Father Santosh Madanu: Increase Our Faith

Sermon delivered on Trinity 16C, Sunday, October 6, 2019 at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Westerville, OH.

If you prefer to listen to the audio podcast of today’s sermon, usually somewhat different from the text below, click here.

Lectionary texts: Lamentations 1.1-6; Psalm 137; 2 Timothy 1.1-14; Luke 17.5-10.

Prayer: Lord Jesus bless us to have faith like you lord.  Though we experience your boundless love and care yet we lack faith in you.  Increase our faith Lord Jesus that we should come out to proclaim that you are the only true God, you showed the mighty deeds in your chosen and continue in our lives and in the world.  In Jesus Name we pray. Amen.

I would like to begin my reflection with the story:

Once in a circus the Ring Master said, Ladies and Gentlemen, let me direct your attention to high wire, how many of you believe that these daring men can ride safely over the high wire on bicycles while carrying someone between them? Raise your hands if you think they can. Many people raised their hands, a great chorus of belief.” Very well then,” says the Ringmaster, now, who would like to be the first to volunteer to sit on his shoulders? And all the hands quickly went back down.

Dear friends:

There is a keen difference between belief and faith.  It is easy to say we believe when we can stay in our seats.  But to climb onto the shoulders of that high wire artist- well, that is Faith!  

Today’s bible reading has the disciples of Jesus learning about faith. The disciple watched Jesus’ miracles and believed, Miracles like changing the water into wine at the Wedding at Canna and feeding the five thousand with five loafs of bread and two fish, Jesus raises the son of the widow of Nain from death. Luke 7:11–17 and Jesus Christ raises Jairus’ daughter to life and so on. The disciples believed in Jesus. But Jesus wanted not just belief, but Faith, Faith has the power to do the things of healing, forgiving and loving the enemy.

Note what Disciple said to Jesus, as recorded in Luke 17:5:

And the apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!”  

But the Lord doesn’t increase their faith. He just reminds them that they have already been given all the faith they could ever need or call upon. He is trying to help them and us to understand that we just have to remember that believers already have it, and it is time to practice it. The seed of faith has to grow with the scripture reading, Sunday worshiping, daily personal prayers and spiritual life.   And God will nurture the seed of faith that God has planted in us, so I and you must use the faith that we have.

Faith is like anything else: the more we practice, the better our performance. It’s like practice and play an organ or a piano. The more one practices the better one produce beautiful and inspiring music.

A similar thing happens with prayer.

The more we pray, it is easy to offer up a beautiful prayer. This also comes from practice. So, what does Jesus say to the apostles to remind them?

And the Lord said, “If you had faith like a mustard seed, you would say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and be planted in the sea’; and it would obey you (Luke 17.6).

First, let’s remember that a mustard seed, or any other seed, know only how to produce a plant or tree after its own kind. It can’t do anything else.  It has a single purpose in life: to do what the Lord commanded it and designed it to do. We, on the other hand, have been given many tasks to do; but still with one single purpose, which we all too often forget. We are first and foremost to serve the Lord our God. Everything else we do should be so directed that it becomes part of our service.

We have two options one either we can ask for more faith or we can give up.  We see in the world around us, many people are giving up their faith. What if they are all people of faith? If they possess at least a tiny seed of faith, they can do wonders to spread the love and teaching of Jesus Christ and be part of the kingdom of God.

Faith is the unseen gift of God’s Spirit. Faith takes roots in us when we make sincere efforts.  The faith grows with the daily prayers, service to neighbor and doing good deeds of the Lord

St. Mother Teresa of Calcutta is our contemporary example.   She put her faith to work in extraordinary ways by serving the poorest of poor and orphaned in Calcutta, India.   She says “Our calling is not to do great things, but to do small things with great love.”  She did no miracle but influenced the world with the power of faith in Jesus Christ as true witness of LOVE. The faith of Mother Teresa may be telling us, we don’t need more faith, what we need is to use the faith that we have.  God has blessed us already with the faith that is needed.

Most of the time we make similar request with Jesus like disciples, especially when we faced with crisis and urgent needs, then we say- God please heal my very sick child; God please save me from the shame and embarrassment of this sin in my life, God, please give me the right answer to this difficult problem I face. And we find ourselves repeating the remark of the father in the Bible, speaking to Jesus about healing his son- Lord, I believe, help my unbelief— another way of saying to the Lord, I have faith, but I need greater faith to deal with this child’s problem.

We could take a long time talking about what faith is or what faith means but most of us already have a pretty good idea because of being disappointed by the faithlessness we have all experienced at one time or another. The most common example is the person who promises to be somewhere at a certain time and then never shows up without any explanation or she told you even promised you she would never do it again and then she went ahead and did it again. Some people promise you the job but don’t keep up their promise. And what did you say to yourself about that person:

“I don’t have much faith in him or her.” And we know exactly what you mean- the person can’t be counted on, can’t really be trusted, because they are unreliable for whatever reason. What can be more encouraging is what Jesus said to his disciples after they asked Him to Increase their Faith. He said to them:

If you had faith even the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this tree to be rooted up and be planted in the sea and it would obey you.

In Mark 11:23 Jesus uses the example of a mountain (Far greater than a tree): “whoever says to this mountain, be taken up and cast into the sea and does not doubt in his heart, but believes it will come to pass; it will be done for him.”

If we can’t even move trees or mountains into the sea, our faith must be smaller than a mustard seed or is this just hyperbole, exaggeration that Jesus is using to make a point about how important faith is in our spiritual life? I wonder if we have more faith in our car starting than we do in Jesus answering our prayer. I wonder if we have more faith in our best friend helping us than we do in Jesus helping us. I wonder if we have more faith in our self to make a living and pay the bills than we do in hearing and answering the call of Jesus to serve Him.

Romans 10:17 (NKJV) says, So then, faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God. If no one had ever told me about Jesus, and about God’s plan for my life, or if I had never read for myself about Him, I would be clueless about the need for faith. Reading or hearing God’s Word is like planting a garden. If you want to grow or “build” a garden, you must first plant the seeds, or the actual plant or flower. God’s Word is the seed that grows the faith. 

 Heed the Word

James 1:22-24(NKJV) offers a second way to increase your faith: 

But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man observing his natural face in a mirror; for he observes himself, goes away, and immediately forgets what kind of man he was. 

A Personal story of a certain woman:

A certain woman, she says “The first time my husband and I had to admit we were financially challenged, we had some choices to make. The biggest one was, would we trust God and the promises we had read in His Word? When a new difficulty developed, we faced the same choices. If we chose to believe God, our faith grew a little more. Then the really big crises erupted, like unemployment, parenting, and marriage challenges. But each time we looked back and saw the tracks of God’s faithfulness. He truly had kept His Word, and we came to understand the true meaning of “perseverance.” Trusting Him with smaller problems has built our faith to believe Him for the harder issues. Therefore the power of faith does not lie in how much you believe, it lies in what you believe. What a privilege we have in the Lord Jesus, our Teacher and Master who loved us enough to give up his life for us.

Prayer: Father God we are weak physically, mentally and spiritually.  Bless us with your strength and with your faith in your promises of kingdom of God. Bless us to recognize the seed of faith you planted in us through Baptism in order to use it for your glory and for the healing of this world.  We make this prayer through Christ our Lord. Amen.

Ted Olsen: How to Jump Back In to Bible Reading

Christian leaders are also too aware of the dangers of bad Bible reading. We’re on alert against proof-texting. We fret about people misappropriating promises to Israel as guarantees of their own health, wealth, and safety. And we know that the Scriptures were written to believers for the life of the community, not for individualistic moments of personal piety. We start to wonder: Doesn’t the idea of reading one little chapter this morning encourage an atomized “thought of the day” when the whole point is the one large story it tells about God in Jesus Christ? Yes! And since I already know that story, do I really need to read a bit from 1 Corinthians again this morning? There’s so much else that needs doing!

Those thoughts and temptations have little purchase when I’m actually reading the Bible. It’s not that reading it always (or usually) floods me with a light of relief and certitude. But I’ve found that I’m hungriest to read Scripture when I’m reading Scripture. Part of this, no doubt, is simply the psychology driving any habit. But part of it is that the Word of God really is alive and active (Heb. 4:12)—and as much as I want to affirm its primary aims for the community of God, the Spirit keeps illuminating those ways in which it has something to say to me, personally, right now. 

https://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2019/march/how-to-jump-back-in-to-bible-reading.html

First, I would encourage you to read this short article by Dr. Olsen. I like his stuff and find it edifying. From the excerpt above he makes two important points. Don’t read passages in Scripture in isolation from the larger story presented in the Bible. Doing so can lead inexperienced readers to interpret various passages (not all) very badly. Passages of Scripture must always be read in their proper context.

Second, professor Olsen makes the keen observation that reading Scripture can actually feed our hunger to read more of it. But how to overcome our initial reluctance?

Brilliant as professor Olsen is, I am always saddened when the Church’s various traditions for reading Scripture are ignored because in my experience, reading Scripture as part of participating in the Daily Office of Morning and Evening Prayer, where Bible reading is combined with prayer, can serve as an antidote to our reluctance to begin or return to reading Scripture. In my Anglican tradition, we have the opportunity to read a vast majority of Scripture over a two-year cycle. This doesn’t overwhelm newbies but it also provides grist for more experienced readers as well as the structure to read Scripture systematically. That’s never a bad thing.

And when it comes to praying, why try and reinvent the wheel? There are a lot of saints who have gone before us who know how to pray and we shouldn’t be so arrogant that we think we can do better. Form prayers contained in the Office can easily be modified to make them quite personal and I dare say they do not lead to rote praying any more than spontaneous praying does if my experience is any indicator.

So how to jump back into (or begin) reading the Bible? Check out the Daily Office and make it your own. Using the Office, I have let the form prayers make me a better pray-er and have read the entire Bible through at least a dozen times, with each new iteration bringing new insights and teaching. The latter shouldn’t be surprising because the Word of God contained in Holy Scripture is infinitely plumbable and edifying. We would expect nothing less from the God who created this vast universe by his word and who raises the dead back to life.

So become a Daily Office Bible reader, especially if you come from a tradition that uses the Office (Catholicism, Orthodoxy, Anglicanism). You will find new clarity and understanding as well as new power and purpose for living if you do.

Father Santosh Madanu: Good Stewards for God’s Resources

Sermon delivered on Trinity 15C, Sunday, September 13, 2019 at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Westerville, OH.

If you prefer to listen to the audio podcast of today’s sermon, usually somewhat different from the text below, click here.

Lectionary texts: Jeremiah 32.1-3a, 6-15; Psalm 91.1-6, 14-16; 1 Timothy 6.6-19; Luke 16.19-31.

“Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.” Matthew 25:40. 

Learn that Jesus wants us to share with others. 

Understand our need to follow Christ’s example. 

Learn that God sees the attitude of our heart.

What happens to a rich person who loves his money more than his neighbor and laughs at those less well off? What happens to a nation that glorifies such attitudes? Plenty. We live in times when this is happening all around the world. A day is coming when all such abuses will be judged.

Almost daily we hear stories of how the rich and powerful get ever richer and more powerful. We’re awash in global wealth, yet the wealth will be concentrated in fewer hands as we near the end of this age. Meanwhile, the poor will get poorer by comparison. The abuses will get to the point where economic slavery will sap the life from many (Revelation 18:13).

