Monday, November 26, 2012

Christ the King 11/25/2012

Christ the King Deerfield November 25, 2012

          Today is the feast of Christ the King. We celebrate Jesus’ present lordship in the world he has redeemed and we look forward to the time when all things are subject to Christ and we “enter the everlasting heritage” of God’s sons and daughters.

          In December, 1925 Pope Pius 11th   ordered a new feast of Christ the King be kept on the last Sunday in October.  Three years before, in late October 1922, Mussolini’s Fascists had seized control of the Italian government. On May 30, 1924 Giacomo Matteotti spoke in the Italian parliament and charged the Fascists with electoral fraud and violence. Ten days later Matteotti was kidnapped and murdered.  About the same time Adolf Hitler’s Storm Troopers began to terrorize Germany. The Fascists were political gangsters, determined to maintain order at the expense of justice. Fascism opposed Communism, but both Fascism and Communism were totalitarian ideologies fundamentally incompatible with Christian faith.  The new feast of Christ the King in late October was the Pope’s 1direct challenge to Italian and German Fascism. That Fascism was defeated in World War II and in the calendar reform of 1969 Pope Pius 6th moved the Feast of Christ the King to the Sunday before Advent.

The church feast of Christ the King is relatively new, but the idea is biblical. The whole Bible teaches that God rules the world he made. Nathan brought God’s judgment to David for his crimes of adultery and murder. Isaiah prophesied (9:6-7), “Unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given, . . .The Prince of Peace . . . to establish (his kingdom) with judgment and with justice . . . for ever.”

Today’s scripture readings show us three aspects of the rule of Christ the King. First in the Gospel Jesus teaches Pilate about his rule and its relationship to the power of the state. Second Daniel and Revelation focus on Christ’s rule in the last days. And third, as we live in this world awaiting the last days we consider how we celebrate Jesus’ present lordship in the world he has redeemed.

First, today’s Gospel is part of St. John’s account of Jesus’ trial.  The next verse has Pilate’s question, “What is truth?” and Pilate’s judgment announced to the Jewish political and religious leadership, “I find in him no fault at all.”

Pilate’s judgment of innocence and his easy betrayal of that judgment under political pressure show his moral bankruptcy as governor.  The only moral reason for government is to maintain justice and civil order. Without these government is simply tyranny.   

When Pilate found Jesus innocent he took on a moral obligation to protect him, but instead Pilate caved into the mob and ordered Jesus’ execution. Christ the King calls us to use the authority we receive from God, as the prophet Micah commands (6:8), “to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God.”  Doing justice requires us not only to be just and fair in our own doings but to do all we can to ensure just and fair treatment of all persons and in all situations, to “make no peace with oppression” as we pray in the Collect for Social Justice BCP 260.

Second, both Daniel and the Revelation remind us of the scriptural truth that the universe as we know it is not permanent. It had a beginning and it will end. The God who made the world will in God’s good time bring it to an end.  

Daniel says, “His dominion is an everlasting dominion that shall not pass away, and his kingship is one that shall never be destroyed.” In Revelation St. John says, Jesus Christ our king “is coming with the clouds; every eye will see him, even those who pierced him; and on his account all the tribes of the earth will wail. So it is to be. Amen. ‘I am the Alpha and the Omega,’ says the Lord God, who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.”

By faith we believe that in the last day Christ will be king. The God who made the world will in God’s good time bring it to a just end. 

So finally, what do we do until Christ returns to reign as king? First, because Christ is our king, because he is perfect justice and love, we seek “to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly” in his service.  And that means not only to be just and fair in our own doings but to do all we can to ensure just and fair treatment of all and in all situations, to “make no peace with oppression.”

Second, because Christ is our king, we “work, pray, and give for the spread of his kingdom” doing what we can as we can as a witness to Christ’s saving grace in our lives to the end that the world may come to know, love, and serve him in this life and the life to come.

And third, this is the feast of Christ the King. We celebrate Jesus’ present lordship in the world he has redeemed and we look forward to the time when all things are subject to Christ and we “enter the everlasting heritage” of God’s sons and daughters. Amen.  

Friday, August 31, 2012

Belief and Behavior

Proper 17B September 2, 2012 St. James Lenoir

Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world. Jesus said, “Nothing outside a person . . . can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.”

          It is a real pleasure it is to be with you all today. I’m Tom Rightmyer. I was rector at Redeemer, Shelby, in the 1980’s. Mike Cogsdale helped us celebrate the church’s 125th anniversary. When Mike was President of the NC Council of Churches I was a member of a Council committee and on the Ecumenical Committee of this diocese. I’m retired and live at Deerfield in Asheville.

This sermon is about the connection of belief and behavior.  Our life work is to keep together what we do and what we believe. Our beliefs and thoughts influence our behavior, and our behavior influences on what we think and believe. 

You have heard of the 7 major sinful tendencies that separate us from the love of God: Pride, Wrath, Avarice, and Envy are sins of the mind; Sloth, Lust, and Gluttony are sins of the body. All these natural characteristics become sinful when they get between us and God and between us and others.

