Halee Gray Scott: A Real Cause for Christian Outrage

Christians today are massacred on a far greater scale than from any edict issued from Herod. According to Open Doors, which provides support for Christians around the world, Christians are the most persecuted religious group in the world today, with 100 people martyred for their faith each month. The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life reports that Christians suffer persecution, discrimination, and harassment in 133 countries—a full two-thirds of all countries worldwide.

…For goodness sake, we have British politicians talking about this, but we can’t get American pastors or politicians to talk about it. Instead, Christians want to whine and moan about the culture wars and tear each other down, treating each other as the enemy rather than focusing on the real enemy. It’s insidious. And morally reprehensible.

These martyrs were real, living, breathing human beings with hopes, dreams, and loved ones. Each and every one was, at one time, someone’s baby. They could all be my babies. Or yours.

Read and reflect on the whole awful story. The first thing we Christians can do is start offering massive doses of prayer for the persecuted Church worldwide.

Christmas: A Time to Celebrate the Light Shining in the Darkness

Sermon delivered on Christmas Eve 2013 at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Columbus, OH.

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

Lectionary texts: Isaiah 52.7-10; Canticle (from Isaiah 11.1-9); Hebrews 1.1-4; John 1.1-14.

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

Merry Christmas, St. Augustine’s! Tonight we celebrate the birth of Jesus our Savior and I want us to look briefly at why that should matter to us and everyone else. Each of our lessons tonight in its own way declares that Jesus is Lord and that the light of God’s love and presence has entered human history. Yet mysteriously, even though Jesus is Lord the forces of evil are allowed to oppose that entry. John puts it this way: The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it. It shines in the midst of the darkness of our fears, from health to finances to loved ones to how we really stand with God and our future with (or without) him. It shines in the midst of the enigma of unanswered prayer and the bitter disappointment or disillusionment that can often follow. The cumulative effect of the darkness that besets us can make us wonder if John really was mistaken in what he wrote. After all, if we look hard enough (or selectively enough) we can see darkness swallowing up light all around us and this can make us doubt God’s promise in Scripture that God really is in charge and actively involved in the life of this world and its people. This, in turn, makes us afraid that we really are left to our own inadequate devices to deal with the darkness in our lives, both externally and internally. Where is God and why isn’t he setting things aright, we ask?

We ask these kinds of questions because we expect God to make himself known to us through dramatic displays of power and glory to bring about real justice. After all, this is God we are talking about, right? Or we think that God has become some kind of absentee landlord who only comes around on occasion to see if he can catch us misbehaving. But neither of these notions is biblical and this typically isn’t how God’s light shines in his world, i.e., how God makes himself known to us, especially when we consider how God has made himself known to us in Jesus. To be certain, God has demonstrated his presence using shock and awe. God’s delivering his people from their slavery in Egypt comes quickly to mind, where God brought his people through the Red Sea and rescued them from the hands of their pursuers, or his awesome presence in the pillars of cloud and fire to his people wandering in the wilderness.

But as the Christmas story attests, God usually makes the light of his presence shine in much more ordinary (and human) ways. I fear we have become so familiar with the story of Jesus’ birth or have sentimentalized it so much that it ceases to shock and awe us any more. But wrap your mind around what John and the writer of Hebrews are telling us. God, the creator of this vast and beautiful universe, chose to become one of us and enter human history. Stop for a moment and let that really sink in. God become human. Emmanuel, God with us. The light shining in the darkness of our broken world and lives to rescue and heal us from evil, sin, and death.

We see the very heart and character of God being revealed in the humble circumstances of Jesus’ birth. God did not choose to enter our history as some celestial superstar, but as a baby, the most helpless of all creatures, born in a cave and in almost utter obscurity. And yet even in these humble circumstances, the darkness attempted to overcome the light. We think of how wicked king Herod murdered innocent babies in and around Bethlehem in an attempt to eliminate any future contenders to his throne or how Satan himself tempted the Lord in the wilderness in an effort to get Jesus to disobey God’s call to him to be the light of the world so that God could finally heal us through him. Then there was the opposition Jesus faced from the religious establishment of his day despite his mighty acts of healing and salvation, all because Jesus didn’t fit their preconceived notions of how good Jews or God’s Messiah should act. But Jesus would not be deterred. He kept on preaching good news, healing the sick, raising the dead, giving sight to the blind, and hearing to the deaf. The dark powers and their human agents finally sought to get rid of Jesus by killing him, but even here God turned the tables on them. As the writer of Hebrews reminds us, in his death, Jesus bore the awful consequences of our sins himself so that we could be reconciled to God and find our ultimate healing. Because of the cross of Jesus, there is no longer any condemnation for those who believe in him. There is no more reason to be afraid.