Jesus had no qualms in confronting such attitudes. He spoke a parable to warn us not to love money more than people. He confronted religious leaders who were lovers of money, telling them that “what is highly esteemed among men is an abomination in the sight of God” (Luke 16:14-15).

There is the judgment of God based on how we use the resources as a good steward and love of neighbor. 

Luke 16:19  conveys spiritual truth. This parable of the rich man and Lazarus is one of the most dramatic and pointed of the parables. It’s the only one where the main character is given a name, perhaps in part to make it more personal for each of us reading this. Real people are impacted by our actions. We have it in our power to be a force for good. This story should motivate us to take a deep hard look at the legacy we’re building each day.

The parable begins by telling us, “There was a certain rich man who was clothed in purple and fine linen and fared sumptuously every day” (Luke 16:19). This man dressed in the finest clothes and ate well every day of the year. Nothing is wrong with these pursuits in and of themselves. But this man was not willing to share his wealth. He lived by the “zero sum” rule—he wanted the whole pie for himself. None of it could be shared with others because, in his twisted way of thinking, that would leave less for him.

We hear often that Microsoft founder Bill Gates regained the title of world’s richest man—his net worth this year soaring to more than $70 billion. Mr. Gates’ wealth grows even as he is working very hard to give much of it away through his Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. At least he and other billionaires realize their wealth can do much good to alleviate pain and suffering among the world’s poor. I find it a remarkable story that a fabulously rich man works full time to give away his money and then sees it continue to multiply.

The rich man in this parable personifies an attitude of hoarding: “I have what is mine, I worked hard for it and no one gets a penny, lest I have less than what I had.”

Christ contrasts the rich man to the poor beggar named Lazarus who was wracked with sores and reduced to being laid at the gate of the rich man hoping any amount of charity would come his way. Neither the wealthy tycoon nor anyone else gave him an ounce of care.

First of all, Jesus teaches here that heaven and hell are both real, literal places. Sadly, many preachers shy away from uncomfortable topics such as hell. Some even teach “universalism” – the belief that everyone goes to heaven. Yet Christ spoke about hell a great deal, as did Paul, Peter, John, Jude, and the writer of Hebrews. The Bible is clear that every person who has ever lived will spend eternity in either heaven or hell. Like the rich man in the story, multitudes today are complacent in their conviction that all is well with their soul, and many will hear our Savior tell them otherwise when they die (Matthew 7:23).

This story also illustrates that once we cross the eternal horizon, that’s it. There are no more chances. The transition to our eternal state takes place the moment we die (2 Corinthians 5:8Luke 23:43Philippians 1:23). When believers die, they are immediately in the conscious fellowship and joys of heaven. When unbelievers die, they are just as immediately in the conscious pain, suffering, and torment of hell. Notice the rich man didn’t ask for his brothers to pray for his release from some purgatorial middle ground, thereby expediting his journey to heaven. He knew he was in hell, and he knew why. That’s why his requests were merely to be comforted and to have a warning sent to his brothers. He knew there was no escape. He was eternally separated from God, and Abraham made it clear to him that there was no hope of ever mitigating his pain, suffering, or sorrow. Those in hell will perfectly recollect missed opportunities and their rejection of the gospel.

Like many these days who buy into the “prosperity gospel,” the rich man wrongly saw his material riches as evidence of God’s love and blessing. Likewise, he believed the poor and destitute, like Lazarus, were cursed by God. Yet, as the apostle James exhorted, “You have lived on earth in luxury and self-indulgence. You have fattened yourselves in the day of slaughter” (James 5:5). Not only do riches not get one into heaven, but they have the power to separate a person from God in a way that few other things can. Riches are deceitful (Mark 4:19). It is certainly not impossible for the very rich to enter heaven (many heroes of the Bible were wealthy), but Scripture is clear that it is very hard (Matthew 19:23-24Mark 10:23-25Luke 18:24-25).

True followers of Christ will not be indifferent to the plight of the poor like the rich man in this story was. God loves the poor and is offended when His children neglect them (Proverbs 17:522:922-2329:731:8-9). In fact, those who show mercy to the poor are in effect ministering to Christ personally (Matthew 25:35-40). Christians are known by the fruit they bear. The Holy Spirit’s residence in our hearts will most certainly impact how we live and what we do.

Abraham’s words in verses 29 and 31 referring to “Moses and the Prophets” (Scripture) confirms that understanding the revealed Word of God has the power to turn unbelief into faith (Hebrew 4:12; James 1:181 Peter 1:23). Furthermore, knowing Scripture helps us to understand that God’s children, like Lazarus, can suffer while on this earth—suffering is one of the many tragic consequences of living in a sinful and fallen world.

The Bible says our earthly lives are a “mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes” (James 4:14). Our earthly sojourn is exceedingly brief. Perhaps the greatest lesson to learn from this story, then, is that when death comes knocking on our door there is only one thing that matters: our relationship with Jesus Christ. “What good will it be for a man if he gains the whole world, yet forfeits his soul?” (Matthew 16:26Mark 8:36). Eternal life is only found in Christ. “God has given us eternal life, and this life is in His Son. He who has the Son has life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have life” (1 John 5:11-12). The truth is, if we wish to live apart from God during our time on earth, He will grant us our wish for eternity as well. 

 “If you board the train of unbelief, you will have to take it all the way to its destination.”

There’s a lot of that in the world today, as there has been in every age.  The Kappa Beta Phi is a fraternal organization of Wall Street’s leading executives from the major banks, equity firms, brokerage houses and other major corporations. Their motto, Dum vivamus edimus et biberimus, is Latin for “While we live, we eat and drink.”

 Use all your wealth to honor God. Use it for you and your family and to help others as you are able. This approach reminds us that, as James 1:17 tells us, God is the source of every good and perfect gift.

 The rich man wasn’t lost because he was rich. He was lost because he did not listen to the law and the prophets. Will you be lost for the same reason?

It is a terrible warning that the sin of Dives was not that he did wrong things, but that he did nothing.

The climax of Jesus’ application is verse 13: “No servant can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money” (see also Matthew 6:24). If God is our Master, then our wealth will be at His disposal. In other words, the faithful and just steward whose Master is God will employ that wealth in building up the kingdom of God.

God to the Rescue

Sermon delivered on Trinity 14C, Sunday, September 22, 2019 at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Westerville, OH.

If you prefer to listen to the audio podcast of today’s sermon, usually somewhat different from the text below, click here.

Lectionary texts: Jeremiah 8.18-9.1; Psalm 79.1-9; 1 Timothy 2.1-7; Luke 16.1-13.

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

Every once in awhile, the preacher is confronted with lectionary readings that make him wonder how many drugs the selection committee did before choosing them. For me, today’s readings is one of those times. As I read over them initially, I scratched my head and muttered, What were they thinking? Where is there a unifying theme on which to preach? Why didn’t I make Father Bowser preach today? Is there no balm in Gilead for me? No mercy? Fortunately for me (and you), the Holy Spirit is much smarter than I am and by God’s mercy, he finally showed me a theme on which to preach, and that theme is God to the rescue. This is what I want us to look at this morning.

The whole story of the Bible is about how God has come to rescue his sin-sick and evil-corrupted world, a world and its creatures God never intended to create. God, the writer of Genesis tells us, created all of creation good and pronounced his human image-bearing creatures and the world over which they ruled to be very good (Genesis 1.31). But then we turn to our OT and psalm lessons, more hard-to-hear lessons like last week’s, and there’s not much good to be found in them, let alone very good. So what happened? Two words: Human sin. Our rebellion against God and his good will for us got our first ancestors booted out of paradise and by Jeremiah’s day in the sixth-century BC, the situation had become truly desperate. We see anguish from all parties concerned: from the prophet, from God, and from God’s people. God’s people living in Jerusalem, the place where they believed heaven and earth intersected at God’s Temple located there, desperately wondered where God was as the Babylonians besieged their city. Why was God not coming to their rescue? Had the Lord abandoned them? Yes I have, said the Lord. You have chased after other gods, i.e., you have chased after unreality, and in doing so you have provoked me to anger. You have provoked me to anger because I love you and I am jealous that you are pursuing other lovers even though you are married to me. When you chase unreal things, you don’t even realize how desperately sick they make you and how wickedly you behave. And now, you must pay for your sins of idolatry and social injustice. God’s condemnation of his people Israel’s sins was to send an invading army to utterly destroy Judah and its chief city Jerusalem. Think how we would feel if we knew God planned to destroy Washington, DC, then multiply that fear and horror by a thousand-fold, and we can begin to understand what is going on in our OT and psalm lessons (the latter is a lament after the fact while the former gives us a glimpse into the people’s reality before Jerusalem was destroyed and the Temple burnt to the ground, a sure indication that God had abandoned his people there).

Jeremiah saw all this and was as appalled as God’s people were. Being a prophet is not easy (none of us want to hear our desperate plight before God that our sins cause) nor are prophets immune to having their hearts broken. Jeremiah grieved for his people because like the God who sent him, he loved his people, even though he had to say hard things to them. Jeremiah also grieved for his people because many of them were oblivious to the dire straights they were in. Their worship of all things false in this world had numbed their spiritual senses and this compounded the problem of their sins. Think about it. What kind of people besides me irritate you the most? Are they not those who are in trouble but who steadfastly refuse to see their predicament and admit they are in error? Folks like this tend to blow up relationships of all kinds because they refuse to acknowledge that perhaps they are wrong about some very important matters and this creates a sense of arrogance and proud self-righteousness. They are quick to judge and condemn others while refusing to acknowledge their own sins and they make it extremely difficult for others to forgive them. They exist in families, in churches, in government, in businesses, and elsewhere. Their denial of the reality of their predicament or the evil of their thinking/speaking/behavior makes them insufferable and as long as they steadfastly refuse to see the reality of their condition, repentance is never possible. Why repent of something when you are convinced you are doing nothing wrong? This is part of what was going on in Jeremiah’s day and it continues to plague us in our own.

Jeremiah in his wisdom realized that living like fools did not protect his people from God’s judgment on their sins. We can live in La-La Land all we want. We can fool ourselves into thinking that we are the arbiter of truth, that there really is no objective Truth or right or wrong. It’s all a social construct, it’s all what we think truth and right and wrong are. We couldn’t be more mistaken. The prophet was also wise enough and humble enough to realize he was not immune to the human race’s slavery to the twin powers of Evil and Sin and because he loved his people as God loved them, the prophet wept for himself and for his people because judgment was coming and most were going to their destruction, clueless about what caused their fate. That’s why they cried out in terror asking where God was and why God had apparently abandoned them. They couldn’t possibly imagine their sins were the cause. Hard as it is to hear our OT and psalm lessons these last two weeks, there is a reason we must: They, like all the other biblical warnings, are there to remind us that unless we repent of our proud and wicked ways and stop pursuing false gods like money, security, fame, power, sex (insert your favorite idol here), and turn to Christ, we all face the awful judgment of a righteous God who will ultimately tolerate no evil to corrupt his good world. God created us to represent him and run his world. When we act evilly, we in no way reflect our Creator and that’s a problem. So if we are wise, we will thank God for loving us enough to warn us about our desperate plight before him so that we have time and opportunity to do something about it (turn to Christ). 