There are also 7 capital or major virtues that can help us grow closer to God, and increase the connection between our beliefs and our behaviors:  Four are called natural virtues: Prudence, Justice, Temperance, and Fortitude or Courage. Three are called theological virtues: Faith, Hope, and Charity or Love.

The natural virtues of Prudence, Justice, Temperance, and Fortitude or Courage are taught by Plato in the Republic, by Aristotle, by Cicero, and in the intertestamental books of Wisdom (8.7) and 4 Maccabees (1:18-19) and by St. Ambrose, St. Augustine, and St. Thomas Aquinas.  The theological virtues of Faith, Hope, and Charity or Love come from I Corinthians 13.

Prudence comes from the Latin pro-videntia to “see ahead.” It includes the reasonable ability to control our actions by good judgment, by “common sense” to have a right judgment of a situation and to do the right thing in that situation. We generally learn prudence as we practice it. Prudence keeps us out of trouble. 

Justice is having a right judgment of what properly belongs to us and what properly belongs to others. Children are generally blessed with the virtue of justice. They know and frequently say what is fair and what is not.  Power tends to corrupt the virtue of justice. 

Fortitude or Courage is the virtue that helps us deal with the fears, pains, and dangers that come to us in a fallen world. Fortitude includes steadfastness, perseverance, honesty. “Having done all to stand.” Moral fortitude is the ability to do what is right despite opposition. 

Temperance is the virtue of moderation, moderation in our use of the things of this world for ourselves and others. When we recycle we are exercising a contemporary virtue of Temperance. We learn these natural virtues in life as we practice them. 

These four natural virtues are common to all people, but the three spiritual virtues are God’s special gifts to bring us closer to him, and to help us to be more integrated people, with lives that more closely demonstrate in our behavior what we believe in our hearts.

Faith is God’s gift to make it possible to believe. We receive the gift of faith by hearing of God’s love in creation and in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. As we hear and we learn God’s love pours out on us, over us, and through us, to bring us to himself. Faith is a personal gift from a personal God to bring us into personal relationship with him. The gift of faith is a free gift; we don’t earn it by anything we do, but once we receive the gift and the giver, we offer ourselves in gratitude.

Hope is God’s gift of happiness. By hope we desire a better life here and hereafter and are motivated to work toward that better life for ourselves and for others. Hope strengthens the   other virtues in our life. In the Epistle to the Hebrews (10.23) we read, “Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful” and in the Epistle to Titus (3.6-7) “This Spirit he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life.” 

          Charity or Love is God’s gift so we may love God above all things and in all things for his own sake, and love our neighbor as ourselves for the love of God.  In St. John’s Gospel we learn that Jesus loved us to the end, to his painful death on the cross, and told the disciples and us,  (15:9, 12) “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love.” And “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.”

            The virtues offer a framework to evaluate how our faith and our behavior relate to one another. If we will pay regular attention regularly both to how we behave and what we believe, and if we will pray regularly God’s grace in Jesus will strengthen us and will bring us closer to him. Amen.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Trinity Sunday

          Today we begin again with the Trinitarian acclamation, “Blessed be God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” and the response “And blessed be his kingdom, now and for ever. Amen.”

          We all continually have to deal with questions of personal identity. “Who am I?” How we understand who we are makes a difference in how we think and what we do. Human beings seem to be alone among the animals in having a sense of self, in being self-conscious, in asking, “Who am I?”

That seems to go back to the creation story which was our long first lesson today. We read there that after creating the universe and the earth and the animals, and seeing that it was good, “God created humankind in his image, male and female, and God blessed them.” Self-awareness is part of the divine image in us; so is the ability and desire to love.

So every year we come to seek to understand God’s identity as it is revealed to us. We reason from what we know to what we don’t know. We are in relationship and we experience God in relationship to us. We are unique individuals and we experience God in our and his uniqueness.

So we pray to “Almighty and everlasting God” who has “given to us your servants grace, by the confession of a true faith, to acknowledge the glory of the eternal Trinity, and in the power of your divine Majesty to worship the Unity.” We pray that this God will “keep us steadfast in this faith and worship, and bring us at last to see you in your one and eternal glory, O Father; who with the Son and the Holy Spirit live and reign, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.”

Special attention to the biblical teaching about one God in Trinity seems to begin in the Celtic church in Ireland and Britain. The prayer/hymn “I bind unto myself today the strong name of the Trinity” called St. Patrick’s breastplate has been used from the 700’s on. In the 1160’s Archbishop Thomas a Becket of Canterbury received papal permission to celebrate the Trinity on the Sunday after Pentecost and about 150 years Pope John 22nd ordered Trinity Sunday observed in the whole western church. Just 100 years ago Pope Pius 10th increased its importance in the Roman Catholic calendar. Trinity Sunday has always been a major feast for Anglicans - and Lutherans. With them we used to count the Sundays until Advent as Sundays after Trinity.

          Trinity Sunday tells us of the church’s understanding of the bible teaching about how God has revealed himself to the humanity he created. For Episcopalians the Articles of Religion help us. They were “established” in 1801 by General Convention to spell out the doctrine of this church to which clergy at ordination promise to conform and to clarify the Episcopal position on some church controversies. The 1801 Convention mostly rejected a 1798 proposal to revise and “update” the Articles as they were first adopted in 1571 and reaffirmed in 1662. They have been in the back of the Prayer Book ever since.

