Dr. Ben Witherington: The War on Christians in the World Today

Frightening—both the level of persecution and the denial that such persecution exists.

“According to the Pew Forum, between 2006 and 2010 Christians faced some form of discrimination, either de jure persecuteor de facto, in a staggering total of 139 nations, which is almost three-quarters of all the countries on earth. According to the Center for the Study of Global Christianity at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in Massachusetts, an average of 100,000 Christians have been killed in what the centre calls a ‘situation of witness’ each year for the past decade. That works out to 11 Christians killed somewhere in the world every hour, seven days a week and 365 days a year, for reasons related to their faith.”

Read the whole sobering thing.

Fr. Ron Feister: Are Our Ways God’s Ways?

Sermon delivered on the last Sunday after Trinity C, October 27, 2013, at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Columbus, OH.

Due to a technical difficulty there is no audio podcast available for this sermon. We apologize for the inconvenience.

Lectionary texts: Joel 2.23-32; Psalm 65.1-13; 2 Timothy 4.6-8, 16-18; Luke 18.9-14.

Today’ s Epistle finds Paul waiting in prison for final judgment.  He is aware that his earthly ministry like that of his Master is close to an end. He now looks forward to the crown of righteousness that comes from having fought the Good Fight. He sees his life being poured out like a libation. As this term is used in this reading, it applies to the wine that is poured out upon the sacrificial offering of Old Testament Times.  The effect of that pouring of the wine libation upon the  offering was to cause the fire to flare up and the whole place to be filled with the aroma. Paul is encouraging Timothy to take heart that even as Paul’s life is coming to an end that through his sacrifice and his relationship with Timothy that the fire of the faith may be increased and spread through the whole of creation. Paul’s life of witness and sacrifice surely did merit for him a Crown of Righteousness.

In today’s Gospel story, we also find the theme of righteousness as we are introduced to two wildly different characters. A religious Pharisee, like Paul, and a tax collector. It is appropriate that we get to known a little about these two types of individuals before we proceed. We have all been introduced to the tax collector in earlier sermons.  He is an outcast. A cooperator with the Romans, he earns most, if not all of his income, by charging excess taxes and by dishonest dealings. Other than a leper you could not find a more disgusting type of individual in Jewish society.  The other individual in the story is a Pharisee. Our picture of what a Pharisee was is often very negative, but in honesty, these were not bad Jews. They were members of one of the four major theological groups. The believed in a resurrection, that God rewarded good and punished the bad, they emphasized faithfulness to the Torah (the first 5 book of the Bible), in both written form and oral tradition, and they believed in a Messiah.

The Pharisees were not the elite of society  – a position claimed by the Sadducees.  They were to speak in modern terms -your average blue collar church goer. Still all the listeners would have identified with him and no doubt been caught up in the story. In the parable, the Pharisee stands in the Temple with hands up raised, and prays directly to God again a practice familiar to the listeners. The Pharisee is not being singled out because he is the bad guy. He is no doubt offering a prescribed prayer that all Jewish men were expected to know and pray daily.  He starts by thanking God for all the benefits he has received and for being kept from falling into a sinful life – who can fault someone for dong that.  He acknowledges that he has done his duty for God, and perhaps, we can understand his boasting a bit – after all he does more fasting than is required and he gives a full 10% of his income as an offering; this is more than he was required to do for not all income was subject to the tithe. You could say he gave his 10% on the gross income and not the net.

His prayer was not one seeking righteousness, but merely thanking God for not making him like those who were not righteous.  The wording of the prayer was not really meant as a boast about his own status or to despise others, though the wording gives that impression and no doubt caught the ear of Jesus’ listeners.

The tax collector’s prayer is of a totally different type. He stands far off, not unlike the leper.  He beats his chest as a sign of penitence. He keeps his eyes down and he raises not his hands.   He is not rejoicing in his righteousness – he knows better. He is seeking forgiveness and the righteousness that cannot be earned, but can only be given by God.

The tax collector leaves having received forgiveness and receiving the righteousness for which he begged, the Pharisee did not. He does not receive righteousness or forgiveness, because he is not even aware that he is in need of such. The one who humbled himself is thus exalted.  The one who exalted himself is humbled.