But here’s the problem with the OT. Jeremiah asked in desperation if there was no balm in Gilead for the healing of his people? Was there no physician? No medicine for the spiritual, emotional, mental, and physical health of God’s people? Sadly, Jeremiah would probably have answered no to his desperate questions. God had promised a Messiah to heal and rescue God’s people, but no Messiah was in sight. What a terrible predicament to be in! Many of his people were ignorant of their sins and to make matters worse there was no rescue in sight. 

That is why we Christians are not exclusively OT people. We are old and NT people. We no longer have to wait for a solution because it (or rather he) has already arrived. Hear what St. Paul has to say in Romans 11.32. Talking about why many in Israel refused to believe that Jesus was and is the Messiah, and what a problem that was for the veracity of God’s promises to Israel, St. Paul makes the astonishing statement that, “…God has imprisoned everyone in disobedience so he could have mercy on everyone.” Now if we don’t understand clearly our desperate need for God’s redemption, we will forever be ignorant of what great and wonderful things the living God has done for us in Jesus Christ and this statement will make no sense at all. Why would God imprison us in disobedience so that God could have mercy on us? Because without the blood of Christ shed for us to cleanse us from our sins and reconcile us to God, our only Source of life, there is no hope for us. None. What St. Paul is getting at is that God can and will use our disobedience to accomplish our rescue from his terrible judgment and an eternity in hell. When by God’s grace we become painfully aware of our sins and how they separate and alienate us from God so that death and destruction are our only lot, we are ready to hear the Good News of Jesus Christ, crucified and raised from the dead for our sake. Here is God to the rescue. It is literally in Jesus’ name (the Lord saves), and it is by God’s power, mercy, and grace that we are rescued. Should we mourn our sins? Absolutely. But if we stop there we are no better off than Jeremiah! To the contrary, our mourning should lead to our rejoicing because of what God has done for us in Christ. He imprisoned us in disobedience so that he could use it rescue us and restore us to life and health, i.e., God turned an utterly hopeless situation into good! As St. Paul tells us in our epistle lesson, this is God’s will for us, that everyone should be saved! God takes no pleasure in the death of sinners, and we who believe that God rescued us from his terrible judgment by taking on our flesh and bearing his right judgment on our sins to spare us, must now align our desires with God’s. That’s why we are to pray for leaders, even when they are pagans and vehemently oppose us. Think it through. God called Israel through Abraham to be God’s light to the world. God continues to call Israel—God’s reconstituted people in Christ—to reflect his goodness, mercy, truth, justice, and righteousness out into the world. It’s hard to do that when we are cursing our enemies and acting just as badly as they are instead of praying for them and bearing patiently with them because we want them to know Christ like we do. How different our political arena would look today if even a majority of Christians took this charge seriously. There would be a lot less vitriol and condemnation. There would be more focusing on issues and less on ad hominem attacks. God wants all to be saved and so should we, especially because God rescued us when we too were God’s enemies and as undeserving as our enemies (picture in your mind the political leader you detest most and apply St. Paul’s teaching to that person from now on). 

This is what is also going on in our gospel lesson. Remember that Jesus was telling a parable. He wasn’t giving us financial advice or telling us to cheat our enemies. As we’ve just seen, Israel was called to be the light of the world to bring God’s healing love to all people. But Israel had perverted her call. Instead of praying for her enemies and asking God to heal and forgive them, many in Israel prayed that God would execute his judgment on the nations who were hostile to God’s people. This ran contrary to God’s purpose and charge to them. Likewise with us. It is perfectly acceptable to pray for God’s justice to be done. But we must always do so with the realization that we are no different from our enemies, that all have sinned and stand under God’s just judgment without the intervention and mercy of Christ. The outside world matters to God, just like we do, and God wants us to use all our resources, especially spiritual resources like prayer, to demonstrate God’s concern for all humans, not just the ones we happen to like. This is a tall order for us, my beloved, but we do it in the power of the Spirit who strengthens us to do the work he calls us to do.

There are many applications to this dynamic, but I focus on just one today. This discussion reminds us why the forty day period of prayer and fasting is so important for the life of this parish. God calls us to be his light to the world and we do that now. But our homelessness is not something that pleases God because it diminishes our capacity to do God’s will and to be God’s people. God has rescued us from eternal death and destruction through the blood of Christ and he expects us to call on him in our troubles as well as when the good times are rolling. We are called to preach the Good News of Jesus Christ boldly and we are not to be ashamed of doing so. Our culture tries to beat us down and silence us, mostly in the name of “freedom,” in this context, a euphemism for doing the evil our fallen and disordered hearts desire. But true freedom always comes from being obedient to God our Savior, not following our own distorted and selfish desires. Only then can we be truly human. God has rescued us from that predicament and given us hearts and minds to worship him and proclaim the Good News to others. Can God use a homeless people to do that work? Yes he can. We are living proof of that. But that falls short of the goodness and glory of God who desires the very best for all people, especially those who love him. Let us therefore resolve in the power of the Spirit, to be good stewards of God’s goodness, mercy, and grace, and to live and work and be the people God calls us to be. Let us call on the Lord to end our homelessness and then do our part in cooperation with God. Let us do so always with a thankful heart and spirit because we no longer have to worry about God’s judgment and can eagerly look forward to the day we will get to live in his presence and see him face-to-Face. To him be honor, praise, and glory forever and ever.   

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

The Foundation for Real Healing

Sermon delivered on Trinity 13C, Sunday, September 15, 2019 at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Westerville, OH.

If you prefer to listen to the audio podcast of today’s sermon, usually somewhat different from the text below, click here.

Lectionary texts: Jeremiah 4:11–28; Psalm 14; 1 Timothy 1.12-17; Luke 15.1-10.

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

Today we hold our quarterly healing service. But what is the basis for our healing? Obviously the power of God but are there other factors involved? Our lessons today give us some insight into this question and this is what I want us to look at this morning.

Our hard-to-hear OT and psalm lessons remind us in a graphic way that we are a sin-sick lot. God tells his prophet Jeremiah that his people Israel are stupid and lack understanding. Why? Because they are skilled at doing evil and do not know how to do good. Likewise the psalmist makes the stark observation that there is no one who does good, not one single person. To the contrary God sees that many increasingly refuse to believe that God even exists! The result? God’s people and the human race in general are alienated from God and ripe for God’s terrible judgment on our wickedness. This is tough stuff because it refers to you and me. Not only that, our rebellion against God’s perfect and good ways corrupts the land. God created us to care for his creation, land included, and when we refuse to reflect God’s goodness out into the world, the land suffers along with us (strip mining and pollution-caused catastrophes, anyone?), this on top of the fact that creation already suffers under God’s curse for the sin of our first ancestors. 

Not only do our sins result in God’s judgment on them (if you haven’t figured it out yet, God detests any form of evil, even as he loves us), our sins make us sick: physically, emotionally, spiritually, and mentally because they separate us from our only source of life and health: God our Creator who sustains us. End our sin-caused alienation from God and every kind of illness, malady, and land corruption go away (new creation, anyone?). So today you get the punchline to the sermon’s title right away. Value added. You can nap in peace now and still pass the quiz at sermon’s end. But here’s the problem. If we believe the OT (which we should), we are powerless to heal our sin-sickness by ourselves. Our sin destines us to wander in the wasteland of the wilderness even as we live in our million dollar mansions and grow fat on our sumptuous diets and enjoy the glut of consumer goodies produced by our economy. Human knowledge and technological advancements may allow us to overcome the corruption of the land and to an extent heal many of our sicknesses, but we cannot cure the root cause of all illness: our alienation from God.

But it is to the glory of God our Father that the grim message about Sin contained in the OT is not the final word, that the OT was always a story awaiting its completion, and that final word is the coming of Jesus Christ, the only Son of God. To be sure, the human condition about which I have just spoken did not change from the OT to the NT periods. Neither has it changed today. We are more sophisticated in hiding, rationalizing, and dressing up our alienation from God, but the psalmist’s charge about the wickedness of the human race remains true and valid today. So what changed?

The Good News, of course, with its proclamation that God has fulfilled his promise to Abraham to address our sin-sickness and heal us through Abraham’s family. God has accomplished that in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, God become human, to rescue us from our slavery to the power of Sin that has bound us ever since our original ancestors got booted out of paradise. We get a glimpse of the heart of God in our gospel lesson this morning and it is the key to our healing at the deepest level of our being. In response to his opponents’ criticism that he was always partying and hanging out with folks who were most despised in his culture, our Lord told two parables about the relentlessly loving heart God the Father has for his image-bearing creatures.

In the first parable, we see the shepherd (God through Christ) leaving his flock behind to search for the one lost sheep. What kind of sheep was that? Was it the cutest one? The one who nestled up to the shepherd to sleep? The one with the finest wool? No, the shepherd went after the sheep because it was lost. No prerequisites, no qualifications except disqualification (sin). No structure of personal piety, no good sense (it got lost), no obedience. This was the one that got a ride home on the shepherd’s shoulder. This one is you and me in all our inglorious chaos and vanity and baggage we carry around. The message here is that there is nothing we can do to get a ride home; it is entirely up to the Shepherd searching for and finding us, and the Shepherd is willing to search us out! And here we need to be clear about what this parable isn’t saying because too often it has been used to excuse ongoing sin which fosters ongoing alienation from God. Christ was not saying that God accepted the people he hung out with as they stood. Sinners must repent so that God can heal us. The sheep didn’t run away from the shepherd once found; it let the shepherd carry him back home. God searches for us and calls us to repentance, not because God hates us but because God loves us and wants to heal us. He searches for us as we are (rebellious and hostile toward him, skilled at doing evil and not knowing how to do good without the help of God), but God doesn’t expect us to stay as we are. The folks who hung around Jesus had to resolve to give up their lifestyles that made them sick so that God could thoroughly heal them. Likewise with us. The old Scottish preacher, George MacDonald, put it like this:

I thank you, Lord, for forgiving me, but I prefer staying in the darkness: forgive me that too.”

“No; that cannot be. The one thing that cannot be forgiven is the sin of choosing to be evil, of refusing deliverance. It is impossible to forgive that sin. It would be to take part in it. To side with wrong against right, with murder against life, cannot be forgiven. The thing that is past I pass, but he who goes on doing the same, annihilates this my forgiveness, makes it of no effect..Let a man have committed any sin whatever, I forgive him; but to choose to go on sinning—how can I forgive that? It would be to nourish and cherish evil! It would be to let my creation go to ruin.”

There is no excuse for this refusal. If we were punished for every fault, there would be no end, no respite; we should have no quiet wherein to repent; but God passes by all he can. He passes by and forgets a thousand sins, yea, tens of thousands, forgiving them all—only we must begin to be good, begin to do evil no more.

None of this negates the power of the parable in which our Lord tells us about the great love the Father has for us; in fact, it reinforces it. That is why there is rejoicing in heaven. God has brought another lost sheep back into the fold and the Father’s heart overflows with joy because he loves each and every one of us in all of our disarrayed glory! Imagine you are that lost sheep our Lord finds. What would be your reaction? Would it not be one of instant relief and healing? Would you not be rejoicing and want to please the One who loves you despite your hostility toward him and wants you to be his forever?