    They begin, “There is but one living and true God, everlasting, without body, parts, or passions; of infinite power, wisdom, and goodness; the Maker, and Preserver of all things both visible and invisible. And in unity of this Godhead there be three Persons, of one substance, power, and eternity; the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.” Some of that is positive: God is one, living, and true, everlasting, Maker, and Preserver of all things. Some of it excludes alternative opinions: God is “without body, parts, or passions; of infinite power, wisdom, and goodness.”

    That God is one is a belief common to all the Abrahamic religions-to Judaism and Christianity and to Islam. There are no other self-existent powers. We believe in one God, not many gods. A consequence is that our life is a unity; we may take on many roles and functions, but at the center of it all is one person.

    God is living. Some years ago the cover of Time magazine in white letters on black wrote, “God is dead.” Despite those who try to ignore him in everyday life God is alive and well and lives in and beyond his creation.

    God is true. True for whom? Where? In what circumstances? Does truth exist independent of who believes it/ Are there different truths for different people? Pilate asked at Jesus’ trial, “What is truth?” Pilate didn’t wait for an answer, but in St. John 14:6 Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” The truth of Jesus is independent of who believes it. And our understanding is limited. We all will die; our senses pass away. Only God is everlasting. God is more than, and different from, us. Cardinal Avery Dulles once preached in a church which had a pulpit banner, “God is other people.” Dulles, an eminent Jesuit theologian, added the comma so the banner read, “God is other, people.” God is, in the 16th century language, “without body, parts, or passions; of infinite power, wisdom, and goodness.”   

          God is without body. As Jesus told the Samaritan woman at the well (St. John 5:24) “God is spirit and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” Because we are both body and spirit we need the sacramental life, material things that communicate spiritual realities. We naturally think of God in material terms, but God has no body; God has no physical parts; God is neither male nor female; but God is also personal. God is not an “it.” English lacks a personal pronoun that personal but not gendered, so the old custom was to use “he” for both “he” and “she.” The point is that God is personal and God takes a personal interest in each of us. We learn that from having and being parents, lovers, and friends.

    God is “without parts or passions.” Human sexuality is an important gift of God, but it is part of our creature nature; it is not divine. And God revealed in Scripture is not dispassionate. God cares; God is sometimes angry; God grieves, “Jesus wept.” But God is not governed by his passions as we are sometimes governed by our passions.

    And God is “of infinite power, wisdom, and goodness.” We know how limited are our power, our wisdom, and our goodness. We frequently seek to increase our power, and on our better days also seek to increase in wisdom and goodness.

    God has revealed himself-Godself-in Holy Scripture, God has revealed himself in relationship with a community. The story begins with the creation in Genesis, continues with Abraham and his family and with the people brought out of slavery in Egypt “with mighty power and outstretched arm.” This people received God’s law, God’s self-revelation in relationship with the community. When the community fell away from obedience God sent the prophets to call them back to live as God’s children in a community created and sustained by God’s spirit.

    And then God sent his Son “to live and die as one of us, to reconcile us to you, the God and Father of all.” Some of the community could recognize the presence and saving power of the Son; some could not. To those who could receive him, God gave the gift of the Spirit, the Spirit of truth and power, and love. In that Spirit we live today.

    God has revealed himself in his creation and in his relationship with his chosen community. He has revealed that his nature is love. Our identity is in God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as we share the love which is the nature of God. That love makes us at the same time one with God and a unique creation.

          So from now till Advent we begin each service, ““Blessed be God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. And blessed be his kingdom, now and for ever. Amen.”

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Easter 3 B 2012

 “They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate in their presence.”

          In Jesus’ time as now some people had trouble with the resurrection of Jesus’ body. Then as now some people could only see the resurrection as a spiritual event. Then as now some said that the Resurrection means only that the spirit of Jesus lives on in his disciples. And that’s true, the resurrection is a spiritual event, and the spirit of Jesus does live on in his disciples. But that’s not all. Both St. Luke and St. John affirm that the resurrected Jesus was not simply a spirit but the resurrected had flesh and bones and ate broiled fish.

          St. Luke explicitly tells of the broiled fish and sets his account on Easter Day after the report of the disciples who met Jesus on the way to Emmaus. St John implies the risen Jesus eating with his disciples in Galilee some time after Easter Day.

     These accounts explicitly deny the notion that the risen Jesus just seemed to be alive but was really simply a spirit or we might say a ghost. This notion was called Docetism from the Greek word “to seem.” Docetism was a form of Gnosticism from another Greek word gnosis translated as “knowledge” and particularly speculative or intellectual knowledge contrasted with praktikos or practical knowledge. In 1945 a number of Gnostic writings from the 3rd century (the 400’s) were found at Nag Hammadi in upper (southern) Egypt. They have been translated and studied and popularized.  Gnostic texts include “gospels” attributed to Judas, or Thomas, or Philip and other writings.
     The Bible begins with God’s creation, and from the third day on we are told “God saw what he had made, and it was good.” On the sixth day “God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good. The Bible teaches that God’s creation is, by God’s intention, good. Human sin and disobedience have damaged God’s good creation, and as St. Paul reminds us in Romans (8:22-23) “the whole creation . . . waits for . . . the redemption of our bodies.” Last week we read in the First Epistle of St. John that Jesus’ death and resurrection saves the whole world. When Jesus comes again the whole world will be restored as it was in God’s good and perfect creation.