The lesson for us is that there is a danger that we will see ourselves as righteous, after all we are not thieves, rogues, adulterers or heaven forbid, dishonest tax collectors.  We may come to believe that we are righteous enough and do not need to ask for mercy and forgiveness or we may become convinced that any one not as righteous as us is not worthy of consideration.

The key to understanding what Jesus is attempting to teach is to look at the audience to whom it was addressed – they are described as “some who trusted that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt.” But God, who is all righteousness, does not despise the sinner, God willingly forgives the sinner and as in the case of the tax collector restores them to a state of right relationship with Him.

We have to ask ourselves are we willing to forgive when others seek to be reconciled to us? When others have shown repentance for having wronged us, are we willing to restore our relationship with them. Are we willing to humble ourselves and honestly admit our own sinfulness that we like the tax collector may be exalted; that we might receive righteousness. God’s way is to be open to forgiveness and reconciliation – the world’s way is to judgment and self-satisfaction.

In our Old Testament reading, we find God blessing the people with needed rain and promising a fruitful harvest to restore them after they had been plagued by locusts. These plagues were seen as a punishment for the people’s lack of faithfulness.  God goes even further by promising them a new relationship with Him in which all – young and old, slave and free, will experience the spirit of God in dramatic fashion. As we have heard over the last many weeks, this is God’s pattern, his justice requires that the people pay a price for their unfaithfulness, but because of God’s love for them, once they repent, He blesses them.

How do we relate then people betray us?  Are we willing to bless those who have abandoned us?  Are we even willing to pray for them and ask that God but his spirit into their lives?

Last week’s Gospel gave us the story to the persistent window who finally wore down the immoral judge. A lesson on the need to be faithful and persistence in prayer; but the Gospel ends by stating that God is quick to listen and respond to the prayer of the faithful. Sometimes God’s response seems to come slowly, if at all, but this in only because God knows the right timing and the right answer. Are we quick to listen and respond to the pleas of our brothers and sisters or do we require them to nag us like the Judge?

When Jesus is asked who is to be the greatest in heaven, he takes children as an example. They are totally dependant. They are open to God’s creation. They are more willing than adults to admit having done wrong. They are more willing to seek forgiveness. They are willing to accept back those who have injured them as friends. They are honest – sometimes uncomfortably so. They come without prejudice. They are not concerned with their own righteousness, but they are, in their innocence, truly righteous.

Yet these are not the characteristics that the world finds attractive.  These are not the attributes that makes one first or exalted in the world’s view, but last in the few of the world. We are called to chose. First in the world’s ways or first in God’s ways. Do we exalt ourselves or do we humble ourselves that God may do the exalting.

Mark Galli: Whatever Happened to Grace?

It is understandable why we’re tempted to shift the message of grace to a form of works. The radical grace outlined in Romans and Galatians seems too good to be true. It’s hard to fathom that while we were sinners Christ died for us (Rom. 5:8), or that, before we had done anything, God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself (2 Cor. 5:19). Before we had created the doctrine of salvation to believe in. Before we had enjoyed any religious experience. Before we had reformed our lives.

An interesting read from Mr. Galli. How do you perceive grace (or do you)?

CT: Hot and Holy

The reigning sexual ethic reflects a tongue-in-cheek lyric from Sheryl Crow: “If it makes you happy, it can’t be that bad.” This worldview affirms any and all attempts to get sexual pleasure so long as such attempts do not harm others. If it feels good and you’re not hurting anyone, how could it possibly be wrong? Many people see no larger purpose for sex. They have severed their sexuality from the objective order that God has created, and they have lost sight of God’s purpose for our sexuality. So when people ask what they should or shouldn’t do sexually, they are asking a question about purpose—whether or not they realize it.

When Paul commands us to glorify God with our bodies in 1 Corinthians 6, he may as well have said, “Glorify God with your sex.” He clearly has in mind the use of the body for sex, so the ultimate purpose of sex must be the glory of God. To enjoy sex for God’s glory is to enjoy it in the way God has determined.

A useful read, especially in this day and age.

Changed by God to Make a Difference for God

Sermon delivered on Trinity 21C, Sunday, October 20, 2013, at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Columbus, OH.

If you would like to hear the audio podcast of this sermon, usually somewhat different from the text below, click here.

