Friday, January 30, 2015

Epiphany 4B 2015

          They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes.” 

In Chapter 2 of his 1964 Little Red Book Mao Tse-Tung wrote, “Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun.”  On June 5, 1989 near the north side of Tienanmen Square a single man walked into the path of a column of tanks.  When the tank stopped the man climbed up to talk with the soldiers inside the tank and then came down and resumed his position. He was finally pulled aside by a group of people and disappeared into the crowd. Not far away from where that brave man stood, over the entrance to the Imperial Palace, is a huge portrait of Mao. The massacre of the Tienanmen protestors had happened the day before, but that lone man’s action in protest is an enduring sign of the authority of love, the authority of resistance to the politics of force.

In some ways Mao was right; in the world of sin political power depends on force and the will to use force. But in the kingdom of God force yields to the spiritual authority of God’s love shown us in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, known to us by his Holy Spirit.

We live in the world of sin and in the kingdom of God. In both we live under authority, and we exercise authority – over ourselves and in our relationships.  Our first experiences with authority come when as small children we come to know love, and we come to know fear. We are small, and the people around us are big – and powerful. We know they can hurt us. And we also know that when we hurt ourselves these people are there to comfort and heal us. “Mommy kiss the booboo and make it well.”

We learn that the food we are given, the warm house, the soft bed, the changed diaper, even the warm bath, are all signs of the love which surrounds us.  But we have to be taught the signs of love. Our naturally self-centeredness feels entitled to these. And the flip side of self-centeredness is our feeling of total  responsible for everything that happens, particularly bad things. Our little egos come to believe that we somehow earn love – by good behavior or in lots of other ways. 

The commandment, “Honor thy father and thy mother,” given at Sinai, is fundamental to all who share that covenant. It is a spiritual correction for our egos. The commandments express God’s will for the world her has created. God created a world where he is loved and honored, where we don’t give things of this world in God’s place in our hearts and lives, where God’s name is honored, where we remember God has created us and the world and keep his Sabbath holy, where parents and those in authority receive the respect due them, and where all people are secure in their lives, in their property, in their relationships, in their reputations, and where we are not consumed with envy and covetousness, where we are not continually obsessed with wanting other peoples’ stuff.   

“Honor thy father and thy mother;” parents love your children. God creates with natural love for our children. Parents get to mediate to their children God’s perfect and unconditional love. We do it imperfectly; our parents imperfectly mediated God’s love to us, but we all want to do better than we were done for. One of God’s gifts to grandparents is another opportunity to share God’s unconditional love for children.   

The fear we learn as children remains in us. The theological term is servile fear. Servile fear has some benefits in this sinful world. It helps us stay out of some bad situations. Why do we slow down when we see a police car?  Partly for fear of a ticket.  But we drive the speed limit or close to it not only for fear of police or of an accident, but also because we want to share the road safely with the other drivers. We offer them the respect we want to receive from them.  That is the fear the Bible calls the fear of the Lord – not servile fear of punishment, but respect and love.

Jesus Christ’s death on the cross for the sins of the whole world has set us free from servile fear of God’s punishment for our sins. We sometimes have to suffer the natural consequences of these sins in this life, but God forgives us punishment in his kingdom, in this life and the life to come. And because we are forgiven sinners we have both the duty and the power to forgive those who sin against us.

And because we share in the resurrected body of Christ we share in that respect and love we know as the fear of the Lord. 

I don’t know whether the man who stood in front of the tanks over 25 years ago was a Christian. The chances are about 1 in 25 that he was. But he transcended his servile fear and showed forth the divine authority of love, the authority Jesus showed in the synagogue, the authority he shares with us.

Jesus drives out our unclean spirits, the spirits of hate, and fear, and unreasoning force. Jesus has filled us with his Holy Spirit, the spirit of truth, and godly power, and love.  Thanks be to God! Amen.        


Saturday, January 10, 2015

Epiphany 2B

In 1946 Victor Frankel published a book, 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, and about how hard it was for him to feel joy again.

Frankel restates the basic biblical affirmation that all life has meaning. God calls us to the task of discerning that meaning and bringing it to life in our lives.

       In today’s collect we pray, “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.” A child looking at the stained glass said, “saints are the people the light shines through.” We are God’s saints, 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 make real the meaning of our lives we “shine with the radiance of Christ’s glory.” We make real both internally and externally. Internally we understand and act on some thought or feeling, and externally we bring that thought or feeling into being. “Always and everywhere” we “give thanks to” the “Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth.”

       Samuel was asleep in the temple of the Lord. Samuel was a special child. Hannah and her hasband Elkanah had no children and Elkanah’s second wife Peninnah taunted Hannah. Barrenness ran in the family. Abraham and Sarah’s maid Hagar taunted Sarah after the birth of Ishmael. Isaac and Rebecca were barren for 20 years before Esau and Jacob were born. Jacob’s 2nd wife Rachel whom he loved was also barren until Joseph and Benjamin were born.  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 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 called Samuel.  Samuel made real 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 Jesus’ ministry begins in Capernaum - 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 despised 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 the influence of foreign ideas. Jerusalem had only ruled Galilee for only a century. Philip was from a fishing village on the north shore of the Sea of Galilee. He realized inwardly that Jesus was the fulfillment of the prophecies of the Messiah, and when Jesus called him realized that fulfillment externally, following Jesus and sharing with his brother Nathaniel.