Elsewhere the NT tells us a definitively about the Father’s great love for us made known in Jesus Christ. We are washed clean by the blood of the Lamb shed for us. Our sins have been put away. God’s desire for justice and mercy has been accomplished on the cross so that we are spared of God’s terrible judgment on our sins because God took it on himself; and our slavery to the power of Sin has been broken. We know this because Jesus Christ has been raised from the dead and we have been given God’s Spirit to help us lead new lives when we have the good sense and humility to let the Shepherd carry us home on his whipped and crucified back.

So why aren’t we all healed? There are many reasons (as well as a great enigma surrounding it all), but I only have time to explore one of those reasons with all its complexity. Some of us are self-loathing. Like David in Psalm 51, we know our transgressions and our sin is ever before us. We can’t believe that a good and righteous God could ever love us, let alone have mercy on us. We read about God’s hatred of all things evil and we conclude that because of our sins, we too are evil and therefore outside of God’s love and mercy. The Good Shepherd would never come looking for us. We are beyond saving. But our self-loathing comes from the world, the flesh (usually from within ourselves), and the devil. It ignores the truth about the love and mercy of God made known in Jesus Christ and him crucified for our sins and for our sake. When our self-loathing prevents us from accepting God’s love for, and mercy upon us, we effectively run away from the Good Shepherd or refuse to let him put us on his shoulders to carry us home. Our self-loathing is a subtle form of pride and alienation against God, all dressed up in pietistic language and thinking, and it distinctly goes against the parable of the lost sheep, which is all about the love and mercy of the Shepherd, who seeks out the least, the lost, and the self-loathing. As a result, our alienation from God continues because we falsely believe God can’t and won’t love us and we never are open for the core healing that comes when we are reconciled to God our Father through Christ. If you are one of those self-loathers, STOP IT!!! STOP IT RIGHT NOW!!!! I plead with you to take this parable to heart and give your Father a chance to show his love for you. You will not be disappointed.

And here is where the parable of the lost coin comes into play because it speaks as much about God’s perseverance as it does about rejoicing over finding the lost. As we saw, Christ implicitly calls us to repentance in the parable of the lost sheep, and many of us consciously seek to repent but often find ourselves failing miserably. This is especially bad for you self-loathers; it just adds fuel to the fire. Does that mean we really haven’t repented and remain lost? The parable of the lost coins suggests otherwise. Repentance is not a one time deal or event. Neither is our relationship with God a one time event. We are a work in progress. St. Paul recognized this when he made the astonishing claim in Romans that we will share in a death and resurrection like Christ’s because we are baptized in him (Romans 6.3-5). He then immediately acknowledged that we are not done with sin until we die (Romans 6.6-7). That means we will sometimes fail to miss the mark but that in no way negates the power of the cross and Christ’s victory over Sin and Death for us. The cross is the eternal sign of God’s great and relentless love for us, that God is patient and perseveres in his pursuit of us, despite our flaws, weaknesses, self-loathing, and rebellion. This is because God created us for life and creation, not death and destruction. God’s love for us means the Father wants the best for us and has acted as only God could on our behalf to bring us safely home to him where there will be no more sickness or sighing or alienation or death. 

St. Paul also serves as a poster child for this mind-boggling promise. He wasn’t just a lost sheep. He was a wolf who actively devoured the sheep by persecuting God’s reconstituted people in Christ out of a sincere but mistaken belief that Christ was not the real deal until Christ got a hold of him. St. Paul’s story reminds us that sincerely held beliefs about God, wrong as they can be when we do not humbly submit to God’s word, cannot rescue us. Only God can rescue us. St. Paul, chief of sinners because he actively persecuted God’s people in Christ, is saved by the One who pursued him relentlessly and patiently until he repented of his evil. The message? Nobody is beyond hope. Nobody is beyond the healing love and mercy of God. We simply have to accept the gift offered to us unconditionally. The extent to which you have accepted the gift is the extent you will find healing.

In a few moments we will invite you to come for intercessions and anointing to be healed. As you come forward, do so with a thankful and believing heart and mind, imperfect as both are. Your faith and resolve to follow Christ, however imperfectly you might live it, is evidence of God’s love for you and his willingness to heal you. Therefore, don’t be afraid. Continue to examine your heart and your life and resolve to ask the Lord Jesus to heal you of anything that causes you to remain alienated from God. Give thanks to the Great Shepherd, the one who pursues you relentlessly because he loves you beyond your ability to understand—not because of who you are or aren’t, but because of who God is—and let this God heal you to your very core. The Good News of Jesus Christ is this: You are created in the Father’s image to reflect his goodness and love, but you rebelled against that purpose. Despite your rebellion, God loves you and has acted on your behalf to end your stupidity and skill at doing evil so that you are freed to do what is truly human, good, and life affirming (i.e., it’s not about you, stupid, it’s about God). In giving you this great gift you will find both his peace and your healing, thanks be to God! To him be honor, praise, and glory forever and ever.

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

Funeral Sermon: The Resurrection: The Abolition of Death

Sermon delivered on Friday, September 13, 2019 in Deshler, OH.

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

Lectionary texts: Revelation 21.1-7; Psalm 23; 1 Corinthians 15.1-26, 35-38, 42-44a, 53-58; John 11.17-27.

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

Good morning. I am Father Kevin Maney, rector of St. Augustine’s Anglican located in suburban Columbus, OH where my wife and I live. I am preaching today because Bob asked me to. He told me that my sermons reminded him of the peace and mercy of God. Flattered, I asked him what he meant by that and he said my sermons reminded him of God’s peace because they pass all understanding, and God’s mercy because they seem to extend forever. 

Bob and I go back over 30 years and we spent a lot of time talking about faith and life and death, among other things. I also had the joy and privilege of teaching his two daughters when they were in high school, and because Bob and I had such a unique and tight relationship, Susan and Baby R. didn’t have a prayer. If you are expecting me to eulogize Bob today, you will be disappointed. I do not come to eulogize the dead because even the most eloquent eulogies will not bring the dead back to life. Instead I come to proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ crucified and raised because only Christ can and will restore the dead to new life. 

For those of us who knew and loved Bob, especially his family, these last several months have been grueling to say the least. He was afflicted by a host of illnesses that caused him and those of us who love him to suffer and grieve. His death, while a blessed release from an astonishingly rapid decline, is the ultimate form of evil because it robs us of our human dignity as God’s image-bearers and can leave survivors stunned and angry. Death ends permanently the relationships we cherish most about being human in this mortal life. We can no longer see our beloved, hear them, touch them, smell them or interact with them. Our Lord Jesus also knew this about the evil of Death because he snorted in anger at his friend Lazarus’ tomb just before raising him to life (John 11.38). Death is our ultimate enemy, the last enemy to be destroyed (1 Corinthians 15.26). It entered God’s good world as the result of human sin and has inflicted its evil on us ever since. Like Martha in today’s gospel lesson we want to throw our hands up in the air in desperation and ask why God allows this to happen.

But if you paid attention to our gospel lesson, you heard Jesus talk about a breathtaking hope—hope defined as the sure and certain expectation of things to come, not wishful thinking—as he gave Martha and us an ultimately 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, which he did, at least preliminarily, in his death and resurrection.

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 Christ. As Jesus tells us in our gospel lesson, resurrection isn’t a concept, it’s a person, and those like Bob who are united with Christ are promised a share in his resurrection when he returns to raise the dead and usher in God’s new world. Jesus’ new bodily existence attests to the fact that we as humans—body, mind, and spirit, the total package—matter to God, and that new bodily existence, not death, is our final destiny for all eternity. This is what resurrection is about. This is what we celebrate today.

St. Paul talks about the nature of our promised resurrection body in 1 Corinthians 15 and it is worth our time to see what he has to say. St. 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 a body 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 illnesses and decay to which our mortal body is subjected. Whatever our new body 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 world, the new heavens and earth. 

When Christ returns to raise the dead and usher in the new creation, the dimensions of heaven and earth will no longer be separate spheres for God and humans respectively, and which currently only intersect. Instead, as Revelation 21.1-7 promises, the new Jerusalem, NT code for God’s space or heaven, will come down to earth and the two will be fused together in a mighty act of new creation so that all forms of darkness and 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 pain or death 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. To be sure, this promise of new heavens and earth has not yet been fully realized and so we must wait in hope and faith for our Lord Jesus to return to usher it in. But even if we must wait, the promise of new creation is the only solution that will ultimately satisfy our hunger for justice and life because only in God’s new creation will all the injustices and hurts be made right and evil vanquished. In this case, Bob’s life will be fully restored (what better justice for the injustice of Death?) and severed relationships caused by death will made whole and complete again, a life of perfect health and happiness that will last forever, thanks be to God! What can be more just and awesome than that?

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 his loss when he dies. But as St. Paul reminded the Thessalonians, we are to grieve as people who have real hope and not as those who have none at all. It is this resurrection hope, the promise of new bodily life in God’s new heavens and earth, that we claim today. Our resurrection hope is the only real basis we have for celebrating Bob’s life, because without union with Jesus, none of us have life in this world or the next.

I want to close by telling you a story that powerfully sums up our Christian hope. 

In 1989 Princess Zita of Bourbon-Parma, wife of Emperor Charles of Austria died. She was the last Empress of Austria, Queen of Hungary, and Queen of Bohemia—one of the last members of the storied House of Habsburg. Her funeral was held in Vienna, from which he had been exiled most of her eventful life. After the service in St. Stephen’s Cathedral, her body was taken to the Imperial Crypt, where some 145 Habsburg royals are buried. As the coffin was taken to the Crypt, an ancient ceremony took place. A herald knocked at the closed door, and a voice responded, “Who seeks entrance?” The herald answered, “Zita, Empress of Austria, Queen of Hungary.” From within came the response, “I do not know this person.” The herald tried again, saying, “This is Zita, Princess of Bourbon-Parma, Empress of Bohemia.” The same reply was heard: “I do not know this person.” The third time, the herald and pallbearers said, “Our sister Zita, a sinful mortal.” The doors swung open.  

And so we return to Jesus’ question to Martha and us in our gospel lesson. Jesus is the resurrection and the life. Do you believe this? If you do, then act like the resurrection people you are! I don’t know why God allows all the suffering and bad things that happen in this world. I don’t know why Bob had to deal with the illnesses and the evil of cancer that he did. I don’t know why he declined so rapidly. I don’t know why his daughters, especially Cathy, had to be subjected to the heavy burden of caring for their failing father. None of it had to go that way, yet it did. 

But I do know this. Bob has been washed clean by the blood of the Lamb shed for him on the cross and made fit to stand in God’s holy presence forever. He will be clothed one day with a new body patterned after the body of his Lord Jesus and set free to love and use his talents in spectacular new and old ways that honor God and others forever. I know that on the cross, his sin, along with ours, has been dealt with once and for all. I know that Death will be abolished in God’s new world because Sin will be abolished and Death is the result of Sin. Both will be absent in the new heavens and earth. I know all of this because Jesus Christ is raised from the dead. 

The promise is mind-boggling. But the God we worship is mind-boggling. After all, we worship the God who has the power to raise the dead and call into existence things that don’t exist (Romans 4.17). Jesus’ promise that he is the resurrection and the life is ours, not because we are deserving, but because of who God is, the God who created us to have life with him forever, and who is embodied in Jesus Christ raised from the dead. That is why we can rejoice today, even in the midst of our grief and sorrow. Because of his faith in Christ who loves him and who has claimed him from all eternity, the doors of heaven have swung wide open for Bob and he is enjoying his rest with his Lord Jesus until the new creation and the resurrection of our mortal bodies come in full. And that, of course, is Good News, not only for RLR, but also for the rest of us, now and for all eternity. 