And in raising Jesus from the dead, God has shined his light on even the ultimate darkness, death itself, so that not even death could overcome the light of God’s love and faithfulness to his human creatures. When God raised Jesus from the dead, God showed us without a doubt that he has not given up on his creation and human creatures, even in our stubborn rebellion and brokenness. Instead of destroying his creation and us, God has healed and redeemed us in Jesus and given us a glimpse of the day when the darkness will be destroyed forever and there will be nothing but the light of God’s healing presence in the midst of his new creation, the new heavens and earth. And until that day arrives, God assures us that he is fully in charge and present with his people in the power of the Spirit. This is what the writer of Hebrews means when he tells us that Jesus sat down at the right hand of the Majesty. The death and resurrection of Jesus are the turning point in history and it all started with his birth at Bethlehem that we celebrate tonight.

So how do we embrace the light so that the darkness does not overcome us? We do so by taking the chance and living out our faith. It is the only way we will learn if God’s ways and promises are trustworthy and true. This means we must stop and think things through carefully. As we saw a couple of Sundays ago, too often we focus on what God is not doing (or on what we think God should be doing but isn’t). This will inevitably create doubt and lead us to try to take matters into our own hands and live our lives as we think best rather than trying to live our lives as the truly human beings God created us to be by imitating Jesus, God with us. Consequently, we will never be in a position to see if God’s promises are true or trust his ability to bring us real purpose of living and joy even in the midst of all that can go wrong in our lives.

But when we focus on the biblical record and all that God has done and is doing in our lives in the power of the Spirit—through the love of others, through answered prayer, in all our faithful kingdom work, to name just a few—our faith is strengthened and we find the courage to trust in God’s good purposes for us to be agents of God’s great love for all people. We don’t let setbacks and suffering discourage us because we have seen Jesus’ cross and his empty tomb, and know they stand as powerful witness to the truth that his light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it. And because Jesus’ light shines in us in the presence of the Holy Spirit, the darkness cannot overcome us. This is why we know that nothing we do faithfully in the Lord’s name is ever really in vain, not even our prayers that apparently go unanswered. And this is precisely why Christmas will always come, not only when our houses are brightly lit and decorated and we have all our family and friends gathered around us, but also when we are languishing in the darkness of loneliness or bereavement or infirmity or suffering or sorrow.

The birth of Jesus reminds us creation matters to God. We matter to God. This is why God became human and this is why we celebrate Christmas. This Christmas if you have not done so already, I encourage you to dare turn toward the light of God’s love manifested in Jesus and embrace him in ways you have never done before so that you might discover what the hope and promise of Christmas is all about. It starts by taking to heart the breathtaking promise that the light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it. That’s Good News, folks, now and for all eternity. Merry Christmas, my beloved in Christ. To him be praise, honor, and glory forever and ever.

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

Ghosts of Christmas Eves Past

It’s the afternoon of Christmas Eve and I am thinking of a time in the mid to late 70s when I would come home from college for Christmas. My dad owned a shoe store (Maney’s Van Wert Bootery) and I would work at the store during the Christmas holidays to help out with the extra traffic. On Christmas Eve afternoon, about 3, we would head over to Cy Voorst’s store for some Christmas cheer. Cy owned a sewing machine shop on the NW corner of Main and Washington streets and every year he made some of the most God-awful wine you ever wanted to taste (at least to my palate). But on Christmas Eve it did not matter. It was all good. The bad wine, the cheese, the fellowship, the Christmas spirit that emanated from my dad. Rest in peace Cy and papa. Christmas Eve, while still glorious and joyful, is not the same without you.

Augustine on Christmas

Awake! For your sake God has become human. “Awake, you who sleep, rise up from the dead, and Christ will give you light.” I tell you again: for your sake God become human.

You would have suffered eternal death, had he not been born in time. Never would you have been freed from sinful flesh, had he not taken on himself the likeness of sinful flesh. You would have suffered everlasting unhappiness, had it not been for this mercy. You would never have returned to life, had he not shared your death. You would have been lost if he had not hastened to your aide. You would have perished, had he not come.