       The Prophet Micah wrote in chapter 4 about the promise of God’s kingdom, “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, but they shall sit every man under his vine and his fig tree, and none shall make them afraid.” “Sitting under the fig tree” became 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!”

       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, in our lives, in the truth and power of the Holy Spirit. Jesus gives us grace to be faithful to his call on 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.”


Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Epiphany 1 15

Epiphany 1B 15

 Martin Luther was a great leader of the Reformation, the man whose wisdom and courage set Europe ablaze with renewed zeal for Christ. But Luther was also a man of scrupulous conscience, a man very aware of his own frailties and failures, with a tendency to melancholy and depression. Martin Luther knew himself to be a “miserable sinner.” But he also discovered a spiritual remedy for his anxiety, his melancholy and depression. In the worst of times, under tremendous spiritual attack, he would put his hand on his head and proclaim, “I am baptized; I am baptized.” With that assurance he could do the work God had given him to do and proclaim God’s saving love and grace in Jesus Christ.

Today the Scripture lessons tell us of the baptism of Jesus – the reality of our baptism in him, a baptism of water and the Holy Spirit which begins a new relationship with God, a new relationship with ourselves, and a new relationship with other people.

The outward and visible sign of baptism is washing with water in the name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The inward and spiritual grace of baptism is union with Christ in his death and resurrection, birth into God’s family, the Church, forgiveness of sins, and new life in the Holy Spirit. (That’s in the Catechism, Prayer Book page 858. If you haven’t read through the Catechism, I want you to do so. It’s only 18 pages long, but we all need to know it.)  Some history and background: The Jews were different from some ancient people because they bathed regularly, sometimes as often as once a month. God’s law in Leviticus 11 and 15 requires a ritual bath to wash away certain kinds of ceremonial uncleanness. In Jesus’ time many people were converting to Judaism and the ritual bath became a sign of conversion and new life in God’s covenant.

John the Baptist said to his fellow Jews, to those born to the Sinai covenant with God, “You have broken your covenant and you need to claim the covenant again as a convert, through the ritual bath” of John’s baptism. It is roughly as though we native-born citizens need to come in under a visa, wait our time, take the test, and the oath, and be naturalized. The baptism of John was a sign of conversion and new life in God’s covenant. 

Jesus comes to John, the sinless son of God fully identifying with the situation of sinful humankind, as the Epistle to the Philippians says, to take upon himself the form of a servant, made in the likeness of men, humble himself and become obedient unto death, even the death of the cross, because he loves us, and wants to bring us to that perfect unity with God the Father which he enjoys. Jesus suffered all the temptations any of us can suffer, and gave us an example that it is possible to be tempted and not sin, not break the unity with the Father.

But he gives us more than an example – he gives us he who was made manifest at his baptism, the Holy Spirit of God, the spirit of truth and power and adoption as children of God. John the Baptist said, “I indeed have baptized with water, but he shall baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” John’s baptism brought people again into the Old Covenant of Sinai. Jesus’ baptism brings us into the New Covenant, by water and the Holy Spirit. Isaiah had prophesied, “Behold my servant whom I uphold . . . I will put my spirit upon him, he will bring forth justice to the nations.”

The manifestation of the Holy Spirit at his baptism marks the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry, a ministry of proclaiming God’s love in word and deed, even to the death on the cross, and resurrection to new life. Jesus died because of sin – common, ordinary, everyday, sin. Judas, for greed, betrayed him. The chief priests, for envy, lied and delivered Jesus a prisoner to Pilate. Pilate, for weakness, unjustly condemned him. The soldiers, for cruelty, scourged him. The crowd, for sadistic pleasure, taunted him. Jesus died for all those sins, and for all our similar sins, and for the sins of the whole world. “Father, forgive them . . .”

Jesus’ baptism, in perfect unity with God the Father, led directly to his death for sin, and his death is followed by his resurrection to life, his ascension to heaven, and the empowering manifestation of the Holy Spirit upon the apostles, which led to our being here today.

The baptism of Jesus is the reality of our baptism in him, a baptism of water and the Holy Spirit which begins a new relationship with God, a new relationship with ourselves, and a new relationship with other people.

You can see in your daily life the death to sin and resurrection to fellowship with God as by the power of the Holy Spirit you resist temptation, claiming the power of the Holy Spirit to replace a mean word with a kind word, to express gratitude rather than complaint, to be generous rather than stingy, and as the Prayer Book says, “. . . to live in the power of his resurrection and look for him to come again in glory . . .”