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

Faith, Ministry, and God’s Sovereignty

Sermon delivered on Trinity 12C, Sunday, September 8, 2019 at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Westerville, OH.

If you prefer to listen to the audio podcast of today’s sermon, usually somewhat different from the text below, click here.

Lectionary texts: Jeremiah 8.1-11; Psalm 139.1-5, 12-18; Philemon 1-21; Luke 14.25-33.

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

In one way or another, today’s lessons confront us with the enigma of God’s sovereignty and human responsibility. If God is sovereign over us and the events of his world, how can God hold us responsible for our actions? God is in charge, right? Everything is fixed. We’re just doing what God predestined us to do so why bother? Why try? What’s the point? And given that today we have blessed our various ministries, how does the enigma of God’s sovereignty and human responsibility come into play? These are some of the confusing things I want us to look at this morning (and hopefully not get you or me even more confused than we already are as we do)!

We start with our OT lesson from Jeremiah. God tells his prophet to visit his local potterer and there God schools Jeremiah (and us) about God’s sovereignty and human responsibility. God likens the potterer to himself. God created us and can therefore choose to do whatever God pleases to do with us; after all, God is our Creator and sovereign. And God is good. In the context of our lesson, of course, God is referring to his upcoming judgment on his rebellious and idolatrous people who live in Judah. The Lord reminds Jeremiah that all people (the nations) are his because God created everything and everyone, and now God is going to use one of those nations to bring destruction on his people Israel living in Judah for their ongoing and stubborn rebellion against God (the northern kingdom of Israel had already suffered the same fate at the hands of the Assyrian Empire about 125 years earlier). The message? God is sovereign. He can do as he pleases, just like the potterer Jeremiah was observing. Judah’s goose was cooked. It was a done deal.

Not so fast, my friends. Don’t try to become little Calvinists quite yet because after declaring his sovereign right and power to summon a nation to enact God’s judgment on his people for their sins against him, God makes the astonishing statement that we his creatures can actually have a say in God’s sovereign decision-making. If God’s people abandon their false gods along with the false and dehumanizing practices that accompany the worship of them, the one true God, the sovereign Lord over all that is, will relent in imposing his judgment on Judah. But if they repent and then think they are in the clear and start worshiping all things false again, they will once again bring upon themselves God’s fierce judgment. God can and will change his sovereign mind depending on how his people decide to live (or die). There you have it. The enigma of God’s sovereignty and human responsibility, two seemingly contradictory realities. Nowhere does Scripture try to explain how it works, just that it does. God created us in his image and gave us moral capabilities and the will to use those capabilities (or not), and God expects us to act morally to reflect his goodness, love, justice, and mercy out into his world so that the world and its peoples will come to know, worship, and praise their Creator, not get sidetracked with all things false and death-dealing.

Now of course Jeremiah was written BC—before Christ, and so things have changed a bit. In Christ God has reconciled us to himself on the cross. God did this on his own initiative while we were still God’s enemies and hostile toward God (some of us sadly remain so today). But God’s love and justice can be seen clearly in the cross of Christ. Again, Scripture does not tell us how this all works, only that it does. It’s called having faith and trusting in the veracity of God’s word contained in Scripture and in God’s Word become flesh. And if God really is God, if his ways are higher than our ways and his thoughts higher than our thoughts (Isaiah 55.8), then we should expect to be confronted on occasion with enigmas and things we do not fully understand or can’t adequately explain, things like the sovereignty of God vs. human responsibility or how Christ’s blood shed for us broke Sin’s power over us and reconciled us fully to God despite our lingering sinful behavior. It’s simply above our pay grade. We are asked to accept it by faith because we believe it truly comes from God our sovereign and is grounded in history. So we believe that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures (1 Cor 15.3), i.e., we believe in the sovereign power of God to reconcile us to himself in the way he chose to do that. But we also believe that we have the power to choose, i.e., we must choose to believe in Christ and follow him (human responsibility) before God will relent in imposing his fierce and right justice on us and our sins. 

We see this theology being worked out in our epistle and gospel lessons. St. Paul reminds both slave and slaveholder about the good they can do when they share their faith. They both have an incalculable debt they owe Christ. In his death they have new life and are reconciled to their Creator so they no longer need fear his judgment on them. Elsewhere St. Paul has reminded us that there is no longer any distinction for those who have a real relationship with Christ. It doesn’t matter if we are male or female, slave or free. We are Christ’s and we are to behave accordingly. For Philemon and Onesimus this meant perhaps doing the hard and detestable thing: freeing a slave and returning to a slave owner respectively. Do that, says St. Paul, and you and the world will see the good you do and how effective your faith can be. Put another way, St. Paul might have said do the hard but right thing (take responsibility for your actions) and then marvel at how the sovereign God will use your efforts to bring about further reconciliation and his kingdom on earth as in heaven. Was God going to destroy the institution of slavery whether Philemon and Onesimus did the right thing? Of course. God is sovereign. But when God’s image-bearers behave in ways that mimic God become human (Christ), how much more can God do! There is a great (and enigmatic) dynamic at work here but it should be tremendously comforting to us that God is in charge and that God actually invites us to work with him as he heals his good creation and creatures gone bad. Let’s be clear about this. Only God can bring about the final healing (salvation) of the world and its peoples, but God honors us by inviting us to cooperate with his sovereign rule. This means we aren’t so concerned about the results as we are about cooperating with our Creator and Sovereign.

In our gospel lesson, we see our Lord telling his followers the same thing. Do you want to follow me? You’d better consider the costs and benefits before taking the plunge. If you decide to follow me, you must make me your number one priority. Christ’s use of the word hate is startling here and needs some clarification. In this context, hate can (and probably does) mean a lesser secondary attachment, and there is biblical precedence for this meaning. We are told, e.g., that God loved Jacob but hated Esau. This didn’t mean God detested Esau; it means Jacob held priority over Esau by virtue of having secured the Lord’s blessing through Isaac’s blessing. Moreover, given Christ’s high view of marriage and family and his stern condemnation of adultery, he surely doesn’t call us to detest our family and love only him. Why would he tell us to love the one who beats us and despise the ones who nurtured us? St. Matthew probably convey’s Christ’s intentions better when he tells us that Jesus said whoever loves family more than him couldn’t be his disciple. Here again we are confronted with human responsibility. If we expect to enjoy the saving benefits of Christ won for us in his death and resurrection, we have to make him the top priority in our lives, even over those whom we love. This notion of God’s sovereignty vs. human responsibility also argues against universal salvation. God is willing to relent or change his mind about his fierce judgment on human sin and has acted on our behalf to do so because he knows we are powerless to break our slavery to Sin without the cross and help and presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives. But God gives us the freedom to choose to follow Christ and honors our choices. Some will choose badly, others will choose wisely. God is still sovereign but requires that we have skin in the game.

So how does this apply to the blessing of our ministries today? When we believe in God’s sovereignty we can engage in those ministries with great joy and perseverance because we know that when we do the work God calls us to do, both inside and outside our church family, God will bless that work, no matter how meager or average or dysfunctional our work might be. Having said that, God calls each of us to ministry and gives us a choice. If we engage in ministry, we are doing what God calls us to do. If we refuse, then we effectively thumb our nose at God and tell him we have other priorities in life greater than God. Each decision has consequences. Statistics, e.g., tell us  that about 20% of members do the work of the parish. For those who do the work, they get tired and resentful and God is not glorified in this. But the minority need to remember that God is sovereign and will bless their work no matter how tired or incomplete they and their work are. For the 80% who choose to let others do the work, while Christ died for you to reconcile you to God the Father, the notion of human responsibility suggests that Christ will be questioning your faith and discipleship. How does your refusal to have skin in the game proclaim your faith in Christ? How does your non-commitment increase the perception that the gospel has the transformative power to do good as St. Paul proclaimed in our epistle lesson? It is God who saves and it is God who expects a thankful response to his free gift, not to earn our salvation but to acknowledge his love, mercy, grace, and sovereignty displayed in Christ crucified. God never calls us to do that which we are incapable of doing, but God gives us gifts and expects us to use them in his service and the service of others, no matter how great or small.

Likewise with our homelessness. As I spoke two weeks ago, this has become an intolerable burden for me and I pray God will make it an intolerable burden for you. God will find us a home (think Exodus) and God wants us to have a home (think the New Jerusalem). But God is waiting to hear our collective cry. It won’t do for any of us to sit on the sideline on this and so starting next Sunday, I am calling us to a 40 day period of prayer and fasting. I will be sending out a letter to the parish this week that includes a prayer for you to use if you don’t know how to pray thusly. I have charged the vestry with taking leadership in this effort and to interact with you during this 40 day period. To be sure, a parish is more than a building. But we need a home that we can turn into our own sacred space to worship God. We need a home so that new ministries can be birthed and new educational and fellowship opportunities can be offered. Homelessness is never a good thing, especially for God’s people, and we are a homeless people right now. I thank God for the love and graciousness of CCPC. But this is not our home and we dare not be content to see our participation in God’s family here at St. Augustine’s as a Sunday morning frozen chosen experience. As we have seen, that simply will not do. God will overcome our sloth and indifference but he will not reward or honor it, and this is not who we are as God’s people at St. Augustine’s Anglican. 

Let me be clear. I am not trying to lay a guilt trip on you, nor am I being judgmental. We all fall short of the prize and when I preach a sermon like this, which is not often, the first person I look at is the one in the mirror. I simply want us to work through together some of the ramifications of the enigma of God’s sovereignty vs. human responsibility. I therefore encourage you to view this sermon as an invitation for you to do some deep self-reflection about your theology and discipleship. We worship a great loving and merciful God who honors us as his image-bearers and who has given himself to us to rescue us from his judgment and eternal death. Let us show God and the world that we are a thankful and energetic people who answer God’s call to us to do the work God calls us to do, confident that God will use our work to help achieve his purposes for us and for the people whom we love and serve on his behalf. We need a home to best answer that call, so let’s ask God to show us his sovereign power on our behalf. To him be honor, praise, and glory forever and ever.

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

Fr. Philip Sang: Marks of a Believer

Sermon delivered on Trinity 11C, Sunday, September 1, 2019 at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Westerville, OH.

If you prefer to listen to the audio podcast of today’s sermon, usually somewhat different from the text below, click here.

Lectionary texts: Jeremiah 2.4-13; Psalm 81.1, 10-16; Hebrews 13.1-8, 15-16; Luke 14.1, 7-14.

To be faithful to the proposal by our Rector, Rev. Dr. Kevin Maney to preach on the series from the book of Hebrews, my sermon or rather teaching today is based on our epistle reading from Hebrews and I am honored to go last on these series. If you will not remember all we have preached on this book of Hebrews you can always go back and read the sermons or listen to podcasts on the website. The conclusion is most of the time the climax of everything. I hope as we conclude on these series that we will be blessed together as we learn and grow to maturity as christians.

How do we go about living as Christians in a society where we find ourselves increasingly on the margins?

Our need to answer that question places us close to the original congregation that received the message of encouragement that we read today from Hebrews, these believers struggled to hold on and hold out in the face of pressures from the broader society as well. In listening to the word addressed to them, we may also hear a word for ourselves.