     Gnosticism ancient and modern on the other hand thinks of  the creation as basically evil. It sees the limitations of time and space, the problems of age and disability, “nature red in tooth and claw,” as a prison for free spirits. Gnosticism denies God’s creation of the world. Ancient Gnosticism constructed a series of emanations from a fully spiritual God through a great chain of being gradually more and more corrupt to a demiurge that created the world we know. Modern Gnosticism prefers a theory of accident or happenstance or “statistical probability” – anything but a good and loving creator.

     Gnosticism either ignores the physical world or denies that how we treat the material world has any spiritual importance. Or alternatively, and paradoxically, it says that the world as it is is all there is. Pure materialism seeks to deny any spiritual reality. It isn’t logical because it isn’t logical.

     If the world doesn’t matter then our behavior in the world doesn’t matter, and we are under no fundamental obligation to other people. If we are kind and generous we are kind and generous because being so makes us feel good; it feeds our ego. If we are cruel and selfish it doesn’t matter because other people don’t matter anyway.

     For Jesus and his disciples other people do matter. The world matters. We treat others not only as we wish to be treated, but we treat others better than we are treated. We seek to love others not only so they may love us, but because God loves us first, and sent Jesus to die to take away our sins and rise from the dead to give us new life. We are then stewards of God’s creation.

     So it matters that Jesus rose from the dead with flesh and bones and ate broiled fish. It matters because God made the world and made it good.

          And it matters because Jesus’ resurrection is the first fruits of the resurrection of the rest of us. In the Apostles’ Creed we profess belief in the resurrection of the body – the resurrection of the body of Jesus and our sure and certain hope of our own resurrection in the last day. 

          The official  teaching of the Episcopal church is found in Article 4 of the Articles of Religion as established by the General Convention of 1801 (BCP p. 868), “Christ did truly rise again from death, and took again his body, with flesh, bones, and all things appertaining to the perfection of Man’s nature; wherewith he ascended into Heaven, and there sitteth, until he return to judge all Men at the last day.” 

          These articles of our faith reflect the truth of today’s gospel, “you see . . . that I have flesh and bones . . . They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate in their presence.”

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Easter 2B April 15, 2012

         “These are written that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.”

Tuesday in Holy Week at the annual service for clergy Bishop Taylor preached. He doesn’t travel in his collar or purple shirt, but one day a young woman sat next to him found out he was a Christian, and an Episcopalian, and a bishop. Then she asked him, “The Bible, is it true?” “The Bible, is it true?”  Bishop Taylor told her his story - a spiritually lost 27 year old whose life found focus when he volunteered in an Atlanta soup kitchen and met Jesus.

We all have a story. Mine is of a college student who drank too much Saturday night Thanksgiving weekend. When my priest father got me up to serve at the altar early Sunday morning for the men and boys corporate communion the wine of communion set off the other alcohol in my system. I had to go sit on the back step head down so I wouldn’t pass out. I said, “I don’t want to live this way anymore,” and the Lord said, “You don’t have to.” Rough times followed, but Jesus offered me new life that morning. The God who made us loves us, and sent his son Jesus to die on the cross to set us free from sin and shame and guilt. Jesus rose from the dead to give us new life, now and forevermore. And Jesus gave us for new life his Holy Spirit of truth and power. We all have a story, and we need to be able to tell it when God gives us opportunity.

          In Easter Season our first lesson is from the Acts of the Apostles. The second lesson this year is from the First Epistle of St. John. Last year the second lesson was from the First Epistle of St. Peter, next year from the Revelation to St. John.  

          Some scholars think the same St. John wrote both the gospel and the epistles; others think they have different authors. The theme of St. John’s epistles is light and love. “God is light” and “God is love.”  “. . . if we walk in the light . . . we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus God’s Son cleanses us from all sin.”

          “But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and he is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.” Those of us familiar with the 1928 Prayer Book or Rite I hear this as one of the Comfortable Words after Confession and Absolution. Jesus Christ is our advocate one who speaks for us on judgment day. Jesus speaks for us that we are guilty and pardoned. By his death Jesus has set us free from sin and God’s judgment for all our sins – “for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.”

          Jesus’ death and resurrection was not only for us who “profess and call” ourselves Jesus’ disciples, but for every one in every place and every age who admits sin and claims the pardon. I’ve sat in civil court and heard the state attorney offer the plea bargain. Almost 9 cases in 10 in criminal court are settled by plea bargains. The defendant pleads guilty to a lesser offence with less prison time or a lighter fine and the more serious charges are dismissed. The judge says to the defendant, “Do you accept this agreement, and are you in fact guilty of the crime to which you plead?” The required answer is “yes, I am guilty.” So say we all. We all are guilty of willful disobedience of God’s law in some respect at some time. As St. John tells us, “If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.”