Lectionary texts: Jeremiah 31.27-34; Psalm 119.97-104; 2 Timothy 3.14-4.5; Luke 18.1-8.

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

This morning we are going to present our proposed 2014 budget and as promised, you are going to get a very short sermon. I want to remind us quickly what our marching orders are as Christians. As our mission statement puts it, we are changed by God to make a difference for God. We live in a world created good but despoiled by human sin and the evil our sin has allowed to enter into it. As a result, we find ourselves alienated from God and cut off from our very source of life, without hope and purpose of living. We see the sad spectacle of this reality all around us as people try desperately to forge meaning and purpose of living for themselves by chasing after all kinds of false gods—money, sex, power, security, rampant individualism, and radical self-autonomy, to name just a few. But this is not how God calls us to live. God calls us to find real life and purpose of living by loving him with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength and loving our neighbor as ourselves. We do this best by doing justice, loving mercy, and walking humbly with our God. But for whatever reason, we are not built this way. We naturally want to love ourselves most while ignoring God and the rest. The result is chaos, fear, isolation, alienation, anxiety, loneliness, and ultimately death. This isn’t a pretty picture and it is painful to talk about. But it is the reality of what happens when human beings choose to love themselves instead of God.

Despite this (or perhaps because of it), we have been given a gracious and merciful gift from God. As Paul put it, God has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins. In the cross of Jesus, we are reconciled to God and by giving us his Holy Spirit, God equips us to be his kingdom workers who are to use our gifts and talents to work tirelessly to bring about God’s kingdom on earth as in heaven (Colossians 1.13-20; 3.1-17). We are called to do this because creation matters to God and God intends to heal and rescue his world, not destroy it (cf. Genesis 1-2; Romans 8.18-25; 1 Corinthians 15; Revelation 21.1-7; 22.1-5). We can best participate in God’s kingdom-building work by imitating our Lord Jesus, the very embodiment of God, who did justice by his mighty acts of healing and putting to rights all kinds of wrongs, who loved mercy through his many acts of forgiveness, most notably on the cross, and who walked humbly with his God by taking on our human form and dying on a cross so that we might be healed and reconciled to God (cf. Philippians 2.5-11).

This same Jesus calls us to deny ourselves, take up our cross, and follow him so that as we learn to surrender to him he can use us to be his salt and light to the world. Let’s be clear about this. In many, if not most, cases the world will not welcome our light or us being Jesus’ salt. We can expect scorn, rejection, and outright hostility and persecution. But this is our call and in it we find real life and real purpose in living, counterintuitive as it may seem. This is the “making a difference for God” portion of our mission statement. We do this work as individuals because each of us is called to be the light of Christ to those with whom we interact in our daily living. But mainly, we are called to do this work together as Christ’s body, the Church, because God intends for life to be lived relationally, not individually. We do all this by faith, of course, and our faith, if it is real, must always manifest itself in action. Otherwise it is not faith at all. There is no such thing as a navel-gazing Christian. We are called to be active in God’s world, i.e., we are called to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God.

But we cannot make a difference for God unless we are first changed by God. As we have seen, especially in today’s OT lesson, God doesn’t call us to be his kingdom workers and then leave us to our own devices. He has graciously given us his Spirit to live in us and transform us into the very image of Jesus. But God does not force himself on us and like any healthy relationship we must do our part to cultivate and nurture the Spirit’s presence within us. We do this primarily in three ways—through regular Scripture reading as Paul reminds us in our epistle lesson, through prayer as Jesus reminds us in our gospel lesson, both individually and together, and through fellowship so that we can build up and support one another in our struggle to live faithfully to Jesus.

As Paul reminds us, doctrine matters. We must know what to believe and why we believe it. Otherwise we are prone to believe all kinds of screwball things, which will negatively affect our behavior as Christians and diminish the light of Christ in us—belief must always precede behavior. We learn how to imitate Jesus with the help of the Spirit through our own personal devotions and prayers using, e.g., the Daily Office, through weekly worship and corporate prayer, and in Bible study together in small groups. A parish that devotes itself to these things will be a parish that tells God it is ready for him to use them as his kingdom workers. I think St. Augustine’s is that kind of parish.