In the last chapter the writer of Hebrews rounds out his sermon with a set of ethical teachings. These words form an interconnected series about how to live as a community of faith in an indifferent or even hostile world. They provide practices that set our community apart from its broader culture. To return to the image of the Christian life as a race as the writer calls it, these words of exhortation function as marks of the trail. They keep us on the path and on our way to the goal. The goal set for us as believers.

The first mark of a believer, which forms the foundation for all the rest, is love. The writer focuses our attention in two directions. First, he points us to the love of fellow believers in community: “let mutual love continue” (13:1). The word used here is philadelphia, the Greek noun expressing the love between brothers and sisters. We are family, and we must continue to nurture and strengthen that bond if we are to find our way.

But love also has an external dimension. As we show love to our brothers and sisters, we do not wall ourselves off as members of a distinct tribe. We are also to show love to the stranger through the gift of hospitality (13:2). In the first century, hospitality was a practical virtue because inns were disreputable places. There were no Ramada Inns or Motel 6s.

Though our circumstances are different, hospitality—paying attention to the stranger— remains a vital demonstration of love. We must become welcoming and inviting congregations. We are reminded that when we are hospitable, we too receive gifts because we may entertain “angels without knowing it” (13:2). Perhaps the writer was thinking about Abraham (Genesis 18) or Gideon (Judges 6) or Manoah (Judges 13). For all of these characters, hospitality led to new stories of good news, new possibilities, new life, and new avenues of service.

A second mark of a believer being on the trail is to show care in times of distress. Our lesson today mentions two crises in particular: those who are in prison and those who are being tortured (13:3). In both cases, we are taught the depth of compassion in its sense of suffering-with-others. Our life is a life in the body, and just as Jesus as our great high priest identifies with our tests and shares our vulnerability, so we should also identify with those of our sisters and brothers undergoing crises.

The third mark our epistle lesson puts across to us today is in the area of fidelity: we should honor marriage, and we should be faithful to our marriage covenants. Such faithfulness sets us apart from the broader culture and strengthens the bonds of the community. Infidelity is not a private matter. It weakens the fabric of community, and those who are faithless bear responsibility for the wreckage their lack of steadfastness produces.

Contentment with what we have is the fourth mark of a believer being on the trail as the epistle says (13:5). We do not greedily seek more to secure our lives. Rather we are to trust in God’s promises of presence and protection. Quoting first from Deuteronomy 31:6, 8 (see also Joshua 1:5), we are reminded that God will not leave us or forsake us (13:5). Yet, God is not simply present. As Psalms 118:6 demonstrates, God is our helper, so we need fear no human action or institution (13:6).

A fifth mark is loyalty and constancy. We should remember those who have spoken the word of God to us, for their faithfulness stands as an example for us (13:7). The ultimate example of faithfulness, of course, is Jesus (12:1-3), who “is the same yesterday and today and forever” (13:8).

The final mark is proper worship, and, in particular, proper sacrifice. That advice is no surprise, since worship has been central to this sermon. We are to make an offering of thanksgiving in response to the blessings we have received under the new covenant. First, we are called to offer a sacrifice of praise as we confess Christ’s name. But acceptable sacrifice moves beyond the arena of worship and confession. As those who have received grace and trust in God’s provision, we are called to extend such grace toward others through doing good and by sharing what we have. We honor our generous God by living with open hands. We do not cling to our resources in order to secure our own lives in the face of an uncertain future. Instead, we share what we have as divine gifts entrusted to us as stewards of God’s bounty.

This final mark, with its focus on acceptable worship, underscores the unity of all these admonitions. Having called us to give thanks and offer our acceptable worship to God (12:28), the writer of the book of Hebrews now spells out the various dimensions of that worship. Acceptable worship does not find expression solely in ritual acts in the assembly or sanctuary. It infuses all of life.

Thus in our love for each other or for strangers or in our care for those in crisis, we are worshipping God. In our sharing that reflects our trust in God rather than possessions, we are worshipping God. In our faithfulness to our covenants and vows and to the example of those who have gone before us, we are worshipping God. We embody this way of life, not on the basis of our guilt or in any effort to secure God’s favor, but because God’s grace transforms and empowers us. Jesus, whose constancy knows no end, has opened for us a new way to God so that we may approach God’s throne with confidence. In response, we offer both our praise and the witness of all of our lives with thanks and praise.

In the name of God the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit

St. Augustine’s Parish Dedication Festival: Why We Celebrate Our Parish

Sermon delivered at St. Augustine’s annual Parish Dedication Festival, Year C, Sunday, August 25, 2019 at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Westerville, OH.

If you prefer to listen to the audio podcast of today’s sermon, usually somewhat different from the text below, click here.

Lectionary texts: 1 Chronicles 29.6-19; Psalm 122; Ephesians 2.19-22; John 2.13-22.

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

Today we celebrate the founding of our parish eight years ago on May 1. I remind you that we transfer our celebration to the Sunday in August closest to the feast day of our patron saint, Augustine of Hippo, which falls on August 28, marking the anniversary of his death in 430AD. What does it mean to be part of the one holy, catholic, and apostolic Church? What are we really celebrating today? What privileges do we as people of God enjoy and what responsibilities must we bear? These are some of the things I want us to look at this morning.

What do you think of when you hear the word church? Chances are you think of a building (let’s go to church today) and at first blush, our OT lesson seems to reinforce this notion of church as a place to worship. But not so fast, my friends, because what we get a glimpse of in our OT lesson is the Lord’s promise to dwell with his people; and before Christ’s arrival that place was the Temple in Jerusalem, the place where most of God’s people Israel believed that heaven (God’s space) and earth (humans’ space) intersected. To be sure, as King Solomon would later acknowledge, no place could hold God, the Creator of heaven and earth. But God’s people believed that God would be true to his promise to dwell with his people here on earth. So the Temple was a place for God’s people to meet with God. The Temple was important to be sure, but it was more important that God would dwell with his people on earth because God had called Israel, Abraham’s descendants, not a building, to bring God’s healing love and blessing to a sin-sick and God-cursed world.

And as our gospel lesson makes clear, the Temple in Jerusalem came under God’s final judgment when Christ cleansed the Temple and accused those who dwelled there of turning it into a den of thieves rather than using it as house of prayer where all the nations could come to find healing and refreshment in the presence of the Lord, cf. Mark 11.17 (the Temple was destroyed almost forty years later, never to be rebuilt). From now on, said our Lord Jesus, I am the new Temple, the place where heaven and earth intersect, the place where people come to meet God and find healing and refreshment and reconciliation of all kinds. And as St. Paul reminds us in our epistle lesson and elsewhere, we are connected to Christ, the head of his body, the Church, in the power of the Spirit and through baptism. Now God makes his presence known on earth through his people in the power of the Spirit, people who have faith in, and give their lives to, Jesus Christ. It is a staggering promise if we allow ourselves to think about it and begin to wrestle with the full implications of the promise.

It means first and foremost that the Church is not a building but a living, breathing organism linked mysteriously and organically to its head, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, in the power of the Spirit, i.e., it is a family. It means that you and I are family members and part of Christ’s body, the Church, with all our flaws and weaknesses and idiosyncrasies. It means we are called to live our lives in ways that embody the Spirit of the living God who loved us and gave himself for us, imperfectly as that might look to outsiders. It is a call that is fitting with our human dignity as God’s image-bearing creatures and with God’s original creative intent for humans to run God’s good world on God’s behalf, reflecting his image out into the world and receiving and reflecting back to God the world’s thanks and praise for the goodness, generosity, and love of God the Father and Creator.

We who are God’s people in Christ (AKA, Christians) are a people who enjoy the gift of God’s grace. Without the love and intervention of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, we deserve nothing but God’s terrible wrath and judgment on our sins and wickedness because no one can live up to the moral perfection of God nor can God tolerate any kind of evil because it flies in the face of God’s perfect goodness and good intentions for his world and its creatures. God wants the very best for us and the only way we can accomplish that is to live as his creatures rather than trying to live as God’s equals. But the history of the human race demonstrates sadly that we are incapable on our own to live as God’s creatures. We want to be God’s equals or to live as if God didn’t exist at all. It is our terminal sin-sickness and without God’s help, mercy, and grace, we are all destined for God’s terrible wrath on our sins. 

But this too is intolerable to God because God did not create us for destruction. He created us for relationship with him and as we’ve just seen, to be his image-bearing creatures. So God did something on our behalf to end our grim standing with him and to bring about our reconciliation with him so that we could once again be the human creatures he created us to be. God did this, of course, by becoming human and taking on himself the weight of our sins and his own terrible judgment on them. There is now no longer any condemnation for those who have a real relationship with Jesus Christ. Having broken the power of Sin over us on the cross, God then broke the power of the ultimate evil over us, Death, by raising Christ from the dead, thus vindicating his saving death. Why does this matter? Because in baptism we are united with Christ in his death and risen life (Romans 6.3-5). Where Christ is, so will we be. Despite our ongoing rebellion against God, God has chosen to rescue us anyway. This is why the story of Christ is called Good News. As St. Paul tells us in his letter to the Romans, at the very right time, while we were still sinners and God’s enemies, God sent his Son, i.e., God became human, to die for us and reconcile us to himself. That’s why we are no longer aliens and strangers to God. God has ended our alienation from him and reconciled us to himself so that we have a real hope and a future. None of us deserve this love or grace. None are worthy of this mercy and forgiveness, but God offers it to us anyway. We just have to have the good sense and grace to accept God’s invitation to us.

Why am I spending time with this? Because this defines us as God’s holy people and it had better change us, otherwise our membership in God’s family is suspect. Hear me carefully. I am not suggesting we must live perfect lives to qualify as God’s people. We don’t. We aren’t God’s people by what we do or don’t do. We are God’s people because of what God has done for us in Christ. Let us be very clear about this. But God did not rescue us from the power of Sin and his terrible wrath on our sins to allow us to keep doing business as we did before we knew Christ or as the world does business. You don’t help rescue someone from destruction by imitating their behavior. No, if we have a relationship with Christ, we seek to become like him with the help of the Holy Spirit who dwells in us. St. Paul makes the bold claim that our Spirit-mediated union with Christ transforms us into the image of Christ, which allows us to do business in ways that are pleasing to God rather than the world. Again, we don’t imitate Christ perfectly because none of us are done with sin until we die (Romans 6.7). Having said that, we strive to be like Christ and this is how we become the Church, the embodiment of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God. 

Christ’s presence with us in and through the power of the Holy Spirit means we realize like David and his people realized, that all we have comes from God. Yes, we are called to use our time, talents, and effort to help sustain ourselves, but nothing comes to us, especially life, without the Father’s permission. This knowledge must humble us and motivate us to please the Father by imitating his Son. This in turn means we forgive when wronged, are generous with our time, talents, and resources for the sake of the Lord and his people, not to mention the world. It means we are to park our egos and selfish ambitions and listen to God’s call for us as his people. It means we work for peace, not rancor. All this is inherent in our mission statement here at St. Augustine’s, that we are “changed by God to make a difference for God.” It means we love God enough and hate our sins enough (not ourselves, but our sins) that we want God’s word, God’s Spirit, and God’s people to heal and change us. It means we learn the story of salvation contained in the Bible and have faith that in so reading, learning, and inwardly digesting God’s word in Scripture, God will use our efforts to heal us, edify us, and equip us to do the work he calls us to do. If you do not have a burning desire to learn and be changed by God’s word in Scripture, you might want to take a hard look at what kind of faith you really have (or lack) and then turn to Christ to help you get where he wants you to be. You are his beloved and he died so that you can live. Why would he not help you grow to his full stature if you really desire to get there?