…Ask if this were merited; ask for its reason, for its justification, and see whether you will find any other answer but sheer grace.

Sermon 185:38

Bishop Roger Ames’ 2013 Christmas Letter

Received via email.

The Nativity of the Lord
The Word became flesh (John1:14)

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

This is a day for falling in love. This is the day when Mary and Joseph look up from the baby in the manger and invite us to gather around. Even as they savor the moment, they are eager to share it with us as well, this “good news of great joy for all the people” (Luke 2:10).

baby-jesus-mary-joseph-by-dewey-e1355856547136And so Joseph and Mary invite us to join them on their journey of discovery.

Here, says Mary, as she lifts her newborn from the hay. He is yours too—he came for you. Take him. Hold him close. Share in the love that Joseph and I have for this little one.

Like the angels’ birth announcement, the invitation is for everyone. No one is left out—however unworthy, unspiritual, or unprepared we may feel. So whoever you are, wherever you are, whatever your state today, receive this gift of Jesus. Take the child in your arms. Gaze on his face, and see how much He loves you. Let him lock eyes with you, as babies will, so that he can search your heart and reveal you to yourself. Let down your defenses, and fall in love with this Christ Child—with God made flesh for you.

Falling in love with God in this absolute, final way  is the most practical and far-reaching thing you could ever do.

What you are in love with, what seizes your imagination, will affect everything. It will decide what will get you out of bed in the morning, what you will do with your evenings, how you will spend your weekends, what you read, who you know, what breaks your heart, and what amazes you with joy and gratitude.

Jesus has come. The Word has become flesh. Fall in love with him. Stay in love with him. It will decide everything.

Mary and Joseph, thank you for bringing Jesus to  us! Pray that we might love him as you did—more and more each day. May we be sons and daughters of the Most High God, who share your son’s light to all that we meet. Amen.

Peace and All Good,

I remain yours in the glory of his Incarnation,

Bishop of the Anglican Diocese of the Great Lakes

Fr. Ron Feister: A Present for Christmas

Sermon delivered on Sunday, Advent 4A, December 22, 2013, at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Columbus, OH.

If you would like to hear the audio podcast of this sermon, click here.

Lectionary texts: Isaiah 7.10-16; Psalm 80.1-7, 18-20; Romans 1.1-7; Matthew 1.18-25.

Over the last three weeks of Advent, we have been focusing on the coming of Christ, not in his first visit but at the time of His final coming in Glory to complete  His Kingdom. During  Week One we were warned that the time of his coming would be sudden and without warning. The transformation will be dramatic and not all will be delighted in its happening. We were encouraged to have an attitude of anticipation of that great day.  Week Two continued the same theme, but called us especially in the Gospel from Matthew and the recounting of the Baptist’s criticism of the Pharisees to have a conversion of our hearts which is real and not just for show. Week Three’s Reading call the believer to have Hope.

It also contains an acknowledgement that we sometimes may have doubts, but that Jesus does not condemn such doubts, but rather reassures us that He is the Messiah who gives sight to the Blind, cleanses the Leper, allows the deaf to hear, raises the dead and gives good news even to the poor.

But finally we come to today’s readings. the view shifts, we are no longer looking at the future, but a marvelous, yes glorious event. We are not yet fully rejoicing in the Birth of Christ, but we are now feeling in the life of the Church that sense of immediate anticipation that the secular world has been feeling at least from Thanksgiving.

Our Old Testament Reading comes to us as a prophecy or for shadowing of the coming of the Messiah. One who would be born of a young maid and who would bear the name Immanuel, God is With Us. The Epistle in what is only the beginning of Paul’s Letter to the Romans, assures that the coming of Jesus was foretold by the Prophets, that He was descended from David, the Great King,  that we was declared to be the Son of God, and that he came for both Jew and Gentile (that’s us) alike.

The Gospel starts to prepares us for the birth event with a story of great faith. Mary is with child, but has not yet been married to Joseph to whom she was engaged. Joseph at first determines to end the relationship, but in a kind way. When he instructed by the Angel of the Lord that this child was conceived by the work of God and not a man, to save us all from sin, he shows a level of faith that few of us could imagine.

