Friday, November 29, 2013

Advent 1 2013

Advent 1A 2013

          Jesus told his disciple, “keep awake . . . be ready . . ,” and the church reminds us of this teaching each year as we begin a new church year 4 Sundays before Christmas.  That message is particularly appropriate for this church in this time as you begin the process of seeking a new rector.

          I first met Paula Morton almost 30 years ago when she was a student at Western Carolina on the staff at Camp Henry doing arts and crafts and I was rector in Shelby serving for a week as camp chaplain.  It is a joy and privilege to be with you these first two weeks of Advent.

          My wife Lucy and I left Shelby in 1989. I served on the staff of the General Board of Examining Chaplains of the Episcopal Church helping administer the national qualifying examination for people seeking ordination in the Episcopal Church until I retired 11 years ago. I have served as part time interim in several churches and offer this based on that experience.

          Jesus’ teaching to “keep awake and be ready” applies to all of us at all times, and particularly to a parish in the interim between rectors.  Some of you who have been members of parishes during interim times have learnings that can help this parish.   

          The three major tasks of a parish in the interim between rectors are to come to a common understanding of your history, to come to a common understanding of your present situation, and to come to common agreement on where you want to go and what you want to do with a new rector. 

In today’s gospel:  Keep awake, be ready, to deal together with your past.  Keep awake, be ready, to deal together with your present parish situation.  And once you have done all this together as a parish then you will be ready to seek God’s vision and plan for the future. Seeking God’s vision together is the hardest part of the whole process and the part most commonly avoided. But it is necessary and it can be done. 

As it is in the parish in an interim time so it is also in our lives as individuals, as children of the God who loves us and draws us to himself to love and serve him. We are the product of our families and our past experiences. We live in a current context, and our task is to seek to keep awake and be ready to discern God’s will for our lives and to do that will. Remember that the God who made us loves us; God wants what is best for us, and what is best for us is to do his will.

In today’s collect we ask God for grace “to cast away past works of darkness” –the things we have done that we do not want to come to light, the things we did, or failed to do, when we were blinded by passion, or sin, or ignorance. We ask for grace “now in the time of this mortal life” to “put on the armor of light.”

          Present actions have future consequences. The past is a fixed succession of former presents. The future is an indeterminate succession of present moments yet to come. We ask grace to put on the armor of light for a purpose – “that in the last day, when” Jesus comes “again in his glorious majesty to judge both the living and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal.”

          We witness to our faith in the midst of the great prayer of thanksgiving over the bread and wine, “Christ has died; Christ is risen, Christ will come again.

          Jesus Christ comes again to us in many ways, and very often. He comes to us by his Spirit as we read and reflect on his word written in the bible. He comes to us under the forms of bread and wine when we receive communion. He comes to us in every action we take to witness to his continuing presence.

          A new church year begins today, the first Sunday in Advent. We look back on the past year and look forward to the new year.  Jesus reminds us in today’s gospel that the Son of Man will come in the last day. Isaiah spoke about that day as the time when the Lord will establish peace in the land. “they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.”

          Peace comes from the Lord, and justice comes from the Lord. We execute limited and approximate justice, but in the last day God’s perfect justice will be established. We can all look back on our lives and see the injustices we have committed and the injustices committed against us. Let us on this first day of the new church year commit ourselves to live in peace and justice, loving one another as Christ loves us. For the armor of God is the power of love, and joy, and beauty in Jesus Christ our Lord.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Proper 28C 11-17-13 By your endurance

Proper 28C 11-17-13 SLLEN

 How many of you remember where you were on November 22, 1963?   How many of you have no idea why I’m asking that?  On November 22, 1963 two important men died. One was Professor C.S. Lewis, English Christian author and teacher. The other was (anyone).

           Look at the dates on the Confederate soldiers monuments. Lincoln County’s monument was dedicated 1911 – 50 years after the beginning of the war. Catawba County’s monument at the old courthouse on North College Avenue was dedicated 1907 – 42 years after the end of the war. As the soldiers die we publicly remember their service. The Honor Air program brought many western NC veterans of World War II to Washington to see the World War II memorial. When I was younger I used to think 50 years was a long time. As I get older it gets shorter.