          Our society and church have a major problem - our pervasive denial of the reality of personal sin. We all think of our good intentions and we ignore our morally ambivalent and some times egregiously evil actions. Bishop Tom Fraser of North Carolina used to say, “Be hard on yourself and easy on others.” Our natural tendency is to pay close attention to the faults of others and to seek ways to excuse our own errors of judgment and action. The Jesus Prayer in the Eastern Orthodox tradition is “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the living God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”  As we become more aware of our own sinfulness, we are more able to accept the wonderful grace of our risen Savior. “We have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and he is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.”

          Today’s gospel tells of Jesus’ coming to the disciples gathered, traditionally, in the upper room where they had celebrated the last supper. The doors were locked; the mob was still out there, likely looking for more blood. Jesus comes to give them peace, and to share with them his power to forgive sins. Later today after our general confession, I will in God’s name and by Jesus’ authority entrusted to me by Jesus’ body the church tell you that your sins are forgiven, “Almighty God have mercy on you, forgive you all your sins through our Lord Jesus Christ, strengthen you in all goodness, and by the power of the Holy Spirit keep you in eternal life.  Amen.” As St. John says, “If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”  Our sins are put away forever. Our sins are washed away in the shed blood of Jesus on the cross.

          Baptism is the beginning. The water of baptism washes away sins and every time we confess our sins we renew the spiritual effect of our baptism. The church has traditionally required baptism before communion, and that is a requirement of Episcopal church law. The church also recognizes “baptism by desire” when water baptism is not available, and  my practice is to invite to communion all Christians, all of us who say to Jesus with Thomas in today’s gospel “My Lord and my God.” In 45 years of ordained ministry I’ve met some people who have come to faith in Jesus’ death and resurrection but who have not been baptized in water. We offer the communion to everyone who comes to receive. We trust that the spirit of Jesus has brought them to his altar. But I believe the Christian tradition is right, baptism first.

          Some clergy disagree with the tradition. They believe in radical spiritual hospitality. You may hear in an Episcopal Church something like, “Whoever you are, wherever you are in your faith journey, you are welcome to receive communion here.” The diocese of Eastern Oregon and others has proposed that this summer’s General Convention change the present church law. 

          The risen Jesus shared with the disciples his authority to forgive sins against God, and he also gave a limited but essential power to forgive sins to all Christian disciples. Jesus gives each one of us the power to forgive sins committed against us. . “If you forgive the sins of any (against you), they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any (against you), they are retained (to you).” We all commit sins against ourselves and against one another, and we are all sometimes sinned against. We can continue to hold on to the truth that we are sinned against, or we can forgive. We sometimes call the experience of being sinned against “resentments.”  We can continue to resent, or we can forgive. We say in the Lord’s Prayer, “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” The contemporary version of the prayer has “sins” – “forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.”

          The gift of being able to forgive sins against us, to let go of resentments, is a gift of the Holy Spirit by the resurrected Jesus. It is also hard spiritual work.  G.K. Chesterton once said, “Jesus commanded us to forgive our neighbors and our enemies. Frequently they are the same persons.”  We need to forgive over and over again, as often as the resentment comes back to bother us. When we have forgiven the sins committed by others against us we also can forgive the sins we have committed against ourselves, the things we have done to harm ourselves even when we knew they were wrong when we did them,.

          The great gift of God is that when we forgive he gives us the wisdom, the grace, and the power, to change, to do things differently. For that we thank God. Today’s gospel tells of Thomas’ radical change from skepticism to belief, from “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe” to “my Lord and my God!” Jesus met Thomas’ need to see and touch.

Jesus meets all our real needs. He met Porter Taylor’s need for direction and purpose. He met my need for a new way of life. He met the need of the young woman on the airplane to know -  “the Bible, is it true?” He has met our needs, and he calls us to tell our story of his grace, his light, his love, his forgiveness, his freedom.

So think about your story, your encounter with Jesus, and be prepared to share it the next time God gives you opportunity. You don’t have to be a bishop on an airplane, but you do have to be aware and alert and ready.

“These are written that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.” 

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Lent 4B March 18, 2012

At St. Andrew's Bessemer City NC Lent 4B March 18, 2012

Bishop Dan Martins of Springfield in southern Illinois recently wrote this, “In meeting with parish leaders who are very anxious about a long pattern of decline, I find over and over again that the conversation quickly drifts back to "How can we get more people to come to our church?" And I keep telling them, "That's the wrong question." The "right" question is, "What keeps my neighbors up at night, and how would knowing Jesus allow them to sleep more peacefully?" Yes, that's an oversimplification. But it's a much more fruitful enterprise than trying to screw up the courage to invite my Sunday-sleep-in neighbor to come to church with me.”

          We used to see the cross shaped signs along the road, “Jesus is the Answer.” Jesus is the answer, the final answer to all human questions, but I have to admit that when I saw one, I was tempted to ask, “And what’s your question?

          And that reminds me of the old story about a mother whose young son asked her one afternoon, “Mama, where did I come from?”  Mother took a deep breath and proceeded with the birds and bees talk. The boy looked increasingly confused and finally broke in, “Johnny says he came from Raleigh. Where did I come from?” 