Quickly now the story will take us from Nazareth to Bethlehem and the birth of the child – a birth we celebrate next week with much joy, good food, and presents. Wait a minute, how did we get from the Second Coming to Presents? It might help if we look at how the Church came to celebrate the birth of Christ as a separate holy day or feast.  In the earliest days of the Church, the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Christ were all celebrated within the Easter season or some period of time close to that Feast. Over time the Church felt a need to spread the celebration of these events over a longer period of time and to allow more focus on each particular aspect. Today we know this as the church calendar. But where in the year, should the birth of Jesus be celebrated.

Today in America, we keep detailed birth records, and with few exceptions , we know the date a person is born, and if we want to celebrate their birthday, we would do it on the annual anniversary of that day. Unfortunately those records, did not exist for the birth date of Christ. So the Church just had to pick a date. Now at the time that the Western Church was trying to decide on the date, there were a large number of pagan holidays and one major one which had their celebrations in the month of December. The pagans had a great time during these feasts of theirs. Good Food, music and dancing, and the giving of presents. I am sure that the Christians noticed their pagan neighbors having a good time and would have liked to join in the fun. Maybe this is why the Western Church chose to celebrate the Birth of the Christ at the same time. Or perhaps as the Church has often done, it saw this as an opportunity to transform (perhaps a better term would be to convert) the Pagan Feast to a Christian One.

In any case, the Western Church determined that the birth of Christ would be celebrated on December 25. While the church rejected many of the Pagan practices of celebrating, it saw nothing wrong with good food, music, and presents. It was seen as an act of Christian Love to not only give presents to  their friends and love ones, but to see that presents would be given to the poor and less fortunate.

There were, of course, examples of gift giving, to support this practice. After all did not the Wise Men, bring presents of gold, frankincense, and myrrh to the child Jesus and his family and we cannot forget about the great St. Nicholas who was known for giving gifts to the children and to those who because of their poverty might otherwise has been forced into terrible life situations. Just last week this parish followed that example by obtaining and wrapping presents to be given to various families who have not been blessed with an abundance. As we give presents to others we are in a sense giving presents to Christ as we celebrate His Birth since Christ is now to be found in our lives as members of the Body of Christ.

I do not know about you but I find that I have a number of challenges in gift giving especially at this time of year. First I often find that selecting the right gift for a person is a challenge of its own.  Will they like it? Can it be returned if it is the wrong size or type?  Is it appropriate? Then comes the wrapping. Some people like our own Father Kevin seem to have the talent as I found out last week that others of us do not. We want the present to stand out to express our joy in giving even before the package is opened. Timing is important. Do we give the present before services or after, Christmas Eve or Christmas Day or both. Our family follows a European tradition of gift giving on the Feast of St. Nicholas as well as at Christmas.

In giving presents we almost always want to share something of ourselves with the receiver. As we approach this coming Christmas, it is my hope and prayer that we can not only give presents to one another, but really give a present to Our Lord. We may find it difficult to decide on that gift, but as with all gift giving this is almost always the hardest part.  Whatever we give to the Lord we know it will be the right size and it will be appropriate, if we choose from the heart. We know that it will not be rejected or returned. Let us wrap that present in the most amazing ways with acts of forgiveness, charity, and love – with the desire to transform our own lives to be more like His. As to the timing of that gift we need not worry for the Lord of Lords always and every moment is open to receiving the gifts we bring to Him. In giving our Present to Christ let us truly make it a giving of ourselves.

Why give a Present to Jesus? Because he gave himself as the ultimate Christmas gift. I share with you now the words of song by the Hoppers:

Mary wrapped a present to the world
The snow was falling down that night with no place to rest in sight
soon she would bring forth a son

The inn was full so instead he was born in a stable bed,
there his life had just begun

but how was she supposed to know
as she wrapped him in swaddling clothes her precious newborn son
would be a sacrifice

Yes he would run and laugh and play
but she knew there would come a day,
when for the world he would choose to die

Mary wrapped a present to the world,
on that first Christmas morn when her baby was born,
Mary wrapped a present to the world

No decorated Christmas trees, just one bright star for all to see
the way to Bethlehem that winter night,
Many gifts they brought for him but a greater gift she gave to them,
for though her son would come eternal life

Mary wrapped a present to the world,
on that first Christmas morn when her baby was born,
Mary wrapped a present to the world

There is one “tradition” connected with presents and that is the practice of re-gifting. Normally looked down upon, with the Precious Gift of Christ, may we all be re-gifters for the more we give this gift away the richer that Present of Christ in our lives becomes.

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