 The gospels were written down 40 to 60 years after the Crucifixion and Resurrection, based on the oral tradition of the first generation that had received the gospel from the apostles just as that generation began to die in significant numbers, but while there were still people living who had been there and who could testify to what they knew personally.

          The early church expected the return of the Lord Jesus any day now, and Paul’s letters to the church at Thessalonica last Sunday tell us of the problems when the Lord delayed his return. But the church as a whole believed that Jesus had promised to return. St. Luke also records Jesus’ warning about conflict and persecution and his promise, “they will put some of you to death. You will be hated by all because of my name. But not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your souls.”

           From the time of St. Stephen the first martyr Christians had learned that proclaiming a crucified and resurrected Savior meant trouble with those who refused to believe. But they also remembered that Jesus had said this trouble was coming, and he had also said, “But not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your souls.” This life may end in martyrdom, but our eternal life continues. By endurance we gain our souls.

           This good news has strengthened many Christians in their time of trial. It continues to strengthen Christians in Africa, in India, in Egypt and the Middle East, and in other places where is is dangerous to confess Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.

           Let me tell you about Dr. Graham Stuart Staines.  He was born January 18, 1941 in Queensland, Australia. When he was 15 he saw a photograph of a boy his age who was suffering from severe leprosy and decided to dedicate his life to serve God by serving leprosy patients. Two years later he learned of a medical mission to lepers in Orissa state, India. Orissa is about as far southwest of Calcutta as our companion diocese of Durgapur is northwest of Calcutta. The population is 41 million people, about 2.4% Christian – or just over a million people – about half the size of the Episcopal Church.   

           Dr. Stains did his medical training in Australia and on his 24th birthday (1965) arrived in India. He joined the medical mission, and learned the local languages so well the local government asked his help with a polio immunization drive. In 1983 he married an Australian nurse missionary; they had three children.  

           The leprosy mission treated about 80 patients at a time and included a vocational training center where patients learned to weave clothing, mats, and towels -  a self-sufficient haven where patients were treated with dignity and learned skills to become economically independent.  In addition to his medical work Graham trained students, and did work in literacy, translation, discipleship, church planting and social development. He helped with the 1997 Ho language translation of the New Testament.

On the night of 22nd January 1999, Dr. Stains and his two sons Philip and Timothy attended an annual gathering of area Christians in a rural area. It was cold and the three spent the night in his station wagon. During the night a mob of about 50 people, armed with axes and other implements, angry at his Christian work, attacked his vehicle and set it on fire. Stains and his sons were burnt alive.
          Four years later the mob ringleaders were tried, convicted, and sentenced to life in prison. Dr. Stains’ wife continued the work for five years. At the sentencing of the killers she said she had forgiven the killers and had no bitterness towards them. In 2005 she received a civilian award from the Government of India, in recognition for her work.

 They will put some of you to death. You will be hated by all because of my name. But not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your souls.”

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Proper 27C November 10, 2013

Proper 27 C November 10  St Luke's Lincolnton, Epiphany Newton

 O God, whose blessed Son came into the world that he might destroy the works of the devil and make us children of God and heirs of eternal life: Grant that, having this hope, we may purify ourselves as he is pure; that, when he comes again with power and great glory, we may be made like him in his eternal and glorious kingdom; where he lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

 Christianity is a religion of faith, hope, and charity. We have faith in what God has done in the past, show charity in God’s service in the present, and hold fast to hope in God’s present and final triumph in the world God has made. Today’s scriptures are about our hope in God’s present and final triumph.

 Begin with today’s collect, written by Bishop John Cosin of Durham for the 1662 English version of the Prayer Book. Bishop Cosin was a bright young man from a middle-class east England family. His father died when he was 13 and he did well as Cambridge University. He was secretary to two bishops, served the cathedral in Durham and as master of a Cambridge college. The Puritan Parliament forced him into 17 years exile (from age 50 to 67) with the royal family in France. At the Restoration in 1660 he became Bishop of Durham where he served 12 years. Bishop Cosin knew about living in hope. “Grant that, having this hope, we may purify ourselves . . .”