In a few moments, Sarah et al. will be presenting our 2014 budget proposal. As you listen to the presentation, it should be clear to you how our budget proposal supports our mission statement and these activities I’ve just talked about. If it isn’t clear to you, then please do ask one of the Leadership Team members or one of the priests for clarification. Once you are satisfied we are using our resources faithfully and effectively, prayerfully consider your pledge for 2014. How we use our financial resources will give us keen insight into the state of our faith because money is very important to each of us and how we use it is always a true indicator of how faithful our stewardship of God’s gifts really is. My prayer for all of us is that God will set our hearts on fire with love for him by the indwelling of his Spirit so that we know without a doubt we have Good News to proclaim and that consequently we will be moved to make a tangible demonstration of our faith to the glory of God and for all the world to see.

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

Of Mice and Pussycats

So we’ve got six—count ‘em, SIX—pussycats in our house. I’m still the only priest in central Ohio who runs a cat house. And with six pussycats in the house, guess who visited us this week? Mice. Three of ‘em to be exact.

You would think with six pussycats in the house, word would get out via mice social media, Squeaker, not to visit here. You would also think that with six pussycats in the house, any mouse who stepped foot in the house would be an instant appetizer, no?

But not this house. Not our pussycats. No, our pussycats invited the mice in and offered them drinks, cigarettes, and floozie mice women. They set up a welcome tent for the little varmints. Apparently we’ve treated our pussycats so well and fed them so much that they’ve gotten fat and lazy and have forgotten that they are pussycats. Pussycats are supposed to eat mice, not party with them.

All except one of our pussycats, that is.

The Tats trains for mousing

Last night Puddy Tat demonstrated he’s the only one earning his keep. He’s the only mouser in the bunch because he bagged the two remaining mice (my wife discovered the first mouse and threw him out on his, um, tail). The Tats carried the little buggers around in his mouth squeaking and all, real proud of himself. But he wasn’t quite sure what to do with each of them once he caught them. So we had to take them from him and throw them out, alive and kicking.

So let this be a warning to all you cat owners. Send them to pussycat boot camp periodically. Make sure they remember who they are so they can do their duty when the time comes. Otherwise, you’ll be guilty of turning your pussycat into a wussycat, just like we have. Don’t let that happen to you, binky.

Albert Mohler: How Pornography Works: It Hijacks the Male Brain

To no one’s surprise, the vast majority of those who consume pornography are males. It is no trade secret that males are highly stimulated by visual images, whether still or video. That is not a new development, as ancient forms of pornography attest. What is new is all about access. Today’s men and boys are not looking at line pictures drawn on cave walls. They have almost instant access to countless forms of pornography in a myriad of formats.

But, even as technology has brought new avenues for the transmission of pornography, modern research also brings a new understanding of how pornography works in the male brain. While this research does nothing to reduce the moral culpability of males who consume pornography, it does help to explain how the habit becomes so addictive.

A frightening review of something that is more addictive than crack cocaine and which has disastrous consequences on healthy male-female relationships. Read it all.

Rachel Marie Stone: A Time to Die

A good and thoughtful piece on the art of dying, largely lost in our culture today. I would only disagree with one thing Stone writes. I agree with her sentiment that if one is a Christian, there are far worse things than dying because we believe that in Jesus, God has conquered death. But as Christians we still consider death an enemy because God created us for life, not death. Death was not part of the creative purposes and intentions of God (cf. Genesis 1.1-3.19). Paul states this clearly when he says that Jesus must destroy every ruler and every authority and power [of darkness]. “For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death [emphasis mine]” (1 Corinthians 15.24-26).

In modern medicine, “the unspoken maxim has become, ‘if we can, we must,'” Katy Butler writes. She sought an A Time to Diehistorically and ethically considered answer to her family’s conviction that her father’s pacemaker should be turned off so that, in the words of their medically conservative, Catholic, and perhaps a bit old-fashioned primary care physician, “nature” might “take its course.”

Yet in the new medical landscape, where death is perceived as an enemy to be vanquished at all costs, both fiscal and human (millions and billions are spent to keep terminal patients alive past the point of any hope of a meaningful recover), expressing the wish that an inevitable death might not be drawn out is highly contested, even among Christians, for whom death is not—or shouldn’t be—the final enemy.

Check it out and see what you think.