          We need to be sure of the question before we offer an answer. But we have an answer, Jesus is the answer. And as Bishop Martins says, we need to know the real questions about life our family, and friends, and neighbors are asking. "What keeps my neighbors up at night, and how would knowing Jesus allow them to sleep more peacefully.” 

          The Church has a long history of seeking to meet human needs. The first hospitals were church founded and church run. The retired Cardinal Archbishop of Baltimore is the new head of the Order of Hospitallers, founded by the Crusaders  a thousand years ago for sick pilgrims in the Holy Land. It is now a fund-raising arm of Catholic charities. An early Episcopal Bishop in Utah founded a hospital in Salt Lake City. Its sale endowed the diocese. I spent a seminary summer at St. Luke’s Episcopal Hospital in Houston, Texas

          The Church has been active in education. The european university system was founded in the church and church run from the 13th through the 18th centuries. A large number of church-related colleges and schools continue. Valle Crucis conference center was one of a number of late 19th and early 20th century church founded schools in the Appalachian mountains. Many social service agencies were church founded. Episcopal and Lutheran social services have had  remarkable ministries with refugees though much of their work is now financed by government.

          We still do what we can, but now mostly in support. When I was in Shelby during a recession Redeemer funded a monthly lunch for parishioners out of work where we encouraged one another. Churches offer meeting space to community groups. Almost all the Al-Anon groups I know of meet in churches. Some churches offer various kinds of direct help to people in financial need – food pantries, clothing closets, and the like.

          But Bishop Martin’s question remains, “What keeps my neighbors up at night, and how would knowing Jesus allow them to sleep more peacefully?”  When I get up in the middle of the night I have less trouble going back to sleep. Yes, I remember the things I have done and left undone and I feel again the guilt and shame, but I remember that I am a forgiven sinner, that by his death and resurrection Jesus has set me free from sin, guilt, and shame. I can pray, and sleep more peacefully.

          But others deal with guilt and shame in other ways, some by denial, some by blaming others, but without reference to Jesus.

          In our Old Testament reading we have the strange story of Moses and the bronze serpent, “and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live.” I don’t pretend to understand how that worked. We can all appreciate the people complaining. Some of us have done some complaining, and eating nothing but manna every day could get old fast. And many of us have worked in environments with snakes in human form. Remember John the Baptist calling the people who came to hear him, “You brood of vipers!”  The point of the story is that God acted to heal the snake-bit people.

          Jesus made reference to this healing in his night conversation with Nicodemus. Just as God acted to heal the snake-bit with the lifted up bronze serpent, God acted to heal the equally deadly disease of human sin as Jesus was lifted up on the cross to die.

          Evangelistic sermons for many years have begun by helping the listeners become aware of their own sinfulness and the deadly spiritual consequences of that sin. I remember some years a training program in evangelism that told us to ask people, “If you died tonight where do you think you’d wake up?” I know my own answer to that question. The Prayer Book burial service says “In sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life through our Lord Jesus Christ, we commend to Almighty God our brother N.; and we commit his body to the ground; earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.  The Lord bless him and keep him, the Lord make his face to shine upon him and be gracious unto him, the Lord lift up his countenance upon him and give him peace.  Amen.”  I live in sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life through Jesus Christ. I am a member of the body of Christ by baptism; I am spiritually fed by Christ’s sacramental body and blood in Holy Communion; Jesus enlightens my mind and feeds my soul as I read God’s word written; he keeps me in spiritual fellowship in his church.

          Jesus is the answer to the basic questions of my life. And I trust he is the answer to your basic questions as well.  But I’m still chewing, and being chewed on, by Bishop Martin’s question, “What keeps my neighbors up at night, and how would knowing Jesus allow them to sleep more peacefully?"  And I hope that question chews on you and that you’re working on your answer. Amen

Tuesday, February 21, 2012


Written for the Asheville Buncombe County League of Women Voters Newsletter February 2012.

At the primary election May 8 voters will approve or reject a proposed amendment to the constitution of North Carolina: Constitutional amendment to provide that marriage between one man and one woman is the only domestic legal union that shall be valid or recognized in this State.

If approved, the proposed measure would add a new section 6 to Article 14 of the North Carolina Constitution, “Marriage between one man and one woman is the only domestic legal union that shall be valid or recognized in this State. This section does not prohibit a private party from entering into contracts with another private party; nor does this section prohibit courts from adjudicating the rights of private parties pursuant to such contracts.”

All societies seek to regulate sexual behavior by social norms or laws. Some sexual behavior is forbidden by law; some is encouraged by laws about marriage. These laws vary. Social rules about marriage in the 6th century BCE and since are most easily found in the Hebrew Bible books of Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy. In the early 13th century social changes assigned the church a major social role in marriage. Couples usually married in the bride’s parish church after an announcement of intention, the Banns, were read in church the three weeks prior. The parish minister officiated and registered the marriage. A license to marry in some other church or without publication of Banns could be issued by the bishop’s court after a fee was paid. That practice continues in England and was the rule in colonial America. The bishops’ courts also had jurisdiction over probate of wills.

            But in America there were few ministers and no bishops’ courts. The royal governors under the royal ecclesiastical prerogative issued the licenses and collected the fees. The licenses authorized ministers or justices of the peace to officiate at marriages. Marriage license and probate fees were income to governors that was not controlled by colonial legislatures. Colonial governors opposed Anglican church efforts to have a bishop sent to America.