 The word of the Lord came to Haggai 520 years before Christ. The word of the Lord was a word of hope. Jerusalem had been conquered 66 years before and many of the people taken captive to Babylon. There they were inspired by the Prophet Ezekiel to maintain a spiritual community, to come together Sabbath by Sabbath to pray and study in the synagogues. After 45 years of exile Cyrus of Persia set the people free to return to Jerusalem. Many did, some didn’t. In the 18 years before Haggai life had been tough for the returnees because, Haggai says, the people focused on rebuilding their own lives, and not on the Lord and on rebuilding the Lord’s Temple. Haggai called the people to hope in the Lord’s presence and promise. “My spirit abides among you; do not fear. . . . in a little while, I will shake the heavens and the earth and . . . all the nations . . . The silver is mine, and the gold is mine, says the LORD of hosts. . . . in this place I will give prosperity. . . .   You may know the story of the church treasurer who said, “I have good news and bad news. The good news is that we have all the money we need; the bad news is that it is still in your pockets.”

 The prophet Haggai brings the Lord’s word of hope. Psalm 98 is a psalm of hope.  “Let the hills ring out with joy before the LORD, when he comes to judge the earth. In righteousness shall he judge the world and the peoples with equity.”

 St. Paul writes to the church in Thessalonika a word of hope. He affirms Jesus’ coming “and our being gathered together to him,” but that is in God’s good time. Meanwhile “stand firm” and “may our Lord Jesus Christ himself and God our Father, who loved us and through grace gave us eternal comfort and good hope, comfort your hearts and strengthen them in every good work and word.”

 Finally in the gospel Jesus proclaims our hope in the resurrection. “in the resurrection from the dead [we] neither marry nor are given in marriage. [We] cannot die anymore, because [we] are like angels and are children of God, being children of the resurrection.” 

 The gospel reading is from Jesus’ teaching in the controversy of his last week before his Crucifixion and Resurrection. The political and religious leadership took careful notes, looking for an excuse to get Rome to execute him. They asked a number of trick questions. The Pharisees questioned Jesus’ religious authority (20:1-8) and tried to entangle him in their controversy about paying tribute to the Roman military authorities (20:20-26). When Jesus turned the Pharisees’ questions back on them they got help from their own religious and political opponents the Sadducees.

 The Pharisees saw God continuing to reveal himself in the history of the people of Israel and heard God’s word from the prophets. The experience of the Exile and the teaching of the prophets had brought them to believe in resurrection.

 For the Sadducees the final word of God was the Torah – the first 5 books including Deuteronomy 25 which calls for levirate marriage. The term Levirate marriage comes from levir the Latin word for brother-in-law.  Levirate marriage can still be found in east Africa and western Asia.  That is how patriarchal and agricultural clan-based societies provide for widows and keep property in the family. Men are responsible for mothers, sisters, and minor brothers. So in levirate marriage if a man dies without a male heir one of his brothers must marry the widow and father a son to be his dead brother’s heir.

 Levirate marriage is found in societies where women have no rights – no property rights of any kind.  It is rare because most societies find other ways to recognize the natural rights of women and to provide for widows - and for family property where that is important. And Deuteronomy 25 provides a way out for a man who does not want to take on this responsibility.  The way out includes public humiliation – a powerful incentive to negotiate a settlement.

 Levirate marriage was remembered from the patriarch Judah (Genesis 38), and in the story of Ruth, King David’s Moabite great-grandmother, but scholars think it was a rare option. In bringing it to Jesus the Sadducees were trying for a “gotcha,” and “gotchas” never work.

 Jesus turns the Sadducees’ question back on them with true teaching about the hope and promise of resurrection. We who live this side of Jesus’ resurrection are God’s children by adoption and grace. We are born again. We begin here and now to live the new life in Jesus Christ. God is God of the living; to him and in him we are alive.  So let us live in hope.

 O God, whose blessed Son came into the world that he might destroy the works of the devil and make us children of God and heirs of eternal life: Grant that, having this hope, we may purify ourselves as he is pure; that, when he comes again with power and great glory, we may be made like him in his eternal and glorious kingdom; where he lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.