Being healed and transformed by God’s word and through prayer and fellowship allows us to roll up our sleeves and go into a hostile world to minister to it and preach the Good News of Christ and him crucified, raised from the dead, and ascended. We do this by word and deed. People should look at us and see humans interacting and operating in fundamentally different ways than the the secular world does. Of course we are going to have disagreements on how best to do this, but we learn to work through them and we never let our disagreements poison the well or our love for each other. When we find that we must have our own way, it usually means we are in need of repentance because we are looking out for ourselves rather than others. Christians are no different from non-Christians. We have our own perspectives and peccadilloes, our own broken history and fears. We are not immune from the world, the flesh, or the devil. But we have Jesus Christ as our head who is present with us if we will give him the proper attention and effort. When we do, we will find our troubles and disagreements can be transformed and healed, just like us, to the glory of God the Father. I think overall we do a pretty good job of loving each other and bearing each other’s junk that we all bring to the table. That’s one sure sign that our head is here and active among us. 

This is what and why we celebrate. This is what it means to be the Church. Together we are to deny ourselves, take up our cross, and follow Jesus, trusting him to heal and transform us according to his good will for us. And here I want to say something that may surprise you given all that I have just said. For us to let Christ heal and transform us to the fullest extent possible, we need a building we can call our own. It simply won’t do to be satisfied with a nice chapel in which to worship, massively important as worship is. We have no place to call our own, to call home. Why does that matter? For starters, we have a group of young people who need to study God’s word together and learn to love each other as they grow up physically, emotionally, and spiritually. To do this they need a place to meet and discuss and plan and dream. We don’t have that for them now. Neither can we offer adults a full set of opportunities to grow and be enriched, or for all of us to use as a base of operation to serve God’s world, or to rejoice and mourn together when we need to do so. The Spirit lives in us to be sure and Christ is present among us. But we are a homeless people and that is never good for anyone, especially God’s people. This has become an intolerable burden for me and I pray it becomes an intolerable burden for you all because only then when we show God we really are ready to end our homelessness will God give us our heart’s desire. This fall I am going to give you a chance to show God your holy desire and impatience for a home. More about that in two weeks.  

In the meantime, we have much to celebrate as God’s people here at St. Augustine’s. We also have much work to do. We are a healed and reconciled people who have been given the best gift of all, eternal life. We are given the spectacular privilege of engaging in God’s kingdom work in the power of the Spirit. We have been given this, not because we deserve it, but because of God’s great love and mercy for us. Let us therefore show our love for him by seeking to grow in Christ and fulfill our call to bring his healing love to a hostile world that desperately needs to be healed and loved. May we always answer Christ’s call to us to be his people and may he bless us with a home to better help us answer his call. To him be honor, praise, and glory forever and ever.   

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

Fr. Philip Sang: Perseverance in Life of Faith

Sermon delivered on Trinity 9C, Sunday, August 18, 2019 at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Westerville, OH.

Father Sang cherishes Kenyan Time™. He runs on it alll the time (no pun intended). That’s why his manuscripts always follow his podcasts. So take your (Kenyan) time reading his sermon below or click here to listen to the audio podcast.

Lectionary texts: Isaiah 5.1-7; Psalm 80.1-2, 9-20; Hebrews 11.29-12.2; Luke 12.49-56.

Last week Father Kevin preached on Faith focusing on what a genuine biblical faith looks like on the ground. In today’s Epistle lesson, the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews encourages us to persevere in our life of faith, no matter what difficulties we face. “Since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us.” The writer says, you have begun a good thing in becoming Christians. I want you to finish strong in what has been started in you.

It happens that I come from a community that is 0.1 % of the world’s population but holds 80% of the worlds marathon. I myself am not a good runner as bishops Dobbs and others are but I like watching the sport. Those who run marathons, be it boston, new york or chicago marathon all runners are lined up at the same starting line including runners who hold the best marathon times in the world and they all ran the same course and pass the same cheering crowds.”

“But I suppose it’s the finishing that really makes the difference. The elite runners are crossing the finish line when others are about half way through the course. The elite have about two hours to enjoy refreshments and rest, while others are still having more than ten miles to reach the goal, However the beauty of the event is that for many, just finishing the race is the accomplishment, it is the goal.”

Very few have to run a marathon — participation is for fun. But the author of the letter to the Hebrews asks us a similar question: Will we finish the race that is our life with faith? Will we persevere? Or will we run off course, or give up? And the race is hard. In today’s gospel, Jesus tells us, if we follow him, if we stand up for what is right, we will experience conflict.

The writer of Hebrews, like a good coach, gives four pieces of advice about how to finish the race. To finish the race: recall who surrounds us. Remove what ways down on us. Rely on strength within us. Remember who goes before us. Recall who surrounds us: “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses.” The epistle writer wants us to picture ourselves as athletes in an arena. As we strive toward our goal, to finish with faith, in peace and holiness, we run surrounded by people. The people in the stands are people who have demonstrated faith — faith that persevered, people who by the grace of God overcame great obstacles, and finished the race. These are people of the Bible, the men and women of the Church throughout the ages, people known personally by you and by me whose witness encourages us.

The writer says they are witnesses, not just spectators. There is a huge difference. A spectator watches you go through something. A witness is someone who has gone through something herself someone who knows, and the root meaning of the word witness, from which we get the word “martyr” is someone who may have given his life going through it. We have witnesses cheering us on, not just spectators, people who have gone through what we struggle with, people whose testimonies of the strength God gave them can, in turn, give us strength and courage. We have witnesses rooting for us, weeping with us when we stumble, calling to us when we wander, urging us to finish the race.

The writer of Hebrews, our coach, tells us also to remove what weighs down on us. Have you ever seen a track stars running a race wearing winter boots, or with weights tied to their ankles, or carrying a backpack full of weight? “Let us lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely,” says our coach. What attitudes and actions, what past behavior and present entanglements weigh us down? What weights of sin and brokenness do we carry that cause us to stumble rather than sprint? We can set those weights down. God is ready to take them from us. God is ready to forgive and heal whatever we let get between us and God, whatever has come between us and other people, whatever wrongs we do to ourselves.

Our coach also tells us to rely on the strength within us. We are told to “run with perseverance the race that is set before us.” When the going gets tough, when the road is difficult, when the miles drag on, obstacles come up around every bend, when every stretch of the road seems like another steep hill to climb, we can rely on spiritual resources within us — spiritual resources we develop in training: in gathering with other Christians, in hearing and reading God’s word, in participating in the life of the church.

The word “perseverance” has also been translated as “patient endurance.” Endurance is one thing. We can endure and whine and complain all at the same time. Patient endurance looks like praying without ceasing for ourselves and others. It looks like encouraging others even in the midst of difficulty. It looks like saying something kind, or saying nothing at all when something unkind comes more readily to mind. It looks like giving of ourselves generously, even when we’re not sure what’s ahead of us and our inclination may be to think of ourselves first.

Most important of all, remember who goes before us. We can look “to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.”

We can and will finish the race strong in faith if we look to Jesus, if we keep our eyes focused on him, not being distracted by other things along the way that can cause us to lose our direction or footing and stumble. Jesus has gone before us, has shown us the way that leads to victory. If we keep our eyes on Jesus and follow him, we will not only make a good beginning in faith we too will finish and win the race.

In the race of our life, we have people cheering us on. We have someone willing to take on our burdens. We can train for patient endurance. We have a guide who leads us and will not leave us. Let us keep running until the prize is ours and we hear God say to us, “Well done faithful servant!”

In the name of God the Father, the son and the Holy Spirit, Amen

Faith

Sermon delivered on Trinity 8C, Sunday, August 11, 2019 at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Westerville, OH.

If you prefer to listen to the audio podcast of today’s sermon, usually somewhat different from the text below, click here.

Lectionary texts: Isaiah 1.1, 10-20; Psalm 50.1-8, 22-23; Hebrews 11.1-3, 8-16; Luke 12.32-40.

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

In our epistle lesson this morning, the writer of Hebrews speaks about faith. Given that the NT writers claim that we are saved by grace alone through faith alone, it is vital for us to understand what genuine biblical faith looks like on the ground. This is what I want us to look at this morning.

“Faith,” says the writer of Hebrews, “is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” St. James tells us that faith without works is dead and useless, and St. Paul tells us in several of his letters that we are only made right with God by having faith in Christ’s atoning death and resurrection. But what does that all mean? To answer this question, we start by looking at what faith isn’t. When the biblical writers speak of faith, they didn’t have in mind some kind of spirituality that is an entity unto itself (she’s a person of faith). Neither did they have in mind some kind of resolute belief that their faith would guarantee them wealth (gee, I’ve got faith so God will surely make me rich). Nor did the biblical writers define faith as a blind leap against known facts. Atheists and other critics of the Christian faith often parrot this latter understanding of faith when ridiculing those of us who have faith. But these criticisms are patently false and inaccurate because this is not what the Bible means when it speaks of faith.

Faith, as the writer of the letter to the Hebrews articulates, involves confident action in response to what God has made known to us through his word in Scripture and through his involvement in his created order. Faith is closely related to hope in Scripture, with both terms often used synonymously. And before we go any further, we need to be clear as to what the biblical writers meant by hope. Hope in Scripture is not wishful thinking or whistling through the graveyard. No, hope as the biblical writers use it, means a sure and certain expectation that something is going to happen in the future based on what has happened in the past. Our Christian hope of forgiveness of sins and new creation, a future hope, is based on the death and resurrection of Christ, past historical events. Without these past events, we really would be fools to believe in a future new world made perfect as well as the resurrection of the body. There would be no historical basis on which to pin our hope on God’s promised new world. But because we believe that Christ was raised from the dead, we believe that instead of judgment for our sins after we die, we will find mercy and new bodily life when Christ returns to finish his saving work because in baptism we share in Christ’s death and resurrection. We weren’t witnesses to these latter events but we believe the testimony contained in the NT of those who were. This is what the writer of Hebrews is talking about. We have faith in the power of our baptism to bind us to Christ and have the hope of bodily resurrection and new creation because the word of God promises such, both in the story of Christ and the subsequent testimony of those who witnessed these saving events. And because we trust God’s character, we trust God’s word and believe it to be truthful. Obviously if we do not know God, we will have a hard time knowing God’s character and trusting God’s word. But if we know the story of God’s salvation contained in Scripture, if we have a robust prayer life, if we are firmly ensconced in the household of God, i.e., the Church, even with all its warts, if we pay attention to how God works through human agency, then we have the basis for trust. This is why we have the assurance of things hoped for and why Christian hope is always a sure and certain expectation. 