            Much of continental Europe is influenced by the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Code and requires marriage by a civil official. A religious ceremony may follow.

            After the American Revolution state governments began to require a state license and state registration of all marriages, with the marriage license addressed to ministers and others authorized by state law to officiate.  State license regulations also forbade some marriages on grounds of age, relationship, and sometimes race.

            On June 12, 1967 in a unanimous decision the United States Supreme Court in Loving v. Virginia ruled that states could not forbid marriage on grounds of race. The court wrote, “Marriage is one of the "basic civil rights of man," fundamental to our very existence and survival.... To deny this fundamental freedom on so unsupportable a basis as the racial classifications embodied in these statutes, classifications so directly subversive of the principle of equality at the heart of the Fourteenth Amendment, is surely to deprive all the State's citizens of liberty without due process of law. The Fourteenth Amendment requires that the freedom of choice to marry not be restricted by invidious racial discrimination. Under our Constitution, the freedom to marry, or not marry, a person of another race resides with the individual and cannot be infringed by the State.”
            Some states explicitly allow marriage between persons of the same sex. In others including North Carolina such marriage is forbidden either by statute or by the constitution. Voters will decide May 9 whether to amend the state constitution or not.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Epiphany 2 2012

In 1946 Victor Frankel published Man’s Search for Meaning. Frankel was an Austrian psychiatrist, Jewish, liberated from a Dachau area concentration camp in April, 1945. His wife and parents had died in the camps, and Frankel wrote about his experiences, particularly about how hard it was  for him to feel joy again.

For 20th century secularism Frankel restates a basic Christian affirmation: all life has meaning and God’s call to us includes the spiritual work of discerning that meaning and bringing it to life in our lives.

       Today’s collect tells us of a meaning of life in the church – “that your people, illumined by your Word and Sacraments, may shine with the radiance of Christ's glory, that he may be known, worshipped, and obeyed to the ends of the earth.” The child looking at the stained glass said, “saints are the people the light shines through.” We are God’s saints in Bessemer City, and Asheville, and as we say in the “Lift up your hearts” the Sursum corda, “It is right, and a good and joyful thing, always and everywhere to give thanks to you, Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth.”

       When we realize the meaning of our lives we “shine with the radiance of Christ’s glory.” Realize means to make real – to make real internally that is to understand and to act on some thought or feeling – and also to make real externally – to bring a thought or feeling into being – “always and everywhere to give thanks to you, Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth.”

       Samuel was asleep in the temple of the Lord. Samuel was a special child. Hannah had no children and her husband Elkanah’s second wife Peninnah taunted Hannah. Barrenness ran in the family. Abraham and Sarah’s maid Hagar had taunted Sarah after the birth of Ishmael. Isaac and Rebecca were barren for 20 years before Esau and Jacob. Jacob’s 2nd wife Rachel whom he loved also barren until Joseph and Benjamin.  Later Elisha’s prayers brought a son to the Shunamite woman (2 Kings 4). And Mary’s cousin Elizabeth, John the Baptist’s mother, also old and barren.  

       Samuel was special, specially dedicated to God’s service. It was a spiritually dry time.  “The word of the LORD was rare in those days” as the King James says, “there was no open vision.” The temple was corrupt. High priest Eli allowed his sons Hophni and Phinehas to cheat those who came to sacrifice. In a time of spiritual dryness, need, and corruption God call Samuel.  The prophecy was true; the wicked sons died in battle. Samuel realized his calling to revive the people, to be a good and righteous judge, to “shine with the radiance” to prepare the people for the realized kingdom of David.

       In God’s good time his son Jesus was born, the Word made flesh, and began his ministry of reconciliation with John’s baptism in the Jordan. Ministry is not solitary, and Jesus began by recruiting his disciples. This week we hear of Philip and Nathaniel, next week St. Mark’s account of Andrew and Peter, James and John. And then the ministry beginning in Capernaum of teaching and healing and casting out demons.

       Jesus returned to Galilee, the area where he had been brought up. The Jewish leaders in Jerusalem and Judea didn’t think much of Galileans. Galilee was part of the northern kingdom of Israel whose 10 tribes had been deported by Assyria 7 centuries before. The road from Egypt to Mesopotamia passed through Galilee and the people were more susceptible to influence from foreign ideas than Jerusalem was. It had been ruled from Jerusalem for only about 100 years. Philip was from a fishing village on the north shore of the Sea of Galilee. He realized internally that Jesus was the fulfillment of the prophecies of the Messiah, and when Jesus called him realized that fulfillment by following Jesus and by sharing his realization with his brother Nathaniel. “Sitting under the fig tree” from Micah 4:4 was a metaphor for bible study. Nathaniel’s question reflected the skeptical attitude of the Jewish leaders toward Galilee, but Philip’s response is fundamental evangelism, “Come and see!”

       If we are to be faithful to Christ’s call on our lives, if we are indeed, as we pray in the collect, to “shine with the radiance of Christ's glory, that he may be known, worshipped, and obeyed to the ends of the earth” we begin with “come and see.” Someone brought us to see – to see Jesus in his church, in the people of God, in his word written and preached, to see Jesus in baptism and in the holy communion. We saw, and we realized Jesus in our hearts and in our lives.

