let him change us first and that will require us to be diligent in reading Scripture and prayer together as part of Christ’s body here at St. Augustine’s. How are you doing in that regard?

Second, Jesus’ exorcisms and his ongoing battle with demonic forces remind us that evil is real and we had better take it seriously. While Christians believe that God has defeated evil decisively on the cross of Jesus, that battle still continues and we had best be in constant prayer for Jesus’ help and protection while we live in this world because there are still forces out there who hate us and want to destroy us. I am not suggesting that we look for the devil under every rock. I am suggesting that we recognize there is evil in this world and look to the One who is stronger than evil to help and protect us. Not only should we be in constant prayer about this, we also need to remember that whenever we act to satisfy our own fallen desires and agendas rather than behave as the people Jesus calls us to be, we give evil yet another toehold in God’s good creation and anyone who professes to love the Lord should find that grievous and move to do something about it, with the Spirit’s help, of course.

As we have seen, none of this is easy and some of what we are called to do is not particularly fun. But we are willing to engage in the hard work of being disciples of Jesus precisely because we believe his promises to us. In no other is there the promise of new creation and becoming truly human in the way God intends for us. We have seen our crucified Messiah and his empty tomb. We have experienced the power and presence of his Spirit in and among us and so we embrace our future and hope. And that, of course, means we really do have Good News, now and for all eternity.

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

CT: Why Denomination Matters to Church Growth

Conventional wisdom says that conservative churches grow and liberal churches don’t. But as a recent study from the Hartford Institute for Religion Research found, this isn’t quite accurate. It’s the denomination’s theology that tends to matter, not the congregation’s. Churches in evangelical denominations are more than twice as likely to grow as churches in mainline denominations, but within those denominations theological orientation doesn’t have much effect. In other words, orthodoxy doesn’t draw crowds on its own.

Interesting. Check it out and see what you think.

An Unexpected Moment of Grace in Sacramental Time

Yesterday I walked into an unexpected death watch vigil. Being present to someone who is actively dying is always very difficult and draining. I was exhausted when I got home. But during the vigil, God blessed us with an unexpected moment of grace. I had brought my communion kit, expecting to give Ellen communion. Instead, I ended up giving communion to six other people in the room in addition to Ellen. Included were a Catholic deacon and nun as well as a fellow Anglican priest and two other lay people. Why do I call this an unexpected moment of grace? Because Roman Catholics typically do not accept holy communion from other denominations.

I was therefore both surprised and delighted that our Roman brother and sister in Christ took communion from us and for a few glorious moments in sacramental time we all got a glimpse of what Christ’s one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church is supposed to look like. It was awesome. Simply awesome. And at least for me, I found much-needed nourishment and refreshment in the midst of decay and death because of it. Jesus has indeed overcome death in his own death and resurrection.

I am also quite sure our Lord was very pleased to see us all communing on his body and blood together. Surely it was an unexpected gift we were able to give to Ellen as she lay dying, something quite appropriate since she always delighted in bringing people together.

May the Spirit of our Lord continue to bless and heal his fractured and broken church so that one day we may all achieve the unity for which he prayed on the night before he died for us. Thank you, my Roman brother and sister in Christ, for your graciousness and love, and for your wonderful ministry to Ellen in her final days. May God continue to bless you and your work.