Faith therefore is never blind because it is always based on the promises of God contained in the OT and NT, nor are we called to have a blind faith. If we do not know God, it is impossible to have a mature biblical faith because there will always be doubt in our minds as to whether God is really trustworthy, especially when things go south for us or our world. It would be really easy, e.g., for us to look at the chaos of the seemingly never-ending mass shootings and conclude God’s promise to heal and redeem his broken and sinful world and its creatures is false and unbelievable. But this mindset is present- and human-oriented. True biblical faith by contrast is always God- and future-oriented because it is based on known instances of God’s mighty power, goodness, mercy and justice at work. That is why when faith is threatened by doubt—always a threat to us, especially in the ever increasingly chaotic world in which we live—Scripture exhorts us to remember, just as the writer of Hebrews does in our lesson. Listen to these following examples taken from the psalms:

My God, my God, why have you abandoned me? Why are you so far away when I groan for help? / Every day I call to you, my God, but you do not answer. Every night I lift my voice, but I find no relief. / Yet you are holy, enthroned on the praises of Israel. / Our ancestors trusted in you, and you rescued them. / They cried out to you and were saved. They trusted in you and were never disgraced (Ps 22.1-5, NLT).

I cry out to God; yes, I shout. Oh, that God would listen to me! / When I was in deep trouble, I searched for the Lord. / All night long I prayed, with hands lifted toward heaven, but my soul was not comforted. / I think of God, and I moan, overwhelmed with longing for his help./ And I said, “This is my fate; the Most High has turned his hand against me.” / But then I recall all you have done, O Lord; I remember your wonderful deeds of long ago. / They are constantly in my thoughts. I cannot stop thinking about your mighty works (Psalm 77.1-3, 10-12, NLT).

Do you see faith in action here? The psalmist is riddled with doubt. It feels like God has abandoned him and he is in danger of giving up and losing his faith. But then he remembers. He remembers God’s mighty intervention on behalf of his people at the Red Sea. In God’s dealing with his people, the psalmist is reminded of God’s character and trustworthiness. We aren’t told how the crisis the psalmist faced turned out. We simply see him working to maintain his faith, the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. When things are desperately dark in your life or when news of current events threatens to overwhelm you with its reporting of new evil and perversity, seemingly every day, do you keep your eyes on God by remembering his mighty works on your behalf (Jesus and the sending of the Holy Spirit to name but two examples) to help you maintain your faith, or do you let the darkness overwhelm you by focusing on it? 

Notice carefully in these examples from the psalms that the focus of biblical faith is on God’s promises contained in the story of his rescue of his good world gone terribly wrong. God created this world. Our faith tells us this is true because Genesis proclaims that God is our Creator and the psalms reinforce this belief. Consider Psalm 19, for example: 

The heavens proclaim the glory of God. The skies display his craftsmanship. / Day after day they continue to speak; night after night they make him known. / They speak without a sound or word; their voice is never heard. / Yet their message has gone throughout the earth, and their words to all the world (v.1-4).

This same God, Creator of all that is, is perfect, good, loving, just, merciful, and holy. God created humans in his image to run his good creation on God’s behalf and when we failed that call and our sin allowed Evil and Death to enter and corrupt God’s good world and us, God declared he would rescue us through a human family, Abraham and his ultimate descendent Jesus Christ! This totally unexpected plan is fitting for the dignity of human beings and is another sign that God honors us and wants us to return to him. Along the way, Scripture tells us the story of how God repeatedly came to his people Israel’s rescue, requiring them to choose between the old covenant’s blessings and curses outlined most notably in Deuteronomy 27-28. Covenant curses are God’s judgment on his people’s lack of faith; they chose not to submit to his way of living, in part, because they don’t believe God’s promises to them. Covenant blessings, on the other hand, result from God honoring right living which is indicative of faith in the God who promised his people to be their God and commanded them to live by his laws (more about that anon). This is what was going on in our OT lesson today. The Lord through his prophet Isaiah exhorts his people to faith by living righteously according to his laws. If God’s people Israel really had faith in God, the assurance of things hoped for and the conviction of things unseen, they would have behaved accordingly. But Israel didn’t have faith in God because they choose to worship and follow false gods. This is why true worship of God the Father requires faith. Nothing else will do in God’s eyes. By worshiping false gods, Israel in Isaiah’s day showed where their faith really was focused, and it wasn’t on the God who called them out of their slavery in Egypt and gave them the Promised Land as a base of operation for their saving mission. They could therefore expect nothing but exile and death, the ultimate covenant curses, just like we can expect nothing but judgment and death when we fail to put our hope (faith) in Christ.

The NT modifies and completes the OT theme of covenant blessings and curses by proclaiming that Jesus Christ ultimately rescued us from exile and death, even after we had fallen away. Jesus Christ was and is the game-changer because lack of faith cannot fully explain human rebellion against God. We all know that from personal experience! We rebel against God, in part, because we lack faith and, in part, because we are held captive by the power of Sin and unable to break free from its grip. So God broke Sin’s power over us on the cross and accomplished his justice. We believe this because we believe God raised Jesus from the dead and in doing so, vindicated his death. And while God has not consummated his rescue of his sin-sick world and creatures, we know it’s coming because we believe in the efficacy of Christ’s saving death and resurrection and are convinced it comes from God. With St. Paul, we believe in the God who creates things out of nothing and who raises the dead; therefore we have hope against hope (God’s hope vs. human hope) that our salvation is assured. As St. Paul also reminds us, our life with Christ is hidden with him in heaven (Col 3.3). We cannot currently see him, but we will see him one day when he returns and so we have the sure and certain expectation (hope) that he will finish what he started. In having this hope in Christ and trusting he is God incarnate because the NT writers proclaim him to be, we demonstrate our faith in the power of God and his revealed word. Simply put, our faith is based on Jesus Christ crucified and raised from the dead. Only God is capable of doing this as the whole story of Scripture attests. Our future is linked to God’s power and we are gradually transformed by it.

As we saw earlier, St. James reminds us that faith must be actionable because our actions are usually consistent with and based on our beliefs. Our faithful actions are always consistent with God’s clear commands to us to live rightly, both as individuals and as communities. That is why we forgive when wronged, are generous with our resources, show grace where none is deserved, advocate for families and life, demonstrate love for all, and pursue real justice based on God’s laws. We will live like that in God’s new world and are given a chance to show our faith in our future citizenship there by how we act in this present world. Much of faithful living is counter-intuitive and runs against our natural grain because we are all sin-corrupted and self-centered by nature. That’s the sad outcome of the Fall that Genesis 3ff describe, so faithful living does not come naturally or easily for us. But God the Father is greater than our sin-sickness and gives us his Spirit to help us answer his call to us to be truly free to live as fully human beings made in his image, a life patterned after the perfect life of Jesus Christ our Lord. And here again we must be clear that living faithful lives, however imperfectly that may manifest itself, does not guarantee us health, wealth, and prosperity. God’s blessing there will be for our faithful living, but that blessing does not guarantee or automatically lead to health, wealth, and power, even if the ancient Israelites often saw it doing so, a mistaken notion that our Lord himself repeatedly had to correct (see, e.g., Mk 10.17-27; Mt 16.24-27). No, living faithful lives can (and often does) result in ridicule and persecution as our actions and words challenge the fallen and death-dealing ways of our culture and the world. Even the writer of Hebrews admits that the exemplars of faith he cites died without seeing the promise of their faith fulfilled; and barring Christ’s return before we die, we too will not live to see the promise of our faith in Christ fulfilled. But we believe it nevertheless because we believe in the God who creates things out of nothing and raises the dead to life. Nothing is impossible for this God and he has the track record to prove it. 

Having said this, we must also acknowledge that God promises to reward faithful living and this promise of reward makes many of us very uncomfortable. Our reluctance to count the importance of rewards as a motivator for faith stems from a mistaken notion that real Christians shouldn’t desire a reward for faithful living, that doing so is selfish. But that thinking would have surprised the biblical writers and our Lord Jesus himself (think for example about our gospel lesson this morning or about the parable of the ten talents found in Mt 25.14-30). Why then should we blush or apologize for seeking to be rewarded for our faith? We seek all kinds of lesser rewards in the things we do, things that will pass away. Why not seek the ultimate prize of living with and loving God forever as our most desired-reward? 

With all this in mind, we can see that the theme of faith runs through all our lessons today. For example, when we look at Christ’s parable in our gospel lesson through the lens of faith, we see him calling us to faith. Be ready for the Master’s return (Christ himself), he tells us. Demonstrate your faith by doing the things that show God and others where your true riches are, by demonstrating your hope and trust in God’s love and power. It gives the Father great pleasure to give you the kingdom where you will have light and life forever. Don’t let the darkness of this world lead you astray so that you follow its values and dehumanize yourself. If you live faithfully, you will find your reward. The master will serve you when he returns (think Jesus washing the disciples’ feet at the Last Supper in St. John’s gospel). So demonstrate your assurance of things hoped for and your conviction of things not seen by living in ways that are consistent with the Father’s great love for you. Don’t make money or sex or power or security your gods. Make me your God by following and imitating me for I am God become man. Deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow me. Don’t let the darkness of this world fool you. I am going to die to rescue you from God’s terrible judgment on your sins and reconcile you to the Father, and my Father will raise me from the dead to prove to you that this unbelievable promise is really true. And what do we require from you? Faith made manifest in your living according to our will for you. My Father loves you and wants to rescue and restore you to your rightful place in his creation and has sent me to accomplish what you cannot accomplish for yourself. Please have the wisdom and humility to accept our gracious gift to you. 

 This is what real faith is all about, my beloved. As with all things from God it is rich, multifaceted, complex, and often challenging because we are mere mortals with limited understanding who live in a dark and challenging world in the midst of our own conflicting fallen and noble desires. So do what the biblical writers tell you to do when your faith is challenged. Remember, so that your assurance of things hoped for and your conviction of things not seen—forgiveness of sins and your place in God’s new creation—will not be overcome by people or forces who hate you and want to destroy you. Remember that it is the Father’s pleasure to give you his kingdom, so focus often and regularly on this God, the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, crucified and raised from the dead. This is the God who creates things out of nothing and gives life to the dead. He is the same God who wants to give you a place in his kingdom forever, starting right now and culminating fully when he raises you from the dead at his Son’s return to finish his saving work on your behalf. That’s a faith worth living and dying for, even as we live constantly in a world of uncertainty and enigma. To him be honor, praise, and glory forever and ever.   

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

An Ancient Theologian Defines the Christian Rule of Faith

From Tertullian, who died in the early third-century (ca. 225AD). Notice the emphasis on the resurrection of the body. Is this your faith?

Now, with regard to this rule of faith—that we may from this point acknowledge what it is which we defend—it is, you must know, that by which we believe that there is one only God, and that He is none other than the Creator of the world, who produced all things out of nothing through His own Word, sent forth before all things; that this Word is called His Son, and, under the name of God, was seen in various ways by the patriarchs, heard at all times in the prophets, at last brought down by the Spirit and Power of the Father into the Virgin Mary, was made flesh in her womb, and, being born of her, went forth as Jesus Christ; thenceforth He preached the new law and the new promise of the kingdom of heaven, worked miracles, was crucified, and rose again the third day; then having ascended into the heavens, He sat at the right hand of the Father; sent in his place the Power of the Holy Spirit to lead such as believe; will come with glory to take the saints to the enjoyment of everlasting life and of the heavenly promises and to condemn the wicked to everlasting fire, after the resurrection of both good and evil, together with the restoration of their flesh. This rule, as it will be proved, was taught by Christ, and raises amongst ourselves no other questions than to those which heresies introduce, and which make people heretics.

On the Prescription of Heretics 13: CCL 1, 197-198