       Victor Frankel came to know the meaning of life in the concentration camps, in the loss of wife and parents, in the gradual recovery of joy in freedom. We know the meaning of life in Jesus, and as begin to “shine with the radiance of Christ's glory, that he may be known, worshipped, and obeyed to the ends of the earth.”


Saturday, January 28, 2012

Epiphany 4 2012

Epiphany 4B 2012

          So far this church year we’ve heard of Jesus’ birth, and his baptism, and the call of the first disciples. Today we hear of the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry, a ministry of teaching and healing that will lead to his death on the cross and his resurrection–death that destroys death and the power of sin, resurrection new life offered freely to all who will believe.

Jesus called his first disciples, 3 pairs of brothers, Peter and Andrew, James and John, Philip and Nathaniel. The 7 of them go to Capernaum, Peter and Andrew’s home town, possibly because Peter’s mother-in-law was ill. On the Sabbath they went to services. The custom was that strangers with a recommendation were welcomed and invited to say a few words. Jesus message is given in St. Mark 1:15, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand, repent, and believe the good news.” 18 words that have changed lives ever since.

    St. Mark tells us, “They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes.” The teachers of the law find 613 commandments in God’s law, the Torah, the first 5 books of the Bible. 365 negative commandments (the number of days in a solar year), and 248 positive commandments (thought to be the number of bones and significant organs in the human body), divided into 3 general categories: Mishpatim, commandments that make logical sense, forbidding murder, adultery, theft and “bearing false witness,” Edot, testimonies, such as Sabbath observance, and Chukim, whose rationale and purpose are no longer obvious in a post-Biblical context. Since the destruction of the Temple scholars reduce the number to 271, 77 positive and 194 negative commandments that can be observed today.  Anglican Christianity says, “Although the Law given from God by Moses, as touching Ceremonies and Rites, do not bind Christians . . . yet notwithstanding, no Christian . . . is free from the obedience of the Commandments which are called Moral.” (Article 7 of the 39)

    The teaching of the scribes was focused on obedience to the law as the response to God’s love and favor to his people. True obedience is obedience freely given in gratitude. We obey God’s moral law as an act of love, not from motives of fear. Judaism teaches obedience from motives of love and gratitude.

    When we come to love anyone we want to do what pleases them. As with our families, so much more with God. God has shown us what behavior pleases him, and we who love God want to do what pleases God.

    In our modern society people want to know and obey good rules of behavior, and institutions that promise such rules are attractive.  Preachers have been tempted for centuries to spend their time on the rules, and on trying to show their relevance to our lives.

    And inside each one of us is an adolescent pushing the envelope. Before comedian W.C. Fields, a long time skeptic, died in 1946 a friend saw him reading the Bible. When asked why, Fields replied, “I'm checking for loopholes.” God grant od’he came to faith and found them.  All of us spend some time looking for the loopholes, reasons why some part of God’s will for us that seems hard doesn’t apply.  In 1910, G.K. Chesterton wrote in England, “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried.” (What’s wrong with the world, 1910)

    The teaching of the scribes, like preaching in the 18th century and since, was about how to know and do the will of God as revealed in his law. That’s what they thought the people needed and wanted. But that kind of law-focused preaching tends us to think that we can get right with God, that we can be justified, simply by keeping the law. And that’s wrong. It gets religion backwards. We obey God’s law not in order to be justified, but because we are justified first. God sets us right with him by grace, received by faith in the saving death of Jesus, faith that makes us, as hymn 410 says, “ransomed, healed, restored, forgiven, evermore his praises sing.” Jesus preached, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand, repent, and believe the good news.” We repent, we are forgiven by God’s free grace in Jesus.

    No wonder the people “were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes.”  Catholic and Anglican teaching is that the final authority for Christians actions is the informed conscience, God the Holy Spirit working in us as we read the Bible, as we seek to inform ourselves about the particulars of the decision we are called to make, and as we pray for the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. I am told that Baptist Christians call this “soul competency.” By whatever name, God is the final authority. He made us because he loves us, and when asked what is the great commandment in the law–which of the 613 do we obey first - Jesus quoted from the Bible, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and soul and mind, and love your neighbor as yourself.”

    I want to close with a charge to the vestry and altar guild members we will induct, and give a pin to, this day. It has been my privilege and pleasure to serve with you as your regular supply priest for almost a year. Fr. Ramone begins next Sunday and I know you will welcome him with the same grace and friendship with which you welcomed me. He and I have agreed that I will offer to supply on the Sundays he will be away. I encourage you, wardens, vestry, altar guild, and congregation, to continue as you have in good works, in worship, and you are blessed with good lay readers, hymn pickers, and schedulers, in your educational program, in your care for these wonderful grounds and church, and in your service in this community.

    Remember that we are all sinners, sinners saved by God’s grace in Jesus’ death and resurrection, “ransomed, healed, restored, forgiven, evermore his praises sing!” and live by God’s law as Jesus states it, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and soul and mind, and love your neighbor as yourself.”  Amen.