Like Martin Luther, we can put our hands on our heads and proclaim, “I am baptized; I am baptized.” And with that assurance we proceed to the work God gives us to do, to proclaim God’s saving love and grace in Jesus Christ.

Saturday, January 3, 2015

Christmas 2B 15

Christmas 2 15

          Happy New Year!  We know from today’s collect that God has “wonderfully created, and yet more wonderfully restored, the dignity of human nature.” That sets the over-arching theme of our coming year. In Jesus Christ God has restored the dignity of human nature, and he has set before us the opportunity to live out, and show forth, that restored nature.  We don’t yet know how we are to do so, but God invites us to share his work in the world he created and his son Jesus Christ has redeemed.

          A good predictor of future action is past performance, and we have some anniversaries this year to celebrate and reflect on.  Fifty years ago in response to both President Johnson’s January State of the Union “Great Society” speech and to the  March 7 Selma, Alabama, confrontation Congress passed and the President signed on August 6 the Civil Rights act. The war in Vietnam and the protests against it increased. The Second Vatican Council was drawing to a close. Malcolm X was killed February 21, Adlai Stevenson died July 14, Albert schweitzed died September 4.

          In 1915 we saw the first use of poison gas in western Europe at the Battle of Ypers April 22, and the Gallipoli campaign in Turkey cost many Australian and New Zealand soldiers life and limb. Many lives were also lost when the passenger ship Lusitania was sunk May 7. The United States began a 19 year occupation of Haiti in July. Leo Frank was lynched in August, and President Wilson married in December.

          The Civil War ended 150 years ago this spring. Fort Fisher fell in mid-January. The Battle of Bentonville was March 19-21. General Lee surrendered at Appomattox April 9. President Lincoln was assassinated April 14. General Johnston surrendered at Bennett Place near Durham April 26. President Jefferson Davis was captured May 10, and the Grand Review of the Union Army was held May 23 and 24.  Aaron Rightmyer, my great-great uncle, marched with Sherman’s army. Finally on December 13 the 13th Amendment was ratified, and the last slaves in Kentucky and Delaware were finally freed. And in 1865 the Salvation Army was founded in England.

          Going farther back we remember in 1815 January 8 the Battle of New Orleans, in February the Treaty of Ghent to end the war with Britain, and June 18 the Battle of Waterloo, the final defeat of Napoleon.  From September to mid-November 1715 James III the Stuart Old Pretender tried and failed to regain the thrones of Scotland and England. Many Scots then came to America, and more came after James’s son Bonnie Prince Charlie failed in a similar attempt in 1745.  In 1615 we remember the first Jesuit missionaries in China. Nothing much to remember happened in 1515 or 1315, but on July 6, 1415 Czech reformer Jan Hus was burned at the Council of Constance, and June 15, 1215 King John signed the Magna Carta. In November the 4th Lateran Council established transubstantion was the official Roman Catholic explanation of how Christ is present in the eucharist. That may have been a philosophical triumph for medieval scholasticism, but it raised more questions than it answers. And finally 1215 is also a convenient date to remember Francis of Assisi and the renewal of Christian concern for the poor.

          Church history reminds us that about every 400 years the church seeks to renew itself. We remember again what we pray in today’s collect: God has “wonderfully created, and yet more wonderfully restored, the dignity of human nature.”

          We remembered again the Christmas Day armistice of 1914, and we can rededicate ourselves to the cause of the Prince of Peace.  War continues – in Syria and Iraq, in South Sudan, the unresolved conflicts between India and Pakistan over Kashmir, between North Korea and the United Nations, and Cuba, and Somalia, between Israel and its Arab neighbors, new conflicts in Ukraine and lower level conflicts elsewhere.   War continues, and so do efforts and prayers for peace.

          We are still dealing with unresolved issues of race and economic inequality from the time of the Civil War and before and since.  We have made significant progress in the past 150, and 100, and even 50 years, but we are not yet a country where liberty and justice, and the dignity of human nature, are a reality for all our people.

          I’ve spent some time in Christian ecumenical work, and I am sad to see a real lack of interest in Christian unity, even among those of us who share our Anglican history.  We seem more interested in remembering past hurts and grievances than in seeking to move forward toward greater unity of effort to share the good news of forgiveness and new life in Jesus Christ.

          But new creation and restored human nature are possible.  Bishop Weinhauer led the Episcopal Church and the Lutheran churches that form the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America to full communion and shared ministry. The Episcopal churches in Lincolnton and Newton-Conover are served by a Lutheran pastor. Bishop Weinhauer’s work was the pattern for our agreement with the Moravian Church, and a Moravian pastor serves an Episcopal church near Franklin. 

          Those are simple examples. You can tell or more. But in the year we have just begun let us look for, and work to develop, other places where we can celebrate God’s work in Jesus Christ and in Jesus’ body the church, where, as we prayed in  today’s collect, God has “wonderfully created, and yet more wonderfully restored, the dignity of human nature.” Amen.